- Rain -
Arthur knew something was off when Merlin hadn't protested about being dragged along on a hunt that day.
No, scrap that. He knew something was off since he woke up. Merlin hadn't said anything to him at all, yanking open the curtains without a word, and leaving his breakfast on his table before walking out again silently. Arthur had half a mind to call him back, but what would he say? It's bothering me that you're not talking to me at all, please tell me what's wrong?
It was a mixture of pride, stubbornness, and confusion that left Arthur staring mutely as Merlin walked out of the door.
The morning had passed in a thick, uncomfortable silence broken only by Arthur's occasional orders and Merlin answering him simply, never saying more than a few words. It was so out of the ordinary, even the passing servants and guards had given the two of them odd looks, no doubt noticing the lack of arguing and banter that usually accompanied them wherever they went.
It ended up bothering him so much, he caught Gwen as she passed him in the corridor, and asked him if something had happened to Merlin that he hadn't told him about.
"Not that I know of," she had said, adjusting the basket of laundry on her hip, and frowned. "But he usually ... he does get sad, around this time of the year. Maybe something happened in the past? He is quite secretive."
Secretive, Arthur had almost laughed. Then he realised he actually knew next to nothing about Merlin.
"You can't think of ... anything, that might have happened?" he pressed. Gwen just shook her head.
"Did he complain to you about me? I don't give him that many chores, surely?"
"No, Arthur," Gwen reassured him, smiling. "He hasn't said anything about you. Maybe just ask him? He might talk to you."
"Right," Arthur said, trying his best not to look crestfallen. "I'll do that, then."
Even now, riding out with the rest of his knights, everything felt weird. Merlin had ridden beside him, as usual, but did so silently, pulling his hood over his head as the rain started softly pattering down without a word. It didn't seem like he was ignoring him on purpose, now that Arthur had a chance to properly observe him. Merlin probably couldn't be mean to someone even if he tried. (He and Gwen were similar in that way.) It was more like he was distracted, thinking so deeply about something else that he forgot to address Arthur and everyone else around him.
The rain became heavier, turning the dry soil and undergrowth to mud.
"You've been quiet," Arthur tried, once they'd ridden a little further away from the rest of the knights. Merlin made a small noise of acknowledgement. "Something bothering you?"
"Nothing you can help with," replied Merlin. He raised his head, staring at the raindrops falling from the sky. "Don't worry too much. You'll hurt yourself."
"I'm not worrying."
"So you asked Gwen if she knew what was bothering me ... because you weren't worried?"
Arthur huffed, rolling his eyes. Guinevere, I trusted you. How could you betray me? "... Yes."
But then Merlin had turned to face him, giving him a hint of a smile. The first he'd seen today. Even though Merlin still wouldn't tell him what was wrong, and Arthur still maybe felt somewhat bitter about that, he had regained a sense of normality. And that counted towards something.
The rain lessened to a drizzle, covering the forest in a feather-light sheet of water, but didn't stop.
"A lake," Leon pointed out. "We can stop here, wait for the rain to stop. Fill up our waterskins."
Arthur had agreed without really registering Leon's request, more focused on the unnervingly sorrowful way that Merlin was staring at the lake. What had the lake done to him? There was definitely something here that Arthur was missing. In fact, it seemed like whenever it came to Merlin, Arthur was always missing something. He didn't like the feeling of being left out of the loop, whatever the loop was.
Merlin gathered the waterskins and headed over to the side of the lake, while the knights settled underneath a large oak and started stripping off the heaviest bits of armour. Arthur fumbled with his shoulder straps - they had always been the hardest bit of armour to remove by himself, requiring a lot of awkward flexibility that he didn't really have - and automatically turned towards Merlin, an order on his lips, before faltering.
It was raining, so they were all drenched. But he was pretty certain that the wetness on Merlin's face was tears.
Without thinking, he had already half-risen to his feet, his armour dangling off one shoulder - why was he crying? Was he hurt? - before he caught Leon giving him a questioning look. He sat down again, suppressing the urge to walk over to the lakeside and ask Merlin what was wrong, and watched out of the corner of his eye as Merlin hastily wiped his face, seemingly said something to the lake surface that he couldn't hear, and stood up, gathering the freshly filled waterskins in his arms and walking back towards them. Silently, Arthur took the waterskin handed to him.
It wasn't until later that evening, when the knights were busy arguing over the best places to set up the tents, when Arthur finally decided to talk to Merlin. He found his manservant crouching at the side of the lake, sheltered just barely from the rain by an overhanging oak tree, a hand submerged in the water. Arthur took a seat next to him.
"Something's bothering you," he said. It wasn't a question, and Merlin smiled ruefully, like he could tell.
"Like I said," Merlin replied. "Nothing you can help with."
"You could talk to me," said Arthur, internally wincing at how sentimental he was coming across. "That might help. You're sad. Talking about it might ... I don't know. Make you less sad?"
"You're terrible at this."
Arthur shoved Merlin half-heartedly with his shoulder. "Shut up."
They sat in silence for a few more minutes. Merlin took his hand out of the water, but he didn't dry it off, simply watching as the water droplets ran down in tiny rivulets between the small valleys in his palms.
"I knew a ... girl," Merlin said hesitantly. Arthur made a small noise, prompting him to speak further. "Her name was Freya. We, um, met under strange circumstances. But it didn't matter to us - who she was, who I was. She was ... special, in a way that nobody else was. I think I was the only one who saw that in her."
"You loved her?" said Arthur, gently. Merlin nodded, letting the steadily pattering rain speak for him.
"We talked about running away," continued Merlin, and he kept his gaze fixed on the ground. "From Camelot. She wouldn't be happy there, and I wanted her to be happy, to be safe. I mean - Camelot is my home, and it's where all my friends are - where you are - but ..."
The rain increased, thundering heavily down onto the mud and sand of the lakeshore.
"Why didn't you go?" Arthur asked. The revelation that Merlin almost left, Merlin, did shake him a little more than he would have liked to admit. But the way that Merlin was talking, the heavy sorrow ... "Did ... did something go wrong?"
"You could say that." Merlin picked at the damp grass next to his feet. "She died. It was a while ago, but ... today was the day she died. That was ... that was why I was so off, today. Sorry about that," he added wryly, and Arthur shook his head.
"You were grieving. I understand. Do you ... do you want me to give you the day off? I could ask George to -"
"No," said Merlin, scrunching up his face. "No, it's fine. Really. George - no. And besides, the work keeps me busy. Helps keep my mind off it."
Grinning, Arthur patted Merlin on the shoulder. "Glad to hear it," he said. "And ... I'm sorry. About your loss."
"I'm sorry too," said Merlin, giving him a small smile. "You're not actually terrible at this. You're a pretty good listener - when you're not redirecting the conversation to yourself, and boasting about your sword skills, or about your pointlessly large number of hunting dogs that we never actually seem to ever bring on a hunt -"
Arthur hit him lightly. "Shut up, Merlin. Come on, let's get back to the others - I don't trust my knights to know how to make dinner."
As they trudged back through the muddy shore towards the campsite, Arthur noted absent-mindedly that the rain had stopped.
- Sunshine -
Arthur wasn't sure what exactly they were laughing at. Maybe it had been one of Merlin's bad jokes, or a piece of noble gossip Arthur had picked up on during one of the royal feasts, or the clumsiness that caused Merlin to trip and fall into a muddy puddles and end up scaring away the game repeatedly. He didn't exactly remember.
But they had taken one look at each other, and both burst out laughing. The birds had taken to the sky in alarm, and there was a soft rustling in the undergrowth that told Arthur a wild animal that they could have shot had just escaped, but it didn't matter. This time, it was just the two of them on the hunt, no knights, no other nobles. There was nobody to put up a facade in front of, nobody to tell him how to act. Arthur could talk and laugh and say what he wanted with Merlin, without consequence, not as a noble and a prince but as a friend.
Not that he would ever say that out loud, though.
Undignified, a part of him whispered, in a voice that sounded suspiciously like Uther's. Unseemly. Unkingly.
The dazzling sound of Merlin's laughter drowned out the voice.
Almost as if the sky had heard them, the thick blanket of clouds above had parted, and a bright, warm shafts of sunlight spilled over the forest clearing they were crouching in, flooding the area with a soft, golden light. Merlin had finally managed to stop laughing long enough to get his breathing back to normal, and nudged Arthur. He pointed up at the sky.
"Look," he said, happily. "A rainbow."
Arthur followed his gaze, and saw the scattering of colours, dappled across the blue clouds.
"It's not raining, though," he said, confused. Merlin laughed.
"Does it matter? It's still pretty."
The rest of the skies were still smothered in a blanket of grey, but overhead, there was a small circle of blue sky and sunlight that followed them all the way back to Camelot.
- Clouds -
Arthur hadn't seen Merlin all day.
There was nothing wrong with that. He had snagged the nearest passing servant in the corridor and made the boy bring him his lunch. He had managed to dress himself in his chambers, and had Leon's squire put on his armour before training. George had taken care of his laundry. He could handle himself. He didn't need to know where Merlin was.
He stared aggressively down at the blank roll of parchment he was meant to be writing on.
"Have you seen Merlin?" he asked Gwen, as she bent down to pick a spare tunic off his floor.
Gwen raised her eyebrows. "He's working, sire."
"Working? On what? The skill of being lazy?" Arthur fiddled with the quill grumpily. The stupid speech wasn't going to write itself, but Arthur sure as hell wasn't going to write it either.
Then Gwen gave him an odd look. "No, sire. You gave him, and I quote, "Enough chores to last me until I've got more joint problems than Gaius and Uther combined"." A faintly amused look crossed her face as Arthur spluttered something along the lines of "My father does not have joint problems!".
"I saw him last in the stables," she said eventually, once Arthur calmed down. "Um - should I summon him for you?"
Arthur groaned, and put down the quill. At least I can put this off for later.
"No," he said. "I'll get him myself."
Arthur stared up at the sky in confusion.
It was a hot, clear day. Hot enough that Arthur had switched out his normal tunic for a thinner one more suited for summer. The sun was shining, the courtyards filled with light, and the sky was as wide and blue as ever.
Except, apparently, the stables.
It was so ... strange. It was like all the clouds in the sky had been pulled and condensed into that one location, forming a thick, heavy blanket of gloomy grey over the stables. The horses seemed unaffected, peering over the doors as Arthur walked by, still squinting suspiciously at the small patch of dense clouds in an otherwise clear sky. It took him several tries until he found the stall with Merlin in it. He paused, watching as Merlin grumbled something under his breath as he brushed the horse's coat, something that sounded suspiciously like "- stupid prat and his stupid chores and his stupid irresponsible unreasonable requests -"
Arthur coughed pointedly, and Merlin dropped the brush. The horse eyed him, munching thoughtfully.
"You didn't show up to bring me lunch," Arthur said as a greeting, and Merlin said nothing, scowling and picking up the brush again. "You also didn't turn up to get me dressed and prepared for training. Or to clean my chambers."
"I noticed," Merlin replied sarcastically, and there was a slight edge to his voice that told Arthur that maybe he should tone it down a bit. He opened the stable door a crack, slipping into the stall. Merlin stubbornly didn't turn around, continuing to untangle the knots in the horse's mane.
Arthur stood in the straw, suddenly feeling rather out of place. "Gwen told me you were busy with chores."
"Might I remind who exactly who gave me those chores, then?" Merlin replied, annoyed. Arthur frowns.
"I told you, you can't talk to me like that -"
"And I told you," said Merlin, huffing, "There are only twenty-four hours in a day, and I need at least one hour of sleep, and I have only two sets of arms and two hands and I cannot do everything you want me to do, when you want me to do it."
One hour of sleep sounded a bit ... unhealthy. Arthur looked at Merlin, and noticed rather belatedly the way he looked like he was seconds away from falling asleep on his feet.
"That is ... sort of the definition of a manservant's job," he chose to say instead. Merlin rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to the horse. Outside, the clouds seemed to thicken even more, casting a dull, dreary shadow over the stables. It didn't do much to help the mood. Arthur glares at the clouds, wanting to evaporate them somehow with his mind. Why can't you be as nice and blue as the rest of the sky?
In answer, the clouds rolled over and darkened further. Arthur gave up trying to control the weather with his mind and settled with attempting to placate Merlin.
"Fine," he said. "I'll get that new stablehand to finish with the horses, and George can do the rest of your work - goodness knows he's always tying to get me to give him more to do."
Merlin didn't laugh, but the corner of his mouth twitched up slightly, so Arthur counted that as a win.
"I told you he was a bootlicker."
Arthur huffed. "At least he's efficient. Like how servants are supposed to be. Not that you would know, Merlin."
"Right. Like how you're supposed to be able to write your own speeches, but you always have me write them instead because I, a servant and a peasant commoner, am more literate than you."
Whoops. Arthur shrugged, avoiding Merlin's scolding gaze. "Come on, Merlin. I let you off the rest of these chores, didn't I? And it's for tomorrow."
Somewhere in his mind, Arthur thought, I'm a prince. I shouldn't be bargaining with my manservant to get him to do stuff for me. He's supposed to do it without questioning, because he has to.
Merlin put the brush away and turned to face him, unimpressed, with his hands on his hips. Arthur glanced at him, and figured, Right. When has anything ever made sense when it came to him?
"Fine," Merlin said. "Only because I know you can't be bothered to carry me all the way to Gaius if I pass out from exhaustion." But Merlin had given him a wry grin, followed Arthur back up to his chambers, and snatched the quill and roll of parchment anyway. When Arthur looked out of the window again, the sounds of the quill scratching and Merlin's mumbling filling the silence of the room, the thick, gloomy clouds that hung above the stables only mere minutes ago were gone.
"Weird weather," he commented off-handedly. Merlin choked.
Arthur gave him a strange look, nudging his goblet of wine towards his manservant. "Don't die. I still need that speech written."
"Yeah," Merlin had gasped out, suddenly very intent on avoiding Arthur's gaze. "Weird, huh?"
He didn't speak again until he finished.
If Arthur didn't know any better, he would think that Merlin was a controlled the weather. (He doesn't, of course, because nobody can control the weather, and if anyone could, it would be a sorcerer, and Merlin isn't a sorcerer. But still.)
It's almost uncanny, the way that the clouds seem to work around his manservant. Just that morning, when Arthur had sent Merlin down to polish his armour (for the second time that day), the skies had been thick and grey and raining heavily, courtesy to the normal English winter, and Arthur watched from his bedroom window in amusement as the tiny figure of Merlin came to a stop on the castle steps, his annoyance visible even from the distance. The tiny figure loitered on the steps, pacing up and down in an obviously disgruntled way, and Arthur bit back a laugh.
Then a sudden wind rolled in, and the rain clouds shifted almost too quickly. The first bit of sunlight that day broke through, bathing the courtyard in a warm light. Merlin - and the guards and servants at the castle doors - looked up. It was still raining, heavily, but only on one half of the courtyard. Arthur squinted up at the clouds, and saw that somehow, miraculously, the edge of the rain cloud had come to a stop, sparing just enough of the courtyard for a small path of now dry cobblestone to lead all the way to the armoury. The tiny figure down in the courtyard that was Merlin stared up at the clouds in what Arthur guessed was befuddlement, before shrugging and taking off towards the armoury, running with his arms over his head in case the rain clouds decided that they actually liked raining on the entire courtyard and not just half.
Arthur huffed, crossing his arms and watching as his manservant rounded a corner and disappeared from sight.
Lucky, he had thought.
Another time, a few months before, when Camelot was reaching almost deadly levels of heat in the peak of summer, something similarly bizarre had happened. Arthur had taken a few of his knights and Merlin out on a hunt, unable to bear the frantic council members and shouting nobles, in the hopes that they would have cooled their heads, literally and metaphorically, by the time he returned.
Hunting in the summer heat was not particularly a good idea. Merlin had badgered him into wearing his armour, minimal as it was ( "At least take a chestplate and pauldron, Arthur, they're not that heavy, and goodness knows how many times we've run into bandits during your stupid hunts -") and even though it barely covered the thin tunic he was wearing, they seemed to have heated to temperatures hotter than a blacksmith's furnace. None of the knights were saying anything, but Arthur only had to take one look at their faces, red and damp with sweat, to come to the conclusion that they were having a similarly uncomfortable experience. (Sir Leon, god forbid, had somehow managed to fully suit up and wear his red cloak. On another day, Arthur would have admired his neatness and dedication, but at that moment, Arthur was sure that if anyone was going to pass out from heatstroke first, it would be Leon.)
None of them were even looking out for wild game, their sun-strained eyes only looking for the tallest, thickest tree in the forest in hopes that it would offer some shade from the summer heat.
And yet, there was one member of their party who seemed to be suffering no consequences. Merlin, dressed in the same ragged brown jacket and red tunic that he wore all year round (how he didn't freeze in winter, Arthur never knew - perhaps he should order him to buy a suitable cloak) seemed perfectly fine - he was even wearing the faded blue neckerchief. His dark hair was fluttering, like he was riding into a light breeze, but Arthur, who was riding directly next to him, felt nothing other than the still, humid, hot air.
At first, Arthur had passed it off. They were riding on a particularly rough patch of forest, with a million little hills and dips that caused the horses to bob up and down with every step, so the way that Merlin's hair and clothes were flapping slightly could have just been to his horse's movement. But even when they had taken a turn and found themselves on a flat, grassy hillside, the invisible breeze was still there.
A strange sort of breeze, to be small enough to only ever blow on one member of their group, and yet still be strong enough to allow Merlin to ride comfortably, without the discomfort of the heat that the rest of them were feeling.
Arthur watched him in confusion.
Later, when the knights had taken up their favourite pastime of teasing Merlin as he cleaned up, a sudden sort of mist had rolled in out of nowhere. Fog didn't usually form in the summer in the middle of the day, and Arthur had looked on in perplexment as Merlin stared at the fog in befuddlement, then grabbed the empty pots and ran into the fog to hide from the knight's banter.
"Strange weather," Gwaine commented, waving his hand through the air. From inside the mist, Arthur heard a distinct clanging noise of Merlin dropping one of the pots, and he rolled his eyes.
"You can't hide in there forever, Merlin," he called. "Come out and face us like a man."
Through the fog, Arthur heard a muffled voice yelling at him.
"I can do whatever I want, and I'm going to hide in this conveniently placed fog until you stop teasing me!"
The fog only dissipated at sundown.
- Thunder -
Arthur dragged him all the way out of the village, behind an empty house, before the rest of the villagers could process Merlin's outburst and start trying to throw rocks at him, too.
"Look," he said carefully, once he was certain that they were out of earshot. "I understand that it was wrong for them to try and hurt the girl for what she did, something that was probably accidental. But these people have seen all the bad that magic has done, and they've likely heard about all the sorcerers who tried to overthrow Camelot, so it's only understandable -"
The speech had the exact opposite effect that Arthur wanted. Merlin ripped his arm out of his grip, stumbling a few steps back and glaring at him with an anger that Arthur didn't think he'd ever seen before. Distantly, the skies rumbled, turning metal-grey and rolling in rapidly, ominous and dark.
"Most of those sorcerers weren't even trying to overthrow Camelot!" he hissed. "They were trying to get revenge on the man who ordered the mass genocide of their people, the murderer of their families and their children -" Merlin cut off abruptly, his eyes flicking towards Arthur, seemingly gauging his reaction at his outburst. Arthur kept his face carefully blank, and Merlin drooped, sighing.
"Look," said Merlin tiredly. "I'm just - I'm so sick of it. So many people - adults, even children, like her - have died pointlessly for something that might not even happen. That's like - that's like killing every knight in the land because their skill with a sword might one day be used to assassinate the king. It's not right."
Arthur fights to keep the growing horror off his face. Merlin never really saw things the way he did, he knew that. Whether it was a combination of their different backgrounds, their statuses and experiences, he didn't know. It hadn't really mattered, before - if anything, he had been glad to have Merlin there, with a different perspective, a fresh set of ideas, another point of view. But this time ...
Arthur stepped forward, taking a quick glance around him and lowering his voice.
"You realise," he said quietly, "You are coming dangerously close to being a magic sympathiser, Merlin. I don't want to do this, but if you continue talking about magic in this way, it'll be treason -"
- and I'll have to punish you under my own laws, because I am the king. Arthur swallowed the sick feeling in his throat, and watches as Merlin raised his head, defiant.
"It'll be treason against the laws your father made, Arthur." Merlin's voice was steely, quiet, and Arthur remembered helplessly how hard Merlin always tried to stay true to his beliefs. "I don't serve Uther. And you - you are a king of your own right, you are not a puppet king of a man whose reign has already passed. Don't blindly follow your father's ghost, Arthur. Think. What is right?"
Right? Arthur thought in confusion. Law is right. Magic is wrong. Wasn't it?
Merlin held his gaze for a few, long moments, then spun around and disappeared around the corner, leaving Arthur standing alone, barely daring to think that he might have been wrong. Above the village, the clouds gathered, angry grey and filled with shadow. Enraged, the thunder roared.
- Snow -
It's winter, so snow wasn't unusual. The fires needed to burn for longer, the firewood supply in the castle rapidly diminishing as the normally chilly draughts of air through the stone corridors grew freezing. The air had been growing colder, and the residents of the lower town were starting to wake up to a thin layer of ice coating their windows, and Arthur knew that it was only a matter of time before the first snow would come.
He just didn't expect the first snow to be so ... small.
The sky was bleak, but the clouds didn't seem heavy enough to form snow. And snow usually fell on a wide area, at least several villages large.
Not just on the tiny patch of grass around his manservant.
Arthur had stopped short when he saw. He'd been wandering around the castle grounds, looking for the idiot - not that he had anything to do, he'd escaped Arthur's bedchambers that morning before he had time to load him with the usual chores - but, annoyingly, Arthur didn't feel right unless he knew where Merlin was. He searched the castle first, because he didn't assume Merlin was stupid enough to hang about outside, when the weather was clearly growing too cold to walk around in without a cloak. And Merlin never wore a cloak.
Of course he was stupid enough to go outside, when it was freezing. Arthur huffed, preparing to march over to his manservant and drag him back inside the castle to ... wash dishes, or whatever he did in his spare time, when he saw the little specks of white around where Merlin sat, leaning against the castle walls and staring blankly at the ground. Snow.
Arthur blinked several times, squinting at the white stuff. That was definitely snow. Now that he looked closely, there were snowflakes drifting through the air around Merlin's head, settling on his dark hair like a makeshift crown.
Arthur walked out from the shadows towards him, his footsteps causing Merlin to jerk his head up and catch sight of him. Instead of scrambling to his feet with some poorly formed excuse on his lips, which was what Arthur had expected, Merlin just sagged back against the wall with a sigh, turning his gaze back to the idly dancing snowflakes. There was an odd expression on his face, one Arthur couldn't quite place for a few moments, and he stared at his manservant in a mixture of annoyance, confusion, and concern, before he realised.
It was sadness.
Okay, now Arthur was seriously worried.
"Got nothing to do, have you?" He said, breaking the increasingly uncomfortable silence. He meant for the sentence to sound annoyed - probably - but he ended up saying it softer than he expected. Whoops.
Merlin made a small noise of agreement.
"Everything's done," he said quietly. "All finished."
Somehow, Arthur wasn't sure whether Merlin was referring to his chores. But that was absurd. What else could he be referring to?
Merlin's forlorn look was really bugging him now. Arthur mentally argued with himself for a few seconds, before deciding that there was nobody around to see them, anyway, and Merlin looking like a kicked puppy did make him feel uncomfortable, even though it really shouldn't. He walked over to the wall, and sat down next to Merlin, just out of reach of that weirdly placed snow. Did Merlin purposely sit underneath the only, tiny snowcloud in Camelot?
"Something's bothering you," he said. It wasn't a question, not really, but Merlin gave him a look like he heard the undercurrent of tell me what's wrong all the same. He made a face like he's trying to smile, but forgot how to.
"Nothing, really," Merlin replied. Arthur mentally rolled his eyes. As if. "I just ... I was remembering."
Mourning, his expression said. Arthur opened his mouth to say something, then realised he didn't know what to say.
This is none of your business, he told himself firmly. Merlin's past is none of your business. Don't ask about the people in his life. Stay out of it.
"Who were you remembering?" Arthur said, and inwardly groaned. That's not staying out of it.
But Merlin was looking so ... so sad, and it's not a look Arthur likes on his manservant at all. He should be happy, laughing in that annoying way of his and engaging in that very-not-respectful but still-enjoyable banter with Arthur. Not looking so much sadder and older than any boy his age should look. It felt all wrong.
Merlin pauses, seemingly struggling to answer. Briefly, Arthur wonders if he couldn't remember who he was mourning. Then it occurs to him that maybe he lost more than one person, and was deciding who to say. That thought was even worse.
"Freya," he said eventually. "Will. My father."
Will, the sorcerer friend from Ealdor. Arthur remembered him. But the others ...
"I thought you never knew your father," he said, frowning. "Did you ..."?
"I met him shortly before he died," Merlin confirmed. He doesn't say any more about his father, and Arthur doesn't ask. He can't help but be curious, though.
Stop prying. Stop prying. How hard was it to keep quiet during the one time where he needed to be respectful and give Merlin some space? Arthur was mentally hitting himself over the head, but paused when Merlin suddenly smiled. A small, wistful, barely-there smile, but a smile all the same.
"I'm just glad I knew them at all."
That's all that Merlin said. Arthur, thankfully, managed to keep his mouth shut this time. There's no guards around, Arthur told himself, and they're still inside the castle grounds so there's no villagers nearby. So it's fine if he just sits with Merlin for a while. Not as a royal master and a servant, but maybe, as friends.
The snow continued to fall, but it's slightly lighter. White flakes swirl through the air, carrying a strange, distant scent of sorrow. Loneliness. It reflected everything in Merlin's eyes, and Arthur couldn't stop himself staring.
"You're lonely," he said, slowly, quietly. Merlin raised his head again, and looked at him in surprise.
"Arthur, you're not supposed to be perceptive."
Arthur ignores the feeble joke. "Why?" He said, and angrily shoved the hurt out of his voice, because it was none of his business if Merlin was lonely, it really wasn't, but it still hurt, because - "You're not alone. You have Gaius, Gwen, the knights ... you have me."
In the back of his mind, Arthur remembered a conversation, from years ago, lying on the hard floor of a peasant village home, talking quietly in the dark.
"I just didn't fit in anymore. I wanted to find somewhere that I did."
"Had any luck?"
He had been hopeful, then. He wasn't sure why.
"I'm not sure yet."
He was lying to himself. He knew exactly why.
"I know," said Merlin, picking at the grass at his feet. "And I'm grateful, I really am. But ... you don't ... know me."
Arthur almost scoffed. Him? Not know Merlin? Merlin, who he spent more time with than his father, than his knights? Merlin, who failed to keep the easiest secrets and couldn't tell a lie to save his life?
"I know you," he protested. We're friends, he didn't say out loud.
"You don't know me," Merlin repeated. He hesitated. "Will ... Will knew me. My father knew me."
But you don't know me.
Arthur turned away, in a vain sort of hope that maybe Merlin wouldn't see the hurt on his face. (Merlin didn't, still staring unhappily at the snow-laden ground.) What didn't he know? What couldn't Merlin tell him? A secret, secret enough for Will and Merlin's father to know, but not him. Not anyone from Camelot. Not him. And why? Was it something really so terrible, so awful that Merlin couldn't tell him? Arthur told Merlin things. Granted, he didn't often tell him much, but he trusted Merlin with his past. Why couldn't Merlin trust him with his?
The snow began to fall a little more thickly.
He squinted at the snow in the grass. Somehow, it managed to fall on top of them and nowhere else. A few feet away from him and Merlin, the grass was completely snow-free. That's odd.
Snow doesn't usually do that.
Arthur's not a farmer who can sense rain coming from days away, but he wasn't stupid. He knew snow shouldn't fall like that. He knew it didn't fall like that.
He looked at Merlin, and the tiny snow cloud drifting above his head. Then back at the snow, settling like a delicate layer of white sugar atop the grass around them, but nowhere else.
"You don't know me."
Arthur was coming to a conclusion he wasn't sure he wanted to come to.
"I just didn't fit in anymore."
Magic, the snowflakes whispered. Secrets. Sadness. Lonely.
Arthur jerked upright, and beside him, Merlin startled.
Oh, god. Arthur was blind. He was blind. And stupid. Very stupid. It was right there. Everything - everything was right there, and he -
Merlin waved his hand in front of his face, frowning, his previous sadness somewhat forgotten in face of his confusion.
"Arthur, what's wrong?"
Arthur flinched away from his hand, and Merlin froze.
Merlin looked at him, lost.
"You - you - "
He looked even more lost.
"Me?" Merlin questioned. Arthur looked at him, really looked at him, the face of the sorcerer and liar and criminal and friend. Shaking his head, he settled back down against the wall, gingerly touching the magical snow. He half expected it to burn, scorch his skin and hurt him in ways sorcerers always try to do.
The snow was crisp and cold and clean, crumbling without resistance under his hands.
Arthur made up his mind.
No, he mused silently. He had made up his mind long ago.
"I do know you," he said again. He gathered a handful of snow in his palms, held it up, and looked Merlin in the eye. "I do. Magic and all. I know you."
He waited patiently for the frozen shock on Merlin's face to thaw. It did, eventually, and then started giving way to terror. The snow started swirling thicker, the temperature around them plummeting, and Arthur's heart skips a beat.
"Wait," he said, dropping the snow and reaching out. "It's not - I'm not angry. I'm not. Merlin -" he grabbed Merlin's wrist, tugged it incessantly until Merlin raised his fearful eyes to his own. "I get why you did it. Why you were scared. And I - I don't know why you would - do magic, I mean - but I know you, and I know you wouldn't just ... do something like this without good reason." He took a breath, waiting, watching.
Merlin finally stopped trembling, and offered him a hopeful look. "I was born with it," he said.
That's not possible, Arthur almost said, but he takes one look at Merlin's face, and the words die on his tongue. It's always like this. With Merlin, everything becomes possible.
What's one more world view changed by his only friend?
"That's a good reason as any," he replied, and he didn't say it, but there's a reassurance, a forgiveness, a silent promise of you can trust me in his voice that he didn't bother to hide. Merlin smiled, his face lighting up with relief and delight and love.
Around them, the snowflakes stopped falling, and the clouds above them disappeared. The last of the snow, nestled deep into the cracks between the frozen blades of grass, thawed and turned to water under the warmth of the winter sun.