Arthur noticed Gwaine’s new squire immediately. The boy was a little over five feet tall, thin as a rail, with mousy brown hair and a wide freckled face that suggested he spent much time in the sun. Arthur smiled at the boy in welcome and clapped him on the shoulder. The same way he treated all the other squires. In response, the lad gave him a small smile back, blushed and walked toward Gwaine before seeming to trip over his own feet and landing hard in the dirt. The boy might be nervous to be this close to the king or it could be nervousness about his this being his first job, Arthur realized. He hoped that by the end of their hunting trip the boy, Trevor he thought Gwaine had called him, would realize that Arthur was just Arthur when he was alone with his knights and their squires and that Gwaine obviously saw potential in him otherwise he wouldn’t have taken the boy on as his squire.
As Arthur watched Gwaine picked the boy up from the dirt as easily as he would a smaller child or a kitten. He held onto Trevor, both large hands on the boy’s thin shoulders and eyed him critically. Obviously he was checking the boy for injuries even though the dirt was not that hard nor the fall that severe. Arthur almost chuckled. Gwaine may have been overreacting a bit but that was Gwaine.
When he cared about something or someone he cared with all that he had. Gwaine would have done the same thing if it had been Arthur, one of the townspeople, a child, one of the knights, or especially Merlin. Even though she was now queen of Camelot the knights still treated her like a baby sister who was adored by many and over protected by even more. Gwaine, as her best friend was the worst.
Gwaine was even worse than Arthur himself, if the blond was being honest and that was saying something. Arthur knew his wife could protect herself. She had never mastered the sword but was more than competent with a dagger or other small weaponry. Then there was her magic, she was the strongest mage the world had ever known. Despite all of that, he’d do anything to protect her. It was that protection that had led to Arthur insisting that Merlin stay at the castle during this hunting trip despite the fact that she’d accompanied him for years, first when she was his servant and later as the woman he was courting, his fiancée and even as his queen. This trip was different. They were hunting for game to bring to Camelot’s people but they were also hunting human beings. They’d heard tales of more bandit attacks, more people injured or killed and even encampments home to bandits working together. Arthur had deemed this trip too dangerous for Merlin and told her that she wouldn’t be going on this trip.
There had been arguing of course. She wouldn’t be his Merlin if she hadn’t argued and protested. She’d yelled but he’d held firm explaining his reasons for not wanting her there in a calm voice. She’d railed at him that he was being unfair and that if it was dangerous to her it would be dangerous to Arthur and the knights, as well as their squires. He agreed that it would be but that neither he nor the knights could do their jobs well if they were worried about her safety. In the end, Merlin had capitulated but had insisted that as court mage and queen that Arthur allow her to cast protection spells upon himself and everyone else. Arthur agreed readily. It was something Merlin did every time any of the knights went out to patrol or Arthur left to hunt even when she went with him. He’d been relieved that she was so willing to put aside her legendary stubbornness for reason.
Now he watched as Gwaine had finished his visual examination Arthur heard him speak to the lad in a low voice, words too soft for Arthur to hear but he guessed that Gwaine was confirming that the boy was indeed all right and could continue his job by accompanying them on the hunting trip. Arthur couldn’t hear the boy’s response but whatever was said caused Gwaine to smile, laugh loudly and full before ruffling the boy’s hair, patting his shoulder and walking the boy over to the horses.
Once everyone was settled and on their way Arthur moved away from the others and slowed down to ride next to Gwaine’s squire who was near the back of the group. He wanted to apologize for startling the boy and make sure the lad really was all right.
“I’m sorry if I startled you earlier.” Arthur began conversationally speaking to the boy as he would one of his closest knights.
“It was my fault entirely, your majesty. I’m just naturally clumsy.” Trevor replied a blush coloring his cheeks as he stared straight ahead.
“Is something wrong?” Arthur asked. It seemed odd that the boy continued to blush and wouldn’t actually look at him.
“I promise despite what you may heard I assure you I don’t bite and I’m not actually a monster.” Arthur said gently.
He was rewarded by a small giggle from the boy next to him.
“How are you finding Camelot and working for Sir Gwaine, Trevor?” Arthur asked wanting to continue conversing with the boy to ease the nervousness he still sensed coming from the youth.
“I feel like Camelot has become my home and Sir Gwaine is interesting to say the least, Sire. He treats me very well. He’s like the older brother I never had. He’s always willing to help me and never mocks me or teases me when I’m clumsy.” Trevor answered loyally.
“He’s a good man and a great friend.” Arthur agreed happy to see Trevor relaxing a little bit as they conversed.
“Have you encountered the queen yet?”
“Queen Merlin, my Merlin is a wonder. All of Camelot loves her as she loves all of them. She sees no strangers in Camelot, only family regardless of age, station, whether that person is has made a permanent residence or is only there for a day. As they are her family she does everything she can to keep them happy, safe and protected regardless of the cost to herself. She’s as brave and loyal as any of my knights. She’s got the largest heart of anyone I’ve ever known. She touches the lives of that she meets and makes them better simply by being Merlin. She’s made Camelot a better place and me a far better man than I could hope to be without her. She has a razor sharp wit and an even sharper intelligence. She’s true beauty personified and was queen long before I made her one but I’ll tell you something.” Arthur said leaning closer as if getting ready to impart a great secret to Trevor.
“She’s my light, my love and the other side of my coin. She’s also without fail the single clumsiest person I’ve ever met.” Arthur whispered in Trevor’s ear.
The small giggle from before was nothing compared to the laughter that rang out from Trevor this time. He threw his head back and laughed hard. Once he had himself under control he turned to Arthur and gave him a beaming smile. The smile made his eyes crinkle at the corners and seemed to brighten the world around them. The smile, the brightness of it, and those eyes reminded him of Merlin. He found himself wondering if it was those eyes were the same vibrant blue of those of his wife, the smile was as wide and bright as his wife’s or if it was because he actually missed having her on this trip even though he was the one who’d told her to stay home.
“On the king!” Trevor called out suddenly, laughter from moments ago forgotten as he stared ahead at the trail. Arthur was confused as to why the boy had shouted but the reason became instantly clear as a trio of bandits appeared as if out of nowhere. His men were far enough ahead that Arthur could only just see the back end of some of their horses. At Trevor’s shout they turned as one and began racing toward Arthur and the boy. Arthur drew his sword and placed his horse between Trevor and the bandits protecting the boy.
As his knights came closer everything turned chaotic. His men who were close enough now to help were ambushed by numerous bandits appearing from hiding places in the trees and under or around bushes. Arthur’s attention was so focused on the trio in front of him and keeping young Trevor safe that he didn’t realize there was bandit coming up behind him until he was yanked off his horse followed by the feeling of a blade to his throat and an arm wrapped tightly around his chest in a punishing hold.
“Get away from him.” The growled command surprised Arthur as the voice that had issued it seemed too deep, too powerful to belong to the twelve-year-old boy. Trevor sat tall in the saddle, any earlier blushing and shyness forgotten. His hand was raised and Arthur opened his mouth to tell him to run, get himself to safety when he saw Trevor’s eyes turn golden, the same golden that Merlin’s eyes turned when she performed magic. There was a rush of wind, something striking him in the back of the head and then Arthur fell into darkness.
Arthur’s return to consciousness was almost as rapid as his fainting. His face was dripping wet and cold, as were his neck and the upper part of his chest. He opened his eyes to find Gwaine standing over him a mug in one hand and a sword in the other. It was immediately apparent that Gwaine had dumped water on him to wake him up.
“All right Princess?” Despite the ridiculous nickname and the good natured smirk on his face Arthur could see that Gwaine was genuinely worried about him. He accepted the hand Gwaine offered and allowed the other man to pull him upright.
“I’m fine. The others? Trevor? The bandits?”
“The others are fine, only minor injuries. Trevor is fine. He’s got a few scrapes and bruises considering his own spell knocked him on his arse but he’s fine. He’s fretting over everyone else but he’s a tough little lad. The bandits are gone.” Gwaine assured him.
“Sounds a bit like Merlin then. If she was here. She’d be fussing over everyone and ignoring any wounds she had to make sure everyone else was cared for first.” Arthur said.
“Yeah he does.” Gwaine agreed.
There was something in the way he said it that caught Arthur’s attention. It took him a moment to realize Gwaine was acting the same way that he did when he was trying to lie his way out of trouble be it with a jealous husband or Arthur himself when he’d done something he shouldn’t. Gwaine was lying to him.
Arthur’s mind was suddenly racing. Those eyes, that bright smile so like Merlin’s, the fact that Trevor had been blushing around him. The fact that Trevor was incredibly clumsy. Then there was the magic; Trevor was surprisingly skilled for as young as he was. The change in Trevor’s demeanor when Arthur’s safety was threatened. He didn’t act like a scared child. He’d been full of cold fury. There was only one explanation; Trevor was Merlin.
“Where is my wife at this moment, Sir Gwaine? I advise you to consider the question very carefully before answering.” Arthur asked putting all the authority of a king into his low tone.
Gwaine sighed and Arthur could see that he realized that this was a moment for nothing less than absolute truth.
“Without looking over my shoulder to find her I’d have to guess she’s tending one of the knights at the moment, Sire.” Gwaine answered.
“Once Trevor is finished send him to my tent and Gwaine do not warn Trevor that I know his secret. I want to tell him myself. “Arthur ordered the knight before walking quickly to the tent that had been erected for him.
In any other situation, Arthur would have been amused at the deception and proud of Merlin’s cleverness and skill. Now however, he was too furious with the situation to appreciate her cleverness, her skill or to find the deception funny. He couldn’t feel anything at that moment but his fury.
He was angry at the bandits for coming as close as they had to his precious wife. He’d meant every word when he’d told Trevor that Merlin was his light, his love and the other half of his coin. The idea that that she’d been in danger, that the bandits could have harmed her, killed her or done something even worse before he could save her was making him see red.
He was angry at Gwaine for agreeing to this harebrained scheme or possibly thinking it up if not helping to think it up. In many ways Gwaine and Merlin shared the same mischievous sense of humor. He could see the knight thinking this would be a fantastic joke to play on Arthur. He could see him aiding and abetting Merlin completely in this misadventure.
He was angry at himself for not realizing Merlin might attempt to do something like this after he’d ordered her to stay at the castle. He’d known her for ten years. They were each other’s other halves, they were best friends. There was no one closer to him and he could read her like a book. All these facts put together were a sharp reminder that he should have expected this. When she’d been his been masquerading as his manservant, there had been plenty of times that she’d ignored a direct order, especially if that direct order prevented her from being with him if there was even the slightest possibility that he would be in danger. If she’d heard talk about the bandits, there would be no way she’d let him go alone even with his knights and the few squires that were with them.
Mostly, he was mad at Merlin. What she’d done was inexcusable. She knew why he didn’t want her in danger. It was more than just the fact that Camelot needed a leader if Arthur died in battle. It was more than wanting, needing Merlin to be part of the Albion she helped create. It was because she was Merlin. He didn’t want anything to happen to her. He was terrified that if he lost her he’d lose himself and become like his father in the worst possible ways. He needed her to be safe and that didn’t include turning herself into a young boy to act as Gwaine’s squire and stay with them while they hunted.
Arthur paced his tent still angry as he waited for Trevor to make his appearance. He smirked as an idea came to him. It was a devilish idea to be sure but perhaps it would teach his errant wife a lesson and make her actually think about her actions the next time she decided to ignore his word and play her games.
“You wished to see me, your majesty?”
Arthur hid a smile at the question. If he hadn’t known, it was actually Merlin speaking he would have assumed what he heard in Trevor’s tone was simply continuing nervousness caused by being around the king. Instead he heard nervousness caused by fear of getting caught and an undertone of guilt. Exactly where he wanted her.
“Thank you for tending the wounded. Where did you learn medicine?”
“My mother is a healer and before I began my work for Sir Gwaine I learned a few things from Gaius. Both taught me the importance of making sure injuries are tended to immediately to prevent further injury or infection.”
“Did you need tending, Sire?”
The scratches and cuts he had been surprisingly few. He was sure that it was partially due to his skill and more so due to his wife’s protection spells. The minor injuries were nothing he couldn’t tend to himself but he realized he could use this to his advantage. Arthur gave her a predatory smile that had her backing slightly away from him as he said.
“Yes, Trevor that is one of the reasons I requested your presence.” Arthur said moving closer even as she moved away. He stopped only when he saw her back was flush with the wall of the tent. Once he had her all but trapped between himself and the tent wall Arthur took a fraction of a step back and removed his shirt. He watched with pleasure as her eyes scanned his torso first for wounds. There were a few scratches and a cut or two that might need stitching. At the same time, she was giving his body the clinical appraisal of a physician he could see hunger behind her eyes. It was bit jarring to see the hungry expression, the hunger of one who liked what they saw and was reliving the sensations of how the body on view felt under her hands and tasted under her lips and tongue, on the face of someone so young, so male, so different from his Merlin.
“Once you’ve tended my wounds we will discuss the other reason I’ve called you here.” Arthur told her fighting a smile as he watched something flash in her eyes at his tone. He knew that he sounded like the self-centered bully he’d been when they first met and he knew that she was nearly biting her tongue in half to prevent herself from calling him on it. He knew that she was more than smart enough to realize that Trevor would never risk calling the king a prat and to do so would be giving away that which she thought was still secret.
Apparently she couldn’t help herself completely. She cleaned Arthur up and stitched the cuts closed all the while grumbling under her breath about idiot knights and kings who thought they were invincible. She sounded so much like herself that Arthur had to fight the urge to laugh. He was grateful she kept her touch as clinical as her appraisal of him. It was a gentle reminder to fight the urge to respond to her as his wife instead of the way she presented herself at the moment.
“Other reason, Sire?”
And it begins, Arthur thought to himself as Merlin asked the question whilst finishing stitching the second cut. Her hand was steady but her voice shook a little. He didn’t have to know her nearly as well as he did to hear the nervousness back in her tone.
“Yes, Trevor, other reason. I’m sure you’ve heard talk of the bed warmers in the castle those who offer a special kind of comfort to those they serve.” Arthur said suggestively as he moved closer to Merlin once again.
“Sire?” The word coming from her lips still sounded respectful enough instead of sounding like the vilest of obscenities as she usually made it sound but her eyes were another story. Her eyes were blazing with anger.
“I desire that sort of comfort from you, Trevor.” Arthur said with a smirk.
As he watched those beloved eyes grow even more heated he began to mentally count down starting at the number ten. As he counted down he wondered if she would scream at him or magically restrain him. He knew no matter how angry she was with him she’d never truly cause him harm. He’d reached three in his mental countdown when she spoke.’
“Arthur James Pendragon have you gone mad?”
She spat the question angrily as she pushed against his chest with her hands in an attempt to force him to move away from her. Arthur bit the inside of his cheek to prevent himself from laughing as he refused to allow her to move him. Instead he captured both of her hands in one of his own and used the act of doing so to pull her even closer to him.
“Speaking to the king in such a way and acting as you have is treason, Trevor. Though I suppose it can be forgiven this once. Now I suggest you make yourself comfortable.”
She shuddered against him and Arthur realized that Trevor apparently had at least one of the same sensitivities as his wife in her true form. He considered playing this out and seeing if Trevor’s body had Merlin’s other sensitive spots as well but decided it was time to put an end to the game and his wife’s masquerade.
“By comfortable I mean of course you should change.” Arthur said backing up slightly but still holding onto Merlin’s hands and holding her close to him despite her attempts to pull away.
“The height seems to be correct and the weight isn’t right. Thankfully, you’ve filled out enough to cease to be worryingly thin but the hair is wrong.” Arthur said critically.
“This should be dark curls.” Arthur said tugging gently one mousy brown strand with his free hand.
Arthur placed the hand that been in her hair under her chin and raised her face as if to inspect it.
“The freckles are a nice touch. I’ve often wondered if you’d ever get them if you spent more time in the sun. The nose is all right. It fits the face well enough I suppose. The lips are wrong.” Arthur said touching her lips upper then lower with the tip of a finger and ignoring the way she sucked in a breath at his touch.
“They aren’t nearly full nor rosy enough but I suppose like the nose and cheekbones that aren’t properly sharp enough the lips fit that face.”
“Your eyes are beautiful.” Arthur said knowing that she would hear the affection in his tone but unable to help himself. Merlin’s eyes, even in the wrong face, were always his favorite part of her. They always had been.
The first time he’d truly noticed those amazing eyes he’d instantly found them beautiful despite the fact that they were blazing in anger at his knee walking comment or maybe because of the anger they were beautiful. He’d also found them confusing. He’d never noticed another man’s eyes before in such a sense. His confusion had lasted quite a while before he’d learned that Merlin was in fact a woman nearly fully grown not a boy on the edge of manhood.
In between the time from his discovery that Merlin’s eyes were beautiful and his discovery that Merlin was a woman Arthur had observed those eyes many times and his initial assessment remained. They were always beautiful. They were bright with warmth and beautiful when Merlin smiled, especially when it was a full smile that made her eyes crinkle at the corners. They were beautiful if heartbreaking when she was sad and his greatest wish was to make her happy again. They were beautiful even when cold and fierce when someone she loved was in danger and she was protective. They were beautiful because they allowed him to see all that was Merlin.
“Sire?” She sounded confused but wary as if she was starting to wonder if he knew the truth. He had her exactly where he wanted her. Arthur leaned down again this time close enough that his lips brushed her ear as he spoke.
“I meant it when I said you should change. I suppose to some the form you’ve chosen might be pleasing but I prefer your true self…Merlin.”
The look on her face was priceless. Merlin still in Trevor’s form stared up at him silently with her eyes wide and her mouth hanging open. Arthur used the hand still on her face to push her lower jaw up until her mouth automatically closed.
“How did you know?” Merlin demanded.
“Never mind. I know how you know; It’s Gwaine’s fault for bringing his face with him. Either way, I’m going to murder Gwaine.” Merlin announced trying to pull away from Arthur.
“Merlin stop.” Arthur ordered her sharply.
The words had the intended effect. She stopped struggling and glared up at him obviously angry whether at being found out, at being ordered to do something she didn’t want to do or at Gwaine he wasn’t sure.
“You aren’t going out there to kill anyone, not even Gwaine who may or may not deserve it for things either we don’t know about or don’t want to know about.” Arthur corrected her.
“I really do prefer the real you, Merlin.” Arthur said pointedly eying her up and down.
A rosy flush colored her cheeks at Arthur’s words and gaze before her eyes flashed gold. An instant later Merlin with her slender form, moonlight pale skin and fey beauty was standing in front of him.
“What now?” Merlin asked grinning at him impishly from under lashes.
“I ought to send you back to the castle and have you locked in our chambers until I return for your own good.”
“You can try.” Merlin agreed still with that impish grin.
“But knowing you, you’ll find another way to come back.” Arthur continued as if she hadn’t interrupted him.
“And I’ll have another knight running laps around the castle when we return.”
“I swear you’ve got the whole bloody lot of them twisted around your little finger.” Arthur complained.
“It’s your fault.”
“How exactly is it my fault, Merlin?”
“You kept bringing me to practice with you and pretty soon everyone started treating me like a younger brother. Then thanks to you, word got out that their little brother was in fact their little sister. That made them a thousand times worse.”
“I thought we’d be alone in the armoury. Besides you were wearing my clothes. What was I supposed to do?”
“You mean these clothes?” Merlin asked innocently as her eyes flashed gold once again and instead of the clothes she’d been wearing as Trevor she was now wearing an old tunic and breeches of Arthur’s that he’d worn as a child.
“Minx.” Arthur growled against her lips pulling her into a kiss.
“So what have you decided?” Merlin asked voice breathy as the the kiss ended only because of a need for oxygen.
“You know as well as I do that you’re staying here.” Arthur said with the air of a man resigned unhappily to his fate.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Arthur asked as she walked away from him.
“I’m going out there to see what else needs to be done.” Merlin responded as if the answer should have been obvious.
“No, you are not.” Arthur corrected her as he slid his arms around her waist.
“I’m not?” Merlin questioned glancing over her shoulder at him.
“No you’re not. Later, I’m sure that you and I will have a discussion or two about the fact that you ignored me and placed yourself in danger but for now you’re here.” Arthur punctuated this words with a kiss to the back of Merlin’s neck delighting in the way she shivered and broke out in goose pimples.
“You’re in my clothes. You know how I feel about that.” Another kiss, this time to the skin where neck met shoulder as Merlin moaned and arched her neck allowing him greater access.
“And I still desire that comfort.” Arthur’s final kiss was delivered to her lips as he pulled her back into his tent, spun her around and relied on her magic to close the flap from prying eyes.
The next morning if any of the knights or their squires were surprised by the sight of Arthur and Merlin emerging from Arthur’s tent tousled, relaxed and happy and Trevor nowhere in sight they were wise enough to keep their surprise to themselves; except for one knight who bravely or foolishly called out.
“You’re quite welcome, Princess.”
When he was asked many months later if his three laps around the castle during the hottest summer day Camelot had known for years was worth tricking Arthur and making his outrageous comment the next day; Gwaine would immediately agree that it was. Arthur who had watched Gwaine perform his laps would agree with Gwaine’s assessment. Merlin who’d been there immediately with water for Sir Gwaine and a lovingly spoken insult for her husband would agree as well. It was thanks to Gwaine’s trick in bringing Merlin to Arthur that their first child, who Merlin now carried, had been conceived that very night. For that they gave him their thanks. After the child’s birth they would give him an even better expression of their gratitude by naming him the first of the child’s many godfathers.