Merlin is fed up. Arthur's been in a horrible mood all week, and while Merlin makes allowances for the stress of running a kingdom, Arthur really is pushing it. Merlin knows he's tired, know he's overworked, knows he's scared of his newfound responsibility (although Arthur would never admit it).
But Merlin's all of those things too and he's managed not to take it out on everyone around him. After a week of being snapped at, belittled, and generally run off his feet, Merlin feels like he’s reaching his breaking point.
And then he brings up Arthur's breakfast on Friday morning to find his chambers look like they’ve been trampled by a herd of wilddeoren.
"I left this place clean!" he says by way of a greeting, since Arthur's out of bed already and lounging in his night clothes on the chair.
"But you were late with my breakfast. Again. So I had to find some way of amusing myself, didn't I?"
Arthur smirks and Merlin grinds his teeth together, trying to remind himself that there will most likely be repercussions if he punches the King of Camelot in the face.
Might be worth it, though.
At least the food distracts Arthur long enough to stop his mouth for a bit. Merlin half-heartedly attempts to clear a few things up and jumps at the chance to fetch a remedy from Gaius when Arthur complains of a pain in his head.
He lingers after finding the medicine, hoping to postpone returning to Arthur and his foul mood for a little longer.
Gaius is holding a little blue bottle to the light, carefully inspecting the contents.
"It belonged to the sorceress who escaped capture in the lower town last week. She dropped it in her haste to flee, and the King asked that I examine it."
""What does it do?" Merlin says, curiosity piqued.
"I don't know yet," Gaius says thoughtfully. "It could be a simple poison, or something more complicated. Look how there seem to be streaks of silver in the mixture."
Merlin becomes so engrossed in investigating the potion with Gaius that he forgets all about the grumpy monarch he left behind him. They're poring over a botany tome when Arthur storms into the room.
"How can it take half a candle mark to fetch one tiny potion?" he snaps. "You really are useless, Merlin."
Before Merlin can even come to his own defence, Arthur snatches the little blue bottle off the table.
"Mine, I presume," he sneers, and uncorks the bottle with deft ease, swallowing it down before Merlin can so much as call out a warning.
There’s only a second’s pause, Gaius and Merlin frozen in horror, before Arthur collapses to the ground.
Both Gaius and Merlin jump to their feet instantly, rushing over to where the King lies.
For a moment Merlin can’t make sense of what he’s seeing. Instead of Arthur stretched out on the floor, stiff and unbreathing like in so many nightmares Merlin’s had over the years, there’s a little boy lying there instead.
It’s not the fact that he’s still trapped inside the King’s oversized clothes, or the golden hair, or even the familiar ring around his finger that tells Merlin exactly what’s happened. It’s the little boy’s eyes staring up at him, wide and blue and fearful, and completely unmistakable.
“Arthur?” he says.
“Who are you?” Arthur says, and his voice is almost convincingly imperious, but for the tremor in it.
Gauis steps forward, barely concealing his own shock.
“Arthur, do you recognise me?”
“Yes, of course,” says Arthur, eyes still locked on Merlin. “Who is he, Gaius?”
“He’s my new assistant, Merlin,” Gaius says smoothly, taking Arthur’s altered state into his stride faster than Merlin had expected. “He just arrived today.”
“Oh,” Arthur says, and finally tears his gaze away to look down at himself. “Why am I on the floor? And in these clothes?”
“You were playing dress-up sire, and you bumped your head,” Gaius says swiftly. “Do you remember anything that happened this morning?”
“I’m not allowed to play dress-up,” he says, almost to himself. Then he seems to think about what Gaius said, and a look of alarm crosses his face.
“No. I don’t remember anything since last night. Gaius, I can’t remember!”
His little face is twisted in dismay and Merlin can’t help but feel sorry for him, even as he’s still struggling to take in everything himself. Arthur must have regressed back to the mind of a child if he didn’t recognise Merlin. Merlin feels a cold lurch of fear in his stomach to think how vulnerable the King is as a child, how easily vanquished. He prays the fact that Gaius seems calm and un-panicked means that there’s a way to turn Arthur back, because he’s far too defenceless in this state.
“It’s alright sire, it’s perfectly normal after a knock to the head,” Gaius says soothingly. “Let’s get you back into your clothes.”
Both Merlin and Gaius realise the problem with that at exactly the same time; there are no clothes to fit the newly miniature King.
“Gwen!” Merlin blurts. “Gwen took them away to be washed, didn’t she Gaius?”
“Who’s Gwen?” Arthur says, and Gaius raises an exasperated eyebrow at Merlin.
Well how was he supposed to know when Arthur met Gwen?
“Just another new servant,” Merlin says quickly. “You can borrow something of mine for now.”
He expects Arthur to say something supercilious about not wanting to wear a mere servant’s clothes, but instead he looks uneasy.
“Is my father here?” He asks Gaius, and his voice is strangely tremulous. “I’m not allowed to play dress-up, and if he sees me…”
A funny look passes over Gaius’ face and Merlin gets the distinct feeling he’s missing out on something. Maybe Gaius is just sad to think that Uther’s long dead now, and this Arthur has no idea.
“Your father is away, Arthur,” Gaius says softly. “He won’t be back today, I promise. He's left Merlin here in charge of you.”
Arthur looks relieved, and allows Gaius to usher him into Merlin’s bedroom.
Merlin follows, and begins sorting through his stuff. He digs out his smallest tunic and rolls up the hems on a pair of breeches, then adds a rope belt to the whole thing. Arthur probably could do with some help dressing, but he’s still looking at Merlin with suspicion in his eyes, so Merlin decides to leave him to it.
He heads back into the main room to see Gaius sitting heavily down on the bench, the shock finally catching up with him.
"A de-aging potion," Gaius says incredulously. "I haven't seen one of these in thirty years or more."
“Do you think the sorceress intended it for Arthur?” Merlin asks, it’s been preying on his mind ever since it occurred to him how unguarded Arthur was in this form.
“Possibly. We must keep a close eye on him until the antidote is prepared.”
Merlin feels most of the tension drain out of his body.
“So there is a cure?”
“Oh yes. We are fortunate that it’s a simple one; I have most of what I need already.”
Gaius is distracted, still gazing wonderingly at Arthur through the half-open door. Merlin follows his gaze, and finds himself surprised by the sight all over again.
Arthur’s tiny. Merlin’s never been good at judging ages, but he surely can’t be more than nine or ten. He voices this opinion and Gaius shakes his head.
“I would say he is eleven.”
“He’s too small for eleven, isn’t he?”
“Arthur always was small for his age. He didn’t hit a growth spurt till he was nearly fifteen.”
Merlin files this piece of information away for mocking purposes later; he’s sure Arthur claimed to him he was always the tallest amongst the squires.
He doesn’t feel like mocking him right now, though. Arthur’s so small and slight, so fragile looking compared to his usual sturdy self that it scares Merlin. No-one would need great strength or even magic to assassinate him right now. He’s no match for anyone like this.
Merlin’s afraid, and the fear makes him angry. Why did Arthur have to barrel in like that, drink that potion down without even asking? Why does he never listen to Merlin, why does he always think he’s right?
“How long will the antidote take?”
"Most of the day,” Gaius says.
"Let me guess," Merlin says snappishly. "I'm stuck with the little King until then."
Gaius looks as though he's trying not to laugh.
"I doubt he'll be much trouble to you in this form, Merlin. Just take him to his room and entertain him for a few hours."
"Oh yes, I'm sure it'll be so easy. I'm assuming Arthur at eleven was even more of a spoiled brat than he is nowadays."
To Merlin's surprise, the smile vanishes from Gaius' face.
"I don't remember him being particularly spoiled at this age," he says, and his tone is slightly odd.
"Well as it's me, I'm sure he'll find a way," Merlin says. He knows he's being petty, but he can't help himself. Didn't he have enough on already? Without Arthur making himself even more susceptible to any passing enemy? How's the King supposed to fight off an attacker when his sword is currently bigger than he is?
Merlin will be fighting them off instead, as usual. And never getting any credit for it. And risking execution every time he uses magic inside the walls of Camelot.
If he didn't have pettiness to fall back on, he might just scream.
Gaius seems to sense some of his frustration, because he gives Merlin a sympathetic look.
"I'll be as quick as I can. I'll send for you as soon as it's ready."
Merlin heaves a sigh.
"Alright," he says. "Arthur!"
Arthur emerges from his bedroom, nearly stumbling over the hems of his overlong breeches. He's wrapped the belt rather ineptly around his middle but the tunic is still large enough to gape at the neck. Merlin feels the rather mean urge to laugh, but bites it back at the worried expression on Arthur's face.
At least no-one would suspect the boy in front of them of being the King. He looks more like a ragamuffin from the lower town than a regent.
Merlin gestures to the door and Arthur gives him an uncertain look.
“Can’t I stay with Gaius?” he says.
“No,” Merlin says, perhaps a little curtly. Gaius gives him a slightly reproachful look and then goes to bend down in front of Arthur.
“I have a remedy I need to prepare, sire, but Merlin will bring you back as soon as it’s done.”
Arthur still looks troubled but he nods. Merlin’s surprised he doesn’t make more fuss. Presumably young Arthur’s as used to getting his way as his older self is.
"Right, come on then," Merlin says briskly.
"Merlin," Gaius says in an undertone. "Be gentle."
Merlin frowns, confused.
"I wasn't planning on locking him in the dungeons, Gaius," he says. "Even if he does deserve it."
Arthur makes a funny little choked noise and Merlin rolls his eyes.
"Clearly his highness has lost his sense of humour along with half his height," he mutters to Gaius, ignoring the physician's warning look.
They get a few odd looks from servants and guards as they pass by, but no-one seems to recognise the boy king. Perhaps they think he's Merlin's illegitimate son.
The thought makes him giggle but the mirth rapidly evaporates when he steps into Arthur's chambers and sees the mess from before. Only it's even worse than when he last saw it, clothes strewn everywhere, the fruit bowl upturned onto the table, spilled wine soaked deep into the wood.
"Did you... did you carry on making a mess after I left?" he says incredulously.
Arthur shrugs his shoulders helplessly.
"I don't remember..." he starts and Merlin holds a hand up, knowing it's pointless. It's not technically the same Arthur who behaved so badly this morning but Merlin's angry anyway, he can't help it.
He gives vent to his frustration and groans loudly, kicking out at the pile of clothes heaped haphazardly on the chair.
"Am I in trouble?" says a small voice from behind him.
"Yes!" Merlin snaps without even thinking about it. He whirls round to tell Arthur exactly how badly his older self likes to behave, waving his hand in the air for emphasis. He’s not expecting Arthur to jump back with a startled cry, arms coming up to protect his face.
Merlin frowns, surprised. He hadn’t expected young Arthur to be such a jumpy little thing. He reaches out to pull Arthur’s arms down, to show him there’s no need to be so on edge, but Arthur backs further away, so fast he nearly falls over.
“Sorry, I’m sorry,” he gabbles. “I didn’t mean to make a mess, please don’t-”
“Please don’t what?” Merlin says, still baffled and slightly concerned now. He can’t see Arthur’s face behind his hands, but his voice sounds funny, all sort of breathy and choked.
He reaches out again and this time there’s nowhere for Arthur to go, he bumps into the bed and Merlin’s able to tug his arms away from his face.
He’s not prepared for what he sees. Arthur looks… terrified. All the blood’s drained from his face, his bottom lip’s trembling, and his eyes are glassy with unshed tears. He’s gasping slightly and his breath is coming fast and shallow, like he can’t get enough air.
Instinctively Merlin reaches out in some kind of aborted gesture of comfort and Arthur flinches so violently it makes Merlin’s chest hurt.
The pieces are slotting into place now, even if Merlin doesn’t want to believe it.
Arthur’s scared of him. Because Arthur thinks… because Arthur thinks Merlin’s going to hurt him.
Why would he think that? Was he always like this with strangers? Did someone make an attempt on his life when he was this age? Merlin thinks back to those odd looks Gaius was giving him earlier, and curses himself for not asking more questions.
But there’s no time for recriminations now. Merlin retracts his hand and does the only thing he think of to make himself seem less threatening: he drops to his knees.
It doesn’t seem to help. Arthur’s breath is still coming in short harsh pants, his little chest working up and down as he struggles for control. The tears that threatened before are beginning to slip down his face and it breaks Merlin’s heart.
“Arthur,” he says, with as much calm as he can muster. “I won’t hurt you. I never would. What makes you think that?”
His calm tone has no discernible effect. If anything, Arthur’s becoming more panicked by the second.
“You said… the mess… in trouble…” he wheezes and guilt hits Merlin like a lance to the sternum.
“I didn’t mean it,” he says quietly. “And even if you did make a mess, I would never hurt you for that.”
More tears spill down Arthur’s cheeks.
“But you’ll tell my father,” he whispers.
Merlin feels a funny sensation in his stomach, like something cold’s settled inside it.
“Why would I do that?” he says carefully.
“Gaius said… said he left you in charge… and I was supposed to be good… but I made a m-mess…”
Arthur’s sobbing so hard Merlin can barely hear what he’s saying.
“He-he said to be good… he’ll be so angry…”
“He won’t be angry,” Merlin says uselessly, because what else can he say? The cold in his stomach is already telling him what’s happening here, he just doesn’t want to believe it.
“He will, he will!” Arthur wails, his voice rising hysterically. “I didn’t mean to be bad, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t, I-”
Arthur doesn’t seem to be taking in any air at all and Merlin spends several long minutes trying to calm him down before he realises the futility. Slightly frantic now, he runs out of the room to collar a passing guard, and sends them to fetch Gaius. When he comes back in, he can’t see Arthur anywhere, and he really does panic then, until he catches a glimpse of a little foot poking out from next to the wardrobe.
Merlin drops to his hands and knees and crawls over, desperate not to take Arthur by surprise and set him off again. When he reaches the wardrobe, he finds Arthur’s tucked himself into the small space between it and the wall. He stares out at Merlin with frightened eyes.
“Please don’t tell my father,” he says, plaintive as a street beggar. He’s stopped crying now but he looks no less devastated; his face still red and streaked with tears, his arms curled protectively around his chest. He's shaking like a leaf, he doesn't seem to be able to stop.
“I won’t,” Merlin says, keeping his gaze steady. “I promise I won’t. No-one’s going to hurt you.”
They stay sitting like that in silence for a long time. When Gaius arrives, Merlin catches the look on his face, distraught but not surprised.
“Is he alright?”
“He just panicked,” Merlin says helplessly, at a loss to explain it himself. “He… he thought he was in trouble and then he just…”
Gaius nods, goes down on his knees and starts to speak softly to Arthur. Merlin backs away to the corner of the room, wondering if his presence is doing more harm than good at the moment.
Gaius eventually coaxes him out of his hiding spot, and onto the bed. He gives Arthur a tincture he brought up, one meant to calm a patient, and Arthur drifts off to sleep not long after.
Merlin’s back at Gaius’ side in an instant.
“What haven’t you told me?” he says simply, trusting his mentor not to lie to him.
Gaius sighs, and it's a mournful sound.
“I wanted to respect his privacy.”
He stares over at the wardrobe and his eyes are very distant.
"He always used to hide behind there as a child. I used to come into his room and find him tucked away, quiet as a mouse."
The sadness in Gaius' tone conveys more than words ever could.
Merlin looks down at Arthur, marooned and pale in the middle of those vast and opulent bedcovers.
“Uther beat him,” he says, and it’s a statement, not a question.
Gaius is silent for a while.
“Yes, he did,” he says at last.
It’s far from unheard of. Will’s father used to box his ears if Will was cheeky. Even Hunith swatted at Merlin a few times when his hijinks went too far. And noble families often had whipping boys to correct the mistakes of their offspring.
But Arthur had looked terrorised. Whatever Uther had done to him had gone beyond normal levels of parental discipline.
“Why?” Merlin says.
“Uther had very high expectations of Arthur,” Gaius says wearily. “I’m sure you were already aware of that. But Arthur was quite a nervous child. He came into his own in squiring and weaponry later, but he wasn’t especially talented when he was younger. And Uther felt that wasn’t good enough. So he took matters into his own hands. Never on Arthur’s face, never where the court could see, but he let his displeasure be known."
“How long?” Merlin says, already sick to his stomach.
“From about the age of ten to thirteen,” Gaius says and Merlin feels a fresh wave of horror, thinking of a ten year old Arthur cowering before an enraged Uther.
“And it stopped because… Arthur got better at fighting?”
“It stopped because of Morgana,” Gaius says heavily. “It’s no secret she was Uther’s favourite from the day she arrived. For a while I worried that her presence would push Arthur even further into the King’s disfavour. But Morgana was an unusually perceptive child. She picked up on what was happening straight away, and she took it upon herself to protect Arthur.”
“She protected him? How?”
Merlin knows that Morgana was barely fourteen summers herself when she arrived in Camelot.
“She distracted the King. Took the attention away from Arthur when Uther was building into a rage. Persuaded him to take her riding on the days Arthur was training, so his father couldn’t watch and criticise him. Without Uther’s baleful eyes on him, Arthur became much better at sparring and so the King had less cause to be angry. But he was less angry in general with Morgana around. She played on his fondness for her to get Arthur out of trouble.”
Merlin feels a pang in his chest; for the sweet, brave girl Morgana once was, and everything that happened since.
“Morgana was too young to take on that kind of responsibility,” Gaius announces abruptly. “I believe she never forgave me, nor any of the adults of the castle, for allowing it to happen for so long.”
“Why did you let it happen?” Merlin says, and he can’t help the note of recrimination that shades his voice.
Gaius suddenly looks very old.
“I tried to stop it. I spoke to the King several times, to no avail. The days of the purge were closer back then and Uther was even angrier than when you knew him. I had to tread carefully or risk being banished. I felt it was more important that Arthur had someone in the castle to look after him when… when he was hurt… so I rarely challenged Uther.”
Gaius’ voice is thick with self-loathing, and Merlin doesn’t want to push it any further. He’s made enough mistakes in his life to know how it feels to carry round this kind of guilt.
He smooths out the hair on Arthur’s little forehead instead.
“Go on back to the potion,” he says gently. “I’ll stay here with him.”
Gaius looks like he wants to say more, but he nods instead, and leaves.
Merlin climbs up onto the bed, sitting up against the headboard so that he can keep his fingers stroking through Arthur’s hair.
“I’ll never let anyone hurt you again,” he whispers, watching Arthur’s chest rise and fall. “I’ll always keep you safe.”
Arthur stirs a little, and leans into Merlin’s touch. Merlin pats his cheek and thinks about the challenges to come, and how it might be worth it after all, as long as he can keep protecting Arthur. Keep protecting his King. Keep protecting his friend.
The antidote is successful, and Arthur’s so confused and disorientated when he's grown again that Gaius manages to bundle him straight back into bed. Merlin cleans up the chambers while he sleeps and then slips out to get dinner, hoping against hope that Arthur won’t remember anything that happened while he was small.
But he knows his hope was in vain when he returns to find Arthur standing at the window, back ramrod straight and shoulders tight with tension.
“I owe you an apology,” he says, in an unnaturally formal voice. “I’ve been making life hard for you these past few days, and it was not decent of me. It won’t happen again.”
“Arthur…” Merlin says desperately, because he didn’t want an apology, not like this, not when Arthur’s closed off and ashamed of something he should never feel shame over.
"I suppose Gaius told you everything," Arthur says, scarcely loud enough to catch.
"He did," Merlin says, and Arthur nods tiredly.
“Please just leave my dinner and go,” he mutters, and he sounds so miserable that Merlin’s across the room in an instant, the food tray swiftly abandoned on the table.
“You’re my King,” he says fiercely, so loud that Arthur turns to look at him in surprise. “Nothing I could ever find out about you could change the love and respect I have for you.”
They don’t talk to each other like this, except perhaps when they’re about to face some deadly foe in battle, but Merlin doesn’t care. He wants to speak to that hurt child somewhere inside of Arthur, who was made to feel afraid and alone, and he wants to tell that child how much he matters. How important he is, how noble and kind and good. That Uther was wrong about him and that Arthur shouldn’t have to carry that weight any longer.
There’s a pause, in which Arthur can’t quite meet Merlin’s eyes.
“I didn’t want you to know,” he mumbles. “Didn’t want anyone to…”
“It’s not your shame, Arthur,” Merlin says gently. “Please believe me.”
Arthur’s eyes mist over.
“Sometimes I worry I’ll end up like him,” he says quietly.
“You never could,” Merlin says, and believes it with all his heart. “You’re better than him, Arthur. And you’ll be a better King. I know you will.”
Arthur nods, finally looking straight at Merlin.
“I truly am sorry,” he says directly. “I know what I’ve been like recently. Shouldn’t take it all out on you.”
“No, you shouldn’t,” Merlin says. “Let me in instead, and I can help you. No-one’s meant to rule alone, Arthur. I don’t think your father ever understood that.”
“Yes. Yes… I’ll try.”
Arthur coughs and Merlin takes that to be the signal that this conversation’s over, that his friend has reached his limit for soul baring for one day.
“I’ll send for some more food. We can eat together.”
“Er… I may have already brought enough for two,” Merlin says, grinning.
“Presumptuous as ever, Merlin,” Arthur says wryly, and he sounds more like his old self. “You better not try to take the best cuts of meat.”
“Cook already gave me the best ones,” Merlin says cheekily. “Did you know she likes me better than you?”
“Absolute nonsense. Who would prefer you to me?”
“People with eyes? People with brains? People with a sense of- ow!”
Arthur snickers in the act of flicking another grape at Merlin, only this time Merlin catches it neatly in his mouth.
“I always said you had a big mouth,” Arthur says grandly and then he knuckles his hand affectionately through Merlin’s hair.
“All the better to insult you with, sire,” Merlin says sweetly.
And when Arthur laughs, his face is happy and open as that of a child’s.