This is what I've been calling the morning-after chapter. :) Don't worry, things will get better eventually.
Warnings: Mentions of sex and stuff related to sex.
Disclaimer: I do not own Merlin!
The morning light woke him, lancing through the gap in his bed curtains like it had something to prove. Arthur haphazardly threw an arm over his face to block it and groped behind him for his sheet, a blanket, anything to shade his face more permanently. He found a body.
"What the hell?" Arthur pulled away like he'd been burned and whipped around, now wide awake. There was another person in bed with him. Skinny, pale… His guest's back was turned to him. All he could make out from beyond the blanket was a naked shoulder and dark hair. Arthur froze, his heart beating altogether too fast. Cautiously, very cautiously, he reached out, brushing a finger over the exposed skin. He took a shallow breath. "…Merlin?"
What had happened last night? He remembered leaving the reception… his servant had been very inebriated. And confused. Saying all kinds of wild things. Arthur flushed a little. That was right. Merlin had… had confessed to him.
He hadn't taken advantage of that, had he? What had happened last night?
The cocoon of blankets shifted slightly, and Arthur drew back again. What was he going to say? What if Merlin was angry? He could hardly recall how they had gotten there, much less how they had ended up naked. Had he also been drunk? …Or poisoned? How exactly was he going to explain this?
"Mmm… Good morning, my lord." Lady Sybil turned under the covers and smiled at her husband, reaching out a delicate hand to touch Arthur's face. Her other arm was wrapped, teasingly perhaps, around her breasts. "Did you sleep well after our romp?"
Arthur, startled, could only nod. And then wonder why he was so surprised. "Of course, love." He placed his palm on her hip. Felt the smooth curve of it under the duvet. Remembered now, how he had returned to the banquet. How, come midnight, he had drawn her close, down the hall, and to his bed.
Remembered how he had left Merlin, practically weeping, outside Gaius's rooms. Just walked away. In shock. Well, Merlin had been wrong, right? Perverse, illegal. Homosexual. His father's words. His father's laws, coming back to haunt him.
Arthur closed his eyes and kissed his wife and wondered why he felt so goddamn guilty.
Merlin clutched the wooden bucket in cold fingers and retched again, his mouth already sour with the taste of bile. At least none of it had gotten on his clothes this time. But he supposed that was the price he had to pay. Arthur's wedding. No wonder he was so hungover. Thank the stars it was dark in his room this morning. Gaius had draped a heavy old tablecloth across the window to block the sun, and Merlin was excessively grateful for it. He was indebted to Gaius for all he'd done…
There was a soft tapping at the door and Merlin looked up, scrubbing at his chin hastily with his sleeve. "Come in," he called, as loudly as he was able.
"It's just me," said Gaius, and the physician stepped in quietly with a basket on his arm. "I wanted to let you know that I'll be going on my rounds soon. Do you need anything?"
"No, I think that was the last of it…" sighed Merlin. "Thank you for the medicine earlier. I think it helped. Leastways, I can actually think now." He tried to smile past the still-persistent ache in his head. "Oh, if you're going to the palace, could you please tell Arthur that I won't be in until- What is it?" Gaius had gained an odd, shuttered look that Merlin didn't like. "What happened? Is Lady Sybil an enchantress?"
"No, nothing like that." Gaius stepped fully into the room, closing the door behind him, and took a seat on Merlin's bed. "I was hoping to discuss this with you a little later, when you were feeling better."
Merlin pushed away his bucket and sat back against the wall. "Whatever it is, I'm all ears."
Gaius sighed heavily. "How much can you remember from last night?"
Merlin bit his lip. "I'm not going to like this, am I?" He saw Gaius shake his head no. "Well, I remember I was at the wedding, and that we went to the reception together. There was some dancing, I think. Then Arthur made some speech about how-" his voiced cracked annoyingly, "-how lucky he was, and something about prosperity. Then there was food…" He paused. "I may have, uh, enjoyed myself a little much."
"You weren't enjoying yourself."
"What? 'Course I was." Again, he tries to smile, but it was difficult now for a completely different reason. "Arthur's got himself the prettiest girl in Camelot…"
Gaius held up a hand to stop him. "You don't have to lie, Merlin. I know about your… feelings for the prince."
Was it possible for your heart to stop while you kept on living? "You…you do?"
"Yes. You told me during the reception. It was getting fairly late."
A fuzzy recollection was coming to Merlin now. It left a bitter taste. "Are you… going to kick me out?" he asked, afraid of the answer.
Gaius scoffed. "Of course not. You know you're welcome to stay as long as you like. I believe I've told you this before, but you're like a son to me. I could never make you leave."
"Thank you." Merlin got to his knees and shuffled over to the bedside, reaching up to half-hug his guardian. "Then… we can just never talk about it again. As long as Arthur never finds out, we won't have a problem, right?"
"My dear boy…" Gaius placed a hand on Merlin's head, gently patting him. "Arthur already knows." It was so hard for him to watch his ward's face sink…
"What?" Merlin blinked. "No, he couldn't. He's a great man, yes, but he's really quite…" But Gaius's eyes were steady and his face was grim. "You mean I… I told him? Last night?"
"I'm afraid so."
Merlin slumped in the embrace, a look of disbelief written all over his features. "Oh. I am so dead."
He made a grab for the bucket.
"Splendid!" cried Uther again, beaming at the happy couple over breakfast. He seemed to have recovered better from the festivities than everyone else. His kingly fortitude, perhaps. "I am glad this is working out so well for you. You could be as lucky as Ygraine and I were."
"I certainly hope so, Your Majesty," said Sybil silkily, her hand brushing Arthur's on the tabletop.
The prince made a noise of agreement but remained concentrated on his food. Though his mother was mentioned but rarely, he found he had no desire to hear about her now. In fact, all he wanted to do was get away from the table. The cheese seemed to be sticking in his throat.
"You two should go riding before Arthur trains," suggested Uther, and Arthur tried to remind himself not to speak out. "The day is clear and warm. A horse will be provided for you, Sybil. Think of it as a wedding gift from me."
"Oh, thank you, Sire." She clasped her hands and tittered girlishly. "The horses from Camelot received the highest praise in my homeland." She laid her fork gracefully beside her empty plate. "I'd love to go now. Surely that wouldn't be too much of a problem?"
"Not at all," declared Uther, rising. He shot a look at his son, still picking over his meal.
"Perfect," said Arthur with a zeal he didn't feel. He pushed his chair back and stood as well, offering his arm – at the last second –to his wife.
"Thank you, Arthur," she said cheerfully, giving him a surprisingly tender smile. She had been one of the princesses vying for him with honor, rather than backbiting politics. And she had been kind when they first met. That was why he had liked her. Why he still liked her, he told himself, and why he loved her. That one was a little harder to… Well, of course he loved her. They were married now. He didn't have a choice.
Still, he could have picked someone worse. When they reached the stable she cooed like a young girl at the horses there, and Arthur couldn't help but feel a bit of pride. He took care with his horses, and had care taken with them by all of the staff that tended them.
Merlin did not care for horses. Well, that was a lie. He just wasn't particularly accustomed to them, having grown up without a steed. Arthur had had to give him remedial riding lessons before taking him on his second hunt, just so Merlin would stop falling off and crashing through the underbrush.
Luckily, Lady Sybil needed no coaching. She took to riding like breathing and Arthur respected her the more for it. She looked quite pretty atop her white mare, and no one could deny they made a handsome pair galloping out the gates and across the fields.
It was a glorious day, perfectly sunny with a bit of a breeze. Arthur could feel his mood lifting as the wind ruffled his hair. After half an hour racing Sybil up and down the hillsides, he was downright blissful. Merlin had flown from his thoughts.
Merlin padded as quietly as he could to Arthur's chambers, almost turning back several times along the way. But he couldn't be a coward. The best thing to do was to nip this in the bud, tell Arthur he was sorry that he rambled when intoxicated. That he didn't mean any of it, even though that made a sick feeling creep into his chest. His hands were shaky when he knocked.
There was no response.
When he tried again, there was silence again, and the same for his third attempt. He finally decided just to go in. After all, the most likely scenario was that Arthur was out. Princes couldn't afford to sleep all day, despite Arthur telling him otherwise when he blinked grumpily awake every morning. So Merlin tugged at his scarf and wiped his palms on his shirt before unlocking the door and stepping in.
As he suspected, the room was empty. Merlin took a step forward, crossing the threshold, and carefully shut the door behind him. The table in the outer chamber was clear of dishes; the king had probably requested his son for breakfast. He stooped to pick up Arthur's cloak, which had fallen to pool by the fireplace, and brushed off the faint traces of dust. He sighed. Soon, the prince would have him clearing the chimney again…
Well, the cloak belonged in the wardrobe, anyway. Merlin swung the pile of rich fabric over his shoulder and went over to the dark armoire by the wall to hang it up. As he straightened it on its hook he gave in for a moment and lifted its soft folds to his face, inhaling the earth-metal-blood-and-sweat smell that was Arthur. This was Merlin's favorite scent, though he would, of course, deny it if asked.
Outside the door he heard the passing of one of the other palace servants, worn boots ringing on the stone in a way they wouldn't have had the nobility been nearby. Merlin sighed and dropped the cloak, giving it one last pat before closing the wardrobe. He had to remember that he was a servant as well. He had to step softly when in the presence of his betters. His feelings, as out of his control as they were, were not allowed.
Arthur would really be furious.
That line of thinking was giving him a stomachache, however, so he abandoned it fairly quickly. He needed something to occupy him until Arthur returned. Armor-polishing was out of the question, since he had done it the day before for the wedding. Same with laundry. And there was no way he would voluntarily muck out the stalls… He straightened a few candles while he decided what to do. On the whole, Arthur's room was already rather clean. Merlin didn't have any spiderwebs to destroy or rats to hunt down.
He finally settled on this: he would make Arthur's bed, as he could spot the rumpled bedclothes from here, and then help Gaius for another hour or two. There was no sense moping around in his master's chambers if his master wasn't there. He went into the bedroom.
It smelled like sex. Strongly. And the sheets were a mess.
Merlin closed his eyes.
Arthur unlocked the door to his rooms, trying at the same time to stop grinning like an idiot. His ride with Lady Sybil had gone exceedingly well. She was not as simple as he'd originally taken her for. In fact, she had a quiet determination about her that had surprised him. They'd talked of many things… Once, he'd even managed to shoot a few partridges with one of his guard's bows, since they'd stumbled upon a covey in one of the forest clearings. It had impressed her and left a warm feeling in his chest.
Now he was eager to change his clothes and get to dinner with her. He just needed to call Merlin and then he could-
Arthur felt the elation that had buoyed him all afternoon start to leak away. Somehow he'd managed to forget all about the boy's awkward confession. What was he going to do about that? Toeing off his boots, he muttered "I wish he'd never said that…"
"So do I," came the voice of his manservant. Arthur jerked up and came face to face with Merlin, who was standing by the entrance to his bedroom looking a bit drawn.
"Don't do that," commanded Arthur, straightening. There was a moment of silence as he and Merlin took each other's measure. He opened his mouth to say something, anything.
"It's all my fault, sire," said Merlin, beating him to it. He suddenly forced a smile, his eyes remaining dull. "You know me, I'm drunker than a sailor with one pint. I guess more than that makes me crazy as well." He laughed a little.
Arthur blinked. "So you didn't mean what you said?"
"Nope, not at all. In fact, I'm sure it'll make quite a joke for you in the future." With another nervous chuckle he turned, jerkily, and went into the bedroom.
Arthur, following, was hit with the evidence of last night's… activities and stopped, though his manservant continued to the side of the bed and grabbed an unblemished corner of the blanket. "Er, Merlin, I'll get someone else to do that."
"Don't be silly, Arthur. I clean your sheets every week," came Merlin's fake-chipper reply. He bundled up the dirty linens efficiently. "In fact, I just came to get them. And now I'm leaving." The boy hurried back out to the door, juggling his load to get it open while Arthur just watched, at a loss for what to do.
"Yes. Oh, and, sire?" Merlin glanced over his shoulder, his thin face unreadable. "Just pretend I never said anything. I was lying. Definitely lying."
For a long time after Merlin left, Arthur stared at the door, occasionally pacing a few steps this way or that, then he sat down on his bare mattress. "I suppose… this is what I want."
This one was kind of hard to write, so I apologize if it is awkward. There should be a plot introduced next chapter, once I figure out what I want to happen. (I kind of just wanted to write the scene where Merlin tells Arthur, but I can't leave it there, obviously!)