Disclaimer: Last night, I dreamed I was cuddling with Gwaine and Merlin. Then I woke up and realized I was drooling on my pillows.
Pairings: Merlin/Arthur, Merlin/Freya (past), Merlin/Will (past)
Rating: PG-12 (because I'm paranoid)
Word Count: 4451
Warnings: Spoilers all the way through season three.
Summary: Today is not like any other day. Today, Merlin doesn't smile, not really.
Author's Note: I was just sitting in my room, watching Merlin Moment of Truth when it hit me. We never really see Merlin mourning in the years since Will's death. This is my take on what happens. Also, the sequel for this is now up. It is called Finding.
Arthur knows what day it is just from the way Merlin wakes him up with a clipped "Good morning, Sire," and swish of the window curtains parting to let in the morning light instead of his usual wide grin and "Up and at 'em, Prince Prat!"
Arthur wakes up immediately, unlike any other day when he would throw the nearest hard object at his manservant. He doesn't even complain when his breakfast porridge burns his tongue from its hotness. His bathwater is a little cold (to be expected in the dead middle of winter), and any other day he would insult Merlin for his general uselessness or push him into the lukewarm water still fully clothed as a lesson. Not today. Today he climbs into the tub without so much as a hiss of disapproval.
Arthur lists off the chores he wants Merlin to complete today, and if there are less things to do than there usually are, then. Well. Who's going to prove it?
Merlin is already done making his bed, collecting yesterday's laundry, laying out fresh clothes for today, and arranging his armor for training in the thirty minutes Arthur's been behind the screen washing up. He's even halfway done with cleaning the fireplace. A task requiring thirty minutes in and of itself on any given day.
This isn't surprising behavior for today. It is so normal in fact, that Arthur does not even bat an eyelash. Merlin does not look away from the fireplace when he hears Arthur come out from behind thee screen. The message is clear to the prince: He is to dress himself today unless he wants to wear sooty clothes to today's council meeting.
Again, the instinct to pout and glare Merlin into obeying his commands is strong but he suppresses it. Best not press his manservant today. When Arthur is done dressing- and no it does not take longer than when Merlin is there to help, thank you very much!- he clears his throat to indicate he is ready to go. Merlin hesitates only a second longer than is strictly allowed, but pushes off from the hearth and cleans the soot of his face and hands quickly before standing behind Arthur, the picture of perfect servility.
Merlin goes everywhere with Arthur; it is a Fact just like it is a Fact his father hates Magic. Council meetings are such a place if only because Arthur wants someone who will make sneaky little silly faces whenever one of the older knights begins a particularly boring report. Arthur will later reprimand him but they both know the meetings would be extremely boring if Merlin weren't there with his wide grin and innocently dimpled cheeks. Today isn't likely to be one of those sideways eye-rolls and smirks days, but Merlin will still have to be there because Arthur won't leave his alone until the afternoon.
They pass Gwaine, Lancelot, and Gwen on their way to the council chamber. Gwaine gives an exuberant shout of "Lovely morning, isn't it, your highness?" with that hint of mockery in the last two words that says 'I know you're the Prince and you knighted me, but the only reason I'm here is because of that man standing behind you.' He then turns to Merlin with quirked eyebrows and wide grin which falters a little when all he receives in response if a perfunctory smile.
Lancelot bows, of course, as is proper, and glances worriedly at Merlin's glazed eyes and bland smile. Gwen too, curtsies as propriety dictates even though all the castle knows of his involvement with her, and smiles understandingly at Merlin. Gwen, the only other person except Arthur and Gaius, who knows what today is.
There is an awkward pause as Gwaine looks from Merlin to Arthur to Gwen for an explanation while Lancelot just tries to look as though he is not being improper.
"Right!" Arthur's voice sounds too, too loud in the otherwise empty hallway. It is also the first thing he has said all morning so his voice sounds a little sleep roughed. He clears his throat. "Should be off to the meeting. Lots to do."
Which is not a lie, because Arthur once again finds himself unofficial King while his father attempts to recover from the Morgana Fiasco as he has taken to calling the incident in his mind.
Merlin gives another weak smile before following Arthur around the corner. The last thing Arthur sees before turning the corner is Gwaine thoroughly gobsmacked expression. He waits for that triumphant feeling to settle in his stomach as it would any other day he showed Gwaine up in their endless, unspoken competition. It doesn't. With an inward sigh, Arthur resigns himself to this day being one humongous, slow torture.
Gwaine and Lancelot confront him on the training field, as Arthur knew they would. Merlin is there, on the sidelines with Gwen who has laid a comforting hand on his arm and is whispering what he can only guess.
Leon overhears and looks away quickly. He knows as well. Well, not knows knows, but knows in a way the entire castle knows that today is the one day the iridescent Merlin is allowed to dim. It is an unspoken thing. Something everyone from the stable boys to the Cook takes as given. Only the new knights of Camelot do not know.
Arthur glances meaningfully in Merlin's direction and shakes his head once at Lancelot and Gwaine before striding onto the practice field for training. A luxury he is still allowed despite his King Regent status- thank the gods for small favors- along with regular hunts.
He tries not to look at Merlin often while training, but it is difficult. They both know what follows next. It is what has happened before and will happen again. Once training is done, Arthur will walk up to Merlin under the guise of needing water from the skin Merlin keeps with him on the training field, open his mouth a few times to say something deep and sympathetic, fail as he has failed the last three years, and give Merlin the rest of the day off. His to do as he pleases from afternoon to night.
And that is exactly how it happens. Merlin goes with a proper bow- something Arthur has to remind him most of the time- and quiet "Thank you, Sire."
The gratitude is without his grin, and something in Arthur's chest hurts when Merlin walks to the stables without so much as backward glance at his master. It shouldn't pain his so, but it does. It does so much he wants to shout across the courtyard and tell Merlin to talk, dammit! Because the young man has said nothing but "Yes, Sire," "Of course, Sire," "Right away, your highness," and "Right away, my lord."
He has wanted so many times to stop Merlin, to ask him to talk to Arthur as a true friend. Tell him what he really feels today, and let Arthur help ease the pain. He has also wanted to follow Merlin before to see where he goes and what he does.
Does he get sloshed? Does he drown his sorrows in pleasures of the flesh as some men are wont to do? Does he gamble the pain away? Does he ride and ride until the horse is weary and Merlin is breathless from the speed? Does he cry where no one else will be able to see? Does he go deep into the forest and storm and rage as Arthur would if he ever experienced a loss as great as Merlin's? As Arthur did when Morgana vanished once more.
Most of all, Arthur wants to know if Merlin ever talks to anyone. Confides to anyone of the loss he cannot speak to Arthur about.
Whether Merlin speaks of the day he lost Will, his best friend.
A man Arthur still cannot help but dislike, not because of the magic, but because of his closeness to the one person Arthur has ever truly considered friend.
The Prince is not stupid, contrary to what Merlin may suggest time to time- or all the time . He knows there are many things his servant hides from him despite firmly telling Arthur he is an open book. And somehow, the events of the day Kanan was defeated has fallen into the heavy pile of Things Arthur and Merlin Do Not Talk Of. That and the fact that Will was a sorcerer. And Uther's despicable treatment of Gaius when Aredian accused him or sorcery, along with the Morgana Fiasco, and where Merlin really was the day he failed to dismantle the warning bells, and a whole host of other things he'd rather not bring up right now.
Anyway, so yes, Arthur has always wanted to follow Merlin, but he never has because it is Merlin's day. Merlin's moment to himself. It would be insensitive of to intrude, not to mention highly inappropriate. Princes do not go out of their way to comfort their servants out of some misplaced guilt or- or-
Oh, fuck it.
It's been three years and Arthur wants to know.
He waits for a while, gives Merlin a head start because God knows he's clumsy enough to leave the most obvious of tracks for Arthur to follow.
One of the stable boys is put in charge of preparing his horse for today. He tells the boy to tell Sir Leon that Arthur's gone out on a hunt. He doesn't want to traumatize the poor boy by telling him to report to Uther directly. It is just unfair. Leon is much more capable of dealing with the King than a lowly peasant boy.
Arthur follows the track to the edge of the forest, but miraculously, the trail thins out the deeper he goes into the woods until- it is gone. There is no sign of Merlin about four leagues into the forest, like he has vanished into thin air. Arthur jumps off his horse with a frown. He circles the patch of leaves that are disturbed from hoof prints.
So intent is he on trying to figure out where Merlin may have gone that he doesn't hear the crunching footsteps until it is too late and the sharp point of a blade is pressing into his back.
"I'd take you for ransom," a familiar voice breathes in his ear. "But you'd only have me killed."
Arthur spins around quickly. "Gwaine!"
Gwaine sheathes his sword and smirks. "Hello, Princess."
He glares at the knight. "What are you doing here?"
"Same as you, I expect. Looking for Merlin."
Arthur glares some more. This was supposed to be his personal discovery of Merlin, dammit. Gwaine already knows so much- much more than Arthur can hope for himself- about Merlin that the prince cannot help but want this for himself. He has half a mind to order Gwaine back, but knows he won't listen.
Instead, he turns back to the spot where the trail ends. "He's gone."
Gwaine looks to. "What do you mean gone? He can't have vanished into thin air."
It seems like that is exactly what happened. "The trail is gone. No Merlin."
Gwaine walks around a little, pokes at dried leaves and shoves twigs with his sword. "Aha!" he cries, a few feet away from where Merlin's trail ends. "That sneaky little bugger He's covered his tracks."
"Covered his-Merlin couldn't cover his tracks if his life depended on it," Arthur protests. God knows he's tried to teach his manservant many times in the unlucky chance someone should get to him under the guise of getting to Arthur.
"Apparently he's been paying attention all those times to yell at him," Gwaine says, pointing to a pair of footprints further up from where he was standing before. "It'll be slow going, but I'm sure between the two of us, we can find him."
Arthur only grunts in acknowledgment. For better or for worse, Gwaine is coming along.
"So tell me," Gwaine says after a couple hours of tailing Merlin. They've been mostly quite up till now. "What's wrong with Merlin?"
Arthur hesitates, unsure whether it is his secret to tell or not. He decides to stall. "What do you mean?"
Gwaine scoffs. "Don't insult me, Arthur. Something's been upsetting Merlin today and no one says anything. In all the time I've known him, he's never been so...morose."
You haven't known him that long! Arthur wants to retort. Honestly, the way Gwaine goes around, tossing his stupid hair, acting as if he is Merlin's best friend. And the way he- he touches him. And those hugs. What is with all those hugs? One would think they were-
No. There are some places Arthur refuses to let his mind wander off to, even though when it is Merlin, his mind wanders quite a bit.
"It's not my place to say," he tells Gwaine diplomatically.
Gwaine stops in his tracks and stares at Arthur flatly. "I want to know. I care about Merlin and I want to know how to make this better for him."
There is raw honestly in those words, in that gaze. Arthur can feel the truth seep into his skin. He knows of Gwaine feels. Knows because it is how he feels himself. Knows because Merlin- simple, stupid, idiotic-but-sometimes-wise Merlin- has a tendency to draw people to him like moths to a flame with just a dimpled smile and slant of those dark blue eyes. Matronly kitchen cooks, stern castle stewards, serious noblemen, simpering noblewomen, maids, stable boys, squires, knights, princes. Merlin draws them all in with little effort.
Arthur knows because that is how he feels too.
He, a prince, feels like he owes Merlin. What for, he's never been able to answer. But it is there, that instinct to protect, to help, to never, never ever disappoint Merlin is ever present in his gut. Yet, Arthur knows, just as surely as he knows the sun rises and sets each day, that while Merlin is the only one who will ever make his feel this way, it can never be returned.
How can it when Merlin has a whole host of people to choose from? People who do not have the fate of an entire kingdom resting of their shoulders, and who will not have to leave him for the sake of a Queen and heir. People who are worthy of him, and who will never take him for granted like Arthur does.
Why should Merlin look at Arthur the way Arthur wants him to when all he has ever gotten from the prince are taunts and jibes and insults? Why would Merlin care for Arthur in ways that are not just friendly when he has Gwaine, and his stupid hair and roguish grin?
Prince he may be, but Arthur knows that will not interest Merlin, the one man who has never given a rat's shit about Arthur's status. He'll always be the blonde prat in the courtyard picking on people smaller than him to Merlin.
There is Merlin, the selfless one, whose heart is so big he can give and give and give some more without ever running out. Then there is Arthur who holds tight to all those small, meaningless moments with Merlin, tucks them to his chest. Hoards them like an old miser because one day...one day Merlin might very well leave and all Arthur will have of him are those moments. That one stray smile, or roll of his eyes across the banquet hall, or that loud, carefree laugh with his head thrown back and dark hair resting against his forehead whenever Arthur makes a fool of himself around Merlin.
Arthur blinks out of his daze. It is best not to dwell too long on such thoughts.
He stares at Gwaine who is staring back at him expectantly.
Yes. Arthur understands how Gwaine feels. So he tells him.
It is almost nightfall when Gwaine and Arthur hear voices close by. They have been traveling all day in search of Merlin who has suddenly developed a talent for stealth. It has not been easy, following the servant. The two very experienced hunters were almost lead off the path more than once.
Both knights decide to approach the voices with caution. It might just be travelers camping for the night, but they could also be bandits.
Arthur and Gwaine approach with a quietness and swiftness that comes only with extensive practice. There is a lake behind a small copse of trees. It surface glistens in the almost full moon light, and on its bank are two people, one of whom Arthur would recognize even in the pits of hell.
"Merlin," he breaths. Gwaine shushes him with a finger to his lips. They are close enough to hear what Merlin and the woman sitting next to him are saying.
Both their backs are turned to Arthur so he cannot really tell what the girl looks like. All he knows is that she has dark hair spilling over her shoulders and pale arms. If he blinks too fast, her skin looks like it is glistening with water. They are sitting next to each other, shoulders barely brushing against each other, whispering of intimacy and comfort.
Arthur has never seen Merlin so relaxed.
"Tell me more about Will," she says, her voice clear and crisp in the still late summer air.
"Will..." Merlin leans back on his arms and tilts his head back to look at the few stars starting to peep out as the daylight fades. "Will was. He was the only person other than my mother who truly knew me. All of me."
Arthur tries to squash that disappointing feeling in his stomach. Of course Will knew Merlin best, he tells himself. They were friends since they were little babes in loin cloths.
"With him, I never had to hide who I was. He found out about me when we were nine. It was just a regular old day during spring. We were supposed to be back hours ago, but I wanted to stay by the stream, throw stones some more. Will stayed with me. He always stayed with me. Then...then he decided to jump in the stream to test how deep it was. Turns out...it was very deep, and he couldn't swing very well back then. He was drowning. The water was bubbling up and about to carry him down the stream when I did it. Without regard for the consequences.
"When he came out, had coughed out all the water, he just stared at me. Just stared. Then-" Merlin laughs a little. "Then he grinned as said 'I bet you can't make a cow tip over.' That was it. Just that. No judgment. No screaming and yelling and telling half the village. My mother didn't find out he knew until ten years later. That was when she sent me to Camelot."
The woman next to Merlin laughs. Arthur frowns in the darkness. He doesn't quite understand what is so funny about the story. In fact, the story sounds a bit incomplete to him.
"You really loved him." It is not a question. The pale woman says it simply, like fact.
"I do," Merlin says. A sniffle. "I don't think I can ever stop."
"I don't think you would be you if you did stop," she says, laying a small hand on his thigh, she kisses him. She kisses Merlin. On the mouth. It is not overly passionate, but a kiss shared between friends who know each other well, and understand their pain.
When they pull away, Merlin says, "I just wish I had the chance to tell him. He- he died thinking Arthur had replaced him."
"He knows. Merlin, he knows. He died protecting you, and he knew there would always be a spot in your heart for him forever."
Merlin shakes his head. "He was more than just my best friend, Freya."
Freya. That is her name.
"He was your lover," she concludes, correctly too by the way Merlin is staring at her, astonished. She laughs at his expression and kisses the tears away. "You are obvious about it."
"Oh." Merlin looks out over the expanse of the lake. "No one in Camelot knows."
"No. I suspect they don't." It sounds like a taunt aimed at Arthur, but she cannot possibly know he is there, hiding in the bushes.
It is too dark to see Gwaine face,and watch how he feels about this, but he does notice Gwaine back is very tense.
"Camelot," Merlin says to the sky. "Sometimes...sometimes I wish I hadn't come. Had never met Arthur and gotten a job in the royal household. The city has cost me so much." Arthur's heart thunders in his chest. He is both anxious and trepidacious to hear what Merlin will say next. "I sometimes wonder if I did the right thing by coming. Will might still be alive now. We'd still be those foolish young boys dreaming of better futures but never really venturing out of Ealdor.
"But then. Then I really think. Arthur would be dead by now, and Camelot...it would have fallen into Nimueh's hands long ago if I hadn't been there."
Arthur frowns deeper. He thinks Merlin is giving himself a bit too much credit. Arthur survived just fine without him for the first twenty years of his life, thank you very much. He is about to shout something at Merlin when he realizes Merlin doesn't know he is here.
"I would never have met you," he says, bumping his shoulder into Freya. Or...or my father," he adds in a much quieter voice. Arthur has to strain to hear him.
He remembers that conversation by the fireside long ago when they had been looking for Morgause. Merlin had said he never knew his father then.
Freya nods, looking over the glistening lake. "Your father. Balinor, no? The last of the Dragonlords."
Arthur's heart stutters. No. No, he must have heard wrong. Definitely not.
"Yeah." There is a smile in Merlin's voice, even though his tone is vague. "Balinor. You'd think I would be used to people dying around me. After all...this isn't it. Not for me."
"No," Freya agrees. "Not for you, Emrys. You'll go on while the rest of us fade into history and become nothing more than legends and myths. You'll stay and wait for him and never age while we wither and crumble like dust."
"I suppose...I suppose it was too much to hope for that my gifts wouldn't come without a price. The prophecies you've told me about...they don't leave much room for flexibility."
Again, Arthur has the feeling he is only hearing half the conversation, and he is still trying to get over the shock that Merlin is the son of a Dragonlord. It's implications are many, and none he wants to dwell on now.
"Prophecies have a tendency to choke us."
"And destiny." Merlin snorts. "I wonder if it was Will's destiny to die that day."
"We all have to die. Even us, those of the Old Religion. Not all of us are frozen in time."
Old Religion. She must be magic. Arthur's first thought is that she has enchanted Merlin. Why else would he talk to someone who is a sorceress. He has half a mind to go toward them, sword swishing, and rescue Merlin. Gwaine seems to read his mind because he puts a restraining hand on Arthur.
Arthur had almost forgotten he was here.
"Lucky you," Merlin mutters darkly.
"Lucky are those who have a purpose in life. And you, Merlin, you have the best purpose of them all."
"To serve and to protect the Once and Future King of Albion," Merlin states with a pretentious air. "More commonly known as Prince Prat."
Arthur cannot help but grin at the familiar title. Prince Prat, not the once and future nonsense.
"The time of the Once and Future King is almost upon us," Freya tells Merlin.
"You will have to reveal yourself soon."
The atmosphere feels heavy, thick like a week old square of cheese. He desperately wants to know what it is they are not saying. It seems unlikely he will find out tonight.
"I know. I'll just keep Lancelot close in case Arthur feels the urge to go crazy with his sword. And I'll make sure to keep Excalibur tucked away until he's calmed down."
They stand up. It looks like Merlin is ready to leave.
"If you ever need me..." Freya leaves the rest unsaid. Merlin seems to understand what she is saying.
Merlin nods. He pecks Freya once and walks over to where his horse is tied. "I'll know where to find you," he says once he is sitting on his horse. Merlin clucks his tongue to turn the horse around.
Arthur is so busy watching Merlin, he almost misses Freya walk to the edge of the lake and then continue walking on the water surface.
Definitely a sorceress.
The water ripples gently where he feet fall. She might as well be walking on land.
"Good bye, Merlin," she says softly as her body begins to sink under the surface.
Arthur is awake when Merlin comes to wake him up the next morning. This time with a cheery, "Have at it, lazy daisy."
Arthur knows it will be a good day, even though he spent all night remembering every small moment he was witness to by the lake.
There are many questions he wants to ask, and many of them pertain, but are not limited to the secret. Merlin's secret- because that is what it must be for him to worry about Arthur brandishing his sword at the manservant. He wants to know what it is, because all this time Merlin has held firm that he is an open book.
Last night has proved he is anything but.
Arthur wants to know, but he wonders as he watches Merlin tidy up around the room, whistling a tune to a very bawdy song Arthur isn't sure he should even know about.
He wonders whether the secret cannot wait another day.