Word Count: 12,750
Timeline: Set in an imaginary future a few months down the line, slight spoilers for the first 3 episodes.
Summary: “This idea of yours was stupid,” Merlin shouts, “It’s driving us both insane.”
Author’s Notes: The other half; making this whole damn thing a little over 21,000 words long. And I wrote it in exactly a week. *facepalm* Anyway, I am so writing some Morgana/Gwen sometime. Those girls are adorable! As you can tell from the rating, it eventually descended into porn. *facepalm* Continued love for widowedanthem, who temporarily broke my phone by texting me lovely high-definition photos of the boys that were too large for my crappy (but pretty) mobile to handle :)
Merlin spends as much of the next day as possible avoiding Helena. He thinks it is possibly a little bit cruel, but then Helena wouldn’t be a good match for him or Arthur – not that Merlin’s personal choices have a lot to do with it – and the sooner she finds this out the happier she will be. It will be easy for her to get a husband, Merlin decides; she’s young and very beautiful and can string a sentence together. As far as he can tell, many other noblewomen have been married for far less.
He wonders whether saying this to Helena at dinner will come across as an insult or a marriage proposal. He decides not to risk it.
Arthur seems considerably less angry today, though this is possibly because he has been roaming the castle and doing what he likes, having gleefully discovered that most servants will be ignored wherever they go, if only because they’re not important enough to warrant being noticed. Merlin wonders what it must be like, to gain this freedom for the first time in your life; to be able to walk down a hall and not turn every head, to be able to talk to people who don’t automatically have that trace of fear in their eyes.
“We should go riding,” Arthur tells him early in the afternoon.
“Why?” Merlin asks suspiciously.
“To get out of here for a while,” Arthur replies. “You’re getting that trapped look on your face.”
Merlin wasn’t entirely aware of feeling trapped, and the fact that Arthur can easily read it on him worries him slightly. He doesn’t say this aloud, and instead follows Arthur to the stables.
It turns out Arthur is right; Merlin doesn’t ride often but he does know how to, and rushing over the hills with the wind tugging at his hair and no expectations from anyone is a relief. Arthur, galloping beside him, is smiling an entirely unselfconscious way, eyes sparkling.
“This idea of yours was stupid,” Merlin shouts, “It’s driving us both insane.”
“And yet you’re still enjoying yourself,” Arthur calls back.
He might have the smallest of points; Merlin digs his ankles into his horse’s flanks to encourage it to move faster and overtakes Arthur, refusing to reply.
Later, they tether their horses to a willow tree near a river. Arthur produces a sack of apples and settles down comfortably on the grass, taking a huge bite out of the fruit.
“So we’re hiding,” Merlin observes, hearing the surprise in his voice.
“We’re hiding,” Arthur agrees with his mouth full. “Sit down.”
Merlin obediently does so, stretching out on the river bank. The sound of the rushing water is soothing and it’s quiet here; no one expects him to be anywhere or do anything. Arthur reaches into the bag and pulls out another apple, passing it to Merlin. Their fingers brush and for some reason Merlin notices this, curling his hand hard around the fruit until the moment passes.
He’s eaten about half the apple, relishing the sweet taste filling his mouth, when he turns to look at Arthur. The prince has rolled onto his back, closing his eyes against the sun, and lying there dressed in Merlin’s clothes and smiling slightly he looks just like anyone else. But the problem is that he isn’t anyone else.
“Doesn’t it drive you mad?” Merlin asks him quietly.
Arthur considers this for a moment, while Merlin watches the river flow on and wonders if they have to go back. Maybe they could just live here forever.
“It’s all I know,” Arthur replies eventually. His eyes snap open, glaring at Merlin upside-down. “Don’t you dare pity me.”
“I wasn’t going to,” Merlin replies. “I was just curious.”
Arthur’s lips curl into a smile, and he closes his eyes again. “Having a revelation, Merlin?”
Merlin smirks, where Arthur can’t see. “Maybe a little one.” He finishes his apple and tosses the core away. “You’re still a prat.”
“You’re still infuriating,” Arthur replies, sounding bemused.
Merlin thinks about pointing out how strange it is that Arthur can make a compliment sound like an insult, but that it also works vice versa. He decides not to, because it’s a nice warm summer afternoon and Arthur seems to be in an unusually good mood and Merlin knows when not to push it. Even if he chooses to pretend he doesn’t sometimes.
Princess Helena looks particularly pleased to see him at dinner that night. Merlin had been feeling calm right up until he walked into the banqueting hall; his afternoon by the river with Arthur, the two of them occasionally needling each other but mostly staying silent, helped ease some of the tension. Now, he’s more aware than ever that he has to be careful, and even Helena’s happy smile makes his stomach twist.
Merlin swallows down a mouthful of wine, telling himself that he can get through this. He glances hopefully down the hall, trying to see where Arthur has got to. He can’t see him, and feels immediately abandoned. This afternoon was the easiest it’s ever been between them; they weren’t exactly being nice to each other, because they’re possibly incapable of it, but there was no trace of malice or awkwardness beneath their words. He is beginning to wonder if maybe the Great Dragon has a point; maybe this isn’t all going to end in bloodshed.
“Tell me more of Camelot,” Helena suggests, “Of your family.”
Merlin does his best to describe King Uther using terms of praise and not once mentioning the phrase slightly obsessed dictator, although it’s almost impossible to keep remembering to refer to him as “my father”.
“And then,” he says carefully, smiling a little, “There is my father’s ward, Morgana.”
“I imagine she is like a sister to you,” Helena says, though her smile is now uncertain.
“Oh, nothing of the sort.”
Arthur was on the point of despairing of him when he finally glared at Merlin and said: for heaven’s sake, if you cannot insult her outright then insult her by comparison.
“And what is Morgana like?” Helena asks, voice a little stilted. Merlin almost feels cruel, and wants to tell Helena that this is all for the best, this way everyone gets to live and gets the chance to marry someone worthy of them.
“She’s very beautiful,” Merlin says, and really, it’s not difficult to sing Morgana’s praises because she is stunning and charming and talented and kind. “She is considered the greatest beauty in the kingdom.” He drops his voice, hating himself, and adds: “But you are almost as fair as her, Lady Helena.”
Helena looks rather like she would like to dump her goblet of wine all over him. Merlin does not exactly blame her.
He glances up, looking down the hall. Arthur is watching, a flicker of a smile on his mouth. He raises his goblet in a silent toast. Merlin refuses to smile back, still feeling guilty about what he’s doing. Arthur shrugs, and then turns his attention to talking to the maidservant beside him; Merlin recognises her as Catherine.
Helena makes very little conversation with him for the rest of the meal; Merlin finds himself telling the tale of Knight Valiant and the snake-filled shield. He of course plays down his own role in it and makes Arthur seem like the triumphant hero before remembering that he doesn’t necessarily want Arthur liked and respected here. He’s walking a fine line, of course, and is beginning to suspect that he might slip.
That night, Arthur is smiling delightedly.
“You’re getting somewhere,” he says.
“Yes.” Merlin scowls. “Thanks a lot.”
“You could be slightly grateful,” Arthur tells him, “Since I am saving your life here.”
Merlin thinks about pointing out that it wouldn’t need saving in the first place if Arthur hadn’t come up with this scheme, but it’s partially his own fault for agreeing, so he just sighs.
“I suppose I should thank you for making me into something I’m not,” he responds flatly.
The acid has returned, bubbling under all the words they say. The ease of conversation has vanished. Maybe Merlin only imagined it in the first place.
“I’ve made you into a prince,” Arthur reminds him. “Of course that’s different to you.”
“No.” Merlin shakes his head vehemently. “You’ve made me into a bastard. A cruel bastard who upsets innocent women because he can. That was all I thought of you when I first met you, and then I thought that there might be something underneath. But there isn’t, is there?”
There’s a moment when Merlin honestly believes that Arthur is going to punch him, and he’s reasonably sure that Arthur believes it too.
“You have no right to speak to me like that.” Arthur has retreated into himself; no longer friend, no longer accomplice. Now he’s hard and icy and haughty and his eyes are blazing; Merlin thinks he would almost be afraid if he weren’t so angry.
“No, of course I don’t, sire.” Merlin practically spits the last word, trying to keep himself calm. When he gets angry, he loses control of his magic; the last thing he needs right now is to hurt Arthur or damage this room because he let his temper get too strong.
“I don’t have to listen to this,” Arthur informs him coolly, “Especially not from the likes of you.”
“The likes of me?” Merlin snaps. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
But Arthur is storming across the room, slamming the door that divides them. Merlin is sorely tempted, just for a moment, to follow him and shout at him, but there’s nothing that can be achieved by doing that. Instead, he throws himself onto the bed and glares at the canopy above him.
A moment later, all the curtains collapse, falling in a heavy pile of slightly musty velvet that covers Merlin completely. He wants to scream for a minute, or to run down the corridor and tell everyone what’s really going on, but what comes out of his mouth is a slightly hysterical burst of laughter. He can’t contain it, lying in the oppressive darkness of material, laughing until tears are practically rolling down his cheeks.
Someone pulls the fallen curtains away until the light finally reaches Merlin’s eyes. Arthur is staring down at him, still looking frustrated.
“There is something very wrong with you, Merlin,” he says.
Merlin chokes down another burst of laughter. “Yes, your majesty.”
Arthur shakes his head. “I can’t believe you pulled these down in a fit of pique,” he says, sounding amused.
“I didn’t,” Merlin protests, “They fell down. Nothing at all to do with me.”
Arthur looks a little incredulous but offers Merlin a hand to his feet.
“I suppose we’d better put these back up,” Arthur says, after a moment.
“Well, yes,” Merlin agrees. “Unless you’d like to let me share your bed.”
He realises Arthur must be more relieved at this temporary truce than he was expecting because he smiles, just a little.
“No. I’m willing to bet that you kick.”
Their eyes meet and for a minute he almost thinks… but no, and Merlin turns his attention back to the fallen curtains, cheeks starting to burn in spite of himself.
“I’ll sort this out, sire,” he says. “I think I know what I’m doing more than you do.”
Arthur glances at him. “If you’re sure…”
“Goodnight,” Merlin says firmly, and waits until the door’s closed again before staring at the curtains until they all fly back to where they’re meant to be.
He doesn’t want to think over what’s happened tonight.
They manage to spend the majority of the next day in a reasonably companionable way. Merlin hasn’t got openly angry with Arthur since they first met; he’s learned that it isn’t the way to get through to the prince. Arthur just tends to dismiss people being angry with him; you’ve got to be a lot more subtle if you want to make a point. But Merlin also knows that he’s angry with himself, not Arthur, and that’s something else entirely. He can’t blame Arthur for being the way he’s always been.
“You don’t have to be cruel to Helena tonight,” Arthur says lightly, when Merlin has dressed for the meal and is carefully adjusting the heavy crown on his head; he can’t help thinking he is going to have some kind of worryingly permanent neck damage by the time they go home. “Just… don’t be too attentive and it should all be fine.”
They have no evidence that this is going to be fine at all, but Merlin isn’t going to point this out, especially since he and Arthur seem to have got themselves back to normal. Not like yesterday, on the river bank, when everything seemed to be a little close and a little too easy between them; but Merlin is beginning to think that that level of intimacy between them isn’t necessarily a good idea, given how yesterday ended.
And he’s trying not to think about that, because if he loses control of his emotions at any point tonight he could damage a lot more than just curtains.
Merlin is as inattentive as he can manage, avoiding answering Helena’s questions and concentrating more on the admittedly excellent food. The wine is particularly good tonight, and worryingly potent, so he drinks as little as possible. Arthur, further down the hall with Catherine again, doesn’t have that kind of restraint, and Merlin reflects that all they need tonight is for Arthur to get absolutely blind drunk. Helena doesn’t seem to mind Merlin’s detached attitude; she is too busy talking to her father’s favourite knight. The man is very good-looking and Merlin fervently hopes that Helena will somehow decide to be in love with him, because that would sort everything out wonderfully.
Catherine makes herself eternally popular in Merlin’s eyes by getting Arthur out of the hall before he can make an idiot of himself; it might be all right for the prince to drink to excess but he isn’t the prince right now and Merlin has got enough to worry about without having to wonder what Arthur is doing and saying while under the influence of a lot of wine.
“Our servants seem to be getting on very well,” Helena tells him later with a smile. Merlin suddenly wonders if Morgana says the same thing to Arthur; he and Gwen are always in and out of each other’s company. It’s no wonder that the court is rife with rumours about them; but Gwen laughs them off easily enough, so Merlin does the same.
“They do,” Merlin agrees. “It’s nice that… Merlin has found someone to spend time with while he is here.”
Referring to himself while talking about Arthur is still very strange, and he is eternally grateful that they leave in a couple of days. Merlin really cannot wait to get back to Camelot, to return to blissful anonymity, and to not have to worry about anything more than keeping his magic hidden so Uther won’t see fit to have him killed. Oh, well, and the Dragon who still spouts destiny every time Merlin goes to see him, although the point has been well and truly made.
“Do you think it’s a good sign?” Helena asks.
They walk out of the hall together; Merlin rather thinks that he is meant to accompany her back to her room or something like that. It would be the chivalrous thing to do, to walk her to her chambers; he thinks Arthur does it for Morgana all the time, although of course they’re bickering spiritedly all the way. Merlin walks Gwen everywhere a lot of the time too, although it doesn’t feel like this. It feels normal, natural, something friends do, but he can’t help thinking that Helena is not expecting friendship. Of course she isn’t expecting friendship; Prince Arthur has supposedly come here to decide whether a marriage would be at all feasible.
“What’s a good sign?” Merlin asks carefully.
“That our servants seem to like each other,” Helena replies lightly.
Merlin suspects that Arthur has no intention of falling in love with Catherine, but he also suspects that Catherine is bright enough to have picked up on this. Perhaps their relationship is very similar to Merlin’s relationship with Gwen; not that he can think of a tactful way to ask Arthur about this.
“I don’t know,” Merlin replies, stilted and awkward, trying to make any conversation between them stop. He can’t run away and leave Helena standing in the corridor, unfortunately, but he can do his best not to encourage her. It’s only fair on both of them, after all.
The silence remains awkward and heavy all the way to her chamber. Helena hesitates at the door, grey eyes lit by the torches in the walls.
“Well, goodnight,” she says.
“Goodnight,” Merlin replies quickly. He is about to turn and go when Helena moves up onto her tiptoes, pressing her lips against his. It’s brief and soft and her mouth remains mercifully closed, and Merlin just congratulates himself on the fact he doesn’t make a terrified and strangled noise when she does this.
Helena giggles, cheeks flushed, and then disappears into her room.
Merlin practically falls against the wall, pressing his back to the stone. This is bad. This is really, really bad. And he has no idea what he’s going to tell Arthur, other than: well, um, actually, it sort of looks like this marriage might have to go ahead after all. But I’m sure you’ll get used to being married. It might even be fun! And he can’t see that conversation going well at all.
“You’ve been gone a long time,” Arthur observes when Merlin finally creeps back into their chamber. Merlin gives his master a quick once-over, and concludes that while Arthur is drunk, he is not catastrophically drunk, and Merlin has seen him in far worse condition in the past. After all, Arthur is a prince used to his excesses whether he’s being a prince or not, and he cannot restrain himself, not even for a night.
“Apparently it was chivalrous to walk Helena back to her chamber,” Merlin explains uncomfortably, unable to look Arthur in the eye. He thinks his cheeks might be flushing a little, but perhaps Arthur will be too inebriated to notice.
“You’re blushing,” Arthur says coldly. Merlin supposes that complete obliviousness might have been too much to hope for. There’s a pause that goes on for too long, and Merlin wants to explain himself, calm Arthur down before this explodes, but he can’t find the words and instead stands in miserable silence. Finally, Arthur catches his gaze, and there’s piercing anger in his eyes. “You kissed her.”
Merlin can’t tell if Arthur knows this because there’s some kind of evidence, or if his pink cheeks and expression give it away, or if he is just that predictable.
“I couldn’t stop her,” Merlin responds, sounding small and guilty.
“So you just couldn’t help yourself?” Arthur demands.
“I’m not saying that.” Merlin tries to sound sane and reasonable. “She kissed me. I couldn’t say ‘no’.”
Arthur laughs, sharp and bitter. “Oh, of course, because you’re incapable of saying ‘no’ to anyone.” His face tightens. “Except your master. You always seem to be able to say ‘no’ to me.”
Merlin thinks about pointing out that he agreed to this whole stupid venture, and just look how well this has turned out, but realises that Arthur sort of has a point.
“It’s not the same,” he murmurs uncomfortably, turning his attention to his feet.
“It’s me you owe loyalty to,” Arthur reminds him, “You shouldn’t refuse me anything.”
Merlin realises that they’re on very unsteady ground here; Arthur is drunk and this topic is going to turn out to be dangerous and this has become an entirely different argument. An argument that Merlin doesn’t entirely understand, but he knows they shouldn’t have it; definitely not here and now, and possibly not ever.
“Helena was right there,” he says, raising his head and trying to look earnest. “I couldn’t work out a polite way to stop her.”
Arthur’s lips curl into a hint of a smile; the twist to them makes Merlin feel extremely uncomfortable, and just a little afraid. He’s never been afraid of Arthur before, and he refuses to start now, but nonetheless he takes an involuntary step back.
“But you could have said ‘no’ to anyone else.” Arthur’s voice is hard, and he’s advancing on Merlin. It’s not menacing, it’s something else entirely, and Merlin forces himself to remember that he’s the one wearing the sword. Arthur can’t be about to attack him. “It would be easy to say ‘no’ to anyone else.”
He’s standing too close, his hands coming up to cup Merlin’s face, tilting his chin upwards a little. His calloused fingertips are hard against Merlin’s cheekbones and he swallows hard, his breath catching in his chest. For a moment, just a moment, he considers staying silent, but his stomach clenches too hard.
“Sire?” Merlin asks, uncertainty rich in his tone.
“See?” Arthur smirks and pulls away. “It is perfectly possible to refuse someone.”
Merlin can’t reply; they just stand for a moment, both apparently shocked by what they nearly did. What they could have done.
“What does it matter?” Arthur asks, and it almost seems like he’s addressing the question to himself, not to Merlin. “You’re just a servant and you cannot marry her whether you want to or not.” He laughs slightly, the harsh, arrogant laugh of a prince who can have whatever he wants whenever he wants it.
“But I don’t want to marry her,” Merlin responds. Arthur makes no sign that he’s heard him, and the anger rises in his chest. “This is all your fault, you know!”
Arthur shakes his head slightly. “I should have known you couldn’t do this. You’re the worst servant I’ve ever had.”
Merlin bristles. “I’m the best servant you’ve ever had, you’re just too damn arrogant to notice!”
Arthur gets too close to him again; Merlin tenses, but all Arthur does is deftly remove the crown from Merlin’s head and put it on the table with a damning clang. “When we get back to Camelot,” he says, with a hard, clear certainty in his voice, “You can leave.”
Merlin’s stomach clenches. “You’re drunk,” he points out, “You’re tired, and you’re frustrated. Think about what you’re saying.”
Arthur shrugs. “You said it yourself,” he says. “You are dispensable. You’re just a manservant, and I can find another.”
Merlin wants to beg Arthur not to do this. The last time Arthur sacked him, they’d only been together a day. It didn’t matter, then. But now it does matter and he can’t leave Arthur. He just can’t. And he wants to argue this until Arthur sees sense, but he can’t seem to make the words come out. Instead, he nods, hard and decisive.
“Fine.” He strips Arthur’s heavy velvet cloak off, lets it pool on the floor, and then bends down to pull off the boots, kicking them under the table. He drags the fine shirt over his head, leaving himself in his trousers and undershirt. “Fine.”
“What are you doing?” Arthur demands, the slightest crack in his voice which Merlin chooses to ignore.
“I’m going to sleep,” Merlin replies, heading across to the adjoining chamber.
“You can’t sleep in there,” Arthur protests.
“I’m just a servant,” Merlin tells him, a bite in his tone. “I know my place.”
He throws the goose feather pillows off the bed and back into the main chamber, and then slams the door shut, ignoring Arthur’s shouting demands to get back and sleep where he’s supposed to.
His heart is hammering in his chest, slamming itself against his ribs, and Merlin forces himself to calm and breathe before he brings the ceiling crashing down or something equally inadvisable. Arthur’s voice echoes continuously in his head: when we get back to Camelot, you can leave. No give, no room for negotiation. No space to go back on his decision.
Merlin wonders bitterly if the Dragon ever saw this coming. And if it did, then it could have bloody well warned him.
The next morning Merlin is woken early by bright sunlight in his eyes. He can’t work out where he is for a moment, and then it all comes crashing back into his head. He grimaces, wondering how he could have been so stupid, both to let Helena kiss him and to handle things with Arthur so badly. He should have just got himself away from Arthur before the argument began so they could deal with all of it this morning, slightly more awake and slightly less drunk and slightly more rational. But it’s too late for that, and now Merlin is stuck in this situation. He has to go along with Arthur’s ridiculous scheme to save his own life, but he’s been removed from his position as manservant and Princess Helena probably now thinks he’s in love with her.
In addition to this, Merlin discovers as he sits up, he has a strange crick in his neck from sleeping without pillows on the weirdly lumpy mattress. The blankets smell like Arthur, which is something he is not thinking about, and all in all he’s had a dreadful night’s sleep.
Merlin ventures over to the door, pulling it open a little. There’s silence from the room; Arthur has pulled the curtains tight around the bed, and although Merlin can just about hear his sleepy breathing if he strains himself, there’s nothing else. The feather pillows are still lying on the floor where he threw them, and Merlin momentarily wishes that he’d come back out and reclaimed them at some point in the night. He rolls his head on his shoulders, trying to feel less uncomfortable, and then unwillingly finds himself spending a minute wondering whether Uther will hang or behead him if this gets out.
The room is a mess; the clothes have been pulled out of the cupboard and left all over the place, the chairs have apparently been kicked over, and everything has been swept off the table and is lying haphazardly on the floorboards.
It’s nice to know that Arthur can handle his anger with maturity.
Merlin chooses himself a shirt and some clean trousers from the pile on the floor, because although he never wants to put on another piece of Arthur’s clothing he doesn’t have a lot of choice, and then gets to work. Magic really is useful, he reflects, watching items fly all over the room to their rightful places while Arthur breathes steadily on behind the curtains. It’s just as well he has magic because just as the final shirt folds itself neatly onto a shelf there comes a hesitant knock at the door. Merlin goes to answer it.
It’s the maidservant who comes in every morning, bearing a tray of breakfast. She glances around the room, but doesn’t question Arthur’s absence; she got used to the fact he’s never there. But her eyes linger on the drawn bed curtains as she lays the food on the table.
“My manservant has been taken ill,” Merlin explains quickly, keeping his voice soft. “I allowed him to take my bed until he has recovered.”
She smiles. “Your majesty is very generous,” she informs him, and her tone bears a slight trace of flirtation in it. This is ridiculous; surely being a prince can’t make everyone fall in love with you, can it? “Would you like me to send for the physician?”
Merlin is almost tempted to say ‘yes’, just so Arthur will have to be woken up and given an unnecessary examination, but decides that that would be petty and fairly stupid, so he shakes his head.
“I will see how he feels when he wakes up,” he replies. “But thank you.”
She flutters another smile at him before leaving. Merlin closes the door and sighs. He doesn’t particularly want to eat anything, but there’s nothing else to do so he sits down and picks at the fruit. He doesn’t touch the apples, chewing and listening to Arthur sleep. He wants to wake the prince up and apologise and see if he can make this all a little less complicated, but he knows that that isn’t possible, so he doesn’t. He misses Gwen to a ridiculous amount; he wants to talk to someone, but there isn’t anyone here. Unless he chooses to confide in Helena, which would end incredibly badly.
In the end, Merlin retrieves his book from where he has hidden it, and returns to the side chamber. There, he sits cross-legged on the frustratingly uncomfortable mattress and cracks the heavy tome open, flicking through the spells. At first, he is absent-minded, just enjoying the soothing feeling of the pages under his hands, skimming his eyes over the hundreds of spells that he will one day master, but he soon becomes aware that he’s looking for something. Of course there won’t be a spell that fixes all of this, because weirdly enough no one thought to create a spell to sort it all out when your master persuades you to pretend to be a prince and then sacks you and you also happen to have a princess who may or may not love you but certainly expects to marry you and none of it’s really your fault except maybe you should have refused to do it in the first place.
For the first time, Merlin begins to realise what might be appealing about living in a cave beneath a castle and having no visitors ever. Maybe he could move in with the Dragon, when he goes back. If it is so very obsessed with his destiny, then it can sort all this out. Merlin is sick and tired of trying to be the other half of Arthur’s coin, or whatever stupid metaphor the Dragon used last time. Still, Merlin muses, trying to feel a little charitable, if he had been chained in a cave for all of eternity by a magic-obsessed borderline tyrant, he would probably be annoyingly cryptic too.
About an hour or so later, Arthur slams into the room. The door bounces against the wall, the hinges making a noise of protest. Merlin has already hidden the book under the covers and is lying on his back, hands tucked behind his head. He stares at the ceiling for a while, waiting to see if Arthur will deign to speak to him or not. Arthur has all the power here, just as he has always had all the power, and Merlin does not have the option to set this right. He has to wait, and see if Arthur is open to conversation. He becomes aware that he’s holding his breath, hoping against hope that Arthur will say something. Anything. Insulting, cruel, Merlin doesn’t care; Arthur can even threaten him, as long as it begins something.
But Arthur remains silent, scooping up another of Merlin’s shirts and leaving the room abruptly, pulling the door closed behind him. Merlin breathes out, slowly. His heart is banging against his ribs again, but it’s all come to nothing. Arthur doesn’t want to talk, and Merlin is in no position to push things.
Twenty minutes later, and the door opens again. Merlin pulls the blanket quickly over the open book, and stares at Arthur. The prince looks rather the worse after his drinking yesterday, eyes dark bruises in his face, but the expression on his face is familiar to Merlin. It was the expression he had when Merlin first met him; disdainful, arrogant, and cold. He thought that had gone from Arthur’s personality, but apparently not.
“Yes, sire?” Merlin asks carefully. There’s no mocking bite to the ‘sire’ as there normally is, and he doesn’t meet Arthur’s piercing gaze.
Arthur says nothing, but throws one of the pillows at him, before slamming the door closed again. The pillow hits Merlin squarely in the face, but he decides that if he’s going to spend the day hiding in here it will be nice to have something to rest his head on. He’s got a headache building, pressing hard against his temples.
Leaving the book open but hidden by the blanket, he lies down, pressing his face against the soft pillow. His headache feels like it’s building, and he breathes out slowly. The trapped feeling is returning, and there will still be the matter of the journey home, if they by some miracle make it through the next couple of days. Arthur will be the prince again, then, leaving Merlin to… what? If he is not a manservant any more then how will he travel? Will he be allowed to return with the royal party?
Merlin makes a long, groaning sound of confusion and irritation into the pillow, and once he has done that, finds himself thinking back over the previous night, although he promised himself that he wouldn’t. He replays every angry word, every facial expression, every look in Arthur’s furious eyes. And then he swallows hard, stomach clenching.
Arthur was drunk last night, drunk and angry, and for a moment there he wanted to kiss Merlin. That much is certain. And Merlin is not entirely sure why, but he knows it can’t bode well.
He sits back up again, pulling the blanket away from the book, and starts searching the pages again with more fervour. There must be something he can do, some incantation that will either make Arthur less angry or Helena less affectionate. Anything at all.
Hours later, when his fingers are stiff from turning the pages, Merlin finally admits that this is one case where magic cannot help. As it turns out, magic cannot really be used to manipulate someone’s emotions. Merlin is on his own here. On his own and rapidly sinking. The only thing of worth that he has achieved is a small incantation that removed all the lumps from the mattress, leaving it mercifully comfortable.
Arthur throws something heavy at the door to signify that food has been brought for them; Merlin obediently goes out and forces himself to eat, not looking at Arthur, instead focusing on the setting sun outside the window. He has avoided Helena successfully today, but he knows that tomorrow it will not be so easy and then what will he do?
This part is too long for lj; so here's the other bit