It is a peculiar thing—how happiness, expressed with smiles and crinkles around the eyes, can go quietly unnoticed, while sadness and the tears that bear it seem to echo on for ages, reverberating loudly off the walls of the very soul.
When Merlin cries on the day of King Arthur Pendragon’s wedding to Guinevere Thomas, he ponders just this. He bites down on his fist to keep the sobs from escaping his wracking body, but it does no good. So Merlin finds his own harsh cries calling back to him each time they flow freely from his lips, bouncing off the high ceilings of Castle Camelot.
It wasn’t supposed to hurt this much, he thinks.
Merlin leans back against the wall, wiping roughly at his eyes with his sleeve. He’d told himself he wouldn’t do this. It was a vow he’d made, and not solely for his own sake.
He can hear music mixed in with his shaky huffs of breath, as it trails in daintily from the great hall. There is dancing and food and celebration in honor of the newlywed couple. And Merlin can’t bring himself to be a part of it.
Merlin closes his eyes, thinking of the way Arthur’s face had lit up when Gwen walked down the aisle, and of how their hands fit, perfectly intertwined as the wedding vows were spoken, binding them to the eternal happiness they had found in one another.
Happiness that, evidently, Merlin had been unable to give his King.
Merlin thinks, alone in the vast hallway, and he cries.
Time goes by, as it often tends to do, but the sorcerer doesn’t notice. The cool wall is a comfort to the ache in his bones, and Merlin is very, very tired. Tired of pretending. The tears do not cease to pour from his closed lids, though, and it makes his head pound.
And then time stops at the sound of the familiar voice, low and deep and full of concern and sincerity that, over the years, Merlin has learned to decipher between the syllables. He freezes, keeping his eyes closed, wondering if he’s hearing things.
But there’s the clack-clack-clack of footsteps moving closer and closer until Merlin feels a hovering, warm presence before him. “What are you doing out here? I was looking for you.”
Merlin has no choice but to open his eyes, and immediately wishes he hadn’t.
King Arthur stands in front of him, hands clasped behind his back. His eyes are big and blue and full of a combination of experience, wisdom, and that touch of youth that you can still see sometimes when he smiles. He’s all golden, crown in place and crimson cape flowing around him until it meets the ground in a pool at his feet.
And he’s beautiful, as ever. A breath lodges itself in Merlin’s throat, tight. Merlin swallows it down.
Arthur tilts his head a bit, in the way that Merlin knows he’s being studied. For a moment it remains this way—the King trying to understand the many layers that make up his servant, as always. Then, his voice is barely audible, barely leaves his lips as he says, “You’ve been crying.”
“No,” Merlin says all too quickly, rubbing at his eyes and avoiding Arthur’s look, “Just needed some air, that’s all.”
“Gwen will make a wonderful Queen.” The words scratch at Merlin’s tongue, metallic.
“I’m sorry I’ve been neglecting my duties; I’ll follow you back in--”
“Merlin!” His name on Arthur’s lips, a shout, echoes into the quiet. Merlin. Merlin. Merlin, and it makes Merlin’s stomach turn as he thinks of all the different times and different ways the King had spoken it—in whispered adoration in the night, in sheer annoyance, in passionate cries, in worried exclamations.
And all he can muster in reply is, “Your Majesty?”, but the last bits of the word fall short, choked, rasped.
Arthur’s face softens at this, and he steps closer. Merlin can feel the tingle of his breath, can match it with the rise and fall of his chest, like a song. “You said you wouldn’t do this, Merlin,” he says softly, and when Merlin bites his lip, he adds, “You promised.”
The sensation of Arthur’s finger under Merlin’s chin, lifting it to meet his eyes, becomes too much. Two sets of deep blue eyes meet just for a moment before Merlin stumbles forward, meeting his desolation and Arthur’s body as he crashes into him, clutching at the fabric of the King’s cloak as if it’s the only thing he knows how to do.
“For God's sake, Merlin.” Arthur’s words are not of agitation or of anger—but of a genuine, desperate plea. “Don’t do this.”
Merlin’s muffled sobs are quiet. Resigned. And when he thinks he’s about to catch his breath, he feels Arthur’s fingers in his hair, and soon he’s shaking again, his muddled thoughts grasping at what was and what will never be.
“We’ve talked about this a dozen times,” Arthur says, and Merlin thinks he hears his voice break, “You know what’s best for the kingdom, and so do I. Our time together, Merlin . . . it’s done.”
It’s done. For a moment, Merlin forgets to breathe.
“You promised, Merlin,” Arthur says again, “You promised you would let go.”
And this is when Merlin looks up at his King, eyes shining.
“A few years ago,” he says, sounding hoarse and very, very broken, “I was given to you by your father, to give my word to serve you to the best of my ability. So I did. And since then, I’ve vowed many, many other things. To be loyal to you as a friend. To be loyal to Camelot. And along the way, I found myself promising my entire self to you. To love you with all I am.”
Arthur looks down at his shoes.
“I would lay down my life for you. At any cost.” Merlin leans up, his lips a breath away from Arthur’s ear. “But this? This, my King, that you ask of me . . .”
He closes his eyes, voice just above a whisper:
“This is a promise I cannot keep.”
And then Merlin turns and walks away, limbs tingling with the urge to go back, to fit into Arthur’s perfection like always. He thinks he hears Arthur call after him, but maybe it’s his imagination.
For all his mind and body’s screams to turn back again, Merlin forces his legs to move at a steady pace.
He keeps walking, tears and all.
But as his thoughts linger on the forlorn expression on his King’s face--sadness that seems to screech between them in the silence—Merlin doesn’t let go.
And this is a truth they both will always know, buried deep in the silent stone walls.