Summary: "Everyone had someone, everyone but him. Amid his family in Camelot, Merlin suffers from loneliness. When a noble family arrives at Camelot, a familiar face gives Merlin hope, but ulterior motives and a plot against Camelot and Merlin himself leaves the warlock fighting for everything he holds dear – even that which he thought he'd lost."
It was probably what would come to be known Camelot's most colorful time of year. In every place suited for it, there were baskets of wildflowers hanging from poles and sitting on windowsills, decorating the tables and, with some coaxing from the Court Sorcerer, the walls as well. To anyone who didn't know better, the décor might've been a rather expansive homage to the delightful spring they'd been having that year, but other goings-on of the castle hinted at something more out-of-the-ordinary. Kitchen staff scrambled like frightened deer along the servants' hallways, and the master of the hall directed his own staff around with a booming voice as they prepared to host what must have been a large feast. Obviously, a very special day approached for Camelot and her people, but it was no ordinary holiday, and none except those who actually lived in Camelot would be able to tell you what the festivities were all about.
Tomorrow was the King and Queen's anniversary. It was, in fact, their first anniversary of marriage. Although Queen Guinevere had insisted that it mustn't be made into a large affair, King Arthur convinced her to let him throw her a huge party, just this once, to celebrate their first year as husband and wife. The King loved nothing more than seeing his wife smile, and she was always sure to smile at events such as the one he'd prepared in her honor. It was for this reason, for the sake of her beautiful, infectious smile, that Arthur had asked Merlin specifically for all of the flowers. They weren't hard to come by, but keeping them alive indoors needed some magical expertise, with which Merlin was more than happy to help.
"Oh, Merlin, they're beautiful!" Gwen put her hands to her chest in delight, looking about the flowers that grew all around her. Merlin looked surprised at her sudden appearance, but smiled widely.
"You like them? Good. Just, don't tell Arthur. I was supposed to make sure you didn't see them until tonight."
She shook her head. "That man. Always trying to surprise me." She shook her head. "I'll just make sure and look extra surprised tonight. I won't tell if you won't?" She came up beside her old friend and gave him a conspirator's grin. Merlin only laughed, and she wrapped her arms around him. "Thank you, Merlin," she gave a friendly squeeze and pulled away. "It really does mean a lot- and, Merlin, what's this?" Gwen frowned fractionally and reached up to touch his cheek. "Are you growing a beard?" She chuckled.
Merlin looked momentarily stunned and put a hand to his own chin, which felt rather scraggly. With his dark hair, the shadow was probably already visible, he realized. He blushed. "Oh, er, eh… No, I, eh, I just forgot to shave." He smiled at her, and she merely shook her head at him.
"You're as bad as Arthur. I'm constantly having to remind him to stay clean-shaven. Lately he's become convinced that I secretly fancy goatees on him." She glanced about and then whispered, "I really don't." They both chuckled. A voice sounded down the hallway: Arthur. "Oh, I'd better go. Don't want him realizing I've ruined his surprise! Thank you so much, Merlin!" Gwen gave his arm an affectionate pat before she left. Merlin smiled, but put his hand to his face after she'd gone. He probably should go shave, come to think of it.
That night, the castle was packed to the brim with nobles and peasants alike, along with an exotic sprinkling of magical folk who had become allies with Camelot over the past year. There was Alator, a personal friend of Merlin's, several druid elders, and standing to one side like the embodiment of regality itself was, of course,
Aithusa's head spun on his neck at the voice, and when he spotted Merlin, he smiled. "Father!" He replied with far more composure and maturity than he had in times past, and now it only took his long legs a few steps to reach the dragonlord.
"I didn't know you'd be here so early," Merlin smiled up at him. Aithusa smiled back.
"I didn't know I'd be here so early, either. Kilgarrah sends his regards."
"Still not keen on visiting?"
"You know him,"
"Mmm," Merlin agreed. "Either way, it's great to see you again – I've missed you." Merlin stepped forward and hugged the white dragon around the neck, which was still just low enough that Merlin could manage it. Aithusa dipped his head over Merlin's shoulder in kind.
"You as well, father," the dragon said. Far from the chattering, clumsy, rambunctious dragonling that had left Merlin's care some months ago, Aithusa had grown into a mature, impressive and well-spoken dragon in a relatively short amount of time. According to what Merlin had read, dragons reached mental adulthood within a matter of months, but would continue growing physically throughout their lives. Merlin didn't want to think of how big Aithusa might get one day, as he was nearly as big as a draft horse as it was. Still, after he'd reached maturity, his growth had slowed down quite a bit, and his features had evened out.
The horn on the left side of his face was still chipped at its tip from an incident from long ago, but no one but those who knew about it would notice. His scales, no longer dulled from continuous molting, were pearly and shining and made him more beautiful that he would ever admit. Also, while Aithusa had spoken in a halted, high-pitched form of English in his younger days, as he grew and mastered the human tongue, his voice had developed into a fluid, deep baritone that resonated with the wisdom and power so long associated with dragons. Of course, Merlin knew that deep down, there was still the same clumsy hatchling that he remembered, just waiting to come out. Regal he may have been, but Aithusa was nothing if not adventurous, playful, and just a touch mischievous. Merlin was overjoyed to see him again.
"How long will you be staying?" He asked hopefully.
"Not long, I'm afraid. Kilgarrah wants me to go out to the Eastern Mountains again before summer," Aithusa looked at his 'father' apologetically. Merlin's heart fell.
"Oh," He said, trying not to show his disappointment. It didn't work. "Still trying to track down the rumors, eh?"
Aithusa nodded. "If there are any more dragons left in the world, Kilgarrah is convinced they've taken refuge there. We've already scoured the caves once, but… He's determined. I wish I didn't have to go. I'm sorry, Father." Merlin waved the apology away.
"Don't be." He forced a smile, even though Aithusa could see through him better than anyone else. "Let's just enjoy ourselves tonight, hmm?"
But try as he might, Merlin never did really enjoy himself that night.
He'd gone first to say hello to his old mentor, Gaius, and although the physician was as familiar and fatherly as Merlin ever remembered, he was, for it all, rather distracted from Merlin's company by the presence of his old friend and love, Alice. Alice had returned to Camelot only a few months ago, after hearing the ban on magic had been lifted, and she and Gaius spent their days recounting the stories and tales of their youth, stories which, while however interesting, meant nearly nothing to Merlin. After several minutes of talking with Gaius, the two went off on another one of their tangents, and Merlin, feeling excluded, slowly slipped away. Neither seemed to notice.
Next, he'd gone to see the knights.
"Ah, Merlin!" Of course Gwaine was the first to see him and the first to shove a tankard in his face. "Come to join the real party, eh? He gestured around himself at the rest of the knights, who all seemed considerably closer to sobriety than Gwaine. As he gestured for another refill, Percival asked,
"Do you really think that's a good idea, Gwaine?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Percy,"
"Don't call me that."
"Ah," Gwaine smirked drunkenly and turned to look at his colleague. "I see, only the Lady Aurella can call you that, eh?" And while Percival went red, the rest seemed unaffected past good-natured smiles. Sir Percival had developed a long-standing relationship with one of the court ladies over the past months, and while everyone was perfectly happy for him, he was incredibly bashful about the whole matter. Gwaine liked exploiting the fact as often as he got the chance.
"Red as a turnip," Gwaine chuckled.
"So are you,"
Gwaine knew he was flushed in the face from drinking, but he decided to play the fool. "Don't worry about me, Perce," Gwaine swiped at his mouth, "I can hold my liquor."
"Maybe for now," Leon piped in, "but if you don't watch yourself, it'll be all over your bedroom floor, tonight." They all laughed, and as the barmaid came by to hand Gwaine his next tankard, Merlin decided to intervene.
"For the sake of the castle floorboards, then," And before Gwaine could lay hands on it, the tankard floated off its tray and into the hands of Merlin. The serving maid gasped.
"Thank you, Elisse," Merlin smiled, "But I don't think Sir Gwaine will be needing any more of these." She smiled at him and curtsied, and then floated away.
"Wait a minute, come back here," Gwaine called after Elisse, too late.
"Gwaine, you don't need any more drink tonight." Elyan scolded his friend. Gwaine stood drunkenly to his feet, smiling.
"Not interested in drinking," He said, before staggering after Elisse, who was admittedly rather pretty. Elyan shook his head.
"I'd better make sure he doesn't go sick on her or something. Why Gwaine thinks he's so good with women, I'll never understand. Have a good night, then," Elyan tipped his head at his friends and jogged after Gwaine before he could do too much damage.
Merlin laughed. He opened his mouth to start a conversation with the others, but before he could,
"Leon, they're getting ready to dance," It was a lady's voice, "Would you like to join me?" Merlin recognized the speaker as the silversmith's daughter, who seemed to have developed a fondness for Leon. Leon didn't seem to mind.
"I'd love to," He grinned, and even though he had a reputation as a horrid dancer, the young girl beamed at him. They left Percival and Merlin to themselves as the sound of tables scraping against floors sounded from where a dancing floor was being arranged in the center of the room. The fiddlers and flautists were tuning up.
"I'd better go find Aurella," Percival said, sending Merlin a shy smile. He patted the Sorcerer on the back, which nearly knocked the man over, and strode away to find his love.
Realizing that he was suddenly alone, Merlin glanced about himself to find someone to talk to, maybe even an old friend from the serving staff that might want to dance, but he found no one. Suddenly downcast, he looked down at his image reflected in the tankard his still held and noticed that he'd missed a spot when he was shaving. He wondered why no had told him.
"Merlin," Arthur's voice sounded from his right, and Merlin looked up to see the king smiling at him. "Thanks again for all of the flowers. Gwen loved the surprise," He said, smiling over to where his wife was ogling the display of color around the room.
"Glad I could help, Sire." Merlin told him. Arthur was too distracted to noticed the warlock's strained tone.
"She's worth it. Amazing woman, Guinevere," Arthur said proudly. Merlin could only agree, and Arthur added: "Can' t believe it's been a year already." He smiled and glanced around the hall happily for a moment, then looked down at his friend. "Are you going to dance, Merlin?"
"Nah," he shrugged. He couldn't bear to tell Arthur the truth, to explain how he had no one to dance with, so he said lamely, "You know me. All feet and elbows. I prefer to watch, anyway." And although both of them knew that Merlin had become a perfectly capable dancer, Arthur accepted the excuse with a laugh. The fiddler struck up the introduction to the first song, and Arthur turned to Merlin and spread his arms.
"How do I look? Think Gwen will approve?"
"Of course she will."
"Good," Arthur smiled, looking across the room at the queen, who was heading toward the dance floor with the other ladies. "Women are so particular about looks. By the way," He turned back to Merlin, "I think you've missed a spot, just there," He gestured at his own jawline for emphasis, and Merlin felt at the patch of stubble that he'd missed when shaving. Arthur chuckled good naturedly. "Maybe you need to find a woman to look after your looks, Merlin."
From Arthur's tone, Merlin knew he was meant to take it as a joke, so he grinned up at the king with intentional incredulity. Arthur smiled. "Or not," He shrugged. The dance was waiting on him, now, so he gave Merlin one last pat on the back and rushed away to lead his wife out onto the dance floor. The rest of the court followed. They spun about to the music, smiling and delighting in each other's company.
Merlin felt out of place. Part of him felt as though he should be out there as well, but then he remembered that he hadn't anyone to dance with. More and more as of late, he'd begun to wish that he did. Merlin knew that Arthur didn't think actually think that he needed a woman, that, as far as Arthur was concerned, Merlin was and would forever be the boyish bachelor who honestly couldn't care less, but Merlin knew himself better than that. Deep down, he longed for that kind of partnership, longed for a lifelong friend who would always look after him, whom he could care for and look after.
"I'll look after you,"
He winced at the memory.
He knew he had family here in Camelot. He knew he had friends. Gaius, Arthur, Gwen, Aithusa, the knights… He was surrounded by people who loved him, yet he'd never felt more alone, and he knew they would never understand that. Across the room, the dance ended and Arthur stopped to give a speech in praise of his wife, a speech that Merlin had helped him to write.
Everyone had someone. Everyone but him.
Suddenly, Merlin felt that he couldn't bear their smiling faces, their merriment and dancing. No one noticed when he left.
When he reached his tower, the rooms were just as empty as he remembered them being. He begrudgingly shaved off the stubble he'd missed before and wondered if there was any other spot he'd missed. He rolled over into bed and wished that his tower wasn't so painfully quiet. He tried to repress the old pain that had been rising in his chest over the past few months, a pain that he desperately wished he could forget. It didn't work. Whether he would admit it or not, there hadn't ever been a time when Merlin remembered missing her quite this much.