The cold stone pillar shocked icily against Merlin’s spine. He clenched his jaw and swallowed hard, keeping his emotions under so tight a reign that he dared not even breathe.
His head was light with the effort, his vision blurry. If not for the pillar at his back, he’d have been swaying where he stood.
The hardest part of being Arthur’s manservant, of having magic and serving the King of Camelot, wasn’t the work or the secrets or the bullying he had to put up with when Arthur was in a mood. No, the hardest part by far was that he was now also Arthur’s friend. He’d hoped for that very thing for years, for Arthur to realize how close they were growing, how attached they already were just by virtue of the things they’d survived together.
But with Gaius disappeared and Arthur unwilling to listen to any explanation apart from the ridiculous tale Agravaine concocted, Arthur had finally proven Merlin a fool for ever wishing they could be friends.
Merlin understood the mentality, asinine though it was. As Prince, Arthur was taught from birth, ironically enough, to resent magic, to fear it. As King, he had time and again felt the sting of betrayal through magical means.
And so, Merlin could never tell Arthur about his magic and expect him to react as Will had, as if the magic was a fascinating new plaything and not a weapon or threat. His confession would be one more betrayal, perhaps the worst betrayal of Arthur’s life.
Merlin turned to look at his friend – his King. Their eyes met, but Merlin looked away, knowing Arthur would read him like a book and respect him less, if that were possible, for the emotions Merlin was barely keeping under wraps.
When Arthur had gone, Merlin pushed away from the cold stone and walked slowly through the quiet corridors to Arthur’s chambers. Agravaine wasn’t there waiting for Arthur as Merlin half-expected, but the poison had already been poured into Arthur’s ears and done its worst. Arthur’s mind wouldn’t be changed.
Merlin knew with absolute certainty that Gaius would not have left him in such a way, no matter the cause, and Arthur should have no doubts about that, either. Gaius had given up every bit of his pride and dignity in order to serve Uther and hadn’t even considered retiring his station when Uther had passed.
That Gaius left Merlin nothing - not so much as a letter - was evidence enough of his abduction in Merlin’s view – it should be just as obvious to Arthur, but Arthur was apparently unable to think for himself whenever his uncle was there to do so for him.
Merlin shoved open the door to Arthur’s chamber and then locked it behind him, looping the leather thong back over his neck and tucking they key beneath his tunic. Agravaine must have known he had it, but he didn’t know that Merlin spelled it to burn anyone but himself at a single touch.
As he’d cast the spell, he’d imagined the day when he could show Arthur key-shaped blisters on Agravaine’s palms as proof of his treachery.
But Merlin’s little traps had so far proved fruitless, and so he rarely left Arthur’s side in recent days for fear that Agravaine would strike the moment Arthur was alone. Even when Arthur ordered him from the room, Merlin always made his presence just outside the door known by talking loudly to the guards or tapping his boot-heel against the wall.
Arthur was already sat at his desk, pinching the bridge of his nose, eyes closed as Merlin entered the room.
Fetching Arthur’s nightclothes, Merlin laid them out at the foot of the bed, smoothing the fabric as if they were the royal mantle and not thin linen tunic and worn, soft breeches. Arthur didn’t need him and would likely turn in soon, but Merlin wouldn’t leave until ordered. Perhaps not even then if he sensed Arthur truly wished him to stay.
His duty was to the King, no matter how badly he was aching inside. He was desperate to find any small clue as to Gaius’ whereabouts and the tower was where his search should begin.
He knelt at the hearth and stoked the fire, adding another log and turning the ones already on the grate, sending a shower of sparks up the chimney.
“He’s the only family I have left.” Arthur spoke softly, though he might as well have been shouting. The words cut as deep as the ones he’d hurled at Merlin earlier in the council chamber.
Merlin stood and turned to face him, waiting for Arthur to meet his eyes. “That’s not true.”
“Merlin-“ Arthur rose to his feet and braced his arms on the desk, his hands clenching into fists.
“No. I’m not here to argue.” Merlin held up a hand to forestall any more harsh words. He didn’t think he could take another blow tonight. “But your uncle is not family, Arthur. Gaius is family. And what about Gwen and the knights? They’ve known you longer than anyone; they know you better than anyone. Even I’m closer to you than your uncle.”
Arthur’s jaw tightened. “I command the knights. Gwen’s affections lie elsewhere now and likely always have. Gaius served my father; you serve me. You’re none of you family.”
Merlin swallowed hard, cleared his throat so he could speak clearly over the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears. He hadn’t thought he could feel more alone than he had the moment they’d realized Gaius was missing, but this- Arthur actually saying the words and dismissing him as only a mere servant? “Yes. Yes, you’re right. Of course.”
Arthur frowned at him, then crossed his arms over his chest.
“I’ll prepare the bed, shall I? Do you require anything else before I go?” Merlin barely got the words out, turning away so Arthur wouldn’t see his over-full eyes.
He heard the soft scuff of Arthur’s boots on the floor behind him and moved, stepping to the side of the bed. He felt Arthur follow and hover as Merlin moved the velvet cushions and turned down the bedclothes.
“I didn’t mean- You’re obviously not just a servant to me.” Arthur laid a hand on Merlin’s shoulder as he spoke, but his words were tight with forced patience and laced through with an exasperated tone that negated any comfort they might have brought.
Merlin shrugged away from his touch.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t be anything to you all from now on. I’ll be needed as physician what with Gaius... gone. His patients will need me to see to their medicines. I’ll send for George to assume my-” He couldn’t say it. He couldn’t.
“George would have me bored to death within a fortnight,” Arthur scoffed. He turned Merlin to face him, both hands on his shoulders. “Have you forgotten that I’ve twice been enchanted into believing I felt affection I did not actually feel?”
Merlin raised his eyebrows in disbelief. That was the excuse he was going to use for taking Agrivaine’s every word as law? “You’ve not been enchanted to believe him. Agravaine is only using his blood ties to influence you and you’re letting him, Sire. There is no magic involved, only poor judgement.” Merlin winced as he waited for the screaming to begin.
Arthur’s grip on his shoulders tightened and Arthur held his gaze. “Listen very carefully to me. Because I’ve been tricked before, I’m doubly sceptical when I tend to always believe you over someone whom I should, by all rights, believe above everyone.” Arthur didn’t let go of him, but stared meaningfully, as if waiting for Merlin to realize-
“You think you’re enchanted to believe me, then? You told him you believe him. You wouldn't even listen to me-”
“And you're not listening to me now, Merlin. Shall I spell it out for you? Even though you're... no golden-haired princess, I find myself... I have a certain amount of... affection. For you. And you have to admit, it’s a bit far-fetched that I would fall for a gangly string bean like you,” Arthur said, his mouth quirking into a half-smile.
“I'm not a..." Merlin trailed off, shaking his head, unable to believe Arthur was saying what it sounded like he was saying. He bit his lip and waited for Arthur’s smile to fade away before he breathed his confession. “We’re not enchanted.”
“We’re not? What's that supposed to mean?”
Merlin closed his eyes for a long moment. If he told the truth now, he might truly lose Arthur tonight as well as Gaius. How would he go on without either of them?
He opened his eyes. “I can see how you might suspect enchantment. I mean, I’m your servant – and a man - and you’re... I never thought you’d feel the same. But I know we aren’t enchanted. Gaius would have noticed at some point in the last few years if we were.”
“Years?” Arthur asked quietly, his hold on Merlin’s shoulders relaxing, the weight of his hands suddenly very heavy. “Yes, you're right. We’ll ride out at dawn.”
Merlin blinked at him, then pulled him into a tight embrace, relief washing over him as Arthur returned it just as fervently. It was as if Arthur had found him in the woods all over again and they were locked together again. They needed the physical reassurance of one another’s touch then, and Merlin needed it just as desperately now. He held on long after anyone else would have let go, not that anyone hugged the King at all, really.
Arthur’s mouth pressed against his throat and he didn't loosen his arms from around Merlin even a degree. In fact, they tightened.
“We’ll find him,” Arthur whispered into his skin, his lips sending a frisson of excitement through Merlin’s body.
He nodded against Arthur’s shoulder, drawing in a deep breath to feel the resistance of Arthur's embrace against his body. He leaned into Arthur’s strength as he exhaled shakily. They were safe, stronger together than they ever could be apart. They could overcome any obstacle, even if they lost everyone else, as long as they had one another. “I know we will,” he murmured, raising his head to give Arthur a small smile.
“To bed, then,” Arthur ordered, giving Merlin a gentle shove so he stumbled back to sit on the mattress.
As Merlin sat in stunned silence, Arthur smoothly stripped off his boots, belt, neckerchief and tunic and urged him beneath the covers, then leant over to snuff the candle with a pinch of his fingers.
Merlin lay on his back, half-nude in the royal bed, the sheets beneath his bare skin as decadent and inviting as Arthur's scent surrounding him. But as much as Merlin had fantasized about the things he’d like to do there in Arthur’s bed, he felt no stirrings of desire. He couldn't stop himself thinking of Gaius, picturing the horrors he might be enduring at that very moment.
“Come here,” Arthur whispered, the moonlight filtering in through the windows, bathing his skin in pale soft blue as he pulled his tunic over his head and lay down beside Merlin.
When Merlin hesitated to move closer, Arthur reached for him. He took Merlin's face in his hands and kissed him gently, softly. Merlin's heartbeat thumped sluggishly in his ears by the time Arthur pulled away. He ached for this connection with Arthur, but his thoughts blurred with fear for Gaius and his own exhaustion.
Arthur brushed his thumb over Merlin's mouth, then shifted them on the bed, tucking Merlin up against his side and guiding his head onto a broad shoulder. It felt so good, so natural, and Merlin curled against his warmth, hooking one leg over and between Arthur’s and closing his eyes.
Every point of contact was further proof that Arthur was with him, was not pushing him away or disappearing behind familial obligation or giving his loyalty and trust to anyone else at the moment. It would have filled him completely, would have chased away every other thought but Arthur if Merlin hadn’t been sick with worry for Gaius.
“Do you think he’s alive?” The lump in his throat strangled his words, making them little more than a choked whisper.
Arthur pulled him closer, wrapping Merlin in his arms, his fingers carding absently, soothingly through Merlin’s hair. “Absolutely. He wouldn’t leave you without a proper goodbye. Now rest - I'll wake you at dawn.”
Merlin didn't think he'd manage, but the slow, constant rhythm of Arthur's touch and the solid thud of his heartbeat beneath Merlin's ear lulled him into sleep. He let himself drift off, knowing without a doubt that Arthur would keep his word.