Arthur watches Merlin carefully smooth out wrinkles in his favourite red doublet. “Is there anything special happening today?” he asks. “You’re not nearly this attentive usually.”
“Just thought I wouldn’t give you a reason to complain about me, it’s far too early in the morning to ruin both our days anyway,” Merlin mumbles, yawning. Arthur flicks him on the temple.
“Wake up, clotpole,” he says, snickering as Merlin draws himself up indignantly to hurl choice insults at his prince but then thinks better of it with another yawn.
Arthur raises his arms and lets Merlin gently pull the doublet over them. Merlin adjusts the lapels thoroughly and traces the lines of Arthur’s shirt underneath, over and over until Arthur looks perfect, poised, regal—and then he dozes off where he’s standing.
Arthur doesn’t move an inch, far too entertained by the thought of Merlin nodding off like one of the indolent courtiers in his father’s council, maybe Merlin’ll fall backwards onto the floor and make a racket like a ruffled kitten, wouldn’t that be nice? But Merlin defies all of Arthur’s expectations and leans forward, forward, forward until he’s using Arthur as an upright bed.
Merlin’s been quite exhausted these days; Arthur’s smile slips from his face as he recalls the ghost-like visage of his manservant in the days immediately following his recovery from the Questing Beast’s bite. Perhaps Merlin hasn’t had the chance to recover from the shock yet. Arthur welcomes the weight of Merlin’s head against his sternum, a little more than he ought to; he breathes in the smell of Merlin’s sweat from his feather-soft hair, musky and summery and inexplicably desirable. His arm automatically comes up behind Merlin to steady him, and he ducks his head to brush his downy cheek against Merlin’s, savouring it for one razor-sharp, soundless moment where he’s aware of everything around him from the motes of dust floating in the air to the light splitting around stray strands of Merlin’s hair.
Merlin doesn’t wake; he continues to snore softly into Arthur’s chest, arms hanging as his clutch on Arthur’s shirt barely holds.
His smile returns as he slowly bends and tucks his other arm around the back of Merlin’s knees and lifts him up. The implications of his gesture don’t escape him, but Arthur doesn’t particularly mind—he’s never really cared about propriety where Merlin’s concerned and this, of all moments, isn’t when he’s going to start.
Some of the tension on Merlin’s face eases as Arthur settles him into his unmade bed and pulls off his mud-caked boots and worn leather jacket. Merlin unconsciously fluffs up Arthur’s pillow under his head and sighs happily into it as if it’s been his due all along. The red of the eiderdown engulfs the red of Merlin’s neckerchief, and Arthur rolls his eyes at the way Merlin curls up in the dimple Arthur left on the mattress, Arthur’s lingering warmth another blanket over him.
He makes sure to close the door as quietly as he can, but not after leaving one, just one delectable mince pie on the breakfast tray.
Merlin joins him and the rest of the knights at the training grounds three hours later, blushing like a maiden and not looking Arthur in the eye, but Arthur breaks off his straw-dummy assault and forces his chin up, raising an eyebrow at him expectantly.
“Slept well?” he asks in an undertone, because no one wants sweaty knights banging down the prince’s door for a sojourn in his royal bed.
Merlin nods and smiles gratefully at him. “I’d been up the entire night crushing herbs for Gaius,” he says. “Thank you, Arthur. Sorry you had to put your armour on yourself.”
“Idiot,” Arthur says fondly and presses his forehead against Merlin’s.
The look of awe on Merlin’s face stays with him as he saunters back to his knights; it stays with him the entire day.
Merlin’s job is far easier than it should be. Or, well, he does the best he can. He doesn’t shirk any of his duties, even though he could and Arthur would only whinge a bit before pretending he didn’t notice anything. Gaius, too—Merlin is beholden to Gaius for more things than he can count despite whatever Gaius says, and he can’t possibly not help Gaius when the need arises.
Unfortunately, his devotion to them results in a complete lack of concern for himself, but Merlin thinks he might not mind too much if it ends with him snoring away on Arthur’s grand, princely bed and getting to eat a bit of Arthur’s leftovers.
It still fills him with trepidation when he goes down to the training grounds, to Arthur, since this is the first time he’s fallen asleep like this on the job, and Arthur despite his exasperated leniency might send him to the stocks for a full day for it.
But Arthur just smiles and does something Merlin in his wildest dreams would’ve never expected—rests his head against Merlin’s, like Merlin isn’t a servant to be shouted at but an equal, a friend. It isn’t surprising, then, that Merlin cannot focus on anything but the sweet memory of his… friend’s arm round his shoulders—what would Will say! If only Will were still alive, Merlin would show him Arthur really wasn’t so bad—until the drill ends when the sun is at the horizon. Arthur returns to Merlin, accepting the waterskin Merlin offers with a nod.
“I’m to dine with Morgana and my father in two hours,” he tells Merlin. “It’s the first time since the Questing Beast, and Father will no doubt be wanting to know I’m fully recovered—you’re to iron my very best finery and lay it out on the bed. Run a bath too while you’re at it, I’m drenched.”
“Anything else?” Merlin asks, the mention of the Questing Beast reminding him of Arthur languishing in bed, breathing so lightly Merlin couldn’t even feel his chest rise and fall; his heartbeat so faint that Gaius had nearly lost all hope. The desire to provide every little thing Arthur could wish for surges in him. Arthur deserves to be happy, even though he can be an utter arse.
“No, you can have the night off after that,” Arthur says. “Go to sleep on time for once.”
“Is that disappointment I’m seeing on your face?” Arthur asks, frowning. “Actual disappointment? Merlin, are you finally realising you’re an awful manservant?”
“Oh, you prat,” Merlin mutters automatically. Arthur’s frown melts and he rolls his eyes before walking back to the castle with him.
* * *
Merlin tries to linger as much as he can, heating the iron in the flames of Arthur’s fireplace, watching subordinate servants bring up bucketfuls of hot water for Arthur’s bath—but all his efforts come to naught when Arthur dismisses him as soon as the last bucket is emptied into the tub and the last piece of clothing lies pressed to perfection on Arthur’s coverlet.
“I’ll undress you,” Merlin says, but Arthur shakes his head.
“The one time I’m being nice to you,” he says. “Get some rest, Merlin.”
Merlin unwillingly leaves.
He runs into Gwen on the way to Gaius’s.
“Oh, Merlin!” Gwen exclaims. “I haven’t seen you all day.”
“I slept in Arthur’s bed,” Merlin confides, looking around the corridor warily; walls have ears! Gwen looks shocked for a second before she starts laughing helplessly. Merlin pouts at her, but that only makes her laugh harder.
They go to the infirmary, arm in arm, gossiping about the king’s servants. Gwen’s been given the evening off, too—she has a sore throat and an achy ankle that she hopes Gaius will look at, and Morgana values Gwen’s welfare over being perfectly draped in silks.
“I’m lucky to have her as my mistress,” Gwen says earnestly. Merlin thinks so, too; Morgana is kind and considerate, and doesn’t look down upon those inferior in station to her. She is a proponent of justice and fairness and mercy, and cares about Arthur, too—almost as much as Merlin does.
Gaius gives Gwen a liniment for the ankle and a cordial for the throat. Merlin cooks dinner and is thanked for his efforts even though it doesn’t taste very good; later, they all play knucklebones until Gaius yawns and it’s time for bed.
As his eyes close, Merlin hopes Arthur had a nice evening, too.
Gwen knows Merlin isn’t quite what he seems. He tries to hide it behind clumsiness and a silly smile, but he’s her best friend—so she knows Merlin’s definitely keeping something from her and everyone else, too, even Arthur, but she supposes she can be content with the modicum of trust he places in her.
(Merlin didn’t leave Gwen’s side for days after her innocent father was executed. He sat with her in the tiny cottage that was suddenly too big for her; he held her hand and wiped her tears. He promised he’d never let such an injustice happen ever again, as if he actually has the power to resist the tyrant king’s decrees. He reminds Gwen of Morgana, somehow; both steadfast in their morality and fiercely protective of the people they care about.)
She isn’t blind, either—Arthur’s changed for the better since Merlin became his manservant. She’s seen how Arthur smiles more, how he actually greets the servants now, how he doesn’t take anything for granted anymore, especially not precious things like friendship and respect. Yes, Merlin is a catalyst for all of them, and Gwen is glad to have his companionship as she juggles both the forge and her duties to Morgana.
Her day begins at the crack of dawn. She slips down to her late father’s forge and makes headway in all the jobs he had to leave incomplete—there’s even a set of Arthur’s chainmail she’s painstakingly remaking, that Arthur didn’t want to give to the royal smiths (though Gwen thinks it’s just Arthur’s awkward way of securing her some extra income). Some of the soot from the hearth irritates her throat, but she pays it no mind.
Next comes the rush to the castle, where she and Merlin usually get breakfast for Arthur and Morgana together. He isn’t there this morning, and Gwen hopes he’s okay, but she frankly has little time to fret. She trips on her way up, but it doesn’t matter. Morgana must be waking soon, and it wouldn’t do to keep her waiting.
“Gwen,” Morgana says, already sitting up by the time Gwen enters her chambers, laden with a heavy bed-tray. “You’re never usually late!”
“I’m sorry, my lady,” Gwen replies, abashed. “I lost track of time working in the forge.”
Morgana’s eyes cloud over with sympathy. “Of course. I hope you’re not thinking I’ll be able to finish all this! Come on, let’s share.”
* * *
The rest of the day passes in a blur. Morgana likes to take perfumed baths in soapwort and jasmine oils every other day, which take most of the morning to prepare, and then they both either take leisurely walks in the lower town and chat with the peoples of Camelot, or sit near the parapet of Morgana’s balcony and embroider—a ruse, since Morgana is far more interested in the knights’ training she can observe, and later emulate, from their vantage point.
“Uther wishes Arthur to join us for dinner tonight,” Morgana says, keeping track of the complicated manoeuvre Arthur’s currently teaching his knights. Gwen spots Merlin to the side—eyes for no one but his prince, of course. “I’m sure I’m going to have a grand time with Arthur there; I do tire of Uther’s constant disregard for my ideas.”
“Very good, my lady,” Gwen says, and coughs discreetly. It doesn’t escape Morgana’s notice, who cups Gwen’s face and frowns in question at her. Gwen reluctantly explains her misadventures.
“Oh, no,” Morgana says. “Go to Gaius, Gwen.”
“I’ll really be all right, Mor—”
“For me? It’s not like I can’t dress myself, I’ll just wear something without too many laces.” And Morgana’s entreating look is never something Gwen can resist, so she puts down her embroidery (a lovely patch of lavender flowers for Morgana) and smiles.
“If you say so, my lady.”
“No need to come see me after dinner, either! Just get better.”
Gwen could hug Morgana in gratitude. She does.
* * *
On the way to Gaius’s, she runs into Merlin and hears about his thrilling stay in Arthur’s bed. The wonderment with which he talks about Arthur sends Gwen into a giggling fit. Merlin is unamused, but it only makes her giggle harder, the thought of Arthur treating Merlin like his bride. Arthur isn’t too good at hiding his true feelings where Merlin’s concerned, is he?
Gwen’s smile stays fast on her face even after she falls asleep. She may not have many friends, but she adores the ones she does have.
“We’ve made headway on the northern borders,” Uther says, breaking the brief silence that had settled on their dinner. “Mercia won’t be taking unnecessary risks any time soon.”
Morgana lowers her gaze and takes a bite of her venison before she can say something cutting, critical and ruin the surprisingly pleasant atmosphere.
Arthur smiles, sitting across the table from her, for all intents and purposes the same lordly brat Morgana has loved and hated in equal measure since she first laid eyes on him. Nothing about his demeanour suggests a shoulder wound or the pallor of deathly sickness.
“Fantastic news, Father,” Arthur says, wiping at his mouth with a napkin and sipping from his goblet. “In further glad tidings, farmers south-west to the capital all report a full wheat harvest, and our bookkeepers predict a surplus to see the entire kingdom through this winter.”
Uther nods proudly at his son. Morgana feels a twinge of wistfulness that evaporates as soon as Arthur’s smug look lands on her.
“Oh, shut up,” she mutters.
“I didn’t say anything,” Arthur says, grinning broadly. Morgana only rolls her eyes at him, using another bite of food to suppress her natural urge to squabble with him like they did as children.
It is incredibly easy to forget that there had been funerary preparations ongoing for Arthur as recently as two months ago. Morgana is grateful for her lavish life in Camelot, though it comes with its burdens—her nightmares that come true, the painful mortality of the people she loves—and a large part of what has made it so bearable is the arrogant berk in front of her, smirking with his crooked teeth and looking at her always with the fond, accepting eyes of a true friend; someone who glanced past the frailty imposed on her by the people surrounding her and pushed a wooden sword into her hands when they were twelve.
(Someone who still pushes swords, real and fatal now, into her hands and trains her to fight for Camelot when Uther isn’t looking.)
The dinner ends without fanfare, and Morgana bows to her king and exits the hall gracefully.
“I’m wounded you didn’t wait for me,” Arthur says, barely needing to jog to catch up with her.
“I didn’t see Merlin today,” Morgana muses. “Finally tired of you?”
Arthur snorts. “The idiot fell asleep dressing me this morning. I gave him the evening off, else he’d have just made a mess serving me tonight.”
Morgana hides a grin at Arthur’s unsubtle doting, and squeezes Arthur’s arm in commiseration.
“Gwen wasn’t feeling too well, either,” she says. “We really should be taking more care of our friends.”
Arthur silently nods in agreement.
“I’m glad you’re happier these days,” he ventures eventually, as they turn the corner. “You’ve been awful lately.”
“Only to you, trust me.”
Sometimes the loneliness that Morgana has been fighting off, ever since she was old enough to recognise it, creeps back over her like a fog. Sometimes she wonders if Gwen and Arthur—and now Merlin, who is the most charming, bumbling boy she’s ever met, whose smile she’s seen light up Arthur’s entire being—are the only people who will ever cherish her, the promised unconditional love of her parents long since dust in the ground with their bodies.
The thought makes her choke up all of a sudden.
She is entirely unsurprised when Arthur hugs her. Only briefly, only a warm arm round the nape of her neck and the press of a cheek against her ear, but for some reason she feels content, as if she has a brother who will fight to keep her when she can’t fight for herself.
“Crybaby,” Arthur mumbles. “I didn’t actually die, you know.”
“Oh, lord, must everything be about you?” Morgana snaps, discreetly wiping at her tears and allowing Arthur’s heavy-handed attempt to console her succeed.
“Of course,” Arthur says, shrugging and resuming their walk to Morgana’s chambers. They pass a staircase leading to Gaius’s, and Morgana catches him glancing upwards in longing. Arthur flushes when he sees her smirk.
“Must be asleep already,” he mutters, making himself vulnerable as Morgana had.
“He’ll be glued again to you tomorrow, don’t worry,” she teases. “Dogging your footsteps and being annoyingly endearing. He’ll probably forget your schedule and earn a trip to the stocks so you can go down and rib him endlessly.” Arthur rolls his eyes wryly in response, not disagreeing.
When they reach Morgana’s door, Arthur tips his head in a formal farewell, so of course she has to do this—
Morgana plants her hand squarely on Arthur’s face and topples him backwards, disappearing into her rooms and listening to Arthur’s golden laughter ring through the halls and in her mind until she falls into a rare easy sleep.