Characters: Arthur, Merlin, some Gwain and Giaus
Summary: Merlin has taken off, Arthur isn't happy. Bromance galore.
A/N: Written for Destinyjadams over at the Livejournal community The Gen Table.
For the Love of Rubbish Servants
"Where is he!" Arthur demanded, bursting through the door sans any polite knocking. Which otherwise wouldn't have been the case had the situation not called for it. Arthur being the king or not, Gaius was a friend, was the physician who had cared for Arthur's ills since Arthur was in nappies, and had the unusual knack of looking quite imposing with the lift of only one eyebrow, especially towards those who didn't bother to knock, king or not.
But it would be worth it if Merlin were on the other side of the door. It would not only serve the lazy oaf right, but watching Merlin flail and falter after being caught off guard by the king was always good for a lark.
If Merlin was on the other side of the door, which he wasn't. Arthur saw only Gaius sitting at his work table and raising his eyebrow in placid displeasure.
Arthur ignored him, bulling his way through the chamber to burst through the door at the top of the stairs. "Merlin why the hell aren't you... damn it!" He bulled his way back down the stairs and glared at Gaius. "Where is he?"
"Not here, sire," Gaius said, still annoyingly placid, but at least he had stopped raising his eyebrow.
"I can see where he isn't, Gaius. What I need to know is where he is."
"And repeating what I have told the myriad of searchers that have been inquiring after Merlin all day, I'm afraid I don't know. I had assumed he was with you. So now I am to assume he is missing?" There was a touch of worry to Gaius' voice, making Arthur feel suddenly guilty for having rushed in making demands.
Arthur quickly composed himself, straightening his back and forcing every iota of kingly demeanor onto his face. "I had assigned him as the personal servant to Lord Carath during the duration of his stay seeing as how his own servant was severely ill. Three days, Gaius – three days I've recieved nothing but complaints from Lord Carath about Merlin and now Merlin has vanished. I thought he might have come here to seek refuge with some 'excuse' to you as to why he isn't performing his duties."
"I'm sorry, sire. I'm afraid to say that I've seen little of Merlin these past few days. So much has been happening that I've barely had a moment to myself until now and I had thought the same for Merlin."
Arthur clenched his fists, searching the room for something harmless to take out his anger on. But being Gaius' chambers full of odd, colorful, potentially hazardous liquids, he quickly thought better of it.
"Of all the... bloody times to bugger off..." he growled instead.
It wasn't merely the chaos of a castle full of royalty from distant lands and lords that had come to witness the wedding, then coronation, of Camelot's new queen that made Merlin's timing a thing to loathe. It was the the utter lack of support it entailed, casting Camelot as the kingdom that not only failed in preventing invaders from breaching its walls but wayward servants from leaving. Camelot's image had been tainted, and Arthur needed every iota of visible support he could scrounge, from neighboring kingdoms down to scullery maids and stable boys.
But Merlin was neither a scullery maid nor a stable boy. He was the king's manservant, and the king's manservant vanishing into the ether while temporarily in the service of another lord might as well be up there with being invaded... twice. Since Morgana's attack, Camelot was now under even deeper scrutiny. Grievances would not go unnoticed no matter how small, because as much as Arthur wanted to trust the word of loyalty out of every noble and king's mouth, he wasn't an idiot. He knew they were watching, and that some were waiting. Camelot could not afford any further images of weakness.
Arthur was going to kill Merlin when he found him. He turned sharply on his heels and marched stiffly toward the door.
Arthur stopped, canting his head to listen.
"Try not to be too hard on him. The last I saw of him, he had seemed so exhausted he could barely stand."
Arthur glanced back, briefly, at Gaius' face looking older and heavy with concern.
"We're all tired, Gaius," Arthur said, not cold, merely honest. All of Camelot struggled to resume the normalcy ripped from it by Morgana's attack, fought to repair what had been destroyed not just physically but mentally and emotionally. Not everyone had the luxury of being able to vanish when it suited them, as much as Arthur himself wished he could vanish for at least an hour or two.
Arthur walked with wide, swift strides from the chamber and down the hall, wracking his brain for where ever else Merlin might have disappeared to. He broke from his reverie on seeing Gwaine coming the other way.
"Sir Gwaine," Arthur said.
"Queenie," Gwaine said.
"Taverns all checked," Gwaine said. They stopped in the center of the hall, thankfully devoid of another soul beyond the two of them. The last thing they needed was to be overheard and the rumors to erupt like wildfire.
"Not bony hide nor dark hair of him," Gwaine said. "In fact if I didn't know any better I'd say not a single tavern owner's ever laid eyes on him. However," he added quickly with a raised finger and a smug smile. "Fortune's decided to smile on me. Gelda was having a sale on apple pastries-"
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Gwaine, I do not have time to hear of your recent love interest and apples."
"Knickers, princess, get them untwisted. I was getting myself a pastry, having a chat with the lovely Gelda about huffy kings and wayward manservants and, low and behold, she said she saw him."
Arthur perked up like his hounds when the keeper came around with the scraps. "When?"
"Not sure. A few hours back. I'm guessing a little before you rounded us all up to hunt him down. He was riding out, she said, thought maybe he was going herb picking again but thought it odd he was taking a horse, packs and a bed roll."
"So he's not only vanished, he's run away," Arthur said hotly.
Gwaine shrugged. ""Or maybe he's running a... I don't know... a very involved errand? Gelda said he was distracted. Said he barely waved at her when she said hi. He wouldn't even look at her, like he was ignoring her. She sounded worried."
"With good reason because I'm going to throttle him as soon as his neck is within reach," Arthur growled, and he brushed by Gwaine.
"If you can find him, first," Gwaine called after. Arthur ignored him, intent on making his way to the stables.
After nearly driving the stable boy to a fit of girlish fainting with angry demands for his horse to be saddled, Arthur rode through the gates of the city. Knowing Merlin, the idiot wouldn't have gone far being smitten by leisurely rides and scenery as he was. Arthur paused only long enough at the gates to confirm that it had indeed been Merlin leaving on horseback. The guards had not only confirmed it but assured the king that Merlin did not seem to be in any great hurry. They had also thought it odd that he would go herb picking on horseback when he had always done it on foot.
For a man attempting to shirk his duties – or runaway unseen – Merlin wasn't trying very hard to remain hidden. He'd been witnessed by two boys off on a fishing expedition, a woman and her child heading to market, and an old man taking advantage of the warm day to get some air. They all pointed Arthur in the same direction – toward the lake.
Arthur found Merlin's camp, little more than his bedroll spread out between the woodland and shore, a fire and a small cooking pot full of a bubbling something set ijust/i to the flames. The horse was tied to a tree, unsaddled and happily munching away on the shrubbery hugging the trunk.
Feeling vindictive, not to mention spiteful, as well as furious, Arthur hid himself within a copse of bushes, the camp within easy sight, and he waited. Merlin returned not moments later, emerging from the forest at just the right angle for Arthur to see his bowl full of berries but not his face. Arthur waited, watching as Merlin crouched by the fire, stirring whatever was in the pot, his back still to Arthur.
Arthur slipped with practiced silence from his hiding place, walked heel to toe without a sound across the bare shore, and positioned himself two feet from Merlin's exposed back.
"Merlin, Merlin, Merlin," Arthur said, shaking his head. He felt the most exhilarating surge of joy when Merlin froze like a spooked rabbit, every scrawny muscle in his scrawny body going rigid as a stick.
"Merlin," Arthur went on, folding his arms. "You do have a good explanation for this, I hope?"
"Um..." Merlin stuttered, even though he had yet to turn around. "Just... hunting down some rare herbs for Gaius. Very rare. Hard to find. Takes days to find them, actually-"
Merlin cringed. "Yes, sire?"
"Really what, sire?"
"Do you really take me for that much of a fool?"
Arthur scowled. "Try another one, Merlin. Preferably something closer to the truth."
Merlin crouched there, as still as a man could get, no doubt wracking his brain for excuses. But whatever excuses he found he had quickly discarded when his shoulders slowly lowered in a slump of defeat.
"Merlin," Arthur said, low and cool. "Why did you leave?"
"I... I just... for a bit of a break, that's all."
"Oh! A bit of a break. Yes, I see, because of course out of all the citizens of Camelot only you have the capacity to feel any sort of fatigue. Only you deserve to have a little time off."
"It's not like that," Merlin said hotly, still not turning around, which a part of Arthur – the part that knew how to be analytical even with the majority of his mind clouded by anger – saw as rather odd. Merlin might happily avoid Arthur's gaze when lying through his teeth since Merlin was rubbish at lying, but when angry it was nothing but eye contact for Merlin. He should have whirled around by now, glaring at Arthur, radiating his honesty in every furious fiber of his being. The anger was there, Arthur could hear it, see it in the way his body stiffened, coiling like a snake about to strike out verbally. Merlin's head was even angled, as though he wanted to turn to look Arthur in the eye, but couldn't.
Arthur didn't know why, but it became fodder for the hungry fire that was his anger. He said, low, imposing and with all his kingly authority. "Merlin, look at me."
Merlin's shoulders rolled forward, his back curving, body hunching protectively. "Sire, I promise, this isn't what it looks like. Just... trust me, please. Two days, that's all I'm asking. Just two days, please."
"Merlin, I order you to look at me."
Merlin sighed, long and heavy and full of that near-crippling exhaustion Gaius had mentioned. He rose slowly, stiffly it seemed, but made no move to turn.
"Merlin," Arthur said.
And Arthur gaped. "Merlin, what the hell happened to you?" He took his manservant's head in his hands and tilted it this way and that, studying at every possible angle the large bruise engulfing Merlin's eye. It was dark, perhaps a day old and so swollen Merlin could barely open the eyelid.
Merlin pulled away and stepped back out of reach.
"Leave it, Arthur, it's nothing important," he muttered, still refusing to make eye contact.
"The hell it is," Arthur snarled. He reached out to take Merlin's face and search for more bruises, but Merlin pulled away like a shying horse.
"Damn it, Merlin, who did this to you?" Arthur said.
"I told you, it's not important. Two more days, Arthur, that's all I ask and you won't have to worry about it."
"Two more days," Arthur echoed. His eyes widened.
In two days, the lords and ladies of court and neighboring kingdom were to begin their journeys home.
Arthur stepped closer to Merlin. Merlin stepped back.
"Merlin, who did this? Was it Carath? Another noble? What else did they do, let me see," Arthur demanded.
"Arthur, don't-" Merlin tried weakly. Arthur ignored him, grabbing his arm in one hand and lifting his shirt with the other. There was an impressive bruise on Merlin's stomach, but it paled in comparison to the one on his back that was remarkably boot-shaped and dead center on his spine.
"Damn him!" Arthur said, releasing both Merlin and his shirt. "How long as this been going on?"
Merlin moved out of Arthur's reach while tugging his shirt back around his body. "Not long, I swear. Carath gets a little impatient when he's had too much wine, that's all. Some of the lords and nobles get a little rough with servants all the time, it's normal." He swept his hand at Arthur, saying with obstinate reasoning, "You throw things at me."
"But I don't step on your back until it bruises!" Arthur shouted. He glared at Merlin. "If it's so 'normal' as you say then why did you leave? Why didn't you just come to me about it? I would've at least rescinded your assignment if nothing else."
Merlin shrugged like a chastised child. "I didn't want to stir up problems. You've had enough to deal with, already."
Which made Arthur pinch the bridge of his nose.
Of course this couldn't be anything as simple as Merlin being a lazy ass and avoiding his chores. Of course it had to involve something complicated and messy as if life took great pleasure in proving Arthur not only wrong, but spectacularly wrong.
"Arthur, if I'd said anything you would have confronted Carath and everyone knows Carath listens to his pride more than his head. He would have caused you trouble simply for spite. It's not worth it, Arthur, not over a servant."
Of course Merlin always had to prove himself simultaneously idiotic and intelligent, predicting the consequence of an action but then deciding on the most ridiculous, foolish solutions.
"You were wedded yesterday, Arthur. You need to focus on your new wife, not bloody politics."
And of course Merlin had to be so obnoxiously loyal.
"So you solve all my 'political problems' by leaving," Arthur stated.
Merlin nodded nervously, then cleared his throat. "And... also... soIdidn'tdoanythingfoolish."
"So I didn't do anything foolish. Because..." Merlin shrugged. "Well, you know me."
Arthur chuffed and allowed himself a small smile. "Unfortunately I do." He heaved a long breath. "Wanted to mouth off that badly I take it?"
"Among other things," Merlin muttered, looking away.
Arthur barked a laugh. "Don't tell me you were going to hit him?"
"Something like that," Merlin said, attempting a small, testing smile as his eyes darted to Arthur and away, not yet sure as to whether now was the time for that eye contact. He seemed so small at the moment, a body shrunk into itself, painfully thin and frail rather than merely scrawny.
Arthur's rage bubbled and boiled but not at Merlin. Arthur hated seeing this – the man who had spirited him out of Camelot when the citadel had been breached, kept him alive and out of reach of the enemy to fight another day, who had stoked the flames of his honor and the passion for his kingdom and its people, who had been by his side through so much - reduced to something fragile, uncertain and helpless because of bloody politics.
Arthur tilted his head back, sighed, rolled his neck until it popped then waved Merlin forward. "Come here."
Merlin obeyed timidly, and Arthur hated seeing that, too. He cupped his hand around the back of Merlin's head and brought him in close like two friends sharing a secret.
"Merlin, to hell with politics."
"Carath-" Merlin tried.
"Is an ass. And you're to stop serving him immediately. I can handle Carath, Merlin. He might be a spiteful little bastard but I'm the king. It's the king's duty to protect his people." He released Merlin's head in order to sling his arm around his bony shoulders. "Annoying rubbish servants included."
Merlin's smile broke free of its uncertainty. He looked at Arthur. "You know, you're not a bad king to have around."
Arthur flicked him lightly in the ear.
Merlin yelped. "Ow! Hey! You know the whole reason I ran off was 'cause I was getting knocked about."
"Oh I barely touched you, you girl. Now will you come back? Charming as this place is I'm sure even you prefer a bed to the hard ground."
"Very much, yes."
"Good. And no more running away."
Merlin frowned at him. Good. It was much better than him looking defeated. "I didn't run away. I merely removed myself from a difficult equation."
Arthur could have, and would have, argued otherwise, but now wasn't the time. He also supposed that, despite Merlin's rather poor sense of what was and wasn't a viable solution, he'd had his reasons and had thought them good ones. It was also difficult to argue with a man whose eye was drowning in proof of abuse.
"And from now on, no serving anyone else," Arthur said as he led Merlin to the camp to help him pack up, which would involve little effort from what Arthur could see. He was anxious to get back, to get Merlin back, and remind Carath who it was that was king. Because it sure as hell wasn't politics that had gotten his kingdom back, it was his people, rubbish servant included.
A/N: I'm just a posting fool today ;) Here is the link to The Gen Table for anyone interested in checking it out - - it's a young community in need of more members to make more requests and answer more requests. There is also the version in Forums - Merlin Gen Request.