Actions

Work Header

A Man's Measure: The Dragonlord's Son

Chapter Text

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-"

"Shut. Up."

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.

IOIOIOIOIOI

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)

Chapter Text

VII: The Dragonlord's Son (Part 2)

Merlin swallowed against the lump that had lodged itself in his throat, crumpling his shaking hands into Arthur's thick winter cloak and all too aware of the warmth pressing against his forehead.

He had not expected Arthur to come after him. Had not realized his demeanor had altered enough that it gave the prince sufficient cause for worry.

(Because Arthur did worry, no matter what the prat may claim.)

Arthur's worry flattered Merlin, truly, but at times it unsettled him just how well the Crown Prince could read him.

It made him fear that his secrets—one secret in particular—were not so well guarded as he liked to think. Arthur never asked, however, nor ever alluded to it, and Merlin intended to keep his silence for as long as Uther remained on Camelot's throne.

Including about his father's identity. Or, well, he would have, had Arthur not stuck his nose in Merlin's business and refused to take it out.

Merlin would be unable to deny him for long, not with those blue eyes piercing so earnestly and so warmly into his own.

And that gaze—so unguarded, so intent on helping

Merlin swallowed again, harshly, and tried to push away. "Please don't look at me like that," whispered.

Arthur's hands curled around the back of his neck to hold him in place and the prince's lips pulled down into a frown, "Why not?"

Forced to look up at him, Merlin inhaled shakily and murmured, "Because if you do," his voice cracked once, "if you do…I won't be able to stop myself from blurting out absolutely everything, and I don't…I can't…" his voice cracked twice and gave out.

He would have expected this Arthur—the gently persistent, doggedly determined one—to push for the rest of the answer, push just a little too hard or a little too much. Then Merlin would say something he'd regret, and Arthur would end up furious with him—

But Arthur did nothing of the sort. In sharp contrast to his earlier demeanor, the Crown Prince outright grinned, "Why, Merlin…!" drawled, even as Arthur kept their heads pressed together. "You really can't say 'no' to me!"

He really was such a very, very large prat. Merlin could not help feeling pathetically grateful for that fact.

"Arthur…!" the warlock's fist whirled out at the smirking prince. "You are such an arrogant, dollop-headed, GIT!"

With each insult another smack landed on Arthur's chest, or Arthur's arm, or Arthur's shoulder. Arthur, incidentally, did nothing more than laugh harder, the bloody tosser.

(Of course, Merlin hadn't really tried all that hard to hit him.)

As Merlin continued soundly thumping him, Arthur's laughter faded to snickers, then to the occasional snort, until finally, he reached for Merlin with a cough that concealed a satisfied grin, "You are smiling, though," he pointed out softly, as he grabbed the younger man's hands.

Merlin's mouth dropped into an "O" of surprise when he realized what the prince's statement implied.

Arthur shrugged, a hint of color in his cheeks as he squeezed the slim fingers, frowning slightly when a puff of cold air caused Merlin to shudder and remove his hands to hitch his leather jacket closer to his ears.

Uncertainly, Arthur lowered his hands, peeking almost shyly at Merlin as he stuffed them under his arms for warmth: "I haven't seen your smile for three days," he murmured, giving a helpless shrug.

Those words…a sharp pain thrust itself up under Merlin's ribs. Why could he never deny them, let alone their owner? Arthur's words always had the disconcerting habit of convincing him to do exactly the opposite of what he'd originally intended to do, and required decisions he was not ready to make.

"Arthur…" the warlock began, disliking his own hesitance.

Fortunately, or, perhaps, unfortunately, before he could reveal anything of any great magnitude, a throat cleared not three yards from them and prompted Merlin to jump, starting him on a slide across the ice. When the prince noticed he had lost his footing, his hands immediately grasped Merlin's forearms to steady him.

Grabbing Arthur's elbows to prevent himself from toppling over, Merlin froze, and felt the tips of his ears grow warm when a polite cough revealed their visitor's identity to be Sir Kay.

Arthur quickly released him (once the prince was assured Merlin would remain standing, that is), and turned to Sir Kay, the heightened color of his cheeks shabbily concealing his embarrassment.

Sir Kay look at least as embarrassed as the two of them combined, "My apologies, Si—Arthur." His cheeks glowed red, even as he nodded to Merlin and Arthur in turn, "My Lord Uther requested that I summon you for breakfast and the council afterwards. He wishes you to form patrols to search for the Lady Morgana."

Merlin's stomach flip-flopped as he watched Arthur step away from him, straightening at his side and shuttering his face. The Crown Prince returned Sir Kay's nod, "Very well. Kay, please inform my father I will be there shortly and then join us with Sir Leon and four other knights of his choosing at half-past the next hour."

Sir Kay bowed, and gazed at Merlin intently for a tenth of a second, before striding off to fulfill Arthur's request perhaps a little more quickly than the situation warranted.

Merlin's brow furrowed as he watched the knight's hasty retreat, and he nearly jumped again when a mutter came from Arthur at his left, "He was acting odd. It wasn't just me, was it?"

Despite himself and despite the situation, Merlin could not prevent a small smirk from twitching his lips. However, when he opened his mouth to retort, Arthur glanced up at him sharply and scowled, "Answer the question honestly, Merlin."

The corner of Merlin's lips softened, and the smirk disappeared as he pressed them into a thin line, "It's not just you, Arthur," murmured, "I noticed it, too. Have noticed it, in fact, for a while. So has Leon. Ever since Morgana…" he trailed off, his stomach squirming uncomfortably, as he tried figure out what to say and how to say it.

The Crown Prince sighed—a heavy sigh, fraught with exhaustion—and scrubbed a hand over his face, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Merlin swallowed harshly, reaching out to touch his prince, "Arthur," he tried again, gripping the older boy's wrist.

Arthur turned to him with an expression more reminiscent of a grimace than the small grin he obviously meant it as, "I would ask you to join us in the council chamber," the Crown Prince murmured, meeting Merlin's gaze with one so full of frank honesty that the manservant nearly blushed, "you are one of my best fighters, after all. But I know you have duties to attend to for both Gaius and I."

Another gust of chill wind whipped Merlin's dark hair about his face, and he withdrew his hand to clutch his arms closer to his body. He did manage a tiny smile, though, easily falling back into the role he played best (namely, Arthur's protector and occasional confidant), "You can tell me when I bring your dinner." Every bit of humor he could dredge up from within him went into the next remark, "After all, I doubt you'll give me a choice in the matter."

It won him, at last, a genuine smile from Arthur, "You never really had one to begin with."

Merlin snorted out a somewhat strangled laugh, and would have tacked on a smart sally, had not the wind chosen that moment to pick up.

When an additional shudder wracked the younger man's body, Arthur frowned thoughtfully and reached up to undo the clasp of his heavy cloak. Before Merlin could protest, the prince swung it around his wiry shoulders. As warmth engulfed his slender frame, Merlin wrapped his hands in the extra folds and shivered again, though not quite as badly. "Arthur…?" he inquired softly, bewildered.

Arthur did up the epaulet at his throat, then kept his hands there, tangled in the hood. Intently, he met Merlin's gaze, "And you tell me when you are ready, all right?"

Whatever he might have said in return, Merlin promptly choked on it, throat seizing up as they came full circle.

Tugging the hood up over the warlock's head, Arthur regarded him earnestly, "Will you promise me that, Merlin?"

Merlin opened and closed his mouth once. Twice. Then, finally, nodded.

Pleased, Arthur gave his manservant's shoulders a squeeze and turned, striding off towards the castle. Merlin watched him go, clenching the folds of his hood together against the swirling and bitter cold.

IOIOIOIOIOI

Three hours later, Sir Kay found Merlin by the castle's main well, just as the lanky servant had hauled up a pail of the bitingly cold water.

This time when Sir Kay cleared his throat, Merlin nearly tripped over his own two feet whirling around to face him. The bucket he held sloshed, spilling part of its contents across the frozen cobblestones of the courtyard and soaking a corner of Arthur's cloak (which Merlin still wore).

Placatingly, Kay held up his hands, palms out, "Peace, my friend," he murmured, looking sheepish, "I did not mean to startle you."

Merlin released a breath he had not realized he'd been holding, "Sir Kay," he acknowledged quietly, nodding to the young knight as he set the wooden bucket down at his feet.

"Merlin," Kay nodded back, expression still distinctly embarrassed. He shifted uncertainly from foot to foot, before venturing hesitantly, "How…how are you?"

Merlin colored as he realized that—apparently—Arthur had not been the only one to notice his changed demeanor.

(Of course, Kay finding he and Arthur ensconced at the very top of the very tallest tower in Camelot, far from any prying ears or eyes, had probably sped the process up a bit.)

"Better," he finally conceded, re-wrapping his red and chapped hands in the cloak's warm, woolen folds as he watched the knight walk closer.

Sir Kay adjusted his own cloak, pulling to within an arm's length of Merlin and stopping there, "Good. I am glad. You…you haven't been yourself these last few practices, Merlin, and I…" he trailed off there, apparently unused to expressing concern over a servant.

Merlin freed one hand to rub it across his face in an attempt to cool his burning cheeks, Gods, was I really so transparent? No wonder Arthur worried.

However, Kay did not seem to be forthcoming with any further information, and the silence stretched between them, heavy and more than a little awkward.

Even though he and Kay had come to an understanding (of a sort) after the single combat, they did not interact much outside of the practice fields, having little in common aside from their preference for daggers and their loyalty to Arthur. Therefore, Merlin could not imagine why Kay sought him now.

"Has the council adjourned?" he ventured at last, when it became apparent that Sir Kay intended to stay.

Uncomfortably, Sir Kay swiped his hands across his breeches, "It has," he replied. "More than half an hour past, by the sun's shadow."

"Oh," Merlin's eyebrows snapped together, slightly surprised that Arthur had not come himself to fetch his wayward manservant, "I ought to head to the kitchens, then. Arthur will be expecting his meal." Stooping, he reached for the pail, intending to carry it with him inside.

Kay abruptly darted forward, grabbing Merlin's hand just as he grasped the rope handle, "Merlin, wait!"

The manservant startled so badly he nearly dropped the bucket in question. Luckily, Kay had anticipated that, and carefully helped him lower it to the ground.

"Wait," requested again, more softly. "There's something I need to ask you."

Swallowing against the sudden, horrible lump that had leapt into his throat, Merlin nodded wordlessly for the knight to go ahead.

Sir Kay fidgeted anxiously for a moment with his own hands, before glancing up uncertainly at the younger man, "Merlin, have…have you noticed anything…odd, lately? Regarding the knights?"

The warlock straightened cautiously, water pail all but forgotten. "If I have?" asked delicately.

Kay gave a tight-lipped smile, eyes crinkling at their edges with an interesting cross between mirth and anxiety, "Aside from me, that is."

Although it had not been his intention, Merlin relaxed at the stilted teasing, "Only a few knights in particular. Why?"

If possible, Sir Kay looked even more uneasy. He inhaled sharply, "I-I suspect Sir Boris—and a few others—aren't…quite as loyal...as they make themselves out to be."

End The Dragonlord's Son (Part 2)

Chapter Text

VII: The Dragonlord's Son (Part 3)

Arthur's stomach informed him the bell for the midday meal would toll in another hour. Merlin, therefore, ought to be expecting him soon and, as such, would be nowhere near the market.

Which worked out perfectly for his plans.

(It wasn't easy, after all, hiding Yule gifts from one's extraordinarily observant manservant. Particularly when that manservant tidied one's bed chambers on a daily basis.)

Of course, many of the lower town's occupants seemed cognizant of the same thing. On every side, Arthur found himself jostled by his people, many whom hawked their wares and what produce they had acquired over the long autumn months, and many more who hassled and bargained with those who sought to sell it to them. In such a hive of activity, Arthur could hope he passed unnoticed through the crowd.

"And what business might the Crown Prince have in the market?" the low voice at his elbow caused Arthur to stiffen, and futilely try to shrug further into his second-best cloak.

(His best cloak, of course, was presumably still with Merlin.)

He blew out a small breath when the speaker gained his side and resolved themselves into "Sir Bors," acknowledged softly around the edge of his hood.

The knight raised an eyebrow, easily falling into step beside him, "You are foolhardy, Sire, to wander around the lower town on your own. Without an escort."

"I might say the same of a Camelot knight," Arthur returned shortly, too wary around this man and his brother to explain himself as he might have to Leon or Kay.

Bors shrugged congenially, releasing a long sigh, and not affected in the least by his young liege's ire, "Alas, I find my brother far too fond of mead and the delusions brought with it. To all our detriments, I fear."

A tradesperson, late to open his stall, brushed gruffly past them. Arthur coolly sidestepped the man's headlong hurtle, before turning to examine his knight would-be casually from the shelter of his cloak, "Is Sir Boris, indeed?"

The inquiry was mild. Sir Bors's other eyebrow rose, and he smiled tightly, with closed lips, in a way Arthur hesitantly identified as pleased, "Contrary to what your manservant would have me believe, you are not, as he would say, 'daft.'"

Arthur, despite himself and despite the situation, sniffed, "'Daft,' is it? Hmph. I'll show him daft," grumbled, as he abruptly put power into his stride and focused his eyes ahead, intent on parting the crowd to reach his destination.

Sir Bors shook his head disbelievingly, and hurried to catch up to his young monarch, "You are most forgiving, Sire," he observed softly, once he finally regained the Crown Prince's side. "I have known kings and princes—even princesses—who would have cut out a servant's tongue for lesser words than these."

Arthur's shoulders tensed, and he stole a glance at his knight from beneath his hood, "We do not condone such barbarities here."

"So I gathered," Sir Bors returned dryly, glancing pointedly at the set of Arthur's shoulders.

The Crown Prince shook himself, striving to look unaffected. Sir Bors smirked faintly, "Peace, Sire. It is merely an observation. I have been in Camelot nigh four months now, and yet some things still manage to surprise me. Your manservant…is one among many."

Any pretense of indifference shattered. As Arthur's shoulders seized up, he snapped his gaze to Sir Bors, expression so fierce that the proud knight nearly stumbled.

He dares-!

Immediately, Sir Bors held his hands up, palm out, and backed away slightly, "Your Highness, please…I meant nothing by it, only that you have…a very peculiar manservant."

When a passerby glanced curiously in their direction, Arthur blew out a short breath, adjusted his hood, and backed down, attempting to ease the tension singing through his veins.

(It did not really work.)

"Impertinent is perhaps a better description," he grumbled.

A faint, startled smirk touched Sir Bors lips, and he tipped his head in acknowledgement, "To which I concede," he murmured.

Silence settled between them for a few minutes, fairly awkward as they navigated the streets near the market. At last, the older man glanced curiously at the Crown Prince, "It is not an average servant who wins the prince's favor, however, Sire."

Arthur quietly turned red, grateful for the partial concealment of the hood. He remained obstinately silent, though, knowing he had given too much of himself away earlier, when he jumped to Merlin's defense.

(He conveniently forgot his actual favor still adorned Merlin's dagger, and was still displayed for any who might care to see it during weapons' practice.)

Perhaps Sir Bors knew this, for his smirk widened into something a little more self-deprecating, "Of course, any servant who faces down a dragon would have to be extraordinary."

WHAT?

Arthur glanced up sharply, "How do you mean, Sir?"

Startled by the demand, Sir Bors momentarily paused, allowing the busy traffic of the lower town to weave around them, "You were unaware, Sire? I thought surely…" he trailed off.

Arthur halted, sighing heavily, and pinched the bridge of his nose, as it occurred to him he now had yet something else to add to his growing list of worries concerning Merlin. "I was unconscious for part of that battle, Sir Bors, as you know. I can only assume that Merlin did so in my defense."

He rather knew Merlin had done so, in fact. Even days after the fact, he still felt a little awed and quite a bit humbled to know that his manservant would willingly face a gods-thrice damned dragon at his side.

Sir Bors shook his head again, as they resumed their path, "As I said, Sire, a remarkably peculiar manservant." A small, wry smile twisted his lips, "He does not seem terribly impressed by your…ah…insight, certainly, but will rush to your defense without a moment's hesitation." His lips compressed, and his eyes took on a darker hue, "Such a tendency, however, will, I fear, prove a detriment one day."

The knight had barely finished his thought when he found himself fetched up painfully against a wall in a shadowed alleyway, his hauberk hitched up beneath his arms and his young monarch's hand clenched in a fist at his throat.

"You keep saying that," Arthur snarled, "and it needs to be clarified now! If I didn't know any better," and he tightened his grip, pressing his lips into a thin line of their own, "I would say you are threatening my manservant!"

"It is not I who threatens him, Your Majesty," hissed softly, as Sir Bors grit his teeth, grabbed Arthur's fist, and shoved it down. "My brother, however, does."

IOIOIOIOIOI

Just as the midday bell tolled, Arthur made it through the side entrance to the kitchen, nearly colliding with Guinevere in his haste not to be missed.

Morgana's absence and Arthur's wish to keep her close had Guinevere splitting her duties between Gaius, the kitchen, and some of the lesser ladies of the court; as such, he had not seen her as much as he might have wished. Now, she beamed at the sight of him, "Arthur!" Guinevere exclaimed, highly pleased.

A throat cleared behind them, and when Prince and maidservant turned towards the source, they found the head cook eyeing Guinevere with a rather hostile expression.

(The other head cook—Arthur's favorite head cook—was Margot, who would have bustled to the other side of the kitchen in order to give them some pretense of privacy. No such accommodations were made by this woman.)

Hastily, under the head cook's sour smile, Guinevere dropped into a curtsy, and immediately adopted the more formal jargon of the castle's servants, "Forgive me, my Lord. How might I help you?" Guinevere's cheeks glowed red with embarrassment.

Despite the situation, Arthur still thought her beautiful.

"Guinevere," he nodded to her, and returned glare for glare with the head cook, having not patience for formalities or nosy kitchen staff on this day. "Have you seen Merlin?"

His question drew the young woman completely out of her curtsy, and she blinked at him, gracefully raising one slim, dark eyebrow as she took note of the various packages concealed under his cloak.

(Well, he had (almost) always known her to be clever.)

Keenly aware of the head cook's glower, Guinevere bowed her head to him, "He was just here, my Lord. You will find your dinner has been set up in your chambers by now. Shall I fetch him, Sire?"

Arthur shook his head, intently meeting her gaze for a moment, before turning to the head cook, "Leave us."

The pot top clattered as the head cook abruptly released it. Guinevere recoiled in surprise. "My Lord-!" the older woman sputtered in objection.

"It was not a request, Cook Marion," returned tersely, as he took note of Gwen's flinch.

Head Cook Marion curtsied stiffly, scowled at Guinevere, and marched out of the kitchen.

Immediately, Arthur turned to Guinevere, "Has she been unkind to you?"

Guinevere started, clearly not anticipating the demand. Noticing his rapidly darkening scowl at her continued silence, she quickly shook her head, "No more than usual, Arthur. Morgana used to rebuke her, so she hasn't done it in a while, only…"

The maidservant shrugged, looking, suddenly, terribly lonely. Unwillingly, Arthur found himself remembering the ache that had pervaded his chest during much of the Catrina diabolical. If what Gwen felt now was anything like what he felt then…

Shaking his head at the memory, he gently took Guinevere's arm and tugged her into a shadowed corner, hoping to conceal them (at least a little) from prying eyes. "I promise I will do everything I can to bring her home," he assured his almost-sister's best friend softly.

Smiling weakly, Guinevere nodded. A swift glance to the right and the left, then around and behind them, and her hand was against his cheek, smelling faintly of the onions she must have been peeling for the midday meal. "I know you will, Arthur," she murmured, gazing up at him with brown eyes shining deep and tender. "I trust you."

Unable to help himself, Arthur kissed her palm, "I have a request, Gwen…"

When he used her nickname, Gwen knew he needed friend and not lover right now. "What is it, Arthur?"

IOIOIOIOIOI

Arthur took his leave of Guinevere only a few minutes later, absolutely anxious to find his manservant. Anxious enough that the welcome liaison with her could not quite quell the nausea that had twisted his stomach into knots ever since Sir Bors had left him at the steps of the King & Arms Tavern.

He knew why, of course, even if he intended to keep that knowledge to himself for as long as he possibly could:

Once, long before he had ever met Merlin, or known Guinevere as anything other than the armorer's daughter, a coup had been staged against his father and an assassination attempt made on his life.

He had been fourteen, then, and ridiculously lucky to escape with nothing more than a dislocated shoulder.

As such, he had known his share of treasonous knights.

Merlin hadn't. He should never even have been dragged into something like that in the first place.

Although, as apathetic as his manservant had been recently, Arthur had to wonder if the younger man would care at all.

Therefore, the Crown Prince was understandably stunned when, upon opening his chamber door, he found himself with an armful of frantic manservant.

"Where have you been?" Merlin demanded, grabbing Arthur by his upper arms in an attempt not to topple them both. "I've looked everywhere for you!"

Normally, Arthur would have had a scathing retort at the ready ("Are you my wife, Merlin?"), but as it happened, he had his own worry in mind.

"I have something I need to tell you!" they both blurted at the same time.

End The Dragonlord's Son (Part 3)

Chapter Text

VII: The Dragonlord's Son (Part 4)

(Two Hours Later)

"…So that's it, then? That's all you want me to do? Observe the room while serving you and try not to look suspicious?" incredulity colored Merlin's voice and face.

At Arthur's sigh, Merlin realized his expression must be as mulish as the Crown Prince's had been this morning at the top of the tower. "At this point, Merlin, it's all we can do, until we have further evidence. I've…asked Guinevere to look into it. We need to know what Sir Boris and his allies are about. It's tactics, Merlin. You know that!"

Merlin did not hear that last bit, his obstinate expression giving way to outright astonishment. "You've asked Gwen to do what?"

Arthur shrugged uncomfortably, not quite meeting his manservant's eyes, "She works in the kitchens…potentially, she can investigate places, things, and people without arousing suspicion." The older boy smiled wanly, "The advantages of being a servant."

"And why couldn't I have done the same? I'm just as much a servant as she is! Moreover, I'm your servant, so why-!"

Arthur's brows knitted together over his blue eyes, and he pursed his lips at the heat in Merlin's demand. Only the furrow between them indicated he was bemused rather than angry.

It took Merlin far longer than it should have to realize this was the most emotion Arthur had received from him in four days (this morning's encounter on top of the tower notwithstanding).

He flushed.

Despite everything, he heard Arthur cough to cover a laugh. "Glad you finally realize that."

"Arthur!"

The Crown Prince remained stubbornly unaffected by Merlin's scowl, sobering after giving a final laugh. "I need you with me," offered up simply.

Merlin blinked at him, slightly nonplussed.

Arthur shrugged again, somewhat shyly. His expression shuttered as he gazed blankly down at the empty dishes littering the tabletop between them. One hand came up to absently rub at his right shoulder.

Merlin's tightly crossed arms dropped as he realized…"Arthur, isn't that-?"

The younger man had dressed and undressed his prince enough times to know that particular shoulder harbored a rather nasty scar. The one time he'd felt brave enough to ask, Arthur had clammed up so tightly that Merlin had quietly resolved never to bring it up again. But now—

Arthur blew out a slightly unsteady breath and turned away, his hand dropping, "Help me get dressed for supper, Merlin. Then clear up the dinner dishes. I need to see my father before the feast."

Merlin bit back a curse, but nonetheless complied, heading towards the wardrobe in one corner of the room.

After all, he reflected bitterly, opening its door, why should he have to explain? If I can't even talk about Balinor—

"There was an attempted coup against my father when I was fourteen."

Merlin all but jumped, knocking his head against the wooden rod that held the prince's clothing and accidentally dropping the fresh shift he'd taken out of Arthur's wardrobe on the ground.

The older boy smiled tightly when he noticed, more a grimace than an expression of mirth.

Stooping down, the younger man retrieved the shift he'd dropped. As he moved to help the Crown Prince out of his tunic, Arthur protectively curled his hand around his right shoulder, having already removed his jacket.

Merlin paused, cautiously eyeing his prince's pale countenance. "Arthur, should I…?"

The manservant did not complete the thought. Arthur shook his head. "It's fine, Merlin. Just…"

Gently, Merlin helped him slip the white shift he'd worn for most of the day over his head. He replaced it with the red one the prince would wear to supper.

After a few moments spent lacing up the front, the warlock ventured hesitantly, "What…what happened, Arthur?"

The Crown Prince released an uneven breath, "Snooping, Merlin? It does not become you."

Merlin scowled at him. However, before he could come up with a suitably scathing retort, Arthur released another (somewhat steadier) breath, "They tried to assassinate my father. I got in the way."

Merlin's retort died on his lips. Arthur did not seem to notice, his gaze somewhere in the past and his eyes focused on an unidentifiable point over his manservant's shoulder.

His eyes were dark blue, nearly black. And Merlin almost shivered at the ghosts that danced there.

Had he looked like that for the past four days?

Arthur must have nearly been driven mad with worry, the quiet thought edged itself up in the corner of his mind.

…Perhaps Merlin could use that to help him.

Carefully, he reached out to lay his left hand over the one Arthur had wrapped around his shoulder. Squeezing it gently, he reached up with his other hand to cradle the side of the older boy's face.

Arthur stiffened, his gaze abruptly snapping down to focus on Merlin. He looked more than a little stunned.

Merlin swallowed thickly. He certainly had qualms about doing this, knowing the disparity of their statuses, but considering the prince's reaction this morning…

Still, it was one thing for the Crown Prince to act as he pleased towards a servant, but for a servant to do the same towards the Crown Prince-

Arthur released a breathy laugh. Before Merlin quite understood what was happening, the older boy had leaned down to press his forehead lightly to Merlin's beneath him.

The Crown Prince's tense back relaxed. The hand underneath Merlin's loosened its tight grasp on Arthur's shoulder and its fingers gradually worked their way in-between the younger boy's own.

By the time Merlin finally found his voice again, they had been standing that way for a few minutes, "…At least your father is still alive," murmured.

It shattered the quiet bubble that had formed around them.

Arthur jerked back, eyes slightly wide. "At least my father is still alive?" repeated incredulously. "Merlin, when did your father—? And I thought you didn't know anything about…!"

…Leave it to Arthur to hear what Merlin had not intended for him to hear.

Merlin ducked his head and dropped their hands, shuffling backwards in an attempt to affect submissiveness. "Your jerkin, Sire," he mumbled, grasping blindly at the clothing behind him, before snatching up something that felt vaguely like a doublet and holding it in front of him.

Arthur—who had begun scowling at the docile response—glanced down at what the manservant held…and snorted out a laugh. "Merlin…I am not wearing my nightshirt to the feast."

The warlock glanced at the article of clothing in his hands, blanched, and immediately returned it to its hook.

Arthur's smothered chuckles came from behind him, but for the most part, Merlin ignored them. Reaching back into the wardrobe, he pulled out a thick leather jerkin and turned back to face Arthur.

"Be quiet, you great prat. It isn't that funny!" he complained.

One last errant chuckle made it through, "I thought so."

Merlin scowled, lightly smacking his prince's left shoulder with the leather vest, before moving to slip it on over Arthur's red shift, "You've had your fun, so just shut up, will you?"

He began to do up the metal clasps…but paused, because he had to pause. Arthur had just carefully grasped his wrists.

Shortly thereafter, Merlin found himself on the receiving end of an almost-tender stare (if it weren't Arthur) and flushed faintly.

A gentle smile pulled up the Crown Prince's lips, "Glad to have you back."

Merlin's mouth hung open slightly. "Arthur…?"

A shy shrug. "You haven't…bantered…with me in four days, either. It's been surprisingly disconcerting."

While Merlin closed his mouth with a click and tried to work through whether the Crown Prince meant that as an insult, Arthur glanced out the window and clocked the time by the sun, "We have an hour before the feast begins. Enough time for you to get dressed properly, Merlin. You are forbidden to be late. After all…we have a plot to foil."

IOIOIOIOIOI

An hour and a half later found Arthur in his seat at the head table and Merlin at his side, serving him herb-seasoned potatoes and carrots from a nearby platter. Had anyone cared enough to closely observe prince and manservant, they may have taken note of the slight tension singing through both sets of shoulders.

As it happened, only one set of eyes noticed their apparent unease, and noted with approval that one or both young men periodically scanned the Great Hall with their eyes. They also observed that Prince Arthur's manservant wore hauberk and leather jerkin, looking more knight than servant as he served his master ale from a pewter pitcher.

When his young monarch's eyes landed on him, Sir Bors tipped his head in acknowledgement to the Crown Prince, pleased the younger man had heeded his warning in the lower town earlier today.

A light frown dusted Prince Arthur's lips, and he turned to murmur something to his manservant beside him.

The other young man glanced up briefly at Sir Bors, brow furrowing in concentration and lips tight, before leaning down to whisper something in return.

Sir Bors gave a self-deprecating snort and leaned over murmur to the young knight seated at his right, "I believe they suspect something, my friend."

Sir Kay glanced up at him, a light scowl adorning his lips, "As well they should. Your brother is not subtle in his scheming."

Bors smirked, greatly amused by the displeased set of the younger knight's jaw. He knew Kay wasn't quite sure what to make of him and did not entirely appear to trust his word. Probably a wise decision on his part.

It turned rather more sober as he regarded Boris, currently quaffing down ale by the goblet full and laughing raucously with the three knights surrounding him. "No, he is not," murmured softly as he took note of the unpleasant glint in his brother's eye each time he glanced at the Crown Prince's manservant.

IOIOIOIOIOI

Sir Bors's conversation with Sir Kay did not go unnoticed at the head table, "I am unsure whether that is reassuring or alarming," Arthur remarked softly to Merlin, watching as his two knights resumed eating their roasted boar.

Merlin snorted quietly, placing the pitcher he held on the table. "Kay would never betray you, Arthur. I'd take it as reassuring…with a healthy dose of caution mixed in."

Incredulity and fondness both colored the Crown Prince's expression as he turned to regard his manservant, "I am not sure I find that all that helpful, Merlin."

A small smirk quirked up Merlin's lips, though faint and hard to see. "I am not sure I feel all that helpful, Arthur. Why couldn't I have dressed in the livery of the servants or brought my daggers?"

Dressed in the lady hawk-embroidered jerkin and hauberk gifted to him several months ago by Arthur, Merlin felt rather out of place as the other servants passed him by on their way to serve the rest of the gentry. They wore the festive attire of the castle's wait staff, and Merlin quietly wished he did not stick out quite so conspicuously.

If Arthur wants to avert suspicion, this is certainly a horrible way of going about it!

Arthur studied him with a tiny smirk, "I did not realize you were so fond of your uniform, Merlin."

"I'm not!" the fierce undertone to his voice had to substitute for the scowl he felt tugging down the corners of his lips. To scowl at the Crown Prince in the Great Hall, in front of all the nobles, would mean the stocks at the very least.

Arthur, damn him, knew this. A large grin started slowly spreading across the older boy's mouth.

However, before the Crown Prince could begin what Merlin was sure would be an unrelenting round of teasing, several loud bangs of goblets suddenly rose over the buzz of conversation in the Great Hall. Accompanying them were chants of, "Toast! Toast! Sir Boris proposes a toast!"

As silence quickly spread throughout the hall, it effectively quashed any mirth between the two of them.

Arthur tightly pressed his lips together when all eyes in the feast turned to the head table. Having been caught by it while gazing up at Merlin, the Crown Prince gave him the most imperceptible of nods, before turning around to face his father.

TBC

Chapter Text

VII: The Dragonlord's Son (Part 5)

"Father…let me rearrange the seating at the feast tonight, as a favor to Margot."

"Margot…? Cook Margot…?" Uther's incredulous remark made Arthur wince. "Arthur, since when do you go about bandying favors for servants? That boy of yours aside."

Arthur barely managed to conceal his embarrassed flush. Trust his father to unknowingly (or perhaps knowingly, it was often hard to tell with Uther) get straight to the heart of the matter.

"I merely thought—"

"I am unsure what you thought. That is servants' work, Arthur!"

His father had refused to listen to any of his other arguments. By the time Arthur finally arrived at his true purpose for such an odd, last minute request, Uther had all but ceased to pay him any mind.

Although his father had always been deeply paranoid and untrusting, his lack of patience for his son's antics often superseded it. Unfortunately, such a situation had occurred here, and Arthur spent so much time trying to convince him otherwise that he did not receive the chance to let Leon know what had transpired this morning or during midday.

I should have sent Merlin with word earlier, Arthur reflected grimly. It's too late now.

Had Arthur the ability to deny Sir Boris's toast, he would have…but that decision was his father's, and he could not see Uther denying the request.

Despite his paranoia, his father had always had something of an ego.

(So had Arthur once. Merlin would say he still did. But now, because of Merlin-)

"So we shall have a toast," Uther asserted.

When Sir Boris stood, Arthur felt Merlin tense beside him. Surreptitiously, he tried to glance at his manservant. Instead, his gaze fell on Sir Bors halfway across the hall.

As his brother went to begin his (rather slurred) speech, Sir Bors—oddly—appeared to be grimacing:

"With Your Majesty's leave," the more sober of the two brothers sketched a bow as Uther's attention turned to him, "I am unsure if my brother has the capacity to coherently do so."

While Sir Boris scowled at his younger brother, Arthur's palms started to sweat. Next to him, he heard Merlin give a soft swallow.

Uther merely raised a curious eyebrow, "Nonsense, Sir Bors, your brother's toast is more than welcome."

Sir Bors concealed his grimace by bowing his head in acknowledgement of the reprimand, "As you say, Sire."

The triumphant smirk on his older brother's face went unnoticed by everyone except Arthur and Merlin (and Leon, whose gaze sharpened where he sat on the other side of Uther).

Sir Boris was too soused to execute a proper bow, but he certainly tried. "Many thanks, Your Majesty." When he managed to draw himself back upright with minimal spillage, a smarmy grin flitted across his lips, "A toast…to the opulence and prosperity of Camelot!"

Loud cheers erupted from the three (equally soused) knights seated around him, as well as quite a few others from around the Great Hall, too.

Sir Boris had not finished yet, "A toast…to the lusty and bold knights of Camelot!"

Another, much louder and raucous cheer, from most of the knights.

(Kay and Bors merely smiled politely. Leon had foregone even that, frowning in puzzlement and distaste. Clearly, he sensed something amiss.)

Sir Boris's voice rose one final time above the cheers echoing throughout the hall, "And lastly, a toast…"

At this point, Merlin had gone so rigid and stiff that he barely even appeared to breathe. Certainly, he knew—as Arthur did—what must come next, and indeed, Boris continued his trajectory, never minding the turning attitude of some in the hall, "…to our most beloved and revered King and his son! May your reign survive any unexpected…accidents."

This received the loudest cheer yet, most in the Great Hall utterly unaware of the oddity of that last statement.

Arthur smiled tersely, wondering if there were any way to quickly and politely end this without the customary response.

No avenue presented itself, and before the Crown Prince could voice a protest, his father stood and raised his goblet, casting Arthur a sidelong glance that all but ordered him to do the same.

Reluctantly, feeling alarm batter him from Merlin at his back, Arthur stood and repeated the gesture, bringing his own goblet to his lips. Just as they touched the cool rim, a servant's door at the opposite end of the Great Hall burst open and slammed against the wall.

…Guinevere rushed in, brown eyes ablaze and dark hair askew, "They found a poison bottle in the kitchens!"

IOIOIOIOIOI

In the sudden hush that followed the maidservant's panicked shout, twin splashes of ale and the clatter of two gold goblets simultaneously hitting the flagstone floor sounded loudly in the Great Hall.

Arthur's startled yelp as Merlin's hand shot out, abruptly cracking across his knuckles, got lost in Uther's thunderous, "Sir Leon…! What do you believe yourself to be doing?"

For as surely as Merlin had knocked Arthur's goblet out of his hand, so Leon had knocked Uther's out of his.

Arthur admired their head knight's aplomb as he responded calmly, albeit with a deep bow, "Potentially saving your life, Sire."

Uther's complexion purpled. However, before he could unleash his (utterly undeserved) fury on Leon, the Great Hall erupted:

None of the nobles wanted to touch anything on their plates, and most refused anymore drink. The knights (excluding Sir Boris and his posse) leapt to their feet and shouting broke out simultaneously at multiple tables. Several more servants from the kitchens rushed in, attempting to prevent their masters or mistresses from eating anything else. In the thick of it all, at the head table, Arthur heard a sudden, outraged roar echo loudly over the chaos, "You!"

It was Sir Boris, sounding more sober than he had in the entirety of his speech.

The object of his wrath was Guinevere who, all but forgotten in the turmoil that now roiled the Great Hall, had attempted to make her way towards Arthur and Merlin.

Arthur couldn't cry out, although it was a near thing. He couldn't even rush to her aid—to do so would incite questions neither he nor Guinevere wanted to answer.

Merlin, however, could, and he did so now, rushing down the steps of the dais with a shout and flinging himself between Sir Boris (who had raised his sword) and Guinevere (who had frozen, futilely trying to protect herself with a goblet she had snatched off a nearby table).

As a horrified and thunderstruck Arthur watched, his manservant threw his arms up in a block once he was in front of her, forearms crossed to shield his face.

A resounding clang echoed in the Great Hall, as Sir Boris's sword glanced off the metal-studded leather of the vambraces Merlin had concealed beneath the loose sleeves of his hauberk.

(Much later, Arthur would swear there had been a flare of gold light at contact.)

The power behind the blow knocked Merlin into Gwen and both servants onto the floor.

Now there was movement from Arthur who, unable to sit by and watch two of the dearest people in the world to him fend for themselves, lurched up from his seat and seized his own sword from where it had been resting on the head table.

Uther's shout of "Arthur!" and Leon's equally alarmed objection of "My Lord!" went unheeded as the Crown Prince rushed to defend his friends.

…He fumbled his sword in his haste and panic, an unforgiveable mistake in a situation as dire as this one. Almost as soon as he lifted his blade, he felt Sir Boris's own cut through his jerkin and shift as easily as a dagger through string.

It scraped along his lower ribs, causing a flash of white-hot pain to pierce his concentration, then came to rest in the vulnerable flesh between rib and pelvic bone.

A sickening whirl of gray incomprehension and agony invaded his mind as it sliced into flesh, and when Sir Boris unceremoniously yanked his sword out of the younger man's side, gray turned to black and Arthur crumpled into Merlin's chest.

Vaguely, he heard Merlin cry out, and felt his manservant's arms lock in place around him (which elicited a groan and hurried loosening of the younger boy's grasp).

As if from a long distance underwater, the Crown Prince heard Sir Boris snort, "Well, I meant to go after your boy first, but I can't say I am displeased with the result."

An unmistakable growl emerged from the chest beneath Arthur's ear and, distantly, the prince wondered why it sounded so much like the Great Dragon's. However, he could not spare much energy for that thought, because most of his awareness had narrowed down to the hilt of his sword still clenched in his right hand.

If this coup went the way coups often do, undoubtedly Sir Boris's next target (or that of his cronies) would be his father. Arthur could no longer defend those he loved, too badly injured to move.

But he knew someone who could.

"Merlin," more a breath than a word, it fell against the crook of the younger man's neck.

Merlin cut himself off in mid-retort to Sir Boris, instantly twisting to look down at the man in his arms, "Arthur?" murmured. A hand came up to brush the Crown Prince's sweaty bangs out of his eyes.

Arthur did not have the strength to reply verbally. Instead, he wrestled loose his right arm (the one that still held his sword), ignoring the blinding pain that split his head and the slow ooze of blood trickling along his side.

Merlin glanced down in shock as he felt the cool press of metal in his palm. Weakly, Arthur curled his manservant's fingers around the leather-wrapped hilt of his sword.

The younger man pressed his eyes shut. With a sound one-third snarl and two-thirds ruthlessly choked back sob, Merlin nodded his acquiesce to the plan.

The exchange had not gone unnoticed by Sir Boris. With another deprecating snort, he leered down at Merlin, "Well, boy? What say you? Will you accept your master's challenge?"

Because Merlin faced Arthur still, Boris did not see his jaw set, nor the fiery determination that lit his blue eyes, but Arthur did.

Moments later, after gently transferring Arthur to Guinevere's arms, Merlin up and whirled, his prince's unsheathed sword singing through the air. It sliced through Sir Boris's tabard and glanced along the unprotected side of the knight's neck.

As the older man roared in shock and his gauntleted hand flew up to press against the freely bleeding cut on his neck, Merlin straightened up and retorted around a breath, "Gladly!"

As he did so, Arthur only just caught a glimpse of gold in his eyes and the brief flash of a silver crown on his brow.

TBC

Chapter Text

VII: The Dragonlord's Son (Part 6)

Merlin would have to tread cautiously for this combat. He could not use his magic because of their audience, and although he had trained extensively with Arthur for over half a year now, his prowess with a sword nonetheless fell far short of his prowess with the daggers.

"You must become Lady Hawk."

As Merlin set himself to face Sir Boris, both sweaty hands wrapped around the sword's hilt, Arthur's voice echoed in his memory, unknowingly providing just the advantage he needed in this situation:

"What do you mean?"

They faced each other across six feet of practice field. Merlin held a sword up in front of him, one of the spares from the armory. Arthur echoed his stance across the field.

Abruptly, the Crown Prince lunged forward, slicing down with his blade, which Merlin parried with a sideways block.

The briefest flash of a delighted smirk, and then Arthur suddenly lashed out with a booted foot at Merlin's kneecap.

Twisting his wrists, Merlin disengaged their blades and whirled away, in that same motion slashing down with a one-handed stroke that had Arthur spinning around behind him and bringing his blade up on Merlin's other side.

The younger boy ducked under the swing and tried to shove his shoulder into the Crown Prince's chest. When it looked like the older boy might try to evade the maneuver, Merlin unexpectedly elbowed his sparring partner in the gut, giving himself space, and pivoted into the movement, lashing out at the back of the other young man's legs. His right foot caught the Crown Prince in the back of his knees, hooking behind them and buckling his stance.

Merlin gave a yank. Arthur tumbled towards the ground with a soft yelp. Hastily, the warlock followed it up by throwing his entire weight into a tackle, resulting in an "oof" of air escaping the prince's lungs as he hit the hard-packed earth with Merlin on top of him.

The Crown Prince tried to bring his sword up in a block, but Merlin knocked it out of his grip with a two-handed blow that sent it pinwheeling across the six feet of practice field that had been separating them. Then he brought down his sword's blade to rest lightly against Arthur's jugular vein.

"Yield," the warlock demanded, breathing hard and ruthlessly suppressing an elated grin.

They both knew it was the first time Merlin had gained the upper hand in one of their spars.

The amused smirk tugging at the corner of Arthur's lips abruptly turned Merlin's own grin rather abashed.

Even though they sparred with each other (at this point) daily, Merlin was still a servant, and Arthur was still the Crown Prince.

A servant couldn't (and shouldn't ) best the Crown Prince.

But after making Merlin's acquaintance three years ago, Arthur was no longer a typical Crown Prince.

Slowly, very slowly, Arthur raised both hands, palm out. Slowly, very slowly, a large grin lit up Arthur's entire face.

"I yield," he responded softly, pride echoing deep within his blue eyes.

IOIOIOIOIOI

"I yield! I yield!" the strangled, panicked sputter abruptly brought Merlin back to himself.

Jerking the sword back from where he had very nearly sliced off Sir Boris's head, Merlin became aware of a large, warm hand pressing lightly into his shoulder. "I can take it from here, Merlin," Leon's soft voice in his ear startled him out of his daze and he immediately let up, realizing only then that he'd used both knees to pin Sir Boris's shoulders to the flagstone floor of the Great Hall. The blade of Arthur's sword hovered over the treasonous knight's jugular vein.

Icy lead slid into Merlin's stomach as he slowly stood, keeping the blade pointed at the man on the ground, I…what did I…? I was fighting with Arthur…wasn't I?

Horrified, Merlin realized he couldn't remember what he had done.

A clue came when Leon moved in to restrain Sir Boris, a much-subdued Sir Bors on his heels. "Congratulations, Lady Hawk," Camelot's head knight murmured as they passed Merlin. He quirked a tiny smile at the shell-shocked warlock, "That was a spectacularly fought duel. Your master will be most proud of you."

Nausea set in as Merlin watched the two knights grab Sir Boris by either arm and twist them behind the bulkier knight's back, Sir Bors's lips set in a tight line as he grimly surveyed his older brother. Vaguely, Merlin noticed the oppressive silence pressing in on him from all sides as, through blurring eyesight, he took note of the measuring looks being shot at him by those knights and nobles that had remained in the Great Hall.

I…I…did I just…? I thought I didn't use my magic, but…but…

He dared not glance at the head table where Uther had remained seated.

Just as his vision began to gray around the edges, a loud, familiar voice snapped him out of his stupor, "Merlin…? Merlin!"

…Gaius's hand suddenly materialized in front of his face, waving a glass phial (with its cap dangling from a string) under his nostrils.

An immediate, intensely foul-smelling odor assailed his nose and Merlin sneezed violently, coughed, sneezed again, and instantly began hacking, desperately waving away his mentor's hand. "Gaius (cough)…! Gaius (cough)! I'm fine! Take it away!"

The elderly physician scowled at him, "That is highly doubtful." But he capped the phial and thrust it into the leather pouch at his side. Firmly seizing his apprentice's arm, Gaius shoved him out of the nearby servant's door. Once they exited, Merlin realized they were all but running down the corridors surrounding the Great Hall.

Even as icy panic began to steal back into his heart, Merlin tried to drag them to a stop, "Gaius…! Gaius, stop! What's going on? Did I use—?"

"No," his teacher's retort came out clipped, "but you certainly came close to it! Merlin, how many times have I told you…!"

"What choice did I have?!" the warlock cried as Gaius continued to yank him along. "Sir Boris would have killed him! He nearly killed Gwen!"

Gaius stopped so abruptly that Merlin crashed into him from behind and went reeling. For a long moment Merlin stared at his mentor's unmoving back, feeling his throat grow tighter the longer Gaius remained standing there. Finally, he managed to croak out, "Gaius…what happened?"

The elderly physician's shoulders dropped as he released a long, long sigh. Then they rose again as the older man inhaled a deep breath…and turned to face his apprentice.

"Sir Boris may well have," Gaius remarked softly.

Merlin's stomach froze. A loud buzzing rose in his ears.

Gaius continued his quiet narration, "Sir Leon was right. Arthur would be proud of you. You did a knight's job out there today, Merlin. Moreover, you did it remarkably well. But…"

"…Arthur didn't make it," hot tears pricked the corners of Merlin's eyes. "Arthur didn't make it. Gaius, did he-?!"

The buzzing turned into loud ringing. The ice in his stomach turned to water. Merlin found the heat in his eyes spilling over onto his cheeks.

…and the gray that had rimmed his vision in the Great Hall returned in force.

As his knees began to buckle, two warm hands, made scratchy by the woolen fingerless gloves their owner wore, abruptly grabbed the sides of his face, "Merlin…Merlin!" Gaius's voice penetrated his skull and interrupted the splitting headache beginning to form. His mentor gave him a firm shake, "Listen to me—Arthur is still alive. He's alive! But he's also dying, and I need my apprentice to help me save him!"

IOIOIOIOIOI

When the door to Arthur's bedchamber burst open not ten minutes after Gaius had left, Gwen glanced up sharply, startled. The soiled wet cloth she held tumbled back into the bowl on her lap with a quiet splash.

Upon seeing who barreled into the room, she very nearly upended it in her haste to stand. "Merlin," she breathed.

Hurriedly setting the bowl of herb-laden water to the side, she stumbled to her feet and over to her beloved friend, all but crushing him in a hug as tears abruptly streamed down her cheeks.

Merlin hugged her back with equal force, burying his face and his own tears in her mass of coal black hair. "You're all right," he breathed out heavily.

"Because of you," Gwen murmured into his chest, before pulling back with a tiny smile. Tears still slid down her cheeks.

She winced as Merlin gently took her chin and tilted it to the side, examining her cheek—now bruised and puffy with inflammation. His blue eyes darkened, and his voice came out as a growl, "Who…?"

Gwen gave a wobbly smile, "The man you slammed across the Great Hall half a candle mark ago."

Merlin blinked and drew himself up sharply, carefully releasing her, "When…?"

The maidservant scrubbed her eyes with the back of her wrists and hands (to no avail), "Just before you charged down the steps of the dais."

Merlin looked stricken, "Why didn't I see-?"

Gwen reached up and gently took his face between her hands, smiling tenderly into his eyes, "You were a little busy saving Arthur's life. Sir Boris…wasn't best pleased with me."

Merlin snorted derisively, reaching up to cup her hands and lean his head forward against hers as he shut his eyes, "No…I'd imagine not. You saved Arthur's life just as much as I did, you know. Thank you for that."

Gwen shook her head against his and smiled at him when he opened his eyes, "I think we can call it even, Merlin."

Her beloved friend released a trembling breath that stirred the hair around her face and retreated from her with a nod, pulling away to glance over at the pale form of their prince laying on the bed.

"How bad?" he croaked, letting go of one of her hands to scrub at his own tears. He had just as much success as Gwen did.

Gwen took both his hands again and squeezed them tightly, jerking his attention back to her. She pressed her eyes shut as more tears leaked out to drip down her cheeks. "...We can't stop the bleeding, Merlin," she whispered.

The maidservant heard him suck in a harsh breath as he digested the implications of that. "Is it infected?"

Gwen shook her head, "Not yet." She opened her eyes and took a step back to gaze up at him, noting how haggard and withdrawn he suddenly seemed. "Where is Gaius, Merlin? He went to get you, only…"

Another unsteady breath in, and Merlin leaned down to crush her in yet another hug. "He went to our rooms. I think he intends to drag out as many poultices, potions, and medicinal concoctions as he possibly can. I know you probably don't want to leave, but…will you help him, Gwen? He'll need it."

She squeezed him back without a sound, hiding the tears still seeping from her eyes in the leather of his jerkin. They remained standing there for a few long minutes, both quietly absorbing the impact of what had happened in the Great Hall. But then Gwen stepped back, straightening Merlin's rumpled jerkin, and gave a nod.

"I'll see you in a few minutes, Merlin," she whispered, stretching up on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek, before ducking out the open door behind him into the hallway.

IOIOIOIOIOI

Merlin closed the door after Gwen left, firmly shutting it behind her. Blowing out an uneven breath, he silently winged an apology after her and made his way over to Arthur's bed. Lightly, he rested his hand on the older boy's trembling right shoulder, tenderly stroking a palm over the bare, scar-puckered skin there.

"You idiot," he whispered tightly, tears springing into his eyes anew as Arthur curled in on himself.

Dropping to one knee beside the bed, Arthur's sword a heavy weight strapped to his waist, Merlin pressed his forehead to the Crown Prince's shoulder in a very deliberate echo of the other boy's actions after they had faced the Knights of Medhir. "I could have taken him by myself, without a sword, if it meant sparing you this," murmured thickly, as he squeezed his eyes shut.

But of course, you don't know that.

Sliding his hand onto the Crown Prince's side, Merlin ignored the blood starting to slick his palm and pressed down firmly on the wound.

Arthur hissed, and twisted, trying to escape the pressure on his injured side.

Merlin's mumbled apology fell on the crook of Arthur's neck, where the warlock had buried his face. As Arthur settled, somewhere in his haze and agony recognizing his manservant's voice and reacting to it, Merlin took in a deep breath…

…and his blue eyes flared gold as he breathed out the healing spell into Arthur's feverish skin.

The Crown Prince stiffened, gold light blazing all around him…

…and then the glow retreated back into Merlin's own skin, leaving behind nothing but the older boy's pale, shivering form. Blood still dripped out of the wound on his side.

More tears surged out of Merlin's eyes, burning his irises and staining his cheeks. It…it didn't work! Why didn't it work?

Then Arthur stirred against him and abruptly jerked upright, beginning to cough violently as his entire body surged up off the bed. The sudden movement threw Merlin to the ground.

Scrambling to his knees as the Crown Prince's body began convulsing, Merlin grabbed the prince's shoulders and forced him back down onto the bed, trying to restrain him as best he could.

Seizure…he's having a seizure! Merlin's thoughts hazed with panic as he got tossed and knocked about, at one point even climbing onto the bed so he could box the older boy in with his knees.

Repeatedly, and without thought, the warlock shoved more and more of his magic into Arthur, trying desperately to end the seizure.

When it finally stopped, Arthur's eyes flew open and locked onto the man above him.

That's when it occurred to Merlin he probably should have checked whether Arthur were indeed unconscious before attempting to heal him with his magic.

When Merlin's irises flared gold one last time, Arthur's eyes were staring straight into them.

TBC

Chapter Text

VII: The Dragonlord's Son (Part 7)

Arthur did not quite process what had happened at first. Lost in a gray swirl of nausea and light-headedness, battling the fire spreading rapidly from his wounded side throughout his entire body, he abruptly found himself thrust through a black, red, and gold haze towards awareness.

When his eyes snapped open, a pair of blue eyes burnished with gold confronted him.

He caught the gold glow for but a second before it retreated, but it allowed him to recognize their owner:

"Merlin…?" breathed in confusion.

Merlin (for such it was) gasped, immediately attempting to roll off the bed.

Automatically, Arthur grabbed for his wrist, attempting to pull his friend back on the bed with him.

Half-tumbled, half-yanked onto the mattress, Merlin ended up sprawled across Arthur's chest.

A stammer of the Crown Prince's name, and Merlin started up to perch precariously on one hand and one knee above Arthur in an attempt not to crush his master.

Arthur's grip tightening around his wrist prevented him from rising.

Stilling above the older boy, Merlin squeezed his eyes shut and curled in on himself, tightly clenching the hand of the wrist Arthur held against his chest. Beneath his fingers, the prince felt his friend's pulse jump.

He frowned, mind cloudy with puzzlement and exhaustion. Why…why is he afraid?

Weakly, he tried to pull Merlin closer to him—or, failing that, tried to pull himself closer to Merlin. "Wha…what happened, Merlin? I-I thought I just saw…D-Did I see…?"

His manservant tried once more to extricate himself from Arthur's grasp, but the prince would have none of it. Shifting as his frown deepened, the older boy attempted to reach up his other arm to wrap around the lithe form still hovering above him.

He halted with a wince, his body loudly protesting the sudden movement, and gasped out an "ow" as stars abruptly filled his vision.

Instantly, Merlin bent over him, momentarily forgetting his fright as panic for Arthur replaced terror, "Arthur…what? What is it? Is the wound-?"

Instead of responding, Arthur squeezed his eyes shut, breathing through the pain and compartmentalizing it, as Sir Ector had taught him.

Incidentally, that situation had taken place when he was fourteen and needed his shoulder reset after the failed coup against his father. This pain was so much worse.

A cool hand abruptly cupped his cheek, its palm smooth with the leather of the vambrace its owner still wore. Against his burning skin, it felt wonderful.

Cracking his eyes open, Arthur peered up in hazy bewilderment at his manservant, whose blue eyes watched him, bright with worry.

As those blue orbs took note of the prince's attention, the brows above them furrowed deeply with consternation. The lips beneath them pursed and, in the split second before Arthur heard footfalls in the hall outside his door, he saw—quite clearly—their depths illuminate with gold.

IOIOIOIOIOI

Moments later, Gaius swept in, his hands full of potions bottles, bandages, thread, and a needle.

…All of which he nearly dropped upon catching a glimpse of gold retreating back into his apprentice.

"Merlin, what are you doing?" the panicked demand caused the young man to abruptly jerk back from Arthur, literally tumbling off the bed and landing on the woolen rug below with a jarring crash of chain mail.

Unfortunately, his sudden movement also aggravated Arthur's wound.

As Arthur—who had gone to prevent Merlin's fall—grabbed his side and doubled over with a hiss of pain, Merlin jackrabbited up off the floor, just as Gaius rushed to the Crown Prince's side.

At first, physician and apprentice spoke no words, too busy trying to coax Arthur into uncurling so they could examine the extent of the damage.

When they finally managed to successfully assess the situation, it was Arthur who spoke first, "I-It's okay," he gulped in a deep breath, hands still clenched over the wound, "I….am fine, Gaius. Merlin…h-he just…he did something. I-I don't know exactly what, b-but—"

Gaius, who had begun to look over the wound, glanced up sharply. First at Arthur, then at Merlin (who squirmed uncomfortably in place). For a long, frozen moment he stared down his apprentice, leveling Merlin with his most forbidding scowl.

But when at last he turned back to Arthur, relief and fondness sparked deep in the depths of his green eyes, "Your Highness…I was given to believe you were unconscious."

Arthur swallowed and nodded gingerly, "I-I know. I…was, I think, but then Merlin…" he trailed off, glancing uncertainly at his manservant where Merlin stood beside him.

As Arthur's gaze wearily tracked up the familiar form, he noticed his friend's shoulders had turned rock solid with tension. The younger man had a hard set to his jaw, and his fingers had since clenched in tight fists at his sides as he glared at the ground.

Arthur frowned, exhaustion and confusion making him drop his guard more than he might have, given the circumstances. Tentatively, he reached out, lightly touching one of those fists and attempting to ease his fingers in-between Merlin's.

Merlin started, glancing up at him with brows knitted together in bewilderment. Hesitantly, the manservant loosened his fist and let Arthur slip his fingers into his palm.

A severe frown decorated Gaius's lips as he watched them, but he said nothing, choosing instead to resume his examination of Arthur's wounded side.

It took longer than Arthur might have expected. If the tension he felt vibrating through Merlin beneath his hand was any indication, his friend thought the same.

Gaius had good reason for taking so long. Quite aside from the fact that the Crown Prince's injury should have had him at death's door within hours, the elderly physician suspected a magical working afoot.

Ygraine—Arthur's mother—had been a Healer, after all, and Gaius had used some of her scrolls (and a few books) to teach Merlin. It stood to reason that Merlin—who, a little over two years ago, had suddenly displayed a drive and verve to learn all he possibly could about magical medicine—might have stumbled across more and proceeded to memorize them.

Potentially, given the sheer amount of power his protégé possessed, he could even have created an entirely new healing spell.

Arthur's wound seemed to confirm Gaius's suspicions:

Consistently, as Sirs Ector and Kay had helped he and Guinevere safely transport Arthur back to his chambers, it had wept blood, its edges beginning to color black. Even if Gaius had managed to suture it, the blood loss alone would have killed the Crown Prince, never mind any unseen damage that might have occurred.

Now, though, it merely looked like a freshly healed and puckered scar, pink with white around the edges and no sign of sutures anywhere.

Gaius eased back with a sigh, offering a tiny smile and a nod to the prince, "It is healing, Sire, and although I do not necessarily approve of Merlin's methods…" here he darkly side-eyed his apprentice (who ducked his head, ashamed), "we have only to worry about the blood loss right now, and that can be remedied easily enough."

Arthur inhaled a deep, wavering breath, "Good…" and exhaled another, squeezing the slender fingers intertwined with his own, "Good. Gaius, I…please do not be mad with Merlin. I-I think I saw…I-I know I saw…g-gold. B-But—"

Before either Gaius or Merlin could become too alarmed by the direction of this discussion, Arthur abruptly shut up as all three heard the quiet snick of the prince's door unlatching and the rapid, heavy tread of boots belonging to a man whose presence increasingly complicated matters:

As the oak door fell shut behind him with a loud thud, Uther Pendragon's gaze cut straight past his Court Physician to land on said Court Physician's apprentice. "…You," he growled.

IOIOIOIOIOI

…Uther probably should have anticipated he would find Merlin in Arthur's rooms. By now, he should have grown used to it. Quite aside from the boy's status as Gaius's apprentice and his son's manservant, he rarely left the Crown Prince's side. Even on days Uther knew the boy had off, invariably he sought Arthur's company.

Over the past three years it had caused the Lord Chamberlain many fits. When the man had brought it up with the king, Uther—at first—had dismissed it, and advised him to take it up with Gaius, instead.

After all, why would the Crown Prince befriend a manservant? His manservant, no less?

The same Crown Prince who would defy his father to go haring off after an herb, fight bandits, and defend the selfsame servant from a traitor, apparently, Uther thought with an unhappy scowl.

Arthur's relationship with his manservant honestly baffled Uther at the best of times (and this wasn't one of them), especially since he could not see what his son found so intriguing about a simple serving boy.

…Except Merlin had never been a simple serving boy to Arthur.

Uther had seen the smile Arthur wore whenever Merlin gave up a free day to accompany him—whether on the prince's duties around the castle or out on patrol. He knew whenever Arthur faced a particularly daring or dangerous quest, inevitably, he dragged his manservant right along with him.

Only today had Uther received an inkling as to why.

"Father…?" the hesitant inquiry rolled through the air, spoken by a voice Uther had begun to fear he would never hear again.

Jerked out of his staring contest with his son's increasingly uneasy manservant, Uther spun around to face the bed and breathed, in no little disbelief, "Arthur…?"

Quickly, he strode over to his son's bed, halting on the side opposite Gaius and his apprentice. He might even have seized Arthur's hand, had someone else not already taken the other one.

Even for as close as the two boys had grown, finding Arthur's manservant handfast with his son still came as an unpleasant shock.

Perhaps sensing Uther's growing displeasure, Merlin tried—once more—to extract himself from the older boy's grip.

Arthur outright scowled, "Stay put, Merlin!" huffed.

In that moment, it was hard to tell who the Crown Prince had startled more—Merlin who stilled and all but gaped at him, a dozen different emotions flitting through his eyes…or Uther, whose increasingly stormy countenance momentarily lightened as he incredulously stared down at his son.

Arthur, of course, noticed none of this, his focus quickly slipping, unable to concentrate on just one thing, "Father…a-are you all right? The coup…i-it didn't succeed, did it? Sir Boris didn't—"

Uther blew out one long, slow breath. Of course, there is that, too.

"I am fine, Arthur. Your boy," and he nodded grudgingly to Merlin, "and Sir Leon ensured that."

Startling Merlin (and alarming Gaius), Uther shifted more fully to face the younger boy and, for several unending seconds, stared down his son's manservant, expression neutral.

…Then he bowed his head, causing Merlin to all but fall over at the acknowledgement. "Your boy fought…most impressively. Your training has proven quite fruitful. You have every right to be proud."

Uther paid more homage to trainer than trainee, as was only right, but the brilliant smile that lit up Arthur's tired face did not turn to him. It turned, instead, to his manservant, "I am," the Crown Prince whispered.

At his prince's response, color leapt into the boy's cheeks. Bowing deeply (and ignoring the scowl his subservience elicited), the manservant murmured, "Thank you, My Lord."

…In hindsight, Uther probably should have predicted that would happen, too. However his son had developed this notion that all lives mattered and were worthy of honor, regardless of their owners' status, Arthur had internalized it, and it was the code he lived by.

Nowhere did that become more apparent than in his interactions with his manservant. Uther still struggled to accept it, as it upset his belief of how the universe worked:

Knights, at least, had their uses in battle—servants were good for little else but to serve.

Uther had learned that as a young boy and stood by that belief as he grew into an adult. It had not seemed to matter much…

…Until now.

Pinching his nose with a sigh, Uther gave one last, grudging nod to Merlin, "You fought well, boy," muttered gruffly. He chose to ignore the gaping looks his response drew from Gaius and Arthur. "I am indebted to you for saving Arthur and defending my person. I shall speak with you or your master on the morrow. For now, leave us, and rest easy in the knowledge you have more than fulfilled your duties to my son."

IOIOIOIOIOI

It should have been simple enough. The manservant knew a dismissal when he heard one.

However, as Uther unfortunately had occasion to know, "simple" rarely applied to this particular manservant and his relationship with Arthur.

"I do not wish him to go, Father," the Crown Prince's voice rang out in his bedchamber, soft and wavering only faintly with pain.

Uther snapped his gaze down to Arthur, who steadily returned it. "He is to stay here," his son quietly continued, tightening his grasp on his manservant's hand.

In response, Uther's jaw clenched, "Arthur…" he warned.

Arthur set his own jaw, lending a mulish cast to his face. "What, Father? He has done no harm. In fact, I'd think you would wish him to stay. H-He is Gaius's apprentice, after all." Everyone there heard the faint crack of his voice and caught the slight wince which he had not managed to hold at bay.

"Arthur…" Merlin's soft voice tried to intercede.

Uther might have objected to the assumed familiarity, had not Arthur turned his glare to his manservant. "I want you to stay, Merlin," the Crown Prince's face grew progressively more obstinate. "Y-You ought to know why."

Displeased with the turn their conversation had taken, and seeking clarification, Uther turned his scowl to Gaius. "He is your apprentice, Gaius. Take him in hand! My son—"

"Your son," Arthur interrupted tersely, "is more than capable of making his own decisions! Gaius, Merlin is to remain. Th-That's an order!"

Caught between his prince on one side, and the king on the other, Gaius tried to object, "Your Highness…"

But Arthur stubbornly shook his head. He shot a sharp look at his manservant, "H-Help me up, Merlin."

Merlin stared. "What? But, Arthur-!"

Arthur grit his teeth, "Now, please."

Fortunately, his manservant chose not to remark on the titular "please," bending down, instead, to let Arthur hook his arm around his neck in attempt to pull himself up.

For a moment, they were within a breath's span of each other and Arthur thought he saw tenderness (mixed with a little exasperation) in Merlin's blue eyes, before his manservant's gentle hands on his sides helped steady him.

Blowing out a short, not entirely even breath, and hoping that the faint heat he felt on his cheeks was not visible, Arthur turned back to his father. "There," puffed, "y-you see? E-Either way, I will need someone here with me. W-Why shouldn't it be Merlin? H-He is my manservant!"

(Also, friend. But Arthur did not think that would make his father anymore inclined to let Merlin stay.)

Uther, for once, looked at a loss for words. Every point his son had made was valid—and Arthur knew it.

Moreover, a glance at Arthur revealed that despite his bravado, his son could barely maintain his own weight as he sat there and so, had to rely on his manservant's arm to support him. The effects of his blood loss were apparent, too: Arthur's face shone with sweat and he had colored several shades too pale.

A glance at his son's manservant confirmed the boy's worry, as well. For a youth cheekier and more defiant than Uther might have liked, Merlin displayed none of that tendency now.

In fact, as Uther watched (and seemingly unaware of the consequences his actions might have wrought), the manservant reached out and lightly wiped Arthur's face with his free hand, brushing back the sweaty and tangled bangs that had fallen in the older boy's eyes.

To Uther's utter surprise, Arthur squeezed his eyes shut and leaned into the caress. "Your hands are cool," the prince murmured to his manservant, seemingly unaware of their audience.

A lopsided smile decorated the boy's face, "That is only because you are feverish, Your Highness."

The teasing lilt to the address was all too apparent to Uther, who had yet to start breathing again, cut to the quick by how viscerally the entire exchange suddenly reminded him of a very similar one he had once had with Ygraine.

Perhaps the memory of his deceased wife had done what even Arthur's persuasive arguments could not, because when Gaius took his elbow, Uther did not snap as he might have after conceding a disagreement with Arthur. Nor did he object as his Court Physician whispered, "Come, Sire, I believe Merlin may have the situation well in hand."

Uther found himself forced to acknowledge his chief councilor's point.

Gaius raised his voice slightly, "Merlin…?"

Snapped out of their insulated bubble by the older man's call, Merlin pivoted to face his mentor, color high in his cheeks, "Yes, Gaius?" answered sheepishly.

Gaius stroked his chin in attempt to hide his amused smile, "I will see His Majesty to our quarters where I will give him a sleeping draught. Guinevere should be along shortly with the rest of the potions and bandages you may need. We'll set this as a test of your ability to heal trauma and go from there."

Before Merlin could grow too worried about what that might entail, Gaius escorted Arthur's father from the room.

IOIOIOIOIOI

When they were left alone, Arthur sagged into Merlin, his head leaning in the crook of Merlin's neck and his body leaning into Merlin's side. The front he had put up crumbled, now that he only had the company of the person he trusted the most, and he was tired, aching and dizzy and wishing only to sleep.

But he needed to address a few things first.

"W-Whatever you did half a candle mark ago," Arthur muttered into the cool skin against his cheek, "I-I could certainly use some of it now."

A light, slightly disbelieving laugh pattered against his forehead, "Y-You idiotic prat," but the familiar burst of gold swelled around them.

At this point, Arthur could not deny what he was seeing, but fatigue and fever so muddled his mind that he could not quite grasp the implications of what it might mean. All that mattered was that the dizziness had subsided and the pain in his side—for the moment—had retreated.

Also, that Merlin had not left him. There was that, too.

"…What did you do?" he murmured in exhaustion.

Merlin gently took hold of his chin and tilted Arthur's head up. A tiny smirk tugged at the corner of his lips as he gazed down at him, "What I did half a candle mark ago," returned deadpan.

Arthur scowled, weakly knocking his friend's hand away. "Merlin…!"

Another light laugh, and Merlin's hand fell to clasp in the small of Arthur's back with his other one.

A moment later, and Arthur grunted in surprise when his manservant used that hold to gently squeeze him. Before the Crown Prince quite processed his friend's motion, Merlin's forehead abruptly dropped to press against his own, "…Thank you, Arthur."

His cheeks quite red and a rather prominent pout on his lips, Arthur glowered at him in confusion, "I-I have no idea what you are even thanking me for!"

Merlin laughed again, "A lot, but mostly for defending me a few minutes ago. Y-You didn't have to do that. I-I know how much you dislike going against your father."

Arthur's glare did not let up, mostly because Merlin was (and always had been, when it came to these things)…right. "W-What are you yammering on about, Merlin?" retorted peevishly, although he could not quite hide the heightened color of his cheeks, especially against the stark paleness of the rest of his skin. "Don't. I-It makes my head hurt!"

"And makes you cranky, apparently," Merlin observed in amusement.

At Arthur's ferocious scowl, his friend laughed softly, "…Sorry, Arthur," placated. "But you know…it's great fun to tease you when you're like this."

"How kind," muttered sarcastically, as Arthur rubbed at his face.

Merlin chuckled, reaching up to gently pull the prince's hand away. Blue eyes ringed with exhaustion stared back at him, causing the younger man to sober, although amusement still tugged at his lips' edges. "It means I care for you, Arthur," he elaborated softly. "It's what Will and I did all the time back home in Ealdor. It's what friends do."

Startled by this sudden, utterly unanticipated revelation, Arthur sucked in a sharp breath (and winced), jerking his head up to stare at Merlin.

His manservant returned it with a beloved, lopsided smile, "You need sleep, Arthur." The backside of his knuckles lightly pressed against the Crown Prince's cheek. "I promise I'll explain everything soon, all right?"

It's what friends do, the unspoken thought hovered between them.

Well, Arthur supposed, blinking back sudden tears, I can deal with that.

TBC

Chapter Text

VII: The Dragonlord's Son (Part 8)

The next few days saw the Crown Prince drifting in and out of consciousness, his body struggling to adjust to the sudden trauma it had undergone, and the just as sudden healing.

In his friend's rare moments of lucidity, Merlin (or sometimes Gaius and Gwen) battled to keep anything solid in him. They had better success with liquids, but even stews and teas sometimes caused problems, as Arthur alternately suffered through spells of pain, dizziness, and exhaustion.

Arthur did try, more for Gwen and Merlin than anyone else, since Gaius often left that charge up to them. But it caused a great deal of stress on his body. Inevitably, afterwards (and sometimes even halfway through), he fell straight asleep.

Then there was the medicine: white nettle, dandelion root, St. John's Wort, agrimony, even peppermint…all of it went into a medicinal concoction of some kind. Willow bark, too.

Every moment that they could, Merlin and Gaius dosed the Crown Prince with teas or potions made from those plants.

Each time they used a different plant, Gaius interrogated his apprentice on its characteristics, side effects, and uses. Quite apart from his magical tutelage, Gaius was determined to turn his student into a physician of the highest caliber.

Merlin absorbed it, knowing that at some point in the future, he might need it to save someone (probably Arthur).

Eventually, Gaius ran out of questions to ask him, and started in on changing the wound's dressings, creating poultices and salves, and any other practical aspects of healing trauma that he could think of to test Merlin on. He even started questioning Merlin about the uses for magic in these situations (when they were alone).

But, as Gaius pointed out (after roundly scolding Merlin on his recklessness that first night), if Merlin chose to turn his magic to healing, he would need to think about such things.

It was a grueling three days, but despite Gaius's and Gwen's repeated attempts to convince Merlin to leave, even if only for a few hours' rest, the warlock never did.

Whether explicitly or not, Arthur had requested it. Whether explicitly or not, Merlin had promised his friend he would remain.

The late nights were always Merlin's.

Gwen attended to the lesser ladies of the court in the early morning, and Gaius had other patients aside from Arthur that he needed to treat; therefore, neither could afford to lose what little sleep they managed in-between caring for Arthur and their other duties.

Merlin never objected. Indeed, he even guarded those nights somewhat jealously.

It was his time with Arthur and, while his friend slept, it also gave him the opportunity to make some rather vital decisions: he'd outright promised to tell Arthur the truth. Indeed, he'd promised it twice. But should he reveal the whole truth?

He had tried that first night. He had intended to tell Arthur everything—about the Prophecy, about Kilgharrah, and his status as the last Dragonlord. Even about his identity as a warlock.

Arthur's exhaustion, and the fact that he remained gravely ill, however, left his friend unable to comprehend much.

Now, with hindsight and knowledge of how difficult Arthur sometimes still found it to go against his father, Merlin wondered.

As it turned out, almost three nights after Sir Boris's failed assassination attempt, fate took the decision out of Merlin's hands.

IOIOIOIOIOI

(Three Days Later)

Late on the eve before Yule, Sir Bors stole through the halls of Camelot like a shadow, keeping a wary eye out for any errant servants or nobles.

He'd made himself scarce in the hours and days that had followed his older brother's failed coup, not wishing to be dragged off and interrogated in the dungeons as his brother's lackies had been. Twice a late night wanderer almost spotted him, but a convenient corner and hidden alcove provided the cover he needed until they passed him by—he had one last mission to accomplish, and did not wish to be deterred from it by any roaming members of the court.

At the final corner, Sir Bors paused, just out of sight from the Crown Prince's door…and the man stationed beside it.

Of course…Sir Leon would never leave his young monarch unguarded, Sir Bors thought with an inaudible sigh, letting his shoulders droop. Particularly not after a failed assassination attempt.

It presented a dilemma, but not overly so. Sir Leon was a good man.

Squaring his shoulders, Sir Bors tightened the tassels of his dark riding cloak and strode around the corner with a sort of hollow confidence. Beneath the cloak he wore his chain mail (devoid of its Camelot tabard) and carried his sword, still strapped to his hip as it had been for the past three days. When Sir Leon took note of him, he nodded to his superior, "Good eve, Sir," he greeted, dipping into a shallow bow.

When Sir Bors lifted his head, he found himself staring straight at the tip of the older knight's sword.

"Had I no assurance that you had no part to play in your brother's coup," Sir Leon stated, still pointing his blade at Sir Bors's neck, "or your written oath to that effect, your head would no longer be attached to your shoulders."

A sharp inhale, and Bors straightened up, his hand going to the hilt of his sword secreted at his hip.

But Sir Leon straightened up, too, twirling his own blade so that it faced point-down towards the floor and sheathed it with a ring of metal. A faint grin touched his lips, "Of course, with Merlin ensconced in His Highness's bedchambers, I do not have to worry overmuch."

Bors surprised himself with a small snort and relaxed, replacing his own weapon in its scabbard where he had begun to draw it out. "You will get no argument from me, my friend," he murmured, recalling the events of almost three days prior. "A most impressive duel. I am grateful I have not yet found myself on the opposite end of his blades."

Sir Leon chuckled, "An arduous task, I assure you."

Bors returned his superior's chuckle with a tight smirk, "I do not doubt it. Is the prince awake?"

Camelot's head knight lifted an eyebrow, his response delicate, "He has been, yes. Why do you ask?"

A wry smile tugging at his lips, the younger knight held his hands up, palms out, "Peace, my friend. I mean your prince no harm. I wish only to speak with him."

The older knight's eyes narrowed, "My prince? I was led to believe he is yours, as well."

Smiling inscrutably, Bors responded, "In the sense that he is Merlin's prince, yes."

Sir Leon frowned, "How do you mean? I will have you know, if you endanger His Highness or Merlin—"

"My lord," Bors interrupted with a patient smile, "I assure you, I will not harm either the prince or his manservant. I swear it on my honor and promise it on my life."

Leon's lips compressed into a thin line, "May you speak true, Bors, because I swear on my life that I will not let any harm befall either one of them."

IOIOIOIOIOI

Sir Leon granted him safe passage after that, but the older knight's warning rang still in his ears as he entered Prince Arthur's bedchamber.

Slipping inside, Bors paused in the threshold and blinked at the scene before him, slightly nonplussed.

The prince's manservant had appropriated one of his master's upholstered chairs and dragged it over to the young monarch's bed. Both his booted feet had hooked over one of its arms, and he had curled his body in the nook of the other, sitting in a way that suggested long hours spent in the same position.

He had also linked his fingers with Prince Arthur's, and his wince as he adjusted his grip implied that they had remained so for far too long.

Even as Bors studied the manservant (noting, as he did, that the young man still wore his hauberk and jerkin from the feast three days prior), Merlin's free hand scrubbed tiredly over his face.

"If anyone…you should know a warrior with little sleep is no warrior at all," Bors stepped into the circle of firelight the Crown Prince's brazier cast around his bed.

Merlin started, jerking upright and stumbling to his feet. Despite his initial clumsiness, twin steel blades glinted as they leapt into his palms with a brief flare of gold.

For the second time that night, Bors found himself with a blade (two blades, in this case) at his throat.

How he ended fetched up painfully against the bed's mahogany balustrade was quite another matter.

A rueful laugh, "I should follow my own advice," he held both his hands up, revealing their empty palms.

Merlin gaped, swallowed, and whispered, "Sir Bors? I…" the younger man lowered both daggers and staggered back, balancing uneasily on the balls of his feet and blades still in hand.

Bors gave a small smile, "Peace, my friend. I meant not to alarm you."

Merlin swallowed again—hard—but nodded, "As you say, Sir Bors."

Despite being outwardly polite, he had yet to sheath his weapons; Bors took note of those quick eyes observing his every move.

"What brings you here at this time of the night, my lord? I trust that Sir Leon had a reason for allowing you entry."

The knight sighed and rubbed his aching neck, grimacing down at the thin streak of blood on his palm as he pulled it away, before taking a few steps across the floor. A faint smirk adorned his lips, but little mirth touched his eyes, "I ride tonight for Northumbria. I must inform our mother of Boris's fate."

As he neared the bed, Merlin shifted his stance so that his body occupied the space between the prince behind him and Bors in front of him. "I am afraid I do not understand…why inform me?"

A derisive snort answered him as Bors drew close, "You are Prince Arthur's manservant. Naturally, you can pass the information along. That, however, is not my purpose."

…Merlin all but fumbled his daggers when the proud knight abruptly dropped to one knee in front of him and bowed his head, "I seek an audience with Lord Emrys."

IOIOIOIOIOI

Silence pervaded the room as Merlin gaped, swallowed, gaped…and swallowed again, moistening his suddenly dry tongue. "M-My lord?" stammered, as he attempted to squash the panic that leapt into his throat.

Bors glanced up from the hands he had clasped across his knee, a smirk flitting along his lips, "Surely you do not believe I could mistake you for a mere serving boy after you tamed a dragon, my Lord?"

Merlin swallowed once more, his head swimming, "H-How…?"

"You mean…how do I know about Emrys?"

Unable to force his locked throat muscles to work, Merlin nodded.

Bors sighed, "Our mother was raised among the Druids. Although she married our father—and became Lady of Northumbria—she never gave up the Old Ways. She taught them to us, as well as the stories that accompany them. As for how I know about the dragon…" the knight smirked again, "I was not so unconscious as you and your prince seem to believe."

"…M-My prince…?"

Bors shrugged, remaining on one knee, "He was never any prince of mine. My allegiance lies….elsewhere." He gave Merlin a significant look.

Heat lit up the warlock's cheeks. The hands still holding the daggers wavered, their palms sweaty.

Gods, how did Arthur ever get used to this? I-I don't know anything about being someone's lord! I never even wanted to be…!

"…S-Sir Bors…" the knight's name came out as a croak. Merlin coughed, cleared his throat, and tried again, straightening up, "I-If I have your word you will not harm Arthur, y-you have my…leave?...to speak. A-And please stand up. Y-You do not have to…" he gestured helplessly between them…and grimaced, Th-That sounded horrible

Fortunately, the older man had the good grace to chuckle. "By your leave, then." He stood up, straightening his riding cloak and the edges of the tunic that fringed his hauberk. Gravely, he bowed, "You have my word, Lord Emrys."

Merlin released a short breath. As Sir Bors drew himself upright and revealed his empty hands, their palms up, the younger man—at last—sheathed his two daggers.

Bors eyed him curiously, "My Lord, if I may…" Merlin nodded for him to go on. "Where is Prince Arthur's sword?"

The knight noted with amusement that the manservant colored just as deeply red as his master had a few days prior in the marketplace. Coughing to cover up a laugh, Bors offered, "You need not tell me, my Lord. It was curiosity only that drove me to speak."

With a grimace that did little to conceal his embarrassment, Merlin rubbed the back of his neck and glanced up at the nearby balustrade.

Bors followed Merlin's glance. There, hung neatly in its sheath, Prince Arthur's sword gleamed dully in the firelight. "Ah, I see," uttered softly. He turned his gaze back down to Merlin and smirked, "Not that you particularly need a sword, of course…"

They both knew he did not mean Merlin's daggers.

Unsteadily, Merlin drew in a breath. On the exhale, he squared his shoulders, "What is your business in Camelot, Sir Bors?"

Bors drew himself back sharply at the keen blue eyes that now studied him, their owner's glance less hostile than before but no less wary.

Internally, he gave a disbelieving laugh, This is why I chose to come, he wanted to say. To serve Emrys. To commit myself to a higher purpose than any of my brother's extravagant schemes. But somehow, I do not believe you are ready to hear that, yet.

Instead, he countered with a question of his own, dark eyes sharp as he sought to solve a puzzle he'd tried to figure out during the long months he'd spent in Camelot, "And what business do you have in Camelot, Lord Emrys? Even so far afield as Northumbria we have heard tales of its grief-stricken king and his vendetta against magic-kind. Why would Emrys choose to serve in such a place as this, and the king's son, no less?"

Merlin's blue eyes turned to gray steel as he quietly watched Sir Bors, "My reasons are my own, and if you wish to be privy to them, you must first prove yourself worthy. You have not, as yet."

"Very well," Bors blew out a breath and squared his shoulders, "I hope this is proof enough."

Silver light abruptly flared around Arthur's sword. As Merlin jerked around to face it, terribly startled, the sword yanked itself free of its scarlet sheath and plummeted towards the ground.

Merlin lunged for it, grabbing it by the hilt lest the blade clatter against the flagstones and bring half the castle tumbling in Arthur's room.

Whirling around to face Sir Bors, sword in hand, he caught the faintest glimpse of silver retreating into the depths of the knight's dark eyes.

When it had disappeared, Bors squarely met his disbelieving gaze, "Should you so desire it, my Lord, I can order that sword to strike me where I stand, lest my heart be untrue."

TBC

Chapter Text

VII: The Dragonlord's Son (Part 9)

Utter silence penetrated the Crown Prince's bedchambers, Merlin's mind unable to fixate on anything other than what he had just seen. Finally, he stammered, "N-No, th-that's not…" he swallowed (and found great difficulty in swallowing), "that is not…er…necessary, my lord. I…I…"

Bors chuckled, eyes glowing silver again. As Merlin stared, Arthur's sword gently lifted itself out of his hands—outlined with silver—and slid back into its sheath with a quiet snick.

Bors smirked, turning back to Merlin, "Proof enough, my Lord?"

Merlin swallowed—hard—and nodded. "H-How did you do that?" whispered.

The knight shrugged a bit shyly, "I know the Old Ways."

"N-No," Merlin shook his head, "I-I meant…" he gestured helplessly between the sheath and his hands, "h-how were you able to get a weapon…to do…s-something like that. Y-You didn't say an incantation or…anything!"

"Ah," Sir Bors stared contemplatively at the brazier, shadows flickering across his face, before glancing up at Merlin, "should you like me to teach you how to do it, my Lord?"

"Y-you would do that?"

Bors shrugged again, "You are my sovereign lord. Should you wish it, I would happily give my life for your cause. For surely it is more worthy than what my brother had in mind."

Merlin's eyes saddened, his wits somewhat more balanced now that he saw the more human side to this lord, "Do not blame yourself for his failings, Bors. In the end, your choice mattered."

Stunned and slightly taken aback by this revelation, Bors stared at him, "My choice, my Lord?"

"I know who told Arthur what Boris intended, my Lord," Merlin smirked, expression far more friendly than it had been only moments prior. "I am not so oblivious as Arthur may have you believe."

Bors coughed, and half-choked on a startled laugh, eyes warm as he regarded Merlin, "You and he are far more alike than I ever gave him credit for."

Merlin blinked, surprised and a bit pleased to be compared so to Arthur. He chuckled, "I thank you for the compliment, my Lord."

Bors smirked a bit, for he had indeed meant it as a compliment. These two young men grew more fascinating by the day, and he would love to see what a few years' time might bring.

He sobered as it occurred to him that he very well could if he were willing to make that decision.

Sketching a bow to Merlin, he murmured, "I take my leave of you, Lord Emrys. As per your request, I shall return in the spring."

Merlin started, "But I didn't—" protested weakly, as he packed as much of his scattered wits back together as he could after repeatedly having them scattered in the past few minutes.

Sir Bors, however, merely flipped up his riding hood and—with another, final bow—ducked out of the Crown Prince's bedchamber via the servants' door.

He left an uneasy Merlin trying to figure out if fate or his horrendous acting skills were to blame for how many of his masks had fallen over the past few days.

The situation grew increasingly more complicated when Arthur's hand suddenly reached out and grabbed his own:

"Merlin…?" the query sounded more alert and more Arthur than it had in the past three days. Indeed, as if its owner had only pretended to sleep and just now decided to reveal himself.

As it turned out, Merlin was not so far off the mark.

As he shifted to smile tentatively at this much more awake and aware Arthur, his prince drew in a mostly steady breath and wrapped his fingers securely around Merlin’s, "…Why did he call you 'Emrys'?"

IOIOIOIOIOI

Ringing silence pervaded the Crown Prince's bedchamber, stretching between the two friends as Merlin struggled not to have an asphyxiation fit.

Long seconds later a strangled, "How…How much of that did you hear?" emerged from Merlin's throat.

Arthur glanced down at his covers and rubbed the back of his neck, "…Pretty much all of it? You…rather abruptly let go of my hand and well…" He shrugged, looking up at Merlin with a faint flush on his cheeks.

He flinched when Merlin uttered a strangled sound, "Forgive me."

Yanking his hand away, Merlin all but fled out the servants’ door.

…leaving a pole-axed Arthur to stare after him, wondering what he had done wrong.

A beat later, and Arthur struggled out from underneath his covers, in too much of a hurry to go after Merlin to be careful. His sheets and duvet tangled around his ankles, tripped him, and he went sprawling onto the floor with a startled yelp.

A sharp flash of pain shot through his still-healing side and ribs as they made harsh contact with the flagstone floor. Gritting his teeth, Arthur swore quietly as he fought to untangle himself from his bed linens.

"My Lord…?" Leon's voice spoke up from the doorway, worried and incredulous in equal measure.

Arthur jerked his head up, nearly cracking it on the mahogany of his bed behind him. Staggering woozily to his feet, he tried to present as unruffled a countenance as possible, self-conscious enough about his state in Leon's presence that he wore a prominent blush on his cheeks, "Leon, er…"

It was testament to just how long Leon had served Arthur (and Merlin) that he merely stared at his prince for a whole tenth of second, assessing that the younger man was indeed mostly hale…before he coughed into his fist to cover a laugh and pointed out the door, "I believe Merlin is headed to the kitchens, Sire."

"Oh, um…" Arthur pointedly ignored the way his blush worsened, "thank you, Leon."

…Then blew out a breath and looked straight at his Head Knight, as he recalled that Merlin had not been the only one to more than fulfill his duty to the Crown on the night of the feast. Gratitude echoing deep in his eyes (and for more than just the information about Merlin), he murmured, "I appreciate it."

The ill-concealed amusement on Leon's face passed swiftly into genuine relief and concern, "You are most welcome, My Lord." He critically eyed his sweat-soaked, rumpled, and still weary young monarch, "If I may, Your Highness…"

Arthur gestured for him to continue.

"It would set my mind much more at ease if I could accompany you."

At which point, Arthur's mind chose this most inconvenient of times to remind him of why he had found himself in this situation. He had not lied when he told Merlin he had heard pretty much everything. That meant he needed to step up his protection of Merlin, if his manservant was indeed harboring the secret he thought he was. And even though he trusted Leon, he knew that a secret shared did not remain a secret for long…and he dared not risk Uther finding out about this secret.

"To the kitchen only, Leon," Arthur compromised. His entire countenance was composed and serious, this new responsibility one he held close to his heart. "Then you may guard the kitchen entrance as you desire. I ask only that you do not allow anyone else to pass within." He hesitated…then squared his shoulders and lifted his chin, solidly meeting Leon's green eyes, "Not even my father."

Leon drew himself up sharply, somewhat taken aback by the picture Arthur presented. Despite his disheveled hair, despite the shadows lingering dark beneath his eyes and his sweat-stained tunic…the younger man had never looked more regal.

This was the king Leon had started to see glimpses of, the king that Merlin had seen all along…and this, Leon knew, was a king he would gladly serve, for as long as Arthur would have him.

It made perfect sense, then, that the older knight bowed deeply and murmured, "It will be as you say, my Liege."

IOIOIOIOIOI

Merlin did not know why he had fled. Well, he did—somewhat—but…his powers could hardly be kept a secret from Arthur now. They had not been a secret, really, for the past three days. And that had been his choice…

Still, he had hidden them for so long. Three years this past summer.

It had become habit to flee these situations or attempt to conceal them with half-assed excuses. Honestly, the fact that Arthur had not figured it out by now was perhaps more shocking.

The warlock released a troubled breath, peering down into the depths of his chicken stew as he tightly grasped the mug between his hands, acquired when he had holed himself up in the castle's kitchens.

And now? Now what should I do?

Surely Arthur would order Leon to follow him and bring him back to the prince's chambers. Once there, Arthur would want explanations. And Merlin had no idea what to tell him or where to start.

He had not wanted the revelation to happen this way. It had appealed to him, the idea that he could control where and how much to tell Arthur. But now…

He already knows everything, and now he will want to know why

Though, to be fair to Arthur, Merlin could not count the number of times his friend had remarked, seemingly apropos of nothing, "There's just something about you, Merlin…"

He knew something was odd. That was for sure. He had to have known something did not quite make sense. That my explanations did not quite connect. Otherwise…why on earth would he have made that remark, and so often? Really, Arthur simply knows me too well

And of course, of course Arthur chose that singularly inopportune moment to come striding into the kitchens.

IOIOIOIOIOI

Merlin lurched to his feet when Arthur entered, nearly spilling the contents of his mug over its rim, "Arthur-? I-! What-? You're supposed to be in bed!"

He looked flummoxed and relieved in equal measure, apparently unable to decide which seemed to be the better reaction of the two of them.

Arthur raised an eyebrow. "Clearly," he drawled, thinking rather ruefully of the past three days, "I have been in bed long enough."

He wandered over to the kettle where it hung over the banked fire, steam still escaping from under its iron lid. The smell of chicken stew pervaded the kitchen, and Arthur's stomach gave a small rumble as he grasped the linen-wrapped handle, attempting to lift it.

A quick, hot flash of pain in his side and he nearly dropped it.

…Or, well, he would have, if Merlin had not abruptly appeared at his side and grabbed his elbow, his own mug of stew now sitting abandoned on the table.

The prince held in his grimace as his manservant relieved him of the lid.

"You shouldn't have done that," murmured lowly as Merlin replaced it on the kettle.

Arthur rolled his eyes, although not much ire went behind it: "I am no longer an invalid, Merlin," he, too, kept his voice low, keenly eyeing the dark head at his shoulder.

Merlin snorted softly, "Forgive me, Your Highness, but you aren't exactly healed, either."

Arthur scowled, "I am perfectly fine, Merlin."

"When you can actually lift a five-pound iron lid without wincing, My Lord, then I will deem you fully healed!" Flush sat high in Merlin's cheeks and his blue eyes glittered blackly in the firelight as he whirled around to face Arthur.

Arthur roughly shrugged off his hand, setting his jaw to return obstinacy with obstinacy, "Being the Court Physician's apprentice does not give you the authority to command me or my actions, Merlin-!"

"-My Lord's health is not something to trifle with!"

The furious outburst shoved itself into Arthur's diatribe and stopped him cold. Namely because of the waver, and then crack, that finished it.

All the air went out of Arthur. "Merlin…?" he murmured, pressing a cautious hand to his manservant's shoulder.

At Arthur's touch, all the air went out of Merlin, too. Uttering a broken groan as his own words registered, he dropped his face against his clenched knuckles.

"…Sorry," came the muttered apology from behind his hands.

Arthur sighed, tightening his grip on the slender arm. Better than anyone, he knew that Merlin might put up a fuss or present a surly façade, but beneath it all (if one cared to look), his manservant did, in fact, deeply respect his prince. If they fought—actually fought—and did not just bicker and banter, there was a justifiable reason why.

Arthur hoped it wasn't because of their confrontation in his chambers but couldn't rule the prospect out. And that was the very last thing he wanted right now.

Merlin raised his face, and Arthur could not entirely hide his wince at the younger man's now-midnight eyes, which were hollow with exhaustion and grief.

"What are you doing down here?" the voice that asked it was strained, and Arthur frowned uncomfortably.

There were so many possible responses to that question ("Well, why else would one be in the kitchens, Merlin?"), but Arthur chose the wiser route, "Following my best friend. Obviously, Merlin."

…Sort of.

It did turn out to be the right thing to say in the end, however.

Merlin released a somewhat strangled sound, "What did you just call me?"

…Maybe.

But the words had already been spoken, and hovered between them, unable to be taken back.

Arthur inhaled a short breath and took Merlin gently by both shoulders, now completely serious as he turned the younger man to face him, "You heard me. Don't make me repeat it, Merlin."

"I may have heard you," Merlin muttered, leaning out from beneath Arthur's hands and sagging back against the kitchen table behind him, "but that doesn't mean I am able to believe it." He brought a shaking hand up to his face.

Arthur scowled and crossed his arms over his chest with a thump (hiding a wince as he did so), "Why is this so shocking, Merlin? I—" He turned away, and grit out around his teeth, "You know I…care about you."

Strangled laughter interrupted him, and as he spun around to face Merlin, countenance stormy with frustration, his manservant murmured, "If this is a joke, it's surely a good one."

Stormy turned thunderous. "This isn't a joke, Merlin! I would never-!"

More of that soft, cracking laughter Arthur had heard on tower several days ago (and had since come to intensely dislike), but Merlin's hand was gentle when it touched him, "I think I got the message, Arthur. Sorry." The hand on Merlin's face pressed a little harder against his right eye as the younger man sought to prevent its heat from spilling over onto his cheek.

Still disgruntled, but unable to muster the proper ire when his manservant looked like that, Arthur grumbled, "Shall I plight a troth, my Lord? '…For thy sweet love rememb'red such wealth brings/That then I scorn to change my state with—'" (1)

"Stop, stop, STOP!" a flustered Merlin's hands clamped over his mouth and interrupted him. "I get it, Arthur. Truly! I-I am sorry I didn't believe you…" he trailed off, his hands dropping to hug his arms to his chest as he bent his head.

Worry crept into Arthur's eyes as he gazed down at the bowed black head, a little more emotion in his voice than he had intended to reveal when he spoke, "Merlin…"

Merlin shook his head, his hands again slipping up to press against his face, "I'm fine, Arthur. Don't mind me."

Arthur snorted derisively, "You are very clearly not 'fine,' Merlin."

Merlin's fingers curled into fists, but otherwise no outward sign existed to show that Arthur's observation was correct.

The Crown Prince's voice softened, "But I am not here to argue with you."

Merlin snorted quietly, raising his head and fixing Arthur with an exhausted stare, "Then why are you here, my Lord?"

Arthur did not respond right away, choosing instead to gaze without a word back at Merlin.

"You can't be that much of an idiot, Merlin," he murmured at last.

His friend flushed, and Arthur turned away.

"Is there stew enough for two?"

IOIOIOIOIOI

As Merlin pushed himself off the table to head for the cupboard that contained the crockery, Arthur headed for a second chair at the table. As they passed each other, the Crown Prince stopped him, reaching out to grasp his manservant's arm. Meeting his friend's eyes, concern darkening the hue of his own, he murmured, "Get yourself one, too, Merlin. Your first has probably gone cold by now."

"And whose fault is that?" despite his muttered retort, Merlin looked up at Arthur…and nodded.

Blowing out a relieved breath (he had half expected another snap), Arthur released him with a light squeeze and finished walking to the table. Sliding into the chair and touching Merlin's mug as he did so, he found that it was still mostly full and indeed growing cold.

Shaking his head, Arthur pushed it to the side and silently studied his upturned palms.

He had no idea what to say to Merlin, though he thought an apology might be in order. He had not meant to scare him, and felt wretched that he had, but there was no way to open that discussion without discussing what had caused the argument in the first place.

And that led...somewhere Arthur was not sure he was ready to go, yet.

Something warm nudged into Arthur's hands.

Startled, the Crown Prince jerked his head up just as Merlin's shoulder brushed his own.

"Your stew, Sire," murmured as his manservant leaned close to place the steaming mug in his hands.

For a moment, Merlin's entire side pressed against his own. Arthur squeezed his eyes shut, clutching his mug as he suddenly remembered just how often the two of them had been in close proximity to each other over the past few days.

Then the moment was gone, and Merlin's weight lifted from his side.

"Merlin…" Arthur's voice half-caught in his throat as he realized what he had been about to ask.

Merlin appeared not to notice, pulling out his chair and sliding into it as he mechanically took a sip of his stew.

Naturally, Arthur assumed this meant his own stew was quite cool enough to sip, too.

He nearly scalded his tongue.

His shocked, half-muffled cry had Merlin starting out of his seat in alarm…before he more accurately assessed the situation. When he had, he startled Arthur (and himself, apparently, if the slight widening of his eyes were any indication) by giving a faint chuckle, "Shall I fetch you a glass of water, my Liege?"

Arthur glared at him over the arm he had used to futilely scrub at his tongue.

Merlin chuckled again, "You're hopeless, Arthur. Here, let me see…"

Gentle hands took the mug from his own, and before Arthur could quite process what had happened, Merlin bent over the mug where he now cradled it in his hands, murmuring something under his breath.

Arthur could not see his eyes, but felt rather sure he knew what the murmur intended, "Merlin, don't—"

The surface of his stew flared briefly gold—so briefly gold, Arthur blinked and found it had gone.

"Don't what, Arthur?" Merlin's smile flashed up at him and Arthur sucked in a sharp breath, watching the gold quickly bleed out of his best friend's irises. "I only blew on it."

Arthur could have pretended to believe him (calling him a girl's petticoat in the process) and that would have been the end of it. But a more crucial concern presented itself at that moment.

Merlin held out the mug with a smile on the edge of breaking, and Arthur knew…he knew this was more than a favor granted by a friend. This was Merlin's plea and test all rolled into one: will you accept me, for all that I truly am?

Arthur snorted, scrubbing irritably at his burning eyes, Well, there was ever only going to be one answer to that question.

He accepted the mug and took a sip.

IOIOIOIOIOI

Midnight hour found both young men ensconced in front of the kitchen fire, Cook Margot's forgotten steamer rug tucked around their legs. Arthur had Merlin's shoulder pressed into his as his manservant sipped from a mug of Gaius's chamomile tea which the kitchens always had on hand, and he was quite content to keep it there, despite any protests he may have made to the contrary.

Their other mugs, including one which had contained the peppermint tea Merlin insisted on dosing him with (much to Arthur's dismay), lay strewn across the tabletop. Arthur felt a small pang of conscience when he thought of Margot or Guinevere coming into the kitchen to find it a mess the next morning, but soon had other worries.

"What do you want to know?" Merlin's low voice spoke up after quite some time, causing Arthur to start against him.

The dark head lifted, and Merlin chuckled, though little mirth filled it, "Sorry."

When the cleft chin shyly slid onto his shoulder, Arthur just about had a heart attack.

"Merlin, what-?" his breathing sped up just a touch.

But Merlin shook his head and shut his eyes, pressing a bit more firmly into Arthur's side.

…And then Arthur understood. He had not believed Merlin would ever be incapable of asking for comfort, but wasn't that exactly what this was? A wordless request for comfort because Merlin—at this moment—felt physically incapable of asking for it?

Arthur swallowed and leaned forward to rest his forehead against Merlin's, hoping he might prove as much of a comfort as his beloved friend had to him over the years.

It seemed to work. A moment later, Merlin drew in a not-entirely-steady breath and lifted his chin, blinking his eyes open to offer his prince a tentative smile.

Arthur's heart broke a little at the gesture, but he knew it might be a while before he saw his best friend's familiar grin.

"Just tell me what you can, Merlin," he murmured. His eyes hardened as the younger man opened his mouth in attempt to speak, "And nothing that would endanger you."

Merlin gave a thick snort, "That rather limits my storytelling capacity, then. In case you have forgotten, Your Highness, magic is banned in Camelot."

"I haven't forgotten, Merlin," Arthur retorted irritably. "I just didn't want—"

"—Then you shouldn't have asked!" came the aggravated snap.

Arthur rolled his eyes. "I didn't," he pointed out, stating it as a matter of fact. "You did."

Merlin opened his mouth to retort. Frowned. Then thought about it a moment.

A few seconds later he groaned, dropping his head into his hands, "…Right."

Despite himself and despite the situation, Arthur smirked, "Of course I am. We've established this already, Merlin."

A hand lightly shoved the side of his face, eliciting a startled laugh from the prince.

"Gloating does not really become you, Your Majesty," Merlin retorted snippily.

Arthur laughed again, a little softer this time, grateful they had not devolved into another argument.

Merlin's expression grew solemn as he watched Arthur in the flickering firelight. When he risked a hesitant glance at the kitchen door, Arthur pulled himself together and reached out to touch his friend's shoulder, "Merlin."

Merlin looked at him, his discomfort obvious. Arthur shook his head, "It's all right," murmured. "I have Leon guarding the door."

The younger man blanched, "What? Then does he-?"

"No," Arthur gripped the slim shoulder. "No, Merlin, he doesn't. He's just…" A slow blush crept into Arthur's cheeks as he scratched the back of his head, recalling the scene earlier in his bedchambers, "Well…frankly…I think he's just a mother hen—"

Merlin's outburst of real, out loud laughter startled Arthur. His blush blazed, "Merlin!"

"Sorry (laugh)! Sorry, Arthur (laugh again)! I…wasn't expecting that…" his laughter eventually petered out.

Arthur groaned, vigorously rubbing the back of his neck, "At least I got you to laugh about it," he grumbled.

Merlin blinked, and Arthur blushed again, determinedly looking anywhere but at his friend's face.

As he watched Arthur search in vain for a distraction, Merlin's face softened, "Then I appreciate it."

Arthur released a breath, sliding both his hands down to rest in his lap, before turning back to the younger man, "Merlin?"

"Hmm?" amusement still played at his friend's lips, but when he saw how serious Arthur had become, Merlin sobered, too "What is it, Arthur?"

"Leon has orders not to let anyone else pass through that door. Not even my father."

Merlin drew himself up sharply, eyes flashing to Arthur's. "What?" hissed. "Arthur, you know if he has to do that and Uther finds out you ordered him to do it, your father will consider it—"

"—Treason," Arthur calmly replied, having come to terms with this (indeed, having already done so long ago). "I know, Merlin. It's nothing I haven't done before."

"Haven't done—" Merlin choked on the thickness starting to fill his throat. "This isn't bandits or a morteus flower, Arthur! This is-!"

"I know what it is, Merlin! And I don't care," Arthur obstinately set his jaw, gripping Merlin by his shoulders. "You are going to be safe here. Things won't be like this forever-"

"You are being reckless, Arthur! Reckless and stupid! You can't know-!"

"I can, Merlin! I do! And it is no more reckless or stupid than what you've done!"

Merlin's mouth clicked shut and Arthur blew out an unsteady breath, pretty sure he had made his point.

"I am not unaware of the consequences, Merlin," Arthur softly offered a few moments later, when Merlin's hand had risen again to cover his face. "I just choose your friendship over fear."

It took a few minutes for Merlin to raise his head, and when he did so, his cheeks were wet…but his eyes contained more peace than Arthur had seen in days.

"You are infuriating, Arthur Pendragon," Merlin's remark was low, but his gaze was gentle as he glanced up at Arthur.

A startled smirk crept across the older man's face, "Why, Merlin," he drawled, "was that a compliment?"

Merlin snorted and whacked his shoulder, "Shut up, you prat."

Arthur continued to smirk, well-pleased. But Merlin sobered, and blew out a tremulous breath, "What do you want me to tell you?"

Arthur became grave. He suspected Merlin would not like his answer: "Nothing," stated softly.

Merlin's eyes widened. "What?" he demanded; voice strangled.

"I don't want you to tell me anything, Merlin."

"But—" Merlin sputtered, completely flummoxed.

Arthur shook his head, gathering Merlin's hands between his own before he had even consciously processed the motion, "Merlin—" he began.

Merlin sucked in a startled breath, blush blazing up on his cheeks.

Arthur paused, furrowing his brow as he took note of his friend's reaction. "Merlin? What is it?"

Merlin merely shook his head, shutting his eyes and turning his palms up to grip Arthur back.

…Which made Arthur realize exactly why he had received such a reaction in the first place.

"Er…" an echoing blush flared up on Arthur's cheeks, but he made no move to release Merlin's hands.

Instead, he exhaled a wavering breath and tightened his grip as Merlin's eyes flashed open to look at him.

"I want to keep you safe, Merlin," Arthur murmured, trying to impress the importance of this on his friend. "I can't do that if I know more than I should—"

"But I promised you-!" Merlin's not-entirely-unexpected outburst interrupted him.

And was interrupted in return: "I know you did, Merlin," Arthur cut him off. "But I am releasing you from it. Your safety is more important."

It will also give me plausible deniability should my father ever ask, Arthur kept that part of his plan strictly to himself, not wishing to alarm his friend.

"You may have released me from it," Merlin retorted stoutly, "but that doesn't mean I have."

"Merlin-!" Arthur ground out. He clenched the other man's hands, simmering with frustration.

Merlin shook his head. "One thing, Arthur. That's all I ask to tell you right now."

"Fine," Arthur grit his teeth, "what is it?"

"The Dragonlord."

Arthur blinked, taken aback by the forthright response. "The Dragonlord?" repeated cautiously as he sought to confirm he had correctly heard his friend. "Merlin…are you sure? You know you don't have to—"

Merlin's throat tightened at the genuine concern that lit Arthur's eyes, "Arthur. I'm sure."

"But four days ago, you—"

"Arthur…I know. Please. I'm ready to tell you."

Arthur compressed his lips, somewhat displeased with the topic and harboring more than a few reservations about how this might affect his friend's current emotional state.

"Please," Merlin repeated, quietly.

Arthur sighed, studying him intently, "I am never going to win this argument, am I?"

Merlin shocked himself by snorting in amusement. This was just too good an opportunity to pass up: "Arthur, dearest," retorted sweetly as the prince glared at him, "when have you ever won anything?"

TBC

Chapter Text

VII: The Dragonlord's Son (Part 10)

It had been quiet for over half a candle mark. Leon did not know whether that should relieve him or not.

The oak door separating kitchen from corridor was thick, but it did not prevent sound from seeping outside. He could not make out individual words, but he had heard quite a bit of yelling earlier.

Yet, knowing how deeply Arthur cherished Merlin, and that the prince's manservant returned such sentiment tenfold, Leon had not left his post to investigate. What business of his was it, after all?

It did help that Arthur and Merlin were probably each other's best protection, but knowing that did not prevent him from worrying.

The past few days had been taxing for everyone, with Arthur in and out of lucidity and the knights scouring Camelot and its surrounding lands for anyone remotely connected to the attempt at usurping (they had gotten the information from one of Boris's lackies). Even prior to that, something had clearly been wrong with Merlin.

And Arthur, Leon reflected with a rueful smile, gods bless him, has hardly been subtle about his concern.

He wondered if the Crown Prince were yet aware of the impact his moods had on his men. He certainly never had been in the past, laying about with his sword during practice like a gods' cursed demon if he had argued with his father, lost men on patrol, or had a more severe tiff with Lady Morgana. No one ever protested, because they knew, for the most part, that something had gone wrong or the prince had a problem he needed to work through. Leon had trained Camelot's knights to be so.

Arthur exhibited no such temperament when he emerged from the kitchens a quarter of a candle mark later, shouldering open the oak door with a quiet creak. In his arms he carried Merlin, all his attention focused on the dark head balanced on his shoulder.

Startled, Leon straightened and stepped forward, slight alarm in his voice as he began to ask, "My Lord, are you sure you should be lifting-?"

Arthur wrenched around to face him, exhaling a pained hiss, "Leon…!"

Leon grabbed him underneath his arm as he stumbled, steadying him. Then he stepped back, bowing apologetically, "Forgive me, Sire."

"It's fine," Arthur's slightly dazed response did not do much to assuage the concern now unfurling in Leon's breast, but at least he was now aware of his Head Knight's presence.

Pursing his lips, Leon studied the two young men in front of him, noting a distinct red tint to the elder's eyes and the exhaustion that rendered the younger limp in Arthur's arms.

"Is he all right?" inquired softly as he moved forward to touch a hand to Merlin's forehead. Leon's heart jolted a bit as he noticed a sticky, clinging residue on the servant's cheeks.

The trail it made glinted dully in the torchlight, and when he pulled his hand back, it came away warm.

"We…" Leon stared a little as Arthur's voice cracked. "We had a…rather intense…conversation. It…wasn't easy for him. H-He will be fine…I think. He's just…exhausted. Did he really never once leave my side? Not even to sleep?"

They had already had this conversation on the way here, but Leon suspected Arthur had not comprehended much beyond worry for his manservant. Judging by their state now, that worry had only increased. Bowing, Leon murmured, "He did not, Sire, although Gaius and Lady Morgana's maid did try to persuade him."

"To little avail, apparently," Arthur snorted thickly. To Leon's astonishment, the prince scrubbed the heel of one palm over his cheek, momentarily shifting his manservant to one arm.

His wince did not go unnoticed. Even though this was perhaps the first time in Leon's memory that Arthur did not try to hide his emotions from him, he chose not to acknowledge it or the deep trust it implied. Instead, seeing Arthur's arms tremble with the exertion of shifting Merlin back in place, he braced the Crown Prince's arms with his own, "Allow me to take him, Sire. You are not yet fully healed."

"Leon, I—"

"Arthur."

The Crown Prince bit his lip, knowing when Leon addressed him by name, he was quite serious.

"Very well," whispered, as he relinquished Merlin into Leon's sure hold.

At the release of pressure on his ribs, Arthur gasped, vision flickering white as pain shot through his side. He grabbed at it, gritting his teeth as the flare up ran its course.

"My Lord…!"

Leon's alarmed cry reverberated down the corridor, but as his arms were full of Merlin, he could do nothing to help.

Hissing as the tension eased, Arthur shook his head and slowly straightened up, offering his worried Head Knight a tight smile, "I'm…all right. It's not—It's nowhere near as bad as…before..."

"Be that as it may, my Lord, there are half a dozen corridors and three long staircases we must traverse before we reach your quarters. Are you sure I should not fetch Gaius?" Leon's green eyes surveyed Arthur's pale countenance worriedly.

As an answer, a brilliant blush suffused the prince's cheeks.

Momentarily taken aback, Leon wondered why…until he realized he had assumed, without question, that they were returning to Arthur's rooms.

He bit back a sudden laugh, "My apologies, My Lord. Is that not the case?"

"N-No," stammered, "no. I…that is, er…"

Coughing to hide his chuckle, Leon murmured, "Sire…?"

Arthur blew out a breath, his blush subsiding, and squared his shoulders, "No. I would like him to be brought there. If you would, Leon…?"

Leon bowed as best he could with Merlin in his arms, unable to conceal a small grin, "Certainly, Sire."

As the night watch struck the tower bell once to announce the first hour of morn, Leon reflected—rather ruefully—that he was likely to be subject to many more of these awkward moments between his prince and Merlin before the time of his service was up.

IOIOIOIOIOI

As they traversed Camelot's corridors, Arthur noticed that Leon seemed to move at a slower gait than he might have otherwise. Not only because of Merlin's weight (which, he reflected darkly, remained far too slight), but also in deference to his prince's still-healing side. They stopped often, and frequently paused before climbing the next set of stairs.

He appreciated Leon's caution, truly, but other than the occasional sharp pain that quickly subsided, he did not have a repeat of the flare up that had occurred in the kitchen corridor.

Not, he thought, that Merlin needs to know about it. Or about any of this, for that matter.

Arthur already knew would catch trouble from his friend for attempting to lift him in the first place. Dignity aside, Merlin was as much of a mother hen as Leon, if not more. He would be less than pleased Arthur had aggravated his injuries again.

Of course, Father would say it isn't a servant's place to worry about such things.

"My Lord?"

Arthur shook off his thoughts, focusing back on the man at his side. "My…my apologies, Leon. What did you say?"

Green eyes studied the prince, worry in their depths. "I did not say anything, My Lord. I merely meant to gain your attention. We are at your rooms, Sire. Shall I bring him in?"

Arthur blinked, bringing his surroundings back into focus. Were they really?

There, sure enough, sat the ornate carving of the Pendragon crest that marked the door of this room as his own.

"Oh…" he ran a palm tiredly over his face and pushed it open, gesturing for Leon to enter ahead of him.

Leon bowed, tightening his grip on Merlin's back and knees, "Sire," and straightened, pushing through the door with Arthur behind him.

It was chilly in the Crown Prince's rooms, the fire in the grate having long since burnt to embers. It smelled stale, of sickness and medicine, but Leon did not comment on it other than to ask, "Shall I fetch you a servant once I am through here, My Lord?"

Arthur pinched the sides of his nose and sighed, nodding, "If you wouldn't mind, Leon, I'd appreciate it."

His Head Knight bowed again, "Of course not, Sire. It is of little trouble." He straightened and eyed the unmade bed, "Where shall I place Merlin, my Liege?"

A small blush worked its way across Arthur's cheeks as he caught what Leon was implying. He certainly had not thought this all the way through, wanting only to have Merlin close by. Neither one of them were in any shape to sleep on the floor, and the chair near his bed promised to be little better. It would, of course, be completely inappropriate to have Merlin with him in his bed, but then…hadn't that always been the case?

There was no "normal" for them. They had surpassed that long ago.

"Over here if you would, Leon," he gestured to the bed he now stood by and Leon dipped his head in acknowledgement, carrying Merlin over to him. Carefully, he lowered the younger man onto the mattress.

Arthur bent down to gather up the strewn linens at his feet…and hissed, immediately aborting the attempt as his side unhelpfully reminded him of his present state.

Leon stilled him with a large hand on his shoulder, tightening his grasp as Arthur straightened with a wince, "Allow me, Sire."

Grimacing, the prince nodded, a faint flush of embarrassment highlighting his cheeks.

Gently, Leon squeezed his shoulder, releasing him to lean down and scoop up the duvet from where it had fallen. Arthur helped him pull it up over Merlin's shoulder and underneath his chin.

With an ache in his ribs that could not entirely be blamed on his injury, Arthur sat beside his best friend on the mattress. Uncaring of Leon's presence—indeed, not even fully aware of it—he released a quiet groan and leaned forward, crushing his nose against the crook of his friend's neck as his hand and then forehead pressed against Merlin's shoulder.

Fatigue pounded in his temples. His side ached. And Merlin's warmth and scent had been a constant companion during the past three days of his ordeal, so why should he change it now?

"May I take my leave of you, Sire?"

Arthur started, but could not muster the willpower he would need to pull away and speak with Leon. Instead, he just nodded into the leather of Merlin's jerkin and murmured, "You may go, Leon."

He did not sense Leon's worried glance at his slumped shoulders as the Head Knight exited his chambers in search of Gaius.

IOIOIOIOIOI

Arthur had already begun dozing, despite the cold, the discomfort of his position, and the smell by the time Gaius arrived at his rooms.

"Your Highness, really…!" the Court Physician did not censor his reprimand as he bustled in, various jars and phials in his hands.

Arthur jerked upright from his slumped position over Merlin as Gaius set them down with a faint clatter on the table.

"Gaius…?" mumbled as he scrubbed a hand across his face. "What…what…? I thought Leon sent for—"

Gaius favored him with a fond, half-smirk as he read the young man's fatigue in his eyes, "Well, I am a servant in a manner of speaking, Arthur. I just happen to be your physician, as well. And as your physician, I must ask you plainly, My Lord…what were you thinking?"

Arthur groaned, sitting upright, and tried to ignore his protesting ribs, "Not you, too, Gaius. I am perfectly fine. It's just—"

"Arthur," Gaius shook his head and swept over to examine the prince's injury, leaving his medicines behind. "It is almost half past the second hour of morning. You may be my prince, but I am your physician, and I would respectfully advise you not to test my patience. You are hardly recovered, Arthur! For what purpose could you have possibly needed to leave your bed?"

Arthur sighed, recalling a little too late that the elderly physician had never had the greatest patience with him when he was tired, not even when he had been small. So, he did the only thing he could think of at that moment, "I apologize, Gaius. I did not intend for Leon to wake you."

…Gaius about fell over at the prince's doubtlessly genuine apology. Unsure quite how to respond, he finally patted the young man's knee, "Well…quite, Your Majesty. Shift up, Arthur. I need to check if all your cavorting about inflamed the wound."

Arthur almost pouted, but lifted his shift, stilling a wince and biting back a gasp as Gaius prodded at the bandages wrapped around his abdomen, "Gaius…!"

The physician hmphed, peering beneath the linen, "No bleeding, but that stopped three days ago. Sticky so doused in honey. Clean, for the most part, but…Arthur, when did Merlin last change your bandages?"

The Crown Prince winced as he shrugged, letting the tunic fall back in place and lowering his arms. "Th-Three hours ago? Maybe? We…were a little busy."

Gaius glanced up sharply, a scowl on his face.

"Nothing physically demanding, Gaius, I promise!" Arthur assured, holding his hands up in attempt to placate the overprotective physician.

Gaius’s scowl morphed into a thoughtful frown as he surveyed the two boys in front of him, apparently having concluded that Arthur's midnight wanderings had something to do with Merlin.

Swallowing, Arthur defended weakly, "He…Merlin needed me, Gaius."

By now, the elderly physician's scowl had disappeared altogether and when he glanced back up at the prince, Gaius's blue-green eyes glimmered sadly, "He told you about Balinor, Sire?"

Arthur swallowed again, rapidly blinking back tears…and nodded.

Sighing, Gaius patted his shoulder and straightened, aged joints creaking. "It was out of your control, Sire. Yours…and his. He would never use that…gift…against you."

Watching Gaius sweep over to the table where a fresh stack of linens sat alongside a jar of honey, Arthur felt his breathing hitch as he whispered, "That…that's not what concerns me."

Gaius had lifted one of his other jars to squint at its label in the dimness of the prince's chambers. Now, he shook his head and sat it back down on the table's hard surface with a clack.

Heading over to the Crown Prince's woodpile and picking up the kettle that had become a permanent fixture in Arthur's rooms over the past few days, he hung it over the orange embers, tossed a few logs onto the coals, and stirred the faggots to flame. Then he stood up with a wince and brushed the soot off his robes, turning a bit to glance over at the prince, "What does concern you, Arthur?" he asked softly.

"…He was Merlin's father, Gaius."

The ache in Arthur's voice brought the elderly physician up short. "Yes…" he acknowledged quietly, folding his arms in his robe's sleeves, and tilting his head.

"He was Merlin's father, Gaius, and Merlin never-!"

Oh.

Gaius thought he might understand now.

The older man crossed the room to sit beside Arthur on the prince's bed, casting a sad glance at his ward who slept on, oblivious, "I told him not to, Arthur. For reasons I am sure you understand."

"But if I had known-!"

Gaius shook his head, "Knowing would not have changed his death, Sire."

"Maybe not," Arthur's breathing hitched as he buried his face in his hands, "but it would have changed how I reacted to it."

…Or perhaps he did not understand. Not fully, at least.

"Arthur, what do you mean?"

"In the forest…" Arthur's voice caught, and for a moment it looked like he would not continue. But then he barreled ahead, "In the forest…I told him to leave Balinor behind. That we needed to leave…The Great Dragon was attacking Camelot, and people were dying, and although Balinor had died honorably, he couldn't…he couldn't…"

Gaius placed a cautious hand on the prince's shaking back. Arthur stiffened under the unexpected touch, as Gaius had half-expected he might. Before he could pull back and apologize, however, the shoulder he had touched nudged a little further beneath his palm.

"Do you know what I said to him, Gaius?" the prince's cracked whisper caught him by surprise, but Gaius did not say anything as Arthur's hand rose to cover his eyes and the tremors in his shoulders worsened. "I told him, 'No man is worth your tears.' Can you believe it? 'No man…' and all that time…" Arthur's breathing hitched. "All that time…it was his father laying there."

Gaius closed his eyes in sad comprehension, Oh, Arthur

Without a word, the elderly physician rose and fetched a blanket from the large trunk up against the wall, bringing it over to wrap around the prince's shoulders. As he sat back down beside Arthur, Gaius slid an arm around him and tugged him into a one-armed embrace. "It is how your father raised you, Arthur," the older man murmured. "Do not fault yourself for that. Merlin would not."

Arthur gave a derisive snort, shaking off Gaius's arm and staggering to his feet. As he whipped around to face the startled physician, pure self-loathing dripped from his voice as he remarked, "Right, like I should not fault myself for the fact that the Dragonlords—and the Dragons—are all but extinct? Like I am completely blameless because my father went on a gods-cursed manhunt nearly twenty years ago, thus ensuring Merlin lost his father? Never mind how many other families I have broken because I was blindly following my father's orders-!"

"Arthur…?"

Gaius and Arthur froze, hearing the soft, bewildered murmur that emerged from the cocoon of blankets marking the location of the Crown Prince's manservant on his bed.

"Merlin…" Arthur breathed, hurrying to kneel on the floor beside Merlin's head.

His best friend was too exhausted to notice the barely-concealed wince Arthur bit back as he settled near the bed, but Gaius clucked his tongue and stood up to retrieve the supplies he would need to treat his headstrong prince's injury while the two young men talked.

"How are you feeling?" Arthur asked softly, intently eyeing the weary lines that creased the other boy's face.

Merlin snorted, struggling to lift himself out from underneath the heavy duvet, "Sh'ldn't I b' askin' you that?" muttered peevishly, his eyes sleep-heavy and voice slurred.

Arthur gave a thick chuckle, keeping the blanket around his shoulders with one hand and reaching the other out to gently press his beloved friend back onto the mattress, "I'm fine. I wasn't the one who—"

The rest of his retort ('…was such a girl's petticoat that I cried myself to sleep') got choked off as he realized how poisonous it would be, in light of his recent discussion with Gaius.

Merlin frowned, fighting Arthur's hold to lean up on one arm and reach out to brush his fingers against the prince's cheek. " 'thur? Y're crying…! Thought you said—"

Arthur's laugh came out rather strangled, "I did, Merlin, and I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I-I…"

Merlin's frown deepened, but he was at least awake enough to follow Arthur's thought process. " 's not your fault." The hand he had used to touch his friend's cheek now slid around to cup the back of Arthur's head.

The prince's breathing hitched, "Merlin, I don't—"

Abruptly, the hand on his head turned into a clumsy embrace as his best friend's arm slid around the back of his neck and pulled Arthur forward against Merlin. "F'rgive you," the whisper got smothered against Arthur's hair, but he did not particularly care. "C'n you…f'rgive…me?"

Arthur sputtered out a strangled sound that was half-laugh, half-almost-sob, "Merlin—"

But before he could tell his servant there was nothing to forgive, Gaius cleared his throat.

Arthur stiffened, as did Merlin. Both had honestly forgotten their mentor would have witnessed their entire exchange.

When the two of them glanced up, Merlin's arm still draped around Arthur's neck, the prince felt slightly mollified when he noticed his best friend looked at least as embarrassed as he did.

Carefully drawing away from Merlin, Arthur awkwardly rubbed the back of his head and offered the physician a tentative smile.

Gaius coughed to conceal a laugh, eyes a bit over-bright, and raised a pointed eyebrow, "Your Majesty, while I am sure neither of you mind your current positions, you are still recovering from a sword wound and you have just woken up after battling blood loss and a fever. You should be in bed."

Arthur blanched, "What? Gaius, I'm-!"

"Arthur," the other eyebrow raised.

Glaring a little at Merlin for the hastily smothered snort of laughter he heard from his manservant as the younger man slowly sat up, Arthur sighed and stumbled back to his feet.

He hated that Merlin's amusement disappeared the instant he caught the flinch Arthur did not quite manage to hide, but he was able to sit without help on the mattress, and pointedly nudged his worried friend in the ribs, "There. See? I'm fine."

Merlin rolled his eyes, but Arthur noticed he did not bother to hide his tiny, relieved grin as Gaius came over with a steaming cup of tea.

When he caught the scent of peppermint, Arthur groaned, "More tea, Gaius? Merlin already-!"

The elderly physician gave his prince a pointed look as he handed him the cup, "Drink all of it, Arthur. Despite what you may think, your blood has not fully replenished itself, yet. You were on the brink of death, Sire. That is hardly something you can recover from in three days! No matter what other type of assistance may have been rendered," and here he sternly side-eyed his apprentice, who had released a small laugh at his friend's plight.

Abashed, Merlin bit his lip and ducked his head, causing Arthur's lips to curl up in a faint smirk over the rim of his tea cup.

Trust Merlin to notice.

"Oy, shut up, you prat," although the retort was more whine than tease, the elbow Merlin dug into Arthur's unwounded side was gentle.

Smothering his laugh, Arthur took a sip of the tea, ruefully admitting (if only to himself) that it tasted far better than many of the other concoctions the two men had forced down his throat over the past couple of days.

Merlin watched him as he drank it. Likely, Arthur thought with a small roll of his eyes, to make sure I drink every drop.

And of course, he noticed the faint, relieved sigh when he finished.

Shaking his head and not-quite-ignoring the warm ache in his chest, Arthur handed the empty teacup back to Gaius with a nod of thanks before turning his attention to Merlin. As the Court Physician swept off to fuss over the new bandages, Arthur knocked his forehead gently against Merlin's, "I am all right, you idiot," muttered fondly as he smiled into the blue eyes mere inches from his own. "Really. You and Gaius ensured that with the foul-tasting glop you call medicine."

If Merlin's chuckle caught a little on the end, Arthur charitably chose to ignore it, especially when his best friend knocked his forehead back, "So 'm I, you great prat," whispered with a grin.

And he truly looked it. Exhaustion aside, a faint sparkle resided in his eyes that Arthur had not seen there in…gods, months. A new easiness sat on his shoulders, even if he had not shared everything, and it warmed Arthur somewhere deep inside to know that he had helped bring it about, given at least a little back to the man who had given up so much for him.

Of course, the moment could not last. But as Gaius called over, "Merlin! Are you planning to help me with these bandages or not?" and his best friend laughed, leaning forward to briefly nuzzle their noses together, Arthur thought it might be enough.

Right now, he thought with a somewhat watery grin as Merlin stood, tugging the blanket more firmly around Arthur's shoulders before making his way over to Gaius, it's more than enough.

TBC

Chapter Text

VII: The Dragonlord's Son (Part 11)

When Arthur's eyes opened the next morning, he did not know at first what had woken him. His chambers were quiet—the soft, muted sort of quiet that often followed a storm. A slant of light from the partially open window drapes fell across his eyes, and beyond them, a butterfly-winged click against the mullioned glass.

Snow. It's the beginning of Yule.

White flakes drifted lazily against the windowpanes outside. Cool air nipped against his cheeks. But it was warm beneath his blankets, and Arthur released a breathy laugh, relaxing into the linens beneath him.

A sudden knock on his chamber door caused him to start.

Merlin never knocks…!

Before he could grow too panicky about the whereabouts of his manservant, a faint sigh at his side caused him to jump. Glancing beside him, Arthur found himself blinking at a mop of raven hair resting on his pillow and a lanky form curled close beside him beneath the covers.

"Merlin…?" breathed in no little disbelief.

What the hell…? Why is he even…?

The knock came again, more insistently, and a muffled call accompanied it, "Sire…? Are you awake, Sire?"

Still staring in confusion at his sleeping manservant, Arthur tried to shift upright against his pillows…and hissed, stilling immediately, as the skin of his healing wound abruptly pulled in reminder.

Oh.  That's  why.

Merlin had stayed, as he had every night since Arthur had been wounded. Arthur absolutely did not feel his eyes sting at that knowledge.

They had fallen asleep together, the prince recalled, feeling his face heat just a little at the memory. After Merlin had redressed his injury and tied off the new bandages. Gaius must not have wanted to disturb them.

And damn it all if Merlin doesn't need the sleep, too. Gods, if he  still  hasn't woken, yet…

The knock sounded once more, a touch more impatiently, "Sire…"

Arthur pulled himself as far upright as he could without aggravating the wound, and cleared his throat to call softly, "Enter."

A relieved sigh and some shuffling, then George entered the room, his arms full of cloths and a tub. "Good Yule, Sire," he greeted cheerily, albeit with not quite the same enthusiasm as Merlin might have; George was nothing if not proper.

Arthur had eased himself into a sitting position by now, with minimal pain or jostling. Now he returned the manservant's greeting with his own, quietly watching as the man set up the tub near the fire and placed the cloths within easy reach, "Good Yule, George. Is it Margot in the kitchens this morning?"

George stoked the fire, building up the flames into a blaze. Once he had the fire crackling in the grate, the manservant began puttering about, straightening the furniture and opening window drapes, "Indeed she is, Your Highness, and she has already begun preparation for tonight's festivities. Cook Marion will join her at midday. Shall I fetch your morning meal, Sire?"

"Fetch two meals, if you would, George," Arthur scrubbed his wrist across his eyes, trying in vain to force his morning grogginess to abate, "as well as enough hot bath water for two." As he lifted his arm, Merlin sighed beside him and shifted on the mattress, accidentally bringing himself up underneath it.

Surprised, Arthur blinked down at him, automatically curling his arm around his best friend's shoulders.

Above them, George cleared his throat and Arthur blanched, realizing he had dropped his guard. With as much dignity as he could muster, and pasting a haughty expression on his face that did nothing to alleviate its heat, Arthur lifted his head, "Yes? Is there anything else?"

To his credit, George did not so much as blink, nor did he spare a glance in Merlin's direction, as if it were an everyday occurrence to find the Crown Prince's manservant fast asleep in his bed. He bowed, "My Lord…King Uther will arrive shortly. He asked me to inform you that he will not stay long—several visiting nobles are due to arrive soon for the feast—but he did wish to inquire about your health. Gaius has told him you are up and about."

Inwardly, Arthur groaned. He had hazy memories of an argument with his father three nights ago (or was it now four?), and several visits since, but did not recall much of their content. Merlin's presence at his bedside had been the only constant, although Guinevere and Gaius had spent every free moment they could spare sitting in with them. If Merlin remained in his bed when his father came, he did not believe it would go over nearly so well as it had with George.

"Very well. Let him know I am able to receive him in my chamber."

George bowed again. "I will, Sire. If that is all…?"

"Yes, George, that will be all. Thank you," Arthur waved him out of the room

A flicker of something like surprise darted across the servant's countenance, but he bowed one final time, "Very good, Sire," and exited out the door.

It took a moment for Arthur to understand the man's surprise, but when he finally did, the prince groaned out loud: "This is all your fault," he informed his still-sleeping-manservant's head. "I am thanking servants—servants, mind you. Next I'll be saying things like please and sorry and opening doors and-!"

"—A'ready doin' that," the tired chuckle emerged from his shoulder.

…Or maybe not-so-sleeping manservant. Arthur gave a half-yelp, half-hiss of startlement as his still healing skin pulled, "Merlin-!"

A deeper chuckle emerged now, and Merlin pulled away from Arthur's shoulder, glancing up at him with a sleepy grin, "Mornin', A'thur."

Despite everything, a smirk twitched Arthur's lips as he took note of the red creases pressed along the cheek that had rested against his shoulder and the sleep-clouded eyes, "Let's have you, lazy daisy, and just how long have you been awake?"

"Erm…" Merlin had the good grace to look sheepish. "Not long, actually. I did hear the part about your father…"

Arthur sighed, and decided it was not worth getting into an argument over. "Then you know why we need to get up. Really, Merlin, you should be honored…I was magnanimous enough to share my bed, and I was going to let you sleep in."

Merlin outright laughed, shifting away from Arthur and sliding off the mattress to kneel on the floor in front of him as the prince gingerly transferred his weight and sat completely upright with only a minor cringe. "Now I know you're feeling better. Prat."

The shrewd glance in his best friend's eyes, however, told Arthur he had not fully escaped his manservant's scrutiny. Deft fingers slid under his night shift, and Arthur obligingly lifted it, letting Merlin unwind the bandages around his torso to examine the injury on his side. "How is it?" asked softly as he tried to twist his neck and take a glance at it.

A slender hand stilled his movement by pressing into his unwounded side, and a brief flare up of white-hot pain reminded him again why it was not a good idea to move. Even as he winced, Merlin's warm forehead pressed against his hip.

Arthur knew what the younger man intended to do a moment before it happened, "Merlin, don't-!"

A quickly muttered word and a flare of gold, then the dull ache that had begun to build up quickly subsided.

Arthur's jaw clenched, "Merlin!"

Merlin sat back on his heels and calmly regarded his somewhat irate prince. His eyes had already flickered back to blue, so Arthur could not really do much except sit there and scowl at him.

"You have to know I'll help you if I think it's necessary, Arthur." Merlin glanced away, bringing his arms up to hug himself. "I-I don't like seeing you in pain."

Arthur sighed, grimly accepting that this would remain a constant point of contention between the two of them for the foreseeable future. He reached out to brush his fingers against his friend's arm, "Nor I, you. Which is why I don't want you to do something like this unless you absolutely have to. If my father were to walk in—"

The knock that sounded on his bedroom door could not have had more impeccable timing: "Arthur, are you awake?" his father's voice drifted to them through the wood.

IOIOIOIOIOI

Merlin paled rapidly and Arthur gave him a significant look, although his face looked hardly any better.

Immediately, Merlin bent over and grabbed the old bandages, carefully beginning to wind them back around Arthur's torso. If his hands shook slightly, Arthur did not say anything and cleared his throat, calling out, "It's fine, Father. I'm awake."

Uther opened the door and entered the room, a small package in hand. He paused when he noticed Merlin tending to his son's dressings and watched him without a sound.

Arthur's palms grew sweatier the longer his father stood there, and he did not even need to glance at Merlin to know the tremors in his best friend's hands had worsened.

Why isn't he  saying  anything? He  can't  have heard-!

"You are still here."

Both Merlin and Arthur started violently at the quiet remark (albeit Arthur with a half-smothered yelp).

Uther's eyebrows snapped to his hairline at their unexpected reaction, although worry filled his face when he glanced at Arthur. Clearly, he chose to dismiss it as something of an oddity.

Merlin sagged, perceptible only to Arthur, then climbed to his feet after tying off the last bandage. Turning to Uther, he bowed, arms coming to rest behind his back. "I am, Sire," he murmured, straightening up and focusing on a point over the king's shoulder.

Uther drew closer, eyeing his son's manservant up and down. "You still wear your armor."

The king did not see Merlin's hands clench into fists behind his back, but Arthur did.

"I do, Sire," the manservant's response came out low and even, his gaze never wavering from its spot. "Does that displease you?"

Uther blinked and frowned at him, shifting that frown to Arthur when the prince's breathing sped up. He raised an eyebrow at the fierce look suffusing his son's face. "Your master gave it to you, did he not? It suits you."

…Arthur about fell over. "Father…?" he sputtered.

Merlin did not fare much better, "My Lord?" he asked, turning wide eyes to the king.

Uther sighed, throwing him an impatient look. "Well?" he demanded. "Fetch me a chair, boy!"

Unwilling to risk a sudden reversal in the situation, Merlin gave a wordless bow and walked to Arthur's table, bringing over one of its high-backed chairs and setting it next to the bed.

Uther sat, waving the younger man away in clear dismissal once he was seated. "That will be all for now."

Arthur noticed a rebellious twitch developing in his manservant's jaw as he received the command but knowing too well how fickle his father's temperament could sometimes be, he pressed against Merlin's arm, "Go on, Merlin. See to Gaius. He probably has another horrible concoction he wants you to force down my throat and I want my bandages changed."

Perhaps he overdid it on the pompousness, but Merlin gave a (muffled) laugh and bit back a smile, bowing first to Arthur and then to the king, "As you say, my Prince."

"And, Merlin?" Arthur waited until he once more had his manservant's attention, then earnestly met his beloved friend's eyes, "Happy Yule."

Several emotions flitted across Merlin's countenance: shock and surprise (had he forgotten?), and then, finally, joy and warmth, "Happy Yule, Arthur."

Another bow and murmured farewell to Uther ("Good Yule, Sire."), then Merlin left the Crown Prince's chambers for the first time in four days.

IOIOIOIOIOI

Arthur had not really wanted him to go, but he knew his father wished to speak with him alone. With luck, Merlin would change into a fresh set of clothing and no longer carry around four days' worth of chain mail before he returned to Arthur's chambers.

Gods, he really  didn't  go anywhere.  Mer lin…

Something big and aching entered Arthur's chest, but he did not have a name for it. Not yet.

Startling him out of his thoughts, Uther cleared his throat, looking vaguely uncomfortable, "Your boy…" Arthur blinked at him as the older man trailed off, unused to seeing his father anything but certain and in command. The king cleared his throat again, "He is very loyal…"

Arthur nodded, far past the point of denying it any longer, "He is. I am not quite sure what to make of him."

More than that, his father did not need to know.

"Take it as your due. You are his prince, Arthur."

Arthur hid a grimace, pulling his knees up to his chest and folding his arms across their tops, "That is not how I see it, Father. You know this."

A moment of pure exasperation, and then Uther smoothed his face, "We are not having this argument again, Arthur. Should you be moving?"

Arthur just managed to refrain from rolling his eyes, "I am well, Father. Merlin and Gaius ensured that."

Just how, he would never say.

Uther eased back in his chair, now that they had entered common ground, "They have done extraordinary work, yes. Lesser men have died from wounds such as yours. I would recommend trying to avoid a similar situation in the future. You…may not be so lucky next time."

His father's voice took on a slightly thicker quality for that last line. Unfortunately, especially after what he had learned last night, Arthur did not feel particularly charitable, "And let Sir Boris slay innocents?" demanded.

He knew if he specifically named Guinevere and Merlin, his relationship with them would come under intense scrutiny. Guinevere was already at risk, considering the…nature…of their interactions and the people who might observe them. And Merlin…

Gods…he's even  more  at risk than Guinevere…!

Uther's stare was unimpressed. "I am not blind, Arthur. I know how fond you are of the boy—he is your constant shadow. But you cannot go risking your life for him! From what I have seen, he is more than capable of defending himself—and you!"

Arthur hated that he could not contradict his father. That did not stop him from raging against his point, "He shouldn't have to! So, he cannot be a knight. Fine. Even more reason why I should be able to protect him!"

Not that Merlin would ever allow it. Damned, self-sacrificing idiot

"Arthur...!" the snap came in a tone Uther rarely used with him now. It stated, in no unnecessary terms, that Arthur should shut up and listen to him.

Arthur subsided, if unwillingly and under duress. Merlin was definitely going to be a point of contention between them from here on out.

Perhaps realizing the same, Uther sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, "I did not come here to argue with you, Arthur. I came here to see how you were mending and if your felt well enough to attend the feast tonight. There is also the matter of…" he gestured awkwardly to the package resting in his lap.

Ashamed, Arthur really did subside this time, "I am sorry, Father. I did not mean to appear ungrateful. I appreciate you checking up on me."

Both Uther's eyebrows shot to his hairline. He looked at least as uncomfortably caught off-guard as Arthur did, "That's…well…that's a mature response and I—"

A knock interrupted him. "Sire…King Uther…! Sir Godwin and his court have arrived."

Sighing, Uther rose to his feet. With something that passed as a smile, he handed Arthur the package, "Here you are, Arthur. I will check back later."

"Thank you, Father," Arthur responded softly. It rattled slightly as he accepted it.

The corner of Uther's lips lifted. Without warning, he gave Arthur's head a quick tousle, as he had not since his son was a lad, "Happy Yule, Arthur."

Arthur raised his head with a faint grin, a hand going to his hair, "Happy Yule, Father."

He watched as Uther made his way to the door, staring a little at the man's back when he paused. "Oh, and about that manservant of yours…"

Arthur frowned, sure his father had no desire to start another argument, "Yes, Father? What about him?"

Uther pushed open the door and stepped outside into the hallway. Pausing, he turned around to regard his son with a frank gaze that unnerved Arthur: "He cannot be a knight. But, loathe as I am to admit it, he does deserve a reward. You will have your own Council one day, Arthur. There is no law preventing him from becoming an Advisor. Think on it, will you?"

Arthur's jaw dropped and Uther shut the door.

IOIOIOIOIOI

Just as the bell struck the ninth hour of morning, Merlin returned, carrying a load of fresh bandages and half a dozen glass jars.

"Still in one piece, I see," his manservant observed with a warm smirk, joining him near the window where the snow could still be seen falling softly outside.

Arthur rolled his eyes, pushing off the window where he had leant his forehead against its cold, frost-encrusted glass, "My father is not that bad, Merlin, and he is still the reigning king. You ought to show more respect."

"Fine. Then, with all due respect…I could hear your argument clear down the hallway!"

Arthur flushed to the roots of his hair, "Er…y-you did? H-How much?"

Merlin's smirk softened as he set down the jars and bandages on the table, keeping a small, brown-paper-wrapped parcel in his hand, "Enough to know you were arguing about me again. Truly, Arthur, I appreciate it, but—"

"Stop," Arthur's palm cut off the rest of Merlin's remark, but the accompanying retort fell easily from the prince's lips, "and shut up while you're at it. Idiot. You are always going to be worth it."

His voice fell to a murmur, "…Especially after last night. I—"

Merlin shook his head (not without a small blush), gently tugging Arthur's hand away from his mouth, "Arthur, no. Stop apologizing, you prat. You already apologized enough last night—"

Arthur shook his head this time, gazing earnestly up at his beloved friend, "I will never be able to apologize enough, Merlin. And I-I…I am sorry for this morning, too. I-I didn't want to send you away, but my father—"

Merlin released a not-entirely-steady breath out and reached up to press his (somewhat) free hand's fingertips to Arthur's lips, "Hush, Arthur, it's fine. I-I may not have liked it, but it gave me enough time to pick up something else."

He obviously meant the package nudging gently against Arthur's cheek. Despite himself, Arthur's eyes softened, "You didn't have to get me anything, Merlin."

"Of course, I did. It's Yule, Arthur," he dropped his hand, the package still gripped tightly in his fist.

Arthur snorted, "Astute observation, Merlin. I would never have guessed!"

Merlin graced him with a semi-serious scowl and a light bop on the nose as he was drawn closer to prince, "I don't have to give it to you now, you know."

A glimpse of white teeth and Arthur's smirk curled upwards at the corners as he pressed his forehead against Merlin's: "I know," he murmured. "But if we are going to do this now, Merlin…"

He drew away and flashed the other man a tiny grin, releasing him to carefully pick his way over to the large chest sitting against his wall, pleased to feel barely a twinge beneath his ribs.

Of course, that was before he attempted to lift its lid, incidentally one a great deal heavier than the lid he had tried to lift off the kettle in the kitchen last night.

Merlin was across the room in an instant, one hand on Arthur's elbow and the other pressing against his wounded side, as the Crown Prince gave a low, pained hiss, "Arthur…! I told you last night…! You shouldn't be-!"

"—Lifting," Arthur completed with a groan. "I know. I just…forgot. And I don't need your other type of medicine right now, Merlin!" added hurriedly when he saw his best friend's eyes flash with a telltale hint of gold.

Merlin's lips compressed into a displeased frown, but Arthur sighed in relief as the gold burnishing in their depths disappeared.

The silence that fell between them felt awkward, and Arthur absently noted that sweat began collecting in his palms when Merlin turned away to conceal a sharp flash of hurt.

Swallowing, Arthur let his hands drift to his right side, clutching at the dull ache that resided there and willing it to subside. He watched Merlin lift the lid of the cherrywood trunk, swallowing again when his manservant went still, obviously having located what Arthur intended to retrieve from it.

"The three packages on top are for you," he explained quickly, reaching out to grip the leather sleeve of his manservant's jacket. "The others are for Guinevere, Gaius, Leon, and my father. I-I will give the others their gifts when they stop by later today. I-If you're going to give me your present now…i-it's only fair that you open your presents from me."

"Arthur—" Merlin's voice caught in his throat.

Arthur stubbornly shook his head and locked his jaw, "Don't," stated emphatically. His voice turned rough, "Let me do this."

Merlin glanced up shyly at him and nodded once, cradling all four packages—including his for Arthur—in both hands.

Arthur released a breath he had not realized he had held, tugging on Merlin's arm to lead him over to the bed. Once there, they sat side-by-side on the mattress, peeking shyly at each other.

"O-Open yours first," Arthur ordered, hoping the crack in his voice was not noticeable.

Merlin was already shaking his head, "A-Arthur, I shouldn't—You shouldn't—"

"Please, Merlin," the plea stopped his best friend cold. Arthur glanced away, heat on his cheeks, and ran a hand anxiously through his hair, "I-I haven't ever really exchanged gifts with…with a friend before. Not like…not like this…"

"But…your father? A-And…Morgana?"

The heat on Arthur's cheeks grew, "It's not…" his breathing hitched, "it's not quite the same. I-I've never…sat with them as they opened their gifts. Usually…Usually we do that on our own," Arthur swallowed, "and see each other at the feast."

Silence stretched out between them, long enough that Arthur grew keenly aware of his beloved friend's eyes on him.

…Then Merlin's warm hands clasped either side of his face and his brilliant grin shone out at Arthur, "We'll open them together."

"…I think I'd like that," he admitted shyly, after a moment's pause. Merlin's face lit up, and the prince watched him fondly, "Well? Give it here, then."

His best friend laughed and took his hand, retrieving the package from his lap where it had fallen and placing it in Arthur's palm. Gently, he curled the older man's fingers around it and let go, "Here you are. Get to it!"

"Merlin…" Arthur could probably say something about how he should be the one giving orders, but instead he simply shook his head, that same huge and heavy feeling from earlier rearing its head again.

Merlin knew what he intended to say, anyway, if his cheeky grin was anything to go by.

Nudging his best friend's shoulder with his own, Arthur turned his attention to undoing the twine wrapped around his package. He heard paper rustle beside him as Merlin did the same.

Arthur's fingers stumbled a little on the ties, not quite functioning properly yet. So, when he heard Merlin's gasp a few moments later, he naturally chose to disregard his own package as it fell open in his lap and glanced up at his manservant, hoping to gauge his reaction. Nervously, he wet his lips, "Do…Do you like it?"

"Arthur…" Merlin's voice cracked as he tenderly caressed the silver chain coiled in his palm, unable to speak for a few moments.

Arthur swallowed, feeling a great deal more vulnerable than he felt he ought, "I-I had intended for you to open it last night. More…More than anything else…I wanted to give you this. It's—"

"It's too much, Arthur," Merlin protested, his fingers shaking as they closed around the small, perfect figurine of the merlin attached to the chain.

Arthur set his jaw, "No, it's not."

"Arthur…" Merlin shook his head, "I'm just a servant. I have never had anything so grand. What will the knights think? Or your father? I—"

"I don't give a rat's arse what they think, Merlin. You are not 'just' a servant. You never have been—not to me. I thought I made that clear last night—!"

"Arthur…it's beautiful. But I-I can't accept this-"

Arthur set his jaw again, tugging the necklace out of his best friend's grasp. Before the other could object, he leaned forward and slipped the chain around Merlin's neck, deftly fastening it behind the younger man's head. As the chain settled and the merlin pendant fell at his beloved friend's heart, Arthur sat back, hiding his wince as he crossed his arms over his chest, "There. Now you have to."

For a few seconds, neither of them said anything, Arthur glaring at his beloved manservant and his manservant staring back with wide eyes.

Then Merlin's arms reached out and slid behind Arthur's back.

"…You utter clotpole," the choked insult (even though it was more of an endearment, really) fell into the crook of Arthur's neck.

In response, the prince let out a shaky laugh and hesitantly curled his arms around Merlin's waist, "I am glad it meets your approval. Did you really think I would take 'no' for an answer?"

Merlin sighed, and squeezed him, mindful of his ribs and healing side, "And did you think I would really be able to say 'no' to something that's clearly important to you?" asked softly as he pressed his nose to Arthur's shoulder.

Arthur shyly nuzzled against the raven strands behind Merlin's ear, "I thought…well, maybe…."

Merlin shook his head and Arthur reluctantly let him go, though they kept their arms wrapped loosely around each other. A timid smile graced his best friend's lips as he gazed up at Arthur and in that moment, the prince realized Merlin's grin had somehow become one of the most precious things in the world to him.

Blinking back the sudden, stinging tears, he murmured, "Y-You still have two other presents, you know. Th-They're not much, and a-actually…neither is this," he touched the merlin pendant still hanging at his best friend's heart, "c-considering what you've given to me th-these past three years…b-but—"

"Arthur," Merlin shook his head and leaned forward, sliding his own gift out of the prince's lap. In a near-echo of Arthur's earlier actions, he reached up and carefully looped the braided leather cord over his beloved friend's head and around his neck, smiling at the two carved wooden figurines that fell against Arthur's heart. "It's enough. It's more than enough."

Gently, the prince reached up and touched the two wooden pendants, marveling at the too-perfect details of the dragon and the dove. "You made this?" asked with a tentative sort of fragility that had Merlin wanting to sweep him back into his arms.

Instead, the warlock tilted his head, a familiar, lopsided grin tugging at his lips, "'Course."

Arthur jerked his head up and repeated, with complete certainty, "You made this."

Merlin rolled his eyes fondly, "I just said that…"

Arthur could only shake his head, "Merlin—"

"Shush," Merlin pressed his thumbs against Arthur's lips as both hands came up to cradle his beloved friend's jaw, smiling into the over-bright blue eyes that gazed back at him. "Like I believe someone said earlier…you are always going to be worth it."

Arthur inhaled sharply, feeling a tremor in his chest that had little to do with his recent injury.

Both ways, he reminded himself shakily. This works both ways

However, that thought sat uneasy with him:

You were my first friend, the first person I could really call a friend—because you taught me how. And you expect me to think this is enough to thank you?

Even now, three years after having met him, Arthur was unable to comprehend how and why he had been blessed with Merlin in his life. And after last night—

Well…there is  that

Arthur swallowed, "Merlin?"

Merlin offered up another gentle smile, clearly able to tell that Arthur felt overwhelmed, "What do you need, Arthur?"

"There is one more thing…"

To Be Concluded (For Real, I Promise!)…