Greetings Readers! This is my first Merlin story, and also the first in this collection of oneshots. I hope you enjoy it!
Disclaimer: I do not own Merlin, or any of its characters.
As he looked down at Arthur and Gwen holding each other close, an entire gamut of emotions rushed painfully through him. Relief at seeing his friends safe and well, sadness at the mix of grief intermingled with joy on their faces, a feeling of smug satisfaction that those two had finally stopped being idiots about their feelings for one another. And, much to his frustration, jealousy.
Not jealous of one or the other, but jealous of what they had together. Jealous that, through all the problems and difficulties, they were able to touch and physically comfort the one they loved. Merlin's eyes took on a melancholy cast as he looked over his friends, and he forced himself to turn away so that they couldn't see the tears glinting in his eyes. As he walked up the stairs in the palace, into the secluded privacy of his room off of Gaius' chambers, he allowed himself to finally focus on what he'd been shoving back during the whole Save-Arthur's-Skin-Behind-the-Scenes-Again. Freya.
I should consider myself lucky, he reprimanded himself, I mean, I got to see her again. Despite Freya's promise to repay him for what he had done, Merlin had never expected to see the beautiful girl again. He never doubted her intent, but rather her ability to do so. But the shock and panic in seeing the glass smash had so quickly given in to relief and unadulterated joy at seeing her again that it had made it difficult to breathe.
But just seeing her wasn't enough. Just looking at her open, lovely face and the way her eyes lit up when she spoke his name made him want to take her into his arms and never let her go. His fingers had fair ached with the need to hold her hand and brush the tear from her face – but he was too worried that disturbing the surface of the pooled water would be enough to banish her forever and instead contented himself with just looking at her and listening to the voice he thought he'd never hear again. But of course, he couldn't lose himself to that enjoyment, he had work to do, to help Arthur, and Freya was able to help him do it.
And in the end, once again, he had saved the day. Once again, he kept his secret safe, saved Arthur, and got none of the credit and none of the glory. In the earlier, prat-Arthur days that would have stung, but now he was more content to help his friend and help both of their destinies along than to get his rightful credit, most of the time. But this victory had stung all the same; he did not begrudge Arthur his praise or Gwen, but he wished that he could have held his love too.
In the safety of his bedroom, he finally let a few tears slid past his eyes. Relief but mostly grief and bitterness seeped from his eyes, dripping from his fingers onto the mussed bedspread. She is fine. She is at peace. So why does it hurt so much?
He could hear the door to the main chamber open and close, and heard Gaius bustling in to start concoctions for those who had been wounded in battle. "Merlin?"
Merlin hastily wiped away his tears and went down to join him.
It was when he was riding to where he would lay the blade (which had somehow been labeled as Excalibur in his head) to rest when it occurred to him. Maybe he could not touch her, maybe she could not come to see him when she liked, but there was one way where he could be with her again.
Technically, he countered to himself as he edged his horse away from the stone where he'd placed the sword, there's two ways, but the other's a bit too macabre for my taste. 'Sides, Freya'd kill me. The horse began to gallop as they reached the main path, far from where he had placed the sword, but he made no effort to slow her down. Frankly, he was much more eager to reach their destination than she was.
So eager, in fact, that he completely missed the slight exhalation of triumph from far behind him on the main path, or the fluid motion of the rider's horse as it followed him down the path.
The night was still. So still that the perfect orb of the moon reflected clearly in the dark waters of the lake, and the whole place seemed to glow with an enchanted light. Distractedly, Merlin dismounted and tied the reins of his horse to a nearby tree, giving a perfunctory tug of the knot before he cautiously stepped forward towards the waters of the lake. After all the rush of the ride, he could only slowly walk now, his breath catching in his throat and the heartbeat pounding in his ears as came closer, ever closer to his goal. Kneeling almost reverently at the edge of the shore, he leaned down and brushed his fingers across the top of the water.
The night was warm and still, and if Merlin closed his eyes he could just imagine that the soft, smooth warmth of the water was Freya's skin. Not her hands, which had been blistered and chapped from her struggles in the cage and from her transformations, but the smooth skin of her face and of her lips as they pressed against his.
An owl hooted balefully from across the way and Merlin snapped his eyes open to see the dark waters of the lake and his heart sank. He hadn't believed, truly, that the water was her skin, but the illusion was almost overwhelming. This was the only way he could feel Freya, the only connection she had to this earth besides the memories crowding around inside his head.
Without thinking much about it, he worked off his boots and stepped out into the lake. The water was cooler than its surface had appeared, and he shivered as the goosebumps rose on his skin. He ignored them and continued on undeterred until the water lapped around his waist. Then he let his arms fell down to the surface of the lake, feeling the mingled warmth and coolness seep into him and trying to reach out for…something.
Minutes passed. It was only after his arms had fully relaxed into the water and his breathing had subconsciously eased into the pattern of the wind blowing through the reeds that he realized that he couldn't feel what he was hoping for. If Freya was here, and he had faith that she was, then she was clearly slumbering, waiting for the time she felt needed again. I need you now, Merlin muttered to himself, but knew better than to try and disturb her. After what she'd been through in this life, she deserved whatever peaceful rest was granted her, and he loved her far too much to disturb that. So Merlin simply stood in the water, thinking and being close.
Watchful eyes peered from beneath one of the thick trunks bordering the lake to see the young man standing still and silent in the waist-deep water, with the halo of the moon surrounding him. They crinkled in confusion and thought before disappearing completely.
In the mixed exhilaration of victory and the bitter pang of Morgana's betrayal, Merlin's absence had been surprisingly easy to miss. It was only after everyone had cleared up their armor and horses, with Gwen following close behind (to help, she said, but she seemed more occupied in watching the knights and Arthur as though she believed they'd disappear if she looked away), that they noticed the lack of his snarky, yet wise-when-necessary chatter and reassuring presence in the background.
Gwen had begun to worry, but Arthur hastened to remind her that Gaius had needed help earlier with some potions and had probably pulled Merlin in to help. The others had been surprised but not overly concerned; it was common for Gaius to haul Merlin in for help and probably catch up with him after the battle. However, once Arthur had gone up to rest in his chambers, he had seen the bedclothes folded back and dinner placed on the table – but no sign of his manservant. Gwen had already run up to check on how Gaius and Merlin were faring in the physician's chambers, and she looked as confused as he did as he walked quickly (not running, of course he wasn't running) inside.
Gaius, in an odd contrast to the younger people, did not seem at all concerned about his apprentice's whereabouts. "He just needs some time alone. It's been a hard time for all of us, and surprisingly enough even he likes to take time to think!"
It was an old joke, and the laughter was more out of a kind of relief than of actual humor, but Arthur noticed a serious glint in the old physician's eye. He had an idea that Merlin was doing something more than just thinking, and from the pleading look in Gwen's eye, she was thinking the same thing.
"He was rather…quiet when we got back." Gwen said thoughtfully as the two made their way down to the stables. "He seemed happy, but then his face grew all serious." She shook her head. "I thought he was just tired."
"I'm sure he's all right," Arthur reassured her, placing a hand on her shoulder and gripping it. "He's probably just trying to skip out on all the polishing he's going to have to do now that the battle's over." Gwen shot him a teasing glare, and Arthur held out his hands. "Sorry."
Gwen reached up on her tiptoes and kissed the side of his face. "All right, but if he needs to talk…"
Arthur smiled down at her. "We'll make sure that he does."
He made sure that she found a comfortable room for the night, not wanting her to leave the security of the castle for her home that late in the evening, and as soon as the door closed behind her, let a contemplative scowl cross his face. Is Merlin all right?
Once everything had been said and done, the manservant had been incredibly quiet and thoughtful, no prattle, no clumsiness. He just stayed on his horse, silent and in another world, automatically steering the horse where it needed to go and not speaking to anyone. Arthur had put it down to fatigue but now he worried that it might be something worse than that. As much as he complained about Merlin's lack of propriety, snarky comments and general lack of fear for Arthur's title, at his core he appreciated it. More often that he cared to admit, he had to keep a smile from crossing his face at Merlin's irreverence and his genuine desire for friendship. And, to much his surprise, he found that Merlin dropped more and more gambits of wisdom when he needed it most. Not that he would admit that yet, anyway.
So what was the matter with him? Certainly he was tired, but there seemed to be more than exhaustion in his gait and eyes earlier that day.
It was that strange look in Merlin's eyes that steeled Arthur's resolve. With stealth born of years training to be a knight, he slipped into the stables and secured his horse. He wasn't sure where Merlin was going – Gaius had not been particularly helpful when he'd asked after seeing Gwen to bed – but he was certain he would be using the main path.
It was not much more than an hour's ride from the city when Arthur heard the telltale clopping of hooves from just ahead. Stilling his horse's ride to a walk, he listened intently and heard the noise getting farther from there, not closer to the city. It would not be difficult to catch up.
If it wasn't for the distinct red neckerchief peeping out under the shadowy moonlight, or the familiar horse carrying the rider, Arthur might not have recognized Merlin for all his stiff posture and stone-like expression. Arthur had first had the impulse to call out to his friend, but stifled it, choosing instead to follow silently and see what was bothering him.
The lake was beautiful and still, and the idea of taking Gwen out there for a picnic once all the insanity had died down popped into his mind, but he became distracted as he saw Merlin dismount and head towards the water. He crept down to a tree and peered around the bark, watching as Merlin dragged his fingers across the surface of the lake, his eyes closed as though he were trying to sense something or resolve himself. Arthur's heart nearly stopped as he saw Merlin kick off his boots and beginning to wade into the water. From what he remembered of the lakes in these parts, they could be treacherously deep and nearly impossible to maneuver out of when it was dark and difficult to see. Is he trying to – Arthur wondered and then stopped. Merlin would never do that – no matter how Arthur liked to joke at him, he knew Merlin wasn't a coward. But that look in his eyes…
Something held him back as he watched his friend walk deeper into the water until it reached his waist. Merlin then reached out his arms, and Arthur nearly rushed in to haul him out before he did something stupid. But Merlin seemed simply content to float his arms on the top of the water, his eyes still closed and his posture still and silent.
And then suddenly, his posture crumbled. His shoulders drooped and then began to shake. Arthur frowned, puzzled. He had never seen fatigue hit like that, but then heard the heaving breaths and sobs that were accompanying it. Merlin was crying.
The sounds of the sobs hurt as though they were being ripped out of his own throat. Arthur had never seen Merlin like this before, so sad, so upset. It clashed incredibly with his usual happy-go-lucky attitude and his occasional calm, serious bouts of advice. What happened?
Merlin spoke, although his word sounded more like an exhalation of breath than a fully formed word as it floated across the calm surface of the lake. "Freya…" He shook his head. "I wish that I…I wish that I could have…"
And then he surrendered to the tears again, and Arthur's heart ached at the visible pain in his friend's shaking shoulders. He almost walked out, but the moment seemed too sensitive, and if he walked out he might break it. So instead he waited patiently for his friend to finish his tears and make his peace with whatever he was seeking.
He missed the growing peace on Merlin's face as the water, seemingly of its own volition in the windless night, lapped against his open palms. He didn't the whisper as Merlin opened his eyes and looked to the center of the apparently empty lake.
"Thank you, Freya."
However, he did see Merlin pass by and mount his horse before kicking it in the sides towards Camelot. He followed his friend home through the night and even shadowed him through the castle until Merlin arrived at Gaius' chambers, only returning to bed once he was sure his friend was all right.
It is entirely possible that the barbs that Arthur traded with Merlin the next morning were quite a bit less harsh than usual. It is also possible that he threw a roll instead of an apple at Merlin when he insulted him, and that he might have done better aiming if he'd been turned around with his eyes shut. But that certainly would have not been influenced by what he'd seen the night before. Truly.
Merlin smiled a secret grin to himself, remembering the glimpse of a certain prince he'd seen out of his periphery as he was about halfway home to Camelot the night before. He knew better.
A/N: That's the first! I hope you enjoyed it! If you have any suggestions or requests, please let me know!
Thanks for reading and please review! They make me happy!