VII: The Dragonlord's Son (Part 1)
As a general rule, Arthur did not do early mornings. Never had, and (he used to think) never would. Most manservants, rather than risk their master's wrath, would have let him sleep in and quietly taken Uther's punishment when the Crown Prince blamed his tardiness on them.
Merlin was not most manservants.
He'd poke and prod, layer his master with pearls of sarcasm, and (most recently) wheedle until Arthur's ears rang with it. Arthur used to think (and still persisted to think, at least to the outside world) that Merlin's methods had merely irritated him enough that he could no longer ignore them. In reality, he simply could not say "no" to him.
So he got up whenever Merlin wanted him up, albeit reluctantly and with vociferous complaining.
(Which Merlin ignored with the ease of long practice.)
On those rare occasions when Arthur did get up on his own, without his manservant's having to wake him, it was usually because of Merlin, when the prince's worry over his manservant drove him to do foolish things.
Like tramp over an inch thick sheet of ice on one of Camelot's tallest battlements, for instance, because Guinevere had spotted Merlin heading up there at bloody seven o'clock in the morning.
(When queried about his unusually early rising, Arthur had refused to admit he'd already been up, long before dawn, driven to distraction because Merlin seemed so cheerless after their return from seeking the Dragonlord.)
"I am blaming you if Gaius tells my father I broke my neck."
The wind carried Arthur's voice as he carefully picked his way across the sleet-infested battlements to where Merlin stood at the wall, staring sightlessly past the moat to where they had so recently engaged in battle with the Great Dragon.
Half of Camelot's surrounding forest was a smoldering ruin; the other half (and Camelot itself) was strewn with rubble. By some miracle, the lower town had only lost its market, and several stalls belonging to tradespeople. Most houses looked rather singed, but it could have been so, so much worse…
Merlin gave a noncommittal grunt that had Arthur glancing sharply at him.
Any other day, and his manservant would have snapped a witty retort. Instead, Merlin remained silent and the familiar blue orbs seemed…very far away.
Arthur didn't like it, the distance he sensed between them. Liked it even less when he realized he had no idea why it was there.
But Arthur, while adept at giving speeches, was horrible when it came to expressing his own emotions—or alleviating those of others.
So he reacted in the only way he knew how, when Merlin refused to rise to the bait: "Seriously, Merlin," demanded irritably, "how did you not trip and fall over your own two feet? You're the one who is supposed to be inherently clumsy!"
(Performance on the practice fields aside. Honestly, how someone so fluid with daggers could drop so many platters mystified Arthur at the best of times.)
The prince's half-awake trek across the ice brought him to Merlin's side, where—at the last possible moment—he slipped and slid, stumbling (rather ungracefully) up against the cold stone wall.
Merlin's arm around his back, immediate and tight, startled him, even as his manservant made sure he regained his feet. At least it finally drew a reaction: "Perhaps I am simply not as clumsy as you are, Your Highness," Merlin retorted fondly, withdrawing his arm.
Arthur scowled, and for more than the smart sally, "Merlin, how many times have I told you-"
"Oh, but, Sire-!" exclaimed in mock-horror. "I daren't presume-"
"Merlin," Arthur's extraordinarily dry tone never failed to draw a warm smirk to his manservant's lips (even if faint and a little distracted). "Pull the other one. It has bells on it."
A true grin spread across Merlin's lips, "And you say I have a tendency to speak nonsense?"
Merlin probably should have expected the mixed exasperated and worried look that adorned Arthur's face, "Better nonsense than silence and diversion. Stop hiding from me, Merlin—I'm not that oblivious! I can tell when something is wrong!"
At least with you, the thought was added privately and not spoken.
Merlin may have heard it, anyway. His shoulders tensed, "What makes you think I am hiding anything? Really, Arthur, I just-"
Stunned by the heat that never accompanied those two words, Merlin snapped his mouth shut, jerking around to stare wide-eyed at Arthur.
Perhaps the prince had not meant his frustration to seep into his voice (brought on by a deep concern he'd never admit to out loud), but this had bothered him for months, longer even, than the start of their quest to retrieve the Dragonlord, although that's when he'd first voiced it.
It had been there since late Summer, when the Knights of Medhir first made their appearance, and had only been exacerbated by finding a distressed Merlin bent over a deceased Dragonlord several days ago:
He feared, at first, that Merlin had taken a serious injury, even though he well-knew his manservant's prowess with the daggers. But seeing Merlin wounded in battle had grown no easier with repetition, least of all when magical weaponry (as had happened with the Knights of Medhir) became involved.
He remembered, still, the way his stomach had plummeted. Remembered also the way he'd had to choke back bile as he took in the black, ragged and inflamed, edges of the wound inflicted on Merlin by whichever Knight of Medhir had caught his preternaturally perceptive manservant unawares.
He remembered scolding Merlin for leaving himself so vulnerable and open. Remembered, too, how he had had to distract himself from the burning sensation behind his eyes as he treated the wound under the younger man's guidance.
He wondered if Merlin remembered what happened afterwards, once the scrap he'd torn from his tunic had been wrapped and tied off around the slender bicep. Wondered if his manservant remembered that Arthur, a little too overcome by the knowledge that Merlin could , in fact, get hurt, had dropped his head to press its brow against the by-then-bandaged wound.
The Crown Prince certainly did, and found himself reminded of it all too forcefully now, when confronted by the harsh gasps for air and shaking back of his rapidly-growing-dearer friend.
"Merlin," his throat closed up, as his heart jumped into his larynx. He barely even registered that the last hope for Camelot most likely lay dead on the forest floor, too consumed by the raw terror that had frozen his stomach solid. His breath caught in his chest, "Merlin, please, are you-?"
His voice must have reached the younger man, because all at once a smothered—nearly strangled—sound emitted from (as Arthur could now see) his manservant's cracked and bleeding lips.
The well-known back tensed, and before Arthur could properly panic, his distraught friend literally tore himself away from the unmoving form surrounded by the detritus of the woods.
Arthur knew a new kind of panic then, when a clearly unwounded, but nowhere near stable, Merlin rose shakily to his feet, scrubbing at a last few, stubborn tears as he turned to face him.
Camelot's Crown Prince barely had time to process that yes, in fact, the last Dragonlord lay dead, before his gaze was inextricably caught by the wooden expression on his normally all too expressive manservant's face.
Shuddering slightly at the remembered deadened expression in formerly bright blue and unguarded eyes, Arthur forced his own eyes open, praying they did not look as wet as they felt.
Merlin, as usual, knew when something was wrong, just as much as Arthur did, even if he did not know exactly what. His fingers tangled in the prince's leather sleeve as he brushed the older boy's arm: "Arthur?" murmured, as dark brows furrowed with concern.
Arthur blew out a short breath, now more frustrated with his inability to articulate his worry (in a way that was not absolutely embarrassing, that is) than with Merlin himself, "You are a horrible liar, Merlin, you know that? And you can't hide when you're hiding something to save your life."
"Seems to have worked just fine on you," muttered in a low tone that suggested he hoped Arthur did not hear him as he turned away to hide his face.
So of course Arthur did.
"Merlin!" accompanied by a not-so-gentle swat to the back of the manservant's head.
"Ow!" Merlin winced, rubbing the back of his head, and spun to face the Crown Prince with a scowl. "Arthur…!"
Arthur looked singularly unapologetic, crossing his arms over his chest with a growl, "Tell me what is going on!" demanded. "Is your mother ill? Has Ealdor been raided again? I can send some of the Knights to-"
Soft, cracking laughter interrupted the Crown Prince, and Arthur tried to glare at its source, more anxious and unhinged by the bitterness behind it than he ever cared to admit.
Merlin gave another short, no less broken, bark of a laugh as he impatiently scrubbed tears off his cheeks. Arthur felt his stomach clench as he found himself brutally reminded of his words to Merlin not even a full week ago: "No man is worth your tears."
He had meant them as comfort. It was quite clear it hadn't worked.
"Merlin-" he began uncomfortably.
Merlin shook his head firmly, scrubbing yet more tears off his cheeks as a tiny, barely-there smile flitted across his lips, "You can't always fix something by sending your army out to defeat it, Arthur," he murmured.
Arthur clenched his fists against the cold stone of the wall as he turned his glare down to them, "I can certainly try," he snarled softly, hating that he could hear the waver in his manservant's voice and do nothing to alleviate it.
Merlin snorted quietly, thick and wet, "I doubt even you can circumvent death, Your Highness."
Arthur straightened abruptly, his eyes instantly narrowing in on his companion beside him, "Death? Merlin, does this have something to do with the Dragonlord?"
"His name," Merlin retorted vehemently, stance suddenly far stiffer than Arthur thought boded well for the rest of their conversation, "was Balinor, Sire."
The heat in Merlin's voice took Arthur entirely aback, and he could not prevent one of his hands from reaching out to touch his manservant's shoulder in response, "Merlin, I didn't mean…why are you so upset about this? I mean, yes, he was a good man, and I am sorry he got…killed…" Merlin flinched beneath his hand, "the way he did, but-"
But the younger man had already begun shaking his head again, and stepped back from underneath Arthur's touch, "You don't understand, Arthur. He-"
"Then help me understand, Merlin!" frustration and worry and a bit of his own grief saturated the Crown Prince's voice as he prevented his friend from retreating inside the castle by grabbing both of his shoulders. "I can't help you if you won't tell me why he's so important!"
Merlin tried to twist out of Arthur's grip, but the prince grit his teeth and tightened his hold, even as both of Merlin's own hands impacted his chest.
"It isn't like you care," retorted scathingly, as his manservant shoved ineffectually at his chest.
There was a nearly audible crack as Arthur thrust his forehead forward against Merlin's. Wide blue eyes stared up at him as Merlin scrambled to process exactly what that particular gesture meant.
(At the very least, it startled the younger boy enough that he stopped struggling.)
The words tumbled from Arthur's lips without his conscious consent, "You'd be surprised by how much I care."
End The Dragonlord's Son (Part 1)