It became an interesting experience to watch Arthur flirt. It was something Merlin had witnessed hundreds of thousands of times before-- the way his eyebrow rose and his eyes gave off that small sparkle Merlin just knew he could somehow work up on cue. His words turned from curt and half-ordered to smooth as silk, brushing past the ear like honey. His mouth seemed to know the position to go-- a quirked little half smile that caused him to look the perfect combination of arrogant and dashing, enough to make Merlin's insides turn to mush.
Along with the familiarity of Arthur's flirting technique came his own small game, in which he flitted around the dance floor and tried to pretend both to himself and to anyone who claimed interest in the skinny manservant balancing two jugs of wine that he wasn't, by any means, head over heels for his Master, the aforementioned King of Camelot. He was a master at controlling his face, keeping his expression neutrally blank even when Arthur, glancing up from a chat with a flower in a flowing blue gown, shot him the flirting look unintentionally while signalling for a glass of wine.
It was more than enough to cause him to stagger as his knees went weak, or it would have done if Merlin wasn't used to controlling sudden changes in strength and wasn't known for being clumsy. He took the shaking of his knees in stride and made the slight stumble look more like a trip than losing all the feeling in his knees in the span of a single look. Pull yourself together, Merlin, he told himself fiercely-- even if Arthur did look like a golden lion stalking among his multi-colored pray, blond hair glowing in the candlelight and coronet reflecting with various colors.
"Your wine, milord," he managed once he finally had pulled himself together enough to approach Arthur, who was continuing to talk to the girl in blue, who Merlin could now make out had brown eyes and a cascade of brown hair. He couldn't help a pang of absolute jealousy-- Arthur's eyes had never looked at him like that, so full of admiration and glittering on the outsides with mirth.
For one stolen moment he considered the pros and cons of splashing her with the crimson wine, staining her brilliant blue gown, but then smothered the idea. Too risky. He handed Arthur his wine just in a way so their fingers brushed and Merlin had to bite back a small smile of pleasure. Arthur didn't seem to notice.
He was turning to hand the girl-- Clara, Arthur had stated previously-- her wine when she shot him a glare fierce enough that even he got a bit startled and stepped back a step.
Arthur turned to look and in an instant her expression was schooled back into the serene smile and slight blush. "Oh, your highness, I was just going to tell your servant that I wished for white wine, not red. My apologies, certainly."
The look she shot him was certainly not apologetic, but he was willing to let it slide. For now. Merlin swallowed slightly, Adam's apple bobbing in his throat, and slid into a graceful bow.
...After eight years at Arthur's side, one did tend to pick up such things. Just because he wasn't overly formal with Arthur did not mean he did not know how to be an adequate servant-- perhaps even a decent one. Arthur's slightly raised eyebrow-- a signal of being impressed to anyone well-versed in the subtle language of Arthur's body (a skill he was proud to have mastered after the second year and continue to improve on every day).
"Of course, my lady. I do sincerely apologize, I will return swiftly with your drink." The words might be overly formal, but no one other than Arthur would catch the difference. The King in question now looked certifiably amused, lips twitching in such a way as to disguise a hidden chuckle. The eyebrow rose just a bit more-- to ask, "What in the world are you playing at?"
Merlin just inclined his head an imperceptible amount-- Arthur was as well-up in the language of Merlin as Merlin was for him. To them, the small movement spoke volumes. "Explain later." Then he was off, back to the table, Lady Clara left none the wiser.
At the serving table in the kitchen, surrounded by no one by servants, Merlin was allowed two precious seconds to kick the edge of the table hard enough to send pain reverberating through his toe and swear softly. The way he looked at her was hurting him more than he had expected, and he hadn't liked the look in her eyes. But what was he supposed to say? "Oh, excuse me, Arthur, but I think your date might be like all the other ones you've ever had-- lethal and probably working to kill you in some way."
Oh, yes. That would go over so well. Also, Merlin didn't sense any magic on her. Normally that wouldn't totally mean she wasn't magic (powerful sorcerers could hide their magic), but his powers had grown over the years and he was certain (mostly) he could know if there was some sort of malevolent presence in the castle. Especially if that presence was right in front of him.
But for the first ball in ages, nothing felt wrong or out of place-- despite the bird hanging off Arthur's arm and eating him up like a worm. Maybe it was just his jealously talking, but he knew it couldn't end well.
Lost in his thoughts as he was, he almost didn't notice that Arthur and the Lady had changed their position when he emerged with the wine. Catching them in the corner of his eye, he balanced the goblet on the mandated tray all servants were supposed to use even if they were carrying one goblet of bloody wine and changed directions. Expertly swerving around dancing girls and gabbling men, he was just about to hold his hand up to catch Arthur's attention when something on the inside of his stomach wrenched him forward.
Next thing he knew he was crashing forward with the force of it, slipping across the dance floor, white wine soaking the one person he'd rather not have been anywhere near. The Lady in Blue.
Her gaze on him seemed to melt his insides, as if her very gaze of disapproval could feel like hundreds of small daggers stabbing into his stomach. He understood people being mad at him, sending him cruel looks that made him want to curl into a ball and cry-- Arthur was a master at the 'most seriously unamused/Merlin-shut-up-now' looks. But this.... this was anger personified, this was a look that could actually cause pain without words, without feeling, without anything more than an absolute glare to the target of her misery.
Merlin gasped and attempted to pull himself up to his knees, half-bowed at her feet. The music continued and yet the more intrigued dancers around them had stopped to watch the small scene-- interested only as another aspect of entertainment for this evening. Could no one tell the agony he was in? His teeth were gritted and a sheen of sweat appeared on his forehead but he couldn't look away, her brown eyes narrowed and full of wrath.
He was about to lower his head in defeat when a few simple words broke the spell and the pain vanished, leaving him gasping in place and trying not to show it, using every bit of his experience in hiding magic to hide his shock and pain. "Merlin!"
Arthur's voice was livid-- of course, why wouldn't it be-- but ever so slightly concerned. Merlin was clumsy, yes, but he rarely tripped on something of that magnitude, and besides, there was nothing to trip over. Was he hurt? Dizzy in some way? But the concern was quickly blotted out by anger, causing Arthur to stalk forward and lift Merlin nearly off the ground with a fistful of his shirt.
Merlin's feet scrabbled and he couldn't move, tray already strewn on the ground around him. He attempted to dislodge Arthur's fingers but couldn't, instead attempting to plead with him silently with his eyes and his face. 'Arthur, please, it was an accident, don't....'
"Let him go." The voice was soft and for a moment Merlin couldn't quite comprehend that the same fluttering voice could come from a woman who had that much rage in her eyes. He expected dark tones, somewhat like Morgana's, thick with the bitterness of generations. But her voice was light with a cheery cadence and it was as if he had never heard something so wonderful before. Arthur, turned to her, half-dropping Merlin in a heap on the ground, and gave her a confused, yet warm look.
"He defiled your gown, my lady, it won't be but a moment..." Arthur's voice sounded confused and slightly dejected, like he was unhappy not to be able to be pleasing her.
"Leave him. It was an accident, certainly. But I do not wish to have a servant of that clumsiness at the party and if he could manage to trip that spectacularly over thin air--," here she paused to have a quick smirk and chuckle at his expense--, "perhaps you should send him to finish his nightly chores and go to bed."
"Yes." Arthur was quick to please, too quick, it seemed to turn Merlin's insides in a way that had nothing to do with butterflies and more to do with fear. "Merlin. Do as the lady commands, and Get. Out. I will talk to you later."
Merlin scrambled unsteadily to his feet, shooting Arthur a wounded glance. It was an accident, Arthur, she's somehow manipulating you, I swear....
For a moment Arthur's eyes softened and he went to take a step forward, but the Lady's voice rang a slight octave too sharp. "Arthur, my King, would you show me somewhere to wash? I do wish to fix my dress." Her words spoke promises both Merlin and Arthur were aware of, and Arthur turned like an excited puppy dog, leaving Merlin feeling sick.
Miserably, picking up the goblet and the wine and feeling the gaze of some dancers who had watched the whole thing, Merlin slumped out the back of the hall, knowing only one thing for certain.
Arthur was enchanted. Only slightly, maybe not even magic or such a thin layer Merlin's own senses didn't pick up on it. It wouldn't even be at all noticeable to someone who wasn't Merlin, who didn't know every twitch of Arthur's face or blink of his eye. It wasn't even as if he was being led-- everything he did seemed to be of Arthur's own free will. It was as if something else was changing what he felt. Playing with his emotions.
Merlin's eyes widened. Emotions. If she could somehow manipulate Arthur's emotions, it could explain why he was so docile, where that burst of terrifying rage came from, and.... it could also explain the look of longing in his eyes. He might not be truly in love with her.
Slightly appeased, but still feeling the rolling in his gut where her gaze had hit him like an anvil (still yet unexplained....) Merlin climbed the few flights of stairs to Arthur's room. He would not go to bed like his King had ordered-- he'd talk to him when he wasn't under the poisonous influence of Lady Clara.
Sitting down on the bed, he peeled off his slightly-nicer jacket he wore to feasts and banquets and settled in to wait for his King.
The time came and went, leaving Merlin growing more and more aggravated. He had slumped against the side of the bed, yawning and fighting the sleep that longed to come, especially in the warm squishy bed that smelled of Arthur. For a brief second he considered indulging himself, flopping backwards and spending one moment curling into the warm sheets and drinking in the warmth and the smell he never got to actually enjoy-- but thought better of it. Arthur would know, Arthur always knew, and that was a conversation he'd rather not be forced to deal with.
He was about to get up-- Arthur apparently wasn't coming back for a while, and if he was, it would be probably so drunk on wine he couldn't string two words together, let alone hold an intelligent conversation about the distinct possibility his new girl could be some sort of sorcerer-- when the tinkling of woman's laughter swooped down the hallway, followed by Arthur's husky laugh that he gained when he was incredibly drunk and having a great time.
Even the sound of it managed to cause Merlin to swallow-- when not aimed at him, the sound hurt as much as the woman's gaze. They were getting closer, maybe he should....
Then the sound of a gasp and the tinkling laugh of pleasure filtered through again and all he could see was red for a second before panic filtered in. They were coming here; they were coming back to Arthur's room, if he was found here...
Scrabbling backwards, not wanting to get caught nor really preferring to hide somewhere while that was going on, he hesitated for one second too long. The door swung open of almost its own accord based on how much attention Arthur was giving it, one nearly carrying the Lady. His arm was around her, the other looking only momentarily dislodged to push the door open, before stumbling backwards to wrap it in her hair, lips glued to hers, pulling her up so she was mostly in his arms, one of her legs around his own, moving backwards to collapse onto the bed.
Merlin stood stricken, frozen, eyes wide and fighting back tears of betrayal he knew didn't make sense because Arthur didn't know, wasn't aware and was enchanted, these feelings of lust were being caused--- but he couldn't consider that. Not now, not when he was watching and it hurt as if someone was carving his heart out with a rusty spoon. He couldn't move, transfixed on the scene in front of him, a beautiful calamity.
And then Arthur's eyes snapped open for a second and saw Merlin, standing like a statue in the corner. "Merlin!" he gasped, for a second the drunken haze falling from his eyes, pushing her away.
Even with hair mussed, dress falling off of one shoulder, cinched up by her knees and face flushed, the woman managed to look intimidating. "Didn't we tell this servant to go to bed, my lord?" she said darkly.
Arthur's eyes hardened. "Yes. We did."
"No." He moved forward and Merlin got a perfect view of his own state-- eyes shining with wine, anger, and perhaps something else, golden hair messed up and sticking up in weird angles that made Merlin battle back a burst of longing that made him want to run his own hands through it and mess it up further, his clothes all askew. He grabbed Merlin and dragged him close-- for an awful and wonderful second Merlin thought he was going to kiss him.
But no. "I thought I told you to get out," he hissed, voice quivering with suppressed rage.
"Merlin." He raised a hand and Merlin watched it come down in fractured images before pain exploded through his face and he fell to the ground at Arthur's feet with a strangled sob. "I wanted to... I was going to help you after the party... I'm your attendant, Arthur, I...."
"No." Arthur wasn't hearing a word of the strangled apology from the servant at his feet, caught by the words of his Lady. "Arthur, get him out of here."
"Yes, darling." His voice was so full of not just love but absolute reverence that Merlin considered the pros and cons of covering his ears, trying to scrabble to his feet. Arthur's hand caught his arm and wrenched him upright-- Merlin knew he looked a sight trying to hold back tears of pain and absolute wretchedness, but that didn't seem to matter as Arthur hauled him bodily across the floor. He threw open the door, and with one last look shoved Merlin out of it, causing the servant to stumble and fall.
For a single moment, half-way out into the hallway, their eyes caught and the hold in Arthur's seemed to dim and looked pained at the sight of the ravage in Merlin's. "Mer, I'm--,"
His back straightened, his eyes grew hard again, and the large wooden door slammed shut in Merlin's face. Not two seconds later a womanly squeal of joy emitted itself from the room and Merlin didn't have to think to know what was happening.
Stumbling backwards, clutching his face, he made it to the first small alcove before falling to his feet and letting out the first sob, emitting itself from somewhere in his chest.
Sticky blood was already starting to come from where Arthur had punched him, his signet ring he always wore to parties catching on Merlin's soft skin.
Merlin knew he needed to help Arthur, that he wasn't actually in love, but in this moment, all he could do was cry.