"I'm sorry, Gwen." And for once, Arthur did look sorry. It wasn't one of his fake apologies, like when he had actually hit Merlin with a thrown boot. This time he looked dejected, made miserable by his own helplessness. "I tried to persuade him, but he's not listening."
He tried to force a smile, feeling perhaps that it was a little pathetic for a fully adult man to be so easily defeated by his father. "It won't matter. I told you I'd already thought about leaving too. We'll go somewhere, I'll be a farmer.."
Gwen stared at him, on the edge of laughter despite the awful situation. "Arthur, that's not going to work."
"Of course it is! You feed a few chickens, buy a few sheep, how hard can it be?" Arthur waved a hand airily. "You don't even need to feed sheep. They eat grass. Easy!"
"Almost as easy as making dinner," Gwen said pointedly. "Except you can't just smuggle a few sheep over from Camelot when I ask what you're taking to market."
Arthur's ears went red, and Gwen wanted to laugh before the reality of it hit her. "You'd never cope out of Camelot," she said heavily, fighting the urge to cry. "And your future is here. You need Camelot, as much as Camelot needs you.."
"You could both just stay." They both whirled at the voice behind them, and Merlin smiled hopefully, sensing his intrusion might not be the most welcome.
"Merlin, has it never occurred to you that some discussions might be private?" Arthur said sharply.
Merlin waved a pair of boots at him. "Just bringing these back. You wanted them polished." His studied air of innocence when caught sneaking around, never particularly high, seemed to have hit an all-time low.
"Well, leave them and get out." Arthur automatically looked for something to throw at his head before recalling that Gwen might object.
"I'm just saying that there's no reason she shouldn't stay," Merlin persisted, setting the boots down with infuriating slowness.
"She's been banished, Merlin. I think my father might object."
"No offence, but your father forgets to check for enchantment every time one of you wants to get married, and spends half his time crazy.."
"Merlin!" Really, he had to do something about Merlin's manners. Maybe after they left. Farmers got servants, right?
"I'm just saying," Merlin's voice conveyed complete reasonableness, "that he's hardly the type to pay attention to what one of the Palace serving girls looks like. If you cut Gwen's hair.."
"My father is not going to be fooled by a haircut, Merlin!" Arthur stooped, reaching threateningly for a boot.
"No, wait!" Gwen had brightened suddenly. "This could work. Cut my hair, put me in trousers and I pretend to be a boy, right, Merlin? Uther will be looking for a girl, he'll not suspect a new serving boy.."
Merlin looked nonplussed for a moment. "I was actually going for the hair-cut idea," he admitted. "But, sure!"
"Morgana, this is my new servant," Arthur introduced, trying not to look nervous. "He's called, uh, Bob."
Morgana stared at Gwen for a long nerve-wracking moment. "What's wrong with Merlin?"
"I need extra help," Merlin said hastily, as Arthur floundered. "Because of how much mess Arthur produces. Can't possibly keep up. Whew, you would not believe.."
"Because of how lazy you are," Arthur interrupted hastily. "This is a trial." He fixed Merlin with a glare. "To see if he can be replaced."
Morgana shrugged, her interest abruptly gone. "Fine," she said. "By the way, you might see my new serving girl around as I had to replace Gwen. She's called Morgause. She might go to your chambers to.. tidy or something, if she has spare time."
"I s- Merlin!" Arthur glared at his servant, who seemed to be trying to nudge him in the ribs. He really had to teach that boy about manners. Not to mention personal space.
Morgana was already drifting away. "If anyone needs me I'll be in my chambers cas—reading. Knock before you come in."
Six months later.
"Father, about what you saw – I, I can explain!" Arthur was frantic, chasing at Uther's heels. This time, this time the rage would no doubt be apoplectic. It might even give Uther a heart attack or something.
Actually, that would probably solve a lot of problems.
Uther laughed, and kept laughing. Arthur stared.
"Don't be silly, Arthur! I was young once, you know. I do know the temptation of serving boys."
He did? Arthur almost swallowed his own tongue in shock. It took a moment to find words again. "So, it's all right?"
"Well, you're not meant to get caught, I mean it's hardly the most suitable thing for a young prince.."
It seemed uncannily like a conversation they had already had six months previously. Arthur felt his heart sink. "I just must never see he-him again?" he guessed unhappily.
"What? No, don't be stupid. You're hardly going to get him with child, are you? As long as you aren't going to have a bastard heir about the place, I have no objections." Uther frowned for a moment. "No, that never works out – child ends up coming back, lots of resentment, tries to replace the rightful heir, all very messy.." He shook his head, as though dislodging a troublesome thought. "No, if you like this – Bob, is it? Just be discreet. Give the boy a permanent post around the palace so he has no incentive to cause trouble, keep him out of the way."
Arthur nodded dazedly, wondering if this were a dream. Life never went this conveniently well. "Yes father."
"Good. Just as long as we understand each other." Uther started to walk away, and then turned back as though remembering. "I find a post like physician works particularly well. Remember, be discreet!"
Be discreet, Arthur thought. Well, he could manage that. At least, until he had to explain to his father that "Bob" was pregnant.