Summary: Tag to 404. The knights played a joke on Merlin and we see him not eating for two nights, but what if it's been longer than that? Will Arthur and the knights realize something abut Merlin that they never knew before? Will they discover just how much a certain manservant suffers for those who are supposed to be his friends? Bromance, no slash ever, spoilers for 'Aithusa' and anything that came before it, whump depending on your definition, this is an Overworked and Starved Merlin fic, one of my favorite kinds.

Disclaimer: I do not own Merlin, but I am writing this because I love it.

Merlin was exhausted; it had been a long, hard, couple of days. And they weren't over yet. The dragon egg was safe within his saddlebag, Borden was dead, everyone thought that the egg was destroyed but him, and now he and all the knights were on their way back to Camelot. But Merlin really couldn't feel like this was all over until the egg was safely hidden away from the eyes of anyone but him, Kilgharrah, and perhaps Gaius.

Merlin almost wished now that he hadn't helped Borden at all. Of course, it had been foolish to even think about trusting that man an ounce, but it had ended up with Merlin retrieving the dragon. But what was bothering Merlin was that he had been the one to kill the man. Naturally, he hadn't known that grabbing the egg would result in bringing down the tower, but it had still been his actions that had caused it. Not to mention that it had been him who'd knocked the thief unconscious, rendering him incapable of escaping.

No matter whether it was necessary or not Merlin still hated killing. Even if he absolutely despised the person he killed he still felt a little part of him die inside.

Before he had met Arthur he'd never thought himself capable of killing on purpose, (though he had often worried that he'd murder by accident with his magic). Now it seemed that every day he was destroying lives—sometimes in more ways than one—to protect that prat. He knew that he was losing his innocence and his heart. Some days he felt like he didn't know who he was anymore, like he had changed from the boy who used magic for good to the man who used it to bring death. Just a few weeks ago he had intended to heal Arthur's father and had instead been the cause of his death. It didn't matter what Gaius said, he had killed Uther and he was a monster.

At least that was how he felt some days. Other days he seemed more like himself, more like Merlin and less like Emrys. But those days were getting rarer and rarer lately. Merlin had begun wondering if every time he killed or caused something horrible to happen he lost a bit of his soul. He'd never really thought of the soul as something you could chip away at, but maybe it was, maybe he really was losing himself.

Not for the first time Merlin wished it had been him who had gone through the veil instead of Lancelot.

Merlin shook his head, trying to dislodge his depressing thoughts. Wishing and regrets couldn't bring the dead back to life, Uther's story was the perfect example of that, and thinking of such things wasn't going to help in his destiny with Arthur at all. Though, Merlin was starting to think that maybe the new king's need for his protection wouldn't last much longer. It seemed like the golden age of King Arthur was near—though Merlin didn't think it involved bringing magic back—and then perhaps Merlin wouldn't be needed anymore.

Merlin's eyes closed and his body relaxed unconsciously at the thought of no longer having to worry about keeping the ones he loved from the jaws of death. If Arthur did bring about a time of peace Merlin would finally get to rest from his job. Oh, of course Merlin would rather be Arthur's servant than anyone else in the world, but he just wished that he wouldn't constantly have to fight to keep everyone alive. Being Arthur's servant was hectic enough, and if Albion was united under him then maybe Merlin could finally focus entirely on keeping him from being a prat.

His thoughts tapered off and his mind went silent as he began to dose, but before he could he jerked himself awake. He couldn't fall asleep now, in the saddle, with a magical creature in his bag and possible untold dangers that might attack Arthur any time before they reached Camelot. It was hard, though, pulling open his eyes and trying to focus once more on the tale Gwaine was telling—much to everyone's amusement and annoyance—when he was so exhausted. He just wanted to sleep. Or eat something. Or maybe just drink something.

Before they had left to return to Camelot Merlin had hurriedly cleaned out the pot that Borden had poisoned, just in case he might forget later or one of the knights may try to get something else out of it. But he had only a few moments before they left so he had just used the water from his own water skin. When he was done there had been nothing left.

And now, between all the action that had taken place and the last several hours of riding he was parched. Even though he knew that his friends wouldn't begrudge him water if they knew just how thirsty he was, he also knew that they would probably tease him and Arthur might refuse it altogether in an attempt to be an even greater prat than normal. So he wouldn't ask. Plus, they might wonder why all his water was gone and he couldn't exactly tell them that they had been poisoned but were now strangely better. Of course, he could make up some lie like he had just been very thirsty today, but he really didn't feel like he had the energy right now to tell yet another lie.

He heard laughing and realized that Gwaine had just finished his tale—like all the rest of them it had had something to do with drinking or getting into fights—and he looked over to see Percival and Leon chuckling merrily. Elyan seemed to be trying not to laugh and Arthur was just smiling good-naturedly. Merlin was sorry that he'd missed the story, it sounded like it had been a good one.

When the amused voices quieted down Merlin heard Arthur say, "All right, we'll stop here to give the horses a rest, we have been pushing them hard and they deserve some food and water."

They all stopped in the clearing they were in and dismounted. Merlin came off of his horse rather sluggishly due to his tiredness and the strange light-headed feeling that was overcoming him. He looked over and noticed Percival dismounting slowly as well and remembered his leg injury. After tying off his horse he got some of his things and went over to where the big man was sitting.

"Here," he said as he knelt down next to the knight, "let me look at your leg. Gaius will have my head if it's infected by the time we get back." He began to inspect the leg.

"How do you know anything about healing Merlin?" Gwaine asked. "I doubt you have any time to learn it considering how hard princess over here works you."

"Hey!" Arthur exclaimed from across the clearing, "I'm a king now, remember?"

Gwaine grinned. "Oh, sorry, Queen."

Arthur scowled at him and looked like he was about to reply when Merlin beat him to it. "Actually, he's not the only one who works me hard. Gaius is determined to make a physician out of me. Anyway, I've lived with him for five years now; I guess I've picked up a thing or two."

The truth was that in the past year since Arthur had become Regent things had settled down. For a while there hadn't been any attacks or challenges from the magical community. Of course, the year hadn't been totally without threats, but they had been far fewer. But then the whole thing with Morgana and the Dorocha had happened and the fight for the lives of basically everyone had started again.

"Really, Merlin?" Gwaine said sounding a bit surprised. "It's a wonder how you manage to keep up with both of them."

"He doesn't," Arthur called from where he sat and was sipping from his water skin. "He's never around when I need him."

Oh, if only you knew exactly how many times I have been, Merlin thought. But he said nothing, just continued to administer to Percival's wound. It really wasn't all that bad, though it did look painful, but there were signs that infection would set in if it was left unattended for much longer. Merlin cleaned it a bit and put something on it to prevent infection and stop any form of swelling, and then bandaged it up in a clean cloth. He then handed the knight a small bottle.

"Here, it will help with the pain."

The big man shook his head. "I'm fine, I don't need it."

Merlin sighed, these knights, they were all stubborn. "Yes you do. That has got to be hurting like crazy," he nodded to the damage, "and this is only a mild painkiller. Taking a few sips won't dull your awareness one bit, in fact; it may even increase it if you're no longer in agony. Take it, there's no need for you to be in unnecessary pain."

The big man looked at him as did several other people. The young manservant had unknowingly sounded a lot like a certain physician. Only, when it came to his patients, Gaius never explained or tried to reason with anyone, he just would order you to do as you're told. In truth, Gaius could get quite scary like that.

After giving a small nod, Percival took the tiny bottle and had a small sip before handing it back to Merlin. "Thank you," he said.

Merlin smiled a tired smile and replaced the bottle. "Happy to help."

The knight grimaced, apparently not liking the taste, and reached for his water skin. But it was clear by the way he lifted it and the way it looked that it was empty. Obviously, the knights drank a lot more than Merlin ever did.

Percival looked like he was about to stand up and get some water from a stream they'd passed just outside the clearing, but Arthur said, "No, let Merlin do it." The new king tossed his empty container towards the unknown warlock. "Maybe a stretch of his legs will help him wake up." He smirked. Apparently he'd noticed Merlin's earlier dosing.

Merlin slowly stood up and his head began to swim. He'd been exhausted when he had looked at Percival's leg but the desire to help him had overcome the blurriness that was trying to control his vision. Now the light-headedness came back in full force. It was so bad that the boy didn't hear Arthur say, "And when you get back, Merlin, you can feed and water and brush the horses." It was probably a good thing that he didn't hear.

Merlin picked up the water skins and walked in the direction of the stream, a pair of slightly worried eyes following him.

As Merlin walked he became dizzier and dizzier. He didn't know what was wrong with him; the last time he had felt this way had been years ago. But it couldn't be that, he hadn't gonethat soft in all the years since.

Merlin stumbled down several inclines. There was a ringing and rushing sound in his ears that he didn't think was coming from the stream. Just then it appeared in his cloudy vision and he bent to do what he came here to do. Soon the water skins were full enough and he screwed on the lids and stood up to head back.

Suddenly his already unsteady feet slipped on the wet rocks and he fell forward. He didn't even have the energy to try and stop himself. As he landed only a bit hard on the soft ground, Merlin vaguely realized that this shouldn't be happening. His clumsiness had caused him to fall plenty of times before and normally he'd just get up. This shouldn't be happening. But it was. Merlin passed out.

Gwaine had watched Merlin get up and had noticed how the boy had swayed slightly. Arthur, like the prat he really was, hadn't seen it. The royal had been a bit harder on Merlin lately, but Gwaine understood why. His father had just died and he had been thrust into the life and responsibilities of a king. Everyone knew that Arthur took out some of his frustration and anger on his kind and way-too-faithful servant, and since the extra stress of ruling a kingdom had been placed on his shoulders that is exactly what the 'queen' had done.

Gwaine, for one, couldn't imagine how hard it must be to run a kingdom and to know that lives often depended on the decisions you made. So he understood why Arthur was being a bit more prattish than usual.

The always-drunk man grinned as he realized that he had picked up on Merlin's sayings.

He lost his smile, though, as he thought of how he and the rest of the knights hadn't been particularly nice to the young man either. Of course, most of it all had been pranks and jokes, but mean ones nonetheless. Come to think of it, that could be why Merlin had been looking so pale and sickly a moment ago, he probably hadn't eaten in a while. Gwaine felt a stab of guilt hit him. He'd always tried to treat Merlin better than the others did since he had seen first-hand how the boy cared for people and judged them according to their actions and not by how they were born.

It was what Gwaine himself had always tried to do, though, he had mostly failed since he saw people as being in one (or two) of three categories. They were either pretty ladies, men who could supply him with drinks, or the men he fought after he had had just the right amount of ale.

But Merlin truly treated everyone with kindness and care whether they he knew if they deserved it or not. But he'd only give his respect and trust and love to those who proved themselves worthy of it. The knight knew that once you were in Merlin's heart then it was next to impossible to leave it, which is why being his friend was something that Gwaine still treasured. Being a friend to Merlin is something that no one should under-value.

Again the guilt as Gwaine remembered how poorly he had been treating his 'friend' as of late. And there was still that ill way he had looked when he went off to get the water. Maybe the boy was getting sick. Or maybe he was just sad. The idea of a baby dragon dying was probably painful to the young man.

Gwaine thought back to the past couple of months. Merlin seemed to have been getting more depressed and less alive as of late. Almost as if the spark had gone out of him. Sure, sometimes it was still there but never as bright as it used to be. In all honesty the drunk had been worried about the boy for some time now. He seemed to be getting older and older each time they went up against another monster or threat. And he wasn't bouncing back from it like he used to.

Perhaps one of the things that Gwaine feared most in life was that one day Merlin wouldn't be Merlin anymore. That he'd have changed into a grieving and sad man. No, he didn't think that Merlin would ever go dark or evil, that just wasn't in the boy, but he did fear that the light in him would go out.

If Merlin lost the bright and happy person that he was then he would cease to be Merlin, and that just wasn't something that Gwaine could even think about.

Merlin had been his first friend, and he was definitely the best. And he felt ashamed for losing sight of that on this trip. He should have defended him.

Suddenly he stood up. Merlin had been gone for ten minutes when it really should have taken him no more than three. "Arthur, something's wrong," he said. Every head in the clearing immediately jerked up. Alert, ready for danger. The training in every knight had kicked in with those few words.

Arthur stood up as well, drawing his sword, his face a mask of seriousness and his eyes roaming everywhere for a possible threat. "What is it?" he asked.

"Merlin has been gone too long. He should have been back by now." For a moment Arthur relaxed slightly, probably thinking that it was just Merlin being idiotic or weird again, but then he tensed up once more as the same thought that was racing through Gwaine's mind went through his. Merlin could be in trouble.

Arthur sheathed his sword but kept his hand on the hilt. "I'll go and check up on him. The rest of you: stay here." He started off but Gwaine stopped him.

"I should go with you, in case there's trouble." Arthur seemed like he was going to protest for a moment, but then seemed to realize that having two of them might actually help Merlin if, in fact, he needed help. The king nodded and the two started off in the direction Merlin had gone in.

Gwaine was quite worried for his friend. Of course, Merlin might just be relaxing by the stream but for some reason the knight knew that that wasn't the case. There was just a feeling in his gut that something was wrong with the young man.

They had only been walking for a few minutes when they both came to an abrupt halt. Gwaine's breath caught.

All day Arthur had been trying to ignore the uncomfortable feeling of dread in his gut. Normally he would pay attention to his instincts since listening to them might just possibly save his life, but this was a different feeling. This feeling of foreboding always centered around one person. Merlin. He never had the feeling about anyone else. Not like this.

And he knew it was about Merlin because whenever he got it something bad would happen to the lad. He would drink poison or disappear. Often when he got this feeling he would discover Merlin to be gone, only for him to show up a day or two later looking none the worse for wear. And other times Merlin would go missing and the gut reaction wouldn't happen. Sometimes it was almost as if something inside of him was telling him that nothing bad was happening to his servant. In fact, he had had this feeling of peace about his manservant's disappearance both times that that blasted sorcerer Dragoon had popped up.

And Arthur had never pursued the idea of trying to find his missing servant because he had always felt that it was a good thing that he was gone, that it was important.

But other times, like just right after Morgana had come back and the boy had vanished and had come back around the time the kingdom was being attacked. That time Arthur had felt the need and desire to find him and bring him back, he had known that Merlin was in danger. But apparently not since the boy had been perfectly fine.

But the strangest thing about Arthur's sixth sense was how he always got it before he knew anything was wrong. The morning of the poisoning Arthur had woken up and had immediately known that something bad was going to happen. When he had gone off to see Anhora about passing his test so that Camelot would be safe and had told Merlin to stay it had been because he had felt that Merlin was going to be in danger.

It was like he always knew when something was off with Merlin. Mostly, he just tried to ignore the feeling since he couldn't be seen caring about his servant, but he had always tried to keep a better eye on him because of it.

Today, though, the sense had been bugging him for hours and he had watched carefully for any sign of danger, but nothing had happened. Other than Merlin falling asleep in his saddle—which he supposed could be dangerous if the boy fell out and hit his head—nothing was wrong with the boy. Eventually he had gotten tired of worrying about something that was obviously not going to happen and had taken his annoyance out on Merlin by making him go and get water. Of course, he really wasn't all that annoyed, but more bugged that the feeling hadn't gone away and had, instead, grown.

Arthur had been so wrapped up in his feelings and his self-denial of actually caring about Merlin that he hadn't noticed how bad the young man had looked as he had left the clearing. But when Gwaine had said that something was wrong Arthur had been immediately aware, looking for any danger. And when he had heard that the knight was only talking about Merlin he had been relieved since, no matter how many bad things happened to him, he had trouble imagining anything wrong with the cheery lad.

But then he had remembered the cold pit of dread in his stomach and had instantly known that this was it. And so as he and Gwaine went to find Merlin, Arthur had been beating himself up about not listening to the inner voice that never seemed to be entirely wrong.

Pulling up short, Arthur was jerked out of his thoughts as he saw the very thing he had been hoping never to see. Merlin was lying face down on the ground, unconscious. Arthur's heart seemed to skip a few beats as he tried to see the young man's breathing. It took a few moments, but he finally caught a glimpse of the sure sign of life.

Arthur breathed again and quickly knelt down next to him. As far as he could tell there was nothing wrong with him, apart from being unconscious for no discernible reason. He gently rolled him over so that he was on his back. He breathed a sigh of relief when he could see no blood on him. His face was pale and had specks of dirt and mud on it, but again, no sign of damage.

Arthur looked up at Gwaine who was at his side. The knight asked, "What do you think is wrong with him?"

Arthur shook his head, trying to clear his muddled thoughts. "I don't know, but we should get him back to camp." Arthur gingerly picked Merlin up and held him in his arms. It reminded him of when Percival had done the same thing when Merlin had ran into the Dorocha.

The truth was: this whole thing felt like that time and several others. When he had seen Merlin lying on the ground he had been harshly reminded not only of when Merlin had drunk the poison, but also of when, more recently, he had fainted during the feast. And though he would never tell anyone even if he lived for a thousand years, Arthur had had both images haunt his nightmares. And now it looked like this one would, too.

Arthur carried Merlin back to the camp, vaguely aware that Gwaine was following behind him. He cursed himself, he should have known better than to ignore that sense of his. The boy could hardly walk across a flat surface without finding something to trip on, so how exactly was it smart to send him off on his own?

In no time at all he they had returned and Arthur had placed Merlin down in the middle of the clearing. The knights had all come to life immediately and were now crowding around the boy. Someone placed something soft under the servant's head.

"What's wrong with him?" Elyan asked.

Arthur once again searched Merlin's body with his eyes in an attempt to find some clue as to the reason. "I don't know," he replied.

Leon gently lifted his head up and probed his skull with his fingers. "Well, there's a nasty bump on his head, but it seems to be a couple of days old. It couldn't be what caused this, not unless he can heal rather quickly."

"Yeah," Arthur agreed, "Besides, when we found him he was face down. He would have had to do some fancy falling in order to end up in that position if the bump was the problem." He almost smiled at the image that flitted into his head.

He looked around at the circle of knights that were gathered around the unconscious manservant. These people all cared about Merlin; you could see it in their faces. Arthur could see the worry and fear and guilt in every face, even Leon, who, though he had known Merlin for much longer than them, hadn't had his life touched by the boy in the same way that the others had. Merlin had helped or been there for each one of the new knights and had welcomed them with a readiness and kindness that even Arthur couldn't match.

But perhaps Merlin had touched Leon. The king knew from experience just how energizing it could be just to be near the young man on a regular basis. Even though Arthur never really saw Merlin and Leon talking, they had both been on enough patrols and quests together to know the other person. And the royal had seen first-hand the effect that just seeing Merlin's smile could have on the soul.

The boy was cheerful and optimistic and never seemed to lose his life and energy. Or his ability to make jokes—seemingly without even realizing it sometimes—in even the darkest of hours.

No, Leon had been touched by Merlin, too, for it was impossible to not get infected by the boy's cheerfulness.

Arthur looked down at Merlin and was grateful that the manservant could make friends so easily; he needed some people to give that happiness back to him.

"Well, what are we going to do? We don't know when he is going to wake up," Elyan said.

"Oi, I've got an idea," Gwaine said in a voice that told Arthur that he was both going to love and hate whatever the knight had come up with. "How 'bout we do this?" Gwaine uncapped a water skin and dumped a bunch of its contents on Merlin's face.

The boy jerked and spluttered and slowly opened his eyes. "Wha-at? Arthur?"

The king felt himself just breathing easier at the sight and sound of Merlin awake.

"Told you it would work," Gwaine said off-handedly. Arthur ignored him and went straight to the problem.

"Merlin, why did you faint? What happened?"

The boy just stared at him as if he was speaking another language. "I...I don't understand," he said.

Arthur sighed as he realized that though the boy was awake, he was still really out of it. "You went to get water, Merlin," he spoke slowly as if talking to a young child. "When you were gone for too long we went to get you. You had fainted, Merlin. I knew you were useless but I never thought that you would faint in order to get out of actually doing something." The last bit had been said a bit hurriedly and had come out on its own. It was almost as if Arthur's subconscious mind had been desperate for some normalcy. Arthur had meant it as a joke and hoped that the confused lad wouldn't mistake it for anything else.

The truth was, though, that Merlin looked like he would be passing out again any minute.

"I-I don't know what happened," Merlin said in an attempt to make sense of things for everyone, "I had filled up the water skins and I…I think I slipped. I don't remember anything else." The manservant looked up at Arthur through blurry and tired eyes. For the first time the king realized exactly how dark the circles under them were.

"But there isn't any evidence that you were knocked out. What, did you just fall asleep?" Arthur asked incredulously. Before Merlin could respond Arthur felt a hard poking in his ribs as Gwaine pushed him aside and peered down at Merlin.

"I think I know what's wrong with you, mate," the man who hadn't been sober in years said. "Merlin, when was the last time you ate?" he asked.

At those words everyone in the clearing tensed up. The knights all had a feeling that they now knew, too, the reason for Merlin's collapse and were beginning to feel immensely guilty. And the warlock in disguise stiffened because he knew that there would be a lot of questions once he gave his answer.

"Um, I don't remember exactly," Merlin hedged, though it was true. "I think it was the night before we left Camelot."

With those last words everyone in the small clearing was sent staggering back, some of them both physically and mentally. Elyan and Leon gasped in shock. Percival was stunned into silence and had to sit fully on the ground since his already strained legs no longer seemed capable of holding his weight. Gwaine cursed and after a few moments gave a low whistle. And Arthur was frozen still, his only movement being in his mind, which was churning with guilt.

There was a dead silence for a few moments. Then Arthur's rage ignited and he half-yelled: "Why? Why would you be so idiotic as to not eat for so long?"

Merlin flinched at the noise, but no one knew whether it was because his ears were sensitive or he simply was reacting to his king's anger. The manservant didn't answer.

Arthur just stared at Merlin, fuming with rage. But the anger wasn't directed at Merlin, not really, it was directed at himself. He could see it now, every act and deed of his that had led to this. Four days, Arthur thought, he hasn't eaten in practically four days. Arthur felt sick with the implications of that, and as he looked around at his men he could tell they felt the same way, too.

They had played a prank of sorts on him, keeping him from eating supper by taking it all for themselves. They had seen Merlin's desire to eat and hadn't cared because they thought it was funny.

Arthur knew why they had all done it. They had all been aware of the change Merlin had gone through since the Samhain festival. Had seen how the light in his eyes had grown dimmer. In all honesty, it had scared Arthur, and probably the rest of them, too.

Though he had not been the one to plan it, the others had decided to do something to make Merlin laugh and smile. And, of course, being knights, the best thing they could come up with was to tease him and deprive him of food.

Merlin was still Merlin; that had not changed. But what had changed was the boy's never-ending ability to see joy and hope in everything. That talent was still there, only now it seemed to be emerging less and less. Arthur knew what it was; the young man was growing older. He'd seen it in his eyes more frequently lately, the look of someone who had seen and suffered much. The look of a long-lived wise person. And Arthur hated seeing some of the innocence disappear from the boy.

And perhaps this was the reason why his friends refused to let him eat until he collapsed from starvation. They didn't notice when he was weak and played cruel jokes on him. Some friends. It was no wonder Merlin wasn't as cheerful as he used to be.

The fact was, this was all his fault. He should have seen Merlin's weakness and should have helped out. He should've let him eat. He looked down at Merlin and knew that this was his fault.

"Why on this green earth have you not eaten, Merlin?" Gwaine asked the guilt evident in his tone.

Merlin shifted uncomfortably. He glanced at each face, seeming to be looking for a way out of answering the question. "I, well, I…we've just been so busy chasing the thief and I…I guess I really haven't thought about it that much."

He didn't need to say that when he did think about it was at the suppers. Again, guilt was present in everybody's face, except for Arthur.

"What? Was the nagging presence of gnawing hunger not enough to remind you?" Arthur asked incredulously. "It's been four days, Merlin. I can understand forgetting about one or two meals, but four days' worth?"

"Arthur's right," Leon said, "How could you forget for so long?"

Merlin wasn't feeling good. He had a headache, his ankle was throbbing, he must have twisted it wrong, though, but he didn't think it was sprained. He was still starving, and more than a little confused. His brain was fuzzy and he didn't like Arthur talking to him like he was stupid when right now he really wasn't in the mood for it. So he said something he had never meant to tell anyone. "It's not that big of a deal, I normally go without one or two meals a day anyway."

As soon as the manservant realized what he had revealed he clamped his mouth shut, but it was too late.

Just like before all the men in the clearing stared at him, their mouths agape. He stared back for a while, before finally pushing himself up, bracing himself for their inevitable questions.

Arthur felt ill. That was really the only way to describe the way he felt. He remembered carrying Merlin and being dimly aware of how thin and light the boy was. Well, of course he was light; he was malnourished! He thought of all the times Merlin had had bountiful energy and just seemed to teem with life. He couldn't imagine that same boy being constantly underfed. No wonder he was so clumsy and often seemed to be lacking any sense of logic or intelligence.

The morning after saying goodbye to his dead father, Arthur had come out and had seen Merlin leaning against the wall. He had been waiting for him. He remembered feeling a rush of warmth for his loyal and caring servant. His father was gone; he was now to be king. He had many friends who were loyal to him and they deserved more recognition than they had ever gotten under Uther's reign. Merlin was one of those people.

That was the first time he had ever eaten with Merlin while they were in Camelot. He hadn't failed to notice how little the boy had eaten, though; he had made plenty for his soon-to-be king.

Now that he thought about it, he never really saw the manservant eat a lot.

"Merlin," he started, "Why?"

Merlin sighed as if resigned. He opened his mouth to answer, but then snapped it shut. A hard, steely look appeared in his eyes that Arthur had only seen on a few occasions. "I just get busy is all," the young man said. "It doesn't matter."

But Arthur wouldn't take no for an answer and was about to press further when Gwaine elbowed him in the ribs again. Hard. He looked sharply at the knight and read the warning in his eyes.

"Well, you're not doing anything now," Gwaine said, "I've never really known that much about cooking, but my old mother did teach me something. How does soup sound?"

Though the boy seemed to be grateful for the change of topic, Arthur could see the guilt in his eyes. Guilt? What does he have to be guilty for? Arthur wondered.

"No, Gwaine, you don't have to do that. I can make it myself," Merlin almost seemed to be pleading. The manservant braced himself and slowly pushed himself to his feet, only to be pushed back down again by an indignant Gwaine.

"Merlin, mate, you look like death itself and I doubt you can stand," Gwaine argued kindly. "I'll make it, trust me, I'm actually not a bad cook when it comes to broths. I had a nasty sister that got sick a lot when I was young and our mother always made soup, but eventually I got bored of the same old taste and I decided to get creative myself. It took a lot of work, but now I make a wonderful soup. The only good thing that my sister ever gave me. Besides, if you like it I'll give you the recipe." Gwaine smiled his sloppy grin.

Merlin looked like he wanted to laugh and protest, but after a moment Arthur saw defeat glimmer in Merlin's eyes. "Fine," he agreed reluctantly, "the ingredients are in the large bags. But don't choose anything too heavy, I won't be able to eat much."

That last bit shocked Arthur, though; he had been starting to think that he was beyond being surprised after all that happened. He hasn't eaten in four days and he doesn't plan on eating much now? Is he trying to kill himself?

"And why is that, Merlin?" Arthur asked, though, he tried to sound a little more gentle than normal. But by the looks his men were giving him he obviously hadn't succeeded.

Merlin looked up at him from where he was on the ground. "Five years I lived with Gaius. I learned very early on that if someone goes too long without food then their stomach will be too sensitive to handle much of anything. For patients that have been out for several days Gaius gives them only soups and broths until they can eat harder stuff without puking. To be honest, right now I don't really feel like throwing up."

It was strange, the way Merlin talked about the medical stuff. Arthur had noticed this a while back that if Merlin actually knew about something and understood it thoroughly then he would speak with a kind of confidence in his voice. He often sounded…professional and could speak with no emotion in his tone. When Merlin had been talking to him just now there had been no anger or accusation or reluctance in his voice. Merlin had sounded as if he was merely stating a fact…and right now hearing the boy talk about his own health that way was creeping Arthur out.

The knights were slowly backing away from Merlin now as they tried to pretend that they weren't still disgusted by the fact that he hadn't eaten in four days. They were returning to their little corners of the clearing and were all looking rather uncomfortable. Merlin, for his part, simply shuffled backwards to lean against a tree trunk. Once he did so he closed his eyes and gave a small, exhausted-sounding sigh.

Gazing at him now Arthur mentally kicked himself for not seeing it earlier. Merlin looked utterly awful. He had deep circles under his eyes; his face was thin and slightly gaunt—which in itself attested to the lack of nourishment—his skin had a sheen of sweat on it that made him look almost ill, and even in his current exhausted state his muscles looked tensed and stressed and there was a slight furrowing of his forehead that made Arthur think that Merlin had a bad headache.

Merlin had often called him an idiot or unobservant and Arthur had always denied it and thrown it right back at him, but now the king really did agree with his servant's assessment. He was a blind, stupid prat.

Arthur was suddenly struck with the burning need to do something for his servant, after all, the boy deserved some kindness and help and he was feeling more than a little guilty for not seeing it. He looked around for something and his eyes landed on a full water skin. From the way Merlin had sounded earlier he probably hadn't had enough water either.

Arthur grabbed the bag and knelt down next to Merlin and gently rested his empty hand on his shoulder. The manservant stirred and opened his eyes with a resigned look.

"You need me to take care of the horses, Arthur?" he asked and the king felt even guiltier that the boy would assume that he would ask him to do anything other than rest in his condition.

No, Arthur thought grimly, he didn't think I'd ask at all. He was suspecting to be ordered. "No, Merlin," Arthur said as kindly as he could. He even lowered his voice so that he wouldn't make Merlin's headache any worse. "You can rest. I just thought that you might…want some water." He offered the water skin.

A strange look of surprise, disbelief, and friendly gratitude crossed merlin's face before he reached out slowly and took the water. Then, after giving Arthur a slightly wary glace as if he still wasn't convinced as to his king's motives, he took a long drink. From the length of it Arthur was pretty sure that Merlin was terribly thirsty, and yet he didn't gulp it down greedily, but instead drank slowly and surely. Arthur was pretty sure he knew Merlin's reasoning behind that. For someone who hadn't drunken or eaten anything for a couple of days consuming water very quickly would only make them lose it. Merlin was probably dreadfully thirsty, but he still was remembering what Gaius had taught him.

When Merlin finally stopped drinking he fiddled with the bag in his hands and hesitantly looked up at Arthur. "Thanks," he said and then grimaced as if he had just been hit with a nasty thought or something.

"What is it?" Arthur asked, not even noticing how much of his concern was bleeding through.

The boy seemed a little sheepish. "The water's not sitting too well in my stomach, but don't worry, though, I can keep it down. I won't be puking all over your boots." He gave a tired and sloppy smile. "I'm probably going to be nauseous for a few days if past experience is anything to go by."

Arthur wanted to comment about that but decided against it. Merlin didn't deserve to be badgered right now, and Gwaine would probably appear out of nowhere to elbow him in the ribs if he did. Thinking about Gwaine made him curious as to the progress of the food since Merlin already looked a lot better just from the water and Arthur was hoping that the sustenance would have the same affect. And so, after glancing at Merlin and concluding from his closed eyes that the king's presence was no longer required, he made his way over to where Gwaine was sitting by a fire and stirring something in a big pot.

He sat down next to the knight. "Will it be ready soon?" he asked.

Without looking at him the charming man replied, "Ten minutes, give or take. I made plenty, but I for one don't plan on eating anything for a while. We all practically stole the food right out of Merlin's mouth and I don't think I'll be forgetting that anytime soon. It kind of ruins my appetite."

"I think we'd all agree with you there," Arthur said truthfully. "I'm not sure if I could keep anything down at this point." Arthur made a small sound of frustration. "How could I have been so stupid? I've known him for five years; you'd think I would have noticed when he wasn't feeling well by now."

Gwaine gave a humorless laugh. "It's probably fair to say that Merlin's never really feeling well, considering what we've learned. How someone could stay on his feet and work for and be friends with prats like us while practically starved to death is beyond me. And if it was anyone else I wouldn't believe them because you'd think it would be impossible to hide something like that. You know, as tempted as I am to be angry at you for not noticing or for causing this, we all have a pretty equal share of the blame. I've often been mad at you for how you treat Merlin, but since becoming a noble I've started doing the very things I hate. I always used to be disgusted when I saw some noble acting like servants and peasants' lives were worth less than everybody else's. I saw how overworked some of the gentlest of souls could be by the cruelest of men and I always hated it. But now I've started to treat Merlin the way you do, the way everyone does because they are fooled by his seemingly normalcy.

"I have traveled a lot and I have met all manner of men, and yet Merlin is without a doubt the strongest and bravest and most loyal one I've ever come across. He's my best friend…my first friend and in my opinion the greatest man in the world. And now I'm acting like he's any other servant, like I'm not incredibly lucky to have met him. As much as I would like to foster all of the blame off on you I'm possibly the one who deserves it the most. You at least have been a prat all of your life. I was blessedly free from that curse until I became a knight. I'm not his friend…just a hypocrite."

Gwaine stared pleading, almost beseechingly at Arthur, as if he wanted to be told that all he had just said about himself wasn't true. Arthur had never really seen the knight look so vulnerable, and it was a testimony of just how much the man cared about Merlin that this would hit him so hard.

It seems that I'm not the only one Merlin has managed to warm the heart of. It was true; Merlin knew how to break down a person's walls and to restore love and kindness. Arthur knew that he was only one of many people who had grown fond of the odd, caring, innocent, silly, and utterly surprising boy. He wondered if he did it on purpose, or if the manservant just made friends easily and without any effort. Probably the latter. He only seemed to be good at the things he wasn't aware he was doing.

Merlin had been the first to know Gwen, he had been the one who welcomed Lancelot to Camelot, and he had struck some sort of friendship with Gwaine pretty early on. In fact, almost all of the people that he cared about in his life were really only there or in their current place because of Merlin. And as much as Arthur had being trying to deny it for years, Merlin was his greatest friend and he hated the thought of how his life would have turned out without him. Arthur couldn't imagine a life without his incompetent but strangely trusty manservant at his side.

Merlin had touched them all in many ways, and tonight—and who knows how many nights—they had failed him.

"Gwaine…we're all to blame, but I know that none of us would ever intentionally hurt Merlin. We're knights…we don't know how to express what we are feeling. We've all noticed how Merlin has been acting sadder and less cheerful lately, so naturally we try to fix it the only way we know how. We played a prank on him. Merlin is the one who's in touch with his feelings, not us. My way of showing that I care about him is to throw a goblet at his head and call him an idiot. It's possible that we should have just asked instead of trying to fix Merlin by depriving him of food." Arthur felt weird being the one to comfort and reason, but they obviously all had issues with what they had just found out. He knew that he would never get over his guilt from this as long as he lived, but maybe he could help Gwaine's.

"I have no idea what's been bothering Merlin lately, though I doubt Lancelot's death was easy on him. I know that the two of them were very close. I'm sure if he were here he could help us to understand Merlin." Arthur huffed a laugh. "I still don't understand him and I've known him for five years. I honestly don't know why he wouldn't eat; after all, he is in charge of the food. He really is an idiot…and so are we."

Arthur looked at his feet. He had no intention of completely erasing Gwaine's guilt because it was justly deserved, but maybe he had convinced him that he wasn't alone in it.

There was silence for a minute or two before Gwaine eventually said, "Food's done. We shouldn't keep him waiting any longer."

Gwaine poured a bunch of soup into a wooden bowl and they both made their way over to where Merlin was still leaning against a tree. Crouching down next to him again, Arthur lightly shook him, which eventually pried Merlin's eyes open. He looked up curiously at them and it wasn't hard to guess that he was feeling pretty horrible and was half asleep.

"Food?" Gwaine asked cheerfully, though, he kept his voice down so as not to bother him.

Merlin smiled and shifted so that he was fully sitting up and he took the bowl from him. He ate a couple of bites in silence and then his eyes widened comically and he stared up at the charming knight.

"What is this?" he asked. "It's amazing, though, it could just be the starvation talking, but I do have a pretty good memory and I swear that nothing Gaius has made has ever tasted this good!"

For the first time in perhaps weeks Arthur saw the hazy fog of depression clear from Merlin's eyes and his face light up with happiness. The starved manservant dug into his soup, though, still careful not to consume it too quickly, and Arthur felt like he could hug Gwaine for making something that the boy would eat.

But all too soon the spoon paused on the way to Merlin's mouth and he squeezed his eyes shut. After a moment he put the spoon back and placed the bowl on the ground and sighed.

"You hit the aftertaste, didn't you?" Gwaine asked sounding as if some great wish had been shattered.

"Ah…no," Merlin said slowly, "the nausea hit me. I have to be careful, I can only eat small amounts and it should be quite often." He looked at Gwaine apologetically. "Sorry, the soup really was lovely, but I just can't eat anymore. I don't want to end up losing it."

Arthur didn't want Merlin to stop eating. After going so long without food Arthur felt, very irrationally, that any moment that Merlin wasn't eating was going to kill him. But he knew that throwing up would be bad and unpleasant for Merlin and he also knew that he couldn't force the idiot to eat, so he kept his mouth shut.

He looked around him in the hopes of finding some sort of distraction from his guilt and discovered that the rest of the knights who had previously backed off had shuffled closer when they saw that Merlin was attempting to eat. They all looked disheveled, sad, guilty and depressed, and Arthur could swear that Elyan's eyes were a bit wet. No doubt once the shock had worn off the full force of his guilt had bared down on the blacksmith's son. Arthur had never seen him cry before, but if he had even a tenth of his sister's kind and loving heart then this would hurt him deeply.

In fact, if it weren't for all his years of training to never show his feelings, Arthur himself might cry. The very thought of his best friend and loyal companion going without food and suffering like that while he himself didn't even notice felt like someone had stabbed him in the heart. For all his reassuring words to Gwaine, Arthur knew that the fact that he had never taken notice was proof of how horrible a friend he was. The others hadn't known Merlin that long and they didn't spend that much time around him except when Camelot was in peril, but Merlin had done so much for Arthur and had never left his side and this was how the prat had repaid him. Merlin had waited all night while Arthur mourned his father just so he wouldn't feel alone, and the prince hadn't so much as made sure his friend wasn't dying.

Arthur hadn't seen what was right in front of him and now he had no idea what to do about it. The truth of the matter was that Arthur didn't deserve to have Merlin as a friend; he had never treated him like one.

He looked back at Merlin. The boy was curled up in a ball and laying on his side and was fast asleep. He seemed so vulnerable. He caught the attention of his knights and walked to the other side of the clearing.

"Sire?" Leon asked when they reached him.

"We stay here tonight. The quest is over and tomorrow we'll take our time getting back to Camelot. We're not to push Merlin too hard," he said sternly, though it was more to himself than anyone else, and then turned to Gwaine. "You'll be cooking until we get back, make sure it's always something Merlin can handle. I suggest we all get some sleep."

Arthur walked away to his bedroll, the unspoken 'nothing like this can ever happen again' hanging in the air. He had just insured that everyone would pay careful attention to Merlin in the future, because Arthur knew that he couldn't be counted on to. He should be a better friend, but he didn't know if he could. Merlin had changed him, but he was starting to think that even Merlin couldn't make a friend out of him. If he was so oblivious to all of this, how much else had he missed?

So, now it's up to you all to tell me whether or not you want me to post the rest of it. Trust me, there will be some good stuff, including an explanation as to why Merlin hardly ever eats anything. The next chapter will most likely not be as long as this one, but will still be fairly long. Please review and tell me if you liked it and what you liked the most so that I know what kind of stuff you'd like to see in the future. I hope you all had a Merry Christmas (for those of you who celebrated it) and I wish you a Happy New Year!