The Pink Slip
Arthur stood by the window of his chambers, gazing out at the courtyard below. His attention was focused on one individual in particular; the young man, wearing a red shirt and a blue neckerchief, who was lugging the heavy weight of Arthur's armour back from the blacksmith.
His breastplate had required more extensive repairs than usual due to the large dent inflicted on their latest patrol by a bandit's axe. Arthur never usually let the enemy get so close. He had let his guard down for a split second, stupidly giving the man the opening he needed. It was a rookie mistake; he should have known better.
The reason for his distraction on the battlefield persisted even now, though. Under the weight of all that armour, Merlin was limping.
Arthur sighed heavily.
"Arthur?" Guinevere came up behind him, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder and beginning to rub in small, comforting circles. Though the gesture could not sooth his inner turmoil, it was nice at least that they did not have to hide anymore. "What is it?"
Arthur had not known what he was going to say until the words walked out of his mouth, seemingly of their own accord. "I think I should sack Merlin."
"What?!" Outrage laced her tone as she whipped her hand away from its ministrations.
"I think I should sack Merlin," Arthur repeated dully. Saying it gave him no pleasure, meaning it even less so.
"How can you even suggest something like that?" Gwen demanded, levelling the full force of her best glare at him. "What happened? What did he do? I can't believe Merlin could have done anything to deserve being fired."
"He's a terrible servant," Arthur pointed out.
"Arthur!" Gwen used the back of her hand to slap him on the arm, not particularly hard but hard enough to communicate her displeasure.
He shrugged tiredly. "It's true."
"Merlin is the best servant you have ever had," Gwen retorted sharply.
"He's clumsy and insolent," Arthur retorted, warming up to the argument. Now that the idea had occurred to him, he was almost desperate to see it through to completion. "He turns up late almost every morning, and he disappears for days at a time with no better explanation than he was 'in the tavern'."
"I don't believe that for a second," Gwen stated immediately, and since a tiny part of Arthur's mind agreed with her on that one he didn't press the matter.
"He has no clue what he is doing half the time," Arthur continued. "He's a bumbling idiot, always getting in the way." He winced at the unintended double meaning within those words, resolutely pushing onwards. "He messes up constantly, forgets important chores and when he does get around to them he does an abysmal job."
"Merlin works harder than any other servant I know! You run him into the ground, Arthur, and remember he does tasks for Gaius as well."
"That is not the point."
"What is the point, then, Arthur Pendragon?" Gwen asked exasperatedly, spreading her hands in question. "Explain it to me. You have complained – undeservedly, I might add – about Merlin's so-called incompetence in the past, but you've kept him around for all these years anyway. You like him, admit it!"
No, he couldn't. Kings were not supposed to be friends with their man-servants. That was what had started this whole mess in the first place.
"Either way, it is inconsequential," Arthur lied. "I may have allowed his behaviour to go unchecked until now, but I cannot any longer. I... I have to sack him."
There was the slightest tremble in his voice that he failed to disguise, and he tried to cover by turning to stare out the window again. Merlin had made it most of the way up the steps leading to the castle entrance, but even as Arthur watched he stumbled, dropping the helmet and landing heavily on one knee.
"Arthur?" Gwen asked, her voice gentler now. "What is this really about?"
He forced his voice to sound strong. "I already told you."
She shook her head. "No, you haven't. There is something else, I know there is. I have seen you angry with Merlin, and this is not what it looks like."
"I am angry." He didn't specify with whom. "And I mean it; I do not want Merlin as my servant anymore."
"Look me in the eyes when you say that, Arthur, because I think you are lying to me."
He met her gaze reluctantly, and it was much harder to sound convincing this way, although he tried his best.
"I was nearly struck down in the skirmish yesterday, and it was Merlin's fault." Actually, that part was nearly true, though he himself was far more culpable.
"Merlin put you in danger?"
"Yes." In a manner of speaking.
"That doesn't make any sense, Arthur. Merlin has never been anything but loyal to you. He would die for you in a heartbeat, I'm sure of it."
Arthur struggled to suppress the guilt. "He should not have been there." Arthur should not have brought him along. "What place does a servant have alongside knights of Camelot?"
Gwen bristled. "And I suppose you will say next 'What place does a servant have as Camelot's queen?'"
Arthur felt his gut twist uncomfortably as he realised how his words must have sounded. "No, I mean... That's not what I meant. Just look at him, Guinevere!" He gestured out of the window so she could witness Merlin's difficulty making it up the last few steps. "He is a weakling! He has no weapons skills, no armour of his own, no way of defending himself. We cannot be expected to protect him all the time."
"Has Merlin ever asked you to protect him?" Gwen countered, and Arthur frowned at her.
"What difference does that make?"
"Haven't you noticed yet, Arthur? Merlin thinks that he has to protect you."
As a matter of fact, he had noticed. How could he not with what the idiot had done yesterday?
"Well he can't!" Arthur snapped. "He isn't a warrior, Gwen; far from it!"
"That has never stopped him before."
"Exactly!" Arthur thundered, the force of his inexplicable rage driving him away from the window. He slammed his fist against a bedpost, and unfortunately the pain that radiated up from his hand did nothing to assuage his guilt.
"What happened?" she asked again, softly.
The truth of the matter swelled up within him until he could contain it no longer.
"He nearly died yesterday, Gwen, that's what happened!" Arthur yelled, not in any mood to be soothed by her gentle tone. "He doesn't even carry a dagger, let alone a sword, but the imbecilic moron just threw himself into the battle anyway!"
The memories were mostly indistinct, hazy, but Arthur remembered the clashing of steel, the grunts of men, the squeals of horses. He remembered trying to keep tabs on all of his men, and especially on his hapless servant. He remembered seeing brief, intermittent flashes of that blue neckerchief.
Arthur landed a blow, then glanced quickly over his shoulder, searching – yes, good. Merlin was holding back, as well he should, letting the knights do their job while keeping himself out of trouble.
Seconds later, however, Merlin was no longer where he was supposed to be. Arthur caught sight of him ducking away from a bandit, though how the man had been slain he did not know. Merlin seemed unharmed, at least.
The bandits had reinforcements, and they were remarkably well trained, well organised. Fear had no place in a battle, but Arthur had felt a pang of something… worry, perhaps. His men were the best in the five kingdoms, he knew that, but there were so many of them.
He fought on, hoping in both skill and fortune to see them through.
Strike, parry, block, thrust, stab, parry another.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Merlin stumble and fall – but not from injury, he didn't think, just from the idiot's typical clumsiness. Arthur swiftly manoeuvred through the melee in time to take out the man about to stab Merlin through the gut, and caught sight of his servant's surprised and grateful expression before he had to spin to meet another attack.
Chaos swirled around him. Blood sprayed the air, cries of mortally wounded men sounded out and were cut off abruptly, his sword rang against metal and cut through flesh.
He could sense more and more soldiers closing in around him, but there was only so much he could do could do about it, only so many he could fight off at one time.
A blade nicked his arm; he gasped at the pain and retaliated with a heavy blow to the man's neck that sunk through to bone.
But he knew that his efforts were not going to be good enough this time.
It seemed such a petty reason to die. Taking on bandits that they had come across on a routine patrol. Hardly the dramatic, or heroic, or noteworthy end he had envisioned for himself.
He heard Merlin's yell, and suddenly he was furious with himself for allowing the moment of fatalism. While he still had breath within him, he would fight to the best of his ability. People were relying on him.
He fought harder than before, and men fell before him. Still, they kept coming.
The yell was louder this time, closer, more frantic, and somehow at the end it morphed into a roar of determination.
The blue neckerchief flashed by, and Arthur witnessed – in utter disbelief – his skinny manservant plough recklessly into the side of a burly, mean-looking man, knocking him over into half a dozen others and sending them all crashing into the ground in a heap.
Arthur made to return to the fight –
But a horrific scream of pain rent the fabric of the universe. Merlin's scream.
Time seemed to freeze. Arthur spun, so slowly, and watched in slow motion as the blade ripped mercilessly through Merlin's thigh, coming away sheathed in blood. Watched as Merlin's face twisted in agony, as his hands flew instinctively to hold the wound closed even as his body slammed to the ground.
Caught up in the moment, distracted by the horror he was witnessing, Arthur left an opening. He never even saw the axe until a split second before it struck him hard in the chest. Its edge looked to be razor sharp, but it couldn't have been because as Merlin cried out something incomprehensible in his pain the blunt axe slammed into Arthur's armour and dented deep but failed to pierce.
Arthur stumbled back, stunned, and the man came in for the killing blow.
Moving impossibly fast and in a way that could only exacerbate his injury, Merlin twisted and threw himself in the man's path so he tripped over him, giving Arthur the time to recover enough to kill rather than be killed.
The bandit fell and, as all battles seem to end, all of a sudden there was no one left to fight.
"Ar-thur," Merlin gasped.
He was ghostly pale, his hands covered in blood.
His blue eyes were so pained, so frightened, but oddly triumphant too. They stared up at him, teetered for a moment on the brink, then rolled back into his head –
And Arthur felt a stab of true fear.
His fingers scrabbled for a pulse, his voice yelled out orders to his knights, and his mind babbled frantically, 'Don't be dead, Merlin, don't be dead, you can't be dead, I won't let you die, you can't die like this, you idiot, what were you thinking, wake up, Merlin, stop bleeding, open your eyes and laugh and tell me this is just some bad joke, don't be dead, please don't be dead, I can't lose you…'
The pulse was found. Preliminary medical attention was given. Merlin was set in front of Gwaine as they road, and they made haste to return to Camelot.
They arrived in time.
Gaius managed to treat him.
Somehow, although the dreadful wound could not have possibly healed so quickly, within an hour the gash had seemed less severe, and the next morning it was as though he had received only a shallow slash. Merlin returned stubbornly to his duties as though nothing had happened, hobbling around, fetching Arthur his meals, seeing to it that his armour was fixed. He remained as bubbly and cheerful as ever, and no one could have guessed by looking at his bright smile that the man had nearly died yesterday. The incident seemed forgotten.
But Arthur could not forget. He could not forget Merlin's scream of agony. He could not forget the blood that had gushed from his wound. He could not forget how Merlin had launched into the fight to protect him, and had nearly died as a result.
He nearly died.
If the fates had not been smiling on him that day, Merlin would be dead right now. Arthur would have had to tell Gaius that his ward had died in battle. He would have had to ride out to Ealdor, alone, to somehow break the news to Merlin's mother. He would have had to hold Guinevere as she cried, even as he tried to restrain his own grief from spilling over. Merlin's body would have been burned on a funeral pyre, and then he would be gone. Forever. Arthur would have had to find a replacement servant, but whoever it was could never truly take Merlin's place, because somehow, for some reason, Merlin had become his closest friend. He could search the world over and never find another man like him.
The world had nearly lost Merlin. Arthur had nearly lost Merlin.
"It sounds like Merlin was quite the hero out there," Guinevere said, a proud smile curving her lips.
"He was an idiot!" Arthur snapped. "A stupid, reckless idiot."
Guinevere frowned at him. "So maybe Merlin isn't a trained knight, or a fancy swordsman. But I know of no one braver. I owe him my life, as I am sure you do as well."
"I know I do," Arthur admitted grudgingly.
"And even not counting his efforts to protect you in combat, Merlin is invaluable in many other ways. He is always at your side, providing exactly what you need – whether it is teasing banter, an ear to listen, or sage advice. Let's face it, Arthur, you need him."
Arthur stared at the floor. "I know I do," he whispered.
"Then why would you sack him?"
Arthur didn't want to. But it was the right thing to do. "Because he nearly died, Guinevere, and it was my fault."
There was sympathy in her eyes. Even if he did not say the words out loud, she knew what Merlin meant to him. "So don't take him on patrol anymore. You don't have to sack him."
Arthur shook his head. "He won't let me leave him behind; I've tried it before. As long as he is my servant, Merlin will keep following me. He will keep throwing himself into harm's way out of some misguided sense of duty, and I just… I can't let him do it any longer. I have to sack him. I have to send him away…"
"Don't do this to yourself, Arthur," Guinevere pleaded, taking his hand. "You know I love you, and you will always have me, but what you share with Merlin is something special. Don't throw that away."
"I can't be selfish in this. The world needs people like Merlin. If he dies because of me, I will have stolen something precious from this world that can never be replaced. I don't want him to go," Arthur confessed, "but I would rather know he was out there somewhere, alive and happy, than feel the weight of responsibility I would bear for causing his death."
"Whose death?" a voice asked from the door.
Arthur spun to see that Merlin had entered his chambers – without knocking, of course – and was looking between the two of them, apparently bemused by their sombre expressions.
"Yours," Arthur answered curtly. "Merlin, you're fired."
Blue eyes widened in shock. "What?" His mouth was opening and closing as he struggled for more words to say. The overall effect was rather comical, as he looked like a fish out of water, but Arthur was in no mood for laughing.
"I am no longer in need of your services," Arthur told him coldly, forcing his expressionless mask to stay firmly in place. "You may leave for Ealdor in the morning."
Merlin stared at him for a moment, as if expecting him to reveal this to be a poor joke at his expense, and then when Arthur continued to say nothing he looked helplessly at Guinevere. "What did I do?"
"You haven't done anything wrong, Merlin," she assured him, shooting Arthur a glance that was at once frustrated and understanding. "Talk to him – I can't seem to make him see sense, but maybe you can." She strode out of the room and closed the door behind her.
For a long time silence reigned.
"What is this about, Arthur?" Merlin asked finally, moving forward with a slight limp.
Arthur steeled himself. Merlin was a good friend; he deserved the truth, even though it would be so much easier to send him away angry. "You have been a faithful servant, Merlin. I have not always treated you well, but you have never wavered in your loyalty to me. You have been brave and true, and in all honesty I have never had a better servant. I am grateful for everything you have done for me."
Merlin smiled uncertainly. "As much as I appreciate the complements, sire… I don't really understand where this is coming from."
"I am saying all this, Merlin, because you need to know that I am doing this not because of any fault of yours, but because it is in your best interest. You are dismissed from my service."
"You're serious," Merlin said bemusedly, and Arthur did not contradict him. "Why?"
"Because you deserve the chance to life your life, in peace and safety."
Merlin frowned. "But my life is here in Camelot. With you."
"Being my servant has endangered your life on too many occasions to count." Arthur glanced pointedly down at the leg Merlin was still favouring. "You were forced into my service; it is about time I set you free."
Merlin straightened his head and looked Arthur in the eye. "I am not a slave. I have always known I could leave if I wished, but I chose to stay. I have already told you; I'm happy to be your servant."
Arthur remembered the last time Merlin had said those words. "Till the day you die," he added.
"That day nearly came yesterday, when your leg was sliced open and you almost bled to death," Arthur reminded him. He could still hear Merlin's scream of pain echoing in his mind.
Merlin tried to laugh it off. "It wasn't that bad."
"I have seen such injuries kill many a man," Arthur told him. Once Merlin had passed out Arthur had tried to hold the wound closed, to stem the bleeding. Merlin's blood had coated his hands. "It was a miracle you survived."
Merlin shrugged. "I'm just lucky, I guess."
"And someday that luck will run out. It is too dangerous, Merlin." Arthur sighed. "That's why I'm letting you go."
Merlin glared and folded his arms stubbornly. "I don't want to. I won't."
"I'm trying to save your life!"
"It is my life to live as I see fit," Merlin retorted heatedly. "You may be the King, but you cannot dictate how I spend it."
"You will be safer and happier back in Ealdor."
"No, I won't," Merlin argued. "I don't fit in there. My life has no purpose there. What do you expect me to do? Till fields until I am old and grey?"
"At least you will live that long."
"Except it won't be living. It will be existing. My spirit will wither away and die long before my body decides to follow."
"Farming isn't that bad, surely."
"It is when I know I could be doing something so much greater."
Arthur raised an eyebrow. "You think very highly of cleaning my socks."
Merlin ignored the comment. "Someday you will be the greatest king the world has ever known, and I intend to be standing by your side when that day comes."
"But you nearly died yesterday."
Merlin nodded slowly. "If I must die to ensure that you become the king Camelot deserves, then I will do so gladly. You will change the world for the better, I know you will, and I will give anything to help you get there. Even my own life."
"But…Merlin… I don't want you to die."
Merlin's eyes filled with warmth. "I'm not planning to die any time soon, Arthur, don't worry. You need me far too much for me to skip off so soon. Why, if I wasn't here, I doubt you'd last a week."
Arthur wasn't ready to start joking around. "I'd manage. I'm serious, Merlin, I don't want you to die for me, and the only way I can make sure that doesn't happen is if I sack you."
"Well, I wouldn't leave anyway. As I said before; it is my life, and it is my choice how I live it. And if I decide to give my life to save yours, then that will be my choice as well. You do not own me, Arthur. Our titles say that we are king and servant, but we're friends, and we're equals."
It should have sounded pretentious, but it didn't. "Is that why you never listen to me?"
Merlin smiled. "Something like that. I do let you order me around most of the time, but I feel it is my duty to serve and protect you no matter what it takes. You may not understand why I am willing to die for you, Arthur, and you may not like it. But you must respect it."
Arthur frowned a little. "So what you're saying is that I am not allowed to sack you?"
Merlin was right, he didn't like it. His mind's eye still replayed the scene where Merlin had nearly lost his life trying to defend Arthur, and it terrified him to think of it happening again. But he did understand. After all, Arthur would gladly give his life for Camelot. And he would give his life for this friend masquerading as a servant, too. He guessed they would just have to watch each other's backs, and hope for the best.
For now, Merlin wasn't going anywhere. It was a huge relief, and as the tension dropped away Arthur found himself grinning.
He clapped Merlin on the back. "Well, if you're still my servant, that means you still have to-"
"-clean your room, launder your clothes, polish your armour…"
"And don't forget to muck out my st-!"
Out of nowhere pillow hit him in the face. Arthur spluttered in surprise, and then caught sight of Merlin standing there, laughing at him. "Why you cheeky-"
Merlin threw another, but Arthur dodged it and swiped up the one off the floor. It hit the target dead on.
"Oi!" Merlin yelped.
Arthur grinned at him.
When Guinevere poked her head around the door, worried that Arthur might have gone through with his plan to sack Merlin, she instead found king and servant in the midst of a pillow fight. Both of them were roaring with laughter.
Shaking her head at the antics of these two unlikely friends, she decided to leave them to it.