“All right,” Merlin said, giving Arthur’s buckles one last tug before stepping back to survey his handiwork. “I think you’re done. Just let me get your sword, and you’ll be good to go.”
He glanced up into Arthur’s face, unable to hold back a triumphant smile—even after a year or so in the prince’s service, he still felt a disproportionate sense of satisfaction whenever he got through this task without forgetting something—but Arthur didn’t seem to be paying him much attention. Instead, he was staring down at his feet, his brow furrowed, teeth digging into his lower lip as though in deep concentration.
“Arthur?” Merlin rapped on the side of the prince’s helmet, and Arthur jumped. “I said, you’re ready to go. Is everything okay in there?”
“Yes, fine,” Arthur said, but still he didn’t move. “I was just—thinking.”
“Thinking,” Merlin repeated sceptically, because, all jokes aside, that was rather unusual. Arthur’s attitude to jousting tournaments was roughly the same as his attitude towards trouble in general; most of the time, he was too busy charging into the thick of things to stop and think them through. “Did you finally realise how dangerous and unnecessary all of this is? Because I’m sure we can come up with some kind of excuse, if you want me to tell your father…”
“Don’t be stupid.” Finally, Arthur met his gaze, the frown melting away into his usual long-suffering expression. “I was just thinking that there’s something missing, that’s all.”
“Missing?” Disappointed, Merlin checked over the armour one more time. He’d been so certain that he’d remembered everything. “What is it?”
“Well…” Arthur cleared his throat. “You know it’s customary for a knight to wear a lady's favour when he fights. As a token of his love for her.”
Merlin waited, but nothing more was forthcoming. “And?” he said. “So what?”
“So I don’t have one,” Arthur said, as if this were an egregious oversight that was somehow Merlin’s fault. “I can’t go out there without some kind of token. It’s an important tradition, especially now that I’m of age. The people need to know that there’s someone I’m fighting for.”
Merlin stared at him for a long moment. “That’s what you’re so worked up about?” he demanded finally. “A handkerchief? Just go and ask Morgana for one, I’m sure she’d be able to loan you something. Or one of the other noblewomen,” he added, when Arthur opened his mouth as though to protest. “They’re always falling all over themselves to impress you; one of them would be thrilled to do it.”
“I can’t do that, there isn’t time,” Arthur said, waving a hand in dismissal. “Besides, if I did ask one of them, the next thing you know they’d be expecting a marriage proposal. It’ll have to be someone else.”
“Someone like who?” Merlin said. It wasn’t as if there were a great number of innocent young women loitering about behind the knights’ pavilion, just dying to offer up their handkerchiefs before the tourney started. “Is it really that important? You’ve never cared about that sort of thing before.”
“Well, now I do,” Arthur said firmly. He didn’t seem inclined to explain any further, and Merlin grumbled for a moment under his breath, wondering why Arthur always had to make things so difficult. Honestly, the strangeness of the nobility knew no bounds.
“I suppose I could tear a strip off one of your old tunics,” he offered at last, thinking of all the mending that would entail. “No one would know you weren’t wearing a maiden’s colours. Or…there might be a rag or two in Gaius’ medicine bag that you could use.”
“Are you mad?” Arthur folded his arms and glared. “They’re probably covered in blood, for goodness’ sake.” His gaze dropped to Merlin’s neck, and Merlin could practically see the cogs turning inside that pretty blond head. “Why don’t you lend me your neckerchief? I’ll give it back to you after the tournament is over.”
Merlin’s hand went instinctively to his throat. “No,” he said, before he could really think about it. “Absolutely not.”
“Why not?” Arthur took a step closer, and Merlin backed away, stopping only when Arthur had him trapped against the canvas of the tent. “It’s not as if it’s the only one you have. I saw you wearing a blue one the other day—surely you can loan me this one for an afternoon.”
“You noticed my neckerchief?” Something unbearably like hope fluttered to life in Merlin’s chest, before he squashed it back down ruthlessly. “How very observant of you, sire. I had no idea you were so interested in my clothing.”
“I’m a prince, Merlin, it’s my job to notice things,” Arthur said, but his cheeks were pink. “Anyway, that’s not the point. Are you going to hand it over, or not?”
“No,” Merlin said promptly. His liked this neckerchief; he wasn’t about to ruin it by giving it to Arthur. “It’d only get all torn and muddy, and then where would I be? Besides, my mother made this for me; I’m not letting you destroy it for some silly tournament. I’ll go and find you something else.”
He ducked under Arthur’s outstretched arm and hurried out of the tent, ignoring the annoyed “Merlin!” that trailed after him. Destiny or no destiny, there were times when working for the prince was a lot more trouble than it was worth—and that was even without considering Merlin's crush on him.
To Merlin’s chagrin, that wasn’t the only time Arthur brought up his neckerchief. The tournament lasted for five days, the number of participants dwindling as each successive bout grew more intense, and Arthur naturally made it through to the finale, whereupon the question of his token came up again.
“I still don’t understand why you can’t ask Gwen to lend you something,” Merlin groused, rifling through Arthur’s things for the rag he’d been using last time. The first one had mysteriously vanished, as had the next one after that, which only cemented Merlin’s resolve not to loan Arthur one of his neckerchiefs if at all possible. It wasn’t as if he could just pop round to Ealdor for another one if Arthur lost it. “Or you could just go without. It’s not like anyone’s going to care.”
“Of course they’re going to care.” Arthur glowered at him. “I’m their prince. I have a reputation to uphold.”
“And I suppose my reputation doesn’t count,” Merlin retorted. “What would people think, if they knew you were wearing my neckerchief on your arm? They might get the impression that I actually like you, and then all my hard work would be for nothing.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin, you don’t have a reputation,” he said, and before Merlin could make up his mind whether to be offended by this, he added, “Just loan it to me for this one fight. If anyone asks, I’ll say I got it from one of the visiting noblewomen; no one need ever know it’s yours.”
That made Merlin frown in spite of himself. It wasn’t as if he didn’t already know Arthur wasn’t interested in him like that, or that, even if he were, a relationship of that sort between the two of them was next to impossible. He was a servant, and Arthur was a prince; even without the secret of Merlin’s magic between them, expecting Arthur to announce in front of the entire court that he was wearing his manservant’s colours would be ridiculous.
Still. That didn’t mean he wanted Arthur to lie about it, either.
“In that case,” Merlin said, straightening his shoulders. “I think I’d prefer to give my favour to someone more appropriate. Someone who could wear my neckerchief with pride, rather than as a last resort.”
Arthur frowned. “Like who?” he asked, sounding suspicious. “Who could possibly be more appropriate than the Crown Prince of Camelot?”
“You'd be surprised,” Merlin muttered. Of course, he had no particular interest in giving a love token to anyone else, but Arthur didn’t need to know that. “Now stop talking and turn around so I can make sure your breastplate is on straight.”
They finished the rest of their preparations in silence. Arthur’s expression was grim, almost angry, and Merlin realised he might have been a little bit harsher than he’d intended. He knew Arthur hadn’t meant to be insulting; he had no idea how Merlin felt about him, and it wasn’t entirely fair to get cross with him when he hadn’t really done anything wrong. On the other hand, though, why couldn’t Arthur ask Gwen or someone he actually liked to give him their handkerchief, instead of constantly pestering Merlin about it? Surely that would be the most suitable option for everyone involved.
“Why do you care so much about this, anyway?” he asked, before he could think the better of it. He expected Arthur to bluster some more about court politics, which would likely mean he had only been doing it to mess with Merlin, or to come out with some other excuse that actually made sense, though Merlin couldn’t imagine what that might be. Instead, however, Arthur’s face shuttered, and he took a step away from Merlin before picking up his sword.
“No reason,” he said curtly, settling the weapon into its scabbard at his hip. “Forget I even asked.”
Arthur fought ferociously that afternoon, outmatching his opponent with a degree of skill that even Merlin could tell was borderline embarrassing. Normally, Arthur tended to show off a little during public bouts, drawing out the fight as he mugged for the crowd, but today he fought with a single-minded purpose, his face hard and set as though he honestly intended to hammer poor Sir Caradoc into the ground.
When the tournament was over, he barely paused long enough to acknowledge the applause before turning on his heel and stalking into his tent, leaving Merlin to collect his things and trail after him in bemusement.
“You fought well today, sire,” Merlin said tentatively, as he helped the scowling prince extricate himself from his armour. “Sir Caradoc didn’t know what hit him.”
“Sir Caradoc deserved a better fight,” Arthur said, scrubbing a rueful hand through his sweat-dark hair. “I’ll have to buy him a drink tonight and apologise for losing my temper.”
Merlin pursed his lips, though not because he necessarily disagreed. What he couldn’t understand was why Arthur had been so upset in the first place. It couldn't just be about the neckerchief, surely? He hadn't been exaggerating when he'd said Arthur usually didn't bother with such things—Morgana had brought up the subject more than once, when some knight or other had solicited her favour, and Arthur's response had always been that it was a silly practice and he wanted nothing to do with it. The only reason Merlin could think of for him to change his mind so thoroughly was if there were someone he was hoping to make jealous by such a gesture; someone he had already asked, perhaps, but who had for some reason turned him down.
The idea of Arthur in love—requited or otherwise—made Merlin's stomach drop, even though he knew he was being unreasonable. He could hardly expect the prince to remain single forever, after all, especially with the kingdom and an heir to think of, and what was he expecting Arthur to do—propose to him instead? That was hardly feasible, even if Arthur hadn't been so down in the mouth about this mystery girl.
“What about apologising to me for losing your temper?” he asked, trying to lighten the mood. “I think you should buy me a drink or three as well, for putting up with you.”
Arthur narrowed his eyes. “The next time you last an entire bout with me, maybe I will,” he said, before dumping the last of his armour into Merlin's arms and heading for the door. "But I wouldn't hold my breath."
He was gone before Merlin could decide whether that was meant to be a promise—or a threat.
By the time Arthur returned from the tavern that evening, he was a little bit unsteady and more than a little drunk, and Merlin was torn between amusement and annoyance at having had to to haul him up so many stairs.
“Let’s get you ready for bed, sire,” he said, helping Arthur with his belt and boots. Arthur was always particularly difficult to undress when he’d been drinking, in part because of the lack of balance but mostly because he kept interfering. “Here, why don’t you undo these laces, while I—”
They got the tunic off, eventually. Merlin deliberately didn’t look at Arthur’s bare chest or think about touching it, nor did he imagine what it would be like if he were undressing Arthur for reasons other than the fact that Arthur was a prince and a royal prat. He was well versed in not-doing any of these things, fortunately, so it wasn’t particularly difficult to keep his mind on his task; the real challenge came when Arthur reached for Merlin's neckerchief and started trying to undress him in turn.
“Hey!” Merlin slapped his hands away. “What are you doing?”
Arthur muttered something into his collar, of which the only discernible words were ‘neckerchief’ and ‘mine.’ Merlin rolled his eyes.
“Not this again.” He’d been hoping Arthur would have forgotten about the neckerchief by now. “We’ve been over this. I’m not a girl, you know; you’re not going to gain any points for wearing my favour around your arm. And I’m not just going to hand over my treasured possessions to soothe your wounded ego.”
“I know you’re not a girl,” Arthur assured him, apparently choosing to hear only a select portion of this statement. “But you’re still very pretty.” He smirked up at Merlin, clearly thinking this was a great joke, and Merlin prayed to all the gods he wasn’t blushing. “C’mon, Merlin. It’s just a neckerchief. Why won’t you give it to me?”
Merlin sighed. It would probably save a great deal of trouble and distress if he handed over the neckerchief right now and put an end to it—certainly, it would stop him having to deal with that look on Arthur’s face, which was doing unfair things to his treacherous libido. On the other hand, having resisted the temptation thus far, he felt that giving in now would set a dangerous precedent. If Arthur knew all he had to do was look cute and tousle his hair a bit to get his way, he’d have Merlin wrapped around his little finger in no time, and then the entire kingdom would be in jeopardy.
“Because it’s mine,” Merlin said finally. He gave Arthur a gentle shove back onto his pillows and pulled the covers up around him, resisting the urge to press a kiss to the prince’s forehead. He settled for brushing Arthur’s hair out of his eyes instead, his heart giving a painful squeeze at the way Arthur leaned trustingly into his touch. “Don’t worry, sire. When you’re king, you’ll be rich enough to buy yourself a thousand neckerchiefs, if you still want them.”
“Mm. Don’t need a thousand neckerchiefs,” Arthur said, and Lord help him, he was pouting. “Besides, I can’t just order someone to give one to me. That would be dishonourable.”
“I see.” Merlin had no idea what Arthur was talking about, but it seemed best not to argue with him. “Well, in that case, perhaps you could try asking politely instead of being such a prat.”
“And then you’ll give me your neckerchief?” Arthur asked hopefully.
“No,” Merlin said, unwilling to encourage him. “But I might be nicer about it.”
Arthur groaned and rolled over, burying his face in the pillow. “I hate you,” he said, his voice muffled, and Merlin grinned. If Arthur had moved on to insulting him, it meant he must be feeling better—or at least, that he was getting over his strop and would soon be back to normal. “You’re the worst manservant I’ve ever had. Bar none.”
“The feeling’s mutual, sire,” Merlin said, patting Arthur on the shoulder before moving off to blow out the candles. “There’s not a single prince in Albion who drives me quite as mad as you.”
Arthur seemed more like his usual self the following day, which Merlin considered a positive sign. Perhaps it had been merely a passing fancy after all, or some whim brought on by a comment of Morgana's that could now be safely forgotten. Certainly, the prince didn’t act like a man who had been thwarted in love—although that could have been because he was still a bit hungover.
“Must you rattle those dishes so loudly?” he complained, as Merlin set out his breakfast tray on the dining table. “It’s like being served by a stampede of wild horses.”
“So sorry, sire,” Merlin said, making sure to let the milk jug clatter as he set it down. “How inconsiderate of me. It’s just so hard to keep hold of all these things with my clumsy hooves.”
Arthur slitted one eye open to glare at him, but it was half-hearted at best. He did look somewhat the worse for wear, as if he’d spent half the night tossing and turning after Merlin had gone to bed, his hair sticking up in all directions and dark smudges under his eyes. Merlin felt a twinge of sympathy, but not enough to keep him from yanking open the curtains with unnecessary flourish.
“For God’s sake, Merlin,” Arthur groaned, wincing as the light hit before rolling over and pulling up the covers. “You’ve made your point. Now please leave me here to die in peace.”
“No need for that, sire,” Merlin said cheerfully. He picked up a small vial he’d brought from the infirmary and held it out to the prince, smirking as Arthur all but snatched it out of his hand. “Courtesy of Gaius, although don’t tell him I gave it to you. He’s still under the impression that you left off drinking at a responsible hour.”
Arthur grunted at that, but he uncorked the vial and downed its contents in one swallow, making the same disgusted face common to anyone who sampled one of the physician's concoctions.
“Thank you,” he rasped, sitting up. “That was…uh, well. I’m sure I’ll get rid of the taste eventually.”
“That’s the spirit.” Merlin helped him into a fresh tunic and trousers, keeping his eyes politely averted as he did so, and then left him at the table to serve himself while he made the bed and put Arthur's sleeping clothes away. He could feel the prince’s gaze on him as he worked, an odd sort of tension in the air, but he didn't really think anything of it until Arthur spoke.
“Did I…say anything to you, last night?” he asked, clearing his throat a trifle awkwardly. "About—about your neckerchief, I mean."
"My neckerchief?" Merlin paused and cocked his head, pretending to consider. "Oh, you mean did you try to bribe me for it by offering me riches beyond my wildest dreams?" He took a moment to appreciate Arthur's horrified expression before he took pity on him and went on. "Alas, no, nothing like that, sire. Although you did seem awfully determined to get me to hand it over."
Arthur looked as though he didn't know whether to be relieved or mortified. “I’m sorry about that,” he said, his voice stiff. “It was wrong of me. Obviously, you should feel free to give your neckerchief to whomever you like—or not, as the case may be.”
“Thank you,” Merlin said, although that had never really been an issue up until now. He looked over at Arthur, taking in the tense shoulders and tight, unhappy expression, and felt the familiar clench of jealousy in his gut. So much for the prince not acting like a jilted lover. “You know, if you want," he said cautiously, "I could ask around for you—see who might be interested in letting you borrow their handkerchief for the tournament next time round. Perhaps even speak to someone in particular on your behalf?"
“No, thank you.” Arthur looked away. “I don’t think that will be necessary.”
“Are you sure?" Merlin couldn't seem to keep from pressing. "It seemed like it was pretty important to you last night."
”Yes, I'm sure,” Arthur ground out, a muscle twitching in his jaw. “I can do perfectly well without one, as you so helpfully pointed out."
"All right then, suit yourself." It wasn't as though Merlin wanted to get involved in Arthur's love life, after all, though he had to admit that he was somewhat baffled. It wasn't like the prince to give up so easily.
The look on Arthur’s face stayed with Merlin throughout the rest of the day, in spite of his efforts not to dwell on it. He watched the prince with half an eye as he went about his duties, trying to determine who it was that he could possibly be in love with, but as far as he could tell Arthur interacted with everyone the same way he always had. There were no longing looks or lingering glances, save for the few times Merlin caught the prince staring at his neckerchief, and trying to decipher Arthur's feelings was starting to give Merlin a headache.
“Is everything all right, Merlin?” Gaius asked mildly, retrieving the slice of ginger root Merlin had just added to his cauldron with his spoon. “Only, that’s the third time you’ve given me ginger instead of the gentian I asked for.”
“Sorry, Gaius,” Merlin apologised, rubbing at his forehead. “It’s just—I was just thinking about Arthur.”
One of Gaius’ bushy eyebrows went up. “I see,” he said, setting down his ladle. “And do I want to know what you were thinking about that was so engrossing? He isn’t in any danger, I hope.”
“No, nothing like that.” Briefly, Merlin explained his and Arthur’s argument the day before, and Arthur’s inexplicable interest in Merlin’s neckerchief. If possible, Gaius’ eyebrow climbed even higher. “And now I’m not sure what to do about it,” Merlin confessed when he had finished. "Is it really such an important tradition?”
“Well,” Gaius said slowly. “Perhaps it’s not so much about the tradition itself, but rather what it signifies. King Uther and Queen Ygraine were already courting by the time they were Arthur's age, you know, and I believe the king has high expectations for him in that regard."
"Doesn't he always," Merlin grumbled. He'd seen Arthur turn himself inside out to meet his father's impossible standards more than once. "So you think Uther might be pressuring him, and that's why he felt the need to start wearing someone's favour?"
"That is certainly one possibility," Gaius acknowledged. He studied Merlin's face for a moment, apparently picking his next words with some care. "However...Arthur has never been the sort of man who likes to wear his heart on his sleeve—in this case, quite literally. It may be that he asked to use your neckerchief as a way of signifying his feelings without having to approach the subject directly."
"I see." Merlin stirred the cauldron absently, thinking back over Arthur's recent behaviour. The prince had seemed awfully disappointed when Merlin had refused to give up his neckerchief, more so than any kind of jealousy plot truly warranted. And if he'd really been trying to woo some mysterious lady love, why all the interest in Merlin's neckerchief? Why weren't any of the other rags good enough? "So you think Arthur wanted to fool his father, and he asked me to help him out because we're friends," he said, thinking of the 'friendly' arm-punching and manly shoving being Arthur's manservant often entailed. It wasn't that much of a stretch to suppose the request for Merlin's neckerchief had been yet another such bonding ritual that Merlin had failed to understand. "I guess that would make sense."
Both of Gaius' eyebrows went up this time. “That’s—not exactly what I—”
“I think I know what I need to do now,” Merlin interrupted, breaking into a smile as he leaned over to give his mentor a hug. “Thank you, Gaius. You've been very helpful.”
“I’m glad you think so,” Gaius said drily, patting his shoulder. “Now, if you can bring yourself pay attention to more immediate concerns, I believe this cauldron is about to boil over.”
Merlin found Gwen where she usually was come sun-up: on her way to Morgana’s rooms to serve her mistress breakfast, a fresh vase of bright blue flowers balanced precariously on her tray.
“I need your help,” he said without preamble, falling into step beside her. “It’s about Arthur.”
“Is something wrong?” Gwen asked, slowing her pace. Her forehead crinkled into a look of obvious concern, and Merlin spared a moment to be grateful that he didn't have to waste time making up excuses or justifying his interest in the prince's welfare to her. As soon as Gwen thought one of her friends was in trouble, she was immediately anxious to help. “Did something happen to him during the tournament?”
“No, everything’s fine,” Merlin assured her, smiling. “But I was thinking—that is, I know Yule’s coming up soon, and I was wondering if you could help me sew a gift for him? I had something special in mind, only I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it on my own.”
“You wanted to sew Arthur something for Yule,” Gwen repeated, sounding dubious. “Are you sure? I mean, not that I don’t think you can do it, obviously,” she said, turning faintly pink. “I just—I didn’t think needlework was your sort of thing?”
“It isn't,” Merlin said, grinning at her. “That’s why I need your help. Everyone knows you’re the most accomplished seamstress in Camelot. I want to make Arthur a neckerchief like mine, only fancier, but I don’t really know how to do much beyond a few basic stitches.”
And even those he usually augmented with magic, though he couldn't tell her that. It wasn't as if he could use his powers to conjure up a gift for the prince, anyway—a few stitches here and there was one thing, but anything more than that and he was just asking to get caught. Besides, silly as it might be, he wanted Arthur's present to feel personal.
“I suppose that shouldn't be too difficult,” Gwen said at last, and her shoulders relaxed a little as she smiled at him. “Carry this tray up to Morgana's for me, and I’ll see what I can do.”
“You drive a hard bargain, my lady,” Merlin told her, shaking his head in mock despair, and her cheeks dimpled.
“How else can I keep you all from taking me for granted?”
Making Arthur a neckerchief of his own was a brilliant idea, if Merlin did say so himself. Quite apart from preserving his own beloved neck-cloths from destruction, it would also allow him to rectify his mistake without upsetting Arthur further, or making too big a deal out of the situation. Normally, of course, Arthur's embarrassment was the least of Merlin's concerns—one might even go so far as to suggest that it had been his aim on more than one occasion—but this was clearly a matter of some importance to the prince, and never let it be said that Merlin couldn't be tactful when it counted.
The only problem with his plan was figuring out how to hide it all from Arthur. After delivering Gwen had taken one look at Merlin’s first attempt at stitching and offered, not unkindly, to talk him through some of the very, very basics before they moved on to embroidery proper, but finding time for it in between their serving duties and Merlin's work for Gaius proved to be something of a challenge.
“I don’t know if this is a good idea," Gwen said doubtfully, when Merlin dragged her into one of the upstairs storage rooms a few days later. "There's hardly any light to speak of—and what if someone comes in?"
"Then we'll tell them you’re helping me with something for the prince," Merlin said, shrugging. “Nobody in the castle is going to question that, and it’s not as if it’s even really a lie.”
The storage room was definitely not ideal for sewing; it had one small, grated window set high into the wall, and even the candle stubs Merlin brought with him didn't provide much by way of illumination. It also had the misfortune of opening out onto a busy corridor, as the two of them discovered when they left the room the following afternoon to find Arthur coming towards them from the opposite direction.
“There you are, Merlin,” Arthur said, raising one eyebrow as he took in his manservant’s appearance. “And Guinevere, too. What an unexpected pleasure.”
“Good afternoon, my lord,” Gwen said, dropping low to give him a formal curtsey. She glanced at Merlin from beneath her lashes, her expression clearly telegraphing her alarm. “I was just here to—erm. That is—”
“She was helping me!” Merlin hurried to explain. “With, uh. Some mending. Yes.” He held up the tunic he was carrying as proof—he had been intending to pay a visit to the laundry after his lesson with Gwen—and prayed that Arthur wouldn’t notice he’d worn that particular shirt the day before, and hadn’t torn it once. “Tricky bit of stitching—you know how it is.”
“I see,” Arthur said. Merlin could tell he was suspicious, but presumably he wasn’t knowledgeable enough about the subject in question to dispute Merlin’s claim. “Well, if you’re done here, Guinevere, I think Morgana was looking for you; something about a new gown in need of hemming?”
“Then I’d best see to it immediately. Thank you, sire.” Gwen shot Merlin an apologetic look. “I’ll see you later?”
“Yes, of course,” Merlin said. “And thanks for—you know. Everything.”
“My pleasure.” With a final smile at him and a curtsey for the prince, she picked up her mending basket and left, Merlin’s latest attempt at chain stitching buried in amongst the other scraps where Arthur wouldn’t see. Merlin watched her go, aware of Arthur’s eyes on him, and tried to look as innocent as it was possible to look after almost getting caught making secret Yuletide gifts in a castle storage room.
“You know,” Arthur said, when Gwen had gone, leaning against the doorway and folding his arms. “I don’t actually pay you to laze about gossiping with your friends all day; I pay you to do your job.”
“You barely pay me at all,” Merlin pointed out, since this was something of a sore point for him. It had cost him three weeks’ wages just to buy the cloth for Arthur’s gift, to say nothing of the gold thread for the embroidery; his mum would say it was a scandal. “Besides, we weren’t gossiping, sire—she was helping me. You know. With my job?”
“Right,” Arthur said, snorting. “And I’m a monkey’s uncle. You know, girls tend to prefer it when you play hard to get, not make more work for them when they’re busy.”
“I’ll try to keep your wisdom in mind, O Prince of the Apes,” Merlin said crankily, but for some reason that only appeared to make Arthur laugh.
After that, Arthur seemed to take it upon himself to be as obstructive as possible. He showed up whenever Merlin thought he’d have a moment of privacy, more than once almost catching him with a needle in his hand, and Merlin was hard-pressed to get through more than a few lines of stitching without a familiar blond head peering around a corner, or Arthur's annoyed voice bellowing his name. The prince also made a point of taking Merlin out hunting far more often than could possibly be necessary, and hovered over him while he tried to do his chores, making the whole process three times as long and ten times more difficult because Merlin couldn’t use his magic.
“You do realise you’re supposed to be getting rid of the ash, not showering my belongings with it,” Arthur drawled, peering over Merlin’s shoulder as he tried to clean the hearth one morning. “What is wrong with you today? You don’t usually create such a mess—I’d have noticed.”
Merlin levelled a scowl at the grating and sat back on his heels, wiping his hands on the seat of his trousers.
“This isn’t exactly easy, sire,” he grumbled, swiping an arm across his forehead. “Particularly not with you breathing down my neck. Since when do you care so much about your fireplace, anyway?”
“Since you've apparently become incapable of simple household chores, Merlin,” Arthur said, which struck Merlin as particularly unfair. He was only terrible at his chores because Arthur kept watching him. “Apparently, some supervision is necessary in order to keep my rooms from looking like the bottom of a dustpan. Budge over.”
Merlin budged, and Arthur squatted down beside him, tugging the brush and shovel out of his hands. “It really isn’t that difficult,” he said, his shoulder pressing warm and distractingly firm against Merlin’s own. “All you have to do is—”
He demonstrated. The resulting cloud of ash and dust made Merlin sneeze several times in rapid succession, and sent Arthur into a coughing fit so severe that Merlin had to help him over to the window and pound him on the back to help him breathe.
“Now do you believe me, sire?” he asked, untucking his tunic and leaning forward to shake the soot out over the windowsill. It was going to take him ages to get the stains out, especially if Arthur kept hanging about. “It’s not as easy as it looks, is it?”
Arthur was staring at him. It might have been the fact that he was covered in soot, or perhaps because his eyes were still streaming, but Merlin thought he looked rather put out by something.
“Well?” Merlin prompted, after a moment. “You were about to admit that you were wrong about the fireplace. Take your time, sire, I know this is hard for you.”
“Shut up, Merlin,” Arthur said, still eyeing him intently. Then, as if he couldn’t help himself, he said, “Where’s your neckerchief?”
Merlin froze. He'd given his neckerchief to Gwen that afternoon, so that they could use it as a template for making Arthur’s gift. After many false starts and disappointments, she had finally declared he was ready to work on it for real, and Merlin had been so eager to get started that it had entirely slipped his mind to stop by the infirmary to replace it.
“Erm. That is, it’s washing day,” he extemporised, recovering quickly. “Had to hang it up to dry in front of the fire.”
“And you couldn’t find another one?”
“They were all dirty. There was, um. An accident in the kitchens, with the cook carrying a pot of soup and the laundry—”
“Right.” Arthur eyed him mistrustfully, and Merlin did his best to look like the opposite of a person who was lying through his teeth. “Well. I suppose that can’t be helped. You’ll want to go and get one, though, before tackling the fireplace again. I'd hate for you to choke on all that ash.”
There was something not quite right about the way he said it, like he was asking some kind of a question instead of making a suggestion, but Merlin couldn't for the life of him figure out the right answer.
“I’ll just do that then, shall I?” he said, grateful for the opportunity to get away from Arthur's penetrating stare. “I can pick up some of your things while I’m down there, if you like.”
“Yes, you do that,” Arthur said, following him to the door. “Oh, and Merlin?”
Merlin paused half way down the passageway. “Yes, my lord?”
“The laundry’s that way,” Arthur said, pointing in the opposite direction to the one in which Merlin had been headed. “In case you weren’t aware. That’s generally the place you go to get things cleaned.”
“Oh, right.” Flustered, Merlin attempted a smile. “I knew that.”
“I’m sure you did.” Arthur’s amused expression didn’t falter, but Merlin could still feel the weight of the prince’s gaze on him all the way down the hall.
“He’s trying to work me to death,” Merlin complained as he dragged himself back to the infirmary some days later, collapsing onto a bench in front of Gaius. “I’m sure of it. He’s figured out I’m using magic somehow and is following me around to make sure I don’t cheat at my chores.”
“If Arthur were to find out about your magic,” Gaius said drily, “I highly doubt his first concern would be your work ethic—although I suppose I wouldn't blame him if it were. Your magic is a gift, Merlin. You shouldn’t put your destiny at risk by squandering it on such frivolous things.”
“I don’t do everything with magic,” Merlin protested, thinking of the half-finished neckerchief currently stowed under a certain maidservant’s bed. They had both agreed that it would be better hidden there for the time being, as it reduced the possibility that Arthur might stumble across it by mistake, and so far Merlin had yet to make a single stitch with anything other than a needle and thread. “Only the unimportant stuff. Besides, magic is part of me—it's part of who I am. What good am I if I can’t do anything with it?”
“I’m sure we could find some use for you,” Gaius said, shoving a bowl of gruel towards him. “The leech tank, for example, hasn't been cleaned in a while. Perhaps you could start there.”
Merlin opened his mouth to dispute this fact, but Gaius fixed him with such a threatening look that he picked up his spoon and began to eat hastily, resolving to keep his complaints to himself for the time being. Arthur was definitely acting like more of a prat than usual, alternating between irritating condescension and piling Merlin with so many chores that it was a wonder he hadn't keeled over already, but he definitely wouldn't last much longer if Gaius got in on the act as well.
At last, the neckerchief was finished. It had taken three weeks, several feet of fabric, and more gold thread than Merlin wanted to contemplate, but in the end he was rather pleased with the finished product—not least because he had somehow managed to keep it secret from Arthur.
“Do you think he’ll like it?” he asked Gwen, as she handed him the prince’s present the night before Yule. She had used a scrap of good silk to wrap it up for him, tied off with a bow in soft red ribbon, and the result was a far prettier bundle than he could have managed on his own. “I know it isn’t much, compared to what he’s used to.”
“I’m sure he’s going to love it,” Gwen assured him, leaning up to kiss his cheek. “How could he not, when you put so much effort into it?”
“This is Arthur we’re talking about,” Merlin pointed out wryly. “Chief finder of fault with all things Merlin.”
“And also a prince with a heart of gold,” Gwen said, her eyes twinkling. “Admit it, Merlin, he’s really not so bad.”
“No, actually, he is pretty terrible,” Merlin said, making a face at her, but he could tell from the way she laughed at him that she didn’t believe it. He couldn’t really blame her. It seemed like a long time ago that he had first spoken to the Great Dragon and learned about the role he was to play in Arthur’s destiny, and even longer still since he had found it in him to dislike the prince. Perhaps it would have been easier if he could, he reflected, tucking Arthur’s gift close to his heart for safe-keeping; it would certainly have made his life a lot simpler. When it came to Arthur, however, he was beginning to suspect that ship had sailed a long time ago.
The prince’s strange mood had not abated by the time the Yule feast arrived—if anything, it seemed to have gotten worse, as he was unusually quiet when Merlin helped him dress for the celebration.
In part, that was only to be expected. Yuletide was the anniversary of his mother’s death, among other things, and it had never been a season that Arthur particularly enjoyed. Still, Merlin couldn’t help feeling that there was more to his unhappiness than the usual melancholy; if he hadn't known better, he'd have thought Arthur looked as if someone had well and truly broken his heart.
“Arthur?” Merlin said, catching the prince’s eye in the mirror as he finished settling his cloak, “Are you sure everything’s all right? You seem—” Sad, he wanted to say, but Arthur would probably only tell him that princes didn’t get sad, or some such rubbish. “—distracted,” he finished instead, shrugging lamely.
The smallest of smiles lit Arthur’s face for a moment, before it was gone again. “Everything’s fine, Merlin,” he said, just as he had the last half dozen times Merlin had asked him that very same question. “Or, it will be, so long as we manage to get to the feast on time. Are you quite finished with all of your fussing?”
Merlin flushed—he hadn’t realised he’d been that obvious—and stepped back, letting his hands drop to his sides.
“Yeah, I’m finished,” he said. “But, uh. Before you go, I wanted to give you something.”
Arthur cocked his head, looking at him askance as Merlin pulled the neatly wrapped bundle out of his jacket pocket and held it out to him. “You’re giving me a present?”
“It’s your birthday, isn’t it?” Merlin retorted, feeling unexpectedly embarrassed. He had been so caught up in the idea of giving Arthur his gift, he hadn’t stopped to think about the fact that he would have to actually give Arthur his gift. He shoved the parcel into Arthur’s hands. “And it’s Yule. Just open it already, you prat. You’re the one who was worried about being late.”
Arthur sent him a bemused look, but finally he did as he was told, carefully unwrapping the ribbons and peeling back the silk to reveal the neckerchief inside. He stared at it for several seconds, his expression utterly blank, before he looked up again and met Merlin’s gaze.
“What is this?”
“It’s a neckerchief,” Merlin said, unable to keep the small swell of pride from his voice. “You know, since you were so keen to borrow one of mine, I thought—”
“Is this some kind of joke?” Arthur demanded, and Merlin stopped talking, shocked by the harshness of his voice. “I know I’ve allowed you to take liberties in the past, Merlin, but even you have to agree this is going too far.”
Bewildered, Merlin could only gape at him, the remains of his excitement congealing into a cold lump inside his chest. Of course Arthur didn’t like his gift. Of course he didn’t. Gwen had told him his sewing was getting better, but Gwen was the nicest person in the kingdom; she obviously hadn’t been telling the truth.
“If you don’t want it,” Merlin began, reaching out to take the parcel back from Arthur. “I know it isn’t much, but I thought—if you don’t like it, I can always—”
He had been about to say, give it to someone else, but Arthur snatched the neckerchief out of reach before he could finish, holding it tightly to his chest as if he thought Merlin was going to steal it right out of his hands. Confused, Merlin stopped talking, and Arthur took a deep breath.
“Why did you give me this, Merlin?” he asked, his voice low and hard. “The truth, if you please.”
“Because—because you wanted one?” Merlin said, hopelessly at sea now. “You seemed really upset about it, after the tourney, so I asked Gwen to help me make you one of your own. That way, you’ll always have someone’s colours to wear.” He tried to muster up a smile, but wasn’t entirely certain that he was successful. “I thought it would be useful.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said slowly. “Do you know why I asked you for your neckerchief that day at the tournament?”
“Well, yeah.” Merlin shrugged his shoulders. “You said it was an important tradition, and the people needed to know there was someone you were fighting for.”
“Yes,” Arthur agreed, a note in his voice that was just a shade too pleasant. “And what did I say that tradition signified? To the court, I mean.”
“You said…” Merlin wracked his brain, trying to remember Arthur's exact words. “You said a knight wore a lady’s favour as a symbol of his love for her.”
He waited for Arthur to agree with him—to explain that he'd been trying to please his father, like Gaius had suggested; or, God forbid, had in fact been trying to make some poor girl jealous. But Arthur just looked back at him steadily, jaw set, not saying anything, and Merlin felt the world tilt sideways beneath his feet. The prince could not be implying what Merlin thought he was implying. Asking for his neckerchief as a joke was one thing; Merlin could even, at a stretch, see Arthur asking for his help because they were friends and not wanting to say so. But if Arthur had truly wanted to wear Merlin's favour in the lists, not someone else's—if he seriously viewed it as a love token and not just a meaningless bit of cloth, then that meant—
“You—have feelings for me?” he whispered, stunned, and Arthur let out a bark of laughter.
“Now he gets it,” he said to the world at large, throwing his hands in the air. He turned away from Merlin and strode across the room, the neckerchief balled tightly in one clenched fist. “And you—you made me this, of all things, after you made it perfectly clear—and after you’ve been courting Guinevere under my very nose—“
“Wait,” Merlin said, the preposterousness of that statement finally breaking through his disbelieving haze. “You think Gwen and I have been courting?”
“Haven’t you?” Arthur asked, facing him again with his arms crossed over his chest. “I saw her kissing you in the corridor yesterday, and you gave her your neckerchief—your own neckerchief, one of the ones you wouldn’t even let me touch. The two of you have been spending every spare minute together for weeks. What else was I supposed to think?”
“I don’t know, maybe that the two of us were friends, you absolute clotpole!” Marching forward, Merlin grabbed the hand in which Arthur was holding the bunched-up neckerchief and prised his fingers open. “Look at this,” he said, shaking out the crumpled material so that Arthur could see it properly. “Do you know how long it took me to get the stitching just right? I haven’t had time for courting; I’ve been too busy learning how to sew!”
Arthur took the neckerchief back from him and studied it—really looked at it, this time, the way he had apparently been too angry to do before. He traced the Pendragon crest in the upper right corner with one finger, the gold thread shining under his hands. Merlin had practised for hours on every little scrap of cloth he could get his hands on to make that tiny dragon perfect, but it was worth it to see the look on Arthur’s face.
“You made this?” he asked at last, his voice softening. “By yourself?”
“Yes,” Merlin said shortly. “Gwen taught me.”
There was a long silence, and Merlin felt his ears burn, certain that every iota of feeling he had put into those tiny stitches must be written all over his face. When Arthur opened his mouth to speak again, Merlin half expected him to comment on it, but instead all he said was,
“Help me try it on?”
It wasn’t a complicated garment—Arthur could easily have put it on himself; but then, the same could have been said of most of the clothes he wore. Merlin took it out of his hands in silence, leaning in close to loop the fabric around the prince’s neck.
Arthur’s hair was soft where it brushed against his fingers, his face near enough that Merlin could feel the tickle of warm breath against his neck. He stood perfectly still as Merlin tied the neckerchief in place, hands trembling, then smoothed the material carefully at Arthur’s throat, trying not to notice Arthur’s tiny shiver when Merlin’s fingers skimmed the bare skin of his neck.
“There you go,” he said quietly, leaning back to take in the full effect. “All done.”
The neckerchief was made of finer stuff than any of Merlin’s own, soft to the touch and dyed a deep, rich crimson, yet the resemblance between it and the ones his mother had given him was unmistakeable. It made something odd flutter to life in Merlin’s chest, a feeling not unlike possessiveness taking hold as he looked at his own creation wrapped snugly around Arthur’s neck. Was this what the ladies of the court felt, when they saw their champion ride out onto the field with their colours on his arm?
“It looks good on you,” he said, without thinking, and Arthur jerked his head up in surprise, his eyes very blue where they caught the candlelight. “I mean—I guess it does. You can’t quite pull it off the same way I do.”
“Is that so,” Arthur said, raising one eyebrow. “I seem to recall you having a bit of trouble pulling it off that day at the tournament.”
They were standing very close together now, Arthur's gaze darkening as it drifted towards Merlin's mouth. Merlin let out his breath in a shaky exhale. “Maybe if you’d asked me, like a normal person,” he said, “I would have taken it off and given it to you like you wanted, and none of this would have been necessary.”
“Would you, now,” Arthur said, a slow smile curling the corner of his lips. He took a step forward, closing the distance between them, a proprietary hand sliding over the jut of Merlin’s hip. “And what else would you take off for me, I wonder?”
Heat flooded through Merlin’s body as Arthur’s thumb found the hem of his tunic, teasing at bare skin.
“Why don’t you ask me and find out?” he murmured, before catching hold of Arthur by the neckerchief and reeling him in for a kiss.
That spring, after the snows had thawed and the ground had softened once more on the tourney field, Camelot hosted yet another jousting competition for the knights of the nearby kingdoms, the first such tournament to be held in the new year. This time, when Arthur held out a hand and said, “Merlin, you've forgotten something,” Merlin handed over his neckerchief without complaint, helping Arthur to tie it around his arm for everyone to see. And when Merlin held out a hand in return, smirking at Arthur's obvious reluctance, Arthur heaved a put-upon sigh and handed over his own neckerchief as a hostage for his safe return—the same one Merlin had embroidered for him so many weeks ago.
“You’d better not get it dirty,” he said sternly, holding up a warning finger. "I mean it, Merlin."
"Of course not, my lord," Merlin promised, fastening the cloth around his neck with a cheeky grin. "I wouldn't dream of it."