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Seeing a fist coming at you didn't mean you could avoid it, as Merlin found out to his cost while waiting to ask Arthur if Arthur would be needing his hunting coat in the near future. There had been a small accident with a pot of salve he had been trying to put away safely in Arthur's room and if Arthur wanted to go hunting in the near future without smelling like a herb garden, drastic measures might be required.
The fist belonged to a new knight candidate whose name Merlin had not bothered to remember, since he was pretty sure the man wouldn't last the month. He had just about enough time to think that now he was completely sure the man wouldn't last the month before the fist connected with his jaw and he went flying backwards, the world going dark.
Coming round was unpleasant.
The first thing he noticed was that his face hurt quite a lot and the second was that the ground was cold. It was the middle of winter after all and the field was frozen.
The next fact that impinged on his brain was that someone was shouting, loudly. It took him a second to gather enough wits to realise it was Arthur and that Arthur sounded very, very angry. Moving slowly, Merlin sat up, shaking his head to clear it. None of the knights were paying the slightest attention to him, but he wasn't overly insulted, because they had one very good reason; all their attention was on Arthur and Merlin could see why.
Frankly Arthur looked like a divine being sent from Avalon to avenge some wrong and Merlin's assailant was his victim. The man was almost flat on his back on the floor, had blood streaming from his nose and a cut lip and appeared deathly afraid. Arthur was standing over the man, hair blowing in the winter breeze and face so full of fury that, for a moment, Merlin was afraid Arthur was ready to kill. It was then that Arthur glanced at him and it was as if they clicked back together somehow.
"Crawl away dog and leave Camelot forever," Arthur said once more glaring at his victim, voice suddenly cold and very, very dangerous, "and if you ever touch one of my people again, I will kill you."
The 'my' was very final.
Then Arthur turned, as if dismissing the man from his thoughts completely and strode over to where Merlin was sitting, looking up in awe. He had never seen Arthur quite like it and he knew he probably looked like an idiot, but he couldn't help staring. When he was offered a hand he almost failed to take it as his thoughts refused to keep up, but the moment he did, Arthur pulled him to his feet.
"Your eyes are unfocused," Arthur decided, looking him over in what was almost a businesslike way, "you need to see Gaius."
Merlin did not argue, after all his ears were still ringing, but it did begin to dawn on him that he had just seen a glimpse of the great king his prince would become. Even as Arthur turned to one of his knights, Merlin felt the awe settling in properly.
"See that that dog leaves," Arthur instructed, every inch the crown prince, "and then return here. I shall see Merlin to Gaius or he will only end up falling down the nearest staircase and breaking his neck."
The last part was said lightly, but Merlin didn't think any of the knights were fooled. He could see in their eyes that Arthur had revealed more of himself than he might have wanted, but he could also see that they were as awed as he was. These men had also seen what he had seen and glimpsed the future.
As Arthur took his arm and led him back towards the castle, he tried to think of what to say, but for once, nothing came to mind. It was only as they reached the courtyard, out of sight of the training ground, that he finally decided on his words.
"Thank you," he said; simple and, for once, what he actually meant.
Arthur stopped then, looking at him, but did not try to deny that his actions had been for Merlin. In what felt like a moment Merlin found himself with his back against the wall and Arthur looming over him even though they were usually almost of a height.
"I thought..." Arthur said, suddenly much less articulate and Merlin just waited for Arthur to find the words. "That blow was not pulled. Meric was angry and he is as strong as a bull. For a moment I thought he had killed you."
Arthur's complete fury began to make sense and Merlin knew that had their circumstance been reversed, he would have been in a similar state. Their bond went beyond prince and manservant, beyond even friends and at that moment it was as clear as day. When Arthur swooped on him, he was almost expecting it, and it hurt to be kissed because his jaw was throbbing, but he kissed back anyway. In the back of his mind he thought he heard some great lock clicking into place as his lips met Arthur's, but he was so focused on the kiss that it was barely a passing thought.
"Next time," Arthur said in a breathless whisper when they finally parted, "duck."
Merlin tried to grin, but it hurt too much. The words were one thing, but he knew what they really meant.
"I love you too," he replied, as what he was feeling resolved into something undeniable.
For a moment Arthur looked shocked and then Merlin found himself being dragged towards Gaius' rooms, but most significantly, Arthur did not deny it.