He really should have known better. Whenever he did something like this, it always went horribly wrong, and apparently today was to be no exception. Even so, he might have got away with it if, at that moment the door hadn't opened and footsteps came striding into the room.
"Merlin, where's my..." Arthur's voice trailed off. "Merlin?"
Admitting defeat, Merlin dropped his hands to his side and took a deep breath before turning to face Arthur. Or at least, where the sound of Arthur's voice had come from. In his current predicament, it was impossible to tell if Arthur was still there or not.
"Before you say anything," he said, voice somewhat muffled, "can we just assume that you've already told me I'm going to spend the next three days in the stocks and move straight onto your helping me out of this thing?"
"The stocks?" Arthur's voice came from somewhere much closer this time, making Merlin jump. "Why would I have you put in the stocks, Merlin?" There was the sound of footsteps, and Merlin tried to turn and follow them, apparently unsuccessfully when Arthur spoke again from somewhere around his left shoulder. "After all, you've only interfered with a priceless antique, possibly damaged royal property and wrecked my chambers in the process, not to mention all of your actual duties that you've neglected while you've been playing."
Arthur punctuated the last word by rapping Merlin on the head. Hard. The sound resonated through him, making his ears ring, the shaking carrying all the way down through his neck into his shoulders. He clutched at his head, trying to make it stop and pulling again at the same time, just in case, but it was no use. The helmet was stuck.
"You know, I wouldn't be in this situation if you had a bigger brain. Maybe then you’d have a bigger helmet," Merlin said, still tugging at it.
"Is that so?" Arthur seemed to have retreated a little, and Merlin heard a distant rustling sound that was probably Arthur sitting on the bed.
"I was just checking it before I cleaned it!”
Which was a complete lie, so to be fair, he probably deserved the loud, helpless-sounding laughter. That didn’t mean he had to like it. He folded his arms across his chest as Arthur alternated between howls of laughter and wheezing for breath. It really wasn’t that funny.
“It really is,” Arthur gasped when Merlin said as much. “How on earth did it get stuck?”
How it had actually got stuck was that Merlin had been bored with putting Arthur’s clothes away, and after hefting his sword and shield in front of the mirror for a while, he’d decided to add the helmet to complete the look, choosing one from Arthur’s collection. The antique was heavier than it looked and didn’t fit him very well, slipping down over his eyes almost at once, and it was only when he’d gone to try and take it off that he’d discovered he couldn’t. Of course, the fact that he’d panicked, just a little, and may have run into a pillar, knocked himself over, then hit the top of the helmet on the same pillar when trying to get up probably hadn’t helped much either.
Clearly there was no way he was going to admit that to Arthur, so instead, he just waved his arms helplessly. “What do you mean, how did it get stuck? I was checking it, it slipped, I’m stuck! Get it off me!”
He started pushing at it again, which hurt but was better than listening to Arthur trying to get control of his breathing again. Eventually there was a sigh of exasperation.
“Oh for heaven’s sake. Come here.”
The first attempt - Arthur holding onto the bottom of the helmet and pulling - was about as successful as Merlin had been on his own, which was to say, not at all.
The second attempt - Arthur pushing upwards on the bottom of the helmet, trying to use Merlin’s own weight to drag him out - didn’t work either. Arthur did manage to lift Merlin off his feet, which was sort of impressive in its own way, but since hanging in mid-air by his head was rather painful, Merlin hadn’t been able to stop himself from flailing instinctively and kicking Arthur in the shin.
Before the third attempt, Arthur disappeared for a few minutes, leaving Merlin sitting on the floor, trying to get his breath back and wondering if his neck was going to be a couple of inches longer by the time they’d finished. He lifted his head hopefully as Arthur’s footsteps came back, and didn’t protest as he was manhandled to his feet.
“Right,” Arthur said, and there was something in his voice that made Merlin exceedingly nervous. “Come over to the table.”
It turned out that for the third attempt, Arthur had brought the oil that Merlin used to sharpen his sword.
“Fine, but how are you going tomphmwwhph”
“Just hold still.” Arthur’s fingers were cold, and he was trying to shove them up into the gap between the helmet and Merlin’s cheeks. Except if the gap had been big enough for Arthur to get his fingers into, Merlin was fairly sure he wouldn’t be stuck in the damn thing in the first place.
Spitting out oil, Merlin took half a step away, nearly falling over a chair in the process. “Get off me!”
“I’m trying to get the helmet off you!” A hand caught Merlin’s arm before he could fall, swinging him against the table instead. “Do you want me to just leave you in there? Hasn’t that helped at all?” He gave another couple of forceful tugs, which only really succeeded in making Merlin lose his balance again.
“Ow! My ears!”
“It’s probably your ears that caused the problem in the first place.”
Glowering wasn’t terribly effective when you couldn’t actually see the person you were glowering at, but Merlin tried it anyway, shoving Arthur’s hands away from him.
“Maybe someone could cut it off?” he asked, and he could have sworn that he heard Arthur glaring at him.
“You are not having my helmet cut in half. It’s over two hundred years old!”
“Well it’s no use to you stuck to my head, is it?”
In the silence that followed, Merlin could feel oil slowly trickling down his jaw, and he swiped at it irritably. It seemed that no sooner did he wipe away one drop, another made itself known, and as he tried to rub it off completely, a hand closed around his wrist.
“Wait,” Arthur said, putting his other hand under Merlin’s chin and tipping it up a little. “I think I have an idea.”
Ten minutes later, Merlin was as sure as he could be that his ears were actually going to be ripped off. It hurt like hell, and he would have fought harder against it, if hadn’t, by some miracle, actually started working. He could feel the metal dragging over his face, a tiny, agonising fraction at a time, and he couldn’t help the strangled noise as it scraped across his skin.
“Would you shut up?” Arthur’s voice was strained from putting all his weight against the helmet.
“Stop being such a girl!”
“Use more oil!”
“Push harder then!”
“What on earth is going on in here?!”
Several things seemed to happen at once. Arthur gave an almighty shove, the muscles of Merlin’s neck screamed in protest and the helmet finally, finally slipped free. That meant that Arthur no longer had anything to rest his weight against, having climbed onto the table to kneel over Merlin, who was lying flat on his back, his head hanging off the end. The helmet clattered to the floor, Arthur couldn’t hold himself up and he landed with a thud and an oomph on top of Merlin, both of them struggling for air and covered in oil.
Merlin’s eyes hadn’t quite adjusted to the light yet, and he blinked frantically, trying to bring the room into focus. Almost at once, he wished he hadn’t bothered. By the door, with one hand on her hip, the other pressed over her mouth, was Morgana. Her eyes were wide and shining with something that might have been shock, but Merlin had a horrible feeling was amusement.
“Well,” she said, clearing her throat a little, “I did come in to see what all the noise was about. Perhaps I should just...” She waved a hand vaguely, mouth twitching. “Leave you two to it.”
As she closed the door, Merlin lifted his head just enough to let him see Arthur, still sprawled on top of him, his chin on Merlin’s chest and their legs tangled together. Catching a glimpse of the expression gradually working its way across Arthur’s face, Merlin closed his eyes and let his head drop back again. Arthur’s look had promised all kinds of unpleasant consequences, and Merlin suspected the stocks were going to be the least of his worries, and that his ears were not going to be the only part of him hurting before the end of the day.
He wondered if it was too late to put the helmet back on again.