A/N: This just popped up out of nowhere. Hope you like it! Reviews are much appreciated (my hinting is not-so-subtle, is it?) :)
Arthur, Merlin and their menagerie tumble up the steps to the castle, dirt and sweat splattered across their faces, bodies heaving and complaining, leaning on one another for support as they struggle to breathe for laughing.
"Can you believe it?" Gwaine repeats for the umpteenth time, shaking the helmet off his head and clapping his prince on the back.
"Did you see how fast he swung his sword?" Elyan adds, sounding thoroughly awed.
Arthur chuckles and shoots them his infamous smug grin, shaking the outer layers of his armour off and shedding them, right there, on the steps of Camelot; some servant will come and get them tomorrow, but not tonight. Tonight, the monsters are defeated, Arthur is a hero and Gwaine is taking them all to the tavern where Lancelot will pay for drinks.
Unsurprisingly enough, Lancelot does not look quite as enthralled at this prospect as everybody else.
But he knows when he has been overruled; that is, when Percival has slung him over his shoulder, Leon has done nothing to assist him, and the rest of Arthur's loyal followers are making their way to the tavern chanting, "Long live the King!"
Arthur chuckles again, wincing and clutching at his stomach as he does so, being reminded that one of the beasts took a swipe at his midriff. He probably ought to go and see Gaius about that. Or better yet, Guinevere…
Merlin watches the knights sashaying off into the darkness of the courtyard, and can't help but laugh. In spite of all they have been through, and in spite of none of them - not even Lancelot this time - knowing what he just did, that he just saved them, not Arthur; he just has to laugh. And it kind of hurts.
"It hurts to laugh," Merlin observes, in a very, very quiet voice.
Arthur pauses, and looks straight into Merlin's eyes.
There is a brief second of absolute and perfect stillness and Merlin wonders, with slight relief, if it is all over now.
This is shattered when Arthur asks him, "Have you hurt your stomach?"
Merlin thinks that it hurts to laugh. It hurts to laugh when nothing would really be funny if they knew the truth. It hurts to look at them all every second of every day and burn so badly with the selfish ache to share his infernal secret, and have them just see him. It hurts to know that they cannot know.
Then Merlin blinks.
Arthur quickly looks away.
"Nope," Merlin assures Arthur, with a dopey grin. He even pulls up his shirt a little, just to prove there's no bruising, revealing his almost unnaturally pale stomach. Arthur quirks an eyebrow, but says nothing. "Just laughing too much, that's all. It hurts."
Arthur nods slowly, "Yes, Merlin."
They stand there for a little bit longer, neither one of them sure of what to say, and absolutely certain that they don't want to look at the other again just yet.
"I need to go and speak to Gaius. Perhaps you should go and join the others at the tavern?" Arthur suggests eventually. "Although heaven knows it won't end well." He lets out a slight snigger at the end of this, just to convince the boy that all is fine.
Merlin nods and grins in response, skipping off towards the tavern as merrily as ever, and if Arthur had not just looked into Merlin's eyes, he would have happily filed his manservant's remark under 'strange things Merlin said today' and moved swiftly on with his life.
But Arthur had looked into Merlin's eyes.
And he had seen.
Arthur agrees with Merlin.
Sometimes, it does hurt to laugh.