Title: Rules of Propriety
Characters/Pairing: Merlin, Arthur, Gwen, OC's (gen)
Disclaimer: The characters and situations of Merlin do not belong to me. I make no money from this story. Please don't sue.
Author's Notes: My first Merlin fic; I hope it doesn't disappoint! Written for the gen_ficathon.
Prompt: A dinner party, a foreign princess, a foul-tasting fruitcake, and the ugliest yellow outfit ever seen. Just another night in Camelot, unfortunately.
Summary: A young visiting princess could use a lesson in humanity. Perhaps it is the cruel streak of Merlin and Arthur's destiny that dictates she learn it at their expense.
Arthur heaved an impatient sigh, the seventh such sound he'd emitted in as many minutes. Merlin rolled his eyes but finally stood and took a step back, looking the Prince over. "Erm…"
Arthur pointedly arched an eyebrow. "Well?"
"It…matches your hair?" Merlin ventured.
"I was not asking for a fashion critique," Arthur snapped. Merlin forgave him for it, mostly because he expected he'd be a bit short-tempered too if he were forced to wear this outfit. Arthur continued, "I was merely asking if you were finished. It seems…incomplete." He raised a few of the long stray scraps of fabric, staring at them for a moment before letting them drop. They flopped rather uselessly against his thighs as Arthur turned his frustrated glare back to Merlin.
"Well," Merlin said helplessly. He stepped closer, grabbing a couple of the straps and entwining them. Then he decided that looked even stupider than before and let them swing again. "I don't know! Apparently Princess Lyra's gifts should come with instructions."
He resisted the urge to add that this was a gift Arthur should really consider giving back. He couldn't of course—there were certain duties that came attached to the title of crowned Prince of Camelot, and accepting eccentric outfits to wear to banquets in honor of foreign princesses was one of them. This was one moment when Merlin was glad he was the servant instead of the master. He felt his lips twitch as he watched Arthur studying his reflection. The yellow monstrosity was almost skin-tight above his waist, at which point it flared out over his hips and then drew back into a tight circle just below his knees. The leggings that accompanied the odd tunic were black, as were a few of the extraneous ties (or whatever they were). The overall effect gave the vague impression of a pregnant bumblebee.
"What are you smiling about?" Arthur demanded crossly.
"Nothing," Merlin claimed, trying to reign in his reaction. "Just looking forward to the banquet."
Arthur scowled. "This can't be right. Is the maid still waiting?"
Merlin turned to crack the chamber door open, peeking into the hallway. The princess' young handmaiden was still there, waiting to see if they would require tailoring. Merlin smiled at her and got a timid smile in return. "Yes," he called back to Arthur.
"Well, have her come in."
Merlin opened the door further and gestured to the girl. "Arth—er, the Prince requests that you join us."
She hurried to obey. When she entered the room she immediately lowered her gaze to the floor and curtsied. Merlin stopped short to avoid running into her before stepping to the side. She straightened after a moment, tucking her hands behind her back and waiting expectantly. Arthur nodded approvingly and turned a pointed look on Merlin.
"What, you want me to curtsy?"
Arthur rolled his eyes. "I could never ask that; you might hurt yourself."
The girl was glancing between them, eyes a bit wide. Merlin allowed himself a little smirk as he dipped his chin and carefully slid his right foot behind his left, bending his knees in a perfect curtsy.
It startled a surprised laugh out of Arthur. "Well done, Merlin! Some day you'll make some lucky lady a truly lovely handmaiden."
Merlin tried to glare, but he was too busy grinning at the genuine smile on the prince's lips. Those smiles became somewhat elusive when official duties occupied most of Arthur's time. "You think I'm lovely," he teased instead, delighted.
Arthur paused. "I did not say—"
"Oh, yes you did."
Now it was Arthur's turn to glare. Though the smile was still in his eyes, he was far better at it than Merlin.
The princess' handmaiden cleared her throat softly. She was looking at them like they were something completely foreign to her.
Arthur's attention went back to her. "Right, you there. What was your name?"
"Winifred. Is this—" he paused, gestured to the outfit, then asked tactfully, "What do you think of the fit?"
She looked him up and down carefully. She didn't look as if she wanted to burst into laughter, so perhaps this was a common style in her kingdom. Merlin pictured a court full of men dressed as such, milling about a banquet. Then he was trying to contain snickers all over again. He couldn't wait to see Arthur try to sit down.
If Winifred noticed his choked sounds of amusement, she politely ignored them. "Perhaps a little tight through the shoulders and chest; I can let that out just a touch. And the ties of course…" she trailed off, gesturing, then looked at Merlin. Arthur followed her gaze. Merlin stared back at them for a long moment before he got the message. Of course she couldn't just step forward and start adjusting the clothing of the prince. Propriety and all that.
So Merlin did it instead, and all three of them suffered through the awkwardness as he tried to follow her instructions. To his credit, he only smacked Arthur in the face once. He winced a little and smiled sheepishly. "Sorry." Arthur just heaved a long-suffering sigh.
Finally they seemed to be finished. Merlin was reaching for the last strap as Arthur turned to stare at the mirror with a carefully blank look. Merlin stood behind his shoulder, watching the lips of his own reflection quirk traitorously. Arthur met his gaze, a worrisome grin suddenly spreading across his own lips. "Winifred," he began, using the tone that usually meant Merlin should brace himself for the fruit soon to be thrown at his head. "On formal occasions here in Camelot we like to distinguish our personal servants from those of the general household. It is customary to match the clothing of a servant to his master." Merlin froze, glaring at Arthur. The prince just gave him a self-satisfied smirk. "Do you think you can find Merlin a similar outfit?"
"Oh…I apologize, I wasn't aware of that custom. I'm certain I can find something appropriate."
Arthur beamed at her approvingly. Merlin 'accidentally' pulled the last tie so tight around Arthur's chest that his breath caught. Arthur coughed a bit, but his smirk didn't diminish as he asked Winifred to step back outside and told her that Merlin would be right out and happy to walk her back to her quarters on the complete opposite side of the castle.
Getting Arthur out of the thing was possibly even more difficult than getting him in. This was one of those rare occasions when a servant was not just a luxury; Merlin believed that he literally could not have gotten undressed by himself. Not without several inconvenient rips in the fabric at least.
By the time he finally stumbled into the hallway with the tunic bundled awkwardly in his arms, Winifred had wandered a little ways down to a window overlooking the courtyard. She turned to meet him, smiling a bit. "It really is too tight for him," she said apologetically, reaching for the outfit.
Merlin watched, impressed as she wrangled the thing over her shoulder with an easy grace. She was pretty in an understated way, long dark hair swept back from her face and a dimpled smile that crinkled the corners of her eyes. Of course, noticing that sort of thing tended to lead to Merlin's mouth stammering away without much input from his brain. "Peeling it off of him was a rather intimate task," he joked, belatedly realizing it sounded a little inappropriate. "I mean—not intimate intimate—nothing beyond master and servant…yeah. Um." She was grinning at him in amusement, so he just laughed at himself and regained a little equilibrium. "It's a good thing we're long past that new servant phase where silly little things like nudity and close contact were awkward."
He gestured in the direction that would take them to her quarters and they started down the hallway. "May I ask how long you've been his manservant?" she asked.
"Sure. It's been…" he paused, trying to calculate; giving a surprised hum when he came up with the answer. "Almost a year now."
She nodded with a hum of her own, still looking curious.
"May I ask why you ask?" he prompted.
"I've been serving the princess about half that time, but I also grew up in the royal household. Both my parents were servants; I have plenty of experience. But I've never seen anything quite like that." She nodded back towards Arthur's chamber.
"What? Princes in tight outfits?"
She laughed. "No; the two of you." Merlin shrugged, still not getting it, so she elaborated. "You were teasing each other. You refer to him simply as 'Arthur', and he lets you. You slapped him in the face. I know it was an accident, but…he didn't punish you, he didn't even chastise you."
He considered that the outfit request might have been punishment, but he didn't really think of it as such. That was just Arthur being Arthur; the mischievous side that was probably misinterpreted by those who didn't know him well. Eventually he just shrugged. "I do frequent the stocks occasionally, but these days it's usually on Uther's orders more often than Arthur's. Not that it isn't Arthur's fault, mind you."
She stared at him with something like amazement, shaking her head. "You're not like any master and servant I've ever met."
"No. You almost seem more like…well, friends."
"And is that so far-fetched?" He wouldn't tell her that Arthur only actually used the word 'friend' when he wanted something outside of Merlin's required duties; something like, say, lying to the king for him.
"I've never seen anything like it before."
"Don't get me wrong; Arthur still has his moments when he's a complete prat. You should have seen him when we first met."
He regaled her with tales of Arthur being prat-like, which turned into stories of Arthur being heroic far more often than even he'd realized. Of course he had to carefully edit his part in the tales, omitting the magical bits. By the time they reached her quarters they were both laughing, and he was looking forward to the banquet tomorrow despite what he would be wearing.
"Merlin, there's a young lady to see you."
Gaius stood in his doorway, eyebrow raised suggestively. Merlin squirmed a bit. "What? Women come to see me."
"Gwen comes to see you," Gaius corrected. "Mostly when you are ill."
"Well perhaps more would come if you didn't leave them waiting surrounded by strange-looking herbs and foul-smelling potions," he blustered, pushing past the physician to see into the main room.
Winifred stood beside the table, peering cautiously into one of Gaius' mixing bowls as she balanced a large bag. Merlin could just make out the yellow fabric peeking out from the bottom. He called her name, and she turned to him with a big smile. "Hello, Merlin. I've brought your tunic for the banquet."
"Oh, good. I've been so looking forward to that."
He turned to introduce Gaius, who nodded politely as he made his way through the room. "I was just heading out," he said, though his arched eyebrow added the silent question of whether he could trust Merlin alone here.
He fought the urge to make a face at him and just smiled pleasantly. "I'll see you later then," he called.
After Gaius had gone he made his way to Winifred. "Can I take that for you?"
"Of course," she said, but then hesitated. "Yours is a bit different from the Prince's. Despite what he said about Camelot's customs, Princess Lyra insisted that fashion must always differ between royalty and servant." The way she said it made him think the princess had been rather adamant about it.
"Are you suggesting I may have as much difficulty with it as I had with Arthur's?"
"It's possible. I'd be happy to help you, if you like."
"Sure thing. Wait here for a moment, all right?" He took the outfit from her and hurried to his room. It was different; it lacked the flare around the hips for one, hanging straight on his body. It was the same unnaturally bright yellow, but it had less ties. Of course, all that meant was that he was back to having no idea what he was intended to do with them. After several long minutes he gave up trying and opened the door to call, "Winifred, would you mind coming up?"
She climbed the stairs as gracefully as everything else he'd seen her do, smiling at the tangled mess he'd managed to make. "You're accustomed to less complicated fashions, I take it?"
"The most difficult thing I usually deal with is Arthur's armor."
"Now there's something I couldn't do. May I?"
He gestured her forward, and she began trying to help him untangle the straps. "The princess is fond of ornamentation, though she was quite specific on how yours should be different from Prince Arthur's."
"Lyra's big on propriety, I take it?" He thought back to their earlier conversation, to all her questions about the ease of his and Arthur's interactions. "And on servants knowing their place?"
She grinned in affirmation, but it was much tighter than her previous smiles.
He heard footsteps on the stairs and turned to see if Gaius was back already. Instead, Gwen appeared at his doorway. "Oh! Sorry! The door was open but Gaius wasn't in and I heard voices but I shouldn't have—"
"Gwen!" Merlin interrupted the rambling. "You're here. And I am not ill."
She blinked. "I can see that."
"It's just that Gaius was saying…never mind." Then he took in the way Gwen was looking at Winifred and the way both girls had turned a little pink and he finally got it. "Oh! No, no; this is Winifred. She's just helping me."
Gwen nodded, attempting understanding. "With your clothing?"
"No! Well…yes, actually; it's rather complicated, you see." He swung a couple of the straps around as a helpful visual aid.
By now he could feel his ears turning pink as well. He tried to recover his composure by turning to introduce them. He'd forgotten the uncanny knack the female servants seemed to have for knowing all the comings and goings in the castle, as evidenced when each already knew who the other served. Soon they were chatting amicably and Winifred had Gwen trying to help her in getting Merlin's outfit straight.
By the time he was properly attired (or so Winifred said; he'd have to take her word for it), the two girls seemed like friends and he felt like an outsider in his own room. They even left together as Gaius was just returning. He called "Goodbye ladies" as he looked from the door to Merlin, pointedly taking in the outfit. Merlin scowled and retreated into his room, using magic to shut the door and ignoring the admonishment called after him.
They arrived at the banquet early because for once Arthur did not want to make a big entrance. He was still pouting over the fact that Merlin didn't look quite as ridiculous as he did.
Of course he couldn't act childish once the princess arrived. Aside from making a bad impression on the visiting king, it also would have invited comparison. Merlin had known that Lyra was young, but he somehow still hadn't been expecting a child. He'd heard that she was twelve, but she seemed smaller than that. She was tiny with delicate features. But she didn't come across as a child; rather as a miniature version of an adult. He expected that was due to her personality as much as her appearance which, incidentally, had no resemblance whatsoever to a bumblebee.
The extent of his personal contact with the princess was the brief introduction Arthur made when she entered the banquet hall. Merlin offered her a perfectly respectable bow. In return, Lyra spared him a cursory glance and then told him to fetch her some water (told, not asked; it was decidedly not a request). Arthur hesitated only a moment before gesturing for him to do it. Winifred intercepted him on the way back, apologizing as she took over the duty. Merlin watched as Lyra took a sip and then thrust it back at her, apparently unsatisfied.
But despite her attitude with the servants, Lyra carried herself with absolute decorum. She also brought a certain entertainment value to the party. The only danger she seemed to present was possible wounds to Arthur's pride. Aside from the unique outfit she'd sent him, she also seemed to be rather intent on having his attention. She was at his side more than Merlin was, trying to engage him in conversation and laughing at his jokes and unobtrusively touching his arm or hand. For her age, her flirting skills were quite honed. She was clearly smitten.
And so Merlin watched Arthur in full bumblebee attire trying his best to be polite and proper without appearing too interested in the pretty little girl. It was really quite amusing.
"You're smirking," Gwen pointed out quietly when they crossed paths.
"Rather obviously." She paused, then said cautiously, "Merlin. Be careful, would you? Something's not right."
"What? Where?" Merlin looked around, half-expecting a sorcerer to step out of the shadows of the nearest pillar.
"Oh." He frowned as he looked back at the girl in question. "You two seemed friendly enough earlier."
"She's a lovely girl. It's just…something is off."
They watched as Lyra turned around and snapped at her about something. "Something other than the way her mistress treats her?" Merlin asked.
"Perhaps. I don't really know. Call it intuition or a bad feeling or…"
"Just don't call it foresight," he interjected.
They shared a meaningful look and Gwen sighed. "Just be wary of her while she's here, please? I mean, she is awfully close to Arthur."
He promised her he would, though he didn't really think much of it. Winifred seemed perfectly harmless to him. What didn't seem harmless was her job, which became more and more evident as the night went on. Merlin had been a servant long enough to have seen some bad treatment, and this qualified. There was no outright abuse in the banquet hall, but Lyra clearly viewed her maidservant as her personal slave. A little observation of the visiting king and his own servants confirmed that she'd learned her views at home.
He was watching Winifred try to blend into the shadows behind Lyra when Arthur snuck up on him some time later. "I know that look."
Merlin startled, surprised he'd slipped away from the princess. He blinked at him innocently. "What look?"
Arthur was unimpressed. "I know that one too. What are you thinking?"
"Mostly that I'm glad you're not twelve."
"I'll have you know that I was a perfectly delightful child."
Merlin choked on a laugh, trying desperately to turn it into a polite cough. Arthur cast him a narrow look and no-so-helpfully thumped him between the shoulder blades. That sort of backfired on him when Merlin stumbled and he had to catch him. But catch him he did, going so far as to make sure he was steady and squeezing his shoulder before letting go.
Merlin stared at him in surprise. Familiar as they were in other settings and lax as Arthur often allowed their servant-master dynamic to be, it was different in the banquet hall. He was always Arthur's shadow at these things, usually a step over and a few steps behind. It was rare for Arthur to treat him so friendly here, where Uther and visiting nobles were likely to frown on the familiarity. Perhaps he thought it didn't matter so much with the exceptionally young princess. But from what Merlin had observed, he rather thought she would have an even more negative opinion of it than the usual guest.
Merlin gave a mental shrug and decided to just go with it, unobtrusively leaning closer to nudge Arthur's shoulder in response. "I'm sure you were. Sire."
Arthur tipped his chin up haughtily. "Delightful, I tell you. Angelic, even. Ask anyone."
Merlin arched an eyebrow and looked over to where Lyra was watching them whilst trying to seem as if she was paying attention to the polite conversation Uther's ward was trying to make with her. "Morgana?"
Arthur followed his gaze. "Ask anyone but Morgana."
By the time Merlin was fighting with Arthur's tunic again late that night, Arthur seemed far less delightful and more harassed.
"You'd best get your rest," he announced. "We're going on a picnic tomorrow."
"Well I can't go alone with the little princess, can I? That would be improper."
"Propriety is overrated."
"I am shocked that you would say such a thing," Arthur deadpanned. "Fine, forget what anyone outside this room thinks. If I have to go you have to come with me, and that's that."
Before they left the next morning, Arthur took him aside and reminded him on no uncertain terms that he was never to leave him alone with the princess. Merlin thought he was being a bit paranoid. But a few hours later when he and Winifred were walking several paces behind and watching the two royals, he admitted that Arthur might have a point.
Lyra tucked her hand into the crook of the elbow that Arthur hadn't actually offered her. Arthur stiffened a bit, shoulders squared, but he couldn't very well shake her off. He did seem to be trying to make it some sort of marathon, practically marching off at a pace he would keep with his knights. Lyra was keeping up surprisingly easily. It was Merlin and Winifred who were lagging behind. It would have been all right with him as he enjoyed her company, but she was quiet and somewhat subdued today.
They crossed a creek near mid-day and went a little further to a clearing before settling down for the picnic. Merlin laid out the blanket carefully, doing his best (as he'd been striving for all day) to play the proper servant. Arthur kept looking at him strangely.
Winifred was handling the food. She produced a small loaf of oddly colorful bread. She handed it to Lyra, who in turn beamed as she offered it to Arthur. Arthur's smile was almost painfully fake as he accepted it with thanks. He broke off a bit and sniffed at it cautiously. "It smells…intriguing."
She just smiled beatifically at him. "I understand the need for a food taster, of course." She waved dismissively in Merlin's direction. A slightly sadistic smile teased Arthur's lips as he turned to look at him and Merlin grimaced a little as he steeled himself and stepped forward to share yet another of Arthur's 'gifts.'
But Arthur seemed to rethink it, the smile gone faster than it had appeared. He waved Merlin away. "I'm certain I can trust you," he told Lyra.
Merlin hovered just past his shoulder, recognizing the hesitance. This was one thing Arthur never asked him to do, at least not since the whole incident with the poisoned chalice.
Lyra ignored him, blinking at Arthur. "It is not as if I made it with my own hands. I will not be offended."
"She's not offended. It's only proper," Merlin said meaningfully as he knelt beside the prince, snatching the bread from his hand. Arthur frowned and defiantly grabbed another bite, stuffing it into his mouth at the same time. Consequently, they were left staring each other down like children in a contest as they chewed. And chewed. And chewed some more.
The taste hit about a minute in. Merlin swallowed with difficulty, determined not to give Lyra more reason to look at him with disdain. When it cleared his throat he offered her a close-lipped smile. Not to be outdone, Arthur tried to do the same. Unfortunately he wasn't quite so successful. He started to cough and gag.
Then it was Merlin's turn to thump Arthur between the shoulder blades. Lyra directed Winifred to hand Arthur some water. But the comedy of errors continued as in her haste Winifred stumbled, sending the container of water spilling all over her dress and the ground.
"Don't just stand there," Lyra snapped. "Go and refill it."
Merlin was hanging onto Arthur's shoulder and making sure he could breathe, tempted as always to automatically use magic when Arthur was in trouble. He wasn't actually choking though; he just clearly needed a drink to wash it down. The seconds seemed to drag; Winifred taking forever to get back. "She probably got lost. Merlin, you should go and help her," Lyra ordered.
Arthur was casting him a look that quite clearly said, 'don't you dare,' but he was also still trying to clear his throat and obviously in need of the water. Rationalizing that it often fell to him to ignore Arthur's wishes in favor of what was best for him, Merlin stood. "I'll be right back," he offered in consolation. He could feel Arthur glaring daggers at his back as he ran off.
He took the most direct route back to the creek, then began calling for Winifred when he didn't see her in the immediate vicinity. He thought he heard something moving in the trees and spun to look, calling her name again.
"I'm here," she announced suddenly, appearing on his left. He jumped. "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."
"It's all right." He tried to calm his pounding heart as he took the container from her and stooped to fill it. "We need to get back. Arthur's going to kill me for leaving them alone." He hastened to add, "Not literally, of course."
"No, I don't imagine he would." Her voice was curiously soft. He stood and faced her. Her eyes were trained over his shoulder, but she quickly brought them back to his face, smiling a little sadly. "He's a good man, your prince."
"I wouldn't call him 'my prince'…" He got no further as he heard a twig snap behind him. He spun around, too late to get a good look or to stop the fist that slammed into his face.
Merlin woke to a pounding headache and the uncomfortable sensation of a branch poking into his back. He groaned as he fought past the fuzzy feeling to remember what had happened.
When he did he shot upright. As he waited for the immediate dizziness to fade, he tried to make sense of it. He remembered Winifred's eyes flicking past him and back again. She'd seen his attacker. And not only had she not warned him—she hadn't seemed surprised.
Silently cursing his apparent inability to see danger right in front of him, Merlin took off back towards the clearing. He slowed down, not knowing what he was walking into, but what he saw stopped him in his tracks.
Arthur was near the tree line, rinsing out his mouth. Lyra was still on the blanket, watching him with concern. Winifred stood off to one side, wringing her hands and looking pale. There was no one else in sight.
Arthur turned to greet him. "Took you long enough…" When he caught sight of Merlin he froze. "What happened to you?"
"That's a very good question," Merlin said, confused. He glared warily at Winifred.
She looked like a terrified deer caught in a hunter's sights, ready to rabbit off into cover if anyone flinched. "I'm sorry," she said faintly. And then she actually did turn and run. Merlin started scanning the trees, knowing full well that they were not alone.
"Where do you think you're going?" Lyra called after her, as perturbed as she was confused. "Get back here!"
Arthur stared after her for a moment before looking back to Merlin for answers.
It happened quickly. Merlin spotted movement and identified it as a bow. He followed the line of sight of the arrow, distinguishing the target. Arthur was looking right at Merlin, and Merlin was closer to Lyra. He reacted on instinct. Magic wasn't an option with attention directed at him, so he physically lunged at the girl.
Lyra shrieked indignantly as she hit the ground with him, but Merlin had more pressing concerns—namely the arrow that had missed its target and instead buried itself in the thing that had been thrown in the way. He was vaguely aware of Arthur yelling his name as he reached down and yanked the arrow from his right thigh. It occurred to him a second later that maybe that wasn't such a great idea as the blood flow increased.
Then another arrow hit the tree behind them and he pulled the squirming girl closer, trying to cover her with his body. Arthur disappeared into the trees and Merlin knew that he was trying to circle around and get to the shooter from behind. Meanwhile he and the princess were sitting ducks. "Get into the trees," he hissed to the girl.
She must have realized the severity of the situation because she took the order surprisingly well, scooting away and into cover. Merlin dragged himself after her. There they sat, quiet except for their heavy breathing as if whoever was out there could not have easily seen exactly where they went.
Merlin tensed when footsteps finally approached, but it was Arthur who appeared in front of them. "I'm not sure where he went," he confessed as he crouched down and reached for Merlin, looking at Lyra. "Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine," Merlin replied dizzily.
"Not you, you idiot; that's obvious."
"I don't think so," the feminine voice at his side responded. Merlin blinked over at Lyra, who was looking at him with something akin to bewilderment. "He saved me."
"He can hear you, you know," Merlin pointed out absently, distracted by Arthur. The prince had a wild look in his eyes, hands hovering uncertainly over Merlin. He didn't quite seem to know what to do. Merlin found that more disturbing than he'd ever admit.
Because Arthur was focused on him, it was Merlin who saw the movement behind him. "Arthur!" was all he managed in way of warning, but Arthur was too well trained not to immediately take action. He spun, trying to bring up the sword, but he didn't have time to get it all the way up before his attacker had a sword of his own aimed at Arthur's neck.
This time, Merlin didn't even think. Belatedly he would hope that Lyra was too scared and focused on Arthur to notice, but the magic was out of him before he'd even registered it, no words required. The stranger's sword stopped midair as if it had hit a wall and stuck there. He tried frantically to pull it back, but Arthur used the moment to his advantage and easily stabbed him right through the chest.
Merlin winced as the body fell and heard Lyra let out a frightened little sound beside him. They watched while Arthur checked the man before turning back to them, crouching once more and setting his sword within easy reach. He said nothing as he reached for Merlin again.
"Oh, I really don't think it's that bad," Merlin dared to say, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
"Try not to be a complete moron." There was bite in the words, enough that Merlin stopped trying to bat his hands away. He hadn't even realized he was doing it in the first place. He still voiced a vague protest as Arthur pulled the neckerchief from his neck and wound it into a tight strip, carefully fitting it around his leg. Then all coherent thought cut off abruptly as Arthur pulled the fabric tight just above the wound. Merlin's vision went white for an interminable moment, a strangled sort of scream filling his ears. It had tapered off into a whimper before he realized the sound was coming from him.
By the time he was coherent again and could actually see his surroundings, Arthur seemed back to normal. His hands had steadied, his voice calmed; the familiar visage Merlin had seen him use with injured knights slipped into place. He confidently went about doing what he could, instructing Lyra to assist him by bringing the water. He then had her pack up what she could and prepared for the trek back through the forest.
"Help me up?" Merlin requested when Arthur went to move him. He barely registered that the prince's glare lacked any trace of amusement before Arthur had carefully grabbed him and lifted. The world tilted crazily as he found himself over Arthur's shoulder, pain making itself known with each step he took.
Merlin lost track of things a bit then. The next thing he was really aware of was Lyra musing, "I suppose he's very good at his job?"
"Whatever would make you think that?"
"You seem to find him very valuable."
"He's easily the worst manservant I've ever had." Merlin wriggled a little in protest of that. Arthur just tightened his grip.
There were several beats of silence. "Then why?"
"Because that's only the servant part of it."
And suddenly Merlin wanted to hear what else might be said, but it was lost to the ringing in his ears and the black tunnel of his vision.
He was aware of the pain before he was really conscious. He shifted uncomfortably and gasped when that made it worse, his eyes fluttering open. He glanced around, easily identifying Gaius' chamber but a little dumbstruck at the identity of the person beside him.
"You're awake," Lyra announced needlessly.
"You're sitting at my bedside," Merlin countered dumbly.
"Yes. I thought it proper to come and say goodbye, and offer thanks. You did save my life."
"I'm beginning to hate that word."
She blinked at him, confused.
"Proper," he clarified.
"Ah. Yes, Arthur said something about that as well."
"He suggested that despite its necessity in our responsibilities, there might also be occasions when propriety is overrated."
Merlin grinned despite the pain. "He actually said that?"
"I'll admit that I don't understand it, but he seems to care a great deal for you. At first I thought it was about your abilities, but—"
"My what?" Merlin interrupted.
"Your magic," she said casually.
He made a sound that may have resembled a whimper and promptly protested, "No magic, no. I have no magic."
She eyed him with a look of unconcerned disbelief that reminded him eerily of Arthur. "Please. I saw your eyes glow. I've also seen the extreme nature of King Uther's feelings on magic. I will keep your secret."
"I…" That was as far as he got, still feeling blindsided.
Luckily she didn't seem to require his input for the conversation. "Anyway, I thought it was your abilities he valued, but his willingness to protect you despite his obvious loyalty to his father suggests a deeper connection. Still, I imagine that is how you got so close, yes?"
"No!" he sputtered. "As far as Arthur knows, I'm just a normal servant."
She stared at him. "He doesn't know."
"Most decidedly not."
She laughed in disbelief. "Do you think he's ignorant?"
He stuttered. "Well not as a general rule, but…"
"But what? You're just that clever?" she scoffed. A second later she sighed. "Sorry, that was rude."
Merlin's eyebrows went up incredulously.
Lyra cleared her throat and sat impossibly straighter, adjusting her dress primly over her knee. "I'm trying."
Merlin didn't comment. The pain was getting more persistent; probably some medication Gaius had given him was wearing off. He looked around the room, wishing Gaius would hurry back. In an attempt to distract himself he asked, "So what happened to Winifred?"
"No one's seen her. It's assumed that she ran off. We don't know if she made it to a nearby town or not." She didn't look mad, just oddly subdued. She paused and looked away before adding, "It seems there was a plot to assassinate me in retaliation for an execution my father carried out. She apparently agreed to lead them to an opportunity in exchange for payment."
Merlin was dimly aware of the door opening behind him, but he couldn't easily twist around to look. "I didn't see it coming," he offered lamely, despite knowing that she probably wouldn't really care much what he had thought of Winifred.
She suddenly looked very young as she locked eyes with him. "Was it because I was awful to her?"
Caught off guard, somehow all he could say was, "Well, it probably didn't help…"
"I'm sure she had her own reasons." He could see Gwen now as she entered his line of vision, smiling softly at him but addressing Lyra. "She was conflicted."
"I'm sure the rather large sum of money she was offered had something to do with it as well." There was Arthur, too. "Decided to join us again, Merlin?"
"I knew you'd be upset if I lazed around too much."
Arthur grinned at him before he too addressed the princess. "Lyra, your father is waiting for you."
"Thank you," she said demurely. She paused as she stood, looking back at Merlin once more. "And thank you," she added softly.
"No problem," he responded automatically. Arthur gave a rather un-princely snort and Gwen shook her head fondly.
Arthur escorted Lyra out of his line of sight, leaving Gwen sitting at the foot of his cot. Merlin tried to grin at her and waited until he'd heard the door open and close before he spoke. "It's possible I should have listened to you."
"Let's face it. My track record for recognizing danger before it slaps me in the face is not very good. It's hard to break tradition."
"That is one thing I won't mind if you break," Arthur interjected wryly as he returned and took a seat at Merlin's side. Before Merlin could protest that he did not break that many things, Arthur continued, "How are you feeling? And do not tell me you're 'fine.'"
"Fine," he agreed cheekily, but ruined it with a wince as his leg throbbed. "It hurts," he admitted through gritted teeth.
Arthur nodded, concern flitting across his features as he turned to Gwen. "Would you mind…"
She was already nodding and standing. "Trying to hurry Gaius along? Of course." She touched him gently on his uninjured leg and gave him an encouraging smile as she left. Merlin tried to smile back, though he feared it was more of a grimace.
Arthur remained, gazing at him unnervingly. "You can be stupidly brave at times," he pronounced.
"Um. Thank you?"
Arthur just shook his head, reaching down to Merlin's side. He didn't notice that he had the sheet fisted in a death grip until Arthur forcibly worked his fingers free, tangling his own fingers with Merlin's instead. The difference between something soft but unresponsive and something warm and callused that squeezed back was huge.
And this—stuff like this—was how he knew that Lyra was wrong. Arthur didn't know. Because while Arthur wasn't near as fanatical about it as his father, he'd still been raised to hate and fear magic. He could never care for a sorcerer. And, unlikely as it might seem, they were friends.
The door opened yet again. "Merlin! You would wait until I walked away for a moment to wake."
"He's difficult like that," Arthur agreed.
Merlin just grunted a little. Gaius bustled about a bit and then approached with a vial of something that Merlin sincerely hoped had pain relieving effects. Arthur shifted to make room for him, but kept his hold on Merlin. Gaius held his head while he drained the unpleasant tasting concoction, then gently helped him lie back. "Give it a moment; that should help. And Merlin? Next time, do me a favor and do not yank out the arrow in a fit of hysteria."
"I was not hysterical."
"You made it worse."
"There had best not be a next time," Arthur interjected, his grip on Merlin's hand tightening almost painfully to make his point.
Gaius made no comment as he moved away, but Merlin realized that he really ought to pull away. It couldn't look very proper.
As soon as the word occurred to him, he rebelliously tightened his grip. He'd have to deal with propriety again as soon as he was up and about; for now it could go by the wayside.
Arthur wiggled his fingers a little, forcing Merlin to relax his grip. And apparently he could read Merlin's mind, because he smirked and said, "Lyra wouldn't approve."
Merlin thought back, remembering Arthur's behavior with him from the banquet all the way until he lost consciousness. "Did you set out to teach the girl a lesson?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Arthur said dispassionately.
Merlin grinned. "You did. You saw the way she treated servants and you decided to demonstrate a little humanity."
"She is still and will probably always be a spoilt little princess."
"And yet she was just trying very hard to be nice to me."
"I cannot imagine why."
The medicine was starting to take effect, the pain relaxing along with the rest of him, so Merlin just grinned wider. Arthur slowly released his hand, then reached up to poke at the tender skin around Merlin's left eye. Merlin batted him away, reminded of his turn at the difficult patient in the woods. "Thank you, by the way."
"I did not tell her to be nice to you."
"Not for that. Well, not just for that, anyway." He pushed himself up on his elbows. The world spun a little alarmingly.
Arthur easily pushed him back, a firm hand on his chest. "You stay put. In bed, resting. That's—"
"An order?" Merlin suggested cheekily.
Arthur huffed in frustration, but he also moved the restraining hand to more of a comforting grip on Merlin's shoulder. "Consider it a friendly request."
Merlin felt his lips curl upwards. "All right."
"That's it? Are you saying that all this time all I had to do to keep you in line was be nice?"
Merlin mustered his best innocent smile and just shrugged. Arthur rolled his eyes heavenward as he released Merlin and stood, mumbling something about frustrating servants and calling an instruction for Gaius to 'keep him under control' as he strode out.
The smile remained on Merlin's lips as he drifted back to sleep.