When Merlin had stumbled into his chambers that morning, Arthur had known that there was something wrong. The boy was flustered, his hair hadn't been combed, his face was rouging rapidly and there was sweat dotted across his forehead.
"Sorry I'm late Arthur, Gaius is away and I didn't wake up on time," Merlin panted, as he ran around the room, tidying items as he went.
"It's fine Merlin," Arthur responded, watching with concern as Merlin shook his head and blinked his eyes rapidly.
"Are you alright? You look ill," Arthur said as Merlin hurried around him, gathering his master's clothes for the day.
"I'm fine, really," Merlin replied, refusing to look at Arthur's face. He could feel the prince's eyes on his back, following him around the room as he did his daily tasks. It unnerved him slightly.
"Here Merlin, sit down for a minute," Arthur told him, standing up from his chair and walking towards his servant.
"Honestly, I'm fine," Merlin reassured him, wiping his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt and pouring water into a bowl for Arthur to wash. Arthur placed a hand on Merlin's shoulder and the boy spun around in fright, not having heard the prince walk up behind him.
His arm caught the bowl and it came crashing onto the floor, splitting into hundreds of pieces and the water drowning the floor.
Merlin glanced at Arthur's face quickly, breathing an apology before he ran out of the room. He returned moments later with a mop and a bucket to clear up the mess he had made.
"I'm sorry Arthur," Merlin repeated as he mopped up the spilt water before kneeling down on the stone floor and began picking up the broken pieces of clay.
"Leave it Merlin, I can get someone else to clean it up," Arthur told him, replacing his hand on his manservant's shoulder and squeezing it lightly.
"I'll clean it up now," Merlin responded, picking up the sharp pieces of material and throwing them into the bucket beside him, seemingly unaware of the cuts that he was causing on his hands.
"Merlin, leave it and sit down," Arthur ordered, standing up to his full height and placing his hands on his hips. Merlin looked up in fright at the anger in the prince's voice.
When Arthur saw how frightened the boy was of him, he felt a slight twinge of guilt in his stomach but he knew it was the only way Merlin would listen to him.
"Go sit down over there now," Arthur commanded him, pointing to the chair that he had previously occupied. Merlin quickly stumbled to his feet and raced over to the chair.
"How long has Gaius been away?" Arthur asked, stepping towards his servant and gazing down at the pale face.
"A week now," Merlin told him, "But he should be back any day now."
"And it would seem that you have not been looking after yourself in his absence Merlin, am I right?" Arthur spoke in as gentle a tone as he could get while attempting to hide his anger from Merlin.
"I've been looking after myself fine," Merlin reassured him, making to get up before Arthur placed a hand on his chest and pushed him back in the chair.
"Really? Is that why you're sick now?" Arthur asked, folding his arms across his chest and watching Merlin's face for his reaction.
"I-I'm not sick," Merlin denied, lowering his eyes from Arthur's face to gaze at the floor. His shoulders were tensed and his hands were clenched so tightly that his knuckles were turning white under the pressure.
Arthur looked at his with confusion and concern. It was obvious that Merlin was ill so why was he blatantly lying to Arthur's face?
"Go back to your room Merlin, I can do without you for one day," Arthur told him, gripping his upper arm and helping him stand up from the chair.
"No but I can't," Merlin complained, attempting to get out of Arthur's grip but he knew that he was fighting a losing battle.
"Yes you can now go," Arthur ordered, letting go of his arm and giving him a gentle shove towards the door.
"But-" Merlin started but quickly cut himself off when he saw the irritation on Arthur's face growing.
He hurried out of the room, wiping his forehead once again and rubbing his nose on his sleeve, knowing that Gaius would smack him if he had seen it. However, now that he knew he was allowed to go back to his quarters, he was looking forward to getting back into bed.
Arthur paced his chambers, glancing up briefly when his temporary servant entered the room with his newly polished armour. He waved the boy off and sat down in his chair, staring out the window ahead of him.
He couldn't get Merlin out of his head. He didn't understand why the boy wouldn't tell him that he was sick. Surely he knew that if he was unwell, Arthur wouldn't have made him work. He wasn't a cruel prince.
After deliberating the matter for a few more minutes, he left his chambers with the intention of going to Merlin's quarters and making sure his servant was alright. He didn't care about him that much, he tried to convince himself, he had simply proved himself to be a worthy servant and through experience, Arthur had learned that they were few and far between.
He walked down the many halls and corridors towards the court physician's room, knocking on the door gently when he finally arrived. Receiving no response, he pushed the door open and stepped into the room.
He glanced around the large room, seeing no sign of Merlin. He walked towards the door that he knew led to Merlin's room and tapped the wood lightly.
Opening the door, he was glad to see that Merlin had taken his advice and gone to bed. However, he was discouraged by the sight of the sheets tangled around the boy's legs; the sweat that soaked his dark hair and the panting that was coming from the boy's lips.
"Merlin?" Arthur asked cautiously, stepping towards his servant's bed and watching his face. His eyelashes were fluttering against his pale skin, and his face looked pained.
Arthur bent down with a sigh and placed a hand on Merlin's forehead. He withdrew it in shock, worried by the heat that was coming from the boy's skin. He hadn't realised that the boy was this sick.
He rushed into the other room and grabbed the nearest bucket of water and a rag from the table and hurried back into Merlin's room. He soaked the rag quickly, wringing out the excess water and laying it across Merlin's forehead.
He watched as the boy's face relaxed slightly. He knew that someone else was there with him and that calmed him. Arthur placed his hands on his hips, looking around the messy room and wishing that Gaius was here.
At least he would know what to do. Arthur had never looked after anyone else before, let alone someone who was ill. When he thought about it, he had hardly even looked after himself. He had always had someone else doing everything for him.
The thought made him panic a little. How did he know that he was doing the right thing for Merlin? Should he go and get someone else to help? But who? Gaius was away on an errand and Gwen was busy tending to Morgana who was only getting over a brief illness herself.
Resigned to the fact that he would now have to look after his servant, Arthur pulled a chair over to Merlin's bedside and sat down, returning to bathing Merlin's forehead in cool water.
The next day Merlin awoke to the sun shining on his face. He felt dizzy and drowsy and dared not to move for fear that he would collapse.
Realising he was not the only one in the room, he looked up at Arthur who had his arms folded across his chest and was reclined back against the wooden chair, his eyes closed in sleep.
"Arthur," Merlin attempted to say but his voice cracked midway through his master's name. "Arthur," he tried again, pleased to hear his own voice.
Arthur cracked his eyes open, sighing deeply and sitting up straighter, wondering where the noise had come from. When he spotted Merlin staring at him, he shot upright.
"Oh thank God," he muttered to himself, finding himself smiling lightly to his servant.
"What?" Merlin asked, scrunching his eyes up at the sun that invaded them and looking up at Arthur bending over him. He jumped when Arthur's hand was planted on his forehead and remained there for a few moments until Arthur removed it and sat back in the chair.
"Nothing," Arthur denied quickly, "How do you feel?"
"Better than yesterday. What happened?" Merlin asked quietly, clearing his throat and waiting for an answer from the prince.
"You were ill. Really ill. I wasn't too sure if you would -" Arthur started to explain but stopped himself midway, realising that he didn't need or want to finish the sentence.
"And you looked after me?" Merlin asked in awe.
Arthur simply shrugged. "Well there was no one else around to do it. And I can't lose my only half-decent servant," Arthur joked.
Merlin cracked a small smile and snuggled down further into his sheets, his eyes drifting closed as drowsiness from his illness set in.
"I need to ask you something Merlin," Arthur said as he noticed Merlin falling asleep.
"Yes?" Merlin responded, forcing his eyes to open and look at the prince.
"Why did you lie to me yesterday? You told me you were fine and clearly you weren't," Arthur said to him, folding his arms as he waited for a response from the boy.
"You needed me, I couldn't let you down," Merlin explained, "It's my job to be your servant and I don't want to let anyone down."
"Who did you think you were letting down by taking one day to recuperate? Not me," Arthur assured him, watching the emotions flit across Merlin's face.
"A servant to the prince cannot afford to be sick," Merlin told him, "Besides, I've already taken too many days off, and I couldn't afford another one."
"From the time that you were poisoned? That hardly counts as you being sick. Please Merlin, don't tell me you think I would be angry at you for being ill," Arthur all but begged, a rare sight in Merlin's eyes.
"No of course not, but Gaius told me that I had to there for you for whenever you needed me and I didn't want to let you or him down."
"Oh Merlin, you wouldn't let either of us down. I'm disappointed that you didn't tell me you were sick and ended up making yourself more ill. You had a really high fever Merlin and I didn't know what to do," Arthur admitted. Merlin watched Arthur's face, knowing it was a rare sight to see the future king of Camelot looking so unsure of himself.
"Well I'm still here so you must have done something right," Merlin joked, smiling at Arthur who gladly returned the smile.
"Well, now that I know you're feeling better, I better be off and sort out some things. I supposed a few people are wondering where I have gotten to. Get some rest Merlin, I want you back to work tomorrow," Arthur told him, glancing his servant over once more before leaving the room.
He was just about to leave the court physicians chambers when he bumped into Gaius entering the room.
"Oh dear, Arthur, what are you doing here?" Gaius asked, flinging his bag and books onto the table in front of him and undoing his cloak.
"I'll, uh, let Merlin explain it to you, I have to go. Make sure he's alright," Arthur told him with a nod of his head and he quickly left the room.
As he walked back towards his own chambers, he couldn't get Merlin's responses out of his head. Surely the boy knew that he was more than a servant to him. He was starting to think of him as a friend; a slightly strange one but a friend none-the-less.
He made a vow to himself that he would treat Merlin better, after all, the boy had proved to him many times that he was willing to put his life on the line for him, the least he could do was show the boy some friendship.