Eliot Prufrock (srin) wrote in merlinxarthur,
Eliot Prufrock
srin
merlinxarthur

fic: The Wages of Gossip

Title: The Wages of Gossip
Pairings: Merlin/Arthur, Gwen/Morgana, small hints of other permutations thereof.
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Mentions of bestiality, incest, and, since I’m sure there are people who want to be warned for this, Gaius having sex. Nothing explicit on any of those, though.
Length: ~6400 words.
Summary: In which Morgana has a secret, (which Gwen shares,) Arthur is determined to uncover the truth, and Merlin learns a great many things he doesn’t want to know and one thing he does.
Note: …Or, the one where they all act like they’re in middle school even though middle school hasn’t been invented yet. Shallow shameless silliness, basically, which got a lot longer than it really deserves.



“Good morning Gwen!” Merlin calls. She’s crossing the courtyard in the opposite direction to Merlin, heading for the lower town. Her hair is unusually disarrayed, some of the fastenings on her dress undone – and it’s the same dress she was wearing yesterday, which is unusual as she normally rotates through the few she owns. And there’s a mark of some sort on her neck, almost like a bruise-

“Oh, hello, Merlin,” she says, sounding flustered.

“Gwen, are you all right? Your neck-”

She flushes a deep red and tugs ineffectually at the collar of her dress, saying quickly, “It’s nothing.”

“Did someone hurt you?” Merlin demands, anger rising suddenly. “Gwen, tell me, if someone’s done something to you-”

“No, no! Nothing like that!” She looks around, checking for anyone that might be listening, then leans in close to Merlin to whisper. “It’s nothing like that, I swear. I’ll tell you, but you must promise to keep it secret, if the gossips were to find out…”

“Of course. I won’t tell anyone.”

“Not even Gaius. Or Arthur.”

“I promise, Gwen.”

At that she smiles, a big, warm expression that lights up her whole face. “All right. On my neck, it’s a love-bite. I spent the night with someone, I was just going home to get changed and prepare for the day.”

Merlin’s eyes widen to a degree that’s frankly rather comical; it makes Gwen grin even more, as does the quick upward twist of his lips. “Gwen! Who is it?”

“I really shouldn’t say…” she says, teasing.

“Gweeen,” Merlin needles, “I said I won’t tell, I won’t, come on-”

“Shh! Very well.” She blushes again, incredibly endearing, and tugs his head down to murmur a name in his ear.

*

“Ah, Merlin, I’m glad you’re here,” Arthur says when Merlin arrives in his chambers, unnaturally cheerful given the early hour. Merlin is immediately suspicious.

“Why is that, sire?” he asks warily.

I have a very special task for you.”

“Do you.”

“I do! Today you are going to the laundry, the kitchens, the stables – anywhere the servants congregate and gossip. I realize your social skills are painfully inadequate but even you ought to be able to manage a little light reconnaissance, find out what I want to know.”

“And what is that?”

Arthur grins, giddy and self-satisfied, and leans in close to whisper conspiratorially. Merlin has a profound sense of déjà vu, which is only exacerbated by Arthur’s words.

Morgana has a paramour, and I want to know who it is.”

Merlin has to choke back the surprised laugh that threatens to erupt, but Arthur doesn’t seem to notice. “She won’t tell me, of course, and the servants go all quiet and deferential in my presence - as they should, you could take a lesson you know-”

“You hate it when I’m quiet. Remember when I had that illness and couldn’t talk for two days?”

“Those were glorious days.”

“You were completely out of sorts and pestering Morgana incessantly until I got my voice back.”

“That is – that is entirely beside the point. The point is, I can’t learn anything directly, but you can go out there with that innocent little idiot look you’re so good at and make someone tell you who Morgana’s beau is. It probably isn’t common knowledge or I’d have heard already, but someone must know something.”

“What makes you think she’s got a – a someone, anyway?”

“She has a love-bite on her neck and another on her breast.”

“Why were you looking at her breasts?” Merlin’s feeling utterly scandalized, and he isn’t sure which is the primary cause – the idea of Arthur seeing Morgana naked, or the idea of Gwen and Morgana putting those marks on one another’s bodies last night. Or this morning. Or both. What if Gwen has more than just the one Merlin saw? What if-

“It’s not as though she makes any great effort to keep them concealed,” Arthur says breezily, though a trace of embarrassment skitters across his face. “I may have entered without knocking – you see, Merlin, your horrible habits are catching – and she may have been just coming out of the bath at the time.”

“I see,” Merlin manages, now contending with yet another extremely distracting mental picture. Morgana, wet and glistening, and Arthur approaching her, shirtless for some reason…

“Indeed. Well, go, get on with it, you’ve a great deal of detecting to do. Oh, and Merlin?”

“Yes?”

“Do try to be discreet. If the entire castle isn’t already talking about this, I’d as soon keep it that way for Morgana’s sake. Don’t tell anyone what I told you, just find out what they know.”

“Right,” Merlin says, and flees before this morning can get any more bewildering.

*

By the end of the day, Merlin has learned all he could ever want to know and then ten times more again about the private lives of the denizens of Camelot. He knows which maids are sleeping with which kitchen boys, which knights are shagging which stable boys, which laundresses are making love to each other. He has been made privy to enough personal drama and rampant speculation to fill all of Geoffrey’s library, as well as a few rumours concerning Gaius and the king that he would frankly prefer never to contemplate again.

What he has not heard even the vaguest mention of is Gwen and Morgana. So far as the castle gossips are concerned, Morgana is beautiful and alluring and completely untouched and untouching. (Well, unless one asks the third cook, in which case she routinely fornicates with wolves and curiously shaped root vegetables, but that is actually one of the third cook’s less outlandish stories so Merlin opts to ignore it.) And Gwen is supposedly holding up bravely in the face of Merlin’s excessive and unrequited devotion, which, really, says something about the quality of their so-called “factual” information. (It also gives him hope that the stories about Gaius are complete fabrications, though why anyone should want to fabricate that…)

It’s a relief, for Gwen’s sake, though he half-wishes that someone had told him about Morgana having it off with some visiting nobleman just so he would have a report for Arthur. Instead, he’s forced to tell Arthur that he’s learned nothing.

“Who did you talk to?” Arthur asks. He’s sprawled across his big chair, one leg slung over the arm, fidgeting with one of his daggers. It’s a dull one, but it still makes Merlin nervous. Concealing the magic and assorted magic-related activities is one thing, but Arthur always seems to know when Merlin’s lying about anything else, and he can’t help but worry that Arthur will realize that Merlin knows more than he is telling on this subject. A promise is a promise, he won’t give away Gwen’s secret, but he also hates having to add to the wall of lies between himself and Arthur.

“Everyone. I swear, Arthur, there’s nothing. They told me a lot of things I’d prefer to forget, but nothing at all about Morgana and a lover.”

“Well, bollocks.” Arthur frowns at his knife for a moment, then looks up, distressingly eager. “What about me? Did they say anything interesting about me?”

“The dungeon guards think you’re in love with Lancelot, the kitchen staff are convinced it’s one of the knights, half the laundresses believe you to be a secret eunuch, and the stable boys suspect you of an unnatural desire for sheep.” The dungeon guards, not to mention much of the rest of the castle, also think Arthur is in love with Merlin, but Merlin is just going to keep that one to himself.

“Sheep?” Arthur repeats, blinking.

“Sheep,” Merlin affirms with a shrug. “They haven’t seen you doing anything inappropriate with the horses, and apparently don’t believe anyone of noble birth to be capable of fancying a human being who isn’t a close blood relative. As you have none-”

“Apart from my father,” Arthur says, and then looks horrified.

“They think it’s sheep,” Merlin assures him kindly. “You don’t want to know what they think about your father.”

Arthur opens his mouth, frowns, and closes it again, then says, “No. I shall trust your judgment that I do not.”

“Very wise.”

“Well, you know what this means.”

“You’re going to drop it and leave Morgana her privacy?” Merlin asks, his tone considerably more hopeful than he actually feels. Arthur dons his best mental affliction flaring up again, is it? expression.

“Of course not. We shall simply have to conduct our own investigation.”

“We?”

“You can start by keeping watch at her door overnight. Either she’ll leave or whoever it is will come to her. Maybe not tonight, but eventually-”

Pointing out that Merlin needs to sleep at night is not likely to accomplish much when Arthur’s in this sort of mood, so instead Merlin says, “You don’t think someone’s going to notice me lurking by her door night after night? You don’t think Morgana will notice? Or Gwen?”

“Hmm, good point. No lurking, then. But – Oh! Gwen!” Merlin’s stomach drops into his feet. Stupid, stupid, stupid, he thinks, shouldn’t have mentioned her name, Arthur isn’t that dense – but Arthur just says “Did you ask Guinevere? She doesn’t seem the type to gossip, but she is Morgana’s personal maid, she must know something.”

“No,” Merlin says carefully, “I didn’t ask Gwen. Like you said, she’s not much for gossip, I doubt she’d say even if she did know-”

“Yes, but she likes you,” Arthur says, gesturing vaguely with the dagger. “You’re always together, talking about whatever it is you talk about, all smiling and close and intimate.” He stops, frowning again, like that sentence didn’t end up quite where he expected it to. (In fact, he was thinking of Merlin and Gwen, being intimate, which was an extremely distracting tangent to embark upon.) “She’ll tell you.”

“Fine,” says Merlin. “I’ll ask her tomorrow. Is there anything else?”

“No, that’s all. …Come on, Merlin, aren’t you the least bit curious?”

Merlin thinks about how he felt for the few seconds while Gwen was holding out on him this morning, imagines Arthur feeling that way all day. Then he thinks of Arthur’s stand-vigil-at-Morgana’s-door plan, and any sympathy that may have been condensing evaporates instantly.

“Maybe they were just ordinary bruises. Maybe she tripped or something.”

Morgana does not trip. Anyway, you didn’t see her this morning, she was being terribly knowing and evasive. Clearly hiding something.”

“Maybe she didn’t want you to know she tripped, so she let you believe what you wanted to believe.”

“I don’t want to believe she’s having some sordid affair with some … sordid … person.”

“Jealous?” Merlin asks, because getting Arthur on the defensive doesn’t always work to distract him, but at least it’s usually amusing.

“What? No, don’t be absurd, I have no desire for any sordid affairs with any sordid persons.”

“I meant jealous of the sordid person.”

“Oh. What? No. I don’t want Morgana either.”

“Maybe that’s why the laundresses think you’re a eunuch,” Merlin suggests lightly. Arthur snorts.

“Morgana is an indecently beautiful woman, and I’m sure I would be happily wanking to lewd fantasies of her were it not for the fact that we have lived under the same roof since before I knew what wanking was.”

“It’s a very large roof.”

Arthur appears to contemplate this, but only says, “Anyway, I’m a gentleman, it would be improper.”

Which makes it Merlin’s turn to snort.

“Sorry Merlin? Would you care to repeat that?” Arthur asks with mock innocence.

“Nothing, sire.”

“No, please, I am extremely interested in your opinion.”

“A gentleman would be content to leave a lady’s personal secrets personal unless she chose to share them,” Merlin says, smirking, which earns him the extremely irritated look Arthur always wears when he is forced to admit that Merlin’s right about something.

“It’s a matter of state,” Arthur tries. “If she should become pregnant…”

“I’m sure Morgana knows to take the proper precautions, Arthur.”

“Yes, well, why don’t you just go and … and ask Gaius if he’s been prescribing her any precautions. I’m going to bed. And speak to Gwen!”

“Good night, Arthur,” Merlin says, still smirking.

*

“Merlin knows,” Gwen says to Morgana’s collarbone. It’s a very nice collarbone, she thinks, remembering the feel and taste of it under her tongue. They’re in Morgana’s bed, Morgana propped up against the pillows with Gwen in her lap, propped up against her. Morgana has her arms wound about Gwen’s waist, Gwen’s fingers trailing idly over the backs of Morgana’s hands. “He saw me in the courtyard this morning, before I could cover the – I had to tell him, he thought someone had hurt me, he was very upset about it… It was quite sweet, really.”

Morgana smiles and ducks her head to kiss Gwen’s hair. “He’s a very sweet boy. Will he keep quiet, though?”

“I made him promise. I even said he couldn’t tell Arthur specifically.”

”Wonderful. I still can’t believe he just barged in so early in the morning. I don’t think he even wanted anything in particular, it certainly didn’t seem like it…”

“I think the sight of you must have driven it from his mind, my lady.”

“He was rather stunned,” Morgana admits, grinning. “Lucky thing you were in the other room, though his face if he had seen us together…”

“You ought to have seen Merlin’s eyes when I told him. They were as large as saucers, I thought they would fall straight out of his head.”

“I’m a little surprised he didn’t suspect, honestly. Arthur’s Arthur, but Merlin-”

“Is every bit as blind, he’s just more charming about it.”

“Mmm. I prefer your charms, myself.”

“And I yours.”

*

“Gaius isn’t prescribing Morgana anything, and Gwen either honestly doesn’t know or else she’s a very good liar,” Merlin announces the next morning, hoping that his own lying skills will prove up to the task.

(What really happened when Merlin spoke to Gwen was this: Gwen spent about a minute apologizing for putting Merlin in such an awkward position, then about ten minutes laughing in a very undignified manner over everything Merlin told her about Arthur’s reactions, and finally about a minute apologizing for laughing at the crown prince. She seemed repentant enough, except for the part where she was giggling quietly as she walked away. The mark on her neck, Merlin noticed, was very well concealed via some cosmetic sorcery he didn’t care to contemplate.)

“Bollocks,” says Arthur; apparently his word of choice for the whole situation. “Morgana must have gotten to her first. As for Gaius… he wouldn’t lie to you?”

Merlin considers this. “He’s said that what his patients tell him is kept in confidence, so I suppose he might, but he got very suspicious and wanted to know if I was the reason Morgana would need precautions, so I think he was telling the truth.”

“If you were the…” Arthur repeats, and then laughs. “He thought you were…? With Morgana? Merlin, would you even know what to do with a woman?”

“I know very well what to do with a woman!” Merlin insists, cheeks flaming. Arthur’s expression shifts suddenly, from one of amusement to one that Merlin can’t quite read.

“You were very bent on getting me to drop the subject… Oh God, Merlin, don’t tell me it is you,” Arthur says in a funny, strangled voice.

“What? No!”

“I mean I wouldn’t blame you, she is very beautiful, and better you than some dirty scoundrel, but honestly, Merlin, you know she isn’t going to marry you, she’ll chew you up and spit you out and I will not have you shirking your duties while you mope about because she broke your heart-”

“Arthur!”

“What?”

“I am not sleeping with Morgana!”

Arthur hesitates for a moment, then says, “Are you sure?”

”I think I would have noticed if I was shagging the king’s ward, yes!”

“I don’t know, you’re a bit dim, and women can be very confusing…”

Arthur.”

“No, you’re right, you’re a terrible liar, there’s no way you could keep something that big from me.”

Which just makes Merlin feel slightly sick, the unease settling in his gut while Arthur prods at his breakfast.

“You know I don’t like these rolls, go ahead and take it,” Arthur says, holding out the pastry. It’s become part of the routine; Arthur lets the cooks send him everything on the menu at any given meal and then gives Merlin whatever he doesn’t want. (Merlin thought it was just another way for Arthur to act like an over-entitled prat, until one day Merlin happened to mention his fondness for honey cakes, and then the next time they were served, Arthur decided he didn’t like honey cakes any more.) Merlin accepts the roll dutifully and forces himself to chew, and that just means he’s got something to choke on the next time Arthur decides to speak.

“You would tell me, wouldn’t you, if you had someone?”

“What?”

“If you had a paramour.”

“Um. I’ve never really thought about it?” Merlin says honestly.

“Oh. Well, you ought to.”

“Think about it?”

“Tell me. If there is anyone.”

“There isn’t,” Merlin promises. Which is entirely true; between Arthur’s chores and Arthur’s near-death experiences and Arthur’s bizarre and exhausting notions of fun, Merlin barely has time for his friendships with Gaius and Gwen. He can’t imagine when he would find opportunity to take up with anyone else even if he wanted to.

“Oh. Just as well, you’re easily distracted enough as it is. Now, as for Morgana…”

*

Three days later, Arthur is no closer to learning the identity of Morgana’s mysterious lover. Searching her chamber while she’s in the market with Gwen proves fruitless; the only thing in it that doesn’t clearly belong to Morgana is one of Gwen’s spare dresses, which is unsurprising given that she often spends the night when Morgana is having particularly bad dreams.

None of the sentries have noticed any unusual activity around her chamber; the servants’ gossip remains bereft of clues; Gwen remains tight-lipped and Morgana cheerfully evasive.

“You may as well just tell me,” Arthur says when he catches her alone on the battlements.

“And why is that?” Morgana asks, smiling.

“I’m going to find out eventually.”

“Perhaps you will.”

“So why not just tell me?”

“Because it is so much more entertaining to watch you flailing about in your ignorance.”

“You’re a vicious harpy.”

“And you are a nosy little weasel who is clearly incapable of minding your own business.”

“You made it my business when you went parading about with love-bites all over you!”

“I would hardly call stepping out of my bath in my chamber ‘parading’. I’ll remind you that no one else has the slightest suspicion.”

“Guinevere knows, I’m sure of it.”

“Gwen knows a great many things. Why do you care so much, anyway?”

“I don’t care. I just want to know.”

“Here’s what you should know, Arthur. If I ever find that you’ve rummaged through my things again, I shall make certain that my night-time activities are the least of your problems.” With that, she turns and walks away.

“So you admit there are night-time activities!” Arthur calls after her. Morgana just laughs.

When Arthur passes Gwen in an otherwise empty hallway, he wonders whether her sense of duty would extend to revealing Morgana’s secret if ordered to do so. He stops her and gets out a few vague, awkward questions before being overwhelmed by guilt and sending her away. She smiles, knowingly, probably fully aware of what he wanted to ask, but it isn’t her fault that Morgana won’t give and Merlin is a useless detective. It wouldn’t be fair to divide her loyalties like that, he tells himself.

Anyway, she might lie. He’ll just have to make Merlin talk to the guards again. And maybe search Morgana’s room; she didn’t say what she would do if she found Merlin rummaging, after all.

Merlin, who seems to be increasingly despairing of Arthur’s obsession. He should be grateful, really – reconnaissance must be preferable to stable-mucking, even if he is equally inept at both tasks. But his recalcitrance niggles at the back of Arthur’s mind. It would be so much more fun if his manservant were fully on board; Merlin’s surprisingly clever, sometimes, and could probably come up with an effective course of action if he really tried. And his smiles are rather more pleasant than his eye-rolling and exasperated frowns.

And if he is secretly sneaking off to be Morgana’s secret sordid someone, then, one, Arthur is deeply offended that Merlin feels the need to lie about it to Arthur, and two, Merlin really is a prize idiot, because anyone with half a brain would be feeding Arthur false information to put him on someone else’s trail, and three – Arthur cannot actually remember three. Because the thought of Merlin and Morgana together, all that pale flesh and dark hair, Morgana’s fabulous breasts and Merlin’s pretty mouth and – it’s very distracting.

*

“Right, I think it’s time to return to my original plan,” Arthur proclaims. Merlin heaves a long-suffering sigh.

“Remind me what that was?”

“Watching Morgana’s door. The sentries inside the castle are all a bit rubbish, that’s why they’re in here and not out on the border, they must have missed something-”

“Arthur, I am not going to stand outside of Morgana’s door all night. For one, she will catch me, and for another, I need to sleep. Unless you’re prepared to give me the day free-”

“Of course not, I need you during the day.”

“Then you’ll simply have to resign yourself to living in ignorance.”

“I will do no such thing. A little support here would be appreciated, Merlin.”

“I think you need a hobby.”

“I have a great many hobbies.”

“Yes, well, hunting and hitting things with swords clearly aren’t doing the trick, and I don’t think keeping dogs strictly qualifies as your hobby given that I have to do all the work.”

“What would you suggest, then?”

“Well, you’re very interested in Morgana’s sex life, perhaps you ought to try having one of your own.” Merlin isn’t sure where that came from; he’s really perfectly happy with Arthur’s apparent celibacy, especially given what happened with Sophia. Even if the idea of Arthur naked and hard, glistening with the sweat of exertion, does make it rather difficult to concentrate on anything else… Arthur peers at him, wearing another indecipherable expression.

“There’s no one available that interests me,” Arthur says carefully, as if he’s unsure of his own words.

Merlin meets his gaze and there’s this moment when it seems very much like something ought to happen, but then it doesn’t, and then Merlin says, “There are always the sheep,” and Arthur hits him with a pillow and the moment passes.

*

“Arthur tried to ask me who your lover is,” Gwen tells Morgana.

“What did you tell him?”

“He tried to ask,” Gwen repeats. “He was not successful. He got extremely flustered and dismissed me before he managed a complete sentence. Which was a great relief, honestly. I would never give the game away without your agreement, of course, but I don’t know that I could lie to him either…”

“Oh, one never lies unless it is absolutely unavoidable. No, the trick is to say nothing that isn’t technically true, while exploiting his capacity to draw entirely inaccurate conclusions based on those scant truths.”

“I haven’t such skill, my lady.”

“No, you’re far too honest, and I love you for that. Never fear, Gwen. We’ll let him find out soon enough, if only for Merlin’s sake.”

Gwen smiles fondly. “Poor Merlin. He’s been so kind about it all, even with Arthur running him ragged trying to find out… He said Arthur made him go through the gossip circuit again this afternoon.”

“I’m astonished they haven’t simply started spinning stories about me for his benefit.”

“Well he never asks about you directly, Arthur insisted on that. He wants to know, but I think he doesn’t want anyone else to realize that there is anything to know.”

“Mmm. That’s … quite decent of him, actually. He does have a good heart hidden somewhere under all that bravado, I must admit.”

“He’s a good man,” Gwen agrees.

“Not too bright, though,” Morgana muses. “I suppose Merlin hasn’t been passing along the gossip concerning himself and Arthur?”

“I’m not sure anyone has told him much of that. He knows the eunuch theory, and about the sheep, but as far as he himself is concerned I think they’ve only been repeating the story that he’s in love with me. Apparently it’s entirely unrequited.”

Morgana laughs. “Hmm. I did think he was, when he went to such lengths to help you, but…”

“That’s just Merlin. He’s a good man, too.”

“So he is. You know… I’ve had my fun. If you aren’t opposed, tell Merlin that he may reveal the truth if Arthur continues being so insufferable about it.”

*

“I simply do not believe that everyone in this castle is so completely unaware of what is clearly going on right under their noses,” Arthur complains.

“Arthur, you wouldn’t have any idea yourself if you hadn’t walked in on Morgana,” Merlin points out patiently.

“That’s as may be, but I did and I do and I will have satisfaction.”

“Why are you so interested, anyway?”

“I don’t like secrets,” Arthur admits, more serious than Merlin was expecting. Merlin’s stomach churns, but Arthur continues unaware. “And much as I find Morgana deeply infuriating most of the time, I do – she’s like a sister to me. Whoever it is that she’s seeing, I want to be sure it’s someone worthy of her, someone who won’t hurt her. At least if it was you, I’d know she was in good hands.”

“That’s very…” Merlin trails off, unsure how to respond, then rallies and says, “But I think Morgana’s quite capable of looking after herself.”

“Of course she is, I just – I hate the idea of some brutish villain putting his rough hands all over her.”

“What makes you so sure it’s a man?” Merlin asks absently, distracted by thoughts of Gwen’s hands on Morgana’s body, their curves fitting together, soft touches… Arthur’s head snaps up, eyes bright and wide, and Merlin regrets the slip instantly.

“I mean, uh-”

“Merlin, you’re brilliant,” Arthur exclaims. “Of course, that’s it, that explains everything. She wouldn’t need a potion from Gaius if it’s a woman, and that’s why we didn’t find any men’s things in her room…” He jumps up from his chair and starts pacing furiously. “No one would think a woman going to see her was worth noticing… It must be someone from Camelot, there aren’t any visiting noblewomen this week… Laby Imbeth? No, she’s away for the season… Lady Freaburh?”

“Shagging her father’s steward,” Merlin supplies.

Arthur pauses. “Really?”

“According to four separate sources.”

“Huh.” He resumes. “What about… Mary, the head seamstress? Morgana’s always been fond of her…”

“Happily committed to the second seamstress.”

“Bollocks!”

“No, actually, and I think that’s rather the point,” Merlin says, which earns him an amused smile.

“Who else, who else… who else doesn’t have any known associations?”

“Umm… lots of the servants,” Merlin says reluctantly. “And Lady Welhweow, but she…”

“Is old enough to be Morgana’s mother, and they’ve always hated one another, I can’t imagine that’s been an act all these years. Are you sure about Mary?”

“Yes. I’ve seen them together, they’re very much in love.”

“And Morgana would never force anyone unwilling… Merlin, this is good! We’re finally getting somewhere!”

“I suppose so,” Merlin agrees helplessly, still cursing himself inwardly.

*

“Gwen! Gwen, I am so sorry, I think I’ve ruined everything,” Merlin says, sounding completely miserable. Gwen is at his side in an instant, face creased with concern.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s Arthur. I accidentally gave him the idea that Morgana’s sweetheart might be a woman, and now he’s making lists of all the women in the castle who aren’t happily committed to someone. We’ve already ruled out most of the noblewomen, he’s going to get to the servants eventually, and unless I can give him some reason to discount you-”

“Oh, Merlin, it’s all right,” Gwen assures him, features relaxing into a warm smile. “Morgana agreed that it would be all right if he found out now. We do still want to keep things quiet, but hiding it from Arthur – I was there when he walked in and saw Morgana, I was in the other room, and his voice - Morgana wanted to keep him in the dark for a laugh, you see. And there are so few things that make her happy these days, I couldn’t-”

“Why not keep me in the dark too, then?”

“You’ve always been such a good friend to me, Merlin, I couldn’t lie to you – and you were so upset when you thought someone had hurt me, I couldn’t let you worry. I really am sorry for everything Arthur’s put you through-”

Merlin grins then. “No, it’s all right. Doing ridiculous things for Arthur is sort of my whole life. If I minded that I’d really have a problem. I’m just glad Morgana isn’t going to be angry. You said it’s been making her happy?”

“Extremely.”

“Good, that’s good.”

*

“Where have you been?” Arthur demands petulantly. “I finished at court a full half hour ago, do you know how many names we could have worked through in that time? I can’t do this alone, I don’t know half these people, you’re the one with all the information-”

“Sorry, Arthur, I had to speak with Gwen.”

“Did she tell you anything useful? I saw Grimda, the steward’s daughter, with a love-bite on her neck-”

“That would be from Gareth.”

“The steward’s son? That’s disgusting.”

“Gareth’s actually his child from his first marriage, and Grimda’s- well, she’s the steward’s wife’s daughter sure enough, but the steward isn’t her father.”

Arthur hesitates, lips moving slightly as he works that out. “Oh. Still. Sounds like quite a mess.”

“You’ve no idea. No one’s certain who Grimda’s father actually is, but someone told me Gaius-”

“Stop right there,” Arthur says. “I don’t want to know.”

“You know what else I heard about Gaius?” Merlin asks. He’s been sparing Arthur those stories so far, but it was all the laundresses wanted to discuss when Arthur made him talk to them again yesterday, so it’s about time Arthur got to share Merlin’s pain.

“I don’t want to know!” Arthur repeats desperately.

“Apparently he and your father-”

“I order you to stop talking, right now!”

“You’re the one who keeps making me ask for all the gossip.”

“Whatever they’re saying about my father is probably treason.”

“But how will you be able to tell if you don’t know all the gory details?” Merlin asks, sing-song.

“I have a sense for these things,” Arthur says loftily.

“I don’t know, vague feelings aren’t very good evidence-”

“Do you want to go to the stocks? I will put you in the stocks. With a gag.”

“Arthur?”

“If you’re going to try to tell me anything else about Gaius-”

“I know who Morgana’s lover is.”

Arthur’s face goes through a series of quite interesting contortions before Merlin realizes how that sounded and corrects himself quickly, “No no no, it’s not Gaius!”

*

“It’s Guinevere,” Arthur announces triumphantly as soon as Morgana’s door has closed behind him. He looks pleased and smug, but also curious underneath it.

“Finally worked it out, did you?” Morgana asks, unfussed.

“It isn’t as though it was hard,” Arthur huffs, and Morgana lets it go; she knows full well that Merlin must have told him, but she’s had enough merriment out of all this already that she’ll allow him his pretence at cleverness.

“Yes, it only took you a week, well done,” she says airily.

“I suppose I’m relieved that you aren’t disgracing yourself with some uncouth ruffian, but really, Guinevere?”

“Do you have a problem with Gwen?” That’s a little sharper than she intended, maybe, but there are limits to her willingness to indulge Arthur’s foolishness.

“Of course not.” Luckily for him, he sounds suitably abashed at the notion. “She’s a good woman, diligent and kind, I only meant – she’s your maid, Morgana. I thought she was your friend?”

“She is. She is my dearest friend and closest companion; why should that not extend to companionship in bed?”

The faintest hint of a blush colours Arthur’s cheeks, just for a moment, but he looks thoughtful more than anything else.

“Yes, I suppose that’s… Well, um, I wish you well. I would recommend trying to keep it below my father’s notice, however-”

Morgana cuts him off with a laugh. “Arthur, please. If there is anyone in this castle more oblivious to such matters than you…”

“Unfortunately for us all, your newfound happiness has clearly not improved your personality in the slightest,” Arthur grumps, but he’s smiling, so Morgana smiles back at him.

“I appreciate the concern, Arthur. Thank you.”

*

Merlin is still seated at Arthur’s table, exactly where Arthur left him when he went to crow at Morgana.

“Satisfied now?” Merlin asks, not looking away from the shirt he’s mending.

“Well yes. Guinevere is a lovely girl, she’s always been good to Morgana, I’m sure they’ll be very happy together,” Arthur says, but there’s a curious flatness to his tone that makes Merlin glance up.

“Everything all right?”

“Why shouldn’t it be?”

“You don’t seem as smug as I’d expected.”

“I am never smug.”

Merlin snorts. Arthur sits down opposite him, frowning a bit.

“I suppose you’re happy to be back to your regular chores? Mucking stables and all that?”

“I can still tell you things about Gaius,” Merlin says darkly. “And your father.”

“Right, no, no hurry on the stables.” Arthur doesn’t say anything else, just keeps sitting there, watching Merlin with a very strange expression on his face.

“Arthur, what is it?” Merlin asks eventually, exasperated.

“Remember when you said I ought to get a hobby?”

“Vaguely?”

“Well, um, I’ve been thinking. Maybe you’re right. Do you think you might be interested in, um, sharing that hobby with me?”

Arthur looks embarrassed and eager and trying at cool, all at once, and Merlin has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.

“What?”

Arthur grimaces and covers his eyes with his hand. “A sex life, Merlin. You told me to get a sex life.”

“…Oh. Right.”

When Merlin doesn’t say anything else, Arthur separates his fingers just enough to peek through them. “Since we’ve now firmly established that you aren’t sleeping with Morgana-”

“We established that a week ago!”

“-I was trying to ask if you’d like to have a sex life too. With me.”

“…Oh.”

“You don’t have to,” Arthur says quickly, hiding behind his fingers again. “I would never order you, of course not, it was just a thought. You know. If you wanted to.”

“…Yeah, all right.”

Arthur drops his hand. “Really?”

Merlin grins at him. “Sure, why not?”

“Excellent,” Arthur says, matching his grin. They stay still, smiling stupidly at each other for a moment, and then Merlin says,

“Um. Did you want to – did you want to do something now?”

“Oh! Yes.” Merlin puts down his mending and they get up, meeting at the foot of the bed. There’s an awkward moment when first they both hesitate and then they both try to make a move, succeeding only in bumping noses. Arthur laughs nervously and Merlin does too, and says,

“Right, um, let me?”

“Yeah,” Arthur agrees. Merlin cups his face, tentative, tilting it just slightly so he can lean in and fit their lips together. Things go rather better from there, warm tongues and shared breath and hands stroking everywhere, until Arthur starts tugging Merlin towards the bed.

Merlin hesitates, to a noticeable degree, and Arthur pulls back with visible effort. “You don’t want this,” he says stiffly. There’s no accusation in his tone, just a resigned statement of fact.

“No! I mean, yes, I do, but…” He trails off, rubbing at the back of his head where the hair’s all dishevelled from Arthur’s fingers. “Look, Arthur. You’re wonderful, when you’re not being a prat, and anyone would be lucky to have you. But would I? Have you?”

Arthur blinks. “I hadn’t given much consideration to the mechanics but if that’s how you’d prefer it I wouldn’t complain-”

Merlin goes bright, bright red and waves his hands quickly. “No no no, that’s not what I meant! What I mean is, you’re my friend, and I’m your servant-”

“You’re my friend, too,” Arthur says quietly. Merlin dips his head in acknowledgement, the blush on his cheeks fading into a more pleasant sort of warmth inside.

“All right. We’re friends. And I’m not planning on going anywhere any time soon. But this sort of thing,” he waves his hand vaguely to indicate them both, “it can make everything all sorts of complicated and awkward. Trust me, I have heard enough in the last week to know exactly how complicated. If you’re just after a quick tumble and nothing more, I’m flattered, but I’d rather you looked elsewhere. I’m sure there’s any number of people who’d be happy to-”

“I don’t want any number of people,” Arthur says, still quiet. “No sordid affairs with sordid persons, remember? And I don’t want just a quick tumble.” He swallows hard and looks away. “I want – I want you. But if you don’t-” He’s cut off by Merlin’s hand, soft against his cheek. When he looks up, he finds Merlin smiling, his whole face aglow.

“Arthur. You have me.”

“Oh. Good.” There’s another long moment reserved for mutual stupid smiling. Eventually, Arthur shakes himself and says, “Well, if that’s settled...”

“Yeah. Should we get on with it, then?”

“Yes, let’s.”

*

Later, Merlin says, “You know, there were a few rumours I neglected to mention to you before.”

“If this is about certain people who will not be discussed in my bed-”

“No, no, not them,” Merlin promises.

“What, then?”

“Well, apparently you’re in love with me.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, gossip is only gossip, we know how useful it was as far as Morgana was concerned, you shouldn’t believe everything you hear-”

“Arthur?”

“Yes?”

“I hear the feeling is mutual.”

“Oh. Well. That’s all right then.”

Tags: contributor: srin, fanfic, genre: humour, rating: pg-13
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