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Ch.5 Vague Introspection
Arthur stood at his window, arms resting on the windowsill and mind racing vigorously. The events that followed were nothing short of... strange by the most comparable of words. Arthur would have never believed that his life would entwine with such numbers of predicaments that it was becoming a tradition. It was difficult for him to cope with the knowledge of several of these happenings; too many turns and twists in such a short period of time. Firstly, he had trouble admitting to himself that were it not for his manservant, he would have met death three or maybe four times over. He'd stopped counting the minute he understood Merlin really did not seek any recompense for his trust. Still, the little tapping on his head gently reminded him that there was something odd about the boy, that it was perhaps more strange that he did not seek anything in particular. But as with many of his questions for him, Arthur learned to keep them safe in his chest, one reason or the other being the unfortunate cause to prevent him from unlocking the boy's secrets.
Perhaps Merlin was simply nosy? He managed to always be there at the right time and the right moment, uncovering important and reliable information for the prince.
The first example of this was the knight Valiant. The snakes that propelled from his shield's emblem during the sword tournament a lifetime ago had been a warning from Merlin. The boy had seen magic being involved with the knight's shield. Merlin even had presented to him one of the snake's head as proof. Arthur remembered believing him, even stood up to his father with no more substantial proof than the snake's head; Merlin's words being enough for him to believe. Of course, it was entirely different to Arthur's father. The rage that the sole idea of implying a knight involved with sorcery had brought Uther to punish his son with the most perishable of embarrassments, which was then passed on to Merlin, who had made the prince looked like a fool in front of the entire council and the knights from other kingdoms. Arthur never apologized formally, but regretted the hurtful words that slipped his lips that day –even knowing beforehand that Merlin was speaking the truth.
He considered comical how some of his problems happened simultaneously because while he was dealing with Valiant and his probable use of magic, there was also the Lady Sophia. Arthur was glad to say the least, that she was gone. Maybe, and he allowed himself to be -because he was a gentleman-, worried, as not a word from her or her father had been said or heard since their strange disappearance. Oddly enough, he barely remembered her visit and their conversations, most of which were awkward and short, not that he complained on that matter. The prince inwardly thanked training as an excuse to not compromise himself with Sophia more than strictly necessary. It still bothered him however, that the last he remembered before being informed that father and daughter were missing was waking up with a fever, Gaius and Merlin at his side, giving him an explanation that neither appeased his worry or really explained much at all.
Arthur could perhaps continue with his mental list, no doubt far from being completed. He was distracted however, when absentmindedly running a finger through his windowsill and noticed it came up smeared with build up dust. With no justifiable reason, other than to remind himself to later scold Merlin, when a thought flickered through his mind. It wasn't a very pronouncing thought, hell, he wasn't even sure if the correlation between the two was a mere coincidence. He was not sorting through events in a specific order, but suddenly a small uneasy feeling that had the echo of anxiety took a jab at him. Arthur Pendragon could not deny that no event compared to the time Merlin had been poisoned simply to prove he was saving the prince's life, no less. The sight of the dying boy before his eyes had Arthur's insides burning. The prince knew part of it was worry for the boy who had been slowly and against his better judgment, becoming acquainted to him. Other part of it was feeling it was his duty to save him at all costs, repay a little of what Merlin had done for him, the times the boy had saved his life. And then there was another part, similar to the one he carefully left buried within the most constricted parts of him -It was impossible for the prince to watch the broken boy laying defenseless on Gaius' divan and not feel broken himself. The way in which Merlin's features were smoothed by unconsciousness made Arthur's stomach turn uncomfortably - inexplicably not in an unpleasant way- and the chaos the boy's black hair was represented a reflection to the prince's state at that moment.
Arthur simply acted on the instinct of saving Merlin's life, risking his own to save the boy. Never paying any attention to what it meant for him to be doing so. The prince really did not want to pay attention to any significance at all, either. There were, however, parts of these occurrences that would not leave his mind.
And because he wanted to once again take the reins of his mental priorities, another thought he'd entertained before crossed his mind. The prince had long acknowledged that every single of these happenings had no plausible explanations- and that was after acknowledging sorcery being integrated into the endless equation. If he really thought about it, the way in which they happened around him, these events always seemed to have a particular factor involved. Arthur didn't really refer to the cause and the consequence of each, because in one or another way they meant harm for Camelot, for him. What he couldn't process was the force that drove maligns away. If luck could be a factor, then luck was always at his side, except Arthur didn't believe in luck- good or bad.
It was as if he watched through a thick fog. Nothing ever clear and as much as he tried to look around for answers, part of the fog had already vanished precious evidence. And every time he never felt thoroughly involved.
He referred to in particular, of course, to the time he went to that cave, looking for the Mortaeus flower that would cure Merlin. Death was right behind him in the form of a woman; yet, death did nothing, simply spoke about her lack of interest for him and disappeared into the darkness. He couldn't explain that light, one that appeared out of nowhere. How opportune and timely had it been; it was with no doubt from him that had it been not for its source, Arthur would have never come out alive.
As much a thought as he elaborated, nothing felt more frustrating for the prince than knowing how everything happened out of sequence from him. He might be part of a situation or even the center, but he only caught glimpses of what actually happened, of how a situation came to be. Plots and attacks never clear, explanations never complete. A complete and utter disorder all around.
He supposed that since some of it or maybe everything was against him, that it couldn't be possible to be in on a any given matter. Because really, he could be practicing with his knights, having dinner with his father, or simply retired in his chambers and news would reach him -if that courtesy was extended. Other times he wouldn't even see the blow come at him.
That's what prince Arthur referred to. There was always a part that never truly checked. Never locked into place to further his understanding. The frustration ate at him when he allowed himself to dwell on the matter for a prolonged period of time –he felt it was important to understand, to uncover anything possible.
One clear thing was however, how Merlin always seemed involved in some way. Arthur was not sure how to perceive this gesture. He was grateful, but something inside questioned Merlin's own sense of self-preservation. Surely Merlin had to value his life more than Arthur's; Merlin never hid his dislike for the prince and his continuous remarks on the opinions about him somehow answered Arthur's question.
Except that no matter how many insults were exchanged, –and Arthur was still unsure as to why he allowed them- Merlin was always at his side. Arthur would very much like to point that his servant's company in dangerous moments was dreadful, unrequested- but he knew that it was not true. It was as if danger triggered into Merlin competence in the most extended of ways. Unlike when a hunting trip was planned and the boy would often trip, complain, and slow everyone down.
Great, he thought, exasperated with himself for having kind thoughts about Merlin, of all people. As if it wasn't enough that ever since Merlin informed him about Will visiting him again, somehow his mood had erratically plummeted towards the opposite of the current expected spectrum. Opposite because there were plenty of reasons to be gleeful about, like having been presented as the official crowned prince, heir to the throne. And even if he knew it all along, it had been a rather pleasant event. He could also mention forcing all those bandits away from Merlin's town in Ealdor, how joyful Merlin had been seeing his mother again, knowing that she would be safe once he came back to Camelot. But the memory was tainted.
In truth, he had not a valid reason as to why he disliked the boy's friend so much. Something about the way Will would look at Merlin however, was odd and…. Infuriating. Will stared at the boy with some sense of possessiveness, ownership, and… care. Sometimes Arthur would interpret it as if there was no one more important for Will than his idiotic manservant.
His idiotic manservant.
Arthur was unsure as to why it meant something for him to have a claim on the boy. He supposed -reluctantly as he could- Merlin's charm was something that had gotten even to him. The prince would walk into other servants' conversations and if they happened to be about the boy, they would be something of the like, "he's such a nice young man, always trying to help others. He brought some sweets to our house when my little Lilith had fallen ill." Those were some of the noblest comments towards the boy; others were more like, "he's adorable. Something about those playful blue eyes that seem depthless, not to mention his disproportioned ears!" or, "skin like silk, I wonder what it would be like to touch his face, ivory and creamy. Oh and what a contrast it makes with his eyes!" All of the sudden servants had an expanded vocabulary?
One too many a girl fancied the boy, he knew, but Merlin never showed any interest in particular to any of them- not that prince Arthur cared in any way, in fact, he found it rather odd.
Those were only the servants speaking. When it came to royalty…. The comments were strikingly similar, if not superior. The most obvious person about it was Morgana. She rambled and rambled about Merlin as if he were part of her family, a brother with whom she reunited at last. The way she spoke about Merlin's well meant intentions, the innocence of his insolence, the personification of purity that was he. It had Arthur going mad for weeks, until he mostly shrugged off all comments and, since Morgana was someone he usually ignored, it was easy for him to shrug her off, too.
It was perhaps only Uther who had not been casted with the spell of Merlin's charm.
And that only left him.
Arthur really did not have a strong opinion about him. Neither did he felt he had to. Mostly he could agree to Merlin's underlying and extremely deep buried qualities, but he would rather call him an idiot more often than not. It gave him a sense of familiarity, a sense of pattern that although a bit strained, it worked for both.
The problem was however, the fact that he had spent time on thinking about the whole ordeal. Merlin was just a servant after all. He was disposable, replaceable.
No, he thought suddenly, knowing for a fact that as much as he wished to be able to attest his previous thought as true, he couldn't.
The boy had somehow been capable of planting a seed somewhere inside of everyone not just Arthur, and acknowledging he was not the only one somehow comforted him.
Which brought him back to where he had first started. Why he kept on deviating his thoughts about current events to thoughts of his manservant, he had no idea.
The contradictions were not even allowed to register in his mind, as his subconscious blocked them before becoming aware of a thought that might be erroneous and out of place.
He then welcomed the distraction that presented itself as a soft knock in his door startled him from his deep-delved reverie.
"Enter," he said, voice a little hoarse.
The slight relief at the distraction evaporated as soon as he saw it was Morgana entering the room. A sheepish and inquiring smile on her face told Arthur that whatever she was here for would be interesting or downright catastrophic.
" Morgana," Arthur exclaimed with mock enthusiasm. "What do I own the honor of your visit for?" He continued.
"You know better than to keep up with pretenses when we're alone," Morgana replied. Smile still plastered across her face.
"Fine. What is it you want?" Arthur conceded, though not entirely unkindly.
Her smile grew wider, assessing her ground and carefully measuring her distance with Arthur. "Do you remember the little bet you lost?" She said, leaving subtleties aside and wondering if Arthur would remember, or well, try to deny that he did.
For his part, Arthur knew exactly what she spoke about. It had been weeks since he had lost to Morgana. The prince was ashamed to admit that he had lost a sword contest they held in private. Of course, he admitted to himself as much as Morgana that he did not want to hurt her and essentially, that was the truth. His attacks were charged with much more care and tactic, with less impact and he cursed himself afterwards for letting the fact that Morgana was a girl to matter. She was capable as much as he was, even if not skilled and trained like him. Arthur had wondered why he had agreed to her request, knowing beforehand that he would never, could never bring himself to hurt her, but her defiant tone had triggered something- well his pride if he was being honest- in his brain. The prince briefly questioned why her insistence of waiting for her victory's reward.
"Wonderful. As you know, the only feast that I actually enjoy attending is coming in a few short weeks." She grimaced inwardly, remembering the other festivities that took place in Camelot, and could not help but be amazed the she lived under the same roof in which events of the like took place. "I require a new dress for that night," she went on after a few pause, "and for your great relief, all I'm asking as a payment for your defeat is that you personally seek for the fabric."
As easy and fair as it could have sounded, something in her tone of voice alerted the prince. "Why is it of utmost importance that I personally attend to your frivolities?"
"Because I know that you think to personally attend to my request is lowering yourself. When we have endless of servants and messengers that would do it." She smiled shyly, letting her answer sink in.
"So that basically translates for you wanting me to feel like a servant?" Arthur asked in response, not quite annoyed but ironically amused.
"Not quite. You see, I'm actually doing you a favor"- she held a hand up when she saw Arthur beginning to protest at the idea- "I'm not going to lie, at first the idea was highly entertaining, but I made my resolve by a much nobler reason, and I'm sure you'll manage to ow- I mean thank me for it someday." Morgana sat on the edge of the prince's bed, noticing the firm and annoyed expression he held. She laughed a little before continuing, "Yesterday I was dining with Uther when a messenger brought him a letter informing him about one of your favorite kinds of visits."
Arthur's expression shifted at her words. From annoyance to anger and to downright horror.
"I wasn't mistaking then," she said smugly.
"Father's planning another visit by one his endless number of allies or friends with eligible adorable daughters, is he not?"
Morgana nodded, no need to discuss about the situation. Both very well knew how these events went on. The only exception had been Lady Sophia, though in one way or another it had ended all the same. Father, Mother and daughter leaving Camelot with high hopes of feigned return. The distinction was that Uther grew emphatically anxious every time a visit turned unsuccessful.
"You leave in two days Arthur. Lord Emerich and his family will arrive a day after you leave and by the time you are back, you will only have to put up with pretense for a few days. It's quite brilliant if I do say so myself." She finished quite more modestly than Arthur would have wanted. It was in her nature to be voluminously arrogant.
The prince stood, still unsure as what to say. He very much wanted to run towards Morgana and embrace her. Honestly, he believed that Morgana would account any debt as paid by that action if he ever allowed himself the weakness.
"Thank you," he settled for instead. Fervently enough, but with room enough to allow a sentiment, "I know I will pay for it with heightened proportions, but I thank you all the same."
"You're welcome. Isn't it ironic how you are paying a debt towards me to simply be more indebted to ...me?"
He sighed. Knowing that perhaps there would be plenty of other ways to go through with a similar course of action, but he knew this was planned to a great extent already, it would more than suffice. "I take it you have already spoken to father about it?"
"Of course, the minute I grasped the intention of Uther I jumped to telling him that you had lost to me and how I wanted you to pay up. He was reluctant at first, he didn't like the idea of the crowned prince doing a servant's work. Then I went about how it would serve you as a lesson to be more grateful with what you have."
Arthur looked at her for moment, something clicking in his brain. "What exactly did you tell father I lost to you about?"
She turned her face serious, slowly working in a devilish smile. "Well you know I'm nothing if not thorough," she kept her smile, slowly angling her eyes as to be looking Arthur under luscious lashes before widening her eyes and trying to control laughter, "I told him that you were unable of being nice to Merlin, and hinted that you take everything for granted, and needless to say, he agreed with me for the most part. That's mainly the reason he's not stopping you from completing your debt."
"I can't believe it. Even when you are trying to help do you manage to somehow lessen your good deeds."
"It's all about balance, Arthur. I know for sure that you wouldn't be able to be nice to Merlin anyway, I simply saved the time to prove that." She was grinning, she knew she was right, and to be able to be wiser than Arthur was all the more fun.
"You don't know that..." The prince began but, he certainly didn't know it either and he did not want it to become and actual bet between the two. He refused to involve Merlin in the situation and even if he warred with the reasons, they were not relevant to this conversation... "and I care less about finding out."
"Either way, there is no time for that, though it would have been highly entertaining to find out, don't you agree?"- She ignored the grimace that was thrown in her direction and continued- "like I said, you leave in two days Arthur. I should advice you to take someone with you, your manservant maybe, it will be actually a boring trip, since it is quite easy to look for what I need."
"I don't think it is any of your concern if I decide to go alone or take someone with me, but now that you mention it, I think I will go alone. I'm doing a servant's work regardless." He began pacing around, trying to find an excuse to have Morgana dismissed or to dismiss himself from the room. He was coming up empty-handed.
"As you please," she said, "I would have thought that perhaps Merlin would be good company. I know that he certainly is." Morgana let the insinuation sink in, it was rather her trademark trait. It came natural to her, and as long as she intended on doing it for good, no harm could come out of trying to sow discord for a greater good.
"Is there anything else of utmost importance that you must share with me?" The prince was now hinting at her.
"Fine," she retorted. The lady would have rather enjoyed the look of irritation from the prince for a little while longer, but it was enough for the time being. "I will tell you tomorrow exactly what you will be bringing to me," she grinned widely, sparkly eyes lingering around Arthur's face for a little more than necessary, when she was satisfied with what she saw there, the lady excused herself.
Arthur watched as Morgana walked out his door, knowing not what to think about the situation as a whole. The thought of running away like a coward was not something he was proud of, but he couldn't deny that not being present for the stay of his father's guests was an attractive idea. Arthur knew though, that his mind was set when a thought occurred to him; ever since his father began to arrange balls and ceremonies with masked purposes, Arthur had always behaved to meet all of his father's expectations. True, he always managed to diverge himself from his father's intentions and instead find a way to appear unappealing -something he believed to be quite difficult- to the lady in turn and things would pretty much work themselves out from there on. Would it be so wrong that for once he took the liberty and not deal with a situation that made him uncomfortable? What if for once he had the opportunity not to play the tortured man inside that had to display all smiles and politeness to the world. It was contradictory because he knew that as much as he despised himself for being tortured, it was part of himself that truly grasped what he was as a whole, which in turn made him even more flustered. Did he really hate who he really was? To all this, there was also the idea of traveling alone, and suddenly frustration began to work itself up right from the pit of his stomach and he wanted very much to kick himself at the moment. Of course the first person Arthur had thought of bringing along was Merlin. The boy was his servant; it was actually expected for him to be tagged along. It was Morgana's way of phrasing and her tone of voice that had the prince decide without thought about traveling alone. Her words caressed Merlin's name. The irritation he had felt came at him in long suffocating breaths, and couldn't help but wonder why he couldn't just tell Morgana that it was a good idea that Merlin accompanied him. He then remembered though, his pride was and probably would always be more empowering than any other emotion he might feel.
The prince walked back to his window, -the irritation that never truly left him working itself up again- spotting just the person he was looking for. There in the middle of the crowd was Merlin. To say that Merlin stood out would probably be overestimating the man at best, but the fact that he didn't get lost amongst the people spoke loudly about how Arthur view Merlin. Perhaps if the prince didn't know him, or maybe if the boy's ungracious ways didn't gave him away Merlin perhaps would pass unnoticed, yet, it made no difference to assume.
A few minutes later and Merlin entered the prince's chambers, unannounced and pretty much unperturbed by the idea.
"For the hundredth time, Merlin," the prince retorted and as soon as he saw the boy the irritation ebbed away, "knock before you enter."
"I'm sorry, I just keep on forgetting." Merlin admitted with a sheepish smile.
"Well, try to begin to not forget. You know, at first I thought it was your little way of rebelling that I was royalty and you somehow held a grudge against that. Now, it doesn't even matter. It's the polite and correct thing to do. You have no idea what could've been happening. I could have been naked for all you knew." Arthur thought that perhaps schooling Merlin on rules of etiquette would never end, especially since the boy refused to put them into practice. However, as he tried to continue with his lecture, a look crossed Merlin's face that made the prince stop in his tracks before asking, "What?"
Merlin tried to repress laughter. "It's just that it's the middle of the day and don't tell me you go on and get naked on a regular basis because then I will not be able to contain laughter."
"Merlin!" Arthur yelled, "I was merely painting a scenario, which wouldn't have mattered anyway because you would have found an excuse to blame me, the crowned prince, of being naked in my own chambers regardless of the time." Although Arthur wasn't necessarily angry, he was becoming a little intimidated and could feel heat rush through his face and before anything would show, he decided to address more important matters. "Did you get the horses ready then? I want to leave now so we can be back before the sun sets."
The boy, still smiling widely simply nodded and began to head towards the door, the prince right behind him.
Arthur was in a very good mood. He knew it had been a very good idea of his deciding that it was a perfect day to go hunting. It was barely nearing noon and the open sky seemed to welcome him into the forest. The canopy that sometimes felt like a nuisance now made him feel protected. And to add to his good humor was the fact that all of their trip Merlin had been extraordinarily quiet. At first, Arthur had been grateful for the change, and then after some time it became quite annoying.
"Merlin?" The prince asked.
"Hmm?" The boy responded distracted.
"Not that I mind, I'm just simply curious, but why are you so quiet? If it wasn't for your horse I might as well be traveling alone." It was eerie how true that sounded.
"Oh," he began, "um, I was just hoping I would be there when Will arrived in Camelot this afternoon." It was true, Merlin very much wanted to see his friend right away. What he didn't share with Arthur for fear of being ridiculed by him was the feeling that now formed in his chest. It made his breath hitch too quickly, and he couldn't understand the mixture of fear and anxiety when there was nothing he could relate them to.
"Oh," the prince responded. It was strange for him how that sentence shifted his entire mood, his entire character at the moment. For some reason, the canopy found its way back to becoming annoying as Arthur tried to peak through it, looking for the sun. He just felt he needed desperately something to do; a way to find himself appearing unbothered by what he just heard. Though it made no sense, not really. Why it mattered he had no clue, and why he felt the need to appear nonchalant was an even bigger mystery.
But the boy somehow found that no witty remark and no insult from Arthur was completely out of character from him. It made Merlin wonder, not unlike many times, what Arthur was thinking.
"What? No insults and no twenty questions about why thinking of a person makes one go quiet?" Merlin teased.
Arthur shrugged. When he looked at him, pure innocence in his eyes, and if the prince didn't know better, he would have believed every ounce of it. "You already know I think it's too weird, the way you two are so close together." So Arthur tried to pry for information by appearing completely uninterested; it was brilliant, really.
Merlin arched an eyebrow, surprised by the insinuation. It was possibly harmless, but the implications behind seemed to be heavier than necessary for someone who acted like he only responded out of courtesy. The boy found himself answering these implications anyway. "He's my best friend. We grew up together and Will has always been with me when I've needed him…" he trailed off.
Arthur had heard this before. And to be objective he understood to an extent the relationship between both boys. He supposed whatever parts he might not understand were because of his lack of skills in the matter. "Yeah I suppose," he agreed. "It still doesn't make any sense to me though, I can't begin to comprehend." This was true, but Arthur would be damned if he was lying to himself and did not want to have a more specific term on the boys' relationship.
"Well," Merlin began, "It's much like yours and Morgana. You're not related and you treat each other with great familiarity and your father might consider her a daughter and even you might consider her your sister. It doesn't change that she is not related to you by blood but you learn it doesn't matter because there isn't a thing you wouldn't do for her because somehow she has managed to prove herself important for you." Merlin was not sure if his explanation was cohesive enough, and the mocking laugh beginning to tug at Arthur's lips left him unsatisfied.
"That sounds like your relationship with Morgana, not mine. She's evil you know," he said smiling.
Merlin simply smiled, but didn't say anything else for a long while.
When silence was becoming unbearable for Arthur, he interrupted it by tossing Merlin a bag, making the boy startle and almost fall off his horse.
"Hey!" the boy exclaimed.
Arthur chuckled, but only after the panic of seeing Merlin stumble ceased away. "You need to always be alert Merlin. You never know when something unexpected might happen."
"Apart from you, I don't see how anything can ruin this perfect day," the boy said, reveling on the deep breath that filled his body with the purest and freshest air he'd ever encounter.
The prince smiled. He couldn't deny that this was a really beautiful day and strangely enough, he wouldn't deny that part of this day being beautiful was the company he had. Of course, Arthur had come to admit to enjoying Merlin's company long enough, it still amazed him how character built, how easily the opinion about a person could change when learning enough about said person.
It was nearing sunset when Arthur decided that he was not in the mood to kill anything today. The day itself had turned productive enough when he learned that Merlin could in fact take an order and slowly retrieve his horse before the two would advance into a beehive.
They made their way back slowly, with no intention and with no real hurry. In turn, by the time Camelot was visible on the horizon, it was darker than Arthur had intended. The winter air around them colder than expected, and the tension that somehow made its way into Arthur's stomach was undeniable.
"Merlin!" an excited voice yelled across the field.
"What?" Arthur snickered hatefully.
It was all too fast, the chain of events that soon followed. Somehow what irritated Arthur the most was Merlin's face as he looked over in Will's direction, but he had little time to register that. They were halfway across the field when a screech threatened to deafen any creature with hearing capabilities.
Merlin was not oblivious to the sound and his instinct flashed directly to Arthur's direction. For some reason it wasn't important who or what was responsible for emitting the sound. Merlin only wanted to get Arthur out of the open, fast. "Arthur!" Merlin tried calling but it was no use, Arthur was already on his way back to the source.
Once again, hope you liked this chapter.