Title: A Word I've Said
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur
Summary: Post 4x07, Merlin is tired of being ignored and Arthur tries to apologise (sort of).
Word Count: 1015w
Prompt: 317 Tender
Author's Notes: It's good to be back.
Arthur said it without any real authority, but it was the closest Merlin had heard him come to an order in days. He stopped with his hand on the door, knowing his back had gone stiff but unable to hide it. “Yes, sire?”
There was a pause, as if perhaps Arthur hadn’t meant to speak. Merlin waited for the gusty sigh that would dismiss him, as it had every other night since the day Gaius had disappeared, tired but somehow incontestable. Instead, Arthur said, “Can we talk?”
Merlin’s hand closed convulsively over the door handle for a moment, before he let it drop back to his side.
“I was under the impression you had said all that there was to say on the subject,” he said, adding a second, “sire,” as an afterthought, because he wanted Arthur to know that he was still angry even as relief quickened the pulse at his throat. He had feared Arthur would remain distant with him forever.
“Merlin.” This time it was almost affectionate. “You of all people should know that there is always more to be said. And I think I’m of a mind to say it now, if—” the smallest hitching breath that spoke of uncertainty, “you’re of a mind to listen.”
It was wildly, painfully tempting to just open the door and tell Arthur to go to hell; he had spent the past three days pretending that there was nothing wrong and treating Merlin with exaggerated politeness, like he was a child in a snit instead of a grown man who had raised some very real objections to the king’s behaviour. Perhaps that was how Arthur saw it—saw him; as some kind of blundering infant determined to meddle in things that were well out of his depth. Perhaps that was all Merlin would ever be to him, but the careful consideration with which he had phrased that last request suggested otherwise.
Damn Arthur, anyway, for always knowing exactly the right way to draw him out.
“All right,” Merlin said, stepping away from the door and turning back to face the king. He folded his arms across his chest, planting his feet but otherwise making no concession to Arthur’s request. “Go on then. Talk.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to shout myself hoarse in my own chambers,” he said, neglecting to mention that this was precisely what he had done two days ago. “Come here.” Merlin came. “Sit. Pour yourself a goblet of wine.”
Merlin did as he was told, taking the seat across from Arthur and filling a second cup from the nearest jug with a deliberate clatter. He didn’t drink it. Arthur let out an exasperated huff, but to Merlin’s relief gave no further instruction.
“I understand that you’re angry,” he said, in an awkward attempt to lighten the mood, “but taking it out on the wine is hardly going to help matters.”
“Taking it out on you doesn’t seem to be helping, either.”
“Perhaps if you were to practice your swordplay.” Arthur tried for a smile, which Merlin did not return. He sighed. “You think I should have listened to you.”
“I know you should have listened to me,” Merlin said, before biting his tongue. “My lord.”
“I wish you would stop doing that,” Arthur muttered, running a hand through his hair. He glanced away across the room and then back at Merlin, setting his jaw. “All right, fine. You’re right. Maybe I should have thought it through before accepting my uncle’s words at face value. I’m sorry.” He hesitated, then added haltingly, “I hope you know that I—that I have always valued your counsel, even when I choose not to follow it.”
It sounded rehearsed; worse, it sounded like something Gwen had told him to say. Merlin bit down on his frustration and nodded his head once, curtly. “Apology accepted,” he said, pushing back his chair. “May I go now?”
“Merlin.” Always the tone of exasperation. But Arthur had grabbed hold of his arm, his hand a warm shackle around Merlin’s wrist, and Merlin could no more have walked away than he could fly. “Please. I don’t know what else to say to you right now.”
Merlin felt his shoulders slump, and tried to rally. “Maybe there’s nothing you can say, Arthur,” he said, only instead of annoyed it just came out tired. “Maybe it’s more about what you do. Or don’t do,” he added, as Arthur’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Maybe if you at least acted like it mattered what I thought then it wouldn’t be so hard to believe you when you say that you care.”
The king looked as though he’d been struck, his grip tightening for a moment before he released Merlin's arm.
“I had no idea you felt that way,” he said, sounding—of all things—actually hurt. “You never said.”
“I just did,” Merlin pointed out, and he saw Arthur’s expression close off, retreating into his public mask the way it so often did when he didn’t want Merlin to know what he was thinking. The sight pressed a metaphorical thumb against the newly tender portion of Merlin’s heart, and he tucked his arms around his ribs, waiting for the dismissal, the scornful words. But Arthur only shook his head.
“Of course it matters what you think,” he said, soft. “I always ask you, don’t I?”
“And then do the exact opposite to whatever I suggest,” Merlin said, and one side of Arthur’s mouth tipped up.
“Of course,” he agreed. “You’re my infallible guide for what not to do.”
“Merlin,” Arthur mimicked. Merlin got up to leave, but Arthur caught his sleeve this time and reeled him in, crushing the fabric inside his fist. “Wait. Just—stay, and I promise I’ll hear you out. All right?”
He looked sincere, though there was something cautious still about his eyes, and against his better judgment Merlin nodded. “All right,” he said, sinking warily into the chair. “But don’t interrupt.”
“I make no promises,” Arthur said complacently, and settled back to let him speak.