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Embroidery and Velvet Silk

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"Stupid, arrogant, thick-waisted, stone-brained, dollopheaded prat," Merlin growls as he stomps down the stairs with a basket of truly repugnant-smelling laundry, punctuating each stomp with another insult aimed towards Arthur's intelligence, ancestry, appearance, and general existence. He is almost beginning to think that Arthur knows he has magic, because how else is he supposed to get all these ridiculous bloody chores done in a day? Summer days might be longer, but there's still only so many hours. The heat isn't helping his temper, either.

When he gains the landing, he passes yet another open window, and has to pause and swipe his hair out of his eyes again as the breeze ruffles it out of place again. Speaking of chores, he's been so damned busy he's forgotten to get his hair trimmed.

It is a necessity, not just a bit of vanity on his part. His hair is curly when it grows out, which had gotten him cooed over and ruffled many times as a child, but his mother had finally taken him under the shears when he continuously came home with twigs, leaves, grass, and (on one memorable occasion involving Will, a trout, and a nicked packet of sweetmeats) teasel burrs tangled in it. He's kept it short ever since then, preferring the ease of not having to comb it out all the time. However, he's not had the chance to get it cut again, considering everything he has to do for the duller side of his coin. Vanquishing gryphons and washing malodorous socks. Oh, what a jack of trades he is.

Ah! He knows what to do. Gwen and some of the other girls use kerchiefs and scarves to tie their hair up sometimes, especially when it gets hot; if they can, why can't he? Stooping to set the basket on the floor a moment, he reaches up and unties his neckerchief, shaking it out a little before tilting his head back and reaching up to tie it around his head instead. It takes him a try or two to get it just right—not so loose it'll fall off, not so tight it'll make his head hurt—but then he gets it secured. Hair out of his eyes, and his neck is cooler, too. Perfect.

Hoisting the basket up on a hip, he heads down to the servants' rooms below, following the smell of soap and linen to the laundresses' chamber. Gwen is there, conversing with one of the seamstresses about some unraveled bit of stitching in Morgana's gown, and she grins widely when she sees him. "Look at you! That's new for you," she says, reaching up to tweak the corner of his neckerchief, or rather, his headscarf.

"I've not cut my hair in too long," he laughs back, handing off the basket to one of the washer women. "These stairs are dangerous enough when I can see them."

Gwen laughs and ruffles the back his hair. "I think it suits you. Maybe I'll embroider you one for Midsummer."

"Ha-ha," he mock-laughs, but he's still grinning. He wouldn't mind such a gift, actually. Gwen does beautiful embroidery, evidenced by the beautiful pattern of birds and flowers on the stays of her gown.

"Mercy, what happened to these?" the laundress exclaims as she sorts through Arthur's washing, nose wrinkled.

Merlin spreads his hands and makes a commiserating face. Sometimes he wonders, too. As often as Arthur bathes, he doesn't ever exactly stink, but after hours of training or patrol, his clothes smell of leather and sweat and horse. And because Arthur is a childish git, he'll throw his things all over (he's responsible for at least three quarters off all the disaster in his chambers, no matter how much he blames Merlin) or stuff them down to the bottom of the basket so they'll sit and stew for a week.

"Are you busy, Merlin?" Gwen asks as they leave the laundresses' chamber. "It's only my lady wishes a bath, and it goes faster when there's two to carry up the buckets. Would you mind?"

"Not at all." Technically speaking, he is supposed to be getting Arthur's plate and maille polished, but he can do that later with that enchantment he's learnt. Besides, he likes working with Gwen, as she's one of the few interesting people to talk to, discussing their respective master and mistress, the work they do, Gwen's smithing and Merlin's physician training.

Gwen is telling him her ideas about a different way of heating steel to make it stronger as they ascend the stairs a final time to fill the bath; as he carefully pours the water in, Morgana's laughing voice cuts in. "Oh, look at you today, Merlin. How adorable."

"Thank you, my lady," he replies with a little bow. "It seems to be the general consensus. I'm just glad Arthur's not seen me yet. He'll never let me hear the end of it. I'll see you later, Gwen."

"All right. Thank you, Merlin."

"You're welcome."

Now he just has half a hundred other things to get done. Stupid Prince Prat.

By the time he slogs his way back to Arthur's chambers, he's hot, his tunic is stuck to his back with sweat, and he's had to take his scarf off to mop the sweat off his neck and face. Summer is awful. Awful.

"I thought you had gotten lost again," Arthur drawls when he elbows open the door. He's sitting at the table, looking all smug and golden and just unfairly handsome, considering Merlin feels like something scraped off the pavers in the courtyard, his long legs stretched out and his smirk set in place. "At this rate, I was expecting to eat supper at the hour of the wolf."

"Ha." Merlin had gotten lost only once, thank you, and that was in the first week of his appointment. He more drops the tray on the table than he sets it down, earning himself a flatly unimpressed look. He hopes it's cold, too.

"You need to get your hair cut, you know."


Arthur gestures to him with one hand, sketching a little motion towards his own hair. "Hair. The rest of your appearance aside, Merlin, you are starting to look like a wool-blind ewe. You're clumsy enough when you can see clearly."

As if he didn't already know that. Merlin opens his mouth to say that he plans to do it as soon as he actually has a breath of spare time, but instead, he hears himself saying, "You know, I don't think I will. I haven't grown it out since I was a child." Damn. Damn, damn, damn.

Arthur goes still, a piece of bread halfway to his mouth, and a strange look passes over his face. "You're not?"


"Ah. Well. Right." He goes back to his meal without another word, staring down at his bowl as though there's some hidden knowledge spelt out in the stew.

Merlin wonders if perhaps the prince has taken one too many blows to the helmet in training.

Gaius is right, he is contrary just for the sake of it, and he is also apparently too stubborn.

Now that he's told Arthur he isn't going to cut his hair, he bloody well isn't going to. He can manage a comb, and it isn't like there's an abundance of teasels in the city. His newly discovered headscarf helps, though, at least until it's long enough to stay out of his eyes. Morgana and Gwen both agree it suits him, and though Gaius usually just gives him the eyebrow, he smiles a little when he does it, so Merlin takes it as a form of approval. Arthur doesn't say anything about it, but he does seem to constantly stare. At least he's not calling him a wool-blind ewe again. The heat must be getting to him, too.

The heat doesn't stop the annual Midsummer celebration, though. Hard to complain about the heat when too drunk to walk in a straight line, after all. Merlin is sitting on an empty wine barrel in the courtyard and laughing at the antics of the performers when a soft cloth suddenly comes down over his eyes. "Merry Midsummer," Gwen says near his ear.

He reaches up to pull the cloth down, holding it in his hand. It's a large kerchief, the pale blue cloth thinner and softer than what his other neckerchiefs are made of. All around the edges are chains of tiny white flowers, and in each corner, there's a small black-and-white bird.

"They're magpies. I tried to do a merlin, but it didn't come out right," Gwen says as she sits beside him. "I think it fits you anyway. Always flying about and fetching things."

"Gwen, it's beautiful, I love it," he says, running the cloth through his fingers, holding it up to look at the flowers closer, all symmetrical and pretty.

"Now you've one for your neck and one for your hair." She reaches up to ruffle his hair, which has become a favourite habit of hers now that his curls have come back in.

Laughing, he gives her a one-armed hug as best he can without tipping them both off the barrel, and he digs in his pocket to find his gift for her: a short necklace made of twined cords, holding a small rock that's actually a small, spiraling shell that's long petrified into stone. He'd found it on the riverbank weeks ago.

"It's lovely, Merlin, thank you. I'll wear it always." Gwen holds her hair up out of the way for him to tie it around her neck. "Oh, there is my lady. I'll see you later. Will you dance with me?" she asks with a teasing grin.

"Only if you want bruised toes," Merlin snorts in reply, and she laughs as she makes her way across the courtyard to Morgana. And of course, Arthur is there escorting her, too. The King doesn't bother to mingle with his subjects even on the celebration days, but they always do. He heaves a sigh and drains the rest of his cup before sliding down from his perch and starts towards Arthur as well. Even though he is technically relieved of duty for tonight, if he lets the dollophead drink himself sodden, it'll be absolute hell dealing with him tomorrow.

Morgana and Gwen have already drifted off together by the time Merlin reaches the other side of the courtyard, arm-in-arm and laughing at the antics of the mummers' show, so Arthur is there on his own, leaning against one of the statues beside the stairs. When he sees Merlin, his brows go up. "Judging from the state of my clothes, I wouldn't have thought you could handle a needle and thread at all," he remarks, reaching out to tug at a corner of his new kerchief, currently looped around his neck over his ragged old one.

"Gwen gave it to me," he retorts, pressing a hand over it protectively.

"Did she?" Arthur shifts his weight a little, then straightens up and starts forward. His arm and shoulder bumps against Merlin's, jostling him.


"Stay away from the wine, Merlin, you're clumsy enough as is," Arthur says, a little sharply than is entirely necessary.

Oh, that figures. "You ran into me, you prat," Merlin grumbles back. Instead of following, he takes up Arthur's earlier position, leaning back against the side of the statue, and he shoves his hands into his pockets…and there is something in his pocket. Confused, he pulls it out, playing it out between his hands. It's another scarf, except this one is made of the same soft velvety-silk cloth that Morgana's gowns are made of, coloured deep Pendragon red. Bemused, he rubs the fine cloth between his fingertips, stroking against the nap of the fabric, then raises his gaze again, finding Arthur's bright golden head amidst the crowds, gilded by the light of all the torches.

Rubbing the rich cloth between his hands again, he carefully tucks it back in his pocket.

He doesn't approach Arthur until the prince finally retires to his chambers. It's well into the night, and dawn is only a few short hours away now. Most of the revelers have staggered home to sleep it off, or just found a decently comfortable piece of ground or a convenient pile of straw; a few are just sleeping in the courtyard. They'll be in for a rude awakening come morning. The closed-in stone walls of the courtyard makes the dawn bell sound hellishly loud.

Arthur is slouching in his fur-covered chair in front of the hearth, which isn't lit due to the ungodly heat, his legs stretched out in front of him, already stripped down to his loose white nightshift and breeches.

"Sleep there and you'll hate the world in the morning," Merlin remarks as he closes the door softly behind him.

"I'm awake." Arthur's voice has taken on that strange tone again, only this time Merlin thinks he understands it. "Where's Guinevere?"

Oh yes, he's absolutely right. "With Morgana, of course." He's not going to tell Arthur that he'd seen maid and mistress tripping back towards Morgana's chambers, hand-in-hand, flushed and giggling and leaning into each other with hushed whispers. If Arthur is really so thick that he's not noticed that by now, it's entirely his own fault. "I just wanted to thank you, sire."

Arthur had gone very still at Merlin's answer, but he still doesn't move his gaze from the unlit hearth. "For what?"

Merlin takes the velvety scarf from his pocket and smooths it out gently, taking a step forward. It's so very soft; when he'd been alone in the corridor, he'd given into the temptation of rubbing it against his neck, his cheeks, his lips. "It's beautiful. I've never owned anything so fine." He is giving the prince every opportunity in the world to make mockery of him, he knows, but he doesn't think it'll be an opportunity taken. He takes a another step closer to Arthur's chair. "I don't think I need so many, though."

Arthur flinches. Not a great deal. If Merlin hadn't been looking directly at him, he would've missed it himself. But he does.

"I've also not given you a gift in return," he goes on. Another step.

Folding his new scarf over one arm, he reaches up to untie the knot of his old one, easing it from around his neck. The cloth is years old; it'd once been one of his tunics that'd met an unfortunate end, the ends frayed and unravelling a little in some places. For a moment, he stands in place, holding it in both hands, heart rabbiting too quick in his chest. Before he can quail, Merlin takes the last step forward, standing just beside the chair now, and he reaches down to loop the old scarf around Arthur's right arm, his sword arm, just above his elbow, tying a hasty, clumsy knot. A lover's favour for their champion.

Arthur is on his feet in an instant, and Merlin barely keeps himself from jumping back, pulse leaping up into his mouth. For a terrifying moment, he's afraid that his clumsily-given favour is about to be thrown back at him, or worse, into the fireplace, but Arthur only stands there in front of him, so close Merlin can feel the warmth of his body through his thin sleepwear.

"Merlin…" Arthur closes his mouth and swallows hard, throat working. He opens his mouth and closes it again without a sound. His gaze moves down to the scarf around his arm, the long ends trailing down, and he catches the trailing corner between his fingers, letting it slide through before looking up again. This close, Merlin can see the flecks of darker blue and pale grey in his eyes, like river stones. "I…it suits you," he murmurs at last. His adorned arm comes up, winding a stray curl around one finger and tugging lightly; his rough, scarred knuckles brush against Merlin's cheek as his hand lowers, lingering too long to be an accident.

Merlin tilts his head slightly into the touch. "Thank you, sire."

"Arthur," he corrects softly.


Lowering his hand, Arthur picks up his gift where it's still hung over Merlin's arm, shakes it a little to take the creases out, then takes two corners and reaches up to tie them around Merlin's neck. Shivers spread across the surface of his skin where the prince's fingers brush his neck, tracing the lines of his collarbone, over his pulse point, the springy little curls at his nape. Once he's tied it securely, Arthur doesn't take his hands away immediately, lingering against the sides of Merlin's neck, warmth soaking through the velvety material. "Merlin…" He sighs softly, breath smelling faintly of sweet wine, and takes a small step back, putting space between them. "Merry Midsummer."

"Merry Midsummer."

Arthur smiles, that small, crooked little grin so rarely seen, and then, seeming to take up his courage (whoever thought Arthur could lack it?) he takes one of Merlin's hands and brings it up to press a small kiss to his knuckles.

Despite himself, Merlin can't help but to giggle a little. "You have true aim with a bow, dollophead, but the first time you kiss me, and you miss my mouth by a yard."

Arthur flushes up in surprise and chagrin, but none can say he backs down from a challenge. This time he doesn't miss. Retaking that small step, he leans in quickly and kisses Merlin's mouth. It's barely there, more of a feather-light brush of lips than a proper kiss, but it doesn't matter. When he retreats, his flush has spread up into his ears and down the sides of his neck, but he still wears that sweet grin of his, flashing his crooked teeth in a way Merlin finds almost painfully endearing. "Goodnight, Merlin."

"Goodnight, Arthur."

Stepping back, he leaves the prince's chamber, closing the door softly behind him. For a moment, he stands in the corridor, aware he's grinning like the idiot Arthur always claims him to be, and he has to press the folds of his soft, Pendragon-red scarf to his mouth to muffle a quiet scream, thankful the guard shift has been changed for the celebration.

Smoothing the velvety cloth back down gently, he starts back towards Gaius's chamber, humming all the while.