Gaius was grinding herbs and mixing poultices when he heard the door to his room open.
"Is that you, Merlin?" he called, not turning around. "Where have you been all day? The sun's nearly down! There are things to be done, and you can't spend the day idling-" He turned and saw his young apprentice slip through the door. Rotten fruit stains covered every inch of the boy, and there were bits of tomato lodged in his messy hair.
Merlin grinned guiltily. "Can I use some old towels?" he asked.
"Oh, Merlin," Gaius groaned. "The stocks again? That's the third time this week! What in the world have you been doing to upset Arthur?" He picked up a rag and hurried over to where Merlin stood, still smiling.
"Actually," he replied, "I haven't been bothering Arthur. Quite the opposite, really. I covered for him while he was out, and Uther got annoyed." He pulled a bit of tomato out of his hair and stared at it. "You know, I think they let the fruit rot for a week in advance."
"Covering for Arthur?" Gaius stepped back. "The last time you did that, the prince was under an enchantment. If that's happening again,-"
"Nah, don't worry," Merlin said casually, tossing the bit of fruit aside. "He's been sneaking out with Gwen, and I'm pretty sure neither of them are under any spells. I volunteered to cover for them. It's no big deal, since he's letting me out of most of my chores. Of course, I'm spending that extra time having rotten fruit thrown at me, so, you know…" He shrugged.
Gaius sighed. "Why do you do this? I know you have things you'd rather be doing, and Arthur isn't forcing you. Why would you subject yourself to this punishment day after day when you have nothing to profit from the deal?" He shuffled over to his mortar and pestle. "I'll never understand you, Merlin!"
The young man sat down on a bench nearby. "To be honest, Gaius, I'm not really sure why I do it." He stared off into space, thinking. "I guess I don't know."
Then he perked up. Gaius was confused for a moment. Merlin jumped up and ran to the window.
"What is it, Merlin?" Gaius called. "What are you staring at?" He walked over to the window and peered out, trying to see what his student was so eagerly gazing towards.
Below the window, a couple stories down, two figures were crossing the courtyard. In the twilight, they were somewhat unrecognizable, until Gaius heard a familiar giggle.
"I see the prince and his lady are back from their little trip," he said. Merlin didn't respond. He just continued to stare down at the happy couple, who were laughing and talking quietly.
"I showed them a pond in the forest I found a few weeks ago," he murmured after a bit. "It's a nice little spot where they could be together privately. I even put a spell on the fireflies so they'd come out a little earlier." He smiled. "You should have seen the look on Gwen's face. She was just walking on air." He watched them for a few moments more, then turned to Gaius. "I think I know why I do this. Cover for them, I mean. Stain my clothes for them. Get humiliated for them." He pointed toward them. "It's that, right there."
"What do you mean?" Gaius asked, puzzled.
"I mean that," Merlin said, glancing toward them. "That smile Gwen's wearing." Gaius made out the girl's face. The look on her face was of pure joy. "I see her with Arthur, and she's always smiling. She looks at him, he looks at her, and she's happy."
"I thought you had feelings or Guinevere," Gaius said. "Or, at least, that's what I took from your attitude whenever she comes up in conversation."
"Yeah, I think I do," Merlin said. "But around me, she doesn't smile like that. She doesn't giggle and grin and her eyes don't sparkle and she's not the same around me as she is with Arthur. She loves him, Gaius. Not me. I've just got to get over that. And this is the least I can do for them. Just let me have this."
Gaius contemplated the young man in front of him. After a moment or two, he sighed. "All right then, go ahead." He gestured toward the window, and Merlin grinned. He turned at continued to gaze out the window at his friend and his love, who were still having the time of their lives.