Somebody outside is yelling about the price of potatoes while the vendor defends himself. There's children laughing and shouting. A dog barks every once and a while. It all seeps into the silence inside that presses down somewhere around Elyan's ribs, but he can't bear to break it. Gwen keeps staring at him.
Elyan stares at the table. It's covered in nicks and stains from years of use; he can't recognize what's from childhood and what's new from the last four years. He did some menial work for a carpenter last year who'd go on for hours about grain direction and burls, taking obvious pride in his profession, though Elyan remembers very little of what he said. He remembers the work - the physical process of cutting and sculpting wood into something else. There was a muscle memory there, just like with all the odd jobs and temporary apprenticeships he'd picked up over the years. He'd been desperate to find a calling outside the choking heat of the smithy.
He remembers Father's hands on his, showing him how to hold the scalding iron so it wouldn't burn him or how to hammer the metal into shape. Elyan had never completed a single usable sword. Father always stood tall above him, always guiding him. He's been buried for two years and Elyan only started mourning him this morning. Gwen keeps looking at him.
"Where did you bury him?" He might as well have screamed it with how loud it sounds.
Gwen blinks. "Next to Mother, on that hill by the fields." She glances down at his hands on the table. Softly, she says, "I can show you. Later."
He imagines his little sister taking a shovel and making space in the ground for the man who raised her, with no family left to help lower him in. Her hands were calloused from a young age, helping Mother work as she nursed noble babes. Gwen is still so small to him. He remembers when she was born, all soft and warm in his arms. He swore he'd protect her, fragile as she was. Mother laughed and praised him for being such a good brother already.
He helped Father bury Mother when she passed. Gwen buried Father alone. Elyan's stomach hurts.
He says, "If I'd been there-"
"But you weren't," snaps Gwen. There's the hard look in her eyes again, her edges turned sharp. When Elyan finally found his way to her today, she'd been folding laundry by the training grounds, humming to herself. She seemed content. Happy, even. The look of his little sister at peace was a salve on his aching bones. The look on her face when she recognized him was a hot brand.
"I wasn't," he agrees. Gwen is still angry, but her eyes look teary, too. Elyan doesn't want to see her cry again today. He flounders for something to fix this. "You- Your hair. It's longer." She's got it in a little braid, with a deep blue ribbon weaved through. It looks nice.
Gwen purses her lips. "It is." Suddenly, she lets out a high wine, then gasps and covers her face.
Fuck. "Gwen-" Elyan goes to stand.
Elyan sits back down, heart crawling up his throat. His palms are itchy. He remembers when they were little and Gwen only needed hugs to feel better. He wants to do something, but he's been home for an hour and already made her cry twice. He thinks, miserably, that he's going to keep doing so. He can't remember the last time that he cried. Even when he'd been told what happened to Father, all he'd felt was loss before that hole was filled with an unfamiliar sort of rage. He pushed it down, but he's sure it will rise up again later. He still expects Father to come through the door at any minute. Maybe it'll hit him when he visits the grave.
Behind her hands, Gwen sniffles and sobs, before breathing very deeply. She eventually calms. When her hands drop, her expression is impassive, but her eyes are red-rimmed. Elyan is too afraid to say anything else.
Sunlight streams through the window. He can see the dust floating between them, visible in the light. Its easier to focus on that than Gwen's face. This time, she breaks the silence. "Four years, Elyan."
Elyan digs his nails into his palms. "Yes."
"I thought you were dead."
Elyan sneaks a glance up. Her mouth is all twisted, her arms wrapped around herself. All he can think to say is, "I'm sorry."
"You should be. Father didn't- He didn't know what to think, but he was always thinking about you." She sounds bitter. Elyan doesn't think he's ever heard her like this. "So was I. Every day."
"Of course you are." It's not said in spite. It's very matter-of-fact, but Gwen is angry and Elyan feels like shit.
"I should have been here." Elyan didn't want to be, but he should have. He regrets so many things, now. "I wasn't here, but I should have been and I'm sorry, Gwen, I really am."
Gwen says nothing. The dog starts barking again.
Elyan takes a deep breath of his own. There's nothing to ground himself with. The house is the same, but different. The bed's the same, but it's been moved. There's some wilting flowers in the window. A blue shirt and handkerchief are folded neatly in the laundry basket.
"Is it true?"
Elyan swallows. "I ran into people. They told me things. They said you were..." The words drag nails down his throat. "They said you were married."
Some of the tension slides from her shoulders. "Yes. Last spring."
"Ah." It comes out strangled.
"We had a hand-fasting ceremony. Gaius married us."
"I heard. I mean-" He'd gathered bits and pieces from everyone he ran into. They'd been married in the house. Gwen had flowers in her hair, a bright yellow to match her dress, and everyone who saw her that week said it was like watching the sun. The Lady Morgana had been in attendance, as had Prince Arthur himself, and the court physician had been very weepy about the whole thing. She'd married his nephew. His mother had traveled all the way from the border to be there. Elyan should've been there, too.
He clears his throat. "That's. Good. I'm glad."
Gwen hums. She shifts in her seat and her skirts rustle. She opens her mouth.
"Are you happy?" Elyan doesn't mean to interrupt. He doesn't mean for a lot of things, but here they are.
Gwen doesn't look like she's about to break into tears, at least. "Am I happy?"
Gwen looks out the window. Her skin glows in the light, while the ribbon in her hair shimmers. It might be silk. "Well," she says, fidgeting with her hands, "I'm very upset with you."
Elyan bites his tongue till it hurts.
"I'm very angry with you. I think I'll be angry for some time." She tilts her head to the side. "I sold the smithy two years ago for a good price and my work now is good. We have new linens. The flowers are nice this time of year; Merlin brings me new ones whenever the last ones wilt." She looks at the ones on the windowsill, lips quirked up. It's the first time she's smiled in Elyan's presence today. "He gets paid well, Arthur makes sure of it. He gave Merlin the day off last week, actually, and we went on a picnic. It was nice."
Elyan's throat feels very tight. "That's nice."
Gwen looks at him again. Her gaze is still piercing, but it's not so sharp. Her edges are softer. Elyan thinks again of Father guiding him around the forge, remembering that Gwen had been taught, too, before she acquired her maidservant position. She'd never made a good sword, either, but she always managed the metal better. "You'll need to keep apologizing."
"And I don't expect you to- To stay, or anything-"
"I'm staying." It's a big promise to make. Elyan has never been good at either. "I have a room at the inn already." He doesn't say, I didn't know if you'd want me around.
It's only now that he realizes he couldn't spend the night here, anyway, even if Gwen did welcome him back with open arms. Everything's been re-arranged in ways that he doesn't recognize, the memories that kept him going throughout his travels now shifted slightly to the left. He doesn't remember his house being so small. Does he even get to call it his, anymore? By all rights, it's Gwen's now. Her and her husband's.
Elyan should meet him, at some point. See who won his sister's heart. "I don't know for how long, but I'm... I'm planning on staying. At least through the summer."
Gwen nods. Her mouth is a little open, like she hadn't expected that. Elyan has so much to make up for. "Oh. Good." She wrings her hands together again. "Hunith - Merlin's mother. She's visiting us in a few months. Maybe you'll meet her."
Elyan's eyes water. No, don't do that, fuck. "I-"
The door opens behind him.
They both shoot to their feet, Gwen ramrod-straight. Elyan wipes his eyes, silently cursing himself for breaking now at the idea of meeting his mother-in-law, before turning to the doorway.
The man is... lanky. The personification of a beanpole. The red scarf around his neck fits him well, while his wide eyes dart between Elyan and Gwen. The hand not gripping the door is full of wildflowers.
"Merlin." Gwen says his name like she's releasing a held-breath, as if Elyan needed any more confirmation of who he is.
Merlin furrows his brow. "Gwen, is everything alright?"
She doesn't say anything. If she does anything, Elyan doesn't know, too busy watching his brother-in-law. She must make some kind of gesture because Merlin relaxes a bit, eyes snapping onto Elyan.
He steps forward. "You're Merlin, then. I've heard about you."
"You have?" Merlin lifts his chin a little. If he's trying to look intimidating, the flowers in his hand ruin it.
"Well, not before today. And I haven't heard much." He steels himself before holding a hand out. "I'm Elyan. I don't know if Gwen-"
"She's told me about you." Merlin calms again. He considers Elyan's hand. "I didn't think... It's a surprise to meet you."
"I know." Elyan resists the urge to look away. He wishes he could give a shovel-talk, but Merlin has more rights to defending his sister's honor than he does. "I'm glad to meet my brother-in-law. Congratulations, late as I am."
Merlin's eyes flicker to Gwen. Elyan wills his anxiety not to show. Whatever Merlin finds in Gwen makes him look back to Elyan with a smile and take his hand. "Thank you. Really. Your blessing means a lot."
Elyan doesn't know what to say to that. He just nods, giving Merlin's hand a firm shake before letting go. They all stand in awkward silence.
Elyan clears his throat. "I should go to the inn. Check on my things."
"You won't be staying here?" says Merlin, confusion on his face.
"No, I..." He glances at Gwen. She looks back, eyes very wide. Elyan leans down to grab his bag and doesn't look at either of them. "I already paid for the night. I'll see about the rest of the week, too."
"You don't have to- Oh, uh." Elyan glances up; Gwen and Merlin immediately cut off their nonverbal conversation made up of hand gestures and distressed faces. "Well. Uh. Good luck with that, then?"
"Right," says Elyan, standing up. "Thank you. If you need me, I'm the second room to the left. First floor." He looks at Gwen.
She bites her lip and nods. "Right."
"Right," says Merlin, sounding very unsure. He steps away from the still-open door. "You know where to find us." He's looking at Gwen, too, trying to communicate something with his face. Elyan has no idea what he's saying. He's still holding the damned flowers.
"Yes, yeah. Good afternoon, then." He re-adjusts his bag and walks out the door, Merlin closing it behind him.
It's nearly shut when Gwen says, "See you!"
He looks back. Through the crack the in the door, he sees Gwen four years ago, crying behind Father as she watches her only brother leave home. She isn't crying now. Her face is so open.
Elyan grips his bag tighter. "Yeah. I'll see you."
Gwen nods. There's a smile and a frown warring on her face, but either way, she looks close to tears again.
Elyan walks away. There's a soft thud of wood as the door shuts behind him; a hushed, "Oh, Gwen," and a wet, "No, it's okay, I'm fine, I'm fine."
The kids have stopped playing now, while the dog lazes in the shade of its owner's house, waiting for another intruder or bird to start barking again. Elyan glances back at the house. The outside isn't any different than he remembers it, but through the window he can see Gwen and Merlin embracing, his hands rubbing up and down her back. Elyan feels like he's intruding.
He starts walking toward the inn. He remembers Gwen's offer to show him Father's grave. He doesn't need it; he remembers the walk to Mother's, even after all this time, and could go there on his own now if he wanted.
It would be nice, though, if he went with Gwen. They could follow that path together. They could talk about their childhood or they could walk in silence. They could sit by Father's grave. Elyan could apologize. They could grieve together, like they should have in the first place. Maybe Gwen could tell him more about her husband, what made him so special that the Prince of Camelot had given them his blessing.
It's all going to hit him sooner rather than later, he knows. When it finally hits him - that Father is gone, that Gwen has grown up, that his house isn't his home anymore - he'll break down. He can handle that, though. He will. Gwen handled the brunt of it all on her own; Elyan can handle the consequences of not being there with her.
He has so much to make up for. Gwen's giving him a chance to do so. He won't let her down again.