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The Trouble With Courting

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Arthur walked into the physician's chambers without knocking. Gaius and Merlin ceased their conversation abruptly, Gaius favouring the prince with a politely inclined head and Merlin with a guilty, nervous smile. Arthur's hand dropped to his hip.

"Gaius," he acknowledged before turning to his manservant. "Merlin, overjoyed as I am that my armour can apparently clean and mend itself, I can't help wondering whether my servant ought to have something better to do than stand around chinwagging."

"I finished the chores you gave me this morning," Merlin said, only a little plaintive. "Sire." he added as an afterthought.

"Never mind," Arthur said waving a hand dismissively. "I do have something I need you for this afternoon, though." He stopped, suddenly a little uncertain. He cleared his throat awkwardly. "I intend to ask Guinevere... to ask officially for her hand in marriage." His announcement was greeted by a few seconds of silence at first and then Merlin's face split into a wide grin.

"That's brilliant."

"Congratulations sire," Gaius said, more quietly, with a considered look.

"Needless to say, this is not to be spoken of," Arthur added. "Merlin, I'll require your assistance in the lower town this afternoon. I intend to buy an... item of jewellery. For Guinevere. A token to seal the betrothal." Gaius's eyebrows raised and his eyes flickered over to Merlin. Arthur continued, "While I am, of course, quite capable of choosing gifts for ladies," There was a small pause as his eyes narrowed, almost daring Merlin to mention his not entirely successful attempts at buying birthday gifts for Morgana. Which of course, Merlin did not do, as hers was a name not spoken in Camelot these days except in hushed, angry whispers. Arthur cleared his throat. "Nevertheless some assistance would not go amiss."

"Of course." Merlin smiled blandly. "Do you need me for anything just now?"

"No, I'll expect you to be ready at noon, though. Meet me by the stables."

"Yes, sire." Merlin ducked his head, before brushing past the prince and all but running out of the door. Arthur shook his head slightly at his servant's odd behaviour and turned to go himself.

"Sire," Gaius called, stopping him in his tracks. "Might I speak freely?"

"Of course, Gaius." Arthur frowned, "You know you don't need to ask." Gaius smiled quietly at his prince's show of faith, before his expression turned serious again.

"Merlin has always been a loyal friend to you, hasn't he, sire?"

"Ye-es," Arthur assented, not choosing to deny either Merlin's loyalty or his friendship, but wondering where Gaius was going with this.

"Then please, I beg of you, don't be so cruel as to ask this of him," Gaius pleaded, sincerity in every feature. Arthur blinked at him in surprise.

"What do you - ?"

"He'd never say anything, he knows there's no chance of his feelings being returned. And you know he'd do anything you asked of him without complaining. Well," he reflected, "Without complaining too much. But he's just a boy, sire. And he's horribly in love. Oh, I've no doubt he'll be happy for you both when the day comes, once he's had time to get used to the idea. But to ask him to be involved in choosing jewellery and wedding clothes... he's not said anything to me, but I know how much it must be hurting him. Don't do this to him, please sire."

"I..." Arthur found himself lost for words. "I had no idea he felt like that. Of course, you're right, Gaius, I'll relieve him from any duties he finds difficult. I didn't know..."

"Please don't tell him I told you. He'd never forgive me." Gaius shook his head. "But he's like a son to me and it pains to me to see him distressed."

"Of course," Arthur nodded, straightened himself up and turned to go.

 

*

How was it he'd never noticed before? Of course, it made sense. The two of them were close. And he had suspected, at times in the past, but he hadn't noticed Merlin paying her any special attention recently. A deliberate ploy, perhaps, to disguise his affections, or to deny them to himself. Typical of Merlin, to say nothing all this time that Arthur courted her. For a peasant, he had an unfortunate tendency to be stupidly noble and self-sacrificing. The whole thing left Arthur with an uncomfortable feeling. He had no suspicion that Guinevere returned Merlin's affections, it wasn't that. More that he felt put out that Merlin's loyalties were not as undivdedly his own as he'd always imagined.

He took Sir Leon with him in the end. It was proving surprisingly difficult to find someone loyal and trustworthy who was not in love with Guinevere these days. Lancelot was out, of course, and Percival as Lancelot's close friend. And it would never do to ask Elyan, since the whole object of buying a ring was to wed and bed his sister; he would need to be consulted in a more formal manner to ask for her hand, and Arthur didn't feel quite ready for that. Not, at least, until he had spoken to the lady herself.

Which wasn't to be that evening. On returning from the lower town, having sworn the jeweller to secrecy, Arthur looked at the ring he had purchased for a while in the firelight. Something didn't seem quite right, somehow. Arthur was not one for backing down once he'd made his mind up to something; princes couldn't afford to be. And yet the conversation he'd had with Gaius earlier weighed on his mind. He found he didn't like the thought of Merlin distressed either. Grumbling about his chores, fine, irritated, ok, but genuinely unhappy, heartbroken, even... no, he didn't like the thought at all. And really, he told himself, how ridiculous, that he should be concerned with his manservant's happiness instead of the happiness of his soon-to-be-bride.

The door creaked open. Arthur stumbled in his haste to hide the ring and in doing so tripped on the rug, landing on the floor. He looked up to see Merlin (for of course it was Merlin, who else would barge into the Prince's chambers without knocking?) looking down at him with barely concealed amusement. Arthur collected himself, rising to his hands and knees.

"Don't just stand there, help me find it! This is what comes of having a manservant incapable of properly tidying one's chambers," he muttered, casting his eyes about for the ring. Merlin looked at him curiously.

"Find what, sire?" he asked.

"The ring," Arthur said impatiently, before remembering, he was not going to involve Merlin in this. "That is, never mind, I..."

"Is this it?" Merlin asked, crouching down and holding up the wrought silver band inlaid with emeralds. "It's very... ornate," he observed, looking down at the jewel with one raised eyebrow.

"You don't think she'll like it?" Arthur frowned.

"Arthur, she's marrying you, not some piece of jewellery." He thrust the ring towards Arthur, awkwardly. Their fingers brushed as Arthur took it back and he could have sworn he saw Merlin shiver.

"You don't like it," Arthur said.

"It doesn't matter what I think, does it?" Merlin replied, and there was a world of sadness in his voice that made Arthur feel suddenly cold and guilty. And worst of all, he had the unaccountable feeling that what Merlin had said was wrong – it did matter what he thought, more than it should.

"Merlin," he began, reaching out without thinking and closing his hand around his servant's wrist. This time he knew he was not imagining the shiver, or the hissed intake of breath.

"I have to go, I'm sorry," Merlin extricated himself from his prince's grip and turned to flee the room, a look of distress on his face.

Arthur sighed and locked the ring safely away in a drawer.

 

*

The ring stayed where it was. Busy with state affairs, he barely had time to see Guinevere. On the odd occasion that he was able to dine with her, it didn't seem like the right time. Besides they were never alone, even when no-one else dined with them. There were always servants attending them, which he noticed made Guinevere a little uncomfortable, but he could hardly dismiss them and serve her himself, could he? Merlin was not one of the attending servants. Arthur remembered what he had all but promised Gaius and sent him away, troubled by the look of misery on Merlin's face every time he dismissed him.

It seemed to Arthur that somehow, now, when there were so few obstacles to their spending time together, to their marrying, that he saw less of Guinevere than he had before when his father had forbidden their courtship. She remained, as she had always been, patient and far too understanding. He felt, sometimes, that she saw through him, to things that he hadn't even realised about himself, which although it was one of the things he'd liked about her, was a little unnerving at times.

The distance between them was evident that evening as they dined on roasted partridge and drank wine from goblets refilled by silent servants. Arthur was telling Guinevere about the time some weeks past when he and a select group of knights had ridden to a nearby village to rid them of an unnatural beast which had been terrorising sheep. It was not as if he was talking up his own bravery, as he might have done in years past when attempting to impress a noble lady. Indeed, he praised the bravery and resourcefulness of his knights, making sure to mention Elyan as much as possible (and Lancelot as little, he had every respect for the man as a knight but he neither wanted to recommend him to Guinevere's affections nor embarrass her with past recollections). Most of the time, in fact, he found himself mentioning Merlin, his incompetence at making camp, his ability to get in the way of good hunting, his idiotic bravery when it came down to actually fighting the beast, his...

Guinevere sighed, sounding resigned and he stopped abruptly and looked across the table at her.

"What is it?"

"Nothing, my lord."

"I'm boring you."

"No, my lord."

"Gwen, I've told you, you needn't call me that. Not now."

"Of couse my – I mean, Arthur."

"I was boring you, wasn't I? My apologies, I realise talk of hunting and fighting is not to your taste. That's a very pretty dress." He tried changing tack. Guinevere looked down at her plate to hide a smile.

"Thank you my... Thank you, Arthur. But really, I don't need you to talk to me about dresses. Really, I don't. Not that I'm telling you what to talk about. If you want to talk about dresses, that's fine, obviously, not that you would..."

"Gwen."

"Sometimes I feel I know you so little." She lifted her gaze to his, honest and direct.

"I invited you to dine with me so that we could become better acquainted," Arthur said.

"And yet all you've talked about since we sat down is Merlin."

"It... really? I mentioned him a couple of times, but only because he's always there, getting under my feet."

"He's not here tonight," Gwen observed.

"I... I sent him away." Arthur admitted, a little awkward in case she should ask the reason. Gaius had told him of Merlin's affections for her in confidence, he could hardly expose him by revealing his secret. "That's a lovely hair... thing," he attempted. Gwen smiled.

"Thank you, it was a gift from Lady Mor-" She stopped suddenly, a horrified look on her face. An awkward silence followed.

Arthur did not propose that evening.

The trouble with courting, he thought to himself, was that girls were so different to men. He'd have no trouble having an evening's conversation with one of his knights, say, or even Merlin; he and Merlin could sit and talk about everything or nothing. He never felt truly at ease with Guinevere. She was the only woman he'd ever met besides Morgana who spoke to him plainly, and he admired her for it. She was pretty, and he felt a strong desire to protect her. In a way, she represented Camelot; she would make a good queen, fair and just. She was an ideal, his courtship of her a combination of chivalry and rebellion against his father. Marriage with a suitable, beautiful girl, who spoke gently and wisely, what more could he ask for? Still, Arthur couldn't help feeling slightly guilty that while she was lovely, he preferred spending time with his fellow knights. Or with Merlin. But that was fine, wasn't it? Perfectly normal. Girls were a different species, after all, he couldn't expect to have love and friendship with one person. Could he?

 

*

 

In hindsight, he'd wonder why he'd ever thought trying to get advice from Gwaine would be a good idea. No sooner had he mentioned the possibility of his forthcoming betrothal than he'd found himself on a bench in a tavern, three tankards of mead in his belly, listening to Gwaine extol the virtues of the female sex. Virtue not perhaps being the most adequate term to describe some of the things Gwaine was describing. Arthur began to feel slightly queasy, although usually he prided himself on being able to handle his mead.

"I don't think you should be talking about such things in reference to the future queen of Camelot," he said after a while, trying to summon up some princely disapproval.

"I didn't mean it in reference to the lady Guinevere," Gwaine said, holding his hands up in protest, "She's a lovely girl, but Elyan would cut my balls off, if you didn't take my head first, for treason."

"It's not treason if we're not married. Besides, it seems like you're the only one who's not in love with her. Lancelot..." Arthur hesitated, not sure how much to say about that.

"Oh I know all about Lancelot, the daft git. The other week we were drinking in here and there were these two blondes... well, you've never seen anyone so chaste and chivalrous. I ended up going home with both of them." He grinned and took a large gulp of mead. "So, who else is in love with the future queen?"

"Merlin, apparently." Arthur sipped at his mead. Gwaine's forehead creased in confusion.

"Merlin?"

"Well, it's understandable, I suppose, they were royal servants together, and..." He shrugged.

"Arthur, I'm really not sure it's Guinevere that Merlin's in love with."

"Gaius seemed pretty sure."

"Well, far be it for me to contradict." It was on the tip of Arthur's tongue to ask whether Merlin had said anything to Gwaine, when Gwaine changed the subject completely. "Have you heard about Percival? Leon caught him the other day with one of the stable boys, put him on double duties for debauching the household servants, though from what I hear of it the lad was more than willing." He winked and Arthur began to feel light headed and confused.

"Well, knights of Camelot shouldn't really... that sort of thing." He felt himself going red and made a mental note not to drink in Gwaine's company again. He could feel himself losing his commanding princely authority with every sip of mead. Not that Gwaine had ever paid that much attention to authority, but it was beginning to damage his own pride.

"Nah, they just shouldn't get caught, shows a lack of forward thinking and stealth," Gwaine grinned and drained the tankard. "I never have yet."

 

*

Sometimes Arthur took the ring out of its drawer and stared at it. Leon had been quite enthusiastic about his choice at the time, but now it was becoming more and more difficult to visualise the ring adorning Gwen's finger. He looked at himself in the glass and tried to practice asking her for her hand in marriage. Words and phrases fell out in a rush, 'the honour', 'my wife', 'solicit your affections', but they made no sense.

*

Despite Arthur keeping his resolution to not involve him in any wedding preparations, Merlin seemed more and more sullen and withdrawn each time Arthur saw him. Apparently his affections for Guinevere had not dissipated. Even his insults seemed half-hearted, and Arthur felt like more of a prat the less Merlin called him out on it. He seemed to spend less time attending on Arthur than before – which might have been because Arthur kept sending him away. Arthur didn't like it, but didn't know what he could do about it, short of offering Guinevere to him instead, which he didn't think would go down well with the lady in question. He threw himself into training his kinghts and dealing with kingdom matters. If only everything could be solved with a sword. None of his princely training in diplomacy seemed to cover what to do in cases where you can't make your mind up to propose to the lady you are courting or what to do when your manservant is crossed in love and it's inexplicably making you unhappy.

Arthur decided to walk along the battlements. It was his castle, after all, he could walk where he pleased if he needed to think. He was not brooding, definitely not, merely looking out across his kingdom. He gazed down at the peasants and artisans, servants, knights and noblemen as they went about their business in the courtyard below, wondering whether they had any such concerns. Easier to be a peasant and think only of your pigs and not have to run a kingdom, court a queen and manage a troublesome household staff. Not that Arthur had any desire to be a peasant; really, the smell...

He paused, frowning as he spotted Guinevere drawing water from the well. Surely she knew there were servants who... But of course, she was a servant, would not be used to ordering others. Indeed, she had no real place at court now that Morgana was fled and she was no longer employed as a servant, but not yet raised to the higher position to which he had intended to raise her. He had not, he realised, really considered her situation from her point of view. His frown deepened as a tall, well muscled figure stopped to help Gwen with her bucket. Her head dipped in embarassment, but she looked up, biting her lip shyly as Lancelot took her hand and kissed it. Then she smiled, such a smile as he couldn't recall ever receiving from her himself.

Arthur made up his mind.

 

*

"No, my red coat, Merlin. And hurry up with it, I've an important audience this morning."

"Visiting nobles?" Merlin asked. He never remembered that it wasn't the business of a manservant to ask about state affairs, that he should concern himself with his prince's clothing. But that was alright, because Arthur never remembered either.

"No, no," he waved his hand vaguely, too wrapped up with what he was going to say later to mind what he was saying now. "I'm speaking with Guinevere." There was a clatter as Merlin dropped the pile of clothing he'd been carrying, then scrambled around to retrieve it.

"Oh," was all he said as he deposited the bundle onto the bed and helped Arthur into his red jacket. His fingers seemed to linger on the cuffs even after he should have stepped away.

"Merlin?" Arthur prompted, only slightly exasperated. Merlin let go.

"Good luck then," he said, seriously, looking up at Arthur. For a moment Arthur felt himself held by that gaze, a strange feeling of warmth flooding him. But then Merlin lowered his eyes and Arthur shook his head, focussing his mind once more on the task awaiting him.

 

*

Guinevere sat perfectly still, hands clasped in her lap. If her face betrayed a flicker of nervousness as Arthur paced the floor in front of it, he didn't note it.

"Guinevere, I requested an audience with you, because... because..." Arthur thought of the look that had passed between her and Lancelot in the courtyard and suddenly it wasn't hard to think of the words after all.

"You're a very special woman, Guinevere. I want you to know that I care about you a good deal and want nothing but your happiness." She looked down at the floor. Arthur cleared his throat and continued. "But I don't think you will be best happy with me." Gwen looked up then, surprised. "I don't think I'm the one you're in love with. I think that you love somebody else."

"Sire, I..." she protested. Arthur stopped pacing and stood before her.

"Look, I don't intend to make your decisions for you, Guinevere, "I just want you to know that if Lancelot were to court you, I would not stand in your way. And just so you know this isn't some kind of misguided chivalry, I ought to tell you I really don't mind. Honestly." And he didn't. He'd felt slightly foolish, but not exactly jealous.

Gwen rose, placed both hands on his shoulders and kissed him gently on the cheek.

"You're a good man, Arthur. And you'll be a good king."

"You'd make a good queen," he told her. She laughed lightly. He considered. "Of course it would never do if my queen ran off with one of my knights..." She stepped back, smiling still. "You think you and Lancelot..."

"I don't know." She bit her lip shyly. "Perhaps. And what about you, Arthur?"

"What about me?"

"Forgive me, sire, but I rather think... that I was not the one you were in love with either?" Arthur didn't know what to say. Perhaps it had never been love with her, but it was the closest he'd been to it. Then a sudden thought struck him.

"Merlin!"

"Yes," Guinevere said, smiling at him again. Arthur blinked at her.

"What? No, you don't understand, Merlin loves you," he told her. Guinevere pulled a face.

"I really don't think it's me that Merlin's in love with," she frowned. "Maybe you should just go talk to Merlin, sire," she said, patting his arm in a way that Arthur didn't really register as patronising until after she had left.

 

*

Arthur went looking for Merlin. He wasn't sure why, exactly – to break the news that he wasn't going to marry Gwen after all, but that Lancelot might well be, perhaps. To comfort him? Arthur had to admit that that had been his first instinct, but now that he considered it, it didn't seem like the sort of thing a prince ought to do, comfort his manservant. But he thought of that sad look in Merlin's eyes lately and something ached inside of him. The truth was that while he esteemed Guinevere more than any other woman he'd ever met, Merlin was the one person he cared most about - not that he'd ever tell him that, the idiot would be insufferable.

Upon enquiring after Merlin, a passing servant told him he'd seen him heading to the stables. There were voices coming from inside, one was Merlin's, unmistakeably. There was a familiar laugh – Gwaine, then. Arthur pushed the door open a fraction and paused in shock. It seemed Percival wasn't the only one of his knights attempting to debauch the serving boys in the stables. Merlin was leaning back against the side wall with Gwaine pressed up against him, one hand cupping his cheek. Arthur stifled a strangled gasp as Gwaine bent down to kiss Merlin. Arthur felt suddenly sick with a combination of anger, lust and envy, everything he hadn't felt when he'd seen Lancelot kissing Guinevere. However, he had no time to examine his feelings, much less act on them, before Merlin braced his hands against Gwaine's chest and pushed him away.

"I'm sorry, Gwaine, I can't, I just can't." Gwaine sighed ruefully, running one hand through his long hair.

"Well, you can't blame a man for trying." He grinned, and Merlin smiled back, quietly. "Although if you're holding out for Arthur, you'll have a long wait."

Merlin's eyes were all sincerity as he looked up at his friend.

"I'd wait forever."

"You poor kid. He doesn't deserve you."

"I don't care."

"You really have got it bad. Sure you don't want someone to take your mind of him?" Gwaine's hand came to rest on Merlin's thigh and Arthur saw red, pushing open the door and storming in, manhandling a shocked Gwaine away from Merlin who stopped in the midst of saying 'quite sure' to gape at Arthur incredulously. Arthur shoved Gwaine roughly onto the straw.

"Get your hands off him! He said no."

"You heard that bit, then?" Gwaine was irritatingly cocky for someone in his position.

"Arthur, what are you doing?" Merlin demanded.

"Merlin, go home," Arthur ordered.

"But-"

"Now!" he roared, in his 'I am the prince regent and I will not be disobeyed' voice. Merlin stared at him, stricken, before fleeing to his room and closing the door. Arthur turned to Gwaine.

"You, I don't want to see for at least the next month. Find yourself a tavern somewhere and don't go near Merlin again, or..."

"Or what? You ever hear the expression 'dog in the manger', Arthur? You don't want him but no-one else can have him either? Did you ever stop to think whether any of this is fair on Merlin?" Arthur felt deflated, but was well practised in not letting it show.

"He didn't want your attentions."

"No, he wants yours. You were listening at the door there, you heard well enough. The boy's head over heels in love with your royal pratness, and you're the only one who hasn't noticed!"

Arthur opened his mouth to argue but no words came out. He turned on his heel and retreated to his chambers.

 

*

 

Arthur spent the evening pacing the floor of his chambers, deep in thought. It was cold, since Merlin had not been in to bank up the fire. It was messy, since Merlin had not been in to tidy up. And worst of all, it was dull without Merlin's company. Still, he could hardly call for Merlin without addressing the fact that Gwaine seemed to think Merlin was in love with him. Gwaine's reliability at assessing the state of Merlin's heart might be in doubt, had Arthur not heard confirmation from Merlin's own lips (nice lips, now he came to think of it, and... wait, that was quite beside the point). Still, Gaius had seemed convinced Merlin was in love with Guinevere, while Gwen herself...

Arthur paused and replayed the conversation he'd had with Gwen that afternoon in his head. Oh. Oh. If it hadn't been treason to think so, Arthur might have thought there was a possibility he'd been just a little bit stupid. (The idea that it if it hadn't been treason, many other people around the court might have said the same struck him and made him shiver in embarrassment). It seemed that Guinevere was indeed the most sensible woman of his acquaintance and it was Camelot's loss that she wouldn't be its queen. Although not Arthur's loss, not really, because he didn't love her, not the way he loved Merlin.

That treasonous questioning of his own intelligence crept up on him again when he realised the truth of that. He loved Merlin. Guinevere was lovely, and sensible, and a woman. Merlin was impertinent and odd-looking and a man. In rank, he was not an equal, but in fact he was his best friend. And Arthur was starting to think the 'man' part of it might not be such a problem after all. In fact it might even be an advantage. Which would explain a lot about why things with Guinevere hadn't really worked out.

So he was in love with Merlin. Gwaine had been wrong about that. But then again, Gwaine had been the one kissing Merlin while Arthur was taking his time coming to that conclusion. Arthur decided a conversation with Merlin was long overdue, and called a passing servant to summon him to his chambers.

 

*

 

The trouble was, Arthur realised, as he waited for Merlin to appear, he had no idea how to go about expressing his feelings. He was pretty sure by now that Merlin loved him, which did away with a lot of the uncertainty or the need to convince him of his charms. 'How to seduce one's manservant' had, understandably, not been a part of his courtly education. Still, courting Gwen had been difficult enough and he knew he'd got the basics right – dinners, flowers, jewellery. Would Merlin appreciate those things? Flowers perhaps not. Dinner, though, definitely, if the way Merlin kept sneaking food off his plate when he thought he wasn't looking was anything to go by. Merlin didn't really seem the jewellery type, although there had been that time he'd seen him with that dress... and that was probably something he shouldn't bring up this early in their relationship, although it was an interesting image...

"You asked to see me, sire?" Arthur blushed as the object of his ruminations appeared before him. Merlin's eyes were downcast and his tone unusually deferential (although this new-found deference did not, Arthur noted, extend to actually knocking).

"Merlin," he said, coughing in embarrassment when he heard his own voice come out as little more than a squeak. "There's something I, uh, need to discuss with you."

"I understand if you don't want me to serve you anymore," Merlin said earnestly, "But please don't send me away from Camelot. I could work with Gaius, you'd never have to see me." He looked up, his expression thoroughly miserable.

"Send you away?" Arthur was aghast. "Why on earth would I do that?"

"You're not... disgusted with me, then?" Merlin looked hopeful.

"What, for kissing Gwaine? I'd have thought you had better taste, I mean, he's been with so many people he's probably riddled with pox..." Merlin blushed.

"I didn't... I just let him kiss me a bit, that's all. I wouldn't want you to think that I did that sort of thing a lot. Or ever." Arthur thought of Merlin saying he'd wait forever for him and his chest constricted. "I was just... upset. It won't happen again." Arthur thought of how unhappy Merlin had been recently and felt an odd mixture of pride and guilt at the realisation that he had been the cause of it. "Congratulations, by the way." Merlin gave him a smile that was thin but heartfelt. Arthur blinked.

"...For?"

"You and Gwen. She'll make a brilliant queen." Ah, of course, he didn't know. Arthur smiled.

"She would. It's just a shame she's in love with Lancelot."

"What?" Merlin's smile dropped. Arthur couldn't help his grin.

"And I'm in love with you."

If he'd expected Merlin to be pleased, he was disappointed. Merlin scowled at him and turned away.

"That's not funny, Arthur." At least he'd dropped the 'sire'.

"It is a bit funny," Arthur couldn't help saying. Because really, it was. He'd planned to ask a lovely girl to marry him and instead he'd sent her to the arms of one of his knights and realised that he himself was in love with his ridiculous manservant. It was bloody hilarious.

"I knew you were a prat but I didn't think you could be this cruel." Merlin glared at him and turned to leave, muttering something under his breath that sounded like stuff you and your stupid destiny, I don't care what the dragon says, but really couldn't be because that made no sense at all. He reached the door and suddenly none of it was funny anymore. Arthur darted after him and grabbed his elbow.

"Merlin, wait! You can't leave, you don't understand." Merlin stilled, expectant. "I meant it. I really am. With you." He had a panicked moment when he wished he'd been more prepared with flowers or jewellery or possibly other, more manly tokens to demonstrate his esteem, when he suddenly thought of something that might do just as well, and leaned forward to press his lips against Merlin's. Merlin let out a muffled 'eep' of surprise, stiffening, but Arthur didn't give up and it wasn't long before Merlin surrendered, kissing back fiercely. For a while, all was bliss, but then Merlin was pulling away, pushing back from his embrace.

"Wait, what," he panted, and Arthur allowed himself a quick, smug smile at being the cause of his obvious breathlessness, "What about Gwen?" He sounded torn. Arthur soothed him, running his hands through his hair.

"I'm not marrying Gwen," he said in a voice he hoped was firmly reassuring. "I like and respect her but I'm not in love with her, and she's not in love with me either. I'm sorry it took so long to figure it out, but it's you I want." He stuttered slightly. Merlin looked him over intently, and, apparently satisfied with what he saw, burst into a blinding grin. Arthur smiled fondly.

"I've missed that."

"What?"

"You, smiling."

"Well it's your fault. Prat." Merlin punched him lightly on the shoulder.

"Assault on the royal person is still treason, you know."

"Really?"

"Mm-hmm, week in the stocks at least."

"Shame, because I've got quite a few ideas about what we could do now and all of them involve me putting my hands on your royal person."

"Oh?" Arthur raised one eyebrow. "Quite a few, eh?"

"Well I've had years to think about it," Merlin said, the look in his eyes suddenly vulnerable.

"Years?" Arthur sucked in a breath, "Oh, Merlin."

"Can't believe you didn't even notice. You're really not that bright, you know... Hey!" he exclaimed as Arthur tackled him to the floor.

"Insulting the prince's intelligence, definitely treason."

"Insulting? That was me being kind," Merlin grinned up at him as Arthur straddled him, pinning his hands behind his head. "Two weeks in the stocks?"

"No," Arthur leaned closer to him, "I've got a few ideas of my own and most of them involve the bed..."

 

~The End~