This was written in January as a birthday gift for gatepromise, a friend of mine on lj. Some of you may have noticed some recurring themes in my work at this point: George, Merlin winding up recovering in a bed at some point in the story, epic friendship which is actually a cover for something more... Yeah. The pieces I write tend to involve a lot of unintentional wish-fulfillment. Hopefully it fulfills some wishes for everyone else at the same time.

In and out of the organized chaos Merlin weaved, giving help or guidance where necessary and rapidly making his way toward the kitchens, his last destination before – "The king requires your presence, Merlin," turning with a slight grin and a nod, he faced George, who had been an enormous help during the frenzied preparations for the friendly – or at the very least, non-violent – invasion due that evening.

"I'm headed that way as soon as I pick up his breakfast. Thank you, George." The stiff little man inclined his head sharply and then made a swift about-face, off to carry out some chore or other.
Merlin turned back toward his goal, giving a smile to Anna, whose arms were piled high with fresh linens for the beds of the castle's imminent guests, and receiving an exasperated but kind one in return. The general atmosphere of the castle was one of harried anticipation; everyone wanted the coming week to be completely without mishap.

Squaring his shoulders, the king's personal servant entered the sacred hive of activity, better known as the kitchens. He noted gratefully upon arrival that he had been expected, as his hands were abruptly filled with a tray containing enough for two and then he was hastily ushered out of the Head Cook's domain for his own safety. He and Helga would never develop an amiable rapport, no matter how many years he served Camelot's crown.

He made the second part of his daily morning pilgrimage to his king's chambers relatively uninterrupted, much to his pleasant surprise. Not, truth be told, that he minded the many requests for aide or instructions, or the well-wishes for both himself and his lord, but there was something to be said for reaching Arthur's chambers on time, especially given the stress the man was certain to be under this particular morning.

Expertly balancing the tray after so many years of carrying out the same task day in and day out, he opened the door to the king's room and glanced over at the window upon noting his charge's absence in the bed, the perfectly smoothed corners and puffed pillows informing him that no one had made use of it the night before.

"I see you're up bright and early, Sire." Arthur looked up at this, causing the light from the window to throw the shadows under his eyes in stark relief.

"Merlin. Is everything ready for tonight?" Arthur should never sound that anxious. It was unatural.

"Arthur. Relax. It's all been taken care of." He placed the tray upon the table and crossed over to his friend, putting his hands on his broad, currently tense shoulders and running his thumbs soothingly along the musculature there.

His king swallowed and nodded, breathing in deeply and then letting some of the stress leave him along with the air he breathed out. "Of course. Of course it is. I just need for – this council of the neighboring kingdoms needs to be perfect, Merlin," I need to be perfect, "and so I just wanted to be sure. This is the first time I will deal with these people as Camelot's king, rather than its prince, and I want them to see that nothing has changed, that in spite of everything that has happened in the last year, this kingdom is as strong as ever." They will see everything in the castle and judge me for it. And I can't afford to be thought weak.

"And they will, Arthur. Everything will be exactly as it should be." He pulled the other toward the table, where he proceeded to sit in his favorite chair, which Merlin had always privately considered his king's true throne. The warlock went about arranging their morning meal in companionable silence.

"Have you thought about spending some time training with your knights, maybe letting them take your mind off of things until you need to get ready for the lords? There's plenty of time until they get here, Arthur." He made this suggestion when the last of their breakfast had gone the way of all good food in the presence of healthy young men, and his king had sat back from the table with a rather more content sigh. He looked up at this, raising a considering eyebrow.

"Mmm, but I have a welcoming speech to memorize and then I wanted to look over the treaty with Escetia. Lot may wish to use the matter of Cenred's death to change some of our agreements, and I do not want his representative to weasel his way into gaining some sort of advantage over Camelot during the negotiations." At this, Merlin removed a scroll from the satchel he had taken to carrying about with him for the last few days, in an attempt to have everything he might need readily at hand. He passed the parchment to Arthur, who examined the contents with a certain amount of confusion.
"What is this?"

"I wrote a summary of the potential points of contention in the treaty we have with Escetia, as well as with Mercia and Nemeth." Reading briefly through the lengthy exposition, Arthur's eyes steadily widened.

"This must have taken you several hours, at least." It had taken all night, actually, but his friend had no need of that particular bit of information. His obvious appreciation was more than worth all the time and effort Merlin put into the collation of the numerous potential pitfalls in the various treaties. So he simply hmmed and began collecting the now-empty dishes to return to the kitchen.

"So, why don't you finish reading through that, run through your speech a few times, and then go out to the practice grounds for a few hours? I'll let the others know roughly when to head out there after I've dropped this off." It would be nice, after these last hectic days, to spend some time outside with their friends. Merlin had been forced to send George in his place for the training sessions as he helped organize all of the preparations, and it had been several days since he had exchanged more than a few words with any of the knights. He felt vaguely neglectful, but knew that Gwaine and the others understood how important this was as he took on the role which Gwen had left behind when she made her way out of Camelot several weeks ago. Best not to think on that too much.And so, at Arthur's decidedly more cheerful nod, Merlin departed his friend's chambers, once more entering the fray.

Fastening the final clasp on Arthur's crimson cloak, Merlin felt both accomplished and anxious. Everything was ready, all the arrangements had been made. Now he needed to ensure that his king was ready, as well.

Standing back to study his work, he decided that Arthur looked the part, but that would mean next to nothing if he did not feel it. "How are you? Nervous?"

"I'm the king, Merlin. I don't get nervous." But the exchange seemed to help settle the young king, regardless of his words.

"Never?" He reached up to remove an imaginary bit of dust, just because he could, and because they both needed that tangible connection before they entered this newest trial.

"Never." Never when you're with me, said the hand Arthur laid on his friend's arm. Two sets of very different blue eyes met, and they both paused, letting the moment speak for itself. And then Arthur sighed and they both moved toward the door, heading toward the front steps of the castle to greet their guests.

As they made their way, their friends fell in beside and behind them, offering silent support. Though Arthur was far too preoccupied by the imminent gathering, Merlin took the chance to meet the eyes of each of the knights, thanking them in turn for their help in looking after the king earlier that day, as well as for their comforting presence now. He also took great satisfaction from the absence of Agravaine, who Arthur had sent to handle a dispute between two earls, and would not be expected to return until long after the summit ended. For once, Morgana would have no idea what was going on in Camelot, and therefore no chance to interfere.

At last, they reached the castle's front entrance and Gwaine intercepted Merlin's attempt to open the door, doing so instead and bestowing upon him a slightly saucy, but reassuring, grin in the process.

They all gathered on the steps to wait, and Merlin breathed a silent sigh of relief that they had gauged the timing of the first party's arrival so well, the light blue and yellow of Merica billowing in the slight breeze as the small group of knights, servants, and the Lord Mendel, who would speak in King Bayard's stead, approached in the distance.

A small while later, the party joined the people of Camelot, Lord Mendel coming to stand before Arthur slowly, his motions hindered by the leg wound which still gave him trouble twenty years after the fact. In spite of his advanced age and pronounced limp, the man cut an imposing figure, and Merlin tensed the closer he came to his king. But the two men clasped hands peaceably, and the warlock forced himself to lower his slowly rising right hand, reminding himself for what seemed the millionth time that he could not resort to magic every single time he felt a twinge of concern for Arthur's well-being.

He realized that the two men had yet to release their hold on one another and wondered at the delay. It must be, he finally decided, the lack of gloves covering Arthur's hands. The older generation might consider such a wardrobe choice gauche in one of such high standing. But one of the many things which set Arthur apart from his father, which all of the delegates would come to learn over the next week, was his determination to connect with others, to remain intimately involved in the lives of those around him. The leather gloves which Uther favored so much in life had served as one last barrier, keeping other people out and shielding the late king from feeling the outside world, a tradition which Arthur wanted no part of.

At last, the stalemate ended, and Lord Mendel released Camelot's king to execute a still-graceful bow. "Well met, Your Highness. Greetings from King Bayard. I trust that you and your people are well?"

"Well met, indeed, Lord Mendel. Thank you for coming. I and my people are quite well. And you? How was the journey? Not too troublesome, I hope?" The stiff pleasantries continued for some time, until the next party, bearing the crest of Deira, arrived.

"Lord Renault, thank you for coming." And so it went. Eventually, each of the representatives and their respective entourages were accounted for, and the servants from Camelot mixed with the servants from the various kingdoms to help with the myriad tasks involved in settling the new arrivals in the castle. Merlin watched them carry out their jobs seamlessly and let go of the last of the tension which had been with him since the beginning of the week. The worst part, the first impression, was over, and everything should be fine from here. He hoped. Shaking himself, he turned and met Arthur's eyes, signaling that it was time to move everyone into the dining hall, as George had just appeared in the periphery of Merlin's vision, nodding to show that everything was ready.

Pouring another cup of diluted wine for his king, Merlin looked surreptitiously about the hall, seeing the contented countenances of the various visitors. Helga had outdone herself. If he thought for a moment that she would actually appreciate the sentiment coming from his lips, he would have told her so. The speech Arthur had given at the start of the feast was well received, and so far no arguments had broken out among the representatives and their aides, which was a miracle in and of itself. Much of this was due to the seating assignments Merlin had put in place, with firm instructions to the other servants to not deviate. None of the delegates from quarreling kingdoms were anywhere near each other, nor would they be until the first of the discussions, on the trade agreements between the Five Kingdoms and their outlying neighbors, opened the next day. He saw Leon giving him an approving look from his position at the table and felt the warm glow of his acknowledgement settle in his stomach. He had done well, hadn't he?

As he rose from his slightly stooped position, he caught Arthur's eye and noticed the appreciation there. What had been a warm glow grew and became a fierce flame. It had all been for his king, and Arthur knew it, though he would likely never express his gratitude openly. That was alright. There was no need.

The night continued on, and at last, each of the lords bedded down for the night. Merlin helped Arthur to rise from the warm bath that he had ordered, in the hopes that it would sooth his king to sleep that night, in anticipation of what was almost certain to be a trying day on the morrow. As he settled a robe about Arthur's shoulders and handed him a cup of mulled cider, the other man surprised him by laying a firm hand on his arm and gently pressing down. "Thank you, my friend." Carefully quelling the desire to blink or twitch or give some sort of sign which would betray just how unexpected this acknowledgement was, his shoulders slumped, and he leaned into the warm contact like a plant turning toward the sun.

Perhaps there was a need after all.

"I'm sorry, you want me to what?" Arthur smirked not unkindly and nodded, reminding Merlin rather sharply in that moment of the arrogant young prince the other man had been upon their first meeting.

"You know you're more than capable of the job. Honestly, with the skills you arrived with here in Camelot, it's a wonder Geoffrey didn't snatch you away from Gaius in the first place. What anyone was thinking allowing you to be the apprenticing physician, I will never know." Squawking in genuine indignation, Merlin pulled slightly harder than necessary on the belt he was attempting to fasten around his friend. He would have to do something about that soon. No one should have to struggle so much to fasten the final notch on a belt. But such concerns would have to wait. He had more pressing things to worry about at present.

"I am an excellent physician's assistant, and you know it. Why else would Gaius have put me in charge of that visit to Longstead?" And, alright. He had certainly expressed his own misgivings to his mentor in private, but it had been an enormous amount of responsibility to suddenly have thrust upon his shoulders. He was more in the business of protecting people than healing them, a tendency which he felt his magic supported, given its often finicky nature in regards to healing spells.

"Mmmm, yes. That must be why after a few days you felt it necessary to return to Camelot for the actual physician." His king had a wicked gleam in his eyes and Merlin felt entirely justified in arguing back, because if Arthur thought that this was the way to get his help, the man was sorely mistaken.

"That was not a natural illness, that was a creature from the Old Religion gone horribly wrong, which you well know, Sire. And if you feel so thoroughly convinced that I cannot handle my actual duties, then I feel it only fair to point out that you will find yourself similarly disappointed by my scribing performance." Arthur's nostrils flared at this, and Merlin prepared himself for some snarky retort or other, even as he held the man's jacket open.

The king's thoughts went back to that moment they had shared in his chambers following dinner last night. After sliding his arms into the waiting sleeves, Arthur turned back to face Merlin and, though he maintained a lighter mood than the one which had plagued him since the start of this seemingly never-ending week of negotiations, he took care to sound as sincere as possible when he said, with his hands on his friend's forearms, "You'll be fine. You know that you're the only man for the job, Merlin. With Geoffrey laid up by that head cold, you are the only one I trust to oversee and record these assemblies. Now, if you really want, I could make it an order. But I would much rather if you could simply say 'yes'." He watched the softening of his friend's expression and acknowledged that a little bit of praise would not go amiss every now and then if it continued to have this sort of effect, awkward as it made him feel to deliver.

"I knew one day you would realize what a wonderful servant I am. It's only taken, what? Five years?"

Then again. Perhaps there was a reason Arthur typically withheld any sort of encouragement.

Cuffing his friend on the head, he released his other arm and took up his sword, sheathing it on his way to the door. "I don't believe I ever said anything about you being a good servant, Merlin. I was simply informing you that your not entirely unimpressive literacy skills would be of some use. Now, if you don't mind, we have a meeting to attend." He heard his friend's footsteps and then felt his presence at his right side, and carefully kept his irritated expression in place.

Sotto voce, so as to not draw the attention of any of the servants they passed on their journey to the council room – though he was not certain as to why he bothered, considering it was nothing the rest of the castle staff had not heard from the two of them before – he informed his king that, "You, my Lord, are an unmitigated arse. But since you asked so nicely earlier: yes, I will do it."

Sitting in the heavily cushioned chair which usually contained Geoffrey, the court librarian, Merlin waited for the meeting to start.

Watching the various noblemen trickling slowly and stoically in he began feeling more and more certain that this was going to be a nightmare. He remembered several of the nobles from previous years under Uther, and they were all traditionalists in the worst ways: stern, warlike, and unyielding in the face of opposition, whether friendly or malicious. Technically, this should be a summit of kings, but the ones who deigned to send representatives to this year's gathering did so as a slight to the new king of Camelot. Arthur was young and untried, and he would have to prove to these men that he had the strength to take his father's place, long coveted by the other kingdoms, several of which had made only trifle attempts to stifle their obvious desire to take over Camelot. The lords present would not look kindly upon Merlin encroaching on what they considered a gathering of the elite. In fact, they might see it as some form of provocation on Arthur's part. A positive outcome for this little stunt seemed highly unlikely. He lamented anew the fact that Gaius was too busy dealing with an illness which had taken several of the children recently to perform this duty for Geoffrey.

Arthur strode in last, having stood at the door to greet each new arrival and extend a formal welcome once again. He deliberately took the long way around the council room, pausing briefly to discretely press the hand that Merlin was not using to hold a quill, whether for encouragement or as a reminder not to flee, he could not say.

Upon reaching the table, the current king of Camelot took his place at its head, as was his right, and each of the delegates followed suit. Arthur looked about the room, taking pains to meet the eyes of everyone present, and then he placed his hands before him on the table, leaning forward to catch and hold everyone's attention. "Gentlemen, welcome to the fourth day of the annual Albion Summit. We have accomplished much over the past few days, and I want to thank each of you for showing patience and understanding with the needs and desires of your neighboring kingdoms. I understand that each of you are men of war, and peace is not something which you sought in the days of your youth. But years ago, the rulers of this island came together to put a stop to the senseless slaughter of their neighboring peoples, and the prevention of so much bloodshed is a noble tradition that we shall strive to continue here today, and for the foreseeable future. Now, I believe yesterday we left off with a disagreement over the borderline between –"

"What's this? Where is the scribe, Lord Geoffrey? I would know your manservant anywhere, Arthur Pendragon, and I cannot believe you would have the audacity to bring him here. That boy causes trouble wherever he goes." Every man in the room turned to stare incredulously, first at Lord Mendel, and then at Merlin, who steadfastly refused to shrink down into the cushions, soft and plentiful though they were, in reaction to being thus called out. He had known this was coming.

"What cause do you have to object to Merlin's presence, Lord Mendel? He has served me faithfully for years now, and he is more than capable of performing in the court librarian's place." Merlin admired the unflappable way that Arthur spoke to the irate Mercian, but had the sneaking suspicion that it would not engender a similar response in Lord Mendel.

And of course, he was right.

"That boy very nearly caused a war between Mercia and Camelot, as you well know. You speak of peace and understanding, Your Highness," no one should speak so derisively to his king – that was Merlin's job, and he was quite skilled at it, thank you very much, "but your actions this day speak something entirely different. I refuse to accept the idea that he is the only one available to continue recording these discussions. Find someone less offensive, my Lord, or I shall be forced to take my leave and inform my king that you are no friend to Mercia."

"If you will recall, Lord Mendel, Merlin was acting out of concern for my life; he meant no harm to you and your kingdom. It was a simple misunderstanding that you and the rest of your king's party were caught in the midst of a conflict with a witch who had long plagued my father's reign. I trust Merlin implicitly, and there is no one I would rather appoint to take my court librarian's place. Now, I am sure that this is something which we may bring to an amiable resolution." What had previously been a rather relaxed atmosphere in the council room was now one of tense anticipation; nothing would please their kings more than to hear of a rift between Camelot and Mercia. Every time the two kingdoms fought, the neighboring realms benefitted, selling one or the other goods they could no longer acquire from each other at exhorbitant prices.

"I find that I cannot feel entirely comfortable with this boy either, Your Highness. Has he ever done something like this before? How will he know what to record? If he is, as Lord Mendel suggests, a servant, how can you be sure that he understands what we are here to discuss? He might simply sit there writing gibberish, with none of us the wiser. Teaching warriors to read was practically unheard of when we were young. That is, after all, what scholars and scribes were meant for." The Lord who chose to add his thoughts on the matter spoke in a booming voice which Merlin could feel deep in his bones. Lord Kent, of Nemeth, was truly a sight to behold – easily as tall and broad as Percival, his hair still as black as coal, though he must surely be well into his sixth decade, he was every inch the warrior he claimed to be. He made Lord Mendel look meek and diminished; a feat, to be sure.

"Merlin, would you care to introduce yourself to – well. I find that I cannot quite recall your name, my Lord. Would you be so good as to remind us all of everyone's names, Merlin?" Well, that was certainly an… interesting solution. Merlin dearly hoped that this blatant slight to Lord Kent did not further inflame tempers which already ran rather high.

"Well, Sire, to your left sit the Lords Belfast, Renault, Kent, Rhineheart, Eodred, and Aubrey. To your right sit Lords Asteley, Bach, Iorwerth, Voyle, Landeg, and Mendel. The lords to your left come from kingdoms which neighbor Camelot from the west, and the lords to your right, from the east. Unfortunately, Queen Annis declined the invitation to attend negotiations, as she has sent each of her closest advisors to take a census of her kingdom and she must stay and see to the governing of her people. In fact, last night a letter arrived from her, asking that you take the time to discuss the tax on goods her people trade with Wailington, the kingdom which Lord Aubrey represents." Lord Aubrey blinked owlishly at this, clearly wondering how he became part of this little battle of wills. Merlin had planned to save mentioning the letter until tomorrow, to give Arthur some time to look over it, but perhaps it might help to avert any further offense to Lords Mendel and Kent.

Arthur took the suggested subject change as the gift Merlin intended, and spoke. "Well, there you have it. I know we meant to finish the discussion of the border between Gawant and Escetia, but perhaps we might return to that after we deal with the matter raised by the Queen of Caerleon. Lord Aubrey?" As the lord from Wailington nodded, Merlin approached Arthur with the letter in question, and the king proceeded to read through the document which he then folded and placed inside his jacket for safekeeping.

As the discussion in regard to the, admittedly excessive, commercial tax on Wailington's goods opened, Merlin kept half an eye on Lord Mendel, who continued to stew and cast the occasional baleful glance in his direction, and the rest of his mind on recording the goings-on of the meeting. Throughout the rest of the day, he could not fight the growing suspicion that this was not the end of the matter. Something was coming.

Walking from Arthur's chambers, Merlin thought about the rather tense day spent with the dignitaries from around Albion. Someday, his friend was going to unite each of those men's kingdoms. Hopefully, by that time, magic would finally be welcome in Camelot. Would any of those crusty old lords be around to see it? To see Merlin, standing at the right hand of his king, so much more than a manservant?

Not that he needed anyone else to see him as something grand or powerful – he simply wanted Arthur to know him, every part of him, and to still see the same person who took care of him day in and day out. The scandalized reactions of the nobles from the annexed lands would simply be a lovely side effect.

Head filled with visions of a time when he and Arthur could finally be equals, and possibly something more, Merlin never saw the first blow coming.

Sprawled out on the cold and unforgiving stone, he tried to understand exactly how he landed there, and then it no longer mattered, because a brutal kick to his side brought a flash of blinding pain and the sickening crack of at least one rib, sending him further down the walkway. Painful as it was, it had the benefit of calling the attention of a group of men who had previously been talking rather raucously, clearly more than a little drunk.

The last thing Merlin heard was the shout of, "Hey!" from what sounded like Gwaine, or what Gwaine might sound like if someone threatened something precious to him. What could it be?Merlin wondered fuzzily. And then he wondered nothing at all.

Coming to with a pounding headache and pain in about a thousand places he had not previously known existed, to the sight of Gaius' worried frown, was never a good sign.

"Merlin?" Thank goodness for small mercies. At least Gaius had the decency to speak softly.

"Merlin, I know it might be hard to think right now, but I need you to try and tell me what happened. Gwaine came in with Leon, Elyan, and Percival, who carried you, saying something about a man attacking you on your way home?"

"Mmm." He really, really did not feel like speaking at the moment. Please, Gaius. Go away. Just let me sleep.

"Merlin, you mustn't go back to sleep. You took more than one blow to the head tonight, and I do not know if there will be any permanent damage. Come on, my boy. Stay awake." Sighing, Merlin responded to the obvious worry in the physician's voice, opening his eyes once more.

The attempt to sit up on his own was apparently a bad idea. "Ahhh!"

"Yes, it looks like you have some broken ribs on your left side. I need you to lie still as much as possible." But wait. Lying still would mean he couldn't help Arthur. No. No lying still. Lying still was bad. But what could he do? And then Merlin could have smacked his forehead, but for the throbbing which already resided there.

"Gaius," he whispered, trying not to disturb the peace which shielded him from at least some of the pain.

"Yes, Merlin?"

"I need my book." The shock and outrage were palpable, making up for the soft reply this latest bit of stubborn idiocy received.

"You want to do magic right now? Merlin, now is not the time to be practicing, you need to rest and recover."

"No. What I need is to be able to take care of Arthur and keep recording the meetings. I can't do either if I've broken ribs to deal with. Please, Gaius. Arthur needs me." That last part would convince him, he felt fairly certain. Gaius cared about Arthur a great deal, and knew that Merlin would do practically anything for him. Merlin thought that most of the things Gaius allowed him to get away with stemmed from a desire to actually be involved in his plans, in the hopes that he might be able to protect both king and warlock from themselves.

"If you're sure…" Of course he was sure. It was for Arthur. "But let me do the casting. I don't like the thought of you attempting healing magic while concussed. You might do even more damage to yourself that way."

"Gaius, you never do magic anymore. I can do it, I promise." It was not a lack of trust which prompted Merlin's objection. He vividly remembered how drained his mentor had been for days after the magic Gaius had cast last year during the battle to take back Camelot, and he had no desire for something like that to happen ever again. Gaius was not getting any younger, after all.

"Nonsense, Merlin. You can barely talk as it is. I'll do it." Healing broken ribs with magic was not nearly as wonderful as it sounded. Merlin truly hoped that the scream which was ripped from him even as his bones knitted back together did not draw the attention of anyone who happened to pass by the physician's quarters.

As Gaius wiped sweat from Merlin's brow with a warm wet cloth, he asked gently, "Merlin, who did this to you?"

Flashes of a burly man with a limp coming toward him, raising his good leg to land another kick. 'Good for nothing servant. You're not worth the dirt on my boots, and yet the boy-king dotes on you like a prized pet or a favored bed-warmer. My lord will be happy to know that Uther's whelp is too weak to stand up to Mercia, and even happier to know that something he values so strongly is dead.' "I have no idea – the attack came from behind. I never saw a face."

Merlin remained firm under the stern gaze of his mentor. He refused to name the one who had done this and risk bringing war to Camelot. They were already fighting a secret war with Agravaine, never knowing when or how his mistress would strike next. They certainly did not need even more trouble to contend with.

"Whatever is the matter with you this morning, Merlin? You're never this quiet."

Merlin looked up from his breakfast. "Mm? Oh! It's nothing. Bit of a headache. Gaius gave me something for it before I left to get our breakfast. It should start working soon." Please let it start working soon. He would never turn his nose up at the flavor of the belladonna-laced concoction Gaius administered for pain ever again if it would just start doing its job. The spell to heal his ribs had worked wonders, but neither he nor Gaius felt comfortable with the idea of using magic on a head wound. Thus, Merlin endured the pounding in his head in silence.

Arthur gave him a searching look and then nodded slowly, with an air of one who knows not everything is as it seems, but will play along for now. "Are you ready for today?"

Not even a little bit.

"Absolutely, yeah. I think my hand might fall off when this is all over, but for now I'm all set." Because he might be suspicious now, but there was no way that Arthur would believe him if he refrained from complaining completely.

Still eying Merlin rather doubtfully, and ignoring the invitation to engage in their usual back and forth, his king rose from the table and they worked in tandem to get him ready for the day. If Merlin took just a little longer than necessary, if his touch lingered a bit too much, if he gazed just a little too softly. Well. Surely it was the fault of the headache.

Together, they walked out toward the council room and braced themselves for the trial to come.

What followed was a long and arduous day spent with Arthur arbitrating increasingly agitated disagreements between Lords Eodred and Iorwerth, of Anglia and Dyffed respectively. The kingdoms had a longstanding animosity which greatly resembled that which lay between Camelot and Mercia, and though for the first half of the day, the tonic Gaius gave Merlin helped to keep his pain at bay, by the second half, he was fading fast, drooping miserably over his parchment and painstakingly scrawling every exchange.

He welcomed the moment they adjourned for the evening meal with a heavy sigh of relief and the slow shuffle of his feet. He made a rather feeble attempt to perk up when he caught sight of the concerned glance that his king sent his way.

It all fell apart when their friends saw him move to serve Arthur and the other nobles. They each gave him matching looks of overprotective reproach and Leon turned to Arthur and asked – no, demanded, which is something the normally respectful knight rarely ever did – why the king was allowing Merlin to work after the attack he suffered the night before.

There was stony silence, and then Merlin watched with mounting horror as Arthur turned ever so deliberately to look at him and then, "Is this true? Were you attacked last night, Merlin?" Oh, it was bad. It was really, truly, horribly, every bit as bad as he had known it was going to be when the truth finally came out. (Why had the truth come out? He had thought he was being so careful – of course he should have expected the knights to intervene.) "Well?"

He gulped and then looked away, accidentally meeting the hateful eyes of the man responsible for the once again pounding headache he was forced to contend with as he sought hopelessly for some way out of this discussion. Flinching – and then hating himself just a little, because he was so much braver than that, and it was over, and he was fine – he turned back to face his king and, shoulders slumping, he nodded. "Yes, Sire. It's true."

"Who? Who has done this? I'll kill them, I swear I will." Merlin watched him tremble with anger and began backing away slowly, shaking his head. "You don't know?" Keen hunter's eyes tracked his gradual retreat, adding fuel to the already raging fire within.

"Like I told Gaius last night, I never saw a face." His voice sounded high in his own ears, belying the stress and not inconsiderable fear he felt. He would not be the one to bring war to Camelot. Arthur could ask almost anything of Merlin, but not that.

"Why don't I believe you?" Rising from his seat at the dinner table, his king advanced, an alpha wolf stalking toward his prey. But no, Arthur would never hurt him, not really. That flame stemmed from a desire to protect, to stake a claim, to tear limb from limb those who would dare to hurt that which belonged to him.

Merlin remained silent.

"Tell me, Merlin." When the answer still did not come, hands yanked the warlock toward his liege, and Arthur roared. "I AM YOUR KING!" And then, so softly that the words fell only on Merlin's ears, "But more importantly, I am your friend. Please. Tell me who hurt you." Not here, Arthur, not in front of all of these people. At last, his king seemed to relent, letting loose his hold on Merlin's shoulders.

He watched, feeling sick, as Arthur closed his eyes and clenched his jaw and then spoke. "Send for George, and then go home. Have Gaius give you something for that headache – yes I am aware that it has returned, don't even try to deny it. And then I want you to eat, rest, and then wait for me, because you and I have some things to discuss, and believe me, it will happen."

"…Arthur –"

"Go." He gave in, because when his king spoke in that low, flat tone, there simply was no other choice.

After making eye contact with Brand, one of the servants lining the walls, who then inclined his head to show that he understood and departed to search for George, he made the trek back to the home he shared with Gaius in a daze, barely registering the nods and worried looks that the servants he met sent him along the way. His mentor took one look at Merlin and went over to his medicine stores, selecting a vial of the same draft from earlier in the day. Then he guided Merlin over to what had long since been his designated chair at the table and watched as he woodenly sat down.

"I take it Arthur knows?" Feeling utterly defeated, Merlin simply looked at the other man, because there was no point in reconfirming something Gaius already knew. "What is he going to do?"

"He says he wants to talk." He knew that he sounded every bit as miserable as he felt, and a part of him – the part he typically quelled, because in the scheme of things, it accomplished nothing – was grateful to Arthur for sending him home to rest. Shrugging his shoulders slightly, he imagined that he could still feel his king's hands where they had held him so tightly in the dining hall, and remembered the expression of helpless anger and possessiveness on his face.

Clearly searching for some way to help, Gaius said, "I'll make you some soup," and proceeded to bustle about in the way Merlin had become intimately familiar with since his mother sent him away to live with her old friend. The sight of this comforted him in the way that the promised soup would not, taking his mind off of the impending discussion with Arthur and allowing him to pretend that everything was perfectly normal, if only for a little while.

And then suddenly, Arthur was there, standing in the open doorway.

Furious as Arthur was, he still wanted to take care of Merlin, who looked completely and utterly wretched at the moment. "Come along, then. We may as well have this conversation with you lying down. I know you want to." He ran a hand up his friend's back, stopping at the nape of his neck, and used it to gently but firmly guide him into the room which seemed perpetually messy. Once there, he watched protectively as Merlin gingerly lowered himself onto his rickety little bed, clearly struggling with the pain in his head and what Arthur could only assume were numerous other places he knew nothing about. "Nothing but a bit of a headache? I spoke to the knights some more after dinner. You lied to me. They couldn't tell me who was responsible, but what they did tell me was that when they got to you, whoever it was had hurt you so badly that you fell unconscious, and Percival said that it sounded like you were wheezing while he carried you. That doesn't sound like a bit of a headache to me."

"Well, yes, but I couldn't tell anyone. I was protecting …" You. The kingdom. Everyone I love, from a war we are not yet prepared to face.

"You were protecting… who? Me?" The way that the man sounded – so sarcastic, so incredulous, left Merlin feeling incredibly mulish. If he only knew… But he did not. Which was the way it should be, for the foreseeable future.

"Sadly for you, dollophead, I must inform you that you are not, in fact, the only other person in the world." Even if, at times, it seemed he was the only person in Merlin's world.

"No, it's quite a relief, actually. Because if I were the only other person in the world, then that would leave me with only you for company." He still sounded angry, but seemed willing to rise to the bait. Merlin decided to take that as a good sign.

And to poke and prod just a little bit more. "And what a terrible fate that would be."

"Mmm." Arthur paused a moment, and then shot him a scandalized look. "Wait –Merlin!" And then he shook himself a little, apparently deciding that the time for jokes was over. He leaned over Merlin and placed a hand on his chest, pressing just a bit – not enough to hurt, but enough to hold his attention. As if that would ever be something Arthur needed to fear losing. "Merlin," he whispered lowly, coaxingly, "I need you to tell me what you know."

He swallowed warily. "You won't kill anyone? I won't tell you anything if you don't promise me that you will leave the man responsible alone." He waited, searching the blue eyes which bored into his own and watched as the resignation took root.

Finally, looking as though he had just eaten something sour, Arthur nodded. "I won't kill anyone."

"You have to promise me." He knew that he was pressing his luck by calling his king's honor into question, but this was the one thing he refused to compromise or back down on. If Arthur resorted to execution, or even a good old fashioned sword through the gut in the midst of a duel, then there would most certainly be a war. King Bayard would be satisfied with nothing less.

Eyebrows raised, Arthur replied, "Actually, as king, I do not 'have' to do anything, Merlin. But, yes. I promise you that I will not kill anyone." He ran his hand in a sort of circling motion over the chest beneath it, reassuring and demanding both. "Now, you have my word, and I want that name."

Threading the worn fabric of the blanket which covered him on both summer and winter nights, year in and year out, through nervous, nimble fingers, Merlin knew that he had no choice. "It was Lord Mendel."

Arthur released a heavy stream of air. "Thank you." His free hand came up to clasp the one with which Merlin worried at his blanket, causing him to release it and thread his fingers through something far more precious.

"You don't seem surprised." In fact, his king seemed guilty, which simply would not do. "Arthur, this isn't your fault. He was looking for an excuse to start a war with Camelot. You know Bayard wants this kingdom, and he is not at all above using subterfuge to get it."

Arthur cast his eyes away, squeezing Merlin's hand. "I put you in the crossfire, Merlin. What if Mendel had killed you? From the sounds of it, if he hadn't been scared off when Gwaine yelled at him, he might have."

Shifting around in order to see him better, Merlin drew Arthur's eyes back to his own. "But he didn't. I'm fine, Arthur. I'm still here. I promise you, I'm not going anywhere, any time soon."

'I'll hold you to that, you know." His king sounded slightly choked, and Merlin's throat constricted in sympathy.

"I know."

Standing on the front steps in the exact same spot as he had several days before, Arthur looked down on a much different scene. Before him, Lord Mendel kneeled, awaiting judgment. "Lord Mendel, you are hereby banished from Camelot. Pray that we never meet again, for the next time I lay eyes on you, my sword swinging at your neck will be the last thing you ever see."

"Threatening me, Pendragon? You cannot expel me from these talks. If you do, my Lord will see it as an act of aggression." The king of Camelot smiled coldly down at the defiant lord.

"Oh, I'm not threatening anything; I'm making a promise." You should never have touched what belongs to me. "But rest easy, Lord Mendel. There will be no war between our people. Your aide, Lord Kyffin has graciously agreed to see out the end of the negotiations in your stead." You lose.

He watched with a great deal of satisfaction as the hoary old lord struggled irately to his feet, only to have Leon, Gwaine, Elyan, and Percival meet him upon finally succeeding. "Here, now, my Lord. Why don't we help you to pack your things." Gwaine sounded far, far too gleeful for this opportunity, but he had given his word – they all had, one after another, in rather sullen and reluctant tones, while crowding together in his tiny room late last night – to Merlin that no harm would come to the belligerent lord.

They led Lord Mendel away, Gwaine at the head of the little group setting a punishing pace for the disgraced lord, who limped along, audibly cursing Arthur, Merlin, and every man, woman, and small babe within Camelot's borders. Let him spew his vitriol; it was all the man had left. Once King Bayard learned of his failed attempt to spark a war between Mercia and Camelot, Lord Mendel would lose all favor in his eyes, and he would never be able to cause trouble ever again.

After watching the figure of Lord Mendel riding away from the castle become little more than a speck on the horizon, Arthur made his way to a certain servant's room. He had ordered Merlin to sleep in that morning, saying that the day's meeting would have to wait while he dealt with Lord Mendel anyway. Merlin had given him a slightly suspicious look, as though wondering if Arthur would simply use his absence as a chance to execute the Mercian lord, regardless of any promises he had made. He might have felt offended by his friend's lack of faith, were it not for the warmth he felt at his obvious care for both himself and for his kingdom.

Upon entering the little room once again, he watched his friend begin to stir at the sound of his door opening, and then two deep blue eyes blinked open slowly, landing on Arthur and following his progress to the bed. Fuzzily, Merlin asked, "'s he gone?" and Arthur felt something which had remained taught in his stomach since dinner the night before release, to be replaced by unadulterated affection for this loyal, caring, reckless, ridiculous man.

He sat down on the edge of the bed and nodded, brushing a bit of fringe away from Merlin's forehead. "Yes, Merlin. He is gone."

Little by little, he came closer to full awareness. "Nobody hurt him?"

"No, everyone kept their word." Well. So far as Arthur knew, that was the case. But as far as he was concerned, what his knights did not tell him, he would not have to keep from Merlin, which he had indicated privately to Leon last night.

"Good. I still wish you had left it alone, Arthur. We can't be certain that Bayard won't decide to declare war anyway, for shaming one of his lords when you believed a servant's word over his." Arthur was shaking his head before Merlin could even finish speaking.

"He can't. His people would never agree to it, and regardless of what we would sometimes like to believe, kings are not, in fact, all-powerful. The lords who fight for him and provide men, weapons, and supplies for his army would not fight for such a spurious offense." He would hear that comment about kings lacking omnipotence parroted back at him as often as possible from now on, he just knew it.

"You still shouldn't have taken that risk, Arthur. Not over me." Arthur wondered briefly where the welcoming, vulnerable, barely awake Merlin had gone and if he might have him back for just a little while longer. This Merlin was far too fond of telling his king what to do.

"Merlin, when my father appointed you as my manservant, you became a citizen of this kingdom. As such, you, just like every other citizen of Camelot, fall under the protection of its king. I have more than just a right to protect my people, I have a sacred duty. If that means that sometimes I must go against the wishes of another kingdom, then that is what I will do. And," he paused for a moment, making sure that his friend understood exactly what he was saying, "while I will always do my duty to the kingdom, I also have a duty to you as someone I… care for, a great deal." And if he felt more than a little exposed as he verbalized the truth which had lain between the two of them for years, then that was alright. Because they teased and they nagged and they pushed back and forth at each other, but in the end it all came back to this: they would never hurt each other in the vulnerable moments when they needed each other the most.

Merlin rewarded him with a brilliant grin, the kind he wore only when he could not possibly be any more effervescent, more at peace with the world, and then he proved exactly how brave he was by saying softly, "I love you too, my King."