It was a day like any other. The sun shone through the small window set high on the wall, and gently lit Merlin's face. Slowly, the rising sun warmed him until his eyes sluggishly blinked awake. Rolling from his bed, he shuffled into the main room where Gaius was already briskly at work.
"Oh! You're finally awake are you?" Gaius asked briskly. Merlin, still exhausted from the long hours of work he had the day before, could barely muster a mumble in reply. "Well you better wash quickly. You'll have to eat on the run today, I'm afraid. There seems to be some sort of illness that has taken over most of the court. I need you to deliver all of these tonics as soon as you're dressed."
"What? But Gaius - ", Merlin began.
"Save it, Merlin. Some things just have to be done."
The work itself wasn't, if Merlin was being completely honest, all that terrible. It was just the fact that no matter how many times he had saved Arthur, or Uther, or all of Camelot from certain doom he never got the respect he deserved. Not even from Arthur, who had truthfully become his closest friend. He just wanted the respect he deserved, instead of being treated like just another servant.
The tonics delivered, it was about time to wake Arthur and give him his breakfast. After grabbing a plate from the kitchens, Merlin quietly opened the door to Arthur's chamber. He placed the plate on the table with a soft clank as he crossed to where Arthur was laying.
The prince was sleeping, his blonde hair falling around his face. Merlin couldn't help but notice the morning's stubble bristling on Arthur's chin and his upper lip, making the strong prince look all the more masculine. The sight of his prince – his other half – sleeping so sweetly brought a smile to Merlin's mouth. He noticed a thin strand of hair had fallen over Arthur's eye, and slowly he reached his hand out, gently moving it to the side, letting his hand linger on the prince's face, warm and soft.
Suddenly, Arthur's eyes jolted open, and his large hand seized Merlin's arm, flipping him over onto the bed. Pulling a knife out from under his pillow, Arthur rolled on top of Merlin, straddling him and pushing the knife point to his slender throat.
"What are you doing in my chambers?" He asked angrily. "Explain yourse - Merlin? Merlin! What are you doing?"
"I - uh - well I was just - erm - " Merlin's mind went blank. All he could feel was the prince’s weight on top of him. All he could see was his face, staring down at him. All he could hear was his breathing, quick and raspy. "Arthur..."
Arthur rolled off of Merlin, falling to the bed beside him. "Merlin," he said, "we need to talk."
"A - alright." Merlin stuttered, still shaken from Arthur's sudden awakening.
"Merlin, I... I just wanted to thank you, for you know, always being there for me. It seems that no matter what I have to face, you are always right behind me. It means a lot." Arthur turned away from Merlin, hiding his face.
"Arthur - " Merlin began.
With a quick jab, Arthur shoved Merlin off his bed, leaving him sprawled on the cold floor.
"What was that for?" Merlin yelled.
"What made you think I'd let you stay in my bed? You've got work to do!"
"Way to ruin the moment." Merlin mumbled.
"What was that?" Arthur said, getting out of bed.
"Nothing, my lord." Merlin looked up at Arthur from where he had been making the bed and smiled. He could hear mumbled curses from where Arthur was trying to dress himself. Must be having troubles with the ties again, thought Merlin.
From behind the screen, Arthur called out to Merlin. "Come here and help with me this shirt!" Smirking, Merlin plumped the final pillow on Arthur's bed and went behind the screen where Arthur's large fingers were tangling the strings tying the neck of his shirt together.
"Stop, you're making it worse." Merlin mumbled. "Let me."
Gently, Merlin's adept fingers untangled the strings and carefully tied them. He let his hands rest on the prince's chest when he was finished. Realizing how close they were, Merlin let his gaze slowly wander up from Arthur’s chest into his eyes, blushing when they met. Merlin's lip trembled as he whispered, "Arthur - "
Before he could finish his thought, Merlin gave in to temptation. Stretching his neck slightly he pressed his lips against Arthur's, locking them into place as he tugged gently on Arthur’s shirt. Pulling away slowly, he could see Arthur's face was flushed and his eyes were clouded with confusion. "I - I'm sorry - " He stammered before turning and running from the room.
"Merlin!" Arthur called after him, but he was already gone.
The door burst open as Merlin rushed into the room. Gaius looked up from his work and said, "Merlin? You're home early." When Merlin ignored Gaius and silently made his way to his room, Gaius asked worriedly, "Merlin, what's wrong?"
Shutting the door behind him, Merlin flung himself onto his bed without an answer. Quietly, Gaius opened the door and crossed to sit next to Merlin. Gently rubbing circles on Merlin's back, he softly asked, "What is it, Merlin? You know you can tell me anything."
Taking a deep breath, Merlin said, "Gaius, I think there is something wrong with me."
"Merlin," Gaius began seriously, "Whatever could have brought this about? I know that there is nothing wrong with you. What would make you think such a thing?"
"It's Arthur, Gaius. I don't know what's happening to me. The way I feel about him - the way I see him - I don't think that it's the way I'm supposed to see the prince of Camelot, especially when I'm his servant." A tear slid down Merlin's cheek, "Gaius, I'm not normal. What is wrong with me?"
Wiping the tear from Merlin's face, Gaius gave a knowing smile. "Merlin, Merlin, Merlin. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you, don't ever think that again. What you are going through - it's nothing to be ashamed of. The heart chooses what it wants; sometimes we don't have control over it. Love, infatuation, attraction, whatever it may be; I’m sure it is something beautiful."
Merlin turned to look up at Gaius, his eyes red. "But Gaius - "
"Shh, Merlin, listen to me. You are more than just Arthur's servant, you are his protector, but most of all you are Arthur's friend. Deep down, you know that."
Merlin turned his head to the ground, his mind lost in thought. When they heard a knock on the door, Gaius gave Merlin a comforting pat on the back and went to see who was calling. He was only slightly surprised when he saw Arthur standing awkwardly on the other side of the door. Smiling pleasantly, he said, "Arthur! What can I do for you? You aren't feeling ill, I hope?"
"No, uh, Gaius. I was wondering if - er - rather I was hoping to talk to - well I just - is Merlin here?" The prince, clearly nervous, was stumbling over his words and staring guiltily at the floor.
"Yes he is here, Sire, but I am not certain that now is the best time to talk to him." Gaius said with a frown.
"I really just need to see him, Gaius." Arthur looked up into the physician’s eyes, and Gaius could see that the prince was clearly distressed.
"Of course, Sire, he is up in his room."
Taking a deep breath, Arthur slowly crossed the room to the door on the other side. With another calming breath, he gently swung the door open.
"Gaius," Merlin mumbled, "I just need some time alone to think."
Arthur gave a slight cough and said, "Merlin... I..."
Hearing Arthur's voice, Merlin jumped up with a start. "Arthur!" He exclaimed, alarmed. "What are you doing here?"
"Is that any way to address your prince, Merlin?" Arthur said mockingly with a smirk.
"I'm sorry, it's just I didn't expect to see you after - " An awkward silence fell across the room.
"Right.." Arthur's voice trailed off. "Merlin, about that."
"No, Arthur, please. Let's just forget it ever happened. I'm embarrassed enough as it is. We really don't need to bring it up ever again." Merlin turned his head away from the prince, ears burning with shame.
"Merlin," Arthur began, taking a step towards his manservant.
"Arthur! Just drop it!"
"Merlin, look at me." Stubbornly, Merlin kept his face hidden from the prince, even as Arthur took another step closer.
"Please leave me be," Merlin pleaded.
"No." Arthur simply stated before placing his hand behind Merlin's head, turning it to face him, and kissing his soft, trembling lips. Pulling away gently, Arthur whispered, a smile playing on his mouth, "Now will you listen?"
Merlin stared, open mouthed, at the prince. "Good." Arthur said. "What happened in my chambers, well, you left before I could get my thoughts straight. I was certainly surprised."
"I'm so sorry, Arthur, I didn't mean to just," he hesitated, "kiss you like that. I don't know what came over me."
"Merlin," Arthur said calmly, "please let me finish."
When he was certain Merlin would be quiet, he continued. "I was shocked, but that does not mean I didn't like it." Merlin blushed.
"Maybe - maybe you did the right thing. I can't pretend that I haven't... noticed you a bit more than I have any other servant. Perhaps this," he said, stroking Merlin's cheek, "is something we should try."
Bringing his hand up to hold Arthur's against his face, Merlin replied, "I can't think of anything that would make me happier." Quickly, he closed the distance between their lips.
It was another beautiful day as far as Merlin was concerned. The sun felt warmer, the trees looked greener, the breeze felt softer; nothing could hold him down. Every day had felt wonderful since he and Arthur had gotten together. It had only been a few days, but the stolen glances and sweet kisses were everything Merlin could have hoped for, and had been hoping for for quite a while. Leaving his room, he couldn't help but beam with a radiant smile.
"You certainly seem to be feeling well today." Gaius said in an off-hand tone.
"How could I not, Gaius? Today feels absolutely wonderful!" Merlin spun once as he made his way to the table.
"Well I'm glad to hear it, but unfortunately there is much to be done. Whatever this illness is, it's spreading, and quickly. We need to figure out how it's being spread and how to cure it. I've spoken with Uther, and this is our top priority. Your duties with Arthur are temporarily postponed."
"But Gaius - " Merlin exclaimed.
"Merlin, please. There are lives at stake here. This is bigger than spending time with Arthur."
Merlin sighed. He certainly wasn't happy about having to give up his time with Arthur, especially after recent developments, but he owed it to Gaius to help him. "Gaius," Merlin began thoughtfully, "what sort of sickness is it, anyway?"
Gravely, Gaius explained. "Initially, it appears as nothing more than a common cold. Within a matter of hours, however, the patient develops a horrible fever, and eventually loses consciousness. The first case was brought to me a few days ago. None have woken up, and I fear soon they will perish. There is only so long we can sustain the lives of the comatose."
Merlin spent the day running all over the palace and the lower town. The sun was setting when he was finally returning to the rooms he shared with Gaius. A warm, golden light illuminated the halls of the palace. Merlin thought to himself that he might be a little glad he hadn't run into Arthur all day; he smelled of sickness and sweat, and he was sure he would not have made a pretty sight. He smiled, thinking maybe tonight, after washing of course, he would go and see Arthur.
His mind was lost in a day dream when suddenly a hand reached out and pulled Merlin behind a recess in the wall. His shout of surprise was silenced by a pair of rough lips crashing down against his own. Merlin relaxed into the kiss, recognizing the feel of Arthur against him as well as his masculine, musky scent, and began kissing Arthur back earnestly.
When eventually they broke apart, Arthur simply stated, "I missed you."
"I missed you too." Merlin replied, leaning against the prince's chest. They remained like that, in silence, simply enjoying each other’s company for a few moments. Arthur took a step back when they could hear footsteps coming down the hall. Placing a quick kiss on Merlin's forehead, he whispered, "I'll see you later, Merlin."
Merlin leaned back against the wall, catching his breath as he listened to the prince walk away. He felt his stomach drop when he heard Arthur give a deep, crackling cough.
Merlin slipped his arms into his jacket as he quietly crept across the room, careful not to wake the loudly snoring Gaius. Once in the halls of the palace, it was a simple matter to make his way up to Arthur's chambers. He was beaming as he jauntily paced the familiar path, his footsteps echoing off the stone walls. He hoped Arthur would be happy to see him; it felt like they had been apart for so long.
His footsteps slowed as he reached Arthur's door. Slowly he cracked the door open, peering inside. The prince lay in his bed, fast asleep. Perfect. Merlin slid the door shut behind him with a quiet thump. Footsteps silent, he crossed to Arthur's regal bed, content to slide into it beside him and wait for him to wake up. It wasn’t until he slid his arm over the prince gently that he noticed he was completely drenched in sweat.
"No.." He whispered. "No! Arthur," He said, shaking the prince, "Arthur, wake up! You can't be sick! Arthur, no!" His mind panicked, he ran through the snaking halls of the palace back to his own chambers where he shook Gaius awake.
"M-Merlin? What are you doing? What time is it?" Gaius looked around, perturbed.
"Gaius, pay attention! It's Arthur. He's sick." Merlin's voice wavered with emotion. He couldn't believe that Arthur had caught the sickness. Arthur! Of all people to catch it, it had to be the crown prince, and just after he had opened up about his feelings towards Merlin at that.
"Merlin, you need to relax." Gaius could see that Merlin was growing frantic. "I'll see what I can do."
Time seemed to be passing agonizingly slow for Merlin. Nothing was moving fast enough. There wasn't anything Merlin could do, except gently dab a wet cloth across Arthur's face, wiping away the sweat and trying to keep him cool.
"Merlin," Gaius said. "This is all I can do for now, until I find a cure. Try to get some rest, Merlin. You can't do any good standing around here."
Merlin didn't look up from Arthur's pale form, his eyes red with unshed tears, "I'm not leaving him, Gaius."
Silently, he gave Merlin an affectionate pat on the shoulder, his face understanding as he left the room. Merlin took a hold of Arthur's hand, willing him to recover. "Please, Arthur, you have to get better."
Merlin's head was bowed when he heard a mumbled reply. "Merlin..." Arthur croaked, his voice rough and dry. "Merlin..." he whispered again.
"Arthur!" Merlin exclaimed. "Shh, Arthur, just rest. I'm here, I'd never leave."
Softly, Merlin pressed his lips to Arthur's forehead, his eyes clenched to hold back the tears. He didn't hear the door open from across the room. What he did hear, was Uther's yelled question. "What do you think you are doing?"
Rising quickly, Merlin stumbled for the right words. "I just - well you see - Arthur and I - "
"Spit it out, boy. Do not think to waste my time!" Uther was staring down at Merlin, his figure imposing.
"The prince and I - " Merlin began.
"The prince and you nothing." Uther spat. "Whatever you think you are allowed to do, or whatever my son has allowed you to do will stop now."
"My lord," Merlin faced the ground. "Arthur and I share something - something special."
"Do not think to address me so frankly! From this moment on, whatever you shared with my son is over. Do you understand that? And if he recovers from this illness, I expect you to not resume any sort of contact with the prince."
"But I am his manservant, sire."
"Not anymore, you aren't." Uther said coldly.
A day passed, and then another. From what Merlin could get from Gaius, Arthur was quickly getting worse, and the first few people who had come down with the horrible sickness had just died. Merlin spent the best part of the two days holed up in his room, distraught. He didn't want to think about the fact that if Arthur should perish, he wouldn't have had a chance to see him one last time. Nor did he want to think that if Arthur should recover, he would still not be allowed to see him anymore. Regardless of how much he didn't want to think about them apart it seemed to be all he could focus on.
Gaius opened the door and called, "Merlin! I need you to go and fetch some mushrooms for dinner."
"But Gaius -" Merlin whined.
"Save it, Merlin. Go and get the mushrooms."
Quietly, but not without a huff, Merlin grabbed his coat and made his way to the fields outside of the castle. Slowly, he wound around the field picking the mushrooms absentmindedly. Merlin first noticed it on a particularly large mushroom; underneath the cap of the mushroom there was a thick white crumbly growth. Forgetting everything else, Merlin ran back to Gaius with the mushroom in hand.
"Well, this certainly is strange." Gaius said while examining the mushroom.
"What if," Merlin said excitedly, "What if this is what's causing the sickness? This time of year loads of people are eating mushrooms."
"That could be, Merlin. Let me just run a few more tests..." His voice dragged off as his mind turned to the work at hand.
"What is it now, Merlin?" Gaius didn't look up from his work.
"Arthur had mushrooms in his dinner the night before he got sick!"
"Are you certain?"
"Yes, Gaius, he..." Merlin paused awkwardly. "I remember because he complained about having to eat vegetables and I told him they were a fungus." And then he said if he had to eat a fungus he'd rather eat me instead, Merlin added to himself.
"Right," Gaius replied simply. "Well it shouldn't be too hard for me to make some sort of antidote to this, whatever it is."
"You're the best, Gaius!" Merlin said joyfully, a smile spread wide on his face.
"This should do the trick. Merlin, I'm sorry, but you can't come with me. I promise as soon as I have any update on the prince's condition I'll return."
"R-right." Merlin stuttered, reality crashing back down on him. He wasn't supposed to see Arthur anymore. Their romance had been sweet, but so, so short. He could hardly believe that it had to be over already.
Gaius smiled sadly as he left.
Coat in hand, Merlin left shortly after him, but left in the opposite direction.
It was late when Merlin returned to find Gaius sitting down to dinner alone. "Merlin!" He exclaimed. "Where have you been?"
"I was working." Merlin poured himself a bowl of water to wash with. He stank of sweat, and the odor of horse manure followed him.
"Working?" Gaius looked worried. "But Merlin, Uther has forbid you to - "
"I'm not working for Arthur, Gaius. I have a new job, as a stable-boy at the Inn."
"Merlin - "
"Don't look for me in the morning, Gaius. I have to be up early." Clean enough to sleep, Merlin climbed the few steps to his room and threw himself onto his bed.
"What do mean you?" Arthur shouted.
"I did what I had to." Uther's gaze lowered. "Maybe when you're older, you'll understand."
"You can't just fire my manservant without my consent!"
"I am the king, and I shall do as I please." Uther rose from the side of Arthur's bed angrily. "This is not up for discussion, and I will not hear another word about it until you are feeling better. Just be thankful Gaius found the antidote and you are still alive." He strode quickly toward the door.
"But Father, I – I need Merlin to be my manservant. He's the best one I've ever had." Arthur said defiantly.
"Is that so?" Uther turned back around to face Arthur. "That's strange because it seems you can't stop complaining about how incompetent he is."
"I was wrong Father. He does have his uses after all."
"Is that the case? Well then it seems I was wrong to fire him. I'll send someone to fetch him immediately." Arthur didn't notice the sarcasm in the king's voice.
Eyes wide, Arthur looked up at his father. "Really? Thank you, Father, I'm glad we could come to this understanding – "
"Of course not. Don't be ridiculous. Your manservant had developed feelings for you that were far beyond what his position allowed. I did what needed to be done." Angrily, Uther left the room.
"I felt for him more than I should have, too," Arthur mumbled. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to give up."
"Oi! Merlin! I need you to bring this load up to the castle. They're having some sort of big to-do up there tonight and asked for an extra large shipment."
"Can't someone else do it?" Merlin complained. "You know I hate going to the castle."
The supervisor didn't even spare Merlin a glance as he replied "You live in the castle! Besides, I gave you this job and I can just as easily take it away if you don't do what I say."
Mumbling some sort of agreement, Merlin grabbed the sack of vegetables and grains and turned towards the castle he could see in the distance. It was quite a walk from the farm where Merlin now worked, so he set a moderate pace.
It had been a few weeks since Merlin had been forced to leave his post at Arthur's side. He left every morning before the sun rose and worked until long after it had set. The work was hard, and Merlin's pale skin had darkened from spending the days under the hot sun. His muscles were more defined from the physical labor, and the soreness had almost completely gone.
The sun was just sinking below the walls when Merlin reached the castle. He hoped he wasn't late as he heard the crazed frenzy of preparation from the kitchen. He stood, for a moment, in the middle of the chaos, completely ignored by the people around him. Eventually, he was told where to put the large sack he was carrying, and, having been paid, he walked out into the cool evening.
Figuring he was done for the evening, Merlin walked a winding path of alleys to the chambers he shared with Gaius. It would have been much quicker to take the main path, but it was such a pleasant night. He also didn't want to chance running into anyone he knew from the castle.
He didn't notice the haggard figure leaning against the wall ahead of him.
"Merlin?" The man said.
"A-Arthur?" Merlin asked shakily.
As he stepped into the light Merlin could see Arthur was in a terrible state. The skin under his eyes was a bruised purple, and his hair and clothes were dirty and disheveled.
"Merlin!" Arthur sounded relieved as he grabbed Merlin's arm, pulling him in for a kiss. Merlin pulled his arm back and stepped back from Arthur.
"No, Arthur, we shouldn't." He looked awkwardly at the ground, avoiding the prince's gaze.
"But – " Arthur protested. Sighing, he agreed "You're right. Merlin, listen, my father…"
"Shh – it's ok." Merlin looked into Arthur's eyes, trying to hide his true feelings. "He was right."
"He was – what? No! He was wrong!" Urgently, Arthur took a step towards Merlin, placing his hand on his cheek, forcing him to look into his eyes. "What we feel is all that matters."
"That's just it, Arthur. I don't feel anything for you." He looked away from the prince's wounded stare, hoping he wouldn't see his lie.
"You're telling me that you don't feel anything for me?" Arthur slid his hand around to the back of Merlin's neck, pulling his face to his own.
The kiss was frantic. Arthur’s hand were tugging at Merlin all over, begging him to come closer. His mouth sucked Merlin’s hungrily, nipping his lip aggressively. Pulling back, Arthur whispered "I missed you," before pushing his mouth back against Merlin's quickly, forcing him up against the alley wall.
Merlin could feel Arthur's warm body pressed against his own. Their kiss was growing steadily with need, and he was responding with equal fervor. Arthur's hands snaked up and down Merlin's back and neck, accidentally untying Merlin's scarf in the process. It fell to the ground, unnoticed.
Merlin was the first one to realize exactly what they were doing. He pushed Arthur away, breathing heavily.
"What?" Arthur asked. "Merlin, you can't seriously tell me you don't feel anything for me after that. Even if you did, I'd know you were lying."
"Fine, you win." Merlin looked away from the prince. "I do care about you, but that doesn't mean I have to act on it."
"Yes it does!" Arthur looked directly into his former servants eyes.
"That's exactly what it means. If you care about me, and I care about you, why shouldn't we act on it? It's our lives, Merlin."
"No, Arthur, it's not. You're the prince, and one day, maybe soon, you'll be king. That means something more than us. You have a duty to your kingdom to marry a woman and have an heir, not to mention your father's expectations of you. I know you care about him and you respect him."
Arthur could see the pain is Merlin's eyes as he spoke. "But Merlin – "
"No, Arthur. This has to be it. We can't keep seeing each other like this."
"Are you – are you breaking up with me, Merlin? How cliché." Arthur almost spat the words.
"You know it's what we have to do. Maybe you should talk to Gwen? You know she talks about you all the time."
"I don't want Gwen, I want you!"
"It's for your own good, Arthur. I guess this time we can't have what we want. We need to grow up. I'll see you around, Arthur." Merlin turned and walked away.
Arthur fought the urge to run after him, beginning the see the sense in his words. He noticed the scarf puddle on the ground. He contemplated calling after him so he could get it back. Instead, he shoved it into his back pocket and headed off in the other direction.
Arthur woke up to a bright and beautiful morning, which made him all the more miserable. He wished there was some way for him the control the weather in Camelot as he pleased. 'That would be perfect,' he thought.
If Arthur would have had control of the weather on this particular morning he was certain the sky would be filled with a tempest that would shake the castle to its foundation with its fury and hurt. Instead, Arthur rolled over with a moan and clenched the bunched piece of red cloth even tighter in his hand. Heaving a deep sigh, he brought Merlin's scarf to his face and inhaled the familiar scent. Having previously been worn around his former manservant/almost boyfriend's neck it was permeated with pure eu de Merlin.
It had been three days since his fight with Merlin in the alley, and Arthur had not exactly been fairing very well. He had refused his father's efforts to find him a new manservant and was spending his days alternating between moping about his chambers and storming about them pounding the walls and breaking things. He hadn't tried to find Merlin again. Somewhere inside of him he understood Merlin's point. One day, Arthur was going to be king and it was his duty to produce an heir. Arthur understood, but he'd be damned if he was simply going to accept that sitting down. At this moment, his feelings for Merlin were what were real to him and he couldn't deny it.
He took another inhale of the scarf that he had found so carelessly discarded in the alley. Wondering if Merlin was missing it, he closed his eyes. He could picture Merlin standing there, right in front of him with this exact scarf wrapped so perfectly around his slender neck. Wouldn't half of his outfits be completely ruined without it? Arthur certainly wasn't going to return it, however. It was his last memento of the shortest and sweetest romance of his life.
Could he even consider it a romance? It had been so short. Just a few blinks of an eye and few stolen kisses and then it was over. Was that why Merlin had found it so easy to let go? Had it been too short to really mean something to him? Arthur had no way of knowing and with a frustrated groan he flopped over onto his stomach. To him, it hadn’t really felt short at all because even if they hadn’t been kissing and such for long, he had felt so close to Merlin for so long. As he lay there, he realized that he had never felt so close to anyone in his life as he had to Merlin. He felt as if they had been in a relationship for years, rather than days.
He was splayed upside down all across his bed when he heard a timid knock on the door and the swish of air as it opened.
"Arthur?" A familiar voice called.
"Gwen?" Arthur asked, startled. Stuffing the precious scarf under his pillow he sat up hastily. "What are you doing here?"
"The king sent me to look after you." She said with a blush. "He said if you wouldn't accept another manservant he would stop sending them - men, that is."
"Ah," Arthur sighed. He remembered what Merlin had told him, 'Maybe you should talk to Gwen? You know she talks about you all the time'. Well fine. If that's what Merlin wanted, that's exactly what he would get.
Merlin was tired and sore from a long day of riding. Just the day before he had been working diligently at his new job when suddenly it had hit him: he couldn't stay in Camelot. Almost every day since he had first arrived in Gaius' chambers had been spent with, and all about Arthur’s safety and wellbeing. Now that he wasn't allowing himself to see him – and was trying to limit the time he spent thinking about him – he had felt a sort of disconnect from his life here in the castle. He considered his options. He could continue to live in the shadow of his feelings for Arthur and Arthur's duty to Camelot, or - he made up his mind.
Merlin quit his job, and that night over dinner he explained his plans to Gaius. He couldn't protect Arthur anymore if he couldn't be around him, and because of that he had decided to leave Camelot. In the morning, Gaius waved to Merlin as he rode away from the castle. He understood that he couldn't stop Merlin from making his own decisions, no matter how much he wanted him to stay. The sun was rising, the light a bright, brilliant gold of a new day. Shielding his eyes from the sun, Gaius felt a single tear fall down his cheek. He wondered if, at his age, he was ever going to see Merlin again.
It was hard for Merlin to leave Gaius, and on such short notice too, but he felt that it was for the best. The further he rode from Camelot, the deeper he could breathe. He thought that he might not see Arthur ever again, and as sad as that made him, he knew Arthur at least would recover. Merlin could take the burden of their loss if it meant Arthur could live the life he was supposed to live.
The night in the alley had convinced Merlin that Arthur wouldn't have been able to move on if Merlin was still around. Now he was certain Arthur could take the throne as he was meant to, marry, and give the world many little Arthur's to wreak havoc.
Now, uncomfortable and ready for a good night's rest, Merlin looked ahead to find a small Inn. Hoping he could stay there for the night, he tied up his horse and headed inside. After securing a room, Merlin went downstairs hoping for some warm food and something to drink. With a sigh, he sat down at the bar. Having just asked for a pint of whatever cider was available, he felt a strong hand grab his arm.
"Merlin? What the hell are you doing here?" A familiar voice said behind him.
"Gwaine?" Merlin swung around. "Gwaine! You've no idea how happy I am to see a friendly face!"
"Merlin! It is you! Why're you in a dodgy place like this all alone? You know, with a pretty face like yours, you need to be careful."Gwaine chortled, pinching Merlin’s cheek. Merlin flushed, looking awkwardly away.
"Well..." Merlin's voice drifted off softly, not sure where to begin.
"Look, why don't we go upstairs to my room and you can tell me all about it?" Gwaine suggested, recognizing Merlin's distress.
Upstairs, Merlin found himself sitting across from Gwaine on the single bed, fidgeting silently with a loose thread on the quilt.
"So where is Arthur?" Gwaine asked bluntly.
Merlin choked for a moment. "A-Arthur?"
"Well you don't normal travel without him. I'm thinking either you are on some mission from him, or something happened. Am I right?" He smirked.
"You're right." Merlin sighed. "He - we - things changed. Between us, I mean."
"Ah," Gwaine crooned with understanding. "So you two finally wizened up, eh?"
"What on earth do you mean, Gwaine?" Merlin looked shocked.
"Look, Merlin. Just about everyone else could see that there was more than a normal manservant-master relationship between you two. Hell, the way you two look at each other made me wonder if I should leave the room or take my pants off!" Gwaine laughed, flashing a bright smile.
Merlin blushed furiously and look away from the beaming Gwaine. Sheepishly, he eked a simple "Oh".
"So, Merlin, tell me what happened between you two, and don't spare me any details." He said with a wink.
"Oh gods, Gwaine, it was nothing but it felt like everything. I had to leave, though. Uther found out and fired me. Then I realized that Uther was right. Arthur needs to be king one day, and he needs to marry and make lots of little Arthur babies to be king after him, and he can't do that with me."
Gwaine moaned. "Uther! To be perfectly honest, Merlin, Uther is not exactly my favorite bloke."
"I don't blame you." Merlin mumbled.
Gwaine laughed again, good-humored as always. "Merlin, Merlin! You deserve to be happy too, you know?"
Merlin let out a quick guffaw. "Oh, yeah? When did you get so wise, you miserable drunk?"
"Oh you know I picked up bits and pieces here and there. I've been around enough to learn a few things, if you catch my drift."
Merlin laughed whole-heartedly this time. "I've missed you, Gwaine."
"I've missed you as well, Merlin." Then, smiling fondly, "Come here, you!"
Merlin laughed as Gwaine pulled him into a tight hug. He supposed this was what he needed: a friend that he could just talk to.
Gwen stood nervously outside of Arthur's door, clutching some linens anxiously to herself. She had graciously accepted the position of being Arthur's maidservant when Uther had offered because she wanted to earn her keep. Since Morgana had left under awkward circumstances, Gwen had earned her wages doing odd jobs around the castle as she was needed. She was desperate to get back to real work, but she wasn't sure working for the object of her affection was the best decision.
Taking a deep breath, she knocked briskly and pushed open the door. Arthur sat on the edge of the bed. Shirtless, he was holding a piece of cloth, staring off into the middle distance.
Arthur sat, holding Merlin's scarf tight in his hand. Sighing, he rubbed his thumb slowly over the familiar fabric. It was all he had left of his stupid manservant. Why had he left him? He wondered. He was lost in thought when he heard a shrill eek from the door.
"Guinevere!" He gasped, jumping to his feet. Noticing that her eyes were fixated on his bare chest, he mumbled "Oh - uh - "
He looked across at her, noticing the blush shooting across her cheeks. Tossing Merlin's wrinkled scarf to the bed, he took a step forward.
"Guinevere." He repeated, softer this time. He reached out, and slowly took the linens from her arm, smirking gently when she let out a small gasp.
Arthur looked down into her wide eyes and almost felt a twinge of regret. Almost.
"Why don't you dine with me this afternoon?"
Merlin and Gwaine had fallen into a sort of easy routine. Gwaine would, surprisingly, get up first; usually around noon. He would wash, and, if it was a travelling day, pack the bags. Around three, he would wake Merlin up and breakfast with him. They would then saddle up the horses and see how far they could get before nightfall. They never stayed more than two nights in the same place, even if they wanted to. Gwaine had a knack for losing the good graces of innkeepers.
Merlin had sunk into a sullen depression, which Gwaine was doing his most to fix. Most nights he would drink himself to sleep without saying much to Gwaine at all.
On around the fifth night of their travels Gwaine turned to Merlin and said, "You know you can talk to me - er - about anything, right, Merlin? It might help to, you know, talk."
Merlin simply looked away intently for a while before turning back to Gwaine and mumbling, "I'm good, thanks."
On this particular day, it had been a little less than three weeks since Merlin had found Gwaine. Despite trying his best, Gwaine hadn't succeeded in shaking Merlin out of his slump, which seemed particularly volatile that afternoon. As they settled in for the night, they were confronted with the problem of having to share a bed. After much bickering and Merlin insisting he had to sleep on the floor, they had agreed to share. After a few hours, and more than a few drinks, they had both gotten into bed. Gwaine, frustrated, stared at the ceiling looking for the right words.
"Merlin," he sat up.
"Mph," Merlin replied, halfheartedly.
"Sit up. We need to talk."
"What is it?" Merlin asked, worried.
"It's you!" Gwaine was exasperated. "I know how hurt you must be with the Arthur business, but you need to cheer up. It's not healthy, the way you've been acting, and I'm not sure what to do anymore."
"Gwaine, this is not your problem to fix." Merlin said earnestly. "This is for me to work through and me alone."
"But it doesn't have to be, Merlin. You deserve to be happy." And with that, Gwaine slid his hand around the back of Merlin's neck and pulled him in for a kiss. Gwaine’s beard scratched Merlin’s face, and he tasted like a strange combination of the different drinks they had enjoyed, but none of it bothered Merlin, and he lost himself there. The kiss was rough and needy, but it filled a part of the hole in Merlin which he hadn’t yet realized the extent of.
Two months had passed since the night between Merlin and Gwaine. They still traveled together, never staying in any one place for long, and their relationship had awkwardly blossomed. At first, Merlin simply enjoyed the distraction from Arthur (and the attention wasn't so bad, either), but as time progressed, Merlin came to realize that he did truly care for Gwaine, although Arthur was never far from his mind.
Gwaine enjoyed spending the time with Merlin as well, but Gwaine's feelings were considerably deeper than Merlin's. For Gwaine, the shadow of Merlin's feelings for Arthur was constantly hanging over him, but he pretend he didn't notice the way Merlin would sometimes allow his face to darken as he remembered, thinking Gwaine couldn't see. Gwaine tried to distract Merlin every time he saw his depression creeping back in. Usually, he distracted him with a kiss, and when that didn't work, a little bit more.
They were unsaddling their horses in companionable silence when Gwaine rushed up behind Merlin, spun him around, and kissed him passionately. Kissing Gwaine was different from kissing Arthur, Merlin had realized. Gwaine was a lot harsher and a lot more demanding. He exuded a violent manhood that made Merlin shiver. Gwaine could also be a lot sweeter. Merlin could tell that Gwaine genuinely cared for him, and smiled when they pulled apart for breath.
"What was that for?" Merlin asked.
"It had been too long." Gwaine replied with a laugh, returning to his horse.
"It can't have been more than two hours since the last time we had a break." Merlin reasoned.
"Like I said, it had been too long." Gwaine flashed Merlin a winning smirk.
Together, they stabled their horses. They had reached a new inn, and Merlin was hoping to get at least three nights out of this one. As much as he hated to admit it, the constant traveling was tiring him. Despite the constant strain, however, Merlin had grown a lot in the past two months. Not just emotionally, but he was also taller, stronger, and his skin was darker. His eyes, however, showed how hard the time had been on him; they were older, duller, and sad.
Laughing at some stupid joke Gwaine had made involving a horse and a barman, they entered the inn. Looking around, it looked remarkably similar to all of the other places they had been. The air was smoky, and groups of men were huddled around tables and the fire while the innkeeper and his wife busily cleaned and served around the room.
Merlin was instantly on alert when he noticed the tall man with light curly hair talking to the innkeeper. This itself wasn't out of place, but the bright red cloak of a knight of Camelot was definitely cause for concern in Merlin's opinion. The knight turned to see who had entered, and spotting him exclaimed, "Merlin! Thank God! I've been searching all over for you!"
Drinks in hand, they sat down at a table. Leon looked haggard and took long drinks from his mug.
"Leon," Gwaine began. "You look awful. What brings you so far from Camelot?"
"It's a long story." Leon sighed. "Gaius has sent me looking for Merlin. A lot has happened in the two months since you've left." He looked at Merlin intently. "Uther was killed, not two weeks after we heard you were gone. Arthur was crowned king one week later. He's taken up with Gwen, and he's being less than quiet about it. He parades her all over the castle, showing off.
"Now I wouldn't be judging the king's decision if it wasn't for the fact that he was clearly miserable. He asks, frequently, if there is any news of Camelot citizens outside of the kingdom. He never mentions your name, but everyone knows who he's talking about. But the worst part, if you ask me, is he has one of your old scarves that he carries with him wherever he goes. When he thinks no one is watching, he pulls it out and just holds it, staring off into nowhere. You have to return to Camelot, Merlin; if not for Arthur, then for the kingdom. He needs to see you." Leon took another long drink when he was finished.
"That's ridiculous." Merlin blurted. "Leon, I'm sorry, but Arthur and I weren't even together for very long and - hang on, how do you even know about that?"
"Don't be daft." Leon laughed. "Everyone assumed you were together long before you were, anyway. But if you must know, I heard the specifics from Gaius. In my concern for the king, I asked Gaius if anything could be done to improve his humor. Gaius said the only remedy he could think of was your return. I pressured him for the specifics, and then on his advice left in search of you. Luckily, Gwaine tends to leave a bit of mark wherever he goes." Gwaine made a face at Leon.
"Regardless," Merlin began. "I can't see why my leaving could have had such an effect on Arth- the king. We weren't involved in that way for very long at all. Maybe he just doesn't know what he wants. He has to have time to move on."
"You don't understand, Merlin. You weren't romantically involved for very long, I'll give you that, but you two have been together for a very long time. You spent all of your days with each other, and you had a truly special bond. That doesn't just go away." Leon took a deep breath. "Look, it's not my place to say, but he loves you, Merlin."
At this point, Gwaine sighed, and mumbled something about getting a refill as he left the table.
"You can't just say things like that, Leon, especially when they aren't true." Merlin mumbled.
"I would never make something like that up, Merlin. You need to come back to Camelot. The king needs you. Arthur needs you, Merlin." Leon pleaded.
Merlin stared at Leon for a moment, judging his eyes for any hint of deceit. Not finding any, he heaved a sigh. "We can leave in the morning."
"What do you mean you can't come with us?" Merlin yelled. "Gwaine, don't be a clotpole, just come along."
"I was exiled, Merlin." Gwaine sat on the ground, adamantly refusing to get up. "I can't go back."
"Don't be daft, Gwaine. Arthur is king now and he'll surely give you a pardon. Right, Leon?" Merlin looked hopefully at the knight.
"The king has been through a lot recently, Merlin. Maybe it would be best to not force too much on him at once." Leon was clearly uncomfortable.
"Go, Merlin." Gwaine said simply, rising to his feet. "Don't worry about me. I'll run into you again sooner or later." He flashed a weak smile at Merlin.
Merlin hesitated for a moment, clearly conflicted, before stepping towards Gwaine and embracing him. "Thank you, Gwaine." He murmured.
Gwaine watched them ride away, not wanting to voice that the real reason he didn't want to go to Camelot was he couldn't stand the thought of seeing Merlin getting back together with Arthur.
Camelot. Merlin couldn't help but smile as he saw the familiar castle rising in the distance. No matter what happened, Merlin would always feel a special attachment to Camelot. When he had arrived from Ealdor, he would never have known the amazing experiences he would find there. Merlin would always have the memories of his friends—no, his family—in Camelot.
The first stop he wanted to make was the chambers he shared with Gaius. When he walked in the door, he was greeted by the familiar sight of Gaius hunched over his vials of tonics, probably conducting some experiment or another.
"Yes?" Gaius asked without even glancing up.
Merlin didn't answer, he simply waited for a mild curiosity and a flash of concern to cause Gaius to look towards the door. "Merlin!" He exclaimed.
He dropped his bags as Gaius pulled him into a warm hug. "I'm so glad you've returned," Gaius said, looking Merlin over for an obvious sign of illness or injury. Not finding anything too worrying, he picked up Merlin's bags and started toward Merlin's door. "You look older."
"Here, Gaius, let me carry those." Merlin protested.
"Nonsense. You should accept this little bit of kindness, Merlin. I expect you haven't received any in some time." Gaius dumped the bags on Merlin's bed. "But you can make yourself useful and put your things away."
"I haven't been completely without friends." Merlin mumbled awkwardly.
"Oh?" Gaius arched an eyebrow.
"I ran into Gwaine and he—we travelled together." Merlin said uncomfortably.
"I see," Gaius shuffled out of the room. "Well I'm glad you're back alive and well. The king, well, Uther's death has been hard on him, and without you around I don't think he has anyone to talk to."
"He has Gwen." Merlin retorted. Gaius made a face at him. Merlin shrugged, "Leon told me."
"Merlin," Gaius began with a sigh, "It is my honest medical opinion that though Arthur is currently involved with Gwen, it is you that he truly wants."
Merlin stood outside the council chamber doors, trying to regulate his breathing. As soon as he opened those doors, he would see Arthur for the first time since before he had left. He wasn't sure how he would react, but he reminded himself again that he would need to be as polite as possible-Arthur was King now, and Merlin needed to remember his place.
Taking another deep breath, Merlin pushed open the large double doors and saw Arthur-his friend, his lover, his king-sitting on his throne.
Arthur looked up at the sound of the doors opening opposite him, his breath catching in his throat as he saw the man that mattered most to him in the world walking slowly towards him.
"M-Merlin," He stuttered, rising from his throne.
"My lord," Merlin said, bowing awkwardly.
"You're back, then." Arthur said, simply, trying to regain the authority in his voice as he lowered himself back down.
"Yes, my lord." Merlin was still looking at the ground.
"How was your… trip?" Arthur asked awkwardly, trying to look anywhere but at Merlin. The only sign of his distress were his hands, tightly gripping the arms of the throne, working to keep himself from running across the hall and embracing Merlin and never letting go.
"Long, my lord."
"Right. Well, I - Camelot is glad that you've returned." Looking directly at Merlin, his eyes stern, Arthur decided to take a chance. "I expect you'll be back at work tomorrow morning, Merlin."
"Work, my lord?" Merlin looked up, finally, into Arthur's eyes.
"Yes of course, don't be an idiot-although I suppose that would be too much to ask of you. Work, Merlin, as my manservant. I'll see you in the morning."
"As you wish, my lord." Merlin said shakily.
It wasn't until Merlin had crossed back to the double doors, and they were shut securely behind him, that both young men let out a long sigh, feeling the tension racing from their shoulders as they were overcome with the emotions they had both pretended no longer existed.
Merlin stood outside the doors to Arthur's chambers, trying to prepare himself. Waiting outside doors was beginning to become a major theme in his life, he realized. He thought about how strange his conversation with Arthur the day before had been. Why had he just addressed Merlin's leaving as a "trip"? Was Arthur really just going to ignore not only the fact that Merlin had fled Camelot without a word, but the reasons why he had felt he had to do so as well? As he pushed open the door to the King's rooms, Merlin made up his mind that it was not his place to ask Arthur directly, and that he was just happy to be back at work. Maybe Gwaine could come back and…
All thoughts of Gwaine quickly left Merlin's mind when he saw Arthur sleeping peacefully in his massive bed. The sun was streaming through the window and it softly illuminated Arthur, causing his hair to glow brighter than any crown ever could. Merlin felt instantly drawn to his slightly parted lips, wanting to ever so gently part them further. His own lips parted in a loopy grin, any doubts of his feelings for Arthur were instantly forgotten. He was just about to live his fantasy when he remembered his new convictions from the doorway and he elected to lightly shake the king awake instead.
Arthur awoke slowly, and grabbed on to Merlin's hand still gently shaking his shoulder, his face pouting dramatically. "I liked the way you used to wake me up better."
"Arthur!" Merlin said with surprise. "What do you mean—"
Yanking down on his arm with his left hand, Arthur snaked his right hand around the back of Merlin's neck, lacing his fingers through Merlin's hair. Quickly, he pulled Merlin towards him and into a kiss.
Merlin was tentative at first, but Arthur was demanding, and who was Merlin to say no to the king? Arthur sat up more, leaning back against the headboard, Merlin following intuitively as he moved on to the bed above Arthur, on his knees. Gradually, Merlin warmed to the kiss, demanding more and more as he sucked on Arthur's bottom lip, leaving it red, swollen, and glistening. They carried on like this—eyes heavy, tongues darting, mouths hungry—until Merlin's desire became a little too obvious (Arthur's own erection wasn't helping Merlin keep his under control either). Merlin pulled back, and shoved Arthur back down as he tried to follow.
"No, Arthur." Merlin asserted, his voice low and rough. "We need to talk about this."
"Talk?" Arthur said coyly, reaching to pull Merlin back towards him. "What could we possibly need to talk about?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Arthur-" Merlin rolled his eyes and sat back on the foot of the bed. "-everything!"
Arthur crossed his arms across his chest with a huff. "Fine. What do you, with your infinite wisdom, think we need to talk about?"
"Well for starters, Gwen." Merlin said, looking off to the side.
"Ah. Gwen…" Arthur said, dragging out the sounds in her name. "Right."
"And even more importantly, what are we doing here, Arthur? No-just listen to me. What is going on here? What are we to each other? I need to know because I can't handle just wondering. It's killing me."
"Well," Arthur ran a hand through his hair. "We're this."
"Oh, you're just as eloquent as ever aren't you." Merlin said, rolling his eyes.
"Hey!" Arthur snapped, offended.
There was a pause as both men were consumed with their thoughts. Suddenly Merlin looked at Arthur and asked, "Arthur, do you love me?"
"I - Merlin - Of course I do."
"Then that's that." Merlin smiled.
"You were the one who left! You were the one who said I had to focus on my duties to the kingdom and not be with you."
"Yes. I did. And during that time I realized that I can't truly be happy with anyone else because I love you, Arthur."
Arthur beamed at Merlin and couldn't resist pulling him in for another kiss. He was ecstatic as he realized he could now do this whenever he wanted. He was the king, after all.
"Arthur, wait." Merlin pulled back again.
Arthur groaned. "Urg! What is it this time?"
"You'll still need to talk to Gwen, and BE NICE. It doesn't do to spring this on people. I will need to find and talk to Gwaine, but I think he saw this coming."
"Gwaine?" Arthur shouted. "What does Gwaine have to do with anything?"
"While I was away Gwaine found me and…" Merlin looked awkwardly at Arthur.
Scowling, Arthur grunted, "I suppose that is behind us now."
"Yes." Merlin chirped. "Definitely."
Smiling, Merlin leaned forward again and kissed the scowl off his face.
Gwaine took the news with passive acceptance, but he didn't stay in Camelot much longer after his talk with Merlin. Gwen took it a little harder, and it took her a while to be able to look at Merlin without a twinge of resentment, but she was eventually won over. Being around Merlin and Arthur was infectious, and anyone who spent any amount of time around them – or even just witnessed the way they look at each other – could not deny how in love with each other they truly were. In time, Arthur redefined his kingdom's idea of a suitable marriage and they lived together in happiness for many years. After what they considered their "little youthful spat of ignorance" (with the whole business of Merlin leaving and all - they never really liked to talk about it), the only significant rock in their relationship was the monumental day when Arthur found out about Merlin's magic.
But that is a different story entirely.