Set between seasons 4 and 5.
There are times when it is highly inconvenient to discover certain well-kept secrets about your manservant. Huddled amidst the massive roots of a tree after a surprise attack by bandits (though considering the amount of times they'd been ambushed should it really still be a surprise?) was one such time.
"Merlin…" Arthur isn't sure how to continue. His hands hover uncertainly over the wound on his servant's shoulder, knowing it needs to be treated, but lost as to how to proceed. As his mind flounders for a solution, Arthur thinks that there is now a real irony to the fact that he has spent the last six years calling Merlin a girl. Desperately, the king wonders why Merlin couldn't have been injured in a way that didn't require the removal of shirts.
"Look, Arthur," Merlin snaps irritably, voice just a little breathless because that shoulder wound hurts, "I know this is something of a shock for you, but you need to pull yourself together. Now really isn't the time for this." No, now most certainly is not the time to try and reconcile the fact that his fanatically loyal manservant is not, in fact, a man at all. It doesn't stop Arthur from trying.
He really does need to pull himself together, doesn't he?
"I know that," Arthur insists. "It's just…" Heaving a sigh he gestures uselessly with his hand. "I don't want to…offend your honor or-"
"Oh for the love of-" Merlin pushes herself more upright against the trunk, despite the pain it causes, so as to better be able to glare at her king. "Arthur," she begins firmly, "they're just breasts. They're not going to hurt you. Now just treat the damn wound so we can get out of here!"
Yes, Arthur finds himself thinking, those are indeed breasts. He shakes himself. Just treat the wound. That's all he has to do. Treat the wound so they can go home and Arthur can contemplate the latest plot twist in his life in the comfort of his room, far from angry bandits. It isn't hard. The salve is already resting on his knee. All he has to do is smear some on the wound, bandage it up, and then he can pretend for a bit longer that Merlin is still a man and oh god, he's been undressing in front of a woman for six years and he bathes in front of her...
Arthur has treated many injuries, but never has smearing salve on a wound been so awkward. This is quite possibly because he has never before treated a woman. It's not the same as treating a man. With men, Arthur doesn't have to be concerned about how close his hands are to…to…to violating a particular area of a woman's chest. He keeps his eyes firmly on Merlin's shoulder, aware that his cheeks are probably blazing with heat, but refusing to acknowledge such things because kings don't blush damn it! The thought that the only thing keeping him from seeing far too much of his servant's chest is a wide strip of white material makes Arthur want to abandon his attempt at first aid altogether. Finally, the king manages to tie off a bandage and Merlin puts her shirt back on. It's relieving to once again have her upper body covered, but Arthur can't make himself forget the uncomfortable fact that Merlin has breasts under there, existing just out of sight beneath a shield of blue fabric. God help him.
All thoughts of Merlin and how not male she is flee from Arthur's mind the minute he hears approaching footsteps. Unconsciously he places a hand on Merlin's chest to keep her still. Only later will Arthur realize that his protective gesture had, in fact, also been a full on grope. Which is just as well, considering they may be on the verge of being attacked by bandits and the last thing Arthur needs is to be distracted by unintentional impropriety. Merlin has the presence of mind not to comment.
"Sire?" a familiar voice hisses. "Merlin?" It's Leon.
"Oh thank God," Arthur moans. He stands and sees his knights approaching the tree. A quick visual check reveals no signs of injuries. Mostly they just look relieved to have found their king alive and well.
"Are you alright, sire?" Leon asks as Arthur moves away from the tree. Gwaine goes to help Merlin, eyebrows rising when she winces at the movement of her damaged shoulder.
"She's been wounded," Arthur confirms, only to realize a moment later exactly what he's said when four pairs of curious eyes and one accusatory pair zero in on him. "I mean…" But there's really no coming back from that. Gradually, the knights' eyes shift from Arthur to Merlin, who huffs and crosses her arms indignantly, despite the fact that it probably hurts her shoulder to do so.
"Am I going to have to take off my shirt and prove it to you or will you take me at my word that yes, I am a woman?" Merlin demands. For a moment, Gwaine looks as if he's seriously considering asking her to take her shirt off. Considering it's Gwaine Arthur wouldn't be surprised if it's a reflex developed from years of chasing girls. Thankfully, the knight recalls exactly whom it is he's about to ask this of at the last second and wisely keeps his mouth shut. Arthur notes that none of the knights (not even Gwaine despite his near display of lechery a few seconds ago) are exempt from the embarrassed flush that Merlin's words bring out and the servant in question is looking quite pleased with herself.
"That…won't be necessary," Leon finally says, carefully keeping his eyes on Merlin's face. Percival shuffles his feet awkwardly. Elyan pretends to find great interest in a bird's nest. Gwaine fiddles with the edge of his chain mail. Merlin roles her eyes.
"Right," she starts, "I don't know about you lot, but I'm not sticking around for anymore surprise bandit attacks." And without waiting she marches off into the woods. Arthur jolts into motion just as she's starting to disappear from sight. A moment later he hears the knights following.
Arthur spends the entire trip back to Camelot wondering how he spent six years completely missing the fact that his best friend is a woman. Talk about hindsight.
A/N: Because I have this thing for gender bending my favorite characters. This will be a sporadically updated collection of connected one shots in chronological order.
How much time has passed is based on the fact that I once read somewhere that men come of age in Camelot at the age of 21 and season 4 is when they start referring to Merlin as a man in the opening, implying (assuming my information is correct) that he is 21 at the beginning of season 4. Speculation tends to indicate that Merlin was about 18 when he first arrived in Camelot. I kind of just...tossed another year or two on to account for a margin of error because the flow of time in television series rarely makes sense anyway so I figure we're all entitled to some creative license there.