Title: If They Hurt You (They Hurt Me Too)
Summary: And with those words, the last couple of days suddenly came crashing back to Arthur in a wave. Merlin's weird speech, the attack on Merlin and Gaius outside Camelot, Arthur's hunt to find the bandits, Merlin's near death, and their late night conversation. It instantly made his head hurt.
Spoilers/Warnings: The whole series, but directly after 1x13 "Le Morte d'Arthur"
Word Count: 14,743
Disclaimer: Unless the BBC and Shine hired me within the last hour, I don't think they're mine!
Author's note: So this is a sequel to Just…Don't be a Prat. You should probably read that one first, or this might not make much sense. It is way longer than I'd ever hoped or intended it to be. It was also beta-ed for me by the most wonderful patchworkwounds. Thank you so much for making sure that it flowed properly and I didn't make any of my previous Americanised mistakes ;). Also, she assured me it doesn't suck, so that made me happy! As before, please give me any constructive criticism you might have. I only want to get better! Happy reading :)
If They Hurt You (They Hurt Me Too)
Gwen awoke early that morning. Earlier than she was usually accustomed to, anyway. But she didn't particularly mind. She was able to watch the sunrise on those mornings when she awoke before dawn, and it was such a beautiful sight that everything else seemed inconsequential somehow. At least for those few minutes where the morning sun painted the sky with brilliant yellows, oranges, pinks and sometimes even purple.
After that point, it was back to the daily grind of being a maidservant. Not that she minded her job. The lady Morgana was a kind-hearted mistress, a fine woman and a great friend. Gwen couldn't have been more honoured to serve her. But sometimes she liked to pretend that her life was entirely her own in those early morning hours. It was her own little sanctuary, and so when she awoke before the first light of dawn, she usually took advantage of that opportunity.
But today, like the last several days of her life, she did not have the time to enjoy the sunrise. Which was perfectly all right by Gwen, seeing as how she was doing something more important. Ever since Merlin and Gaius had been attacked in the forest while on route to Camelot, Gwen had spent a good majority of her waking hours helping Gaius care for her friend. At first she had been uncertain how Morgana would feel about the idea, but it ended up being her lady's suggestion in the first place. And since Gaius had not been entirely well, he had welcomed her assistance. It was another reason that Gwen had such a great deal of respect for her mistress – she was gracious and allowed her to be there for those for whom she cared about a great deal. The recent loss of her father had been heart-breaking enough. Merlin was her closest friend in Camelot, save for Morgana, and it went against everything in her nature to not do all she could for him.
Gwen washed up and had a quick breakfast, knowing that she would eat more later with Gaius and Hunith, and then headed towards the castle.
By the time she arrived outside Gaius' workshop, the sun had just barely peeked out past the horizon. In all likelihood, the physician would still be asleep. He was an early riser as well, but Gwen knew that this recent bout with Merlin had been wearing him down more than usual. That didn't mean, however, that she couldn't get a head start on some of the more basic tasks. Collecting some fresh water, tidying up the workshop and going to gather whatever was on the list of plants and herbs Gaius had left for her, for starters.
She pushed open the door – thankfully Gaius had remembered to leave it unlocked – and stepped inside quietly, not wanting to wake anyone who was still sleeping. Which, as it turned out after Gwen did an initial sweep of the room, was everyone. She absently made her way over to Gaius' workbench, searching around for the list she knew was there somewhere, when something caught her eye. A pair of boots lay haphazardly on the floor near Merlin's bed. But as far as Gwen knew, they did not belong to Gaius, and they certainly were not Merlin's. In fact, they were of high quality – the kind that nobility wore, she knew.
Darting her eyes upwards slightly and taking a couple cautious steps forward, she caught sight of a sleeping body that was most definitely not Merlin, beside another sleeping body that most definitely was Merlin. It only took half a second for Gwen to recognize who the other occupant of the bed was. She'd recognize that blond hair and red jacket anywhere.
Gwen clasped a hand over her mouth to silence the gasp that had unintentionally escaped past her lips, and started to back away from them slowly. Arthur would be mortified if he knew that someone had seen him like this. Merlin would probably find it amusing, but then that would piss Arthur off, and it still wouldn't end well. And Gwen might just die of embarrassment herself, even though she'd had nothing to do with any of it.
Gwen quickly assessed the situation and swiftly decided that the only reasonable thing to do was to somehow wake them up without either knowing that it had been done deliberately. For the good of everyone involved. Though she couldn't help but smile at how utterly adorable they looked. Arthur lay on his side facing Merlin, his left arm slung loosely across Merlin's waist. Merlin lay on his back, head tilted slightly to the left so it was almost tucked under Arthur's chin, his right arm resting almost on top of the arm laying across his stomach. It was comfortable and protective, and they both looked incredibly peaceful – more peaceful than either had been in days. It truly was a heart-warming sight, and not for the first time did Gwen wish she had some artistic talent so she could capture this image forever.
She quickly ran through the list of options in her head. It had to be something loud enough to wake up Merlin and Arthur, but not so loud that Gaius and Hunith were disturbed. It also needed to be something that seemed natural; not out of the norm. And it needed to happen soon.
Arthur had been dreaming. But for the first time in several nights, it was not a nightmare. He had been out hunting for something in the forest and somehow lost track of the rest of his knights. He'd stumbled across a staircase that seemed to extend forever. So Arthur, being the naturally curious person that he was, decided to climb it and see where it led. After what seemed like hours, he reached the top, which happened to be in a cloud. He wanted to explore, seeing as how he'd spent all that time reaching his destination, but all he felt was exhaustion. So instead, he decided to lie down and take a short nap first.
Which had gone well initially. Except now he was starting to get frustrated, as the cloud under his arm had recently started moving, making sleep more challenging.
"Arthur?" And it knew his name?
"Arthur?" He squeezed his eyes shut, refusing to acknowledge the cloud.
"Arthur!" It sounded annoyed that time.
Finally, he pried open one of his eyes only to be met with a vastly different sight. He was in his bed in Camelot, with Merlin lying beside him. All visions of his former dream evaporated away quickly.
"What are you doing in my bed?" Arthur grumbled softly, closing his eyes one again.
"Um, you're actually the one who's in my bed," Merlin informed him, having the good grace to even sound sheepish about it.
Arthur let out a muted growl. "What are you talking about?" he demanded, trying to remember what on earth was going on. His head was still foggy from the deep sleep that Merlin had so unpleasantly pulled him from.
"You'd think you were the one who just recovered from the brink of death," Merlin joked lightly.
And with those words, the last couple of days suddenly came crashing back to Arthur in a wave. Merlin's weird speech, the attack on Merlin and Gaius outside Camelot, Arthur's hunt to find the bandits, Merlin's near death, and their late night conversation. It instantly made his head hurt.
"Oh God, I thought I'd dreamt all of that," Arthur complained, in possibly one of the whiniest voices he'd ever used.
"You and me both," Merlin shared with a sigh. "But you need to get up, Arthur."
"Why? I'm still tired," Arthur grumbled, and this time it was definitely the whiniest sound he'd heard in a long time. At least coming from his own mouth.
"And you call me whiny," Merlin mumbled. Arthur suspected that Merlin's comment was supposed to be a thought quietly voiced to himself, except that Arthur was literally still inches away from his face, and as a result, heard every word.
"I am not whiny," Arthur declared, voice sounding stronger and more awake all of a sudden, even while recognizing the irony in his statement.
"Whatever you say, sire."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Keep this up and I'll have you sacked for insubordination."
"You'd have me sacked for being honest?" The tone of his voice sounded positively incredulous at the mere thought. "If that were true then you would have sacked me months ago, Arthur."
"It's never too late to right a former wrong," Arthur shot back, but Merlin just chuckled.
"Okay, well we can discuss that later. But for right now, you really need to go," Merlin told him again.
"Kicking me out of bed so early?" Arthur joked easily, but suddenly realised what he'd just said and felt like an idiot.
Merlin smiled but thankfully chose to ignore the comment. "I heard a noise outside. Like a servant dropping something."
"You're not working this morning though," Arthur pointed out cheekily.
"Hilarious, sire." Merlin rolled his eyes. And really, he was most definitely the most defiant servant Arthur had ever had. Even worse than Harold, whom he had sacked after only one week.
He continued on without so much as a pause. "But really, that means people are up. And if people are up then someone could walk in here at any moment in time. And if they happened to wander in here we might have to answer some uncomfortable questions even though the whole thing is quite harmless…" Merlin trailed off, letting his words sink in. And it was at that very moment that Arthur realised his arm was still draped over his "cloud" – which was actually his manservant's stomach – and for reasons beyond his understanding, he felt a slight blush creep onto his face.
"Yes, I suppose you're right," Arthur finally admitted, reluctantly removing his arm and sitting up. But he remained on the edge of the bed as he reached for his boots lying on the floor. Arthur was instantly struck with how cold the room actually was now that he wasn't sharing his body heat with someone else, though he decided not to dwell on that thought.
They remained in companionable silence while Arthur managed to slip his feet into his boots.
"Do you need anything before I go?" Arthur asked, turning to meet Merlin's gaze.
He looked surprised by the question, but quickly recovered. "Maybe another blanket? It's a little cold in here."
Arthur nodded and stood, scanning the room for the requested item. Thankfully he didn't have to look far, as there was another blanket resting on the end of Gaius' workbench. He picked it up, unfolded it and half tossed it onto Merlin. "There you go. Get better soon. I've got lots of work piling up for you." He tried to sound disinterested, but he knew that he wasn't quite able to hide the care and concern in his voice. It was a blatant lie, of course. Henry had kept his chambers spotless these past few days. Still, Merlin didn't need to know this information.
Merlin beamed at him, clearly aware of the unspoken words, as he struggled to arrange the blanket properly. "Thank you Arthur."
Arthur nodded once in acknowledgement and then quietly headed out of the room and back to his own chambers.
Gwen smiled to herself when she saw Arthur exiting Gaius' chambers shortly after she'd "dropped" some items outside of the door. It wasn't the most brilliant of plans, but it seemed to have done the trick. She waited until Arthur was completely gone before carrying the breakfast tray into the room. Arthur had ordered that food be delivered every morning and evening to Gaius and those assisting with Merlin's care shortly after Merlin had returned to Camelot in his current state, insisting that Gaius had more important things to be worrying about besides cooking.
She brought the tray of food over to the table and put it down on one of the only clear spots, being careful not to make any noise beyond what was absolutely necessary. Neither Gaius nor Hunith were up yet, and Gwen had no idea if Merlin was still awake. It was better to be safe then sorry.
She started to tidy up the room, putting all the non-essential items away. Gwen had grown disturbingly comfortable with the whereabouts and placement of most items in Gaius' workshop over the past few days, so she felt confident that Gaius would not have trouble finding anything she put away.
A couple minutes into her tidying, she heard a soft "Gwen?" and turned to look over at a smiling Merlin.
"Merlin," she responded, grinning herself, and immediately halting her actions so she could go sit with her friend instead.
She pulled the stool over to his bedside and made herself comfortable. "How are you feeling?" she asked, instantly reaching for his hand. Merlin offered it up willingly, giving her hand a little squeeze as he continued to smile up at her.
"I've been better. But I'm feeling okay. Good even," he informed her with the slightest of nods.
"I'm glad to hear it. And you slept well?"
This time he did nod. "Quite well," Merlin shared. It seemed for a moment like he wanted to say more, though Gwen wasn't sure what that was.
"And I'm sure Arthur slept well too," she added absently. It was only after the words had left her mouth, and she saw Merlin's eyes widen in confused shock, did she realise the error of her statement.
She fumbled to fix her mistake. "I mean, I'm sure he slept fine. Or at least as well as he normally sleeps. Not that I would know one way or the other, of course. But he was concerned about you and so I imagine that knowing that you were okay and no longer in danger of death would help him to sleep well. Which isn't to say that he wasn't sleeping well before-"
"Gwen!" Merlin cried out, and she instantly stopped her chattering to look at him.
"Yes?" she asked sheepishly and averted her gaze.
"What exactly are you talking about?" he queried, voice hesitant and questioning, but also tinged with a hint of amusement.
"Nothing," came the hasty reply. Maybe a little too hasty, Gwen thought with a barely concealed cringe.
Merlin narrowed his eyes slightly at her and studied her features as if trying to read her mind somehow. Gwen swallowed and tried to play it cool. She was a terrible liar, possibly even worse than Merlin, and she especially couldn't lie to him, it seemed.
"You saw us this morning, didn't you," Merlin finally asked, though it sounded more like a statement then a question.
For a moment Gwen contemplated trying to deny that she was aware of anything, but knew that it would be pointless anyway. Besides, Merlin was one of her dearest friends. He would not hold it against her.
"Yes!" she admitted loudly; too loudly. She clasped her hands over her mouth when she saw Merlin's eyes widen and shot him an apologetic look. Gwen peered behind her, holding her breath for a few moments as she waited for someone to emerge from the back room. When no one did, she turned back to Merlin.
"Sorry, yes, I did see you and…" her voice lowered significantly, "Arthur this morning. But no one else did, as far as I know. Of course, I only got here just at the crack of dawn so of course I can't say anything with any sort of certainty, but I think it's safe to conclude that I was the first and likely the only person to have seen you two…together…this morning."
"Well we weren't together together," Merlin found himself clarifying. "It was all quite harmless really. Arthur fell asleep here last night because he was too tired to walk back to his chambers." In spite of the fact that his face was mostly covered in cuts and bruises and it was hard to tell for sure, it sort of looked to Gwen like Merlin was blushing.
Gwen, for her part, didn't think much more of the situation. "Of course," she agreed readily, without a hint of doubt in her voice. "I'm just glad he was there for you. But I'd imagine you're probably still tired. And I should get to work."
"Okay," Merlin agreed, looking like he was ready for a second round of sleep. "But do me one favour?"
"You know I'd do anything for you," Gwen told him earnestly.
"Just…don't mention what you saw to anyone, please. Arthur wouldn't be too impressed if word got around, and I'm sure he'd find some way to blame me for it," Merlin requested.
Gwen chuckled lightly at his words. "Your secret is safe with me. Now get some rest."
Merlin nodded and rewarded her with his best tired smile before turning his head into the pillow and closing his eyes. Gwen clasped his hand between hers briefly before letting go and heading back out to fetch some water.
Merlin spent the rest of the entire day in bed, but by the next morning he was entirely finished with the healing process and was ready to get up and join the land of the living. Except that Gaius had informed him ever so sternly that he was still in no condition to be sitting up for extended periods of time, never mind wandering around like he owned the place. But Merlin, being Merlin, decided that Gaius was being overprotective and overly cautious, as he often was. So when Gaius went out later that day to run some errands, and his mother was out at the market, Merlin decided this was his opportunity to get out of bed, if only for a short period of time.
Really, he'd only wanted to go to his room, grab his magic book, and bring it back to bed. If he was going to be stuck there for several more days he needed something else to do beyond just sleep and stare at the wall. Gaius was too busy to engage in any deep conversations. And his mother had volunteered to assist Gaius in any way that she could while Merlin was still incapacitated. Surprisingly Gwen, Morgana and even Arthur had come by to visit with him at various points during the day yesterday. But it only took up a few hours of his time. Not nearly enough to satisfy Merlin.
So when the opportunity presented itself, Merlin knew that he'd be crazy not to take it. It took him a good five minutes to manoeuvre himself to the edge of the bed before he faced his next issue – sitting up. This, however, did not prove to be quite as challenging as he had anticipated. Merlin was able to roll onto his side fairly easily, though he couldn't quite seem to prevent the sharp pains that shot through his chest. Using his left hand to brace against the bed, he was able to push himself into a sitting position with only a moderate amount of effort.
His head swam for a few moments as he struggled to remain upright. Merlin closed his eyes, breathing heavily, and waited a couple minutes for the dizziness to pass. When it finally felt like the world was no longer spinning out of control, Merlin cautiously opened his eyes once again. One problem down, one to go.
This one, however, would prove to be a little riskier. Reaching for one of the stools near his bed, Merlin positioned it so it was directly in front of him. He bounced both feet on the floor, testing the mobility of his legs. They seemed to be moving all right. So it was with great bravado that Merlin attempted to stand up, using the side of his bed and the stool for support.
And he was doing all right at first. He was even able to take almost one full step before his legs gave out on him entirely. With all the grace of ox, Merlin fell forward onto the stool that was still in front of him and rolled off to the left to land with a painful thud on his side. It was possibly one of the most inelegant falls he'd ever had, and was silently grateful that no one had seen him. He was also tremendously thankful that he hadn't fallen flat on his face. The last thing he needed was more bruises. Except now Merlin had the terrible fate of lying helplessly on the floor until Gaius or his mother returned. And neither would be too thrilled with the sight that would greet them.
"Merlin, you idiot!" he heard from behind a minute or two later, and he was uncertain as to whether he should be terrified or relieved at the familiar voice.
"What the hell is wrong with you? You know what, don't answer that. We'd be here too long."
He heard an exasperated sigh and suddenly felt strong arms wrap around his shoulders. With a surprising amount of gentleness, considering how pissed off he sounded, Merlin felt Arthur pull him from the floor into a seated position, leaning the right side of his body against the prince. Merlin closed his eyes, feeling tremendously dizzy again all of a sudden. He instinctively rested his head against Arthur's shoulder.
"Are you all right?" Arthur demanded angrily, though Merlin could hear the worry in his voice and decided that perhaps this hadn't been the best plan after all.
"I-I'm fine," Merlin stuttered, feeling more than a little embarrassed. "I just…"
"Decided it would be a good idea to go for a leisurely stroll?" Arthur interjected, clearly irritated.
Merlin heaved a frustrated sigh. "No, I just couldn't stand staying in bed any more. Do you have any idea how boring it is?"
Arthur glared at the side of Merlin's face, but he trusted that his manservant knew him well enough to know that he was being glared at. "Can't say that I do," Arthur shot back with an eye roll, voice heavy-laden with sarcasm.
"Fine, so it wasn't the best idea I've ever had," Merlin reluctantly admitted after a brief pause.
So many potential insults filled Arthur's mind that he wasn't able to decide on which one to go with. He let out an incredulous snort instead, feeling that it got the same message across.
"Well let's get you back into bed," Arthur muttered a moment later, shifting his weight so he was crouching beside Merlin instead of kneeling on the floor.
Merlin nodded, opening his eyes once again. He was about to plant his feet to help Arthur with the process when he suddenly felt an arm snake behind his knees. And in one swift motion, Arthur had lifted him entirely off the floor. "Arthur, what are you doing?" Merlin cried out as he started walking around to the other side of the bed.
"What does it look like I'm doing? Clearly you're not capable of walking, and I'm not in the mood to fight you on this," Arthur informed him, annoyed.
And as fate would have it, it was at that very moment that Gaius returned from his errands. "Merlin, what happened?" he demanded, hurrying over to the bed.
Arthur lowered Merlin onto the bed and shot him an irritated smirk, like only he was capable of. Merlin sighed. "I was bored. I just wanted to get something to read," he started, but Gaius immediately interrupted.
"And you couldn't have just asked someone to fetch you a book?"
"Yes, well, but no one was here."
"You idiot!" Gaius exclaimed, both eyebrows shooting up towards the ceiling.
"That's what I said," Arthur decided to interject. Merlin shot him a look that clearly expressed his displeasure with the comment.
"Of all the stupid things you've done…" Gaius just shook his head. "Sometimes I really wonder if you do have some sort of mental affliction Merlin."
Arthur couldn't help but smirk momentarily. He was pretty sure he would never tire of hearing about Merlin's 'mental affliction'.
Gaius immediately began to examine Merlin, checking bandages and injuries and mumbling to himself as he worked. "You're lucky that his Highness was here to help. And that I'd forgotten something. Otherwise, you could have been lying on the floor for hours. Really, Merlin. I thought even you had more sense then this."
Merlin sighed, but wisely chose to remain silent. Mental affliction or not, he could still recognise when he was in trouble, and this was one of those times.
As Gaius continued to work, removing Merlin's shirt so he could examine his wounds, Arthur saw the bandages and bruising and swelling on his friend's body, and he suddenly started to feel uncomfortable. The sight of the physical damage done to his manservant once again caused a hot pit of rage to begin boiling in his blood. Arthur felt his hands involuntarily clench into tight fists as he continued to stare, and suddenly he knew he needed to get out of there.
"Well, if my services are no longer required here, I should be heading off," Arthur addressed the occupants of the room, though his eyes were still glued to Merlin's chest.
"Thank you, sire," Gaius said warmly.
Arthur physically tore his gaze away from Merlin to look up at Gaius. He nodded quickly. "It was no problem." And turned to leave.
But a hand on his wrist stopped him, the warmth of the touch instantly sending a chill through Arthur's body. Arthur cast his gaze down to meet Merlin's. He looked confused and a little concerned. "I'll be okay," he practically whispered, and it felt like words that were only meant for Arthur to hear. Which served no real purpose, seeing as how Gaius was standing right there. Yet Gaius did not respond at all; didn't give any indication that he had even heard the words in the first place. He just continued on with his examination. Still, something about the tone Merlin had used seemed to have a calming effect on Arthur, and he felt the tension slip away from his body as his hands unclenched, almost of their own volition.
"All right," was all he could manage to say in response.
Merlin released his grasp on Arthur's wrist but didn't immediately let go. It wasn't until Arthur made to leave that Merlin let his hand slip back to the bed, but not before letting his fingers lightly graze over Arthur's wrist. Arthur left the room feeling both annoyed and a little confused.
Three days later, Hunith decided that it was time for her to return to Ealdor.
"But mum, I don't see why you can't stay for a couple more days, at least," Merlin insisted, swinging his feet around the side of the bed and coming to a sitting position. She had been packing up all morning and Merlin had been persistently trying to convince her to stay. So far all of his attempts had failed.
"You know I have responsibilities back home. People counting on me," Hunith told him, smiling softly and sitting across from her son. "I'll be back to visit before you know it."
Merlin scowled. "Don't you think it's a little dangerous to be traveling right now?" He didn't want her to go, but Merlin also didn't want to see his mother put herself at any unnecessary risk either.
"Arthur is sending two knights along to escort me home. I'll be perfectly safe," she told him, not for the first time that day.
Truth be told, Merlin had been extremely grateful to Arthur for the gesture. It was rare for a knight of Camelot to be sent to accompany villagers on their travels unless there was a known risk to said villagers. And even then, it was extremely rare for two knights to be sent along, unless the group was particularly large. But Arthur had absolutely insisted, and Merlin certainly wasn't going to fight him on it. Part of him suspected that it was Arthur's way of trying to make up for not being there for Merlin in the first place. Which was mildly absurd, considering it certainly wasn't Arthur's job to protect Merlin. In addition to the fact that he had no idea what was going to happen.
Either way, though, the gesture also ensured that Merlin had no argument against his mother. She would most definitely be safe on her travel home. So with that in mind, he decided to try a different tactic instead. "But I'm still only part way through my recovery. I'm sure Gaius could use your help for another couple of days," Merlin tried, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his thighs and grace his mother with one of his most charming smiles. It used to work on her all the time when he was a small child, and hoped that it would still be a success.
But instead of being charmed, Hunith just chuckled lightly, eyes alight with amusement. She got up and moved to sit beside her son on the bed, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and gently pulling him to her in a partial hug. "You'll be just fine, my boy. You have Gaius and Arthur and Gwen and Morgana to look after you. You're very fortunate to have friends that care so greatly for you," Hunith revealed earnestly, planting a ginger kiss on the top of Merlin's head.
"I know," Merlin admitted reluctantly after a moment's pause. He really was incredibly blessed, but that didn't mean he wanted his mother to leave just yet because of that fact.
"Once you're feeling better, maybe you can come out to visit me," Hunith suggested, letting her arm fall back down to the bed and pulling back to actually look her son in the eyes.
If Arthur allows me the time off, he thought to himself. But to her he responded: "All right mum" and wrapped her up in a gentle hug, watching sadly as she returned to packing once again.
It was almost three weeks after the initial incident that Merlin was scheduled to return to work for Arthur. That morning the prince had been up uncharacteristically early, though he was utterly insistent with himself that it was due to the draft in the room, and had absolutely nothing to do with the anticipation of having his old manservant return.
Henry had just finished serving him breakfast and was putting away laundry when he heard a knock on the door, followed immediately by the creaking of said door as it opened. Seconds later, Merlin entered the room with a hesitant smile. He moved a little slower than usual, but didn't show any obvious signs of physical distress otherwise. Arthur made a mental note to go easy on him for a couple of days anyway, just in case.
"Since when do you knock?" Arthur asked as way of a greeting.
"I thought it might be fun to throw you off?" Merlin offered with a grin. He left the door open and wandered over to where Arthur sat at the table, leaning casually against one of the nearby chairs. "Don't worry. I won't make it a habit," he assured the man.
Arthur tried to remain stoic throughout the exchange, but he was having difficulties maintaining that expression. "I wouldn't expect anything less," Arthur shared truthfully with a smile in his manservant's direction.
An unintentional cough alerted both men to the fact that Henry was actually still in the room. Arthur had momentarily forgotten, but Merlin hadn't even known that he was there to begin with and apparently hadn't noticed his presence until now. Merlin glanced briefly at the other occupant of the room and then averted his eyes, looking almost embarrassed. Arthur twisted in his chair to look at the boy who had a half folded shirt in his arms and wore an incredulous expression.
Arthur supposed that the boy was shocked by the ease and nature of his conversation with Merlin. It was certainly far more casual than any of the conversations that he'd had with Henry over the past couple of weeks. And while there was nothing blatantly disrespectful or disobedient about their interaction, it was not how a master typically interacted with his servant. Perhaps one of his knights or a friend of equal social status, but not a servant, and that much was evident in Henry's expression.
"Erm, hello Henry," Arthur heard Merlin greet his fellow servant after a moment's pause.
Henry nodded politely in Merlin's direction but remained silent otherwise. He glanced between Merlin, Arthur and the shirt in his arms, almost as if he was uncertain what to do, before finally settling on resuming his previous task of folding the prince's laundry.
Arthur watched him for a moment before finally seeking his attention. "Henry," he said authoritatively.
The servant looked up at him quickly, then averted his gaze once again. "Yes, sire?"
"You are dismissed. Merlin will be resuming his former duties, effective immediately," he informed the boy. He could feel Merlin staring at him, but refused to acknowledge the fact. Henry looked up at him, and if he was feeling anything resembling shock or disappointment, he did not let it show on his features.
"Yes, sire. It has been an honour," He said with a slight bow.
"Thank you. I will put in a good word for you," Arthur informed him, then waved a hand dismissively, signifying the end of their conversation.
Henry opened his mouth as if to speak again, then appeared to decide against that course of action, clamping his jaw shut once more with an appreciative nod. He placed the shirt carefully on the foot of Arthur's bed before scurrying past Merlin and shutting the door behind him.
Merlin couldn't quite contain the chuckle that slipped past his lips. "An honour," he muttered, mostly to himself, but Arthur still heard anyway. He tried not to roll his eyes.
"You could learn a thing or two about respect from him, Merlin," Arthur drawled in that tone he usually reserved exclusively for his manservant. If Arthur wanted to dwell on the matter, he might be forced to recognise that there were a hell of a lot of things that he reserved solely for Merlin, and an equally large amount of things he allowed Merlin to get away with. Thankfully he wasn't dwelling on the fact at the moment. And he clearly wasn't fooling anyone, as Merlin's wide grin stated as much.
"Yes, but then you wouldn't have anyone to tell you when you were being a prat. Balance must be maintained, after all," he declared cheekily, amusement dancing in his blue eyes.
Arthur didn't even bother trying to stop the eye roll this time. "I don't recall anything about insulting your prince in your job description."
"Oh no? Well I'm sure it must be in there somewhere. If not, it probably should be," Merlin shot back sarcastically, smiling from ear to ear.
Arthur raised both of his eyebrows. He was relieved to note that while Merlin was still recovering physically, mentally he was as sharp tongued as ever. "Look around you. This place has never been cleaner," Arthur retorted, lifting his brows humorously and sweeping his arm out to display his chambers.
So Merlin did look. And it did not take him a long time to see for himself that Arthur was correct. Everything was exactly where it was supposed to be, the floor was almost clean enough to eat off of, and there was no dirty laundry in sight. But he apparently wasn't about to give up this fight just yet. "In spite of all that, you still missed me," he stated plainly, not even bothering to pretend it had been a question.
Arthur watched Merlin through guarded eyes, one hand scratching his chin thoughtfully before he leaned forward in his throne, pressing his palms into the armrests of the chair and pushing himself gracefully into a standing position. He strolled leisurely towards Merlin, an amused expression on his face and a mischievous glint in his eyes. Arthur stopped a couple feet short of Merlin and reached out to gently clasp onto his shoulder.
"Welcome back," he said, breath a puff of warm air against Merlin's ear. He remained there for a moment or two longer than what was strictly necessary before pulling away and walking towards the door.
"Well come on Merlin, we've got a lot to do today," he added, grinning in satisfaction.
There were two things that Merlin quickly discovered after being back on the job for a few days. The first was that in spite of giving him a lot of work to do, Arthur was going easy on him physically. There was never a shortage of laundry to fold, shirts to mend, or armour to polish. But when it came to heavy lifting tasks or chores that required a great deal of walking up and down the castle stairs, Merlin found that they mysteriously were done before he ever had a chance to even start. Which Merlin quite quickly decided that he appreciated, given the fact that he still got somewhat winded climbing any given set of castle stairs. He even had to stop and rest the first couple of times he'd attempted them.
The second thing that Merlin had learned upon returning to his former position was that in spite of being considerate of his physical limitations, Arthur seemed determined to keep him busy every second of every day. And when he wasn't charged with mending laundry or sweeping a floor that should never be able to get that dirty overnight, Arthur questioned him incessantly about what he was doing on the rare moments of free time that he was permitted to have.
Merlin was incredibly happy to be back at work again after weeks of being holed up in the workshop. He hated lying around feeling useless, but Gaius had kept a close watch over him. He missed mingling with the other servants and getting informed of all the gossip, though he most certainly would not admit that to anyone else. Merlin missed going for evening strolls with Gwen and being tutored in chess by Morgana (who also shared delightfully embarrassing stories about Arthur in his youth). Perhaps most of all, though, he missed Arthur. In spite of everything the prat put him through, Merlin usually enjoyed his company and the unique friendship that they shared. And even though there were times when Merlin wanted to strangle him with his bare hands, he knew that he belonged at Arthur's side. So when Gaius had finally given him the okay to return to his former duties – with some obvious restrictions, of course – Merlin had jumped at the chance.
And he suspected that Gaius was equally thrilled to get Merlin out of his hair, though of course his mentor had vehemently denied any such thing with a not so carefully concealed smirk. Merlin had been beyond bored during his recovery, and there was only so much time he could spend reading each day before his eyes started to cross and his vision started to blur. So he'd taken to trying to assist Gaius with his work. Except that Merlin was even clumsier than usual (If that were even possible, his inner Arthur voice piped up) and spent more time dropping and losing things than being any sort of help at all. Gaius had been a good sport about it, of course, but Merlin was certain he'd heard a few "unbelievable"s and "how is this possible?"s, and more than a couple comments about his undiagnosed mental deficiency.
So Merlin had assumed that after nearly three weeks of recovery, it would be in everyone's best interest for him to return to his position as Arthur's manservant. Except that after barely three days of putting up with Arthur's bizarre behaviour, Merlin was starting to rethink his original enthusiasm.
"So you're planning to what, wander around aimlessly in the middle of nowhere and just hope that you don't run into trouble?" Arthur asked, arms folded across his chest and expression deliberately guarded.
They were in Arthur's chambers after attending a particularly long council meeting that afternoon that Arthur had essentially forced Merlin to attend. If Arthur had to suffer through the boredom, then apparently so did his manservant. Even though Arthur usually gave him the afternoon off in similar situations. So after having spent the whole day engaged in various meetings and his usual chores, Merlin was seriously hoping that Arthur would give him some time off that evening. He'd even made plans ahead of time. However, this was not the reaction he was expecting when he'd informed Arthur of said plans.
Merlin blinked, wondering if he'd heard wrong. "I believe what I said was that Gwen and I were going to go for a short walk this evening to collect some herbs." And pick flowers, if they found any, he added mentally. But Arthur didn't need to know that minor detail.
"And where are these herbs?" Arthur immediately queried.
"Just south of Camelot on the outskirts of the city."
"That seems like an awfully far way to go just for some herbs."
Merlin shook his head in confusion at Arthur's questions. This really wasn't all that complicated. "Not really," he said with a shrug. "I've travelled further for less. So have you, actually," he added, suddenly reminded of the lengths Arthur had gone to in order to retrieve the Morteaus flower for him.
Arthur folded his arms across his chest, the beginnings of a scowl making its way onto his features. "Can't Gaius go collect these plants? Don't you need to rest?"
"Gaius is busy preparing some sort of concoction for one of the visiting Lords who came down with the stomach flu. And I'm not a complete invalid. I am capable of collecting a few herbs for an hour," Merlin politely informed his prince, right hand reaching up to absently scratch the back of his neck.
Arthur snorted in a manner unbefitting for the future King of Camelot. "Well that last part is debatable. But I just remembered that I need you to sharpen my sword. And you haven't shined my armour in at least a couple days. Honestly, what would people say if they discovered that their future King had dull equipment?"
Merlin bit down on his lip to keep from speaking too quickly. Getting pelted with vegetables in the stocks wouldn't exactly be conducive to his recovery. "But I shined your armour yesterday morning!" Merlin exclaimed irritably.
"Well then you must have done a shoddy job, because it needs to be done again," Arthur shot back in a tone that almost dared Merlin to object.
"But you gave me the evening off," he tried again.
"That was before I remembered that I still had more chores for you to complete."
And Merlin was suddenly incredibly tempted to turn Arthur into a toad. Honestly, he was being a complete buffoon about the whole thing. But instead he put on his best scowl. "Yes, sire," he managed to bite out before stalking off to carry out his newly assigned duties like a proper manservant. Gwen would just have to go without him.
Things did not improve over the next couple of days. And in fact, started to get even worse. Merlin, for the life of him, could not figure out what was going on with Arthur. He'd dealt with Arthur's sour moods before. He'd dealt with Arthur completely ignoring him for days on end. But he'd never once had to deal with this before…whatever it was. It seemed to Merlin that perhaps Arthur was working on perfecting a new sort of torture method. One that involved working someone to death. It was all very likely, when he looked at the evidence.
After their conversation about Merlin going out to gather herbs, Arthur seemed to increase the workload even more. It wasn't that Merlin was being given physically challenging chores, but he was being made to do more of the menial work. If Merlin finished something too quickly, Arthur would ridicule him and insist it be done again, properly this time. If all the laundry had been folded and put away, Arthur would suddenly find another pile that needed to be cleaned. Merlin was beginning to suspect that Arthur was a magician himself, considering the amount of clothes that he was now charged with cleaning, mending and folding. And Arthur was beginning to develop strange cravings at weird times of the day, sending Merlin to the kitchen whenever he fancied, even in the middle of the night once. Plus, Merlin was still attending every meeting and banquet and anything else Arthur could think of to keep him occupied.
Merlin, for his part, was making it painfully clear that he was not impressed with Arthur's odd behaviour. But for all his complaining, Arthur didn't seem to be overly interested in his manservant's concerns.
"Is there anything else I can do for you before your council meeting, sire?" Merlin asked, as Arthur was finishing up a late lunch. A week had passed since Merlin had returned to work. A week had also passed since the last time he'd really had any time to himself, and he was hoping that Arthur might give him the afternoon off for a change.
Arthur seemed to consider this for a moment before meeting Merlin's gaze and nodding. "The stables haven't been mucked out in a while," he said as way of response.
"You're kidding, right?" Merlin asked, sounding slightly stunned.
"Do I look like I'm kidding?"
Merlin sighed and moved to retrieve the tray he had used to bring Arthur his lunch. "I kind of meant the question as a formality only. I was hoping that you would give me the rest of the afternoon off."
Arthur cocked a brow. "And what would make you think I'd do that?"
"Because I haven't had any time off in a week," Merlin offered, trying to keep his anger in check.
"You have every night to yourself," Arthur replied easily. He looked like he was about to speak again, but then put a final forkful of lunch into his mouth instead.
"I haven't had a single night to myself this whole week, actually," Merlin pointed out, not even bothering to hide his annoyance any longer. "Next thing I know, you'll be insisting I sleep here too," he grumbled as he started to pile the dirty lunch dishes back on to a tray.
"Don't be absurd, Merlin," Arthur retorted incredulously, as if it were an utterly preposterous idea.
"Well I'm here pretty much all hours of the day as it is. I might as well be here at night too. I'm sure you could find something to keep me occupied with while you're sleeping as well," Merlin short back cheekily, not even caring that he was probably treading into dangerous territory. But he was getting sick and tired of Arthur's behaviour and he needed to be aware of this fact.
"You must really miss the stocks," Arthur commented, voice carrying a stern warning that said: you'd better watch your next words or you will end up in the stocks.
But of course Merlin paid the warning no heed. "At least I'd be able to see the outdoors again. What season are we in again?"
This carried on for several more rounds, as was often the case with the two of them. Merlin was absolutely certain that any of the servants or nobility would have been horrified – both by the lack of respect Merlin was showing to his master, and by the lack of discipline Arthur was inflicting on his manservant – but Merlin just couldn't bring himself to care.
Finally Arthur seemed to tire of the whole argument and threw his hands up in defeat. "Fine, if you're so miserable working for me and need some time to catch up on your beauty rest then take the afternoon off. Hell, take the whole night off, for all I care."
And that was that. Except that there was something in Arthur's tone that had Merlin puzzled. He'd sounded annoyed and frustrated, but there was another emotion wrapped up in the mix that Merlin couldn't quite identify. Still, now was not the time to sit around and contemplate this mystery. Merlin knew that if he didn't leave now, he might not get this opportunity again any time in the near future.
He grabbed the now full tray and headed to the door without another word. Merlin was almost out of the room before Arthur stopped him to provide him with another list of things to do "if he had time." Which meant that it "most definitely and absolutely needed to get done." It was a bittersweet victory in the end, Merlin felt.
"I don't understand what the hell is wrong with him," Arthur found himself muttering a couple hours later as he searched through his closet for a shirt to wear for the council meeting that evening. He probably shouldn't have dismissed Merlin so quickly, but really, he was getting sick and tired of hearing him whine and he was more than capable of dressing himself for an evening.
A short time after his manservant had padded away with a long list of chores to keep him occupied, Morgana had decided to make an unexpected appearance in his chambers. She'd originally arrived to yell at Arthur for something, he was sure, but in all honesty he hadn't really been listening. Somehow Arthur had managed, as he often did, to twist the conversation until they weren't even talking about the original issue any longer. The prince wasn't entirely sure how they'd gotten onto the topic of Merlin, but it seemed to be a common theme as of late.
"Well he does have to deal with you," Morgana pointed out cheekily, shooting him a mischievous smirk. She was perched on the edge of his table, arms folded loosely across her chest in a casual manner as she watched Arthur sift through clothing. "That right there could explain everything."
Arthur's eyes narrowed slightly in annoyance. "Your sense of humour never ceases to amuse me," he deadpanned, pulling a brown shirt out of the closet and staring it down. Maybe if he looked at it long enough, it would help him make a decision.
Morgana laughed lightly, but sobered quickly. "I'm not really sure what your issue is. What exactly has Merlin done that's got you so worked up?"
"The better question is what hasn't he done this past week?" Arthur shot back. He returned the brown shirt to the closet, deciding that it wasn't going to work, and turned to actually face Morgana, squaring his shoulders defensively.
"I'm going to need more to work on than that," she let him know with a false air of civility.
Arthur held up a hand, prepared to tick off every point he was about to make on a different finger. "For starters, he's been slower and even more clumsy than usual, if that's even possible. He's completely off in his own little world half the time. He complains non-stop about every little thing I give him to do…"
Morgana shot him an incredulous look and shook her head lightly, a firm frown planted on her face. "Oh, well, it's not as though he just recovered from death or anything. Of course he should be absolutely and completely back to normal by now." Arthur was almost certain that there were no words that could ever spill from another mouth that oozed more sarcastic venom than Morgana's. It was almost a talent, really.
"You wanted me to tell you why Merlin's been a terrible servant lately, so don't go getting huffy on me when I answer your questions," he managed to grumble out, unable to hide his annoyance even though he knew full well she was baiting him.
"Oh please," Morgana scoffed, rolling her eyes and waving a hand dismissively through the air. "Merlin has always been a terrible servant. We both know that his skills, or lack thereof, are not the reason why you keep him around and why you will continue to keep him around."
Arthur detected a sort of challenge in the woman's words, like she was daring him to disagree with her just so they could start another fight. He also noted a faint accusation in the tone of voice, like she knew some delectable secret that he didn't, and it was annoying. Arthur sure as hell knew what she was trying to imply, but he was most certainly not going to give her the satisfaction of responding to it in any way. He also was not going to acknowledge the slight quickening of his heart at her words. It was merely nerves and frustration.
Instead, he decided to return to his closet for a second look. Arthur shuffled through a couple more shirts and frowned. Honestly, he didn't even realize he had this many options. When had he lost track of his own wardrobe? It was mind-boggling, really. What would be the most appropriate for him to wear? The red silk shirt? The black one? Usually Arthur just let Merlin narrow down the choices and then he'd pick from there. Funny how everything in his life seemed to lead back to Merlin somehow these days. He decided that line of thought wasn't worth pursuing.
"What else?" he heard from behind, and turned his head to find Morgana standing directly behind him.
Morgana rolled her eyes. "Don't shoot me that dumb look. I know you know what I mean." She shoved him gently out of the way and began rifling through the same shirts that Arthur had been searching through since she'd entered his chambers. "What else has Merlin done to upset you?"
Arthur instinctively took a step back from his pseudo-sister, watching with only mild interest as she quickly rooted through his clothes as though she were looking for a particular article of clothing. "He complains when I give him extra work to do when he's off duty, since he wasn't able to get everything done during the day."
"You give him work to do when he's on his free time?" Morgana queried, voice accusatory as she glanced quickly back at Arthur. "Well it's no wonder he complains then. Can you really blame him?"
Arthur made no qualms about heaving an exaggerated sigh. "His job is as a servant. And as a servant, he is supposed to serve me. It is not my fault that he's incompetent and needs extra time to complete tasks a trained monkey could do."
Morgana rolled her eyes as she pulled a shirt from the cabinet and whirled around to face him. "And I suppose it never occurred to you that he might need a bit more time to get things done considering everything he's been through? Why can't you get someone else to pick up his slack for a little while?" she asked, shoving the shirt at Arthur's chest until he reluctantly grabbed it from her hands.
Arthur felt his jaw fall open slightly, but no words came out. He supposed that in some ways, she was absolutely right. Arthur could easily have obtained a second servant to help Merlin. Hell, he could have kept Henry on a couple weeks longer and at least known that everything would be well taken care of. But then Merlin wouldn't have been around. And Arthur would have no way of keeping track of him. In case…well, he wasn't quite sure of what the "in case" entailed. But it was for Merlin's own good that he was doing all of this, he reasoned, and not because Arthur felt a stab of fear run through him every time he didn't know where Merlin was.
"I'm barely giving him any work as it is," Arthur argued, knowing it was a losing battle before he even began. Still, it was better than nothing. "What kind of example would I be setting if I hired another servant to pick up after my original servant?" He paused, then added as an afterthought, "Besides, I did have some of the other servants do some of the more physical tasks for the first few days Merlin was back at work."
And when Morgana shot him a hard glare, Arthur took this opportunity to actually look at the shirt she had handed to him. It was one of his many red shirts made of some sort of soft material. Possibly silk. It was formal, but comfortable enough to wear for the duration of the council meeting. He absently fingered the material, staring at it as though it were the most fascinating shirt he had ever laid eyes on.
"So you what – decided to send him away for the evening with a bunch of chores instead?" she asked, brushing past Arthur and walking towards the window.
Arthur glanced up, watching Morgana elegantly sashay across the room before placing the shirt carefully onto his bed and following behind her. "I didn't give him that much to do. And really, if he'd start even pretending to be a decent servant, I wouldn't have this problem at all."
"And you wonder why he complains," Morgana declared, glancing outside for a moment before turning to face Arthur, who had moved to stand beside the unlit fireplace, clearly keeping a safe distance from her. "Have you ever considered that maybe Merlin might have other things he wants to do on his own time besides looking after you?"
"What could be more important than me?" Arthur asked arrogantly, throwing a smirk in Morgana's direction. But the truth gnawed at him for several moments until he gave into the compulsion to add, "He'd only get himself into trouble anyway."
"And I'm sure Merlin agrees with you completely on this?" she queried, tilting her head to glance out the window once more. But in spite of being turned away from him, Arthur could tell that Morgana was deep in thought by the way the lines in her forehead creased ever so slightly. He'd known her long enough to recognize the signs.
Arthur considered this for a moment. It was obvious to Morgana without him having to say anything that she already knew the answer to the question. Still, he debated lying anyway, if only to throw her off the scent. Arthur suspected that she was starting to come to some sort of conclusion, and he really didn't want to think about what that would be. "He makes it sound like I'm doing it to purposely ruin his plans," Arthur admitted truthfully, a hint of exasperation in his voice.
"And are you?" Morgana shot back, raising a questioning eyebrow.
Arthur frowned, shaking his head indignantly. "That's absurd!"
"Is it though?"
"Of course it is," Arthur insisted, folding his arms defensively across his chest.
"I don't understand why you're so insistent on forcing Merlin to work every second of every day. Unless…" she trailed off thoughtfully, absently bringing a finger up to her mouth and tapping her bottom lip. And suddenly, without any fanfare or pretence, Morgana's entire demeanour seemed to shift ever so slightly to something that was less outraged and more… soft. She dropped her hand to the side once more and turned to directly face Arthur again, a small smile on her mouth.
Arthur instantly became suspicious, and it was with great trepidation that he prodded her with, "Unless?"
"Oh this all makes perfect sense now. Why didn't I figure this out to begin with?" Morgana seemed to be talking to herself, completely ignoring Arthur's firm glare as she began to pace back and forth across the room.
"What are you going on about now?"
But she easily and readily ignored him. "All the evidence is there. It just took me a while to piece everything together. I just can't believe I missed the obvious…"
"What are you talking about?" Arthur demanded, this time grabbing onto Morgana's arm and turning her to face him. This whole conversation was ridiculous to begin with, but Arthur knew that things were quickly spiralling out of control. Morgana's eyes darted to his hand on her arm and back to his angry face before speaking.
"This is all your doing with Merlin." She looked at him meaningfully, eyes imploring, like she was attempting to impart some incredible wisdom on him. Except that she very much wasn't.
Arthur closed his eyes briefly and took a deep breath, attempting to try and make sense of the insanity that was Morgana. "What?" was all he could come up with after a moment's pause.
She gently pulled her arm free of Arthur's grasp and then moved to stand a few feet away from him. Arthur couldn't be sure if she was purposely trying to create distance between them for her own personal safety, but he suspected that it was probably a smart plan either way.
A hesitant breath escaped past her lips before Morgana launched into her explanation. "Look – the fact that you're keeping Merlin around you every second of the day…the fact that you ensure he can't wander off anywhere when you're not there…the fact that you're so distracted you can't even pick out a shirt to wear," she emphasized that last part in particular while Arthur tried not to cringe, "the fact that most, if not all, of your conversations tend to lead back to Merlin in some way these days…does none of this tell you anything?"
She held her arms out in front of her, palms facing the ceiling as her eyes bore into his, clearly waiting for him to come to some sort of discovery or realisation on his own.
Arthur felt each word like a tiny jab to his heart, poking and prodding and trying to make sense of all of the jumbled thoughts and emotions that had coursed through his veins over the past several weeks. But whatever it was that Morgana was ultimately implying, he still wasn't quite sure. It was all a bit too much for his mind to handle at the moment, though Arthur knew he'd been avoiding these thoughts for weeks now. It would only be a matter of time until he was forced to bring them to the surface, but now was not it. All Arthur knew for certain was that a heavy weight sat firmly in his gut when Merlin was gone, and that even when they were arguing about something or engaged in some sort of silent battle, everything was somehow better when Merlin was by his side.
But all he really wanted to do was deny all of Morgana's claims. Not because they weren't true, but because they absolutely and frighteningly were. He opted for the safer option, the cowardly one, instead. "It tells me that I need to get a new manservant?"
Morgana shot him a look that made it very clear that she was displeased with his answer. "You can't really be that thick. You need to come to this realisation on your own, Arthur. But you can't keep denying the truth forever," came her sage response, and it irritated the hell out of Arthur.
He stepped forward, purposely invading Morgana's personal space and threw his hands up in sheer aggravation. "I asked you for your help with this situation and all you've done is insult me. Not to mention reached some sort of brilliant conclusion that you refuse to share. How am I supposed to even come close to knowing what goes on in that little brain of yours?"
Morgana shrugged nonchalantly, but there was a sort of heaviness in the action. "Well, you might want to try and figure it out soon. Before Merlin realizes he's had enough and decides you're not worth the effort any longer."
And with that Morgana was sweeping out of his chambers, leaving no trace that she'd ever been there, save for the feelings of confusion, dread, and fear that now raced through his mind.
"I don't think I can do this any more," Merlin announced as he hobbled into the workshop, arms loaded with laundry and armour and various other items. He stalked towards the corner of the room and dumped everything into a pile on the floor.
Gaius raised an eyebrow. "You can't do what any more?" he asked, somewhat wearily.
"Be Arthur's manservant," Merlin informed his mentor, joining him at the table where he was preparing various medicines.
"And why might that be?"
Merlin scrunched his face into a partial scowl. "Because he's making me crazy. He has me busy doing things from dawn until dusk. I think I've sat through more boring meetings this entire week than I ever have before. Arthur's armour is so clean you could eat off of it. And he has me doing laundry non-stop. It's almost as if he's purposely getting things dirty so I have to clean them. I barely have time to sleep, let alone any time to myself any more." He huffed a petulant sigh and leaned forward to rest his chin on his propped arms. "What do I do Gaius?"
The older man eyed his young protégé with a bemused look. "I don't suppose you've tried discussing your concerns with him?" Gaius asked in that bordering-on-patronizing tone that he seemed to specifically reserve for Merlin.
"Well of course I've tried bringing it up," he declared adamantly, shooting Gaius a pointed stare.
A single brow shot up into the physician's forehead. "And what happened?"
"He changes the subject and gives me even more work to do. It's unbelievable!" Merlin cried, throwing his hands up in the air for good measure. "And, whenever he does give me some free time, he questions me about every little thing I'm doing. Like he needs to know exactly where I'm going to be every second of every day. It's bizarre and I don't understand why he's being like this."
"That is quite odd," Gaius admitted, though he sounded neither concerned nor perplexed in the least. In fact, his tone seemed to hold an air of clarity, like he understood something that Merlin didn't. Gaius always did that to Merlin, and he found it particularly annoying today, when he was looking for support and advice from his mentor.
"Why is he doing this to me? Does he really dislike me that much?" Merlin muttered warily and let himself flop forward on the table, splaying his arms out and resting his forehead on the wooden surface.
"One thing I have learned in all my years of dealing with Arthur is that he rarely acts without reason and conviction," Gaius finally shared as he gathered up the various bottles littering the table and placed them into a small brown pouch.
Merlin raised his forehead from the tabletop and tilted his head to face his mentor, resting his cheek against the top of his arm. "And that helps me how?"
"You may not understand his motives, but I can guarantee you that there is a logical reason behind his behaviour," Gaius told him sagely, and then proceeded to place the bag of medicine beside his moping friend. "When you're finished moping, would you drop these off for me?"
Merlin rolled his eyes and nodded awkwardly against his arm. He needed to talk to Arthur. And soon. But first, he had a few things to take care of.
"I need to talk to you," were the first words out of Merlin's mouth when he barged into Arthur's room later that evening.
Similarly to the last time this happened, Arthur was sitting in his chair, drinking a cup of wine and trying to relax by the fire. Though really, relaxing wasn't quite the word he would use. More like thinking. A lot. About his manservant.
And if he weren't so utterly used to Merlin's insolence and insubordination, he might have been thoroughly annoyed (if not the least bit embarrassed) at the unexpected interruption. But he was more than used to it, as it were, and had almost even come to expect this sort of thing from Merlin.
All the same, he wasn't quite able to hide the slight exasperation in his tone. "Haven't we already had this conversation?" he asked with raised brows.
But Merlin just shook his head, a look of determination written across his face, and stalked his way over to where Arthur leisurely sat. "Not this particular one, no."
Arthur folded his arms coolly and stared hard at his manservant. "And what makes you think that I'm just going to drop what I'm doing because you insist on having another girly conversation?"
Merlin stared blankly at him, mouth gaping open in incredulous shock. "You're kidding, right? You're sitting here doing nothing. How is this an inconvenience to you in any way?"
"Talking to you is naturally an inconvenience," Arthur shot back harshly, but immediately regretted the words he'd let slip out. This was about the furthest thing from the truth, but Arthur did not appreciate being backed into a corner, no matter who it was, and sometimes reacted unfavourably.
The scowl on Merlin's face deepened significantly and he couldn't quite hide the gleam of hurt that briefly flickered in his eyes. Arthur did his best not to react to his manservant, and instead decided to change the subject.
"Didn't I give you the night off?" he asked carefully.
Merlin visibly rolled his eyes. "If you consider giving me a huge stack of laundry and a long list of tasks to complete before morning the night off, then sure." The sarcasm in his words was painfully obvious.
"Well if you weren't so incompetent then I wouldn't need to give you things to do on your own time," Arthur shot back haughtily.
"That's not the real reason why you're doing this and we both know it," Merlin stated firmly, voice both challenging and certain. He leaned back against the table, palms resting against the surface to support his weight and shot Arthur a meaningful look.
Arthur wasn't entirely sure what to think about that accusation. He found he was doing just fine not analyzing his own behaviour lately. Except when Morgana was around and had the uncanny ability to force him to confront things that he'd kind of prefer to not. Which suddenly made Arthur wonder if Merlin had been speaking to Morgana recently. But considering it had only been a few hours since their conversation, that was unlikely. This line of thought was interrupted when he heard Merlin obviously clear his throat, and realised then that his friend was still waiting for a response to the statement that he hadn't quite figured out how to answer just yet.
So he did what came naturally. He chose to play dumb in an attempt to force Merlin to say what he was really thinking. "Oh really? And why do you say that?"
Merlin let out a barely audible huff before folding his arms to mirror Arthur's body position. "You've sent me away with long lists of things to get done before morning every day this week."
"That's nothing unusual," Arthur pointed out, and it actually wasn't.
Merlin did not look convinced in the least. "It is when you do it every single day for a week straight," Merlin shot back, blue eyes sparkling with frustration and staring him down. Arthur had to forcibly tear his eyes away.
"It's not my fault that you're incapable of getting things done in a reasonable time." Arthur did not look at Merlin, but he could almost feel the scowl radiating from him. But that didn't stop Arthur from pushing forward, all the same. "And by the way, if you spent less time complaining and more time working, then maybe I wouldn't have to give you extra chores to complete on your own time."
Merlin continued to glare, but made no attempt to move from his perch on the edge of the table. "And if you weren't such a royal arse, then maybe I wouldn't have to complain in the first place," he stated plainly.
Arthur had half a mind to send him to the stocks for the comment on principle alone, but he knew they would need to have this conversation eventually. So there was no point in postponing the inevitable. Still, it was tempting, given the amount of insubordination Merlin had already displayed in the short amount of time he'd been in Arthur's presence. And the way he'd been feeling decidedly uneasy since Merlin had entered. Perhaps the most annoying part, however, was the fact that Merlin might actually be correct in his accusation, if anything Morgana said earlier had been true. There was no way in hell Arthur was going to admit that, though.
"You're my servant. You're supposed to do what I tell you to do without complaining," Arthur decided to inform Merlin, knowing full well that it was a waste of breath. They were both aware of this information as much as they were aware that Merlin would never be able to do what was actually required of him.
Two dark brows shot up his forehead, and Arthur was suddenly struck by how much paler Merlin looked when he was illuminated by the glow of firelight. This was not an unfamiliar place for them to be, and yet he'd never noticed before. "And that includes you ordering me to tell you what my plans are when I'm not in your presence?" he demanded, hands moving almost unconsciously to his hips.
"It's not unusual for a master to keep track of his servant in case his services are needed at any given moment."
"There are other servants who can and do track me down if you need me. I don't see how it's any of your business what I do when I'm not in your company." The words were firm…harsh, even. And Arthur tried not to let them sting. Merlin was right, of course, but that didn't mean that it still didn't hurt just a bit. Of course it was none of his business as Merlin's master. But as his friend…well, he supposed he hadn't exactly been a very good friend to Merlin recently either. So it wasn't fair for him to expect Merlin to tell him what he was planning to do when it was forced out of him under duress.
Arthur opened his mouth to respond but wasn't quite sure what to say to that. He met Merlin's imploring gaze but just couldn't bring himself to say what he wanted to say. So he gulped down the rest of the wine in his goblet instead, savouring the feel of the cool liquid as it ran down his throat.
Arthur looked at Merlin and then at the jug of wine with a gesture that clearly implied that he wanted more, momentarily forgetting that he'd given Merlin the night off. The expression on Merlin's face, however, was enough to remind him of this fact.
"I'm not on duty, sire," Merlin grumbled, but surprisingly moved to refill the glass anyway.
Arthur took one small sip and nodded in Merlin's direction as a way of thanking him for the gesture.
"So what happened that morning?" he began cautiously, allowing himself to ask the question that had been plaguing him since everything had happened. It certainly wasn't why Merlin had come to talk to him, but Arthur didn't like the way that conversation had been going. And something hadn't been sitting right with him ever since that morning. Something that didn't add up. "The morning you were attacked, I mean," Arthur clarified upon seeing Merlin's slightly confused expression.
Merlin furrowed his brows. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Just answer the question."
Merlin looked about ready to argue with him, but at the last moment heaved a sigh and seemed to decide against the action. "Gaius and I were out running important errands," he started, face unusually blank for Merlin.
"That early in the morning?" Arthur couldn't help but question.
"Do you want to know what happened or not?" Merlin shot back.
Arthur nodded and clamped his mouth shut. Merlin took this as a cue to carry on. "So when we were finished, we packed everything up and got back onto our horses to ride back to Camelot. We were still a good hour's ride from Camelot when a group of bandits ambushed us on the road." A pause. "I took the brunt of the attack, as I'm sure you're aware."
Arthur felt a twinge of guilt at the comment. "Did they just come out of the forest, or were they already on the road?"
Merlin shrugged. "I don't really remember. Probably out of the forest," he responded, staring at something on the wall across the other side of the room.
Arthur scratched his chin contemplatively. "But why would they just attack you randomly like that?" It didn't really make any sense to Arthur, considering the fact that most bandits were interested primarily with financial gain. And Merlin certainly didn't own anything of extreme wealth. At least not that Arthur was aware of. Perhaps Gaius did, but certainly he was wise enough to keep something like that hidden.
"Maybe they just wanted to pick on someone weaker then them?" he offered carefully, though did not sound the least bit convinced of this idea.
Arthur wasn't convinced either. "From what I've gathered, they attack with the intent to loot. You don't own anything really valuable, do you?"
Merlin's gaze flickered over to Arthur momentarily before returning to the far wall once again. "Not anything of monetary value, no."
"So why do it then?" Arthur asked, more to himself than to Merlin. There had to be something more to this story that his manservant wasn't sharing with him, but he couldn't figure out what it was. Merlin was a terrible liar, and Arthur just knew that there was something he wasn't sharing. If neither Gaius nor Merlin had anything of value and were indeed just traveling back to Camelot, then there would have been no logical gain for the bandits in attacking them. What could have prompted such an action? Unless…
"Did you do something to provoke them?" Arthur heard himself asking suddenly, knowing this couldn't end well.
Merlin whirled around to face a still seated Arthur, anger evident in his eyes and posture. "So you're saying that I brought this all on myself then? That I just asked them to practically kill me?"
"No, of course not," Arthur started, standing immediately and reaching out to put a hand on Merlin's shoulder. He shrugged it away. "But it wouldn't be completely incomprehensible," Arthur added stupidly, regretting the words the instant they left his lips.
"So what, its stupid Merlin's fault for being an idiot again?" Merlin demanded furiously, eyes betraying both his frustration and hurt. He turned abruptly from Arthur, stalking towards the door instead. "Forget it. I don't even know why I bother."
The words were like a stab directly to Arthur's heart, as Morgana's warning from earlier came rushing back to him. "Come on Merlin, you know that's not what I meant," Arthur said placatingly, getting up and following after his manservant.
But Merlin was apparently having none of Arthur's excuses as he reached for the door handle and started to pull. And in an instant it struck Arthur as being incredibly important not to let Merlin leave like this. So he raced to the chamber door, slamming it shut, and grabbed a hold of Merlin. In one swift movement he twisted Merlin's body around so that he was effectively pinned against the wall by Arthur's arms.
"Let me go," Merlin ordered defiantly, not showing the least bit of concern over the current position he was in.
"Not like this. And not until we finish this conversation," Arthur told him carefully.
"This is not the conversation I came here for," Merlin grumbled, poking Arthur in the chest. "You haven't answered my question at all."
"And you haven't answered mine," Arthur retorted. "Not completely, anyway," he added when he noticed the look of protest settling on Merlin's face.
"I did just answer your question. I told you what happened. What else do you want from me?"
"The truth. There's something you're not telling me about how everything happened," Arthur asserted firmly, confident in this truth.
"Why do you always think you know everything?"
"Because you're a terrible liar!"
And as Merlin's eyes darkened in anger, Arthur instinctively recognised that they'd probably reached the breaking point. "Fine. You want to know what happened?" Merlin spit out furiously, shoving Arthur off of him and taking a step away from the wall. "Fine. Gaius and I were minding our own business, heading home, when I had to stop to relieve myself. While I was over by one of the trees I heard voices. So I made my way closer and saw that it was a group of bandits. They were talking about plans to kill someone. When I found out who it was they were planning to kill, I couldn't just keep going and ignore the threat…"
He trailed off momentarily, eyes boring intensely into Arthur's, and Arthur felt himself start to feel physically ill. A plot to kill someone near the Camelot borders? Someone whom Merlin would risk his life for without a second thought? However, one look into his eyes revealed the truth. It didn't take Arthur more than a second to put the pieces together, that they were planning on murdering him. But surely Merlin couldn't have been that stupid to risk his life so unnecessarily... so utterly foolishly. Arthur was suddenly overcome with emotion at the thought that Merlin – his stupid, idiotic, incompetent, bumbling manservant… friend – really would die for him, almost had died for him, so willingly. Again. Part of Arthur wanted to wrap his arms around Merlin and yell at him for being so idiotic. And another part – the more dominant part at the moment – wanted to punch Merlin for being such a complete imbecile and putting himself unnecessarily in harm's way.
"What were you thinking?!" Arthur finally spat out, unable to keep his emotions under check any longer.
Merlin stared at him, expression a mix between furious and incredulous. "I was thinking that I was trying to save your stupid arse."
"And how on earth is getting yourself killed going to help me in the slightest?" Arthur was practically screaming now. They both were. Which was ridiculous, considering they were still standing mere feet from one another. "God, Merlin, you could have died! Don't you get that? You could have died."
"At least it would have been for a good cause," Merlin shot back angrily. Though at this particular moment in time Arthur wondered if Merlin actually believed those words.
"How does deciding to foolishly take on a group of armed and clearly dangerous criminals make your death for a worthy cause?"
"You're still alive, aren't you?"
"But at what cost?" he demanded.
"I'm expendable. I can be replaced," Merlin responded candidly, voice surprisingly free of bitterness. "But you… you're the crowned Prince of Camelot. You're important. I'm not."
"Don't be stupid Merlin. Of course you're important."
Merlin gave him an are-you-really-that-dumb look, which was a surprisingly common occurrence as of late. "To who, Arthur? My mum, Gaius, a few friends? If I died, no one would really care."
"I would care, you idiot," Arthur practically screamed. Merlin's eyes widened at the honesty and forcefulness of the comment and he stared dumbly at Arthur until he couldn't quite stand it any longer. Arthur was suddenly feeling way too exposed and found that he had to turn away from Merlin momentarily, taking a few steps towards his bed.
Neither spoke in those first seconds as each considered the significance of the statement. A few moments later Arthur heard Merlin approach him, but he couldn't bring himself to turn around just yet.
"Is that why you've been acting like such a prat lately?" he heard Merlin ask from behind, but there was no malice or anger in his voice any longer. Only genuine concern and curiosity.
It almost made Arthur's heart ache. He slowly moved to face Merlin once again, meeting his curious gaze. And as he stared intently into the eyes of his manservant and friend, he saw something there that he'd never seen before. It was as if Merlin was literally revealing his heart and soul, and the depth of emotion that it stirred within Arthur was almost enough to knock him flat on his back. He remembered Morgana's revelation from before, but this time Arthur had a better idea of what she had been thinking. And he also knew that she had been correct about everything, even if she hadn't come right out and said it.
In one slow and careful movement, Arthur reached up with his left hand to cup Merlin's face, letting his fingers ghost gently across the back of his neck and pressing his forehead to Merlin's. He physically felt Merlin tremble beneath his touch and instantly felt his own body's reaction. Arthur took a few steadying breaths, trying to slow his rapidly beating heart enough so he could speak. For several moments they remained that way, feeling nothing but the touch of one another, and the warm breath of the other brushing gently against their faces.
"I don't think you quite understand how much I need you," Arthur finally told Merlin when he was able to speak again.
But he felt Merlin shake his head gently. "I think I do, actually," he said, and finally lifted his mouth to meet Arthur's.
The kiss was slow and gentle, cautious but hopeful. Arthur instinctively wrapped an arm around Merlin's waist, pulling him flush against his body and burying his other hand deep into his soft hair. One of Merlin's hands found its way to Arthur's side, pulling at his shirt in a desperate attempt to get closer while the other grabbed at Arthur's own hair. When Arthur felt Merlin's tongue run along his bottom lip he readily granted him access, deepening the kiss. They explored each other's mouths hungrily; tasting, touching and feeling. Everything that Arthur had been feeling over the past couple weeks – all of the hurt, fear, anger, worry, desperation and desire – came flooding out of him as he devoured Merlin's mouth.
They only reluctantly pulled away from one another when it seemed as if they might lose consciousness from lack of oxygen. He was unsure why he had waited all this time to kiss Merlin when it felt so perfectly right. Arthur was quite certain that he hadn't ever felt this good about anything in his life. And judging by Merlin's stupid grin, it was a pretty safe bet that the feeling was mutual.
"Look," Arthur mumbled softly when they parted once again, while he still somewhat had the ability to think and reason. Merlin stilled for a moment to listen to what Arthur had to say.
"I promise I'll try to stop being such a prat if you'll promise me that you won't go off stupidly endangering your life all the time," Arthur suggested, thumb brushing against the side of Merlin's face affectionately.
"Can I have some time to myself without an army following me everywhere?" he asked hopefully, eyes dancing with amusement.
"And no more chores from dusk until dawn?"
Arthur hesitated for a moment, as if deep in thought. Merlin looked about ready to slap him when he finally answered. "As long as your level of competence as a servant goes up," Arthur responded with a smirk. "So do we have a deal?"
Merlin leaned in, capturing his mouth in another kiss, and Arthur was pretty sure that it was a "yes."