For Arthur's twenty-second birthday, Merlin made sure to bring up extra grapes from the kitchens. He was in love with Arthur, and he knew that of all the things Arthur enjoyed most, it was grapes. He hoped that this overflowing bowl of fruit would really convey his affections for his lord and master.
Unfortunately, our young protagonist was waylaid while delivering the present.
"Ho, Merlin," whispered a familiar voice. Merlin peered around the empty corridor. Seeing no one, he checked the dark chamber to his left where he was promptly jumped by five of his greatest and only friends.
The bowl fell with a loud clanging, the grapes rolling everywhere. "I’m going to have to clean those up," Merlin frowned.
"Do you have a second to talk?" asked Gwaine, gripping him firmly by the shoulder.
"Why are you hiding in the broom closet?" Merlin countered, eyeing the spool of shiny ribbon Percival was holding with dark suspicion.
"This is for your own good," Lancelot said with a look of sympathy in his eye that worried Merlin immensely.
"Mates," said Percival cheerfully. "Less chatting, more wrapping."
"Arthur's going to love this," said Elyan, taking Merlin by the other arm.
"Let me go!" Merlin tried to say, but Leon shoved Merlin's neckerchief in his mouth. He did seem to feel a bit bad about it, giving Merlin a firm arm punch. He did nothing, however, about the ribbon Gwaine had begun wrapping about Merlin's wrists or the rather forceful way his arms were lashed together.
It was quick work and Merlin only landed one good kick to Gwaine’s side before his legs were also bound.
"Percival," Leon nodded when the deed was done.
"Right," said Percival. With that, he hoisted Merlin up with one arm and paraded him down the hallway to Arthur's room.
"Oomph," said Merlin as he was dropped into the soft quilt and pillows of Arthur’s bed.
"He should be back any minute," said Leon as if that would somehow make Merlin feel better.
"You were my favorite knight," Merlin said viciously, but the cloth between his teeth made it impossible for him to be understood.
"You can thank us in the morning," Gwaine told him. "Wish him happy birthday for us."
And with that, the door to Arthur's chamber slammed shut.
Merlin knew for a fact that Arthur would not be back any minute, seeing as he was at a rather boring meeting about grain distribution that was sure to last for hours. This was both a blessing and a curse, giving Merlin more time to escape but more time to languish there if he couldn't.
The problem was, no one ever entered Arthur’s rooms save Merlin, which meant that Merlin was well and truly stranded here, lying on his side on the bed, his hands bound with the softest ribbons. And as he was gagged, he could not whisper the words to a magic spell that would get him out of this predicament.
After struggling for a while, he gave up and lay there on his side as the sounds of the outside world filtered in from the windows. A gentle breeze tickled his nose, which he could not itch. He lay there like that for over an hour, what seemed like two, mulling over the fact that he had no real friends and that absolute embarrassment was imminent.
This did, of course, give him a good excuse to slack off on his cleaning duties.
"That has got to be the longest meeting I've ever had to sit through."
Merlin jolted awake and nearly rolled off the bed.
He could tell by the slant of sunlight in the room that it was some hours after lunch. He had been dozing, dreaming of a better time in his life when he had not been so betrayed by his friends or cruelly wrapped up like a present for his crush. Finding that he was still in the same terrible situation was a rude awakening indeed.
"Merlin?" Arthur asked from the antechamber when he didn’t receive a response.
Merlin’s eyes widened, willing Arthur to walk back out the door. At the very least he wished he could call out and say something, anything, but it was impossible. By this point his neckerchief, which hadn't been washed in days, was drenched in spit.
Arthur’s boots hit the wall with a clatter, and then he made his way into the room, monologuing, "The price of rye has surely gone up. But it’s the fault of King Hobard of the swamplands and his tax on wheat."
Merlin squeezed his eyes shut against the pillow like maybe if he couldn’t see Arthur, Arthur wouldn’t be able to see him.
"There’s a greater call for rye loaf, and so it’s no no fault of my own that—Merlin."
Merlin's eyes snapped open and met Arthur’s gaze from across the room. Arthur stared back from where he’d paused halfway through removing his jacket, expression understandably nonplussed. Then, a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
His eyes traveled the length of Merlin's bound body, taking in each shiny festoonment. "Merlin, you shouldn't have."
Merlin made a gagging noise as he tried to convey his outrage around his neckerchief.
Arthur came to the bed. Now Merlin just had a view of the front of Arthur's britches.
This time amusement colored his tone. "How good of you to remember it was my birthday."
Merlin sighed, trying to convey with his eyebrows how stupid he thought Arthur was to assume that Merlin could possibly manage this himself.
Arthur meanwhile tugged at the giant bow that drooped around Merlin's middle. Merlin wondered idly where his once good friends had learned to do such lovely bows. Arthur answered his question immediately as if Merlin had been able to say it aloud. "You must have learned how to tie this bow with the help of Percival. The color suits you. Maybe because you’re such a girl."
"And you’re a royal arse," Merlin tried to say, but what came out sounded more like, "Woah uh oil ov."
Arthur threw his head back and laughed.
In spite of himself, Merlin was somewhat touched to be the cause of Arthur’s laughter. He understood that Arthur’d not received many birthday presents in his time. A parcel of land here, a golden goblet there...but never before one that filled him with such amusement.
Arthur rubbed his hands together. "Am I meant to untie you? Or…" his voice trailed off hopefully.
Merlin nodded his head desperately.
The feeling of goodwill dissipated quickly though when Arthur said, "Or did you mean your silence to be my present? That was surprisingly thoughtful of you, Merlin. Without your rambling on perhaps I can get some work done."
Merlin rolled over to watch as Arthur left his side and sat at his writing desk.
"You have a nap, Merlin," Arthur told him, dipping his pen in the inkwell. "I’m sure it won’t be much different to your usual slacking off on your duties." He quirked an eyebrow at him. "You can thank me later," he said, and began to write.
Around dinner time, Arthur began to look distractedly Merlin’s way often, and not just to smirk at him. At first Merlin thought he’d gotten bored with this whole charade, but then was offended when he realized Arthur wasn’t just finally - finally - considering untying him, but instead wondering how he was going to get food up from the kitchens without Merlin’s help.
When Arthur’s stomach growled audibly, Merlin gave him a scathing look he hoped communicated "this could all have been avoided" but Arthur just stroked his chin in thought and pushed himself up from the desk.
He stretched, which made Merlin ache to do the same, and said to the room in general, "I suppose I’ll have to send up for food myself, then."
When he swung the door open, he drew up short. "Oh, good! Sir Leon!" Merlin heard him say. "Send for a chicken, would you? And some grapes."
"Of course, sire."
"And a pitcher of wine. It is, as you know, a special day."
"Where’s Merlin, sire?" asked Lancelot, all innocence.
Arthur paused, before deciding on, "He’s indisposed."
"Good, good," said Gwaine.
"Nothing," said Elyan quickly. "On our way to the kitchens, sire. Be back soon."
A loud clanking made it clear the knights were retreating as one from where they’d doubtless been gathered for hours just outside the chamber doors, snickering at their own hilarious prank.
Arthur came back into the room, and was silent for a long, considering moment.
"Mph," Merlin said and tried to look over his shoulder at him.
"It’s strange you know," Arthur mused. "I do find myself missing our conversations. The useless prattle. The way you always laugh at your own jokes like the court fool."
"Mph," Merlin repeated in a wholly different tone this time.
Arthur came to the foot of the bed, and then the mattress dipped as he sat beside Merlin. Merlin craned his neck and could just catch what he thought might be a wistful expression as Arthur brushed hair out of Merlin’s eyes and murmured, "Oh Merlin. What ever am I going to do with you?"
Merlin gave him his best imploring look, batting his eyes and giving a little wriggle so that Arthur got the idea.
"Alright," Arthur said. "This is getting tiresome. I’ll untie you."
He reached out for the shiny end of ribbon at Merlin’s wrist, fingers brushing Merlin’s skin. Merlin shivered involuntarily.
Arthur drew in a breath at that, pausing. Merlin shook his head and moved his wrist closer to Arthur’s fingers. But Arthur was looking down at him with wonder. "Merlin..."
Merlin blinked back up at him sensing a shift in the mood of their interaction that he couldn't quite believe.
A distant, conflicted expression crossed Arthur's features. "It's difficult, you know," he said quietly. "I find myself needing to express — something I’ve never expressed before. Something I’ve never meant to say aloud."
He let that hang there, in the air between them. His gaze was very steady on Merlin's own and Merlin was thankful at last that he couldn’t speak. He wouldn’t know what to say. They often shared quiet moments, moments like this one in the firelight, but never in Arthur’s bed. Never when Merlin couldn’t make some excuse and leave before he gave himself away.
Arthur’s fingers traveled up to Merlin’s wrist once more, but instead of pulling at the end of the knot, began to soothe the place where the ribbon had rubbed at Merlin’s skin. "It's impossible to express, and yet I must—"
Merlin's pulse was beating rapidly. He touched his fingers to Arthur’s, feeling daring.
Then he startled violently when Arthur jumped off the bed as if he’d been burnt.
Arthur began pacing. "I’m finding it hard to— to find the words," he said, running his hands through his hair and then turning to pace in the opposite direction. He looked wild and Merlin didn’t know what was going to happen next. "I’ve spent some time thinking over poetry, if you know what I mean. Geoffry gave me a stack of the stuff, but it didn't...And then I thought, a great deed perhaps—"
He turned on Merlin, Merlin whose heart was in his throat, breath held.
"You and your dumb ears and your poorly planned ideas," Arthur said with a helpless expression on his face, gesturing to the state Merlin was in as if that encompassed it all. "All of it. I love—I love you, is what I’m trying to say. There, secret’s out."
Merlin fell off the other side of the bed in shock.
"Merlin!" Arthur hollered after him.
Merlin hissed in pain, rolling off his shoulder which he’d bruised in the fall.
"Is that any way to respond to a—to a declaration? I have half a mind to throw you in the stocks!"
Merlin struggled to sit up a little. When he could peer over the edge of the bed, he saw Arthur was glaring at him, in no way concerned for his safety.
"When your prince speaks, it’s only right to respond in kind," Arthur told him in hurt tones. Maybe it was the firelight but Merlin imagined Arthur’s cheeks were flushed in righteous embarrassment.
"You’re a complete and utter idiot," Merlin tried to tell him. And, "I love you, too." But he only succeeded in drooling on the bedspread. Even so, he meant every word.
Arthur drew himself up to his full, barefooted height. "I apologize if this has come as a surprise to you. But I shall not apologize for my feelings. I will give you time to think about how you’d like to respond in the future."
He stormed over to the door. Before he left, though, he look back over his shoulder and seemed somewhat mollified by how Merlin was smiling around the gag. "I should expect at the very least a very sizeable feast," Arthur warned him. "Or perhaps a ceremonial hunting trip celebrating this important moment. Remember to pack my favorite pillows."
And with that, he left, slamming the door behind him.
Well. Merlin settled back onto the cold flagstones, wide-eyed and thinking that when he'd daydreamed about mutual confession of feelings, this was not how he’d imagined things going. Not at all.
But he really didn’t mind. Because Arthur loved him. He’d said it without prompting, apparently curse-free. And now all Merlin had to do was wait for his prince to cool down and come back to rescue him. He might have to lie there a long time but he was sure the wait would be worth it.