“Merlin,” Merlin heard his own voice shout as he—or, well, his body—burst through the doors to Arthur’s chambers, one hand held out as far from himself as the limb would stretch, holding something green and vaguely moist, “Can you please explain to me why I have just turned Morgana into a toad?!”
Merlin swallowed, the weight of princely robes dragging against his throat. “Ah,” he managed somewhat breathlessly as he was about two seconds from passing out due to sheer terror and robe heft, “Well…”
“Merlin,” Arthur snapped—and really were his cheekbones that pronounced?—and shook the amphibian—Morgana—in the air as if she were a shaker of salt. “Explain this to me.”
In his mortal peril Merlin thought he saw for one brief moment something in Arthur’s eyes akin to pleading—almost like, You’ve made up so many wide and varied and unreasonable and pathetic explanations before, why can’t you just give one more?—but that was ridiculous, that was hallucinating, and his mouth fumbled out sounds that couldn’t even be called a language.
Arthur flung the toad at him.
Merlin caught Morgana with nothing more than muscle memory, more agile in this body than in his own. He realized dimly that it must be killing Arthur to be reduced to a fumbling, gangly mess, but that certainly didn’t excuse him from flinging the king’s ward across the room.
Arthur seemed to realize this too, from the moment Merlin’s mouth—er, Arthur’s mouth, under Merlin’s command—fell open to gape at him. Merlin watched his own face fall, lips twisting like when Arthur was truly wounded by something, like when one of his younger knights was injured in battle.
“It’s the magic!” he blurted, frantic, and at least Arthur looked a little less like tearing his own heart out now, or Merlin’s heart, or—damn it. “It’s, uh, it must have affected you differently! Or me differently. In any case, I’m sure it’s just a spill—over. Overflow. Of…the magic. You can…”
Morgana ribbited her opinion, which wasn’t very high even for a toad. She looked even smaller in Arthur’s huge hands, but her eyes were still exactly the same pale green and full of contempt. Merlin sighed and looked back at Arthur, back muscles almost cramping because he wanted to cower, but Arthur had never bent that way a day in his life. “Did she at least deserve it?”
Arthur stared at him for a long moment, until Morgana let out a fierce croak of indignation.
“Merlin!” And yeah, he guessed he deserved that tone, but Merlin’s teeth just weren’t cut out for baring the way Arthur’s were. “That is hardly the— My sister for-all-intents-and-purposes is a toad, you and I have traded bodies, and I, for some inexplicable reason,” he paused to give Merlin a glare he was too scared to interpret, “suddenly possess an ability that will cost me, well, your head but my life, I expect, if we don’t manage to switch back before the ax falls, and you want to lecture me, the crown prince, about the proper way to react to a taunt from Morgana? Who—” And god, god, god was this the longest rejoinder ever, “—after all that, seemed entirely too interested in—“
Arthur cut himself off.
Merlin blinked at him, wondering where the rest of that sentence had run off to. The truth was, it was almost comforting watching Arthur do his most annoying Arthurish things (pacing and recapping recent events aloud being very high on that list) because he could almost glimpse the prince in the set of his own shoulders, the angle of his head, set of his jaw—it made him feel a little bit less like he was losing his mind.
Still. Arthur had stopped himself from speaking, something which Merlin couldn’t remember happening…well, ever. And now that he was looking uncomfortable and slightly embarrassed it was exponentially (ha, see, he knew big words) more difficult to see Arthur under his own features.
“So,” Merlin said after a moment, a slight click of his teeth the only allowance he was granting himself in the face of such irony, “you’re a servanting sorcerer in King Uther’s court.”
“You cannot use the word ‘servant’ as a verb, Merlin,” Arthur snapped, but Merlin felt slightly less hysteric about this for the first time today.
Muzzy was the way he’d describe it to himself later, waking up different. Heavy. And…wrong. After staying awake past the second bell polishing Arthur’s armor by hand thanks to Uthur’s recently renewed paranoia about magic, he’d expected to ache; instead there was only a faint unpleasant feeling down his sides. In fact, he’d even set his internal alarm to wake him at first light so he’d have time to stretch the worst of the kinks out before he fetched Arthur’s breakfast. Now though—
Merlin jerked up an inch—It was past dawn. And another—Those were not his pillows. His elbows—This was not his bed. His knees—Those were not his elbows.
He opened his mouth even knowing he wasn’t going to scream—What if he’d transported himself into a lord’s chambers in an altered form, something monstrous and obviously magical?—when the sound of protesting hinges snapped his attention to the doorway.
Where he was standing. White-knuckling a silver platter laden with Prince Arthur’s customary breakfast.
“Oh,” Merlin started, looking up at the heavy bed drapes and canopy, unmistakable even though he’d never seen them at quite this angle before, “my…”
For no real good reason, he was suddenly fiercely aware that his naked thighs were on Arthur’s sheets.
His head jerked towards the sound of his name before he could help it, and then all he could do was stare as his own eyes widened with a mixture of awe and fury that was entirely—
“Merlin,” Arthur said again, and the royal drawl was just as unmistakable as the curtains and the covers, “what. Did you. Do?”
“Me?” Arthur flinched, but Merlin knew for a fact that this wasn’t the first time Arthur’s voice had gone that high. He flailed out of bed backwards, bare legs tangling in the sheets they still had no right touching, hands flying instinctively to his sides to cover the only part of him that physically hurt. “What—What—What makes you—“
“Merlin!” the prince barked, looking even more appalled. “Decency!”
He couldn’t help a distressed noise looking down at himself—Arthur’s self—oh for fuck’s sake it didn’t matter, because Arthur had gone to bed wearing a pair of loose sleeping breeches that had ridden up as always and, “It’s not anything either one of us hasn’t seen before.”
“I am pretty sure,” Arthur bit out, eyes remarkably wide, “that this is something neither of us has seen before.”
Arthur dropped the food on the table with a loud clatter, put a hand to his temple and sighed, “So what did you touch? What did you buy, who did you piss off, where did you—“
“I didn’t do anything!”
“Oh I’m sure!” Arthur didn’t sound sure; Arthur sounded angry, even though it showed most in the way his words came out sounding more Ealdorian than princely. Which was just bloody bizarre.
“I didn’t! I swear!”
“Think, Merlin!” And there was a tone he recognized so fiercely it really wasn’t like they’d switched at all.
“I. Did. Not,” Merlin bit out, which came out so much more forceful in Arthur’s voice that he was stunned for a moment before he made an effort to hide the surprise on his face (with a sure feeling that he failed, judging from Arthur’s expression). But it was true—he hadn’t done any magic at all yesterday, or for the past three days for that matter, ever since Uthur had discovered a spelled pendant on one of his most trusted advisors and…‘unleashed hell,’ was what the servants were calling it. So the book had gone deep under his floorboards, his magic had gone deep inside himself, and Merlin’s fingers got even more acquainted with the phrase ‘worked to the bone.’
Merlin shot a glance at his fingers across the room and flinched at the torn calluses, strangely apologetic for Arthur having to deal with that when it wasn’t even his fault they were spelled like this.
The empty ache in his sides jumped sharply under his fingertips, dragging his attention to where he’d wrapped his arms around his torso. He twisted, wondering if this was something Arthur had to live with, this feeling like one joint out of place, one muscle he wasn’t quite able to flex.
“Did you pull something?” he whined, arms stretched high over his head as he tried to work that kink out.
Arthur looked at him very strangely before he answered, slowly, “No.”
“I feel,” Merlin started twisting again, uncomfortable in one of those small ways that is so much worse than something big—like a pebble in his boot—“not…uhn…not right.”
“Perhaps because, oh,” Arthur simpered far too innocently, strolling forward, “because you are in my body!”
“No,” he disagreed, shaking his head distractedly as he half bent over and spoke to his knees, “that’s not—“
Oh. God. Magic. He was missing his—
Merlin’s head snapped up so fast he almost did pull something out of alignment, staring up at Arthur in what had to be a rather ridiculous looking position. Arthur didn’t notice, too busy striding back to the table to snag most of Merlin’s breakfast in one mouthful, by the looks of it.
Misinterpreting the look on Merlin’s face (maybe), Arthur arched an eyebrow. “Do you know that wretched cook in the bread room thinks I shouldn’t be fed before my master?” His mimic of her voice was a little off, but Merlin thought it wasn’t half bad for someone working vocals that weren’t his own—in any case, yeah, he knew the woman. And her wretched bread hoarding. However.
“Which cook?” Merlin said, tilting a brow of his own, “Not one of them will feed a servant before a prince.”
Arthur looked surprised and then concerned, frowning in the vicinity of Merlin’s kneecaps. Merlin sighed and added, “Don’t worry about it. If you find Nancy with the long brown pigtails, she’ll give you something to keep you until I—you—uh, training drills.”
Arthur’s eyes turned abruptly upward, locking with Merlin’s in a profoundly unnatural way. “You’re talking about tomorrow. As if you expect us to remain cursed until tomorrow.”
“Oh god, I am aren’t I?” Merlin groaned, covering his face to hide how badly his gut was clenching in terror.
“I’m glad I don’t need to tell you that this is completely unacceptable.”
“No, sire,” Merlin agreed morosely. “Alright. So.” He strode over to the dresser, trying to both ignore Arthur’s cringe at his attempt to strut and remain unselfconscious of his undressed state. It wasn’t as if this was his body reflecting upon his character—Arthur’s character remained firmly planted in the prince’s chair, in Merlin’s shape, Merlin’s clothes. Speaking of, “You’re going to have to help me with the laces,” Merlin mumbled, holding out one of Arthur’s shirts.
He huffed and rolled his eyes, but there was a startling lack of complaint from him besides, “Not that one. We’re meeting Lord Rochester of Athracea in an hour. He likes blue.”
Merlin gave him a sideways glance but Arthur didn’t seem to notice that anticipating the favorite color of a visiting noble was…slightly disturbing and mostly bizarre.
It didn’t make him feel much better when all Arthur had to say in preparation for the meeting was, “He is a friend and colleague and you like him a great deal,” before shoving him in the direction of the advancing party. Lord Rochester had always seemed like a fairly decent fellow the other times Arthur had met with him, had even done some good in one of the battles against a supernatural being that had wanted to end Arthur’s life—but then again, Arthur was Arthur in those situations.
“Arthur!” the man leading it crowed, emerald green cloak billowing out behind his open arms. Merlin had a terrifying thought that maybe the earl simply liked the color blue on Arthur before he was clasped by the arm and pulled into an embrace that lasted just a little too long by Merlin’s reckoning.
“O-okay,” he said while pulling Arthur’s body from groping distance, giving the earl a nice manly swat on the arm, “Glad to see you again, old pal.”
Lord Rochester gave him an odd look before flicking a glance in Arthur’s direction, eyes widening in seeming understanding before they came back to Merlin. “I had heard about the renewed efforts to snuff out sorcerers,” the earl said quietly, almost like he was commiserating with the stressful situation. But surely—
“My lord,” Arthur cut in, suddenly appearing at his elbow, “I’m afraid I must remind you of…the banquet.”
Merlin and Lord Rochester looked at him. “You mean—the one this evening?” Merlin asked, sharing a confused glance with the nobleman before he could second-guess himself.
“Er, yes,” Arthur said, trying to sound decisive about it, “You know you’ve got to…change. Clothes. You know how long it takes you to get ready.” The last part was meant to be a jibe, but even Arthur’s tone faltered under the harsh scrutiny of an earl’s entourage.
For one brief surreal moment Merlin forgot who he was, forgot who he wasn’t, and let Arthur’s belly laugh roll out of his mouth, belatedly delighted with the sound. “Merlin,” he said, and wasn’t sure if it was insanity but he liked the way his name felt it Arthur’s mouth, “have you gone completely addled?”
He let his arm drop around Arthur’s shoulders and felt a fleeting thrill before Arthur went stiff. “Come now,” he said, letting his voice drawl in its most princely and prattish, “let us prove to his lordship that a Prince’s life does not revolve around fashion, if we can.”
Arthur elbowed him sharply in the ribs, and Merlin came back to himself with a swallowed choke of pain. Right. Right. Not really a—right. It was hard not to think like that with these men looking at him like he’d hung the moon, especially after so long spent essentially invisible and worthless.
Still, he couldn’t deny the wave of something like relief that washed over him when Arthur muttered under his breath, “The stocks. For a month. And I will throw potatoes at you from my bedroom window,” as they led Rochester towards their saddled horses for their scheduled midday hunt.
Which…went about as well as could be expected.
Arthur helped out as best he could with mishandling equipment in order to keep Merlin from actually being in the position to fling something at a charging animal, but he made it quite clear just how happy he was to be handling equipment at all in a low, steady commentary whenever Merlin was within earshot—until Merlin finally protested, “Do you see how difficult it is with my shoes? The leather’s not strong enough to fight off the sting of a crossbow cord if you miss!” Then Arthur spat something about Merlin’s arms being impossible and shut up entirely, which unnerved Merlin to such a degree that he didn’t even notice he was once again in the presence of Rochester until the man was resting a (too) friendly hand on his arm (honestly, there was no way all nobles were this touchy-feely with the crown prince, no way).
Rochester—Lord, Lord, Lord Rochester—didn’t even have the decency to look skeevy about it, so Merlin couldn’t justify the use of his newfound upper body strength and break his fingers.
“Has anyone suspected?” was all the earl said, eyes flicking meaningfully towards Arthur once more.
Merlin’s tongue went stupidly dry. “Suspected what?”
He tilted his head at Merlin, a sort of You know you don’t need to keep secrets from me. But he didn’t say a word, only continued to look pointedly between Arthur and himself, and Merlin’s brain finally put together the friendly touching, the kindred spiritedness, the favorite color, and figured it out:
Lord Rochester was queer. And believed Arthur was queer. And that Arthur was tupping his manservant. Who was Merlin.
“O-oh?” Merlin choked out, somehow turning it into a question, “I mean, oh. Oh as in, no, no way, he’s not—“
“I hope for your sake that is true,” Rochester smiled gently, giving Merlin’s elbow a squeeze, “and for the boy’s. He is truly a dedicated companion to you, Arthur.”
“I know,” Merlin said feebly, mind scrambling and failing to keep up. How would he—Merlin—not being queer be a good thing in regards to Arthur and tupping him…?
“You look tired, my friend,” Rochester said, “Should we perhaps cut our hunt short and return to the palace?”
“Er, yes, maybe,” Merlin said, but the words didn’t sound much like Arthur at all.
“What did he say to you?” Arthur asked the moment they were on horseback in front of the group, voice holding a strange note of urgency.
“I think…” Merlin started, then had to try again, “I think he thinks we’re tupping?”
Merlin watched his own ears turn red while the rest of his face remained impossibly blank. “Tupping is for sheep, Merlin.” Then he forgot about their altered status and kicked his mare to ride before the prince.
Merlin sent a look back over his shoulder to the rest of the group, trying to convey that it was his idea.
But that was then, and this was now, and now Merlin had a tiny little Morgana stuffed ribbitting unhappily in his pocket, an angry and frightened (not that he’d ever admit it) Arthur serving him drinks, and an entire banquet to look forward to next to a man who thought he was shagging (better word than tupping?) his manservant against every available surface, and probably some that weren’t.
Alright, so maybe that last bit was embellishment on his part, but Merlin suspected that if Arthur ever decided to go in for that sort of thing, unsuspecting surfaces were going to quite suddenly find themselves available.
Of course, if Arthur ever did decide to go in for that sort of thing, Merlin was going to be a pretty big part of the equation. And with his magic, it didn’t really need to be an actual surface to begin with.
Merlin flinched out of his daydreams hard enough to squish Morgana a little with one elbow; she let out an indignant croak. Rochester looked over and asked, “The food not agreeing with you, sire?” and Merlin wanted to go somewhere and die.
“No, no, just. Belching appreciatively.” Merlin tried his damnedest not to roll his eyes because Rochester obviously meant well, but they had nothing at all in common. Just raised too differently—except, no, that wasn’t it; he got along with Arthur just fine, more often than not (surprisingly). So it wasn’t…huh.
Arthur was being too quiet, had been too quiet for too long. Merlin kept catching him staring at the pocket with Morgana in it, and he had to stop eating and drinking and listening until his stomach finished its slow sick twist and roll. Arthur couldn’t know. He might suspect, he might even think, but he didn’t know, and as long as Merlin could keep his head down for a while after they got back to their rightful bodies Arthur would get distracted by a war or plague or deadly monster, and Merlin’s perhaps mystical abilities would be forgotten.
“My lord,” Rochester said, once again resting a hand on Merlin’s arm, voice pitched low, “I believe it is loud enough to risk speaking without being overheard…” He waited like he was expecting Merlin to agree or something, so Merlin ducked his head in a nod. “As you know, such practices are not outlawed among the country of my mother—“
Oh dear lord, was he still on about the tupping?
“—and I must admit a sort of…boyish curiosity—”
Merlin stared at him. Hard. Trying to burn the order to cease into his brain without a drop of magic to make it feasible.
“—but by no means feel obligated to answer if the question is too personal—“
He looked around desperately for his own over large ears. Where the hell was Arthur?
“—Is he any good?”
Merlin’s voice wouldn’t come for a good long time, and when it did, it started out as a bit of a whine, some stupid innate desire to protect his manhood changing his words from, “Why yes, very personal, bugger off,” to, “He’s…just fine.”
“Fine?” Rochester parroted, like someone who knows they are being teased with false information. “Come now, you said it yourself. ‘Seems to have been born with preternatural abilities,’ if I remember correctly. Surely one would not be born with these abilities if they were merely…fine.”
“He’s…great, actually. Really. Like I said, naturally…gifted,” he finished with a vague twirl of his hands he hoped Rochester would think was fairly all inclusive. After all, he thought a little defiantly, it’s not as if I ever had any complaints from Will.
He finally caught sight of Arthur on the far side of the room, where he was no use to anyone; Merlin never wandered that far during a feast, and he suddenly realized why—Nancy of the long brown braids was pressed along one side, looking far more at ease than she’d even been with Merlin’s body before. Arthur had one hand braced against the wall by her head, his own face turned away from Merlin as if he no longer existed.
Something unnamable pressed hard at the empty places in his body where he was used to feeling magic, compelling him to turn his full attention to Rochester and say, “You can’t have any idea until you see him in action.”
“Yes?” Rochester prompted, looking pleasantly surprised at his renewed interest.
“Oh yeah,” Merlin affirmed with a patented Arthur Scoff. “God, you should see him when he’s really going at it. That boy can suck plate armor through the head of a needle.”
The earl was delighted, almost childishly so. “Can he really?”
“Told you he’s a natural, didn’t I? Merlin sucks cock like it’ll be the next thing outlawed at Camelot, and there’s this thing he does with his tongue—“
“Er,” said Rochester.
“—and he— What?” Merlin blurted, brought up short by the change of tone. He turned to stare at the nobleman at his side where he’d recoiled in his seat, looking fiercely uncomfortable. “What?”
“Er, my lord,” he forced out finally, “I was speaking of his…other…talents.”
Merlin’s eyes darted away for a brief moment, and came up short. “What other talents?” Because it wasn’t like Arthur would be going around bragging about his abilities as a servant.
“His,” and my, did the earl look like this was painful, “magical ones.”
The whole world seemed to grind to a halt and speed up impossibly fast at the exact same time, everything was too loud and nothing made sense.
“I—“ Merlin announced, tripping for the first time in this body when he abruptly stood, “need to be—elsewhere.”
Merlin made some sort of sound high in his throat and shoved a hand in Lord Rochester’s face to shut him up, god, please. Everything went hazy, and the next thing he knew he had Arthur so tightly by the scruff of the neck it was probably hurting him, definitely if the noises he was making we any indication. Nancy was nowhere around, and they were rapidly approaching Arthur’s chambers. Interesting.
Not as interesting as the way he could—and did—throw Arthur through the door.
Arthur’s posture was full of regal when Merlin snapped the door shut behind them, which…well, it made Merlin realize all over again that his body was taller than Arthur’s when he wasn’t busy cowering and looking all deferential. Oh well.
“Lord Rochester,” Merlin said, voice coming out strangely calm, “knows about my magic.”
Arthur twisted his face in something that wasn’t even a grimace. “Yes,” he said finally, when Merlin did nothing but stare until his ears went pink, “Well.”
“Which means,” Merlin continued, voice rising to something not calm at all, “that you know about my magic too.”
Now Arthur was looking at him like he didn’t understand, like he couldn’t comprehend the issue, like Merlin had just announced that the sky was blue. Then he stopped, froze, which was probably for the good because Merlin was entertaining some serious thoughts of punching himself unconscious.
“Oh my god,” Arthur said, “You didn’t know?”
A low ribbit and Merlin tilted his head like he could pour some of what he was feeling out his ear. “I bet Morgana didn’t know either.”
“Merlin,” Arthur snapped, “you weren’t even being subtle. The last time, you shouted a spell directly in my ear before yanking me out of the way from a falling drawbridge.”
“How could you not know that I knew?” Arthur said almost like a wail, despairing of Merlin’s utter stupidity.
“You never said anything!” Merlin shouted, just about matching him, “You turned Morgana into a toad and came to me panicking about magic!”
“Because we needed a story if my father found out we’d switched bodies! Which is, again, not so subtle!”
“I didn’t do this!” he yelled, and it felt good to be yelling, it felt good to get this pent-up emotion out of himself any way he could and he missed magic fierce but it was nice to just scream without worrying he’d break all the windows in the palace.
Arthur, of course, had to shoulder that burden, and after only one day of learning control it wasn’t any wonder that every object in the room was vibrating. And Arthur—maybe Merlin’s face wasn’t cut out for hiding things as well because Arthur looked pale white and helpless, fighting to control something he couldn’t even see.
Merlin took two gulping breaths and let his own feelings drain to quiet despair (because he was probably going to need that no matter the outcome) and went to him, strong hands landing on bony shoulders with their own sort of strength he liked to imagine wasn’t all Arthur.
“Breathe,” he ordered, wondering if it was the room that made Arthur tremble in his grasp or something else, something more dangerous. “Calm. Same calm you use on the battle—“
“It’s not me,” Arthur cut him off.
He frowned. “Like you would know.”
“Felt different when I turned Morgana into a toad, remember?” Arthur snapped, “And I’m pretty sure you’d—“
His hands lashed out to hold onto Merlin as the room bucked and rocked, shaking until Merlin’s legs felt nigh boneless, and he tripped, stumbled, fell against—
Really Arthur’s chest. Like, with the real Arthur in it.
And Morgana standing awkwardly beside them, looking like she wasn’t too sure her tongue would stay inside her mouth.
“Ah, Morgana,” Arthur said after what had to be the longest moment in the history of Camelot, “Glad to see you’re feeling better.”
Morgana cupped a hand over her mouth on her way out the door, covering what sounded a little like a burp.
“What just happened?” Merlin whispered, still clutching tight to Arthur’s arms. “I didn’t—Did you—?”
Arthur fit the broad palms of his hands to either side of Merlin’s head and pulled him forward for a kiss that knocked the remainder of the entire English language from his brain.
“You probably didn’t know about that, either,” Arthur said when he pulled back, and it was so good to hear his voice, see his face, kiss his mouth, so Merlin stood at his full height and tilted Arthur’s head up to show exactly what he did know.
Which may not be some things, but over all was rather a lot.
“So what did Morgana do?” Merlin asked a good while later, after he’d created and taken part in some suddenly available surfaces. “To make you turn her into a toad.”
“She was staring at my bum,” Arthur mumbled into his collarbone, “Which, may I remind you, was your bum. So in answer to your previous question, she so totally deserved it.”
“And this body switching thing,” he hummed as Arthur hooked a leg over his thighs, “You really didn’t have anything to do with that?”
“You’re the one with magic, dimwit.”
Deep in the bowels of the castle, a dragon laughed.