It was early summer in the 25th year of Arthur's life when Uther fell ill. Before long, it was clear that he would not survive to see the next winter. Three weeks later, Gaius sent Merlin out to find Arthur on his hunt, to bring him home for the final precious moments of his father's life. By sunset, the bells tolled and the heralds called out:
“The king is dead! Long live King Arthur!”
And that was that. In a flash, everything changed. One morning, Merlin brought the prince his breakfast as usual and attended to him, before going to help Gaius who was mostly occupied seeing to the dying king. The next morning, Merlin brought breakfast to a new king, who had yet to grieve for the loss of his only parent or to sleep at all during his hour long reign.
“Arthur, you have to sleep,” Merlin implored. “Or at least eat something.”
Arthur hardly looked up from his stack of official documents.
“I can't sleep yet,” he said. “King Bron of Mercia has been waiting for my father to die for years, so he could be ready to invade while the kingdom was vulnerable. I have to arrange for the army to march at the first sign of movement from our neighbour and call upon our allies to re-affirm treaties.”
Merlin sat down at the table and nudged a jug of mead closer to Arthur, until he snorted and finally took a gulp. After that, the silence was only broken by Arthur's pen on parchment and the occasional servant bustling by outside the door.
After watching Merlin not so stealthily pushing the food tray towards him for a long time, Arthur finally admitted defeat and put the papers aside in favour of the food. Merlin's smile made Arthur snort again around his loaf of bread.
“Don't start smiling too soon, Merlin. This will be a hard time for you, as well as me,” Arthur said after chewing for a while.
Merlin sat back in his chair. “Yeah, I guess. There'll be an official crowning, right? I suppose you'll want me to help get things ready. Polish your crown, wear the silly hat... that sort of thing.”
Arthur smiled in a way that had most grown men run for their lives, but Merlin was busy picking at a lose thread in his neckerchief and wasn't aware of the trap approaching.
“Oh, Merlin, you never cease to amaze me with your level of stupidity,” Arthur said dangerously. “You are now the king's manservant, so first of all, you will no longer live with Gaius, but sleep in the antechamber to my quarters.”
Confused, Merlin looked up. “Your rooms don't have an antechamber.”
“They will. You can't expect the king to live in princely quarters, now can you?” Arthur remarked before helping himself to some more mead.
Merlin gaped.”You're not moving into Uther's old chambers, are you?”
Arthur cringed. “Don't be daft, Merlin, of course I'm not. I'm not going to sleep in the bed my father died in. And besides, his rooms are so dark and depressing.” Taking another sip of his jug, Arthur leaned back while looking thoughtfully at the ceiling. “I have decided upon moving into the rooms down the hall from the council chambers.”
Merlin's jaw dropped even lower. “You're joking. Those rooms have been a mess ever since the dragon attack! They're not fit for servants' quarters, much less a king!”
Arthur smirked at him. “Which is why you will be supervising the rebuilding and refitting of those rooms and have them ready for me at the crowning ceremony in a month.”
“A month?!” Merlin exploded. “That's bloody impossible!”
Rifling through his stack of parchment, Arthur picked out one which he tossed at Merlin. “Not impossible, Merlin. Difficult. But lucky for you, you are the king's manservant and as such you can request the aid of any other servants and craftsmen you might need.” He pointed at the parchment Merlin was picking up and turning over. “That will be the general design of the rooms. Discuss it with the head mason and whoever else you bring in to make the alterations.”
Looking over the sketch, Merlin paled and then dropped his hands and the parchment onto the table.
“Please tell me this is a joke, Arthur.”
Draining his jug and crossing his arms, Arthur sat back in his chair and fixed Merlin with a burning gaze. “It's not a joke, Merlin. Those rooms will be ready in a month. And yes, it will be nearly impossible, but with you in charge, it will be done. It will be like magic.”
The paleness of Merlin's face took on a greyish hue as he stared at Arthur with wide, terrified eyes. The silence drew longer and longer, until finally Merlin's voice obeyed him enough for a croaked: “You know?”
Arthur barked out a laugh. “Hah! Exactly how stupid do you think I am?!”
Merlin shrunk lower in his chair. “I guess I was kind of hoping you wouldn't notice,” he offered weakly. “I suppose now you'll never trust me again?”
Meeting Merlin's apologetic eyes, Arthur made him flinch away with a piercing stare. “That has yet to be determined. In the meantime, you are to be severely punished and you'll start by getting those rooms and the great hall ready for the crowning. And there will be a hat involved for you, Merlin. Count on it.”
Arthur's tone made Merlin stay meekly silent, but he still offered a crooked half smile at his king, before finally getting up, gathering the breakfast things together and and exiting with an unusually respectful: “Yes, Sire.”
As soon as the door closed behind him, Arthur grinned to himself. He was going to enjoy this.
* * *
The evening before the crowning ceremony, Merlin was called to the king's new chambers, still sweaty and exhausted from moving the last things into place only hours before. Arthur was busy rifling through a small chest of jewelry when Merlin came in without knocking and only offered a weary: “What is it, Arthur?” as greeting.
Arthur raised an eyebrow at him that would have made Gaius proud. “Really, Merlin, do try and act like the king's manservant every once in a while.”
Merlin sank into a chair and huffed out: “Fine. What is it, Sire?”
Arthur finally found the ring he was looking for and proceeded to try it on, along with a few other ones laid out on the bed with the clothes he would be wearing in the morning. He pointed to a box in the middle of the table. “Your new hat. I expect you to wear it for the ceremony tomorrow.”
Merlin groaned but still got up to open the box. After one look, he closed it and heavily sat down again. “It's the wrong box.”
Still busy trying to decide which rings went best with the tunic, Arthur didn't even turn around. “No, Merlin. That is your hat. I picked it out myself.”
After a short but pregnant pause, Merlin said, “I'm not wearing that. Ever.”
This made Arthur turn around and face him. “You don't have a choice. I'm ordering you, as your king, to wear what is in that box for the entire ceremony tomorrow. It's either that, or spend the feast in the dungeons.”
Merlin crossed his arms over his chest. “Fine. I'll go now. Save you the trouble tomorrow. Should I build my own pyre before I go to sleep?”
Arthur laid down his trinkets and prowled closer, before setting both hands flat on the table to look Merlin straight in the eye. “You don't have the right to joke about this. If you recall, you were the one who kept this secret from me for years. Years, Merlin. I told you that your punishment would be severe and this is only the beginning.” He leaned closer, until Merlin could feel Arthur's breath on his face. “I know you, Merlin. I know exactly what to do with you. And you will suffer. Oh yes.”
Blinking, Merlin shrunk away from Arthur's intensity and didn't speak again until Arthur turned away.
“But, Arthur...” He faltered and Arthur cast him a glance over his shoulder. In desperation, Merlin jumped up, tore open the box and pulled out what was inside. It was a crown. A simple golden circlet, inlaid with tiny Pendragon red rubies and sky blue sapphires. He thrust it at Arthur and waved his arms around with agitation.
“I can't wear this! I'm not royalty or even a noble! I'm a servant! I wasn't even born in Camelot!”
Arthur shrugged and turned back to his outfit on the bed. “Of course you can wear it. It's only befitting for the new steward of the realm to have a crown to match his official garb.” Merlin gaped and only then realized that on the other side of the bed, there was a second, glorious outfit laid out. He had thought it was for Arthur to choose between the two, but when Arthur waved him towards the clothes, he sank down onto the floor in a heap.
“This is a joke. A really bad one.”
Sighing heavily, Arthur came to Merlin and crouched down in front of him. “No, Merlin. This is your punishment for thinking me a fool all these years. I know what this will do to your life. You will be distanced from any friends you might have amongst the servants. You will be forced to deal with issues you've never even considered, and you will have to engage in politics, which I know you hate.” Merlin groaned, but Arthur plowed on.
“But you will be the most powerful man in Camelot with only myself ruling over you. You will be in charge of all affairs concerning magic and I have given you Ealdor amongst a few other border areas as your own. I even included one with a small castle for you,” he added with a wicked grin.
Merlin buried his head in his knees and groaned even louder, while his knuckles turned white from clutching the circlet. “Please tell me this is a joke,” he begged into his knees. “Please, Arthur...”
Arthur laid a heavy hand on Merlin's shoulder. “I'm sorry, Merlin. But it's nothing less than you deserve. And besides - I need you by my side. I need someone to bear this burden with me. I can't do it alone.”
This made Merlin look up and meet Arthur's eyes. “Then why don't you find yourself a queen? Why don't you marry Gwen, since you're already busy promoting servants to nobility?”
Arthur jumped up abruptly and turned away. “First of all, Merlin, I will marry whoever and whenever I choose!” he snapped. “It will most likely be for politics anyway, so there's no guarantee I will even find a wife worthy of a crown.” Another sigh escaped him as he crossed his arms over his chest, still pointedly turned away from Merlin. “Secondly, Gwen turned me down. Even when I offered her the crown with no strings attached. I made it plain that I would need a queen and an heir, and that the rest would be up to her to decide. She made her choice.”
“Lancelot.” Merlin whispered and Arthur nodded.
“You're all I've got, Merlin. The only one left to share this burden with. And you owe it to me. You owe me at the very least to stay at my side for exactly as long as you kept this secret from me,” he said with venom. “You will pay me back every day you didn't trust me. One day at a time.”
“Oh, so you've been keeping count?” Merlin asked in a feeble attempt at lifting the suddenly dark mood in the room.
Arthur didn't laugh. He didn't even smile. “Four years, six months and two weeks. I'm gracious enough to overlook the days before you became my manservant.”
Merlin had no idea how to respond to that and Arthur seemed to decide that their conversation was over.
“Go to bed, Merlin. Sleep one last night in your room with Gaius. Tomorrow, you will have your things moved to the chambers next to mine. Attend to me one last time tomorrow morning, before getting ready for the ceremony.”
Merlin wanted to argue, but Arthur had turned away again and the tension of his shoulders was enough that Merlin decided to let it rest. After all, Arthur was right. He owed it to him. He put the circlet gently back into its box, closed it and went to the door. With his hand on the latch, he offered a quiet: “Goodnight, Sire.”
And just before he closed the door behind him, he caught a whispered: “Sleep well, Merlin.”
* * *
Merlin slammed the door of his enormous new quarters behind him and and threw the crown on the ludicrously huge bed, before ripping off the heavy monstrosity that Arthur called his ceremonial tunic. Merlin called it hot as Hell's flames and too damned posh. When he finally managed to emerge from under the layers of fabric, finally down to his undershirt, he was literally face to face with Arthur and yelped before falling on his arse.
Arthur simply smirked and gave Merlin a hand getting back on his feet. Surprising as it was to find Arthur right in front of him, Merlin knew exactly how he had gotten in without being heard. These chambers were originally built for a future queen and as a result had a concealed passage connecting them to the king's rooms, which Merlin assumed were for the strange rituals nobles put themselves through to produce heirs. Why the king and queen couldn't just sleep in the same bed at night still baffled him.
He had a moment of awkward mental images when he realized that Arthur had used the passage to come to him and blushed before he could stop that line of thought. It was bad enough being steward of the bloody realm, he didn't need to take up the position of queen as well.
“What are you doing here?” he grumbled, annoyed at his mental lapse in front of Arthur, who of course was looking absolutely stunning in his coronation outfit.
Arthur tutted. “You know, being the most powerful man in Camelot doesn't mean you don't have to be respectful. In fact, an insubordinate servant isn't half as much of a problem as a disrespectful co-ruler.”
Merlin wasn't in the mood for Arthur's snarking. He was over-heated, tired and completely out of place in his new job and the whole coronation had been a farce of adoration for the new king and barely hidden contempt for the servant posing as a noble.
“What do you want me to do, drop you a curtsey and kiss your ring?” he snapped, while battling the strange bracer-like things Arthur had insisted went with the tunic from Hell.
To his surprise, Arthur came over and started helping him undoing the ties with practised ease and replied: “No, but a simple 'Sire' would be nice every once in a while, Lord Merlin. Your new position is vastly more focussed on image than your last one. Which reminds me, I'll have all your old clothes burned.”
“Oh, Arthur, no! At least let me keep my neck scarves!” Merlin begged, horrified.
Arthur grinned. “Fine. But don't wear them to council meetings or any other official functions. I'll have to find you a manservant with a decent sense of what to wear.”
Until that moment it hadn't fully dawned on Merlin that he wouldn't be Arthur's manservant any more and despite the ungrateful tasks and the constant nagging, he suddenly got all choked and turned away to remove the bracers when they were finally untied. He had to clear his throat before he could ask: “So, have you found my replacement yet?”
Sitting down and putting his feet up on Merlin's enormous table, Arthur replied: “My father's old manservant will take over from you. Charles is old, but competent, and he can train someone younger. Lord knows I need a decent servant after the horror of being served by you.”
“Oh, ha ha, very funny”, Merlin quipped, but he couldn't quite help but smile at the familiarity of the banter. It made him feel slightly less out of place.
Deciding that now was as good a time as ever, Merlin asked the question that had been nagging him since the day before but he had been feeling too guilty to bring forward. “Why did you do this, Arthur? I mean, why make me a noble? Was it really necessary?”
Arthur was quiet for a long time. “It was to me,” he finally replied. “And I told you, I need you by my side.”
Merlin swallowed thickly at the sadness in Arthur's voice, but he couldn't help but ask: “But why make me steward of the realm? Why not just let me be your manservant and listen to you ranting every night, like I've always done?”
Arthur swung his legs off the table and looked into his lap, as if he couldn't quite face Merlin, but his voice was firm the same way it was when he issued royal commands. “You will be steward of the realm, because I want everyone to know you have my ear officially. Not whispered in the corridors or mumbled behind my back. I want every slithering noble to see that I am not alone and that there is no room to elbow in for a place at my side. I want every council member to know that your word is a good as mine. I want every one of my knights swearing fealty to you as much as to myself.”
He looked up at Merlin who had dropped his jaw with shocked surprise.
“And finally, I want you to be ready for when I make you my court sorcerer, once the kingdom is ready to accept you and a future with magic. I want everyone to get used to you being in court before revealing your secret to the world. I want anyone who could possibly argue that you magicked your way to my side to get to know you and your bumbling ways, so that when the time comes, they will know that you never could or would enchant me.”
Merlin closed his mouth, only to open and close it a few more times before finally finding his voice again. “But... but why? What does it matter what other people think? Everybody knows that personal servants know more than they should about their masters! It's hardly even frowned upon!”
“But a king having a romantic attachment to a servant is!” Arthur snapped. “A prince is allowed some youthful transgressions, but it would reflect very badly upon a king.”
Feeling as if the world was grinding to a sickening halt, Merlin dropped his jaw again. “Romant- excuse me?!”
Arthur blinked. “Oh, come on, Merlin. You can't possibly tell me you didn't know that half the civilised world thinks you share my bed?”
“WHAT?!” Merlin cried.
After a second of stunned silence, Arthur laughed. At first he only chuckled but it soon progressed into his rare full-body laughter, shaking his whole frame so much that his new crown slipped from his head and landed on the stone floor with a loud clang. Merlin simply watched but eventually he felt a flush creep up his neck with embarrassment.
“It's not that funny, Arthur!”
Arthur wiped his eyes, still hiccuping with laughter. “Oh, but it is! My god! I thought you had just decided to ignore the rumors since you never mentioned it! But you really didn't know!”
Merlin crossed his arms over his chest and pouted. “Well, just how was I supposed to know, Arthur? YOU were the one who told me to pay no attention to idle gossip!”
Finally composing himself somewhat, Arthur coughed and bent down to pick up his crown. “When even the king starts believing it, we're somewhat beyond 'idle gossip'.”
For a second Merlin was confused and then he was plainly horrified. “The king... wait- Uther?! Your father thought I shared your bed?! Why on Earth would he think that?!”
To Merlin's surprise, Arthur seemed to blush before turning away and fetching a cloth to wipe off his crown with. Merlin took a step towards him, feeling like something very important was happening.
Rubbing away at some non-existent dirt on his crown, Arthur cleared his throat. “Well... if the dressing down he made Gaius give me was any indication, I may have been a little too obvious in my affections for you.”
Merlin froze on the spot. “Dressing down? What for?”
Dropping the cloth and crown on the table, Arthur palmed his face and groaned to himself. “I'm going to regret choosing to rule the kingdom with an adorable idiot by my side, instead of a sensible queen.” Turning to Merlin, his face open and his eyes dark, he explained as if Merlin really was mentally afflicted: “They thought I was forcing myself on you. That you wouldn't dare refuse me because I was the prince. Because while my desires were quite obvious to everyone, yours were not. Apparently, my superior attitude towards you wasn't fooling people as well as I'd hoped.”
Completely at a loss for words, Merlin simply stared at Arthur until he turned his back and coughed awkwardly. “Anyway, now that you're a noble I have no such power over you and no one can claim I'm using my position to get you into my bed. Even if I never had you there in the first place.”
The last was spoken low with a tinge of something like regret and that kicked Merlin's brain into action. His voice sounded loud to his ears when he asked quickly, before he could lose his nerve: “Did you want to?”
Arthur's back straightened, as if he had been pulled up by a string and his shoulders tightened visibly. “If you're stupid enough to ask that after what I just said, I can only assume you have some sort of death wish.”
Merlin paid no attention to Arthur's defensive snapping. “Then let me rephrase it. Do you still want to?”
The silence was heavy and seemed endless until Arthur finally whispered: “Yes. But you never showed any signs of returning my affections and considering how rubbish you were at hiding your magic, I gathered that you weren't interested.”
For about two heartbeats Merlin simply stared. And then it was his turn to laugh. He howled and cried with hysterical laughter, staggering back to sit down on the bed. Arthur had turned around, looking at him as if he was crazy. Which, Merlin decided, probably wasn't too far from the truth. “I-I am such an idiot!” he wheezed. “How is it even possible that I get busted for hiding something that could get me killed, but not for something that could probably at worst cost me a friendship?!”
Arthur froze for a second and then shook his head, as if to clear it. “As much as I would love to savor the moment of you admitting how truly idiotic you are, I have a more important question. Does this mean I can kiss you now?”
Flushed and still wheezing for breath, Merlin simply fixed Arthur with a heated look and nodded.
All in all, Merlin reflected, that passage to Arthur's chambers was awfully useful.