Warnings: SLASH = relationship between two male characters, explicit sexual situations
Disclaimer: i'm a filthy liar who lies
Summary: Gaius takes on a new apprentice. Arthur's not amused.
A/N: This was written for merry_merthur on livejournal for ladyraistlin18 and beta-ed by the lovely furloughday - thank you so much, dear, you were wonderful :)!
Despite all the worries and stress, I loved participating in the challenge! It was my first time - combined with this being my very first attempt at Merlin-fic, so I was doubly nervous ^^. I had a great time, though, and hope to be doing something like this again sometime!
Comments are love - so let me know what you think ;).
Part 1: Merlin
The skin of Arthur's neck was warm and smooth beneath Merlin's hands as he tried to tie the laces of the prince's shirt with trembling fingers. He could feel the weight of Arthur's stare as he fumbled through the motions, could feel his hot breath stirring his fringe from where his head was bent. Merlin ducked even further and tried to breathe through the tightness in his chest.
Finally, the laces slipped into place with a skill born from practice, and Merlin quickly stepped back from Arthur, a sigh of relief stuck in his throat.
He forced a strangled cough in order to clear it as he fled behind Arthur's back, snatchinghis jacket from the bed with unnecessary force.
The tension between them had been growing by the day, though Merlin couldn't pin-point the exact moment it had begun. It wasn't something that had simply blinked into existence; it seemed as though it had been simmering under the surface for a long time. When it had finally become too much and was revealed, it was already strung tighter than a bowstring.
He and Arthurhad been tip-toeing around each other with uncharacteristic and exaggerated care, and it made Merlin jumpy and nervous, his usual chatter suffocated by unspoken words.
When Merlin raised his eyes in order to help Arthur into his jacket, the Prince had turned and was regarding him with a piercing stare. Lately, Merlin felt as though the tables had turned. Hefelt as though it was now Arthur who could see through him with just a glance, and Merlin was the one struggling to decipher the other's thoughts.
It was disconcerting how Arthur seemed to have found the ability to hide what he was thinking behind an expression Merlin had never seen before. It was more often than not that Merlin turned his head or his back, this new look in Arthur's eyes making him feel dizzy and hot.
Arthur moved closer and Merlin had to force himself not to take a step backwards,suddenly feeling as though the walls were closing in on him. His fingers curled into the jacket in a white-knuckled grip that did not go unnoticed by Arthur as he reached out with deliberate slowness to take the jacket from Merlin's hands. Their fingers brushed, a hot flash of contact that sent unbidden heat to his cheeks.
"I expect you to have cleaned my room by the time I return," Arthur said, his voice betraying nothing.
Merlin swallowed hard, hiding his trembling hands behind his back as he gave a shaky nod, cheeks still blazing.
"Yes, Sire." Merlin's response was automatic and he would have given anything at that moment to know what Arthur was thinking.
For the first time in what seemed like forever, Merlin did all his chores without magic, though he was unsure whether he was seeking distraction or merely giving himself time to think.
By the time he had finished scrubbing the floor his hands felt clammy and sore and his entire front was drenched. Rising to his feet, Merlin rubbed his aching knees before looking about the room. It had been a long time since it had looked this clean and well-kept.
Satisfied and thoroughly exhausted, he emptied the bucket into the latrine before throwing more logs onto the fire and stoking it to make sure it kept burning until Arthur's return.
The walk to Gaius' rooms seemed longer than usual, the draughty corridors almost as cold as the unforgiving weather outside. It wasn't unusual to be cold this close to Yuletide, but this year the temperature had dropped below the usual level.
His wet clothes stuck to his body like leeches and he felt coldness seeping into his bones. Rubbing his hands, Merlin shivered and sped up his slightly stiff steps, passing guards in thick woollen coats. He made a note to try and find some warmer clothing, or maybe wear several of his shirts, one over the other, next time.
Gaius' rooms where mercifully warm, as the physician had several small fires burning beneath an assortment of small vessels, in addition to the one blazing in the fireplace.
Merlin made his way over to the hearth immediately, trying to get some feeling back into his limbs. Gaius eyed him critically, one of his eyebrows rising as he took in Merlin's state of wetness.
"What happened to you?" he asked, looking as if he was expecting a confession of some sort.
Merlin craned his neck to look over his shoulder, unwilling to turn away from the blessed heat.
"Nothing," he answered and for once it was true. Though when he saw Gaius' disbelieving expression, he added: "I scrubbed the floor in Arthur's room."
Merlin could tell that Gaius wasn't convinced, but was relieved that the subject was dropped nevertheless.
"You'd better change out of those wet clothes," Gaius commented, his attention refocusing on the potion in front of him. "And then there is something I'd like to discuss with you."
This made Merlin finally turn, the muscles in his neck protesting.
"Has something happened?" He tried not to sound alarmed, but an uneasy feeling twisted in his stomach.
"No, no, nothing like that." Gaius was quick to reassure him, looking up from his work once more to give him a smile. "Now off you go, before you catch a cold. I have more than enough work as it is, with half the castle already succumbing to the weather."
When Merlin emerged from his room, dry and much more comfortable, Gaius had finished his potion and was now sitting at the table bent over a thick pile of parchment, filling the pages with his flowing script. Merlin took the seat next to him, the scraping of the chair legs loud compared to the soft scratching of the quill.
Merlin curled the hand he had rested on the table into a fist and propped his chin up on it, the words on the page blurring slightly as he moved closer. He must have dozed off for a bit, because when he reopened his eyes that he didn't even remember closing, it was to Gaius closing the book as he moved it aside in order to fold his own hands on the table top.
Blinking sleepily, Merlin straightened up and rubbed his face, completely wiped out by both the earlier manual labour and all the questions that had been chasing each other around his head of late.
"You look exhausted, my boy," Gaius remarked gently, reaching over to briefly cup his shoulder with his palm, before returning his hand to the previous position. "Is there something troubling you?"
Merlin looked down at his nails as they absently scratched almost unnoticeable marks into the wood.
"I don't think I feel like talking about it," Merlin answered vaguely, thinking about Arthur. "You said you wanted to tell me something?"
He looked up to see Gaius nodding solemnly, "I received a letter from an old friend today. He used to work at the castle as a servant, before he moved away to marry."
"Oh?" Merlin rested his chin in his palm as he focused all his attention on the conversation. "Is everything alright?"
Gaius made a vague gesture, "Yes, yes, he and his family are in good health. The actual reason for the letter was to ask me a favour."
Here Gaius paused, and Merlin felt the beginnings of a frown. It wasn't like the physician to be so hesitant.
"You see, he has a son about your age with quite a talent for brewing and so he asked me if I would be willing to take him as an apprentice. As you know, a position here would improve his chances for the future," Gaius' words sounded carefully worded and the frown that had been fighting to emerge finally showed on Merlin's brow.
"Are you trying to tell me that you don't require my services anymore?" The words sounded slightly hoarse and Merlin swallowed hard around the sudden lump in his throat.
Gaius had been like a father to him, the only one he'd ever had. The thought that he might not want Merlin with him any longer made his heart thud painfully in his chest.
The old man's expression softened and his hand returned to Merlin's shoulder, this time lingering in order to give a gentle squeeze.
"My dear boy," he said softly. "There will always be a place for you with me. The reason I'm considering taking on another apprentice is that I could actually do with the additional help. The Prince requires your services much of the time and we both know that your aim is not the profession of a physician."
Merlin let out the breath he hadn't realised he was holding, the feeling of relief loosening the tightness in his chest. He managed a small smile.
"I don't think I will ever be as good as you, Gaius," he chuckled weakly. "God knows I have more than enough trouble simply cleaning up after Arthur."
"You do much more than clean up for him, Merlin, do not sell yourself short,", Gaius eyed him seriously. "And one day the Prince will see that, too."
Pressing his lips together, Merlin looked away. Discussing Arthur hurt and he felt both ridiculous and miserable for it.
"Right," Merlin said almost inaudibly, his voice heavy with doubt. He cleared his throat before leaning forward slightly, "So, you'll say yes then? To the favour, I mean."
The concerned look had yet to fade from Gaius' eyes, but his voice, at least, sounded normal. "I didn't want to decide without you, but if you have no objections I see no harm in at least giving the boy a chance. The only thing is…" Gaius trailed off, sounding almost sheepish.
If Merlin hadn't dreaded the continuation of that sentence so much, he would have actually found it funny.
"What?" he asked wearily, a million unpleasant things flashing in front of his inner eye.
"Well, as you know these chambers only consist of this room and yours," Gaius said carefully. "So until we find a better solution or I can approach the quartermaster you will have to share it."
Merlin sighed, letting himself fall back against the hard wood of the chair and tipping his head back to look at the high ceiling. After he had digested that piece of information, he slowly straightened his neck to look at Gaius.
"Fine," he relented, unable to deny the physician anything. "But only temporarily. I like my room and it's hard enough to find some peace and quiet with Prince Prat around."
Gaius looked relieved and Merlin swallowed any additional comments on the topic.
"Thank you, Merlin," he gave Merlin a smile. "I will see to it that the matter is resolved as quickly as possible."
Merlin merely nodded, though he was already groaning inwardly. Not only did he crave privacy more than ever at the moment, he would have to share his room with a complete stranger. Life had just taken a turn for the worse.
When Arthur returned from patrol two hours later, Merlin was waiting for him with a freshly drawn bath. He looked red-cheeked and tired and Merlin was surprised that there weren't any icicles hanging off his nose.
He tried to ignore the fluttering of his stomach as he made his way across the room to help Arthur out of his heavy cloak, the coldness still clinging to the wool. Normally, Merlin would have started talking by now, but somehow everything between them had turned strange and quiet and he wouldn't have been able to find words even if he had wanted to speak.
Arthur was unnaturally pliant, letting himself be turned this way and that and obediently raising his arms when Merlin reached for the bottom of his tunic. It came off easily, accompanied by the familiar whisper of fabric, and Merlin avoided the sight of Arthur's naked chest by turning his back and folding it carefully.
"I'll bring your dinner, Sire," he said, his tone forcefully neutral, addressing the now folded tunic and placing it into the cupboard with exaggerated care.
Merlin took the silence as consent and managed to flee the warm room without once looking back at the Prince.
If possible, the castle was even colder now and though Merlin had put on two undershirts and his warmest tunic he almost felt as though his blood was freezing in his veins. He was in enough of a hurry that he didn't see Gwen before he collided with her at the stairs down to the kitchens.
She was wearing a cloak over her dress and had her hands beneath the wool. It was very much like Morgana to be concerned about her handmaiden's state of dress and Merlin stopped himself before his thoughts had even the slightest chance to stray to his own master.
"Merlin!" she smiled brightly, seemingly pleased to see him, before a slight frown graced her face as she looked at him more closely. "Are you alright? You look a bit pale."
Merlin felt his own lips quirking and shrugged in an attempt to look casual. "I haven't been sleeping well, that's all. Nothing to worry about."
Gwen, being Gwen, thankfully let it go and simply linked their arms as they fell into step and descended the familiar stone steps.
"It must be the coldest winter in years," she commented, tucking her now uncovered hand deeper into the space between Merlin's arm and side. "I can't remember the last time I was this cold. I had to get up three times in the night to make sure the fire in Morgana's room hadn't died. I was scared she might freeze to death if it went out."
Merlin nodded, relieved when the warmth of the kitchen seemed to take some of the edge off, "I know and it's not even Yuletide yet. If it gets any colder we'll have to stay in bed all day."
Gwen laughed, nudging his side. "And what a shame that would be."
Merlin grinned, his troubles momentarily forgotten as they approached the cook and each got a big portion of broth and freshly baked bread with cheese. The hot steam rising from the bowl warmed Merlin's cheeks and he unconsciously leaned closer to soak up the warmth.
They parted ways a few minutes later with a hasty goodbye, both hurrying in order not to let the food cool before having reached their destination. Merlin helped it along by casting the customary heating spell on Arthur's food. He'd rather risk a little bit of magic than tripping over his own feet and spilling everything.
By the time he reached the Prince's room, the exercise and the still-steaming broth had warmed his cheeks and Arthur, thankfully, was out of the water and fully dressed. Merlin placed the tray in front of him, careful not to spill anything, before filling a goblet with the warm mead he had brought up along with the food.
Eager to keep moving in order to get rid of some of his agitation, Merlin made to rush over to start clearing away the tub when Arthur stopped him.
"Merlin," his voice was quiet, but commanding. "Take a seat."
Merlin was aware that his face probably imitated the expression of a deer Arthur was about to shoot and desperately tried to get it under control. The chair to Arthur's right moved and Merlin caught the glimpse of Arthur's boot as it pushed it out and away from the table in wordless invitation.
Swallowing, Merlin let himself sink stiffly onto the edge of the chair, unsure what he should do with his hands.
"You look as though you haven't eaten in days," Arthur says, displaying his talent for making his words sound both insulting and concerned.
He halved the fresh bread and put the cheese next to it before pushing it across the table.
"Eat, before I find you in a heap somewhere."
Merlin looked at the bread for a moment, a protest forming on his tongue, before deciding that it was probably safer to simply follow the order and reaching out to nibble a the corner of the piece.
His stomach, obviously, chose this moment to betray him as it growled. It was just like Merlin's body to be traitorous and more likely to listen to Arthur than himself.
Admittedly, the bread was nice and Merlin parted it slightly in order to stuff the cheese inside, before taking another bite.
It wasn't the first time Arthur had invited him to eat with him, nor was it uncustomary that he shared his food with him. The cook always provided more than Arthur was comfortable, or able, to eat and Merlin had had no qualms in the past to steal off Arthur's plate.
Still, something was different this time, but Merlin had no idea what it was exactly.
They finished their meal in silence and when Merlin got up to clear the dishes away, Arthur waved him off.
"Leave it," he said, getting up and rolling his obviously tense shoulders. Merlin had the urge to reach out and rub them.
"You're dismissed for the night," Arthur went on, his back to Merlin as he crossed the room to glance out of the window. Merlin doubted he was able to see anything considering the pitch-blackness of winter. "Just find me an additional blanket and then you can go."
Merlin blinked in surprise, but withdrew his hands from where they had automatically started stacking plates in favour of walking to the cupboard and extracting a huge fur-lined blanket. He draped it over the existing one on the bed, unprompted, before returning his gaze to Arthur's form by the window. He hadn't moved.
Merlin opened his mouth, then closed it again, twisting his fingers together before letting out a frustrated breath and abruptly heading for the door, having every intention to flee before the situation could get anymore awkward and stifled.
With his hand already at the doorknob, Merlin's stilled and once more and turned to look back at the curve of Arthur's back, the outline of his body softened by the firelight. For a moment the urge to make things right again, to somehow recapture some of their closeness, was bigger than the urge to run and when he opened his mouth one more time, he rushed to force the words out of his throat before he could think better of it.
"Good night, Arthur."
It was only when Merlin had all but bolted out the door and was about to close it behind himself that he heard Arthur's soft answer.
"You too, Merlin."
When Merlin got back to his room he found a mass of blue-grey fabric waiting on his bed. Frowning, he stepped closer. Reaching out hesitantly, as if it could come to life and bite him at any minute, Merlin let his fingers slide over one of the creases.
Expensive woollen material shifted under his fingertips, the dull colour successfully having disguised its worth. It made no sense. No nobleman would ever wear such a drab colour, but no peasant could afford this type of clothing.
Carefully, as if it were to vanish any moment, Merlin lifted it with two hands. The fabric unfurled smoothly, revealing a plainly cut winter-cloak. At closer inspection, Merlin discovered that it was fur-lined on the inside, though the cloak was so skilfully designed to look ordinary that one only noticed it at closer inspection.
Heart hammering in his throat, Merlin let his fingers sink into the soft fur at the inside and couldn't help but lift it to his face to press his cheek against it. He inhaled deeply, almost expecting it to smell of Arthur, but only getting a nose-full of the soap used by the laundresses.
Merlin closed his eyes and finally sank down to sit on the edge of his bed, feeling as though his knees wouldn't be able to hold him for another minute. His mind was reeling, trying to make sense of the situation, but failing miserably. The only thing his brain seemed able to produce were the words: He gave me a cloak.
Letting himself fall back onto his bed, Merlin dragged the cloak over himself, already feeling it trapping the warmth of his body and enveloping it in blessed heat. He could not seem to stop touching it, his fingers running restlessly over the soft fabric. He wondered what Arthur was doing at the moment, wondered if he was thinking about Merlin in return.
Turning to his side, Merlin absently kicked his boots off before curling into a ball underneath the cloak, restless energy battling fatigue as Merlin furiously- and fruitlessly- tried to organise his thoughts. Instead, he kept seeing Arthur's eyes holding this strange, unreadable expression that seemed to have been haunting Merlin since the moment he first saw it. But for the first time, he thought he recognised something of himself in it.
The next morning found Merlin ill-rested and nervous, though for the first time since the temperatures had dropped he wasn't shivering. The dull blue-grey of the cloak melded with his plain attire, almost making him blend in more with the castle's walls than ever. No one looked at him on his way to Arthur's rooms.
The castle had adjusted to the darkness of the season, changing the official breakfast hour and gifting everyone with over two hours more sleep. There was no point rising to still pitch-black skies and air that could freeze the blood in your veins.
When Merlin entered Arthur's room he found him already seated at the table, curtains open to reveal miserable grey skies that spoke of snow. The fire was still burning, making the room comfortably warm in stark contrast to the frozen stillness of the corridors.
Merlin deposited the breakfast tray he was carrying onto the table, before hiding his shaking hands under the folds of his new cloak. Arthur accepted the food without comment and Merlin took the opportunity to cross the room and poke uselessly at the already blazing fire. One look about the room revealed that it was just as tidy as he had left it yesterday, leaving him empty handed and with no outlet for his nervous energy.
At a loss, Merlin watched Arthur nibble listlessly at his food and felt his stomach cramp at the mere idea of forcing something down his throat. Feeling Merlin's gaze, Arthur looked up, finally abandoning any pretence of eating. There was a moment of complete silence between them, before Arthur rose to his feet, the scraping of the chair legs cutting through the stillness and making Merlin's nerves feel even more raw.
It took Arthur less than three steps to close most of the distance between them and when he reached out to briefly touch the clasp on the cloak, Merlin's breath caught.
"I take it you like it, then?" Arthur asked softly, his eyes glued to Merlin's neck.
Feeling the warmth of Arthur's hand retreating, Merlin reacted instinctively and wrapped his fingers around Arthur's wrist, successfully stopping it in mid-motion.
Arthur's eyes snapped to his, though he made no move to reclaim his hand. Merlin swallowed, though it did nothing for the dryness of his throat.
"Yes," Merlin forced out, his voice more of a throaty murmur than anything else. "Thank you, Arthur."
Arthur's eyes were darker than Merlin had ever seen them, but his gaze did not waver when he let his hand slide through Merlin's loose grip and curled strong fingers around the ones that had trapped him.
"Can't have you freezing to death," Arthur replied, some of his usual wryness returning and for the first time in what had to be weeks, Merlin could see the corner of his mouth lifting slightly. "Who else could be as bad a manservant as you?"
Merlin's own lips quirked and a huff masked his sigh of relief.
"You wouldn't want me any other way." It was not his best attempt at teasing, but at least it could be called an attempt.
There was no humour in Arthur's expression when he pinned him with a stare that made a shiver run down Merlin's spine.
"No," he said softly, the seriousness in his voice chasing away the tentative batner. "I wouldn't."
Merlin's breath caught and his fingers tightened reflexively from where they still held onto Arthur's hand. Arthur squeezed back gently, reassuringly and took a deep breath.
But it was then that a knock cut through the moment, making them both jump apart. Merlin tried to even his breathing and saw Arthur successfully pulling himself together out of the corner of his eyes.
Feeling a hot blush staining his cheeks, Merlin tried to fight it down as he went to open the door.
Arthur was locked into the consultation chamber all afternoon with the King and his advisors, and Merlin used the time to call in a few favours with the servants and organise some clean hay, linens and blankets to provide a somewhat comfortable sleeping facility for Gaius' new apprentice, who was due to arrive the next day. It was impossible to get an extra bed, especially at such short notice.
Merlin even went so far as to tidy up his room and move his bed to the wall, having set up the mattress on the opposite side of the small room. He had petted it thoroughly to make sure that there was no stray stem of hay poking through the linens, but as far as Merlin could tell it was as soft as it could get and far enough away from the floor for the other to be warm.
When everything had been set up as well as it could be, Merlin helped Gaius re-shelving several potions – an exercise he wouldn't miss once it wasn't part of his duties anymore – before hurrying down to the kitchen to get Arthur's dinner.
Throughout it all, Merlin couldn't stop thinking about the moment he'd shared with Arthur earlier. He had half a mind to find the servant that had interrupted them and turn him into a toad. Arthur had looked at him so intently, so seriously that Merlin would give anything to know what it was that the other man had been about to say.
By the time he arrived back at the Prince's chambers, he was short of breath and quite exhausted. Arthur had not yet returned, so Merlin simply placed the tray on the table before walking over to stoke the fire.
At a loss of what to do, Merlin poked around the room for a bit, but when it became obvious that Arthur would probably not return for some time, Merlin resigned himself to his fate and returned to his own room.
The changes and uncharacteristic tidiness made it seem alien and took away most of the homey feeling that had built up over the last year. Merlin collapsed on the bed, face down, and wondered whether things would ever return to some kind of normalcy, before he snapped under the pressure.
When Merlin next awoke, it was not yet dawn and the coldness of the night had seeped into even Gaius' warm chambers. Concern for the older man's health made Merlin drag himself downstairs and renew the fire with a heavy hand and a voice still scratchy from sleep. The room seemed instantly warmer as the golden glow from the fireplace enveloped the room.
For a moment, Merlin simply stood there, his mind still half-asleep. He blinked several times, before finally making up his mind and making for Arthur's chambers. The corridors seemed even more freezing in the early morning and Merlin pulled his cloak tightly around himself.
He slipped into Arthur's chambers, silent and unnoticed, foregoing the key and simply using a spell to open the door. He didn't want to risk waking the other man.
As he had assumed, the fire had almost died out and Merlin crept further into the almost pitch-blackness of the room. He was still able to make out Arthur's sleeping features in the dim light of dying embers and felt the unbearable urge to touch the smooth planes of his face, to swipe back the blond strands from his forehead.
Curling his hands into fists to ground himself, Merlin crossed the room with forced determination and brought the fire back to life with a hard stare and a murmured word.
Unable to resist, Merlin turned back towards the bed and gave in to the need to check on the Prince. Reaching out, Merlin gently drew up the fur that had slipped off Arthur's still blanket-covered shoulder and carefully tucked it back into place.
Not known for being a deep sleeper, Arthur stirred almost instantly, his eyes blinking open to look at Merlin with a gaze still glazed over from whatever dreams he might have seen.
"Merlin?" he murmured dazedly, "What time is it?"
Feeling unnaturally bold, Merlin resumed smoothing the fur over Arthur's shoulder, making sure he was fully covered.
"Not yet dawn," Merlin replied softly. Giving in, he ghosted a feather-light touch over the crown of Arthur's head, before drawing away. "Go back to sleep."
Before Merlin could withdraw fully, Arthur had grabbed his hand in a movement similar to Merlin's yesterday. His grip was soft and warm, his fingers sliding against Merlin's cooler skin in a way that made him flush all over.
"I wish you would trust me," Arthur's voice was still thick with sleep and Merlin wondered if he knew what he was talking about, or if he knew all too well.
Heart pounding in his chest, Merlin adjusted the position of his own hand and let their palms slide together. They fit as though they had been made for each other.
Two halves of the same coin, Merlin thought, not without wryness and with the distant urge to laugh hysterically.
"I do trust you," he all but whispered. "I'd do anything for you."
Arthur's grip loosened the slightest fraction and Merlin wished for more light in order to better make out his expression. When Arthur spoke again, he sounded almost defeated.
"Anything, except believe that I would too."
Merlin's chest clenched painfully.
Arthur shifted, breaking their connection by reclaiming his hand and using it to sit up and lean against the headboard, the firelight glinting off his hair. It left Merlin's fingers bereft and cold. He pushed them through his hair in an attempt hide that they were trembling.
"I'm not my father, you know," Arthur said, his gaze fixed intently on Merlin, any trace of sleepiness brushed away by the graveness of the atmosphere.
Merlin let out a shaky breath, feeling for all the world like simply crawling under the covers next to Arthur and sobbing into his nightshirt like a child.
He had imagined telling Arthur so many times, had gone through any possible scenario, had imagined each and every word Arthur could say to him. He'd even thought about Arthur finding out on his own, had imagined Arthur yelling at him, even throwing him into prison.
But never had he imagined it to be like this. For Arthur to have found out quietly and without Merlin knowing he knew. For Arthur to have kept silent and waiting for Merlin to trust him enough to confess.
This-This was worse than prison.
"I know." Merlin choked out, the words almost refusing to leave his throat.
Silence stretched between them and Merlin was unsure whether it was worse than the tension of before. He had always associated Arthur finally knowing his secret with relief, but all he felt at the moment was miserable. He felt like the liar he was and for once it didn't matter that all he had done was for Arthur, because for the first time he felt as though he had truly betrayed him.
"I did want to tell you." It was a weak argument, followed by an even weaker apology, but he meant it with all his heart. "I'm sorry."
Merlin had rearranged his cupboard three times by the time the light in front of his window finally changed colour and he shut the doors. He was sure that one more hour of this useless waiting would have driven him mad.
Stomach in knots, Merlin slowly made his way to the kitchens and had every intention of delivering Arthur's breakfast himself when he all but collided with someone at the next corner. He managed to save the tray with the help of two additional hands and when it was finally steady again, Merlin finally looked up to take in the other person.
The young man seemed to be around Merlin's age, maybe a bit younger, but just as tall and lanky. He had a travelling bag with him and wore two cloaks at once in an obvious attempt to block out the cold. His hair was a golden blond, two shades darker than Arthur's, but his eyes looked almost black in the dim hallway.
His grin was both sheepish and uncertain.
"I'm sorry about that,", he said sounding sincerely contrite. "I have no clue where I'm going and was more focused on my surroundings than anything else."
He sounded educated, but his accent and clothes gave him away as a commoner. Merlin forced a small smile.
"I know the feeling," he assured him, shifting the tray slightly. "Are you here to see the King?"
Every four months at the beginning of each season, King Uther held an audience where people from all over his kingdom could ask for advice or to resolve arguments both within and outside the family.
"Uhm, no. Actually I'm looking for Gaius. The physician?" he said, obviously unsure whether Merlin knew the court physician's name. "Do you know where I can find him?"
Something like nostalgia seemed to well up inside Merlin's chest as he was reminded of his arrival at Camelot, what felt like years ago now.
"I'll lead you to him," Merlin said, already looking around for another servant and spotting Shanley just a few feet away, waving him over. "Can you take this to the Prince for me? Gaius needs my assistance."
Shanley didn't question him, simply eyed the newcomer curiously before taking the tray and setting off into the direction of Arthur's chambers. It had taken Merlin some time to find out that being the Prince's manservant gave him the authority to order lower servants around as he pleased. It wasn't something he took advantage of often, but it had its uses.
"I'm Merlin, by the way," he said as they fell into step together. "I live with Gaius, so we'll be sharing my room for now."
To his relief, the other boy smiled.
"I'm Galen." they shook hands without stopping, laughing a little. "I do hope sharing your room includes helping me find my way back to it. I don't think I'd get far on my own, this place is massive."
Merlin felt a huge weight lifting off his chest as he looked back into Galen's smiling eyes. He seemed genuinely nice and easy going, almost like some of the friends he had had back in Ealdor. Somehow he had a feeling they'd get on.
"I think that can be arranged," Merlin grinned slightly, remembering his own first few days as a constant quest of finding his way to the places his was supposed to go to.
Grateful for Galen's questions, Merlin forcefully shut thoughts of Arthur away into the back of his mind. They found Gaius stirring another one of his remedies for colds, seeing as their batch had once again been reduced to a single bottle in the last two days.
He looked up when they entered, smiling as he crossed the room to greet his new apprentice.
"Ah, I see you've already met Merlin, then." Gaius shook Galen's hand warmly.
"Yes, he saved me from getting lost," Galen grinned. "I wanted to thank you again for your hospitality. Both of you. I'm sure it's quite an inconvenience."
"Nonsense, my boy," Gaius waved him off and gestured for him to come further into the room as he returned to his potion. "Your father was a dear friend and I'm glad to help. But please, you just arrived, why don't you unpack first and afterwards I will explain some things to you."
"Thank you." Galen looked as relieved as Merlin felt, probably having harboured similar worries.
"I'll show you the room before I go," Merlin offered, glad for every moment he could prolong another confrontation with Arthur.
If he sacked him again, Merlin wouldn't know what to do. He had thought things between them were changing, but after earlier this morning Merlin wasn't so sure anymore. Just because Arthur wouldn't hand him over to his father and, by extension, the executioner, didn't mean that he wanted Merlin around. It didn't mean he forgave him.
Taking a deep breath, Merlin forced a smile that hurt his face and led Galen up to his room.
"I did my best with the mattress, I hope it's soft enough," he waved at the makeshift bed on the other side of the room. "I made some room in the cupboard as well, you can have the two top shelves."
"That's so kind, thank you," Galen's voice held the type of deep sincerity that Merlin so rarely heard, making him like the other all the more.
"It's no trouble, really," Merlin shrugged easily, for once feeling as though he didn't have to turn over each word twice in his mouth. "If you need anything, just ask me or Gaius. He will explain everything you need to know. He's great, you'll see. He helped me a lot when I first came here. Still does."
"My father speaks very highly of him. I've heard stories about him since I was a kid. It's a great opportunity to learn from him."
"It is," Merlin said softly, his thoughts straying to his own mother for a moment before he pulled himself back to the present. "Well, then, I guess I'll see you when I get back. I'll introduce you to some of the servants later and to Geoffrey, he's the keeper of the library and you'll want to get into his friendly books right from the start. Gaius will want you to do a lot of reading."
"I like reading."
Merlin smiled back, before giving him a vague wave and turning to go. Before he reached the door, however, Galen had gently grasped his arm.
"Thank you, Merlin, really," he said softly, his gaze warm and honest. "I didn't know what to expect, but I couldn't have hoped for better."
Merlin smiled and, for the first time today, it felt truly genuine. He patted Galen's shoulder, nudging him into the direction of his discarded bags.
"If you keep thanking us, you won't get any work done here."
Galen's laugh followed him all the way down the stairs.
By the time Merlin had reached Arthur's quarters, all previous feelings of happiness had been replaced by dread and uncertainty. He knew Arthur would be waiting for him. There were no other duties to be seen to and training had been cancelled due to the bitter cold and the fact that most of the knights were in bed, trying not to cough up a lung.
Merlin found Arthur staring out his window, one of his feet propped up on the low windowsill and his breakfast mostly untouched. In his first weeks as Arthur's manservant, Merlin had thought Arthur to be as shallow as he seemed and was beyond surprised when he later discovered that Arthur had the tendency to stop eating whenever there was something on his mind – which was often enough with a father like Uther.
Closing the door behind him, Merlin leaned against it. Arthur didn't stir, but Merlin knew he had been noticed.
"How nice of you to grace me with your presence," Arthur's voice was stiff, unforgiving and Merlin tried very hard not to let it hurt him too much.
"I'm sorry, Sire, but Gaius-" Merlin babbled automatically, pressing the palms of his hands against the rough wood of the door in a desperate attempt to ground himself.
"Needed help, so I heard."
Finally turning around, Arthur eyed him coldly and folded his arms in front of his chest. Merlin shrank even further against the door, unaccustomed to the feeling of fear crawling up his spine.
Arthur shook his head, looking more troubled than Merlin had ever seen him.
"I've been waiting, you know. Every day since I finally figured it out, I've been waiting for you to tell me." Arthur's voice was low, but the words hit Merlin as if he'd been shouting. "But you never did."
Merlin grabbed his hair with both hands, fighting down treacherous tears but nevertheless seeing his vision blurring, before letting his arms fall back to his side.
"I'm sorry," he said once more, not knowing what else to say. "I've wanted to. So many times I-"
He swallowed, the sentence hanging unfinished in the air between them. Merlin felt open and raw, defeated by his own deception and the disappointment he could read in each and every gesture Arthur made.
"Did you really think I'd turn you in?" Arthur demanded, some of the hardness returning. "Is that really what you think of me?"
"No," Merlin shook his head, eyes burning. "I didn't think that. But- But I wasn't sure you'd understand. I thought…I thought you'd make me leave."
"You should want to leave, Merlin!" Arthur all but shouted, maybe hoping that the raised volume would make Merlin see sense. "What you're doing is practically suicide! What in the name of all that's holy made you come to Camelot, knowing magic was banned here?"
"My mother," Merlin hesitated, knowing what he was about to say would sound ridiculous. "She thought I would be safer here."
"Safer?" Arthur inquired incredulously, moving closer. "Safer?"
"I didn't come here expecting to practise magic!" Merlin's voice rose to match Arthur's. "I came here to flee from that tiny village, to become something more, to learn something! And then everything changed. I didn't plan for things to happen as they did, I simply tried to do what I thought was right."
Arthur was almost close enough to touch now, his anger seemingly deflated.
Merlin swallowed, looking at the floor for a moment before forcing himself to meet Arthur's gaze once more.
"I found out that I have a destiny," he felt as drained as he was sure he must look. "That I have to protect you, to help you become the greatest King Albion has ever known."
For a moment, Arthur seemed frozen, a million emotions flickering through his eyes. When he sighed, his shoulders seemed to relax the slightest fraction.
"You really are an idiot," it was soft and affectionate,more like an endearment than anything else.
Merlin felt boneless, convinced that without the door he wouldn't have been able to keep upright. A weak laugh that sounded more like a sob tore from his throat.
"So I've heard."
Arthur's breath was hot against his face as he slid an arm in-between Merlin's shoulders and the hard door, drawing him against him. Merlin's hands latched onto him almost without thought, his fingers curling into Arthur's thick clothes so tightly it hurt. He pressed his face into the warm skin of Arthur's neck, inhaling the familiar scent.
"I don't want you to leave," Arthur's lips brushed his ear as he spoke, the soft words combined with the sensation of having Arthur so close enough to make Merlin's knees even weaker.
Merlin pressed even closer, wishing he could simply crawl underneath Arthur's skin and never be parted from him again.
"I'm not leaving you," the words were almost unintelligible, murmured into Arthur's skin, but the other man must have heard them for his grip tightened as he pressed a fleeting but burning kiss to Merlin's temple.
Merlin didn't know how long they were standing there like this, but it felt all too soon when Arthur finally drew back. Merlin had to force his fingers to uncurl, unwilling to release what they had been wanting to hold close for so long.
Arthur's eyes were soft, but darker than Merlin remembered.
"Does that mean I'm forgiven?" Merlin asked, sounding uncharacteristically tentative even to his own ears, but needing to hear Arthur's answer nevertheless.
"Yes," Arthur's said, loosening, but not yet releasing his hold on Merlin's shoulders. "But Merlin? No more lies."
Merlin's hands had smoothed down the tunic over Arthur's chest as an excuse to touch him some more, but stilled at Arthur's words.
"I promise," Merlin swore, and he had never meant anything more.
"Good." Arthur's grip on him tightened for just the fraction of a moment, before he finally stepped back, leaving Merlin cold and craving more. "And now I believe you have some work to do. This room is a mess."
Fighting to get himself back under control, Merlin tried to find his way back to their usual banter.
"And whose fault is that?" he teased, already grabbing the nearest tunic that had been thrown haphazardly over the back of a chair.
"Less talking, more working, Merlin," Arthur seemed to have trouble keeping his expression straight as he stalked over to his favourite chair, where several rolled up maps were waiting for him on the table.
Merlin rolled his eyes and for the first time in weeks, the silence between them felt natural. Nevertheless, Merlin couldn't help the constant urge to look at Arthur in between folding and collecting random items that had been strewn across the room.
Arthur was seemingly absorbed in whatever he was doing, and Merlin wondered if the intense feeling of Arthur's eyes following him about the room was merely his vivid imagination.
When Merlin returned to Gaius' rooms later that evening, he found the old physician instructing Galen on how to stir whatever potion they were busy making. His heart much lighter than it had been in a long time, Merlin tried not to disturb the working men and busied himself with getting dinner.
By the time it was on the table, the potion was finished and Gaius and Galen both joined Merlin. Gaius made his usual inquiries about Merlin's day and Merlin answered dutifully, leaving out anything concerning Arthur and his magic of course. Galen ate everything without complaint and politely asked Gaius whether there was any reading material on the subject they had discussed today.
Gaius seemed delighted and while Merlin cleared away the dishes, the two of them were already involved in a heated discussion about the ingredients of the potion they had been making earlier. Grateful for Gaius finally having found someone as enthusiastic as about the topic as he was, Merlin retired to his room and decided to do some studying of his own.
When he heard Galen bidding Gaius goodnight at the stairs, Merlin hastily hid the magic book under his pillow and instead grabbed one that Gaius had given him ages ago about the uses of various plants.
"I hope I didn't chase you out with my insistent chatter," Galen said as he sat down on his mattress.
Merlin looked up, marking the same page he had been on for over a month and putting the book aside while sitting up.
"What did I tell you about apologising?"
Galen grinned, folding his legs into a cross-legged position and absently fingering the tattered book in his lap.
"Gaius is quite brilliant," he said, sounding somewhat awed. "I mean, I knew that already, but…I just didn't imagine I'd learn so much in just one day."
"You seem pretty dedicated," Merlin offered, smiling slightly. "If I showed half as much enthusiasm as you, I'd have learned a great deal more."
"I'm sure being the Prince's manservant is a full-time occupation." Galen shifted into a more comfortable position, leaning back against the wall. "What's he like? Prince Arthur, I mean. There's a lot of different gossip about him where I come from. People say he's a great warrior and my father said he was already skilled with a sword by the time he left Camelot when the Prince was still a child."
Merlin shifted as well, though out of unease. He didn't like discussing Arthur with other people, but he also understood Galen's curiosity. He scrambled for a diplomatic response.
"He is a very good fighter," Merlin said carefully. "He trains the knights of Camelot and he has won every tournament for years now."
Galen whistled softly, "No wonder people have that much respect for him, then. Though I've also heard that he's quite spoilt and unfriendly."
Merlin clamped down on his initial response, biting his tongue in order to keep himself from jumping too fiercely to Arthur's defence. Instead, he shrugged stiffly.
"He is a Prince," Merlin offered, as if it explained everything and before he'd gotten to know Arthur, it had. "He's under a lot of pressure, but he's always fair."
"You like him quite a lot, huh?" Galen smiled, a soft note of teasing in his voice that was enough to make Merlin fight down a blush at the obvious implication.
"What makes you say that?"
Galen shrugged, before stretching out on his mattress and opening the book, which he propped up on his pillow.
"There's this look in your eyes when you talk about him."
Merlin swallowed, feeling hot and cold at the same time. When had his affections become so obvious that even a practical stranger was able to see through him?
When Galen glanced up and saw his stricken expression, his eyes softened.
"Hey, it's alright," he said soothingly. "I won't tell anyone. Besides, I'm sure your loyalty is appreciated."
Merlin felt slightly ill as he thought about how difficult it had become to keep himself under control in Arthur's presence. Now more so than ever, seeing as the last wall between them had been taken down by the revelation of Merlin's magic.
"I'm quite tired," Merlin neatly dodged the subject. "You can keep reading, I don't mind."
Thankfully, Galen dropped the subject and simply nodded before returning his attention to his book.
Merlin curled up under his blanket, his face pressed into the pillow as he fought the urge to remember the breathless feeling of Arthur holding him close. Of Arthur's strong grip and the feeling of his lips against his skin.
Cock throbbing painfully against the breeches he wore to bed, Merlin sank even deeper into the mattress and shoved his hands under his pillow where they curled around his magic book so tight it hurt. It didn't help in the slightest.
Over the next week, the temperature dropped even further, if possible, and the heavy grey in the sky that had spoken of snow had finally given in and was releasing fat white flakes onto the ground. Within three days, everything was covered under a thick and ever growing blanket of white. If the snow didn't stop, Merlin was sure they would be trapped in the castle before long.
It was more than fortunate that this year's harvest had been so rich. Otherwise, they would have to fear starving. As it was, there was enough for both the castle and the people of Camelot to sustain them throughout the worst of it with only minor cutbacks.
A heavy feeling of lethargy had come over the inhabitants of the castle, seeing as there was no way to follow any activities one would otherwise want to do out of doors. The options were limited to reading and gathering in smaller heated rooms to play various games.
Arthur and Morgana had fallen into the habit of battling each other harshly on Arthur's old chess-set. Gwen and Merlin usually occupied themselves with mending clothes or, in Merlin's case, polishing various articles in Arthur's possession. The chess duels were harsh and merciless, often leaving almost no piece on the board. Merlin saw no merit in the game, but was glad that Arthur had found some kind of distraction from the general boredom.
Furthermore, it gave Merlin the opportunity to stare at Arthur from across the room, without the Prince noticing him.
In the past week they seemed to have fallen back into their old pattern, teasing each other mercilessly with a healthy dose of insults mixed into their verbal interaction.
Nothing, however, had come close to the intimacy they had shared during the incident with the coat or the talk about Merlin's magic. Merlin wondered if he had read too much into Arthur's actions, if maybe Arthur had simply tried to be his friend and no more. But Arthur was anything but physically affectionate with people, his non-verbal interaction consisting mainly of manly slaps on the shoulders of his knights and very rare and private displays of affection for Morgana.
But if there was even the smallest chance Arthur felt the same, why had he withdrawn as soon as Merlin had reciprocated?
Merlin's frustration had only mounted in the past days, fuelled both by his lack of experience as well as the inability to find release in any way. He tried his best not to take it out on Galen because, to be honest, he couldn't have wished for a nicer roommate.
They got on very well most of the time, especially because Galen had to be the easiest person Merlin had ever talked to, but far from unintelligent. Merlin found he could talk to Galen about anything ranging from the property of herbs, to castle gossip up to his life in Ealdor.
Even so, sometimes Merlin got the feeling that there was something about Galen that was different from other people. Sometimes he almost thought that he reminded Merlin of himself.
It wasn't until another three days had passed that Merlin finally found out what the other man had been hiding.
Arthur had dismissed him early, having gotten summoned by his father, and Merlin had decided he might just as well see if there was anything he could help Gaius – or even Galen – with.
When he arrived at Gaius' chambers, however, Gaius himself was nowhere to be seen and Merlin remembered him mentioning going on some rounds to check up on the sick. He thought the physician must have taken Galen with him, but when he climbed the stairs to his room, he found the door ajar.
He could just make out Galen as he seemed to squint slightly where he was bent over one of the books Gaius had advised him to read. Eyeing the darkening sky in front of the window with a critical eye, Galen sought out the candle on his bedside table. With a small wave of his hand and a brief, but all too familiar, flash of gold brightening his eyes, the candle burst to life.
Merlin thought he must have made some sound, for Galen looked up, startled. Seeing no reason to hide, Merlin took a deep breath and entered the room. Galen's spine straightened instantly and Merlin would have laughed at the irony of feelings he had so often held in his own eyes staring back at him. It was this certain mixture of panic, suspicion and caution that made Merlin soften his expression, trying his best to seem reassuring.
"You should make sure the door is closed when you do stuff like that," Merlin commented off-handily, before following his own advice and letting the bolt fall into place behind him with a nudge of his hand.
Galen was on his feet in an instant, looking like a trapped animal.
"Merlin, I can explain-" he started hastily, but Merlin waved him off.
"I'm sure you can," he tried his best to sound soothing. "But you really don't have to. And I do think that one candle isn't quite enough if you want to continue reading."
Galen blinked at him, if possible looking even more frightened. Merlin decided that now was the time and stretched out his own hand to the candle on his own nightstand. It sprang to life, untouched.
Galen's expression would have been comical, if the situation hadn't been that serious. Before Merlin could say one more thing, however, the other man had all but flown across the room and grabbed him in an enthusiastic hug.
It was nothing like being held by Arthur and Merlin was more reminded of Will, a thought that warmed his heart as he hesitantly reciprocated.
Drawing back, Galen's smile was wide enough to split his face.
"I can't believe it!" he gasped. "I've never met anyone like me before!"
"Well, it's not as if Camelot is the best place for it." Merlin commented wryly, walking past Galen to sit on his bed. "You have quite a nerve coming to the King's castle."
Galen didn't seem fazed and joined Merlin on the bed, drawing one leg up between them as he faced him.
"I could say the same about you," he said, though his smile faded slightly as he added. "My mother didn't want me to come here, but my father persuaded her. He said it was a shame if I'd let my talents go to waste."
Merlin cocked his head slightly in thought.
"So you what? Practise healing magic?"
It would be a lie saying that Merlin wasn't intrigued, seeing as healing magic was one branch he was especially inept in, his otherwise special powers notwithstanding.
Galen shrugged slightly, playing with the frayed end of one of his sleeves.
"It's the only thing I can do, really," he didn't sound bitter about it, Merlin was glad to hear. "I mean, I can do some minor stuff like with the candle just then. But, really, that's as far as it gets. I haven't had a lot of chances to practise, but I'm good with potions and I can heal small injuries."
Merlin considered this for a moment.
"You should tell Gaius."
Galen looked up, eyes wide.
"You mean, he knows about you?"
"I gave myself away on the first day," Merlin grinned slightly at the memory, before growing serious again. "You can trust Gaius, but you need to be careful. Seriously, King Uther is obsessed with killing magic-users and he has killed people with lesser evidence or power."
"I'll be careful," Galen promised. "And I'll tell Gaius when he comes back tonight. You think he can help me?"
"I'm sure of it."
Before Merlin could react, Galen had enveloped him in another brief hug, squeezing him gently before letting go again.
"Thank you, Merlin," he said softly. "I'm glad I came here."
Merlin smiled at him, only now realising the full spectrum of possibilities this knew knowledge offered him.
"Me too," Merlin said and meant it.