He is sure that this is not the only way things have ever been. He does not remember it being like this, all the time. He is sure that things used to be different, a minute, an hour ago, sure that he had arms, hands, fingers, toes. He is sure he could speak, that there were names, that there were faces he knew, when now he can only see the flickering of light, the colours, the blur of something nearby. He is small. He is so small. His heart beats too quickly, so quickly, as quick as it does when he fights for his life, when he fights for someone else's life, but faster than that, faster still. He is wrong, he is broken, he is small. He has never been this small.
He can fly.
This is what he will remember most, what he chooses to push into his head, to remain there, in his brain in his skull like Merlin trying to push him into armour made for someone else, someone tiny, made for him. It hurts. Trying to think hurts, trying to remember how colours look and the sound of his name, the taste of the air, the sound of his own voice, which Merlin, Merlin, Merlin always said he liked the sound of too much. It hurts to try and remember Merlin, the colour sound sight of Merlin, Gwen's hair, Morgana's voice, the glint of sun on his father's crown, the – the – the –
He is losing his mind. He is losing his mind because it will not fit into his body, into his head. It won't go where it's meant to go, and this is not where he's meant to be, but he can't remember where it is, and nothing is right because everything is wrong, and it's like he has been killed because he vaguely remembers someone trying to kill him, because someone is always trying to kill him, and that has to have something to do with who he is, doesn't it? (doesn't it?). No one answers him because no one hears him ask the question because he doesn't ask it in any way that anyone can understand. It's like he has been killed, except it doesn't end, and he doesn't get to rest, it just goes on and on, on and fucking on.
There is a point, here, or somewhere between here and the ceiling, where he goes up and up and up forever, until his arms, wings, hands, wings falter, and it feels like he falls backwards forever; and he's never fallen like this before, not physically, but it feels exactly like the deep sweep of his stomach when something happens, when something that he can't explain, something goes wrong and something fixes it; and it seems exactly like a thing that would happen to him, how he can connect his thoughts like this, but not normally, not when he is himself, when he spends nights, awake, trying to understand things, afraid of being afraid, knowing things he doesn't know, thoughts creeping around the edge of his mind, how he can think but not think, when everything is there, but nothing means anything.
He won't remember this when he changes back, but he will remember that he doesn't know.
And then everything stops, just for a moment, just long enough for him to stop, to sit, to perch somewhere, high and far away from where he was. The light flickers so fast, so red and so hot that he can feel it just by looking at it, feeling it by not feeling it at all. He sees them below him: they are so low and so high, so far; and he can see them all. He's never seen anything like this before, never seen the throne room from this angle before. He can see them all. His father, Gaius, Merlin, Gwen: he can see them all, but he can only just remember their names, and he can't remember their faces, because he can't remember them and they all look so different from here. They are – there is – they are doing things down below him, things that he knows but can't remember. Everything is wrong, and he can't do anything, so he sits. He perches, and does nothing. He has never felt so trapped.
His father is standing near him, down below, holding something up to him, seeds in his palm, and he knows he wants them, because he is hungry, remembers skipping breakfast because it was late, because Merlin was late, because he was late, because something happened, because he was called here, because nothing is in the order it used to be, should be, he can't put it back because he doesn't know how. He wants the seeds so he eats them, he is eating out of his father's hand, he is eating out of his father's hand, and he looks up and sees his father, sees that he is so much smaller than his father, so much smaller, so small. He has never been this small, but he can't help remembering, remembering when he was young, and small, even though there's not enough room in his brain, in his memory for things that he hasn't thought of for years, even though he's been thinking it the whole time, ever since he was so utterly sure that his father hated him, and then he was so utterly sure that his father loved him, and Uther has done nothing more than disprove him of both ever since.
Time passes, too fast for him to notice, but so agonisingly slow that it seems each minute, if he could tell what a minute is, any more, and his brain slowly starts to understand what he sees, starts to sort itself out, putting his thoughts in order, and it feels as slow as wading through mud in plate armor; thinking one word at a time, only one, when his thoughts are usually so fast, his voice overlaying his voice, thinking in layers and layers, unable to stop, so fucking fast, and here, when he is here, when he is this, when he is not him, they come as slow as he wants them, just one word, just one at a time, just one.
And then he accepts that this will be forever, this moment, this him. This him is who he will be forever. This small thing. This small thing, brightly coloured; that he will spend the rest of his life like this. His best moments will be perching on Gwen's finger and singing, tucking long strands of hair behind Morgana's ear with his beak, eating out of his father's hand, and sitting near Merlin, perching near Merlin, watching Merlin. Watching Merlin do what he does best, and he knows what that is, but he can't think the name of it, isn't allowed to think about the sight of it – and he is still thinking that thought at the next moment, doesn't finish it until he is on the floor, he, himself, human again, doesn't finish that thought until just then, doesn't finish that thought ever.
And he thought that being a bird – him, a bird! – was wrong, felt wrong, hurt like the worst pain, the least clean pain, but he was wrong, because this is worse. This is so much worse, because this is meant to feel right, and it doesn't, and it never will. Uther confines him to his bedchamber, and Gaius confines him to his bed, and he's there, and he's never felt like this before. Like he doesn't belong in his own skin, which feels heavy and hot against his bones, which are heavy themselves, and he feels like his arm is made of stone when he tries to lift it, feels like his brain is huge and empty, feels like he's looking out through someone else's eyes, looking at a world that ticks by slowly, doesn't move except when it wants to, a world that doesn't breathe, his lungs full and empty. The food he eats heavy on his tongue, tastes too spicy and too much like nothing, until he lies there, considering finding wherever Uther was getting his seeds from and stealing them, eating them by the handful, and it's the thing that makes his mouth water, but he can't stop thinking about it so he doesn't do it, because he can see it, just so in his head, just perfectly in his head, but he is a bird in his head and not a man.
He sleeps in minutes, not in hours, and doesn't get out of bed because it's easier not to, easier lie here, in the dark and in the light, drawing curtains and extinguishing flames all the time, so he can lie here, in the dark and try not to think. Try not to think if it's day or night, breakfast or lunch or dinner, where he would be if he was well, if he had gone into this on one side and come out normal on the other, if he had never gone into this at all.
Everyone comes to talk to him. Then some people come to talk to him, and then no one comes to talk to him, and he counts the hours in his head (although he's probably wrong) until he's sure hat he's been human longer than he was a bird (which was such a short time that he shouldn't remember it at all), discounting everything that came before it because he can, so he can count the hours in his head for something to do.
Merlin never stops coming to see him, because he's Merlin. Merlin comes to poke at the fire that doesn't need poking, to polish Arthur's armour that hasn't been touched since the last time that he polished it, because he's Merlin, and no one can stop Merlin from doing what he wants. No one can stop Merlin from doing anything, like sitting by Arthur's bed in the spindly little chair and telling him every excruciating detail about his day, every little thing, and if some of them make Arthur smile, or maybe even laugh, it's not his fault, not at all. Merlin likes to sit in the spindly little chair, put his foot on the edge of Arthur's bed and tip backwards, balance on two legs and talk too much, wave his hands around until he almost falls, and Arthur wants to tell him to stop, wants to tell him that he'll hurt himself, but he doesn't remember the words.
Merlin likes to sit there, and Arthur won't stop him.
Arthur won't stop him from sitting there all day and all night, even though the curtains are drawn, won't stop him from leaning all over Arthur's bed and eating his lunch, spreading crumbs everywhere, even though he knows these are things he's meant he's meant to snap at him for. Arthur doesn't stop him from flopping onto his bed to get a quick nap that turns into a long sleep, doesn't stop himself from watching Merlin sleep, watching him sleep almost by accident; feels like moving for the first time, feels like turning on his side to watch him sleep, so he does; feels like watching Merlin wake, so he does; watches the dark flutter of his eyelashes, the way his eyes move beneath the delicate tracery of his lids; watches his eyes open, watches his smile, watches him stretch his arm across, sleepily, skin sleep-warm as he takes Arthur's hand, and he hears Merlin say
I can do it again.
Hears himself say, I know.