Disclaimer: Merlin's Arthur's. Not mine.
A/N: I was feeling confused, and hurt, about Arthur's behavior towards Merlin, treating him like a friend in one scene, a servant in the next, confusing and hurting Merlin as much as, if not more than, me. Then I realized Arthur must be confused himself about where the servitude ends and the friendship begins, so I wrote this to make him seem less of a mean, arrogant clotpole, and more of a kitten when it tumbles out of a cardboard box, looking so damn adorable and confused.
But I wasn't gonna let him off the hook that easily so I made him bump into a kitchen maid with trays. Twice.
Arthur Pendragon, crown prince and heir to the throne of Camelot, was not amused.
He had been storming through the wide and spacey corridors of the castle for almost an hour now. For not the first time, he cursed the place for being this large and vast. It was practically impossible to find someone within it, particularly if that someone was his manservant, who had an odd habit of roaming around the castle and a tendency to attract trouble like moths to a bright light.
Not that he cared what sort of trouble Merlin got himself into, Arthur told himself hastily, he wouldn't care at all, but his idiot of a manservant hadn't been there to attend him this morning. He was used to his servant being late on almost a daily basis, but this was the first time he failed to show up at all. Not that there was anything Arthur couldn't do by himself, it was just the point in principle. Also, if Arthur allowed himself to admit, he had gotten used to the easy smile and mindless chatter which always came along with Merlin, late or otherwise. So much so that he had felt almost… empty that morning. Like a part of him was missing.
Annoyed and somewhat embarrassed at the line his thoughts had drifted on, he shook his head dismissively and continued his pace to the court physician's chambers.
Once he had reached his destination, he rapped his knuckles against the hard wood of the door. After a moment the door opened and Gaius looked inquiringly at him.
Merlin didn't always call him by his title. Every single servant he's ever had previously never dared to call him directly by his name. They used his title every chance they got, but with Merlin, as of late, it has decreased to the point that there were days in which Merlin didn't use it at all.
"I'm looking for Merlin" He told the elderly physician "Any chance you know where he'd be at?"
Gaius shook his head.
"He left early, sire, even before having his breakfast" He hesitated and then added "He said he wanted to be on time for you for a change"
Arthur couldn't help scoffing at this.
"Merlin couldn't be on time if his life depended on it" he commented idly.
Gaius gave him a look that he couldn't really decipher.
"Perhaps not, sire" he said carefully "But I believe that it's different when other people's lives depend on it"
Arthur frowned at Gaius. He felt as if the physician was hinting something to him. He was getting that feeling a lot lately, especially with Merlin.
'I'm happy to be your servant, until the day I die'
He frowned, but dismissed the matter as he had done before.
"Have a pleasant day, Gaius" he nodded at the elderly man.
"Likewise, sire" Gaius did no more than lower his head but it was a bow all the same. A show of respect. Merlin hardly ever bowed down before him, and the few times he did, it was certainly not to revere the prince's higher status in comparison to a servant. He respected Arthur, not his title. Merlin treated Arthur as an equal, and Arthur allowed it, even though he had yet to extend the same courtesy to Merlin.
Arthur left Gaius' chambers and made his way down the corridor at an alarming pace. As he turned the corner, he collided with a kitchen-maid with her arms laden with trays, thankfully empty ones.
Arthur winced at the resounding clangs the trays made as they landed on the hard stone floor. The kitchen-maid was breathing out apologies, seemingly on the verge of hyperventilating. Arthur didn't bother pointing out that it was more his fault than hers, racing down the corridor like a strung up horse. Impulsively, he bent to retrieve the trays, silently marveling at the weight and how such a small and frail looking girl could carry all this at a turn.
To say that said girl looked shocked to see the future king of Camelot kneeling on the ground, assembling trays would be a massive understatement. Arthur, suddenly hit with the realization of what he was doing, froze. He had been around Merlin so much that he had come to forget his own role of a prince.
Well, what could he do, drop them back down? Arthur played with the idea longer than he should've, but eventually handed back the trays to the trembling kitchen-maid.
"T-thank you, sire" the girl gasped out. Arthur had a feeling that his actions would be the gossip of the kitchens for months to come. Merlin was to blame obviously. Not only was it because of Merlin that Arthur had forgotten that nobles don't stoop to pick up trays for maids, but for making him rush down the corridors searching for him which was the cause of everything in the first place.
Yes, it was all Merlin's fault. And Arthur would tell him so, when Arthur finally found him, that is.
"Tell me, have you seen Merlin anywhere around?" he inquired with as much kindness he could muster through his annoyance.
The kitchen-maid mumbled something which consisted of quite a few barely coherent 'sire's and 'my lord's. Luckily amongst all the gibberish, Arthur managed to make out 'the king' and he had no need to know more. There was only one place his father ever was.
He sidestepped the petrified kitchen-maid with her armful of trays and made his way to the throne room, wondering what sort of mess Merlin had got himself mixed into this time. He did have the uncanny ability to get himself landed in trouble.
Even as he approached the throne-room, Arthur felt the trepidation rising steadily within him. Merlin and the king was not the best of combinations. Most of the times it ended with Merlin getting thrown to the stocks, or on good days, getting threatened with it.
Upon seeing him, the guards immediately opened the doors for him, effectively restricting him of any further thought.
The first thing he saw as he entered the room was Merlin.
"Merlin! There you are! What on earth-?"
Then he saw the rest of it.
Two men stood on either side of Merlin, their burly frames making him look skinnier than he was, holding him by the arms. Another man stood before the king, his fine clothes and proud posture declared the noble blood running through his veins.
"What's all this?" Arthur asked aloud to no one in particular, his eyes darting over to his manservant.
"Ah! Arthur… I was just about to request your presence. Allow me to introduce you to young Lord Rowan of Eastling"
Lord Rowan nodded at Arthur, who nodded back, if uneasily.
"They were passing Camelot, and had taken a particular liking for your servant. The trip back would be a lot less hassle with some help"
"Of course, I am prepared to pay" Lord Rowan of Eastling extracted a leather pouch of gold coins from his cloak and waved it at Arthur "handsomely"
Suddenly Arthur realized what was happening. They wanted to buy Merlin, like some common slave!
"No" Arthur couldn't keep the disbelief out of his voice. "Merlin, we're leaving" He turned to do just that, but halted when he realized Merlin hasn't taken his usual position on Arthur's right. He turned back to find his servant hadn't moved. Seeing how this effectively ruined his grand exit, Arthur was reasonably annoyed.
"Mer-lin, come on, don't just stand there!"
His servant gave him an incredulous look before ducking his head at his feet. Arthur followed his gaze and gritted his teeth. Chains bound Merlin's feet and lead up to the man on his right who held him captive.
A muscle shifted in Arthur's jaw. If Rowan had known Arthur well he would've recognized it as a danger sign.
"You chained him up!?" Arthur hissed "You had no right to do that!" he glared at Rowan.
"Arthur, Arthur" Arthur bristled at the use of his given name by this stranger. "Come now, I'm sure we can make some arrangement"
"I'm not selling Merlin"
"Surely, you can acquire another servant easily"
"I'm not selling Merlin!"
"He's just a servant"
That stopped Arthur. He couldn't-He wasn't Morgana for god's sake. He was Arthur Pendragon, crown prince of Camelot. He couldn't very well admit that Merlin was more a friend to him than a servant. In front of his father no less, and more importantly Merlin himself. He was certain Merlin had already guessed than the relations between them exceeded the normal level for master-servant, even he wasn't that thick. However Arthur had never voiced his feelings and certainly didn't plan to in the near future.
But seeing as how he already picked up trays for a maid already.
"He may be just a servant to you, but he… he's a…" friend, say friend, Arthur willed himself, but the word wouldn't even come close to leaving his mouth. It didn't matter however as everyone present guessed it, it seems. The king, Lord Rowan, his men, and of course, Merlin.
Rowan apparently taking pity in his state came up with a new argument.
"What difference does it make him? Whether he serves one master or another?"
Merlin had been silence all this time, Arthur had put it down to the growing of brain cells, but now the idiot chose to open his big mouth, directly contradicting Arthur's brain cell theory.
"I will serve no one else but Prince Arthur" Brave, and undoubtedly loyal, but so very foolish.
Arthur bit his tongue to refrain from mentioning that what Merlin did could hardly be called 'serving'. He doubted it would help the situation.
Even as the king thundered "Silence!", Rowan cuffed Merlin across the face, splitting his lip, drawing blood. Within seconds Arthur had the lord shoved against the wall. Although he had never been one to hit his servants, he had never taken it upon himself to criticize other nobles of this habit, much less interfere. But this was Merlin. And to see Merlin being treated like this was different than seeing any other servant abused. He felt responsible for Merlin. And not just as a master, but as a… as a friend.
Holding Rowan firmly against the wall, Arthur hissed at his face;
"Merlin is my servant, and he will be as long as I choose to keep him, and he chooses to stay. No one else has a say in the matter. Is. That. Under. Stood?"
Rowan nodded, his eyes squeezed shut. Coward, Arthur thought in disgust as he stepped away from him. His father looked disapproving but didn't intervene.
Rowan signaled at the man holding Merlin to release him to Arthur.
The man handed him the chains expecting him to take Merlin away with it. Arthur swallowed back the bile that threatened to rise up his throat and accepted it. Immediately he bent and set about to unchain Merlin. He internally recoiled at the angry red marks around the pale thin ankles, but kept his face carefully blank.
When he was done he straightened up to face Rowan and his men's expressions of varying levels of disbelief. He dropped the chains inches Rowan's feet, relishing in the satisfaction of hearing it clang on the stone floor. It felt like dropping his gauntlet, and he had half a mind to do just that. But Merlin, somehow guessing where his thoughts were headed, shook his head once. Just once. And Arthur withdrew. It was over now. No need to complicate matters.
He bowed at his father, who looked none the happier with Arthur. Trying not to think about the chiding he'll inevitably receive later, Arthur retreated from the throne room, dragging Merlin with him. He didn't let go of him till they were safely outside in the passage, away even from the guards' line of sight.
"Thank you" All earnest and teary eyed, so of course Arthur had to say something before Merlin burst into actual tears.
"Don't thank me Merlin, I only wanted my breakfast. Make sure this doesn't happen again" he turned to leave, but turned back almost instantly.
"How exactly did this happen?" He had the feeling he didn't quite want to know.
"Oh, uh…" Merlin cleared his throat, and rubbed the back of his neck with his hand, betraying his discomfort. "It's a long story"
"You can tell it to me over breakfast" The invitation cropped up from Arthur unbidden. Gaius had said Merlin had skipped his morning meal after all, he must be starving.
Only because Merlin needed the energy to do his job, Arthur told himself quickly. He mentally added more chores for Merlin to cut out the kindness he just showed. He did this whenever he forgot himself and acted like a friend when he should be acting like a master, which was surprisingly often. Poor Merlin was probably confused by his twists of character, but Arthur was beyond confused himself, so it was only fair that Merlin should suffer along with him.
They walked down the corridor when Arthur noticed something strange. Merlin was a couple of feet behind, which was odd because he always fell into step right beside Arthur. If you think about it, what was really odd was that Arthur should be bothered by proper servant behavior shown by Merlin.
And then Merlin fell.
Arthur sighed. If anyone could fall by tripping over their own feet, it would be Merlin. He waited impatiently for Merlin to pick himself up.
"Well?" He asked tersely after a number of seconds had passed and Merlin was still on the floor. "We haven't got all day"
It seemed a little harsh, but if Arthur reacted with concern each and every time Merlin fell, that's all he would ever be doing. Because falling is all Merlin ever did.
"Go on without me" Merlin muttered, hanging his head. "I'll catch up later"
"Merlin!" Arthur snapped, tired, frustrated-oh and hungry, let's not forget hungry "Look at me!"
Merlin raised his head slowly and Arthur was startled to see tears shining in his eyes.
"Merlin?" he probed in a more gentle tone.
"I can't-" Merlin choked back a sob "I can't get up right now"
Arthur's mind immediately went back to the sickening sight around Merlin's ankles. The only surprising thing here was how Merlin lasted this long. Arthur cursed himself for being such an oblivious fool, or possibly a clotpole in Merlin's words.
Arthur kneeled next to him, ducking his head till he could catch Merlin's eyes with his own.
"Are you in any pain?"
Merlin shook his head, his eyes fastened shut as tears trailed their way down his cheeks.
"Merlin, talk to me"
"I just can't…put any weight on my legs"
Arthur made his decision and scooped Merlin by his arms and slung him over his back, which was altogether far too easy. Arthur decided to make Merlin take breakfast with him more often. And put cleaning out the stables on his chore list. Twice.
"Arthur! Arth-what are you doing!?"
"What does it look like I'm doing?"
"It looks like you're-"
"It was a rhetorical question!" Arthur growled "Now stop squirming"
Thankfully Merlin did as he was told for once. A remarkable feat in itself.
"I thought we were going for breakfast" Merlin piped up from behind him as Arthur led the way away from his chambers
"Change of plans"
"Oh" A beat, and then; "Where are we going then?"
Was he really that thickheaded?
"Oh, I don't know Merlin, you tell me! You're injured and can barely walk, where do you think we're going?"
"No, the great dragon"
Arthur's laughter echoed down the corridor. He stopped when he realized Merlin wasn't laughing with him, in fact his breathing was rather fast and uneven.
"I was kidding"
Arthur rolled his eyes at the relief in his sigh.
They turned the corner.
Crash. Clang. Smash.
It was the same kitchen maid crossing the same corner with the same trays.
Only this time filled with food.
It was considered beneath royalty to speak profanities, but Arthur was this close to swearing like a sailor.
"Sorry, sorry," his manservant was apologizing profusely on the prince's behalf. Well, it really was his fault, Arthur rationalized, if he hadn't been early and got into trouble this would never have happened, yes, it was all Merlin's fault. That was going to be his motto from now onwards; blame Merlin.
Merlin whom Arthur Pendragon, crown prince and heir to the throne of Camelot, had currently draped across his back.
Not a sailor, not a sailor, not a sailor, Arthur mentally chanted to himself. He would've slapped his palm over his face, but his hands were otherwise occupied. Wrapped around his manservant. Who was draped across his back. This was going to take some explanation. So he walked as fast as he possibly could without running.
They reached the court physician in record time. Gaius fussed over Merlin. And Merlin fussed over Gaius' fussing. Arthur stood at a side and watched silently as Gaius prepared a healing balm and a sleeping draught all while managing to chide Merlin.
Arthur should leave, now that he had handed over Merlin to Gaius. He really should. He was going to leave any second now. Any second.
But his feet remained planted to the ground. Done with his ministrations, Gaius moved to the other end of the room, granting them unwanted privacy.
Time was passed in relative silence, which was relieving and unnerving at the same time, seeing as how Merlin was hardly ever quiet. And however much Arthur declared his wish for peace and quiet, granted that he found out he didn't quite like it.
"Was it true; what you said in the throne room?" Merlin finally asked, so softly that Arthur had to strain his ears to hear him.
"I said a lot of things, Merlin" Arthur gave in form of reply, though knowing exactly what Merlin was talking about.
"What you about me being a, a…well, a friend?"
"I don't recall saying the word 'friend'" It was true, Arthur reasoned. He never said it. Not out loud.
"Oh" Merlin actually sounded disappointed. Arthur couldn't see his face but could just imagine the wounded look it had adopted. Honestly, it was worse than kicking a pony. But Arthur couldn't bring himself to say what he hadn't, so he simply stood and clapped Merlin on the back.
"I expect you bright and early tomorrow morning…"
"Of course, sire" The fully fledged grin on Merlin's face made Arthur almost inclined to believe him. Almost.
Months and months of experience told him otherwise.
"…for breakfast…" He added but Gaius' sleeping draught seemed to be taking effect. Merlin dropped back on his pillow, his eyes fluttering as he struggled to stay awake. Arthur knew he could leave. He should leave, but he lingered while Merlin's breathing evened and he seemed to all intents and purposes, fast asleep.
Making sure Gaius was well out of hearing distance he leaned down and whispered.
As he moved to leave, he could've sworn Merlin's lips twitched ever so slightly upwards.
It was just his imagination, Arthur told himself, and quickly left the physician's quarters and made his way back to his own. It was just his imagination.
So wrapped up in his imagination, turning the corner, promptly slipped on the gravy spilt by their earlier encounter with the kitchen maid and her trays and landed face up on hard, cold stone.
Arthur sighed from his un-princely position on the corridor floor. He really needed to talk to the royal architect about relocating the palace kitchens.
A/N: So yeah, couldn't let him go without one last 'screw you, asshole'. ;) Just kidding, guys! I love him as much as you do.
Did you know that writers live on reviews? Like vampires live on human blood? And cannibals live on human flesh? Yeah, like that, so you see why I need you to review...?