Disclaimer: I own nothing, all rights belong to their respective owners.
I've been wanting to write this for a while, just could never quite get in the right frame of mind for it.
Arthur stepped into his chambers, shutting the door behind him and toeing off his boots almost before he had taken another step. Unbuckling his sword belt, he dropped the weapon on the table, shrugged off his jacket and breathed in deeply, rolling the crick out of his neck. It was good to be back. A simple patrol had almost gone very wrong when bandits had taken the group by surprise. It was unnerving how talented they had been, and Arthur had suffered losses in a way he hadn't for a while.
Pulling his shirt over his head, the Crown Prince made his way to the basin of warm water waiting for him in the corner of the room. He would much prefer to slip into the steaming bath he could see out of the corner of his eye, but knew that he couldn't relax properly until he had reported to his father. Arthur couldn't help but smile slightly. One of the helpful things with having the most powerful warlock of all time as his servant meant he knew the bath would still be steaming whenever he got back.
Thinking of Merlin, Arthur glanced around the room. He had sent the boy ahead of him, seeing the paleness to Merlin's face and the bags under his eyes. This trip had been just as hard on him, and with knights everywhere, there had been very little he could actually do in the attack. It seemed ironic that Arthur knew what he was capable of, and yet still found himself trying to guard his clumsy servant during an attack. But then again, Merlin had done pretty well with the dagger Arthur had thrown to him. It seemed that despite most evidence pointing to the contrary, the boy did have some sense of self preservation after all.
"Merlin? You in here?" About to douse his face in the warm water, Arthur froze. There was no response to his call, yet there was a slight noise in the far corner of his room. He could almost feel that Merlin was in the room, he just wanted to know why the servant wasn't prattling on like his usual idiotic self. That noise, however, had Arthur straightening up, frowning.
"Merlin?" Again, there was no verbal answer, but something that sounded suspiciously like a half sob. Mystified, Arthur pulled his shirt back on, turned away from the water with a sigh and stepped out behind the screen. His eyes roamed his room, looking for some kind of sign of where Merlin could be. For a long moment, he couldn't see anything. As Camelot's finest warrior and hunter, and considering this was Merlin he was looking for, Arthur knew immediately that something was wrong. He always knew where Merlin was, the warlock seemed to be followed by a wake of accidents he then tried to wriggle out of. For him to be this quiet... Arthur knew his friend well enough to know that it wasn't going to bode well.
Eventually, he caught sight of the very top of Merlin's head, and blinked. With the secret Merlin was hiding, Arthur had always tried to press on him that he should keep himself out of the way. Merlin being Merlin had, of course, done precisely the opposite. Arthur wasn't sure whether it was just to spite him, or that Merlin was that much of an idiot. Not this time. Right now, he was behind Arthur's bed, the only thing visible was the bit of hair Arthur could see.
"Merlin, what are you doing?" Trying to make his voice sound it's normal exasperated self, Arthur moved across the room. He couldn't stop the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach. This wasn't like Merlin at all. Rounding the bed, Arthur gasped.
"Merlin?" Dropping to his knees, Arthur somehow managed to wedge himself down the side of the bed with his servant. The boy was cleaning the dagger that Arthur had given him. The rag was moving smoothly over the blade, but Merlin's eyes were bright with unshed tears and he didn't seem to notice what he was doing.
"Give me the knife, Merlin." Reaching out a hand, Arthur frowned. Every time Merlin dragged the rag across the blade, a new red smear made itself obvious.
"Stop! Merlin, stop, now." His voice taking on a commanding tone that even Merlin didn't normally ignore, Arthur closed his hand around Merlin's, holding him still. The warlock had obviously been doing this ever since Arthur had sent him to his chambers, and now the rag was just that...it had almost been worn out. Merlin didn't seem to notice his movement had left deep cuts down the side of his hand where he was effectively dragging his own hand across the blade. At Arthur's order, he shook his head, almost desperately.
"Can't. I can't stop, Arthur. I keep seeing them." As Merlin's hand jerked out of Arthur's and moved down the blade once more, Arthur knew what was going on. Shock.
Merlin had been through so much with Arthur, the prince never really thought about the fact that he shouldn't have technically been able to deal with the things they had seen and even been forced to do. But somehow, Merlin was always his cheerful self, no matter what had just happened. This however, was different. Merlin had somehow reached his breaking point. Not saying anything for a moment, Arthur prised Merlin's grip away from the dagger and threw it to one side. He would fetch it later, but right now, he just needed it out of Merlin's reach.
Grabbing his servant by the arm, he dragged Merlin up and forced him to sit on the edge of the bed.
"The man. I can still feel it, Arthur. The way the dagger sunk into his stomach, the way his blood covered my hands, the look on his face..." As Merlin spoke, his hands began wringing together, almost as if he was trying to get the blood off. There was no one's blood but his own there, however.
"You've killed before, Merlin." Arthur said softly. He didn't mean to sound insensitive, but for the life of him, he couldn't work out why Merlin was reacting this time. Had it just been one fight too many?
"From a distance." Merlin whispered hoarsely, his hands still twisting anxiously as he finally met Arthur's gaze. "With magic, or even with a sword. I was touching him as the dagger went in. I could almost feel the life leave him..."
Whilst he would never admit it, Arthur was relieved. Merlin's words made sense. There was a difference from just swinging a sword at someone to physically driving a dagger in and feeling their life almost literally in your hands. It seemed this was just ordinary shock rather than anything else. Considering the power Merlin had, Arthur wouldn't have been sure what to do if there was something else going on.
This, however, he could deal with. He had been through it himself, and had helped many of his new young knights through the same thing. Glancing at Merlin, he could see that the shivering had already started. But first, Arthur knew he had to stop his hands.
Leaving Merlin sitting on the bed, he crossed the room. Sticking his head out of the door, he instructed a servant to inform the King the report would have to wait, Arthur was feeling weakened and then told the boy to bring up some food once his message had been delivered. If the youth was confused by the fact that the Crown Prince requested plain food, but a jug of mulled wine, he didn't say anything, but instead bowed and sped off.
His father dealt with, Arthur picked up the basin he had been about to wash in, went back to Merlin and knelt in front of the bed. There was a moment of wild panic in Merlin's eyes when he realised the prince was kneeling and he was sitting on the bed, but all it took on Arthur's behalf was for him to raise his eyebrow and Merlin swallowed his protests. Reaching out, Arthur grasped Merlin lightly by the wrist, drew the boy's hand towards him and dipped the cloth in the water. Gently, he wiped the cloth across the back of his hand, before rinsing it and methodically wiping every inch of Merlin's hand.
"Shh." Arthur knew Merlin was feeling the need to make some scathing remark in order to insert a sense of normality into the situation, but he fell silent again at Arthur's voice. When one hand was clean, Arthur dried it on a towel and set it back on Merlin's lap. Before he could do anything, his fingers had closed around his injured one, again tugging that towards him. He repeated the process, cleaning it. Merlin seemed to finally feel the wound as Arthur ran the cloth over it and he hissed, automatically trying to jerk his hand away. Arthur held him fast.
"It has to be clean." The prince said firmly. If it had been any other situation, he too would have felt the need to mock his servant for being so clumsy. But he knew that there was a time and a place, and if he was going to get Merlin through this, now was not it. Merlin sucked in an erratic breath, tears in his eyes as Arthur dried that one off, fetched a bandage and wrapped it expertly around Merlin's hand. As the hand gave an involuntary tremor, Arthur glanced up to find Merlin trembling, his breathing shallow and fast.
"I can see him..." He whispered hoarsely, almost brokenly, eyes pleading with his master to do something to make it go away. Arthur carefully set the basin to one side and climbed to his feet, eyes locked on the way Merlin was following his every move and his breathing was getting worse. His hands, however, had remained still where Arthur had placed them. Placing a hand on the back of his servant's neck, Arthur forced Merlin over, pushing his head between his knees.
"Deep breaths." He instructed firmly, moving away again. Building up the fire, he stretched out a blanket over the front of it, warming it through as a timid knock sounded on the door. As Merlin's head jerked up, Arthur glared at him until he knew Merlin wasn't going to move any further and opened the door. It was the same servant from before, and as he began to lay the food out on the table, Arthur grabbed the wine and poured himself a goblet. The sip he allowed himself to take did wonders, calming him and sending warmth through his body. Closing his eyes for a moment, he took a deep breath, grounding and steeling himself to deal with this next part. It was different doing this for Merlin rather than the knights. They had known what they were getting themselves into when they had taken the trials. Merlin should have been cleaning Arthur's boots, not fighting for his life.
When the servant left, Arthur placed his goblet back on the table and grabbed the blanket. It hadn't had long enough to warm through properly, but he could see Merlin's shivering getting worse. Walking slowly back to the bed, he wrapped it around Merlin's shoulders. For a moment, the servant didn't seem to notice, automatically snuggling into the warmth and drawing it closer around him. Arthur took a step back, and his movement seemed to startle the warlock into realising. He immediately tried to pull it off again.
"No, no, Arthur, I can't...I have to polish...c-clean, do something, I can't..."
"Merlin. Shut up." There was a hint of fondness in Arthur's voice this time, and his servant gaped at him for a moment before shutting his mouth with an audible snap. Arthur poured out another goblet of the mulled one and shoved it into Merlin's good hand. "Drink."
The prince busied himself around the table, determined to make Merlin eat something, but unable to resist stealing bits for himself as he did so. Out of the corner of his eye, however, he was watching his servant closely. Merlin had actually done as he was told for once and took a tentative sip of the wine. Arthur could almost see the same warmth spreading through him, and Merlin's face slowly began to relax a little. By the time he had taken his third sip, his hand wasn't shaking as much.
Arthur waited until the shakes had stopped completely before forcing the plate onto his servant, encouraging Merlin to eat something. In true form, Merlin protested that he wasn't hungry and Arthur was acting worse than Gaius. Glad to hear Merlin whining again (for it meant he was feeling better, even if there was still the haunted look in his eye), Arthur fought back, deliberately goading Merlin into arguing with him. As Merlin became more and more stubborn, his posture was relaxing.
Arthur had completely forgotten what it was they were arguing over by the time Merlin finally yawned. Whilst he had been talking, the warlock had been picking at the food slightly, not realising what he was doing. But as he yawned, Arthur stood up and took it from him, smirking in satisfaction. For someone who had declared he wasn't hungry, the plate was remarkably empty. Merlin simply blinked at him as Arthur put it back on the table, sleep clearly beginning to sneak up upon him now that he was relaxed. Arthur managed to pull the warlock's boots off, dragged Merlin up the bed and half got him under the covers before Merlin realised.
"What are you doing? No! No, Arthur, I won't! It's bad enough already, I'm not staying..."
"Shut up, Merlin, and do as you are told." Forcing Merlin's leg into bending, Arthur managed to whip the covers out from under him. He had to use almost his full body weight to force Merlin into lying down, and the second he backed off, Merlin sprang up again.
"No! Thank you for what you have done, Arthur, really, but no...this is too far. I'll be fine in my own bed."
"Nonsense. You've only just stopped shivering, you'll freeze in there and get pneumonia or something equally dramatic and I'll need to find a new servant."
"So you're just helping yourself?"
"Yep, now shut up and sleep."
"No..." Merlin was still fighting against Arthur's grip on his shoulder and the prince couldn't help but roll his eyes, huffing irritably.
"If you don't, I'll get Gaius."
"Then I'll tell him you've gone insane." Merlin shot back without missing a beat, straining against Arthur's hand.
"He'll see your hand and know I'm right, as usual. Merlin, please, just sleep." It was the exact wording of what Arthur had said this time that finally caused Merlin to collapse back into the pillows, biting his lip. Arthur had said please. Arthur was worried about him. Merlin couldn't help but wonder if Arthur was worried, whether that meant there was something to worry about. He knew the prince well enough, knew that if Arthur thought something was really wrong, he would have gone to Gaius. The fact that he hadn't meant he thought he could handle it. And Merlin was fighting him every step of the way. The warlock finally lowered his eyes with a sigh and snuggled into the bed a little more, submitting. Besides, it was rather comfortable.
"What 'bout you?" He slurred slightly, sleep already racing up to him as Arthur snuffed out a few of the candles, leaving just the fire burning.
"Sleep." Arthur ordered, deliberately avoiding the question. He hadn't really thought that far, but wasn't going to risk Merlin fighting back again. At least by him putting up a struggle, Arthur knew the shock was beginning to pass. A good night's sleep and he would be so much better come the morning. Merlin looked like he was going to protest again, but Arthur moved away from the bed, and by the time he had reached his table, Merlin was asleep.
Sitting down, the prince picked mildly at some of the leftover food before picking up his goblet. Nursing it between his hands, he stared into the fire, lost in thought. Had he really pushed Merlin too far this time? Part of him knew that was not the case, he hadn't even told his servant to come on the patrol with them. Merlin had just popped up, almost out of a bush, and fell in line. The men were so used to it, they didn't even blink at the servant's unexpected presence.
So lost in thought was he, Arthur didn't notice sleep stealing up on him the way it had done for his servant. He vaguely remembered thinking the goblet was going to wake Merlin up as it fell from limp fingers and clattered loudly against the floor, but then Arthur had fallen asleep.
Sunlight was streaming through the window when Arthur opened his eyes, immediately groaning as his back and neck protested spending the night slumped in his chair. As comfortable as he thought it was, apparently it wasn't comfortable enough to sleep in. Struggling into a more upright position, Arthur blinked when he saw the table. Everything from the night before had been cleared, leaving breakfast in its wake. Sitting up a little more, Arthur idly grabbed a grape as he looked around the room.
Merlin had his back to him, making the bed with well-practiced ease, but he seemed to sense Arthur's gaze and turned, a small smile on his face.
"The bath is ready when you are." He said softly, and Arthur nodded curtly.
"Is it hot enough?" He asked almost dismissively, not quite sure how he should be behaving. Merlin had changed his clothes, clearly indicating that he had been up for a while. Judging by the dark circles under his eyes, Arthur had a feeling his servant would have got very little sleep. But his eyes were clearer than the night before, and he seemed far more at ease. Arthur shifted almost uncomfortable at the sheer gratitude pouring out of Merlin. The warlock grinned, turned towards the bath and let his eyes flash. Immediately, steam began rising softly.
Arthur grinned, looking at the table as a sense of familiarity and ease settled between them. He ate a little more, took a long swig from the water jug and stood up, determined to wash all the grime from the battle off him properly. It was only then he realised the room had properly been tidied. Everything from the night before – the dagger, the basin, everything – had been cleared away.
"Forget it." Arthur knew Merlin had been about to thank him, and found that he didn't want to hear it. If he couldn't look after his own servant, how was he supposed to be king? Pulling his shirt over his head, Arthur quickly undressed and sank into the bath, almost groaning in pleasure at the perfect temperature working its way into his muscles, trying to work out what the small smile on Merlin's face meant as he picked out clothes for the prince for that day.
It was only as he ducked his head under the water and properly washed everything away did Arthur realise.
He hadn't once thought that he had been looking after his servant.
He had been looking out for his friend.
And Merlin knew it as well as he did.