Merlin fic: Neither fish nor fowl [1/2]

Title: Neither fish nor fowl
Summary: Trusses of flowers, personalised letters and whole roast chicken had always been sure-fire ways to win a person's heart, at least in Arthur's experience. Merlin's heart, however, was an entirely different story.
Pairing: Merlin/Arthur
Rating: PG-13
Warnings/Spoilers: General references to episodes through S2
Word count: ~11,400
Notes: Many, many thanks to the_muppet and accordingtomel for inspiring the fic and betaing, respectively, and for laughing in all the right places. ♥

Arthur wasn't sure what it was about a man's impending nuptials that invited such an assault of unsolicited advice. To ward it off, he'd employed his best gimlet stare, which on any other, ordinary occasion would have put an advancing army off with its tail between its legs; had encouraged among his esteemed guests suicidal amounts of alcohol so they'd lull away into drunken stupors and stop talking at him in great detail about what to do when he arrived in the bridal chambers on the wedding night; had pleaded with Merlin to please, please, for the love of all things good and holy, turn them all into wart-infested toads.

Of course, Merlin had been uppity and moral about it, the free flow of wine only served to loosen the guests' tongues further and, with their judgment and vision significantly impaired, not one correctly read Arthur's ill-concealed disdain as intended. And so the advice went on.

"When a bird and a bee love each other very much," said Lord Albin, who was a doddering old fool.

"Lie back and think of Cumbria, that's what I always tell the little woman," said King Reynard, who was deeply of a porcine persuasion.

"Here," said Sir Godfrey, who was the worst of the lot, "I shall draw some diagrams for you. You there, fetch me a quill, boy."

And Merlin, Court Sorcerer, who was probably enjoying himself too much at Arthur's expense to be bothered about being addressed as 'you there', fetched.

Arthur saved his deepest scowl for him. Everything was Merlin's fault, down to the last, wildly unnecessary pictogram. If he wasn't so stupid, he'd realise Arthur had been in love with him for years, and would then follow up that realisation with reciprocation. Unfortunately, Merlin was that stupid, and smiled and nodded a lot at Arthur's subtle advances and then said deflating things like, Hadn't you better put a shirt on, sire? Bit nippy today.

Thus rebuffed, Arthur had given up and succumbed to the traditionalists at court who yammered at him all the time about taking a wife. They'd taken to inviting practically every courtier of marriageable age to Camelot in the hopes of enticing him, each lovely lady bringing with her quite possibly her own personal collection of opportune brambles over which to trip and thus fall into his arms and bounce some cleavage in his face.

It had come as no surprise to Arthur that he wasn't going to find the love of his life in this manner (and in any case, the love of his life already lived in Camelot and insisted on not being seduced), so he'd done the next best thing, and asked one of his dearest friends if she wouldn't mind being Queen.

Upon receiving the news, Merlin had smiled the smile of a maniac, and had said it was fantastic and he'd always known that Arthur and Gwen would make an excellent match, and Arthur had tried very hard not to kick him in the shins.

In fact, he and Gwen made a fantastically bad match. They'd endured a whirlwind courtship in the early days of their acquaintance (which was to say, the point in time when Arthur had not yet cultivated weary immunity to pretty women in well-fitted bodices falling on top of him, and Gwen had conceded that perhaps Arthur wasn't just a spoilt little pig dressed up in fine clothing). It had been a poorly conceived scheme from the get-go, what with them both being young and uncertain and foolish, and it had upended both their lives and scattered their good senses to the far corners. Once the flowers had shrivelled and the poetry run dry, however, they'd come to the mutual agreement that the whole thing was all a bit of a blunder. The upshot of being very much not in love with one another was that they'd discovered they made great friends.

They weren't settling for each other, precisely, him and Gwen. They were merely making the best out of the situation, the situation being him in love with Merlin and she with Lancelot, who might as well have coined the meaning of upstanding, apart from a habit of absenteeism due to being an overachiever in self-sacrifice and fair play.

Fate, said Gwen, when their paths had crossed, to which Lancelot had uttered something horrendously romantic and noble, and had left for her own good, time and again.

So by the time Arthur had shoved all notions of winning Merlin's favour into a little mental compartment labelled 'Do Not Open Under Pain of Death', Gwen, too, had given up on Lancelot ever letting himself love her like he should and agreed to wear Camelot's crown.

They married before a hundred of their closest allies and acquaintances, under a radiant sun that poured in like honey through the stained glass windows, and pledged their love and fealty to each other, all the while knowing their hearts were reaching in opposite directions.

Merlin didn't attend the festivities, due to coming down with a frightful ague the morning of the ceremony, and Arthur thought that was probably for the best.

Things were fine for a while, routine and domestic: the people of Camelot took to their queen with great love; Gwen ruled by Arthur's side with a softness and warmth to temper his occasional moods; Merlin grew a beard out of sheer absentmindedness and Arthur pretended not to notice; disgruntled sorcerers turned up at the doorstep from time to time making lots of threatening gestures and Merlin sorted them all out. It wasn't a deliriously happy kind of life, but it was a functional life, nonetheless, and in any case, Arthur wasn't sure whether delirious happiness wasn't something people just made up on whims, like half the things Morgana talked about in her letters, from wherever she happened to be in her solo travels across land and sea.

And then, possibly because the gods had grown bored with all the peaceful prosperity that had spread across the kingdom under Arthur's even hand and itched for the entertainment of a good confrontation, they opened a path for Lancelot to come back, for good.

Conflict arrived on his heels.

Arthur and Gwen rarely argued; he trusted her enough to give her executive power over numerous affairs of state, and she knew his mind well enough to carry out plans for the benefit of their people without having to consult him on every detail. They worked well together and apart, and even on the occasions that they did quarrel, things were well resolved within less than a day.

So it was with something like the taste of novelty dancing at the tip of his tongue when Arthur stood firmly before her and Lancelot, immovable, and said, "No, you can't. I won't hear of it. I forbid it." He wasn't in the habit of forbidding things, but this proposed arrangement definitely needed to be hacked off at the knees and its mangled remains flung to the dogs. He threw down his trump card. "By order of the king."

Lancelot had the decency to look a little cowed, but Gwen only stepped forward and placed a hand on Arthur's arm. "We're doing this for you, Arthur."

"For me?" Arthur demanded, in what would have sounded like a laugh if it were possible for laughter to curdle. "You think I want this?"

"We have to."

"You don't. You don't have to do anything. I have plans," he said, scooping up a large piece of parchment and thrusting it at them. "Look."

"It's a map," said Gwen, and Arthur poked his finger at the parchment. Gwen's face, normally a study in perfect kindness and understanding, twitched. She opened her mouth slowly. "You've drawn what vaguely resembles a square next to the castle?"

"More like a rectangle, I should say," Lancelot interjected helpfully. "A trapezium, at least."

"It's an annex," Arthur said, narrowing his eyes at the two of them. "Just off the south entrance of the castle. There are no doubt dozens of skilled stonemasons in need of some good work; we could have this ready for you by next spring."

This time Lancelot looked away, and Gwen rustled up a small smile from some endless well she had inside her. "You know we can't stay," she said, and there was a lilt of sadness in her tone that made Arthur feel the tiniest bit better, and then worse again.

They didn't love each other as husband and wife ought to, but whatever semblance of a marriage they'd built together, Arthur had got used to it, found comfort in it. Gwen was a pillar of strength and a fount of wisdom, and he would be terribly sorry to see her go, especially for a reason as trivial as adultery.

But they did go in the end, after assuring Arthur that tracing a rhombus onto a map didn't exactly speak to forward planning, and that nobody would take him seriously as king ever again if he let his estranged wife and her illicit lover live next door, treading the same rushes and paths that he did every day. Gwen had kissed him sweetly on the cheek and Lancelot had bowed before him, and not long after, they became a speck on the horizon.

He spent a little while wishing he had paid more attention to the tutors who had tried to speak to him of modern architecture, though he was fairly sure that even the prettiest house in the world wouldn't have made a difference to Gwen and Lancelot. He couldn't exactly begrudge their decision, or their happiness. Lancelot was a fine man, and Gwen truly one of the gentlest souls he'd ever had the privilege to know, and she deserved every joy in the world. It just felt a bit unfair that she'd got to ride off into the sunset with the object of her affection, while his remained stupendously daft and, from the sounds of it, was currently blowing something up in his specially fortified magician's quarters.

Then again, to Merlin's credit, he was the only one, seemingly in the whole of Camelot, who had good enough sense not to treat Arthur like a fragile little butterfly with a pierced wing. Aside, of course, from his foisting an awkward hug on Arthur's person just after Gwen and Lancelot had gone, which had only been awkward because Merlin had ambushed him from the shadows like some kind of crazy animal, and Arthur had only just barely enough time to register, first, that he wasn't being attacked and that it felt as though there were about a dozen more elbows involved than there ought, before Merlin had backed off, pink in the face.

Others, depending on their station, either talked to him in the babying, cheering-up sort of voice he hadn't heard since his last nurse entreated him to be a brave boy after suffering a fall out of a tree when he was eight, or tiptoed around him like the slightest hint of a breeze would send him careening over the edge of madness.

He'd also been getting extra, commiserative helpings of custard at supper from the cook, however, so it wasn't all an exercise in misery.

A distant thud rattled the foundations, and Arthur's mouth screwed into a frown. He didn't often ask Merlin what manner of insanity he conducted up in his tower, because the answers rarely made sense anyway, but occasionally the man needed to be reminded that the castle wasn't indestructible. Which Arthur would have thought he'd have figured out by now, considering how many times he'd had to save it from attack, magical or otherwise.

In fact, thought Arthur to himself as his footsteps traced a well-worn path towards Merlin's quarters, Merlin had been getting rather a bit forgetful with Arthur of late, and not in the usual convenience of leaving Arthur's armour and mail to rust in the corner while claiming to be finished with his all his chores. Though, of course, Merlin hadn't done that for a while now, seeing as court sorcerers generally weren't asked to do things like muck out the stables, unless one really wanted said mucked contents to mysteriously appear at the foot of one's bed.

Not that Merlin would do such a petty thing or let power go to his head, though, all in all, it was probably better to be on the safe side when it came to these insanely powerful magical types -- at least, that was what Arthur had told his advisors when they'd raised all kinds of opposition to promoting Merlin out of servitude.

Besides, having an official court sorcerer was useful (though perhaps it might have been more useful if Arthur hadn't lifted the ban on magic in the first place); Merlin knew how to deal with things everyone else didn't, and often moonlighted as court physician during the times when Gaius's successor felt a little overwhelmed with everybody turning up at his doorstep festooned with purple spots and sickly feathers after the occasional disagreement in the marketplace.

Everyone seemed to want to dabble in the magical arts these days, from rainmaking to seduction, most of which often failed to achieve the intended results, as magic required not only practice but innate ability; Arthur figured that once the novelty wore off, the seventeen new stalls that had popped up overnight to hawk occult wares would go back to selling cabbages again, disputes in the lower town would once again end up with bloody noses and bruised knuckles rather than outbreaks of funny-coloured protuberances, and delusional village boys would stop haranguing Merlin to let them apprentice with him.

Rowan was the latest in a string of incompetent apprentices who, over the past year or so, had come knocking on Merlin's door more intent on learning tricks to dazzle girls than for any real interest in sorcery, though this one, come just from the lower town and no older than Merlin had been when he'd first arrived to Camelot, was a little taller and more strapping than the usual fare. In fact, Arthur had once wondered if he might steal young Rowan for potential knighthood instead, but scrapped the idea when Sir Leon, on covert reconnaissance, had reported him to be dumber than a post.

It wasn't immediately apparent why Merlin agreed to keep the boy around when he had no discernible skills aside from skiving off work at every available opportunity. The irony of Merlin, of all people, taking on an addlepated apprentice was not lost on Arthur, though he would have enjoyed it better had Merlin deigned to acknowledge that Rowan was complete rubbish at everything (and not half as endearing about being useless, but Arthur was keeping that little nugget to himself).

Gwen, in her reply to Arthur's various letters of complaint, had suggested the boy might be cute.

"Chuh," Arthur said to himself, ascending the winding pathway to Merlin's room.

He entered the room without knocking -- kings were above knocking, was what he'd told Merlin when the latter had tried to reproduce Arthur's favourite lecture -- and found Merlin hanging halfway out the window with an astrolabe in hand, and Rowan sitting despondently on top of an overturned bucket in the corner, pretending to read some thick, dusty tome Merlin had probably forced upon him.

Arthur stalked forward, grabbed a fistful of the back of Merlin's tunic, and yanked.

"Do you know how difficult it is to scrub blood out of flagstones?" he demanded, when Merlin had finished flailing.

"No," said Merlin, and cocked his head. "Neither do you."

"Well, I'm not keen on finding out," said Arthur, who was, at the moment, feeling more keen on boxing Merlin's ear, "so stop dangling yourself out of towers before you fall to your death."

Rowan, who had only just now discovered that he was in the presence of royalty, shuffled to his feet.

"And you," Arthur accused, while mentally composing his response to Gwen that the boy, with his stupid blond hair and stupider blue eyes, was definitely not bloody cute. "Do condescend to pay attention once in a while. Merlin could have defenestrated himself before your very eyes, you clot."

The sorcerer's apprentice made a tiny sound.

"Er, Rowan, why don't you go and pick those plants I asked for yesterday?" came Merlin to the rescue, and the boy fled the scene.

"Why do you keep him around?" Arthur asked.

"Well, he's come a long way," said Merlin slowly, though it didn't really sound like he'd be able to provide any evidence of it. "I think he could shape up to be a good worker. Er, eventually."

Arthur raised an eyebrow. "He's worse than you were when you arrived, and it took you at least three years to master sweeping."

"I resent that," said Merlin, playing with his astrolabe again, and gave Arthur a conspiratorial look. "I'm pretty sure it was closer to two."

Arthur laughed, and sat down at Merlin's bench, propping his feet on the table.

Merlin smiled warmly, as of old, and then, as though he'd just descended into and emerged from a fog, suddenly blinked at him as though surprised to see him. "Was there something you needed, sire?" he asked with perfectly cultivated politeness.

"Er," said Arthur, removing his feet from the table awkwardly. "Yes, if you could keep your explosions to a dull roar. I'd prefer it if Camelot remained standing, you know."

"Oh, right, right, yes. Will do," said Merlin.

Arthur nodded towards the astrolabe bobbling between Merlin's hands. "Is that new, then?" he asked, fishing for any topic of conversation to be able to remain in the room.

It was a bit pathetic, admittedly, but sometimes he could feel Merlin drawing away from him as tangibly as a splash of cold water to the face, and it was disconcerting to keep bumping up against Merlin's odd, new boundaries when, in the past, Merlin had been the one who kept breaking Arthur's down.

At first, Arthur had prescribed it to Merlin just being his weird self -- he was prone to these episodes of going off alone to save the world, not telling anybody about it and then coming home, surprised and sometimes disappointed to still be alive, and internalising it all into moody outbursts or fits of inappropriate laughter. But ever since Arthur had put all the pieces together and not only confronted Merlin about being magic, but accepted it as well, Arthur had thought the days of Merlin playing everything too close to the chest were well over. They'd gone on campaigns, when those from beyond the borders had decided to test Camelot's strength under a new king, Arthur wielding sword and shield and Merlin calling up ancient powers from the earth and sky, and they had been tremendous together.

That all seemed a bit distant now; there was an irksome feeling niggling at the back of Arthur's mind that Merlin had started hiding something from him again, and had been doing so for quite a while. Arthur wouldn't say it hurt, exactly, that Merlin had regressed to not trusting him again, but -- well, maybe it did, a little bit. It was supremely annoying, at the very least.

"Hm?" said Merlin, looking up and resting his gaze on a point just past Arthur's left ear. As Arthur gestured, Merlin's face blinked into recognition. "Oh, this, yeah. Morgana sent it to me; she says it's from the Orient. Bit different to the one I have, actually," he said, and turned abruptly to go on a hunt for it.

"Ah," said Arthur, who, despite his past tutors' best efforts, still had yet to discover any real interest in astronomy. He fidgeted as Merlin disappeared around a corner, feeling itchy and unsure as to how to get Merlin's familiarity back. "Heard from Morgana, then?"

Merlin's head popped up from behind a groaning shelf. "Few days ago. She says hello," he said, and muttered to himself something that sounded like, told him not to move my things around.

"Ah," said Arthur again, as much to himself as to Merlin, feeling unreasonably smug that Rowan had done poorly. "Well, I'm glad she's still alive and well enough to decide not to write to me properly."

There was a light smacking sound from the other side of the shelf. Merlin's head appeared again. "She did. Write to you, I mean," he said hastily, and came round to the bench to shuffle through more things, finally producing a small, folded piece of parchment addressed to Arthur in Morgana's precise penmanship, one of the few surviving traits she'd carried over from her royal upbringing.

Merlin passed the letter over, a corner of his mouth stretched downward in embarrassed penitence.

"What if," Arthur said, plucking the missive from Merlin's outstretched fingers and crackling it open, "this was important?"

"Then she wouldn't have entrusted me with giving it to you?" Merlin guessed.

"You're just lucky she already got 'Dear Arthur, Mordred is coming to kill you' out of the way years ago."

For reasons neither of them had much been willing to explicate, Merlin and Morgana had fallen out some years ago, disastrously, and then for reasons they were both still cagey about, they'd decided to forgive, forget and become better friends than they'd ever been before. Now, Merlin seemed to be the one person at Camelot Morgana kept in touch with regularly, and she often sent him gifts from abroad and long letters, while Arthur only occasionally got little notes like the one in his hands.

Dear Arthur, hope all is well at home. Saw a fat boar snorting around in the undergrowth today; thought of you. All my love, Morgana.

Arthur rolled his eyes, though he carefully folded and pocketed the letter, and briefly wondered if perhaps he ought not have absorbed such vast quantities of sympathy and custard in recent weeks.

Despite their differences, he did miss Morgana, with whom he'd grown up and shared little mischiefs all up and down the castle throughout their childhood. It seemed like everyone he cared about was gone -- his father had passed, Gaius was retired, Morgana was conquering faraway lands, Gwen had gone and discovered that delirious happiness wasn't some kind of scam. And Merlin, well -- Merlin remained, stupid and lovely and distant.

It was all Arthur could do not to clutch Merlin by the shoulders and demand he stay in sight and within an arm's length at all times. Preferably less than that, but Arthur would take what he could get.

Merlin uttered a small cry of triumph, locating his old astrolabe from underneath a mess of miscellaneous curios. He held it up to Arthur, shining and pleased with himself for a moment before his eyebrows came together in a knot. "Er, why was I looking for that?" he asked, and screwed his mouth into a confused frown. "Oh well. There it is. What did you want it for?"

Arthur's jaw shifted, displacing an eyebrow upwards. "Is there something wrong with you? I mean, beyond your usual capacity for mental defection," he said, mostly out of habit, peering in for a closer look at Merlin's face. Perhaps he had sustained a concussion while Rowan had been busy doing nothing in his dunce's corner and was only now exhibiting its effects. It was clear Arthur would have to come by more often to keep an eye on him. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

"Er," said Merlin, batting his hand out of the way, "I'm not blind, you know."

An impolite cough sounded at the door.

"Yes, Rowan?" Merlin said, and then frowned. "Where are the plants?"

"I forgot what you wanted, sir," the boy said dully.

"My god, you are uncommonly thick," Arthur butted in, teeming with reproval, but secretly delighted that he compared so favourably to Merlin's asinine companion. Of course, he was the king, so by rights he should already have had a significant advantage, even putting his sterling personality and good looks aside, but when it came to Merlin, who knew what the man was after?

The only romantic relationship Arthur even knew of was one that involved a very nice young lady Merlin had taken him to see, not long after his coronation. He wasn't sure what had gone wrong there, but considering the lady hadn't been so much lady as spirit, and lived at the bottom of a lake, apparently spending her time fishing around for things Merlin had once chucked in there, he could see why pursuing a long-term relationship may not have been the most practical of courses. In any case, Merlin hadn't seemed to be in love with her anymore when they'd gone to fetch the sword; he and the lady had spent some time talking out of earshot, but as most of it had seemed to revolve around a lot of her pointing and giggling at him, Arthur's guesses as to the topic of conversation probably hadn't been too far off.

It still didn't give him any valuable clues, however, as to what would entice Merlin. Though not being dead probably helped.

Arthur tuned himself back in to the conversation at hand, where Merlin was very patiently explaining what foxglove and agrimony looked like and haven't we gone over this before and what happened to that book on herbs I gave you to read, and Arthur rolled his eyes.

"Sack him," Arthur mouthed over Rowan's head, and was rewarded with Merlin breaking into an impish grin, mid-lecture.

Feeling rather more secure, Arthur decided to leave Merlin to his instruction, and wound his way down again to the main floor to sit in his throne room for a good think. He liked his throne room; it was different to his father's, which had been large and draughty, and had contained a long table that often required those seated at the ends to shout at one another in order to be heard. Luckily, shouting had been one of Uther's treasured pastimes; Arthur, however, much preferred calm discourse and had installed a round table instead, which not only called for more judicious use of raised voices, it also took a much shorter time to pass the wine and snacks around.

Arthur slid into his chair, hands spread across the tabletop as if holding court. If only he could ask his advisors for their opinions; he'd taken care to populate his council with sharp minds and compassionate hearts, and their views had often helped him a great deal in deciding matters of state. As such, they probably wouldn't appreciate being called to assembly so he could pick their brains on the most efficient course of action to lure Merlin to his bedchambers and keep him there. Also, the fact that Merlin sat at his right hand during these functions would likely make it very awkward for all involved.

In trying times like these, he'd have consulted Gwen, but, of course, she'd deserted him and his problems for lifelong happiness, which he still felt was a bit wretched of her, after all those years of being so amenable and easygoing. Worse still, her finally reuniting with Lancelot had given him hope that maybe one day he and Merlin might be similarly delirious with one another's company, and the label he'd put on the tucked-away box of Merlin-related feelings had gradually changed from 'Do Not Open Under Pain of Death' to 'Do Not Open Under Pain of, Well, Maybe Something Akin to a Bee-Sting. Those Are Very Irritating, Aren't They?' He did write her letters about it, she being one of two people (the other being himself) who knew his feelings for Merlin, and she was usually very kind about it, saying things like he'll come round, I'm sure of it; his dedication to you must mean something, apart from the time when she'd decided Rowan was cute.

"Pfft," said Arthur to the room at large.

Wooing Gwen had been easy. Wooing women in general was easy; trusses of flowers and personalised letters and whole roast chicken seemed like pretty sure-fire ways to win a woman's heart, at least in his experience. With Merlin, he'd tried wildly varying tactics: heart-to-heart talks, going topless all the time and taking interest in his astro-thingamabobs, but Merlin's affections still remained elusive.

Arthur perked up. Maybe wooing Merlin wasn't meant to be different; maybe he would like to adorn his quarters with wildflowers Arthur had specially picked for him and tuck under his pillow little sonnets Arthur had penned and have his table graced with a plump fowl Arthur had ordered to be killed. It was all so very simple; Arthur marvelled at the fact that he'd never thought of it before, and decided this was probably Merlin's fault, because Merlin liked to make things as difficult as possible -- like the time he'd refused to fall for Arthur, which only happened to be all the time.

Well, that would soon change, if Arthur had anything to say about it. And he did.

There once was a fellow named Merlin, he wrote.

It took him till the next morning to finally decide to scrap the poem, as, continuing in his trend of hampering romantic progress, Merlin had a name that rhymed with absolutely nothing. The single line of poetry stared at Arthur, mocking him in his own jaunty handwriting, as did all sorts of crossed-out words he'd considered shoving into the rhyme scheme, like curling and vermin and gherkin, which all had a rightful place in the lexicon, but did not speak to the kind of epic ode Arthur was shooting for. He shredded the parchment to bits and sauntered to the kitchens to toss the evidence into one of the ever-burning cooking fires.

"Good day, my lord," said a cook, rather anxiously.

"Hello," said Arthur, idly inspecting the breakfast they were just laying out on a tray.

"It's just about ready, sire; we'll have it sent up to your chambers at once," said the cook, who was not in the habit of receiving royal visits, and wrung his hands in worry.

Arthur eyed him bemusedly. "Oh, right. Yes, good. Er, is that a bit of custard I see there?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Perhaps --" Arthur discreetly prodded his tummy; the impressive musculature he'd built up seemed in no danger of receding, but he thought he'd better leave off the custard, just in case future opportunities for misplacing all his shirts while in Merlin's presence happened to crop up. "No more custard. I've gone off it," he said, regretfully.

Damn Morgana for putting ideas into his head. Though custard for breakfast did seem a bit much, even for someone as heavily depressed as everybody seemed to think he was.

Besides, he wasn't sure being shirtless in Merlin's presence was completely a waste of time. No doubt Merlin ignored him or treated him much the same as ever for the most part, but there had been a few instances he recalled where Merlin had seemed to appreciate the eyeful of manliness parading about in front of him. And there had been times when Merlin hadn't even said anything about Arthur's tunics being left unlaced even though the collar openings split right down to the navel. Surely that meant something. Possibly aside from Merlin being a terrible manservant, or one of those friends who wouldn't tell you you looked fat in your chainmail even if you did.

Arthur plodded back to his chambers. He ate his breakfast slowly, which had rushed ahead of him to be laid out on his table in a wide and pleasing arrangement, and peered out his window. The gardens were in full bloom and the sun seemed to be making quite the effort today; he wondered if anyone would miss a few heads of roses hacked off.

Unfortunately, as he had never so much as taken a turn about the gardens since their installation -- why stroll when one could run, after all -- the gardeners pottering about eyed him with thinly-veiled suspicion, as though appalled that he had the audacity to set foot on Camelot's manicured grounds without their leave. And though he had brought his dagger with him to do some quick and dirty topiary work of his own, the watchful gaze of the groundskeepers compelled him to leave the rose bushes unscathed for the moment. Galling, really, that he couldn't even destroy his own hedges if he wanted to.

Anyway, he thought bracingly as he ambled past the garden walls and to the fields beyond that skirted the forest, Merlin probably wasn't even a rose-appreciating kind of person; he was, in fact, the kind of person who would manage to inadvertently stab himself with its thorns and develop a gangrenous infection. All in all, it would be safer if he provided Merlin with blossoms that wouldn't find a way to severely maim him.

Even at its outer edges, the forest was noisy in the sunshine; overhead the birdsong of several different species competed for attention, too busy trying to outdo each other to notice Arthur creeping along the floor and plucking indiscriminately at anything brightly-coloured. A snatch of foxglove went into the collection as well, because unlike Rowan, Arthur remembered things Merlin told him and also wasn't a complete ninny. He'd bet anything that Rowan had gone home and totally forgotten his tasks again, and Arthur would show him up, not only with a lovely gift of flowers but the very plant Merlin had been asking for for days. He didn't know what Merlin wanted it for, but he hoped it involved poisoning Rowan just a little bit; it would be a very effective way of helping the boy remember what the plant looked like, at any rate.

Arthur sighed to himself, slightly embarrassed to be thinking such unkingly thoughts. He could only conclude that being in love made him very stupid, and carried on, thankful that there was no one around to judge him.

When he'd divested a good portion of the landscape of its natural beauty, Arthur returned to the castle and stopped in to beg a length of ribbon from a seamstress, surrendering a stalk in exchange. The seamstress had blushed, clearly won over by his charm in two seconds flat, and Arthur resisted the urge to complain to her about Merlin's iron-clad defence against all his advances.

Well, if a single flower had the power to flush a woman's cheek, then surely an entire armload would at least put a little chink in Merlin's armour. Arthur dithered outside Merlin's door for a while, wondering whether secret courtship required knocking or if their many years of friendship trumped silly little shows of politeness. Tired with his own indecisiveness, Arthur kicked the door open, only to find the room empty.

Congealed dregs of porridge sat in a bowl on the table, so Merlin had obviously already arisen and was out being helpful somewhere, and Rowan obviously hadn't reported for duty yet, otherwise there wouldn't be leftover porridge crusting before Arthur's eyes. He sat down at Merlin's bench, looking around for a nice, tidy place to set his bouquet down, but this was Merlin's room they were talking about, so surfaces of tables and ledges probably hadn't seen the light of day in years.

After a few minutes of quiet contemplation and a bit of snooping around for a secret diary that hopefully contained his and Merlin's names enclosed in large hearts (but sadly did not appear to exist), Arthur placed the flowers at the edge of the bench, away from all the flammable materials and well in view of the door, so it'd be the first thing Merlin saw when he came back.

Arthur did have some kingly work to do, unfortunately, and couldn't afford to wait around to catch Merlin's expression (gratitude, certainly, he imagined, and he wouldn't be averse to seeing Merlin's face shine with deep love, either). He left his gift unattended and went to his throne room to deal with the reports that had piled up while he'd been out communing with nature and stealing her stuff.

An hour or two later, he emerged, well satisfied with his productivity, and let his mind flood with thoughts of Merlin again, now that he'd gotten the morning's paperwork out of the way. It came as no surprise that he ended up wending his way back to Merlin's quarters, and, by a stroke of luck, bumped into Merlin heading in the same direction.

"Oh, hallo, Arthur," said Merlin cheerfully. "Have you come to see me?"

Arthur murmured his agreement.

"Well, you've come at a good time; I was away most of the morning."

"I did stop by earlier..." Arthur said, and trailed off, wondering if he should bring up the flowers, which he was beginning to feel a little unsure about. Maybe he should have done in a chicken instead.

They arrived at Merlin's rooms, and Merlin uttered a surprised, "Oh!" upon entering. Arthur peered over his shoulder to see the flowers still in place and intact, and Rowan in his corner again, inspecting some stain on the toe of his boot.

"Rowan, well done!" Merlin cried, striding forward to scoop up the bundle of flowers. "Foxglove, exactly what I needed. And -- some of these other things..." he said, apparently a little puzzled as to why he had been brought one of every species of flower native to Albion, but pleased nonetheless.

"Eh?" said Rowan, but, in a stunning display of quick thinking that would have put all celebrated war strategists throughout history to shame, went on to add, "Oh, yeah, thought you might use that stuff. You know, for your experiments and that."

Arthur slowly bent to pick his jaw up from the floor and reattached it. The nerve of that little toad. Of course, he couldn't claim credit for the bloody flowers now, not when Merlin was looking so happy that his idiot apprentice had finally got up off his arse to do something remotely close to useful. And not while Rowan was still in the room, radiating complacency, and not even having the forethought to look perplexed as to how he'd managed to gain the glory for somebody else's work. Arthur glowered.

Merlin sifted through the stalks. "I am still missing heartsease, though."

"It's still early in the day," Arthur said, glad that he hadn't gone round picking every plant on Merlin's list. "I'm sure young Rowan will have no trouble finding a nice supply of it. Will you, young Rowan?" He clapped the boy on the back with extreme vigour.

Obediently, albeit somewhat sulkily, Rowan trudged out of the room, and Arthur shut the door behind him.

"He's improving," Merlin said.

"He isn't. He's awful," Arthur insisted. "If you're that desperate for an apprentice, Merlin, surely a plank of wood would serve you better than that boy."

"I just want to give him a chance. Like you did for me; you could've fired me two seconds after your father made me your manservant."

"Yes, as I recall, there were many injurious things said about my royal person that day."

"It was good for you," Merlin said, grinning.

Arthur crooked an eyebrow. "I do still have firing power, you know."

"Nonsense," said Merlin. "You wouldn't have a clue what to do without me."

Before Arthur could utter any semblance of Yes, you're right, Merlin; come away with me and let's be the happiest, loveliest couple in all of history; we can go and visit Gwen and Lancelot and rub it in their faces, Merlin turned away abruptly, massaging some ache in his chest and blinking curiously, like he'd just plum forgotten something very important.

"Ahh," he said, at length, "you said you were coming to see me about something?"

And there it was again. Dealing with Merlin these days was like trying to walk through an open door, knowing that what lay on the other side was light and comfort and familiarity, but then discovering, by smacking face-first into it, that the door had only been painted on. Arthur frowned to himself; dealing with Merlin these days was as tortured as making up metaphors on dealing with Merlin.

"Yes," Arthur said slowly, thinking. "How do you feel about chicken?"

"Er," said Merlin.

"Great," said Arthur, and heaved himself towards the door. "I'll see you at dinner, then."

Much to his chagrin, however, the kitchen staff had not adequately prepared the stores for unexpected demands for fresh chicken, and so, when Merlin arrived that evening to Arthur's table, awash in the flicker of candlelight, Arthur was already feeling less than confident about the efficacy of dried meat in the pursuit of romantic endeavours. For his part, Merlin alternated between varying degrees of happy warmth and mannered civility, and by the end of the meal, Arthur was no closer to drawing declarations of love out of Merlin -- or even getting him to stop being so dashedly polite half the time -- and felt the failure keenly.

Of course, once he had the foresight to inform the castle cooks that chicken was on the menu, he might have another go of it. It didn't really have the same ring to it after all, destiny and salted pork.

[Continue to Part 2]

OMG 11K+ words from you!! ♥__♥ Okay, I'm saving it to read this weekend.
but scrapped the idea when Sir Leon, on covert reconnaissance, had reported him to be dumber than a post. LOVE THIS!!

This fic is sooooooooooooo good, on to the next part :D
although I desperately want to quote a billion lines at you, here are a few of my favs:

because Merlin liked to make things as difficult as possible -- like the time he'd refused to fall for Arthur, which only happened to be all the time.

Well, that would soon change, if Arthur had anything to say about it. And he did.

There once was a fellow named Merlin, he wrote.

It took him till the next morning to finally decide to scrap the poem, as, continuing in his trend of hampering romantic progress, Merlin had a name that rhymed with absolutely nothing.

oh, my god:
And though he had brought his dagger with him to do some quick and dirty topiary work of his own, the watchful gaze of the groundskeepers compelled him to leave the rose bushes unscathed for the moment. Galling, really, that he couldn't even destroy his own hedges if he wanted to.

Arthur frowned to himself; dealing with Merlin these days was as tortured as making up metaphors on dealing with Merlin
Thanks for picking these out; I'm always interested to know what lines strike people's fancies! :)
Adore it so far! Arthur's clumsy attempts to make Merlin notice him are enchanting. He is very much the idealistic, slightly naive prince we meet early in the series.

I loved this description of his antics:
"With Merlin, he'd tried wildly varying tactics: heart-to-heart talks, going topless all the time and taking interest in his astro-thingamabobs, but Merlin's affections still remained elusive."

Poor thing. And his friendship-based marriage to Gwen seems right on target, both for the show and as I imagine them in the legends.

Hurrah! I think S1 Arthur is still my favourite, which is probably why I write him like that all the time. :)