11-2-11

Ready

Written shortly after 'The Wicked Day.' Please review! Peace out! ;-D

Arthur sighed, viewing the crown he'd just taken off and setting it heavily on the table.

"I'm not ready for this, am I?"

Hovering close beside him, the servant of the newly named king shook his head.

"That isn't true, sire," he answered, subtly earnest.

"Isn't it, Merlin?" Arthur turned to him, eyeing for any trace of doubt. Finding none, he pressed on, "Do you think I'm ready to take my father's place?"

Merlin's gaze drifted briefly from the king's face, though Arthur could swear it wasn't distrust that led to that. "I'm not the first person to tell you this, Arthur, but… you'll be a great king, I know you will."

"But will I be good enough?" Arthur questioned, while he realized that he should wonder why the subject brought his servant so close to tears. Merlin had not just been made to shoulder the responsibility of an entire kingdom; his job hadn't changed, and it had always been simple enough. He'd no reason for grief, except-

Arthur blinked in slight surprise. As the loyal friend he'd come to see that his servant was, Merlin was sharing in his grief. He would not let Arthur cry alone.

"Yes," Merlin told him finally, the preceding silent moments only emphasizing how truly he meant the words. "You will be good enough. I have faith in you, Arthur. You should have more faith in yourself."

…It could only worsen matters to doubt himself, Arthur realized. "You're right," he said. "I don't know what kind of king I'll be, but I shouldn't let people see that doubt."

Merlin nodded. "Speaking of those people," he began quietly, "they're waiting for you, sire."

Another sigh escaped the king. "I don't suppose I could get you to cover for me again?" he asked with a faint smile.

The difficulty was obvious, but Merlin managed to return the expression. "If I thought that it might work, you know I would."

Arthur frowned to consider the crowd of lords and nobles he would soon face, and the scrutiny they would subject him to. "Lord Maynard's the worst of it," he remarked. "He's always doubted my maturity; even since I was in my teens."

"There's only one way to show him up," Merlin replied, a firm expression set in place. It was proven more strongly than ever to Arthur that the servant meant to stand by him through every challenge he would face.

Just as he always had.

Already in so vulnerable a state, Arthur barely resisted the urge to tell how greatly that touched him, instead nodding to Merlin in acceptance of his allegiance.

The feast held to celebrate Arthur's coronation was unlike any Merlin could remember, for the shadow of Uther's death hung heavily in the great hall. It seemed to prevent anyone from actually enjoying it- Arthur and himself, most of all.

Merlin did his best not to think of his own disappointment tonight, instead focusing on the king.

It must be difficult, he considered, a good hour into the feast, to behave as is expected of you when still dealing with your own personal loss.

The wizard had always known that Arthur was strong, but to manage to look so brave when only yesterday his father had died… Merlin respected his strength more than ever.

But even Arthur couldn't keep this up forever, and Merlin knew it, watching him the whole time for any sign that he wished to escape from the skeptical glances and questions from the nobles.

Eventually- while Merlin was waiting on the knights' table- he caught Arthur pointedly staring at him from across the room, and took that as his sign. Arriving almost immediately at the king's side, he leant down to where he could whisper and be heard only by Arthur. "What's wrong?" he asked.

Arthur waited a beat for a point where the conversation from the surrounding tables seemed loudest- when no one would overhear him say quietly, "Get me out of here, Merlin."

With a single nod of understanding, Merlin stood behind his chair to pull it away from the table as Arthur stood.

It would be too much to hope that no one would notice; nearly as soon as the king had risen, so had everyone present.

"No," Arthur told them in a clear voice that reached to the far end of the room, "take your seats; I mean to retire, but the rest of you-" he gestured in a fashion familiar to Merlin, "-enjoy the feast."

For all of three steps, it seemed as if he would get away with no further trouble- but one person did not sit back down, and that person was making his way toward Arthur.

He could only be Lord Maynard. A well-dressed man of average size with a set frown that- for his comparatively young age- could only have been brought on by an ill disposition- or so went Merlin's theory.

The wizard caught Arthur tense at the nobleman's approach and made up his mind instantly to protect his master from this situation. It would take a little more time before he worked up the courage to use magic in Arthur's presence again- to trip Maynard, or some such thing-, but maybe he didn't require it.

Slipping in front of Arthur as they walked, Merlin grabbed a wine jug from the table that ran down the left-hand length of the room. Once Lord Maynard was within a couple meters of Arthur, Merlin sped ahead of the king, looking down the table as if with a destination.

"Excuse me!" he told the noble as he bumped into the man, 'accidentally' sloshing red wine down the front of his doublet. "Oh! Sorry," he exclaimed, even when- after the trouble and doubt Maynard had caused his master- Merlin was anything but.

"Watch yourself, foolish, clumsy boy!" the noble exclaimed, and examined his doublet with a grimace. "Look what you did!"

Merlin reached for the towel offered him by a fellow servant, attempting to swab up the wine soaked into Maynard's shirt- which the noble promptly snatched from him.

"Clean up your mess," he ordered, glaring between Merlin and the floor before sauntering away.

Mopping up the wine with another towel, Merlin looked back where Arthur had been to find the king gone. Another glance about the room told him that his master wasn't anywhere in sight, and noting this, he allowed himself a small smile, glad that Arthur had gotten away.

Merlin finished cleaning as quickly as he could before half-running down the halls to find the king. Only when he'd almost reached Arthur's door did he slow his steps, knowing that his master would hear and might be annoyed with what he may consider to be over-concern. Arthur could just be tired, Merlin knew; he'd not slept properly in three days, after all. But in spite of that likelihood, the wizard knew deep down that it was more.

Opening the door quietly, he saw the king sitting on his bed with his head held between his hands, elbows propped on his knees, but unmoving.

Merlin closed the door behind himself and came across the room.

"You handled that very well," he told his master simply.

Arthur just shook his head, his face still cupped in his hands and his eyes on the floor.

"…You have no reason to doubt yourself, Arthur," Merlin persisted gently.

"It isn't-" Arthur began in a rough tone that he coughed to cover. "It's not that," he said softly.

Merlin closed part of the space between them. "What, then?"

Arthur sniffed. "…He was my father, Merlin…"

Merlin found himself nodding and coming closer to lay an arm over the king's quivering shoulders. Reacting to the contact as the wizard hadn't expected, Arthur pressed his head against Merlin's side, wrapping his arms about his servant's waist. Crying was no longer below his dignity, it seemed, for he allowed himself to weep freely against his friend.

Running a hand over Arthur's head, Merlin wished he had some words of comfort to offer his master- he really felt he should say something- but the appropriate words eluded him, so he remained silent. Besides, Arthur needed him here, and here Merlin was; his master didn't always require him to speak. Just to comfort him with his presence in the king's hour of need for it.

If only I'd not brought this on you myself, through my careless over-enthusiasm…

"Thank you for helping me out of there, Merlin," Arthur said at last, his voice still unsteady.

"…It was no problem, sire," the wizard replied quietly.

Arthur rubbed Merlin's back. "At least your clumsiness came in handy for a change," he said with a short laugh, which even led Merlin to smile.

"Guess so," he answered.

The next minute of silence seemed more peaceful for Arthur than himself. The sheer tension of his own thoughts- Would Arthur kill me himself if he knew? Would he listen, and try to understand?- compelled him to break it.

"You should get some sleep, sire. You must be exhausted."

The king sighed wearily against him before relinquishing his grip and wiping the tears from his face. While he removed his jacket, Merlin pulled off his boots to set them on the floor at the foot of the bed. With no further preparation, Arthur slid under his blankets and settled against the pillows comfortably.

"You must be tired, too," he realized aloud, watching as Merlin put out the last lit candles in the room and returned to sit on the ground beside his master. He shrugged in reply to Arthur's remark, and leaned against the side of the bed.

Arthur frowned at him. "What are you doing?"

Merlin frowned back. "I'm not going to leave you, Arthur."

"Merlin," Arthur said, hesitating, "you should get some decent rest in your own bed- not sitting on my floor."

"Right," Merlin replied, reaching over Arthur to grab a pillow from the other side of the bed.

"Merlin-"

"It's fine," Merlin interrupted the king. "Arthur, do you want to be alone?"

His master didn't answer.

"I really don't mind," Merlin assured him, then, as if this closed the subject, "Goodnight, sire."

Silence reigned again before Arthur whispered, "Thank you, Merlin."

"This is my job, sire," Merlin explained.

"It's a bit beyond the line of duty," Arthur pointed out. Merlin could remember Uther saying almost the same thing to him once- but he said nothing, deeming it unwise to give Arthur new memories when the ones he already carried seemed more than enough for the moment. "I can't think of another servant who would do this, Merlin," Arthur went on. "So thank you."

Merlin didn't even know how to react to that. For so long, he'd just wanted this acknowledgment from Arthur. The king may not know of his magic, but appreciating his servant was a big step.

But what's the point? Merlin thought bitterly, because now he was certain that Arthur would never open his mind to the possibility that sorcery didn't make Merlin evil. And if Arthur ever did discover his powers, that was what he would assume Merlin to be.

…How could he truly call Arthur his friend when he feared for his life where Arthur and magic were both concerned?

"Goodnight, Merlin," the king said. Merlin still heard his congested sniffs from time to time; the effects of Arthur's cry lingered.

Upon hearing them, something made Merlin feel wrong for considering that the king would see him killed. Something in him had retained the will to believe- even through the turmoil and disaster of these last days- that hope was not dead.

Surely Merlin's friendship meant enough that Arthur would never really turn against him.

He smiled slightly, if nothing else, to stretch cold muscles. "Goodnight," he replied. "Sire."