"Arthur! Are you awake?"
As a person who had owned many dogs since childhood, Arthur knew how to encourage desirable behaviour through reinforcement, and so the day Merlin actually learned to knock, Arthur thought that he might do something nice for him. Something like...not immediately revising his plans for that evening's feast to include the feathery hat which, no matter what Merlin said, was still hilarious.
Today did not seem to be that day.
"I am now."
"Sorry," Merlin said, not looking it at all. "You should get up. Something's wrong with Morgana."
Arthur struggled upright, ignoring the abrupt chill in his stomach. "What do you mean by wrong?"
"She won't wake up."
"I'm afraid so."
Arthur groaned and rubbed at his face. "Right. Clothes, Merlin. For once let's pretend you're actually a competent manservant, shall we?"
Merlin must have been worried, because he didn't even bother to parry the insult; he just nodded and went to pull some clothes out of the wardrobe.
Gaius was still examining Morgana when they reached her room, and Arthur's father was looming at the foot of her bed with a stormcloud expression that Arthur knew well: the king wanted someone to blame. He prudently directed Merlin to one side of the room with a dig of his elbow, and they shuffled over to join Gwen.
"Anything?" Merlin asked her.
The girl shook her head; she looked pinched and worried, and her hands were folding and unfolding the fabric of her skirt. "No change, and Gaius hasn't said much."
Gaius looked up. "Guinevere."
"Yes." She hurried to his side immediately.
"Are you certain the Lady Morgana was feeling well last night? She did not complain of any headaches, or eat anything that might not have agreed with her?"
"No, she was fine, she was --" Gwen looked down and touched one sheet in a gentle gesture. "She was talking about what she wanted to wear to the feast tonight, telling me to make sure her red dress was clean. She was fine."
"All right. Thank you." Gaius straightened up.
"No, sire." Gaius shook his head. "I believe this to be a different affliction to that created by Edwin, if indeed it is an affliction at all. Her body has not closed down in any way, and she seems perfectly healthy, just --"
"Just?" Uther snapped.
"Asleep, sire. She's asleep. And dreaming, as far as I can tell."
As if on cue, Morgana's head turned on the pillow and an uneasy sound that might have been a word, might have been a sigh, came from her mouth. Arthur had the sudden urge to punch something.
"Well, then, wake her up."
"I can't, sire."
Gaius, Arthur felt, was being remarkably calm about the whole thing. He wasn't sure if he wanted to applaud the man for not letting Uther's agitation detract from his work, or charge forward and take him by the shoulders and shake an answer out of him. "You said it might not be an affliction at all. Will she wake up on her own, then?" he said.
"She may." But Gaius didn't sound very certain. "I admit, I am worried that I'm unable to rouse her, but there is always a chance her body is simply reacting to something and needs time to rest. She does not seem to be in any immediate danger, at least, sire." That last was directed back at Uther, who had begun to pace. "I will go and search through my books, but in the meantime, if someone could stay with her --"
"I will," Gwen said at once.
"-- thank you. Let me know immediately if her condition changes in any way."
"Good. Keep me informed, Gaius." The king nodded at Gaius and left, leaving the room feeling a great deal larger, and Gaius began to pack up his things.
"Can I get you anything?" Merlin asked Gwen, as she started to pull a chair across the room. "Have you had breakfast?"
"No. I mean, I -- I'm fine. But. Could you? That would be so kind."
"Right, I'll just --" Merlin started, but Arthur had already strode over to the door. Really, Merlin could be pathetically inefficient sometimes.
"Hello. You." He snapped his fingers at the nearest passing servant, who gave a startled but surprisingly elegant bow. Arthur blinked and then remembered that this was normal, and then wondered if he could somehow convince Merlin to start doing it. Unlikely.
"We need breakfast in here. For --" He looked back into the room. "Three?"
"Oh, no, please, you don't have to --" Gwen was saying, but Arthur ignored her.
"For three," he repeated firmly, "At once," and the servant bowed again, then turned around and walked quickly in the direction of the kitchens.
"Thank you, sire, but are you sure you wouldn't rather..." Gwen looked flustered and Arthur shrugged, wishing she wouldn't make such a fuss of it.
"We've got to eat somewhere. I was awakened by a very rude manservant and dragged out of my room without food this morning, and I'm starving. Merlin, go and clear off a table."
Arthur caught just a flash of the mocking face that Merlin made at Gwen, but in the same moment Morgana muttered something and her sleeping face creased into a frown, and by the time he'd finished catching his breath in the hope that her eyes would open, there didn't seem much point in starting an argument.
"Merlin," Gaius said from the doorway, "I'll need your help once you've eaten, please."
"Yes, all right."
Arthur settled himself in a chair and watched Gwen's easy bustle and Merlin's slightly less graceful efforts to help her. Years ago in his first real fight he had discovered what every soldier learns, which was that danger and battle-dust throw people together in a way that no peacetime friendship could ever match, and there had been something briefly glorious in the way the four of them had faced down Kanan's men. Something in the sure grip of Gwen's hand around a sword's hilt and the unladylike cries rising from Morgana's throat as her hair made dark untidy whips in the air, something about the way Merlin fought with little skill but fierce courage, that had made Arthur feel that maybe being King wouldn't be as lonely as all that. Not if he had people like this to rely on.
"Don't think too hard, there," said Merlin, "you wouldn't want to tire yourself out."
Arthur aimed a half-hearted kick at him as he walked past to collect the platters of food, but Merlin danced out of the way and laughed and really, even if one of them was asleep, Arthur felt too comfortable in the presence of these three people to care.
After their impromptu breakfast-party, the rest of the day seemed to drag: Merlin disappeared to help Gaius, Gwen stayed with Morgana, and Arthur spent some time destroying straw targets and wondering if there was any way he could get out of going to the feast. His father had refused to cancel it on Morgana's account, not wanting to alarm the court while they still weren't sure what was wrong or offend the visiting nobles in whose honour it was being held. But Arthur wasn't in the mood for anything associated with formal meals -- well. Almost anything.
"Arthur, no," Merlin whined. "Once was enough."
"Hat," Arthur insisted, cramming it onto his head.
Merlin opened his mouth in that slow way that meant he was about to say something even more blatantly insubordinate than usual. Arthur leaned closer, ducking feathers, and decided to fight dirty.
"That's an order, Merlin," he said in the most dangerous voice he could muster, and Merlin swallowed hard but didn't really look scared, just -- startled. His eyes fluttered shut for a brief moment, lashes crooked and dark against his cheeks, and for absolutely no reason that he could fathom Arthur found himself thinking about snow.
"It's just a stupid hat," Merlin said when he opened his eyes again, "and you're a madman," but he didn't take it off.
As far as feasts to honour visiting nobles went, this one was almost entirely unremarkable: the venison was good, the toasts were elaborate compliments woven through with political threats, and the guest of honour seated next to Arthur proceeded to talk his ear off about grain taxes and the perils of relying on seasonal export for a good hour before Arthur could excuse himself to mingle without seeming rude.
"Gwen!" He tried to sound lordly instead of desperate, but she was almost out of earshot in the crowded room and Arthur needed that alcohol right the hell now. "Gwen, for pity's sake --"
Gwen looked very amused as she watched him down a goblet in four long gulps. "Enjoying your evening, sire?"
"Oh, yes," Arthur said bitterly. He let the goblet clatter back onto her tray and picked up another. "Isn't it fortunate that I have such a deep and abiding interest in the effects of storage mildew on the price of barley. Where's Merlin? I bet he's hiding so I don't notice that he took the hat off."
"I think he's over near the musician's corner." Gwen swung the tray to avoid the alarming breadth of a passing lady's skirt, and looked at the drink in Arthur's hand. "The wine is quite strong tonight, sire," she said in the mildest possible voice.
"Thank you, Guinevere," he said; sternly enough that she got the point, but not unkindly. She tended to look out for Morgana in that way, and was much less subtle about it, and this was the first time she'd left her lady's side since that morning. Arthur was prepared to allow her the liberty.
Merlin was indeed hovering in the corner Gwen had indicated, and he had indeed managed to divest himself of both hat and cloak, but the look on his face as Arthur approached wasn't guilty in the slightest; it was frighteningly, transparently pleased. He took a few fast steps forward from the side of a woman in a green dress, and bowed deeply as Arthur walked up to him.
"My lord," he said as he straightened up. Arthur, taken aback, was about to say something sarcastic and approving when Merlin added, "Help!" in a frantic hiss, and then his face changed and he looked like Merlin again.
"Prince Arthur," the woman behind him trilled, and swept her way forward to curl a heavily-ringed hand around Merlin's arm. Merlin mouthed Help one more time; Arthur bit his lip and fought very hard not to howl with laughter. "Allow me to express my sincere admiration for the efforts your court has gone to on our behalf."
"You are too gracious, my lady." Arthur kept smiling and fuck, what was her name, she was the one with the puffy red hair piled up almost as high as her head again, probably a few years shy of Uther's age, and he'd completely forgotten her name two seconds after being introduced to her because Merlin had been blowing feathers out of his face and scowling in Arthur's peripheral vision.
Not unlike what he was doing now, in fact.
"Delightful food, and such elegant trimmings, and of course the other decorations are difficult to fault as well," and she -- was she -- she was actually stroking Merlin's arm. Arthur felt his own mouth give a helpless twitch, and Merlin's scowl became something between a glare and a pleading look, but the lady -- E, her name started with E, Ester, Emily, Emilia, that was it -- seemed to take Arthur's expression as some kind of encouragement, because she went on: "Your highness's manservant has been most attentive, and I hope you won't mind if I continue to monopolise his services. Such an obliging and handsome young man," she purred, looking at Merlin with a predatory expression that seemed to completely overlook the way he was practically vibrating with the desire to escape.
Arthur schooled his face into polite interest again and had time to take two steadying breaths before he realised that, oh holy buggering god, she was asking his permission.
"Er," he said helpfully.
"Yes?" Her hand was doing the stroking thing again.
Arthur allowed himself one long, wonderful moment in which he pretended to consider the request and Merlin made horrified NO NO NO motions, and then he gave his most charmingly apologetic smile.
"On any other night, Lady Emilia, I would be delighted to lend you my manservant's...services." He ignored the choking sound made by Merlin and continued. "Unfortunately, he has been most inefficient today, and I must insist that he returns to my chambers and finishes his assigned tasks before I allow him any leisure time."
"A pity." Lady Emilia let out a great sigh, and Merlin dragged his arm clear with a look of naked relief.
"Enjoy your evening, your ladyship. Merlin, come with me." Arthur nodded, turned on his heel and started to walk back to the high table. Merlin caught up with him before he'd taken three strides.
"You enjoyed that," Merlin said accusingly, and then shuddered. "Ugh, her hand, it was so -- wine, wine, I need," and he waved towards Arthur's goblet.
"You can't have mine, we'll get you another one," Arthur said, looking around for a servant. A normal servant, one who was actually doing their job and not being propositioned by noblewomen.
"No news of Morgana?" Merlin asked.
Arthur shook his head. "Gaius is with her. He'd come and tell us if anything changed." And Arthur didn't really want to think about Morgana, he'd been doing an excellent job of ignoring her absence, thank you very much, so he took hold of Merlin's arm and sat them both down at the high table and ordered a servant to bring wine. Lots of it. Bottles, if possible.
An hour later they were completely pissed, Uther was giving them very disapproving looks, and Arthur had discovered that while Merlin couldn't hold his wine at all he was surprisingly knowledgable on the subject of barley storage. It was all working out fine until Arthur got back to his chambers and discovered that he'd lost Merlin somewhere in the hallway. He sat down heavily on his bed and contemplated the tight lacings of his boots.
Or he could sleep in his boots. Absolutely. Soldiers did it all the time.
"Oops." Merlin entered the room in a manner that suggested he hadn't entirely meant for the door to fall open when he leaned on it, but he was glad it had.
"Boots," Arthur ordered, lifting one.
"Look!" Merlin displayed a small vial. "Prevents hangnail. Hangover. It's from one of Gaius's books, I made it last week as an experiment --"
"You made it?" Arthur said, dubious.
Merlin screwed up his face and it eventually fell into a wounded expression. "From a recipe. And it's just herbs and things. Not poisonous. I checked. Don't you trust me? Here." He tipped the vial back and took a long swig.
Arthur, who by this point was sobering up just enough to anticipate the next morning's headache, groaned and held out a hand. "Oh, fine, give it here."
It smelled like the foul teas that Gaius gave Arthur in winter when he caught a cold, but it had a spicy aftertaste that wasn't completely unpleasant.
"If I die," he informed Merlin, "I shall beat you myself. With a large stick."
"I wouldn't let you die," Merlin said, as though this was the most ridiculous thing in the world, and then he crouched down and stared intently at Arthur's boots for a while.
The boots came off, eventually, though the right one required such a violent tug that Merlin stumbled backwards and into a table. A blue bowl, some decorative pottery thing that Arthur had never used for anything but kept around because it had been a gift from some foreign princess or other, wobbled off the edge of the table and shattered. They winced in unison at the sound.
"Shit," Arthur muttered. "Okay, leave it. Tomorrow. Clean up tomorrow."
Merlin might have said something then, but Arthur's face had found a blissful angle in his pillow and he was falling asleep with a speed that was almost violent.
For a moment Arthur was, for the very first time, almost pleased at Merlin's inability to knock; he never appreciated having someone pound on his door the morning after he'd been drinking. But then he realised that his head was clear -- in fact, he didn’t feel in any way worse for wear. That elixir of Merlin's had worked brilliantly, and Arthur would make sure to congratulate him on this once he finished being properly annoyed about the lack of knocking.
Merlin closed the door behind him. "Are you awake?"
Arthur glared at him. "No," he said, but he wasn't quite awake enough for the full effect of the sarcasm to make itself known, and so he ended up just sounding uncertain.
Merlin looked startled, and fidgeted with his hands for a moment before saying, "Um, anyway, get up. There's something wrong with Morgana."
This time the look Merlin gave him was flat-out weird. "Worse than what? All I know is that there's something wrong," he said carefully.
"Worse than yesterday, Merlin." Arthur sat up and swung his legs over the bed. "Are you slower than usual today? Of course there's something wrong, we already knew that."
"Oh, thank god," Merlin said, and leaned against the closed door with a sigh of relief that left him looking slightly crazed. "I thought I was going insane all by myself. Look. Everyone else is acting like it's yesterday all over again, like Morgana only just fell asleep, it's crazy. They're saying exactly the same things and doing the same things and okay my memories of last night aren't exactly crystal-clear but I'm fairly sure that bowl was broken when I left the room."
Arthur followed his pointing hand and then the bottom plummeted out of his perfectly healthy stomach, because there was the bowl. On the table. Balanced and intact. Every part of Arthur's body seemed to tense at once in something that he wasn't prepared to admit was fear. Whatever this was, whatever was happening to him, it wasn't something he could overcome with a sword; so he did what he usually did when faced with something outside of his experience and control. He got angry.
"What's happening? What's causing this?"
"Don't look at me," Merlin protested. "I know as much as you do. And I really think the problem is with everyone else, unless we managed to have exactly the same prophetic hallucination."
Arthur thought about the previous day: Gwen's laughter and anxious looks during breakfast, the ache of his shoulder when he landed a blow at the wrong angle, the feeling of a goblet of wine hitting the back of his throat and the coherency of his mind in rapid succession. "No," he said firmly. "That day happened."
"Then why is it just us that seem to think so?" Merlin looked even more worried, but he left the vicinity of the door and walked over to the wardrobe, where he pulled out the clothes that Arthur had donned at the beginning of the definitely-yesterday. They were fresh and clean, and for the first time Arthur realised that he was wearing his normal nightclothes and not the feast garments in which he had fallen asleep. The knot of unease in his chest gave an unpleasant spasm. "We'd better hurry," Merlin said, laying the clothes out on the bed, "we need to be in Morgana's chambers so we can hear Gaius tell your father that she's asleep."
Arthur nodded and was mostly naked by the time he thought to ask, "Is that how it works, do you think? Do we need to do everything exactly the same?"
Merlin shrugged and turned to gaze fixedly out of the window while Arthur changed, because he was a girl sometimes. "Maybe. I'm playing it safe. If we're the only ones who have lived the day before --" and fuck, wasn't that a sentence that Arthur had never expected to hear emerging from someone's mouth "-- then we'd better react to everything just as we would. Did. You know."
That seemed to work fine, at least to begin with. The hardest part was trying to have exactly the same conversation with Gwen over breakfast; they kept remembering topics in the wrong order and blurting them out, but Gwen just seemed to think that they were worried about Morgana, so she didn't say anything beyond a brief sympathetic comment about how tense they were, and how she was sure Gaius would find something soon.
After breakfast, Merlin caught Arthur's arm in the corridor outside Morgana's room. "I think we're allowed to act differently. A bit. We screwed that conversation up royally and I ate my bread before my apple and nothing horrible happened, so..."
"Good." Arthur lowered his voice even further; this had been niggling at him ever since he heard Gaius pronounce his lack of diagnosis for the second time. "Do you think this whole thing has anything to do with Morgana's sickness? Some kind of curse, perhaps?"
"It’s possible." Merlin rubbed a hand at the back of his head. "There's someone I'm going to talk to, they might be able to help. I'll come and find you." And then he headed towards Gaius's rooms at almost a jog, before Arthur could ask about who he was planning to consult. This felt strange, the two of them conspiring against something unknowable and huge, but strange in a familiar way. Merlin might have been a poor excuse for a servant, but as a friend with whom to face down danger, he wasn't half bad.
Arthur really didn't want to repeat all the sword drills he'd gone through the previous day, but he decided to compromise by doing some archery practice in the same area of the palace grounds. He only got as far as hunting down a servant who wasn't completely inept and sending him out to set up the targets, however, when he was waylaid on his way to the armoury.
"My lord Arthur!" One of the palace stewards sketched a bow, and the young man behind him -- no, he was a boy, still in his teens -- did the same, though a moment too late. "This boy is from one of the villages just beyond Camelot, and he insists on speaking to you. I was going to tell him to come back another day, but since you're right here...perhaps you wish to hear what he has to say?"
Well, this was certainly new. But yesterday Arthur hadn't been walking past this door at this precise time. He fixed the boy with a suspicious glance; he had the same out-of-place air with which Merlin had arrived in Camelot.
"I don't suppose you're going to tell me that you have a remedy to cure all ills, are you?" Arthur demanded.
The boy blinked. "Um, no?"
"No, sire," said the steward reprovingly.
"No, sire." Ugh. Peasants. Did they train them in that expression of scruffy insouciance, in those tiny villages? "I'm here to request protection, sire. For my village."
"Protection against thieving murderous bandits, I suppose?" was Arthur's next guess. Well, if his life had decided to start repeating itself...
"No," the boy said, looking at Arthur as if he were slightly mad. He was just like Merlin, really, Arthur reflected with irritation. "Against the screaming ghost."
The steward gave Arthur one of those perfectly pitched glances that only the most experienced servants could manage. It said: I tried to get him to leave, and I wish to share a moment of disdain with you while simultaneously acknowledging that if were were to ever actually share anything of substance, I would let you have nine parts out of ten. As is only your due. Because you are the Crown Prince.
Arthur was fascinated, and wondered if he could order Merlin to take lessons in that kind of glance, because his manservant's repertoire seemed to consist of 'I'm confused', 'I think you're an idiot', and the slightly more complicated 'I know you're the Crown Prince and I still think you're an idiot, because apparently I like being thrown in the stocks'.
Arthur resurfaced. "What? Start again. A screaming ghost?"
Yes, as it turned out: the boy's village was like every other tiny village except for the fact that for one day every year a loud screaming was heard. It was as regular as the rains, and carried no other strange occurences with it, and as far as Arthur could make out some kind of story had sprung up around it, about a ghost who was doomed to haunt the nearby caves and only make its torment heard on this one day every year.
"How long has this been going on?" Arthur asked. The kid was in earnest, and this was hardly the most outrageous thing that Arthur had had proven very real to him in the last few months.
"A long time. Since before I was born." The boy had started dropping his 'sire's again. "And the ghost has never done anything to hurt the village, but this year the screaming has been happening more often, more and more often, and it's getting louder. Some people are saying that someone must have accidentally disturbed the ghost's bones, and now it's going to take its revenge on us all."
Arthur frowned. "And what, exactly, do you expect my men to do? Kill a ghost?"
The boy nodded, looking very relieved, and Arthur was spared from having to think up a good response to that when Merlin hurried up to them.
"Arthur, there you are," he said, earning a look of sniffy disapproval from the steward.
"I beg your pardon, Merlin?" Arthur raised his eyebrows.
"Oh. Sorry. My lord." Merlin swept on. "I think I may have found something related to that problem we were discussing earlier," He made an incredibly unsubtle come on, come on motion with his head, and Arthur considered punching him.
"I will inform my father of your situation," he told the boy. "I can promise no more. Where is your village?"
"A few hours' ride, due south-east. It's on the river. Thank you, sire," he added, and Arthur nodded to the steward.
"Show him out."
"At once, sire."
"What was that about?" Merlin watched the two of them leave.
"Something I might think about once we've sorted out this repeating day mess," Arthur said firmly. "One problem at a time. Now, did you manage to get some answers in between addressing me with complete disrespect?"
"Not exactly." Merlin looked unhappy. "But this -- person -- that I mentioned, well, he wants to meet you. I think he knows something about what's been happening to us, but he won't tell me unless you're there too."
"Who is this person?"
Merlin winced. "You're not going to like this."
Arthur looked at him, a horrible suspicion growing. "Merlin. Is this another sorcerer?"
Merlin winced again. "Just...wait until we get there, please. He'll explain. He said he'd explain."
So Arthur waited, and then couldn't decide which outrage to get angry about first: the fact that Merlin had made friends with the Great Dragon -- because clearly he had some kind of imbecilic blind spot when it came to magic -- or the fact that said dragon took one look at he and Merlin standing together on the disgracefully flimsy ledge and immediately leapt into a spiel about soulmates.
Arthur curled his hand around his dagger and forced his hot, fluid rage into something that would allow him to form sentences. "How dare you," he hissed, turning on Merlin, whose face seemed to be on the point of dissolving in its own tense misery. "My father imprisoned this monster so that it could serve as an example, not so that insolent, suicidal idiots could go behind their prince's back and have chats with it. I should have you thrown in the dungeons, do you even know -- did you even think -- how dangerous --"
Merlin's face was white in the light of his torch, which was shaking and guttering in his unsteady grip. "Arthur, I know, I -- look, you can do whatever you want to me later, but I think it knows something about what's going on, and what other options do we have at this point?"
Arthur turned back to the Dragon itself; it was, he had to admit, a much more intimidating target for his anger. But he was a Pendragon and he was going to be King one day and he would not be intimidated. "Did you do this to us? Is this some kind of foul magical trickery?"
There was a short silence and then the Dragon spoke in that low, amused tone. "Greetings to you too, Prince Arthur. Long have I waited to see your face. And fear not, young Pendragon -- I do not hold you accountable for the sins of your father."
"My father is the king and you will not speak about him in that manner, ow," as Merlin trod on his foot and made a desperate face.
"I am a prisoner of this circle as much as you are, young prince." The Dragon's tail did something alarming and the next instant Arthur's dagger was half-drawn on instinct, but the beast just settled itself into a new position on the rocks. "Which is no mean thing. We are under the influence of a very great Seer indeed."
"What?" Arthur heard himself and Merlin say in unison. Arthur recovered first.
"A Seer? But how did they -- and who is it? And why can we remember yesterday?"
The Dragon laughed. The sound set Arthur's teeth on edge. "The unravelling of this knot will be a great and important step in your journey together."
"It always does that." Merlin frowned. "Just when it's starting to be useful, it goes back to talking about intertwined destinies."
"How do I know you're not lying?" Arthur snapped at the thing. "Give me details. "
But the Dragon just laughed again and lowered its head onto its front legs in a pointed indication that this ridiculous interview was over. They were halfway up the stairs and Arthur was about to recommence the yelling when Merlin gave a deep sigh beside him.
"You're going to like this even less," Merlin said, "but I know who the Seer is."
Merlin stopped and took hold of both of Arthur's arms; Arthur was so surprised that some of his anger disappeared. "You can't talk about this to anyone," Merlin said urgently, "and please, please don't just explode, listen to me, because it's not simple and it's important that you understand that she doesn't have a choice."
"Morgana," Merlin blurted, and his fingers tightened almost to the point of pain, but Arthur barely noticed past the initial sudden sting. "It's Morgana. Think about it. You know she has nightmares, terrible ones, and now -- well, doesn't it seem like she's lost in one? Like her power isn't letting her wake up from whatever she's Seeing?"
"No. We don't know it's a Seer. I don't trust that dragon," Arthur said, leaning back against the wall, but his heart wasn't in it; for the first time since he'd woken up, pieces were grinding into place, and it made far too much sense to argue against.
"Arthur, I know this isn't what you want to hear." Merlin's fingers released their grip, but he kept one hand flat on Arthur's arm, possibly in some kind of misguided attempt at soothing him. The annoying thing was that it was working: Arthur couldn't quite gather his previous heat of anger, even with this new revelation to deal with. "But you know Morgana. You know she wouldn't do anything to hurt you, or Uther, or Camelot, or -- you." He looked about as serious as Arthur had ever seen him, and he was learning to listen to Merlin when he looked like that.
But…Morgana. Arthur felt like a large part of his world had been smashed to pieces like the blue bowl, and reassembled by a child with no skill for craftwork.
"She helped the Druid boy."
"So did we!" Merlin said. "And that had nothing to do with magic, and you know it. That was about doing what was right. Morgana is a Seer, and I think she's doing something to cause all of this, but I don't think she's doing it on purpose. She wouldn't."
Arthur took a deep breath and shoved it all down, somewhere tight and distant within himself, from which he could draw it out later and think it over. One problem at a time. "So what do we do now? We can hardly wake her up, not if Gaius couldn't."
"Gaius." Merlin dropped his hand finally and nodded. "We should ask him for help. He'll know what to do, if anyone does."
"And how exactly is that conversation going to work, Merlin? Hello, Gaius, you won't remember this, but this day has happened before."
A smile stole onto Merlin's face, and then he laughed, and after a moment Arthur found himself smiling too. Despite everything. "Well," Merlin said cheerfully, "it's worth a try."
Actually, Gaius only said, "What?" and then, "Go over that bit again," and then "Merlin, slow down," three or four times, and then sat down heavily and rubbed his forehead.
"You believe us?" Arthur asked, surprised.
"Well, as tempted as I am to accuse the two of you of getting into the wine that's been put aside for the feast --"
"No! Though, we did drink that wine. Yesterday. At the feast."
"-- thank you, Merlin, yes, I do understand what you're telling me. And I'm sure you have better things to do than concoct stories with which to waste my time, so I am left with no option other than to believe you. And yes, Prince Arthur," he nodded uncomfortably in Arthur's direction, "I believe the Lady Morgana to have the Seer's gift, though she herself is only aware of it to a very limited extent. All she knows is that she dreams dangers and sometimes they come to pass. You understand why I have kept this secret on her behalf." He looked at the table. "Your father's judgement is just and good in many areas, but magic is not one of them, and I fear he would react poorly and with no consideration for the Lady Morgana's own feelings and actions."
The shattered feeling was starting to curl through Arthur again; he waved a hand in curt dismissal of the topic. "I am not interested in discussing Morgana herself at this point. I wish to know what we can do, and what will happen if she doesn't wake up. Will the day repeat itself again? Why is it that only Merlin and I were aware of the true passage of time?"
"I'm afraid I have no answers for you on that score, unless..." Gaius looked at Merlin. "There are a very few plants that possess the ability to protect against some specific forms of magic. Have your diligent botanical studies managed to hammer any of this knowledge into your stubborn head, Merlin?"
"Um. I can't -- oh." Merlin's eyed widened. "Oh. Rowan berries." He turned the wide-eyed look on Arthur. "The potion we drank, it had rowan berries in it."
"Merlin." Gaius tapped his fingers against the table.
"I was practicing! Studying!" Merlin protested. "Like you keep telling me to! It was in one of your books of medicines, it looked easy, it was just to prevent hangovers."
Gaius sighed and stood up again, and went over to one of his shelves. "Rowan berries have very few uses in medicine; I use them in winter to help clear the nose and throat, but their taste precludes their use in cooking, and the current weather is too warm for colds. Little wonder that you two were the only ones whose minds retained the ability to experience reality in a straight line. Merlin, make yourself useful and boil some water, please."
Merlin hurried over to the fire and Arthur sat down and watched Gaius shake some dark berries into a saucer. "You're going to give some to Morgana?"
"No, this is for us. I'm not going to sit through Merlin's dreadful attempts at an explanation a second time -- besides, I suspect the hangover potion will have left your bodies by the end of tonight, so you'll wake up just as trapped as everyone else. I'm afraid rowan will be little help to Morgana if she is creating the circle."
"But we could give it to more people, surely?" Merlin called.
"No." Arthur looked at Gaius, who nodded. "Even if everyone is aware of it, we're still in the same day. The weather is the same, and everything was in the same spot when we woke up. The blue bowl, Merlin. Think about it. People would panic."
"Very good, sire." Gaius started to crush the berries with a pestle. "Better for us to keep quiet and see what we can do about fixing it. With any luck, nobody will ever know it happened."
"And in the meantime," said Merlin, bringing over a pan of water, "we relive the same day?"
"As far as possible." Gaius poured the berries in. "You two should go to the feast, just as you -- you did. I was planning to relieve Gwen and watch over Morgana, but I think I'll stay here and read some more. I might be able to find a precedent, and with any luck, a solution."
Which was how Arthur found himself, once again, talking Merlin into the full ceremonial outfit of the servants of Camelot.
"No. I wore it last time, I looked like an idiot, I'm sure it was hilarious for you, and I'm not wearing it again."
"You might destroy reality if you don't wear the hat," Arthur tried.
After a long pause, Merlin groaned and rubbed his forehead. "I can't believe we're in a situation where you can say that and I can almost take you seriously. No. We've been doing things differently all day, I refuse to believe that what I wear tonight would make any difference."
Arthur smirked. "You know, Lady Emilia might not be so keen on you this time. If you wore the hat."
Merlin put it on without another word.
The feast was even less fun the second time around. The speeches were the same, the food was the same, Gwen wasn't there, and Lady Emilia showed no signs of being deterred by a feathery hat. Arthur watched her watching Merlin, who seemed to be trying to avoid her by never standing still for more than ten seconds, and then took pity on his manservant's frazzled expression and beckoned him over.
"Stay here and talk about barley again, you were good at that," he ordered. "I'll distract her."
Merlin gave him a look of fervent gratitude. "Have I mentioned that sometimes you're a bearable human being?"
Arthur laughed and removed the hat from Merlin's head. "Sit. Hide. If she can turn into a simpering mess on your behalf, I'm sure she'll appreciate talking to someone who actually possesses a modicum of charm."
"That rules you out, then."
"Watch and learn," Arthur said airily, and strode in the direction of the fluffy red hair.
Insultingly, however, the Lady Emilia seemed delighted with Arthur's attempts at flattering small talk only because she believed him to be a sympathetic ear when it came to her effusive admiration of 'that dark-haired boy in the amusing hat who was around here a few minutes ago', and did Arthur know where he'd gone, and could Arthur possibly tell her who he was?
"Oh, he's nobody. A servant. Barely worth looking at." Arthur tried to take her arm and turn her to face the musicians, but the damn woman was like a donkey with its eye out for an elusive carrot.
"Such fine cheekbones, and such a dreamy smile," she rambled. "Don't you agree, Prince Arthur?"
This was the stupidest conversation Arthur had ever taken part in. He glanced quickly over at the high table and yes, all right, he supposed that Merlin's cheekbones were more pronounced than a normal person's cheekbones, especially when he was grinning like that, but there was no reason at all for the woman to lose her head over Merlin's bone structure when he was such a generally obnoxious person in every other respect.
"You can't have him," Arthur said, exasperated; he might as well save time, and he was sick of being charming. "And you're not his type. I suggest you try Sir Jerome's manservant, or possibly Sir Jerome himself. Excuse me."
He gave the fastest bow he'd ever given and high-tailed it back to where Merlin was sitting. "I told her you have a terrible venereal disease," he told Merlin, who coughed on a mouthful of water.
"I'm obliged to you, my lord. Can I leave this feast yet?"
"Yes, all right, off you go." Arthur tilted his head towards the door. "I'm going to make my excuses as well."
Merlin hovered for a moment before leaving. "Smash the bowl."
Arthur blinked, and then worked it out. "As a test?"
"If it's whole again tomorrow, we're still stuck in the same day." Merlin nodded. "Do you want my help? Now, I mean?"
"I'm not drunk this time, I think I'm capable of managing my own boots." Arthur waved a hand in dismissal and then went to tell his father that he'd come down with an awful headache.
It felt odd, standing in his chambers and deliberately dropping the bowl onto the ground, but satisfying as well; Arthur had been itching to destroy something for many hours. And as though the sound of breaking pottery was a cork pulled from the neck of a bottle, everything leaked out and started to swirl around in his mind again: the dragon, Merlin, Morgana, Gaius. Webs of secrets and magic that had been woven in his castle, without his knowledge, by the people closest to him.
Arthur was a long time in falling asleep.
The next morning Arthur was awake before Merlin arrived. His mind was still restless and he dressed himself in a pointedly different set of clothes, casting occasional glances at the blue bowl where it sat on the table.
Merlin did little more than open the door, notice that Arthur was fully clothed and sitting on the edge of the bed, and beckon with his head. They made their way to Morgana's room in silence and slipped in to join the familiar tableaux. Arthur didn't like that he was starting to forget what Morgana was like when she wasn't lying like that, quiet and shifting, and damn him, Merlin had been right: Arthur couldn't see any evil magical being. It was just Morgana, and whatever she was Seeing was causing her considerable distress, and the futile ache that rose in Arthur's chest whenever she moaned refused to be banished simply because of this new knowledge.
This time Arthur ordered breakfast for one person only from the servant in the corridor, let Merlin apologise to Gwen, and then the both of them followed Gaius back to his rooms.
"I believe I have found a precedent," Gaius said without preamble, as soon as the door was closed, "in the writings of a very powerful magician who lived in the last century. His town's official Seer had such a vivid vision of such a terrible event that she trapped the town in a repeating day like this one in order to prevent it from ever coming to pass." He paused, turning around with a battered book in his hands. "The magician had a great deal of magical skill, enough that he was able to live linearly in the way that we are doing now with the rowan's help, yet he only discovered the truth of the issue when it was too late. He found a way to wake the Seer, but the very next day the disaster -- it was a great fire, started by accident in the middle of a drought -- wiped out most of the village."
"So she's doing it on purpose?" Arthur asked.
Gaius shook his head. "In any other Seer that may be the case, but Morgana is untrained and so has very little control over what must be an enormous amount of power. She enlists my help to actively suppress the dreams, as you know, and has never been able to use her abilities to scry with deliberation. No; I believe that in Morgana's case her desire to avert this feared event was strong enough, and her raw power great enough, that the circle was created of its own accord."
"She's protecting us," Merlin said softly. "There's nothing evil about that."
Gaius gave him a sharp look that Arthur couldn't read. "Quite. Though I'm sure I don't have to tell you that not every person in Camelot would see past the fact that her power is currently exerting control over a great many lives."
"People should be judged by their intentions," Merlin said, and now he was definitely looking at Arthur. "Not by something that they just happen to have been born with."
Arthur thought about William and wasn’t surprised at all. He didn't like the feeling that he was being preached at by people who were technically in his service, but he also couldn't find it in himself to disagree. "This disaster," he said, refusing to engage; there were more pressing things to attend to, "if we were to wake Morgana, it would happen tomorrow?"
"Very likely," Gaius agreed. "This is the last safe day, so this is the day in which we must continue to live."
"So we stop the terrible thing and then we wake her up." There was a rueful smile on Merlin's face now. "Easy."
Arthur snorted. "And how do you suggest we go about finding and preventing something that hasn't happened yet? It's not like we can ask Morgana about what she's Seeing."
Gaius began to flick through the book. "Perhaps not, but…there is a chance she could tell us, even so. Merlin, I need lemon thyme, and clover honey, and the green bottle at the far right of the highest shelf."
"I'll get that." Arthur hated to feel idle when there was finally a chance that they could do something to improve the situation. He located the shelf and the bottle in quick succession, and added them to the small pile that was growing in a hastily-cleared spot on the table. Gaius was working with deft precision that Arthur had to admire in the same way he admired the angle of Gwen's wrist as she flicked sheets and lifted chainmail, and the same way he had admired Lancelot's sublime battle-grace; Arthur liked to see things done well by experts.
"Oh, I see," Merlin was saying, hovering by Gaius's shoulder and watching the potion take shape. It was starting to fizz. Arthur hoped that was a good sign. "It's the opposite of the one you normally give her."
"Correct." Gaius poured a few drops from the green bottle into the bowl and the fizzing stopped. "I hate to do this to her ladyship, but I'm going to have to make her dreams worse. When I left her she was making some sounds; it stands to reason that the more vivid her vision is, the more likely she is to speak."
"Is this the best idea we have?" Arthur demanded.
"It's the only idea I have, your highness." Gaius stirred the bowl and gave Arthur a huffy look reminiscent of Merlin just after Arthur had given an order related to mucking out the stables or wearing hats with feathers. On reflection, Merlin had probably learned it from Gaius. "Unless you would like to suggest a better one...?"
"Fine," Arthur sighed, "let's try it."
When the potion was ready, Gaius approached Gwen on his own; she took very little convincing to let him relieve her for an hour while she went for some food and fresh air. Arthur hid around the corner with Merlin, thinking that it was quite ridiculous how accustomed he was becoming to sneaking around his own castle.
"This is," he started, and Merlin met his eyes with a smile.
"I'm convinced you're a bad influence, Merlin. Ready?"
"Gwen's gone." Merlin beckoned with his head and they joined Gaius in Morgana's room. Morgana herself was in a different position to the morning, her hair tangling around one side of her neck and one arm flung out awkwardly.
"I do apologise for this, my dear," Gaius murmured, and tipped the contents of the bowl carefully into her mouth. Morgana spluttered a little and some of the potion spilled back down her chin, where Gaius wiped it away with a sheet corner, but she seemed to swallow most of it.
A lengthy silence followed.
"How long --?" Merlin began, but he was interrupted when Morgana gave a gasp so sharp and so sudden that Arthur was sure she must have awoken.
"No." A full-voiced protest. "No, it can't -- it has to stop. It's too -- too loud, I can't -- Arthur."
Arthur had lived through many dangers and faced many foes, and he was no stranger to fear no matter how useful it was to pretend otherwise, but he had never heard anything so terrifying as his own name thrown out in Morgana's despairing cry.
"Not Arthur, please, no, no," and Arthur couldn't watch her any more, so he looked sideways instead and found himself focusing on Merlin's hand, white-knuckled around the bedpost, and the look of haunted fear on Merlin's face. He wanted to do something, maybe slap Merlin's arm and tell him that he was an idiot who worried too much, and the very act of wanting to comfort went some way to calm his own clawing terror.
"Morgana." Gaius took hold of her hand, which seemed to subdue her somewhat, but she kept shivering and frowning. "Lady Morgana, you have to tell us what it is that's coming."
"It's too loud," Morgana said again, and her back arched and dry sobs shook her body.
"Do we really have to --" Merlin's voice was high and unsteady, but once again Morgana interrupted him.
"I can't hear, I can't see, why won't it stop screaming --"
"What's screaming?" Arthur heard himself say, something stirring in his memory. "Morgana, what is it?"
Morgana went still. Her chin moved from side to side, sluggish, as though she was drunk and searching for something. "The dragon," she said, so softly that Arthur had to strain to hear her. "The dragon is screaming."
Gaius gave her hand a shake. "Morgana. What else?" But she was back to her former state, barely moving, just showing flickers of facial expression and distressed sounds. "That's all we'll get, I'm afraid," Gaius said. "Her mind is protecting her, just as it is protecting us. I would not force her past this for fear of doing real damage to her sanity."
Arthur discovered that he needed to sit down as a matter of some urgency. He settled for the edge of Morgana's bed, managing to make it look like a casual act instead of something done because his knees were turning into jelly. "There was a boy," he said, before he could think about it too much, "a boy came to Camelot from one of the villages, I talked to him yesterday. Our yesterday. He said something about a screaming ghost, and wanting protection for his village."
Gaius frowned. "It's not a lot to go on. But if it's all we've got -- a ghost, you said? Not a dragon?"
Arthur took them through as much as he could remember of what the boy had said: the history, and the fact that the screaming was becoming more frequent. "It sounded like 'ghost' was just the story they'd attached to this screaming sound, so perhaps...but I don't see how it could be, they killed all the dragons, they..." Arthur caught Merlin's look with ease; he was throwing an identical one in Merlin's direction. "Come on," he said grimly.
"Merlin!" Gaius called after them as they left. "Be careful."
It was some comfort to know that Merlin paid as little attention to Gaius' commands as he did to Arthur's; as soon as they reached the cave, Merlin charged as far forward as he could on the ledge and yelled, "Hey! We need to talk to you!" as though he were trying to get the attention of a lazy kitchenhand instead of a beast that could roast him in an instant.
The Dragon stirred, one eye opening and then the other. "I do not believe that to be true," it said. "You have all the information that you require."
"The terrible event that Morgana is protecting us from," Merlin started, and then stopped and gave Arthur an uneasy glance.
Arthur lifted his head. Straight answers might be impossible, but he could damn well ask a straight question. "Are there any other dragons left, besides you?"
"Uther was blind in his hatred and rage," the Dragon said coldly.
"Blind as in he might have missed one?" Merlin pounced. "So what can we do about it? I assume our destiny isn't to let it destroy Camelot."
"You have the information you need to achieve your destiny, Merlin." There was a pause in which the Dragon shifted one claw and a shower of pebbles leapt into the chasm. "And the young prince will have all that he needs, before long."
"What does that mean?" A panicked note entered Merlin's voice and Arthur looked at him, startled.
"You don't need me to tell you that," the Dragon told him. This was getting them absolutely nowhere.
"Come on, Merlin, we're wasting our time." Arthur turned on his heel and tried not to imagine the feeling of flames licking up his spine. In deliberate defiance of his own nerves, he added, "We'll work out how to kill the dragon on our own."
A long, bitter sound, like an ancient sigh, followed them up the stairs.
"What now?" Merlin asked.
"Now I'm going to go and talk to the boy from the village again," Arthur declared, "and you are going to fetch my armour and weapons, and a spare set for yourself. You still fight like a dairymaid holding a wet fish, and that's not going to be any help at all if we're to kill a dragon."
"But we don't know how to --"
"Weapons and armour, Merlin." Arthur pushed him in the direction of the armoury. So far this adventure had been all talk and books and recipes and more talk, and Arthur was impatient for it to progress to the part he was actually good at. It took him a while to track down the boy -- first he had to find the steward, who seemed surprised that Arthur knew of the boy's existence, and said that he'd sent him away.
"But he's still loitering outside the castle gates, sire," he added, just as Athur was biting back a curse. "I do apologise, I was certain he would just waste your time. The error is entirely mine."
Arthur waved away his apology and went to find the boy. He tapped his foot through the rendition of the story and quickly started asking questions: no, nobody had ever seen the ghost, and yes, perhaps the screaming did start twenty years ago. Arthur also discovered that the boy's name was Edward and that the village in question had the spectacularly unimaginative name of Riverbend.
"Because it's on a bend in the river," explained Edward, who still seemed to be labouring under the delusion that Arthur was not very bright. Which was highly unfair considering that as far as Edward was concerned, this was the first time they'd ever spoken.
Arthur extracted some more detailed directions to the village out of the boy and sent him off again with the same vague promise as last time, then went to spend an enjoyable few hours whacking Merlin with the flat of his sword.
In the evening Merlin was dispatched to tell Uther that Arthur had come down with a freak summer cold and was probably contagious, and he needed Merlin to fetch and carry for him, so unfortunately they would not be at the feast. Merlin must have detoured past the kitchens on the way back, because he was carrying a large basket full of food on his return.
"Not venison, I hope. I'm not avoiding that bloody feast just to eat the same meal in my room."
"No, I begged some ham and bread. And Jill threw in some berry tarts because she thinks I need to eat more."
Arthur snorted. "You do need to eat more, Merlin, you're a disgrace to my reputation. People will think I'm starving you."
In between Arthur stealing the best slices of ham and Merlin managing to drip berry juice all over his trousers, there was a lot more talking. Merlin didn't want Arthur to face a dragon alone; Arthur didn't want to have to explain the inexplicable in order to drag along a small army, and he was fairly sure that the title Great Dragon implied that any other dragons would be smaller.
Also, he thought Arthur Pendragon, Single-Handed Slayer Of Dragons, had a nice ring to it.
"We have all the information that we need, " Arthur said sourly. "Somehow I doubt that."
"Well, I don't think other this dragon is living linearly," Merlin pointed out, "or surely Morgana's circle wouldn't be able to prevent it from attacking. If that's what it's going to do."
"That's true. Wait -- Gaius said that the magician in his book had a great deal of power and so lived through the circle without the aid of rowan berries, right? And the Great Dragon is obviously doing the same thing."
Merlin started to nod furiously, and he licked the last berry-stain off his thumb. All this accomplished was the transferral of the juice from his hand to the side of his mouth. "So this other dragon might not be powerful enough. It makes sense."
"How does death work, in this circle?" Arthur had been worrying about this. "Surely Morgana can't bring us back to life, if we die."
"I don't know." Merlin got up from the floor and winced as his knees cracked, then sat on the edge of the bed instead as he packed their empty plates back into the basket. "But I doubt it. Definitely not while we're drinking the rowan, in any case."
"But we have to be able to kill the dragon. Surely. Or there's no point in the day repeating itself at all."
Merlin blinked. "But Morgana isn't doing it on purpose, so it's not like she's expecting us to do anything..."
"I have a headache," Arthur said accusingly. "How about we just find the dragon and I stab it with my sword?"
"Sounds good to me." Merlin collapsed back onto Arthur's bed with a sigh. "I'm going to rub your sword with rowan berries, though, just to be safe. And if it turns out to be the size of a house, we're riding straight back to Camelot and getting the knights."
Rowan. Arthur looked in the basket and sure enough, Merlin had remembered to bring a bottle of tea.
"Here," he said, kneeling on the bed and throwing the tea to Merlin. "Wouldn't want to forget this."
They both drank from the bottle, and then Merlin tried to toss it at the blue bowl but missed by a mile, and then they took turns throwing their boots until Arthur managed to knock the bowl off the table. The sound of it smashing against the floor was almost soothing by now.
"I should be going." Merlin gave an enormous yawn, which set Arthur off as well. Merlin looked like he would have trouble finding his discarded boots, let alone getting back to his own room, so Arthur said, "Don’t be stupid, I don't think it will matter if you stay here tonight. It'll save you just having to come straight back in the morning."
"Are you sure?"
Arthur shrugged. "Nothing we haven't done before."
Merlin looked thoughtful. "This is a very large bed, so I swear, if you poke me in the face with your foot again..."
Arthur considered his options for all of two seconds before poking Merlin. In the face. With his foot. Merlin gave an outraged squawk and rolled to one side, and when he sat up he was clutching his pillow with a tight grin on his face.
"It's a capital offense to assault the crown prince with his own bedclothes," Arthur said quickly, and for a moment Merlin just sat there and held the pillow on his lap, but then his grin grew wider.
"You just made that up," he said, and slammed the pillow into Arthur's face.
Arthur won the ensuing battle because he was clearly the superior warrior in every respect, even when the manner of fighting was far below his dignity. Though it was certainly, Arthur reflected as he was kneeling on Merlin's legs and soundly thrashing him with his own pillow, an excellent way to take one's mind off the fact that one was trapped in an endless magical day. Merlin's hair was a disaster and his cheeks were flushed with laughter and effort, and Arthur's arm was probably going to bruise where it had knocked against one of the bedposts, but he felt happier than he had since this whole mess began.
"Surrender," Arthur ordered.
Merlin gave another furious, futile wriggle and managed to gasp, "Fine, yes, all right," in between blows. Arthur dropped the pillow onto his face in a final triumphant gesture, and crawled off him.
Merlin groaned and manouevered the pillow beneath his head, almost in the very corner of the bed, far away from Arthur's feet. "Good night, sire," he said reproachfully.
"It is, isn't it?" Arthur agreed, and fell asleep smiling.
"Arthur. Arthur. Wake up." Merlin was shaking his shoulder.
Arthur slapped his hand away irritably and blinked until Merlin's worried expression swam into focus. "What is it?"
"Okay, so normally I wake up in Gaius's room and I'm coming to help you dress, and I run into Gwen, who tells me about Morgana. But I only run into her because she's coming to tell you -- do you see where I'm going with this?"
It took a while, because Arthur had only just woken up -- really, Merlin shouldn't speak so fast so early in the morning and expect to be understood -- but then there were footsteps outside the door and he got it.
"Yes!" Merlin leapt off the bed and ducked down beside it, on the opposite side to the door.
"Don't be so ridiculous, Merlin." Arthur peered down at him. "What does it matter if she sees you?"
"Your highness?" Gwen called through the door, and Arthur gave up on trying to decipher Merlin's strangeness and went to answer it.
"What is it, Gwen?"
"It's Morgana. Something's wrong with her."
"I'll be there as soon as I'm dressed," said Arthur. "Oh, and I'll fetch Merlin," and he closed the door in her face.
"That wasn't very polite." Merlin emerged from behind the bed and headed for the wardrobe.
"It's not like she's going to remember. And I'm sick of being told the same thing over and over again."
"Well, we have to be told the same thing in Morgana's room." Merlin shook Arthur's tunic pointedly. He was wearing socks, but his boots were nowhere to be seen, and Arthur realised that while Merlin's clothes started the day on, his boots were probably back on the floor of his tiny room in Gaius's chambers. Thinking about it made Arthur's headache threaten to reemerge, so he put it aside and focused on the glide of fabric over his shoulders and the little frown on Merlin's face as he worked the strings on Arthur's cuffs.
By now the whole thing was like being in a well-rehearsed play: they expressed concern, they listened to Gaius reassure Uther that it was nothing serious, they ordered breakfast to be brought for Gwen, and they followed Gaius back to his room, Merlin sliding a little on the stone floor. Nobody had cared enough about anything but Morgana to notice that Arthur's manservant wasn't properly shod; and really, it didn't matter. They wouldn't remember.
"Next time you intend to sleep elsewhere, Merlin, do feel free to inform me of the fact, if you do not wish me to assume that you've gone charging off on a dragon-slaying quest in the middle of the night. No, it's all right," he waved down Merlin's pink-faced efforts to apologise, "I looked in on the prince's rooms, just to make sure. I apologise for the liberty, your highness."
Arthur stared at him. "My door locks."
"So it does, sire," Gaius agreed.
"And...I don't want to ask any more questions, do I?"
"Probably not, sire. Now." He patted the pages of an open book. "While I'm afraid I can be of little use when it comes to killing a dragon, I have found those parts of the magician's writings describing the potion required to awaken the Seer. The only downside is that it needs to steep for three nights once the ingredients have been combined."
"But it won't work." Merlin frowned. "Nothing will last over three nights as long as Morgana's still forcing everything back at the start of the day."
"Ah, but not if it's made in a bowl of rowan wood. It really is a most ingenious recipe..." Gaius ran his finger down the page, stopped midway, and looked up. "Prince Arthur, could I prevail upon you to fetch some water? Merlin, come and help me, I need --" and he began to reel off a list of things, only a handful of which Arthur was familiar with, so he was glad to pick up the bucket and leave.
He drew a few odd looks when he was at the waterpump, but Arthur met them with looks informing the onlookers that he was the heir to the throne and if he wanted to pump his own water then he was perfectly entitled to do so. When he pushed Gaius's door open again, Gaius and Merlin were huddled over a bowl; their conversation stopped and both of their heads snapped up as Arthur entered.
"It's impolite to send the Crown Prince away so that you can gossip about him behind his back," Arthur told them.
Merlin smiled, but Gaius had the grace to look embarrassed. "I am in need of water," he said. "Thank you, sire. I can manage the rest. Now, if anyone asks me then you're out hunting, but you should leave now if you are to stand a chance of returning before dark. Go on. And take the utmost care, both of you; even if it lacks enough power to withstand Morgana's circle, a dragon is a very dangerous thing."
"We will," Arthur said, and Gaius gave him a look that suggested he was no more confident in Arthur's ability to be careful than he was in Merlin's, but waved a hand to shoo them out the door.
It was exactly as warm as the previous day had been, obviously, but riding under the open sun while wearing chainmail made it seem a lot warmer.
"We have to return before the end of the day," Merlin reminded him, not sounding very happy about it, "because otherwise our horses and weapons will be back at Camelot and we'll be stuck in Riverbend with no boots."
"Then we should ride faster." Arthur dug in his heels. There was no point in wasting time; either this trip would be a success or it would be the equivalent of reconnaissance.
Edward's specific directions turned out to be obselete because they heard the screaming before they saw the village, a cold desperate sound that seemed to burrow underneath Arthur's skin. The screams weren't continuous -- there were long breaks in the noise -- but they were very frequent.
"Over there." Merlin pointed into the forest, away from the riverbank.
"Caves, Edward said." Arthur steered them a little way into the trees until they reached a clearing of sorts, and then reined in his horse and dismounted. She was clearly skittish and upset by the sound, and it wouldn't be a lot of help if she took fright on the the uneven sloping ground ahead. "We'll tie the horses here and go on foot."
As they climbed, a rocky outcropping came into view and the screaming became louder and louder. No wonder it could be heard in the whole village; at this proximity it was almost deafening, and Arthur had to press his mouth next to Merlin's ear to make himself heard.
"Keep in the trees. Don’t step into the open until I tell you to."
Merlin nodded, and then his eyes widened and he pointed past Arthur to the mouth of the nearest cave, set at an angle not far above where they were standing.
"Can't wait, can't wait," came a voice, and Arthur waved Merlin into a crouch before turning around and ducking down himself.
The dragon was not all that large, certainly not when one's only point of comparison was the Great Dragon itself. It was smaller than the griffin had been, maybe twice as large as a horse, and it looked a mess. One of its wings dragged at a dead angle along its back and the other had an uneven edge. It moved out of the cave with a slow shuffle and when Arthur caught a glimpse of its eyes they were slitted, green, and senseless.
"No longer," it hissed, and then gave a dreadful rattle of a laugh. "All dead. All dead in the high caves and the fair mists. All dead in Camelot. Can't wait. "
Then it stood more upright and screamed again, a blast of pure misery that made Arthur's head ring.
"It's mad," Merlin said, almost shouted. He sounded uncomfortable.
"It doesn't matter." Actually, Arthur was relieved, in a way. Of course the Great Dragon could talk, but he hadn't liked to think about this dragon as being an intelligent creature who might argue with them, or plead for its life. "It doesn't change anything. You heard what it said. Either we kill it, or it attacks Camelot."
"It doesn't look like it could cause a terrible disaster," Merlin said dubiously, and Arthur was on the verge of agreeing with him when the dragon stopped screaming for long enough to give a hacking cough, and flames shot into the air.
"Fire." Arthur's heart sped up. "Remember what Gaius said -- the last Seer was trying to prevent an accidental fire. Even if the dragon only killed a few people, it's almost midsummer and a fire could ruin us."
"It's a miracle it hasn't burned the forest down already," Merlin said. "Though I suppose if it keeps to its caves..."
Arthur stood up. "Keep back as much as possible. But be ready to help, if I need it."
Merlin put a hand on his shoulder. "Good luck."
"Well, here we go," Arthur said, mostly to himself. He swung his sword in a wide circle, gripped the hilt with both hands, and then stepped into the dragon's view. At least the dragon hadn't recommenced the screaming after its fireball cough; trying to fight in the face of that din wasn't an appealing prospect.
The dragon saw him almost immediately, and moved a few steps towards him with astonishing speed considering its size. Arthur kept his sword high and as much as his body as he could manage behind his shield, and let himself fall into the focus of battle. Each movement of each part of the dragon's body registered with some part of his mind, and his own muscles tensed or relaxed in response. He was ready.
"Camelot," the dragon said, eyes on Arthur's shield. It was very close now, but not moving. Arthur kept assessing; the neck, eyes and chest looked like the most vulnerable spots, but the eyes were very small and very high. "Die," the dragon cackled, and Arthur had just enough time to tense in anticipation before it attacked; not with fire, not with its teeth, but with its arm. It just reached out and swiped Arthur sideways, one lazy flick that was so fast he didn't even realise what was happening until he was soaring in a sickening arc, his sword knocked from his hand.
"Arthur!" Merlin's shout seemed to be coming from a long way away.
Arthur landed hard and tried to sit up but all the wind had been knocked out of him, his chest was struggling to expand, no air was moving in his throat, and Arthur saw Merlin stand up and start to move. But Arthur's sword was too far away and the dragon was running now and Arthur knew, with the swift certainty that he knew these things in battle, that there was no way he would be able to escape it. He didn't feel afraid; he realised that more than anything he felt annoyed, because the fight had barely begun and this was no way for a proper knight to die, and then he closed his eyes and hoped like hell that the pain wouldn't last too long.
There was a gushing sound, a feeling like he had leaned too far over Gwen's father's smithy fire, and just as he was bracing himself for death he felt something like a giant hand take hold of his foot and drag him to the side, impossibly fast. He slid over rocks and felt his knee strike one of them at an angle that forced a cry of pain from his throat, but didn't dare open his eyes until he had skidded to a halt and discovered that he was, in fact, still alive. Bruised all over, missing his shield, with a warm face and a throbbing knee, but alive.
Arthur sucked in a breath, to the relief of his aching lungs, and opened his eyes. The dragon was ignoring him completely and had rounded on Merlin, who was standing with one hand outstretched in Arthur's direction. Arthur met his eyes and Merlin gave him a look exactly like the one he'd worn as he drunk from the poisoned chalice, all that time ago.
And then Arthur's sword flew up from the ground and into Merlin's hand and for a moment this seemed perfectly normal, and then Merlin said in an empty voice, "Arthur, I'm so sorry," and everything went out of focus. Arthur couldn't think -- his mind refused to cohere around the concept -- but it didn't have to, because the dragon let out a long, slow hiss that became a word.
"Ssssssorcerer," it said, and Arthur could see Merlin's hand trying to remember the proper grip around the sword's hilt. The dragon looked from Merlin to Arthur and then back at Merlin, and funnily enough the next thing it said was also the next word that Arthur himself was thinking. "Traitor."
"I'm sorry," Merlin said again, and Arthur had no idea whether he was talking to the dragon or to Arthur himself, and then the sword flew out of his hands and straight towards the dragon's exposed chest.
Arthur held his breath, waiting, but there was a dull scraping sound as the sword bounced off and fell to the ground. Merlin looked terrified, but he held out one shaking hand and said something in a loud, harsh language, and the dragon reared its head back and screamed again. Merlin ducked to the side and retrieved the sword, and then made a dash towards Arthur.
The dragon seemed to have lost even more of its wits; it flailed around, blowing short puffs of sparks and smoke in every direction, tripping on fallen logs. Arthur stared at it because it was easier than looking at Merlin, who was hauling him upright, but he couldn't keep in the hiss of pain as his weight fell onto his right leg.
"Arthur," Merlin was saying, "Arthur."
Arthur shoved him away, and for a fleeting moment Merlin's face was a mask of misery, but then he held out Arthur's sword, hilt-first.
"I've blinded it, but it won't last, I don't think -- we have to move. You're hurt."
Some kernel of survival instinct in Arthur rose up and seized hold of him. He snatched the sword and he followed Merlin back down through the trees to where the horses were, the sound of the dragon's screams -- higher, now, more like frustration than misery -- fading as they moved. Every step sent pain shooting down his leg, but he gritted his teeth and forced himself to keep going.
When they reached the clearing Arthur sat down on a rock, listening hard, but there were no sounds of pursuit. He exhaled and looked over at Merlin, who was standing facing his horse, both hands resting on the saddle, but motionless. The hot anger that Arthur had felt in the dragon's cave was nothing compared to the wild, ice-cold feeling that swept through him now.
"You're a sorcerer."
"Yes." Merlin turned around, his hands clenched into fists by his sides. He spoke in a rush, as though he was expecting to be cut off. "Arthur. How much does it matter?"
"What kind of question is that?" Arthur snapped. "It means everything."
"And the fact that I just saved your life, that means nothing, does it? The fact that I would die for you, is that nothing?"
Arthur had expected -- no, nothing about this was anything he had ever expected -- but this fierce, whip-sharp intensity was very unlike how Merlin had acted when Arthur had found out about the dragon. And about Morgana. And about Will --
A lot of things made a lot of sense very fast.
"It wasn't Will."
Merlin closed his mouth, which had the effect of making him look a lot less angry and a lot more like he was about to burst into tears. He shook his head.
"It was you."
"Yes. And I tried to tell you, I wanted to tell you, Arthur, believe me, but Will -- well, he thought he needed to protect me." Merlin laughed horribly and waved one hand between the two of them; Arthur remembered the flying sword, the way the dragon had reared its head and it took a lot of effort for him not to take a step backwards. "I can't imagine why."
Too much. This was too much. Arthur's leg was screaming; he wanted to collapse into Morgana's endless sleep; it was too much.
"Don't speak to me," Arthur said.
"Do as you're told." He limped over to his horse and managed to swing himself up with only a low grunt of pain. "When we return to the palace you will deal with the horses and then return to your room. You will not attend the feast. And you will not speak another word to me today."
Merlin, being Merlin, tried on five separate occasions to disobey this order, but Arthur just kept on kicking his horse ahead. The sun was pouring heat into the air and his hair was stuck to his forehead with sweat, but right at his core was that cold wind of betrayal and uncertainty. He wanted never to have drank the rowan potion; he wanted to be stuck in the circle with everyone else, where the day was long but not dangerous, and Morgana was just overtired and not desperately resisting her own nightmare to keep them all safe, and Merlin wore silly hats and was nothing that Arthur didn't want him to be.
Arthur forced himself to be impeccably polite at the feast, losing himself in discussions of politics and trade and court gossip, trying to remember what came next in the speeches he'd already heard -- anything to keep himself from thinking about the dragon, and about Merlin. It worked for a while; then he got drunk, which worked much better, and he had attained a fragile state of pleasant numbness by the time he returned to his room.
The knock on the door took him by surprise, and he stared at it for a while, trying to decide through the numb haze whether he wanted to let Merlin in or punch him in the face or both.
"Your highness?" It wasn't Merlin's voice. Something sharp and bitter rose in Arthur's throat.
"What?" he yelled.
"A delivery from the royal physician, your highness." The servant sounded cowed, and when Arthur opened the door he took one look at the prince's face and held two bottles out at arm's length. "Gaius asked me to remind you to drink this one, and to rub this one on your knee," he quailed, and as soon as Arthur took them from him, he took a step back from the doorway.
"Thank you," Arthur snarled, and kicked the door shut. He applied the fragrant lotion, drank from the bottle -- it was the hangover potion this time, not just tea, which for some reason made Arthur even angrier -- hurled the blue bowl against the wall in one savage movement, and then fell asleep in a bed that seemed, for the first time, far too large.
Another knock on the door woke Arthur the next morning, a knock so soft he thought for a moment he'd imagined it. But it came again, louder, and then: "Arthur, it's me. Can I come in?"
Arthur sat up and looked at the door, wondering what Merlin would do if he refused to say anything, but he didn’t have to wonder for long. The door opened and Merlin, looking exactly the same as yesterday -- down to the wary expression -- let himself in.
"It’s a new day," he said quietly. "Are you going to talk to me?"
For a second Arthur was tempted, so tempted, to go the juvenile route of pointing out that it was not, in fact, a new day. But that wouldn't have accomplished anything.
"When we leave Morgana's," he said, not quite looking at Merlin as he climbed out of bed, "saddle the horses. We'll leave immediately. We're going to finish what we started."
The gathering in Morgana's room was even more difficult than usual, and Arthur could feel Gaius sending both of them sharp glances as he examined her; they were neither of them very good actors. But then Arthur had to think that surely Merlin must be an excellent one, to stand by and watch Uther execute so many magicians. And then he had to think about little things: Merlin asking softly if it was really so bad to use magic for a good purpose, Merlin turning his head away, Merlin helping and accepting but never looking pleased about it. Perhaps he was a dreadful actor; perhaps Arthur just hadn't been watching closely enough.
"Merlin," he said, afterwards, "horses," and Merlin stopped walking in the opposite direction to the stables, but he didn't turn around.
"I'll meet you there," he said. "I -- there's something I need to do first."
If he thought that he could foist Arthur off with vague statements the day after revealing that he was actually a lot better at keeping secrets than anyone else Arthur had ever known, he was mistaken. Arthur let him get almost to the first corner of the hall before he started to follow him, keeping a good distance between them and even lengthening it once he figured out where Merlin was headed. So by the time Arthur had crept down the stone stairs and pressed himself against the wall five steps above the ledge, secure in the shadows, Merlin and the Great Dragon were already conversing.
Or rather, Merlin was raging and the Great Dragon was -- from what little Arthur could see -- listening impassively.
"...and now everything's ruined, because he hates me! How am I supposed to protect him when he hates me? How am I supposed to protect him when you won't tell me anything?"
There was a renewed spark of fury trying to gain ground in Arthur, because Merlin's job was to serve him, not to stand between him and the world as though he were a child in need of someone else to fight his battles, and the sheer presumption in the way Merlin threw these words out was infuriating.
"There can be no true meeting of destined souls," the Dragon said, and it sounded so loftily superior that some of Arthur's anger redirected itself, "where secrets stand between them."
"Right," Merlin snapped. "You know what else has a good chance of standing between us? A dungeon. Or maybe they'll just have my head chopped off, like they do with all the other sorcerers; I'm sure I'll do a fantastic job of helping Arthur become a great king once I'm dead."
"Trust runs in more than one direction," the Dragon said, which was the only sensible thing Arthur had heard it come out with yet. Merlin seemed to realise this; he stopped shouting.
"All right," he said. "Perhaps I should have -- all right. But that's not the point! The point is that Arthur almost died because you won't tell us how to kill this thing, and --"
He was cut off by a growling sound that grew louder and louder, and the Dragon pulled itself up until it was erect, eyes glinting, teeth bared. "You presume much, young warlock," it hissed. "Do you think me nothing more than an oracle, to serve at your convenience, just as Uther thought twenty years ago? My destiny is to help you and the Pendragon prince achieve greatness. I will do this, but you will not stand there speaking of killing the only other survivor of my people and expect me to be pleased about it."
Merlin took a while to respond. "I'm sorry," he stumbled. "I didn't think about that, I'm sorry. But it's the only way we can prevent it from destroying Camelot, the only way it will be safe to wake Morgana."
"You will accomplish this thing," the Dragon said, and it almost sounded sad. "But you will do it without my help."
Arthur decided that he had heard enough. He ran up the stairs, his footfalls as light and fast as when he was hunting, and by the time Merlin made it to the stables he was already ordering the tack for their horses and had sent someone to the kitchen for a packed meal.
"If I ask you where you were," he said conversationally, checking his saddle, "will you lie?"
"No!" Merlin sounded upset-bordering-on-angry; it was the exact same tone in which he'd just scolded the Great Dragon because Arthur hadn't emerged unscathed from a fight with an insane magical creature. But Arthur wasn't supposed to know that. "No more lies. I swear to you. Ask me anything."
When Arthur looked at him, Merlin's mouth was drawn into a thin line, but he said, "Yes. Anything."
One servant returned with their food, then, and another appeared leading a horse kitted out for Merlin, so Arthur didn't say anything else. And by the time they were riding down the same road that they'd followed the previous day, the momentum and some of the tension was gone, so it took a long while before Arthur spoke. It wasn't the question he'd thought he wanted to ask, but it was an important one.
"Do you wish I still didn't know?"
"Actually," Merlin said, after a long pause, "when we found out about the circle, for a while I wished it was just me. I wished you were living the same day as everyone else so that I could tell you about my magic and then you would forget, and then I could try again and again and again until I found a way to tell you that didn't sound so --"
"So much like you've been lying to me ever since we met?"
Merlin looked almost sick. "It's the lying that bothers you, isn't it. Not the magic."
Arthur closed his mouth on the next thing that wanted to emerge from it, not sure what it was, but sure it was going to make the situation worse. He considered the question: yanked everything that he'd been avoiding into the sunlight and looked it in the face, and realised that Merlin was right. He'd thought he knew Merlin, thought he'd finally found someone he could trust effortlessly, and that had been knocked down in an instant. And if he was quite honest with himself, there was also the fact that Merlin was the walking proof that what his father was doing to the magic-users of Camelot was wrong, and Arthur hated that because --
Well. Because it meant that Arthur should be standing against him, but that was impossible. Nobody could stand against Uther when it came to magic. So that left Arthur...where? In full knowledge that people shouldn't be held accountable for the way they were born, but equally sure that nothing he could do or say would alter the way Camelot was ruled. It left Arthur helpless, and more than anything else Arthur hated things that he could not change.
Arthur realised that he hadn't spoken for a while, and also that he'd forgotten the original question. "I'm -- I'll get used to the idea," he said softly. "Just don't expect me to do it straight away."
This time it was Merlin who nodded and then rode ahead, either seeking his own space or granting Arthur his. It didn't really matter. They rode in silence for long time, long enough that Arthur's muscles started to tense of their own accord; they were not far from Riverbend, only a little distance from the place where the screaming had first become audible yesterday.
"It's what people do that should matter," Merlin burst out with suddenly, breaking the silence. "Not what they have the potential to do. You admitted it yourself, when you found out about Morgana. What matters is what people intend, and how they feel --"
Arthur heard the last remnants of his anger say, "Magic corrupts." But they were his father's words, and he knew that he had no proof of them; just the fact that they had been said so many times by someone he had always, always striven to prove himself to.
"Power corrupts. If you let it." Merlin paused. "And I won't let it happen to you, if you won't let it happen to me."
Arthur closed his eyes, took two deep breaths, and then opened them again. This was Merlin, Merlin, who had saved his life and shown himself prepared to fight to the end in Arthur's service, and Arthur knew that right here and right now he had to made a decision. It had to be enough, or not. He trusted Merlin absolutely, or he didn't.
"Look out!" Merlin cried then, and Arthur barely had enough time to register the way the air had changed before his body threw itself flat along the neck of his panicking horse, his own instincts saving his life. The dragon's arm whistled over his head, and Arthur managed to force his horse backwards in a skitter of hooves that was only just under his control.
"Where did it come from?" Merlin yelled. "I thought it was trapped in the circle! I thought it would be in the same place as yesterday!"
Arthur bit back a curse and slid off his horse, keeping his eyes on the dragon, which was puffing smoke again and watching him right back. "I don’t know how this works, Merlin. Maybe your magic tricks yesterday messed with it, maybe the rowan berries on the sword did something, I don't know. But we have to kill it, and we know steel alone doesn't work."
Merlin looked at him blankly. He really was a moron at the most inconvenient times.
"Magic! " Arthur shouted. "Get off your horse and do something! "
The dragon gave that rattling laugh and Arthur pulled his horse even further back, making sure they were out of swiping range, as Merlin lifted his hand and said the blinding spell again.
"Good." Arthur reached out for the reins, and Merlin slid down with an anxious look on his face as the dragon erupted into rage again.
"No," it growled, "no, all gone, gone into the dark, have to kill --" and another scream.
"Arthur!" Merlin shouted, watching the dragon. "Draw your sword."
"What? It doesn't work, Merlin, we already found that out."
"Just do it, trust me," and Arthur's hand was at his hilt before Merlin had even finished speaking, so Arthur supposed he did.
"Move back some more," Arthur snapped, dragging the terrified horses further away from the thrashing dragon with one hand, balancing his sword in the other. "And hurry up, whatever it is."
Merlin started to speak, his face twisted into concentration, his hand stretched out towards Arthur, and when the blue light erupted it was so bright that Arthur thought it must have been lightning, but it was his sword. On fire with some glowing power, suddenly lighter and warmer in his hand.
Merlin gasped and let his hand drop. "Now," he said urgently, "try now. I'll help."
Arthur watched the way the dragon was moving, trying to find a rhythm, but there didn't seem to be any: it stumbled forward, it lashed out to the side, it was moving closer.
And then the sound shimmered through the air, high and wondrous, like someone singing with three throats and no words, and the dragon went completely still. It lifted its head as high as it could, listing to the side because of the weight of its dead wing, and let out a soft noise. It was completely still. Its neck was exposed. The sound went on and on and on.
Something painful twisted in Arthur's chest, but he was already moving, running into the stillness and then feeling his sword sink deep into the dragon's flesh as though its hide were nothing more than lace.
The last scream was worse than all of the others combined, and Arthur yanked back his sword just in time to roll out of the path of an untidy jet of fire, but it was over very quickly. The wound had been deep and exact, and the magic on the blade must have done something as well, because the scream cut off after a few seconds and the dragon fell to the ground. The force of its fall rumbled through Arthur's feet and then died away, leaving him abruptly aware of the fact that his knee was aching again. He turned around; Merlin was calming the horses, which thankfully hadn't bolted when Arthur released them to attack the dragon.
"What was that?" Arthur asked, and Merlin's mouth twisted as he walked forward to join him.
"Dragonsong. It's an easy spell. It's meant to be soothing for children, it's not -- not for battles."
"You look almost sad for it," Arthur said, and it came out more of an accusation than he'd meant. Merlin turned away from the dragon, his face pale.
"It was mad, it couldn't help being mad. And everyone it ever knew, everyone of its kind, had died."
Arthur wasn't fool enough to take that on face value. He wiped his sword down and sheathed it, and then said, "Did you actually think I'd have you killed, if I found out?"
Merlin gave a long, slow shudder and seemed to sink in on himself, but his gaze and his tone were both frank. "I didn't know. I'm sorry. I thought -- you'd be so angry that you might do something without thinking, or tell your father, and once the king knew I'd never be able to stay in Camelot. Alive or dead, I'd have to leave you."
"You have to trust me more than that," said Arthur, not knowing until the words escaped his mouth how desperately true they were.
"I will if you will," said Merlin. He gave a flicker of a smile, acknowledging the echo of his earlier words, and held out his hand.
Arthur thought about a normal, sunny day when an insolent stranger had talked back to him in the shadow of his own castle and held out one hand in thoughtless greeting. He thought about offering his own hand to Merlin in Hunith's dark hut, holding on tight and realising that there was no man in the world with whom he would rather face death.
He thought: well, I suppose there's my decision made.
Many things had changed; it was stupid to pretend otherwise. But Arthur could choose how much he let those things change him.
He reached out and clasped Merlin's hand.
"Deal," he said, and Merlin's smile grew into something real and bright.
A wild idea struck him. "You, Morgana -- Gwen isn't a sorcerer too, is she?" That, Arthur thought, would really be the last straw.
"No! No, god, no. It was me who healed her father when he was dying from Nimueh's curse." Merlin made a rueful face. "I didn't think that one through very well."
"Poor Merlin." Arthur released his hand and clapped him on the shoulder. "All that magic doesn't leave much room for brains, does it?"
Merlin's smile reappeared. "Let's go home," he said.
The late afternoon sun was touching the castle rooftops by the time they rode into Camelot, and Merlin's slow stories had untangled for Arthur a lot of the mysteries of the past few months. He'd lost count of the number of times they'd saved each other's lives, and decided that it was better not to be counting.
Gaius took one look at the both of them and fumbled a bunch of herbs. "I assume, from your filthy but pleased countenances, that your quest was successful this time."
"It was," Merlin said.
"Well, you can't go to the feast looking like that." Gaius shook his herbs at them. "Let me get you some tea, and then you can go and wash."
"We're not going to the feast at all," Arthur declared. "I'm far too sick and contagious. Inform my father, Gaius."
"Very well, sire." Gaius pointed them into seats and poured them rowan tea from a pot that had been warming by the fire. Arthur drank his as quickly as was prudent and then stood up.
"Good night." Merlin saluted him with his own empty cup.
"What's that, Merlin?" Arthur leaned against the doorframe and lifted his eyebrows. "Are you my manservant, or not?"
Merlin threw Gaius a look and a shrug, and followed Arthur. "I do have a room of my own, you know," he said as they climbed the stairs away from Gaius's door, though he didn't sound upset.
Arthur hadn't even thought about it; they'd spent so many days living close together, as the only ones who knew what was happening, and he'd grown accustomed to this: the night leaking in at the windows, rowan at the back of his tongue, and Merlin.
Besides, this time he had something to prove.
"Smash the bowl," he said, as soon as the door was closed. Merlin made to go over to the table, but Arthur grabbed his wrist and held him in place. "No. Smash the bowl, Merlin."
Merlin stared at him for a long moment, and then turned his head towards the table. He didn't say anything, this time, but his eyes burned momentarily with a deep shade of gold and Arthur almost dropped his hand in surprise. When he managed to look away from the strange, glowing calm of Merlin's face, he saw that the bowl was hovering in midair. Merlin let out his breath in something almost like a sigh; another flash of gold; the bowl flew sideways and into the wall in a single smooth movement.
A light tug brought Merlin's attention back to Arthur. "What else?"
"It's all right." The smile felt fine, on his mouth; not forced at all. "I want to know. I want you to show me. What else?"
An answering smile ducked onto Merlin's face and it looked fine as well. Perhaps it really was all right, between them, or at least well on its way to becoming so. "Well, there's something I've been working on. Lie down." Arthur, to his own horror, felt his eyebrows climbing his forehead in a suggestive manner. Merlin gave a cough and turned pink. "I mean. Lie down and watch the canopy of the bed, I'll show you something."
Arthur lay down on one side of the bed and gazed upwards with no idea what to expect. There was a shift of weight as Merlin lay down next to him, and then Merlin lifted one hand and said something in that strange magical tongue and black clouds began to spill from his fingertip, rising and spreading out to cover the canopy like an inky blanket.
"Watch this," Merlin whispered, and then began to speak magic again, a long hesitant stream of words, obviously taking great care over each syllable. And in front of Arthur's eyes the night sky of Camelot began to appear, pinpricks of brightness fading into view as though someone were poking holes in the dark blanket above their heads. He could see the Hare and the Crippled Archer and all of the constellations that he'd had pointed out to him since he was old enough to be awake on the rooftop after dark, the night wind stroking his cheeks and the oldest stories filling his ears. If he was lost anywhere in his own kingdom he could find his way home by these stars.
"That's amazing," Arthur said, and meant it.
Merlin didn't reply, but the pace of his words changed and the stars spilled out of their familiar patterns and began to spin around each other in a dance that was so soothing as to be soporific. Arthur closed his eyes and listened to Merlin creating magic beside him and his last thought before sleep claimed him was: I am safe, and I am home.
The feeling of calm lasted until Arthur woke up unable to feel his right arm because Merlin was lying on it.
"Hey, potato sack." He gave Merlin a good shove and managed to extricate his limb.
"Bugger off," Merlin mumbled into his pillow.
"I could have you flogged for that," Arthur pointed out, but then Gwen knocked on the door and called for him, and he was grinning as he threw the door open wide.
"It's Morgana. There's something wrong with her."
"We'll be there soon," Arthur told her.
"We?" Gwen looked over at the bed and her eyebrows did something extraordinary. "Is that --"
"Yes," said Arthur, and gave the lewdest grin he could possibly muster. "Good morning, Guinevere."
Gwen was still staring at Merlin with her mouth open, so Arthur closed the door gently and then leaned against it and burst out laughing. Fuck, this felt good. It had been a long and turbulent week and he never, ever got the chance to screw around with people's expectations without the knowledge that there would be consequences.
"Oh, very funny," said Merlin, still mostly to his pillow.
"Think about it, Merlin." Arthur couldn't keep the smirk off his face. "Gaius's potion needs one more night, so tomorrow will be the last time we live this day. So today…"
"…is the last one that doesn't count." Merlin lifted is head and looked at him for a few seconds, and then started to smirk as well. Arthur hadn't been aware Merlin's face could do that.
"No dragons to kill, and no consequences," Arthur said, the possibilities exploding and expanding in his head. "What do you want to do first?"
Merlin moved to sit on the edge of the bed, his eyes sparkling, but he said, "First we should make sure that the dragon's still dead. Check that Riverbend hasn't sent Edward to Camelot -- they shouldn't have, if the screaming's stopped."
Arthur gave him a disapproving look -- really, Merlin chose this time to suddenly become the practical one? -- but recognised the wisdom in his suggestion. "Fine, fine." He waved a hand. "Then what?"
Then came everything that Arthur had always wanted to do but couldn't because he was the heir to the throne and so expected to be above such immature pranks: they swapped the sugar and the salt in the table pots and blinked their way innocently through lunch, they tossed water onto the heads of people walking across the courtyard and then waved cheerfully down to their spluttering victims.
"How old are you, your highness," Merlin grinned, "five?"
"Please," Arthur scoffed, "I can come up with far more sophisticated pranks than a five-year-old."
Which was how they spent three glorious hours moving every piece of furniture in Lord Ramsey's room out onto the training field, Merlin enchanting the heavier pieces so that they could be carried easily, and Arthur coming up with increasingly implausible excuses to give to the people who stared at them. They created an impeccable replica of his bedroom's layout in the middle of the field, sent a servant to fetch him, and then hid behind a tree to watch.
A few whispered words from Merlin tied Geoffrey of Monmouth's bootlaces together under the library table and sent him tumbling to the floor when he stood up from his books; another few words unlaced the back of the Lady Charlotte's gown, exposing her petticoat. The scream she gave when she found out had them leaning against the wall, helpless with laughter, and Merlin almost fell over and Arthur grabbed his arm to hold him upright. It was a silly fleeting moment, but when their eyes met Arthur knew -- beyond the slimmest shadow of a doubt -- that his decision had been the right one. This, whatever they had, whatever they were creating simply by existing in the same space at the same time, was too important to risk losing.
"Now what?" Merlin asked, once they could breathe again.
"I have an idea," Arthur said for the fourth time that day.
Merlin must have found something in Arthur's face that gave away what manner of idea this one was, because he gave him a flat look in return. "I'm not going to like this idea, am I?"
It was an amazing, fantastic, genius idea, and wasn't it convenient that Morgana owned a dress in the exact same shade of blue as Merlin's eyes?
"You're mad," Merlin said.
"Think about it, Merlin. When else are you going to get a chance to do something like this in front of a lot of people who will never know it happened?"
"If it's such a wonderful opportunity, why aren't you doing it?"
"Because I'm the prince," Arthur explained, "and you're the manservant."
"It's Morgana's, it won't fit me."
"Nonsense." Arthur gestured with the hand not holding up the dress. "There are those bits that -- lace. Lace up. You'll be fine."
Merlin groaned, but took the dress from Arthur. "I'm not letting you dress me, you'll be dreadful at it." His voice took on a doomed tone. "Please get Gwen."
Gwen, once she'd finished filling Arthur's chambers with peals of delighted laughter, was all too happy to lace Merlin into the blue dress.
"We could --" she started, her fingertips in Merlin's hair.
"No," said Merlin.
"Maybe some paint --" and then his lips.
"No," said Merlin.
"Spoilsport," Arthur accused him.
"I'm sure this will cause enough of a stir on its own, sire." Gwen patted something frilly into place at Merlin's waist, and grinned up at him. "I can't believe you agreed to this, Merlin. You look very pretty. I mean -- I don't mean -- you don't look bad in your normal clothes --"
"See you at the feast," Arthur said, steering her towards the door before she could dig herself any deeper. "And don't tell anyone, we want it to be a surprise."
On that account they succeeded admirably. Arthur stored the stunned look on his father's face away to be treasured in future moments of boredom, and even managed to prevent it from becoming an angry one by the simple method of telling the truth: it was just a harmless joke, and surely a bit of laughter was not going to diminish the enjoyment of the visiting nobles?
"It's hardly in good taste, Arthur," his father frowned, but in the next instant his attention was elsewhere and the danger had passed.
The ladies of the court seemed just as taken with the idea as Gwen had been, and as the night progressed the Lady Emilia, displaying incredible single-mindedness of taste, still appeared determined to ambush Merlin with her attentions.
"What a lovely idea, your highness," she gushed to Arthur, rings shining as she waved an expressive hand. "Dressing your servants in such a way, in order to accentuate their true masculinity. So original."
Arthur...really had nothing to say to that. Besides, the joke was losing its novelty, and something about the fact that Merlin looked bemused instead of terrified made Arthur think about the what-ifs: what if the Lady Emilia had been young and charming, what if one day someone who wasn't a crazed harpy took enough of a liking to Merlin that they would pursue him past insults and dresses and social convention?
By that stage in the thinking process, Arthur had come to a decision. "My apologies, Lady Emilia," he said, and took firm hold of Merlin's wrist and yanked until Merlin had to take a few fast steps forward. "But I'm afraid my manservant has other duties tonight."
Lady Emilia looked from Merlin to Arthur and then back again, and Arthur waited until the look of realisation started to fall across her face before he allowed himself to look at Merlin.
"What are you doing?" Merlin hissed, and Arthur wanted to laugh. Just take in a deep gulp of air and then shout it all out again, let it bounce off the walls. Merlin's wrist was thin and warm and his skin was fluttering at the juncture of jaw and neck, some tiny muscle moving beneath the surface, and Arthur pulled him even closer.
"No consequences," he murmured, and then took Merlin's chin in one hand and kissed him hard.
It was a gamble, but only for low stakes; Arthur knew he could laugh it off with no effort at all, claim it next to the pranks and the dress as something that had only happened because it was fun to create waves when nobody would ever hold you accountable for them. And Merlin would forgive him because that was what Merlin did, that was what they did for each other: forgave the liberties and the mockery and the secrets because they knew that there were more important things.
Oh, Arthur knew exactly what his excuses would be, and in the first few moments of his mouth moving against Merlin's motionless lips, he lined them all up and readied them for battle. But just as he began to pull away, one of Merlin's hands flew up to the back of his neck and held him with their faces barely half an inch apart. Arthur couldn't focus well enough to see the expression on Merlin's face, but Merlin said very fast, "No, it's fine, no consequences, I just, I just wasn't expecting," and that was all Arthur needed to kiss him again, properly and deeply. He buried one hand in Merlin's hair and the other in the fabric at his waist, making a good show of it, because he could hear murmurs rising into exclamations all around them and his father would notice soon if he hadn't already and this, this, standing here tasting wine on Merlin's mouth and throwing away every lesson he'd ever been taught about propriety, was a brilliant and impossible thing, and Arthur was going to wrestle every piece of brilliance he could out of this bedamned circle of Morgana's.
"Right," Arthur said, when his need to breathe again was approximately equal to the level of shocked noise around them. "Right, then."
Merlin looked around and then back at Arthur and said, in a tone that was very close to being a command, "We should go and get the rowan tea from Gaius. Um. Right now."
"Are you sure?" Arthur had caught sight of Gwen's expression, and he kind of wanted to go over there and watch her flounder through her attempt at polite conversation about the fact that Arthur had just kissed Merlin in front of the entire court -- god, just thinking about it made Arthur's mouth hurt with the force of his smile -- but Merlin's hand had moved from his neck to his arm.
"Yes," he said. "I'm sure."
Come to think of it, watching Gaius react to the sight of Merlin in a dress promised to be highly entertaining, so Arthur threw Gwen another of those lewd smiles and they left the feast to the crescendoing astonishment of a room full of people. It was an excellent end to an excellent day.
"Merlin…" Gaius's expression was so dumbfounded that it outstripped even Arthur's wildest expectations.
Merlin, who seemed to have collected himself during the walk to Gaius's rooms, managed to look only slightly embarrassed as he held out his hand. "We need the rowan tea."
Gaius closed his mouth and gave them the bottle. "I don't want to ask any more questions, do I?"
Arthur smiled. "Probably not."
If he was honest, Arthur wasn't expecting anything to happen, not even when Merlin followed him back to his room -- that was almost routine, by now -- and then stood there with his edges softened by torchlight and an uncertain look on his face. Arthur didn't expect anything from this day except dreams, impossibilities, bright moments of joy and mischief that would never be recreated, and suddenly it seemed like they'd spun themselves something serious out of the jokes.
Merlin looked at him and Arthur wanted him so much it almost hurt, wanted to bite down on his lip and taste blood, wanted to find the magic in his fingers and coax it out.
"Turn around," Arthur commanded, and Merlin did.
He undid the tiny hooks at the back of the dress one by one, a widening arrowhead of skin appearing inch by inch as the fabric sprang apart. When the last hook was open Arthur drew two fingers down the line of Merlin's spine, from the nape of his neck to the top of his hips; his mind was soaring, lost in this sense that he could do whatever he wished because none of it would matter, that anything was possible and permissable. It was breathtaking -- literally, perhaps, because he could swear that Merlin was holding his breath in, and when Arthur turned him around again, the skirt sweeping to a halt a few seconds after Merlin himself, he released it. One warm puff against Arthur's mouth, and Arthur didn't even think before he leaned forward. The first kiss was at an awkward angle, so Arthur tried again, and then again, each brief contact better than the last as Merlin began to respond. This time, however, it was Merlin who pulled away first, looking determined.
"Arthur. This is different, this, between us, this has -- consequences. I won't pretend it doesn’t."
Then his eyes dropped and he was aiming that clear, Merlinesque intensity straight at Arthur's mouth, which was almost certainly inadvertent and definitely the filthiest thing Arthur had ever seen. Arthur had to swallow twice before he could manage to say, "All right."
Arthur didn't even bother to answer that. This time Merlin opened his mouth immediately, but just as they were really starting to get the hang of the kissing thing, he jerked back again. "Are you sure you're not just getting confused because I'm in a, a you know," indicating the dress, which was now bunched around his waist.
This was getting tiresome. Arthur grabbed Merlin's shoulders, feeling the glide of pale skin over collarbone, made sure Merlin was looking him straight in the eye, and used the dangerous voice. "Do I look confused?" he said, and then added, "Merlin," all deliberate enunciation and it must have worked because Merlin's eyes widened and his muscles went taut under Arthur's hands.
"Oh god," Merlin said weakly, "you can't, I, you don't, stop talking like that," and then he practically threw himself back at Arthur, and Arthur tripped backwards and fell onto the bed because his excellent warrior reflexes had been stamped into pieces by the boots of insistent desire, and things got rather violent from there.
There was the fact that between Merlin's practised hands and Arthur's familiarity with his own clothing, they had Arthur undressed very quickly, but there were layers and ties and things to this bloody skirt that seemed almost impossible to remove. Arthur was on the verge of spitting with frustration when the dress tore itself into pieces; no magic words, just a tight smile and those golden eyes and dear god, Arthur was going to have to work out a way to avoid exploding with lust every time Merlin's eyes did that.
"Doesn't matter," Merlin gasped, rolling them over until they were pressed skin to skin amongst the silken rags, "it'll be back in her wardrobe tomorrow, good as new."
There was the matter of finding angles where Merlin's bony elbows weren't digging into Arthur's ribs, and the matter of making someone's rhythm fit with the way someone else was moving their hips, and all of the other things that kept this real; kept it possible, not a dream at all.
There were Merlin's clever hands and the way he smiled up at Arthur, wide open and wondering, and there was the way Arthur found himself gasping when Merlin's mouth drew blood to the surface of his neck.
There was the fact that it was a summer night and being this close to another person pushed the heat into levels that were uncomfortable, but Arthur made the quick decision not to care that his sheets were sticking to his skin and that the air was thick with their mingled breaths and Merlin's body was a thing of overheated crevices and ungraceful movements. It was a bit awkward and a bit messy but all of it was good -- a better end to the day than anything Arthur could have imagined -- and that was all that mattered.
"Hold on," he murmured into Merlin's shoulder, and then kept his hand moving faster and faster and his eyes glued to the way Merlin's slick mouth made sounds that didn't belong to any real or magical language that Arthur could recognise. When the smash came, he was so absorbed in enjoying the view that he thought for a moment it had come from Merlin's throat, but then Merlin was breathing hard and Arthur's hand was sticky and over on the table the blue bowl was --
"Please tell me you did that on purpose," Arthur said, trying to gather enough of his thoughts to be properly unnerved.
Merlin turned his head and looked at the shards with an expression that started out smug, then dissolved into an artlessly delighted grin. He directed it at Arthur and said, "Mostly?" and Arthur had to lean down and laugh into Merlin's mouth.
In the light of the morning, Arthur found himself idly revising his earlier opinion of Merlin's bone structure. Merlin's chest rose and fell in a gentle rhythm, he managed to look intent and curious even while asleep, and his cheekbones were sharp and beautiful and entirely worth losing one's head over. Arthur would have taken the opportunity to check all of the other hidden, wonderful angles of bone under skin that he had discovered the previous night, but the day had been reset as though by the hand of a disapproving chaperone: they were both, to Arthur's disappointment, wearing clothes again.
"Gnnmf. Wha...?" Merlin's awakening lacked dignity -- he flailed around a bit with one arm and his brow furrowed when his hand collided with Arthur's pillow -- but the way his eyes widened as they fell on Arthur was nonetheless enough to make Arthur catch his breath.
"Good morning," Arthur said.
"Good morning." Merlin looked at him in way that was careful, measuring, and Arthur remembered --
This, between us, this has consequences.
As consequences went, Arthur thought, waking up next to Merlin wasn't exactly disastrous.
"Next time, Merlin, let's see if we can manage it without destroying any of my possessions, shall we? You really are a disgrace to my reputation," he murmured. And Merlin's smile was slow and his hands were confident as he pulled Arthur's lips down to his, kissing him as though it were the easiest and most magical thing in the world.
Arthur's hands were discovering just how much better access Merlin's normal clothing provided to, well, Merlin, when compared to the damn dress, when there was a knock on the door that forced both of them to freeze in a way that would probably have looked very funny to an observer.
Which there was about to be. Because the knock was followed, inexorably, by Gwen's polite, "Your highness?"
"Consequences!" Merlin said, scrambling frantically to disentangle himself from Arthur and the sheets. "This time everything counts."
Arthur groaned and let his head thump back onto the pillow. "She'll remember."
"Yes! Now get the door!" Merlin whispered, and fled to hide in the next room.
"Your highness? I'm so sorry to disturb you, but this is very important," came Gwen's voice through the door, and Arthur gave one more groan for good measure before going over to open it.
"What is it?"
"I really am sorry, but it's Morgana. Something's wrong with her."
Everything counts. Right. Arthur pulled an expression onto his face -- which was still tingling with the memory of Merlin's skin flushing under his lips -- and hoped like hell it was concern. "Is she unwell?"
"I -- I don't know. Gaius is with her, but I thought you should know."
"Thank you. I'll be there as soon as I have some clothes on." Arthur gestured down at his loose nightclothes, which Gwen appeared to notice for the first time.
"Of course! Of course, sire, sorry," she said, and looked very glad to leave when Arthur closed the door again.
"Well, Merlin, get a move on," Arthur called. "I'm quite sure you're still required to dress me."
Merlin's mouth, as he jogged across to collect Arthur's clothes from the wardrobe, was twisted into a smile that was probably keeping in a lot of very bad jokes. Arthur was sorely tempted to drag those jokes out, either by making some himself or by finding them inside Merlin's mouth with his tongue, but they didn't need distractions. He contented himself with enjoying the gentle brush of Merlin's fingers against his skin as they got Arthur into his clothes, and then pushed Merlin firmly out of the door before his willpower expired.
"I believe this to be a mild sleep disorder, sire," Gaius was saying as they entered Morgana's room for what would be, please god, the last time. "Not serious at all. In fact, I have a potion which I think will do her some good."
He drew the bottle out of a bag with impressive nonchalance, and Merlin's hand crept around Arthur's wrist and tightened as Gaius poured a small mouthful into Morgana's mouth and they watched her swallow it.
The silence was much shorter, this time: Arthur barely had time to feel his pulse knock twice against Merlin's palm, and then Morgana's eyes opened. Arthur released his breath.
"What --" She looked at Gaius, pulling herself upright, clumsy with sleep. "Gaius, I saw --"
"It's all right, my lady," Gaius said, his hands on her shoulders and his voice very serious. "It was a nightmare. Nothing more. It will not come to pass, I give you my word. Now, how are you feeling?"
"Fine, I feel --" Morgana blinked and looked around the room. "What are you all doing in here? What happened?"
"We were worried about you." Gwen broke away and went to sit on the bed, reaching out to squeeze her lady's hand. "You wouldn't wake up, but Gaius gave you something and now…are you sure you're all right?"
"Yes! Yes, just a little tired still, but perhaps you could bring me some tea?"
"Right away." Gwen nodded and hurried to the door.
"Excellent, Gaius." Uther clapped the physician on the shoulder, spared another glance for Morgana and a nod for Arthur, and then swept out.
"I don't believe this," Arthur muttered to Merlin, "but I'm looking forward to actually having conversations with my father again."
"I'm looking forward to spending this day doing something other than reading books, making potions or going off on dangerous quests."
"Excellent." Really, Merlin just walked into these things. Arthur clapped him on the back. "I need you to sharpen all of my weapons, go through that chest of old clothes that we found last week and work out which of them are worth keeping, clean my boots, and polish my tack in the stables."
Merlin turned and gave him a betrayed look.
"Everything counts today, Merlin, and your chores aren't going to do themselves. If you finish all of those things," Arthur allowed, "I may let you burn the hat."
"I'm holding you to that," Merlin said.
It worked out well, really; the look of dark satisfaction on Merlin's face as he set the hat alight, combined with the vicious flash of his eyes, made heat curl deliciously in Arthur's stomach. Then there were a couple more hasty spells to remove the scorch mark from Arthur's floor (successful) and the stench of burnt feathers from the air (sort of successful: the room smelt like wet grass for hours instead, which was at least an improvement). Merlin wore his normal clothes to the feast and both of them swore to behave beautifully, a resolution which lasted for as long as it took for Merlin to trip and spill the gravy and for Arthur to get into his first bickering match with Morgana. Not that this was Arthur's fault at all; he'd been feeling disposed to be nicer than usual to her, considering the past week, but she would make a pointed comment about Arthur's ability to be diplomatic, and he could hardly let the insult slide.
Apart from the gravy incident, Merlin seemed to be faring better. He spent some time talking barley, which impressed Arthur's father, spent some more time hiding in a corner chatting to Gwen, and even managed to walk away from the Lady Emilia after spending no more than a few minutes in her company.
Arthur was impressed. "How did you get rid of the old bat this time?"
"Oh, it was easy. I just told her I was flattered by her attentions, but I am required to attend my master in his bedchamber tonight, and he's very demanding."
All in all Arthur considered it a very good sign that despite wanting to shove Merlin up against the nearest wall and kiss him until both of them were gasping, he retained the ability to want to hit him for being such a colossal idiot. He was about to launch into a tirade outlining the many and varied ways this particular demonstration of idiocy was going to end in disaster when he caught the tiny smile on Merlin's face.
"Idiot," he said anyway, and cuffed him lightly over the head. "Don't even joke about it. As glad as I'm sure my father would be to discover that I'm shagging a servant who stands no chance whatsoever of falling pregnant, he'd also likely throw it in my face every time some danger arose and you required rescuing. Which, let's face it, Merlin," he raised his eyebrows, "happens far more frequently than it does with anyone else's servants. You really are an enormous bother. I've no idea why I put up with you at all." But he slid his fingertips along Merlin's leg, under the table, and Merlin's breathing became uneven for a moment.
"And can you imagine if --" Merlin gestured with a piece of bread to where Morgana was holding court with a small group of knights, Gwen standing behind her shoulder.
"Oh, god, no." Knowing Morgana, she would have no qualms about giving Arthur gleeful hell about it for the next five years, or possibly proclaiming them adorable and cooing over them. Arthur couldn't decide which prospect he hated more.
"Gwen would tease me forever," Merlin said darkly. "She'd -- Arthur." Arthur's hand was stopped in its tracks by the firm pressure of Merlin's own. Merlin was looking straight ahead, an embarrassed smile pulling at his lips. "I know you're a terrible show-off, but I thought you'd at least draw the line at molesting me in public," he said, tangling his fingers down and between Arthur's own, "considering we've just been discussing the ramifications."
When they visited Gaius for the tea, he said very little; he looked from Merlin to Arthur, heaved a long-suffering sigh, and shoved the bottle into Merlin's hands. "I see this is to become a habit," he said acidly. "I suppose you could do a lot worse."
Merlin looked at Arthur as the door closed in their faces. "Who was he talking to?"
Arthur didn't care, and said as much.
Merlin shrugged and took a long gulp of the tea as they made their way back to Arthur's chambers, then passed him the bottle. "Ugh. I never want to drink rowan tea again as long as I live."
"Wait until winter," Arthur advised him. "You'll appreciate it the first time you can't sleep for sneezing," but he understood how Merlin felt.
Though a little later, when Merlin was standing near the table turning the blue bowl over in his hands, Arthur decided that he was extremely glad, overall, that the whole debacle had taken place.
"This is the last time," Merlin said, looking down at the bowl.
"I certainly hope so."
His mouth quirked up at the side. "I feel like we should do something special."
Arthur leaned back and settled on his pillows, lifting his hands and linking them behind his head. He maintained the silence until Merlin looked at him, and then he curved his mouth into a deliberate smirk and pitched his voice as low as possible. "Really?"
Merlin opened his mouth and then closed it in a very gratifying manner, his teeth catching on the tip of his tongue, and maybe Arthur was imagining it but the candles in the room might have burned a little higher. Just for a moment.
"Oh well bugger that then," Merlin said in a rush, and dropped the bowl onto the floor.
There was something new about the quality of the light the next morning, and it took Arthur almost a minute to realise that the bright glare of direct sun was absent. Hope surging in his chest, he swung his legs off the bed, ready to stride to the windows and look for clouds.
"Fuck," he said at once, and jerked his foot back. Then he started to laugh.
Merlin lifted his head in an expression of barely-awake concern. "What?"
Arthur bent down and straightened with the shard of pottery in his hand, dull brown along the sides but with the blue glaze shining in the muted sunlight.
"Come on, Merlin," he said, and smiled. "It appears that life has resumed."