People liked to talk. A lot. Largely about other people.
Having lived his entire life in the castle, Arthur knew this better than most. Growing up surrounded by courtiers and councilors, nobles and knights, left one with an awareness of gossip that might escape someone whose home was less public.
The best gossip came from servants. Arthur hadn’t realized that was true until he befriended Guinevere. Merlin, as much as he could prattle on about anything and everything under the sun, had, Arthur learned, sheltered him from some of the juicier bits of palace intrigue – at least the bits focused on him – but Guinevere seemed to believe he was tough enough to handle even the less pleasant rumors that circulated about him.
Which he was. Because the feelings of princes and kings couldn’t be hurt by wild speculation or petty criticism.
(And if the feelings of a prince, who later became a king, did happen to get hurt, well, he wasn’t going to say anything about it. Instead he was going to make puppy dog eyes at Merlin, who wouldn’t press for answers but would instead hug him until he felt better. Even if that took a minute or two. Or a whole hour.)
No, Arthur could handle it when people talked about him (thanks largely to the previously mentioned strategy). What bothered him was unfounded speculation about Merlin.
And that was a problem. Because Merlin had, since his arrival in Camelot, been the subject of considerable gossip.
Arthur would be lying if he said he hadn’t wondered about Merlin after their first couple of meetings, and how could he not? A big-eared, gangly, loudmouth who dared to challenge a prince had to be harboring some kind of secret. Right? It was the only explanation for such inappropriate (intriguingly inappropriate, arousingly inappropriate) behavior.
The secret, Arthur learned within a week or two of Merlin being his servant, was that Merlin simply was inappropriate. At first he’d wondered if it was an Ealdor thing – remote villages often held strange customs – but a few visits to Hunith’s house left Arthur convinced that Merlin’s strange (endearingly strange) rejection of hierarchy, propriety, and decorum were more defining characteristics of the man than the local culture.
Arthur was fine with it. (More than fine, actually, as it meant he finally made his first true friend in life – a friend he desperately wanted to kiss but didn’t. It was rude to kiss people without their consent and in asking for it, he didn’t want to hear Merlin’s unfiltered rejection.)
But Arthur’s acceptance of Merlin didn’t stop others from talking.
Some of the first rumors he heard involved speculation about Merlin’s love life, a topic Arthur couldn’t decide if he wanted to know more about or not.
“He’s fooling around with that serving girl,” Arthur heard the wizened old groom in the stables mutter as he saddled the prince’s horse. “Lazy, useless servant, letting his work fall to me.”
Arthur had been about to protest, to defend Merlin’s honor, but it was true that Merlin had been spending considerable time with Guinevere in his first few months at Camelot. He almost asked Merlin about it, but decided against it, lest Merlin get the wrong idea. The last thing Arthur needed was a new rumor swirling that he was interested in pursuing Guinevere. Instead, he kept his ear to the ground to see what he could learn.
“Did you hear who slept in Merlin’s bed last night?” Uther had banned the guards from talking to one another during formal events, but Arthur couldn’t blame them for gossiping. “It was that new knight. What’s his name? Sir Lancelot. He’s been in a good mood all day. I bet they…”
At that point Arthur stopped listening. There were things he didn’t need to hear, especially without solid evidence. Although… if Merlin had spent the night with Lancelot, then that indicated he liked men, which meant that maybe there was a chance for Arthur. Someday.
Except maybe not. Because it turned out that Lancelot and Guinevere were sweet on each other, something Merlin fully supported, until Lancelot was banished. Then Leon stepped in to comfort Guinevere, which Tyr from the stables said… Arthur stepped away, deciding it best not to listen to even more gossip. The whole thing was getting complicated.
What was important, he reminded himself, was that Merlin was seeing neither Guinevere nor Lancelot, and he seemed content to remain unattached, well, apart from how he constantly attached himself to Arthur. Which was how it should be as far as Arthur was concerned.
Over the years more rumors flew.
The witchfinder accused Merlin of sorcery. As if that could be true! Arthur knew damn well there were cleaning spells out there. If Merlin had magic, Arthur’s chambers would be in a much better state than he usually found them. Besides, one of Arthur’s first acts as king had been to legalize many forms of sorcery. Merlin didn’t even blink an eye.
Merlin was a thief. (Clearly not true, especially coming from a troll trying to steal the entire kingdom.) Merlin was a traitor. (Agravaine had been banished before he finished the sentence leveling his accusation.) Merlin was bedding Arthur. (Sadly, Arthur knew firsthand that one was false.)
Merlin could transform himself into an old man. (Ok, so they were both snarky and their eyes were similar. But that was where the resemblances stopped. For one thing, Merlin’s cheekbones were sharper. For another his lips were more kissable. Or so they appeared. Arthur still hadn’t asked Merlin if he could try and there was no way he was going to inquire if Dragoon the Great was willing to let him collect data.)
The point was, people liked to make up wild and ridiculous things about Merlin. Arthur was used to ignoring those things.
That was why when Arthur heard the latest rumor, he initially paid it no mind.
“Don’t let him in the larder unattended, not if you want meat for the evening meal,” Audrey was telling a kitchen maid one morning when Arthur showed up to fetch his own breakfast. This wasn’t the first time Merlin had failed to report for work, likely the result of another night spent at the Rising Sun. "He's taken seventy-five pounds of ham already this month."
“I don’t understand why he’s stealing when he could just ask the king. Everyone knows how Arthur looks at him. Merlin could ask for half the kingdom and Arthur would sign it over."
The maid had a point, Arthur conceded as he listened from his vantagepoint in the corridor.
“Because, Owena, if Merlin asks, the king will have questions, ones that Merlin won’t want to answer.”
“So it’s true then?”
“Oh yes,” Audrey said. “I heard it from Bronwyn, who heard it from Alys, who heard it from Tyr, who heard it from George, who heard it from Elyan, who heard it from Gwaine, who swore it was true.”
“Was Gwaine drunk at the time?”
Owena asked the question Arthur had been thinking.
“A bit. Well, more like a lot. But that’s beside the point. He’s still trustworthy when it comes to Merlin.”
“Who would have thought, after all this time that we were so certain that the king and Merlin were… special friends… Merlin’s been sneaking out to see women.”
“Let this be a lesson to you, Owena. It’s fine to have fun when you’re young – I had more than a few suitors before I settled down – but you have to be careful. Otherwise you might also end up with a surprise little one.”
“It’s good of Merlin to be responsible,” Owena said. “My cousin got in a similar situation and the father moved to Mercia to avoid being a parent.”
“I’m sure Merlin would have done the right thing no matter what,” Audrey said, “but he didn’t have much of a choice. Apparently the mother is a flighty type. He’s doing most of the caregiving on his own, which is why he’s been stealing food for his child.”
“While still looking after the king? It’s no wonder Merlin forgot Arthur’s breakfast this morning. We should find someone to run it up to him before he comes down here complaining.”
Recognizing that as a sign to leave, Arthur hurried back to his chambers, settling in to wait for his food and consider what he’d heard.
Merlin a father? It couldn’t be true. Could it?
Arthur wanted to write it off as nothing more than another baseless rumor, but Audrey had traced her information back to Gwaine (sort of) and Merlin did sometimes confide in him. Besides, Merlin had been even more remiss than usual with his duties over the past few months. Could he have been spending his nights caring for his child instead of carousing at the Rising Sun as Arthur suspected?
“Sorry I’m late,” Merlin panted, interrupting Arthur’s thoughts as he burst through the door. “But Audrey kept the food warm.”
Arthur said nothing, eyeing Merlin instead. There were dark circles under his eyes, he was wearing the same clothes as yesterday, but he didn’t reek of alcohol and he was steady (well, for Merlin) on his feet.
“Where have you been and why is this in your hair?” Arthur asked, pulling a twig off Merlin as he sat the tray on the table.
“I… um… herbs! I was in the forest gathering herbs for Gaius. Which is why I was late on Tuesday. And also last Thursday.”
“Gaius is needing a lot of herbs lately?”
“It is the season for them.”
What exactly Merlin had been up to, Arthur couldn’t say, but that overly exuberant tone meant he was lying. Direct questioning wouldn’t work – Merlin was a master of deflection and bluster. The best thing to do, Arthur decided, was to observe.
“Here, sit with me. Audrey sent enough for two.” Arthur divided the food and shoved a plate at Merlin.
“Thanks. I’m starving.”
Arthur turned his attention to his breakfast, trying to sneak glances at Merlin out of the corner of his eye. The food on Merlin’s plate was disappearing, but only the fruit and bread made it to his mouth, the eggs and sausage instead being carefully tucked in a napkin in his lap.
So he was stealing food! And likely for someone else. Yes, Merlin had been known to take Arthur’s food for himself in the past, but that had been years ago, before Arthur had the brilliant idea to request that the kitchens send up extra so he could share meals with Merlin. There was no need for Merlin to resort to theft unless he was taking it for another person.
The gossip from the kitchens seemed plausible enough, except that no child would eat that much. Right? Arthur was pretty sure. Not that he’d had much experience with small children.
It was too soon to draw conclusions, not without more information. Arthur would just have to wait and watch.
Over the next month, Arthur kept a closer eye on Merlin than he had in all the time they’d known each other. This was the opposite of a burden for Arthur – the only things he liked more than looking at Merlin were talking to Merlin and touching Merlin.
It was true that observation ate into what little free time Arthur had and the reduced sleep was starting to take a toll on him at training, but he was determined to get to the bottom of the matter.
Much of Merlin’s behavior was expected – he ran errands for Gaius, slacked off with the knights, and engaged in his own gossip with Guinevere. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
Other times, though, Merlin’s after-work activities were abnormal (abnormal for Merlin, that was), bordering on suspicious even. For starters, Arthur never once caught him darkening the door of the Rising Sun, even on nights when Gaius swore that’s where his nephew had gotten off to.
After a few nights skulking about the tavern, Arthur changed his strategy and instead tried to follow Merlin to see where he wandered off to. Trailing him out of the castle and through the Lower Town was easy enough. Escaping the city walls proved more difficult. The guards paid no mind to Merlin as he walked past, almost as if they couldn’t see him; kings were not afforded such luxuries.
A few awkward pleasantries later, Arthur hurried to catch up. He could see Merlin approaching the edge of the forest and then… he just vanished, no footprints left for Arthur to track. Maybe he’d been paying attention to Arthur’s lessons on stealth. Well good for him. It was a laudable safety practice.
When he wasn’t sneaking off into the trees, Merlin frequented the stalls of the marketplace – nothing strange about that, except he often paused the longest in front of the ones selling trinkets and toys. Arthur couldn’t get close enough to see what Merlin bought, not without exposing himself, but money was definitely being exchanged for goods of some variety.
The food stealing continued. Arthur knew this not only from his own observations, but because he’d enlisted Audrey to help him.
“Let him take what he pleases,” Arthur told her, “but keep a record for me alone. Don’t look worried. He’s not in trouble.”
“And hopefully he’ll stay that way,” Audrey said, waving her ladle in a way that wasn’t quite menacing but suggested that there could be consequences for Arthur should Merlin’s status change. “If a purely hypothetical father was doing his best to take care of his purely hypothetical daughter after her purely hypothetical mother flew away, he should be celebrated, not chastised.”
“Hypothetically, yes,” Arthur agreed, too caught up at the mention of a daughter to notice that Audrey had lowered the ladle.
From the time he was old enough to understand language until his father’s death, hardly a day had passed where Arthur hadn’t been reminded that it was his royal duty to produce a son to continue the Pendragon line and inherit the throne.
The one time Arthur had dared to ask why it had to be a son and not any qualified child of his, Uther responded in a way that indicated Arthur should hold off on asking why it had to be a damn Pendragon succeeding him in the first place.
There had to be a better method to ensure good (goodish, ok, pretty bad in Uther’s case) governance than forcing people into loveless marriages to make babies that they would begrudgingly tolerate as children, then torment in adulthood, but that was a truth Uther wasn’t (ever) ready to hear.
A part of Arthur had assumed he would one day wind up with a son, glossing over the practicalities of what would need to happen for that to be the case. Sons were things kings had, Arthur would one day be king, ergo Arthur would one day have a son.
Never once had he considered a daughter. Until now.
The problem, Arthur came to realize, was that once he’d thought about a daughter, he couldn’t stop.
There was something almost magical about the idea of a daughter. A daughter could be a child, not a mini-king in the making.
(After several nights of thoughtful reflection, Arthur decided that regardless of gender, all children should get to be, well, children. Placing the fate of a kingdom on the shoulders of a toddler was a pretty messed-up thing to do. He would love any baby of Merlin’s with his whole heart and Uther’s left-behind baggage could piss right off.)
Still, Audrey had said daughter and so Arthur daydreamed about one.
What kind of toys did she like? Did she have Merlin’s eyes? Would Merlin let him teach her to use a sword? Should Arthur start shopping for a horse? What chambers were free that would be practical for a child? How old was she?
Arthur frequently came back to that last question. Audrey had recorded nothing but meat being taken from the castle stores, but the gossip he’d overheard suggested the child (if, he kept reminding himself, she even was real) was an infant.
Did infants eat meat? Arthur was pretty sure they didn’t have teeth, at least not for a while. Was it weeks or months before teeth came in? Arthur wanted to ask but that might give away that he was on to Merlin’s secret. Besides, Merlin could cook so maybe he knew how to make baby food.
Even more perplexing was the talk that the mother had vanished, essentially flying away in the night. How could she leave behind her daughter? How could she leave behind Merlin?
Rumors either die down or they blow up.
The whispers about Merlin’s daughter gradually grew louder, though it was Arthur who ultimately pushed them from quiet murmurs to the talk of the realm.
He hadn’t meant to, of course. Even if he had been able to confirm the speculation as fact, he would never let Merlin’s secret slip, not on purpose. But sometimes situations arose that warranted action.
The day started normally enough.
Merlin was late with breakfast, again. Arthur complained, but only to keep up the ruse that he didn’t know what Merlin got up to at night.
“Are you trying to starve me, Merlin?” he’d chided. “Also, help yourself to this ham, sausage, bacon, and eggs. No, no. Take more. Look. The kitchen sent enough to feed an army. You look exhausted – I am ordering you back to bed after breakfast. Take a nap until it’s time for dinner. Otherwise you might not have the strength to carry the tray and I really will starve.”
The problem with taking care of Merlin, which Arthur was more than happy to do, was that it meant there was no one to take care of Arthur. Yes, he could call another servant to wait on him, but it wasn’t the same. Contrary to some people’s opinions, Arthur could feed and clothe himself. What he really wanted was his friend.
But Merlin would be around that night and Arthur did need to actually do some kingly work. Best to get to it rather than sitting around sulking all day.
It was when he was returning from the council meeting, taking an incredibly convoluted path back to his chambers to stall off having to sit alone, that it happened.
Merlin hadn’t gone back to sleep as Arthur had commanded (not that Merlin ever really listened to Arthur’s orders). Instead, he was being accosted by an old man outside of the door to guest chambers.
“Oh I’ve found you out, boy. Everyone’s been talking but that was all it was until now. Once I tell the king that you’ve snuck your monster into the castle, that you’re hiding her here…”
That was all Arthur needed to hear. He’d never really liked Meurig – the man had been one of Uther’s most loyal guards and he often had much to say about Arthur’s governing choices, none of them complimentary. Still, he was getting older and time was taking its toll on him. He would retire soon enough and Arthur could endure his muttered taunts.
But now, with Meurig yelling for the guards to come seize Merlin’s daughter, Arthur couldn’t tolerate him any longer.
“You will watch your tongue or I will watch it for you.”
It was an odd thing to say, Arthur supposed, but it did the trick, as Meurig immediately stopped yelling.
“Sire, I know you’re fond of this…” He gestured at Merlin in a way that made Arthur question his personal code of not throttling the aged. “But you should know, he’s hidden a creature, a monstrous creature, here in the castle. You need to do something…”
“I fully intend to,” Arthur said, not missing the fear in Merlin’s eyes. “I’m going to do something I should have done ages ago. Meurig, your services are no longer required. It’s time for you to retire. Sir Leon will work out the details of your final compensation.”
Leon, who had come running at Meurig’s call, nodded and led the old man off.
“As for the rest of you,” Arthur said to the crowd that had gathered, “I don’t want to hear a further word of gossip about Merlin. If anyone else dares to call the precious baby behind that door a monster, they will answer to me.”
“But…” a random noblewoman began.
“But nothing. Merlin has been doing his best to take care of her alone, but it’s too much for one person to shoulder. He needs help. He needs…” Arthur hesitated, trying to figure out how to tell Merlin he’d spent the last month daydreaming about building a family with him without overtly saying it in front of a bunch of strangers.
“A husband,” Gwaine supplied.
“Yes. He needs a husband.”
Shit. That was exactly what Arthur had been thinking and not at all what he wanted to say. He spared Merlin a quick glance, trying to get a sense of just how much trouble he’d gotten into because of Gwaine.
Merlin had never looked at him quite like that before, his eyes full of surprise, amusement, and something that looked very much like love.
“Which is why,” Arthur plowed ahead before his nerves could stop him, “I intend to be a father to his daughter. A second father, I mean. Obviously. To raise as my own. With him. If he’ll let me.”
The encouraging look on Merlin’s face faded into something unreadable and Arthur felt his stomach drop.
“Arthur, I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“It’s alright, Merlin,” Arthur lied. “I understand. I wouldn’t want anyone related to Uther to raise my…”
“No,” Merlin said. “It’s not that. It’s just…”
“You want a partner who’s good at expressing their feelings, who makes you feel cherished and takes care of you. You deserve that, Merlin. I could never…”
“Like you don’t already. I know damn well you’ve been telling the kitchens to add extra food to your meals for me. You’re always sending my mother carts full of clothes. You’ve been more than lenient with me showing up late this past month. You take care of me all the time. But that’s not the issue.”
“It’s because I’m a man. You want a woman, like Guinevere or your daughter’s mother. I understand, Merlin, but I’d still like to be in your child’s life.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Gwaine muttered, reaching for the door latch behind Merlin. “Why don’t you just show him?”
Finally! After a month of waiting, Arthur was going to meet Merlin’s daughter. The door swung open, and there she was, more perfect than anything Arthur had imagined.
“Merlin, she’s beautiful! She even has your eyes.” He beamed at the tiny face staring up at him.
“Arthur, you, um, you do know she’s a dragon? Right?”
“Of course I know she’s a dragon. I’m not a clotpole, Merlin, not like you. Look at her. She has itty bitty wings, and a teeny tiny snoot, and her tail, Merlin! Have you seen her little tail? Is that a toy cow in her mouth? I bet that’s what you bought in the market. Why didn’t you show her to me sooner?”
“Because she’s a dragon? That I'm hiding in your castle because I'm too tired to keep running to the forest each night?"
“Which is exactly why you should have told me. I could have been helping. Now I know why Audrey said her mother was flighty. Hello, precious baby.” Arthur knelt down and extended a hand. “What’s her name?”
“Aithusa. And her mother laid the egg centuries ago. I just convinced her to hatch.”
Arthur considered this as Aithusa nibbled his fingers. “How did you… don’t tell me you have magic.”
“All right, I won’t.”
“Fine, fine. I have magic. Aren’t you mad?”
“Why would I be mad?”
“Because I kind of kept a major secret from you for more than a decade?”
Arthur supposed Merlin’s concern was reasonable. There had been a point in his life when he would have been angry, not about the magic but because of the deception. But Arthur had done a lot of thinking over the past month and he’d figured out what was important.
“Yes, but you can convince dragons to hatch, Merlin, and now we have Aithusa to raise together.”
“As husbands? Before, you said I needed one. You were right.”
“I… really? You want to? With me? Because there’s nothing I want more.”
Then Arthur found himself being pulled into the guest chambers, Merlin magicking the door shut with a wave of his hand before shoving Arthur against the wall to kiss him senseless.
The change in Arthur and Merlin’s relationship did nothing to stop the flow of castle gossip. If anything, it had the opposite effect.
People talked about the royal wedding, a nondescript affair attended only by the two grooms and their closest family and friends. Rumor had it that they’d worn flower crowns, though few believed that was true. (Except some wondered, because Elyan told Tyr who told Alys who told Audrey, so maybe it was.)
There were more than a few not-so-subtle whispers about the sounds that came from the royal chambers on the nights when Aithusa stayed with her “uncles,” the knights. It wasn’t that people didn’t wish the newlyweds well, they simply needed their sleep.
Speaking of Aithusa’s extended family, there was speculation that the Great Dragon hadn’t actually been killed all those years ago, but instead regularly met up with Arthur and Merlin to help them care for their daughter. (The fact that Arthur continued referring to Aithusa as his daughter shocked a good number of castle staff who’d been around during Uther’s day, but amused some of the newer additions.)
Every now and then, someone would even gossip about how the king needed to clamp down on those engaged in idle chatter, lest inaccurate rumors fly.
People talked. It was what they did. A lesser king might have cared, but Arthur, happily taking care of his husband and their dragon, had far more important concerns.