It’s not that Merlin is particularly fond of the hat. God knows, the wretched thing could hardly be considered fashionable by anyone’s standards; the sheer amount of feathers alone would comfortably fill a pillow or a small quilt, while the pattern on the brim would not look out of place on a court jester. And it is certainly not that Merlin is jealous, no matter what Gwen thinks, because being jealous of someone wearing that hat would be like being jealous of a hanged man for escaping the stocks: there’s simply no part of the experience that one can envy.
The fact remains, however, that someone else is wearing Merlin’s hat.
Precisely when Merlin developed proprietorial feelings towards the hat he isn’t entirely sure, but it probably started somewhere around the moment that Arthur winked at him the first time he wore it. Merlin has, in recent weeks, come to realise that there is little he wouldn’t do to make Arthur happy, up to and including wearing the entire plumage of some poor dead parrot on his head, and he had thought (wished, hoped) that Arthur, in his ineffably Arthur-ish way, felt the same way about him.
More specifically, he had believed from the beginning that Arthur had had the hat made for the express purpose of torturing his manservant mercilessly and ensuring his eternal public humiliation forever and ever, amen. It’s a little disconcerting to find out that this is apparently not the case.
“Oh, Merlin,” Gwen says, squeezing his arm with a sympathetic smile. “You know he doesn’t mean anything by it. It’s traditional; all servants have to wear the official livery when they first start working for the Prince.”
“Well, then it’s a stupid tradition,” Merlin grumbles, folding his arms tightly and glaring at his feet. “I don’t see why he has to have another servant, anyway. He’s got me, hasn’t he? How many servants can one man need?”
“I’m sure you’re doing a fine job,” Gwen soothes, her lips pressed together in an unsuccessful attempt to suppress a smile. Merlin has to admit that, to an outside observer, his fixation on that crimson monstrosity might be considered a little strange. “But you work for Gaius as well, remember? Maybe he’s just trying to lighten your load a little. Aren’t you always complaining about how busy you are?”
It is true that being Gaius’ apprentice and manservant to the prince keeps Merlin extremely busy most of the time. At this very moment, in fact, he is supposed to be pouring the wine at Arthur’s side, but he still has at least 2.5 minutes before the prince notices that his goblet is empty and turns around to demand a refill. Merlin has honed the practice of shirking his duties into a fine art.
“If he wanted to help, he could’ve given me the night off,” Merlin says, scowling at the back of the prince’s head. “This is just showing off. He’s sending a message, that’s what he’s doing.”
“What kind of a message?”
“I’m not sure. Either it’s, ‘Merlin, you’re so completely useless I could replace you with any random person off the street and he’d do a better job,’ or it’s, ‘this hat really is just a stupid Camelot tradition so don’t get any ideas -- Merlin, this means you.’”
Gwen gives him a strange look, but doesn’t comment. As if to underscore the point, the servant wearing his hat and livery darts forward and, to Merlin’s disgust, fills the prince’s goblet before Arthur even has the chance to notice it’s run dry. To make matters worse, when the prince reaches for his cup and finds it full, he actually turns and smiles at the imposter, acknowledging his service with a polite nod.
Arthur is never that polite to Merlin.
“I’m being replaced,” Merlin realises with dawning horror. “Oh my god, Gwen, Arthur is replacing me.”
“Of course he isn't, Merlin,” Gwen says, but he notes that this time, she doesn’t sound as certain.
Merlin makes a point of being obnoxiously loud when he wakes the prince for breakfast the next morning. Given the amount of wine the imposter poured the night before, he’s reasonably certain Arthur will have a whopping headache, so what better way to remind him of Merlin’s virtues than to highlight the damage having a proper servant could do to his health? The fact that it also happens to bring Merlin a great deal of personal satisfaction is neither here nor there.
“Up and at them, sire,” he chirrups brightly, flinging the curtains open. Arthur groans and rolls over, pulling a pillow over his head. “Now, now. It’s a lovely day outside. Birds singing. Sun shining. I even brought you pork for breakfast. Mm. Smell that.” He lifts the cover of the dish and deliberately wafts the rich smell of cooked meat towards the prince, who groans for a second time.
“Merlin, I realise being the worst servant in the four kingdoms takes a lot of practice, but just for one day could you maybe skip the usual torture routine and do your job in silence? I feel as though someone split my skull with an axe.”
“Too much wine will do that to you,” Merlin says, unsympathetically. “Of course, if I’d been serving you, I’d have made sure it was watered down some more. I know you like to be alert in the mornings.”
“If you’d been serving me, I’d’ve been lucky if I managed to drink a drop, since you’d have spent the whole night gossiping with Gwen.” Arthur lifts the pillow slightly to glare at him. “What were the two of you talking about, anyway?”
Merlin blushes. “Things,” he says, evasively. The last thing he needs is for Arthur to think he has some kind of personal interest in that hat, or god forbid he might end up wearing it permanently. “Just…servant stuff.”
That seems to throw Arthur off for a moment, because he frowns, no doubt trying to think of something that servants might have to talk about and coming up empty. Then he seems to realise what he’s doing and shakes himself.
“Right. Well, if you don’t get that tray out of here and fetch me my things so I can get dressed, the only stuff you will be talking about is how you need to get a new job, because I will have fired you. Understood?”
Merlin sighs and does as he’s told. Most of the time, he enjoys these morning spats with Arthur – looks forward to them, even – but lately it’s become a bit more difficult to enjoy their customary give and take. Ever since The Incident, as Merlin has taken to calling it, there’s been a cloud hanging over the two of them that no amount of banter seems able to dispel.
The whole thing started innocently enough. Merlin was helping Arthur back to his chambers after yet another banquet in the Great Hall, this one featuring considerably more wine and considerably less royal supervision, meaning that Merlin was just as tiddly as Arthur by the time the evening ended. Consequently, it was difficult to tell which of them was the more in need of assistance as they stumbled through the corridors in search of Arthur’s rooms. By the time they collapsed, giggling, onto Arthur’s bed, they were tangled together so thoroughly that it seemed a waste of effort to try to prise themselves apart.
“Don’ go,” Arthur slurred, tugging at Merlin’s sleeve when he made an attempt to get up. “Stay here t’night. Gaius won’ mind.”
“Mm, he’ll skewer me,” protested Merlin, who had rather more respect for Gaius’ powers of intimidation than the prince. “He has eyebrows.”
But Arthur persisted, and Merlin had never been able to hold out against him for long. Some small kernel of good sense that remained beneath the tide of spiced wine warned him that sleeping with Arthur in any sense was a monumentally stupid idea, and in spite of the tingle in his pants could never lead anywhere good. But then Arthur started kissing him, trampling all over his boundaries and his good sense to boot, and Merlin lost track of that thought amidst the sudden rush of oh god yes and do that again. After all, what was the worst that could happen?
That had been three weeks ago, and other than kicking Merlin out of his chambers the following morning, Arthur hasn’t said a word about the whole thing since. Merlin finds this immensely dispiriting, not only because it seems to eliminate any possibility of a repeat performance, but also because it casts the sudden appearance of Arthur’s new servant in a considerably more ominous light.
“So,” Merlin says now, bending down to lace up Arthur’s boots with what he hopes is a sufficient degree of nonchalance. “The new guy.”
“No, I mean his name is Renaud,” Arthur says, with considerable patience. “He’s French. Or his mother was. He’s the bastard son of one of Father’s old retainers, so you’re to take good care of him.”
“And his duties?”
“He’ll be shadowing you, for the most part. After his performance last night, I don’t suppose he needs much help with most of his responsibilities – “ The lift of his eyebrow says especially not from you, but Merlin pretends he doesn’t see it. “ – though you’ll need to show him the ropes, help him find his way around the castle, that sort of thing. Eventually, of course, the two of you will share the chores, assuming Renaud stays on.” He smirks a little. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy being able to delegate some of your authority, such as it is.”
Merlin, however, doesn’t smile back. What was merely an idle suspicion the night of the feast has now turned into an absolute certainty: Arthur is planning to sack him, presumably as soon as he’s finished training his replacement. The unfairness of it stings almost as much as the fact that, apparently, Arthur has decided that the best way to deal with the whole Incident question is simply to get rid of the problem. It’s not like Merlin was expecting flowers and sonnets, but to be summarily dismissed without even a by-your-leave, simply because Arthur doesn’t want to deal with the fallout of a drunken tumble – that hurts.
If he wants to stop this Renaud fellow from ruining everything, Merlin is going to have to convince Arthur that he’s indispensable. Which means he’s going to have to start being good at his job. It’s a good thing he’s had so much practice at foiling evil schemes, Merlin thinks, because he’s going to need every ounce of ingenuity to pull that off.
Exactly how ‘stopping Renaud from ruining everything’ comes to entail Merlin taking Arthur’s entire pack of hunting dogs for a walk at once is unclear, but Merlin is fairly sure it involves considerable trickery on Arthur’s part, and possibly some kind of spell. Arthur knows full well just how distracting Merlin finds him, since he may or may not have admitted as much in his drunken stupor, so Merlin suspects it is no coincidence that the prince waits until he’s getting changed after training to announce, oh so casually, that one of Renaud’s duties will be helping the keeper of the kennels with his charges.
“Apparently, he has quite an affinity with animals,” Arthur says, sounding unreasonably impressed by such a simple talent. “So I’ve said he can help with the dogs, although it’s not strictly a manservant’s duty. It’ll give the two of you something to talk about, Merlin, considering you have such an affinity with pigs.”
“Very funny, sire,” Merlin ripostes, keeping one eye on Arthur’s gleaming pectoral muscles as the prince towels off. “Although you would know, I suppose, since you yourself are such an ass.”
Arthur makes a face at him and pulls on a clean shirt, which upsets Merlin more than his previous comment. A little mess never hurt anyone, but covering up Arthur’s chest should be considered a crime against humanity.
“I take it you want me to help him?” Merlin prompts, when Arthur doesn’t go on.
“I’m sure he knows what he’s doing,” the prince says, shaking his head. “Just show him the way to the kennels, and let him do the rest. Even you can’t screw that up.”
Which just goes to show, Merlin thinks later, that Arthur really needs to learn to stop underestimating him.
No sooner has Merlin strode off in search of the hapless Renaud than it occurs to him that this is a golden opportunity to show Arthur just how helpful he can be. Arthur is notoriously fond of his hunting dogs, despite the fact that Uther frowns on treating them as pets. He spends hours teaching them tricks and brushing their coats, and no matter how often he protests to Merlin that “they’re not tricks, they’re vital commands,” and that “grooming is important for a dog’s health,” Merlin has caught him play-fighting with the younger pups too many times to believe in his indifference. If Merlin can get them on his side, the battle to convince Arthur to let him stay will be half won. Plus, he can show up the beastly Renaud into the bargain.
Of course, Merlin has never been very good with dogs. He thinks it’s because they know he’s always been more of a cat person, but Arthur claims it’s because he lacks the natural authority that dogs instinctively respond to. Whatever the reason, even the most well-trained of canines tends to ignore his commands and become mysteriously deaf whenever Merlin tries to get them to cooperate with him. Still, he’s confident that with a little judicial use of magic, he can keep a couple of dogs under control for one afternoon.
Bran, the pageboy who sleeps with the hounds, looks at Merlin doubtfully when he tells him he’s come to give the dogs some exercise.
“The prince said the new servant was to do it,” he says, squinting at Merlin, and scratching at a ring of flea-bites around his wrist. “Wassis name. Renaud. Said he knew his way around hunting dogs, he did. Didn’t say nothing about you.”
“Well, Renaud isn’t here and I am,” Merlin points out, neglecting to mention that this latter fact is entirely his own fault. “The prince says I’m supposed to help him with his chores, anyway, since he’s new.”
Finally, the page shrugs. “A’right then. Dogs is been cooped up since breakfast, so they’re ready for a good run. Mind you don’t lose track of them, though, or Prince Arthur will be right angry.”
He leads Merlin around to the gate, where a variety of soft snouts and wagging tails are waiting to greet them: sleek, sad-looking greyhounds, aggressive alaunts, and soft-eyed spaniels. The boy addresses them each by name, casually scratching at their ears with affection, but Merlin hangs back. It's starting to dawn on him that Arthur has an awful lot of hunting dogs, and that maybe this would’ve been easier if he’d let Renaud come along after all. Before he can voice the thought, however, Bran lifts the latch and gives a loud halloo, and the dogs are off, barking as they break for the distant woods. It’s all Merlin can do to try to keep up.
“What on earth happened to you?” Arthur demands, when Merlin walks into his chambers that evening covered in mud from head to toe. “I thought you were with Renaud at the kennels, but he says you never showed. Did the ground open up and swallow you?”
“No,” Merlin says shortly. Frankly, he rather wishes it had. “There may’ve been a small accident.”
Arthur’s eyebrows climb even higher. “Are the dogs all right?”
“The dogs are fine.” Merlin scowls at him. “And so am I, thank you for asking.”
“You’re covered in dirt,” Arthur says critically. “And you’re limping. I’m not sure that qualifies as fine.”
Merlin grits his teeth. “I’m fine,” he repeats. “I couldn’t find Renaud, so I thought I’d take the dogs for a walk myself, that’s all. Things, er. Got a bit out of hand.”
This is a gross understatement, of course, but Arthur doesn’t need to know that. Nor does he need to know that it took Merlin three hours and nearly half a ration of dried beef to finally round up the last of the wayward beasts, a brown and white spaniel called Cafall who looked like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Merlin is fairly sure the dog was laughing at him when he finally shut the gate on her furry behind.
Instead of mocking him as Merlin expects, however, the prince just frowns irritably.
“I told you just to show Renaud the way,” he says, sounding put out. “Why would you volunteer to walk the dogs instead?”
“I thought it would be fun,” Merlin says, lying through his teeth. “You know, a chance to get out of the castle for a while, get some fresh air and exercise.” He forces a smile. “You should try it sometime.”
Arthur’s eyes narrow. “I see. Well, fortunately for you, Renaud took care of your duties here while you were...indisposed. He’s actually very efficient; I’m sure he won’t mind helping me undress while you return to the infirmary to clean yourself up.”
Merlin’s mouth drops open. After all that effort, Renaud has still somehow managed to both impress the prince and deprive Merlin of his coveted evening chest-ogling duties in one fell swoop. “But--!”
“Go and have a bath, Merlin,” Arthur says sternly, waving an imperious hand. “You smell dreadful. Even the pigs would be offended to be associated with you.”
“Yes, sire,” Merlin mutters sullenly, and stomps out the door.
Merlin’s next attempt to dislodge Renaud goes about as well as the first. It starts when Arthur invites Merlin to go hunting with him, something that he hasn’t done since before The Incident. Normally, Merlin despises hunting, but circumstances being what they are, he’s willing to overlook that fact if it means that things with Arthur might finally go back to normal. Unfortunately, Arthur has also invited a group of his friends to come along, the same charming bunch he’d been clowning with the day he and Merlin first met. Merlin had never quite forgiven them for egging Arthur on that fateful afternoon, not to mention the way they tended to treat all servants like dirt. He certainly doesn’t want to be stuck dealing with them alone, so he suggests to Arthur that it would be good training for Renaud to come along. With any luck, Renaud will prove to be a terrible huntsman, and Merlin can kill two birds with one stone.
“I thought you didn’t like Renaud,” Arthur objects, proving for once that he is not as oblivious as he sometimes appears. “You haven’t stopped complaining since he arrived.”
“Well, maybe I’ve changed my mind,” Merlin lies. “He’s not that bad, when you get used to him.”
Arthur shoots him an inscrutable look which suggests he doesn’t believe that for a second, but gives in with bad grace. “Fine. But the two of you will have to share a tent; there isn’t enough room in mine for both of you.”
For a moment, Merlin feels a twinge of regret. If nothing else, staying in the same tent as Arthur would have given them the opportunity to clear the air, not to mention forcing them to sleep together for the foreseeable future. But there will be time for that once he’s gotten rid of Renaud, Merlin reminds himself; and he really doesn’t want to have to put up with Arthur’s band of not-so-Merry Men all by himself.
The hunt itself starts off fairly well. They bag a few plump rabbits and a yearling on their first day, and Arthur seems more relaxed out in the open air, away from his father. Of course, Renaud proves once again to be the perfect servant, reading Arthur’s signals and providing him with exactly the right equipment at exactly the right moment, but at least that means Merlin doesn’t have to be party to the murder of innocent wildlife. The only real problem is Arthur’s friends, who as the days roll on seem to become increasingly convinced that Renaud’s passive nature makes him a prime target for abuse.
“Fetch me some water, Frog-Boy,” Bors commands lazily one afternoon. Arthur and a couple of the others have gone to gather firewood, leaving the two servants and three of the other boys to gut the carcasses in preparation for smoking and curing the meat. In practice, this means that Merlin and Renaud are left doing most of the dirty work, while the others laze about in the sunshine and take turns ordering them about. “It’s hot, and I’m thirsty.”
“Yes, my lord,” Renaud says obediently. He leaves the rabbit he’s been skinning and hurries off to fetch a bucket from the stream. Merlin glances after him, but keeps his head down. After all, there’s nothing technically unreasonable in the request, even if it was rude.
When Renaud returns, he puts the fresh bucket of water down next to Bors with a bow and turns to go back to his work. As soon as he’s not looking, Bors reaches out with one foot and kicks the bucket onto its side. “Oops,” he says. “You must’ve knocked it over. Go and fetch some more, you clumsy oaf.”
Godfrey and Elrick snigger. “We should go with him,” Godfrey suggests. “To make sure he doesn’t drop it on the way.”
“I’ll go,” Merlin intervenes, looking at Renaud. “I’m stronger than he is. I can carry it.”
“But then how will he ever learn?” Godfrey opens his eyes wide. “Come on, Frog-Boy. Hop to it. And grab another bucket while you’re at it; Elrick and I are thirsty too.”
“Yes, my lord,” Renaud repeats, eyes downcast. Merlin feels a flare of irritation at his subservience.
“Leave him alone,” he says, standing up. “He’s the prince’s servant, not yours. You’ve no call to be ordering him around like that.”
“Oh, really?” Bors narrows his eyes, and too late Merlin realises his mistake. “Well, Prince Arthur isn’t here, is he? I’m sure he won’t mind if we teach his servants some manners while he’s gone. He’s always complaining about how incompetent you are.”
He steps forward menacingly, and Merlin braces himself. Even without being able to use his magic openly, he’s more than a match for three arrogant young noblemen without their swords. Still, he has to be careful. Trying to explain to Arthur how he’d inexplicably turned his childhood friends into toads would probably be the last thing he ever did, and it would definitely put an end to any relationship between them.
In the end, however, things don’t go exactly according to plan. Backing away from Bors’ advance, Merlin forgets to look where he’s going and accidentally puts his foot in the empty bucket. Off-balance, he catches at Renaud’s shoulder to steady himself, but too late. His feet slip from under him, and the two of them go down in a sprawling heap, right in the middle of the pile of rabbit guts.
“What on earth is going on here?” Arthur’s voice, sharp as a whip, cuts across the sudden silence. Merlin groans inwardly; naturally the prince would choose that moment to reappear. “Bors? Would you care to explain?”
With a nasty look at Merlin, Bors shrugs. “Merlin here attacked Renaud, sire. We were only trying to help.”
“Merlin? Is this true?”
Put on the spot, Merlin can only stare mutely at the prince from his seat on the ground. There is literally no way to explain this situation that doesn’t end with him in the stocks, so for once he decides to take the more prudent course and say nothing. Predictably, Renaud just looks at his feet.
Arthur purses his lips. “Go and gather our things,” he says, his voice sharp with disgust. “We’re going home.”
Arthur doesn’t say a word to Merlin until they get back to the castle, and even then it’s just to dismiss him with a curt goodnight. Bruised, hurt, and smelling of offal, Merlin heads back to Gaius’ without protest, his heart heavy as he watches Renaud scurry off once more after the prince. Arthur is certain to get rid of him now, he thinks gloomily. And why shouldn’t he? Merlin has caused him nothing but trouble, and it’s not like Arthur’s interested in him as anything more than just a servant. If he had any sense he’d quit now and save himself the heartache.
The next morning, however, clean and well-rested, Merlin is less inclined to give up so easily. If Arthur wants to be a prat and bring in another servant to replace him, fine. Merlin isn’t above a bit of petty vengeance now and again.
He waits until just before training the next morning, when he knows Arthur will be alone and heading for the armoury. The prince likes to get there early so as to be ready before the first of his knights arrive, which means that there will be no one else around to ask why his servants are up early to clean weapons that haven’t even been used. Renaud, when Merlin drags him out of bed to help, protests that he doesn’t even know how to polish a sword, but Merlin glares at him until he admits meekly that now would be an excellent time to learn.
“Right,” Merlin says, picking up the first sword that comes to hand and laying it across his knee. “To begin with, you need make sure you clean and dry it thoroughly. The last thing anyone wants is to be stabbed at with a dirty sword. That’s how infections start.”
“Okay,” Renaud says dubiously. “I guess that makes sense. Then what?”
“Next, you need some oil.” Merlin picks up the vial and pours a generous amount onto the cloth in his palm. “It helps reduce the friction. But don’t overdo it, or it’ll become too slippery to keep hold of.”
Renaud nods, his attention on Merlin’s hands. Outside in the corridor, Merlin can hear the sound of familiar footsteps approaching, and raises his voice. “Move down the shaft from root to tip, until you find a steady rhythm. You’ll want to go fairly slowly at first, but once you get the hang of it you can start picking up the pace.”
He demonstrates, first oiling the blade on his lap with long, slow strokes, then short, quick ones. The footsteps come to a sudden halt by the half-open armoury door, and Merlin smirks to himself.
“Of course, you need to remember to handle it gently. The, er, sword can be surprisingly delicate, and comes under a lot of strain even just from ordinary drilling, never mind more aggressive penetration. Arthur’s in particular is quite responsive, but doesn’t react well to pressure. The force of a thrust alone could – “
“Merlin, what are you doing?” Arthur slams into the armoury right on cue, his expression livid. “Are you seriously using the armoury to--?”
“I was just showing Renaud here the finer points of sword-polishing, sire,” Merlin says innocently. Arthur makes an incoherent choking noise, and Merlin widens his eyes in mock alarm. “Are you quite all right, Arthur? You sound like you’re coming down with something.”
“I’m fine,” Arthur says tightly. “But you need to come with me.”
“But I wanted to stay to finish off – “
Arthur’s voice turns into a growl. “You. With me. Now.”
Grinning, Merlin hands over the sword and chucks Renaud the polishing cloth. “I think you can take it from here,” he says, giving the bewildered servant a little wave. Arthur grabs him by the collar and hauls him out into the corridor, barely making it out of earshot before he shoves Merlin up against the stone wall and towers over him, his expression thunderous.
“Would you kindly explain to me why my servant is in the armoury, discussing all manner of filthy things with Renaud, of all people?”
“He asked me for some pointers, sire.”
“About that?” Arthur waves a hand, looking incensed. “And you gave them to him?”
“You did say I should help him with whatever he needed,” Merlin points out, enjoying watching Arthur’s reddening face probably a little too much. “I am something of an expert, after all.”
At this, Arthur’s face turns the same colour as the wretched hat, then just as abruptly goes completely pale. “You didn’t – did the two of you – ?” he stammers, before drawing himself up and taking a deep breath. “That is, I hope you haven’t been…indiscreet about…”
“No, sire,” Merlin interrupts hastily, aware suddenly of having gone too far. “I really was teaching him how to polish your sword. Er, weapon. That is, it was strictly chore related, I swear.”
“Oh. Well, good.” Arthur seems to deflate for a moment, and in spite of himself Merlin feels a twinge of guilt. “I wouldn’t want Renaud to get the wrong idea.”
“The wrong idea?”
“Yes.” If possible, Arthur looks even more awkward, shifting his weight from foot to foot and avoiding Merlin’s eyes. “I wouldn’t want him to think that kind of, er, servicing was something that I require of all my servants. Or anyone, for that matter. He should be free to…well. Both of you, you should know that in your free time, you can – can do whatever you wish.”
It takes several moments for Merlin to parse this sentence, and several more for him to be certain he’s understanding it correctly. He stares at Arthur incredulously, wondering whether all the times the prince has been knocked unconscious on the tourney field have somehow affected his brain.
“Arthur,” he says, slowly. “You do know you didn’t force me, don’t you?”
“You’re my servant, and you were drunk.” Arthur’s mouth thins. “I shouldn’t have pushed you.”
“You were drunk too!” Merlin throws up his arms. “And I wanted to stay. I’ve wanted to for ages, only you never asked. Or did you miss the part where I drunkenly confessed just how long I’ve been drooling over your perfect abs?”
“Not so loud!” Arthur hisses, looking up and down the corridor, but there’s no one in sight. “If you wanted to stay so much, why have you been avoiding me?”
Arthur flushes. “I’ve been trying to get five minutes alone with you for weeks, but you’re always busy,” he mumbles, ducking his head. “I thought having Renaud might help, but then you started making up excuses to stay away. So I figured…”
“I thought you were trying to replace me!” Merlin exclaims. “You kept talking about how efficient Renaud was. You even gave him my hat!”
Now it’s Arthur’s turn to stare at him, his expression changing gradually from total confusion to something altogether different.
“Merlin,” he says. “Are you telling me that all of this came about because I made someone else wear that hat?”
Merlin swallows. “Um. Maybe?” he hedges. “I mean, I wouldn’t say the hat was the only factor, but it was certainly involved.”
“The big red feathery hat that goes with the official servant livery,” Arthur says. “The one you said you wouldn’t wear even if you were dead in a ditch. That hat?”
“I maybe kind of liked wearing the hat,” Merlin admits, in a small voice. “I liked the idea of belonging to you.”
The next thing Merlin knows, Arthur is shoving him up against the wall for a second time, pinning him to the stone and kissing him fiercely. One hand fumbles for the gap in Merlin’s breeches, closing around the head of his cock.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard,” the prince whispers silkily into Merlin’s ear, doing something with his thumb that makes Merlin’s knees buckle. “But I’ve been told I’m a very good swordsman.”
This time, it definitely is a euphemism, but fortunately for Merlin, he really doesn’t mind.