Chapter 4: The Return of the Fog

One Week Later…

After a long grueling day of strategy, battle training, weapons practice, and endless meetings with Uther and the high council addressing state affairs on finance and trade, Arthur liked to cap the night by sinking his tired aching body into a nice relaxing hot bath. On such days, Merlin had Arthur's bath ready like clockwork. The moment Arthur entered his room, he would find Merlin boiling water at the fireplace. Arthur would kick off his boots and disappear behind the screen to remove his clothing, all the while without saying a word. And by the time he reappeared, Merlin would be adding the last bucket of hot water into the tub, making it a perfect sultry temperature, giving off exactly the right amount of steam. Arthur would go straight from the screen to the tub. Settling into the water, Arthur allowed the therapeutic effects of the hot water to loosen every muscle in his body. He would lean against the bow of the tub and give a satisfied sigh. Only then, would he start a conversation with Merlin.

Merlin was on his ninth trip to the water pump with a large empty wooden bucket in tow. It usually took at least ten full buckets to complete Arthur's bath and he was running on a tight schedule. Going back and forth from Arthur's room to the water pump in the main square took at least a few minutes between intervals. In order for Arthur to receive his bath at his desired time, Merlin couldn't afford to mess up the system that he had going.

No one could possibly know the exhausting day Merlin had running around doing his job from dawn till dusk. He could use magic to lighten his load, but Gaius advised him that he had to use his gift wisely and not out of convenience or laziness. Besides, he couldn't risk getting caught. Therefore, Merlin had to do things the old-fashioned way sans magic. Being Arthur's servant wasn't an easy job. There were never-ending chores and details that needed to be fulfilled in accordance with Arthur's specific wishes. By the end of the day, Merlin was aching and sore all over. He kept telling himself that it came with the territory and that his work was for the good of the kingdom. Right then, fixing a nice hot bath for himself instead didn't sound so bad. He used both calloused hands to grasp the handle of the bucket as he walked down the corridors. He wondered how an empty bucket could be so heavy.

Merlin may have been up and about, but his body was still recovering from the blow that almost killed him. It had been a week since it happened but Merlin remembered it like it was yesterday. His shoulder was constantly sore from the demands of strenuous work, but he didn't complain. He was glad to go back to work and have something to occupy his time instead of lying about in bed. Besides, Arthur probably couldn't spare one more day without a servant cleaning up after him. On a light note, Merlin was grateful when he saw that Arthur tried very hard to keep his room tidy during his absence. Though, a few articles of clothing strewn about on the floor couldn't be helped.

Exhaustion building on his lanky frame, Merlin finally reached the main square and dropped the bucket in front of the pump. The chilly night air filled his sinuses and made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. It was times like these that he wished he remembered to don his neckerchief before leaving his room. Sometimes, he just didn't think. He looked up and noticed a scatter of clouds dotting the otherwise darkened sky.

Merlin liked the peacefulness the night brought, especially when the crowds have thinned out and the noise level dwindled down to a soft hum of conversation. He practically had the whole place to himself. He could see the light from the windows in the homes and imagined how people were unwinding themselves from the toils of their trade. In the lonely atrium, two men walked pass Merlin with tool bags swung over their shoulders. Their hearty laughter and menial voices stuck to Merlin until they reached out of earshot.

Even when the people were going home, Merlin was usually still running some errand or finishing off some chore Arthur ordered. He often knew how late it was when the big burly guards that patrolled the castle grounds have changed shifts. Merlin wondered where all the time had gone. He mucked out the stables, polished Arthur's armor, tidied Arthur's room, scrubbed the floor, washed Arthur's laundry, picked medicinal herbs for Gaius in the forest, and ran an array of errands all over the city. He was sore to the bone and would've gotten a break or even the rest of the day off if only he asked. But he didn't want Arthur to think he was losing his grip on things. Besides, Arthur needed him and for a change, the prince was starting to treat Merlin with a new found sort of respect.

The young warlock rubbed his aching wrists from hauling the buckets of water. Just as he was about to crank the pump, the air around him thickened. A familiar thin line of dusty grey smoke swirled out of the air and circled him. His heart pounded against his chest as he watched the line of smoke circle around him several times before changing into a light fog. Within seconds, the fog swallowed everything and turned his world into an abyss of grey.

The humidity of the fog suffocated Merlin as it became heavier and heavier. Sticky moisture formed on his hands and the back of his neck as he stood still. Even though his breath quickened, his mind was quite calm. He wasn't afraid, only anxious. He suddenly understood why Theodorius choose to become fog. Fog may appear harmless, but it had many strengths. Fog had the power to hide and obscure things from plain sight. It had the power to confuse and blind. The density of fog could smother any living organism and kill them on the spot. Merlin breathed in the warm air and waited patiently for Theodorius to speak.

"Young Emrys, we meet again." The raspy old voice of the fog hissed.

"Theodorius." Merlin called.

"I see you've been doing your homework." Theodorius replied.

"You wouldn't tell me who you were last time." Merlin spoke into the fog.

"I trust you know something about my history now." Theodorius said. His resonating voice seemed to be coming from all directions.

"So, did we pass your test?" Merlin spat. His fists clenched into balls. There was a bit of anguish and resentment in Merlin's tone.

"With flying colors, Emrys. I am very pleased. I hope you won't take this little evaluation of loyalty too personal. You see, it was necessary."

"It was because of you that I almost died."

"Sometimes, tests have consequences." The fog said nonchalantly. "But your life was in Prince Arthur's hands and he proved to be quite remarkable – saving a poor servant, whose life in any other court would've been deemed worthless. Going through all the trouble to save you was a humane gesture on his part and I must admit that I was a little surprised. The nature of a Pendragon is not one of mercy and empathy. Arthur appears to be different. He has proven to care about his people and those under his jurisdiction."

"Why do you test our loyalty now?" Merlin demanded.

"The time is very near for the rise of the once and future king. The prophecy reveals that you, young Emrys, will play a big part in this dawn of the new day. You are a very powerful warlock. I had to make sure your heart was in the right place." Theodorius explained. "A betrayal would mean the downfall of mankind itself. Do not underestimate your power. If you were to turn to the dark side, the world would be lost as we know it."

"I would never betray Arthur. He's my friend." Merlin did not know whether he should be angry or glad that he passed this so-called evaluation of loyalty.

"Actions speak louder than words, Emrys. You have shown your loyalty to Arthur in the past, but this was the ultimate act of loyalty. I detected no second thoughts nor have you exhibited even the slightest sign of reluctance. You are willing to give all and sacrifice everything on the spot to secure Arthur's destiny."

"What if I did hesitate? What if I allowed you to kill Arthur? What would that prove?" Merlin cried. Fatigue was starting to catch up. He suddenly felt weak and sick. The mental and physical strains of the day were taking a rough toll on his body, and now this.

"Oh, Arthur's safety was not an issue. I had a feeling you would try and stop it. I just didn't plan on you throwing yourself in front of the dagger." Theodorius scolded. "His actions thereafter made me realize his true character. Even through heavy rains and inconveniences, he still showed the same determination to save you. He did everything in his power to comfort you – found shelter, made a fire, dressed your wound, fed you water and he even gave you his blanket. It was no longer a servant serving a master, but a master serving a servant – a most interesting concept."

Merlin stood there in a trance-like state, listening and feeling the low-pitched sound of Theodorius' voice bouncing in his head. It was a little harder to breathe with the entrapment of the fog. There was a slight tickle of pain stemming from the base of his neck.

"You still have so much to learn, but that will come within time." Theodorius continued. "You will be met with many challenges. The years to come will be turbulent, this I will not lie. The kingdom under Arthur's reign will cause great changes and power will come to all of Camelot. He will fight for his people with outspoken courage. However, the boundaries of good and evil magic will be tested. He will not succeed without you."

"Am I supposed to take this as some sort of pep talk then?" Merlin leered.

"Emrys, I don't blame you for your bitter feelings toward me. But you must see it from my perspective. I am a great oracle, a seer. In the nature of all prophecies, visions are not all as it seems. You of all people should know that. My job is to protect the people and to make sure individuals are worthy of their futures." Theodorius said with patience. "Sometimes, you feel taken for granted, that no one appreciates all the things that you've done. You feel you have to deal with everything alone. Believe me when I tell you that I know what that's like. Arthur is like a grand eagle spreading his impressive wings and soaring into the vast sky, and you – you are the invisible wind that lifts him up to where he is. No one sees the importance of your role. Without the support of the wind, the eagle will fall."

"I suppose. Two sides of the same coin. I've already heard that philosophy." Merlin murmured. He suddenly found himself identifying with Theodorius.

"You remind me of myself at your age." Theodorius laughed. "You are not a nobody. Don't think for a minute that your work and efforts will never be recognized. There will be a right time and place when your greatness will be revealed. Until then, you must remain humble and patient."

"You're beginning to sound like Gaius."

"Well then, he's in the right." Theodorius said.

"So, is it true?" Merlin softened. He couldn't continue to be angry with Theodorius. Merlin saw how Theodorius was only doing his job. He didn't mean to hurt anyone the way he had. Merlin could've used his magic to stop the dagger, but that would've meant revealing his true identity to Arthur.

"Is what true?" Theodorius asked.

"Legend has it that when the Queen died, your grief was so bad that you transformed into a fog and surrounded Tintagel to protect and hide it from marauders." Merlin said, thoroughly changing the subject.

"Well, let's just say that it was my time to become something greater." Theodorius said after a hearty laugh. There was a slight pause before the fog continued in a soft voice. "Thank you, Emrys, for your forgiveness."

"Is that why you came back? To seek my forgiveness?" Merlin questioned inquisitively.

"That is part of the reason." Theodorius admitted. "I believe you have something that belongs to me. If you know my history, you'll know that the Jeweled Dagger of Tintagel has never left my side. It was the one gift that I highly treasured and I would like to have it back."

"It's in the vaults beneath Camelot. I'd get it, but well, it'll take a little time. There is a key that Arthur keeps beside his bed, and I'd have to sneak pass the guards…" Merlin rambled, exhaustion getting the better of him. Speaking in sentence fragments was not like Merlin at all.

"There is no need." Theodorius said. The fog shifted and rolled in a circular motion, making Merlin a little dizzy. Within a matter of seconds, the beautiful, gem encrusted dagger materialized in front of Merlin.

"How…?" Merlin stared at the gleaming dagger with a mesmerized look on his face.

"It's one of the advantages of being fog. I can go places where humans cannot – through cracks and keyholes. All I needed to know was location." Theodorius said.

"Show off." Merlin retorted.

"No need to be jealous, young Emrys. Your power is no match for anyone." Theodorius consoled. In a blink of an eye, the dagger vanished. "For now, my purpose here is done."

"Will I ever see you again?" Merlin asked.

"Perhaps our paths will cross again in the future. When the time comes, know that you have an ally." Theodorius promised, leaving things amicable. "Good bye, Emrys." By now, Merlin understood that certain things were not meant to be over-analyzed.

Before Merlin could breathe another word, the fog dissipated and freed him. His breathing immediately became easier as the air cleared. The fog was starting to suffocate him and the lack of oxygen to the brain was rendering him faint. The silhouettes of the castle towers reappeared, as did the outlines of treetops and homes down in the village. He felt the hard texture of cobbled stone beneath his tired feet. And the light smell of burning fire wood wrinkled Merlin's nose.

The young warlock found himself alone in the main square in front of the water pump with his empty wooden bucket. It was like time stood still and no one else heard or seen anything out of the ordinary. The burly guards at the front door did not stir from their posts. He felt a draft as an occasional night breeze penetrated through the fabric of his clothing. He snapped out of his stupor and got back to work. After all, Arthur's bath wasn't going to draw itself. He cranked the pump until the bucket was full of water.

Merlin lugged the bucket as fast as he could through the twists and turns of corridors of the castle. It was heavy and he was trying to walk as quickly as possible. Arthur was going to show up any minute, demanding his bath. He was just down the hall from Arthur's room when a strain in his shoulder caused him to lose his hold on the handle of the bucket.

Luckily, the sloshing bucket of water did not tip over. If that were the case, Merlin would have his work cut out for him. Not only would he have to clean up the mess, he'd have to fetch another bucket of water and that would mean Arthur was not going to get his bath on time. A small puddle of water splashed out as the bottom of the bucket smacked loudly against the floor. His shoulder was hurting something fierce. He gave his shoulder a good rub and hoped the stiffness would subside. He pressed upon a tender spot and a small expression of pain escaped his lips.

Being this late in the evening, Merlin was confident that no one heard him. The route leading to Arthur's room at the end of the hall was usually a restricted area, for the sole purpose of security. There were two guards posted outside the corridor at all times. Only the most trusted people were allowed to go through the passage without suspicion or interrogation. This included Merlin and Gaius. Merlin groaned as he stretched. He was paying the price for exerting pressure on the weak shoulder completing his duties. He then shook off his arm and proceeded to lift the heavy bucket again.

It was a matter of three steps before he dropped the bucket again. He wasn't sure if he could go on. He felt incredibly sick from fatigue. His whole body was pinching with pain. He could barely keep his eyes open. And he'd just gone through a weird conversation with the fog. At this point, he couldn't even stand straight. He breathed a quivering sigh that seemed to echo off the stone walls of the hallway. No one was there to witness this – or so he believed.

Just when Merlin was about to make another attempt to reach for the bucket, someone came from behind and agilely snatched the handle. Merlin was surprised that anyone would be roaming the halls at this late hour. He was about to say something when he saw the red cape with the Pendragon insignia centered on the back. His eyes traveled to the head of blond hair and recognized it to be Arthur. He had taken up the bucket effortlessly in one hand and headed towards his room like as if he didn't have time to stop for explanations or inquiries. He clearly saw that Merlin was in pain and needed help. Hence, he wasted no time. Merlin scurried along trying to catch up to Arthur's pace.

Apparently, Arthur was on his way to his room when he caught a glimpse of his servant crossing the intersection dragging that bucket of water. Being preoccupied in his own thoughts, Merlin had noticed no one and certainly had no idea that Arthur was only a few steps behind him. It didn't surprise Arthur to see his clumsy manservant dropping things. He knew Merlin wasn't exactly the most coordinated person in the world and this gave the perfect opportunity for Arthur to harass him. He was about to do this when he saw how Merlin recoiled in pain and struggling with a simple task.

"When you need something to be done, you just have to bloody do it yourself. Can't rely on an idiot servant to do a proper job these days. I swear, good servants are so hard to find. Come on, Merlin. You've been slacking off way too much." Arthur puffed loudly in exasperation as he stomped pass the two guards that were posted outside the corridor that led to his room.

From the look in their eyes, the two guards heard Arthur belittling his servant, but did not budge from their firm stance. It was in their nature to stand unaffected by the gossips and mishaps between royalty and lowly servants. In fact, the castle guards often categorized themselves in an entirely different class than the hired help. Even though they didn't possess the same prestige as knights, they were a step below the knights, yet a step above service men. This didn't mean they were less loyal or less important. They had a job just like anyone, and that was to serve the king.

Merlin followed Arthur into the room and shut the door behind him.

"Sorry about that, Merlin. I had to keep up with appearances, you know. Gossips worth it's weight in gold. You never know what'll happen if word gets out that I helped you do your job. But really, you should take it easy a bit. You've only just recovered." Arthur said carrying the bucket towards the fireplace. He did not wait for his servant to speak. "So, where does this water go? In there?" He nodded to a pot heating water over the fire.

"Yes." Merlin murmured. He was standing in the middle of the spacious room, still trying to grasp what Arthur had done. The room swam in slow motion.

"Well, you're awfully quiet. You usually have an earful for me by now." Arthur said while pouring the bucketful of bath water into the iron pot. Just as he finished and set the bucket down, he looked up at Merlin.

To Arthur's horror, Merlin looked ghastly like as if he hadn't slept in days. Due to Arthur's hectic schedule, he hadn't had time to interact with Merlin all day. In the course of that one day, it was quite shocking to see such a drastic difference. This wasn't the same happy-go-lucky Merlin that Arthur was used to. The Merlin he knew was animated and always had an opinion about something. Right now, his servant's face was completely chalk white and cheeks sunken. Arthur detected dark circles under baggy tired eyes practically void of liveliness. Merlin's emaciated body demonstrated a certain willowy slouch. Appearing most sickly, the servant was swaying slightly on his heels.

"Merlin, are you alright?" Arthur exclaimed with concern. He took a step forward.

Before Merlin had a chance to reply that he was fine, his vision blurred and numbness spread about his body immediately. Weak and dizzy, he collapsed over backwards. His back hit the hardwood floorboards with a thud and he felt a small pain as the back of his head smacked against the floor. The only thing he heard before blacking out completely was Arthur calling his name.

"Merlin!" Arthur cried. He rushed over and knelt beside Merlin on the floor.

Arthur shook Merlin by the shoulders gently in anticipation that the servant would regain consciousness. Merlin gave no response at first but a groan finally passed his lips, indicating that he was coming around.

Arthur realized just how much Merlin had changed physically just by grabbing his bony shoulders. Merlin had lost quite a deal of weight. His clothes seemed especially loose on his frame. Arthur was shocked that he hadn't taken notice of this sooner. But it had been an extremely busy last two days and aside from instructing some requests, he barely had the time to really take a good look at his servant.

"Wha-what happened?" Merlin groaned as sensation returned to his feeble body. "Why am I on the floor?" He asked in a disoriented tone. He drew in a few heavy breaths and made an attempt to get up, only to be stopped by Arthur, who by now seemed to wear a most worried expression on his princely face.

"You fainted. Don't get up. Regain some of your strength first." Arthur commanded.

"I did what?" Merlin sounded confused. Suddenly, his eyes widened, like as if he just remembered to do something important. "Oh, I can't have fainted…still need to draw your bath…water's getting cold." He stammered, coming to a seated position and subconsciously kneading his injured shoulder.

"Never mind about the bath. I can take care of it later." Arthur insisted while looking into the eyes of the scrawny figure before him. His serious voice softened to an almost tender whisper. "Merlin, what's going on?"

"It's nothing, Sire. Perhaps I'm just a little weak….and a little hungry."

"When was the last time you had a meal?"

"Huh? Oh. I dunno." Merlin blurted. If he had to actually think of an answer to such a simple question, it was pretty bad. He had so many things to do that food escaped his mind. Then he suddenly remembered the tasty potato cauliflower soup with bacon that Gaius made for him. "I had lunch yesterday." He replied, then realizing it sounded pathetic.

"You mean to tell me that you hadn't eaten anything since then?" Arthur scoffed. The harsh tone was returning as his face hardened into the mean-Arthur that Merlin knew so well.

"I – I – I….it's just that I was kind of busy and lost track of time. Well, err…I had an apple this morning." Merlin stuttered, hoping to defer Arthur's anger.

"I don't understand you, Merlin. Have you seen yourself in the mirror lately? You look like death standing on two feet. Are you trying to kill yourself? I will not tolerate this sort of behavior." Arthur scolded. "You will take the time to eat your meals each day."

It was not Arthur's intention to sound callous or coldhearted, because after all, he knew that Merlin had been working exceptionally hard the last two days when he should still be recuperating. Arthur's problem was that he cared about Merlin. He didn't want Merlin to go on neglecting himself this way. He would never admit it, but it truly broke his heart to see Merlin so exceedingly fragile and sick. He blamed himself for not noticing it and for putting Merlin back to work so early.

Arthur pulled Merlin up by the armpits regardless of whether or not he was ready to leave the spot on the floor. Merlin's knees got weak and buckled when Arthur lugged his servant across the room. Even at the end of a long stressful day, Arthur still had the same agility. Without complaint, he caught Merlin and continued to drag him over to the chair. Merlin, still dazed and weak, plopped down on the seat. He rubbed his shoulder again.

"You're an idiot. Do you know that? The whole day, all you ate was an apple?" Arthur admonished.

"I – I also had a biscuit." Merlin suddenly remembered. He didn't realize how comical and ridiculous he sounded until he heard his voice.

"A biscuit. A BISCUIT! That's just great, Merlin." Arthur spat. He tried so hard to hold his tongue but his habit of berating the poor servant always got the better of him. "Damn you, Merlin. The only reason I allowed you back to work was because I thought you were well enough to stand the task. But obviously, you are not ready. It is clear that you're still sick and in pain."

"B-but Sire…"

"Look at you – do you even know you're rubbing your shoulder?" Arthur said. Merlin suddenly realized what he was doing and immediately set his hand away from his shoulder.

"I can get a tonic from Gaius…" Merlin began.

"Do you think a tonic is the answer to everything?" Arthur asked rhetorically. "Once I tell Gaius what happened here, he won't let you out for a week. And quite frankly, I am not against it."

"Oh no! There is so much to do…" Merlin argued. He was in no condition to argue but being stuck in his room for a week will be unbearable.

Without word, Arthur went about setting plates, goblets and utensils at the table in front of Merlin. He poured drinking water from the urn into the goblets. He then went to the end table by the door and brought over the large basket of fruit. He then went back and retrieved the tray of butter, cheeses, and breads covered by a checkered cloth.

"Arthur, what are you doing?" Merlin inquired as he watched his master dart back and forth in the room.

"Here's the plan. Right now, you eat." Arthur instructed as he returned from the other table with another tray in tow. "I was saving this for a snack later. But seeing how things are, I don't see why we can't share. There is plenty for the both of us." He continued as he removed the cloth covering a big rump of cold roast from the cutting board.

"Oh, it's not necessary, but thank you." Merlin said, eyeing the delicious food. It didn't matter that it was cold meat, just looking at it made Merlin's mouth water. But the last thing he wanted was to take food that was meant for the prince.

Arthur had a carving knife and fork in his hand. "Do not disobey me. You will eat." He said, slicing the meat and piled a generous amount of it on Merlin's plate, followed by stacking up his own plate. "Go on, what are you waiting for? An invitation? Dig in."

Merlin hesitantly picked up his fork and stabbed a piece of meat with it. The moment that savory bit of beef touched his tongue, his appetite opened. He hadn't realized how much he missed food until then. It propelled him to wolfing down another piece and then another. He chewed and swallowed ravenously, leaving no time for surface for air. Soon, he gave up the fork and used his fingers to eat. He alternated between the goblet of water and the plate of food feverishly.

"Slow down, will you? You're going to choke on it." Arthur said after a while of staring at his servant attacking the food like a savaged beast.

"Didn't realize how hungry I was." Merlin swallowed a mouthful.

"Bread and cheese?" Arthur pushed the tray forward. Merlin reached over and took a fistful of bread. He knew he shouldn't be so aggressive but after all, Arthur did give permission.

"Thank you, Sire." Merlin said as a little bit of color returned to his cheeks.

"After you eat, I will escort you back to Gaius' chambers." Arthur said after a sigh.

"I know the way to my own room." Merlin bit into a grape.

"You can barely stand on your feet. I'm not about to let you go about wandering the castle at this hour, especially when you're sick."

"Is this you being nice?" Merlin humored with a pitiful yet appreciative smile that tugged at heartstrings and melt the hardest of hearts.

"Nice? Me, nice? Is that what you think now?" Arthur said pompously, not faltering at all. "I'm only looking out for myself. If something happened to you, that would mean I'd have to find a new servant. He would have to go through the entire training process – from the beginning. Do you know the aggravation in teaching an imbecile how to get my armor polished correctly?"

But what he really meant to say was that he wouldn't be able to function without Merlin by his side. And that Merlin had a truly important role in his life. If his best friend were to be taken away from him, well, he wouldn't be able to cope.

"Is that all you care about then – your armor being polished correctly?" Merlin tested. Somehow, he knew Arthur cared. He just liked to see how far Arthur would take it.

Merlin stared at Arthur, whose facial expression was becoming more like that of a volcano ready to explode. "I know. Shut up." Merlin said before Arthur had the chance to give a condescending remark. Arthur nodded in approval.

Merlin continued cleaning off the rest of the food on his plate. He slowed down his pace and ate more like a civilized human being. He had to admit that this was the best meal he'd had in days. Of course, any food that was fit for the prince, most definitely had to be above excellence in quality. Very few servants had the opportunity to experience such divine luxury. Merlin understood how rare this meal was and savored every taste. He even licked his fingers.

Arthur's heart ached as he watched Merlin's famished state, but kept a straight face. It wasn't Merlin's fault that he was acting like this. Any person that's starving would do the same. As soon as Arthur saw Merlin reaching the bottom of his plate, he took up the carving knife and refilled the plate. Merlin made no attempt to refuse the second helping. Arthur poured more water into Merlin's goblet.

"You're a good servant." Arthur said out of the blue.

"I beg your pardon?" Merlin looked up quizzically. He could've sworn he heard Arthur give him a compliment. But that could very well be his ears playing tricks on him. His face cocked to the side in a curious fashion. Arthur had to admit that Merlin looked absolutely ridiculous with food grease smeared all over his mouth. Merlin was eating so fast that he failed to establish proper meal etiquette.

"No, I mean it. You're a good servant. You deserve much better." There was no sarcasm in Arthur's voice. He sounded like he really meant it. Merlin only stared at Arthur and swallowed the food that he was chewing. "I just wanted you to know that I do value our friendship. And – and speaking as a friend, I don't want you going back to work if you are not well. And I can clearly see that you're not well right now. I'm requesting you take a week off to recover properly. You will spend the time sleeping, resting, and eating three square meals a day."

"Sire…" Merlin began, only to be interrupted.

"I've had some experience with similar injuries, so I know a thing or two about what you're going through. Putting pressure on that shoulder is strictly forbidden. Trust me, you'll make it worse if you do. You will refrain from all strenuous work. Your shoulder needs time to heal. It was a mistake to have you back at work so soon. And I should have known better. But I understand now. You are not allowed to make any objections to my orders." Arthur paced about regally with hands behind his back as he instructed Merlin.

"I'll be so behind. How will I ever catch up?" Merlin blurted.

"I will have Sergois do some of the work."

"Sergois? You mean the stable boy?" Merlin sounded disappointed.

"One and the same." Arthur studied Merlin's face. "Is there a problem with him?"

"Err…no. Sergois is a decent fellow. It's just that, that….well…" Merlin stammered. "Well, it's just that I'm the one who knows where everything goes and how you like certain things."

Arthur stopped pacing and eyed his servant. He couldn't help but smile a little. "Merlin, there's no need to be so worried. I have no intentions of replacing you. Sergois' role will only be temporary. He'll do a few things for me here and there."

"Alright, Sire." Merlin mumbled. He didn't know what else to say. Perhaps some time off would be advisable.

"No one can replace you. You're the most annoying, idiotic, opinionated, never-do-as-you're-told servant anyone can put up with." Arthur relaxed a bit. "Besides, it would be too boring without you tormenting me every second of the day."

"Err…Thank you, Sire?" Merlin said, not sure whether to take that as a compliment or an insult.

"Oh, I have something for you." Arthur said as he was analyzing Merlin's appearance. "I've been so busy. Been meaning to give it back to you. Just didn't get a chance." He went to the wardrobe and fished something out of one of the drawers. He made his way back to where Merlin was seated and held it out towards him.

"It's my neckerchief!" Merlin exclaimed merrily as he recognized the grey piece of fabric in Arthur's hands. Merlin wiped his greasy hands quickly on his pants before taking the freshly laundered neckerchief from Arthur. He didn't think he'd ever see his favorite neckerchief again. The last time he remembered, it was covered in blood and used as a bandage for his wound.

Neckerchiefs were Merlin's trademark accessory. He usually never went anywhere without one. Merlin owned a number of neckerchiefs that came in different solid colors but the grey one was his favorite. His neckerchiefs were objects of great sentimental value. They were made for him by his mother when he had to make his big move from Ealdor to Camelot. Hunith spent a good number of days designing, shopping for the right fabric and colors, and sewing it together. It was his mother's way of telling him that a part of her would always be with him regardless of the distance. Merlin found it comforting and promised to wear it in her honor. No one knew the true significance behind his neckerchiefs. He figured it was his own personal thing and didn't need to explain it to anyone. Besides, nobody takes notice of a servant's attire. Well, maybe except Arthur.

"You're always wearing these silly scarves. I figured you can't do without your security blanket there." Arthur mocked, being as haughty as he possibly could. Merlin ignored Arthur's remark.

"It's a neckerchief, not a scarf, mind you." Merlin corrected.

"Don't look so embarrassed, Merlin. We all have things that hold special meaning to us. I figured your bib – I mean, neckerchief – holds some odd importance to you. You're usually never without one." Arthur said. "So, I saved it."

"It's so clean." Merlin said as he examined it before tying it around his bare neck.

"The blood took forever to come off." Arthur said.

"You washed it?" Merlin catching Arthur's every word.

"Well, I – I …. So what if I did?" Arthur's face reddened. It wasn't his intention to let that slip out.

"Nothing. It's unlike you to do chores – is all." Merlin faltered.

"It's amazing what soap can do." Arthur said in an exaggerated surprised tone. His facial expression then changed to seriousness. "I know I'm not one for scrubbing and washing things and I could've easily had someone do it for me. But this one task, I felt like I had to do it myself. The idea of you dying never occurred to me. You are my manservant and you're supposed to always be there for me. Then seeing the blood….your blood on your neckerchief, Merlin. Made me think that I could actually have lost you." He sighed. "There were moments when you had me worried. Worried that – that I wouldn't get the opportunity to tell you that you'll always have a place in Camelot. No matter what. At the end of the day, I do give a damn about what happens to you. You're not only a good servant, you're also a good friend."

Merlin stared at Arthur in awe. Arthur was the type of prince who, in Merlin's opinion, was very hard to please. Arthur would find a bone to pick about everything, even if the task was done exactly as he ordered. He wasn't the type who poured out feelings to anyone. For fear of showing weakness, he often preferred to keep genuine heartfelt matters secret.

"Thank you, Sire." Merlin finally said. "I'm humbled by your kindness."

Arthur smiled and just as easily as it came, the smile vanished, leaving a threatening look on his face. "And if you breathe a word of any of this to anyone, I promise I'll have you polishing the entire army's armor and shoveling horse dung out of every stable for a month.

"Not a word. Lips are sealed." Merlin assured willingly. With that, Merlin picked up his fork once again.

When Merlin was just about done eating, Arthur took another plate and filled it generously with more slices of meat, bread and cheese, and fruits for his servant to take with him. They headed out the door. Merlin's complexion had gotten slightly better after eating his fill. But overexertion was still a menacing force that pushed his body to exhaustion. He was trying not to stumble too much but, he occasionally tripped on a cobble stone or on the straps of his own boot. Arthur caught him on all these instances.

Merlin clutched onto the plate so securely that if he held it any tighter, his hands might start bleeding. After they innocently passed the two guards at their posts, Arthur helped Merlin carry the plate of food the rest of the way to prevent Merlin from dropping it.

Gaius was in the middle of mixing tonics and remedies when Arthur and Merlin arrived. Merlin made a beeline for the bed by the fireplace, kicked off his boots, and lied down. As Arthur told Gaius about Merlin's little fainting episode, the old physician darted a few worried glances over at the figure lying on the bed. Arthur gave Gaius instructions for the following week and walked over to Merlin.

"I'll come visit you tomorrow." Arthur said to his servant.

"Thank you, Sire for seeing me back to my room." Merlin groaned tiredly.

"Least I could do." Arthur replied. "Well, I should be off."

"Arthur?" Merlin called as the prince headed towards the door. Arthur turned around. "I'm glad to have you as a friend."

Arthur smiled and paused for a brief second. "Good night then. Feel better." With that, Arthur exited the room and closed the door gently behind him.

The End

Author's Note: Thank you for reading! Hope you've enjoyed this fic. Thank You for all the wonderful comments/reviews! It means so much to me and it's what keeps me going. If it's not too much trouble, please sign a review and let me know how you liked the ending. Thanks a million!