Not Destiny but Close

Chapter 1 – Running Through My Head

Merlin doesn't want this. He really no really doesn't.

He doesn't wish to be distracted by the contemplation of the tall, lean and strong frame.

He doesn't fancy his over active imagination creating for him a perfect picture of the taut muscles

that ripple underneath the cloth of the tunic. It's like offering a feast to a starving man.

He doesn't care to be entranced by the image (displayed in his mind's eye in perfect detail) of large hands, calloused with the use of the sword yet surprisingly gentle when they wanted to be, like when they held his own, when they steadied him.

He doesn't want to envision what it would be like to run his fingers through the shoulder length chestnut locks.

Would they be as soft as they looked? Gods, the mere thought is enough to cause a pang of longing to run

through him.

He tries to stop the hitch in his chest as he remembers the lopsided smug smile. He tries not to crave that radiant warmth that oozes out of every pore of that beautiful man. How much longer can he resist the urge to just run away?

Gwain. The name springs to his lips unbidden.

God. Stop. Stop.

He wants to cry out a half strangled cry. He wants to stop the torrent of thoughts running through his mind, the onslaught of images that stay in his head even when the dreams are long gone. It's been four months, four long and exhausting months for Merlin. He's spent long hours lying in bed at night, thinking about a certain handsome rebel who's banned from entering Camelot.

He wonders where Gwain might be as he gazes at the clear night sky, the stars stirring the memory of another night spent under the stars, in front of a fire, huddled together, listening to the strange noises of the wild creatures surrounding them. He thinks about the thrill that shot through him when they sat pressed close to conserve body heat. Their bodies connected in one long line from the shoulders to the knees. He remembers his head nodding off and Gwain's arm anchoring him, keeping him from slipping off the log they were sitting on. He remembers the reassuring pressure of those fingers. He remembers his head coming to rest into the curve of the shoulder, the resonance in his chest from the timbre of a deep voice. He remembers the words and the feeling of safety washing over him.

"Sleep Merlin, I'll keep watch"

This was one curve down the road he hadn't bargained for. His reaction to Gwain's proximity wasn't expected. He'd been shocked not just surprised. At the time he had been too preoccupied with saving Arthur to completely figure out why his pulse was suddenly frantic, why he had this fluttering feeling in his chest. He had passed it down to the adrenalin rush of being on his guard in the perilous lands.

On entering the throne room, Arthur had clapped him on the shoulder as usual, but Gwain had pulled him into a hug obviously relieved that Merlin was safe. Merlin had smiled then, one of his beautiful endearing smiles, glad that his new friend was worried about him. Why had that made him so incredibly happy all of a sudden? He hadn't had time to think about what it all meant.

Till four months ago, there had only been room for one obsession in Merlin's life.

Protecting Arthur, and his destiny.

To help Arthur become the greatest king of all times, for Camelot to become the land of his dreams where he and his kind would not be persecuted for being born with magic. He had been happy, content to bide his time till Arthur was king and could usher in a new age. All his wishes, hopes and dreams were tied to Arthur. Merlin didn't know what it was like to have any dreams of his own – until now. Only once had he thought about something like this before, with Freya. That dream had been ripped from him, but he understood now that he wouldn't have been able to escape his destiny.

Even so, the time he had spent with Freya had been short. The time to mourn her loss even shorter, the crown prince of Camelot being every sorcerer's favorite target, Merlin had been kept on his toes. Now with Morgana, plotting on every turn, it made it impossible for Merlin to concentrate on anything other than keeping Arthur safe from her ever present clutches.

And yet, in spite of all this, Merlin wasn't able to forget Gwain. Ever since that day they parted ways on the border of Camelot, Merlin had spent many a moment thinking about the man. In fact, if he were true to himself there were three constant thoughts running through his head at any given time in the day.

Keeping Arthur Safe

Watching out for Morgana

Gwain

"Merlin, if you're done daydreaming... I'd like to be present at the council meeting with my father on time!"

"Now where the devil are my clothes for today?" the sarcastic voice made him start suddenly and Merlin turned to face a scowling Arthur.

Merlin rushed to lay out a fresh tunic and breeches for the prince before he took to throwing whatever he could find at him. He then settled down on the floor to resume polishing the prince's boots. He smiled softly recalling the time Gwain and him had been made to clean the boots of all the knights.

Again, memories of the time spent with Gwain played through his mind and Merlin was lost in his thoughts. He didn't even notice the prince watch him with a quizzical expression or the words that followed.

"Honestly Merlin! What's gotten into you? You're half asleep doing your chores, you're usual nattering is missing, you haven't called me a half original and ridiculous name like to you usually do within days, although why I'm asking you that is beyond me, point is, you're not behaving like yourself!"

No Reaction. Arthur continued.

"Are you ill? Because I forbid you from being ill, I won't suffer the loss of a servant like I did that last time. Just because…"realizing that Merlin was again lost in thoughts and not listening to a word the prince's rant trailed off.

"Merlin, did you even hear a word I just said" Arthur exploded glaring at Merlin, though he was getting a little worried now.

"Uh...Erm… Yeah. Of course, I'll have your chainmail and boots ready by the time you come back" replied a clearly distracted Merlin.

Arthur's eyebrows drew together in confusion and concern, something was bothering his idiot servant and Merlin wasn't sharing. Not okay in Arthur's book.

He watched Merlin a few more moments. He hated it when Merlin got upset. Merlin was never fazed by anything; he was always the bright and cheerful bumpkin who made life a lot more amusing for Arthur since he came to Camelot. Arthur would never say it, but Merlin was the prince's best friend.

"All right. That's it." Arthur sighed heavily. Merlin had no warning before the air in his lungs was being squeezed out of him, an arm was curled around his neck in a vice like grip and the prince was rubbing his knuckles vigorously through Merlin's hair.

". Arthur Stop. You Dollop head. Stop Arthur. Stop. I mean it. Arthur. Please-"

"Not until you tell me what's wrong and stop moping about like a girl. You've been like this for days now. C'mon out with it." Arthur nudged Merlin's shoulder settling on the floor next to him.

"Where do you suppose Gwain is right now?"asked Merlin, and then tensed. He hadn't meant to blurt out what he had been thinking to Arthur like that.

Arthur raised an eyebrow. "Gwain? Is that what's bothering you?"

Merlin tried to cover it up by speaking in a rush "No. no, no, no… no I just…it's nothing, I was just wondering…you know where he might be right now… it's been four months since we last saw him" Merlin said the last part in a low voice, trying to keep out any emotion from his voice.

"What on earth made you think of Gwain now? As you said it's been four months." questioned Arthur, a little puzzled at the words of his manservant.

"Nothing really… some knights came to Gaius for salve and treatment after stopping the brawl in the tavern last night. I'm just a little worried…he's reckless, doesn't know when to back down from a fight where the odds are slim to none…he enjoys them! He could get hurt ….he's my friend and-" Merlin halted suddenly realizing that he had vocalized his thoughts in front of Arthur.

Arthur watched Merlin's face. He looked almost wistful as he mentioned Gwain. For some strange reason, it made Arthur jealous. True he wasn't the most expressive person to be around but Merlin was his best friend. His best friend.

To watch Merlin get distracted enough to stop trading insults and banter with the Arthur because he was worried about Gwain came as a slight blow to his ego.

Even though he never acknowledged it, Merlin's devotion to him was appreciated and even cherished. Not that Arthur would ever admit something like that. Crown princes did not cherish their man servants. They barely tolerated or acknowledged them.

In spite of this, he couldn't stand Merlin looking so glum, and he was no fun when he was being a proper manservant. Arthur had become accustomed to the cheeky retorts that Merlin and he exchanged, it was their way of moving around one another.

"O is that it? That's what has you in the dole drums? Cheer up Merlin, Gwain is more than capable of looking after himself. He's an expert on living life on the run. You're acting like a mother hen, worrying for nothing."

"He shouldn't have to…"the words were barely a whisper, but Arthur heard the sadness and resignation behind them.

Arthur felt a stab of guilt.

Gwain would've been able to stay in Camelot if it hadn't been for Uther's decree. As with many other decisions he didn't agree with his father on this one. He was reminded of Lancelot. He had thought Gwain just like Lancelot would make a fine knight. He agreed with Gwain's principle that a man should be noble in character not just a noble by birth.

Watching Merlin now he realized there was a deeper bond between the two than he had previously realized. While he didn't much like the thought of sharing his only friend with someone else, this was affecting Merlin. He sighed silently, never let it be said that Arthur Pendragon didn't indulge in an unselfish act for the sake of friendship.

"Merlin. Stop sulking. Now, I'm ordering you to take the rest of the day off. Go do whatever it is you do in your free time and when you come back I don't want to see this sad long face you've been carrying around. Seriously, you're not doing yourself any favors considering you have no other appeal, you colossal idiot. C'mon, on your feet. You're making me late!"

"What? Now? …but I haven't finished with your boots yet…"Merlin protested feebly, at being dragged to his feet by the prince towards the door.

"You can finish them tomorrow when you come back, bright and early. Now go on. Off you go. " Arthur shoved Merlin out of the room and stalked off in the other direction to attend his meeting with the council.

Merlin knew he should feel happy. Arthur had given him a day off. He couldn't even remember the last time he got a day off. But a day off meant he was left alone with no distractions to thoughts of Gwain. A day off meant time to admit his feelings to himself, time to miss the man, time off meant fighting the temptation to go find him in whatever godforsaken tavern or town he was raising hell in currently.

Maybe he could offer to help Gaius. After all, the old physician was always in need of fresh herbs or roots to create more of his remedies. With that thought in mind Merlin set off to find Gaius. When Merlin reached the rooms he shared with Gaius, he found the old man bending over a potion which was bubbling in one of the many beakers and small test tubes that littered the room and tables.

"Gaius, do you need any help with gathering herbs or anything else? Arthur's let me off the hook for today."

"Ah Merlin…well, I do need some herbs from the forest if it wouldn't be too much trouble… Arthur hardly gives you a holiday, are you sure you don't want to just enjoy it?" the old man questioned. "No, it's no trouble at all…I was going to go for a walk in the forest anyway."