"What is wrong with you today?" Arthur demanded, calling Mordred's attention from where it was fixed upon the fire.
"Nothing, my Lord," the knight deflected, turning back to his contemplation of the flames.
"It's something," Arthur insisted, shrugging out of his coat and draping it over a corner of the table separating them. There was no denying that his youngest knight was distracted. It had been clear from the beginning that Mordred preferred to keep to himself. He did not enjoy the things most of the other's did, and his words were few if he spoke at all. He was a private person, Arthur decided, who didn't like to share more of himself than was necessary. Arthur was willing to accept all this, but in recent days it had become worse. His mind was simply not on training, and today he had barely seemed to hear a word spoken to him.
"Tell me, Mordred," Arthur entreated, but Mordred merely glanced at him, hesitated a moment, then shook his head.
"It is nothing, my Lord," he repeated.
"There must be something wrong, you're not such a girl that you must pine in a corner over nothing, are you?" Arthur demanded, trying to goad Mordred into an argument. The same tactic often worked with Merlin when he was being sulky and quiet, a state which troubled Arthur probably more than it should have.
Mordred, however, remained silent.
A thought struck the king. "Is it a woman?" he guessed, edging closer to the fire. "Are you in love?"
Mordred tensed a moment, then turned his head halfway, to look at Arthur out of the corner of his eye. "I fear that I am in love, my Lord," he answered softly, and Arthur was about to exclaim in triumph when he continued, "but . . . but not with a woman."
Arthur took a moment to realize the implication, but then nodded knowingly. "I see," he said, striding around the table and pulling a chair next to Mordred's by the fire. "Who is it?"
"It matters little," Mordred sighed.
Arthur frowned. "But you love him, yes?" he pressed.
"More than anything, my Lord," Mordred breathed, closing his eyes and letting a pained, wistful expression cross his face. "There are days I can think of nothing else. When his eyes light on me I feel alone in the world, singled out by his regard, cut off from everything but the fleeting connection between us. To know that those eyes judge me makes me want to be a better man. To know they find me lacking, is like having my heart torn from my chest. I want so badly for him to accept me, but . . ."
"He doesn't return your interest?" the King asked, a little perplexed.
"He does not," Mordred said dully, turning back to the fire.
"Prefers the fairer sex?" Arthur inquired, his voice sympathetic.
Mordred shook his head. "I don't think that's the problem," he sighed.
"Well what is it then?" Arthur laughed slightly, sure he had reached the heart of the matter and he had found a way to help his young knight.
The raven stared into the heart of the flames, thinking. Arthur put out a hand to clasp Mordred's arm, but the younger man flinched at the first touch, drawing into himself in a way that Arthur didn't like at all. He sat back in his chair, watching.
"Why won't he consider you?" Arthur asked, firmer this time.
Mordred hesitated a moment longer. "He won't consider me until he trusts me," he explained carefully, "and no matter what he claims I can tell he doesn't."
"He thinks you untrustworthy?" Arthur demanded, brow furrowed in concern. "You? A knight of Camelot?"
Mordred closed his eyes and smiled weakly. "You make it sound so simple," he sighed.
"It aught to be!" Arthur protested. "I do not bestow the knighthood on men without honor! Is it one of the others? Do the men doubt you?"
"I have been offered no suspicion or contempt by my fellow knights," Mordred assured him.
"Tell me then," Arthur insisted, "tell me who it is that doubts the integrity of my knights."
"He does not doubt the integrity of your men, my Lord," Mordred shook his head, "and I would not bring trouble down on him."
Arthur paused, realizing he'd backed himself into a corner. "What can I do to help you?" he asked, voice gentle once more. He leaned in, trying to catch the raven's eye. "I could speak to him, reassure him your intentions are honorable."
Mordred simply continued to gaze into the fire. "It would do no good, my Lord," he said quietly, "it is you he thinks I am deceiving."
Arthur drew back, surprised. "He thinks so little of me?"
"Oh no, my Lord," Mordred said hurriedly, glancing up from the fire at last, "he holds you in the highest esteem."
"Then let me speak to him for you," Arthur pressed. "You may be entirely wrong about his assumptions. I will know his mind, then pass it on to you."
Mordred dropped the King's gaze. "And still there is . . ." he paused, grasping for the words. "He is close to you. I doubt you would approve."
Arthur reached out his hand and caught Mordred's chin, tilting the startled raven's face toward his own. "Then tell me, and know my mind on the subject."
Mordred's eyes darted all over the King's face, searching for something. "Please," he whispered, "please, swear on your love for her Majesty the Queen that you will think differently of neither of us, or else do not ask me for this, sire."
Arthur dropped his hand, but held Mordred's gaze. "I swear," he said.
Mordred bit his lip, thinking. Arthur stared. For a moment he looked so young.
"Merlin!?" Arthur laughed, loudly this time, "You must be joking. Come off it Mordred, have you been pulling my leg this whole time?"
"He is the bravest and most loyal man that I know!" Mordred insisted, turning in his chair to fully face this king with shocked, indignant eyes. "He has never left your side, no matter what dangers he must face unarmed and unarmored. He followed you to Ismere even when your men turned back. He would do anything to keep you out of danger, anything to make you happy. He does not move from here to there without he thinks to please you! I-" he paused, as though realizing he had said too much, but it was too late to take the words back now.
"He resents how quickly you and I became close, my Lord. What he does not know is that I am equally envious of the effect you have on him. I . . . I am jealous, my Lord."
This, Arthur realized, was no jest. He would have to take this seriously, or get no confidence from his youngest knight for the foreseeable future. Though it was strange to think of someone being in love with Merlin, of all people, he supposed that it was not impossible. He'd had no idea Merlin even had such an inclination, but Mordred seemed to think otherwise. Then again, there was that incident with the dress.
"I grant you he is brave," Arthur said carefully, "and exceedingly loyal. But, I assure you, there is nothing special about the bond we share. I trust him, yes. He is what you might call a friend, but he does not think nearly so much of me as you suppose."
Mordred shook his head. "Are you really so naive?" he asked.
"He makes up words to insult me!" Arthur protested, louder than he'd meant to.
"Only because he fears you will too soon grow bored with a servant who can only say 'Yes, sire'."
Arthur paused a moment as he tried to digest that piece of information. Did Merlin really think him that fickle? Would he really put himself at risk just to keep Arthur entertained? Was the easy banter between them really the product of fear that the servant would be cast aside? Surely that couldn't be true. Could it?
Arthur shook his head to clear it. This was not the time to be thinking on his own insecurities. "Listen, Mordred," he said, "I will speak to him for you. I will learn his opinions of you, and lay to rest any doubt he may have about your honor or your intentions. If what you say is true he will listen to me."
Mordred hesitated a moment, then - "You would do that for me?"'
Arthur smiled, trying to keep it as bright as he could and not betray the twinge of doubt beginning to creep into his mind. "Of course! After all, Merlin acted as go-between for Guinevere and I in our early days. I see no reason why I should not return the favor, if I can be of help."
Mordred's face broke out into a smile, a gorgeous, sunny smile that made Arthur's gut twist for some unfathomable reason. "Thank you sire!" he said, his voice full of hope and happiness for the first time in weeks, "I - I can't tell you -"
"There's no need," Arthur cut him off, holding up a hand. "I will mend this rift that it seems I helped create. You have my word."
When Mordred left Arthur sank back into his chair, staring at the fire as Mordred had done. The things the younger man had told him whirled through his mind, colliding painfully with things he had been sure were true. He was not sure how he felt about this development; he was not sure how he should feel about this development. Mordred was a good man, this he knew, so what could make Merlin take it into his head that Mordred was untrustworthy? Had what Mordred said about jealousy really been true? Was that really how Merlin thought of him? Arthur Pendragon was a man of his word, he would keep his promise. That didn't mean he didn't go to bed with a heavy heart and a head full of thoughts he wished he didn't have to consider.