Merlin always followed him.
Most of the time, he followed because it was his job. He was meant to be at Arthur's beck and call. If at any point during the day Arthur had need or want for anything, Merlin would be the one to fetch the requested item or perform the required task.
So he followed him, walking half a step behind when he was not being spoken to directly and sometimes even then. Arthur had never quite been able to figure out why.
It was not as though Merlin was the only person who did it; many maintained the pace between them in deference to his station. When Merlin followed him that way, though, Arthur was not entirely sure that it was out of respect. If his servant actually intended to show him the respect he was due, he could start with the way he spoke to him, trading insults for shallow praise and witty comebacks for polite acceptance. As if that would ever happen. Merlin was the most irreverent person he had ever met, and if Arthur was honest he would have to admit that it was a welcome change from most of the bootlickers he had to deal with the rest of the time.
Perhaps he followed half a step behind so as not to get in his way. Merlin was notoriously clumsy, and would probably trip over Arthur's trailing cloak every second step if he failed to keep back far enough. But he was entirely capable of stumbling over his own two feet, so all it really meant was that he would be unable to use the prince as an excuse if – no, when – he did fall over.
Maybe he was actually heeding the decree that said servants should be present but unnoticeable. The thought was ludicrous, though, because no one could miss the mismatched red shirt and blue neckerchief, or the over large ears, or the goofy grin, and certainly not the inane chatter that poured forth from his mouth almost constantly.
It was possible that he wanted to keep out of Arthur's reach so he would not be cuffed on the back of the head so often. Not that Arthur hit him often. Only occasionally. Once in a while.
Whatever the reason, Arthur accepted the way that his manservant would follow him around the castle and the streets of Camelot. He was only doing his job.
When Arthur required it of him, Merlin would also follow him beyond the city walls. He would accompany him on patrols and on hunts, carrying the gear, preparing the meals, filling the water skins. Just as a servant was supposed to.
A servant was not supposed to follow their master into battle. Whenever the patrol or hunting party were attacked en route by bandits or by enemy soldiers, Arthur would feel an uneasy pang of guilt at the knowledge that he had brought an unarmed man along with him. He always hoped that Merlin would do the smart thing by running or hiding until the danger had passed. But Merlin, the idiot, was not known for doing the smart thing. Time and again Arthur had known him to charge blindly into a fight, and afterwards he would claim that he was just trying to protect Arthur. As if he needed protection. And as if Merlin could actually provide that protection when he was just a hapless, weaponless, untrained servant.
A loyal and stupidly brave servant, perhaps, but really utterly useless in a fight. Most of the time. Every once in a while, Merlin would surprise him. But that did not change the fact that he was not supposed to follow Arthur into combat. He could get himself killed, and dying for his prince was not in his job description.
And then, of course, there were the times that Arthur expressly told Merlin not to follow him. Ordered him to stay put. Forbid him to come after him. Sometimes he even employed the use of threats, and he was frequently tempted to resort to actual physical force if it could possibly succeed in convincing Merlin to do as he was told.
But Merlin always followed him anyway. There was no stopping him.
It was irritating, and more than a little frustrating. Arthur wanted to yell at him – and did, frequently. He wanted to knock some sense into him – and threw the occasional goblet, as if it would help. At times he wanted to push him away, alienate him completely so Merlin would Just. Stop. Following. Him.
But Merlin never would.
That boy was loyal to a fault.
For a long time, Arthur tried to fight against it, futile as his efforts were.
Until the day he realised that it was not Merlin's interminable companionship that bothered him so much. It was the fact that Merlin still acted as the servant faithfully serving his prince, when their relationship had moved beyond that years ago.
Merlin was his friend.
And a friend should not walk that half-step behind, as though he wasn't worthy, as though he wasn't an equal, as though he did not deserve to take up his rightful place by Arthur's side.
Well, Arthur was sick and tired of it, and he intended to do something to rectify the situation.
So the next time they were out walking, and Merlin followed dutifully in his wake, Arthur gave an exasperated sigh, reached out behind him and snatched Merlin's shirt. He dragged him forward, ignoring the sputters of surprise and confusion.
"I won't have you following me anymore, Merlin," he said sternly.
"Sire?" He looked puzzled and hurt by his words, evidently failing to read between the lines.
To make the matter more clear, to Merlin and to anyone else who might have been watching, Arthur slung an arm around his shoulders. "You are my friend, you idiot.
"Walk beside me."