Okay, there is a reason for the immense delay in updating, the main one being that Arthur was being very demanding in just how much Merlin there was to be. Still, thank you to everyone who has reviewed, favourite-ed or alert-ed (I have Author Alert's now, yay! =D) this story. Now that I am back to writing on a regular basis updates should more frequent (ignore suspicious absence).

Also, for anyone who bothers to read the Author's note (pff, like I've never skipped the tell-tale bold bit and gone straight to the story), please review and tell me what you think. Like all authors I love reviews but will save pleading pathetically for them for a later chapter. Till then! VH

As always, The Adventures of Merlin does not belong to me no matter how much I wish for that to be true. I merely have abducted it's characters for my own entertainment =^^=

Beautiful Torment

Chapter Two – Not-so-Sweet Dreams

Depraved work of Valeria H

Perhaps it was slightly cruel to wake your servant from peaceful slumber with a loaded crossbow pointed as his head, but damn it was fun! Seeing that drowsy start fade quickly into utter terror had managed to wipe any thoughts of sleep from Arthur's mind and he was quite certain that sleep would be the last thing on Merlin's mind as well till they returned to the grandiose safety of Camelot. If one day of productive servitude was the outcome then he would have to consider revising his policy on dealing with a certain troublesome manservant's insubordination. Alas, he feared himself too nice for that.

Having sat comfortably astride his horse for a few hours now on their return to Camelot, Arthur felt relaxed after his adventure of dirt, degradation and sleep-deprivation. When he had signalled to his entourage his intention to leave in the early morn there had been the usual grumbles of muted protest as dazed eyes shook sleep away and lethargic bodies jumped to forced attention in the frigid air. The chilled air that marked the approaching winter had easily carried the whisper of a belittling remark in his direction, but he knew exactly where that one was coming from. If they left now good time could be made, they would be travelling in the warm sun and could be safe within castle walls before the sun fled. Plus, movement was necessary, anything that distracted his thoughts and kept his mind clear of certain...distractions.

Witnessing the dense clusters of wilderness yield to travel worn roads as they trailed away from the retreat, Arthur couldn't help but reflect that it hadn't done much good. Then again, if he'd wanted a complete escape from all his problems then he'd have ditched everyone and run to become a monk. Boredom was sure to make his present life much more appealing. He observed troubled glances from Merlin, like the youth was petrified that Arthur would just unsheathe his sword and impale him. Well, that's what he got for treating his liege as a convenient pillow! Shaking his head at the absurdity of their situation, the Crown Prince confessed the he couldn't be that cruel, least of all to Merlin. Despite the fact that there were times he blamed the other, he never intentionally wished him to suffer. And whenever – and there were a few times – he had made the other miserable he always regretted it and tried to get the servant to cheer up in the most convoluted way available so the idiot wouldn't suspect. Of course, he thought that occasionally Gaius was giving the boy hints but mostly the old physician sat back looking amused at their antics.

Besides, in spite of the humiliation he had felt at the thought of one of his knights witnessing such an act, he'd rather enjoyed himself when his lanky companion had ceased to use him as a pillow and had proceeded to wrap slender arms around his shoulders and snuggle up instead. It could have been for warmth but Arthur was sure it was just his manservant getting revenge from when he'd pre-empted the prior hug attempt. He didn't care if Merlin had been right about his troll step-mother; the knight's code clearly stated that a hug was unmanly!

The gentle trot his destrier had adopted for the trip altered into agitated pounding of well kept hooves on soil, his mount threatening disobedience to break into a gallop upon seeing the familiar walls of Camelot materialise on the horizon. The restless attitude of his steed was shared by the behind him as leather creaked at sudden fidgeting and Arthur suspected that home was issuing an irresistible call to all. The only one who looked like they weren't going to gallop dramatically into the distance was riding directly to his side; Merlin, source of woe. Fear that he'd only humiliate himself falling from his horse? Or was there no attachment to Camelot as a potential home? Memories of Ealdor – a hovel providing little protection from the elements and a Mother fawning over her child – made him worry. While he'd been reassured that the youth no longer belonged in that place there were still lingering doubts and ignorance as to why there was no longer a place left for him in that village community. At present the source of his contemplation was being well looked after by the considerate bay mare his master had chosen specifically for him. Her careless rider was clearly taking advantage of the well trained mount by sitting hunched in his saddle, bony elbows floating precariously above his horse's neck and head resting between open palms that embraced high cheekbones lovingly though unconsciously, seemingly fixated on every inch of travel worn road like he might be asked to recall it in minute detail in the near future. A wry grin fell upon Arthur's face at the thought of making this examinable; chances were Merlin would fail any test on navigation with how scattered he seemed sometimes. Somehow sensing he was being watched, Merlin dropped his left hand as his head tilted to confront his observer, the slim fingers of his right hand intruding in dark tresses instead. The grin gave way to wariness and he felt haunting pinpoints of vivid blue watch his every movement, brief paranoia making him uneasy at the thought of that mind knowing exactly what he was thinking. So focused was the master on the unscrupulous stare of his servant, he failed to see those uncouth lips part to answer the unspoken question.

'Riding along this path makes me think of when I originally came to Camelot.'

Abruptly averting his gaze from his psychic assistant, the prince focused intently on the well travelled road ahead of him. How on earth had he known what Arthur was thinking? A slight tilt of the head seemed all that was required for the youth to reach enlightenment. In compensation for every instance that he was ignorant, sometimes the idiot was simply too perceptive for his own good. Yet there had been something in that statement, some unspoken fear Merlin had not made him privy to that briefly rose with the memory and seized its victim, and that missing knowledge only served to infuriate Arthur.

'Of course, then I had to walk all the way from Ealdor while now I get the chance to ride triumphantly through the gates. Or maybe not so triumphantly since I didn't hunt anything but still... I'm not even sure why I'm saying any of this since you're obviously enraptured by my voice and hanging off of every word my princely prat. I suppose you'll tell me to shut up soon; you haven't for a while so it's due.'

All of Merlin's chattering was background noise for the prince. He realised it would be merciful to his knights to cease the prattling of his servant now but he just couldn't. He was just too concerned with the way his loquacious companion saw him. It was always the important things he picked up on, and that which was better left forgotten. And why the hell did Arthur feel disappointed that there had been no addition of "and meeting you"? He didn't care and it didn't matter.

A snicker finally derailed his thoughts as his precariously perched peasant seemed to pick up on his reluctance, especially when compared to the irritable enthusiasm that his knights were showing, chaffing at the bit to rush home, restrained only by their prince's hand on the reins. 'At least Lady Camilla won't be there.'

That was a small blessing at least. Upon departure he'd prayed that her cosy stay would be at an end before his return, before she'd entrenched herself too deeply into the castle and plans of a fiasco wedding. The dear Lady Camilla had come to Camelot and immediately declared to Arthur that "it was their destiny to be together". Arthur had considered himself justified in retaliating that he more likely to be destined to be with his manservant than the Lady, as lovely as she was. Of course, Merlin had had a front row seat to every misconception that could possibly be extracted from that particular nightmare. Ah, she had been a worthy excuse to get away from Camelot. The mere thought of her joining the family was enough to ensure that his Father had had no objections to a short respite from his duties as well as cooperation from Morgana, the lady herself being gracious enough to provide a distraction for the vacant girl and assist escape.

Still, the smug smile Merlin had worn while announcing the blessing was mocking and unacceptable. It seemed his knights had stooped to the same ingenuity as gossiping girls.


An innocent expression flitted across that still decidedly smug face. 'Yes sire?'

'–shut up.'

'Yes sire.' The smile only seemed to grow, blue eyes sparkling with mischief and ever present exuberance.

He turned away from the still present smugness that was gracing Merlin's features and accessed their advance. Having passed through the outer gates with that final comment, sounds of village life enveloped them as they gradually proceeded through the swarms of peasantry towards the castle. Despite all the activity surrounding them, a faint movement in his peripheral vision had Arthur halting his horse and spinning defensively to confront the threat, only to reveal nothing but flashing lights. Frowning at the lack of apparent threat he signalled his unsettled knights – all of whom had stopped their horse's march to grab at sword hilts – to continue and once more urged his steed forward. Still, there was something off.

Flashes of light didn't just happen. They were linked to fire, reflections and – he shuddered to consider the possibility – sorcery. Looking down detritus filled alleys and through battered shutters, no second flicker followed to confirm what he had seen. There was rubbish but no fire, masses of life but no possibility that such a sector could afford the extravagance of windows and mirrors so his mind fell troublingly upon the final alternative. Shaking his head to clear it of these troublesome thoughts, Arthur approached the situation rationally. It was getting late and a member of the peasantry was making an early start on banishing the darkness. But Arthur paid it no further heed. At present the primary concern was undisturbed sleep and he wasn't prepared to fall prey to paranoia so close to the ultimate goal.

Riding through the final gate and feeling the secure walls engulf him, the front steps leading to the castle were finally revealed and the end of this misadventure done with. The usual servants were attending to their evening duties but the courtyard was barren of anyone he could actually remember the name of bar one. Standing alone on the stairs waiting patiently was Gaius, probably alerted by one of the guards of their return. Smiling as his charge dismounted haphazardly, he looked like a doting parent about to bestow praise enthusiastically where any normal person would not find need. As Merlin rushed towards the older man, Arthur felt an irrational surge of jealousy for the pair. This was ridiculous; he was a son, legitimate and recognised as such, not merely a youth given shelter by someone who couldn't say no. Perhaps that was the difference though; Gaius felt no obligation to shelter the boy but did so without question, his affection exceeding anyone's expectations. To Gaius, with absolutely no effort, Merlin had become irreplaceable.

Stowing a genuine smile away he watched as Gaius placed a protective hand to his charge's shoulder and, with a nod to Arthur, gently led the boy towards their quarters. It wasn't an ideal level of respect but he knew it was all he'd get for now. Seeing the physician supporting his charge's weight as he staggered uneasily away from the courtyard confirmed that there would be no more work from the exhausted youth today. Perhaps he shouldn't have dragged Merlin out of Gaius' tower by the neckerchief shouting about hunting with what, for them anyway, could be construed as affectionate quarrelling. Thanks to his father it would always be Merlin's honour to serve him and sometimes Arthur exploited that fact. He would never cave and admit that what he really wanted was the companionship. Anything to avoid the loneliness that others incited within him.

Thinking of that emptiness led him to cast a perfunctory glance towards the castle's main entrance, though the impressive arch was still devoid of other occupants despite a tiny fluttering of hope that occasionally wanted a reprieve. Running a hand through his normally maintained hair, the prince felt his hand clench in the fine strands on reflex to control his emotions before breathing out slowly and allowing fingers to release their death grip and smooth out the remainder of his blonde locks. No matter how many times he departed, nor how dangerous the mission, there would never be a doting parent awaiting him. With the sun setting behind him, he dismounted before handing the care of his steed to a lingering servant. Fleeing the encroaching darkness he proceeded to quickly climb the castle steps in order to officially report his return to his father. He wasn't a romantic that needed to watch the sunset; he'd seen enough alone.

Alone in his quarters at last and free from any societal constraints, Arthur let all pretence drop to the floor along with his jacket. Merlin could collect them in the morning.

During his earlier attempts to escape to solitude, murmurs had stalked his footsteps, harrying their quarry with expectations and duty. Sighing with reluctant acceptance, he knew he had to accept his duties, his responsibilities, and permit them to shackle fantasised thoughts freedom. Perhaps as an idealistic child there was a hope to live like anyone else, do whatever he wanted and be with whoever he chose. Such naivety was long gone, washed away with the blood of Camelot's enemies upon being named as Crown Prince and heir to the throne. But for one fragment of his life Arthur still wished for freedom. Ironic that like his dreams, freedom was to be only a fantasy, something he'd experience alone and instantly shattered when met with reality.

Sparing a fleeting look at the luxurious sheets and fluffed pillows that were beckoning him, Arthur chose to temporarily forgo the relaxation of slumber, instead marching towards the window, his portal to the outside world. Hopping to drag one leather boot off and then flinging it in the general direction of his jacket, his bare foot then made contact with the cold stone floor as he proceeded to do the same for the other boot, feeling smug when a short thump confirmed the second had collided with the first. Resting one hand on the stained glass, he shivered slightly at the chill but did not move away, choosing instead to endure the cold in favour of observing what would one day be his kingdom. In daylight he would see the town, bustling with life. Now, with darkness blanketing everything, he saw the full moon illuminated fragments of a twisted landscape beyond his reflection. Blinking once, the nightscape vanished and he was left gazing intently at his own reflection.

Tousled blonde hair and bright blue eyes were an easily recognisable reality that only occurred when he had not just returned from a hunting trip. Normally glossy hair was darkened by the remnants of the hunt, sweat-streaked and screaming for attention as well as a luxurious bath. Eyes were still blue and bright but dark circles now ringed them, declarations of too many nights of haunted sleep, disturbing but in a disturbingly pleasurable way. His trademark red shirt covered well muscled torso and hid skin that was caked with dirt and would need to be dealt with in the same manner as his hair come morning. Twisting his head from side to side he evaluated his appearance; not in the best of shape but still worthy of admiration. Of course, the unique individual that his subconscious was informing him he fancied would tell him to stop being an arrogant prat before accusing him of being fat.

Merlin. Ah, how much his sweet idiot had influenced him, so much so that he seemed to have taken up permanent residence in the prince's thoughts. He now found that when he trained an extra twirl of his sword was added, just to show off, and be rewarded with a charming glimpse of the innocent maiden bored out of his mentally afflicted mind as his master trounced knight after knight for his favour. And what did he get in return? There was no handkerchief forthcoming, but Arthur was willing to stray from tradition and accept a vibrant red neckerchief instead. Once there had been a time when Arthur would have done whatever his father requested of him, for the acknowledgement, the glory and perhaps even a faint glimmer of what it would be like to be a real family. Now everything had changed and it was not all about what his father demanded of him.

Turning towards the heaped blankets that had called to him for so long, the prince made his way towards that welcoming embrace. Sleep had been an elusive being for quite some time, but at last he was alone; no knights to hear his cries in the night, no servant to walk in on whatever his heated body did while he slept and no young damsel staying in Camelot who believed that barging into his room without permission was entirely acceptable. That had certainly been awkward, explaining to his father over breakfast why there had been a young lady in his room that morning. If he wasn't certain of who his father was and his disgust with the lady in question, he'd have thought he was proud at the accomplishment. Definitely not a possibility.

Snorting at the improbability, he collapsed onto the crimson sheets, stretching briefly before worming underneath, worries temporarily abated due to the warmth causing his lethargy. As his eyelids lost the battle with the waking world, Arthur wasn't certain whether to be troubled or thrilled by what was to come.

Tossing in feverish delirium, Arthur felt justified in criticising his own dream's lack of originality, so focused on the repetitiveness of the situation. He'd had this dream before and the reiteration was irritating, even if the subject itself was less than so. It was actually the first he'd had, because if you're going to wholly corrupt a memory, you might as well start at the beginning. Damn Merlin and his nostalgia trip!

Observing the dreamscape before him, recollection came easily. This memory was vividly painted behind his corneas, flashing to the forefront of his mind whenever he wanted the description of the word idiot. Noon sun burning uncharacteristically upon all he'd taken a break from the rigors of training for the brief fun of torturing a servant and the added joy of being insulted by a complete stranger, though admittedly an intriguing one. He'd stood there with a dusty and well-worn boot firmly holding down their target practice's protective layer, lecturing the prince with no remorse and an unhealthy air of superiority.

Scruffy was the first word that had originally come to mind, though there was a certain charm to scruffy. Intense blue eyes, open yet mysterious and so cliché, were raised in confrontation and doing a wondrous task of distracting him from imperfections. Just little things like the ears that had no place being that big and the ebony shafts of hair that clung lovingly, or perhaps just lazily, to its owners head giving the distinct impression that he had simply fallen out of bed and into the castle's outer walls. A shirt that was far too large covered what was conceivably a slender frame, giving the faint impression of a delicate lady of the court. He dislodged that though quickly as an Adam's apple moving with each swallow confirmed that his insulter was male and that any desire was distinctly inappropriate.

The second impression that came forward was that he was looking at a would-be-hero. Ah, the heroic figure that emerges to save all from the injustice of life, that fought against insurmountable odds, defended another life at the risk of forfeiting his own. But the hero also triumphed, defeated the enemies and returned to the fair damsel that pined for his absence. There was no way that life was that clear cut. A sword in Merlin's hands still scared Arthur, the risk great that whatever the fool defended was more likely to miss a limb than his enemy from the unwieldy swing. While he believed that Merlin would willingly sacrifice his life for others, the idiot was more inclined to get himself killed that way. And the fair damsel pining for the return? Well, that may require some further research, but there was a horny prince if they were desperate to fill the role.

He remembered perfectly the events of that day, so vividly engraved into his mind, and so could claim with reasonable doubt that this recollection was a little off. For a start there was the matter of the insult. Nobody had ever proved defiant nor foolish enough to address him in such unflattering terms and ignorance was never an excuse. Yet Merlin seemed to derive great pleasure from insulting him and continued to do so as a daily sort of game. The current favourite was "clotpole" and so hearing the way that the fantasy Merlin's tongue curved in an affectionate manner around "prat" made his exceeding pleased. Such a simple word had originally managed to leave feelings of inadequacy in its wake but now in its place was warmth threatening to devour. And in truth he couldn't remember his manservant ever giving him that kind of look. Sultry was not something he suspected was within his companion's scope of abilities, but at this moment, just as when he had first had it, he didn't really care what Merlin was and wasn't capable of. Of course, he'd woken terrified the first time but by now they were becoming more frequent and he'd grown accustomed to their little quirks. He'd have to remember to watch out for that little idiosyncrasy of Merlin's or he'd spend his whole time obsessing. Not that he wasn't already.

When that gaze had risen in challenge to his own he'd gulped against the inconvenient object that had managed to lodge itself in his throat. Sweat had gathered on his palms, he'd licked his lips to try and salvage some moisture and his heart rate picked up in anticipation of the new challenge. Instead of the retaliation of reality he was left fighting a losing battle with his tongue that was busy contemplating numerous other scenarios that would silence the cretin. Treacherous flesh!

As his opponent advanced on him, his dream-self managed to release something suspiciously similar to a sigh into the fantasy land. It seemed a sorry state of affairs when a country's future monarch spent most of his time agonising over little details in his dreams. But as a too-thin frame settled against his and pale fingers began the expected task of deliberately tracing his belt, just as with the sultry look, Arthur didn't give a damn.

His body was warm and tingling with a far too real heat. Something was calling to him and he was helpless to deny it. It almost felt like there was another body nearby and he craved it, wanted to press up against it, possessively grab hold and never release it. But he was certain he'd been alone in his chambers when he went to sleep, right?

Almost scared to open his eyes the mind raced ahead to draw images of the last time he'd encountered this disturbing awakening. The morning before his departure, eyelids had unveiled the view of a frail face dominated by starch straight spiralling ringlets. Shuddering seemed appropriate for the memory, as he'd never cave and allow the screams that had accumulated inside freedom to burst forth into the silent castle corridors. Of course, he couldn't remember his body striking this precise note of need. With hesitation the young prince opened his eyes to be rewarded with a sight that his overstimulated body welcomed but his now alert mind knew that protocol would not allow. He'd never realised that Merlin could be so forward, always assumed that he was still an innocent little virgin, yet here they were. Sultry was definitely on the list. At least the warmth present within fantasy could be accounted for. If there was only one method that would have Arthur wide awake in seconds, then being straddled by Merlin was one that Arthur would be firmly supporting in future.

Gazing into blue eyes that were thankfully filled with amusement rather than immoral intentions, Arthur realised that his servant seemed to be waiting for something. Instead his attention was caught when quirked lips suddenly moved. The greeting he unconsciously recognised as 'Good morning,' could very well have been 'take me now' and he wouldn't have noticed, too fascinated by the trembling of the body still hovering over him. Two words should not frighten a tried and tested knight so much and he knew that three words would have terrified him. Now wide awake, fear was the excuse he was using for the sudden lurch of his heart, followed but the quick tempo that was now being beaten against his ribcage. A smile was threatening to explode off of his servants face and he was indisposed at present to tame it. Sinking into the feathered mattress, he pleaded that flimsy sheets would magically gain the power to shackle frustration.

'Merlin, what are you doing!'

There was just no cause for that kind of look, one that questioned even the remotest vestige of intellect might be present. So perhaps life had not gifted his hapless assistant with the power of Gaius' raised eyebrow – the one that seemed capable of forcing a confession of your deepest secrets – but this was still a formidable weapon. Curiosity still demanded to know how he was capable of it though. 'It's morning Arthur. I'm bringing you your breakfast and I'm waking you up.'

This would possibly be the best point to bring up the complaint about his servants new method of waking him, but he didn't really want to protest, not when Merlin was obviously trying his best. It had done the job. He should use his initiative more often.

While struggling to control what could escalate into ragged breathing he observed the look of disgust that crossed his servant's face, nose wrinkling against whatever it was that revolted him. 'Ugh, you're filthy! I'll run a bath.' Merlin sat upright from his suggestive position of hovering over the crown prince to begin the awkward shuffle that would get him off. As retribution for being accused of lack of hygiene by someone who yesterday had looked like they fell into a sewer, Arthur had made sure to firmly clamp both of his legs around Merlin's left calf, ensuring that his servant was left glaring unamused in his direction while attempting to drag himself away.

'Now Merlin, is that anyway to address your prince?'

'I apologise sire. Shall I prepare your clothes for today, so you can rejoin the court looking a bit like your step mother?'

Unclenching his legs he was rewarded with the sight of his servant, still struggling for freedom, suddenly toppling over the side of the bed and colliding painfully – if the drawn out groans were anything to go by – with the floor below.

'Shut up and prepare the bath Merlin. And don't boil it this time.'

Watching with a faint smile as the youth collected himself – still muttering the occasional 'ow' and grumbling about the insensitivity of clotpoles – and began the task of preparing the princes bath, Arthur dragged himself out from under his sheets and approached the table with approval at seeing the ham, cheese and bread laid out for him. Breakfast had always been a difficult meal for servants to grasp with, not quite understanding that their prince did not particularly want an extravagant meal right after he'd woken up but with Merlin had come the pleasant surprise that, though it was normally late like him, something simple and digestible would appear before him. Settling into the high backed chair, feeling the soft fur rug at his head, basking in the content crackle of a fire he hadn't noticed was going and comforted by the sound of relentless prattle along with water splashing, gradually filling a tub that he prayed would not try to cook him this time. Then again, for the chance to be clean he was prepared to take the risk.

Hidden from view behind the wooden dressing screen, Merlin was still indulging in his usual prattle despite the subject of his complaints hearing every word of it. Still, his voice was doing wonderful things to relax certain areas of his body, the repeated insults gradually allowing him free movement of his legs and the ability to climb out of bed without incident. Lifting the sheets from engulfing him, he began to crawl out from his luxurious prison.

'Did you have a bad dream?'

Suddenly stilled from his efforts, Arthur desperately wished the intelligible conversation to return and dismiss the seriousness that had followed after the curious remark. The splashing stopped at the same time the prince managed to escape his bed and stand. Boot clicks on the floor heralded Merlin's trek from the bath out into view. His open book of a face was concerned and the prince's stomach decided now was a good time to release a swarm of fluttering creatures that made him feel alternatively wonderful and sick. This was not meant to happen; he was just a servant, could only be a servant and that was something that Merlin had never accepted and that Arthur himself struggled to uphold even in its loosest sense. Uther had grudgingly accepted the friendship part of their relationship but the damning knowledge that he would not allow anymore had Arthur lashing out like one of the wounded creatures he so frequently hunted.

'Get out!'

Despite the shouted command accompanied what was bound to be a feral grimace no fear was directed towards him. The git was sighing like this was an inevitable outcome he'd prepared for. God, it really seemed like Merlin was trying to tolerate the lack of maturity present here. Like he could talk!

'Let me know when you will require my services once again.' Rarity as it was, Arthur impassively watched the gawky uncoordinated effort at a formal bow. It was when he stood straight that the empty expression in his eyes, usually overflowing with emotions that he had no skills at suppressing, made his heart constrict with guilt. With back turned and a hand raised in farewell Merlin left him with his thoughts. It seemed he knew his liege far too well and had chosen to use guilt in order to reclaim his position. Wasn't it enough that Arthur had to deny himself what he really wanted and feel guilty in the process? Obviously not as life seemed to constantly be getting his attention with something irresistible, and then slapping him in the face with it. He pictured Fate as a woman somewhat like Morgana; she'd be getting off on this emotional warfare.

Turning his full attention to the rising steam that was emerging from behind the wooden screen, it seemed a shame to waste all that effort. Unbuttoning his breeches and tossing them over the divider, Arthur knew this warm bath would be the only joy for his morning. Sliding cautiously in, he felt the cliché tendrils caressing his bare skin and savoured this moment hoping his conscious would slide away with the dirt and grime.

Awkward was only an innocent beginning. Standing hesitantly at the door and observing the luxurious drapes of cloth that beckoned him closer, Arthur likened his current predicament to making a pact with the devil. Would his soul be asked for as payment? But then, how did one go about asking advice of Morgana without the horrifying consequence of a smug lady holding every little detail revealed over your head like an executioner's axe? They say abstinence was the best policy and in this moment never had it been more fitting.

Reclining on her bed and shining a condescending smirk in his direction, Morgana continued to toy with her favourite prey. It was the first visible sign of the torment that was incoming. 'I see you raced back to Camelot to see your darling Camilla.' A forlorn pout graced her features and her voice became happily morose, 'so sad that she had to leave.'

Smirking in response to her method of assault he retaliated, not being the only one forced to suffer the lady in question's companionship. Putting his misgivings aside and walking to lean against the pillar of her 4-poster bed he crossed his arms over his chest and addressed her with the smile used specifically for court functions, polite but oh so fake. 'I can see that you miss her ever present company already.'

The pout faded and a more natural – and far less terrifying – state of bored aggression slipped into place. 'And I can see the depression the news of her departure has sent you into,' was wryly stated in response as Morgana inspected her nails, by far the most exciting thing present.

Arthur allowed silence to overcome his argument as he thought about her flattering description of their recently departed lady guest. With a faint grumble he conceded her this victory, though he'd hardly categorise his mood as depression, just a bit sulky.

'I'm not depressed about...' He could not suppress the shudder that came with visions of blonde hair slapping him in the face as he was unfortunate enough to have secured the lady's attentions once more, accompanied by the cacophony of giggles that she assumed made her flirtatious but merely succeeded in plucking his final nerves, blended with an aroma Arthur was not likely to ever forget, floral fragrances compounded together to form a perfume that he did not doubt could wake the dead. '...the lady Camilla' Despite years of education in the proper manners of the court, it still seemed second nature to avert his gaze from Morgana's when mentioning anything that could make her displeased. 'I may have dismissed Merlin this morning.'

Watching out of the corner of his eye for any method of assault he at first witnessed her eyes narrow in displeasure but soon they and her tensed muscles seemed to relax from the defensive position. Instead she settled for staring intensely at him, darkened eyes seeking eye contact that he continued to avoid in favour of cataloguing the aesthetics of the room. Then, her curiosity seemingly satisfied, his foster sister averted her gaze and begun toying with the fabric of her gown. Without making eye contact she patted the space beside her, the only invitation that would be granted to sit and share his worries. Perhaps her games would end here at last.

'You always do. So, what did he do this time, call you a smug prat?'

'Morgana...' As her name hung in the air Arthur found himself accepting her invitation and settling tentatively upon the edge of her bed, bracing his back against one of the wooden pillars that supported the bed's canopy in order to observe his tormentor. When he had failed to complete his sentence she reverted her focus back on him and the genuine interest there only made him sigh '...Merlin always calls me a prat.'

Climbing completely onto her bed and clasping her hands together at her breast, she smirked at his comment, the predatory expression fitting. The knowing quality of her look hinted that the thoughts were partly at his expense, but for many years now Arthur had been more concerned about the parts that weren't at his expense. 'I'll give you one day before you're running after him; you're positively pining for his return as we speak,' she mused in a far off manner. There seemed to be a slightly wistful key to her voice that he couldn't comprehend. 'I'm actually surprised that he hasn't left your service.'

Swallowing to get more fluid into a suddenly dry throat, the crown prince unconsciously inched a bit closer to the predator. 'Why would he leave?' This wasn't panic. A prince did not get nervous and hence would never panic. It was disgraceful and undignified.

Leaping from her reclining position, Morgana was suddenly animated, her hands waving wildly as she spoke to an unseen audience. 'And who wouldn't want to be your servant with such winning lines shouted at them every day as "Merlin, tidy my chambers." "Merlin, wash my clothes." "Merlin, polish my chainmail."'

'It's his job Morgana!'

'"Merlin, muck out my stables." "Merlin, fix all my problems because I'm too lazy to do them myself."'

'That one never happened.'

Morgana had spent her whole life ignoring him and she did not seem inclined to change that policy now. 'Oh, and let's not forget my favourite "Merlin, find that rat". Yes, I can see they're all fawning over you for the job. My, Merlin must be approached by hundreds of servants everyday begging to take his place.'

The sarcasm was not a necessary addition. She was just adding it to get her own kicks out of this situation. He was Camelot's prince and was entitled to speak as he wished to his own manservant, but every time he shouted something at Merlin that caused him to pout or grow upset Arthur tripped over himself in his effort to apologise and Morgana grew more amused.

She was certainly amused now. A smile that could almost be considered fond graced her features. 'You really are a prat.'

Pointing at where she still stood he was suddenly defensive. 'Only Merlin can call me a prat.'

'And he must be so touched by that.'

He had no way to respond, and instead the chambers moved from sibling banter into silence. Blessed silence after the constant nagging he'd been subjected to. She should understand by now that his manservant was incapable of the simplest of tasks and here she was defending him. Just because she had a competent servant she could inflict an appalling one on someone else. Shaking his head against the thoughts he did his best not to groan aloud. No, it was happening already. It was still the same day and he was back to referring to the idiot as his manservant again. At this rate he wasn't even going to make the challenge of one day.

'Is there something else troubling you, since yelling at your servant is so very normal?'

Looking up, he saw an entity that could in no way be real. Morgana, head tilted to the side and genuine concern present on her features without even the slightest trace of court etiquette or sibling rivalry competing for dominance there. 'I, well...'

My God, she was being serious! He'd never suspected this kind of treatment. The endless teasing he'd prepared for, the smug all-knowing smile he didn't like but didn't have to he'd accepted as a necessary evil. But this was compassion, almost like she felt sorry for him. Ha, like that would really happen. Nevertheless it caught him unprepared and for the briefest moment he wished to forgo pride, break and reveal everything.

'It's just...'

The smart rap of boots against flagstones had him pausing again, although this time with something similar to humiliation. Someone was coming who would then notice that Arthur was seeking advice from a woman who delighted in making his life into a disaster. Frozen in fear he was awoken it by a hurried apology that flowed effortlessly into another, interrupted occasionally by the deeper reassurances of whomever her current suitor was. A sharp pluck at his stomach signalled the arrival of his jealousy to this happy fray, a faint twinge that never seemed to entirely fade but it no longer had much to do with Gwen herself.

He looked around for anything to assist with avoidance. Yes, Morgana had hidden someone behind that curtain in the corner before but he wasn't game to try it now. A quick glance at the bed only confirmed that it would be just the sort of childish hiding spot Merlin would prefer. Wardrobe, perfect! It would take a very strong will to thoroughly explore amongst the explosion of colour that was tentatively being held prisoner by wooden confines. Diving in amongst the fabrics and furs, Arthur tried to withdraw as much as was possible. It was not aided by the fact that there was another idiotic occupant. And why the hell was Morgana hiding when this was her own room? Definitely not a reassuring action after her heartfelt concern. This must be an imposter but he'd deal with that later.

There was laughter, joyous and carefree. Something about the candour held within it was familiar and reassuring. And into view came his clumsy servant, the current source of all his woe, or at least as much woe as Arthur could reasonably bestow upon him. In a more rational state of mind he would have realised that, having dismissed Merlin, said manservant could pretty much do whatever he liked and if he liked to help to help Gwen with her chores then he was at least still assisting the running of the castle.

Upon setting her burden of freshly laundered clothes onto her lady's bed, Gwen turned to her assistant, face overloaded with thankfulness and friendship. 'You've been so very helpful Merlin. What would I have done without you?' Approaching him, a small kiss was left upon one of those soft pale cheeks and a flattering blush rushed into existence across the bridge of his nose.

This wasn't a twinge, this was a roaring beast that wanted to leap out and disembowel something. What was Merlin doing here? So he had dismissed the clumsy idiot, he still had chores regardless and Arthur was certain that flirting with Morgana's handmaiden was not one he had included, had even gone out of his way to remove it and any possibility of it from the list. How dare she kiss his manservant and how dare his manservant blush uncontrollably from her attentions! Breathing coming quicker, he took short shallow breaths as he focused on their interaction.

He felt a light hand on his shoulder that was massaging the muscle there, subtly trying to soothe the injured beast. 'Arthur, its okay, breathe.'

And they were chummy; that was just disgusting.

Gwen began to move about the room, straightening and tidying while mentally checking what her lady would require; a soft sigh next to him did nothing to deter him from observing the other occupant whose eyes skated around the room in fascination. The handmaiden approached him again, this time with a number of empty vials that he took and stored in his pockets. A forlorn smile emerged from her at the same time one trespassed on Arthur's face from watching him carelessly store Gaius' possessions. 'You must have a million chores to do by now.'

Lies! There had never been a million. A decent amount to promote a work ethic and productivity perhaps, but not enough that the use of such an exaggeration would be tolerated. The hand that had been resting on his shoulder was promoted to grabbing hold and attempting to restrain the anger that had replaced a brief period of calm, a warning hurriedly whispered in his ear but lost amidst the pounding blood.

He focused enough to see Merlin shrug, the slightest lift of shoulders expressing their resolve before he moved towards the inviting sheets draped haphazardly over Morgana's bed. 'Oh, not really. Arthur's practically fired me again this morning and I've already run all Gaius' errands.'

Despite the casual mention as he flopped down onto the silky covers in a graceful jumble and contently stretched it seemed to entice a fiery response in Gwen. 'But that's terrible!'

Feebly caught between unjustified rage and the familiar warm feeling that traced its way from his mouth to his lower body, Arthur was vaguely aware that the grip on his shoulder had changed once more. Feeling sharp nails tear through cotton, he'd never realised Morgana had it in her to make those dainty hands seem to contain talons rather than fingers. So maybe he'd once accused her of being a harpy, but it had been a figure of speech. If he'd known then that she'd one day be doing this to him he wouldn't have yelled it in her face so much as screamed it while fleeing down the halls. There was a faint suggestion that at this moment she might be drawing blood.

A languid smile came over Merlin's face as he faced the wardrobe, or rather Gwen as she was between them and his lazy manservant. 'Actually I find it sort of relaxing.' That little... There was hissing in his ear but their words no longer had meaning, nor did the vice like grip that was now on his triceps. 'It's like a mini vacation till Prince Prat decides he wants to see the floor again.'

'Prince Prat?' Morgana was, well he supposed it was meant to be giggling but while trying to be quiet it emerged as more of a snorting sound.

Merlin turned his head to his fellow servant, the empty look from the morning thankfully replaced by his infectious grin. 'Besides, I like helping you.' He could practically see the fight abandoning Gwen as she melted with his words and the full power of that enticing expression focused solely on her.

The handmaiden turned her attentions to fluffing the pillows that Morgana had left in disarray and returning them neatly to their places, sparing a sidelong shy glance to her companion. 'I certainly hope you don't indulge in this kind of behaviour while serving Prince Arthur.'

Leaping to a sitting position, the accused party looked mock offended at her words. 'Of course not!' He looked away and his voice descended to a mumble while his infectious smile fell away to a thoughtful sadness. When Gwen turned once more to him though his lips quirked, incapable of maintaining the wounded expression he wore. 'You hurt me so Gwen, I live only to serve our dear Prince Prat.'

'Then allow me to make it up to you.' Merlin flopped back down onto the bed, considering her offer as Arthur seethed with rage in his cage. 'Let's do something together.' She had leapt a little into the air for that statement. The word that came to mind was bounced. Camelot's finest examples of servitude and this was what they were provided with; one bounded, the other bounced. What a couple. He had to put a stop to this torture and not just because Merlin seemed absolutely incapable of remaining still and had resorted instead to amusing himself with an odd sort of wriggle.

Reaching forward and feeling the sharp inhale of breath on his neck he continued in pushing the wardrobe door gently and freeing himself from the uncomfortable confines. With Gwen having moved politely away to freshen flowers in the rooms many vases and Merlin's eyes closed as he attempted to get comfortable, Arthur could move forward without issue despite Morgana's frantic gestures that he return at once. Mentally shaking his head, he was somewhat ashamed that he had let this go as far as it had. Not because of the despair that had taken control of normally ecstatic tones. No, it was all down to his morals, that they had no right to intrude on the private lives of their servants.

He could have fled for the door without either of them noticing, but his indignation at this morning's awakening had not vanished and their verbal conflict always cheered a certain idiot. Strolling calmly to the bed he climbed on, careful not to allow a flailing limb to hit him least it ruin his fun. Crawling forward he managed to position himself with a dark haired individual sprawled and relaxed beneath him, eyes still firmly shut. Tilting his head to the right as déjà vu rose, he was sure that this looked...very similar to the dream he may or may not have had the night prior to his sudden departure on a hunting trip. Feeling a blush rise – and as a prince he would be damned if he was caught blushing – he willed it away just in time to see eyes blink open, a confused look appear in those glazed depths before they cleared and widened dramatically. A choked off scream that was more of a startled gasp was the reward for his efforts.

The sound had drawn Gwen's attention given the sound of porcelain smashing as it was dropped and oh he was going to have to make sure it was replaced as his foster sister would not allow him his fun without a price.


Quirking an eyebrow at his normally loquacious servant's impossible grasp on speech, Arthur leaned closer so that he could feel the hurried puffs of warm air on his face and better admire the delightful flush that was spreading rampart across his quarry's cheeks. 'I believe the word you are looking for here Merlin is "Sire".'

'R-right. Absolutely sire.'

Moving away from the tempting creature beneath him and off the harpy's nest, watching as Merlin lifted himself with his elbows, still impudently lounging in the chambers of the king's ward. The look he was receiving from both servants present could only be described as bewildered.

'S-s-sire, why were you in the ward-'

'God Merlin, stop asking questions.' Reaching out he slid his fingers under the ridiculous neckerchief until he felt an Adam's apple, then yanked the material after him as he proceeded to march out of the room with no further acknowledgement of Morgana, forcing his lanky servant to follow him. Proceeding down the steps with the sole intent of dragging an idiot to his chambers, he finally released his hold on that infuriating garment, content that he would be followed without question. 'If you're really so desperate for more chores then I have a new collection for you to occupy your time with.'

'I am but a humble servant of Your Majesty.'

Refraining from snorting, certain only to aggravate matters, Arthur stopped at the base of the stairs and turned to look up at his manservant. He frowned at the height difference until the offence was standing directly beside him, appearing confused by the less than pleased expression his master wore. The use of his title from Merlin's lips contradicted his previous statement. There was just no way anyone could describe Merlin – his snide, witty and horrifically disobedient companion – as humble of all things. Still, no point debating the appropriate amount of humbleness a servant should exude. Abruptly turning, he resumed his trek through the castle halls towards his chambers.

'Come along, no time to flirt with handmaidens.'

Feet tapping on flagstones followed him as they hurried to catch up. 'Flirt? Gwen and I were just talking.'

'I saw it all Merlin and I believe I can identify flirting.'

There was only silence from behind him, a sign that Merlin was no longer following him. Turning to face the other once again, he saw him looking confused, perhaps contemplating his little tryst with Guinevere. But far worse than that and far more frightening than the silence between the two was what was waiting within that normal jumble of inquisitiveness and insurgence when they finally looked directly at him, a sparking amusement swallowing the tranquil blue of his eyes. Whatever had lodged itself in his throat in that dream was back with a vengeance at seeing the mischievous challenge there. It was impossible to avoid, but even if he could have, Arthur was not certain that he would have shirked this. He felt his body tense, something that was more familiar to a battlefield than a friendly chat. The only hope he had was that this could be resolved just as easily by drawing his sword.

'Huh, is that so.'

As his servant past him, Arthur wasn't sure whether to be relieved by the return of the insolent grin.

Coming up next is Merlin's POV with...Chapter Three - The Importance of Merlin.