It seemed Arthur would have to revise his opinion of his knights. So much for them being his brothers-in-arms, the loyal soldiers who would sacrifice their lives in battle for him, the valiant men who were currently trying to shield Merlin from his ire.
“I’m sorry, sire,” said Lancelot, the only one in the bunch with the decency to look ashamed. “We hadn’t known Merlin would be so vulnerable to spiced mead.”
Gwaine on the front line stumbled over nothing and swore at his own feet. A loud giggle—the source undoubtedly being the hopeless manservant Arthur had been forced to search for—emanated from the back of the group, instantly hushed with an expeditious glove.
Arthur fixed Bedivere with a gaze so wrathful that the man would’ve run for his life had he been sober; at the moment he merely saluted and grinned dopily.
“Move,” Arthur said. “Give me Merlin.”
“Promise you won’t kill him,” Geraint mumbled, leaning on Bedivere to stay upright.
“Of course I’m not going to kill him, you moron,” Arthur snarled. He might have been lying. He wasn’t sure. His day had not gone well at all. Merlin had been late in the morning, so Arthur had had to go without breakfast and sit for an audience with his subjects that went on till noon. Then Merlin brought up Arthur’s least favourite things for lunch, so Arthur’s mood went sour and his knights bore the brunt of it during afternoon drill.
And then Merlin had just had to go and forget to put in an appearance in Arthur’s chambers in the evening.
“Ah-fur,” came a plaintive cry. That was it. Arthur had to get to Merlin, right then.
Arthur gave up on his mullered knights and shoved past them (Bedivere protested, only to be swept aside like so much hay) to grab Merlin’s scarf. Merlin beamed at him stupidly, mouth curving around a dark leather mitt, and readily leapt from Elyan’s arms to Arthur’s.
“Goodness, you’re really sopping drunk, aren’t you?” Arthur said, looking down at Merlin, whose beam only brightened as he shook his head enthusiastically and nearly toppled backwards. Arthur reached for the glove and gently extracted it from Merlin’s mouth, tossing it back to Elyan (who muffed the catch) and testing Merlin’s steadiness on the ground.
“I expect you all on the pitch at first light tomorrow,” Arthur announced to the group, which complained under its breath as one. “Be ready to spar with me using only maces.”
“Sire,” Lancelot ventured. “We do care very much about Merlin, despite what ended up happening today.” Please don’t kill us in punishment, Arthur heard.
Merlin’s smile faded at Lancelot’s words, and then to Arthur’s horror he started crying earnestly. “You’re so nice, Lance. You and Leon and everyone—you’re all my dear friends, and I love you so much. I’m so glad I know you. I love you—”
“All right,” Arthur said, a tiny bit disgruntled that he hadn’t been included in Merlin’s love confession. “That’s enough. We’re leaving now.”
“No, Arthur.” Merlin turned wide, teary eyes upon him. “It’s not enough at all! Do you know how lovely Kay’s mouth is?”
Lancelot choked and bumped into Leon, who was watching events unfold with growing panic.
Arthur smiled pleasantly. “I don’t,” he told Merlin, genial and warm. “How do you?”
“Because he kissed me!”
“Only Merlin’s cheek,” Leon hastily supplied, catching the look on Arthur’s face. Kay, unconscious on the ground, was unable to corroborate Lancelot’s account or discover that he had apparently committed treason against the state.
Arthur tugged Merlin’s elbow sharply. “Let’s get you back to Gaius’s, he’ll be worried sick and able to tell me why your service was even more abysmal than usual today.”
“Okay!” Merlin happily let himself be dragged off. “Goodbye, my friends!” he called, declaring, “I must go with my destiny now, my North Star! ’Tis a most wonderful time I had with you all, the most exquisite mead I drank! Gwaine shall most definitely climb on the table and rock his hips like that again next time. And I shall join him, for it seemed a most adventurous activity, worthy of my participation—”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Arthur snarled, tugging Merlin away faster. Merlin waved at the knights, who were all still standing there uncertainly because Arthur hadn’t technically dismissed them. Good, Arthur thought savagely, his hold on Merlin’s elbow growing painfully tight. Stay there the rest of the night and then come suffer at my hand tomorrow.
Gwaine waved back at Merlin. “Love you, too!” he shouted, clearly suicidal.
Merlin giggled and looped an arm around Arthur’s waist lovingly, before twisting away and vomiting onto the ground as soon as they were out of sight.
“Feel better?” Arthur asked wryly, watching Merlin dry-heave.
“No,” Merlin moaned, on all fours on the ground. Arthur looked around—they were at the furthest edges of the lower town, and the water taps were sparse and scattered. Arthur checked the waterskin hanging at his hip.
“Here,” Arthur said, kneeling beside Merlin and touching the lip of the skin to his mouth. Merlin’s eyes shuttered and he trustingly opened. Arthur sighed and tipped some water into Merlin’s mouth so he could gargle and spit, and then helped him drink the rest of the water. Merlin sat up, resting on his heels.
“I feel woozy,” he complained.
“Oh, poor you.”
“Meanie! Can’t you be a bit more symp’thetic?” Merlin begged, absolutely distraught.
Arthur smiled, getting to his feet and helping Merlin up. “I’m being plenty sympathetic lugging your dead weight to the castle. I could have just let you stay with those buffoons, and then where would you be?”
Merlin weakly punched Arthur’s arm, swaying on the spot. Arthur watched with amusement for a second before he grabbed Merlin and tucked him into his side again.
“Risking humiliation, are you,” Merlin muttered. “Being seen by y’r subjects as you serve y’r manservant.”
Arthur hummed, putting a good amount of distance between them and the pool of sick, which was glistening unflatteringly in the moonlight. “Not really. They’re all sane people, indoors at this time of night. And even if I were seen—well, it doesn’t matter. Care to actually walk with me a bit, Merlin? I can’t carry you all the way back, you know.”
He waited for an answer that did not come.
Merlin had dozed off on his feet, snoring softly into Arthur’s neck. Arthur snorted and shook him. Merlin swatted his chest in protest and hugged him close, fast asleep.
It had been utterly disconcerting to find out (from Guinevere, of all people!) that Merlin was in danger of drinking himself to death with the knights, who were much more experienced in the art of intoxication. Merlin hadn’t informed Arthur of his evening plans that day—not that Arthur made it a point to be told, of course, but it didn’t do not to know Merlin’s nightly whereabouts, just in case Arthur ended up needing him for critical things like stoking the fire when Arthur couldn’t be arsed to move, fetching him a cup of fruit wine at ridiculous hours of the day, pulling his coverlet up a smidge, sitting and chatting with him when Arthur couldn’t sleep a wink…
But any vestiges of Arthur’s irritation with Merlin simply vanished when Merlin was frustratingly endearing like this. Arthur stood still, listening to Merlin’s breaths, curling a brave arm around his waist.
“You drunkard,” Arthur said, hushed, into Merlin’s ear. “Silly, adorable drunkard. I should toss you in gaol right now, d’you know?”
Merlin stirred. His hair tickled Arthur’s neck and jaw, pleasantly downy, like feathers against Arthur’s skin. Arthur pressed his face into it, breathing in guiltily, and then began the arduous process of hauling his manservant-shaped sack of potatoes across the main stone path to Camelot Castle. His subjects really were sensible, all of them shut inside their houses. One hour before midnight left only Camelot’s taverns (and adjacent whorehouses) booming with business; leave it to Arthur’s knights to seek out the one most inconveniently placed to Arthur.
Merlin mumbled something about Lancelot as Arthur passed Guinevere’s cottage. Arthur resolutely tamped down any regret he felt over leaving Gwen’s husband with the rest of those miscreants—they all deserved it, making their king walk down himself to rescue his idiot servant from their clutches—and carried on, intermittently amusing himself poking Merlin’s cheeks, pinching his nose closed, scratching a nail against the soft underside of Merlin’s chin.
Merlin shivered awake a while later as Arthur started whisper-singing bawdy songs to distract himself from the warm ache of Merlin’s weight.
“Godawful,” Merlin said, making a face. “Can’t carry a tune to save your life.”
“Oh, shut up, you ingrate.”
Merlin grunted and finally, gratifyingly peeled himself away from Arthur—whose arm became a gracious host to pins and needles—to start stumbling alongside him. He was still squiffy, despite his little qualmish performance earlier, and occasionally veered away from Arthur to twirl around lamp standards and lie splayed out on the ground (“This is the best bed in Albion! I want to sleep here, Arthur! Sleep with me!”).
This would’ve bothered Arthur—should’ve bothered Arthur; however, every time Arthur exhaled noisily through his nose and slung Merlin’s arm over his shoulders, Merlin laughed in the most carefree way and blew air kisses at him; and Arthur, an experienced warrior and skilled strategist, really had no defence against that sort of onslaught. So he wrinkled his nose, fighting back the urge to grin like a maniac, and gladly played straight man to Merlin’s eccentricities.
They were almost at the citadel gates when Merlin groaned.
“Feeling sick?” Arthur asked. They’d run into at least twenty separate guard patrols by then, and Arthur had managed to replenish his waterskin without having to leave Merlin’s side for a minute. He waved it in front of Merlin, who weakly pushed it away and breathed in deeply.
“What is it, then?”
“Gaius is going to kill me!” Merlin’s eyes watered as he stared at Arthur in devastation. “I don’t want Gaius to kill me! I love Gaius, he’s like my father! So much! He’ll be so angry with me!” Merlin rubbed at his eyes with his sleeve, making Arthur wonder at the mead’s power to do away with Merlin’s sarcasm and usual reticence about these things.
He won’t kill you, not if I do it first, Arthur wanted to say, but refrained out of pity. “Oh, come on,” he consoled, trying to make Merlin cheery and silly again. “Look, there’s the portcullis.” He pointed to it. Merlin immediately brightened up and tottered over to the iron gate. “Portcullis,” he said, trying to imitate Arthur’s regal diction. Arthur smiled to himself.
The portcullis was shut. Arthur looked around for the guards who would usually be stationed on either side of it, but there was no one standing under the lit torches. Had they gone off to piss?
“Hello! The king wants to go home!” Merlin called, banging on the thick iron strips painted gold in the torchlight, and sticking his nose through one of the square gaps in the grating. Arthur pulled him away from the metal by the scruff of his neck, wiping at the grease on his nose.
“Noisy pest,” Arthur hissed. “Be quiet or you’ll wake everyone up and then they’ll know the king was making a fool of himself running after his servant at midnight.”
“But Arthur, you’re tired and you want to go back to your chambers and I want to go back to your chambers so I can undress you! It’s my favourite thing to do!”
“I’m very flattered, Merlin,” Arthur said, indeed very flattered, “but shouting into the darkness isn’t going to help a whit. The guards’ll be back soon, and we can wait for them to return and let us through, all right?”
“And then what?”
Arthur shrugged. “I’ll drop you off at Gaius’s, I suppose,” he said, instantly regretting bringing the physician up, for Merlin looked terrified again.
“Do you know he has the worst hangover remedy in history?” Merlin whispered, as if Gaius were breathing down their necks. “I don’t want to see him, because he’ll be a good father and make me drink it! It’s eggs, balsamic, and rue, and—and Arthur, don’t do this to me. You’re my best friend!”
“Fine, I’ll rescue you from him, just like I did with the knights,” Arthur said, rolling his eyes and desperately praying for the portcullis guards to fucking turn up already so he could go to bed and let his heart swell painfully all night, thinking about Merlin being fucking adorable like this.
Merlin spread his arms wide. “My unnecess’ry protect’r,” he slurred, beaming. Arthur glanced at Merlin, whose arms were still invitingly raised in front of him, and then back through the grate at the darkness—maybe there was a patrol nearby? Were those footfalls he was hearing?
“P’tector,” Merlin repeated, a touch insistently, beckoning with his fingers.
Arthur’s resolve crumbled to dust.
“Just so you know, if you remember any of this tomorrow,” Arthur said, stepping into the embrace, “none of this was my doing, you’re a categorical lightweight.”
“M’kay,” Merlin whispered, clinging to Arthur with childlike delight and satisfaction. Arthur closed his eyes, throwing caution to the winds, and chanced it.
“So, you said you loved all the knights and even Gaius; but what about me?”
Merlin hummed softly, going boneless in Arthur’s arms. “G’night, Ah-thur,” he said, yawning widely and not fucking answering Arthur’s question.
“Wait, Merlin—” But Merlin was already snoring into Arthur’s tunic. Again. Arthur sighed. Trust his winsome servant to make his life unliveable.
He convinced himself that he would’ve let Merlin fall to the cracked paving if a group of guards hadn’t spotted them right then and rushed to open the portcullis.
Merlin’s feet trailed over the uneven cobblestones, clattering and reminding Arthur of the sound of rainfall against his helmet as he figured out the best way to lug his manservant’s dead weight up the stairs and through the large double doors. He doubted that there was a single guard in Camelot’s garrison who didn’t know of the king’s badly-hidden, singular devotion towards his barely-competent manservant—the entirely unsurprised yet gleeful looks on everyone’s faces had clued him in, along with the suspicious lack of offers to help him help Merlin.
Arthur wouldn’t have turned them down, really. Well, he would’ve, but that was beside the point.
“Dollop-head,” Arthur said, gently slapping Merlin’s cheek. “Perk up a bit. Can you get on my back?”
“C’n you get on m’back?” Merlin mumbled sleepily but didn’t make Arthur’s job any more difficult, easily draping himself over Arthur and hooking his arms around his neck, clasping the laces of Arthur’s tunic. Arthur bent and reached behind himself for Merlin’s knees, lifting him up in an inefficient piggyback.
“Very special,” Merlin spoke into the nape of Arthur’s neck. Arthur only grunted in response, conserving his breath and jogging carefully up the stairs.
“’m very special,” Merlin repeated. “King carrying me to bed.”
Arthur laughed, keeping his eyes on the huge gleaming doors. The sentries would be on the other side, standing guard in the vestibule.
“Would the king do this for anyone else?” Merlin wondered, keeping his mouth plastered to Arthur’s skin. Arthur revised his opinion of Merlin’s sobriety.
“Who knows,” Arthur panted, reaching the top step and straightening to let Merlin down.
Merlin didn’t budge.
“Get off me, Merlin.”
Arthur grabbed Merlin’s entwined hands on his chest and pulled sharply. Merlin just curled his hands into fists and clung tighter, stubbornly wrapping his legs around Arthur’s waist, making Arthur nearly lose his balance.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Arthur hissed furiously, pushing Merlin’s calves down frantically. Merlin sniffled and buried his face in Arthur’s neck.
“I like it here,” Merlin said petulantly. “Feels like home.”
“For fuck’s sake, Merlin,” Arthur exclaimed, voice cracking through the deep stillness of the night. “You are forbidden from ever consuming any intoxicant besides ale from now on. Stocks if you disobey.”
Merlin yawned in response, nuzzling Arthur’s hair affectionately, kitten-like in his charm. “M’kay,” he said, clearly not giving a damn.
Arthur nearly threw up his hands in exasperation. Really. Really.
Arthur stopped outside Gaius’s door. It wasn’t that Merlin was heavy—he was, despite his lankiness and boniness; Arthur reckoned the culprit was Merlin’s big head—Arthur was used to carrying armour half his own weight on his body, used to weighty swords and shields. It was just that—it was Merlin. Drunk Merlin, asleep Merlin, slobbering a wet patch into Arthur’s tunic Merlin. He would never get another chance like this, and something in him, despite Arthur’s frustrations at his arduous day and its even more arduous end, didn’t want to let Merlin go.
Fortunately, Merlin solved his quandary for him right then, jerking awake for the third time that night, still squiffy.
“Why’re we outside Gaius’s?”
“Why, thank you for asking. There is a bed in there with your name on it, and I’m wondering if I’ll have to throw you onto it or if you’ll do me a favour and crawl the rest of the way.”
“I don’t mind sleeping in your bed,” Merlin replied, absent-mindedly petting Arthur’s chest, making Arthur’s heart do unwilling somersaults over a cliff. “You can throw me into yours and then throw yourself into mine. Don’t disturb Gaius, he needs his rest, yeah?”
“What about the king’s sleep?”
“Oh, the prat can manage without it. C’mon, off to the king’s rooms, horse!” Merlin smacked Arthur’s side.
“Insolent little clod,” Arthur muttered (turning and plotting the shortest route back to his chambers anyway). “Who says I’ll let you even sit on my chair?”
“I’ve done it loads of times while you were out,” said Merlin proudly.
“How brilliant,” Arthur said, deadpan.
“It was,” Merlin agreed, now breathing into Arthur’s hair unselfconsciously. “Why d’you smell so good? Gwaine never smells this good.”
“Sniff Gwaine a lot, do you?” Arthur said, just as two guards marched by him in the corridor to his rooms, saluted him, and valiantly fought down doting smiles. For goodness’ sake! Had Arthur always come across as a lovesick fool? Did his army, his knights, his servants (not Merlin), his people even respect him?
“No, more’s the pity,” Merlin said, sad now. “He’s always laughing and knocking into me and trying to get me to trip you on your way to council meetings.”
“But I like you more, even though Gwaine says I must be touched in the head if I like anyone more than him.”
“Well, that’s all right, then,” Arthur said, mollified. “We’ve all known you’re an idiot since you turned up in Camelot.” He reached for the key to his rooms at his belt, having to slap Merlin’s shoe away from it first, and unlocked the door, shuffling past the antechamber (well, he was exhausted) to deposit Merlin in his bedroom.
Merlin chose that moment to dash to the chamberpot behind the screen. Arthur wrinkled his nose at the retching noises, and wisely returned to the door, flagging down a sentry and ordering two jugfuls of water and ale.
Merlin lay splayed out in front of the unlit fireplace, smiling peacefully.
“Go on,” Arthur said, lounging on one of the armchairs closest to it, nudging Merlin’s thigh with his unshod foot. Merlin, mouth thoroughly rinsed out by Arthur and not reeking of foul sick anymore, snapped his fingers.
A fire blazed up in the grate, and Arthur sighed as its warmth washed over him, along with the soothing scent of sandalwood.
“Thank you for not beheading me,” Merlin said, turning his head to peer at Arthur. Arthur shrugged.
“Thank you for trusting me with your magic, though I wish you’d do it even when you’re not off your tits on bloody mead of all things.”
“I had the worst day,” Merlin said, completely skipping over Arthur’s words (Arthur rolled his eyes and let it slide). “D’you know Morgana sent another assassin last night?”
“Did she now,” Arthur said, unimpressed, wishing he’d thought to drag a blanket over before making his home in this lovely, cozy armchair, the love of his life. Merlin sniffed and waved his hand, showering Arthur in quilts.
“Yeah,” Merlin drawled. “Dealt with him. But then you were miserable to me today, so Gwaine and Lance thought it’d be a good idea to cheer me up with a sojourn in the tavern.”
“You should’ve told me you were off saving my life,” Arthur said softly, pulling the topmost quilt off his head and shoulders and tossing it over Merlin’s bare feet. “I would’ve understood your multiple absences, then, and not complained about your incompetence.”
“You’re insufferable, you know?” Another wave of Merlin’s fingers and the windows banged shut, keeping the heat in.
“Still love you more than anyone. Dunno why. I hate you more than anyone, too.”
“I’m quite fortunate for it,” said Arthur, eyes closing of their own accord. He stretched, yawning and resigning himself to a very kingly nap in a chair. “Well, good night, Merlin.”
“Thank you for bringing me up tonight,” Merlin whispered. “I’m sure Geraint and Bedivere were going to take me to a whorehouse next, and I didn’t want to see you run them through with your sword.”
Arthur laughed quietly, and dozed off.
And if he awoke the next morning having slithered to the floor next to Merlin, with Merlin’s arm curled protectively around him and his snores rumbling in Arthur’s ear, all he would do was kiss Merlin’s forehead kindly, extract himself from Merlin’s magical quilt mountain, and get a servant to fetch them breakfast.
And then he would go discipline his knights.