Harlequin's Slash Fic

Of Ghosts and Gooseberries

Title: Of Ghosts and Gooseberries
Author: Harlequin
Universe: Merlin
Characters featured: Leon, Arthur, Merlin
Category, Word count: Short story; 2,010 words
Rating: PG13
Summary: Arthur is rather surprised when Leon visits him late one night in order to read him poetry.
Notes: A humble offering for my dear friend Cello on her birthday … with apologies that the story didn’t turn out quite as Leon or I wished! (My sister suggests I write a sequel for you, for your next birthday.)
Set immediately following ep 503 The Death Song of Uther Pendragon, and humbly borrowing Poem #31 by Sappho.
Just in case it’s not clear, the word “gooseberry” in this context is an informal British usage: “a third person in the company of two people, especially lovers, who would prefer to be alone, e.g. ‘they didn’t want me playing gooseberry on their first date’.”

Of Ghosts and Gooseberries

It was late at night, and the castle was quiet, as was the town below. Every now and then the low cries exchanged between the guards, drifting up through the cool air to the royal apartments, reassured Arthur that all was well. Guinevere had withdrawn to her own rooms some while before, indulging in one of the few luxuries she allowed herself as queen: a decent night’s sleep, whenever possible. Arthur sat alone before the fire in his rooms, contemplating the day and all its doings, mentally sorting through his memories for what needed to be kept or acted upon, and for what had been dealt with and could be discarded.

Arthur had come to rely on these peaceful moments at the end of each day. He had always known that being a king was one of the more challenging roles a man could face – even if he’d been born and raised to it, as Arthur had. Following his recent encounter with his father’s spirit, however, Arthur had been forced to admit, in the privacy of his own mind, that the examples set by Uther were in some ways more a hindrance than a help to Arthur. Or perhaps none of it was a hindrance but all a help, when certain examples served to clarify the rather different kind of king that Arthur strived to be. He frowned at the thought, and started puzzling over whether –

A quiet knock at the door saved Arthur from further musings. “Come!” he commanded, hoping he didn’t sound too desperate for the interruption.

It was Sir Leon – not in his chainmail for once, but dressed in a formal green tunic, smart britches and clean boots, as if planning to attend some kind of court event. “Good evening, sire,” Leon said, in a low voice that sounded both warm and wary.

“Leon! Come in.” Arthur spied a scroll of parchment in the knight’s hand. “You’ve received a report … ?”

The knight stepped further inside, and shut the door behind him. Glancing down at the scroll, Leon replied, “No, sire. Not a report.”

Arthur waited a moment or two, but when no further explanation was offered, he prompted, “How can I help you, then?”

Leon was still hovering very near the door. “Well, sire … I wondered if …”

Another pause lengthened. Leon actually seemed a bit embarrassed, and if Arthur didn’t know better he’d attribute the heightened colour of Leon’s cheeks to emotion rather than the fire’s glow. “Out with it, man,” Arthur encouraged in bluff tones. Honestly, wasn’t Leon supposed to be the oldest and wisest of Arthur’s advisors? Second only to Gaius, of course.

Leon took a careful step forward. “Sire, I wondered if … if Merlin is the only person who you …” Another halt in their conversation threatened, before Leon burst out: “who you read poetry with!”

Arthur felt his brow shoot up and his eyes widen. “What?” he stuttered. “I, uh …”

“I brought a – a beautiful poem for you, sire.” The scroll was already being unrolled, and was lifted high before him as if Leon were using it as a shield. He shifted across towards the fire for the sake of light by which to read. “If I may, sire.”

Leon –” Arthur managed. But it was already too late.

“That man to me seems equal to the gods,
the man who sits opposite you
and close by listens
to your sweet voice …”

Even as Leon began reading the verse, Merlin bustled in via the servants’ entrance towards the back of Arthur’s rooms, with arms full of clean, fragrant clothes – a moment later, Merlin blundered to a random halt, obviously astonished at what he found going on.

Arthur fielded a querying glance from Merlin with a baffled shake of his head.

Leon cleared his throat nervously, and continued. “Where was I? Yes:”

“… your sweet voice

“and your enticing laughter –
that indeed has stirred up the heart in my breast.
For whenever I look at you even briefly
I can no longer say a single thing,”

“Wait,” Merlin interrupted – and Arthur had never been happier about an interruption from this unworthiest of servants in his life. “Hold on a moment, Leon. If you’re reading this to Arthur, does that make me the man who’s equal to the gods … ?”

Arthur groaned. “You’re not helping, Merlin.”

But Leon had stepped forward and now said eagerly, “Yes, you have it exactly, Merlin. You have found me out.”

“He has?” Arthur queried.

“I have!” Merlin happily declared.

“Look,” said Arthur in his best no-nonsense voice. “There has obviously been a misunderstanding. Leon, when you surprised me and Merlin the other night, we weren’t actually reading poetry.”

“No, sire,” Leon agreed in tones that indicated he had already figured as much.

Merlin snickered a laugh. “You’d better tell him what we were really doing, Arthur.”

Arthur shot his servant a quelling glare. Not that Merlin ever seemed to have the first idea of what being quelled involved. Arthur cleared his throat, and decided that a judicious portion of the truth would serve his purpose. He wasn’t going to mention Uther specifically – he owed that to his father – but he could at least explain, “We were ghost hunting.”

Ghost hunting,” Leon echoed, looking even more baffled now than he had on the night in question. He frowned, and looked across at Merlin for clarification.

Merlin was useless, of course. He’d turned away, apparently in order to go put away the clean clothes, but actually – and obviously, of course, as Merlin could do nothing subtly – in an attempt to hide his laughter.

“Yes,” Arthur confirmed to Leon, his hands grasping the arms of the chair for strength. “There had been reports of –”

“Sire,” said Leon.

Leon never interrupted. Arthur was too startled to speak.

“Sire, I understand that you weren’t actually reading poetry – or, indeed, hunting ghosts!” Leon left a pause, but Arthur was in no fit state to take advantage of it. “If I may, sire?” Leon asked, lifting the scroll again.

“For whenever I look at you even briefly
I can no longer say a single thing,

“but my tongue is frozen in silence;
instantly a delicate flame runs beneath my skin –”

“Leon, stop!” Arthur protested, finally beginning to grasp something of the nature of Leon’s misunderstanding.

“– with my eyes I see nothing;
my ears make a whirring noise –”

Leon’s arms dropped from their poetising pose, and the knight pleaded with the king: “Sire, is there any chance at all … ?”

It seemed the only response available to Arthur was more gaping.

His tones increasingly desperate, Leon continued without reference to the scroll:

“A cold sweat covers me,
trembling seizes my body –”

And suddenly Leon stumbled forward, and was on his knees at Arthur’s feet, his head bowed. “Sire, I know I presume too much, far too much –”

“Rubbish,” Arthur blurted. He wasn’t set against humility as a knightly virtue, but he cared more about his knights feeling a proper pride in themselves. “There’s no need to abase yourself –”

Which was no doubt a mistake, as Leon’s head lifted, and his glowing gaze was now fixed upon Arthur with the warmest expression of hope.

Arthur cleared his throat. “It seems there really has been … an entire series of misunderstandings.”

Merlin laughed, a real gut-deep guffaw. “Well, now that you’ve finally caught up, sire, I’d better leave you to it!”

“Merlin!” Arthur cried in exasperation. Or maybe panic. He didn’t like to admit to the panic.

“Oh, I don’t want to be the gooseberry here,” Merlin airily responded. And he was actually heading for the servants’ door, which just happened to be on the far side of Arthur’s bed. Arthur didn’t want to think about the bed and its possible uses just then.

“No, Merlin, wait,” Leon said, quite calmly and clearly.

Merlin stopped and turned back, perhaps as surprised as Arthur felt.

Leon was still kneeling before Arthur, but he’d sunk back to sit on his heels. The knight looked from the king to his servant and back again. “I’m the one who has misunderstood, obviously. I thought … I thought I would be the gooseberry.”

Arthur tried not to gape again. It just wasn’t a dignified look at all.

“Or, rather,” Leon continued, “I had hoped I could be a … a welcome third. For tonight. Or on occasion. As you wished.”

Honestly, if Arthur’s brow climbed any higher, it risked getting lost in his hairline. “Leon, did you honestly think … that me and Merlin … ?”

“Well, yes, sire.”

“And the other knights?” To avoid further confusion, Arthur quickly clarified, “Do they think the same?”

Leon frowned, and said rather more tentatively, “It seemed that … many of them assumed …” He sighed. “They weren’t surprised … when I mentioned the poetry.”

Arthur turned a little to consider Merlin from this fresh and rather unexpected perspective. Merlin grinned mischievously and winked at him. The impudence of the man! But that wink lit a small flame deep within Arthur. A small golden flame with a lick of blue at its heart, that burned brightly in response to the gloriously confident glow within Merlin.

“I should leave,” Leon concluded, kneeling up tall again, and about to get to his feet.

“No,” said Arthur firmly. The other two looked rather startled by this. Neither of them was as startled as Arthur himself, however! He was a married man now, for the sake of all the gods, though it was true that Guinevere didn’t care for …

Leon had dared to take one of Arthur’s hands in both of his own, and the warm pressure of skin against skin quickened the flame newly kindled within Arthur. Leon’s palms were as soft as the most pampered nobleman’s, his fingers as calloused as any sword-wielding warrior’s … Intriguing …

They were both staring at him. Waiting for him.

Finally Arthur said, “No. You should both leave. Or not. But I won’t have one of you assuming that the other –”

Merlin broke in to demand, “Do you want us to stay?”

“I – I hardly know.”

“Well, what do you want, then?”

“Frankly, I have no idea,” Arthur responded sharply. “Though I would like to be able to look at you both tomorrow without blushing.”

Merlin laughed a little, and turned away, his posture relaxed now. It seemed the danger had passed. Though Arthur wondered if he was imagining that Merlin seemed a little disappointed.

“We will both leave you to your rest,” Leon said smoothly. “As you wish, sire.”

“As you wish,” Merlin mockingly echoed. “Don’t let him get used to hearing that! He’ll come to expect it.”

As Leon stood, somehow he also lifted Arthur’s hand and pressed a kiss to it before letting him go. Quite a chaste kiss. Nothing untoward. The sort of kiss a knight might have blessed his king with even in the midst of the court, pledging his fealty. Chaste and proper … and yet the flame within Arthur burned brighter still in response.

“Goodnight, sire,” Leon continued, on his feet now and offering Arthur a courteous bow of his head, before scooping up his scroll of parchment and turning away.

“Night, Arthur!” Merlin called back rather belatedly.

And the two of them – the knight and the servant – headed out through the main door together, shoulder jostling shoulder, and the low sound of companionable laughter echoing down the corridor.

Arthur sighed a little, sitting back in his chair rather than getting up to follow them. It would hardly be dignified if the king turned out to be the unwanted gooseberry …

Not that he was unwanted, apparently! So, on another night, perhaps, on a night as quiet and peaceful as this. The three of them might together indulge in a little … poetry. The king might let pleasure outweigh duty for an hour or two …

For that night, however, when Arthur stood it was only to strip his outer clothes and climb into his bed alone. To curl up in the warmth, and close his eyes, and slip into deliciously poignant dreams …

The unexpected flame that had been lit within him burned steadily on.

Posted in: Merlin, Slash fic

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