Arthur didn't think much of it the first time Merlin stumbled into the door on his way out of the room. On the 17th, he started to wonder if there was something unusual going on.
"There's this invention you may have heard of..." he said.
Merlin swung 'round to stare at... the bedpost? Arthur took a few steps sideways until he was within Merlin's range of vision, then checked behind him, wondering if there was something more interesting than himself there. There wasn't.
"Though... some people actually believe," Arthur continued, a little unsettled by the blankness of Merlin's unfocussed gaze, "that it may date back to ancient times." Merlin just stared at him with a more-than-usually puzzled look on his face. "It's called a door, Merlin. You open it and you walk thr— oh, for..."
Arthur strode over to the door, opened it with one hand, and guided (some might say threw) Merlin by a hand in the collar of his shirt out into the corridor.
"Left!" he called out a moment later, as Merlin headed in the wrong direction.
"Right!" Merlin said, cheerfully, and walked into a wall.
Arthur sighed heavily as Merlin disappeared (eventually) around the corner, and tried not to think about the number of stairs in the castle.
By the time Merlin had stumbled his way back to Gaius' quarters he was considerably panicked.
"Gaius!" he cried out with relief, catching hold of the brownish blur directly in front of him.
"Over here," Gaius called and Merlin dropped the giant sack of dried mushrooms that he had been clutching fondly to his breast. "I had no idea you'd changed your opinion on those mushrooms. The last time I cooked them you told me they tasted like feet."
Merlin grimaced. "That was because they did. But never mind the mushrooms, Gaius! I've gone blind!"
Merlin waved his hands around to demonstrate and knocked over some kind of pottery in the process. It fell and smashed on the ground despite Merlin's desperate attempt to catch it magically, which only resulted a cloud of white powder rising up around him.
"Really?" Gaius said in alarm, "that sounds most serious."
He waved his hands vigorously in front of Merlin's face and Merlin batted them away in irritation, while trying not to go into a fit of sneezing. He hoped he hadn't just inhaled one of the less pleasant of Gaius' medicinal ingredients.
"Not, I don't mean I've gone blind, I mean I can't see right. Everything's gone funny and blurry and don't make that face at me, I haven't done anything, you can't just assume this is my fault!"
Gaius looked surprised. "Are you saying you can see my face? Have you undergone a spontaneous recovery?"
Merlin sighed. "No, I just— when you're two inches in front of my face— look, if you move back a bit" — he took hold of Gaius' shoulders and pushed until the two of them were standing at arm's length — "you're just sort of this white, fuzzy thing on top of a brown fuzzy thing."
Gaius stepped close enough again that Merlin could see him peering at him as if Merlin were a particularly fascinating magical tome.
"Do you know, I think—" Gaius' eyebrows crawled high up onto his skull. "How very fascinating. You've probably been correcting it magically for all these years without even realizing it."
"What?" said Merlin and shifted away as Gaius prodded him gently in the forehead, muttering under his breath. "What do you mean, correcting it? It what? I told you, I haven't done anything."
"Oh, you may not think you have, but it could be unconscious — like you used to move things without giving it much thought. You've learned to control that because you're more conscious of it now, but with this..."
"With what?" Merlin asked. "Is it some kind of a spell? What's happening to me?"
"Nothing at all," Gaius said. "In fact I suspect you may have been like this all your life."
"Gaius, believe me," Merlin said in what he thought was a calm and reasonable tone of voice, considering, "if I had been like this all my life I think I would have noticed it by now! I almost mixed up Arthur's wash water and his — I only noticed because of the smell! That sort of thing does not normally happen to me!"
Gaius chuckled briefly, but then sobered. "I don't suppose your magic has been affected otherwise? When you broke the jar a moment ago..."
"My magic?" Merlin repeated in bewilderment. "I think I just can't see what I'm doing," he said, trying to remember if he had successfully done any magic since his vision had suddenly begun to blur as he went his way about his duties for Arthur. He didn't think he had. Of course — "I haven't exactly had the chance to try, do you think it could be?" He suppressed a wave of panic at the thought.
"Here," said Gaius, holding a stone crucible very close before Merlin's eyes. "See if you can lift this."
Merlin concentrated briefly and, much to his relief, the vessel rose to hover lightly above Gaius' outstretched hand. Gaius snatched it away again a moment later.
"Well, that seems to be alright, thank goodness. It must have been a temporary effect."
Relief faded into confusion. "What's temporary about it? Gaius, I still can't see anything."
"Of course you can't," said Gaius, a maddeningly calm blur, "you've probably been using magic to correct your eyesight since your infancy, or whenever it naturally began to deteriorate. I remember having to do the same when mine first began to go as a young man, poring over arcane texts late into the night by the light of borrowed candle stubs. Somehow," he looked sternly at Merlin, "I don't imagine it was related to studiousness in your case."
"And you're saying — what? it just stopped working?"
"Apparently so," Gaius said and Merlin stared at him until he elaborated, "oh, it's not as uncommon as you might think. There are all sorts of natural forces that can disrupt magic. The light of the full moon in the later part of the year, the presence of mugwort, sneezing—"
"Sneezing?" Merlin asked incredulously.
"Oh yes," Gaius said solemnly, "it can have a most disruptive effect on spells. Shakes up the brain temporarily and then if your eyes water the effect lingers even longer."
Merlin thought with some horror that the task of keeping Arthur alive was even more daunting than he had thought if he could be rendered useless by too much pepper in the soup.
"But how do I—?" he waved a hand around in front of his eyes. "Now that my magic isn't disrupted or whatever, I can fix them, right?"
"Hmm," said Gaius, unhelpfully.
"Gaius?" Merlin could hear his voice go sharp with worry.
"I shall have to do some research," Gaius pronounced and Merlin groaned.
"What am I supposed to do while you're digging through your books? I'm more likely to impale Arthur on his own sword than strap it on properly right now!"
He could hear Gaius rummaging through some of his instruments before returning and holding something small and bright up in front of him.
"Here," he said and placed what Merlin now recognized as Gaius' glasses on Merlin's nose. Merlin's vision became even more blurred, which until then he had not thought possible, and a pounding pain started up somewhere behind his eyes. He winced, pulling the glasses off again.
"I don't think that's going to help," Merlin said, rubbing hard at the bridge of his nose as if that could eliminate the strange twinging he could still feel in his eyes.
Gaius sighed. "Well, I suppose it was too much to hope that they produce the proper effect. They're not actually magical themselves, you see. That would be far too dangerous. However, what Uther does not know about their origins — he believes them to be a wondrous invention brought here by traders from the East — does no harm." Gaius sounded positively delighted by his small cunning.
"Where do they come from, then?" asked Merlin, peering closely at the bits of wire and glass.
"Oh, they may be from the East," Gaius said, rescuing them from Merlin's hands just as he had begun to consider bending them experimentally, "or maybe from some place else entirely. Or even another time..." he trailed off. "I'm sorry we can't procure another pair for you, but I'm afraid the spell that brought these into my hands was quite complicated, and the book containing it was not one that survived the Purge."
A sudden thought struck Merlin. "You said you used to correct your eyesight magically, is that... did you have a spell for that as well? It isn't... it isn't another one you've lost is it? I don't remember it being in my magic book."
"Just because you've grown used to that book, don't imagine that those spells are the only kind of magic." When Merlin just stood there in confusion, Gaius sighed. "You really don't listen to a word I say when I discuss medicine, do you? Go on, you should be able to manage some of your duties, just go carefully, and Merlin!"
Merlin had taken a couple of steps in the direction he thought was the door, but paused expecting Gaius to tell him he was headed for an airing cupboard.
"Do be careful. I suspect you'll manage better than you think, if you just get used to things looking a little different, but try not to run into too many things in the meantime?"
Merlin nodded and betook himself — successfully — out of the room.
Merlin inspected Arthur's breeches closely, trying to determine if they were the ones he had already repaired or the ones that still had a long tear in the back. Arthur was surprisingly hard on his seat. Merlin wasn't quite sure how he did it, unless he just sat more strenuously than most people did.
Merlin squinted vigorously at the fabric. He was sure it had been the reddish ones that Arthur had told him he needed to fix (again), but he had been understandably distracted this morning, trying to figure out where Arthur had kicked his boots without actually getting down on his hands and knees and groping his way across the floor. He switched his attention to the other pair, in case that was the one, and Arthur had somehow managed to split the back of the same pair of trousers twice in one week. For all that Arthur would probably try to get off on blaming the repeated occurrence on Merlin's shoddy handiwork, Merlin knew perfectly well that their state of repair had nothing whatsoever to do with Merlin's skill at stitchery. Not because he actually had any skill at stitchery, but because he had discovered that there was a simple spell for reattachment that worked far more quickly — and effectively — than his fingers could.
He still couldn't determine which pair needed mending, so he picked one at random, held his hand over the part he thought might have been damaged, and focussed as well as he could on the idea of the separate parts knitting together.
When he tried to pull his hand away to examine the results of his work, he discovered that he couldn't.
Merlin shook his hand furiously, as if hoping that he could somehow manage to dislodge the material that now seemed fused to the palm of his hand. He tried to remember what the spell was to do the opposite of what he had just done, because surely there was one, he had seen it in the book before. He just didn't have much practice of using magic to pull Arthur's clothes apart, though — why hadn't he thought to learn this?
A voice, coming from very close behind, startled him.
"What are you doing, Merlin? Is there something particularly fascinating to you about the seat of my pants?"
"No!" Merlin exclaimed, spinning around and hiding his hand, and the garment, instinctively behind his back. "I'll just go fix these now, shall I?"
He backed away, trying to look as normal as he could when he nearly tripped, and had to right himself by grasping at a chair, the breeches still gripped ineluctably in his hand.
Arthur stood staring after him until he finally reached the door and whirled out of it with a sigh of relief.
"—the wrong ones!" he heard Arthur call after him as he ran off, but he didn't stop.
He was getting a bit more used to the way everything around him had developed permanently soft and hazy edges, but not enough, apparently, to avoid colliding with another person in his rush to get away from Arthur's rooms.
He stammered out a hurried apology and headed back towards Gaius' chambers with a little more caution if almost as much haste.
Arthur stared at the empty doorway in frank astonishment, then, grabbing up the shirt he had just let fall onto the floor in the naive expectation that Merlin would do his job and pick it up, he pulled the garment back on over his head, giving up on untangling the laces after a moment of frustrated impatience. It was ridiculous that he was even contemplating chasing down his own servant through the halls like some kind of errand boy... but then, his feet were already carrying him out the door without his permission.
He left his rooms just in time to see Merlin barrelling at top speed into a statue at the end of the hall. Arthur couldn't suppress a wince of sympathy as he watched Merlin collide with the hard stone.
A moment later, Merlin was apologizing sincerely to the inanimate figure while Arthur stared at him and wondered why, at this point, he was surprised by anything Merlin did.
When Merlin moved on, peering around himself in what Arthur considered an odd and suspicious manner, Arthur followed, intrigued. He made it far enough to recognize the route back to the physician's quarters before he realized what he was doing: he had actually begun to stalk his own servant through the castle.
He wasn't even properly dressed. The thought forced him to reevaluate the relative oddness of Merlin's behaviour against his own, and then how much more likely it was to be noticed if he wandered the castle following his servant rather than the other way around.
It was still difficult to let Merlin get out of his sight, stumbling through the corridors and clutching Arthur's clothing, purloined for purposes unknown.
"I haven't had time yet to—" Gaius began, looking up from one of his thick tomes as Merlin burst in through the door.
"I know!" Merlin said in a rush as he headed towards his own room, managing not to bump into more than one table along the way. "I have some research of my own to do."
He pulled the book out of its hiding spot and began leafing through it frantically, slowing when it became apparent that he needed to hover with his nose almost touching the page in order to make out the writing with any clarity. He groaned in frustration and flipped to the general section he thought the spell had been in and began to work his way methodically and agonizingly down the first page he opened to.
A throat cleared behind him.
"I don't suppose you'd like to explain to me exactly what it is you're doing?" Gaius asked in a long-suffering tone of voice.
"Somewhere in here, there's a spell to separate objects," Merlin said, waving the relevant hand — and by extension the pair of trousers — in Gaius' direction.
"Oh, Merlin," Gaius sighed, "what have you done this time?"
"It'll be fine," Merlin muttered, as he pulled his head up to turn the page, then immediately peered down at the next one. "I know there's a spell for this, I just have to find it so I can give Arthur his trousers back."
"Yes, I imagine he might be wanting those," said Gaius, sounding amused.
"Well he'll just have to wait till I'm finished with them, won't he?" Merlin said, more to himself than anything, but Gaius chuckled in response.
"I suppose if the Prince shows up wondering what's happened to his trousers, I should tell him you're still too attached to them to let them go?" Gaius asked, and then his footsteps began to retreat.
"Or that he can have them back if he doesn't mind having my hand pressed onto the royal backside along with it," Merlin called back at him as Gaius departed, still chuckling, down the stairs.
Arthur was forced to leave the morning's practice in the only somewhat incapable hands of Sir Agravain after the third time one of his knights snickered as he leaned over to help up an opponent. After the first two, he had tried standing off to the side in a carefully arranged position that left his modesty mostly in tact, uninvolved beyond the occasional observation or comment, but found it impossible simply to look on as Sir Percy continually dropped his guard in combat. By the time he had finished demonstrating the weakness, parry, and counter-attack of the move, Sir Percy was lying supine, looking up at Arthur reproachfully as he stood with arms crossed, not moving to help the young knight up from his position on the ground.
Arthur's resolve, and his dignity, lasted only a few moments of the young man's sad, wounded gaze before the prince was bending down to offer him a helping hand.
He swore that Sir Gawain would someday pay for his snickering.
Arthur was still muttering wrathfully to himself about the shortcomings of followers and servants who conspired to such situations when he burst into his rooms. He headed straight for the trunk of winter clothing that he was certain held a pair of breeches in proper repair — the wool would be uncomfortably warm for the season, perhaps, but less conducive to treasonous laughter.
He took a particularly vicious satisfaction in throwing his winter clothes as far and wide around the room as he could manage in his search. He found the breeches at the very bottom of the trunk, then took a moment to contemplate the chaos he had created around him. For a moment, the way a coat hung nonchalantly off a bedpost made him fancy he could hear Merlin tutting over such careless behaviour despite Arthur's complete prerogative to do whatever he very well liked in his own chambers. He caught his hand creeping out to replace the offending article before he could stop himself, and folded it away with a sigh.
Then he pondered the fact that he was attempting to avoid inconveniencing a servant who had inconvenienced him that morning by leaving him literally exposed to the mockery of his knights, and carefully added the coat to a rumpled pile on the floor. He was still arranging its folds into a suitably careless heap when he heard Merlin enter his chambers, and Arthur hurried to lean himself in what he felt was a suitably dramatic pose against the wall.
He felt it lacked something of the desired effect when Merlin didn't so much as glance at him.
Merlin checked carefully, but none of his skin had gotten mixed up with the fabric, despite a faint itching sensation that made him peer closely at the palm of his hand, trying to determine if it was looking any more fibrous than it had when he'd woken up that morning.
Once he was fully satisfied of their mutual disentanglement, it was well past time for Arthur to be at training with the knights, so Merlin slipped into Arthur's rooms with every hope of replacing the garment unnoticed, free of holes and its unwonted attachment to Merlin's hand.
He made as swift a job as he could of laying the trousers out on Arthur's bed, ready for the afternoon's hunt, and was making his way out when his foot tangled on something on the floor. Then, as he attempted to free his foot, he felt something solid hit his leg, and a deafening bang rang out from right beside him. After he had jumped about a foot into the air and left his heart hovering somewhere above where it was supposed to be, he whirled around, his hand outstretched, unconsciously prepared to ward off any attacks, by magic if necessary.
The chair, when he had gathered enough courage to approach it, lay unthreateningly toppled on the floor. So did about half of Arthur's wardrobe, scattered so widely that Merlin could only conclude it was sheer luck that had allowed him to make his way safely so far into the room in the first place; as he inspected the haphazard heap more closely, he recognized what looked like most of Arthur's winter wardrobe strewn thickly across the floor.
He righted the chair he had unsettled, groaning a little at the weight of a royal dignity that required two inches of solid oak to support it, even at home in its private chambers, and had just begun to ponder a few choices expressions for the kind of temperament that found relief in making more work for other people, when he felt something bump at his hip. Before he could register that this meant he had drifted over into the table, there was a crash as the clay jug that had been, until that moment, perched on its edge.
Merlin stared down at the brown blotches of broken pottery on the floor and contemplated the likelihood of being reprimanded over this mess by the same person who had laid waste to his own wardrobe when left alone to dress himself. The most likely outcome was, no doubt, a sarcastic rant, in the course of which both messes would join forces to become Merlin's combined fault. With a long-suffering sigh and a furtive glance towards the closed door of Arthur's chambers, Merlin waved his hand above the shards. They leapt readily into the air, reforming themselves into their original shape, and the jug, mended, settled back into its place on the table.
Satisfied by the familiar feel of magic working its way through him, and trusting rather more to his magic than to his physical coordination in the moment, Merlin added a few more incantations and watched the chaos of clothing rise from where it had been scattered and arrange itself piece by piece where it belonged. That done, he edged carefully towards the door and made his escape into the marginally less frustrating realm of the castle hallways.
Arthur stood in a daze, grateful in some distant part of his mind for the wall that still supported most of his weight after his legs had developed an earnest desire to collapse
From the way that the broken pottery had shuddered and leapt from the floor, he had at first been sure that the castle itself must be shaking. But then it had risen and mended as if of its own accord, and a moment later magical chaos had erupted through the room. Merlin, carrying on as if nothing extraordinary had happened at all, had walked off unconcerned while Arthur stood frozen in shock, before the thought could even fully form in Arthur's head that Merlin could possibly have been the one — Merlin — who had brought about that whirlwind of activity. The words sorcerer and Merlin collided and stubbornly refused to form any sort of synthesis. He sat heavily down on his bed and stared in stupefaction at a blank section of wall.
Merlin must have been impersonated by a sorcerer! It would hardly be the first time that someone had tried to use a position in the royal household to strike at the heart of the kingdom. Of course Merlin could not be the one practising dangerous magic in the innermost sanctum of the royal family... and yet, there was something that made him pause and balk at the thought of reporting the presence of an intruding sorcerer to his father as he surely ought.
Something, perhaps, about the way that Merlin had rolled his eyes and muttered over the trail of clothing that Arthur had left behind himself. Something about the way he had ignored Arthur's pointed glare as he laid out the perfectly good trousers that he had run off with just that morning. Something about the way that Merlin had been acting lately — strange but still indefinably Merlin-ish. If Merlin had got himself mixed up in something untoward or was being somehow influenced... Arthur decided that the situation warranted some further investigation — more definite information — before he laid it open to his father. Much as it pained him to see it, Arthur could not help but notice that when Uther struck out at sorcery, the blow was likely to come before — or indeed exclusive of — any investigation into its cause.
As soon as Merlin had a moment to spare, between readying Arthur's equipment and returning to dress him for the hunt, he slipped away to check on the progress of Gaius' research. There was an aroma of smoke and bitter herbs as he entered the room and sure enough there was soon a noxious-smelling substance being shoved beneath his nose.
"Drink," Gaius demanded and Merlin flinched back a little, trying to get a look at the bowl immediately before his face. It looked like a fairly innocuous dark liquid, but from his past experiences of Gaius' remedies, Merlin expected this one to be extremely unpleasant.
"What is it?" he temporized. "Will this fix my sight?"
"We'll find out won't we?"
Merlin, who had begun bracing himself for a bitter taste, stalled completely. "You do mean, you don't know if it'll work, right Gaius? Not that you don't know what it does, because you wouldn't give me medicine without knowing—"
"As I have frequently explained to you, science can proceed only through experimentation and even a little unexpected vomiting can be useful information." Gaius sighed loudly as Merlin backed away, and added, "However, I assure you this will have no adverse effects whatsoever," and repeated it until Merlin accepted the medicine and took a large gulp from the bowl, wincing at the taste.
"Unless you're pregnant, of course," Gaius added reflectively, making Merlin choke and sputter. "Oh, don't look at me like that, I only meant the medicine was perfectly safe except in very particular circumstances."
Merlin returned the empty bowl into Gaius' hands and waited expectantly for anything to change.
"Nothing's happening," he said, somewhat disappointed. He'd rather thought that something that pungent should've had an immediate effect.
"Well, it would be a bit much to expect it to clear up the problem immediately," Gaius said querulously, although Merlin thought he detected a faint hint of disappointment in his tone as well. "It's based on a headache remedy, but the rue is for the eyes. At the least it should help with the strain of peering at everything."
Now he came to think of it, Merlin was aware of a sort of tightness behind his eyes that usually accompanied long stretches of candlelight reading from his book of spells, and he thought he wouldn't mind being rid of the tension. Still—
"That's all you found?" he asked.
"Patience, patience. There was a potion I recall was most effective, if I can locate the incantation that activates its full powers. I know I disguised it among the marginalia of a bestiary as a comment on the mating habits of bats, but I cannot instantly recall in which volume."
"No chance of it turning up before I have to go run around in the forest surrounded by a lot of knights with arrows, then?" Merlin asked without much hope.
Gaius' hand landed heavily on his shoulder.
"Don't worry. I'm sure Arthur won't let anyone shoot you by accident."
Merlin grinned. "What about intentionally?" he asked, and then frowned when Gaius didn't laugh at the joke.
Gaius hummed reflectively. "I hear there was some general merriment on the topic of Prince's attire this morning. But I wouldn't worry — I'd think the stocks were a more likely punishment for that than summary execution, don't you?"
Merlin's smile wavered a little.
"You'd better get going," Gaius added, "you wouldn't want the Crown Prince of Camelot to show up improperly dressed twice in one day, would you?"
Merlin needed no further prompting.
Arthur couldn't seem to help the way his eyes were drawn to Merlin's hands as they passed over shirt and jacket, moving rather clumsily, despite the hundreds of times he must have performed the same routine motions by now. It was difficult to believe that they were the same hands which had risen and gestured with complete assurance, had directed and moved objects through lines of invisible influence until they had imposed order on all the space around him.
There had been few occasions on which Arthur had had leisure to observe the practice of magic, since he had most often witnessed it only amidst danger. He told himself it was only curiosity that made him want to watch Merlin's hands act out their mysteries again.
There was something terrifyingly unfrightening about those hands. Arthur knew there had been long moments, while he stood watching magic fly unfettered from them, when he could have leapt forward to prevent it, to seize a weapon and attack, to prevent the violation of having magic performed within Camelot's walls. Instead, he had merely stood, dazed and enthralled at the sight of Merlin's hands flashing through the air.
Even now; he could surely say something, confront Merlin with what he had seen earlier, demand explanations, truth.
Merlin's hand brushed his as he took his bow, and Arthur's attention dislodged itself from his grip to the confused smile that flickered across Merlin's face and was gone.
Arthur was mildly perturbed to find himself so distracted that he needed correction on the proper route out of his own chambers by a servant who had recently gone as blind as a magical bat.
Merlin thought, all in all, that the hunt had gone rather well.
There had been a sticky moment when Arthur was attacked by that wild boar, but Merlin had reacted quickly after Arthur was knocked to the ground by the beast's first pass. It had even been surprisingly easy to convince Arthur that the boar had changed its mind mid-rampage and blundered off in the opposite direction, leaving nothing more than a startled rabbit in its wake.
Although Merlin had been considerably less than impressed when Arthur had tackled the boar-cum-rabbit before waiting for Merlin's explanation. Neither, in fact, had the knights, when they responded to Arthur's call for assistance only to find him lying atop a squashed rabbit.
Arthur knew it was only a matter of time before his father summoned him to inquire into why the Crown Prince of Camelot was going around wrestling rabbits in the woods. Or more precisely why he had needed the assistance of a score of Camelot's best knights for this endeavour.
"It was a beast of... unusual ferocity for its kind... possibly the result of strange magical forces at work upon the animal..." Arthur imagined saying, unable to decide whether the excuse sounded worse because it was so ludicrous or because it was true.
It made little difference; if he had been left with any doubts about his intended course of action regarding Merlin's secret, he had lost them the moment he saw Merlin's arm outflung in an instinctive gesture of protection over Arthur's prone body. More than by the wild beast he had faced a moment before, Arthur had been alarmed by his own reaction to witnessing the spell, which was a commingled swell of warm gratitude and alarm lest Merlin be discovered in his sorcery by any of the knights whose aid Arthur had called for but a moment previous.
Then as he heard the first of the knights crashing through the bushes, his only thought had been to conceal the evidence of Merlin's sorcery by behaving as if he had intended to call for help in wrangling a wild hare to begin with.
The fact that Merlin had produced a more plausible explanation might have been enough to impress Arthur with a greater appreciation for his unexpected quick-wittedness, had it not involved a coda about how Arthur had then bravely thrown himself in the way of a new and menacing beast that had appeared to threaten his knights.
When Arthur had got up gingerly to reveal a small frightened rabbit, he fancied he had seen the admiration dwindle even from Sir Percy's eyes.
For some reason that Merlin could not divine, Arthur had returned from the hunt in a quietly fractious mood, the kind he used to get into after an argument with Morgana from which he pretty clearly understood that he had emerged looking foolish or petty, without being able to admit it.
He was just contemplating the likelihood that Arthur's wounded dignity, whatever the reason he had decided it was wounded, could be salved by a nice toothsome pastry from the kitchen, maybe with some extra chopped nuts on it, when the door to the Prince's chambers burst open and a dark and menacing figure loomed up in the doorway.
Merlin's arm was raised in a defensive gesture before he knew what was happening and he cried out, "Arthur!" in a blind panic.
Arthur looked up in alarm at Merlin's shout and then froze in a rictus of horror; Merlin looked ready to un-leash who knew what magical forces upon the intruder standing in the doorway; and the person standing in the doorway was Uther.
Arthur didn't think before taking a flying leap in Merlin's direction, tackling him before he could do anything to condemn himself.
He barely had time to be grateful that they had landed on a soft surface before Merlin was struggling against him, clearly not understanding the danger. He pinned Merlin's arms to prevent any spell-casting motions, but Merlin was already muttering something that Arthur was horribly sure would also turn out to be magical. With both hands busy restraining Merlin's movement though, he had no recourse but to shut Merlin's mouth with his... face.
The thought did occur to Arthur that to an outside observer such as, say, his father, his actions might look as if he had just thrown Merlin onto his bed, pounced upon him eagerly, and then started kissing him passionately. It was only a faint thought, however, and soon pushed aside in favour of the overwhelming one that Merlin's life was at stake; this was no time for modesty or manners; any and all sacrifices were necessary to prevent the untimely revelation of that dangerous secret.
Merlin struggled beneath him, of course, but Arthur had landed rather heavily atop his hips, and took full advantage of the position by pressing the fullness of his weight across Merlin's body, rendering most of Merlin's movements powerless against him. In a distant corner of his mind, Arthur was pleased to know that whatever strange and surprising things he had learned about his servant over the course of the day, he had not lost his advantage in physical combat. He did notice, however, that Merlin was trying to use one of the techniques of defence that Arthur himself had taught him, and somehow the knowledge that Merlin might have thrown off a less determined or experienced attacker was equally reassuring.
Unfortunately, Arthur was experiencing a growing awareness that his choice of diversion, with the rather intimate contact it entailed, was having some unintended effects on his own person, and he drew back for an instant from the suddenly far-too-distracting heat of Merlin's mouth. He had only meant his retreat to last for a moment, but Merlin took quick advantage of the opportunity to wrench himself free.
"Arthur, are you mad?" Merlin exclaimed with a gasp, just as Uther, sounding somewhat closer than where Arthur had last seen him, recovered himself enough to do much the same. Merlin gazed in foggy bewilderment in the direction of the other voice and began to lift his arm again in what looked terribly like the same defensive gesture Arthur had seen in the forest. Arthur growled and threw himself bodily across Merlin's limbs to prevent the movement.
"Arthur!" his father snapped.
Arthur attempted to arrange himself in a nonchalant position atop his wriggling servant.
"Yes, father?" he asked, aiming for a casual tone on the off-chance that blazoning it out would convince his father that nothing was amiss. His breathing came out somewhat laboured instead.
Merlin finally gave up his struggling and went utterly still, having probably caught up with Arthur's assessment of the gravity of the situation from the sound of Uther's voice:
"What is the— explain— by all that— will you— Arthur, get off of your—"
"Merlin," Arthur supplied, as he carefully extricated himself from his bed and his servant, reasonably certain now that Merlin was not going to make any desperate and suicidal efforts at magic.
"Yes, I know who he is!" Uther snapped. "What I want to know is what you were doing... on top of him!"
"There is a perfectly simple explanation for all this," Arthur said swiftly, trying to think of one, "I promise you, father."
"Merlin?" Uther demanded.
Merlin just shrugged in apparent bafflement. "I've no idea. He just sort of, uh..." Merlin threw out an arm in an embarrassing imitation of Arthur's practiced, battle-worthy tackling manoeuvre.
"Oh, I know!" Merlin suddenly exclaimed brightly. "He must have been enchanted!"
"Aha! That's right!" Arthur said, swinging around to face his father again, "a love— ah, I mean. No, no, not magic. Absolutely no magical implications whatsoever. This cannot possibly be a spell. Because there's no one to cast it, I mean, magic, here? In Camelot? Ha ha ha," he let out a forced laugh. Merlin looked as if he wanted to pound Arthur on the back in case he was choking. He glared at Merlin. "My actions are clearly the result of only of—" he glanced desperately between two equally incredulous faces "— clearly my actions are the result of love — but not magical! Not at all, there is no magic involved here. What I feel is only the deepest, truest bond of love." He did his best to kick unobtrusively at Merlin's shin where it dangled over the side of the bed. Merlin looked back at him with a face that reminded him a little of a sick sheep. "Ahem. Right. Well, that will. If you will just leave us father, I have things that I wish to say to my —" he coughed awkwardly "— to Merlin that can only be said in private."
Understanding was dawning at last over his father's face. Strangely, however, when the king next spoke, it was addressed to Merlin.
"You will have Gaius look into his — condition?" Uther asked with an all-encompassing wave of the hand.
"Yeah, yes, absolutely," Merlin said and was ushering Uther deferentially but hastily out the door before Arthur could even object to the implications he had detected in the way his father had said "condition" — it was a little too much like the special intonation used to discuss the fact that Merlin sometimes seemed to miss the use of his fullest faculties.
No sooner was the door closed than Merlin was approaching him cautiously. "Right then, let's get you to see Gaius, I'm sure he'll—" Merlin broke off as Arthur rounded on him with renewed irritation.
"What were you thinking, you idiot."
Merlin blinked at him. "You're, uh, not, uh...?"
"Of course I'm not ensorcelled! Of all the careless... you do realize you almost used magic in front of my father?"
Merlin's look of confusion vanished to be replaced in an instant by panic. "What do you mean, you— you, what?"
"Oh for— I, unlike you, am not half-blind at present," Arthur said. "You should really check more carefully that you are alone before you enchant clothing to fly around a room."
"Oh," Merlin said faintly, and then, "oh," again in an even smaller voice. "So then why did you, uh—" he gestured halfheartedly at the bed.
"Well, seeing as you haven't actually managed to kill me yet, I thought I'd return the favour."
"No, but, I mean—" Merlin scratched awkwardly at the back of his neck, looking everywhere but at Arthur and the bed they had been lying on a moment ago. "Why did you, you know—" he repeated the horrible "leaping onto the bed" gesture that Arthur would have been happy never to see reenacted; it reminded him of what he thought a suicidal duck might look like in its hour of greatest despair.
"Because I was trying to stop you from doing magic in front of my father!" Arthur exclaimed in frustration. "Surely even you could work that one out for yourself."
"What made you think I was going to do magic?"
"You opened your mouth!" Arthur said, "I assumed you were going to say something stupid — you usually do, even when it's not the words to a spell."
"I could have been about to say, 'look out!'" Merlin said, though he didn't sound very confident about it.
Arthur crossed his arms and regarded him skeptically.
"Well, then, erm — thanks, I guess. You know I have to—" Merlin made some shuffling motions towards the door that resulted mainly in tripping over a broom. "I mean, I have things. To do. For Gaius." He ignored the patiently sarcastic arm that Arthur stretched out to help him up and clambered to his feet somewhat haphazardly. "Right!" he added, then was gone without a backwards glance.
All in all, Arthur felt, it had been a very strange day.
Merlin wandered back in a daze so complete he didn't notice Gaius standing in front of him until they had collided.
"Has your vision deteriorated further still?" Gaius demanded from somewhere above him as Merlin contemplated the relative merits of standing versus sticking to the floor on the principle that he would probably end up there again soon enough for one reason or another. "Or should I ask the same of your usual mental abstraction?" Gaius added with a frown that, now Merlin looked up from the imprecisely defined spot of the floor he had been watching, was reasonably in focus.
"Oh!" Merlin said in surprise. "I can see you — I mean, better. You look sort of — almost normal." A moment later he couldn't help adding, "Gaius, you know I never thought I'd say this, but I'm delighted to see your eyebrows."
The eyebrows quirked in a familiar expression of amused disbelief that Merlin took to mean that they had missed their conversations with him as well. He wondered if Gaius would take it amiss if Merlin attempted to hug the eyebrows like they were long-lost friends.
"As I thought," Gaius was saying, interrupting Merlin's discussion with his facial hair, "the potion has begun to take effect. Now, I believe that I have found the incantation I told you of before, although if it turns you into an owl, I will admit my mistake."
"Trust me," Merlin said, resolving at last on one last valiant attempt at perpendicularity, "it could not make this day any stranger."
Gaius' eyebrows informed him that they were ready and willing to listen to his tale, although they reserved the right to mock him if necessary. Merlin ignored some words about "three times a week" and "possible side effects" that the lower parts of Gaius' visage were discussing in counterpoint to what Merlin was discussing with the upper.
"I've missed our talks," Merlin said before he launched into his tale.
The eyebrows' disapproval was worth it to see their reaction when Arthur appeared at Gaius' door to say, "I need Merlin. I mean, I need Merlin — to do something for me. Because he's my servant. So he serves me. I mean — servant-like things. That servants do. He does them." And then, rather desperately, "Merlin?"
Arthur had been trying, all the way from his rooms to fetch Merlin, to come up with a less awkward way of saying, "explain to my father why I jumped you without using the word sorcery" and still hadn't managed it by the time they completed the return journey.
Merlin seemed to successfully interpret Arthur's repeated "erm... uh... well" and said cheerfully, "Gaius is going to tell your father you're mad!" Then, when Arthur understandably failed to show enthusiasm at this prospect, he added, "Oh, don't worry, it's going to be temporary; Gaius is going to tell him you ate some strange mushrooms with hallucinogenic effects. So that's why you thought the rabbit was a ravening beast with very pointy teeth and why you thought I was — uh — someone else."
Arthur let himself slump down on the foot of his bed. "I don't want to know exactly what Gaius told him about that part, do I?"
"Not really," Merlin said, with a bit too much amusement for Arthur's peace of mind. He sat down on the bed next to Arthur and laid a friendly arm around his shoulders. "Don't worry, Gaius knows what he's doing. Of course, we had a bit more trouble coming up with an explanation for ourselves for why you might have done such a strange thing. Want to hear our ideas?"
Arthur let his head drop forward into his hands and groaned. Merlin sighed dramatically.
"Not that Gaius agreed with me in so many words, but the way his face was twitching seems to back up my analysis. About the strange behaviour of princes..." Merlin trailed off.
Arthur wished fervently that Merlin would stop trying to force him towards introspection, because he didn't have any idea what he would do about the results. Still, he couldn't decide between disappointment and relief when he felt the shift of the bed as Merlin stood.
"Well, so long as you're sure you don't want to know..."
Arthur, who had begun decide that the day could only be improved by selective denial, was so surprised to feel lips, a little cold and clumsy, pressing against the back of his neck, that he jerked and nearly bashed Merlin in the face on the upswing. Merlin was grinning at him idiotically, which didn't clarify things at first because so many of Merlin's expressions were idiotic, but after a while the really pointed looks that Merlin was directing between Arthur mouth and the bed sunk in.
"Too bad you didn't want to know, really," Merlin added. "Because it was a pretty marvellous explanation."
"Yrgh?" Arthur asked, then cleared his throat, which had suddenly and inexplicably gone dry. "Yes?"
"Oh. Look." Merlin spoke with exaggerated slowness. "A bed. Just think of all the trouble I could get into. If someone doesn't stop me." He raised a significant eyebrow at Arthur, who had the common sense to make sure that the door was locked this time.
Then he pounced.
Something needed to be done about Merlin's smug expression, after all.
Merlin blinked in confusion at the blur in front of him. He had a moment to worry that maybe he should have listened more carefully, or indeed at all, to Gaius' instructions about his new vision potion before his eyes refocussed and the blur resolved itself into Arthur's face, barely an inch from his own. Just as he was beginning to go cross-eyed over the tip of Arthur's nose, Arthur let out another loud snore — whose predecessor had presumably awoken Merlin — and then a gust of sleepy bad breath that made Merlin wriggle away a bit to appreciate the sight better from a distance. Arthur's hair was sticking out along the pillow as if it were trying to make its escape. The skin around his eyes wrinkled as he frowned at something in a dream before relaxing into calm again. His eyelashes fluttered back into stillness and Merlin found that from this close he could count the individual lashes, the flickers of his eyes when they moved beneath his lids, the faint lines that were still etched on his quiescent skin, around the eyes and mouth.
Merlin thought he had never seen anything that was so worth being able to see clearly.