Memories of him flashed by before Merlin's eyes on the ride back to Camelot, and he kept his eyes tightly shut to hold back tears.
Meeting him and liking him instantly, helping him lie to Arthur and helping him become the knight he deserved to be, watching him face the griffin fearlessly and enchanting his lance, the joy of finding him again and of seeing him knighted for the second time, and then – then came all those little memories of passing Lancelot in the corridors of the castle and having his mood brighten just from seeing him, exchanging secret smiles, talking and teasing about magic... All those things that had made Lancelot the very best friend Merlin could have hoped for.
Lancelot had never breathed of a word of what he knew, not to anyone. He had known who Merlin really was and he had accepted it, had liked him just the same, and in the end he had died for him.
Merlin knew it was his fault. Lancelot had not needed to walk into the veil to save Arthur. It was Merlin's life he had saved, as he had the first time they'd met. Only this time, Merlin would never be able to return the favour. And now they were riding back to Camelot without him, without even his body for a proper ceremony. With nothing except memories of the bravest, most noble man they would ever meet.
"I look at you, and I wonder about myself. Could I knowingly give up my life for something?"
He shouldn't have. He hadn't needed to. Merlin kept thinking back to the moment, thinking of what he could have done to stop it. He knew, deep down in his gut, that just as he would willingly have died for Arthur, he would have died to prevent Lancelot's sacrifice if he could have. But guilt gnawed at him, tugging painfully in his chest, and –
Percival's voice was low and quiet, but it startled Merlin out of his thoughts. He blinked and opened his eyes, surprised to find Percival so close. The knight had slowed his horse down until he was riding alongside Merlin, and Merlin hadn't even noticed.
"I know you don't want to talk about it," Percival said. "And I understand that. But you were there, and I – I need to know..."
Merlin sucked in a breath and looked more closely at Percival. Percival, who had first come to Arthur by Lancelot's side. The two knights had been close, though Merlin had never thought to ask Lancelot how they'd met. He'd been too wrapped up in his own friendship with Lancelot to pay attention. Now, looking at Percival's grave expression and not missing the fragility in his eyes that said it was taking all of his self-control not to break down, Merlin felt guilty about that. He felt guilty about everything.
"Arthur wanted to walk into the veil," Merlin said. His voice sounded hollow even to him. "I wouldn't let him, and I – I was going to take his place when Lancelot –" He stopped, and closed his eyes again. "Lancelot walked through the veil. There was nothing I could do to stop him. I didn't even notice him until it was too late." He opened his eyes again, and Percival's shattered expression grounded him somehow. "He was – that kind of man."
Percival nodded slowly, and blinked. "He was," he said hoarsely. "And – he did it for you?"
Merlin flinched, feeling the weight of reproach settle on his shoulders even though he knew Percival hadn't meant it that way. "I wish he hadn't," he said, as though that mattered, as though it meant anything now.
He felt the need to justify himself, to justify Lancelot, who had not just sacrificed himself for a servant. Lancelot had felt that Merlin's life was more important than his – that to die if Merlin lived was worth it – why? Merlin had looked into the veil and acknowledged it as his destiny. He had been ready to die for Arthur's sake, because he was Arthur's, wholly and completely. But Lancelot? Lancelot was so much more than that. He had been – noble, and brave, and loyal to a fault. He had been honest and true and a great friend, and he would be missed more than Merlin would have been. One just had to look at Percival's expression to see that.
But Lancelot had believed that Merlin's life was more valuable.
"He – he was my friend," Merlin said. "You can't begin to imagine –" He bit his tongue, because that sounded condescending, and tried again. "He knew things about me that –"
"Merlin," Percival said quietly, his expression pained. "I understand."
Merlin shut up. Do you? he wondered. Do you really? And of course Percival didn't, because – how could he? Lancelot had been the only knight who knew Merlin's secret, knew how many times Merlin had saved Arthur's life. And if he was dead now, it was because he had believed that Merlin would need to do it again.
"The first time I met Lancelot," Percival said, his voice steady but softened by fondness and regret, "he saved my life."
Merlin smiled despite himself. "Yes, he seems to be good at doing that."
"It was just who he was," Percival went on. "Being knights together, I've had the occasion to repay him countless times, but – it's the first time that counts, isn't it? It can never be fully repaid. He owed me nothing, he didn't even know me, and he chose to risk his life to save mine. I've never forgotten it. If I had known what was going to happen, I would have followed him. But –" He stopped.
"You were needed," Merlin said gently. "You had to fight. You risked your life, too –"
"He didn't risk his life," Percival cut in. "He gave it. There's a difference. Any knight is capable of the former, but Lancelot... Lancelot was something else."
"When I came to Camelot with you," Percival said, "to fight against Morgana's immortal army... I hated Cenred, for what he had done to my family. But not enough to walk into a hopeless battle. I went because Lancelot wanted to go. He told me about Arthur." Percival gave him a heavy, knowing look. "About you, as well. He cared about you, Merlin. Said that – that you were special."
Merlin's throat closed up, choking him. Even if he had been able to talk, he would not have known what to say.
"For what it's worth," Percival said, and his next words were worth their weight in gold, "I understand that he must have had his reasons."
He didn't ask, and Merlin didn't offer. But something like understanding passed between them, and the weight on Merlin's shoulders eased a little.
The flashes returned when the funeral pyre was lit and Lancelot's cloak caught fire. Merlin stared into the flames, feeling hot tears prick his eyes and roll down his cheeks, unchecked. Lancelot in battle, so skillful with a sword, so courageous and unfaltering. Lancelot seated at a table during a feast, calling Merlin over not to fill his cup but to talk to as an equal. Lancelot, smiling as he walked into the veil. He had smiled at Merlin. A smile that said, You're not to blame and I'm sorry and Thank you all at once.
"I look at you, and I wonder about myself."
But when I looked at you, thought Merlin, I saw all that Camelot will one day be, and now you've taken that from me.
A hand settled on his shoulder, a friendly comfort, and Merlin turned his head slightly to look at Gwaine. His eyes were shining, but he offered Merlin a small smile that spoke of sympathy and Merlin wondered, did he know? Did he know how much Lancelot had meant to Merlin?
Could he know? It had been a gift, a taste of joy and freedom to have someone other than Gaius aware and accepting of his magic. Yes, he placed Arthur above all others, but Arthur didn't know the truth – could never know the truth – and that was enough to erect a barrier between them, a distance far greater than the one between master and servant. In losing Lancelot, Merlin had lost the closest friend he had in Camelot.
The warm weight of Gwaine's hand on his shoulder could not shake the empty feeling inside him, and he felt himself tremble as a silent sob rose in his throat.
Merlin spent a long time walking in circles around the castle that night, thinking and dreaming, missing and regretting, wishing and wanting. It was hours before he returned to his room, knowing that he would not be able to sleep anyway. He opened the door to his room as silently as he could so as to not wake Gaius up, and almost gasped when he saw Gwaine reclining on his bed, eyes half-closed. The knight sat up when he heard him enter, and gave Merlin a strange, unreadable look.
"There you are," he said. "Finally."
"How long have you been here?" Merlin asked, casting a nervous glance around the room.
Nothing seemed to have been moved, and the loose floorboard under which he hid his book of spells was still in place. He relaxed slightly, and looked questioningly at Gwaine.
"Since just after supper."
"But that was hours ago," Merlin said.
"My point exactly."
"You could have gone looking for me."
"I could have," Gwaine agreed, "but your bed is comfortable."
That was a blatant lie, and Merlin arched his eyebrows at him. Then frowned as he noticed something else.
"Are you – Gwaine, why are you shirtless?"
"Again, it's comfortable. But forget that," Gwaine said. "Merlin, you've been crying."
Merlin raised a hand to his face. It was dry, but that didn't mean there was no evidence of his tears.
"So what if I have?"
"So nothing," Gwaine said, and looked uncomfortable. "I figured you needed some time alone. That's why I didn't follow you. It's just – I thought you might need a friend."
Merlin blew out the softest of sighs. "Gwaine, I... I appreciate it, but I really don't think I'll be great company tonight. You should probably just... go."
Gwaine lowered his gaze and played with the sheets of the bed with one hand. Merlin watched the gesture, puzzled; it wasn't like Gwaine to be hesitant.
"I have something to tell you," Gwaine said finally. "Something I think you need to hear. It's about Lancelot."
Merlin recoiled so sharply he almost backed up right into the door. Gwaine stood up, eyes full of worry, and caught Merlin's wrist.
"Listen, I know you –"
"I don't – I can't – I don't want to talk about him right now, Gwaine," Merlin said, struggling to sound firm. "I'm sorry, but I can't."
"I know," Gwaine said. "I understand, I really do."
"No, you don't," Merlin said, and he was sick of people thinking they understood, or wanting to understand, because they didn't and never could. "Really, Gwaine, you don't. You don't know what Lancelot was to me –"
"I do," Gwaine insisted.
Merlin felt a twisted sort of anger rising up in him. "You can't. You can't, all right? No one knows. No one will ever know, and I don't know what you hoped to achieve by coming here but I really, really don't need to hear this and if you continue I swear I'll – I'll –" He stopped, knowing that any threat he uttered could be laughed off by Gwaine, one of Camelot's finest fighters.
But Gwaine's eyes were utterly serious as he looked intently at Merlin. "You'll what?" he asked softly. "Call lightning from above? Find a spell to knock me out? Magically throw me out of the room?"
Merlin reared back again, and this time he did back up into the door, but Gwaine's hand was still firmly wrapped around his wrist and there was no getting away from him.
"I know," Gwaine said. "I've known for ages now – since Arthur's quest in the Perilous Lands. Maybe even before that. That's what I came to see you about. I didn't want you to feel that you were alone. I... I know Lancelot knew, though he never told me."
The words clawed at Merlin's soul, ripping into him mercilessly. He felt stunned, unable to think clearly, to process what Gwaine was telling him.
"You – you never said –"
"I tried to drop a few hints. I hoped you would tell me," Gwaine said. "But you never told anyone, did you?"
Merlin shook his head. "Lancelot – figured it out," he said faintly. "Well, he saw me using magic, and it was hard to deny. Gwaine..."
"Merlin," Gwaine said. "You were the first friend I made in Camelot, and I know a long time has passed since then, but I still think you're the best friend I've ever had. The best friend I could hope for. I want you to know that."
"Even though –"
"Magic," Gwaine said, "doesn't change anything about who you are. We all have different skills." He looked at Merlin meaningfully. "Different strengths and different weaknesses. And we all serve Arthur as best we can. Your way is – unorthodox, but it seems to be working, doesn't it?" He reached out with his other hand and closed his fingers around Merlin's forearm. "This... skill of yours, Merlin, it's something special."
Merlin leaned into Gwaine's touch, swaying towards him ever so slightly, and rested his forehead against Gwaine's.
"One day," Gwaine said softly, his breath hot on Merlin's lips, "Arthur will know you for who you really are and when that day comes –"
"Don't," Merlin said sharply, drawing back. "Please, don't. You sound like –"
Gwaine understood, and for a moment he looked like he'd been slapped. Then he smiled, though bitterly.
"Well, there are worse comparisons."
In truth, there could not be a better comparison, and they both knew it. Merlin knew that Gwaine was not trying to replace Lancelot, because no one could replace Lancelot. But Gwaine was his friend, someone Merlin had liked from the moment he'd laid eyes on him. His words were fuelled by concern only, and Merlin found himself leaning into that concern, taking comfort in it. It almost surprised him, how intensely he needed this. Needed someone who knew and accepted. Needed a friend. Needed Gwaine, gripping his forearms and looking at him and murmuring, I know. I know what you lost, I know what you are.
I know you.