Merlin looked at Gwen as she walked across the courtyard. He had noticed that she was acting strange lately, standoffish, sad and isolated and it worried him. He didn't know what to do or if he should ask but her mood was on his mind constantly. His eyes stayed glued on her as she walked up the stairs and into the castle until his view was obstructed by chainmail and red fabric. He looked up to see Leon, Gwaine, Elyan, Percival and Lancelot staring at him.
"What's going on?" He asked them.
"Gwaine's decided that he doesn't treasure his arm very much." Lancelot announced, leaving Merlin confused.
"He's challenged Percival to an arm wrestle." Elyan explained to which Merlin scoffed.
"What? You don't think I can win?" Gwaine asked.
"It's not that I don't think you can win, it's that I know you can't." Merlin told him, causing Gwaine to pout and the others to laugh.
"Talk about ye of little faith." Gwaine grumbled.
"We're going to the tavern to watch him lose, maybe even break his arm. You coming with, Merlin?" Leon asked jokingly.
"Hmm... I don't know."
"Why? Afraid of being proven wrong when I beat Percival?" Gwaine said teasingly, patting Percival on his broad back.
"One: that'll never happen and if you come to Gaius' with your arm broken in half, I'll laugh and say 'I told you so'. Two: I'm just worried about Gwen."
"What's wrong with her?"
"Is she hurt?"
"Did something happen to her?"
"Did Arthur do something?"
"Where is she?"
"Is it Morgana and Morgause?"
"What did they do?"
Merlin rubbed his temples as Leon, Lancelot, Gwaine and Elyan bombarded him with concerned questions for Gwen.
"Guys, if Gwen was hurt do you think I'd be sitting here?" The four knights saw the logic in this and looked down a little embarrassed. Ever since they took back Camelot together the knights, Arthur, Merlin, Gwen and Gaius had all gotten closer and looked at each other as family. They saw Gaius as a father/grandfather figure, the knights, Arthur and even Merlin were as brothers and Merlin and the knights looked at Gwen as their sister (even though Lancelot would admit to lingering feelings but he knew Gwen and Arthur were going strong. They loved each other fiercely and he knew he made the best decision for Gwen when he left the second time.)
"Are you talking about her being sad and withdrawn lately?" Percival asked in his usual quiet tone. The man looked imposing but he was really the most gentle and caring man anyone had ever met. He was mostly quiet but when he spoke it always showed how observant and smart he was, a lot of time that used to be wasted during council meetings or strategizing with the knights was cut in half thanks to Percival's quick mind and deductive ability.
"Gwen's been looking upset lately, more than usual, and I don't know what's wrong with her. Have any of you besides Percival noticed?" Merlin asked. looking to the knights.
"She's been quiet lately, but I chalked it up to Morgana's betrayal." Leon said.
"Now that you mention it, she didn't even laugh when I flirted with her this week." Gwaine said pensively.
"I've barely seen her this week but from what I saw she did look sad." Lancelot commented, leaving out that he was avoiding her.
"She's really quiet around the house and doesn't even say anything about how her day went." Elyan added.
"Maybe we should do something nice for her." Percival suggested.
"We'll see. I'll probably just talk to her, you guys go ahead." Merlin advised. The knights were a little reluctant now but left Merlin to his thoughts.
As predicted, Gwaine lost but managed to escape a broken arm by Percival's good nature.
"Now that the inevitable has happened, what do we do about Gwen?" Lancelot asked.
"I'm going to take the champion's advice and do something to cheer her up. I am her best friend afterall." Gwaine said, swishing his head to the side as he chugged his tankard of ale. Leon scoffed at that.
"I'm definitely Gwen's best friend, she's known me for ages." Leon protested.
"Known you for ages, I'm her brother. I'm her first and best friend." Elyan butted in. Lancelot and Percival shook their heads as the three continued to argue who Gwen's best friend was. Soon enough the three decided to do the only logical thing their inebriated minds could come up with: they would compete to see who would cheer Gwen up the most. Lancelot and Percival could see this ending badly but they were inebriated too so instead of telling them what a bad idea it was, they did the next best thing: placed bets on who would win.
The next day, Merlin was walking down the hallway still thinking of Gwen. He never got a chance to speak to Gwen because Arthur had him running in circles and Gwen was busy attending to Uther. He still speculated what was wrong with her: was it Morgana or Arthur or something else entirely? Merlin's heart jumped in his chest and he screamed a little when a hand shot out from an alcove and swung Merlin around to face them. Merlin frowned deeply when he was met with the laughing face of one perpetually drunk knight.
"What are you doing, Gwaine?" He asked irritably.
"Waiting for Gwen." Merlin raised an eyebrow until his attention was brought to a bouquet of assorted wildflowers and lavender in Gwaine's hand.
"Me, Elyan and Leon have a bet on who Gwen's best friend is. To settle it, we're seeing who can impress her the most while cheering her up at the same time."
"Giving Gwen a heart attack is going to cheer her up?" Merlin deadpanned.
"I like surprises." Gwaine deadpanned back.
"Gwen doesn't really like them."
"It'll be fine, trust me my young friend. I'm a connoisseur when it comes to women." Gwaine said, smiling before patting Merlin on the shoulder.
"And I'm a connoisseur when it comes to Gwen. After everything with Morgana, she's jumpier, she won't react well to you grabbing her from this alcove." Merlin warned.
"Your worries are unfounded Merlin, all will go well." Merlin held his hand in the surrender position then looked further down the hall and saw Gwen walking towards them with her head down.
"She's coming." Merlin told him. Gwaine quickly got into position and Merlin walked a little ways away towards Lancelot and Percival.
"What's Gwaine doing?" Percival asked.
"Trying to surprise Gwen."
"Is that a good idea?" Lancelot asked, he knew Gwen was jumpy at the best of times nowadays.
"Probably not. I told it wasn't, told him twice but of he didn't listen." Merlin said, shaking his head as Gwen got closer and closer to the hidden Gwaine.
"May as well watch this disaster unfold." Percival decided with amusement and the three watched Gwen get closer to Gwaine until suddenly he jumped out and swung her to face him like he did with Merlin but Gwen didn't register him as quickly as Merlin had and screamed before lifting her knee and bringing it up into his groin... hard. No breath came to Gwaine and his mouth was opened in a soundless wail of pain. He dropped the flowers at a shocked Gwen's feet and his hands went to his family jewels (not that it helped at all), before he fell to his knees and then his side groaning in pain. It was silent for a few seconds before Merlin, Lancelot and Percival busted out laughing at Gwaine's failed attempt to cheer up Gwen. Soon everyone else who was a witness was laughing as well, even Gwen was giggling slightly.
"Are you alright Gwaine?" She asked, smiling indulgently and apologetically at him.
"Oh, all the better to see you smile." Gwaine said in a strained voice that still managed to be flirtatious.
"Are these for me?" Gwen asked, picking up the bouquet.
"You could've just handed them to me, but thanks anyway."
"Well, I'm your best friend. What good are we if we don't give pretty ladies like you flowers and allow you to take away our ability to procreate?" Gwaine replied, his voice still slightly strained. Gwen just patted his shoulder and then walked away smelling the flowers.
"Hey Gwaine, what was that about Gwen loving a surprise?" Merlin asked teasingly.
"You're going to be feeling that one for a while, mate." Lancelot told him and they started laughing at him again but Gwaine was just happy he made the first move in this battle for position as Gwen's best friend. He got her to smile and giggle, he set the bar high and that was worth the throbbing pain he still felt and the weeks worth of teasing he was about to get from Merlin and the other knights.
Gwen didn't think much of Gwaine's bouquet of flowers, if anything it cheered her up and reminded her that she still had friends and people who were there for her. After Morgana's betrayal Gwen knew she was keeping the others at arm's length, especially Merlin but besides Elyan, Morgana was her oldest and closest friend. Her betrayal stung deeply and she didn't want a repeat from her current friends, especially not Merlin what with the secret he didn't know she knew. She thought if she pushed them away a little and they did betray her it wouldn't hurt quite as much but her little exchange with Gwaine made her miss spending time with the flirtatious wandering drunkard turned knight. Gwen smiled at the flowers and put them in a vase, thinking of the day she met Gwaine in the market and he said she looked like a Princess.
'You look like a princess to me. So it's probably something like Sophia or Esmeralda. That's it! Princess Esmeralda.'
Gwen chuckled at the memory. He still called her Esmeralda sometimes. She looked up as Elyan walked into the house.
"Hey Elyan." She greeted with a small smile.
"Hey Gwennie Bear." He replied. Gwen looked up, surprised. Elyan hadn't called her that on a regular basis since he was ten and she fourteen and any time after that he was either drunk, in trouble or wanted something. He didn't smell of the tavern as he had last night so she went to the next best thing.
"What did you do?" Gwen asked, narrowing her eyes at him suspiciously.
"What?" Elyan asked with confusion.
"What mess have you made that I have to clean up now?"
"Nothing." Elyan protested, rolling his eyes, it was just like Gwen to go into big sister mode on him before he could even get five words out.
"Because if Arthur comes complaining to me--"
"I didn't do anything." Elyan whined. He felt like he was fourteen again with his sister berating and badgering him when he came home late while his father snored away soundly with no knowledge of what was going on.
"Then what is it?" Gwen continued, getting suspicious again.
"Nothing, I swear. I got these for you." Elyan said, taking out a bouquet of flowers from behind his back.
"They're bluebells, your favorite despite popular belief that your favorite is lavender." Elyan said, brandishing the flowers proudly.
"Aww, Elyan, thank you. I don't know why everyone thinks lavender's my favorite, probably because of my dresses. This was sweet of you, where'd you find them?" She asked, placing them in the vase with Gwaine's flowers.
"I trekked all the way to the Valley of the Fallen Kings by myself to get them for you Gwennie." Elyan said, looking very pleased with himself at Gwen's surprised but appreciative look but that faded as he saw the other flowers there.
"Where'd you get those?" He asked a little tensely.
Better had not been Leon or Gwaine.
"Gwaine gave it to me earlier, guess it's my lucky day."
"Gwaine huh?" Gwen was too busy sorting and preening her flowers to notice Elyan's discontent at that confession.
Damn, he made the first move and Leon's still out there. Luckily, I didn't just get the flowers. Elyan thought smirking.
"Well, did Gwaine give you this with his flowers?" Gwen turned to see Elyan holding a leather cloth out that obviously had something inside of it.
"What's this?" Gwen asked, surprised again.
Something's definitely going on, I'll have to ask Merlin. Gwen thought.
That's if I talk to Merlin. She thought as an afterthought sadly.
"Open it." Gwen opened it and came face to face with a gold rope chain with a small ruby pendant hanging from it. Gwen gasped at the sight. She'd been eyeing the necklace, but couldn't afford it even though she was technically a lady of the court now being that she was a knight's sister. She knew Arthur would buy her the whole market if she asked but she wouldn't ask she never even mentioned it, so how did Elyan know? She asked him exactly that.
"Saw you eyeing it and I'm a knight now might as well use my money for something beneficial instead of just at the tavern. Besides, it suits you." Elyan replied, securing the necklace around her neck. Gwen rounded on him then.
"Okay, what's going on? You're acting strange, plus Gwaine's little stunt..." Gwen let the sentence hang so he could tell her exactly what his and Gwaine's angle was, but he continued to play innocent.
"Is it so wrong for a brother to pick some flowers and spend his money on his beloved older sister? I am your best friend afterall." Gwen scoffed.
"I don't believe your little innocent routine for a second." Gwen said, not bothering to confirm or deny him being her best friend.
"I'm going to see Arthur, take care not to burn the house down." Gwen said, taking some of Gwaine's flowers and placing them in her long, curly hair then walking out. Elyan glared at Gwaine's flowers murderously and then smiled a satisfied smile.
"My gift was better than yours." He told Gwaine's flowers as if Gwaine could hear.
Gwen was walking in the dark night when she noticed someone following her, her breath quickened but she walked a little more to confirm that they were actually following her. When realized they were, she steeled herself before she turned quickly and threw her fist out, catching the person in the mouth.
"Ow! Goodness Gwen, it's me."
"Oh Leon, I'm so sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me today. First, Gwaine and now you." Gwen said apologetically as she saw that she had busted Leon's lip.
"Yeah, I heard about that. At least it wasn't the knee." Leon joked.
It's what Gwaine gets, little git cheated by not saying when this competition would start. At least I'm before Elyan... I hope. Leon thought.
"I suppose so. I'll have to apologize to Gwaine again. What are you doing out here anyway?"
"Escorting you to the castle." Leon explained.
"If Arthur sent you--"
"He didn't, I'm here on my own. I know you visit him after sunset every Thursday and I wanted to make sure you were safe."
"You noticed that?" Gwen asked as the two began walking again.
"Well, I'm your best friend, of course I noticed." Leon said, hoping she would confirm this, but she didn't.
Well, she didn't deny it either.
"You're not on night duty tonight. Did you just come out for me?" Gwen asked, flattered.
"You're special. You're Gwen. We need round here." Leon said sincerely. Gwen was touched by that. She remembered a childhood spent catching frogs at night with Leon, play sword fighting, fake knighting ceremonies and school girl crushes. Leon and Gwen were actually each other's first kisses, but remained friends after it happened. They drifted a bit when he was knighted, but Gwen was glad that despite the hurt and grief that came from Morgana's betrayal that she and Leon reconciled. She shivered in the cold wind of the night.
"Oh, here." Leon said, taking off his cloak and placing it on her shoulders.
"But what about you?"
"I'm a knight, I've dealt with far worse." They continued the walk, making friendly chatter the whole way there.
"Thanks Leon, you're a good friend." Gwen said once they reached the hallway with Arthur's chambers and started to pull the cloak off.
"No, keep it for when you're walking back." Gwen nodded her thanks and started toward the door.
"Hey Gwen, just out of curiosity... who is your best friend?" Gwen smiled knowingly at Leon but didn't answer the question, just continued towards Arthur's chambers. When she entered, it was Merlin she found there, not Arthur.
"Merlin, what are you doing in here this late?" Gwen asked, closing the door and walking further into the room almost nervously.
"You visit Arthur here every Thursday night and I haven't really been able to catch up with you. Lord Agravaine and Arthur are in an emergency meeting or something so I figured I might as well seize the opportunity." Merlin answered, standing before her.
"You were looking for me?" Gwen asked, shuffling a little.
"Yeah… look, I noticed you look a little down lately and I figured it was because of Morgana but you've been distant too, I've barely had any time alone with you. I barely see you around anymore, if I didn't know any better I'd say you were avoiding me." Merlin said with a teasing inflection added to the last bit. Gwen looked down, feeling guilty. Merlin's smile fell from his lips as he saw her stance.
"You have been avoiding me?" Merlin asked, feeling a hurt and it showed in his voice. Tears welled up in her eyes but she looked up at Merlin and nodded her head.
"Wh—I mean—Why?" Merlin stuttered. Gwen was silent for a long while, wondering if she wanted to have this conversation. Was she ready to face this? Should she have had this conversation with Morgana? Could it have made a difference?
"I know, Merlin." Gwen said. Merlin's face turned up in confusion.
"Know? Know what?" He asked. Gwen took a deep breath before allowing the words to fall from her mouth.
"I know you have magic." Shock flashed in Merlin's eyes before it quickly disappeared
"I-- I don't what you're talking about." Gwen felt angry then.
"Oh, enough Merlin! Enough with the lies! I know! I've known for some time now! Ever since you healed my father… I heard you, but I didn't know what to do. I thought I was dreaming and then you knew he was healed before I even told you and I knew it was real. Plus the old man, Dragoon, who planted the poultice under Arthur's pillow… that was you, wasn't it? I could see it in your eyes. Morgause had a disguise like that. In the market, I saw her and just like you I could tell it was her from her eyes. All the impossible tasks Arthur goes on and miraculously survives when you're there. You and Lancelot going after the cup of life and surviving against Morgause. You have magic, Merlin. Just please admit it and stop lying to me." Gwen said, tears falling down her cheeks and Merlin's too.
"I…I have magic." Merlin whispered.
"Why? Why study magic? In Camelot of all places?" Gwen asked in awe of why Merlin would come to a place that persecuted those with magic.
"Gwen… I was born with it." He explained.
"What? How is that even possible?"
"It's rare, but it's possible. Morgana was born with it too but hers showed much later than mine. I've had magic since I was a baby. My mother sent me to Gaius for him to help me control it. Can you imagine? Really imagine spending your life living in fear that someone's going to kill you for something you were born with? Can you imagine a mother hiding her six year old under the floorboards of their house so knights don't find him and take him away? Can you imagine an eight year old watching soldiers drowning four year old children for something they couldn't begin to understand or control? Can you imagine a sixteen year old running for his life with his best friend from people who wish to exploit his abilities? Can you see in me now the eighteen year old who had to move into the belly of the beast so he could learn to survive, and then being told he has this great destiny he must fulfill and has been breaking his back trying ever since?" Merlin lamented tearfully, getting so much more of his burden off his chest than he ever thought he would tonight.
"Oh, Merlin." Gwen said, more tears falling but these tears were for her friend and the struggle he must have had growing up.
"It's been torture and most days I wish that I'd never been born into this--"
"No, Merlin." Gwen said fiercely, walking over to Merlin.
"People don't understand magic and I can't say I fully understand it either, but I understand you. I admit I was afraid to be near you because I was so hurt with what Morgana did. It seemed like as soon as she discovered the extent of her magic, she turned against me and I fear feeling that hurt again if you ever were to turn against me too, if you became my enemy... I don't think I could cope with that."
"I never would betray you, Gwen." Merlin protested immediately. She placed her hands on Merlin's cheeks, wiping away tears with the pad of her thumbs while Merlin reached his hands up to hold her wrists.
"I realize how ridiculous I was for thinking that you ever would. You're a good person Merlin, magic or not. There isn't an evil bone in your body, you'd never wish ill will on someone." Merlin shook his head.
"I've killed before Gwen, I'm not good."
"I know you and I know you'd never do that unless you had to, unless you were protecting someone else. That's what you were doing, right?" Gwen asked. Merlin nodded his head hesitantly.
"I thought as much. You are worthy of every bit as much respect, acceptance, happiness and love as any other person my friend and the fact that you have magic doesn't make you evil it just shows me that magic isn't as bad as we think, there is good in it. You're living proof of that." Gwen reassured him, hugging him tightly to which he reciprocated just as fiercely. He had longed to hear those words from someone, anyone but they were all the better coming from Gwen.
"Now, what's this destiny you were talking about?"
"Oh, aren't you going to be surprised, my lady." Merlin joked.
The next day, the knights looked around the market place in surprised awe. Most of the commoners were dancing by themselves or with someone else or even in groups of three and four to some lute music, which they couldn't see the source of. However, in the middle of the fray they could see a radiantly smiling Gwen beaming at Merlin who beamed back as they danced together. They watched Merlin reach over to the side and come back with a crown of flowers seemingly from thin air. Merlin placed it atop Gwen's head and bowed gracefully to Gwen who curtsied back and the two began gracefully gliding slowly to the fast music. It was almost comically because Merlin was usually so clumsy and Gwen swore up and down she couldn't dance, yet they were as graceful as nobles together, a smile never leaving either's faces and Leon knew the answer to his question then and so did the others. They weren't mad or surprised at the answer. Merlin was Gwen's best friend.
"Do you feel better now?" Merlin asked Gwen.
"Much better Merlin, thanks to you. But this is dangerous, if someone sees you using your power this could end badly." Gwen said back lowly. After telling Gwen of her destiny as the Once and Future Queen (which she blushed furiously at), Arthur's as the Once and Future King and his as Emrys, Gwen and Merlin went to his chambers at Gaius' and stayed up the whole night with him telling her every little thing he kept from her. Then he dragged her to the market midday and decided to further cheer her up by showing her that magic could really bring joy and happiness to Camelot, even after Morgana and Morgause's terror, hence the disembodied music, conjured flower crown and dancing in the streets.
"Gwen, you're my best friend, I don't care if someone catches me making you happy." And that was the difference, Merlin looked at Gwen as his best friend instead of looking at himself as her best friend like Leon, Gwaine and Elyan and it changed everything.
"You're my best friend too, Merlin." Gwen said softly, hugging Merlin and still swaying with him. She looked to the knights and winked. Just because they weren't her best friends didn't mean they weren't her friends at all. She'd lost a sister in Morgana, yes, but gained five brothers, lost a best friend but she had Merlin plus Arthur and Gaius and Gwen knew she'd be okay, Morgana or not, she'd be just fine.