"…incompetent manservant I have ever seen."
The words are familiar, a dazed part of his mind suggests. Blinking, Merlin looks between one (1) broken vial, three (3) ounces of nightshade, pale purple smoke curling toward the ceiling, and wide-eyed Caleb the manservant in training and thinks, oh my God. No.
"I didn't say that," Merlin says desperately, and maybe he's powerful enough now that if he just wishes hard enough, that will be completely true and--
"Run along, Caleb," a voice says from the general direction of the door, and Merlin closes his eyes, because obviously, this isn't happening. "The chief sorcerer is having a bit of a sulk. And please, please talk about this to anyone you see. Consider that an order."
Merlin stubbornly stares at the purple smoke until the door closes, and there's a soft scrape of metal against wood. Looking up, Merlin eyes the armoured figure currently taking up his most comfortable chair, one leg slung over the arm, pushing back sweaty blond hair with one gloved hand to look at Merlin with cheerful malice. "That didn't happen."
Arthur tilts his head back, eyeing the purple stain spreading across the ceiling, mouth curved in a mocking smile. "Good evening, Lord Merlin. How does your search for domestic help--"
"I will turn you into a frog, I swear to God."
"Years ago," Arthur says because he's an utter, utter bastard, "I, too, suffered the indignity of incompetent help. It's a trial, I know, but rank has its burdens-"
"My mother would be so ashamed," Merlin says, pained.
"...your mother tried to beat the last one to death when he attempted to intoxicate himself with your stores," Arthur says slowly. "You do realize she's downstairs with Gwen? I can ask her what she thinks."
"You have had a horrible influence on me." Merlin waves around the (wonderfully comfortable) room with the (very large) bed and the (marvellously soft) linens and the (extremely warm) hearth a little desperately. "I liked straw ticks and small rooms and--"
"Fleas! Wait." Merlin's eyes narrow at the widening smile. "Sybarite."
"Peasant. Clean that up." Arthur points to the fading purple smoke imperiously. With a murmured word, the mess vanishes, and Merlin eyes Arthur, wondering if it would really be that great a treason to do the same to his king.
"Can I assist Your Highness with something or are you merely here to gloat?"
Arthur waves a hand. "Hiding from my council. Do carry on." For at least the tenth time this week, Arthur looks around the (very round) room with a faint frown. "Are you sure--"
"I did not magic up this tower--as you so charmingly put it--just to upset you. It's always been here." More or less. Perhaps less than more.
"Makes the castle look--uneven," Arthur says suspiciously. "Off-balance. Are those clouds outside of your window?"
Merlin doesn't look. It's possible. There'd been wine that night. "Would you like me to magic you up a tower to match?" Merlin asks curiously. Arthur's been carrying on like this for the entire week since the coronation, and Merlin's not entirely sure where he's going with it, but it may possibly involve an entirely new castle. Which yes, Merlin could do, but it's rather bad form to indulge Arthur's whims, because it's not like everyone else in the world doesn't already and someone has to remind him what the word 'no' sounds like.
"Mm. Not today," because Arthur's a reasonable king and won't ask for a castle at the drop of a hat, of course. Kicking one foot restlessly, Arthur stares at him, thick with meaning, or possibly forgetting again, right, Merlin's not his manservant.
(Though really, if Merlin's honest about it, sorcerer? Not so different. It's less his job has changed so much as everyone's job has altered to Variations of Manservantship As Defined by Arthur. If you think about it that way, a lot of Arthur's behavior starts making a great deal more sense.)
A little desperate, Merlin looks around the room for his second most comfortable chair. Obligingly, it hops across the floor, coming to a stop near the fire, and Merlin follows it, noticing Arthur watching in interest. He can't help it; the chair does a quick twirl before falling on the rug with a soft plop. Sitting down, Merlin stares at the fire moodily, trying to keep from twitching at the slick, unfamiliar slide of fine wool against his skin. He's still not entirely sure what's happened to all his old clothes, but between Morgana and Gwen, he's fairly sure he's never going to see any of them ever again. "So."
Arthur widens his eyes to show he's very, very bored. Merlin tries not to find it a little irritating that Arthur apparently does not find five hundred stairs even vaguely discouraging. And while wearing armour, even.
"They know where you are, you know," Merlin says a little desperately.
"The council? Hmm, yes, but now Caleb is telling them you are in a temper, so they'll sit about and pretend they are very brave and come nowhere near this side of the castle. I like it."
God, Merlin thinks, they will. And also, the stairs. None of the council are all that fond of a great deal of exercise.
"You would like that." After a few seconds, Merlin sighs and gives up. "Would you like me to assist you with your armour?"
Arthur's smiles are something to be enjoyed at any time, but that earns him a blinding one. Getting to his feet, Arthur waits, head tilted, and Merlin thinks kingship suits Arthur disturbingly well.
"You could get a new manservant," Merlin points out, loosening the surcoat.
"Why?" Merlin sets aside every piece, routine so familiar it's like nothing's changed when everything has. It's only been a week, and Merlin knows it should still be a shock, but it's not. Arthur's always been a king. These days, he just happens to have the crown to match.
"So you want to come up here every time you need to change clothes?"
Arthur looks at him. "I suppose I'll have to."
Merlin gives up. "So what does the council want this time?"
"Looking for you, actually," Arthur says, reaching back to rub at his shoulder. Merlin slaps his hand away. "Emergency meeting this afternoon. Also, ouch."
Merlin circles Arthur to unfasten his belt. "Anything interesting?"
"They did mention they find the stairs a little much. Some hinting I should order you somewhere more easily reached." Merlin snorts his opinion of that. "Yes, that. So I ordered them out for some exercise with Bedwyr."
Merlin hands freeze on the mail, mouth twitching at the image of old Lord Forloy left to Bedwyr's tender mercies. "You really didn't want to listen to them, did you?"
Arthur shrugs, lifting his arms obediently as Merlin lifts the hauberk away. "Marriage again."
Merlin doesn't hesitate. "Ah. Yes." The chain mail feels heavier than usual; Merlin takes it the stand in the corner and buys himself ten seconds of thought before--
"I said no."
Merlin thinks this conversation could have waited; the council moved too soon, as they are complete and utter idiots. They haven't learned Arthur yet, not really. "Perhaps--"
"Don't start." When the padded tunic is set aside, Arthur shivers slightly, sweat drying his shirt cool against his skin. Merlin nudges the room warmer, watching warily as Arthur paces to the fire. "I don't need a wife."
Merlin sighs. Too soon, but it's been done and they nag worse than Morgana, and with far less charm. "You do need a wife, as a matter of fact," and it doesn't even hurt, because there's nothing new to this at all. "There's no reason for any kind of rush, but--"
"I don't need a wife." Arthur doesn't look at him.
"You need a queen. And you need an heir."
"I'd rather have Mercia." Arthur gives him a sideways glance, neutral and calm, like the surface of a quiet pool with currents running fast beneath. It's a plea to change the subject that Arthur would never voice and Merlin can't quite make himself refuse. "And perhaps a new castle."
Merlin bites his lip, trying not to smile.
"Just a small one," Arthur says, mouth quirking. "With a drawbridge and a moat."
"You're just sulking because we couldn't keep that sea serpent since there was no where to place it." They'd let it go, as it hadn't been violent or hostile, merely very, very lost, and Arthur's still not over it.
"Perhaps a lie-down, then, before Bedwyr comes looking for us." Bedwyr is a mountain of a man. Merlin's not sure how many stairs would stop him, but suffice to say, it would take quite a few.
"Would you like some privacy? Your room has plenty of space and would look marvellous in purple. I could work there." The royal apartments are being cleaned from top to bottom. Merlin keeps falling over Arthur's tunics and weapons in random parts of his room and putting them away before he remembers, right, this isn't Arthur's room and also, not Merlin's job.
Arthur snorts, reaching for Merlin on the way to the bed, fingers curling through his, and Merlin thinks of sleepless nights spent in Uther's chambers, papers burning in the hearth that symbolize the end of one era and the dawn of the next. Merlin can't remember if either of them have even slept in an actual bed this week and not wherever they happened to be when they couldn't stay awake any longer.
He's too young to advise a king, Merlin thinks, as Arthur arranges them as he likes, too young to tell Arthur what he should instead of what Arthur wants to hear. Warm breath brushes the back of his neck as Arthur settles, curving to fit against his body instinctively.
"My father was never unfaithful," Arthur murmurs, and Merlin freezes, unable to stop himself. "From the day of his marriage until the day he died. I'm no different."
Merlin nods stiffly; he'd expected as much. "I know."
"I never have, you know," Arthur says sleepily, hand sliding up Merlin's side soothingly. "Not once."
Merlin frowns, trying to force his body to relax, his mind to still, not to already begin to hate a woman he's never met and will still have to serve. He thinks, maybe, that this kind of trade should be worth it; Arthur's kingship and the law against magic repealed, his own position assured in the new court of Camelot, but somehow, it doesn't feel that way. "Of course you won't."
Arthur mutters, lifting his head with a frown. There's a faint suggestion of a bruise on one high cheekbone; apparently, the knights are getting their courage back after a week of hiding in other towns nearby when Arthur stepped foot on the training field. "Haven't. I haven't. What, do you think I was waiting for you to leave every morning to shag the nearest convenient chambermaid?"
Merlin stares at him. "Are we--talking about the same thing?"
"I'm beginning to wonder." Arthur's frown deepens, irritation clear. "I assure you, I had neither the time nor the inclination to--"
Merlin takes a deep breath; this is Arthur and at the best of times, conversation is a cross between reality and whatever Arthur's been imagining up during his latest sulk. "I never thought--" Which is only a bit of a lie; he hadn't really thought about it at all (all the time) but there'd never been proof. "I mean--"
"Were you?" The blue eyes narrow suspiciously and Merlin has a vivid (completely inappropriate) vision of how this could fall out. It would happen in front of the entire court, Merlin realizes in horror. Arthur has always been overly fond of drama.
Oh good God. "No! Of course not!"
"Then why are we arguing about this?" Arthur pushes back, shoving Merlin's shoulder and curling up against his back again, arm heavy around his waist and perhaps just a bit too tight for breathing. "Go to sleep. It's been a hideously long day and we still have to get through court tonight."
Merlin stares at the fire for a while. "Arthur," Merlin says slowly, because this is Arthur and any conversation with him is usually three-quarters completed in his head long before anyone else is let in to work out their part. "When you marry, I don't expect--"
"Me to keep my honour? Very nice." Teeth nip the back of his neck. "Please shut up."
"I'm trying to say," Merlin starts, but he's not sure what he's trying to say at all. Pulling at Arthur's arm, he rolls over. Arthur doesn't fake sleep well. "Arthur, stop sulking. Just--"
Arthur's eyes flicker open in annoyance, then he leans forward, one hand sliding into Merlin's hair, pulling him into a surprisingly gentle kiss, all soft lips and wet tongue, slow and warm and Merlin surfaces from it with no clear idea what just happened. Licking his lips, Arthur stares at him for a second and it's like the first time they met. You are an idiot, it says. And good God, how very much.
Sharing a bed with Arthur for four years has more benefits than a great deal of sex; Merlin works backwards and finds the verb tense he missed. Haven't. "Oh. You meant me."
Arthur shakes his head incredulously. "Would you like it in writing?" he asks sincerely. "I'll do it, you know. Dear Idiot, I've never so much as considered shagging anyone else and never will. I need a queen. Not a wife. And certainly not right now. Yes, I have noticed your completely unsubtle attempts at making a clean break--really, Merlin, a tower? You have to live at the top of a tower? When the fuck did we get a tower? It wasn't here before. You do not lie well. Go to sleep before I forget I'm not allowed to beat you to death. Love, Arthur."
Merlin slow-blinks his opinion of this (favourable). "I have no idea why I fell in love with you."
"I could say the same, you prick." Arthur kisses him again, sweetly soft, then pulls back, eyes narrowed. "Would you like to cry and exchanges locks of hair? You have a ring. I sleep in here." Arthur pauses, thinking. "Well, would if I ever got to sleep, that is."
Merlin frowns. "I thought the ring was for being chief sorcerer." For the other, he'd just assumed Arthur kept forgetting Merlin's job wasn't to pick up after him anymore. There's a fairly decent chance that Arthur's been living in here all week and Merlin just hasn't been around enough to notice.
"No, that's what the title was for," Arthur says flatly. "I'll find my mother's tiara. Would that be more appropriate? Will it get you to move to an accessible location so I don't die of exhaustion? Five hundred stairs, don't you think that's a little excessive?"
"Jesus," Merlin says, "fine, yes." For a few seconds, he can't remember how to breathe, and just lets Arthur pull him close, burying his hot face against Arthur's neck. Arthur's hand settles on the back of his neck, heavy and warm, chin resting on top of his head. He thinks maybe he'll be able to sleep for a bit. Then. "I didn't know. Not that."
Arthur pulls him tighter, shaking just a little. It could be Merlin's imagination. "Now you do."