Author's Note: This was written for the prompt of: A Merlin version of Sleeping Beauty. I want Arthur to be the sleeping beauty and Merlin doing the true-love-kissing part. :) Obviously, this is complete Alternate Universe and I took great liberties with the character relationships. *cough* Stepsisters. *cough* I also stuck in some Cinderella for the fun of it. :D
Merlin hopped down from the driver's seat of the carriage and rubbed his tired backside. He tried not to gawk at his surroundings, but it was difficult. Camelot was amazing. He could hardly wait to check out the market and maybe find some—
"Merlin, stop dawdling and let us out!"
He frowned at the sound of the screeching voice. The clip-clop of hooves and the long journey had kept him from hearing it for quite some time, but his reprieve was over. "Yes, Lady Catrine," he said with a sigh and hurried to the carriage door to swing it open.
He raised a hand to help her down, but she ignored it and called to a knight who was walking by. "You there!" When the knight paused, Catrine's bellow softened and she added in a simpering tone. "Help a lady down?"
The knight rushed over and assisted Lady Catrine and then his eyes widened when Morgana filled the doorway. He dropped Catrine's hand as though burnt and raised a beckoning hand to Morgana. "Milady," he said reverently.
"Oh, bugger off," Morgana said and jumped into the dirt, ignoring the knight the way Catrine had ignored Merlin. "This is Camelot? I expected something more exotic. Where is this damned prince, anyway? I want to get this over with."
The knight gaped at her and Catrine began to chastise Morgana for her unladylike ways. Merlin could have told her it was a waste of time.
A throat clearing drew the attention of Merlin and the knight and they both looked at the doorway to see Gwen beaming at the knight, who recovered and lifted his hand with a whispered, "My lady."
"Thank you, gallant Sir Knight," Gwen said and took his hand. She stepped from the carriage and stood beaming into the face of the knight. "I am Guinevere."
"Sir Lancelot, at your service," the knight said and lifted her hand as though to press a kiss upon Gwen's knuckles.
"Guinevere! Get away from that louse-infested knight! You are here for Prince Arthur and don't forget it. Knight, where can we find the prince?"
Lancelot's face fell and he released Gwen's hand to step away. "I am sorry. Of course you are here for His Highness." He looked apologetically at Catrine. "I will escort you. Milady." Lancelot offered his arm and Catrine took it gingerly, as though it were covered in something revolting rather than a leather gauntlet.
"Merlin! Bring our trunks. And be particularly careful with my valise! If one jar of my night crème is cracked I will personally—" Catrine blathered on until she was out of range. Merlin untied the tethering ropes and hefted three large trunks from the back of the carriage. Assorted valises followed, and finally Merlin's own pathetic knapsack.
Thankfully, another knight spotted Merlin's plight when he attempted to carry, drag, and heft all of the items at once, and he ordered a couple of serving boys to assist him before lifting the largest trunk and leading the way into the castle. It was not hard to find Catrine's rooms—no one had been spared her tongue and directions were quickly given.
Once inside the suite—Merlin paused for only a moment to admire the opulence—the women quickly shooed Merlin out so that they could prepare themselves for their audience with the king. Merlin wandered off to find the kitchen and hopefully procure a snack before dealing with his own travel-worn appearance. It would take Catrine and Gwen at least an hour to become sufficiently glamorous. Morgana would be quicker.
The servants in the kitchen were more than happy to provide Merlin with a few scraps of bread and cheese, along with a hefty dose of gossip.
"No one knows what struck down Prince Arthur," one admitted. "He's been sleeping these past two weeks and nothing can awaken him."
"It's sorcery for sure, though," another whispered. "Glowing words was found on the wall above the Prince's bed. 'Naught can save him but true love's kiss'." A collective sigh echoed in the room, released from the lungs of all the women present. "Cor, it's so romantic."
Merlin snorted. Romance. It sounded ridiculous. Who would cast a spell that could only be broken by a kiss?
"Unfortunately, Prince Arthur has no true love. What with him training and defending Camelot and learning to be king… Well, he has no time for romance!"
The girl working the butter churn nodded. "Hasn't stopped the king, though. He's ordered every eligible maiden in the kingdom to try and kiss Arthur, in the hope of waking him up. Promised her Arthur's hand in marriage, he has!"
Merlin knew that bit. It's what had drawn Catrine and the girls from their village and forced Merlin to endure the close company of the harridans for days on end. He hoped they would conclude the kissing bit quickly so he could get back to roaming the forest, picking berries, and daydreaming.
Merlin lifted his bread in salute, bid the servants goodbye, and went to find some water for bathing. Catrine would have his head if he appeared before the king looking less than suitable.
King Uther looked bored. He lounged on his throne and listened to Catrine elucidate her bloodline (back to Charlemagne!) and point out the varied virtues of her daughters. The girls managed to look almost virtuous, even though Morgana had a dagger strapped to her right thigh beneath her gown—Merlin knew because the buckle had been giving her fits and he'd had to adjust it for her—and Gwen was shooting furtive glances toward Sir Lancelot.
"Very well," Uther said, interrupting Catrine's flow of words. He got to his feet. "Come along, let's get this over with."
He led the way down the hall and up two flights of stairs to the Prince's bedchamber. As Catrine and the girls filed past, Merlin made to enter, but Uther blocked his ingress.
"Your servant may wait in the hall," Uther said.
Catrine coughed. "He's not my servant. He's my stepson. His wretched father died and left him in my gentle care with barely enough to provide for us all."
Merlin refrained from rolling his eyes. His father had left them incredible wealth, a beautiful manor, and lands, but Catrine was burning through the gold faster than a hot knife through butter, the manor was falling into disrepair, and the land was being neglected. Merlin did what he could, but Catrine refused to let him take control of it.
Uther's brows went up in surprise and Merlin smiled at him apologetically. He had done the best he could with his appearance, although he did not have anything by way of finery. Catrine outfitted her daughters and all but ignored Merlin.
"My apologies. You may stay," he said to Merlin.
The court physician stood in attendance and he kept a wary eye on the girls as they approached Prince Arthur's bedside. Merlin lurked by the bedside. All he could see of Arthur was a shock of blond hair, neatly combed, and two hands folded over his breast. He looked dead.
"Very well," the physician said. "Who will be first?"
Morgana shoved Gwen forward. "Give it a go, Gwenny."
"Oh my!" Gwen exclaimed. "He's very handsome, isn't he?" She quickly leaned down and placed a reverent kiss upon Arthur's lips, lingering perhaps longer than was prudent.
The physician coughed. "Yes, well, that's apparently not done it. So sorry, my dear. Next."
Gwen stepped back, looking both disappointed and relieved, if such a thing were possible, and then it was Morgana's turn.
She looked down at the prince and shrugged. "I suppose he'll do," she said and put both hands on Prince Arthur's face before leaning down and practically raping the poor boy's mouth with her tongue. The court physician looked on with horror and it wasn't until the king cleared his throat that Morgana left off molesting the still-unconscious prince.
"Well, that's that," Morgana said matter-of-factly. "Can we go home?"
"You must stay the night and dine with us as some small recompense for your long journey," the king said, even though he sounded a bit insincere.
"Thank you, your Majesty," Catrine simpered, although her eyes flashed with rage. Merlin knew there would be much browbeating of the girls back in their room for not being the prince's true love. Morgana would weather the storm easily, but Gwen was a sensitive soul and would probably spend the night weeping piteously.
Merlin made a mental note to locate her some sweets.
Dinner was a boring affair that Merlin was forced to attend as Catrine's stepson. Since her hopes of foisting off one of her daughters on the poor, sleeping prince were dashed, Catrine had apparently set her sights on King Uther. She spent the entirety of the meal laughing merrily at his every utterance and plying him with compliments.
"Honestly, Mother, why not just climb beneath the table and have at his manhood?" Morgana muttered, earning a swift kick that Morgana dodged. Catrine's foot hit Merlin's shin, instead and he yelped in surprise, drawing the gazes of half the attendees.
"I…" Merlin sought for an explanation.
"Merlin is upset that he forgot to take his potion. If you'll excuse him, your Majesty, he will be off to take it now before he starts raving and needs to be chained up like some wild beast," Catrine explained in a stage whisper that everyone in the room was certain to hear. Merlin clenched his jaw.
"By all means," King Uther said with a wave of his hand. "You are excused, my boy."
Merlin regretfully eyed the lamb and bread he hadn't finished eating and got to his feet, knowing it would be pointless to argue with Catrine. "Thank you, your Majesty."
Catrine eyed him smugly as he left the hall and entered the quiet corridor. Despite his still-rumbling stomach, he was glad to escape the dull atmosphere.
"You there! Boy!" someone called.
Merlin turned to see the Court Physician beckoning to Merlin with his head. At least, he seemed to be beckoning. His head was jerking, at any rate. Merlin hurried over.
"Take some of these potions, boy! I'm about to drop them all!"
The physician's hands were full of an assortment of glass tubes and vials. Merlin quickly lifted the hem of his tunic to create a bowl-like shape in front of him. The man spilled the vials into Merlin's makeshift pouch with a sigh.
"Well done, boy. I should have made two trips instead of trying to carry them all, but those steps are not kind to an old man. And my baskets are occupied. Come along." The physician moved past Merlin and strode down the hall as if expecting Merlin to follow, which he did.
"I am Gaius," the man said and gave him a searching look.
"Merlin," Merlin said. "Um… what are all these for?"
Gaius marched briskly, for an "old man" and Merlin had to hurry to keep up. "For Prince Arthur. I am hoping to cure him without benefit of this constant train of females and this kissing nonsense."
"You don't think it will work?" Merlin asked.
Gaius paused and looked around carefully before replying. "Whether or not the spell can be broken as intended, we must think of other means and try them all."
Merlin thought it a wise idea. What if Prince Arthur woke up to find himself engaged to someone like Morgana? Merlin thought it might be a fate worse than death.
They reached the Prince's room and Merlin deposited the bottles on the table. Gaius began to sort through them and Merlin stood uncertainly for a moment before curiosity got the better of him. He walked to the bed and stood gaping at the visage of Prince Arthur of Camelot.
The man was beautiful. The swooning, giggling behaviour of assorted girls at dinner whenever the Prince was mentioned suddenly became clear. Prince Arthur looked like something out of a fairy story, gold of hair and fair of face. Merlin wondered what colour his eyes would be should the thick golden lashes lift from his cheeks.
"Merlin, come and help me with this," Gaius called, breaking Merlin's reverie. He hurried back to the physician, who had lined up the vials on the table.
"Can you write?" Gaius asked. At Merlin's nod, he handed him a large open book with a scroll wedged in the page fold. "Very well, I need you to record the descriptions of these potions in the book, as I have done there. The blasted labels on the vials are in tiny print and I've forgotten my spectacles."
Merlin picked up one of the vials and looked at the attached label. Primrose, St John's Wort, Pansy, and Lilac in a tincture of vodka. A glance at the book showed a dozen or so similar entries, all with a notation of No Effect written after it. Merlin was slightly alarmed to think of Prince Arthur ingesting potion after potion, unaware, as he slept on.
"Aren't you afraid one of these will hurt him?"
Gaius made a snorting noise. "They are tested for safety, Merlin. Believe me; I have no intention of killing the Crown Prince. I do value my own skin."
A sharp rap on the door drew Gaius' attention. "Enter!"
A guardsman opened the door. "Gaius, you are wanted in the dining hall."
Gaius sighed explosively. "What is it this time?" he demanded. "Not another bloody drinking game!"
"I'm afraid so. King Uther's orders."
Gaius grumbled. "Merlin, do you mind finishing that task? I will be most grateful."
"Certainly," Merlin said and grinned. "Enjoy your drinking game."
Gaius threw him a sour look. "Cheeky pup," he muttered and then went out, following the guardsman.
Merlin wrote down a few of the potions while sending glances toward the prince, until finally he set the book down, struck by the need to gaze upon the prince once more with no one in attendance to warn him away. Merlin walked back to the bed and sat on the edge to look at the sleeping man. He wondered how many girls had kissed him, trying to wake him up, hoping to be the one who owned his heart.
It made Merlin's heart wrench a bit to think the prince might never awaken. He seemed the sort of man who should walk in sunlight. Merlin wondered how a smile from him would look.
Impulsively, Merlin leaned down and pressed his lips to Arthur's. They were warm and soft and just slightly parted. Merlin applied light suction and felt a frisson of anxiety, knowing he should not be kissing the prince and yet unable to resist. If only it wasn't such a useless gesture and—
The lips beneath Merlin's stirred.
Merlin's eyes flew open and he pulled away with a gasp just as a hand curled around his sleeve. He blinked in surprise as Prince Arthur's golden lashes opened to reveal eyes whose shade eluded Merlin, shrouded in shadow as the room was.
The prince blinked at him. "Who are you?" he asked in a whisper and then frowned.
"Um. Merlin. I'm Merlin. Would you like a drink of water?" Merlin tugged at his sleeve to no avail. Despite his near-somnolent state, the prince had quite a grip. Arthur's other hand lifted and then dropped to Merlin's thigh, nearly tearing a squeak of alarm from him. It seemed an unconscious gesture, however.
"Water. Yes, I'm parched. I feel strange. Have I been ill?"
Merlin tugged again, hoping to free himself, and fearing the contact of Arthur's hand upon his leg; it seemed to burn into his flesh and he was suddenly mortified with the realization that his kiss had awakened the prince, dashing the hopes of dozens of girls still enroute to Camelot. Merlin frowned. Wait, wasn't there something about the spell being unbroken unless love was involved? He tried to recall the exact wording and failed.
"Yes, sort of," Merlin said quickly and shook off his bewilderment. The note had been wrong, then. Surely Merlin was not the one destined to love the prince? It was ridiculous. "That water? I can fetch it more easily if you release me."
"Oh. Of course," Arthur said. He let go of Merlin's sleeve, but seemed more reluctant to remove his hand from Merlin's thigh. It slid down to his knee as Merlin rose, almost like a caress. He walked quickly to the washstand and picked up a goblet resting next to the porcelain pitcher. He filled it and returned to the bed where Prince Arthur struggled to sit up. Merlin quickly handed him the goblet and slid an arm around his shoulders to help him into a sitting position before levering several pillows behind his back to prop him.
"Why am I so bloody weak?" Arthur demanded. His words were nearly inaudible, so he lifted the cup and drank. Merlin admired his profile and the bob of his Adam's apple as his head tipped back. A dribble of water ran from the corner of his mouth and trickled slowly down the line of his throat. Merlin's mouth went dry and suddenly he was the one in need of water.
"You've been asleep for quite some time," Merlin admitted and wondered how long it had been. Weeks, for certain, for news to have reached their village and prompted Catrine to make their long journey.
"Asleep?" Arthur repeated. Merlin took the empty goblet and wondered how to explain, but the matter was taken from his hands when the door banged open and admitted Gaius. Merlin jumped away from the bed guiltily.
"Bloody drinking games! Make a travesty of my knowledge, let me tell—" Gaius' words trailed off and he stared at them for a moment, eyes going from Arthur to Merlin and back again. "Merciful heavens, Arthur! You're awake!"
"Of course I'm awake. Why wouldn't I be?" Arthur's voice was perplexed and slightly testy.
"How did it happen? Did you give him a potion, Merlin?"
"No." Merlin flushed. "It was um… a kiss. I think."
Gaius hurried over and placed a hand on Arthur's forehead. "No fever. That's a good sign. How do you feel, Arthur?"
Merlin set the goblet on the table and sidled toward the door. "I'll just be going, then."
Gaius pinned him with a look. "Wait! A kiss? Who kissed him? Where did she go?"
Merlin nearly admitted that he did it, but Arthur was looking at him and he suddenly couldn't bear to see the surprise and disappointment such a revelation would cause. Instead he bowed awkwardly and fled, ignoring Gaius' shout that followed him out the door.
The next three days were torture for Merlin. His refusal to "name the mystery girl" had sent the whole of Camelot into a tizzy. Catrine had not, surprisingly, badgered him about the identity of the person who had awakened the prince. Instead, she had simply renewed her campaign to throw her daughters at the prince whenever he appeared. Thankfully, those occasions were rare, as Prince Arthur was still recovering from his weeks of enforced inactivity.
The king had announced that all visitors to Camelot should remain until week's end when a celebratory feast was planned. Merlin had no chance to escape, although he frequently considered bolting from the castle and hiding in the woods until the whole thing blew over.
The worst of it was when King Uther had confronted him, ordering Merlin to the throne room where Gaius, a handful of knights, and Prince Arthur waited for Merlin to reveal all.
Uther's voice was surprisingly kind when he spoke. "Merlin. There seems to be some confusion regarding my son's awakening. As you seem to have been present at the time, would you care to explain?"
Merlin tried to speak, but finally shook his head. He glanced at Arthur and looked away quickly. Arthur looked amazing in a red velvet doublet and with his golden coronet shining upon his head. Merlin admitted, at least to himself, that the kiss had been far too frequently on his mind, of late. Every glimpse of the prince only reinforced the fact that he was becoming foolishly enamoured of the man.
"No, your Majesty," Merlin finally choked out. "I'm sorry."
"But Merlin, I have promised the girl Arthur's hand in marriage. Surely she would not pass up a chance to be the future queen of Camelot?"
Merlin choked at the thought of himself as the next queen. The subjects would revolt. There would be chaos. Possibly riots. "Um. Yes, your Majesty. She wishes to… Um... she believes that Prince Arthur should be allowed to make his own choice and not be bound by a spell from which he has already suffered enough."
Uther tented his fingers and seemed to consider Merlin's words. "Very noble sentiments. Already she displays royal qualities." Uther looked at Arthur, who seemed relived, although he tried not to show it. "I will accede to her wishes, then. Perhaps Arthur will be able to seek her out at the ball. After all, the words were quite clear. 'Naught can save him but true love's kiss.' If it was love, after all, it should reveal itself in due time, eh, Gaius?"
Gaius nodded, although Merlin thought he looked a bit dubious. "Indeed, Sire."
Merlin was dismissed and escaped to the castle roof, hoping the afternoon breeze would erase the blush left on his skin by his last glimpse of Arthur's thoughtful gaze upon him. He was not to be spared so easily.
Footsteps sounded behind him and he glanced over his shoulder to see Prince Arthur approaching. The prince did not look at him, but instead peered out over the majesty of the kingdom before them. The view was truly spectacular and Merlin tried to focus on it instead of the man next to him. It was impossible, however, and his eyes traced the lines of Arthur's hand where it rested against the pale stone of the rampart.
"You've impressed my father, Merlin, with your steadfast loyalty to this mysterious girl," Arthur said finally.
Merlin said nothing, although his hands toyed with the ends of the red scarf he had draped around his neck that morning to ward off a chill.
"I am perplexed, however, by my utter lack of memory regarding this momentous event. The only person I remember seeing... is you." Arthur turned his head and fixed Merlin with a stare—bright blue, Merlin noted with a jolt of alarm as heat returned to his cheeks with a vengeance.
A commotion in the courtyard below drew Merlin's attention and he leaned over the wall gratefully. A large carriage rattled to a halt before the main doors.
"A new arrival," Merlin commented. "Probably hoping to taste your ruby lips." Merlin smirked at the prince, feeling oddly comfortable around him, despite the secrets Merlin concealed.
"Like you did?" Arthur asked quietly.
Merlin's heart jumped and he pushed away from the wall with a jerk. "I promised Catrine I would fetch her some fresh flowers and do some… other things. Goodbye, Your Highness."
To his relief, Arthur did not stop him and he hurried to the stairs and went to hide behind Gwen for the rest of the afternoon.
Arthur watched Merlin flee and a frown pursed his lips. His suspicions had been growing apace with Merlin's refusal to speak. Arthur had turned over the incidence of his awakening in his mind a dozen times. He was certain he would have remembered if there had been anyone present in the room other than Merlin and himself. And Merlin was acting strangely, unless constant blushing whenever he was in Arthur's presence was normal behaviour, and Arthur hadn't noticed him acting particularly flustered around anyone else.
Dismissing thoughts of Merlin for the nonce, Arthur made his way downstairs to greet the newcomers. It was curious to peruse them and decide whether or not he should be disappointed or grateful that no further unconscious snogging would take place.
Grateful, he decided upon viewing the lady as she paraded into the entrance hall. She wore confidence brighter than the deep red robes that swathed her form and her stride was swift and sure. When she tipped the hood back to expose her face, her features were quite beautiful, but seemed sharp and calculating.
Arthur frowned. Just from the sight of her, he knew she was intelligent, forceful, likely domineering, and would probably break any man that dared to touch her just for the sheer pleasure of doing so. Arthur wrinkled his nose and decided she was the exact opposite of the qualities he would look for in a consort. He preferred someone quiet, demure, possibly shy, with intelligence hidden beneath a sense of humour… Arthur found himself smiling, thinking of Merlin's smile and the gentle tease he had given Arthur on the battlement before he remembered himself and slipped away.
Arthur gnashed his teeth, realizing he was doing it again. Thinking about Merlin. What was it about Merlin that kept dragging him to the forefront of Arthur's mind? He sighed explosively and made his way down the final flight of stairs in order to get the pleasantries out of the way.
The woman's eyes went to him immediately and then widened. Her mouth followed suit, gaping open as though he had suddenly grown two heads, so much so that Arthur actually turned round to see if unseen assailants were planning to murder him.
No one lurked behind, so he turned back, puzzled, to find that she had composed herself.
"Prince Arthur," she murmured as he approached. "You are awake."
"Indeed. Quite the miracle, apparently."
"Apparently so," she said. Arthur wondered if he had imagined the sound of her grinding her teeth. She lifted a hand and held it out toward him. "I am Nimueh."
Arthur took her hand and bowed low over it. "Arthur Pendragon, as you obviously already know."
She smiled, but it did not reach her eyes, eyes that were bright blue, almost the shade of Merlin's. Arthur mentally kicked himself again and then focussed on her once more. "I apologize for your journey. If you are here because of me, that is."
She nodded. "It was rumoured that only a lover's kiss could awaken you. Where is the lucky girl?"
"There seems to be a bit of confusion about that, but never mind. I will have Leon escort you to your quarters, assuming you plan to remain in Camelot for the upcoming feast?"
"I wouldn't miss it," Nimueh said with a smile that did not reach her eyes.
"Excellent. Then I will see you again."
"Count on it, Your Highness," she said. Arthur motioned to Leon and wondered why her words sounded almost like a threat. He made a mental note to learn more about her.
"Lovely girl," one of his knights said dryly as Nimueh ascended the staircase in the company of Leon, followed by a cadre of servants carrying her baggage.
Arthur made a noncommittal grunt and then blinked at the knight. "I'm sorry. Do I know you?" The man's face was barely visible beneath the metal helmet, but the voice was not at all familiar.
"Well, we've kissed, but I don't suppose you would remember that." The knight reached up with surprisingly delicate hands and removed the helmet to shake out a great mass of black curls. Arthur gaped at her.
"I am Morgana," she said. "Your knights generously allowed me to spar with them. I hope you don't mind. And please don't tell my mother or I won't hear the bloody end of it for a week. Honestly, I have no skill at needlepoint."
"She's quite good, Sire," Sir Bedivere put forth. "She trounced Percival quite roundly."
Arthur raised a brow at the thought of a girl besting one of his knights, even though he personally thought his father's manservant could take Sir Percival. "Impressive," he said.
She twisted her hair and placed the helmet back upon her head. "Oh, and if you should encounter my mother, please inform her that I have been obediently wooing you. She is determined that Guinevere or I should become the next queen of Camelot, even though have no interest in you at all, no offense, Highness."
Arthur had to laugh at her blunt manner. It was too bad that women could not be knighted. "None taken. And despite the spell, I am not actively seeking a bride at the moment. I am rather glad your brother has decided not to reveal the cause of my awakening."
Morgana snorted. "Yes, I should imagine he wouldn't. Have you seen my sister, or is she being lax in the wooing, as well?"
Arther wondered what she meant by the cryptic comment regarding Merlin, but he forewent asking when Bedivere replied, "I last saw her atop the North Tower with Sir Lancelot."
Morgana made a retching noise. "She's been making doe eyes at him since we got here. Mother is going to be quite displeased. I think I'll make myself scarce. Bedi, how are you at archery? Care to challenge me?"
Bedivere grinned. "It would be an honour, my lady."
"After you," Morgana said with an airy wave. "I would curtsy, Your Highness, but it's difficult in greaves."
"Never mind. Enjoy yourselves." Arthur shook his head in bemusement and went to find Gaius. If anyone had information about Lady Nimueh, it would be Gaius.
Gaius had no information.
"I will look into it for you, of course, Your Highness. Do you have any particular reason to mistrust the lady?"
Arthur shook his head. "Nothing beyond instinct."
Gaius nodded solemnly. "I would trust your instincts over other men's facts. I will check into it."
"Thank you, Gaius." Arthur turned to leave and then paused. "Have you seen Merlin?"
Gaius looked at him pointedly and then shook his head. "Not since this morning. He was here to fetch a headache remedy for Lady Catrine."
Arthur sighed. "Thank you, Gaius."
"Your Highness?" Gaius asked as Arthur turned to leave. Arthur raised a brow and Gaius looked suddenly uncomfortable. "The boy… Merlin. He hasn't spoken up, has he?"
Arthur shook his head. "I don't believe he will, either. I must commend his loyalty."
"Indeed," Gaius replied, although he sounded dubious. "Sire, have you considered…?" Arthur waited, but Gaius seemed reluctant to continue his thought. He cleared his throat and then said, "Never mind."
Arthur smiled at him in bemusement, bid him a good afternoon, and went out. Somewhat to his surprise, he found himself standing in front of Lady Catrine's suite. After an awkward internal conversation with himself, he lifted his hand and knocked.
The door opened and he found himself face to face with Merlin, who gaped at him in obvious surprise. They stared at each other for a long moment, not speaking, and then Lady Catrine's voice shrieked, "Well, Merlin? Who is it?"
Merlin opened his mouth to speak and Arthur quickly shook his head and gave him a pleading look. Merlin called over his shoulder, "A servant. Dinner will be briefly delayed this evening. They will send someone at the appropriate time."
"Oh, fine!" Catrine snapped. "It had best not be delayed for long. I am very hungry. Where are you going?" The last was cried as Merlin stepped forward into the hallway as Arthur stepped aside, and made to shut the door.
"Fetching more water!" Merlin yelled and closed the portal with finality. He grinned at Arthur, eyes sparkling with merriment. He sobered and said, "Gwen and Morgana are out."
"I know. I came to see you." The words sounded a bit odd even to his ears and Arthur cleared his throat, but it was true. His eyes drank in the sight of Merlin, whose cheekbones seemed almost luminescent in the muted corridor light. His eyes were huge and dark and his lips were curved as though a smirk hovered just beneath his sober mien, waiting to be freed.
"Me?" Merlin's voice was soft.
Arthur nodded and took a step closer, not trusting himself to speak again. He lifted a hand, slowly, so as not to frighten Merlin away, and touched the edge of his jaw with his fingertips, so lightly it barely registered as a touch upon the pads of his fingers.
Arthur leaned in, not quite sure what he was doing but unable to stop himself. Merlin's eyes went wide and then fluttered shut. His lips parted slightly and his breath mingled with Arthur's.
"Your Highness!" someone called.
Merlin's eyes snapped open and he jerked away so quickly his back thumped into the closed portal. He stared at Arthur for a moment, fumbled for the door latch, and fled inside. Arthur felt like gnashing his teeth as he turned to face the source of the interruption.
A servant stood at the end of the hallway, looking somewhat nervous, but Arthur beckoned to him with an annoyed gesture. "What is it, man?"
"Your father requests an audience, Sire. In the library."
Arthur threw a frustrated glance at the door behind which Merlin had disappeared, and then he spun and strode away.