A/N: Thank you very much for the reviews; they are greatly appreciated. To all UK readers; I hope you are wrapped up snug and warm against the snow. Being a teacher means that I managed to squeeze a snow day out of the weather today, which was lovely. And which, incidentally, means that I will be able to write a lot more of this story this evening!
Anyway, on with this chapter. This is one of my favourite chapters and I had such fun writing it! Bromance abounds! Please let me know what you think!
It had taken Merlin half an hour to realise that Arthur was hard work. Not long after that, it became apparent to him that his pretend attempt at being Tiden's manservant was nothing short of a holiday when compared to actually being Arthur's. The first day had started off fairly well. He had quietly come into the room and laid out breakfast for Arthur –who he was trying to remember to call by his first name- and Gwen –a nickname that he definitely still wasn't comfortable with- and made sure that all their plates, glasses and cutlery were laid out –a feat that was very hard to achieve in complete silence. That done, and happy with the result, Merlin had slowly and carefully opened the curtains so as not to alarm the royal couple out of their sleep.
Arthur had opened his eyes and seen the laid out breakfast table, frowned and then asked sharply.
'Where's Merlin?' In the quietness of the room, the tone made him jump and it took him several seconds to reply.
'I'm here…Arthur.' The King had turned round, a frown settling even more deeply into his features, and surveyed Merlin suspiciously.
'You laid out breakfast?'
'On the table?'
Merlin added his own frown to their exchange and glanced over at the table. It seemed that the answer to the King's question was fairly obvious.
'So quietly that you didn't wake us up?' Merlin raised his eyebrows. Was the King always this…slow just after he'd woken up? Beside him, the Queen stirred and took in the scene. In opposition to Arthur's reaction, she sat up and smiled over at Merlin.
'Good morning, Merlin. This looks wonderful.'
'You're welcome, My Lady,' he had replied, refusing to use anything other than her title when she was dressed in only her night clothes.
'Yes…' Arthur added, clearing his throat and seemingly gathering his thoughts. Merlin waited for him to speak again, but he just continued to look at Merlin as if he wasn't exactly sure what was happening.
'You gave me my job back yesterday, Sire,' he ventured, carefully.
'I know that,' he replied sharply.
'Oh. It's just…'
'Nothing,' Merlin said. 'What would you like me to do today?' he continued quickly, when he still found himself being scrutinised.
What had followed was a list of chores that Merlin knew he had no hope of remembering in its entirety. He had laundry to collect, he had to help Arthur get dressed, clear up the breakfast, wash and launder any dirty clothes, clean the bedroom, polish Arthur's armour ready for an afternoon sparring session between kings and knights of the different kingdoms and attend another kings' and queens' meeting in the council rooms.
'Will that be all, Arthur?' Merlin had asked when the list was finished, desperately hoping it was. The king, who by now had made his way over to the table and was studying the breakfast suspiciously –making Merlin wonder if he'd done something wrong- turned round at the comment with a hopeful and amused look on his face, but after several seconds when Merlin politely waited for an answer, he simply nodded his head and turned back to the food. Merlin had wanted to ask what the problem was, but his nerve failed him; he should not question the reactions of a King. He gave a short bow to the Queen, who smiled sympathetically at him, and then to the King who nodded his acknowledgement, but didn't hold his gaze for more than a second.
After what Merlin felt was the failure of that first interaction, he had done everything in his power to put things right. He ran himself ragged, ensuring that every job was done to perfection; that anything Arthur needed was there and in order. In the kings and queens' meeting he was the picture of a perfect servant. He didn't move one muscle unless he was called forward by Arthur to top up his goblet, and at all times he kept his gaze fixed and alert. He didn't allow his boredom to show and he made no attempt to amuse himself by looking around the room at the other monarchs. The effort it took was exhausting and at the end he had fully expected Arthur to, if not compliment him, at least give him some sort of nod of recognition to show that he was doing well at taking over his old job. But the King only gave him a fleeting glance and a half-hearted smile before heading back up to his chambers.
So it was that by the time he finished helping Arthur dress for bed and made his way up to his chambers that night, Merlin felt utterly exhausted and completely dejected. It wasn't that he particularly wanted to impress Arthur. After all, this job was a ruse, a way of keeping an eye on the King in order to report back to Tiden. But Merlin still wanted to be convincing in his role. He didn't want King Arthur to become suspicious; if he did, it would put Tiden's plan, along with the whole of Cyathia, in jeopardy.
Peter storming in a few minutes after he got back also hadn't helped matters.
'Why is everyone saying that you're King Arthur's manservant again?' he asked, accusingly, sitting down on the stool opposite Merlin and helping himself to some of the bread that had been bought in the market earlier with the advance pay that the Queen had given.
'Good to see you too,' Merlin told him pointedly. Peter didn't seem to pick up on the hint.
'You said Tiden wanted you to be his manservant so that you could listen in on the talks.'
'He did, but then he changed his mind and…' Merlin shook his head and sighed.
'So what, now you're spying on King Arthur?' Peter frowned. 'Merlin, in Cyathia you said you were worried about the sort of person you'd been before. How is this any better?'
'Well then, why are you doing this?'
Merlin tried to explain the reasons behind Tiden's orders, how Merlin's information on the King would speed up the whole process of breaking up the talks, and, after a while, Peter seemed to understand.
'So you're coming back to Cyathia after all this is finished?' he asked, watching Merlin closely for a reply.
'That's what you're worried about?'
'Of course. I've just managed to find you, my friend,' he grinned. 'I'm not letting you sell yourself out to a magic-hating King, even if you did work for him before.'
'Thanks,' he laughed.
'So if you're doing your old job, have any of your old memories come back?'
'No, nothing,' he admitted, carrying on with his dinner now that Peter seemed less likely to yell at him. 'But whatever I'm doing, I think it's wrong.'
'What do you mean?'
He quickly filled Peter in on his day, describing the negative reactions he had received from Arthur.
'What more does he want?' the boy asked indignantly when Merlin had finished.
'I really don't know.'
'I can't believe you worked for him all this time if he's so…arrogant. Sounds like nothing's ever good enough for him.'
'Either that or I did a lot better when I worked for him before.'
'I thought you said you worked your hardest today.'
'I did,' Merlin sighed, 'but evidently it wasn't enough.'
'I don't understand why he's doing everything so…so perfectly,' Arthur growled in frustration, pacing at the bottom of his bed, while Guinevere watched him with something like amusement and something like scolding on her face.
'So you're annoyed because he's doing his job too well?' she asked. 'Arthur, all you did before was tell Merlin what a terrible servant he was.'
'Yes,' Arthur nodded, pointing a finger at Guinevere and nodding emphatically, 'and this only proves that he was never trying his best.'
'So are you cross because he never used to work hard enough before or because he's working too hard now?' she asked him, making it quite clear from her tone that she thought he was being childish. But he didn't care if he was. He had spent the whole of today trying not to yell at Merlin for doing everything that was asked of him to the highest standard. He put his head back and gave a half yell of annoyance, pacing further across the room.
'Arthur,' Guinevere said gently. 'Come and sit down.' Arthur considered ignoring her, but he had a feeling that she wasn't entirely on his side when it came to this minor-rage that he was going through and he didn't want to make her angry by tossing aside her completely reasonable request. Still, he wasn't above making it clear that he didn't want to sit down. He stormed over, expression fiery and sighing emphatically. 'What's the matter?' she asked when he slipped into the covers beside her. As she said it she pushed him down so that she could lie against his chest. He knew exactly what she was doing, trying to calm him, forcing him to pay her some attention in order to distract him from his thoughts.
It worked. His arm wrapped around her instinctively and he felt his breathing even out. She was clever, he could never deny that.
'It's just…' he pushed his head deeper into the pillow and stared at the drapes above the bed.
'…not the same?' she suggested. He sighed and nodded his head. Guinevere propped her head up one arm and leaned in to kiss him. He fixed his eyes on hers, allowing them to calm her. 'You knew it would be different.'
'I just didn't realise how different. I mean, look at this room,' he said incredulously, lifting his head to look around, before Guinevere gently pushed him back down. 'It's spotless,' he continued, 'completely tidy. And my clothes…they're all washed and laundered. Literally, all of them. He even polished all my boots without me asking. He hates polishing boots. I know he does.'
'And did you see him in the meeting? He didn't move. It was like having a Merlin statue in the council room and believe me, I've never wanted a Merlin statue in the council room, or anywhere else for that matter.'
'Arthur,' Guinevere said more forcefully, and he realised that his voice had gradually got louder.
'Sorry,' he muttered, kissing her head.
'You know that all he's tried to do today is his best. He wanted to do well.'
'I know, but this new Merlin-'
'There isn't an old and new Merlin, Arthur. There's just Merlin.'
'But he's not Merlin,' Arthur sighed.
'I know he's not the same,' she agreed sadly. 'But…' she trailed off and Arthur could sense her hesitancy. Instantly, curiosity began crawling through him. He turned to her, his eyes narrowing.
'What is it?'
She sighed and looked at him closely, before eventually sitting up in bed, studying her hands for several seconds and then looking at him.
'Arthur, I don't want you to fall into false hope,' she told him carefully.
'Trust me,' he told her matter-of-factly, sitting up to join her, 'that won't be a problem after today's faultless-servant performance. What is it?' he prompted when she still remained silent.
'Today, you didn't tell him where anything was or how he should do things.' She stopped there, looking at him significantly.
'And that's important because…?'
'Well, how did he know where to go for everything?' she said softly.
'What do you-' but he stopped as he realised the implication of her words. He thought back over the day. She was right. When Merlin had helped him get dressed and undressed he had gone to exactly the right drawers and cupboards. He had known where things were kept in the room and how to go about cleaning and sorting things. He turned to her, unable to swallow down the small amount of hope that began to bubble. She looked at him anxiously and he tried to school his features.
'You're saying he remembered.'
'No,' she told him gently, 'but somewhere in his head the instincts and habits from his time in Camelot are still there.'
'But that means-'
'No, Arthur,' she began quickly, taking up his hands in hers and looking at him firmly. 'It doesn't necessarily mean anything.' He wanted to argue with her, but the truth in her words, and her sincerity in speaking them made him stop. 'You can't place your hope in that.' She gave him a small smile and then leaned up and kissed him. 'This new Merlin, as you call him, may turn out to be the only Merlin we have. Let him be himself, even if it's not the version you want. Maybe one day you'll see some of the old Merlin in him, but no-one can guarantee that.'
'That's not the same,' Arthur whispered, his chest feeling heavy again as he lay back down, pulling Guinevere with him.
'I know, but we both know the heart of who Merlin is. He's loyal, gentle, compassionate. Nothing can change that.'
Arthur nodded slowly, trying to take some comfort in Guinevere's last words of the evening, but it did little to ease the pain that was beginning to seep back into him.
It would never be the same, and somehow he had to find a way to live with that.
The following afternoon, after a similar day of wishing Merlin would do things wrong and not having that wish granted, Arthur watched in hidden irritation as the perfect-servant version of Merlin carefully placed a goblet down on the table. He did it so gently and with such focus that Arthur felt the childish urge to go and knock him just so he'd spill some. He resisted, however, and said nothing as Merlin finished that task and then pulled a duster from his pocket. Moving to the other side of the bed, he proceeded to dust the furniture there, despite the fact that he had done the same job yesterday and Arthur hadn't asked him to do it then, let alone today.
If possible, Merlin had tried even harder today, and it was driving Arthur mad. Not only had he managed to lay out breakfast without waking them up, he had also succeeded in laying out all of Arthur's armour on one of the cupboards without making a sound, in preparation for the morning training session.
The day had continued in much the same fashion, with Merlin doing all that was asked of him without complaint and with very little communication. It was like having the servant-who-wasn't-Merlin back working for him, and that did nothing to make Arthur feel any happier.
With a sigh, he returned his attention to the document in his hand; it held an agenda for the upcoming meeting of the day. After the initial problems that the kingdoms had had, Arthur had been worried that the talks would fail before they had even started, but the second meeting yesterday had proved more fruitful and he was beginning to hope that his and Merlin's shared vision was finally taking its first tentative steps. But thinking about that only served to remind him that the Merlin standing across the room from him had absolutely no idea that he was the reason these talks were taking place.
He picked up the goblet, his eyes still scanning the details, but as he took a sip and tasted what was in the cup, he spluttered in shock. Merlin had given him wine; and very strong wine at that! He looked incredulously over at the man, who had turned round at the sound of Arthur's cough. He looked down at the goblet in Arthur's hand in dismay, but it did nothing to curb Arthur's annoyance.
'This is wine!' he all but shouted. Merlin turned to him, his eyes looking around the room anxiously before he answered.
'You…you said you wanted a drink before the meeting,' he replied, frowning at Arthur as if he had gone slightly mad.
'Not wine!' Arthur blustered. 'I can't go into one of the most important meetings in Camelot's history having drunk a goblet of wine! What were you thinking?' Arthur knew he was being unreasonable, but his pent up frustration needed some sort of outlet and as this was the only thing that Merlin had come remotely close to doing wrong, Arthur felt himself seizing the opportunity to retaliate.
'I…' Merlin tried, but there was something other than perfect-servant-submission in his tone and posture now. His fists were clenched at his side -the duster being held much more firmly than was really required for dusting- and his lips were pressed tightly together. That only made Arthur more determined; if he could get into an argument with Merlin, it would feel familiar; it would be some way of reminding himself that the person in front of him really was the same man who had gone over the top of the cliff all those weeks ago.
'How stupid can you be? It's one simple task,' he pressed, staring hard at Merlin, inwardly pleading with him to argue back, but instead he nodded his head and murmured an apology. Within seconds he was working again. Arthur sighed in irritation and turned back to his documents, but a muttering from Merlin caught his attention. The man probably assumed that Arthur couldn't hear, but impeccable hearing was part of his battle training.
'Get your own drink next time.'
For a second, Arthur couldn't gather his thoughts enough to reply. The sarcasm in his tone, the way he had said it almost to himself… It seemed, just for a moment, that Arthur was really seeing Merlin; not new Merlin, not old Merlin, just Merlin.
'What did you say?' he asked slowly, his tone low.
'Nothing,' Merlin replied, but he didn't look like he was feeling guilty or sheepish. He didn't even look at Arthur. He was angry, very angry, and Arthur knew he only had to push him a little further.
'No, please,' he said in his most patronising tone, one that he knew had always set Merlin on edge in the past. He put his goblet down and took a step forward. 'Let's hear it Merlin. After all: I'm always eager to hear what my subjects have to say.'
For a moment, Merlin looked like he was going to back down, but then suddenly he snapped. He stood up straight and turned to face Arthur, his eyes hard and his jaw set.
'Fine,' he began in a dangerously quiet voice. 'If you want to know what I think then here it is. You,' and at this he pointed the duster in Arthur's direction, 'are the most ungrateful person I have ever met. I know this is my job now, I know that I'm paid to do this, but it wouldn't cost you anything to show the tinniest bit of gratitude.' He took several steps towards the bed and stood in what, for Merlin, was quite a menacing stance. Arthur had rarely seen him so angry; he absently wondered if all of Merlin's witty comments and disrespectful jibes in the past had been a means of avoiding ever getting this cross with Arthur. Before he could dwell on that, however, Merlin spoke -shouted- again. 'I have been working myself into the ground for the last two days. I have done everything you've asked and I've done it as well as I possibly can and nothing is ever good enough for you!'
At this he began pacing back and forth, sporadically looking between Arthur and the floor, but Arthur could sense that he wasn't finished yet and was strangely compelled to let him finish; it was the most animated that Arthur had seen Merlin since he'd returned to Camelot and, although he was slightly more hysterical than Merlin usually got, he was closer to his old self than anything Arthur had dared to hope for.
'And that wine that is so horrendous,' he continued, pointedly, 'took me two hours to find! I searched everywhere to get the best one because I thought that maybe, just maybe, you'd be happy with one chore that I'd completed. You are…' he turned and took a deep breath, hands clenched once again, before he looked back at Arthur. 'You are an arrogant…' he paused, evidently searching for the right word.
'Supercilious?' Arthur suggested nonchalantly, trying to contain his amusement and hope.
'Yes,' Merlin nodded emphatically, brandishing the duster at him once again. 'You are an arrogant, supercilious…' he paused again and Arthur all but held his breath. He knew the word that Merlin would have used at this point in the past. His own made-up word that made absolutely no sense, but which he had used in reference to Arthur on several occasions. He watched his oh-so-familiar servant search for the word he needed to express his current hatred for his employer, and Arthur silently willed him to say it; willed him to remember something of what their friendship had been and how it had been expressed. He pleaded with Merlin to say the one word that would convince him that somewhere, deep down, the memories were still there.
He looked at Merlin, saw the man's furious eyes and open his mouth.
'…clotpole!' he finished defiantly.
Arthur looked at him, his face breaking into a smile as he failed to hold back a joyful laugh.
Merlin stared incredulously at the King in front of him. He had to be mad; that was the only explanation. Here Merlin was, seething with anger after delivering a highly inappropriate –but highly truthful- rant to the King of Camelot, which, in all honesty, should have got him fired, and what was Arthur doing? Laughing. Laughing as if Merlin had just told him the most hilarious joke.
What was wrong with this man? This was the most accepting and friendly he had been towards Merlin and yet this was the rudest and most disrespectful Merlin had been towards him. And somehow it just made Merlin feel even madder than he already was. What right did Arthur have to laugh off all the things that Merlin had just said?
Distantly, he remembered that he was meant to be playing the part of the perfect servant in order to report back to Tiden, and he had a feeling that the Cyathian king would be less than impressed at the way he was currently behaving, but Merlin didn't care. Someone had to tell King Arthur exactly what he was like and Merlin felt that if anyone was going to do it, it might as well be him. But the man was still laughing.
The urge to throw something at him suddenly became overwhelming to Merlin, but he somehow doubted that flinging the duster at him would really highlight the point Merlin was trying to make. Besides, the King was just as likely to throw something back at him and currently he had a wine goblet at his disposal. Merlin was relatively sure it would hurt if Arthur threw that at him…
Merlin froze at the thought.
He felt his eyes widen and he drew in a deep breath as something shifted in his mind. He saw himself in this room, Arthur standing by the bed, having just got out of it, while Merlin stood only a few paces back from where he currently was. The king shouted something at him, then picked up the goblet from his bedside chest and flung it in Merlin's direction.
With a gasp, Merlin focussed his attention back on the scene before him, trying to calm his breathing, which had suddenly quickened; his heart racing in his chest. He looked at Arthur; the King was saying something.
'…said that so many times in the past, it's-'
'You threw that at me,' Merlin interrupted, pointing at the goblet on the table before looking at Arthur. The king stopped, his mouth still open and his eyes narrowing. He looked down at the goblet.
'What the hell are you talking about? I haven't touched it.'
'You threw it at me,' Merlin repeated.
'Merlin, it's right there, I haven't-' he said, staring at Merlin as if he had gone completely mad.
'No, Arthur. I mean you've thrown it at me in the past. You were standing there and I was back here, and you threw that goblet at me.' Merlin watched as the King's eyes unfocussed slowly as he, too, remembered the event, and then fixed back on Merlin. He stood up from where he had been leaning against the table in his amusement, and took a few steps towards Merlin.
'Are you saying that you remember that?' he asked slowly. Merlin nodded, hardly daring to believe it himself. 'You remember me hitting you with this goblet?'
'You didn't hit me,' Merlin told him.
'You didn't hit me. You missed.'
'You missed. Then I made some comment and you threw a couple more things, but I moved out of the way and went through the side door.'
Merlin could see it all; could see what had happened, remembered that he had been moaning to Arthur about something, remembered making a sarcastic comment as he left the room.
'Merlin,' Arthur said quietly, and now he had moved round the bed so that he was standing right in front of Merlin. There was no trace of amusement on his face anymore, but there was hope, a deep seated and fearful hope, but hope nonetheless. '…are you saying that a memory has just come back to you?'
'I think so,' he nodded. Merlin saw the change come over the King's face. He gave a short laugh of astonishment, his mouth curling into a genuine and real smile that was directed entirely at Merlin. Wordlessly, the King reached a hand up and placed it on Merlin's shoulder.
For the first time in two days, Merlin felt like he had done something which was good enough for the King.