Merlin was behaving strangely.
It was only through Arthur's familiarity with Merlin's regular daily habits that he was able to notice the young man's unusual actions that morning. He had come to wake Arthur at a reasonable hour; he had remembered to bring breakfast, rather than having to be sent away for it; there was no evidence that he had already picked out and eaten the choicest of the servings; the meal consisted of more than a crusty scone shoved messily into the king's mouth, resulting in crumby bedclothes and a pair of poked eyes; he did not forcibly drag Arthur out of the warmth and comfort of his bed; and his "Rise and shine!" did not have the sarcastic and tetchy tone that it had taken as of late. He was being downright…respectful.
Merlin was behaving very strangely indeed. Arthur was beginning to fear that the serving lessons that Merlin had been given in the past few months had actually affected his work ethic when he caught Merlin beginning to yawn as he leaned against the king's bedposts and observed the royal breakfast.
"Am I boring you, Merlin? Because I'm sure that there are plenty of other things that you could be doing right now…"
"Of course not, sire. No one can eat a more enthralling breakfast than you, sire."
Arthur squinted suspiciously over his sausages. Merlin's repeated use of Arthur's proper title usually meant one of three things: Merlin had done something stupid and was attempting to insinuate himself into Arthur's good graces before the truth came out, Merlin wanted something that only Arthur could give, or that Merlin had some bad news to share and hoped to avoid being blamed as the messenger. He held Merlin's gaze for a few moments, hoping to make him blush or quake—the boy was an awful liar, and Arthur was confident that he would uncover whatever was amiss with a little bit of glaring.
But Merlin just raised his eyebrows. If anything, he seemed to be trying not to smile. Whether this was because Arthur tended to throw things at anyone who was being particularly cheerful in the hour after he was wakened or because Merlin had some secret, Arthur had no idea.
"You're looking pale, Merlin. Perhaps you require some fresh air to liven up. My stables could certainly use some mucking out."
Merlin gaped at him, and his paleness suddenly seemed all the more evident. Wondering if he was sick, Arthur considered letting Merlin stick to less pungent duties for the day. In fact, he was wondering so seriously that he almost didn't notice Merlin yawning again. Which sealed the deal.
"Sire, I mucked out the stables the day before yesterday. There's hardly been time for any much to reaccumulate."
Again with the "sire." Putting on his most kingly countenance, Arthur gestured regally at his servant with a half-eaten sausage that dripped grease onto the trousers of his nightclothes. "Well, you must have done such a miserable job last time if they need mucking out again. In fact, you should go now. There's no time like the present when it comes to mucking out horses!"
"How should you know?" Merlin mumbled as he turned to go. In years past, Arthur would have made Merlin turn back and repeat his words, shaming him all the way to the stocks. But Arthur was far too used to Merlin's insolence by now and, as long as it was limited to the two of them, he couldn't be bothered to try to curb his servant's attitude.
Unfortunately, Merlin seemed too tired to do any real mouthing off and left almost immediately after his dismissal. For any other servant, this promptness of obedience would have been commendable. But Arthur, expecting whining and argument, was left alone in his chambers in his grease-stained nightclothes with no one to dress him. At least he was already naked from the waist-up.
When his wife entered his chambers half an hour later, Arthur was proud of himself, having more or less dressed himself. Of course, Guinevere looked perfectly put-together and beautiful and so regal that no one would have ever guessed that she had once lived in a one-room "house" in the lower town, in Arthur's humble opinion. She also looked very amused.
While she came from her neighboring chambers and kissed him as she did every morning, there seemed to be a barely suppressed laugh on her lips that he would have once excused as a smile of happiness had he not so often seen such a similar look of amusement on Merlin's face. Which usually only meant one thing.
"Oh, what did I do wrong?" he asked in exasperation, stepping back from his wife and looking himself over with such a fussy air that Guinevere could no longer contain her laugh.
"It's your tunic, Arthur. It's inside out."
Never one to be shy about walking around topless, he shucked his tunic off despairingly. "How can you even tell? It's all the same color."
Guinevere took the tunic from him and gently turned it so that its proper side was showing before handing it back to her husband. "The seams were showing. Former seamstress, remember?"
Arthur took the excuse of putting his shirt back on to hide his face, and Guinevere sighed. He always managed to hide his face, leave the room, or change the subject whenever her past employment came up in conversation. She didn't understand why. He'd never had a problem with it prior to their marriage, or even in its early days.
She was shaken out of her reverie when she heard Arthur's voice come out from the twisted folds of his tunic as he struggled to get it over his head. "I do not understand," he said, breathing hard through the fabric, "how I can have such difficulty doing something that even Merlin doesn't have trouble with."
Finally helping his golden head emerge from the neck of his red tunic, she shook her head, smiling, as she straightened it over his shoulders. "Oh, don't be so hard on Merlin. Especially on today of all days."
He shook his head and reached for his jacket. Guinevere took it from him and helped him into it before he could waste another five minutes trying to find the armholes on his own. Accustomed to such things, Arthur kept speaking as though he was not being dressed like a child by his wife.
"I don't know why he should get special treatment this morning. It's not like he's never shown up for work pale and sleepy before."
Gwen gave a soft smile as she smoothed the fabric of the long brown coat over Arthur's broad back, pleased that she finally had the liberty to do so. "Well, I can't blame him for being pale and sleepy. You should see Elyan. Apparently Gwaine took them all for something of a ride last night. But you know Gwaine. Any excuse for a celebration."
Arthur spun around to face his wife. "Are you saying that Merlin is pale and sleepy because he spent the night at the tavern? Again? I'm starting to get slightly concerned about his drinking. He's too skinny to keep up with Gwaine. Plus he can't hold his liquor to save his life. I'm afraid that he's going to show up one morning to tell me that he accidentally married a chicken the night before and wants my blessing."
Guinevere turned her attention to straightening the king's collar under his jacket. "Oh, give him a break, Arthur. It's hardly a nightly event for him. And it's not like he has a birthday every week. Let him celebrate."
Arthur felt his eyebrows shoot all the way up to his hairline, not least at her statement that Merlin wasn't a frequent tavern visitor. "Birthday?"
"Mm-hmm," Gwen said absently, brushing off his shoulders. "He was all excited about it yesterday, even if they had to go out the night before the actual birthday. Didn't you notice? It was kind of adorable, if you ask me. By the way, what did you get him?"
Apparently pleased with the state of his jacket, she looked up at him, beaming expectantly.
"What did I get him…for his birthday?"
"Mm-hmm. I got him a new bag. You know, the one that he always takes on your adventures and quests and whatever else you two get up to in the woods was getting really holey and the strap was about one more bandit attack away from snapping, so I thought that…"
"For his birthday."
There was a silence of a few moments. It was not long enough to make a person particularly uncomfortable, but it was plenty long enough for a man faced with a glare such as Guinevere's at that moment to become at least somewhat nervous.
"You didn't know that it was his birthday today?"
Arthur would have preferred if she were shouting. Shouting would have been far less terrifying. "No! He never said…I mean, honestly, Guinevere, he's my servant. Why should I...It's really his birthday?"
Her eyes were so narrowed at him that he could hardly believe that she could even see out of them. "Arthur Pendragon, he has been your personal manservant for the last six years! You spend most of every day with him! Did you think that he never had one?"
"I do not spend most of—"
"Arthur, you brought him on our honeymoon."
He had. It had seemed like a very natural plan to him at the time, and Merlin had been packed before Arthur had even informed him that his presence would be required. But it somehow sounded like a very strange idea when said aloud by someone else, as though having a third person along made it any less of a romantic honeymoon. Merlin had even given some very helpful advice about the wedding night. Merlin had written half of his notes to Guinevere anyway.
"Well, someone had to carry the bags," Arthur countered defensively.
"So he's too skinny to hold his alcohol but plenty big enough to handle two weeks' worth of baggage?"
"He had a horse!"
He sighed. Maybe he had been a bit tough on Merlin during their honeymoon. His and Guinevere's. Obviously. But he just couldn't get himself to feel too remorseful for that. Merlin had carried far more on their quests, and they were usually running the risk of either being eaten or skewered on those trips. Plus, Merlin had been the one who had chosen and packed all of Arthur's things for the honeymoon anyway. It was his own fault.
Now, Arthur just felt guilty. And it wasn't like he could give the excuse that, as royalty, it would be inappropriate for him to give gifts to his servants. Guinevere had seen to that. If only she hadn't told him that it was Merlin's birthday! But he knew. And now he had to do something.
It couldn't be too big. That would just be embarrassing. Yes, he had given Merlin the new coat as a wedding present. However, as it was later pointed out to him that wedding presents tend to be given to either the bride or groom rather than by the groom to his manservant, Arthur had been somewhat less than generous with Merlin lately. Plus, the rumors of their codependency were getting to be a bit much if even the king was starting to hear them.
But now it was Merlin's birthday. Considering how excited Merlin always seemed to get for Arthur's birthdays, extravagant parties aside, he seemed to be a fan of birthday celebrations. Arthur briefly considered waiting until tomorrow and then somberly explaining to Merlin that he had intended to have a very special birthday gift made for him, but that the memory of Uther's mortal wounding occurring on Arthur's previous birthday had made the whole process too painful for him.
He then considered that perhaps his father would not appreciate Arthur using his death as an excuse to avoid throwing together some bric-a-brac for a serving boy.
Guinevere, seeing that she had clearly thrown a mighty conundrum at her husband and king, quietly left Arthur to his thoughts. In the safety of the corridor, she was free to laugh aloud at the look of intense concentration on his face as he ignored matters of state to ponder birthday presents for his most loyal servant.
By the time that the man of the hour himself came in with lunch, all that Arthur had been able to come up with was "a day off." However, as this would be both inconvenient to him and seem like he made it up at the last minute because he had forgotten that Merlin even had a birthday, he shelved that thought and cast about in his mind for something material that he could thoughtfully procure by the end of the day and that would not have seemed like he had made it up at the last minute.
He looked unenthusiastically down at his meal. Whether it was because his ponderings were so distracting him or because Merlin was getting his revenge for the morning of stable mucking by serving him what was possibly the most unappealing compilation of dishes from the royal kitchens, Arthur could do no more than pick at his food.
Judging from the way that Merlin wasn't trying to snake tastes off of the plate, he hadn't intended for Arthur to enjoy this meal. Merlin's carefully straight face only confirmed this suspicion. After a few wary glances, Merlin looked as though he were about a single pout away from laughing, only saving himself by picking at his ratty old neckerchief. He had apparently chosen his rattiest in honor of his special day.
Not that any of them were in particularly splendid condition. Merlin was probably actually running low on neckerchiefs that could actually still function as neckerchiefs. Most of them had probably beenused as bandages and tourniquets and bindings by now.
That's what he could do for Merlin's birthday! He could award him with a supply of bandages and tourniquets and bindings, real ones! Arthur congratulated himself on his wit. What kind of servant wouldn't appreciate a gift of bandages and tourniquets? Practicality, foresight, and wound preparedness all in one package!
Or he could get him new neckerchiefs. That would be another idea.
Arthur closed his eyes and enacted a brief mental argument with himself. It consisted of him, standing at the head of his council table, giving an eloquent and logical argument for the bandages (considering that Arthur himself would probably end up waking from unconsciousness with most of them wrapped around his head); Guinevere stood at the opposite end of the table, arguing that Merlin needed something to go with his new coat and bag and that if Arthur is going to complain about Merlin being shabby looking, then he should do something about it when he has the chance; and there was Merlin, standing at his right side, and looking up at him (for Merlin was always the shorter when he argued with Arthur within the king's mind) with the most pathetically wide and trusting eyes, saying, "It's okay, Arthur. You don't have to give me anything. Serving you is gift enough."
Arthur let out a long groan of exasperation and slammed his head on his table before Imaginary Merlin could start to tear up, carefully avoiding a faceplant into his stew, which he knew would make Merlin far too happy. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Merlin look over, clearly startled and probably wondering, Arthur mused, whether or not the meal was actually affecting his health.
He shut his eyes in annoyance, the imaginary Merlin and Guinevere having triumphed. Time for a trip to the royal seamstress for a rush order of neckerchiefs. Although now that he thought about it, the royal seamstress may not know how to make neckerchiefs. Merlin certainly seemed to be the only one in Camelot who found them a fashion statement. Maybe it was an Ealdor thing.
As it turned out, the royal seamstress did not know how to make a neckerchief. Therefore, the rest of the day of King Arthur, supreme ruler of the lands of Camelot and all of its peoples, was spent in trying to steal one of Merlin's neckerchiefs to supply the seamstress with a pattern, giving Merlin extra chores so as to keep him out of the way, avoiding a vengeful Merlin as he stomped across the castle to his bedroom (to whence he had been ordered by his master so as to be sure where he was throughout the day) with armfuls of Arthur's armor and boots, choosing materials for the neckerchiefs, and having imaginary arguments with his wife about the merits about various types of fabric.
Arthur, upon returning at dusk to the chambers of the royal seamstress to pick up his glorious birthday gift, sincerely hoped that the neckerchief that he had stolen from Merlin's chambers was not his favorite, for it had been so worn out that when it was folded into a shape not that of Merlin's neck, it had promptly fallen apart.
But they were ready. The seamstress had managed to prepare half a dozen new neckerchiefs, despite the frequent interferences of the king. He'd insisted that some be red, to go with Merlin's blue shirts, and that some be blue, to go with his red. He'd also directed that, on the finest of the reds, that the Pendragon seal be stitched on with as much precision as was possible in the limited time.
He felt that his crowning achievement, however, was when he decided that embroidered on one of the blue neckerchiefs should be the image of a merlin. He had no idea if Merlin actually liked merlins, and in fact had a distinct memory of Merlin running away from a falcon at one point, but he felt that he should definitely be lauded for his thoughtfulness and ingenuity.
Armed with the six new and comparatively splendid neckerchiefs (and the glares of the royal seamstress, whose birthday Arthur made a note to try to remember after this ordeal), Arthur checked that the corridors were empty and then sprinted with undignified glee through the hallways to Gaius' chambers. Since it was nearly midnight, Arthur knocked politely on the chamber door, thinking that Gaius might be sleeping.
When there was no answer, Arthur eased the door open quietly and peered into the dark. Gaius seemed to be out somewhere, probably making house calls in the lower town, as he was wont to do in the evenings. But there was light shining out from the cracks under and in Merlin's bedroom door. Along with the clanks and clangs that meant that Merlin was still wrestling with Arthur's armor—no surprise, as Arthur had sent him with just about every piece of battle gear that he had ever owned in his life, Arthur was sure that his servant was certainly still awake, if somewhat unfriendly to him at the moment.
Taking a deep breath, Arthur couldn't help but grin. Merlin would be so surprised to be receiving a gift from him! Choosing to ignore what this said about Arthur's generosity over the previous six years of their relationship, Arthur strode as silently as he could over to Merlin's door. He figured that he could have charged across the chambers on a horse without alerting Merlin, who seemed to be making as much noise as possible in his polishing efforts. Maybe he needed more lessons from George.
On any normal day, Arthur would have just walked into Merlin's room without knocking or begging entrance. But this was no normal day, and if he was going to do something nice, he was going to do it all the way. Taking a deep breath, Arthur knelt down to peer through the keyhole into Merlin's room, hoping to time his greeting perfectly. He knew that he was being rather, for lack of a better word, silly, but he had so few opportunities to do so and therefore got far more enjoyment than was natural out of the experience.
Already smiling, his anticipation and self-pride too much for any stoicism, he squinted into the room, expecting to see a scowling Merlin, coated with more polish than the metal, scrubbing away at Arthur's armor, probably swearing at the king under his breath and inhaling more polish fumes than could possibly be healthy.
What he did not expect to see was Merlin lying on his back on his bed, the picture of relaxation, reading a book with a title in a language that Arthur could not read, his eyes flickering between blue and gold, while Arthur's armor polished itself in the air around him.
Merlin was using magic.