Not Now, Not Ever
"Yes Sire... No Sire... Right away, Sire..." Merlin said sarcastically. His patience was already fraying, and the prince hadn't even started getting ready for the banquet yet.
Arthur was being particularly difficult this evening, but not without reason. He sat stiffly in his fur-covered chair, watching Merlin carry the last buckets of water needed for his bath. "Make sure it's hot this time," said the Crown Prince of Camelot. Merlin rolled his eyes, and briefly considered whether or not they would let a crown-wearing, sword-wielding frog rule the kingdom, as Arthur was about to turn into just that. The thought made him smirk openly.
Arthur found the little grin annoying. "I don't pay you to laugh. I pay you to be my manservant! Ideally, one that has some idea of what he's doing, but I'll take what I can get, I suppose." Now THAT wiped the smirk off his face, Arthur thought, although for some reason, insulting Merlin wasn't bringing him the pleasure it used to.
Merlin paused, slowly counting to ten. Sometimes he thought life would have been a lot easier if he hadn't stopped that knife. He sighed as he softly repeated an often-used mantra under his breath. "Other side of the coin... other side of the coin..."
"Why are you so quiet this evening?" asked Arthur. Usually I can't get you to shut up. The only other time I've seen you this quiet was when that cabbage hit you and nearly choked you."
The prince had been watching the spectacle when he saw the rotten cabbage hit Merlin in the mouth, and a flash of sympathy had shot through him as the young man wheezed, trying to breathe. Arthur had quietly ordered one of the castle guards to open the stocks and make sure Merlin was all right. After Merlin had stopped choking and could breath easily again, the guard locked him back in the stocks and the vegetables started flying once more.
"How do you know about that? I thought you were above watching a 'peasant's punishment,'" Merlin asked.
"Well, I do enjoy my entertainment, and I had a pretty good view from the walls of the castle. Otherwise, I wouldn't have bothered. After all, it's hardly a rare occurrence," the prince said in that frustrating off-handed way of his. He shifted in his chair, jaw set in a way that Merlin had come to recognize. He was in great pain, and refused to show it.
"Now, is my bath ready yet? I don't have all day", sniped Arthur.
Merlin finished preparing the bath by adding the soothing lavender oil he knew the prince liked. Normally he'd think it yet another of his "precious prince's" luxuries, but he'd been with Arthur at sword practice this morning. His master had fought against a particularly talented competitor, taking a serious blow to the back. One nasty enough that the castle blacksmith had to bend his armour back into position before Merlin could pry it off him. He glanced at the prince to make sure he wasn't looking, and warmed the bath with a gesture. Arthur irritated him to no end, but that didn't mean he wanted the prince to suffer unnecessarily.
"I'm sure the bath would be fine for anyone else, but I'm certain you'll find some problem to whine about", said Merlin. Both found the easy banter comforting. It felt like they had been sparring this way for a lifetime, instead of just a few weeks.
"Finally. Let's get on with it", the prince grumbled, taking off his shirt. His back was still speckled with his own blood from the earlier impact that afternoon. He gasped in pain as he finished taking off the rest of his clothes.
The young sorcerer winced, trying to picture what a life full of such injuries must be like, before averting his eyes as the now fully unclothed prince approached.
Arthur lowered himself into the steaming water, gasping softly as he slowly submerged until his shoulders were just above the waterline. He leaned forward and scooped up some of the water, slowly pouring it over his head, sighing softly as he did. The combination of oil and water made his golden hair slick and wet, little rivulets escaping to run down his glistening back. Cords of muscle knotted from tension were clearly visible, the new gash crosshatched by the scars Arthur had earned from life as a knight. For some reason, those scars made him even more beautiful to Merlin.
Merlin had always known he was "different." The villagers in his home town of Elador never let him forget it. They blamed him for the accidents that always seemed to happen when he was around. THAT secret was something he could only talk about with Gaius. The other "difference" he hadn't really discovered until he met Arthur.
Desperate to talk about these newly discovered feelings, he had turned to Gwen. Initially, she seemed disappointed, but quickly recovered. She had smiled and told him that there were other people like him, and he mustn't feel guilty or blame himself. Then she said "I'm really glad you told me, Merlin. Both because I'm so happy you trusted me enough to tell me this... and because Morgana now owes me a shilling." She smiled at him, a mischievous look on her face. Usually Morgana was right about most things, but not this time!
Merlin looked at her in shock. "It wasn't too hard to see, Merlin. You're hilariously clumsy when you're around him. Probably because you're watching him instead of where you're going." Both of them started laughing as they recalled the times Merlin had bumped into things, fallen down staircases, and otherwise lost his coordination.
Morgana happened to walk by at that moment, glancing at the two of them as she did. Gwen winked at her, and the King's ward rolled her eyes before tossing her maidservant a shilling. "Ah well, there's no accounting for taste, is there?" All three of them laughed together, content to share one another's company regardless of their social status.
An unhappy sound brought him back to the present.
The prince had grunted as one of the bruised muscles in his back started twitching. He lifted a hand from the steaming water and tried to reach it unsuccessfully. "Let me," said Merlin without a second thought. He grabbed the bottle of the lavender oil he had left beside the tub, and poured some into his palm, a bit of magic warming the oil as he started to massage the prince's back. Arthur purred with pleasure as the pressure increased.
Arthur's shoulders and back slowly began to unknot. The lavender and the clean, masculine scent of the prince blended in the steam. It was... intoxicating.
What could only be described as lust filled his mind, blocking out all other thoughts. His breathing became shallow and rapid, hands running over Arthur's clearly defined muscles. For a few minutes he was too distracted by the scent of the vapours to notice the prince's breathing mirroring his own. And then, as this realization came to both of them at the same time, Merlin felt Arthur's back go rigid. He glanced at the prince, shocked to discover his back wasn't the only thing stiffening.
Merlin cleared his throat softly, unable to speak. The massage must have distracted the prince, taken him back to some past experience with one of the "vapid, accursed ladies" in court that were always trying, and sometimes succeeding, to win his... personal attention. That must be it. Anything else was only wishful thinking.
"Excuse me, Sire. I should choose some clothes for you to wear this evening." He wiped his hands on the soft, white towel beside the bath, and walked over to the wardrobe.
Merlin kept his back to Arthur as he selected the clothes the prince would wear. He was very glad Arthur didn't own a codpiece. The thought sent shivers down his spine. That would definitely be a bit too much to handle... and that thought made him shiver more, given what he had just witnessed. Fate had blessed the prince with every advantage, and it seemed it hadn't short-changed him anywhere. He shook his head to clear his thoughts, and focused on the wardrobe again.
Unfortunately, he wasn't very good at telling which colours went together and which clashed. Most everything he owned was either brown or grey, except for the splash of colour from the scarf he always wore, which wasn't much of a problem. Pretty much everything went with his drab wardrobe.
Concerned about his inexperience with garments, he had gone to Morgana for advice earlier that day. She laughed, offering it freely. She pointed out that, after all, it was in her best interest. She didn't want the prince wearing Merlin's initial selection to the banquet. If he showed up wearing red, pink and orange, no one would be looking at her, she said with a wink. Of course, vain as he was, the prince would probably think everyone was admiring his good looks instead of the fashion nightmare he was wearing.
Merlin carefully picked the forest green silk shirt with dark brown leather pants and the black cloak lined with deep purple silk that Morgana had recommended. He heard a splash behind him as Arthur climbed out of the bath. Merlin spun around, his breath catching in his throat at the sight of the prince drying himself off carefully, not wanting to undo Merlin's ministrations. His eyes followed the now clean gash down Arthur's shoulders to the small of his back, and then lower... He closed his eyes and gulped audibly.
"Did you say something?" asked Arthur, turning his head to glance over his shoulder, looking uncomfortable.
"N-n-no, sire." The sorcerer walked over to Arthur, placing the pile of clothes on the chair previously occupied by the towel. He handed the silk shirt to the prince. Arthur took it, and slipped it over his shoulders carefully, his fingers fumbling with the buttons.
"Let me help you with that, Sire." Merlin pressed the folds of soft silk together and began to fasten them, starting with the button just under the prince's neck. As he finished the first one, he glanced up. The prince was staring at him, eyes slightly glazed, the arteries in his neck pulsing softly. Time seemed to slow in a way that, this time, Merlin wasn't responsible for. Neither said anything as Merlin's hands rested lightly on the prince's chest, buttons forgotten.
Arthur moved first, stepping back quickly, hands held carefully in front of him. Merlin, unable to pry his eyes from the prince's, frantically clutched at the pile of clothes on the chair beside him, grabbing the first piece of clothing that came to hand.
The... leather pants. They both looked at them, and then at each other, eyes wide. Arthur snatched them from him with a hand that really would have been more helpful if it had stayed where it was.
"I'll do..." Arthur's voice cracked. "I'll do the rest myself. You may leave now."
Merlin breathed a sigh of relief as he hurried out of the prince's room, both unaware of just how long the bath had taken.
The prince was surprised to discover that the banquet had started nearly an hour before. As he walked toward his seat at the head table, Morgana looked up and smiled, eyes sparkling.
"Uh-oh, what's she plotting now," he wondered. Strange things tended to happen to him when Morgana had that look.
Then his attention came to rest on his father, swirling the wine in his goblet, looking at him disapprovingly.
"When I schedule an event, I expect my son to be on time," the King said, his irritation clearly visible. "AND fully dressed." He tapped his crown lightly.
Arthur coloured as he realized his mistake. Perhaps this was why princes didn't dress themselves. "I'm sorry, father" he replied as he took his seat, eyes downcast.
"I don't want this to happen again. Do you understand?" the King said with a distinctly unpleasant tone.
"Very well." The King's mood lightened. "Then why don't we put this behind us and enjoy the fruits of Morgana's labour. I understand she has something special planned for us tonight."
At that moment, Merlin stumbled into the hall, his usual clumsiness evident as he walked to stand behind the prince. Arthur closed his eyes for a moment, wincing inwardly. The sight of Merlin wearing that humiliating hat no longer amused him. Not in the least. He could feel Morgana's eyes on him, fuming. She had never liked the manifestations of what she considered his "bloody good fun."
He couldn't recall when it had happened, but at some point his pleasure at embarrassing the young man had disappeared. He kept it up for appearances. After all, he had an image to maintain. But tonight, looking at the hat, the prince thought he couldn't feel any more ashamed. Then he remembered his first encounter with Merlin.
His face fell as he thought about how he had nearly broken the young man's arm. He was very thankful that all his future manservant had ended up with were a few bruises. And some time in a cell. Wondering if he would ever be released. Followed by some time in the stocks. Getting pelted by rotten vegetables.
And what had Merlin done to deserve all this? Merlin had committed an unforgivable crime. He had told Arthur to stop throwing knives at a terrified peasant. Arthur felt horrible. He grabbed the goblet in front of him and poured the contents down his throat, trying to dull his shame as quickly as possible.
A trumpet fanfare sounded as the meal started, servants appearing with dishes selected from all corners of the known world, accompanied by wines of exquisite vintage. The King was beginning to suspect that his treasury may have been visibly depleted by this event. But it was Morgana, after all. He always did have a soft spot for his ward. He tried each of the dishes she had selected. Glazed, roasted duck had always been a favourite of his. Something Morgana clearly hadn't forgotten.
The King sighed. Morgana remembered his favourite dishes without fail, and Arthur couldn't even remember his crown. Still, he was unequalled as a knight, and respected, if not well loved. All things considered, much could be forgiven.
As the meal finished, the servants began clearing the tables, and setting up small goblets in front of each guest. Morgana stood, motioning for silence. "King Uther, Prince Arthur, lords and ladies, I am pleased to offer you a rare treat tonight. Enjoy!" She clapped her hands, and servants materialized as if from nowhere, holding bottles of some of the finest liquors the kingdom had to offer.
The servants poured three goblets of liquor for each of the guests. The King sipped from each, the flavour of peaches, melons and mint blending perfectly. He nodded his approval to Morgana, and was rewarded with a respectful curtsey. The King did like his luxuries, although he never allowed himself to enjoy them to excess. Kings had responsibilities. As a servant moved to refill his goblets, he waved his hand over them, indicating he was finished.
He turned to ask Arthur's opinion on the mint liquor, a favourite he hadn't had in some time, and found his son had already finished all three glasses and was motioning for seconds. He furrowed his brows. Apparently even stilted conversation with his son wasn't going to happen tonight. He briefly wondered if he should send Arthur to Gaius for an examination. He really wasn't acting like himself.
Gradually, after several more hours, the banquet came to an end. As the royal party stood to exit the hall, Arthur lost his balance, falling back into his seat with a crash, clearly inebriated. His now empty goblets fell to the floor around him, smashing loudly as the hall fell silent. He looked up, and into the eyes of the King, now clouded with wrath. Uther held his son's eyes a few seconds longer before striding out of the hall. Arthur rose slowly, catching a sympathetic look from Morgana as they left the hall. Both knew what was coming.
In the corridor, Uther turned to face his son, face a mask of fury. "We will speak of this upon my return from the hunt the day after tomorrow. You will NOT be joining us. Attend me in the throne room at daybreak. And Arthur. Don't be late", the King glowered, voice as cold as ice.
He turned and strode down the corridor, cloak billowing behind him.
Arthur looked back toward the hall. Merlin was nowhere to be seen.