"Your armour, Sire," Merlin said. He put it down on the table where Arthur normally asked for it to be laid out. The king stepped forward looking for something to criticise. There was nothing, it was perfect.
"With your leave, Sire, I can do the stables."
Arthur looked at Merlin sharply. It wasn't quite the way Merlin talked. To Arthur it sounded very much like George, who was perfect, if lacking a personality. Merlin stood still, not looking him in the eye. Most servants didn't now he was the king.
"Sire, with your leave…."
Again it was calm, and cold, and impersonal. Merlin still didn't look at him and there was a knock at the door and Arthur didn't see the tension in Merlin's jaw increase as Agravaine entered the room.
"Thank you, Merlin," was all Arthur could say.
He tried to catch Merlin in the stables. Merlin had just put down the straw and was tidying up when Arthur came upon him.
"I hope they are to your satisfaction Sire." Merlin backed up to let him view the stables. The horses within were happily munching their hay, tails swishing on occasion, a couple of the horses nearer to them turned to glance in their direction, looking at them peaceably before turning back. Merlin seemed to be wearing a similar expression, eyeing him calmly, the gaze almost impersonal.
"It's fine Merlin," Arthur said, dismissing the work, wanting to get to why he had sought Merlin out. Merlin however pre-empted him.
"In that case I will get on with the washing."
"If you will permit me, Sire."
Arthur faltered. "Of course."
And Merlin went on his way.
Arthur couldn't grasp it. He couldn't grasp Merlin. Every time he tried to get somewhere Merlin would evade him. At the end of the next day Arthur gained his opportunity.
Merlin had been setting up Arthur's room, waiting for him to come back so he could settle Arthur for the night. Merlin turned to look at him, moving the heating stone to the end of the bed and he went to help Arthur out of his clothes.
"What's the matter with you?"
"Nothing Sire, am I doing something in a dissatisfactory manner?"
"That's George talking! You wouldn't say that."
"Perhaps not," Merlin said, he folded Arthur's shirt and turned back. Arthur shed his trousers, suddenly not wanting to expose himself to this Merlin. He didn't want to change into his sleeping attire. Instead Arthur dropped his trousers, kicked off his boots and literally hurled himself to bed in his underwear. It was warm, and the stone kept the end heated so Arthur pushed his feet towards it.
"You don't wish to change Sire?" Merlin asked.
"No, just fold the clothes and go away," Arthur said.
"As you wish, My Lord," Merlin said. He set off putting out the candles and tidying up. As Merlin tided the bedside cabinet Arthur looked up. Merlin ignored him until Arthur put his hand out and took Merlin's wrist.
"What's the matter?"
Merlin clenched his jaw, and removed his arm from Arthur's grip.
"You broke my heart, and you did lose a friend."
Merlin blew out the last candle and quietly left the room, leaving Arthur utterly alone, his own words twisted and turned back on him. He couldn't sleep, all he could do was think.
Arthur remained baffled, and slightly intimidated by, Merlin's behaviour. He had been exactly the same the following morning, waking him up, informing him of what he was doing that day and then getting him dressed, tidying up and trailing along behind him. However, there was still none of the usual Merliness that Arthur had become used to. It did dawn on him that Merlin's work was not any different, despite Arthur's consistent complaints about Merlin, his servant knew exactly what he was doing, and did it. The only difference was Merlin talked back and usually behaved as if he was hopeless.
After the council session Merlin trooped off to continue his chores and Arthur went to the only person he could ask about this.
Gaius looked up at Arthur ambled in.
"Good afternoon, Sire. Can I help you?"
Arthur bit on his lower lip, then decided to take the bull by the horns.
"It's Merlin, he's behaving strangely."
Gaius looked up sharply, a concerned frown on his face. "In what way strange?"
Arthur gnawed his lip again and then said. "I think he's mad at me."
Gaius' frown turned to comprehension. "Oh, that. What else did you expect?"
Arthur blinked in surprise, staring at Gaius in shock. Gaius looked back for a moment before turning around and hobbling away to carry on with what he was doing.
"But…" Arthur paused, looking at Gaius, who had almost recovered from his ordeal. Gaius turned to look at him, realising that Arthur didn't know what to say, or do.
"I believe Merlin is waiting for an apology."
"I apologised to you." Arthur had made sure to tell Gaius that he was sorry.
Gaius looked at Arthur in a very similar manner to the way Merlin did when he thought Arthur was being an idiot. Arthur probably was an idiot since this situation seemed to be way over his head.
"I do believe Sire…"
Gods, even Gaius is using that tone, Arthur thought to himself. Had he picked it up off Merlin or had Merlin got it from Gaius.
"… that Merlin is waiting for you to apologise to him."
"Why? I didn't do anything to him!" Arthur objected. Gaius put his equipment down, sitting on the bench. Arthur grimaced as he watched Gaius flinch slightly.
"He tried to speak up for me, and you, apparently, didn't believe him, or at least didn't take anything he said seriously."
"The evidence was clear enough. And I understood what he felt," Arthur said.
"And the evidence has been proven to be false. Besides which, Arthur, since when do you need evidence to believe what Merlin tells you? You trust him implicitly."
Arthur blinked. "I don't."
Gaius stared at Arthur for a moment. It made the king very inclined to back up several steps. He held himself still, his father's endless training kicking in; but it took some effort.
"Really. As I recall, you didn't take much convincing from Merlin to believe that I had been possessed by a goblin. You appeared to take his word for it straight away, even luring me into a trap to get the evidence yourself."
"Well, that was... so ridiculous it had to be true," Arthur stammered helplessly.
"And when he started out as your servant, you were quite willing to believe him, when he warned you about Valiant."
Arthur gaped. "Well, that was..."
He wasn't entirely sure what it was, other than the fact he hadn't liked Valiant, who had seemed quite charming and socially poised, even managing to catch Morgana's attention. All things considered now, they probably deserved each other.
"He got proved wrong," Arthur said in his feeble defence.
"And then proved right," Gaius countered. "And he exposed Alined's trickery trying to make you fall in love with Lady Vivian."
"Yes... but..." Arthur managed before Gaius cut him off.
"And need I bring up the incident with the troll. And then the one time; just one time that he really needed you to believe him and trust what he was telling you, you ignore him. It may have escaped your notice Sire..."
Arthur was really starting to hate his title, he wondered if he could instigate a law to prevent people from using that term, at least when they were angry with him.
"... But Merlin, above everyone else, does his best for you, to protect you and everyone in Camelot that he cares about, and that you yourself care about. I don't think he bothers too much when you direct your frustration at him, and for the rest of his friends he feels they can probably fight their own battles. From what I can see, Merlin this time, feels you have overstepped the mark."
Arthur blinked, looking down at Gaius, who had always been faithful his father and was someone that Arthur had known all his life, and seemed so much like the natural order of things in Camelot. Merlin had somehow become something of the same. Arthur's memory flickered, deciding to relate this to the time his father had summoned the witch-finder.
On that occasion his father had chosen to believe a stranger, over Gaius, who had stepped in to prevent Merlin being accused of something, and it was for Merlin that Arthur had tried to intervene. In the end his intervention had been worthwhile.
Arthur blinked, as the thoughts flickered. His uncle had brought him the information, and he could trust his uncle, he had also been working to find Gaius. Arthur's mind suddenly blocked, his uncle just didn't understand how deceptive Morgana could be. All Agravaine could use was the facts, that wasn't his fault. His uncle had got it wrong, but that had to be for the right reasons. And Merlin again, yet again, had been right, endlessly right.
"How does he do that?" Arthur demanded.
"How can such an idiot always be right!"
Gaius smiled. "I'll believe you'll have to ask Merlin that, My Lord."
And he damn well knew that Arthur wanted to talk to him privately, because Merlin evaded him until the end of the day.
"Merlin!" Arthur yelled before his servant could to anything. Merlin held some of Arthur's shirts draped over his arm and he turned to look at Arthur with bland neutrality.
"Oh, don't you 'yes Sire' me. I can't take this any more! I know what I did, and I'm sorry. I should have listened to you!"
"About what exactly Sire?" Merlin asked. The edge remained in his tone but Arthur wasn't able to pin it down as Merlin walked off to deposit the washing in it's necessary pile.
"Gaius! I know he wasn't a traitor. I guess I always knew it, otherwise I wouldn't have sent Gwaine."
Merlin turned, glaring at Arthur.
"You sent Gwaine?"
"Oh, for heaven's sake! He has obviously told you. I didn't tell him to go and look after you, but I agreed with him when he wanted to do it. I wanted you to be safe and I knew you would to something. Neither of you gave me much choice. And he was worried about you, so was I! Between the two of you, I knew you would turn up something."
"Why?" Merlin asked.
"Because you always do Merlin," Arthur said.
"Not so much this time. You proved me wrong. Why did you agree with, and send, Gwaine?"
"I didn't want you doing anything stupid because of Gaius... who was innocent." Arthur deflated dramatically as he said the last three words. He had spent what felt like days on end being punished for his assumptions.
"So... it was rather a good thing that I went and did something stupid?" Merlin asked.
"No! Yes! I don't know! I now have no idea of what I was trying to say, except I'm sorry, I'm really, really sorry. So..." Arthur paused, looking at Merlin anxiously. "... can you stop being like George now. I mean, he's nice enough but he's not..."
Arthur shrunk slightly, eyes rolling as he thought about it.
"He's not you, and I like your annoyingness."
"Is that actually a word?" Merlin asked.
"Annoyingness. Is that a word?"
"I don't know. If it's not, it is now!" Arthur said.
"Wow, I wish I could be a big clever king and create my own words," Merlin said lighting candles and then getting Arthur's sleeping attire.
"Does Sire wish to sleep in his underwear again?"
"Because I would suggest that those need washing."
"I hate you Merlin," Arthur said stripping off.
"And yet are incompetent without me," Merlin said taking Arthur's underwear and handing him his clean sleeping attire. Arthur pulled on the loose material, cinching it around his waist.
"I said I was sorry, to you and to Gaius. Can we stop now?"
"Of course Arthur."
The sound of his name was music to his ears.
"I am sorry," he added.
"I know," Merlin said.
"I won't be so hasty again. I'll think next time."
He wouldn't. Merlin knew Arthur wouldn't but next time it might take less. Next time might be when Agravaine revealed himself. Merlin had to be ready. He just had to be ready; for Arthur, but every time this happened Merlin knew he had gained some ground. He smiled to himself.
Merlin felt ready for the mistakes to come.