You'll never guess where I am right now-literally and figuratively. Literally I am in Pensacola, Florida, sitting in a hotel, looking out across the white sand and blue ocean while a storm is kicking. The figuratively is reason for the literally; I am here because I am at that place in my life when I'm choosing what to do with the rest of it. If I decide to go to the college I'm visiting here, it will be the beginning of a wildly brand-new start for me. I've lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina my whole life, gone to the same church, same (tiny, boring, gray) school, same general area, same people, same drama, you get the picture. The thing is I'm a free spirit. After eighteen years (I'm also turning eighteen this Friday! Whaaaat?), I'm singing Disney princess songs out loud and praying like CRAZY to find the path that will lead me where God wants me to be. I know you probably don't know me that well, but I would really love it if you'd pray with me, and I would be happy to pray with you about anything you need, too, if you'll write me and tell me.
I hope I didn't bore you with all of that. Sorry if I did; I know it's not what you're here for. You're here for some MERLIN FLUFF! (cheers and applause) Well, here you have it, folks...
Five Times Merlin Held Arthur, and One Time Arthur Held Merlin
The first time was fated by nothing but Merlin's perfect ability to end up in the wrong place at the right time, but it would remain in his mind for the rest of his long life.
Nothing then but a young, plucky manservant with underdeveloped skills of controlling his magic, he was late in laundering Arthur's clothes, again, and he thanked the gods as he pushed open the door to the prince's chambers that the lights were all out and the place was silent inside. He was tired and Arthur would doubtlessly have something else readily available to accuse his manservant of not doing, or of doing too slowly, or of not doing to the satisfaction of the prince's standards. Some things Merlin was willing to improve, but for the most part, Arthur was going to have to understand that his new manservant's ways were simply not going to change, no matter how much he huffed and ranted and threw dishes.
Merlin was careful as he reentered the dark chambers that had become so familiar to him after just three months; sometimes, he felt that these rooms were so familiar he was almost like a fitted piece of this place, like he had been born to be here and he would have found this city, this castle, this prince's chambers no matter where in the world he'd began. The past months of adventures had all but proven that to him.
He kept his steps quiet and quick, knowing what a light sleeper Arthur was, intending to set the basket of clean clothes near the door to put away in the morning. He'd just settled it on the floor, out of the way, when he saw it—dull, indirect moonlight reflecting off of ever-familiar blonde hair. Arthur hadn't heard Merlin enter, obviously, for he did not move from where he had his face pressed into his knees, his body curled up against the base of the column separating his bedchamber from the main part of the room. In fact, he did not move at all, except for the littlest twitch of his hand as Merlin watched.
The prince jolted as though Merlin's soft, concerned voice had been a physical blow.
"Are you ill?" the young manservant asked, as he circled the table, because why else would Arthur be sitting on the floor, with his head bent, this late at night? "Should I get Gaius, my lord?"
It was then, as he crouched down beside him, that Merlin realized Arthur was wiping hastily at his face; even in the low light of the room, the red, puffy wetness around the deep blue of his eyes was clearly visible, despite how Arthur turned his face to try to hide it.
"No," the prince snapped too loudly, as Merlin's mouth fell open at the sight of him. "Are you really that stupid—you don't know how to knock?"
Merlin prepared to answer him, but he did not pause long enough.
"Get out, now." Punctuated by another wipe at his eyes with his sleeve and a tiny sniff.
Merlin shifted the slightest bit, his balance off in the awkward way he was crouched, and could not think how to react as he stared at his master who had, just hours ago, been standing proud and strong as he told Merlin how slow he was being. He could smell the scent of dark wine on Arthur; he'd drunk much of it since then. There was an empty bottle turned over on the floor. Arthur was not himself when he was drunk, not at all.
"Did you not hear me, you idiot?" Arthur's voice was as hard and vicious as a serpent's…or it would have been, if it hadn't been trembling as though he were about to fall apart right there. "Get out, or I'll have you thrown out."
Merlin seriously doubted that. Arthur would have died before he'd want any of the guards to see him this way. He'd rather have died than have anyone see him this way. The warlock wondered, just briefly, if perhaps he should obey and leave the prince to bear whatever this burden was alone, but then he saw it—a stain of red obvious even in the dark on Arthur's sleeve, and it obviously wasn't any of the wine he'd had to drink.
He stood and got one of the rags he'd just washed from the basket.
Arthur huffed angrily and tried to tug his arm away as Merlin pulled up his sleeve; the servant only caught a glimpse of the long gash, and Arthur had hidden it again, but the alcohol had made Arthur's senses dull and he was weak, and so Merlin tugged his arm again.
"Let me clean it," he said, quietly but firmly.
Arthur, where his other hand was covering his forehead, opened his eyes and peered at him darkly.
"And then I'll go," Merlin added, not breaking his gaze. "I promise. Just let me wrap it up."
Arthur said nothing else, just moved his hand down to cover his eyes, and so Merlin took that as permission. He tried not to let any feeling show on his face as he pulled up Arthur's sleeve to his elbow and saw the cut was longer than he expected, bleeding shallowly, and there were bruises at Arthur's wrist. They were bruises in the shapes of fingerprints.
"Who did this to you?" He kept his voice barely above a whisper, because they both knew it wasn't his business, though he strongly suspected he could figure out who had done this, and then again if Kilgharrah and his talk of destiny were to be believed, it really was his business.
Arthur just shook his head, not moving his hand from over his eyes, and Merlin could hardly believe this was really his master, who was known across all the realms for his courage and strength far beyond his years.
Perhaps that was the problem, he realized suddenly, as he wrapped the clean rag tightly around the wound. Arthur was just a boy—only a year or two older than Merlin himself, not even come of crowning age yet. The troubles that had been rising up at the northern borders over the past couple of weeks had been awful ones; Merlin did not know the details, but he knew that Arthur had been more irritable and tired-looking since it had started. The council had been looking to Arthur for answers, and Uther had allowed it, wanting to train and prove his son's worth as future king. They'd disagreed in the meeting earlier; he knew that, too, because Arthur had hurled his cape and crown into the far corners of his chambers afterward.
He'd gone to talk to his father before Merlin had left to do the laundry, and now, here they were.
"Was it your father?" he asked, as he tightened the knot to hold the rag, and he was careful with his tone, keeping it low and not pressing so that Arthur would not close up completely.
The young man seemed to understand that Merlin knew; there was little use denying it, and so, still without moving, he murmured in a voice slurred with drunkenness,
"He'd drunk too much. He was upset with me. That's all. He wouldn't do this if he were thinking properly."
And Merlin knew right then that, however good Uther tried to be to his son, this had happened before—possibly many times.
He moved so that he was sitting instead of merely crouching down.
"Come on, let's get you into your nightclothes," he urged softly, putting his hand unconsciously on Arthur's shoulder. "You need some rest."
"I'm fine," he murmured, his voice muffled from his having buried his face back in his arms. "I'll go to bed. Just go."
There was something in the way he said it, or perhaps it was in the way he looked so pitiable and young…whatever it was, Merlin knew that every fibre of his being would protest it if he stood to leave.
"Arthur," he said, ever more softly than before, "I know I'm just a servant, and I know I don't matter, but I don't want you to feel that you are alone."
Arthur just shook his head slightly at something, his face still hidden.
"I am," were the words Merlin swore he barely heard, and then Arthur lifted his head, just slightly, so that his eyes could stare off toward the far wall, unseeingly. "If I choose one way, people will get injured in the battle that will come. If I choose another way, more people might get hurt or even killed. I don't…I can't…"
His drunken mumblings faded into a tiny grunt of pain as he buried his face in his arms yet again.
Merlin knew nothing of this problem, just as he knew nothing of the burden Arthur bore, but he did know one thing, as surely and completely as he knew his own name.
"You can, Arthur." In his urgency, he laid his arm across the prince's trembling back and gripped his shoulder with a strong, steadying hand. "I know it's hard, but you were given this destiny for a reason. The gods knew that you could bear it. They knew you are the only one who can. You're strong, and brave, and intelligent…when you're not being a stupid dollophead."
He didn't get a laugh, but Arthur stopped trembling. That was good enough.
"More than that, though," he continued, "you're good, sire—better than Uther ever could be."
He knew he was treading on thin ice, speaking in such a way about the king and Arthur's father, who he respected and defended in all regards, but he could not stop himself. It was as though something within him just knew what to say, how to say it, what would fix this. He only knew with Arthur, though. Always Arthur.
"I know you can do it," Merlin whispered to him. "I know you'll make the right decision. Only you can. The people believe in you."
Arthur had frozen altogether, and despite his mind-addling drunkenness, Merlin knew he was listening intently to every word his servant spoke. He lifted his face, his red-rubbed and alcohol-dimmed eyes meeting Merlin's clear and sure blue.
Merlin smiled gently and tugged on his arm, careful not to hurt the cut there.
"Come on," he said. "Let's get you to bed. You need sleep for tomorrow."
Arthur allowed Merlin to pull him just a little, but then he suddenly paused.
"Thanks," he muttered, touched his hand to Merlin's wrist, still draped across the prince's back, and leant to his side so that his head was touching his servant's shoulder.
The young warlock was a bit too startled to move for a moment; Arthur's touches were generally bruising punches to the arm and other such gestures of disapproval. To have him feel so soft and gentle and warm against Merlin's side was strange…and yet it was good, somehow. It felt right, to be supporting him like this.
After a long moment of thought in unbroken stillness, Merlin realized that Arthur's breathing was slow and even. Careful, he swiped his hand over the prince's face, feeling that his eye was closed and his expression relaxed. Merlin had seen him sleeping so many times in the past months; Arthur slept like a child, quiet and calm, all hints of the stress from his life always gone. This time, he would have still been up, stressed and upset, and all at once Merlin had never been gladder for being here with him, to help him through in times such as this.
The next day, Arthur was himself again, making the right choices to fix the problems his father's kingdom faced and earning Uther's approval and the people's further trust for it. He kicked Merlin's leg when he almost accidentally tripped him and called him an idiot for knocking his cupful of water over later.
Merlin was never quite sure if Arthur remembered that night, but it didn't matter whether he did or not. Merlin would always remember holding him tightly while he slept, praying silently for Arthur's mind to be cleared and his heart to lead him well.
To be continued
I was going to just write the whole thing as one chapter, but this by itself was just over 2,000 words, so I figured I'd not drown you in a flood of more. Thanks so much for reading, and happy Easter (three days late). More to come soon!