Chapter Three: The Talk
When Merlin finally woke up it was to Arthur sitting on a stool by his bed, eyelids drooped about a quarter of the way over his eyes, looking dazed and half asleep. His hair was a bit disheveled and he looked like he was on the brink of passing out. Merlin wasn't sure what was going on, why the prince was in Gaius's chambers looking so haggard (there was no other word for it), or why his chest felt like it was on fire and a huge weight was bearing down on it.
He blinked and the world came into clearer focus. "Ar…thur?" he breathed, desperate for some answers. He had no idea what was going on and frankly, it scared him a little.
The prince's reaction was unexpected. He practically flew from the stool, knocking it over in the process, and yelled, "Merlin!"
Merlin winced at the volume of Arthur's cry and the prince actually looked apologetic. What was up with that? "Wa…ter…" He could barely get his words past the dry lump in his throat. He strained to remember what had happened but once again came up with nothing. Arthur nodded and moved over to the table to get a cup of water. He returned to Merlin's side, being careful of his aching torso, and helped him sit up, pressing the cup to his lips so he could drink. Merlin coughed when the cool liquid first hit his system and a sharp spasm rocked his chest.
"Merlin?" Arthur sounded uncertain.
The servant managed a wan smile as he leaned back on his pillows. "Thanks." His voice was much stronger now. He glanced around. "What happened? Where's Gaius?"
Arthur seemed surprised. "You don't remember?"
Merlin rolled his eyes. "How can I remember where Gaius is when I've just woken up?"
Arthur snorted. "Not that, you idiot – I was talking about what happened. You don't remember what happened?"
Merlin chuckled and held back a gasp at pain at the sudden movement to his chest. He must have gotten hurt pretty badly and he could vaguely remember pain, lots of faces, crimson blood, and someone saying his name, but the details hadn't come back to him yet. "No, I don't – not fully. That's why I asked you."
Arthur smiled. "Makes sense." An almost awkward silence hung between master and servant as Arthur put the stool right side up and sat heavily upon it. Merlin shifted slightly and winced. "So…" he began eventually. "Care to enlighten me?"
He was grinning that disarming half-smile of his but Arthur didn't seem to notice. For the first time Merlin realized that this hadn't been just some blow to the head or nick of a sword. Something bad had happened, something that Arthur apparently hadn't come to terms with fully yet. "Arthur…" This time his voice was softer, gentler. "What happened?"
His voice hoarse and a bit strained, Arthur answered slowly, "You took a dagger in the chest for me."
Merlin's eyes widened at the words and suddenly images flowed through his head, memories cascading over him, engulfing him in what had happened. That page, he had been an assassin. He had thrown a knife at Arthur, trying to kill him. And Merlin had… why, he had jumped in front of the dagger, hadn't he? He had saved Arthur's life – again – but this time he had almost lost his own in the process. Merlin smiled but this time it was a little off as he was lost in his dark thoughts. "Dunno what I was thinking," he joked, realizing afterwards that this was almost exactly what Will had said after taking an arrow for Arthur… and Will… Will hadn't survived.
Merlin pushed the agonizing memory of his childhood best friend's violent death out of his mind. He couldn't afford to think of such things now, especially given what had just happened. For heaven's sake, Arthur looked like he was about to fall apart. At Merlin's words, however, Arthur's eyes lit up and Merlin was a bit wary of the angry gleam that overtook the blue pools. "Neither do I, Merlin," Arthur stated dryly. "Neither do I."
Merlin shifted under the glare and suddenly felt the need for a little protection from his irritated master – he wasn't sure what had caused Arthur's abrupt change in mood but he could tell that it had something to do with him (although how Arthur could blame him when he'd been out cold, Merlin didn't know, but trust Arthur to figure something out). "Erm… where's Gaius?" the warlock asked, hoping that his mentor would spring out of the shadows ready to defend his ward from the prince's exasperation. But no such luck.
"He's out," Arthur replied simply, still staring Merlin down.
Merlin puckered his lips a bit, agitated. "Out where?"
Arthur glowered. "Does it really matter, Merlin? He's not here and we are going to talk."
Merlin pouted. "What could there possibly be to talk about?"
Arthur stared. "You seriously did not just ask me that." He stood, paced back and forth a few times, rubbed his stubble-covered jaw, and plopped back down right where he'd been. "Let's see… we could start with you, oh, I don't know, throwing yourself in front of a dagger!"
Merlin huffed. "To save your royal backside!"
Arthur stood again, eyes wide. "What exactly do you think you are, Merlin? Do you think you're a knight?"
Merlin lowered his eyes. "Of course I'm not a knight – they're thick, aren't they?"
But Arthur wasn't about to be distracted by Merlin's "humor." "Shut up, Merlin."
"What? You asked me a question!"
"I said shut up!" This time, Merlin hastily clamped his lips together, the tone his master was using suggesting that this was not the time to be making jokes. Arthur was seriously upset about something and apparently Merlin's attempts to lighten the mood were only making things worse. So Merlin restrained the urge to call Arthur a prat and gritted his teeth as he tried and failed to sit up more. He hissed with pain and Arthur immediately came to his side, gently taking his arm and sitting him upright. His eyes were a bit softer as he regarded his hurting manservant. "You alright?"
Merlin nodded jerkily, trying his hardest to keep the pinpricks of tears out of his eyes and tried to steady his breathing. Eventually the pain in his chest subsided and he opened his eyes, sweat beading his brow, but not nearly as uncomfortable as he had been just moments ago. "Yeah," he managed to say. "I'm fine."
Arthur snorted. "Of course you are." He looked Merlin up and down one more time, double-checking that he was indeed okay (Merlin was notorious for trying to hide his pain, even when it came down to his own health) and nodded briefly as if confirming it to himself. He then continued with his rant. "No, Merlin, you are not a knight, you're not a soldier, you're not even a mere palace guard! You are a servant!"
"I think we've established that already," Merlin snapped irritably. He wished Arthur would just get to the point; he was tired and the pain was getting worse although he wasn't about to let Arthur know that.
Completely ignoring the interruption, Arthur pressed on. "So why is it that you think that it's your job to protect me?"
Merlin set his jaw stubbornly. "Because it is my job, Arthur. It is every citizen's job to defend their prince."
Arthur growled. "Not at the cost of their own lives!"
Merlin couldn't hold back a brief bitter smile. "Your father would disagree."
"This has nothing to do with my father!" Arthur retaliated hotly. "This has to do with you!"
Merlin stuck his chin out defiantly. "I did what was right."
Arthur let out an explosive breath of air. "Damn it, Merlin, why can't you get it through your thick head? I don't need you to try and protect me, and I don't want you as a bodyguard. You're a servant. You never should have drunk that poisoned wine for me last year, and you should not have jumped in front of that knife."
Merlin rolled his eyes dramatically. "So you want me to let you die?"
"I would have moved!" Arthur's voice was a bit higher than normal as he tried to defend himself.
"Right, because you were moving so fast when I ran over to you."
"This isn't funny, Merlin!" Arthur really sounded angry – and not just angry, but scared. Apparently Merlin's near death experience had shaken the prince up more than it had Merlin. Then again, the warlock was used to putting his life on the line for Arthur on a near daily basis, so while this was traumatic and painful, it wasn't affecting him nearly as much as it was Arthur. Merlin almost smiled, realizing how much their relationship had grown and changed since last year. Arthur would definitely deny it later on, but he was being a friend to Merlin, even in the midst of his lecture. Still, he felt Arthur was being a bit ridiculous in insisting Merlin shouldn't have saved his life.
"I'm not joking!" Merlin spat incredulously. "You weren't moving, Arthur. I don't know if you were scared—"
"I don't get scared!"
"—or if the sorcerer put some sort of freezing spell on you, but the fact is you weren't going to move. And I'm sorry if you have a death wish, Sire, but I certainly wasn't just going to stand by and watch you die when I could save you."
"I didn't need saving!" Arthur protested weakly although Merlin could see that was just his pride talking; his eyes said that he knew just as well as Merlin that if the servant hadn't intervened, Arthur would be injured or worse right now.
Merlin let out a short bark of laughter and ignored the burst of pain blossoming from his wound. "You know, Arthur, maybe I shouldn't have saved you. Who would have thought you'd have been such a complete prat about it?"
Merlin's words were joking but his tone wasn't. Arthur regarded him for a few moments and Merlin knew that Arthur could tell he was hurt. It wasn't just because Arthur couldn't admit he needed help but because he seemed so ungrateful… If he only knew what Merlin did for him, risked for him on a daily basis…
Arthur's response surprised him. "You're right, Merlin."
The warlock couldn't help but joke. "What was that, Arthur? I didn't hear that."
"Shut up, idiot." A large bit of warmth returned to the room at Arthur's automatic response. "I wasn't going to move. But that doesn't change the fact that you shouldn't have taken that dagger for me!"
"Oh, so you're so much of a prat that your pride makes you want to die rather than have someone else help you?"
Arthur's face was hurt, his eyes resigned. "Do you really think that of me, Merlin?"
Merlin fidgeted, wincing as he did so. "Yes! Maybe…" He sighed. "No. I'm sorry."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "I don't care about that, Merlin. I just want to know why you seem to think it's perfectly acceptable for you to give your life for mine."
And then everything came into clear focus. Arthur was angry at Merlin not because he seemed to think it was his job to protect the prince (which it was, not that Arthur could know that), but because Merlin had nearly died in the process. He was scared, worried, angry, because Merlin had put himself in harm's way to save his life.
"Arthur?" Arthur looked up. "I'm sorry."
Arthur chuckled weakly. "Why?"
"I'm sorry I put you through this. I'm sorry I said you didn't care. And I'm sorry…"
He hesitated and Arthur's eyes narrowed. "Sorry for what?"
"And I'm sorry that if something like this happens ever again, that I'll put you through it again."
"Arthur, I'm serious. If it comes down to a choice between my life and yours, there's no contest. Because you may be an egotistical, obnoxious prat, but you're also the prince and your life is worth a thousand of mine."
"That's not true—"
"But it is. I'm sorry, Arthur, but if the choice has to be made, I will always choose you over me. It's not up for debate. I know you think I'm just a servant and that I have no obligation to risk my life for you, but you're wrong. And it's not because it's my duty as a servant, but my duty as a friend." Arthur's mouth opened but Merlin interrupted again; he was on a roll now. "You will be a great king someday, Arthur – you'll have to be, you're the only option they've got –" Arthur chuckled lightly. "—but if you die, how are you going to be king? Don't think I did it just for you, Arthur. Because I certainly did do it for you, but I also did it for Camelot. So don't go getting a big – or should I say, bigger – head!"
Arthur stared at the servant for a few moments before responding. "You've got your mind set on thinking you have to protect me, don't you?"
Merlin nodded. "I know you're the great Prince Prat and you don't think you need protection, but obviously that's not always the case. And if it's in my power to help you, well… you'll just have to deal with it. This is one thing that's never going to change. It's indisputable."
Arthur grinned and arched an eyebrow. "What a big word, Merlin!" He sighed jokingly. "If only you knew what it means."
Merlin pretended to be offended. "Of course I do – it means that as long as I'm around, no sorcerer will ever get the best of you because they'll have to get through me first!"
Arthur laughed. "Just keep telling yourself that, Merlin. Heaven help us all if the fate of Camelot ever rests upon your shoulders."
Merlin smirked at the irony. Oh, Arthur, if only you knew…
He sighed and felt his eyelids drooping as exhaustion – both physical and emotional – from the confrontation with Arthur began to catch up to him. Arthur noticed and helped him lie back down. Merlin smiled sleepily up at the prince and muttered, "How long have you been here?"
Arthur rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously. "On and off as much as I could over the past two days since… it happened."
Merlin shifted, grimaced, and then grinned. "Never knew you cared so much, Arthur."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "I don't."
"If you say so, Arthur."
"Good," Merlin muttered blearily, the pain in his chest dimming as consciousness began to fade. He really needed to sleep…
He was just about to slip over the fine line between reality and dreams when he heard Arthur's voice, this time much gentler. "Merlin?"
"Mmm?" He couldn't find the energy to verbally respond.
A peaceful smile ghosted over Merlin's face as he drifted into sleep. You're welcome, Arthur.
Perhaps Arthur wasn't that much of a prat, after all.
A/N: Thanks to everyone who reviewed the last chapter and the story all together; please review one last time to let me know what you think! :)