It’s the same day each year, and Merlin has learn to live with it. With the silent ache inside his heart and the burden of his regrets in the back of his mind. He’s had time to perfect the forced smile he presents in public, to train his body not to give him away sometimes, and he’s had time to replace all the bad memories with more pleasant ones.
It’s been ten years since everything changed, since Albion was born. Since Arthur broke the laws and established his own, crowning a maid his queen and naming a servant ‘Court Sorcerer’, marking the beginning of a new era. It’s been ten years since Merlin’s life turned upside down, when the bonds of a friendship were cut down and replaced by those of duty, when Merlin stopped assisting Arthur every morning and night and started only seeing him at council, at banquets and feasts; since he stopped sharing jokes and smiles, and learnt to live with only furtive, frustrating looks reminding him that what he most wanted was the one thing that he couldn’t have.
It’s been five years of slow courting, friendship, and one-side love, and another five of the blooming of scary feelings, of healing and new emotions, and a renewed beating of his mistreated heart. And it’s all been thanks to Gwaine. Gwaine, who is flirty, unnaturally attractive and has the dirtiest mouth, but who is tender and wonderful and incredibly faithful and patient, and who has warmed his way inside Merlin’s heart. He doesn’t deserve him, because even when he knew Merlin didn’t love him, Gwaine never gave up. And he was the continuous receiver of unfair blows and shouts, he was rejected over and over and then always came to satisfy Merlin’s selfish whims and pleads, only to be pushed away once more after. But all through the drama, Gwaine never abandoned Merlin. And now Merlin loves him for it, because he healed him, and because he’s everything Arthur could never be.
Today before the celebration of the King and Queen’s anniversary, Merlin bathes, asks Gwaine to shave him and shaves him in return, laughing, being childish and irresponsible for a while in the water, hugging him closer and kissing his entire body, and forgetting about time. Arthur catches them in the tub, tangled in each other and breathless with laughter, and Merlin stops playing then, body flushing in embarrassment. Because he’s too old for this. He looks at the King, red robes and impressive crown in place, already prepared for his day, and Merlin feels the urge to shout at him, tell him that he may be the King but he ought to still knock on doors. But he doesn’t. It’s not his place. He doesn’t joke, tease or challenge Arthur anymore. Those days have long ago been buried as old memories that could easily be confused as fantasies today. Instead he puts the basin and the knife down on the floor and waits until his King finds his footing and speaks. He doesn’t apologise for intruding into a private moment, a King never does, but he frowns and then orders them to attend the celebration this time. Because Merlin’s been missing them for the last ten years, always leaving the castle year after year on that date, on an invented trip to the forest for a day, dragging Gwaine along with him, his friend, his lover, his saviour. Tumbling on the dirty forest ground, making love and celebrating their own affair until they were satiated, unable to stay home and congratulate King and Queen on their marriage, happy or not.
So they go. They attend the banquet in the King and Queen’s honour, and Gwaine puts his hand over Merlin’s on the table when it shakes for a moment after he sits down. He hides the trembling, comforting him, and Merlin feels that sudden wave of affection and fierce gratitude towards this perfect, beautiful man that’s always there to prevent him from falling. Merlin twines their fingers together softly, watching them lock together until he feels the tightness inside his chest ease, until he feels just — right, complete. And he smiles.
But then he makes the mistake of looking up, just in time to see Arthur sit stiffly in a seat across from them, his blue gaze fixated on their joined hands — his court sorcerer and his most courageous knight, united. Merlin doesn’t know the way Arthur feels anymore, about it - about them, about himself, because they never talk now. But his dissatisfaction is crystal clear. Merlin’s heart breaks into pieces for an instant when those eyes look up and meet his, because he can see all the emotions Arthur should not have, and all the feelings he ought to have suffocated over time as Merlin himself was forced to do, and all the unhappiness and sadness the crown that’s now placed upon his head, has brought him.
But there’s nothing either of the two of them can do to change that.
It was never their destiny to spend their living days together, the dragon be damned. They were never made to be happy. They were meant to love each other, Merlin feels that deep down in his bones, but they were always meant to be tragically apart.