"I can't believe you've managed to sit through that without falling asleep!"
Merlin came into the room, loud and boisterous as usual. Arthur looked up from the reports he had brought back to his chambers, saw Merlin balancing a plate of dinner and frowned. Merlin had actually done all his chores and been away all afternoon running errands for Gaius. Arthur felt sure he'd be able to indulge a bit in his hobby of Merlin-baiting about now. Alas, it seemed his manservant was having a truly competent day. Truth-be-told, he was having mostly competent days, now. Arthur supposed even he was trainable given time.
"Merlin!" Arthur suppressed his grin when Merlin looked at him as if he was going to order him to fetch something difficult or muck-out the stables at night. "You brought my dinner."
"Very good, sire. I see the royal eyesight hasn't suffered."
"And you finished all your chores earlier."
Merlin looked around, half-surprised himself, it seemed. "Yes, I did."
"Well, I might make a competent servant out of you yet, I suppose." Arthur ducked his head and resumed staring at the parchments spread out over his desk.
"Oh, yes. Because you wouldn't be the benevolent prince you are if you allowed some other, lesser noble to instruct me in the ways of serving prats."
Arthur let the insult go, putting-down the page he'd been staring at aimlessly since Merlin entered, and picked-up another equally boring report. Merlin wasn't far off the mark. He had caught himself falling asleep twice. Thankfully, Merlin hadn't seen it or he'd be much more smug.
Merlin placed the tray on the table, careful to avoid the papers Arthur had spread-out. That was something new, as well. Arthur remembered in great detail the circumstances that landed Merlin in the stocks after his father saw a rather large and unsightly stain on a report from the outer kingdom. As Arthur continued to stare aimlessly at the reports, too stubborn to take a break, Merlin puttered around tidying the room and getting it ready for sleeping.
"Did you know there's an outbreak of fever in the lower town?" Merlin queried.
Of course Arthur knew that but he merely grunted, content to let the voice of his manservant soothe his nerves. He'd never tell him that, though. Arthur had a running bet with Sir Leon that given the chance, Merlin could talk until he lost his voice. Undeterred by his seeming disinterest, Merlin continued.
"That's why I was gone all afternoon. Gaius had me delivering remedies to what seems like half of Camelot. At least it was town folk, though." Merlin quieted down, probably expecting Arthur to say something. "Not that the folks here in the castle shouldn't be healthy, of course," he stammered on. "Just you know..."
"Merlin." Arthur could recognize the wind-up to a spectacular bout of babbling and that he wasn't terribly prepared to deal with. Once he had his servants' attention, he continued. "It wouldn't do to have any of Camelot's citizens fall ill. Everyone is our responsibility." Arthur waited until he got a nod from Merlin, and then dropped his eyes once more to the parchments with renewed intent.
It wasn't lip service - he really did care about his people and if that meant sorting-out grain stores, rationing supplies for the patrols and delegating help to rebuilding the south tower, then that's what he needed to be doing. He was the Crown Prince - it was his job. The scent of food was strong in his nostrils and his stomach was making a feeble attempt at distracting him but Arthur ignored it for the moment. Merlin layed out his sleeping clothes, opened the windows to let in the cool night air - all the little things he always did. Then he came over to the table and began to straighten the pile of parchment Arthur had scattered.
"Did I ask you to disturb those?" Arthur quietly asked. Even though he couldn't see him, Arthur could see Merlin rolling his eyes in his mind's eye.
"Is that your way of telling me this spread of chaos is your super-secret filing system?"
"Exactly. Now bugger-off."
Merlin seemed confused. Granted, usually Arthur would find all sorts of things for his manservant to do until he practically dropped with exhaustion, himself. Usually, Arthur didn't bring important documents back to his chambers - Merlin was a distraction to him right now and the reports in front of him were important enough that he needed to admit that to himself.
"Yes, Merlin. Unless you want to suddenly get very acquainted with grain stores."
Honestly, Arthur had expected Merlin to bolt. Arthur wasn't excited in the least by grain-storage reports and he was the Prince. Instead, Merlin dragged a chair closer to Arthur, picked-up a random parchment and started reading. Absently, Merlin's fingers grabbed for some cheese off Arthur's dinner plate, popping it into his own mouth and chewing. His eyes never left the parchment and Arthur wondered if he even knew what he was eating. Maybe he would quiz Merlin, later. He could send him down to the kitchens for another meal as well, since he'd seen Merlin eat before. The boy wasn't skinny from lack of food. Arthur's eyes went back to his own parchment just as Merlin grabbed another hunk of cheese, and sat there holding it out just beyond the parchment. Toward Arthur.
Arthur still wasn't sure if Merlin had any idea what he was doing, but he was hungry and endlessly bored with reports. Leaning over the space between, he ate the cheese directly out of Merlin's fingers. He was careful not to lick or scrape his teeth against Merlin's digits. He wanted more of his dinner, thank you, not to have it knocked halfway across his chambers should he startle Merlin. After a moment, the fingers retracted, picked up another cheese hunk and after some seemingly indecisive hovering over the platter, Merlin dropped the cheese into his own mouth.
Arthur just stared. Merlin was lost to what he was reading, a slight frown of concentration wrinkling his brow, and his mouth moving on autopilot to chew the piece of cheese. Suddenly, Merlin was the most fascinating thing in the room. Honestly, when he was around Merlin was always the most fascinating thing far as Arthur was concerned. He could at least acknowledge it in his head as he was sitting in his chair blatantly staring at his manservant and getting half-hard off watching him read and eat cheese.
"I never knew how productive the east fields really were," Merlin mused, cheese swallowed and fingers hovering over the plate unconsciously.
"Yes, they provide a good share of our crops, although without the others we certainly would not survive the winters."
"Of course," Merlin nodded and continued to read as he plucked a grape off the plate this time and held it out, again beyond his own parchment. Arthur waited what felt like forever to see if Merlin would become aware of the grape's position and claim it for his own. When that didn't seem likely, Arthur once again took the food into his mouth, this time moving his chair quietly to get closer. He studied Merlin's face for any sign that this was the natural progression of their games - that Merlin knew what he was doing. It equal parts bothered and excited him when he came to the conclusion that Merlin was completely guileless. Whatever was going through his mind, it wasn't teasing Arthur.
He sat in silence, watching Merlin's face as he re-read something and chewed absentmindedly on the grape he had stolen for himself. The pattern held - Merlin's fingers slowly dipped down to the plate again, this time coming-up with a hunk of sausage. Surely, Arthur thought, the grease would alert Merlin to what had been going on.
No such luck, however. There it sat, just beyond the parchment, awaiting Arthur. The juices were running down and Arthur suddenly had visions of Merlin in the stocks, again, because the king had his reports returned with grease marks. Without thinking, Arthur took the sausage from Merlin's fingers, this time using his tongue to lap at the flowing grease. As he worked on keeping the foul grease from ruining a parchment, Merlin's eyes flicked up from his reading, finally, only to stare wide-eyed at where his fingers disappeared into Arthur's mouth. "Um," was his coherent thought on the situation.
Once Arthur was sure the grease would not cause a problem, he released Merlin's fingers and stared at him. "They were greasy." Arthur knew it wasn't the wittiest thing he'd spoken in his lifetime, but Merlin had a tendency to reduce him to either a quivering mass of need or a Neanderthal protecting its possessions.
"Have I been feeding you?!" Merlin's eyebrows shot up and Arthur was pretty sure he was envisioning the stocks right now.
"Yes," Arthur delighted a bit in the flush that crept up Merlin's neck, "but don't worry. I'd be more worried about the food you've been stealing from me this whole time if I were you."
"Stealing? Well, then you should have said something if this giant plate of food was that important to you - prat."
Arthur smiled. "It's alright. You were reading, something my brain evidently gave up on awhile ago, and I didn't want to disturb you."
"So, you let me feed you."
Merlin smiled. "I've been staring at this trying to get it to make sense and I still am not quite sure what I'm looking at. Who wrote this, anyway?!"
"Sir Robert. He's very formal, good with the maths but dry as a bone."
"I can tell." Merlin handed the parchment back to Arthur and popped another cheese in his mouth purposefully.
"I didn't expect you to stay. This is my responsibility, Merlin, I don't expect you to read these let alone understand them."
"Good, because we'd be here all night." Merlin shifted his chair a bit closer and looked at Arthur. "You gonna eat?"
Arthur sighed. "I really do need to read these." It wasn't a yes or no answer, but Merlin seemed to read it that way.
"Alright, then. You do your job and I'll do mine."
Arthur was about to tell Merlin that he had been dismissed already, when another piece of meat appeared in front of his mouth. His eyes darted to Merlin who was sitting next to him, chin up and looking expectantly at Arthur.
"I don't have all night, Arthur. If you're going to take the whole 'duty before self' route and sit here pounding this stuff into your brain, then I'm going to make sure you don't pass out while doing it."
"I'm pretty sure this isn't part of your job description, Merlin," Arthur warned.
"Neither is saving your royal backside, technically, but since that's what got me this cushy gig with barely any hours to myself, I figure I might as well keep it up."
"Because you excel at saving me, do you."
"Oh, you have no idea," Merlin smiled.
"Right." Arthur wanted to argue some more, if only to save himself from the reports for a bit longer. His budding maturity won out, however, when he had to stifle a yawn. It was probably later than he thought. He leaned forward and took the proffered meat from Merlin's fingers, chewing and making a point of not looking at his manservant. With Merlin right there, feeding him of all things, it was a sure bet he wasn't going to retain any of the details his eyes were grazing-over.
No need to tell Merlin that, though.