Hi guys, Junetis here! I've just gotten back from holiday which is why I haven't updated 'The Long Road Home' in a while, but I promise I'll have another chapter up tomorrow or the dayafter, and it'll be a bit longer to make up for it. ^_^ Until then I hope you enjoy this random oneshot just as much!
Arthur took a long, careful swallow of wine and eyed Bregan suspiciously over the rim of his goblet. Bregan stared placidly back, or rather, as that would be far too bold, gazed steadily at a point hovering a few polite inches from Arthur's right elbow. His eyes were lowered respectfully and his hands clasped behind his back as he stood perfectly still and arrow-straight against the wall of Arthur's chambers, just as he had been for the last half an hour. Everything about him – his stance, his neatly-combed hair, the stiff collar of his clean, pressed doublet – all of it gave off an air of flawless professionalism and efficiency tempered by the humble bow of his head and the modest cast of his features.
Arthur was really beginning to hate him.
'This is abysmal,' Arthur declared in his haughtiest tone, sitting back and pushing the last plate of food away. 'Did you dawdle all the way up from the kitchens? The food was stone-cold and completely unpalatable.' As a matter of fact it had been piping hot and fresh from the ovens, served as though by magic just when Arthur was beginning to feel hungry; he'd nearly burnt his tongue tearing into it. He cleared his throat unconvincingly. 'It's a wonder I managed to choke any of it down.'
Bregan bowed low at the waist, eyes definitely not straying towards the pointedly empty plates scattered in front of Arthur. 'I shall endeavour to do better next time, sire,' he said. There was no trace of irony in Bregan's voice, no irritation or barely-veiled insult, no hint of rebellion; he didn't roll his eyes or glare or bite off his words through gritted teeth. He sounded penitent.
'See that you do,' Arthur muttered, slouching down in his seat with a stab of guilt. He swirled the wine in his goblet morosely, watching his own distorted reflection sloshing back and forth before he downed it all in one large gulp.
The goblet was full again almost before Arthur had the chance to register Bregan's unobtrusive presence at his shoulder, pitcher in hand, smoothly pouring out another serving of wine with not a drop spilled before withdrawing to his place at the wall; swift, silent, perfect.
It was sickening.
2 weeks earlier
'This is becoming something of a habit, Merlin,' Arthur said dryly, leaning back against the cool stone of the wall, arms crossed as he watched Merlin check through his saddlebags. 'Are you always going to be rushing off to Ealdor every time I turn my back?'
Merlin glanced up at him with a half-grin and a quirked eyebrow. 'I thought you'd be glad to get rid of me,' he teased.
'And I'm sure I would be were I not paying you to do a job for me, however appalling you are at it.'
'I've gotten better!' Merlin protested indignantly.
'Hmmm,' Arthur murmured, injecting a healthy dose of scepticism into his voice.
Spring was in the air, a certain crispness that swelled bracingly in Arthur's lungs and painted the world in bright edges and sharp definition, and Merlin looked wan and lonely by comparison. It was early enough that the courtyard wasn't yet crowded, the sun just high enough to filter weakly across the top of the white walls, its pale light highlighting the pinched, worried tightness around Merlin's eyes beneath his forced humour.
Something uncomfortable curled in Arthur's stomach and he clenched his jaw, looked away.
'I suppose I can't stop you slacking off if you really must go,' he sighed, trying his best to sound suitably put-upon. That earned him another half-smile and an acknowledging tilt of the head.
Merlin finished fussing with his gear and gave the chestnut mare an absent pat as he stepped back next to Arthur. They stood quietly for a long stretch of minutes, shoulders not quite touching, watching the sun rise and chase the blue cast of the morning shade back across the flagstones of the courtyard. The longer the silence held, the more uneasy Arthur became, not quite sure what to do with what seemed suspiciously like a moment growing between them.
'How long will you be gone?' he asked at length.
Merlin shrugged and blew out a breath. 'Depends how bad it is. Gaius gave me some things to take down, just in case. Hopefully that'll be enough to take care of it.'
Arthur looked down, studying his boots – a little dusty; clearly Merlin had neglected to polish them the other night – and most definitely not looking at Merlin as he said, a little more seriously and less offhand than he'd have liked, 'If you need anything...'
Arthur could hear the warmth in Merlin's voice and didn't need to look up to see the smile he knew must be there, genuine and wide and always with a touch of amusement whenever Arthur made a gesture of kindness. He cleared his throat with embarrassment.
'Give my regards to Hunith; I hope she gets better soon.'
Merlin nodded and out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw his face fall.
'I should get going.' Merlin gestured awkwardly in no particular direction. 'I'll, uh, see you when I get back.' He scuffed reluctantly at the ground but made no move to leave, one hand ruffling through the hair at the back of his head. He looked like he was about to say something stupid and the whole situation was so painfully strange and unsettling that Arthur rolled his eyes and put on his best princely voice, the one he reserved specifically for annoying Merlin.
'Get on with it then; the sooner you leave the sooner I can look forward to clean boots and hot baths again.'
Merlin huffed out a laugh and finally moved, taking his horse's reins. 'Ever the prat,' he said with a grin and a belated, 'sire', sweeping an elaborately clumsy bow.
'Ever the idiot,' Arthur quipped reflexively.
Merlin was still shaking his head fondly as he left, leading his mount out through the gates on foot. He gave Arthur a brief wave, silhouetted for one final moment in the gateway before he was gone.
Lewin reached Arthur's chambers almost before he did, Merlin's replacement already in tow. The formidable old steward had been ancient for as long as Arthur could remember, his dry, parchment-like skin stretched over his skeletal frame, but Arthur pitied anyone who made the mistake of thinking Lewin a feeble old man – he was ridiculously tall and his piercing dark eyes held the fiery gleam of someone far younger. He was the only person aside from Morgana who had been known to go up against Uther in a shouting match and triumph; standing with his spidery hands on a young man's shoulders he looked like nothing so much as the Grim Reaper himself in Arthur's doorway, an ill omen if ever Arthur saw one.
'Sire,' Lewin said with a humble bow, 'allow me to present your new manservant, Bregan.'
'Temporary,' Arthur corrected without thinking. At the sharp arch of Lewin's brows he coughed uncomfortably. 'Bregan is my temporary manservant.'
'As you say, sire.' The ability to convey both faultless deference and patient condescension all at once was one of Lewin's many finely-honed specialities, and one that never failed to leave Arthur feeling like a rather dim child being tolerantly indulged by his elders and betters.
The supposed Bregan stepped forward and bowed in turn – respectful, smooth and to just the right depth; it appeared he'd been well schooled.
'It is an honour to serve you, sire,' he said quietly.
Arthur cocked his head and studied his new manservant critically. Bregan was unremarkable in appearance, a couple of years older than Arthur and a little shorter than him, with short brown hair and dark, serious eyes. He moved with the economy of someone used to treading lightly and avoiding notice. He didn't look like the sort of person who'd ever picked a fight with royalty in the street, fought to drink poison for a friend or tried to drive off bandits with borrowed chainmail and an uncertain grip on his sword; he looked like someone who knew how to do their job.
'He has already been briefed regarding his duties,' Lewin said.
Arthur smiled through the heavy disappointment settling in his belly. 'Good. You start at once.'
Bregan, as Arthur soon discovered, was excellent at more or less everything. He always showed up precisely on time, never late or early, was attentive and sensitive to Arthur's needs but not claustrophobically so, handled armour with competence and familiarity, and polished and cleaned like a fiend, not to mention he was always painfully courteous and deferential. Arthur had never in his life encountered someone so alarmingly, utterly perfect and proper in every way, so offensively good at his job. If someone were to take all the qualities of an ideal servant and embody them in one disgustingly perfect human being, Bregan would be the result: he was faultless.
'I'm telling you it's not natural – it's like he's not even human,' Arthur hissed one evening during a private dinner with his father and Morgana a week after Bregan's appointment.
Morgana smirked at him over her wine.
'This morning I ordered him to muck out my stables, take all my tack for mending, polish my armour and get all my hunting gear ready and in order.' He paused for effect, trying to impress on Morgana the gravity of the situation; she looked blankly back. 'He was done by midday,' Arthur continued in tones of hushed dread. 'I didn't think that was physically possible – Merlin would still be working through that list this time next week.'
Morgana blinked at that and a smile dawned on her face that Arthur distrusted immensely. Her fingernails tapped against the dark wood of the table.
'This Bregan sounds like a young man of exceptional quality,' Uther interjected reasonably from the head of the table.
'He's exceptional, all right,' Arthur muttered darkly. He didn't like the way Morgana was looking at him at all.
'You dislike him because he does his job too well?' She asked mildly and Arthur knew something was up – mildness from Morgana was never a good sign. He glanced down the table and noted that even his father had lifted his head in interest, catching the same note in Morgana's voice and probably pleased that it was for once not aimed at him.
Arthur glared at her.
'I dislike him because he is clearly not human,' he bit off, sensing the trap but unable to do anything other than blunder unwittingly into it.
Morgana put aside her goblet with an air of smug self-satisfaction and Arthur knew he'd made a fatal misstep.
'You mean,' she said gloatingly, 'you dislike him because he's not Merlin.'
Arthur stiffened. 'This has nothing to do with Merlin.'
'Of course not,' Morgana said, mild as autumn sunshine despite her grin.
'It doesn't,' Arthur insisted.
'That's what I said.'
Morgana sounded perfectly agreeable but Arthur knew her far too well for that. He opened his mouth to say something rude and inadvisable but Uther cut him off swiftly to avoid yet another dinner-table argument.
'Arthur, do you wish to lodge a complaint against your new manservant?'
Arthur glanced at Morgana, who widened her eyes in a mockingly innocent question. He gritted his teeth.
'Then let us speak of this no more.'
Arthur stabbed viciously at his food and let the conversation drop into silence against the clinking of cutlery and Uther's sigh of quiet exasperation. Every time he caught sight of the speculative twist of Morgana's mouth his irritation grew and by the time he could finally excuse himself at the end of the meal he felt frustrated and unaccountably miserable.
Arthur had never thought that there could be such a thing as a too-successful hunt, but apparently that was only because he'd never gone hunting with Bregan before. It was nothing like returning from a hunt with Merlin – usually wet and muddy because Merlin seemed to bring abysmal luck down on them every single time, and with nothing to show for their efforts but a meagre brace of rabbits, Merlin looking chagrined and apologetic at his side though likely feeling anything but, bickering and needling each other and complaining loudly the entire way.
Instead, Arthur was glad he'd decided to take Gawain and Cador with him, if only to carry the load – the three of them returned each with a doe slung across their shoulders and Bregan following silently behind with a rabbit and a pair of plump pheasants.
Hunting with Bregan was, well, an experience - he actually did seem to have the sort of ridiculous natural hunter's instinct that Arthur occasionally professed to have in his most prattish of moments, usually in an attempt to irritate Merlin. Of course, he was careful not to try to interfere or to upstage Arthur or his knights, but he knew when to wait and when to fan out for an ambush, knew when and how to advance with the utmost stealth and cunning and when to startle and animal into breaking cover, and, most impressively of all, he had no problems whatsoever interpreting all of Arthur's complicated hand signals, even when he was vindictively going out of his way to make them as opaque as possibly.
It was kind of galling, really – Arthur wasn't used to being thwarted so thoroughly, or by someone so impossible to criticise or get annoyed at; Bregan managed by some arcane trick of expression to constantly give the impression that he wished nothing more than the happiness and well-being of his master, and that he lived to serve this end. Arthur was beginning to wonder if he had come from the same perverse school of service as Lewin, and that was a frightening thought – he didn't think the castle could handle another one of those.
'Take these to kitchens to deal with,' Arthur commanded, slinging the doe casually at Bregan, who staggered a little under its weight as he caught it – finally, a stumble, Arthur crowed inwardly.
'Of course, sire.' Bregan replied with a subservient dip of his head.
'And then report back to me at once; I've noticed that the knights' gear has been looking a little worn down lately – the entire armoury needs a good going over, so you might as well take care of their personal equipment while you're at it,' Arthur informed him with relish. He smiled brightly. 'Get a move on, then, no time like the present to start.'
'As you wish, sire,' Bregan said, maddeningly unperturbed. He turned to Gawain and Cador, who were staring at Arthur in slight horror at the monumental task he'd just handed down so casually. 'May I take your loads to the kitchens for you, as well?' he asked politely.
Arthur blanched; dear god, how strong was he?
Gawain and Cador hurriedly refused, hefting their respective prizes and striding off, throwing a few pitying looks at Bregan in their wake, and a couple of slightly more reproachful ones for Arthur, who felt rather affronted at such treatment. He frowned, feeling remarkably dissatisfied – normally heaping people (well, Merlin, really) with ludicrous amounts of work made him feel a lot better, but Bregan had managed to pull all the fun from that as well, and as Arthur marched off to his chambers, all he felt was a nagging stab of guilt at the edges of his black mood.
'You miss him.'
Arthur narrowed his eyes at Morgana at the other end of the table in her chambers – in his experience it paid to have a length of something sturdy and ideally defensible between himself and her at all times, just for safety's sake. 'Pardon?' he asked.
'You. Miss Merlin.'
'That is preposterous, and I will not hear such slander from you.' Arthur had only just sat down but he was already beginning to think that coming to Morgana had been a grave mistake; he must have been temporarily insane to think she'd have a sympathetic ear for his woes.
Morgana rolled her eyes. 'Please,' she said, 'it's obvious that you haven't been the same since he left. In fact you've been even more bad-tempered and obnoxious than usual.' She smiled at him sweetly. 'I didn't even think that was possible.'
Arthur gave her a dirty look. 'I assure you that I couldn't care less where Merlin is or what he's doing,' he said flippantly.
'Arthur,' Morgana said in that warning, I-see-straight-through-your-bullshit tone that seemed solely to be the province of nagging women.
'Well,' he hedged, wavering under the force of her carefully arched eyebrow, 'I suppose I do miss laughing at his idiocy, and I miss not being able to knock him around for 'training'. Where else am I going to find someone as useless and fun to torment as Merlin?'
'Arthur, you miss him.'
Arthur shifted uncomfortably in his seat. 'What are you on about? What is there to miss about him? Certainly not the razor wit and scintillating conversation.'
'Well that makes you a matched pair then, doesn't it?'
'Watch it,' Arthur snapped, waving a threatening finger at her; Morgana looked back, non-plussed.
'Why is it so hard for you to admit something you so obviously feel?' Her voice softened a little, and that was in itself a strange and unsettling experience for Arthur – she was so rarely nice to him when he wasn't in mortal peril. 'The entire castle knows about you two,' she continued. 'It's alright to acknowledge it, you know – Merlin is quite charming, and very sweet.'
'I have no idea what you're talking about,' Arthur said, eyes darting away evasively. 'It's not as though I fancy him, or anything stupid like that.'
'Arthur-' Morgana tried to break in while Arthur continued regardless.
'I mean I suppose he is fairly easy on the eyes, if you like that sort of thing.'
'And his arse is quite nice when he bends over just right – a little bony but not entirely displeasing, and there is that insolent, pretty mouth-'
'Christ, Arthur, enough! I did not want to know that, ever.' Mogana stared at him, dumbstruck. 'Seriously? You actually want Merlin?' she asked.
'I- wait, you mean you weren't trying to insinuate that I was fighting a repressed desire for him?'
'No! God, no; I was just trying to piss you off, and I thought you were missing your friend.' She put her head in her hands, horrified. 'I am never going to be able to unsee these images, am I?'
'Well,' Arthur said stiffly, trying to cover his embarrassment, 'that's what you get for being deliberately annoying.'
There was a brief but intensely awkward silence.
'So,' Morgana tried, carefully not looking at Arthur, 'are you? Fighting a repressed desire for Merlin?'
'Of course not,' Arthur protested half-heartedly.
Her lips twitched in a smile. 'I suppose that's why it's repressed, then.' There were a long couple of minutes where neither of them said anything, both equally mortified, and Morgana reached out to play with a bowl of fruit on the table for want of anything else to do. 'He hates you, you know,' she said at last since Arthur was determined not to break the silence himself with any more humiliating revelations.
'What,' he asked, slightly panicked, 'Merlin?'
Morgana gave him a look. 'Bregan,' she said, letting the 'you idiot' hang unvoiced but clearly implied in her tone, as though he should have been able to keep up with her complete non-sequitur.
Arthur harrumphed. 'I'm surprised he actually has feelings underneath all that bowing and scraping,' he said a little meanly.
Morgana sighed. 'You really have been with Merlin too long; no wonder you're secretly in love with him,' she said and grinned at Arthur's dismissive snort. She picked up an apple and began to toy with it idly. 'Gwen heard him talking in the kitchens; he says you work him like a dog all the time and you're an unreasonable bastard. He's running himself ragged trying to keep up.'
Arthur cut straight to the heart of the matter: 'He called me a bastard?' he asked indignantly. Morgana shot him a withering look and he raised a hand in surrender. 'Fine; if that's how he feels then he should say so,' he grumbled petulantly, fully aware of just what an ass he was making of himself but completely unable to stop it from happening.
Morgana blinked at him in disbelief. 'You really are a bastard sometimes, aren't you?' She continued straight on over Arthur's outraged sputtering: 'If Bregan told you what he really thought about you, he'd be sacked, and since this is probably the most important position he'll ever have, I doubt he can afford to lose it – he has to do well, no matter what an ass you are. He can't just come out and tell you when you're acting like a spoilt five-year-old. He's not like Merlin, you know,' she said, waving her apple expansively, 'most people aren't.'
'Thank heaven for small mercies,' Arthur muttered drily. He glanced up as the door to Morgana's chambers opened behind him and Gwen bustled in with an armload of laundry fresh from the castle laundresses. She bobbed a curtsey at them and smiled at Morgana, who acknowledged her warmly. Arthur nodded at her, privately sparing a though to wonder that the apparent lack of knocking in this castle was spreading.
'Look, Arthur,' Morgana said firmly, recapturing his attention, 'I know you're insufferable but you're normally not this bad with the servants.'
'Alright, alright, I'll play nice,' he conceded with a roll of his eyes.
'Good. And stop bothering me in my chambers so you can pine; it's pathetic.'
'I am not pining!'
'Yes you are; you're moping.'
'I am doing no such thing.'
Morgana leant back in her chair, a wicked gleam in her eyes, and turned. 'What do you think, Gwen, would you say Arthur's moping?'
Arthur glared at Morgana forbiddingly for a moment; it didn't seem to have much of an effect. 'Yes, Guinevere, what do you say?' he asked, raising his eyebrows expectantly.
Gwen fidgeted, clearly uncomfortable and looking like a deer caught in the sights of a crossbow. 'Um, well,' she ventured, flustered, 'maybe 'moping' isn't the best word, but you do seem unhappy. Not in a bad way!' she hastened to add. 'I mean, I don't think you're pathetic or anything, of course not, you just look a bit... forlorn sometimes.'
Morgana laughed and smiled at her. See, Morgana's expression seemed to say when she turned back to him, what do you say to that then?
Arthur's response was clear. He glowered at her. 'I am not pining after Merlin,' he said, enunciating each word carefully and deliberately, 'and I am not forlorn. There is nothing going on between us.'
'So you only wish there were, then?'
Arthur glared some more, remembering belatedly that it didn't even have much more of an effect on her when his father tried it; Morgana sighed and slumped back in her chair.
'Fine,' she said airily, 'if you say so then it must be true. Run along to the comfort of your sordid little fantasies.'
'I do not fantasise about Merlin; I have far better taste than that.'
Morgana's lips curled into a triumphant smirk. 'Not even about his 'insolent, pretty mouth'?'
Arthur took several slow, deep breaths through his nose. 'You, Morgana, are a bloody meddlesome, irritating-' he gesticulated wildly for a couple of moments, scrambling for an insult vile enough to communicate his loathing- 'woman!' he finished, throwing up his hands in disgust and preparing to storm regally from the room.
Morgana simply propped her head on her hand and grinned smugly. 'Why thank you for noticing,' she said.
Arthur made sure he slammed her door very loudly behind him – yes, it did make him look like a melodramatic child throwing a tantrum, but it felt damn good all the same. Bloody women, he thought to himself, they're all the same.
The unfortunate truth was that Arthur was not half as blind as he let on to Morgana, and he thought he had a pretty good idea of what she was getting at; it was telling that despite all his feigned indifference he still ended up awake sometimes at night, worrying and fretting like a mother hen over what was going on in Ealdor and whether Hunith was getting better and how Merlin was holding up. He'd tried at first to tell himself that he was only concerned because Merlin was his servant and part of his personal household, and that looking out for his well-being was in part Arthur's duty, but he wasn't actually stupid enough to believe such thin self-deception, much as he wished otherwise.
He sighed and looked up at the knock on his door. It had to Bregan – even his knock was somehow full of finely-calculated respect. Arthur bit down on his unreasoning irritation and took a good look at his temporary manservant as he bade him enter.
It was a bright afternoon and the light came streaming in almost directly through the windows of the chamber, glinting on the dustmotes swirling through the air – only a few, markedly less than the number that tended to hang around when Merlin was on duty – and illuminating Bregan's face in convenient detail. Arthur noticed a certain tightness around Bregan's eyes, and was that an unfortunate tic he'd developed? Now that he looked closely, Arthur could detect a particular unpleasant cast to his features, a sourness around his mouth, a look that most certainly said 'I would like very much to poison you in your sleep and watch you die a torturous and lingering death'; it was a look that Arthur had received more often than he would have liked in recent times, what with so many people perpetually trying to kill him, and so he was eminently qualified to recognise it.
Hmm, he thought, maybe it was time to ease up a little – no doubt Bregan would be as skilled and efficient at clandestine murder as he was at everything else, and Arthur rather enjoyed the experience of breathing and moving about and generally being alive, a certain unfortunate and misplaced infatuation aside. Judiciously, he decided to give Bregan the afternoon off once he was done with Arthur's boots and, once he was sure that Bregan was gone, withdrew to the window to spend the rest of the day sulking manfully – but not pining, mind you – and avoiding his duties; he was only meant to be sitting in on a couple of audiences and advisory meetings, which tended to be long and boring affairs in which he said little and did less. He didn't feel overly bad about missing them, especially not when he had better things to do, things like pose broodingly by his window where at least Morgana wouldn't be around to see and mock him.
As it turned out, sulking at the window had in fact been an excellent strategic move, because it meant that when a familiar figure came walking across the courtyard below, a sack of supplies thrown over one shoulder – a suspiciously tall and gangly figure with suspiciously stupid hair and big ears – Arthur was well-placed to spy him from above.
Merlin was back.
Evidently Merlin had been on his way to see Gaius and settle in or something, because it took long enough for him to arrive at Arthur's chambers that Arthur had plenty of time to pick out the position of optimal nonchalance in which to ready himself for Merlin's return. By the time Merlin knocked on Arthur's door and was bade to enter – though the very act of Merlin, knocking, threw Arthur for a moment – Arthur was artfully arranged in his favourite chair, one leg draped with deliberate carelessness over the arm as he toyed with a knife.
Merlin was unusually tentative as he came in across the threshold and he kept staring at Arthur in a way that made his heart beat unaccountably faster; he came to a stop and stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, fidgeting.
'So,' he said, and petered off into silence.
'So,' Arthur echoed in a brilliant conversational riposte, forcing himself to sit still and not copy Merlin's restless example.
'I, er, I'm ready to return to work, sire,' Merlin said. 'If I still have a job, that is.'
'Well,' Arthur said, watching Merlin surreptitiously out of the corner of his eye while pretending to be suddenly fascinated by his knife, 'I have to say I've been very impressed with your replacement.' He kept his tone as casual and offhand as possible. 'He's far and away the most competent manservant I've ever had. He's quick, skilled and efficient, and,' he added with a wry glance at the unhappy line of Merlin's mouth, 'I will be very glad to see the back of him.'
Merlin blinked at him, relieved, and his mouth twitched upwards. 'Lost your taste for competence?' he asked.
Arthur snorted. 'I guess I've grown too used to you – how else am I going to pass the time without having to constantly berate you? Besides,' Arthur said, 'he's extremely boring,' and possibly getting a little frightening and homicidal recently, he added mentally.
Merlin grinned outright at that. 'And I'm interesting?' he asked, brows raised; Arthur favoured him with a forbidding stare.
'I didn't say that. You're... less dull.'
'So I'm interesting.'
'Only by comparison.'
'On your own you're about as interesting as Geoffrey reciting the royal lineage.'
'Whatever you say, sire,' Merlin said, and there it was, that mocking curl around the title that Arthur – god help him – had actually missed; it was a sad thought that he no longer knew how to deal with servants who showed the proper awe and respect for his position.
'How's your mother?' Arthur asked quietly, looking at his hands again.
'She's fine – doing much better now; she had a bad fever, but it broke quickly.'
'Good, that's good.' He looked up and smiled at Merlin, who smiled right back. It took a little while for it to register with Arthur that neither of them were actually saying anything, just staring at each other and smiling as though they were both cretins, as opposed to just Merlin. He gave himself a mental shake.
'So, right, I should let Bregan know that his services are no longer required,' he said. Merlin nodded. 'You should also tell Lewin that you're back.' Merlin nodded again but with decidedly less enthusiasm; Arthur suppressed a smirk – even he thought that Lewin was a terrifying bastard sometimes.
'I'll expect you back bright and early tomorrow morning to resume your duties. On time for once, if you please.'
'I'm never that late.'
Arthur pointedly said nothing.
'Not usually,' Merlin amended.
'Well I suppose I can remember you turning up on time once before,' Arthur mused. Merlin rolled his eyes, long-suffering. Arthur grinned. 'Go on and get out of here,' he said, waving a mock-dismissive hand.
Merlin's heels clicked together and he dipped an ostentatious bow. 'Your wish is my command.' Their eyes caught again as he came back up, bright and laughing, the twist of a tease at the corner of his lips.
Arthur took in a deep, slow breath and let it out. 'Welcome back.'
Facing Bregan again was a deeply uncomfortable experience. Arthur had had to call him back from his afternoon off, and though Bregan looked courteously pleased and attentive, his eyes were the eyes of a broken man; it was a relief to Arthur to be able to deliver the new of his dismissal, but a far greater one to Bregan, who was having clear difficulty containing the manic grin that wanted to spread across his face.
'As you wish, sire,' he said, sounding just a note too excited for proper gravity. 'It has been an honour and a pleasure to serve you.'
Arthur doubted that very much, but wisely held his tongue. 'I hope you've profited from you time here,' he said instead, trying to be polite, and winced in guilty sympathy as the tic spasmed underneath Bregan's right eye. 'I, er, will make sure you're generously rewarded for your exemplary service.'
'You are most generous.' You incredible bastard. Bregan didn't say it, of course, but Arthur fancied he could see the thought hiding behind that carefully bland smile. He nodded benignly as Bregan bowed and left, and pretended not to see him skipping across the courtyard a few minutes later with his hands flung joyously in the air or hear his exultant cries of, 'Free, free, I'm free at last!'
The next morning Arthur was called to breakfast with his father and Morgana, which could only mean that the two of them must have been fighting and Uther was now making a peace offering. Arthur arrived before Morgana, nodding briefly at his father before finding himself arrested by the sight of the huge, elaborate flower display that dominated the larger part of the long, polished table, a towering mass of lilies and freesias and cascading peonies. He glanced at his father, who manfully avoided his gaze. Arthur sighed inwardly as he sat down – judging by the flowers the fight must have reached mammoth proportions; Arthur was surprised he hadn't been able to hear it. Morgana swept into the room moment later and took her place at the long, polished table with a feline smile that proclaimed her the victor in whatever argument had been going on.
Uther inclined his head to her.
'Morgana, good morning.'
'Good morning, my lord.'
'I trust you slept well?'
'Very well, my lord, you are most kind to ask.'
Arthur rolled his eyes; Morgana toyed smugly with a long-stemmed lily as the food was brought in.
Arthur's mind wandered as Morgana and his father fenced their incredibly polite pleasantries – Uther must have really made her angry – and he found himself wondering vaguely what Merlin's favourite flowers were. This was Merlin, after all, so of course he was bound to like them. Arthur had taken flowers to a girl once before, a pretty young thing, the daughter of a wealthy noble with soft brown curls and sea-green eyes. He'd been fifteen at the time, and half-convinced he was in love with her until he'd caught her round the back of the stables with Sir Emond's squire; it hadn't ended well. He'd taken great pleasure in beating the squire to a pulp on the practice field the next day under guise of a friendly sparring match, but though that had done a little to salve his wounded pride the whole affair had still been painfully awkward and utterly humiliating and not an experience Arthur was in any hurry to repeat.
Of course, Merlin was most definitely not a girl, no matter how much he pouted and snivelled over dead unicorns, and of course Arthur would never even remotely consider actually courting him, even if he might possibly be a touch more interested in Merlin than was proper for a lord and his manservant. Just a touch, mind you, and even that was being generous. In any case it was clearly all Merlin's fault. Arthur was not entirely sure how, exactly, but was still convinced that it must be the case.
Well, Arthur reasoned, he could always say he was just in it for the sex and that it had nothing to do with the way Merlin smiled, stupidly wide and warm when two of them were alone, or the way he laughed, genuine as Arthur had never heard anyone be at court, and absolutely nothing to do with the spark in Merlin's eyes when he was at his most insolent, teasing and daring and bright as the sun on a clear summer morning.
Morgana arched one elegantly condescending brow at him from across the table.
Arthur sighed; he was in trouble, and in deep.
The next week of Arthur's life was a living hell. He was torn between avoiding Lewin – ever since Bregan, the vindictively persistent old steward had taken to lurking in conspicuous places, muttering darkly about the shocking maltreatment of his handpicked staff and pinning Arthur with mild yet disapproving stares – and avoiding Merlin.
The problem was that whenever he was left in a room with Merlin or had to talk to him for anything longer than half a second he kept getting the urge to just smile stupidly and go all soft around the edges, or getting distracted by the way Merlin's mouth moved when he smiled or scowled or complained, the length of his fingers and slightly-shadowed skin at the neck of his shirts. And then there were all the moments that threatened to creep up on them, hidden in expectant silences and covert looks.
It was irritating. And torturous.
In the end he had to give Merlin a night off about five days after his return to go out and catch up with his friends from the Lower Town, hoping that maybe giving them both some space would dissipate the tension and conveniently forgetting that it was just that sort of distance that had led him to this horrifically self-aware point in the first place.
Unfortunately having Merlin out of the castle only made Arthur feel even more edgy, and in the end he couldn't even make himself sit through a couple of drinks with Galahad and Bors, excusing himself early with a forced grin and false cheer. He took his time making his way back through the corridors, restless and annoyed with himself.
The corridor was dim in the candlelight, and Arthur was so busy fuming inwardly at himself for acting like such a girl that he didn't immediately notice when he rounded a corner and Merlin was there coming up the stairs just ahead. He had his head down and was worrying at his lip, and they both spotted each other at about the same time; Merlin looked up wide-eyed and came to a stop, hovering on the staircase.
'Arthur,' he said awkwardly.
'Merlin.' Arthur felt just as uncomfortable as Merlin sounded. 'You're back early.'
Merlin set his jaw and squared his shoulders, apparently coming to a decision. He started up the stairs again but tripped at the top step, sending himself stumbling against Arthur across the corridor; Arthur caught him, steadying him by the arms and Merlin clutched back, too close and right up against him.
'Sorry,' Merlin said, laughing into Arthur's shoulder, just a little slurred, 'I think I'm a bit drunk.'
Arthur swallowed, couldn't help but smile. ''A bit'?' he asked. He could smell the alcohol on him now, feel the heat of him they were so close. Merlin's thumb was brushing lightly against his wrist under his sleeve and over his jumping pulse.
'I only had a bit of ale.'
Merlin was looking down still and Arthur could see the dark fan of his lashes, the hint of blue beneath. His mouth felt dry.
'You appalling lightweight,' he murmured.
Merlin grinned, laughed again as he looked up, soft and low. ''S'what everyone always says.'
Merlin was so close when he raised his head, and his mouth was right there, at the perfect height. All Arthur would have to do is lean forwards, just a bit, press his lips to the corner of Merlin's smiling mouth, and from there it would be easy to move across, part his lips, take a taste. He could already feel how Merlin would sigh into him, how he'd tilt his head, how his hand would come to rest at Arthur's neck and his shoulders would tighten as he pressed in and kissed back, the way the warm skin of his belly would feel under Arthur's searching hands, soft under his shirt; how would it feel, he thought, to have Merlin in his bed?
There came a loud clatter from below, clanging harshly up the stairs, accompanied by sudden cackling laughter, strident, high. The tension reeling the two of them together snapped abruptly and they both jerked back. In the corridor below they could hear female voices, overloud with the exaggerated hush of the very drunk – more servants just returned from a free night.
Arthur looked at Merlin, heat rising in his cheeks, and then away.
'Well,' he said, trying to brush it off, 'I was just about to call it a night.'
'Oh.' Merlin glanced at his hands and then remembered himself. 'D'you need...'
'No,' Arthur said quickly. 'No. You should go-' he gestured vaguely – 'sleep it off.'
'Yeah, you're right.' Merlin began to move away, turning as he passed with a crooked smile. 'Goodnight, Arthur.'
The sound of his name was far too intimate on Merlin's tongue; Arthur couldn't find anything to say, heart thudding in his chest as he watched Merlin leave – slightly unsteady on his feet and looking back as turned the corner and out of sight, sheepish and maybe even wistful.
'Goodnight,' Arthur said after him to the empty corridor and finally retreated himself.
It didn't occur to him until he was lying sleepless and alone in his bed to wonder what Merlin had been doing in that part of the castle, closer to Arthur's quarters than his own.
The next day, Arthur spent the afternoon sequestered in his rooms, leaving the job of breaking in the newly-knighted Sir Arenfaire to Galahad's capable-if-naturally-inferior-to-Arthur's-own hands, choosing instead to muse with an air of resigned doom on the horrendous fate handed down to him. This decision had nothing at all to do with the fact that he'd set Merlin to polishing every weapon and piece of armour owned, and that Merlin had chosen to take his task outside by the practice grounds, the better to enjoy the gentle spring sunshine and watch the knights spar while he worked. Arthur could see him from his window and caught Merlin's eyes kept darting towards the courtyard that lay en route from Arthur's chambers to the practice grounds; Arthur had the sneaking suspicion that Merlin was watching for him and accordingly he courageously planned not to set foot outside his bedroom.
He dragged himself away from the window – he'd had enough of all this standing about at windows like a lovelorn moron – and flopped down on his bed, one arm flung over his eyes. He most certainly was not going to spend the day staring longingly at Merlin's wind-ruffled hair and sun-gilt cheekbones. He was not, this was ridiculous.
Really though, how was it fair that a man could go through life minding his own business, hunting and feasting and wenching when the mood took him, enjoying simple pleasures and staying away from bewitchingly pretty menservants with ridiculous smiles, only to turn around one day and realise that what he had thought to be a simple case of physical attraction had somehow warped into full-blown infatuation when his back was turned, like some unpleasant and undesired rash that only spread if left untreated? It simply wasn't decent.
Of course, he would have noticed it sooner if he'd been paying attention – if it had just been a matter of simple lust then he would have propositioned Merlin long ago and, if he said yes, bent him over a table and had done with it, just as he normally dealt with these situations. As it was he'd been mentally dancing round and shying away from the subject like some blushing maiden, unable to touch it even in the privacy of his own mind.
Even worse: he had no idea what he should do from here on out – his upbringing had left him well equipped should he ever need to entertain a visiting king and his entourage or defend a fortified position from a superior military force, but completely unarmed in the face of his own pathetic emotion. For one thing he had no idea what to even say to someone he liked that much – he didn't have much experience with romance or, dare he even think it, love, aside from that thing with Sophia, of course, but that didn't really help seeing as he couldn't even remember more than half of the things he'd said to her; he was the Prince and bloody well attractive if he said so himself, and so other people tended to proposition him, or at least fall willingly into his bed if he so much as looked at them a certain way.
Merlin, however, would never make anything so easy, oh no, Merlin lived to make things difficult. Stupid, difficult, fascinating Merlin; Arthur had no idea what to do with him and never really had.
After a long and gruelling period of time spent deep in contemplation, Arthur's master plan was to adopt a tried and true strategy that had served him well for many years, particularly that one time he'd strolled into his father's study without knocking to find him kneeling on a table with his breeches round his ankles and Lady Margaret's knees hiked up over his shoulders: he would pretend that nothing had ever happened and never speak of it again.
Unfortunately this was the sort of plan that required the co-operation of all of those involved, and no one else seemed willing to understand that, which was, frankly, quite selfish of them as far as Arthur was concerned. It seemed that every time he saw Merlin, Gwen was there, talking to him, and whenever they caught sight of Arthur – which he ensured was as rarely as possible – they had identical speculative expressions on their faces.
Arthur knew meddling when he saw it, and he decided to trace it straight to the inevitable source.
'Leave him alone,' Arthur hissed at Morgana the moment she opened the door. She looked down her nose at him despite the considerable height difference between them, supremely unimpressed, and treated him to a chilling smile.
'Stop being an idiot and don't make me take matters into my own hands,' she warned him imperiously and shut the door in his face. Arthur stood blinking in the corridor for a full minute before having a sudden moment of horrifying realisation as to where the true power in the castle might actually lie and beating a hasty retreat.
Arthur scowled all the way back to his chambers but refused to be defeated so easily; he was determined to ignore this issue with Merlin until it somehow disappeared – Arthur was unclear as to how that was supposed to happen but was sure that given enough time it would – and no one was getting in his way.
'Guinevere ,' Arthur said one day, taking her aside when he'd had about all he could stand of this madness. 'I don't know what Morgana's hoping to achieve here or what she's ordered you to do but it has to stop.' He leaned in and took her by the shoulders. 'Whatever Morgana's been saying about me, she's lying. There's nothing going on between Merlin and myself; our relationship is purely business.'
Arthur thought he was pulling off the sincere yet intense angle very well, widening his eyes and dipping his head so he could look up earnestly through his lashes, a tactic that with his looks had never failed him before.
Unfortunately it didn't have quite the impact on Gwen that he'd been hoping for.
'Oh, you don't need to worry about that, sire. Actually, I think it's very sweet,' she said with a sunny smile and a blush, and Arthur felt himself flame to the roots of his hair in a way he hadn't done since he was, well, ever, no matter what stories Morgana liked to tell about how Arthur may or may not have behaved during that thankfully brief portion of his adolescence where he'd misguidedly believed that it would be a good idea to try and court her, his hormones having temporarily overwhelmed his sense of self-preservation. No, Arthur was entirely certain on this point: he had never blushed in his entire life, ever. Until now.
And then Gwen giggled – discreetly and behind her hand because this was Gwen, but it was still decidedly a giggle at his expense – and Arthur felt at once utterly emasculated and had to walk away very fast before he did something awful like swoon or weep or whatever it was that women did when they were hopelessly besotted with a complete idiot who was wholly beneath them.
It took Arthur a while to recover from that conversation – he couldn't even look at Merlin when he came in the next morning to bring him breakfast and help him dress (an awkward affair at the best of times and getting worse by the day). He tried to stand perfectly still and keep his eyes ahead rather than on Merlin getting right up into his personal space to fiddle with the laces on his shirt, pretending not to notice the clumsiness in his hands as he fumbled them more than usual.
Fortunately Gaius had enough errands to keep Merlin busy for most of the rest of the day, making the task of avoiding him all but effortless. Arthur threw himself into training and sparring and even relished sitting in on his father's audience with the merchant delegation from Cornwall looking to renegotiate trade terms because at least then he could focus on the mind-numbing boredom and pointless minutiae rather than the unpleasant itch that descended on him when he was away from Merlin for long periods of time and the sneaking suspicion that all his hard work at avoidance was only making him miss his stupid manservant just as much as he had while he'd been away.
All that aside, of course, his faultless plan was working out rather well.
Maybe, if he said to himself enough times, it would even be true, he thought sourly, returning to his chambers from the audience. The sky outside was starting to darken by now, purpling on towards dusk – the audience had run late and not gotten far, and Arthur had the prospect of looking forward to its thrilling continuation the next day – and he expected his rooms to be the same, which is why he was surprised to find them warm and well-lit, a fire crackling merrily away in the hearth. It took him a moment to register the details and then much less than that to deduce the cause. He turned his head slowly, not really wanting to, until he saw Merlin fiddling with a candle over by the wall. Merlin, who was watching him curiously with narrowed, thoughtful eyes and a faint smile.
Arthur let the door close behind him with an air of resigned doom.
'How was the audience?' Merlin asked lightly, too-casual. He put down the candle and fiddled with the tabletop instead, running a nail along the fine grains of the wood.
Arthur attempted to look just as unbothered, shedding his jacket and slinging it over a chair for Merlin to collect later. He shrugged. 'Diverting,' he said drily, summoning up a mocking smile.
Merlin snorted. 'And the rest of your day?' he asked, apparently examining the table but darting glances up through his lashes.
'Well,' Merlin said, 'I had a very good day.' He began to advance on Arthur, long fingers drifting carelessly along the table and over the back of a chair as he came. Arthur told himself that he could easily take Merlin – skinny, awkward, clumsy Merlin – but found himself backing away regardless, thoroughly unnerved by the expression on his face.
'I had a very interesting conversation,' Merlin continued, tone idle though the look in his eyes was definitely intent, 'with Morgana,' and oh, Morgana was a dead woman the moment Arthur got his hands on her.
'I see,' Arthur said neutrally, or as neutrally as he could manage with his blood pounding sickeningly in his ears and his throat tight with apprehension. 'And what, pray tell, did she say to you?' His father would have been proud of how dead-level and unreadable Arthur's voice was, right up to the point where his back thumped firmly against the wall and a little trapped noise bubbled up involuntarily at the back of his throat before he could bite it back.
Merlin smiled at the sound, a gleam of triumph lighting in his eyes and came closer, more confident. 'She said you'd been having some interesting conversations with her as well, and I should ask you about them.'
Shit, Arthur thought, shit, and then Merlin was far, far too close and he couldn't think anything anymore or do anything, just flatten himself back, effectively pinned by Merlin's presence, and breath in the scent of him, deep and a little panicked. Merlin lifted a hand and toyed with the collar of Arthur's shirt, ran it lightly up the side of his neck, short nails grazing up under the line of his jaw. Arthur could feel his own pulse hammering in his throat, his breaths dragging fast and shallow.
Merlin's thumb stroked low at the hinge of Arthur's jaw, hand sliding round to the nape of his neck. He pressed in closer. 'She said I might like the answers,' he murmured, barely loud enough for Arthur to hear, just before he leaned in and kissed him.
Every muscle in Arthur's body went tense. He stilled, surprised even though in the back of his mind he'd had to have known that this was coming from the moment the conversation had started, known from that look on Merlin's face, nervous and bold and determined; the reality of it, the warm insistent press of Merlin's lips encouraging his to part, his hand braced firmly on Arthur's face, somehow caught him completely unawares and short-circuited any kind of brain function he could hoped to have achieved, leaving him momentarily stunned, just long enough for Merlin's nerves to get the better of him.
He pulled back, suddenly uncertain. 'Arthur, I- I thought... Did I read this wrong? Do you...' he asked, searching Arthur's face worriedly.
Arthur blinked, decided he disapproved of this cessation of activity and grabbed Merlin, yanking him back in and going straight for his mouth. Merlin caught back up almost immediately, tilting his head in search of a better angle, grasping at Arthur's shirt and fisting one hand in it, the other coming back to his face, touching and demanding and angling Arthur just the way he wanted him.
'For god's sake, Merlin,' Arthur muttered in between sucking kisses into Merlin's lower lip and biting at him, 'what the hell is wrong with you?'
'Me?' Merlin couldn't quite manage the breath for proper indignation but made a passable attempt. 'You're the one who's been avoiding me.' He pushed his hands up under the hem of Arthur's shirt, laying them flat against his skin, sliding up over his stomach, curving over his hips, never enough. 'What was I supposed to think?'
Arthur pressed kissed to the corner of his mouth, the bow of his lips, skimming a hand down to the small of his back. 'You're not meant to think at all, it never means anything good.'
Merlin nipped him hard for that, taking advantage of Arthur's startled yelp to get closer, deeper, and somewhere between Arthur's tongue in Merlin's mouth and Merlin's hand in his breeches, Arthur thought that maybe he wouldn't murder Morgana after all – she probably didn't deserve more than a bit of a telling-off, really, just for meddling, and as they manhandled each other over to the bed, Arthur decided that in fact what Morgana really deserved was flowers, lots and lots of flowers, wildflowers, even, and he would pick them all himself because god, this was fucking perfect, Merlin was perfect, and at that moment Arthur would have happily promised anything at all just to keep him there and close and wanting, finally getting the chance to explore all those dirty little thoughts that he'd been spending so long trying to repress, hands all over him.
They were still too busy occupying themselves later that night to care when the hearthfire burnt out and the candles died away, one by one.
The next morning, Arthur woke to find Merlin's arm flopped across his chest and Merlin snuggled up against his side, one knee between Arthur's legs. Arthur shifted, trying to arrange himself more comfortably and Merlin stirred, blinking blearily awake. Arthur looked into Merlin's eyes for a long moment – still soft with sleep, blue and bright and satisfied. A smile spread across Merlin's face, slow and sweet; Arthur's heart skipped a beat.
Which is why he promptly shoved Merlin out of the bed. Merlin hit the floor with a thump and a yelp, glaring up at him. Arthur just stretched out smugly on his suddenly far more spacious bed and ordered Merlin to fetch him breakfast with a careless wave of his hand. He turned contentedly back into his pillow, hiding his grin, pretending to doze back off to the blissful, heavenly sound of Merlin's complaints.
Well, there we go, hope you liked it. If you did (or even if you didn't), please review! It means a lot to me and I'm always trying to improve my Art ^_^