But as he fell, he ceased to be a frog,
and became all at once a Prince
with beautiful kind eyes.
Merlin yawns as he stumbles out of the quaint little country cottage he calls home, tripping over his own uncooperative feet as he does every morning. Dawn's luminous fingers are just beginning to stretch tentatively over the horizon. Glimpsing the first streaks of colour reflecting off the crisp autumn leaves in brilliant arrays of reds, oranges, and shimmering shades of gold never fails to humble him. Nature has a magic all her own.
The breeze is cool against his face, but not yet harsh—traces of waning summer linger still. It's going to be another beautiful day, warm and clear. Princes and peasants alike would agree that days like these are meant to be enjoyed. Closing his eyes for a moment, Merlin can almost hear Arthur's imperious demands: "Ready our horses," he would say, "and gather my gear. We're going hunting!" The prince's expression would be insufferably smug despite (or, more likely, because of) Merlin's loud complaints about noblemen and their twisted obsessions with bloodsports. Funny that Merlin should miss those awful expeditions when he'd once prayed to be spared from them.
"I wonder what Arthur's doing now? Still tormenting poor, unsuspecting manservants, I bet," Merlin muses aloud, but he doesn't dare permit his speculations to wander farther. Loneliness and heartache have been his constant companions for long enough now that he knows better than to dwell on what he has lost. There is no shame in remembering, but neither is there any use in losing oneself in pointless nostalgia. And, anyway, however dubiously fun killing cute, defenceless animals may be, he'd rather spend his time drowsing by the pond west of his cottage any day. Lazing about and having to answer to no one but himself isn't so bad.
Grinning a little, Merlin makes his way round the side of his cottage to collect his fishing rod and the fresh worms he'd gathered the night before from the storage shed. The rod actually has the gall to come flying out of the shed to whop him across the face the moment he opens the door. This works wonders for waking him up—being mercilessly attacked by inanimate objects works wonders toward getting the blood pumping in the morning. No doubt he should take it as a sign that the untidy mess of junk that he's been haphazardly shoving in there since last autumn has gotten out of hand and will probably begin staging a coup one day soon, but the idea of cleaning out the musty, spider-ridden shed gives him hives, so he tells himself that the rod is just really excited to see him today.
With the rod in one hand and the bait box in the other, Merlin weaves his way down the well-trodden path to his pond with a mindless hum. From the trees, those birds that haven't yet migrated for the winter twitter their merry greetings. One particularly enthusiastic songbird even soars down to perch on his shoulder and serenades him for a minute or two in return for one of the squirming worms from his bait box. She puffs out her chest and flits away when he proves reluctant to relinquish more. Greedy little thing.
Just as he makes out the gentle waves of the pond through the trees, his most mischievous neighbour (a bushy-tailed fox that he'd first become acquainted with when the scheming scamp had tried making off with one of his chickens) dashes across his path. Growling less than cheerfully, the creature pauses at Merlin's feet long enough for him to ascertain that the injured paw that he'd patched up as best he could last week is healing as it should. All seems to be in order. Gaius would be proud. "You'll be alright, my fine fellow," he says. "Come see me in a few more days and I should be able to remove the splint." The fox barks his agreement and disappears back into the brush.
Not for the first time he marvels over the miracle of being understood by his animal companions. If he had not been forced into this solitude, would he have ever discovered this gift? On the other hand, can he really be sure that he's discovered a new gift rather than been touched in the head? What if it is only his solitude causing him to imagine that he is understood? Does a madman know that he's gone mad? Ah, bah!
"Solitude can drive anyone batty after a while," Merlin mutters. As long as he doesn't start hearing human words in birdsong or whatever, he'll be fine. Right? Right.
There's a ramshackle old dock jutting from the bank at the foot of his path. Presumably its construction was the work of the unknown person who'd lived in the cottage before Merlin, whoever that may have been. If the cottage had been in dire shape when Merlin had moved in, the dock had been infinitely worse. Anyone else probably would have abandoned the dock for a lost cause, but he'd been at loose ends those first few months after arriving and the challenge of fixing up such an awful mess had provided a good distraction from his troubles once his living space had been in good order. Maybe the dock isn't quite as good as new, but at least he can be reasonably sure it won't sink under his weight or suddenly fall apart entirely at an inopportune moment.
He's discovered that most mornings, when the weather isn't too wet or cold to comfortably do so, he quite likes to sprawl out at the end of his ramshackle dock, fishing rod in hand, and watch the hours pass in peace. If the weather is warm, sometimes he will even strip off his clothes and enjoy a leisurely swim in the cool water before climbing back up to let the sun dry him. The first few times he'd done this his skin had burned raw, but now he is accustomed to the exposure and his skin tans to a healthy golden hue instead. He would have liked to remove his clothes and bask naked in the sun today, but winter is inching ever nearer. It's becoming much too cool for such indulgences. Come to think of it, another few weeks and he will need more layers rather than less. He ought to air out his winter clothes sometime this week.
The bugs are buzzing noisily and out in force as he settles down in his usual spot, which means the few frogs lurking around the lily pads near shore are free to enjoy a regular schmorgesborg for their breakfast. He can't help but smile whenever he sees those frogs. He and Will used to love chasing them when they were small boys. He'd always wanted to keep one as a pet, but his mother had found them repulsive and refused to let him bring one in the house. Oh, how he'd sulked—especially when Will's father had been more amiable to the idea.
With the ease of years of practice, Merlin wraps his wriggling bait around and onto his hook and casts his line out away from the lily pads. Neither frogs nor weeds are on the menu today.
Once he's satisfied that his line hasn't snagged on anything, Merlin lays back on the dock, bare feet dangling over the end and dipping into the cool water. He keeps a good grasp of his rod with one hand, of course, and remains alert for any variations in pressure that may indicate a nibble at his bait, but otherwise he just loses himself in the calm of the waves lapping beneath him.
An hour passes in contemplative silence—and without so much as a nibble. That's a little annoying, but not problematic. If he doesn't catch anything today, he already has plenty of rations stored up. He'll have more salted and pickled foodstuffs than he can stand to see him through the winter months.
Is Camelot ready for winter? Is Arthur managing to fight off the bandits that always emerge en masse to attack the tithe wagons as they travel into Camelot with the year's harvest yield? The bandits had been growing in numbers and daring when he'd left. Arthur had worried about it quite a lot.
"Arthur," Merlin sighs. The amulet on the cord around Merlin's neck feels suddenly warm over his heart. With his free hand, Merlin reaches into his shirt and pulls it free, lifting his head only enough to remove the necklace completely. He dangles the cord up in the air so that the deep red of the gem glitters and sways hypnotically before his eyes. For a moment he imagines that he sees Arthur reflected in the gem—laughing, happy, and beautiful. The image fades. "I'm so pathetic."
He supposes he's overdue for one of those days. A day where he can't stop thinking about how homesick he is for the life he'd once known, the people he'd once loved, for the friend he'd loved above all others. It's been a while since he's had a bad day. Still, he can't think of what could have possibly set him off this time. "I thought I was over this." As near as anyone could possibly get to being over almost burning at the stake for stupid heroics before being exiled, anyway.
Something tugs at his bait. Hard.
Merlin slaps the necklace onto the dock and sits up, yanking on his line with such force that the rod bends precariously—but his magic is good for something, so he knows it won't break. Laughing a little at the thrill, he tries to guess the size of his catch as he fights it to the surface. It feels big, like it has a lot of fight in it—
Well, it's big alright. A big mess of weeds. Damn.
Grumbling under his breath, Merlin pulls the line to him and sets about untangling the line and hook with great displeasure. The line has knotted pretty badly. After struggling to conquer the mess for several long minutes, he grudgingly admits defeat. Maybe magic could help, but if there is a spell that could fix this, it's not one he knows. All he can do is cut the line and salvage the hook. Double damn. That puts an end to fishing for the day. He hasn't the ambition to replace the line. Not now.
One of the frogs is laughing at him. "It's not nice to mock another's misfortune," he admonishes, though the self-deprecating twitch at the corner of his lips give him away. All trace of amusement, however, vanishes when he turns to collect the abandoned necklace. It's not there.
Oh God. It's fallen through the crack between the boards. "No," Merlin gasps, frantic, shameful tears pooling at the corners of his eyes. That necklace had been Arthur's. When Arthur had smuggled him out of Camelot against all expectations, he had slipped this most precious parting gift over Merlin's head with a solemn promise that one day things would be different. It had been his only comfort as he'd fled for his life. To have lost it now... It's unthinkable! "No. Please, no."
The frog that had been laughing at him croaks inquisitively at his tears. "Please, Sir Frog," says Merlin, even though he knows it's probably useless, "won't you see if you can find the red stone I was wearing around my neck? Its recovery would mean so much to me. I will give you anything you wish in return for this one small favour." To his surprise, the frog cocks its head to the side in a very human manner—as if considering his proposal—and then promptly vanishes into the brackish water beneath the dock.
Kneeling at the edge, Merlin waits, heart pounding in his ears. Will the frog be able to find it and carry it to the surface? If not, will Merlin be able to find some sort of tracking or summoning spell that works with lost objects? What if all efforts fail? Oh, please...
An eternity passes in the time it takes for the frog to return to the surface, but return it does. It glides out of the water and back onto its favoured lily pad with ease—and with a familiar cord dangling from its mouth. When it opens its mouth, out falls the amulet.
Merlin reaches for it with shaking hands and slips it back on over his head with a laugh that sounds more like a sob. The cord is wet and oddly slimy against his skin, but that's okay. His treasure is back where it belongs. He hasn't lost it with the same foolish carelessness that had lost him so much else. "Thank you," he breathes. "If there's anything I can do for you, anything at all... I'll see it done."
The frog looks at him—and jumps up onto the dock. "Ribbit," the frog says meaningfully.
"Um," Merlin says uncertainly. The frog stares up at him, bulbous eyes unblinking. "Well, I need to be going. I'll be back though. Tomorrow, probably. And—thank you, again."
Once he has gathered his gear with hands that are still jittery with nerves, he walks toward the shore. Belatedly he notices that the frog is hopping after him. He stops, baffled, and looks down at the small frog that stops at his feet. It looks expectantly back up at him. Well, this is weird. "Uh, do you want me to take you with me?" he suggests, struggling to make sense of the frog's behaviour.
"Ribbit," the frog says again with a decisive nod.
"Er..." Well, he's made a promise. He can't very well go back on his word, now can he? And, anyhow, it's not like he's opposed to a little extra company. Shuffling his cargo a bit, Merlin frees up one arm and leans down to offer the palm of his right hand. The frog hops into it without hesitation. Huh. He's accustomed to intelligent animals, but this is weird even by his standards.
The climb up the incline back to the cottage doesn't help improve his frayed nerves. He's never quite got over his inherent clumsiness and this path isn't particularly well-cleared, so inevitably he keeps on imagining himself causing irrevocable harm to his living cargo. Tripping over a root and squashing the poor, unsuspecting frog probably wouldn't be the best way to repay a favour.
Somehow he manages to reach the top of the incline without incident. He sets his rod down outside the shed to deal with later and laughs a little when the frog arcs a non-existent eyebrow in response. "I know, I know," Merlin exclaims. "Sheds are like cupboards. I should put things in them. Allow me to assure you that the last thing you want me to do is open that door."
"Ribbit, ribbit," says the frog.
"We've got to work on your conversational skills."
Irrationally, Merlin is struck by a desire to impress the frog, so when he pushes open the door to the cottage he does so with a flourish—and shameless flare. Upon command, the window curtains fly open to let the sunlight pour in, his teacup and sugar bowl rush to set themselves at his usual place at the table, and the oven sparks with an audible puff to heat his tea and porridge. As an afterthought, Merlin releases the bait box still tucked under his arm to float over to the tabletop.
"You, my fine fellow," Merlin declares, "have just entered the humble abode of Mighty Merlin, the most powerful warlock to ever live!"
The frog looks up at him, then at the table, then back up at him. Its croaked response is decidedly unimpressed. Merlin frowns petulantly, opens his mouth to argue his point, but instantly forgets what he'd intended to say when he notices that his sugar bowl has apparently gotten overexcited. Again. There's a heaping mountain of sugar spilling over from the teacup. "Oh, blast it all! That's quite enough!" he sputters, and hurries over to deposit the frog on the tabletop and confront the sugar bowl.
His first instinct is to pull the cup out of reach, but the sugar bowl swats him with its spoon before he can manage it. "Ouch," he says, rubbing his bruised knuckles. He glowers down at the impudent bit of crockery, which tauntingly brandishes its spoon at him like a sword. At least it's stopped scooping sugar into the cup.
When he'd experimentally cast the spell of animation, he really hadn't realized the trouble he'd be making for himself. Well, okay, to be fair—as far as first time bungles go, he's suffered worse. And he could probably fix the dish's wretched attitude if he really wanted to.
But—the sugar bowl sort of reminds him of Arthur sometimes. It's certainly got spunk.
The teapot on the stove begins to steam and whistle.
The frog croaks, nosing around the sugar bowl at a cautious distance. Taking a deep breath, Merlin says evenly to the fuming dish, "I apologize for startling you. I'm grateful for your diligence and enthusiasm, but you know that much sugar will make me sick. Would you please remove some of the sugar so I can add tea and water?"
Grudgingly, the sugar bowl complies. By the time he's washed up and returned to the table with his tea and water, only the bottom of his cup is sugar-coated and the sugar bowl is entertaining the frog with some interesting tricks with its spoon—twirling it, tossing it into the air, and generally being a terrible show-off. Merlin fetches his porridge and enjoys the show, unable to hide his amusement. Yes, the sugar bowl is a lot like Arthur sometimes.
"You know," he says to the frog as he eats, "if you're going to be staying with me for any length of time, you'll need a name. I can't very well continue calling you 'frog,' now can I?"
The frog blinks at him, obviously not caring one way or the other. Maybe it doesn't even understand the concept of names. Do frogs give each other names?
"Are you a male frog?" Merlin had assumed so, earlier, but it's not like something like that is immediately obvious to the average person. Maybe a scientist like Gaius would know, but there are no scientists anywhere near his country refuge.
The frog bobs its—his—head.
"Well, then, my friend, we need a good masculine name for you." What do you name a frog? Merlin casts his eyes about, grasping for inspiration, but comes up blank. Then he recalls the name of Will's pet frog, which had simply been called Wart. It could work. "How about Wart?"
The frog actually shakes his head in vigorous distaste at this, looking so ridiculous in his vehemence that Merlin becomes ten times fonder of the name. "Wart you are," Merlin declares. "I am very pleased to meet your acquaintance."
Wart sulks and bemoans his lot to the sugar bowl while Merlin polishes off the remainder of his porridge. Merlin can't stop shooting amused glances in the direction of his agitated guest. He's really sort of cute.
Guest or no guest, Merlin is nothing if not a creature of habit. Once breakfast is finished and the dishes are clean, Merlin turns his attention to the study of his spell books. He only has a few: the one Gaius had given him, two he'd acquired from a band of well-meaning druid refugees shortly after his departure from Camelot, and one he'd purchased from a travelling pedlar about six months ago. He's read them all, but it takes a lot of time to master the incantations and determine what sort of situations might call for their use. He always devotes a few hours before lunch to the study and practice of spellcraft.
Before he pulls out his books, however, he directs Wart's attention to the birdhouse hanging on the wall—home to his cranky old familiar, who'd adopted him shortly after he'd moved in. Owls rather like tasty frogs, so it's only wise to offer fair warning. "My pet owl, Archimedes, lives up there," he says, "so I suggest you be wary of movement from that direction until he wakes up. I'll instruct him that you're absolutely not on the menu first chance I get, but until then he's not to be trusted."
Wart puffs out his chest as if to say that he could take on any dumb owl and Merlin really shouldn't worry. The sugar bowl offers Wart its spoon as protection, but Wart—being a frog—doesn't have thumbs, so learning the fine art of spoonmanship is out of the question. Still, it's a nice gesture. Too nice. Is Merlin imagining things, or does the sugar bowl have a bit of a crush?
Snickering to himself, Merlin sets out a pan of water for Wart to wet himself in ("Don't look at me like that. I'm not going to boil you for my lunch. Frog meat is much too stringy!") and then opens one of his books to the chapter on curse-breaking he'd started the day before. Wart ignores him for the most part, content to splash about in the water until he grows tired and curls up in the neckerchief Merlin had left on the table the night before.
Around noon Merlin tucks away his books and warms some leftover stew for lunch, babbling cheerfully as he putters around the kitchen area. "Back when I was in Camelot, it was either learn to cook or starve. The physician I was apprenticed to was an excellent potion-maker, but somehow every meal he put together tasted like watery, week-old porridge—and there's little in this world worse than watery, week-old porridge, let me tell you!"
Conscientious of his duties as host, Merlin even remembers to fetch some worms from the bait box, which he serves up on a plate and everything. Only Wart snubs the offering, more interested in Merlin's own bowl of vegetables and gravy. "You're not going to like it," Merlin warns, but offers a taste anyway. As if to spite him, Wart makes a show of his enjoyment, emitting a low rumbling purr as he laps at the gravy. "You are one strange little frog."
The afternoon is spent mixing potions and tinctures for the kindly widower down the road to sell in town for a pittance on his behalf. The town apothecary, Madame Mim, is a greedy and heartless old harpy, so the townsfolk are always happy to purchase Merlin's less costly (and better quality) medicines when they can.
Wart noses about while Merlin works, and Merlin soon finds himself recounting his days in Camelot as the physician's apprentice and the prince's manservant. It's sort of nice having someone to talk to, even if conversation is pretty one-sided. Archimedes doesn't even pretend to pay attention most of the time, whereas the frog watches him intently whatever he does and croaks coaxingly at all the appropriate moments.
"Gaius used to despair of me, you know," he confesses at one point, "because I always had my head in the clouds. Certainly I was a dreamer. I had all this magic in me and I was so convinced that I was meant for better things than scrounging around in the dirt for rare plants or washing the prince's socks." Later, once he's relayed every amusing tale of adventure and mischief and friendship he can think of, Merlin quietly adds, "I would give it all up, you know, if only I could have that innocence back. Destiny, magic—I don't care about them at all. I just want to wake up to Gaius' watery, week-old porridge, to have Gwen smile at me, and to hear Morgana laugh. But you know what I want most of all?"
"It's stupid, but I… Really, I yearn to hear Arthur call me an idiot in that way he always used to when he was pleased with me, but was too pompous to admit it. I—I really loved him. He was the best friend I ever had, though I know he didn't see me as a friend in return. Princes don't make friends with servants. Um." He doesn't speak much after that. Words can't quite squeeze past the knot in his throat.
Wart, too, is conspicuously silent.
Around dinnertime, while Merlin is attempting something experimental with salted fish and rice, the calm of the cottage is abruptly shattered: Archimedes wakes up—and he wakes up hungry. No doubt, to the owl's eyes, the tasty green morsel hopping about on the dinner table had looked to be some sort of special treat offered up on a proverbial silver platter. A low hiss is Merlin's only warning that disaster is about to strike. He spins around just in time to see the frog artfully dodge the owl's swift dive and leap in Merlin's direction.
Archimedes regroups quickly. Merlin takes a dive of his own to cut off his erstwhile familiar.
Somehow, in the scuffle that follows, Wart winds up falling down the back of Merlin's shirt (strangest sensation ever!) and Archimedes claws Merlin's shoulder with his outstretched talons. But in the end Wart is safe and Archimedes is suitably chastened—though he does snub Merlin and soar out the window mid-way through Merlin's lecture on the Proper Treatment of Guests. Frankly the fact that Archimedes had stuck out the speech that long is been something of a marvel.
Well, the first encounter is over. It could have gone better, but it also could have gone a lot worse.
"Archimedes isn't so bad. He'll get used to you," he assures Wart (perhaps a bit dubiously) when it's all over. He half expects the frog to want to leave after his near brush with death, but Wart merely blinks at him when Merlin offers to take him back to the pond. The only concession Wart makes in the wake of his fright is in finding a more strategic position to wait while Merlin finishes cooking.
Doesn't it just figure that he would make friends with the strangest frog in the pond? There's a metaphor in there somewhere, Merlin's sure of it.
Mentally noting that he should catch some insects and minnows tomorrow since Wart seems to find worms so distasteful, Merlin offers his guest a small portion of fish from his own plate and allows Wart to sample the tea from his cup when he's through. The tea is less well received than the fish—the frog's face is a study of disgust and its tongue flicks reflexively out for a long time after that. Merlin tries not to laugh, really he does, but the look of shocked betrayal the frog shoots in his direction is impossibly sweet.
"Sorry, I didn't know the taste would offend you so!" he says, and offers another bit of fish.
That night Merlin has no choice but to offer to share his bed with the frog. If he doesn't keep Wart close, he fears that Archimedes will return and decide to finish the job while Merlin's not alert enough to prevent it. Wart seems to understand Merlin's concern and is well enough pleased when Merlin settles a small bowl of water on his nightstand for his convenience. The frog's presence on his pillow is oddly comforting as he drifts off into pleasant dreams.
When he dreams, he dreams of Arthur. That's nothing new. He always dreams of Arthur.
"Come back," dream-Arthur pleas, hands outstretched beseechingly. "Come back to me. That's all I want. I'll give you a thousand jewels and more if only you'll come back." Merlin reaches for him, but Arthur is too far away. No matter how hard he tries, he can't cross that distance. It's impossible.
He opens his mouth to cry out—
—and promptly wakes to a warlike screech and the sound of something (the bowl of water on the nightstand, he later realizes) shattering on the floor.
The shock jerks him into wakefulness so quickly that for several long moments he doesn't know where he is or what's happening. It's all he can do to breathe. Not until the frog lets out a terrified croak does Merlin remember that he's safe, that there are no knights seeking to drag him to his doom, and that he has a friend very much in need of his assistance.
With a single word of power all the candles in the cottage are ablaze and the room is flooded with flickering light. His feet catch on the shards of the broken bowl as he stumbles out of bed, but he doesn't stop—just charges out into the main living area with single-minded intent.
Wart has been cornered under a table chair and is desperately cowering out of the way of Archimedes' frenzied swipes.
"Archimedes!" he shouts, eyes blazing. "You will cease this nonsense at once!" Tendrils of angry magic shoot out from his fingers to zap the stupid bird into compliance—and he's never seen any owl move so fast. The widow slams shut of its own accord behind the still screeching owl.
Meanwhile poor Wart remains quivering under the chair, too petrified to come out. As Merlin slowly approaches, not wanting to startle the frog, he makes out two long scratches down his back, where Archimedes had nicked the poor thing.
Merlin crouches down beside the chair, wretched with guilt. "I'm really very sorry, my friend. I should have guessed that keeping you close would not deter Archimedes. He's like a dog with a bone sometimes, especially when he gets an idea into his featherbrained head. I should have closed the window—kept him out until I could be sure that he would behave. My carelessness is unforgivable. But please, won't you come out and let me patch you up? I will be very gentle."
Slowly he slides his hand under the chair and waits. The frog merely noses unhappily at his fingers for a few minutes, but before Merlin can remove his hand in dejected acceptance, Wart climbs into his palm as he had the morning before. Something warm and hopeful flutters in Merlin's chest.
Rising from his crouch to sit on the chair, he waves over a candlestick and holds up the frog to inspect the wounds. "The cuts are shallow. I won't need to bandage them, but I would like to rub on a salve, if that's alright with you?" And then, because he's tired and quite probably out of his head, he hears himself saying, "But first, my mother used to say that nothing could ease pain like a kiss." He presses his lips to the top of the frogs head like a crazy person and, as if that wasn't bad enough, suddenly there is a very naked man straddling his lap—a naked man that looks a lot like Arthur Pendragon.
"Um," says Merlin.
Some frogs have hallucinogenic toxins in their skin, right? Obviously this isn't real. He's not actually this crazy. He's just. Under the influence. Of froggy toxins. Yes.
"Merlin," says the wet dream that is his hallucination, a pleased Cheshire-cat grin twisting his—it's—pretty, perfect mouth. "I knew you were a girl, but I didn't know that you were a princess." That mouth inches closer, so close that Merlin imagines he can feel Arthur's breath on his face. He's pinned beneath the sharp blue of those beloved eyes. "You're wrong about me, you know. I always loved you, even when I knew I shouldn't." Then that mouth is on Merlin's, warm and coaxing, and—and—
"Oh my God!" Spluttering with realization, Merlin interrupts the kiss with startled excitement, though the trembling hands that had somehow travelled upward to clutch his dream's bare shoulders do not relinquish their grasp. "Arthur! Arthur—you're real." And it's true, it has to be, because the Arthur in his fantasies never feels this solid, like Merlin can hold him and keep him if only he wants it bad enough. And he does want. Even before he could put his desires into words, he's wanted this—the closeness, the kisses, the thinly-veiled affection shining in brilliant blue eyes.
"I'm real," Arthur agrees, expression glowing with humour, "and I'm not leaving without you. You made a promise to me yesterday: you said you would grant me anything in return for your pendant. I'm holding you to that."
"But—but how? Why? I don't understand! You were—a frog!"
"That's a bit of a long story. Can't we put it off for later?" Arthur rolls his hips pointedly, at which point Merlin once again notices that Arthur is very naked and now more than a little aroused.
"Eep!" Merlin says, and shoves Arthur unceremoniously off his lap.
Unsurprisingly, Arthur is not the least bit amused to find himself in a graceless heap on the cold stone floor. There is probably much glaring from Arthur's direction, but Merlin can't bring himself to look at him. He's blushing quite furiously enough as it is. "Merlin, you ninny! What—are you some sort of blushing virgin?!"
Merlin's blush deepens—a damning betrayal.
"Oh," says Arthur. "Right. Sorry."
Eventually, when they are both appropriately clothed and sitting across the breakfast table from one another, Arthur recounts the tale of his woe—which proves to be far less exciting than anticipated.
"Camelot fell victim to a raging fever early last spring," explains Arthur. "My father was among the first of the casualties."
"I'm sorry. Was it...?"
"Magic? No. It was natural and passed in due course. I—I had hoped that you would return once I had taken the throne. When you did not, I became rather, uh, frustrated." By which he obviously means utterly insufferable. "You must understand that I was grieving, stressed, and completely out of sorts. This, I'm afraid, led to me making a bit of a nuisance of myself, which, in turn, led to Morgana revealing her magic to me in a most spectacular way."
"Wait a minute! You mean to tell me that Morgana was the one who cursed you?"
"It was an accident," Arthur defends, "She didn't mean to. I fear I may have complained to her about your continued truancy once too often. She lost her temper and when the smoke cleared I was a frog in need of True Love's kiss. You know, like in the fairy tale." Arthur shifts a bit and, cheeks going pink, reaches across the table to take one of Merlin's hands in his. The unexpectedly tender gesture sends tendrils of delight coiling down Merlin's spine. "I, um, sort of already knew how I felt about you before that. Morgana conjured up a simulacrum to stand in my place until this mess could be sorted out, and then badgered Sir Leon into helping me find you. He left me at the pond the day before yesterday. I wanted—I wanted some time to observe you before revealing the truth about myself. I needed to know that you wanted to come back to me. Since you hadn't returned to Camelot, I wasn't... That is, I couldn't be sure of your feelings for me, could I?"
"I didn't know that you had taken the throne." Merlin swallows thickly. "I guess I should have been spending more time in the nearby town, but after I went into exile there were—there were wanted posters everywhere. I, it's—it's been quieter this past year, but I still don't like going into more populated areas. It isn't—wasn't—safe. I would have come to you, had I known."
"Yes, I understand. It must have been very frightening for you," Arthur says, squeezing Merlin hand. "So you'll return with me? You'll... let me love you? I can't do this alone." Then, because the conversation has obviously become too touchy-feely for Arthur's manly pride, he adds, "Besides, I think tradition dictates that the frog marries the girl that breaks the enchantment. Morgana and Gwen will be dreadfully disappointed if I don't bring you home as my blushing bride. You'll make a wonderful queen, I'm sure."
"Shut up, Wart," Merlin snipes back, but there's no bite to the words. Even he can hear the affection lacing his tone. "You've never been alone. My heart has always been with you. It would be my joy and my honour to return with you to Camelot."
The look Arthur sends him is full of promise. Merlin's heart soars.
The Epilogue: In Which Some Things Never Change
When Sir Leon had sought to check on his liege's progress, he had been immensely relieved to discover that he would not have to explain the necessity of kissing a frog to young Merlin. Warlock or not, Leon had not been entirely convinced that Merlin would believe that his words were true and not part of some elaborate prank instigated by Arthur himself. During their time as prince and manservant the two had always been notorious for their antics. Tricking Merlin into kissing a frog would not have been the most childish or unkingly of plans Arthur had ever devised for the purpose of embarrassing the boy.
Leon's relief had only increased when Merlin had politely dismissed his offer to help him pack for the return to Camelot tomorrow. Now, from the relative safety of the area where Leon had tied off his mount and pack animal in front of the cottage, he listens with some amazement to the familiar bickering occurring within the cottage. Arthur, it seems, has learned nothing of the dangers involved in baiting sorcerers from this whole fiasco.
"Are you crazy? You are not bringing that devil bird with us to Camelot!"
"He's my familiar. Even if he'd let me, I can't just leave him behind."
"He tried to eat me!"
"He's an owl. You were a frog. Owls eat frogs. It was nothing personal."
"Right. And I think he would make a mighty fine stew—it's nothing personal."
"If you lay a hand on him I'll—"
"You'll what? Turn me into a frog? Been there, done that."
"No, I'll—I'll tell Morgana that you were the one that shaved off her eyebrows that one time! And I bet she would love to know where you hide your diary."
"It's a journal, not a diary—and you wouldn't dare!"
"If you betray me, I really will make you my queen, see if I don't!"
Leon chokes a little at this, smiles incredulously, and offers his horse a carrot.
"That's it—you're sleeping on the floor tonight!"
Ah, young love.