Word Count: 5841
Summary: It's not that Arthur won't share his toys, just that he expects to get them back undamaged
It's fair to say Arthur wasn't exactly in a good mood to start with, so Merlin being late with his breakfast and managing, somehow, to be even more clumsy than usual in getting across the obstacle course of Arthur's chamber to put it on the table is something of a final straw.
"Just leave it there," he grits out after Merlin drops something off his tray for the eighth time.
"Sorry," Merlin says, sounding like someone else. Arthur sits up in bed to check it actually is Merlin, because if he has to go another day with the competent child his father saddled him with after he complained about Merlin being loaned out to visiting dignitaries he's going to ... something, he's not sure what, but it's going to involve swords, and pain.
It is Merlin, but he looks diminished somehow, picking his way across the mess Arthur's managed to make over the last twelve hours. Arthur's a little disappointed; he'd expended a lot of thought making sure all of Merlin's least favourite things were involved, to the extent of actually having a food fight on his own so Merlin would have something to gripe about. Merlin doesn't even seem to be noticing.
"I think I'll take a bath," he announces, and Merlin's shoulders droop a little, but that's all. It's no fun at all, despite the fact that Uther would probably have his servants disciplined for even that small infraction.
It's not until Merlin's tidied up the chaos of Arthur's chambers and is lighting the fire so the room will be warm enough for Arthur's bath that Arthur realises this isn't just a sulk, much as he'd like Merlin to be sulking over being loaned out. Arthur sulked over it after all, and all he'd had to do was be properly attended to for a change. Before Merlin, Arthur's pretty sure he'd never even noticed a servant lighting his fire but he knows Merlin's doing it differently to usual. Usually Merlin kneels at the hearth, skinny arse in the air, and usually Arthur is transfixed and only just manages to look away in time.
Today though ... Today he's sitting, with his legs to one side awkwardly. It's how Morgana sits when they picnic in the summer, and led to Arthur's theory that women's hips are clearly joined on different because it's bloody uncomfortable. He'd call Merlin a girl now, except he looks bloody uncomfortable, so Arthur can't really see why he's doing it. Unless he caught Arthur looking at his backside, but Arthur doesn't think so; he's far too discreet.
When the bath's ready, Arthur sits himself on the edge of the bed and wiggles his feet at Merlin. "Come on then," he says imperiously. "Help me into my slippers."
Merlin rolls his eyes but doesn't actually point out that it's all of three steps to the bath and slippers are somewhat unnecessary, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. Arthur had permitted himself the arse-ogling because he was pretty sure Merlin was ogling right back, especially, for some unfathomable reason, when it came to getting Arthur out of his sweaty armour.
Sure enough, Merlin doesn't kneel to set the slippers on Arthur's feet either, and that test is the only reason he wanted them on, so he kicks them off and strides over to the bath.
He wants to ask if everything's okay, but this close up he can see it isn't. It's not just the kneeling thing. Merlin's back is held stiff and he flinches away when Arthur goes to clap him on it, to welcome him home.
"Glad to be back?" he asks, as obnoxiously as he can manage and he's horrified when Merlin just nods. "It wasn't my idea, you know, lending you to Lord Sprowston until his man was fit to serve again."
That's an understatement. Arthur vigorously opposed the idea, but Uther had insisted. Sprowston's man had had a nasty fall from his horse on the way to Camelot – thrown himself off it, Arthur suspected – and Sprowston couldn't be fobbed off with just any old servant. Unfortunately Merlin had been particularly Merlin that day and so Uther had decided to punish everyone by reassigning him and refusing to see reason.
Merlin just gives him another small smile and nods again. "I know," he says. "Your bath's getting cold."
"My ... Right," Arthur says, and lifts his arms even though normally he'd just take his own nightshirt off. Merlin bends a little to grip the hem, and when he lifts his own arms up he winces. He looks ... he looks like he did the day after Arthur first sparred with him: sore and bruised and a little bit humiliated. "Stop," Arthur commands and the nightshirt falls back down. "Are you going to tell me?"
"Stay still." He walks around Merlin, and when he looks closely he can see that Merlin's hideously misshapen tunic is sticking to his back in three places, three almost parallel lines. He knows what they represent even before he eases the fabric up to look at the marred skin of his manservant's torso, and his pulse is roaring in his ears like the noise of battle. He can't speak because he's afraid of what he might say. His hand is clenched in Merlin's tunic, and he can feel the way his white-knuckle grip is pulling where it's stuck to the worst of the lashes, but he can't make himself let go.
Merlin is silent, barely flinching even though it has to hurt. "Apparently someone else agrees that I need to practice walking on my knees," he says eventually.
There are many reasons that a lord might ask a servant to kneel - there's been at least two asked of Merlin already today - but Arthur can't see past the worst.
"Did he ..." he chokes out. "Did he importune you?"
For a moment Merlin is silent and Arthur thinks he's not going to even understand the question and it'll have to be spelled out, but then he flushes – Arthur watches the colour rise up the back of his neck and can picture his face, doesn't need to see it.
"No," Merlin says, then, more vehemently, "No." He shrugs, extremely carefully.
Arthur makes his fingers unbend. He's left creases in the material of Merlin's tunic. "You'll have to soak that off," he says, because, as in battle, it's easier to deal with practicalities, and if he's not careful of his temper he's going to lash out at the wrong person. "I'm surprised Gaius didn't dress them."
"Haven't told him. I got in late last night and he'd already left on his rounds when I left my room." There it is again, the faint stain of shame in Merlin's voice that doesn't belong there, ever. Except maybe if Arthur's put it there, but even that stopped being fun a long time ago.
"I've probably got something that will help," Arthur says, because sometimes he doesn't want Gaius to know he's hurt either. "Well, get in then." Merlin just stands there staring at him with a gormless expression on his face, so Arthur waves an imperious hand at the bath tub. "Today would be preferable." Merlin takes a couple of steps across the room and stares at the water like it's going to eat him. "I assume you have taken a bath at some point in your life?"
"Of course I have," Merlin objects hotly. "I just don't personally feel the need for an audience while I do so."
Arthur rolls his eyes and turns to face the window. "There," he says. "Your maidenly modesty is preserved. Just take off whatever's not stuck down and then get in. Trust me, this'll be a lot easier with help."
He's tempted to turn at the first splash of Merlin getting into the bath – he is the Crown Prince after all – but resists. When he does turn, Merlin's sitting carefully forward in the tub, which means, lanky git that he is, his knees are sticking out of the water. Arthur feels his stomach turn over in equal parts horror and fury at the state of them. He crosses the room before he's even thought about it, leans down over the tub, gripping the sides. "You are going to tell me –" he says, and then realises he's possibly being a little intimidating, and that's probably the last thing Merlin needs. Merlin doesn't look remotely frightened though, which is a relief; if he'd been broken by whatever happened over the last three days, Arthur might have had to kill Sprowston. "You should have come to me."
"And said what?" Merlin asks. "Help! Someone's trying to teach me to do my job?"
"He had no right!" But Merlin just looks at him, and Arthur can't read his expression but he's reminded uncomfortably of when they first met. Maybe Merlin doesn't realise that Arthur's not the same man he was then, and didn't think he'd stop Sprowston. Maybe he'd even thought Arthur might approve; he'd been throwing knives at a boy to 'teach him a lesson' after all. That had just been in fun though, no harm would have come of it. "What happened to your knees?"
"I've been walking on them," Merlin says. "Along the cinder track." He draws them up a little closer to his face, although whether out of some protective instinct or merely to examine them, Arthur's not sure. They're both a bloody mess, like the minced-up meat they feed the young hawks and falcons, and now that Arthur looks, he can see that there's bits of cinder imbedded in the wounds. "My back's from when I was judged to be dawdling."
"Try and get them in the water to soak," Arthur says, prying his hands off the side of the tub. "Same with your back. I'll help you get your tunic off before I go."
"Go?" Merlin queries, but Arthur's looking for something in his newly-tidied room, and doesn't answer until he's found it. He turns back to the bath brandishing his falconry gloves because the stupid boy took his proper gauntlets to the armoury, where they belong. He steps over the stuff he's had to pull out of his cupboard to find them, dropping them on the table on his way back to the bath. "Go where?"
Arthur ignores him, puts his hand on the back of Merlin's neck and encourages him to bend forward so Arthur can scoop up bathwater with his free hand and pour it over the back of the tunic, over and over until the fabric comes away from the wounds. When they get the sodden tunic off, Merlin's back is a mass of bruises. The three lash marks that Arthur could see even when he was dressed are accompanied by others, some merely purple, some scabbed over.
"Apparently I dawdle a lot," Merlin says after a long silence, and Arthur can tell he's trying to joke, to lighten the mood and let Arthur know he's all right.
Even if he is, Arthur's not.
For the first time ever, Arthur's annoyed that there's a courtly code of conduct, because he doesn't want to challenge Sprowston to a nice polite duel with swords. He wants to use his fists, until Sprowston's face looks like Merlin's knees. He can see it vividly in his mind's eye, Sprowston crying and begging for mercy in a way Merlin almost certainly didn't. He cleans Merlin's back with a care quite out of keeping with his murderous thoughts. He wishes he could wash away the pain and the marks, because letting Sprowston anywhere near Merlin was his mistake and it isn't right that it should be his servant who has to suffer for it.
Merlin apparently doesn't need any help picking the grit out of his knees. Before Arthur can snatch up his gauntlet and go looking for Sprowston, Merlin puts a damp, hesitant hand on Arthur's arm. It's deeply inappropriate of him to touch Arthur like that, and it feels even more so because he leaves it there. Arthur would say something, tut or roll his eyes at the very least on any other day.
"You don't need to call him out on my account," Merlin says. "I know you're always telling me I'm a girl, but I'm really not some wronged damsel."
"No, you're not," Arthur agrees. "You're my servant, and he's returned you in no fit state to serve me. It's the principle of the thing, just as if he'd borrowed my horse and spurred her bloody, or beaten my dog." Merlin scratches a hand at the back of his head, and his mouth twists as he obviously tries not to laugh. Arthur feels his face heat; he hates it when he speaks before he thinks and something idiotic comes out of his mouth, even if it is only Merlin who hears it. "I meant for that to be reassuring," he says. "So that you'd know I was going after Sprowston on a matter of propriety, of honour and not –" He cuts himself off before he can do any more damage but Merlin's got that look in his eyes, the one that makes Arthur wonder if the gormless thing is really an act and Merlin's actually some kind of genius.
"I could have taken him, if I'd wanted," Merlin says, and it's sweet really, that he actually thinks the tiny bit of self-defence Arthur's taught him would be any kind of match for a knight, even one as useless as Sprowston.
"Not if you wanted to keep your head."
Merlin watches him for a long moment, like he's sizing Arthur up. "That's not why," he says. "Propriety. That's not why."
Clearly Merlin is not a genius after all, because only an idiot would call Arthur's motives into question to his face. "No," he says. "It's because he hurt you. And you're mine."
He isn't going to apologise for that one, no matter what. He isn't going to take it back, or qualify it, because it's true. He's responsible for everyone in Camelot even if it will, hopefully, be years before he takes on the mantle of kingship, and that's just a fact. Whether Merlin likes it or not. Even if that responsibility is felt a little more keenly when it comes to Merlin.
"At least get dressed first, then," Merlin says eventually.
"Well, I'm hardly going to go running round the castle in my nightshirt, am I? Not even to defend your honour."
"I thought it had nothing to do with me," Merlin says. He's smirking and Arthur can't help it, he's so pleased to see Merlin looking more like himself that he can't be bothered to think up a proper riposte.
"It isn't," he says. When you're heir to the throne you don't always have to be right, you just have to be definite. "Now get out of my bath."
Merlin bows, as much as one can whilst submerged in a bathtub. It's the most subservient Arthur's ever seen him, even if the smirk is now edging dangerously close to a grin. He's not sure if he likes it or not. There's an expectant pause while Arthur waits for Merlin to do as he's told for a change and get out of the water, and Merlin waits for ... oh for mercy's sake. Arthur turns his back again, although not before he's heaved an appropriately put-upon sigh. He hears the splash of water, the wet sound of Merlin's feet hitting the floor, one and then the other, and leaves what he thinks is more than an adequate amount of time before turning.
Only Merlin's still standing, naked and dripping by the tub. His eyes widen and he squawks indignantly, grabbing the nearest thing to hand to cover himself with, which is the robe he'd laid out for Arthur.
"Okay," Arthur says with a sage nod that does nothing but draw attention to the smirk in his tone. "So, definitely not a girl."
He gets another glare in response, and apart from the fact that Merlin's so pale Arthur can see that his embarrassed blush extends a long way down, he really can't see why his servant's so damn shy. He's seen everything Arthur's got, and okay, he's not got the same broad physique that comes of wearing mail and plate armour and practising with a sword several hours a day, but he's got nothing to be ashamed of either. No druidic tattoos or horrible deformities that Arthur can see. He's about to continue mocking when he realises why Merlin's not dressed: his clothes are a sodden and bloodstained mess. It's going to take some kind of washday magic to return them to wearable condition. He'd offer to pick Merlin up a change of clothes when he's done with Sprowston but he doesn't know how long that will be, or how to do so without raising Gaius's suspicions. He also figures, from the state of Merlin's knees compared to the intact state of his trousers, that the pair he's wearing today are not the same pair as he walked the cinder track in; whatever Merlin might think, Arthur is aware of his privileges, in regard to wardrobe as much as anything else. He crosses the room to his cupboard and flings the doors open.
"Go on then, pick something."
Merlin stares at him, still clutching the robe in front of his skinny hips and he's got to be getting cold because the fire's not been burning long enough to have a decent bank of coals built up.
"Um," he says, looking from the open cupboard to Arthur and back. He looks – and Arthur's not happy to see this, he's not, because it would be ridiculous – exasperated. "You haven't actually told me what you're doing today."
"Not for me, idiot. For you. As fetching as I am sure you will look in my robe, I really don't think it's quite the right thing for the Crown Prince's livery, do you?" While Merlin continues to gawp at the open cupboard, Arthur figures he may as well get dressed. Apparently Merlin's never been faced with such a choice of outfits, because he's still staring when Arthur's dressed. "Here," Arthur says handing him an old hunting shirt that's worn soft with age and a pair of trousers. "Shouldn't be too uncomfortable on your back." Merlin turns his back to put them on and Arthur's hands clench into fists at his sides as his banked rage reignites. He wills it to subside; Merlin is the priority right now, revenge will come later. "Speaking of which, you should let me take a look. Put some of Gaius's ointment on it."
Merlin looks at him like Arthur's just offered to have him beheaded; it's more than a little offensive. Arthur's not that useless. He's pretty sure he can rub a bit of salve into some wounds without causing any disasters, and he got himself dressed without even complaining about it, and really, Merlin has no right to look at him like that. He gives Merlin a look that he knows says 'not a suggestion, actually' because he's been practicing it since he was a royal toddler and it's never let him down. It doesn't this time either, although Merlin doesn't exactly snap to it like he should, and really Arthur should have sorted that out before because he can't now. By the time he's found the ointment, picked a bit of grass out of it and sniffed it to make sure it doesn't smell off, Merlin's got the shirt rucked back up around his neck and his head bowed. He looks sacrificial and it sets all of Arthur's protective instincts to screaming again.
He reaches out his hand to the only unmarred spot on Merlin's back – his left shoulder, so clearly Sprowston is abominably right-handed. If Sprowston had been one of Arthur's knights, Arthur would have had his right hand tied behind his back for hours of sparring practice until he overcame it. It's likely to make him easy, and hence unsatisfying, to best. It makes it worse somehow, that Merlin's been marked by someone who's not even worthy of him.
Merlin freezes at the touch with a sharp intake of breath that makes Arthur feel like he's trespassing somehow. Merlin touches him all the time, dressing and undressing him, but it never feels like this. He half wants to pull his hand away but he knows that would just make things even more awkward, so instead he scoops a copious quantity of Gaius's salve on the fingers of his other hand and starts applying it to the worst of the wounds.
"Tell me what happened," he commands and it's clearly the right thing to do because Merlin relaxes. He doesn't do as he's told, at least not as promptly as he should, but even that is reassuring.
"I can't remember what started it all off," he says with a shrug. "But then he ordered me to kneel, and let's face it, I don't kneel for you, there was no way I was going to for him, and I possibly might have said as much. I guess he thought he was doing you a favour." Arthur scoffs and there's silence while he continues to smear the salve over Merlin's back. When he's all but done, and wondering whether Merlin would notice if he kept going after all the lash marks were treated, Merlin turns his head. "You're not going to kill him, are you?"
"Do you want me to?"
Merlin pauses far longer than Arthur would have thought, but the answer he expects comes. "No. Of course I ... Does he? Importune people, I mean?"
Arthur shrugs. "There are rumours," which is far more gossip about a fellow noble than he should be relaying to his manservant but he can't seem to help himself.
"Not any more."
Not since Merlin arrived, in fact, and maybe that's why Arthur's finding himself wanting to kill people, and unable to just order his manservant to get help from Gaius. Maybe he just needs to get laid, but that hasn't been quite so easy since Merlin insisted on making him see everyone as people in their own right. But of course Merlin won't see the enormous sacrifice Arthur has made in stopping his casual liaisons with nameless members of the serving staff, only the fact that there used to be such liaisons at all. Even though Arthur's quite sure they were perfectly pleasant for everyone involved.
"Good," Merlin says, and Arthur resolves to order the first servant he sees into his bed for a tumble. And then he's going to make Merlin change the sheets, just to teach him that it's not his place to comment on Arthur's sex life, or lack thereof.
Except, of course, the first servant he sees is going to be Merlin, and ordering Merlin to do anything never works very well, and besides he can neither lie on his back nor kneel at Arthur's feet at the moment, so what would be the point? And that's the only reason he decides to content himself with teaching Sprowston a lesson instead.
"I'll get these back to you as soon as I've cleaned my own up," Merlin says as he stands, gesturing to his new clothes.
"Don't be daft, Merlin. It's hardly as though I'm going to have to go naked if you keep them, is it?" Merlin's eyes widen, and he starts to object, but Arthur cuts him off with a wave of his hand. He likes Merlin wearing his clothes, not least because it keeps him from looking like some random peasant anyone can have a piece of. "And before you go getting upset, this is how it works. You're supposed to get my castoffs to wear; ask Gwen if you don't believe me. Unless you'd rather have a livery. I'd be happy to design one for you." Merlin can't decline fast enough, which is a shame, and Arthur makes a note to threaten him with it again next time he does something stupid. He doubts he'll have to wait long. "Last chance then. Are you sure you don't want me to challenge him to the death?"
"I'm sure." Merlin smiles. "I don't even mind if you don't challenge him at all."
"Really, must you always ruin my fun?"
Sprowston isn't hard to find, seeing as he's apparently come to Camelot to spend as much time as possible brown-nosing Arthur's father. He obviously isn't expecting a gauntlet to be flung at his feet if the wide-eyed pike impression he does is anything to go by. "I'm sure you know why I'm issuing this challenge," Arthur says, and Sprowston's mouth opens and closes a few more times before he speaks.
"No, my lord," he stammers. "I confess I have no ... unless ..."
"Unless," Arthur prompts, waving a hand irritably.
"Your manservant." His nervous swallow is loud in the quiet of the hall.
"Your manservant ..." But Sprowston can't finish, his meagre capacity for thought apparently consumed with looking from the gauntlet to Arthur and back again.
"Whom I so very kindly lent to you in, it must be said, perfect condition, and who has been returned to me unable to work."
"Unable to ... my lord, I hardly think –"
"That much is painfully apparent."
"Arthur," the king cuts in, with an irritated sigh. "Is this really necessary?"
"I'm afraid so, my lord. It's a matter of honour."
Uther frowns. "Servants don't have honour. They have duties."
"My honour, my lord. He should have come to me. I resent the suggestion that I am incapable of maintaining discipline among my servants and need his help. What's next? Is he going to oversee the knights' practice as well?"
"Even you have to accept that Merlin is not the most disciplined of servants," Uther suggests, surprisingly diplomatically.
Arthur can't argue with that, and wouldn't anyway; he only argues with his father on matters of real importance. Besides, it isn't the point. Merlin's as disciplined as Arthur wants him to be, otherwise he'd have done something about it.
"He has, however, proven himself willing to act far above and beyond the call of duty and put his life in danger to save mine on more than one occasion, and now that exceptional loyalty has been rewarded with a flogging." Arthur hesitates, he's overstepped a mark and he knows it, knows he's starting to sound like he is defending Merlin's honour. Fortunately he also knows his father. "Something which your own laws advise should be reserved for the most serious of crimes, or times of war. I am merely agreeing with you, my lord, that the punishment should fit the crime."
It helps, of course, that there's nothing Uther likes more than a good fight, except maybe a good fight that Arthur wins. "The challenge stands," he pronounces, waving off Sprowston's immediate objection. "No no, I'm sorry. Arthur is quite right. If you had a problem with his servant you should have told him, so that he could have disciplined the miscreant himself." Arthur knows there's a 'make sure you do in future' aimed at him as much as at Sprowston in there, but that's less important than the fact that he's got what he wants. "Noon tomorrow. To first blood."
"No," Arthur counters. It isn't just Merlin's physical injuries Arthur's angry about. Sprowston pales like he's about to suggest they fight to the death. "Until one of us yields."
He spends the rest of the day going through sword drills because it's the only thing that's any fun without Merlin, who's been given the day off. By Arthur, of course, who could easily take it back but that doesn't seem very fair and besides, when he'd given Merlin the day off he'd looked so pathetically grateful it would be like kicking a puppy. Arthur would rather not spend the rest of the day accompanied by Merlin's wounded look, and the other look Merlin's got today – of trying to pretend he's not hurting – just makes Arthur want to kill something. So all in all he's better off just sticking to drill anyway.
Merlin looks a little better next day when he comes to get Arthur into his armour, so Gaius's ointment must have worked its magic. In a customary total failure to understand anything, the first words out of his mouth are 'I won't think any less of you if you withdraw the challenge'. Arthur ignores him in favour of glaring pointedly at his mail until Merlin remembers what he's doing there and helps Arthur into it.
"I feel like I should be giving you a favour to wear, for luck," he says as he fixes Arthur's cloak into place.
"I won't need luck," Arthur responds, like that's the most wrong thing about that sentence. "I've never seen you wearing ribbons and if you try to give me that grotty scarf you've got tied around your neck I shall have you executed."
Merlin steps back, surveys Arthur and nods, like he's proud. He's got a grin on his face that Arthur fears can only mean he's about to do or say something completely inappropriate. "Just a kiss, then," is what he says. "For my champion."
He's joking, he's joking, but Arthur still finds himself leaning slightly, tilting his face to receive the kiss. He kind of hopes Merlin hasn't noticed, but of course Merlin chooses now to become as observant as any good servant should be and what can Arthur do? He's the prince, he can't be mistaken. Merlin's frozen, like a hare before the hounds, but he doesn't look unwilling, exactly. Maybe if he had done, Arthur wouldn't have angled his cheek a little more.
"Come on then," he says. "Unless you want Sprowston to win." He leaves it just long enough that he knows he's won the point, then smirks and goes to move past Merlin, out of the armory into the arena.
Only Merlin was born entirely lacking the sense of how far is too far, apparently, and as he sweeps by, Arthur feels the brush of lips against his cheek.
It takes him the length of his father's speech to put the sense memory of it to the back of his mind enough to concentrate on Sprowston. It isn't hard to find the anger again – all he has to do is recall the state of Merlin's back or knees – but it seems less important than puzzling over what Merlin meant by that kiss, if he meant anything at all. Sprowston brings the fight to him, which is a mistake, because Arthur was right – Sprowston is very right-handed, and leaves his left side wide open to counter-attack. It would be easy to finish him within moments, but everyone knew who the better swordsman was before the fight began. This isn't about that. It's about teaching him a lesson.
Arthur blocks the first attack, making it look harder than it is in order to draw him in. The next time Sprowston leaves his left side completely unguarded it's easy for Arthur to deliver a blow with the flat of his sword behind Sprowston's left knee. The knee buckles and he crashes onto it, but rather than deliver the winning move, Arthur moves away, lets him recover only to use the exact same manoeuvre another three times. Sprowston's temper quickly gets the better of him, and the angrier he gets, the sloppier he fights. It isn't hard to see why such a man would need to make himself feel big by lording it over those who couldn't fight back.
Arthur had been right: beating Sprowston isn't very satisfying. Seeing him on his knees is.
Sprowston gets maybe two decent attacks in, and in the last he manages to nick Arthur's thigh, where the protection of mail runs out. It's not a serious wound, little more than an inconvenience, but it takes what little fun there was out of the fight. Arthur fells Sprowston and straddles him, sword point at his throat. He gets a yield before he's even asked for it.
"If you touch anything of mine again," Arthur growls. "I'll have your head."
He feels better for the first time since Uther insisted on lending Merlin out. Part of it's just post-fight high, some of it's feeling like a wrong's been righted. He's going to be able to look at Merlin without seeing the marks on his back, the scabbed mess of his knees, without guilt gnawing at his guts. His good mood lasts until Merlin notices the cut on his leg.
"Next time I'll just do as I'm told and kneel," Merlin says.
"No you won't." Arthur laughs, because he's really not kidding when he says Merlin's the worst servant he's ever had. It's just that, somewhere along the way, he started not minding. Merlin barely looks at Arthur as he gathers the armour up. Arthur lets him, waiting until he's struggling to open the door with his burden secure in his arms, and then calls him back. "Aren't you forgetting something?"
He watches Merlin look round the room and realise that, no, he's not left any bits of mail or plate lying discarded, that Arthur has food and water and clean clothes laid out. The fire's burning nicely in the grate and there's plenty of firewood. With each job ticked off Merlin's brow creases further until it's all Arthur can do not to laugh. He sighs instead.
"Come here," he says, injecting great longsuffering into his tone. Merlin does as he's told, setting the armour down on the table with a clatter. He's still frowning as he approaches. "The fight is over, and, whilst it brought me good luck, and I am both victorious and unscathed – relatively unscathed," he corrects when Merlin starts to object, "the time has come for me to return your token."
Then he waits, heart hammering harder than it had at the height of the duel. The next move has to be Merlin's, whether it's to laugh off the invitation or accept it, and Arthur will respect whatever he decides. Merlin waits just long enough that Arthur's starting to sweat with the realisation that he's made a terrible mistake. It was a joke and he's taken it too far.
"I guess you'll be wanting your reward too?" Merlin says. He's got a funny half-smile on his face that Arthur hasn't seen before and can't read. "For suitably avenging my knees."
"I didn't ..." Arthur says. "You don't ... It's not an order or anything."
"Probably just as well." Merlin shrugs, lifting his hands to cup Arthur's face and draw him in for a quick, sweet kiss. "I don't seem to be very good at following them."