Notes: Set in a somewhat AU season 1. Just Merlin/Gwen friendship, with Gwen/Arthur at the end. First Merlin fic, so I hope this went well.
The Winter Solstice celebrations were in full swing as Arthur lurked in the shadows, gray hood hung over his face. The dinner his father had insisted upon had been lovely, yes, but lonely. Morgana had taken ill again, so it had just been the Prince and his father.
The people of Camelot, though, had no use for stuffy dinners and outdated formalities; they had survived this much of the winter. They were halfway out of the woods, and that was cause for celebration.
Arthur grinned to himself as he watched two elderly ladies whisk Gaius to his feet, sticking holly sprigs in his hair and twirling him in circles. The old physician seemed reluctant, but Merlin gave him a cheery shove, laughing at the man's embarrassment. To Arthur, it seemed that his manservant had been in the cider again.
Before Arthur could go over and harass the boy, Gaius's spot was filled by Guinevere, who handed some holly to Merlin. Arthur watched on, curiously.
Gwen was blushing, but Merlin had enough alcohol in his system to find the token spectacular, and he didn't hesitate to give the blacksmith's daughter a friendly kiss on the cheek. She seemed a little taken aback, but not unhappy, and her face grew dark with blush.
A heavy woman knocked into Arthur, causing him to trip. When he readied himself, he saw that Merlin was on his feet, wiggling ridiculously to the music. Gwen was giggling, swatting at him as he tried to get her to join.
Arthur felt a small sense of jealousy well up inside. He knew that as future king of Camelot, he was afforded many – many – luxuries that the commoners could only dream of. But that didn't stop him from wishing for the joy of such carefree moments, the luxury of silly happiness that his manservant was displaying.
A different song started up, happier and bouncier, and Merlin yanked Gwen to her feet. She protested half-heartedly, but Gaius passed by, the giddiest Arthur had ever seen him, and she let Merlin sweep her into the fray of dancing bodies.
Watching Merlin dance was like watching a fawn try to run across ice. His limbs were gangly and awkward, and they flailed every which way. Gwen was giggling so hard that Arthur wondered how on earth she could breathe.
Merlin spun her around the big bonfire, bumping into other couples, one hand in hers, the other clutched protectively at her waist. Every so often, he would give her a twirl, and the folds of her skirt would fly up majestically.
Arthur thought that it might be a trick of the firelight, but the two servants seemed to glow. Every move they made seemed to radiate a warm, golden light, and Merlin's eyes seemed to flash for a second. The air was thick and drowsy, and people around them watched as the blacksmith's daughter and that scrawny fellow who cleans up after the prince stole the spotlight. Gwen's blush had faded to a lovely flush of the cheeks, and Merlin's smile was goofy and lopsided. Someone from the crowd whistled.
The song came to an end, and Merlin gave Gwen a gentlemanly kiss on the hand before tripping over his own two feet. Gwen gasped and knelt down besides the idiot manservant, smiling when he started laughing. The air returned to normal, and the townspeople went back to ignoring the two kids. Gwen helped Merlin up, and the two went off to get drinks.
Arthur returned back to the castle shortly after and retired to his chambers. He wondered briefly about the relationship between Merlin and Gwen, but put it out of his mind as he climbed into bed. He'd ask Morgana about it in the morning.
Merlin was a mess after the victory in Ealdor. The death of his closest friend had hit him hard, and it was all he could do not to turn into a blubbering mess in front of Arthur.
Arthur knew this, of course, because he wasn't an idiot. Morgana watched the boy as he gathered firewood, biting her bottom lip, but she didn't approach him. Morgana was almost as bad as Arthur when it came to dealing with emotions.
Merlin crouched down and expertly lit the fire, then retreated to his own little corner to mope. Arthur sat next to Morgana, searching for the right words to say. Nothing he could think of really seemed appropriate, though. Not when Will's death was on his hands.
Gwen beat them both to it, in the end. As the sun lowered in the sky, she wandered over to where he was sitting, and took his hands in hers. He smiled at her weakly, and let a tear escape before looking away. Gwen frowned, and used her sleeve to wipe the tear from his cheek before pulling him to his feet.
"Gwen, what-?" Merlin started, but was interrupted by Gwen turning to Morgana.
"Do you know any happy songs, My Lady?" She asked, a hopeful smile on her face. Morgana's eyes twinkled.
"One or two." With a grin she started to sing, and Arthur recognized the song as one from their childhood, one that Morgana's father used to sing to them. Her voice was unpracticed, but still as beautiful as Arthur remembered.
Gwen swept Merlin in a circle, leading him back-and-forth around the budding fire. Merlin seemed to resist at first, wishing nothing more than to go back to his corner and mourn alone, but his watery eyes were soon replaced with a weak smile, and he let Gwen spin him around, guided by Morgana's song.
The air grew warm and sleepy, and the sky seemed tinged with gold. The trees around them rustled gently, and a few squirrels peered out curiously from the branches. The Evening Star began to shine, twinkling down on the four youths.
Morgana's voice only wavered once. The dancing seemed to slow, as Merlin's feet grew heavier with grief, and a few more tears fell down his cheeks. Instead of pulling away, though, Merlin drew closer to Gwen, resting his forehead against hers. Their dancing had slowed to almost swaying, and they were such a beautiful, heart-wrenching sight that Morgana's throat ached with emotion and her song stuttered. Arthur felt his chest ache with grief.
Morgana's song ended, and Gwen quickly pulled Merlin into a hug. No longer ashamed, the young manservant sobbed into his friend's shoulder, clutching at her like a lifeline. Morgana looked at Arthur, and there was an unspoken longing between them for such a bond.
Merlin slept far away from everyone that night (Gwen had been commandeered by Morgana after a while, who claimed to need her handmaiden to keep her warm; Arthur rolled his eyes at the lie). But there was a peaceful air around the servant as he slept. He wasn't happy, but his heart was mending.
Arthur didn't sleep that night, kept awake by too many thoughts about young sorcerers and untimely ends.
The idiot had finally done it; he'd finally gone and done something so stupidly heroic that Uther had no choice but to plan his execution. Arthur sighed in annoyance as he headed down to the dungeons, sword in hand.
He knocked out the guards without a fuss, and crept along past the other prisoners while internally berating his idiot manservant for doing something as stupid as using his secret magic to save a young boy from being trampled by a horse. It was times like these that Arthur really just wanted to punch Merlin.
Arthur really wasn't upset to learn that his most trusted servant was a sorcerer. In fact, it made many things a whole lot clearer. And the entire ordeal seemed to make Morgana very, very happy – that is, until Uther found out and had the idiot sentenced to death.
When Arthur turned the corner to Merlin's cell, he was surprised to see that someone else was already in there with the boy. He wasn't surprised, however, to see that it was Gwen.
She had tears in her eyes, and looked very close to passing out from worry, but her voice was steady as she whispered to Merlin, "Why didn't you tell me?"
Arthur halted, curious to hear what Merlin said. Though the prince could understand why Merlin hadn't confided this secret in him, he had been certain Guinivere already knew.
"I didn't want to put you at risk. If Uther caught wind that you had been hiding a sorcerer-"
"But to go all this time without being able to tell anyone!" Gwen sounded distressed. "No one should have to go through that alone. I could have been there for you."
Merlin smiled fondly at his friend. "You already were."
Without another word, Merlin grabbed Gwen's hand in his, spinning her around to the music in his head. She started crying, and clung closer to him as he swayed back and forth.
The air grew heavy – a sensation Arthur would never get used to – and the burning tips from the candles on the walls flew from their holders and surrounded the two friends like overgrown fireflies. The magical display was impressive, Arthur decided, but a little inconvenient if they were to escape anytime soon. He certainly hoped their farewell would be short.
"Don't cry, Gwen. I'll be okay."
"Stop making promises you can't keep."
Merlin gave her a sad smile, the kiss the top of her head. Gwen let out a shuddering breath, and Arthur took that as his cue.
"Alright, time to go, say goodbye, Merlin." He unlocked the cell and yanked it open, nodding for his idiot manservant to get out. "We don't have much time before someone realizes that the security on these dungeons is lacking."
"Bye, Gwen." Merlin cupped her face in his palm for a moment, before pulling back to follow Arthur down the passageway.
"Will I ever see you again?" She called out, and Merlin gave her another sad smile.
With that he followed behind Arthur, out of the castle and into the woods. Gwen wiped at her eyes furiously, then scampered away to Morgana's room, to relay the news of Merlin's escape.
(She'd never admit it, but even dealing with Morgana's stunted knowledge of human emotions was better than returning to an empty house.)
The day Uther Pendragon died, Lady Morgana rode away from Camelot with Sir Leon, on a seemingly futile mission. Arthur wanted so badly to join her, but he was in mourning and desperately needed by his people to step up and become the king his father had never been.
A week later, Morgana and Leon returned back empty-handed and in low spirits. Arthur had given his half-sister a kiss on the cheek for her efforts, but she angrily wiped it away, frustrated that she was, after all this time, still alone with budding powers that no one accepted or understood. Gwen and Arthur tried their hardest, and Gaius had given her the grimmoire of magic that he had once bestowed upon Merlin, but it didn't keep her from feeling isolated and bitter.
A month later, Arthur was officially crowned King of Camelot.
A week after that, and the ban on magic was lifted from the kingdom.
Three months after that, he announced his engagement to the lovely Guinevere.
The wedding was beautiful, with majestic decorations and a feast to die for. In the lower town, the people were rejoicing the servant-Queen, the woman who stood by Arthur's side as an equal, who knew the hardships of the poor and those who lost so much under Uther's reign. The singing could be heard all the way up in the castle.
Gwen looked stunning, with her jeweled white dress and flowers in her hair. Arthur's eyes never left his wife that night.
As the wine flowed freely and the partygoers became more ambitious and carefree, Arthur sat back and watched as Gwen danced merrily with Gaius, the man who had treated her like a daughter for so many years. Morgana sat by his side, taking his hand for the first time since their childhood. She smiled up at him, mischief written on her face.
A scream tore through the banquet hall, and Arthur's hand went instinctively to where his sword should be, but Morgana shushed him, all smiles and evil, twinkling eyes. The screams stopped, replaced with joyous laughter. Arthur's eyes found Gwen in a second, and his heart skipped a beat when he saw the source of his wife's outbursts.
There, all stupid blue robes and stupid lopsided smile, was Merlin, the magic manservant, the boy who had saved Camelot and Arthur time and time again, currently being assaulted by the Queen.
Gwen was crying again, hitting Merlin's arm multiple times before kissing his cheek and pulling him into a hug. Arthur stood, clearing his throat, and the hall went silent. Merlin stared up at the King with wide blue eyes, a nervous look on his face.
Arthur raised an eyebrow. "You're late."
Merlin smirked. "Had to stop and prevent the witch Morgause from crashing the party. Nasty lady, she was. She even ruined my nice new robes!" The man raised a sleeve to show where part of the fabric had been singed off.
"Excuses will get you nowhere, Merlin," Arthur berated, and he felt himself smiling against his will. "I hope you brought Guinevere a present for making her worry about you so fiercely."
"I did, actually." Merlin grinned, and handed a sprig of holly to the Queen. She swelled up with emotion, much to the confusion of the court. Arthur rolled his eyes.
"You always were a sentimental idiot." Gwen gave him a surprised look. "Welcome back, Merlin."
"Thank you, your highness." Merlin grinned.
"Well, what are you all waiting for?" Arthur asked, raising his arms. "Play the music, pour some wine! We have a beautiful Queen to celebrate tonight!"
The hall erupted in cheers, and the party sprang back to life. Arthur turned to Morgana.
"Your doing, I assume?" He asked, eyebrows raised. She gave him a feline grin.
"He came to me in a dream about a week ago. Of course, I was very upset with him, and he got quite an earful. So I'll take credit for his speedy return, and for his apt timing, but the return itself is all his doing." She took a sip of wine from Arthur's goblet, much to his protest. "He missed her very much."
Arthur followed his sister's gaze to where Merlin was extending a hand to Gwen, prompting her to dance. She took it gladly, and let him lead her to the dance floor. Gwen had changed so much since the first time Arthur had watched her dance with Merlin. She was graceful, strong, regal; she was Queen.
Merlin had changed as well. While he still lacked grace – or coordination, really – he was no longer a jumble of awkward limbs and gangly youth. He possessed an air of power and kindness that had once been masked by his nervousness and fear.
As the two danced through the hall, Arthur felt the familiar shift in the air. Morgana sensed it, too, and tightened her grip on Arthur's hand. The hall was golden and shimmering, the colors of the decorations and the feast and the ladies' dresses all melding together in a blur of magic and happiness.
Merlin gazed down on his friend with loving adoration, and Gwen stared back with pride and amazement. They were a sight to behold – the young Queen and the rogue sorcerer, dancing through a spectrum of noise and light and emotions.
They would always be that way, Arthur mused to himself. They would always be magnificent and strange and wonderful. They would always be bound by friendship and love and a little bit of magic.
They would always be Merlin and Gwen.