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How Did We Get Here Again?

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~*~ A&M ~*~

Frustrated and perilously close to giving up, Arthur crumpled the parchment and threw it on the floor. This was getting ridiculous. Certainly he had it in him to compose one measly little speech. It couldn’t be that difficult.

Yet it was.

This is why he usually had Merlin prepare his speeches.

“Come on, Arthur, you can do this,” he chided himself. “You don’t need Merlin.”

Lies. All lies.

The truth was that Arthur did need Merlin.

And not only because he could string words together and make them flow seamlessly.

Arthur sighed. Best not to think about that now.

Ready to try again, he put quill to parchment and begged whatever higher power there was to please permit this attempt to be the last. He was quickly losing patience.

 

We are honoured that Lady Catrina… the real Lady Catrina, of the House of Dragor, has graced Camelot with a visit. Our families have a long and rich history, Arthur wrote, making a mental note to ask his father more about what exactly that long and rich history was, and how their families had met.

 

We look forward to this visit and fervently expect each of you to extend to our vaunted guests the fondest of welcomes, he reluctantly added with great reservation. It seemed a rather impossible ask of the people of Camelot—no matter that the troll that had assumed Lady Catrina’s identity had been an imposter, it had taken the form of someone the king of Camelot trusted, and that image and the idea of what it had represented wouldn’t soon leave these people—but his father had been adamant regarding this point.

However… if Arthur reworded the request and made it seem less an edict from the king and more a request from a father who knew what it was like to worry about the future of his family and subjects, perhaps it would go over better.

Arthur pondered what should come next, and he again marveled at how easy the art of speechwriting was for Merlin. Why on earth had such a talent been wasted on him? Arthur was the one who needed the skill, not Merlin! Arthur harrumphed irritably, but at least he had written more than he had in his previous attempts. Now if only he could finish it and manage to balance what he needed and wanted to convey.

He pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a hearty sigh, wondering, not for the first time, if his father had as much difficulty balancing want and need as his son did. Certainly, it couldn't be easy being king; the responsibilities were immense and the consequences for a wrong choice made could be fatal to not only him, but to his kingdom and its subjects. But Arthur had it on good authority that neither was it easy being the son of the king. Arthur had been asked to do questionable deeds and was expected to act a certain way.

And, as he was constantly reminded on a daily basis, thanks to the presence of his irksome yet indispensable manservant, Merlin, balancing need and want had never been a strength of his.

Perfect example... the not-hug he and Merlin had almost shared a few weeks earlier. While a hug might have been wanted, there was a need to act otherwise. It was just the way it was. Arthur loathed having to play a role in the stead of being himself, yet he did because, well, he just did. He guessed it was easier to do as expected.

For now.

He was beginning to see a time when he wouldn't care so much what his father thought. But, for now, he did, and unless he wanted to disappoint his father, he best forego these thoughts about his manservant and get back to composing words having to do with the kingdom of Camelot and regaining the trust of his father's subjects.

Arthur had to get this right, therefore he reluctantly pushed Merlin from his mind and returned his attention to the parchment before him.

His father would most assuredly want Arthur to gloss over the events of the past month and perhaps not even mention anything about the troll and how it had very nearly destroyed Camelot, but Arthur knew this speech needed to address the situation. And, as he was the one delivering it, he would do his best to tell everyone what they needed to hear.

That didn’t mean his father couldn’t still wield his mighty quill and make this speech more his, but until that happened Arthur would write what was in his heart.

 

My father understands that because of the recent incident with the imposter troll, it will be difficult for many of you to trust that our guest has no ill-will towards Camelot, but let me assure you that you have nothing to worry about. Lady Catrina very much wishes to put each of your minds at ease. She has no desire to claim Camelot as her own, nor does she wish for my father’s hand in marriage. She was widowed this past year and, in the midst of her grief, her kingdom was cruelly ripped from her grasp.These two events happening in such close proximity has left my father’s friend lost and reeling.

 

Arthur read over what he’d written thus far, and even as he had thought his words adequate as he’d thought of them, he didn’t like one word of it now. Not one bit.

It was too long, for one thing.

He needed to write something succinct and dynamic, words that would reflect the strength of Lady Catrina whilst not making her appear threatening. She was in the process of regrouping her army and allies so they could attempt to reclaim Dragor, and the king had asked his son to convey this.

Arthur was trying, but how to do that whilst minimizing the fear that the fake Lady Catrina had invoked was what he found himself struggling with. It was a tricky task, one he knew Merlin would be able to pull off without hesitation—he was magic with words; he could weave sentences together with ease and wonder—but he’d been ill for the past several days and had been confined to his bed.

As always, Merlin had horrific timing.

But Arthur would not be deterred.

He could do this.

He put a huge X through the parchment and crumpled it up before throwing it into the rubbish bin to join the other three or ten attempts. He massaged his temples and let out a frustrated sigh.

Why again had he decided it a good idea to wake before it was light out? Oh, yes, because he had tossed and turned most of the night, unable to sleep.

Once again failing to articulate anything coherent, Arthur set down the quill beside the blank parchment as he glanced over at his bed and made a mental note of each item he had set out to pack for his and Merlin’s upcoming journey. All seemed to be in order, but as he was not at all adept in packing for himself, he would need to check with Merlin and make sure there wasn’t anything he had failed to set out.

Arthur stretched his arms above his head and yawned as he turned towards the window. He watched the rising sun as the first dim, muted rays of a new day began filtering through the coloured glass, making pretty designs on the wall. As much as he would rather still be asleep this early in the morning, he had to admit that it was somewhat peaceful and rejuvenating to be up as the sun broke the horizon.

It had been raining for days—since the troll who had very nearly been the ruin of Camelot was removed once and for all—therefore, seeing the sun and hearing the normal sounds of early-morning commerce taking place below was a pleasant change.

Things were finally returning to normal, yet Arthur found himself ill at ease.

Why again would the true Lady Catrina want to come here after what had happened?

It was beyond Arthur’s understanding, but his father had been receptive when the true head of the House of Dragor requested an audience with the King of Camelot.

So, here they were.

Arthur wasn’t sure what to think. The fact that he and Merlin were to depart later in the day to meet Lady Catrina and her travelling party and accompany them back to Camelot was still quite shocking. There was a small part of Arthur that couldn’t wait to see the troll-less friend of Uther Pendragon whom his father had once thought so highly of, but a larger part of him wasn’t sure it was a good idea.

Lady Catrina (obviously, not really her, but would the people be able to truly separate the two?) had, after all, been the reason for many unpopular edicts implemented whilst Camelot’s king had been under the troll’s control. Even though each of those had been immediately revoked once the imposter was disposed of, what if the people were angry enough about what happened that they took their frustrations out on the unfortunate real Lady Catrina? Arthur doubted this would happen, but one could never truly know the hearts of his father’s subjects.

These very families had risen up against their king once before. With the help of a covetous young soldier in search of a kingdom to lord over, these subjects’ fathers, brothers, uncles, and grandfathers had seen their leader dethroned and replaced. That soldier, Uther Pendragon, had assumed the throne, so Arthur knew that his fears were not entirely unfounded.

Regardless of the possible political ramifications, his father was excited at the prospect of meeting his former friend after all these years.

Even Gaius was all agog at the prospect.

Merlin, of course, could hardly speak of the pending journey and subsequent meeting without acting a fool and laughing his little head off. And when Merlin and Leon got together and talked about the troll Lady Catrina and her huge tusks… well, it was a sad state of affairs, but even Arthur had to admit that they deserved their laughter.

A troll had married the King of Camelot.

And nothing, not even the most powerful concoction known to man, would erase that.

Even Arthur had an occasional chuckle about it, but only in private, of course.

Truth be told, even as he was somewhat curious, Arthur would rather not meet the true Head of the House of Dragor—he would never be able to face her and not think of the troll that had very nearly succeeded in ruining Camelot and his father, or the way his father had looked at the troll, having absolutely no idea what was truly before him because of the enchantment.

It was nauseating to think how such a powerful man had been so easily immobilized.

But thanks to Merlin and Gaius (mostly Gaius, but Arthur grudgingly admitted that Merlin had warned him and played his part), the troll and her accomplice had been discovered and dealt with. That Arthur had to feign death for that to happen still seemed unreal, but whenever Arthur had a moment of doubt as to the reality of the situation, Merlin was all too ready to regale him with a play-by-play of the events, sound-effects, facial expressions, hand motions, and all.

This thought made Arthur smile. He might not want to be reminded of the unfortunate events of the past month, but hearing Merlin’s laughter, no matter the cause, would never get old.

Speaking of Merlin… where was he? He should have arrived by now. Had he relapsed? Arthur had been assured Merlin was better, but what if he wasn’t?

A fissure of fear ran through Arthur, but he quickly pushed it away, unwilling to travel down that path needlessly.

He depended on Merlin, and as much as he wished he didn’t think this, he knew he would be lost without his trusted manservant.

Completely and utterly lost.

For better or worse, Merlin was Arthur’s compass these days.

Arthur shook his head in wonderment.

What a difference a year made.

Before Merlin Arthur had, for the most part, revelled in his daily pursuits of being the king’s son, which meant he pretty much held his own court and did as he pleased without anyone to tell him his choices might not be smart. But now, all these many months later, the absence of his most trusted servant who told him repeatedly that his choices might not be smart made Arthur restless.

Merlin filled that empty space that Arthur never knew existed before.

It was as if Merlin was intrinsically woven into the fabric of Arthur’s life now. A few days earlier Morgana had made a comment to him about Merlin and him being a package deal—you got two for one—to which Arthur had harrumphed and made a strange face, but he knew what she spoke to be the truth.

And it made him happy.

Happiness was something Arthur had seen little of, but now that Merlin was here, there was much more contentment, and as strange as it seemed, Merlin added purpose to Arthur’s life. No longer was the heir to the throne of Camelot merely training to be king one day. He was attempting to be a better person.

And it was all down to a clumsy serving boy who had been born in a small village called Ealdor.

Arthur would deny these truths to anyone who asked, but he could never deny the veracity of these feelings to himself.

“Merlin,” he whispered as he looked around the large, empty room that seemed much too lonely, quiet, and desolate.

Arthur’s eyes rested upon the wardrobe and he grinned when the red neckerchief he’d threaded through one of the ornate handles caught his attention. Merlin had left it behind several days ago when he complained of feeling unwell. Arthur had sent him away with strict orders to get rest and have Gaius look at him. He’d thought Merlin would be put to rights and return to work the following day, but the Court Physician had sent Morris to inform Arthur that Merlin would be confined to his bed for the next several days.

Arthur had cut his training short to go see Merlin, to check that his manservant wasn’t too ill, but when Morgana and Gwen began making nonsensical comments about how little Arthur couldn’t cope without his Merlin, Arthur had decided against proving them right, but he wasn’t happy about it. They were fine ones to talk—Morgana would be lost without Gwen.

But the next day had found Arthur restless and worried. No matter that Morgana gave him a knowing look and winked as she told him Merlin would be more than happy to see his master when he was ill and feeling like death (it was completely sarcastic and not at all serious) as they left a meeting with his father, he decided he didn’t care what anyone thought.

Immediately following morning training he had stopped by Gaius’s, intent on regaling Merlin with stories about Morris.

Morris, who had been Arthur’s manservant until Merlin replaced him (the king hadn’t at all been impressed with the skittish boy who really did ask for others to mock him, what with his meek countenance and unwillingness to question anything, and had been seeking a replacement for his son for some time when Merlin showed up), was now interning with Geoffrey of Monmouth, but when the opportunity presented itself, such as whenever Merlin had to run important errands for Gaius, or when, like now, Merlin was ill, Morris resumed his former duties with Arthur.

And this irked Merlin to no end. Yes, he had defended Morris during his infamous first meeting with Arthur, but that had been then.

Things changed.

Jealousies flared.

Of course Merlin denied his ire towards Arthur’s former servant had anything to do with being covetous, but Arthur wasn’t daft or blind. Merlin was green with envy, and Arthur hoped that hearing about Morris and his eager need to please the king’s son would give Merlin extra incentive to get better faster.

Arthur needed him to help with his pesky speech.

And yes, there were other reasons for the visit, but there was no need to dwell on his feelings when Arthur could so easily use Morris and the speech as his excuse.

So he’d gone to see Merlin, achieving his goals, and then some.

Merlin’s smile had lit up the room. Perhaps it hadn’t done anything to help Merlin’s physical health, but it had done a world of good for Arthur’s mental well-being.

An added bonus had been Gaius’s assurance that Merlin would be well enough to resume his duties in a few days, but with that had come a rather forceful rebuke; the Court Physician, it seemed, did not take kindly to Arthur throwing Morris in Merlin’s face. True, it had been a low blow, but desperate times called for desperate measures, right? Arthur had reluctantly taken his leave lest he let slip that he was desperate to have Merlin back.

Returning his attention to the blank parchment before him, Arthur sighed, hoping fervently that Merlin hadn’t regressed. The evening before, as Arthur and Merlin shared a bowl of grapes and tomatoes, Merlin had assured him that, if all went according to plan, he would be back at work the following day.

But the following day was here and Merlin was not.

Another sigh. Arthur reluctantly retrieved his quill.

He needed to finish writing this speech.

It was merely a few words. Surely he could come up with something on his own. He was, after all, the prince. He would, if need be, resort to having Merlin come up with something if it came down to it, but Arthur really did want to prove to himself that he could do this.

The sound of the servant door opening immediately calmed Arthur.

“Sorry, sire,” Merlin called out as he entered the room carrying what looked like a bowl of pickled eggs. Arthur motioned for Merlin to set it down on his desk, working extra hard not to look too pleased that Merlin was back. “Gaius wouldn’t allow me to leave before he examined me. He said I need more rest, but there is no time for that as we have a journey to prepare for.” He turned away and coughed as he looked at the items on the bed.

“If I get sick because of you, Merlin…” Arthur began, but he never finished because he knew that he’d rather get sick because Merlin was around than be the healthiest person alive without Merlin in his life.

What had Arthur’s life become?

Merlin grinned and rolled his eyes as he studied the items on the bed. “I see you have been productive, but have you begun writing the speech?” he asked as he walked to Arthur’s wardrobe and retrieved his neckerchief with a small chuckle before donning it. He then retrieved several items of clothing from within. “Remember you need to be bold with your words.”

Arthur ignored Merlin and attempted to concentrate on finishing the speech.

Later that afternoon, when the sun was at its zenith, Arthur looked out over the courtyard and basked in the comfortable autumn day, knowing that all too soon the winds would arrive, the temperature would fall, and the rains that had thus far been consistent yet light would return with the promise of flooding that would make travel all but impossible.

“Why Lady Catrina chose to travel to Camelot now, with the bitter cold soon to settle in, is beyond me, but I trust that you will have no problem finding her and her travelling party, Arthur,” his father said emphatically as he and his son made their way down the steps to where Merlin had his and Arthur’s horses ready for the journey.

“We will have no problems, Father,” Arthur said with every confidence as he made sure his saddle was in order before climbing on and looking back at Merlin to be sure he was ready to go. “Ready?”

“Ready, sire,” was Merlin’s matter-of-fact reply as he looked up and let a brief smile replace the frown.

Arthur doubted his servant was truly ready to embark on this journey so soon after being sick—he still looked unwell—but Merlin was perfectly capable of taking care of himself, and if he didn’t think he was up to the day’s travels he would have said something… maybe.

Erm, on second thought, probably not. Arthur wasn’t quite as daft as all that. He knew that Merlin was foolhardy and that he would definitely go with Arthur even if he didn’t feel up to it. Nonetheless, Merlin needed to learn to speak up. Since he hadn’t, Arthur felt completely at ease with his decision to go ahead with their plans.

But he would keep an eye on Merlin to make sure he didn’t overexert himself.

They rode in silence for much of the morning, which wasn’t at all normal, but Arthur didn’t push Merlin to speak—if he wasn’t driving Arthur spare with his incessant chatter, it was because it must physically hurt to talk, or he just felt that rotten.

Arthur felt a sudden wave of regret for being selfish. Merlin had no business being out here.

“What do you think the real Lady Catrina wll be like?” Merlin asked, interrupting Arthur’s thoughts.

“Humble,” was all Arthur said as he recalled his father telling him that Lady Catrina had insisted on coming to Camelot and proving to everyone that the former first family of Dragor were decent folk who would never hurt Camelot or its citizens. “She has lost everything yet she is travelling here. It is not a small undertaking. My father very much looks forward to meeting her again.”

Merlin nodded and said nothing else, but he did cough. He glanced at Arthur. “I’m fine.”

“Liar,” Arthur said beneath his breath as he continued to ride beside Merlin. “My horse is panting more than usual; we need to stop and give them a rest whilst letting them drink from the waterhole ahead.”

Merlin wasn’t fooled, of course. He would know why Arthur was stopping. Arthur didn’t even try to hide that fact. “Looks like you could use a break as well.” It was a testament to how badly Merlin felt that he didn’t argue.

Arthur could only hope that the waterhole ahead had water; it had rained daily in Camelot for a fortnight, but that was no guarantee that it had done so here. If it was devoid of water, Arthur would have a difficult time justifying why they were stopping. He couldn’t very well say that they were stopping because Merlin looked like if he rode a second longer he would collapse.

Although, with Merlin, it might be best to be direct.

“Sorry,” Merlin said a few minutes later as they led the horses to the waterhole. “I really did feel better this morning.” Merlin looked up at Arthur, his eyes sad. “Sir Leon volunteered to go in my place, and I probably should have agreed to that. Here I am, slowing you down, and it has not even been one day’s journey yet.”

Arthur shrugged. “You should try to rest for a while; we are ahead of schedule. I’d rather you rest now so we can travel longer this evening.”

Truthfully, Arthur wanted to continue at this very moment—they were making excellent time and he wanted to continue that so they would arrive at their meeting place before the threatening rains arrived, but Merlin was in no condition to travel at the moment and Arthur wouldn’t risk him getting worse.

What had Merlin done to him?

“Yeah, okay,” was Merlin’s meek reply, no doubt feeling bad that he was delaying them. He retrieved his bedroll from the back of his horse and spread it out on the ground beside one of the trees. He plopped down and closed his eyes. It didn’t take long at all before he was snoring.

Arthur sighed as he sat on a tree trunk and looked around. Perhaps he would go hunting for game. It was much too early to eat, but Arthur had a niggling feeling that this was as far as they would get today, so he might as well procure them food.

He didn’t like the idea of leaving Merlin unprotected, but what choice did he have?

He grabbed his crossbow and began stealthily walking into the woods, hoping something would appear sooner rather than later. He wanted to get back to Merlin to keep an eye on him.

Luck was on their side this day. A stag came trotting through a copse of trees as if it were out on an afternoon stroll. Arthur aimed his crossbow and soon had his and Merlin’s supper draped over his shoulders.

A couple hours later, the game cleaned and on the spit, Arthur knelt down and felt Merlin’s forehead and cheek. He was much too warm. “Damn.” He retrieved a cloth from his horse, went to the waterhole and wet it, and returned to Merlin. He wiped down his face and sat there for quite a while, listening to Merlin breathe.

When Merlin awoke several hours later, he looked somewhat better as Arthur handed him a strip of meat. He assured Arthur he felt better and was ready to travel, but by this time it was much too late to get going again so Arthur told him it was best if they stayed where they were until sunup. It was far from ideal—the clouds were growing darker and were sure to open up soon—but what choice did they have?

As Arthur cut himself another piece of meat, he looked over at Merlin and wondered what he was thinking. Did he have any idea how much Arthur depended on him? There was no way he could, because not even Arthur understood just how much he needed Merlin.

Not so long ago, Arthur thought he had found the answer to his future. He thought he and Gwen were meant to be together, but those feelings had begun to wane, and Arthur found himself thinking more and more about Merlin. He wasn’t completely sure what these feelings were yet—they were not the same as what Arthur had felt with Gwen—but they were all-consuming and Arthur would not deny that what he felt for Merlin was rapidly morphing into territory that very much frightened him.

“This is good,” Merlin said, thankfully putting a halt to Arthur’s thoughts that had no business surfacing at such an inopportune time. “I didn’t know you had it in you to fell, clean, and prepare a stag,” Merlin said cheekily as he held up a strip and looked at it. “I have a tendency to not cook my meat long enough, and Sir Leon keeps it on the spit too long. This, here, is, well... it’s good,” Merlin added, a goofy grin on his face as he looked at Arthur.

Arthur chuckled. “I can cook, Merlin. I am not completely useless, I’ll have you know. I have been travelling these woods with the knights since I was able to walk. I am quite able to take care of myself and my manservant, thank you very much.”

Merlin let out a small laugh and nodded. “Thanks for stopping, Arthur. You didn’t have to do that.”

Arthur shrugged. “Yeah, we could have gone on, but what kind of a future king would my people think me if I allowed my manservant to die on me? My father has gone a long way to diminish his subjects’ trust in him. I need to build that trust up again.” Arthur then cleared his throat and looked at Merlin as if waiting for his response.

Merlin’s only response was a slight nod.

“You might feel better, but you still look like horrid, Merlin. You should turn in early and get a good night’s sleep. We need to be up and on our way as soon as first light hits in the morning.” Arthur stood and stoked the fire before he retrieved his bedroll. “I think I’ll go ahead and lie down as well.”

“I should stay up and keep watch while you get some sleep, sire,” Merlin said as he yawned. “It’s unwise for both of us to sleep at the same time. You know your father would not approve.”

This elicited a hearty chuckle from Arthur. “Yes, well, my father does not approve of many things I do, but that doesn’t mean I will stop doing them. We’ll be fine. I promise you that.”

Merlin glared and let out a long-suffering sigh. “You just had to say that, Arthur, didn’t you? In my experience, those words are the kiss of death.”

“Hm, well, as much as I like kissing, I think that particular one will have to wait. There are a few other kisses I want to have before that one.” And Arthur’s gaze lingered on Merlin a little longer than he normally would allow it to, but when he realised what he was doing he quickly turned away. Why in the hell had he said that? “I would never allow any harm to come to you, you must know that by now,” he added as he turned back towards Merlin.

Merlin reclined and settled his head on his hands as he turned on his side and looked at Arthur, who was now right next to him, setting up his bedroll. “And I would never allow any harm to come to you.” Merlin closed his eyes, a smile on his face.

Arthur lay there for what seemed like an eternity before he finally heard Merlin’s breathing even out. He sounded congested, but his breathing was not nearly as laboured as it had been earlier, so that was something positive.

Arthur was hesitant to fall asleep because Merlin had been correct—it was not at all wise to be unprotected deep in the woods at night, but Arthur was exhausted. It might be a huge mistake, but he would risk sleeping.

He shut his eyes and hoped slumber would claim him immediately, but that didn’t happen. Instead, he began thinking of all the times he and Merlin had been out in these woods together. Everyone of them made Arthur smile, even the ones that had resulted in no game caught because Merlin had been too noisy, complaining of having a cold, being sleepy, or that his little bottom hurt.

Arthur would not trade Merlin for all the salt in the world.

He was roused from a deep sleep by excessive coughing. Merlin’s. Arthur took a second to orientate himself before he turned and felt Merlin’s face.

He was burning up.

“Damn it, Merlin,” he whispered as he gently shook Merlin awake. “We need to get you back to Camelot.” Arthur looked up and noticed that what little of the moon that he could see through the clouds was several hours from leaving them. And, if that weren’t bad enough to be going on with, it was beginning to rain. Nowhere near a downpour yet, but that was sure to come. Wonderful, Arthur thought. What else could go wrong?

On second thought, he probably should not have thought that.

It would be best to wait until first light to begin their return journey to Camelot—it wasn’t safe to traverse these woods at night, especially when the weather was deteriorating as it was, but he wasn’t sure Merlin could wait. Yes, his servant was probably fine and only needed to be in a warm bed with a few of Gaius's concoctions to help him feel better. But, then again, what if he were really ill and died before they got back to Camelot? “Can you hear me, Merlin?” Arthur asked, panic evident in his voice.

“Yes,” was Merlin’s almost whispered reply. “Don’t feel good, Arthur,” he continued as he opened his eyes and looked at Arthur. He then coughed and couldn’t stop.

“We are going back to Camelot, now,” Arthur said emphatically, not willing to argue the issue. He covered Merlin as much as he could before he stood and began breaking down camp. It took him much longer than he wanted, but eventually everything was packed on their horses and ready to go.

“Thirsty,” Merlin whimpered before coughing again.

Arthur grabbed his waterskin and frowned when he noticed it was empty. And of course Merlin’s was the same. Arthur shook his head, wondering how he could have been so careless and forget to fill them before he went to bed. Usually, that was Merlin’s job, but Arthur should have remembered.

He could go fill them quickly and bring them back to Merlin, but instead he gathered Merlin in his arms and carefully picked him up so he could carry him to the water. It wasn’t far away, but Arthur wasn’t even bothering with seeing if Merlin could walk.

“I can walk,” Merlin said, perturbed, but Arthur ignored him as he made his way towards the waterhole, and soon Merlin was smiling. “You’re too good to me, Arthur.”

Arthur thought Merlin must be delirious.

As he neared the water, Arthur looked down at Merlin and had a weird memory flit through his mind, but he wasn’t sure if it was really a memory or not. In it, Merlin was begging Arthur to wake up and to not die. Then another memory surfaced of Merlin sitting beside Arthur on his bed, trying to get him to drink some concoction.

These visions were disconcerting because Arthur felt as if these had been memories of his, yet he couldn’t place them. However, he knew enough to know that he had nearly died not so many months earlier and that Merlin had been a major reason why he hadn’t. He wasn’t sure exactly what Merlin had done—he had been told it was down to Gaius giving him an antidote, but he knew there was much more to it than that. He was certain these were true memories of Merlin saving Arthur’s life.

“How did we get here again?” Arthur asked Merlin, thinking that this saving each other thing was getting a bit ridiculous. But if not for Merlin saving him from the imposter Lady Helen, Arthur would not have Merlin as his manservant.

Some things, Arthur mused, were meant to be.

Merlin let out a small laugh and then appeared to fall back into a fitful sleep. Arthur picked up his pace, thinking that he needed to get Merlin back to Camelot as soon as possible.

Once they reached the waterhole Arthur roused Merlin and helped him get his fill of water before filling both their waterskins and wondering how he was to explain to his father that he hadn’t been able to meet Lady Catrina? The king would not be at all happy, but Leon could go meet her. All would work out. Arthur had to believe that.

Back at their camp, he went to settle Merlin onto his horse when there was a rustling sound nearby.

Arthur looked around, panicked, but saw nothing. “Who goes there?” he asked, not expecting an answer, but realising that he was giving himself and Merlin away and that he could have very well just sealed their fate.

So much for stealth.

“It’s Sir Leon and Lancelot, sire,” said a familiar voice as two people emerged through a copse of trees.

Arthur visibly relaxed, not believing his eyes, but he was curious what Leon and Lancelot were doing here in the middle of the night, looking as if they hadn’t meant to be seen. “Lancelot, my friend, it is good to see you!” Arthur said as he continued to secure Merlin onto the horse. “What brings you and Leon to these parts at this time? Meeting up with a couple of ladies are we?” he teased. Last he heard, Lancelot had been travelling to a faraway kingdom to see if they needed someone to help defend them against the threat of pending invasion.

Leon looked abashed, but Lancelot grinned sheepishly, his cheeks flushed as he cleared his throat.

So… Arthur had been right. He smirked, the compulsion to make a rather pointed comment ever-present. At any other time, he would get the truth out of them, but he was on a mission, a rather important one, so the exploits of two of his knights (Arthur would forever consider Lancelot a knight) would have to wait.

“I didn’t think Merlin looked well when the two of you departed Camelot,” said Leon worriedly as he glanced at Merlin, “and I had an uneasy feeling, so I decided to come and join you. I came across Lancelot soon after crossing into Cenred's territory, and after I told him what I was doing he agreed to come with. And it looks like I made the right decision. How is he?” Leon approached and looked down at a once again sleeping Merlin. He touched his face. “He is burning up.”

“Yes, that’s why we are on our way back to Camelot,” Arthur said as he gently ran a hand down the side of Merlin's warm face. “Will you and Lancelot go meet Lady Catrina? She is expecting us to meet her and her entourage at the entrance of the Caves of Andor. You know the details, Leon, since you were in the council meeting. I need to get Merlin back as soon as possible.”

Goodbyes and provisions were exchanged, then Arthur climbed on his horse and settled in behind Merlin and wrapped an arm around him as the four parted ways, Leon and Lancelot headed north with Merlin’s horse in tow, and Merlin and Arthur headed south.

Arthur worked his horse hard and knew he was perhaps pushing it beyond its limits, but his only concern was getting Merlin back to Camelot as soon as possible.

~*~ A&M ~*~

Merlin opened his eyes, looked around the room—he had already ascertained that he wasn’t in his bed because wherever he was it was soft, comfortable, and smelled lovely—and grinned. He was in Arthur’s bed. Wait. What? He was in Arthur’s bed? But how?

But then, ever so slowly, things began coming back to him: him not feeling at all well, Arthur carrying him through the woods, Gaius examining him, Gwen and Morgana taking care of him, Arthur’s father talking to him, his head hurting so much that he thought it would explode, and the king telling Gaius and Arthur to put him in Arthur’s bed because it was more comfortable. Merlin wondered if perhaps he hadn’t dreamed this last part because he couldn’t picture in his mind Arthur’s father ever agreeing to that.

He attempted to sit up, but when someone, who Merlin hoped was Arthur, cleared his throat, Merlin abandoned that idea and turned to look at whomever was sitting on the edge of the bed. “How long have I been here?” he asked, just now realising that his head was beginning to throb again.

“Four days. You have been in and out of it most of that time. How are you feeling?” Arthur asked as he felt Merlin’s cheek. “Gaius said your fever broke this morning, but you are still warm.”

“Yeah, I don’t feel so good, but I know from helping Gaius that these things take time. I guess what I had was more than a cold,” he said with a deprecating grin.

“You think?” Arthur replied with a small shake of his head. “You scared me half to death, Merlin. Don’t ever do that again!”

“Yes, sire, I promise to never do that again,” Merlin said in a mocking voice. “Oh,” he said as he clasped his hands over his mouth. “Lady Catrina. Is she here? I imagine your father was none too pleased that I was the reason you had to come back here without her. How did the speech go?”

“Yes, she is here, and I think the speech went well; no one threw tomatoes at me at any rate, so I’ll call that a win,” Arthur added, rolling his eyes. “Leon and Lancelot went to meet Lady Catrina whilst you and I returned to Camelot. She has been here for the past three days.”

“Lancelot? Oh right, I remember that he was with Sir Leon. What was he doing here?”

“It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that he was at the right place at the right time.”

“Is he still here?” Merlin asked expectantly.

Arthur shook his head. “Sorry, no matter that he helped escort Lady Catrina and the others who were with her to Camelot, my father made him leave. Lancelot did manage to come see you before he left. If I didn’t know better, Merlin, I would say he was smitten with you. Did you and he have something going before he left?”

Merlin didn’t miss the hint of hurt in Arthur’s voice. He smiled nervously, unsure how to answer. Could Arthur be jealous? Probably not, but Merlin would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit to himself that he very much wanted Arthur to be jealous.

To think that just maybe Arthur had feelings for him that matched his own for Arthur gave Merlin such a warm, fuzzy feeling. And it gave him hope. He was most assuredly getting ahead of himself and dreaming about things that could never be—he was a lowly servant who just happened to have magic, both of which automatically deemed him off-limits for a prince-who-would-one-day-become-king—but he couldn’t help it. Unobtainable hope burned eternal. It always had, since the day he and Arthur first met and Merlin had defended Morris's honour, but things had shifted a few weeks earlier when Arthur seemed to give Merlin an inordinate amount of grief about hiding beneath his bed. He had been defensive to the extreme. Merlin had thought it somewhat odd, but after some serious soul searching and perhaps a modicum of wishful thinking, he wondered if perhaps Arthur had been doing things that he hadn't wanted Merlin to know about. Then there had been the awkward almost hug.... “Erm, no, Gwen is more his type,” Merlin finally answered, remembering that Arthur had asked him a question. “Sorry,” he added, knowing how Arthur felt about Gwen.

“No need to be sorry, Merlin. Gwen and I had a moment, but that is all. And you are correct. I think she is in love with Lancelot. But I stand by what I said about him and you. He sat beside you and wiped down your face with such a gentleness. The way he was looking at you certainly seemed more than friendly.”

Merlin didn’t wish to speak about this for many reasons. Arthur was hitting a bit too close to the heart of the matter here. “Must we talk about this?” he asked, needing to change the subject. “How are the people of Camelot responding to Lady Catrina?”

“Quite well, actually,” Arthur said with a pleased look on his face. “She is charming and has gone out of her way to make everyone feel at ease around her.”

“Your father?” Merlin asked, curious.

“He has been somewhat more difficult to gauge. I think he continues to reel over the fact that he was so completely fooled. He is embarrassed.”

Merlin wanted to laugh but he knew this was not the time. “Of course he is. How long wi—”

There was a knock on the door.

Merlin didn’t feel up to seeing anyone. If it was Gaius he wouldn’t have knocked. “Can you tell them to go away if they want to see me? I don’t feel up to seeing anyone.”

Arthur didn’t respond as he stood and walked to the door. He opened it and began speaking quietly.

Merlin wanted to know who it was.

Arthur nodded then closed the door before returning to the bed. “Merlin, Lady Catrina would like to see you. I told her you were still feeling poorly, but she said she won’t stay long.”

Did he have a choice? “Yeah, okay.” Better to get this over with so he could try to sleep. “Will you help me sit up? I need to look halfway decent.”

“You look fine, Merlin,” was Arthur’s soft reply as he helped Merlin sit up and prop pillows behind him. And then he tucked an errant piece of hair behind Merlin’s ear and let his finger linger for several seconds. “Please don’t ever scare me like that again.”

Merlin tried to smile but couldn’t. “To answer your question about Lancelot, he might have asked me when he first arrived if he could take me to his bed, but I told him I couldn’t.” Merlin opened his mouth to say more, but now that he was here he didn’t know if he had it in him to tell Arthur just why he couldn't have gone to bed with Lancelot. He continued to stare into Arthur’s eyes and watch as Arthur stared into his, and in that moment he knew that everything from this moment would be different whether he said anything else on the matter of Lancelot or not.

Wasn’t it funny how your life could be changed in one second?

“You did?” Arthur looked somewhat perplexed for a few seconds, but when Merlin nodded, he smiled as he let his finger trail down Merlin’s cheek ever so slowly.

All Merlin could do was smile; it took every ounce of reserve he had not to take that hand in his. “Okay, I am ready to talk to Lady Catrina.” He really wasn’t—what could she possibly have to say to him—but as he had no choice…

“You must be Merlin,” Lady Catrina said kindly a few seconds later as she entered Arthur’s room and limped towards Arthur’s bed before she took a seat in the chair Arthur had moved there a few seconds earlier.

“Yes, m-my Lady,”Merlin said, nervously, but the noticeable limp put him at ease. This was not a troll who was intent on overtaking Camelot, this was a former ally of Camelot who had a condition that Gaius had treated years earlier. She was attempting to right a wrong which she hadn’t perpetrated. Merlin smiled.

“It is nice to meet you. You are curious as to why I am here, yes?”

Merlin opened his mouth but said nothing.

“Your master, Arthur,” Lady Catrina said softly, her maternal smile putting Merlin at ease, “and everyone else, have been most cordial and have made me and my attendants feel at home, and now I feel rejuvenated and ready to face the future, whatever it may be, but I could not leave without seeing you. The king has told me about your trials during the incident with the troll, and I wanted to thank you personally for helping to rid Camelot of that vile creature. That it took on my form grieves me immensely. My dear husband, may God rest his soul, and I have worked tirelessly to leave a positive mark on our kingdom and everywhere we travel, and I wanted to tell you personally that I am proud to have finally met you, and that you have made a difference in so many lives. I feel sure that your future is a bright one, my dear.”

Merlin had no idea how to respond. He had never taken compliments well. He was a nobody. But he needed to respond. He smiled and nodded. “It is my honour to meet you, Lady Catrina, and I hope your stay here has been a satisfactory one. I was meant to help you get around, but, well, I seem to have gone and got sick.”

Lady Catrina shook her head and smiled. “No need for apologies, dear. You just concentrate on getting better. You have people depending on you,” she added sagely, but it was said with a smile and a look over towards Arthur. “I think the future of Camelot will be a good one. How can it not be with the two of you?”

~*~ A&M ~*~

Arthur and Merlin stood on the bottom step and watched Lady Catrina and her travelling party as they departed. “She was nothing at all like the troll Lady Catrina, was she?” Merlin said as he waved again to Jonas… the real one… without a tail.

“No, she was indeed humble, just as my father said she would be, and she was grateful for Gaius and the potion he gave her to help her leg. I can’t believe she has gone the whole of her adult life without it. Now that Gaius has told Jonas how to prepare it, she should have an easier time of it.”

Merlin grinned. “Thank you, Arthur. I know how important it was for you to be the one to meet Lady Catrina and escort her to Camelot, but you chose to return with me. I am grateful.”

Arthur chuckled. “As well you should be. Not every son of the king would drop everything for their manservant,” Arthur teased as he motioned for Morgana to join them. “I think my father thought I had lost my mind when I returned with you, but last night he told me he understands and that as much as he disagrees with much of what I do these days, his near ruin at the hands of the troll has given him new perspective. I wouldn’t exactly say that he likes you, Merlin, but you are growing on him. Maybe one day he will actually acknowledge you.” Arthur’s words were weighty, as was his pointed look, but he thought Merlin just might understand them.

Merlin turned his head towards Arthur and opened his mouth, but closed it without saying anything. He smiled and nodded before leaning his head on Arthur’s shoulder. The gesture took Arthur by surprise, but he quickly relaxed and smiled.

This felt right.

“Aw, you two are too adorable for words,” Morgana said as she stood on her tiptoes and kissed Merlin and Arthur on their cheeks. “I didn’t think anything good would come from Uther marrying that horrid troll, but looking at the two of you, I think my mind has been changed. Arthur, if you ever hurt Merlin, you will have me and Gwen to deal with.” She crossed her arms and gave Arthur her best glare, but it soon morphed into a smile when she turned her attentions to Merlin. “Don’t let him off easy, Merlin. He needs to be humbled.” She nodded when Arthur looked at her and frowned. “You know it’s true, Arthur, dear. That head of yours is entirely too big. I think Merlin is exactly what you need to keep you in check.”

Arthur was taken aback at the comments and somewhat caught off guard because, well, he had not once ever spoken to anyone about his feelings for his manservant, not even Merlin, but there could be no doubt that there was something between them. That could not be denied.

Apparently, others could see it as well.

He turned his head and was pleased to see that Merlin was grinning at him. “Yes, I think you are correct, Morgana. Merlin is precisely what I need to keep me in check.”

And with that said, Arthur decided that the time for conformity and inaction had passed. It was time for him and Merlin to live the life they wanted to live, not the one the King of Camelot thought they should live.

He kissed Merlin.

~*~ A&M ~*~

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