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A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma

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- 1 -

To say the very least, Arthur’s new manservant was odd. Merlin had only been in Arthur’s service for two months and he had already defied all expectations, and not in the good way. He called Arthur names, talked back rather scathingly, whined about his duties, and never seemed to be doing what he was supposed to be doing. Arthur had yet to throw Merlin out on his arse because, well, at first Merlin was entertaining and honestly it was quite refreshing in comparison to the servants who quivered at the sight of the Prince of Camelot. But also because Merlin was a good man, who had already risked his life several times for Arthur and he didn't deserve sacking. Yet. Arthur was reaching his limit though. After one too many incidents Merlin was lucky to have his job.

One such incident occurred the morning after the arrival of a few of Camelot’s nobles. Arthur had promised to give the nobles a demonstration of his swordsmanship the following day, happy to show off his and his knights training. Merlin, although no one had asked him, had given an utterly nonsensical reason about Lord Beaumont’s malicious intent. Arthur had brushed him aside. Or rather told him to keep his nose out of it. Now Arthur was regretting his harsh words because Merlin had obviously taken them to heart, since he had not shown for work that morning.

Arthur had had to call for another servant to help him put on his armor. He had asked the servant if he knew where Merlin was, but the serving boy only said that he had not seen. It was probably for the better, Arthur thought, because he was not in the mood to see his idiotic manservant.

He walked to the training grounds, late with his meeting with Lord Beaumont due to Merlin’s absence, when he caught sight of one of the tapestries moving. He paused to take in his surroundings. There didn’t seem to be anyone else in the corridor, but then he looked down. There was a familiar pair of countryboy boots underneath the red and gold tapestry.

Arthur sighed. He really did not have time for this.

Merlin .”

There was a long a pause, in which Arthur figured the servant was deciding whether or not to respond. He must have decided to cut his losses because a moment later Merlin popped his head out from behind the fabric, “Yes, sire?”

“Any particular reason you're hiding?” Arthur asked.

“Hiding? No, I was just, um…” he trailed off.

Arthur nodded, “Yeah, that's what I thought-”

“No! I was checking for holes! Fay mentioned some moths that eat tapestries and I thought I better have a look.” Merlin nodded vigorously as he held up the tapestry.

“And you had to do that behind this tapestry?” Arthur clarified, not impressed with Merlin’s excuse.

“Yep. The moths come from behind.” Merlin said, matter of fact.

Arthur stared at him, “You have to be the most-” Arthur couldn’t finish his thought and instead ended up emitting a long noise of frustration.

Merlin smiled.

“Get back to work!” Arthur shouted.

“Yes, sire!” Merlin dashed away, and Arthur ignored the smile on Merlin’s face.

Arthur grumbled on his way down to the training field. By the time he arrived he was late and Lord Beaumont and the other nobles were waiting patiently for him.

“Sorry, my lords. I was waylaid my by servant.” Arthur said, catching sight of red and blue at the corner of his eyes. He decided to ignore it for now.

They started off with a basic practice and Arthur presented his best knights.

“Oh your highness, you’re too modest.” Lord Beaumont said. “Sir Leon and Sir Kay are fine knights, but we all know who the real swordsman of the party is.”

Arthur raised a brow, “I would hardly be a good swordsman, my lord, if my knights were not as skilled as I.”

“You admit you are better?”

“I haven’t been bested since the first year of my knighting.” Arthur said.

“Then we should have a game! Let us see your skill!” The other nobles joined in their agreement and the knights, who were always excited for some sport, nudged Arthur excitedly.

Arthur laughed and was in the middle of nodding his head in agreement when he saw Merlin. He was behind the group where only Arthur could see him, and he was waving his arms erratically above his head and making a very strange expression.

Arthur had to hold in another sigh before he turned back to his guests. “Of course, we’ll have a game. Sir Kay. Set about creating something with his lordship.”

“Yes, sire.”

Arthur nodded and turned to the training tent where Merlin had slipped away.

Rounding the corner, Arthur grabbed him by the neckerchief and held him very close, “Give me one good reason not to sack you on the spot.”

“Because you’ll die in a second without me?” Merlin said tentatively.

Arthur paused, watching Merlin’s expression. For all Merlin’s quirks, he never joked about such things as life and death.

Arthur let him go, “You better explain quickly.”

“Beaumont has a grudge against your father because he gave him that dinky little piece of land in the backend of nowhere-”

“The point, Merlin.”

“He’s trying to kill you! Or at least he’s trying to make it look like you’re about to die and he’ll save you just in the nick of time. He’s hoping that saving you will get him favor with the king and a nice piece of land. But I don't think he really knows what he's doing and he might off you by accident.”

Arthur hummed to himself. Lord Beaumont did come from a region of Camelot which was not ideal. Even Arthur, who had been patrolling since he was a boy, had only been there a few times. “It’s possible. It’s a damned clever plan that would work in his favor.”

Merlin snorted. “Speak for yourself. Last time I saved your arse I got this position.”

Arthur smacked him.

Merlin smacked him back. Arthur should have known better. Merlin wasn’t like other servants. Arthur rubbed the back of his head.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?” Merlin crossed his arms.

“Shut up, Merlin.” Arthur grumbled, “Alright, if Beaumont is trying to kill me- and then save me- how is he going to do it?”

“I think he’s bribed a knight. Or he has a sword which is enchanted to kill you on his command. Either one.”

“Merlin.” Arthur hissed, “Those are two very different things. How the hell did you come to this conclusion? Why the hell am I even talking to you?”

“I overheard him talking about it! I swear.” Merlin said.

Arthur didn’t even want to know why Merlin was eavesdropping.

“Prove it” Arthur pressed a finger into Merlin’s chest, “I have to get back. And Merlin? Quickly would be preferable.”

“Yes, sire!” Merlin scrambled away and Arthur grabbed his sword from a nearby rack.

It turned out that Merlin was right about Beaumont’s sword. It acted up in the middle of their game, flying out of Beaumont’s hand and hovering on it’s own. Arthur had to pin down the inanimate object and order the knights to carry Beaumont away. Merlin was off to the side and pointing excitedly as if he had been the one to defeat the enchanted sword.

Well, Arthur thought, Merlin was annoying but he had been helpful yet again. At this rate Arthur would never be able to sack him.

- 2 -

Over the years that Arthur had known Merlin it felt like they had been through a dozens of adventures. Arthur had stopped thinking about sacking Merlin, although he still threatened Merlin with it constantly. Arthur didn’t think Merlin believed him one bit, but it was still fun to see what Merlin would say in response.

In the beginning, there had been a series of strange incidents involving Merlin that Arthur would have thought were memorable. Now they they only seemed normal. Two years later and there were so many, that only a handful came to mind when he thought of ‘odd Merlin incidents.’ He was starting to get concerned that he was becoming immune to Merlin’s antics.

There was the time he found Merlin with a dress. The time Merlin tried to get away with stealing three rolls, a slab of ham, and a few blocks of cheese off Arthur’s plate, with no real explanation (Arthur knew Gaius fed the boy, so he couldn’t figure out why Merlin seemed so keen to steal his food). The time Merlin called him several variations of insults, all which somehow insulted Arthur’s intelligence, rank, or general principles. (Arthur was actually fairly impressed with Merlin’s ability to create new and complex insults. He usually saw them as a point in Merlin’s favor, as long as no one else heard Arthur allowing Merlin to call him ‘cabbagehead’.) He was starting to think that Merlin was brighter than he let on and he was just pranking Arthur, because Merlin always seemed far too amused when he said something ridiculous (and obviously false).

For instance, Arthur had thought he had been dealing with a case of a thief when two of his guards came to him to say that they couldn’t find their halberds. Arthur was not certain how they could lose such items, which were over six feet tall and not at all easy to lose.

Then some of the knights came to him, asking if he had seen their daggers.

Arthur was starting to wonder if he should go to his father with news of a thief, but then the guards said that they had found their halberds and a day later the knights said they had found their daggers. They couldn’t have all lost and then found their weapons. There had to be a coincidence.

When three of the squires came up to him, nervously explaining that they had lost their morning stars, Arthur had to tell them to wait a night. He thought maybe they had misplaced them, but Arthur had hoped he taught his men better weapon maintenance than this.

Arthur had just arrived in the armory after sending the squires away when he ran into Merlin. Who immediately looked like a rabbit caught in a net.

“Sire!” Merlin said, his smile too wide.

Arthur narrowed his eyes. “Merlin.”

Merlin inched to the side to let Arthur pass. Arthur moved forward and Merlin turned to the side. Arthur moved a little to the right and Merlin turned to his left. He was hiding something behind his back.

Arthur, now a bit more trained in the art of Merlin, didn’t immediately react. He started to unbuckled his vambraces. When Merlin thought he wasn’t being watched, he turned to leave and Arthur caught him by the arm, tugging him forward.

Merlin squawked and there was a loud clatter as whatever was behind Merlin’s back fell to the stone floor. Arthur looked down, seeing a pile of crossbow bolts between Merlin’s legs.

“Unless you ate my quiver this morning,” Arthur said, “there better be a damned good reason you just dropped those bolts.”

“I was, erm…” Merlin smiled tentatively, “Cleaning them?”

Arthur narrowed his eyes. “You don’t willingly clean anything. And no one cleans arrows, you idiot.”

“Oh, silly me.” Merlin bent down and gathered the bolts in his arms, “Better put these back!” Merlin dashed out of the room before Arthur could even tell him to hand them over. Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose and then turned back to his vambraces.

By the next day his crossbow bolts were back in his quiver, without any explanation.

- 3 -

Years came and went. Merlin was, dare Arthur even think it, a good friend. But time’s were changing. After Morgana’s return, Arthur had only taken on more roles as Prince. He was usually buried in duties, but that didn’t mean he saw less of Merlin. For some reason Merlin stuck to him like glue, not that Arthur minded too much. It was nice to have someone always nearby. Unfortunately, Merlin always seemed to pop up in the oddest of places.

Arthur had been walking to the stables with his crossbow over his shoulder when the incident happened. He was going to Tyr, who had promised to put on his horse’s new shoes before Arthur’s hunt, when Arthur came across the livestock pen. There were a few goats, a sow with her piglets, Merlin hiding behind water trough, a few wooly sheep in need of a shearing, and a couple clucking hens-

Arthur stopped in his tracks. He closed his eyes and wondered if he should just open his eyes and keep walking. But then his curiosity would be killing him during his nice and relaxing hunt. Damn that idiot.

“Merlin please tell me you are not in that pen.”

There was a long pause. Followed by, “Alright, sire, I am definitely not in the livestock pen.”

Arthur turned around, stalked over to the pen, and stared down at his crouching manservant. Arthur hissed through his teeth, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Erm…” Merlin gave him one of those wide-eyed funny smiles that made his dimples deepen. “Just looking for a goat.”

“Right.” Arthur looked up to see several goats in the pen. “Having trouble identifying them, Merlin? You were born in the country, I would hope your mother taught you which was a goat and which a sheep.”

“Yep, yep. All good, sire, but you have to be stealthy about it. Those goats are a devilish type.”

Arthur opened his mouth to say something but he really couldn’t think of anything. He sighed, “Merlin for the love of god, get out of that pen!”

Merlin shushed him, “Shh! I’m trying to catch a goat here .”

Then, inexplicably, Merlin popped up from where he was crouching and ran into the cluster of animals. He tried to grab a goat, but the one he had chosen was far too small and quick for him. It jumped off a barrel in the pen and ran under a nearby sheep.

“Slippery bastard!” Merlin tripped and fell onto his knees but quickly scrambled to his feet and ran after the goat. His long legs were his bane as he tripped more often than not. Arthur watched with amusement as Merlin skidded away from a disgruntled ram.

“Is this really necessary?” Arthur shouted over the chaos of hens screeching and a pig squealing.

“I need that goat!” Merlin shouted, jumping over a munching sheep who didn’t seem to think that a lanky man running around its pen was all that weird.

“Then grab it, you imbecile.” Arthur shouted, actually wondering if Merlin was incompetent at grabbing a penned animal. “Just take that one!” Arthur pointed to a goat lying down, and not running around like the goat Merlin was trying to catch.

“No! I need that goat!” Merlin pointed at the small white goat with patches of brown and tan.

“That goat.” Arthur sighed.

“Yes, Arthur, that goat.” Merlin crouched behind a sheep, hands in her wool and eyes locked on the little devil which seemed to be eyeing Merlin.

Arthur, remembering that he was in fact holding a weapon used to kill animals, lifted his crossbow and took aim.

“No!” Merlin shouted and stepped up between Arthur and the goat.

“Are you mad!” Arthur asked his crazed manservant, lowering the weapon immediately.

“I need it alive, you bloodthirsty cabbagehead!” Merlin shouted.

“Whatever for!?”

“It’s...Erm… Gaius! He needs it. Because… She’s pregnant! He needs the milk-”

“I really- and I mean really- don’t want to know, Merlin.” Arthur said, nose scrunching up.

Merlin shrugged. Then he jumped, “Aha!” Leaping forward and rolling onto the ground, Merlin reached and grabbed the goat as it made a run for it. Kicking and bleating, the goat had been caught. Merlin, dirty but otherwise unscathed, was smiling like he just won a tourney.

Arthur didn’t realize he was smiling at the victory until Merlin winked at him and climbed over the pen with the goat under his arm. Arthur wiped away his smile and tried frowning at Merlin. Merlin didn’t look the least bit convinced. “Really Merlin, the Prince’s manservant should not be rolling around in the livestock pen.”

Arthur stepped forward and pulled a piece of straw out of Merlin’s unruly black hair. He dusted off Merlin’s shoulders.

“It was important.” Merlin took the goat by its fore and back legs to straddle it over his neck, like Arthur had seen country people walking to market. As he did it though, Arthur caught sight of something.

“Merlin.”

“Yes, sire?”

“That’s a male goat.” Arthur pointed to the goat who bleated loudly in Merlin’s ear.

“Oh.” Merlin looked at the goat, who looked back at him. Merlin seemed to be searching for an answer as he slowly started to back away, “Hm. Well. Erm, that’s odd better go check that with Gaius- Have a good time killing things in the woods- Bye!” Merlin was halfway across the yard as he ran away with the goat over his shoulders.

Arthur watched him go, the goat bleating in the distance, and decided it wasn’t worth asking.

- 4 -

The following  year had been like journeying to hell and back. The longer they knew each other, the more Arthur was grateful for Merlin’s friendship and his constant presence by his side. With Morgana’s betrayal and with his father’s health on the decline, Arthur was King in all but title. He had no time to transition and he was burdened with a crown that was not yet his. That winter had dragged on and so had Arthur’s mood. As winter melted away, it had been Merlin’s idea to hold a feast in celebration of the beginning of spring.

The feast had gone brilliantly. Knights, nobles, and servants alike had enjoyed themselves. Arthur hadn’t been so relaxed in months.

Arthur had enjoyed the festivities well enough, but he mostly enjoyed watching his manservant pretend he wasn’t drinking out of the prince’s wine pitcher. Merlin had little to no alcohol tolerance and soon enough Arthur dismissed him to go fraternize with the Lancelot and the other knights.

The morning after, Arthur was just sitting down to eating breakfast with Merlin, when he began to wonder if Merlin had not enjoyed the night. Either Arthur had missed something or Merlin had drunk far too much and was paying the price this morning, because he was suspiciously quiet.

“Alright there, Merlin?” Arthur asked, sipping his own water and nudging Merlin’s closer to his plate.

“Fine.” Merlin said, poking at his cheese but not eating it. “Didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“I doubt anyone did.” Arthur said, “But you look...peaked. I don’t need you for the afternoon, maybe you should take a half day off-”

“No!” Merlin suddenly seemed more wake. “Oh, I’m quite well sire.” Merlin cleared his throat. “Besides you need me to attend to you during your council meeting.”

“Well you don’t actually have to be there.” Arthur said. Although he was not yet King, Arthur had taken on a lot of the responsibilities and he was not yet comfortable in the role. Having Merlin over his shoulder, with a second opinion and a critical eye, always eased his mind.

“No, no.” Merlin shook his head, “I’ll be fine. I should stay. You’re always saying I Iaze about. Better stay by your side, what would I do about the citadel anyway? Pft.” Merlin was rambling which was always suspicious.

“You always ask for the day off.” Arthur narrowed his eyes.

“I do not.”

Arthur snorted, “Yes you do. You called me a slave driver last week.”

Merlin seemed to smile to himself, like he was remembering that insult fondly before he realized his mistake. “Well… er… I don’t need the day off today. I’ll be on your case tomorrow, don’t you worry sire.”

Arthur held eyes contact with a smiling Merlin, communicating to his friend that he would be keeping an eye on him without so many words.

It didn’t take too long to figure out the problem though.

They were walking along the corridor after the council meeting when a maid rushed up to them. She completely ignored Arthur- which was rather rude and if Arthur had been his father treasonous- but Arthur let it slide. The maid- her name was Brie if Arthur remember correctly- grabbed onto Merlin’s arm as if she had caught a particularly sprite creature.

“Merlin! Oh I finally found you. I really need your help in the kitchen. Please!” She tugged on his sleeve.

“Oh, erm, Brie I’m in the middle of my duties. Could it wait- or maybe you could get someone else-”

“No! It has to be you! There’s something on the top shelf of the supply closet that I need.”

Arthur thought that was strange because Cook was an extraordinarily tall woman who could reach anything in the kitchen. Surely her maid would just ask her for help.

“Merlin!”

Arthur turned around and saw two serving girls rush up to Merlin, who seemed to be elbowing each other as they ran. They both grabbed onto Merlin on the opposite side of where Brie still had Merlin’s arm.

“Merlin there’s a problem down in the yard. I came to fetch you!”

“No, I came to fetch you and Lily didn’t know when to bugger off!”

Arthur raised both his brows in surprise as Lily threw an insult back her. He looked at Merlin who looked like a spooked owl who had never seen a female in his entire life.

“Merlin promised to help me first, girls .” Brie said with a snide tone. It was very unlike the serving girls of the citadel who Arthur knew as friendly girls who were always helping one another out with their duties.

“Merlin! There you are, sweet.” Arthur turned to see yet another servant- a laundress- running up to his manservant and holding onto his front. She leaned into him, ignoring the three other women hanging on his arms. She smiled, “I need some help down at the shop. There’s a… petticoat which needs fixing. Mine, for example.”

Merlin looked terrified, eyes wide open and his mouth hanging open.

“Merlin!”

Arthur turned to see at least three more maids running down the corridor.

“For the love of- what the hell is going on!” Arthur shouted, which was a bad idea. All the women turned to him. Then they descended.

“Sire!”

“Oh sire, let Merlin have the day off to help me!”

“No get off you tramp! Your highness! Merlin promised to help me this afternoon!”

“Sire!”

“Prince Arthur, let Merlin help me first!”

They were all around him and they seemed to have tripled in numbers.

“Merlin!” Arthur shouted at the top of his lungs.

Merlin frantically pushed through the women and grabbed Arthur by the elbow. “Not enough time- Run!” Merlin pushed him and then they were running for their lives as a legion of women chased them.

“What in the name of god’s green earth did you do!? Promise to sleep with all of them!?” Arthur shouted, his chainmail clashing against his sword as he ran.

“I wish!” Merlin hissed, grabbing Arthur by the arm and pulling him through a door, “Quick this way is faster!”

“Faster to where? Damn these women have legs on them.” Arthur puffed realizing that the hoard behind them was still hot on their tail.

“A hiding spot, come on.” Merlin said, turning down another corridor.

“And what do you mean, ‘ you wish? ’” Arthur said, his voice raising high enough to rival the girls’ voices behind them.

Merlin glared as they ran, “What, do I look gross to you or something? I’ll have you know I am-”

“Now is not the time, Merlin!” Arthur shouted back, mostly because he did not want to hear about how virile Merlin was in bed.

After another turn they were finally outpacing the girls who were dropping off. Although they seemed to be causing a commotion across the citadel which was not Arthur’s plan for  the day.

“Quick in here!” Merlin pulled Arthur into a room. Merlin latched the door shut and leaned against the cool stone wall, panting loudly. His cheeks were flushed against his pale skin and it didn’t look altogether unflattering on him. Arthur was catching his own breath when he realized they were in a kitchen supply room. With no windows or doors.

“Merlin! You idiot! You’ve trapped us!”

“What did you think I was doing! I can’t go out there! They’ll tear me to shreds! Last night they tore my green shirt in half! Half! I only have one of those you know!”

Arthur growled, “Merlin, I am going to regret this but, what the hell did you do?”

“Nothing!” Arthur glared at him. Merlin raised his hands, “I swear!”

“Well something obviously happened!”

“Well. It is spring, sire.”

Arthur crossed his arms. “Am I supposed to believe that the serving maids of Camelot just get really fiesty for lanky manservants when the flowers start blooming?”

“Yes?” Merlin asked.

Arthur waited.

“Fine.” Merlin sighed, “Someone thought it would be funny to spike my drink with a magical aphrodisiac which would make me lust after the people around me, but they must have brewed the potion wrong because it just made the group of women, who I happened to be standing around at the time, crazy for me and not the other way around. But it was just a prank! Not worth rolling any heads over, you know?”

Arthur stared at Merlin before he couldn’t hold it in any longer and burst out laughing. Hard.

“It’s not funny you ass!” Merlin smacked him.

“Oh, but it is Merlin!” Arthur was panting again, but not because he was running.

“Oi! I’m a catch!” Merlin swatted at Arthur’s arm, “I’ll have you know Brie was already taking a fancy to me before this incident!”

Arthur sobered up quickly. He narrowed his eyes at Merlin. “I see. Well she seems... nice. Well, before the whole magical potion thing.”

There was a long pause.

Merlin cleared his throat, “So you’re fine with that? The whole magical potion thing?”

“Well it’s not like anyone got hurt. More or less. But whoever gave you the potion probably didn’t mean any harm- though it could have been far worse.” Arthur said, not looking Merlin in the eye. “I’m not going to kill anyone over a prank, Merlin. Magic or not. It’s not big enough to warrant any action. I’m not heartless.”

Merlin smiled, one of those small ones that always made Arthur feel proud and a little bit helpless.

“Good, that’s good.” Merlin said.

“What? You think I would just let heads roll, just like that?”

“Well...it is the law.”

Arthur tightened his jaw a bit. He didn’t like saying it, but it was just Merlin. “Well, it’s not a very flexible law, now is it? At most the prankster should be fined.” Arthur cleared his throat. “There’s exceptions to everything, Merlin.”

“Yeah,” Merlin smiled softly, his eyes shining, “ I suppose you’re right.”

They had to stay in the supply room for the rest of the day until the potion wore off. Technically Arthur could have left or hid Merlin somewhere else, but neither of them suggested it. In the small room they sat on the floor and talked as if they were any pair of friends. Merlin talked about the citadel gossip he heard at last night’s feast and Arthur told Merlin about the latest scandal amongst the nobles.

A few hours later, when Gaius found them, Merlin was dozing off on Arthur’s shoulder and Arthur was trying to tamp down the need to brush his fingers through Merlin’s hair.

Of all the odd (and wonderful) things that had come out of that day, Arthur thought the best was the way Merlin smiled when Arthur said there were exceptions to everything.

- 5 -

Arthur was tired. The cape around his shoulders seemed to be strangling him and his coronet, although not half the size his father’s crown, felt like it weighed a tonne. The meeting with the council had gone poorly- many of his father’s men still believed Arthur to be the brash prince he had been years ago- and all Arthur wanted was a break. He went to his chambers, shedding his cape and coronet, and called out for Merlin.

When Merlin’s black mop of hair didn’t appear and Arthur didn’t hear the usual grumbling, He decided to head over to Gaius’s workshop. Although Merlin was still primarily the prince’s manservant, Merlin was also Gaius’ apprentice and he had been working there more frequently.

Arthur opened the door to Gaius’ workshop, “Merlin!”

Arthur heard Merlin before he saw him. There was the distinct sound of a book slamming shut, followed by coughing as Arthur assumed a cloud of dust hit Merlin. Arthur turned to see Merlin at the table by the fire with a pile of books.

Arthur came forward, sitting down immediately. He opened his mouth, ready to start telling Merlin about the council meeting, when his eye caught on what was in front of Merlin.

“Are those… Are you baking ?” Arthur asked incredulously.

“Yes." Merlin said.

Arthur looked up at him.

“You’re baking-” Arthur looked down at the plate which was shining golden in the light, “Honey treats?”

“Yes.” Merlin repeated, although he looked a little caught off guard by the sight of Arthur.

“Should I be worried?”

Merlin elongated his next monosyllabic answer. “Nooooo.”

Arthur smiled, “Alright out with it, what are they for?”

Merlin looked around, “Well… they’re for, erm...children. Down in the lower town.”

Arthur wondered why Merlin sounded like he was lying. After years of friendship Arthur was able to figure out when Merlin was lying, although he didn’t always know why.

Arthur remembered only a few weeks before when Merlin had mentioned the kitchen maid, Brie, and the entire aphrodisiac fiasco.

Arthur looked down as he cleared his throat, “Does Brie like honey?”

Merlin cocked his head to the side. “I don't know.”

Arthur hummed, playing with the edge of one of the many books on the table.

“Arthur.” Merlin said, and Arthur hated when he used that tone. Like he knew everything Arthur was feeling without Arthur saying anything. Merlin came around the table to sit next to Arthur. “I don’t fancy Brie.” Merlin said.

“Why would I care, Merlin?” Arthur said nonchalantly, “You're free to fancy Brie. She likes you, god knows why.”

Merlin rested his cheek on his hand. “Yes, god knows why .”

Merlin smiled, his eyes crinkling as he looked at Arthur.

“What?” Arthur asked.

“Arthur.” Merlin said as if Arthur was acting dumb. “Would you like a honey pastry?”

“What?” Arthur asked, thrown off by the question. “No. I'm not taking the treats you made for your sweetheart.”

Merlin picked up a pastry and held it out for Arthur. “They're not for Brie, you stubborn prat.”

Begrudgingly Arthur took the pastry, already feeling the honey stick to his finger tips.

He took a bite and tasted the sweet crispy honey. Merlin had left the treats above the fire for too long, making the pastry a bit dry but the honey smoothed everything out. He hummed as he took another bite and savored it.

When Arthur opened his eyes Merlin was watching him.

“They’re not bad.” Arthur said, raising a brow at Merlin. “Though they’re a bit dry-”

Merlin’s hand came up and cupped the side of Arthur’s face. Arthur stopped talking, his words caught in his throat. Merlin leaned forward and kissed him. Arthur was so surprised he dropped the sticky pastry to the table. Merlin licked the honey straight off Arthur’s lips.

Merlin pulled back to look at Arthur, bumping his nose with Arthur’s affectionately.

Arthur looked down at the pastry, half eaten and upside on the dirty table.

“So they're not for Brie?” He asked, his voice rough.

“No, Arthur. They're not.” Merlin ran a hand through Arthur's hair and Arthur was embarrassed as he closed his eyes and mewled at the touch. Before he could open his eyes, Merlin was kissing him and Arthur reached up to cup Merlin’s face, not heeding the honey still on his fingers.

Behind Arthur the door creaked open and the sound of footsteps was heard for only a second before, “Merlin! How are those cakes for the pixies coming along?”

Arthur pulled away, turning to see Gaius standing in the entryway to his workshop.

“Oh. Arthur.” The older man said, looking shocked.

“Gaius.” Arthur cleared his throat and pulled away, stumbling to his feet. “I was just um-”

“Helping me. With these honey treats. For the children .” Merlin said, looking at Gaius.

“Oh. Good. The children.” Gaius nodded.

Arthur coughed, “Well I best be going, I have...reports to look over. Merlin...I shall see you tonight?”

“Right. Tonight. After I help Gaius. With the treats. Children.”

Arthur’s head was still reeling, so to Merlin’s confused answer, he only replied. “Good, good.”

He rushed out, avoiding Gaius’ raised brow of judgement.

By the time night had fallen, Arthur had eaten his dinner and Merlin had not yet arrived. Arthur was convinced he had imagined the entire incident. Either that, or Merlin was avoiding him in a move to gently let Arthur know he had only been playing around. The latter was the worse of the two options.

Arthur was mulling over his wine, gazing at the fire and trying not to sulk, when Merlin entered his chambers. Dear god, Arthur couldn’t have helped the grin that spread across his face. Merlin was without his jacket and neckerchief, his bright red shirt exposing his pale collarbones. Arthur didn’t know if he was just glad to see him, but he seemed to be glittering in the fire light.

“Hey,” Merlin said as he sunk down in the furs next to Arthur. He raised a brow, “Leave some wine for me?”

Arthur teasingly held the goblet away, “You’ll be drunk with one sip.”

Merlin playfully tried to grab for the wine, but Arthur batted him away. He laughed as Merlin eagerly grappled with him. They sloshed wine onto the furs and Merlin eventually was mostly on Arthur rather than the furs.

“Aha!” Merlin grabbed the goblet, now only half full. “I win!”

Arthur had to disagree. Merlin was laid over Arthur, his chest pressing down on Arthur’s and his face only a breath away. Arthur had to think that he was the winner here.

Arthur looked up at Merlin to see specks of gold lining his eyelashes and dancing along his cheekbones. “You’re sparkling.” Arthur said as he reached up and ran his thumb under Merlin’s eye. Merlin’s lashes flutter closed, and Arthur felt them brush his thumb.

Arthur leaned up and pressed a kiss to Merlin’s cheek. His lips skimmed Merlin’s skin as he said, “Put the wine down.”

Merlin obliged quickly and after that, Arthur didn’t remember to ask why Merlin was covered in glittering dust.

- + 1 -

There were times when Merlin disappeared. As the years carried on, those time came with more frequency. Or at least, Arthur noticed them with more frequency, because Merlin was always by Arthur’s side. In his chambers, during a patrol, and even at battle. But every once and a while, Merlin would vanish without a word.

The first time it happened after they had been together, Arthur panicked.

Not only had Merlin been gone without telling Arthur where he was going, he was gone for two nights and three days. Gaius said he was out on an errand in an outer village, but Arthur knew- he knew - that Merlin would have told him he was leaving for more than a day. Especially now, when they were closer than ever. Or at least, that’s what Arthur thought.

When Merlin returned, Arthur immediately ordered Merlin to his chambers. Lately he would fetch Merlin himself, but Arthur was thunderous, and wanted to talk to Merlin alone as soon as possible.

Merlin stepped inside, looking contrite, “Arthur-”

“Do not speak.” Arthur said, his fingers tapping at his chair at a measured pace. “Where have you been?”

“Oh, I thought Gaius told you. I was-”

No you were not .” Arthur stood up, unable to keep still any longer. “Three days, Merlin. Not a single word. I just wake up and you’re gone. I had to go to Gaius to ask where you’d run off to.”

“Something came up.” Merlin, to give him some credit, did look apologetic.

Arthur gritted his teeth. “Where were you?”

Merlin swallowed, but did not answer.

Arthur fell back into his chair. “I think we both know you keep things from me. I respected your privacy, but I had thought- Well.” Arthur looked up at Merlin, “I had thought that was behind us.”

Merlin looked down at his boots, which were covered in reddish mud.  “I don’t like keeping things from you.”

“Then don’t.” Arthur said tersely.

Merlin looked up, and his eyes were shining bright. Arthur’s heart was in his throat. He was terrified by the earnest expression on Merlin’s face.

Merlin stepped forward so he was in front of Arthur and kneeled with his head bowed.

“Merlin?” Of all the things Arthur had expected, it wasn’t Merlin bowing before him.

“I swear to you-”

“No-” Arthur grabbed Merlin’s shoulder, suddenly overcome with the need to stop Merlin. “Whatever it is, you tell it to me as I am. Not as the Prince.”

Merlin shook his head, “It's not that easy.”

“Make it so.” Arthur said.

Merlin lifted his head. Although he still knelt he was only a bit shorter than Arthur as he sat.

Merlin reached out and took Arthur’s hand in both of his, running his thumbs over Arthur’s knuckles. “I’m sorry for having lied to you.”

Arthur watched Merlin’s face, his eyes bright and his lip trembling.

With his eyes never wavering from Arthur’s he said, “I have magic.”

In that one second, before he even took in one breath, Arthur’s mind scattered. Arthur thought Merlin must have some small magic and was worried over Arthur’s reaction. Then his mind went to Morgana and her betrayal, thinking Merlin was confessing to the same. Then he was suddenly hit with an overwhelming thought.

Merlin must hate him. How could Merlin bare the thought of Arthur when he was the son of the King who indiscriminately executed sorcerers?

Arthur looked at him, knowing that his eyes must be wide with uncertainty. Merlin held his hand so tightly, as if he was afraid of Arthur pushing him away. Yet Arthur was afraid Merlin would run away.

“I use it for you, Arthur.” Merlin said his hand tight on Arthur’s. “To protect you. To protect Camelot.”

All the odd moments over the years ran across Arthur’s mind. The riddles that Arthur thought were unexplainable, began to have possible answers. His mind flooded with times that Merlin ran off with little to no explanation or moments when Merlin said something so odd Arthur could barely make any sense of it.

Everything made sense and no sense at all.

When Arthur didn’t say anything- couldn’t say anything- Merlin continued.

“I wanted to tell you. I did. But you had your father’s laws and I couldn’t.” Merlin gave a little hiccup, “I couldn’t make you decide between me and Camelot. I would never win and I needed to be by your side.”

Arthur processed those words for a moment. He nodded, “And now?”

“Now?” Merlin said, “I’m hoping. Just hoping that you won’t have to choose.”

Arthur curled his fingers around Merlin’s. “I should have known. I knew there was something about you.”

“I told you I’m an open book.” Merlin gave a tentative smile.

“Come here.” Arthur pulled Merlin forward so that he was standing, leaning over Arthur’s chair. He pulled Merlin down so that their foreheads pressed together.

Merlin. His faithful servant, loyal friend, and trusted partner. The man who had stuck by his side through it all. Things were slotting into place. Arthur would still need time, but he didn’t think he would ever understand Merlin completely. Merlin was merely a puzzle of a man.

Arthur opened his eyes and saw Merlin’s hopeful gaze on him.

“Of all the places to stay, you chose to serve the Prince of Camelot?”

“I chose to serve you.” Merlin said, touching Arthur’s face lightly, as if he still was not sure if he was allowed. “There’s no one I would rather serve, Arthur. Until the day I die, remember?”

“I do.” Arthur said, thinking back all those years prior, when Merlin was just his odd manservant. Somehow, back then, Merlin seemed to make more sense than he did now.

“Will you ever make any sense, Merlin?” Arthur asked.

Merlin gave him a cocky smile, “Not if I can help it.”

Inexplicably, that lifted Arthur’s heart up and he laughed softly before pulling Merlin in for a kiss.