Merlin finds himself drawn back to the lake more and more often. It isn't because Freya ever answers him when he sits beneath the tree that grows tall and stark on the shore and talks to her. Nevertheless, it seems as if, somehow, she hears what he says and listens to him in the peace of her watery resting place. These days, Merlin often feels as if only the dead have the time to stop and listen. He knows he's not being fair. Arthur has a heavy burden on his shoulders, leading the efforts to rebuild Camelot's shattered walls as well as helping to train new knights to replace those killed or injured by Kilgharrah in his last, destructive flight. Still, Merlin misses the days when Arthur had the time to stop and notice his sadness, or even just to berate him for being the worst manservant ever.
"Who would have thought that I'd find myself longing to be insulted?" Merlin asks the wide expanse of water before him.
A small breeze ruffles the surface and Merlin props his chin on his knees and imagines that Freya is laughing at him for his foolishness.
Camelot is facing dark times, with neighbouring kingdoms eyeing the damaged realm with covetous glances. Thus far, Uther has stood firm and, at his side, Arthur has been proving just how good a king he'll one day be. Merlin can't help but be proud of him for that, but if this is a foreshadowing of how things will be in the future, he's left to wonder what his own role will be. Until now, Merlin has believed that his destiny would be to help Arthur, to stand beside him, but Arthur barely seems to need him for his regular duties as a manservant at the moment, let alone anything more. If this is how it's going to be, what have all Merlin's sacrifices been for?
"I gave up the chance of a future with you, Freya. I watched my father die when I'd barely had the chance to get to know him," Merlin yells at the silent lake, his frustration suddenly bubbling over into anger. "And I did it for Arthur, but now he doesn't even need me around. So what was the point of it all?"
This time, not even a ripple disturbs the water's surface. Merlin stares at the lake, his lips twisting into a self-deprecating smile.
"Great, now even you aren't listening to me any more," he mutters under his breath.
"Talking to yourself, Merlin? You really do have a mental affliction it seems."
Merlin startles at the sound of the unexpected voice behind him, head whipping round to look up at the intruder. "Arthur, what are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same question," Arthur replies, raising his eyebrows in a poor imitation of Gaius' most intimidating expression.
He sits down beside Merlin, drawing his knees up to mirror his posture. Merlin continues to watch him warily.
"How long were you standing there?" Merlin asks, feeling his cheeks heat at the thought of Arthur listening to him.
"Long enough," Arthur says softly. "It seems there are a few things you've been neglecting to tell me."
"You were busy with more important matters," Merlin says, affecting a casual shrug of his shoulders. He turns his gaze towards the lake, all at once finding himself unable to look at Arthur. "How did you know I was here, anyway?"
"I followed you, Merlin. You were hardly stealthy about it," Arthur says. "And, contrary to what you might think, I did notice that you've not been yourself lately, going missing at odd times and generally being useless at your job. It's just been difficult to get away and see where you've been hiding out."
"Sorry," Merlin says, and means it. "I know how important Camelot is to you. I just..."
He falls silent again, not knowing how to put what he's been thinking into words. It was one thing to tell Freya's spirit that he's missed the banter and friendly insults, missed feeling as if he belongs at Arthur's side. It's quite another to tell Arthur himself when he's sitting beside him, solid and real.
Suddenly, one of Arthur's hands appears in Merlin's field of vision. It comes to rest on top of Merlin's joined hands, which are curled around his knees, pulling them tight to his chest. It feels warm where it touches him, the skin rough and dry from the hard labour Arthur's been undertaking alongside every other citizen of Camelot. It startles Merlin into turning his head. Arthur is watching him with a familiar concern in his eyes.
"I'm here now," Arthur says in invitation as their gazes meet and hold. "You said something about your father dying. Was... was Balinor your father?"
Merlin nods and feels tears begin to prickle at his eyes; tears he's been trying to hold in check for days. He took what Arthur said to heart, but he still believes that Balinor... that his father was worthy of them, nonetheless. Arthur's fingers twine with his, squeezing in reassurance.
"Tell me about him, Merlin," Arthur says.
Watched over by the lake and Freya's insubstantial presence, Merlin starts to tell Arthur everything.