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You're Only In Trouble If You Get Caught

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Well, Merlin thinks as he dashes off, leaving behind the baker writhing with laughter due to what appears to be an actual tickling spell. That’s a new one.

---

“Merlin.”

“No harm was done, Gaius.”

“Merlin.”

“I don’t see why it’s so bad, I mean.”

“Merlin.” The bowl slams down on the table in front of him, and Merlin looks up in surprise. “First of all, that baker is a dear friend of mine, and she does not deserve to have you stealing from her.”

“It was only one loaf! And you’re just about to eat half of it, and will probably slip her some coin tomorrow anyway!”

“Be that as it may, she also doesn’t need to be traumatised by your silly magic tricks.”

“They’re not silly!”

Gaius levels a look at him over their stew and bread.

Merlin ducks his chin for a moment. “Okay, maybe that one was silly. But it’s not as if I knew it was silly when I cast it, now, did I?”

“Yes, and that leads us to our other problem.” He cocks a deadly eyebrow. “Our bigger problem.”

“A few incidents is not a problem.”

“How many is a few?”

Merlin coughs. It sounds suspiciously like a number.

"What was that?"

Merlin mutters into his bread. "Seventeen."

"Seventeen."

"Seventeen isn't that many."

"Seventeen instances."

"In two months!"

"Seventeen instances in which you and your magic have caused a mess. Which, may I remind you, I usually have to clean up."

"Well, if you weren't in council with the king so much, we might have more time to practise—"

"Oh no, young Merlin. Do not put this on me. You need something better to do with your time." He pins Merlin with a bemused, yet determined, gaze. "And I believe I know just the thing."

---

"Merlin! Time to rise!"

The door to Merlin's tiny room bangs open. "You know," he mutters sleepily, "for a well-kept physician in an idyllic Camelot, you're very grumpy."

"Yes, and mostly because of you, now up!"

"All right, all right," Merlin grumbles as he sits up, rubbing his eyes. "What's so important?"

"I have a new task for you. A rather lengthy one."

"And just what is it?"

Gaius smiles, and Merlin doesn't like the look of it at all. "You shall see."

---

"Erm, Gaius." Merlin stops at the door to the king's antechamber. "Not that I'm questioning your judgment, but are you certain this is wise?" Merlin has only seen His Majesty Uther the Pendragon from afar, and he's not exactly keen to change that fact.

"Of course it is. The king is actually quite—"

Merlin raises an eyebrow.

"—fair," Gaius amends. "The king is quite fair, and he's taught his son well. And you will learn both in time."

"Certainly," Merlin says agreeably, not agreeing at all. "But when you say 'his son,' do you mean—"

"Gaius!"

The king's voice booms through the room. Merlin winces, but Gaius moves towards the door and he can do nothing but follow.

He keeps his eyes down. He isn't scared of Uther, per se—of course not; his magic could stop the king's heart in a matter of seconds—but he has manners and likes this new life of his quite well, thanks very much, and would like it to continue past the third month.

And nobody likes getting yelled at. Something Merlin will come to know very, very well in the weeks to come.

---

Because his task, his glorious, humiliating task put forth by his guardian—Merlin considers writing his mother but she'd probably just be thrilled—is to be personal servant to the heir apparent. Whom Merlin hasn’t even met, by the way. Just heard about. Heard a lot of things about, none of which he's really paid attention to because peace and prosperity lead to two things: babies and gossip, so Merlin daily trips over toddlers and wagging tongues alike. He mostly ignores both.

So he is completely unprepared for what happens when finally, two days later, he knocks on the door to the prince's chambers, his knapsack slung over his shoulder and his mind elsewhere—He'd accidentally turned a bowl into a pigeon directly after waking, and has no idea how, or, more importantly, how to turn it back, or if he should, and he's really quite tired of all these moral conundrums, as he's been dealing with them since he was in swaddling clothes, and he'd just like a day off, thanks—

"Enter," says a bored voice, and Merlin is immediately put off. His Highness surely had been warned of Merlin's impending arrival, and is clearly just that much of a dull spoilt brat that he can't even put on a polite face for a first meeting.

Merlin's just a servant, he reminds himself as he pushes the door opens and steps inside, silently cursing Gaius, this kingdom, his mother, the fates—

Then he's presented by the picture that is Arthur of Pendragon, Royal Highness, Heir to the throne of Camelot—who also happens to be a devastatingly attractive bloke in a white shirt and brown trousers, stood by a window underneath streaming sunlight.

And then he turns, and his eyes meet Merlin's.

Merlin feels like his feet are stuck, actually stuck to the ground as though encased in deep winter ice, even as his magic—Oh, his magic is having a field day, dancing around in his blood like it's the first day of spring.

And that's a lot of seasonal references, but it's hard to describe something so—so primal, so true and clear and base and part of time itself. It's like time bloody well stops, is what it's like, and Merlin can't help but wonder if it's just him or if the things in the room have started levitating, because that's what's happening in his head—

"I asked you a question," Arthur says drolly, cutting through Merlin's stupor, "and yet you're just standing there gawping. Are you dumb?"

"Most certainly not," flies out of Merlin's mouth without thought. "Your question clearly wasn't that interesting."

Both of Arthur's eyebrows go up. "Yes, quite." He regards Merlin with mild interest. "Gaius did mention you'd need some breaking in."

"I'm not a horse," Merlin protests immediately.

"But you are a servant."

He has him there.

Merlin breathes in and out, trying to focus like he and Gaius have been working on. "Correct."

"Highness."

He focuses on all the ways he could turn Arthur into a newt. "Correct, Your Highness."

"That's better." And he turns back to the window, although what's so fascinating out there, Merlin can't possibly guess; it's just the courtyard around dinner time, with the sun high in the mid-day sky. "Now go and polish my armour. Should you need instruction, which you surely will, feel free to ask one of the boys in the armoury."

Merlin is glad to have the excuse to leave, and he does love the armoury, all those sweaty men and blunt force, but— "There's the matter of my things."

"Oh," Arthur says, his tone back to bored, "you may have the side room. It's a bit dusty but I'm sure you'll take care of that." And he waves his hand towards a door Merlin hadn't noticed yet.

It leads to a tiny, tiny room, tinier than his space in Gaius's quarters, with a spot on the floor clearly designated for sleeping, a bowl for washing, and… not much else. Merlin's rucksack makes it look twice as full.

He contemplates magicking himself a bed, but is interrupted. "Armour doesn't polish itself, you know. Merlin."

Merlin raises his eyes to the ceiling. Maybe a tadpole, he thinks to himself. As a newt he could still be a pain in my arse.

---

They develop a routine in a matter of days. It goes something like this:

Merlin attempts a task. Arthur makes a snide comment about how Merlin will fail or has failed at said task, regardless of whether it's accurate, then goes off to do Princely Things. Merlin uses magic to accomplish his tasks exactly to the prince's specifics, all the while cursing Arthur's name.

"Gaius, he's an arse," Merlin complains as he fwumps down at Gaius's table one evening while Arthur's indisposed. ('Go away,' he'd said, and Merlin had snickered, then coughed and acquiesced just shy of the pillow hitting his head.)

"We mustn't speak that way about our future king, Merlin."

"We can do whatever we want. He can't hear us."

"Castle walls have ears."

"Yes, well, with the way he treats me, he deserves a little backtalk."

Gaius seems surprised. "He's unfair to you?"

Merlin grimaces. "…no."

"Ah."

Merlin sits back, pulling his feet up onto the chair while pulling a face. "He's a right prat, though."

"He's a prince."

"So?"

"So, he's got a lot to measure up to."

"Which keeps him from treating me like a human being?"

"Yes," Gaius says simply.

Merlin bites at the inside of his cheek. "He doesn't know I could kill him without lifting a weapon."

"And he shan't."

"Why not?"

“Merlin…” He hears the warning that sits heavy in Gaius’s voice. “Your… proclivities… magic or otherwise, would not be welcomed by the prince of Camelot.”

Merlin knows the truth of this. He wants to stomp his feet, cry to the heavens the injustice of it all, etc. But he knows better. And it's enough to keep him from acting the fool.

Though… not for very long.

---

Because Merlin has two secrets, you see.

And is very, very stubborn.

---

A few weeks later, when he stops a falling plate with his magic in full view of the prince, mostly on accident, Arthur merely raises an eyebrow at him. "You really should mind that, you know. Father disapproves."

"And you?" Merlin can't help but ask.

Arthur clears his throat and resumes focus on the parchment in front of him. "Father disapproves."

Merlin allows the disappointment to sink in for a moment, then goes back to his work. "Right."

---

And a week after that, when Arthur walks into the stables to find Merlin with sweat on his brow and a telltale flush on his neck, he's clearly amused. "Who's the lucky lady?"

Merlin scratches awkwardly at the back of his head. "Er—"

But he's saved from having to choose whether or not to fabricate a lie, because the door opens and an equally flushed and sweaty stable boy strides out. He sees the prince and stops short, and they have a staring contest of ridiculous proportions— both stunned, but for very different reasons.

After a few moments of this with no end in sight, Merlin rolls his eyes and picks up Arthur's tack. "Arthur." He pushes the bundle not-so-gently at Arthur's chest. "Your horses need readying for your trip. Highness."

Arthur finally looks at him. "What?" He looks down at where Merlin's hands are holding the tack to his chest. "Oh. Yes." He straightens. "Isn't this your job? His job?" He doesn't look at the stable hand to whom he is referring.

"Er…" Merlin hesitates only for a second. "You requested to be involved in preparations for this trip."

"I did no such thing."

"Said it would 'put you in the right mood,' you did."

"Nonsense," Arthur snaps, shoving the tack back at Merlin.

"Not nonsense," Merlin protests vociferously, unwilling to let this one rest, even though he's not sure why.

"I would never say such a thing, you dolt."

"I beg pardon, Highness, but I would consider the person who volunteers for a thing and then rescinds to be the dolt."

"You are insubordinate."

"And you deserve it. A prince keeps his word."

Genuine hurt flashes in Arthur's eyes, but is quickly replaced by anger. "You are relieved of your duties for the day."

"Sire, I just—"

"Relieved."

Merlin shakes his head once, then shoves the tack back at Arthur for the final time. "Fine."

"Have all of my mending done by the time I get back."

"Fine."

"And tell your—" Arthur grimaces, then gestures vaguely. "—stable boy to—"

But they both stop. Look around at the empty room.

They are alone. The boy had left and neither of the prince nor his wayward manservant, bless them, had even noticed.

---

It sneaks up on you, sometimes, you see. Because there's gorgeous, and then there's worthy.

---

"Arthur, you're fast wearing a track into the floor."

"Merlin, it's no concern of yours."

"Yes, it is, actually, as I clean that floor quite often, and with a dip in it, it's going to be—"

"Merlin." Arthur levels a mighty glare at him, but the heat simply isn't in it. Merlin's heart trips over itself at all he can see in his prince's face instead.

He can't stand it. "Highness," he finally says quietly, "you can't save them all."

A muscle in Arthur's jaw tics. "No, I can't."

Merlin exhales, thinking Arthur's gained some sanity back—

"But I can still try to." Arthur stands, picking up his gauntlet. "Now, go away."

Merlin is by his side in a flash, his hands easy on the buckles. "I'm not going anywhere," he says, quietly but not gently.

Suddenly Arthur's fingers are around his wrist, grip hard. "I mean it, Merlin. I'm doing this."

Merlin meets his gaze. "Then so am I. Sire."

Arthur looks at him for a moment, then, his eyes alight, nods. His hand stays on Merlin's wrist.

---

Merlin saves them all, of course, except for one boy, one small boy whose brown eyes will haunt him for years-- but Arthur never knows, so Merlin considers it a job well done.

Arthur deserves no such burdens. Merlin makes sure of it.

---

And so it goes that he trips and falls down into the murky depths of love that surpasses affection, surpasses tumbles in the stables, finally surpasses care of one's own life. Gaius notices, he's sure, but says nothing, and for that, Merlin is grateful.

He's got enough words of his own.

---

"Pompous."

"I do beg your pardon?"

"Pumpkins," Merlin amends, his tone changing not at all.

"Liar."

---

"Jackass!"

"Excuse me?"

"Erm… Cutlass?"

Arthur throws a crust of bread at his head.

---

Those two become of a bit of a joke between then. Any time Merlin sees a pumpkin, he grins. Every time Arthur sees a pumpkin, he contemplates chucking it at Merlin's head.

---

"Insufferable!"

There's a snort, this time. "Now, that's the pot calling the kettle black, if I do say so."

And when Merlin looks up from where he's gathering Arthur's strewn-about small-clothes and under-armour tunics, he sees Arthur's eyes actually twinkling a little with laughter, as if he's sharing the joke with Merlin for once. "Beg pardon?"

Arthur shakes his head, almost indulgently. "You must admit you're as bad as I am, Merlin."

Merlin nearly drops his armful of sweaty cloth. "I'm—what?"

"I was speaking in English, was I not?"

"Yes, and so did you just admit—in English—that you are insufferable?"

"Steady on, don't hurt yourself. Or drop my washing."

"Your washing is so filthy it's likely to walk off on its own, and it's just that it's quite an idea, you and I having anything in common."

Arthur's lips twitch. "Yes, I suppose so. I'm a prince, you're a wizard; I'm a genius with a sword, you're clumsier than a hippopotamus."

"And you're quickly losing any points you'd garnered, Arthur."

"But," Arthur continues, "I should think we share some good qualities. You're rather loyal. And quick of wit, I enjoy that." His gaze lingers on Merlin's face, and, Merlin could swear it centres on Merlin's mouth in particular. "We do seem to have some things in common after all."

"A sense of duty, a tendency to leap into danger, a taste for sweet mead…" He holds Arthur's eyes, certain that everything he feels is right there in his expression. Hoping like a fool that it is. "Anything… else? Sire?"

Arthur keeps right on looking at him, searching his expression like there's an answer there he seeks. The air between them is impossibly thick.

Merlin's heart thumps in his chest. This is it. This might be it. All right, there is no way this is it, but what if— What if it is?

Finally, Arthur speaks, popping the moment like a bathbubble. "We both have blue eyes, although yours are more like the sea during a storm."

Merlin blinks.

Arthur grunts and looks back down at his papers. "I should think that's about it."

Merlin can't quite swallow his disappointment, this time. His heart seems to have shrunk in his chest, and he finds it rather stings.

He picks up the last of the clothes, then makes his way towards the door to hallway. "If you'll excuse me, Sire, I—"

But Arthur's waving him off before he can finish, eyes not leaving the accounts in front of him. "You're free until this evening. I'll send for you should I have need of you."

"Thank you."

The thunk of the door has somehow never felt so portentous.

---

The next morning, Merlin is woken by Arthur swearing. Cursing up a storm like a lout, like a raider, like an uncouth barman.

Merlin stumbles out of bed and to the door that separates his room from the rest of Arthur's chambers. "Arthur, what has got your knickers in such a—"

Arthur shoves a piece of parchment at him. "This just got delivered to me. From Father."

That's never good.

And, truly, it isn't this time, either. The parchment has bold words on it, clearly meant to be an announcement of a contest. Contests happen rather frequently in Camelot, so Merlin recognises the look of it straight away.

But this contest, it would seem, is a little bit different.

"What on earth?" Merlin hears himself say at a higher volume than normal. "There's going to be a five-day competition for ladies to vie for your hand in marriage?"

"So it would seem."

Arthur's tone is resigned, but his expression is angered, and a little bit surprised. Merlin can't help but ask. "Did you—did you know this was coming?"

"In a manner of speaking," Arthur returns sourly, snatching the parchment away from Merlin. "I knew Father was intent on me being wed, but I thought I'd got him off the scent for now."

"Why?"

"Because I'm good at handling my father, that's why."

"No, I mean—"

Arthur rips up the decree and throws it into the fire. "I know what you meant."

"But then—"

"Because it doesn't appeal to me, all right?"

For a few moments, Merlin thinks maybe he misunderstood yesterday afterall; maybe Arthur really could, someday, return his egregious affections. "And by 'it', you mean—"

"Marriage, Merlin," Arthur says, levelling a look at Merlin. "Ladies appeal to me well enough, despite the company I keep."

That stings. A real sting, somewhere in Merlin's chest. He crosses his arms. "Well, then, what's the problem with marrying one? You're prince, and you're going to be king, so it's not like you wouldn't have separate rooms and servants and—"

"Do you think that poorly of me, Merlin?"

Merlin blinks. "Beg pardon?"

Arthur sighs, and sits in a chair in front of the fire, posture slouching a bit. "The reason marriage to a stranger does not appeal, Merlin, is because I wouldn't want that sort of marriage. I am a man of my word and I want a—a—" He gesticulates vaguely.

Merlin comes and sits in the other chair across from him. "A companion?" he says gently.

Arthur looks at him, then back at the fire. "Yes. Yes, that's exactly it. Someone I can have conversations with, or sit in complete silence with, I don't care, just as long as it's—companionable."

And at that moment, staring into the small morning fire, Arthur looks so tense, so… lost, that Merlin's heart starts him on a mad, silly path he'd otherwise never in a million years have even thought about taking.

They say love makes fools of us all…

---

As soon as he can make excuses to leave Arthur's rooms that day, he is off like an bolt from a crossbow, down one side of the castle and up the other, back to Gaius' tower.

He doesn't even knock, he just bursts in and shoves the door shut behind him.

"Gaius," he says breathlessly. "I need your help."

Gaius doesn't look up from the vials he's got over flames. One of them is smoking, but he doesn't seem concerned. "Oh?"

"Yes."

"What is it this time, Merlin." It's not a question, exactly. More like an exasperated and slightly bored inquiry one makes when one does not truly wish to know the answer.

"I need you to make my excuses to the prince and the king for the next five days." Gaius does look up then, regarding Merlin keenly, and he amends quickly. "I mean, a week or so should do it, yes, not any set number of days at all."

But Gaius has already cottoned on, the wily old man that he is. He's heard just about every tale in the book, afterall, and been involved in a few more on top of that. "Merlin."

"Please. Please, Gaius."

"The prince must marry, Merlin."

"I know that," Merlin protests. "I just want to—I just want to be there to make sure none of them are plotting anything! Or just, you know, are terrible people."

"I should think the latter is something the prince can recognise for himself by now, but the first has merit." He straightens. "What did you have in mind?"

"Oh, erm—Just tell them I've gone to see my mother for a few days?"

"You could tell them yourself."

Merlin shakes his head strongly. "No, no, I don't want to lie to Arthur."

Gaius' eyebrow goes up, up, up. "Yet you're alright with masquerading as a lady in his court for a week?"

Merlin flushes. "Yes, all right, Gaius, you are much smarter than me and this is all very foolhardy and I know. But I have to do it anyway. Don't you see?"

And something of the desperation in his voice must reach Gaius, because after a short moment of bemused perusal of Merlin's face, Gaius nods. "I do see. I will assist by telling the prince you needed a respite to call on your mother. I'll even," he says, reaching to the nearest shelf with a slight creak of his elbow joint, "help you with the spell."

Relief floods Merlin. "Oh, thank you, thank you, Gaius. What would I do without you?"

Gaius just grunts as he heaves down a large tome, but then he spares Merlin a Look. "Steal more loaves of bread, I expect. Now, let's get going."

---

It hurts more than he was expecting. A feeling like heartburn spreads throughout Merlin's body as soon as he finishes uttering the long, overly complicated spell. It also sort of tingles? It's possibly the weirdest feeling he's ever experienced, and that's saying something, as he once turned himself into a turnip. (And before you ask, no, he's not sure how he got back into human form in one piece, and no, he still can't eat turnips, to this day.)

Gaius has had enough forethought to get Merlin out of most of his clothing, so he's standing in the middle of the physician's workroom in only his loosened pants and undertunic when the change starts, and does not censor his reactions.

"Bloody hell! Gaius!" He looks wide-eyed at his mentor as he tries not to keel over from the strange pain coursing through his veins. "Have you actually gone about killing me this time? Have you been harbouring a secret—Ouch, son of a—"

Gaius raises his eyes to the heavens. "Merlin, have a little decorum, if you please. Need I remind you, the walls—"

"If they had ears then someone would've come running, and if I survive this I am never speaking to you again, I swear to—" He finally gives in and doubles over, clutching at his midsection, where it seems to be the worst. "Arthur had better appreciate this, the dingleb—"

And that's the last thing he thinks for a while.

---

When he wakes up, he's on Gaius' pallet, not in his own former room, which is alright considering Gaius is rather old and Merlin is—

Merlin blinks, and looks down at himself. Oh, holy cats and bells and noses, he's a woman.

"Are you all right?" comes Gaius' voice from somewhere in the room. Merlin hears him approach but can't quite bring himself to look away from the utter weirdness below his neck.

"You look like a cat trying to scratch its own back, Merlin."

"An apt description," Merlin replies, preoccupied with running hands down his arms and legs as he sits up experimentally. Seems fine; he's still skinny and knobbly, only just…not quite so much with the last bit.

When he tries to stand, things go a little pear-shaped. "Watch it," Gaius says, steadying him with a hand under his arm. "Your centre of gravity is going to be a little lower, a little different."

Merlin shakes his head like to clear it. "Yes, I can see that. It's…very strange."

"I expect that's an understatement."

But Merlin's shaking it off. He's even getting that sense of excitement, of a coming adventure. "It's not the strangest thing I've undergone, though, is it now?"

"No, I suppose not. But this…" Gaius trails off, his expression thoughtful, his eyebrows drawn together. "I do hope you know what you're doing, Merlin."

Merlin looks at him in surprise. "I don't understand your concern, Gaius. I mean, I do appreciate it, of course, but— Honestly, what could go wrong?"

Someday, people will learn to stop saying those words.

---

Gaius's looking glass is predictably shabby, and Merlin desperately wants to get a real look at the long dark hair he can sort of see flowing past his neck. Not to mention how this smaller, less-pointy body looks in the elegant but not-overly-showy jade-coloured dress, the first of several Gaius had made appear from somewhere. (Merlin doesn’t ask anymore, not after the time with the pig and the diamond necklace.)

He cocks his head when the bell tolls the hours, and thinks through Arthur's schedule for the day. The prince should absolutely be outside running through drills with the knights right at the moment, and for a good while longer. Arthur never, ever misses those drills, or leaves early, unless the kingdom is essentially on fire. In fact, Merlin would be willing to bet Arthur's going to prolong them today, just to put off having to bathe and get ready for the first meet & greet of the contest.

Merlin grins, and makes his way down the hall.

---

The first person he encounters in his new form is a serving girl, who bobs her head while skirting him in the main passageway to the royal family's wing. He pauses, a little bit struck. He'd known it would happen, intellectually, but it's something different to see others observe gendered manners than to be called 'm'lady' while someone bows at you.

It's very awkward, Merlin decides after about the fifteenth time. He's just trying to walk, afterall. He's used to being able to slip about the castle without a hassle, pardoning the rhyme.

That, and the shoes are impossible. There's no traction whatsoever, and Merlin is as likely to go sliding down a corridor like a greased pig on a frozen pond as he is to float daintily like he's seen ladies do.

There appear to be a lot of new things that might come of this experience, Merlin thinks. And he has a feeling they're not all going to be very nice.

---

Arthur's guards are laughingly easy to distract, per usual, and Merlin slips into the royal chambers with no trouble at all. (He'd be alarmed for the prince's safety, but Camelot and its borderlands are in a peaceful period, and besides, Arthur is far too stubborn to get assassinated in any sort of normal fashion.)

He does look around the chambers a bit; the sun's been down and up again since Merlin has been in them, and he finds, to his surprise, that Arthur's actually been tidy. Either that or his father's chatelaine secretly sent a servant round to clean up, despite Arthur's illogical but emphatic wishes to the contrary.

Merlin prefers to think it's the former, he realises as he takes stock. But he doesn't think on it much further because his eyes catch on the looking glass, and he actually curses out loud.

The woman staring back at him is, much to his further surprise, rather beautiful. (If one is interested in that sort of thing, of course.) And the dress is perfect; Merlin makes a mental note to be especially nice to Gaius after this is all over.

He takes a few more steps towards the glass and gives himself a good looking over. The hair is a mess, in his opinion, long and wild and curly, but he hasn't a clue what to do with it so he'll just cross his fingers that it's not too terribly unfashionable. He reaches up to tuck a lock behind an ear, and—

"What the devil—"

Merlin spins around. "Arthur!"

"Excuse me?" Arthur's eyebrows climb his forehead in a look so righteously incredulous Merlin is glad he has the fortitude of past experience to help him deal with it, else he'd probably be stricken dumb on the spot. He's having a hard enough time as it is, with Arthur being all sweaty and dirty from the drills he'd apparently and uncharacteristically abandoned early.

"I mean—Oh bloody hell—"

Merlin steps towards Arthur, a placating hand reflexively reaching out, and, of course, his ladies' shoes choose that moment to betray him. He goes tumbling forward, and Arthur's quick reflexes are the only reason he doesn't brain himself on the great wooden eating table.

Although he might've preferred that, really, he thinks, as he stares up into Arthur's face from where Arthur has quite literally caught him in strong arms.

Really very ridiculously strong arms.

Merlin feels his face and neck flush as he struggles to right himself, and the words start to rush out of him, as they are wont to do when he's out of sorts. "I'm sorry, Highness, I didn't mean to—I'm sorry that I fell, first of all! Not that I’m not grateful that you caught me—"

"My lady—" Arthur tries to interrupt, amusement in his voice that Merlin doesn't really hear.

"—but I'm also sorry for swearing, and for getting lost and ending up in your rooms, and—"

"My lady!"

The emphatic—yet utterly polite—words stop Merlin's verbal barrage. "Y-yes?" He's startled to see Arthur's eyes twinkling, and a corner of his far-too-enticing mouth twitching upward.

"There, now," Arthur says, and lurking laughter spills brightness into his tone.

"Sorry." Merlin presses his lips together but before he knows it, he's chuckling, and Arthur is too, and it's ridiculous and hilarious and he thoroughly enjoys the way Arthur's face looks in genuine joy.

At that soppy thought, Merlin feels his amusement dwindle away in his throat, until there's a final hiccough and he's looking sheepishly at the crown prince.

He's here for a reason, afterall. "Can we just—" He raises his hands in a vague gesture. "Can we start over?"

Arthur's no longer laughing, either, but his eyes are still lit up with it. "I like that idea very much, yes." He straightens, and sobers fully, even going so far as to affect a stern face and wider stance. "I'm Arthur of the Pendragon, crown prince of these lands. And who might I have the pleasure of meeting this fine day?"

Merlin does his best attempt at a curtsy, grateful when he doesn't fall over. Or forward into Arthur. Again. "I'm called Merida," he says, flashing what he hopes is a beguiling and womanly smile—he doubtlessly looks like a right idiot, but needs must—and holding out his hand like a proper lady. Gaius had made him practice this bit, thankfully. "My father is the Baron of Pembroke, and do believe I am here to compete for your affections."

Arthur takes his hand and holds it gently. Merlin's magicked hands don't have calluses, he notices belatedly. Gaius' spell was very thorough, indeed. "You believe?" Arthur says, a touch of wryness in his voice.

Merlin purses his lips against more laughter. "Oh, don't make me say it again, Your Highness."

A small smirk breaks Arthur's façade, and he lets it turn into one of his charming smiles. "No, I quite think we've had enough awkwardness for the day." He nods. "Well, Lady Merida, it's a pleasure to meet you."

Then Arthur bends down a bit, and even though Merlin knows it's going to happen, he just keeps himself from snatching his hand away when Arthur's lips touch his skin. It's warm and dry and sends a slight tingle up his wrist. Up the slim, pale wrist, that's his and yet not quite his.

It's just strange.

---

And it only gets stranger. The first time he uses the privy, for instance, is an adventure of gigantic proportions. And the adventure only diminishes due to the sheer frequency of such trips this smaller body requires. It's all very annoying.

Going to the privy with wet hems, however, fast becomes his dread enemy. He'd thought a dart out to the training grounds would be a lark, to see how the knights reacted to a lady on the field after they'd been training for hours in the damp of an overcast day. And it had been satisfying indeed: Gernon had run straight into a pell, and Gwaine had got so interested in making a good impression he'd finished an attack drill with a diving roll into a cartwheel. Merlin had not at all been faking his enthusiastic applause at that.

But then he'd had to wee. Again. And this time—the wet hems nearly bested him in the privy. They slapped at the backs of his legs and made everything slimy and cold and he was suddenly very annoyed at Gaius for helping him with this mad plan.

Honestly, he half-wonders as he stomps gracelessly to the great hall for the first evening of contests, what sort of magic do women possess to put up with such things?

---

The other ladies that show up dutifully that first evening, at the behest of their fathers and their stations, are all lovely, of course. And perfectly charming, for the most part, if a bit naïve. But none have dark hair quite like Merlin's, and none of them got to be introduced to the prince alone in his own chambers, so Merlin feels fairly confident that none of them are any competition—

He shakes himself. He's not actually here to compete, now, is he?

"Idiot," he mutters to himself, eyeing the row of ladies and the facing row of parents, courtiers, and, well, the royal family. The first night is just introductions and some basic socialising; the next is to be an evening of lectures on various subjects ranging from astronomy to history to flower-arranging. (And won't Merlin be positively delighted to watch Arthur's expression during that particular speech.) The third is a grand court, the forth an evening of artistic performances, and the fifth a grand ball and—presumably—Arthur's announcement of his choice of bride.

All of these things, and whatever one-on-one times they snatch during the day, are to happen under the watchful eye of at least fifteen people, if not fifty (the performances) or five-hundred (the ball; if the weather cooperates they will be having it out of doors in the grand courtyard). It's Merlin's idea of a terrible week, and if it weren't for Arthur looking like he feels about the same, Merlin'd give up on it altogether, begging some sort of illness and leaving post-haste.

Alas, he's gone into all this trouble, so he might as well just do the task he's undertaken. He has women to investigate, he reminds himself with a smirk that's half-grimace. As underqualified as he might be for the job.

---

That first night, as Merlin is mingling, and watching, and trying not to slide across the floor into the firepit, he does his best to catalogue information about the ladies. None of them seem outwardly threatening, but as Merlin himself knows best: looks can be altogether deceiving.

He notices Arthur becoming more tense as the hours wane, and before he can think better of it he slips in behind him. "This would be much more exciting with some sort of obstacle course, don't you think? Or is that to come and we just haven't been warned?"

Arthur snorts, his eyes widening a bit as he turns to look at Merlin—at Merida. He seems at a loss for words, for about the length of two heartbeats. "Father does tend to be full of surprises," he says with a twist of his lips. "And they have been doing something mysterious in one of the west fields for the past few days."

"Oh, excellent. I'll just go and practice my hog-tying, shall I?"

Arthur laughs once, then presses his lips together. "My Lady Merida, you are most unusual."

Merlin manages not to grin outright. Arthur is as predictable as the sun. "Much to my father's chagrin, I’m afraid."

"Ah, yes. Does he despair of marrying you off? Is that why you're here?"

Merlin nods, affecting a wistful look. "I'm fast becoming an old spinster, indeed."

Arthur pauses at that, cocking his head and looking at Merlin from tip to toe. "I hardly believe that," he says lowly, and Merlin's eyes widen.

That Pendragon Charm, he marvels inwardly. Here tis.

"Your Highness," he says belatedly, remembering protocol. "That's hardly for you to say, is it?" When Arthur seems a bit chastened, Merlin continues. "At least not yet."

He gives Arthur one last hopefully-coy glance, then makes his exit for the evening.

He gets all the way out of the great hall before losing his footing and falling on his face. So he considers it a victory.

---

The second night, at the astronomy lecture, he starts to refer to the ladies by planet names in his head. Their actual names are very complicated and involve titles and many relatives, both dead and living, so this is just easier. And keeps Merlin at least mildly entertained.

The one he calls Mars, as she wears a lot of red, and it doesn't seem to be just to please Arthur, either; she bends over once, when she thinks no one's looking, and he sees even her supportive bodice is red. It suits her, actually, because she's something of a—forceful personality. She'd be a terrible match for Arthur, in that regard, because they'd just be at each other's throats all the time.

There's one he calls Jupiter, because her dresses tend to be made of something shimmery, and the girl herself is very, very bubbly. Merlin finds himself slightly dizzy whenever he spends too much time in her presence, and knows he's not alone because Arthur always has a somewhat dazed expression on his face after they interact. Obviously she'd be no good for him either, if she puts him in that state.

There's one that's a bookworm, whom Merlin can't help but call Mercury, and he is relatively certain her father is far more interested in Arthur than she herself is, and Arthur wouldn't know what to do with a bookworm, besides.

Neptune is what he calls the weepy auburn-haired one, who seems to find all of life very moving, and Merlin can't tell if it's genuine or not but either way Arthur is going through his supply of handkerchiefs at an alarming rate, which would definitely not do for Arthur—or Merlin—in the future.

The one he calls Venus, though, deserves her name and then some. She's absolutely stunning, hair the colour of wheat and eyes the colour of morning grass and where Merlin is getting all these poetic adjectives from he has no idea but it seems to have come with the lady bits. Ladies are more free to think and say such things, afterall.

And at least composing poetry is kind of diverting, while he listens to Sir Higgenbothom go on and on about moons and suns rotating around them. The gentleman even goes so far as to make some grand metaphor betwixt Arthur and the sun, and Merlin barely represses a decidedly unladylike snort.

As if Arthur needs anyone telling him the universe revolves around him. His head can barely fit in a door as it is.

---

Court is actually more boring as a noble than as a servant, something which Merlin quite honestly hadn't thought was possible. On the third day, as it goes on, and on, and on, he considers requesting a bit of embroidery to work on, as some of the other ladies have, but realises quickly that he'd be rubbish at it and give the game away. So he merely sits and tries not to fidget as Ceremonial Dagger Number Fifteen is given to Lord Whatsit for a thing he did in aught-thirty.

He's so occupied mentally composing poetry about his boredom he nearly doesn't hear it in the end, when Arthur announces he's going to retire for the evening, and take meetings in his chambers with the ladies one by one (with the door open and guards/handmaids/fathers directly outside, of course), starting with—

"M'lady Merida?"

"Hmm?" Merlin shifts his gaze from where it was on the great hall's fire, and his eyes widen when he sees Arthur standing and looking at him expectantly. "Yes." He stands abruptly, steadying himself when his feet threaten to slip. "Of course."

"Of course?" Arthur's got a hint of teasing around his mouth, and Merlin simultaneously wants to slug him and kiss him. It's a feeling with which he's overly familiar, although he'll admit it's a little different in this different body.

Merlin doesn't have an excess of options, here, he realizes quickly. Everyone else in the room is readying their things to leave, so he follows suit and holds out his hand, a tilt to his lips that he knows Arthur will take as acknowledgment that he hasn't a clue what they're actually discussing. "Lead the way."

Once they're in the passageway, Merlin's hand in Arthur's elbow, he leans in. "…what did I just agree to?"

"Hog-tying," Arthur replies, face completely stoic.

Merlin's laughter—altogether genuine—echoes down the hallway.

When they reach the prince's chambers, Merlin fwumps down in one of the chairs in front of the fire with a large sigh. He's allowed that, as a lady, right? His skirts do a satisfying swishing and falling, also, and he is suddenly much more forgiving of the wet hems issue.

He hears Arthur's chuckle at his dramatics, and realises exactly how impolite he's being. But Arthur seems more curious than offended, as he hands Merlin a lovely silver chalice full of warmed wine. "Was my father's court that terrible?"

Merlin pauses, taking a drink and considering his options. But what has he got to lose, really? "No offence intended, Sire, but I feel as though I've just sat through a lecture on the properties of wood sorrel and wormwood. Not that I have any idea what those are," he amends quickly, realising he'd just quoted the court physician. "But next time, some jugglers, perhaps? A few contortionists breathing fire?"

Arthur chuckles again. "I'll make a note of your suggestions, my lady. I must admit, my bum was rather asleep after about twenty minutes, as well."

The laugh bubbles out of Merlin. He's never heard Arthur be so precious as to use the word 'bum', and it's rather delightful, he'll admit. He could blame it on the wine starting to meander through his veins, but… Arthur's smile is warm, and the fire is warm, and Merlin is nearly all right with things just the way they are.

Nearly.

Except for the bit about how he's lying about who he is, which is something that's never sat well with him. And he really does miss being himself, for reasons other than the ease of using the privy.

The warm feeling leeches away, and he sighs again, looking away from Arthur's upsettingly lovely visage.

Then he sees what's been placed decoratively in front of the fire. He leans forward and smiles to himself before he can help it, reaching a hand out to touch the nearest one. "Pumpkins!"

Arthur looks at him curiously. "Yes. To celebrate the harvest season, I expect."

"Yes, of course," Merlin agrees quickly, feeling his face flush and cursing inwardly as he attempts to sit back and look nonchalant. He takes too big of a gulp of wine. "For the harvest season."

"I see they put some in Merl—my manservant's quarters, as well."

"Very thorough, your staff."

"Yes."

"And what were you doing in your servant's quarters?"

Arthur's mouth opens, but no sound comes out at first. He regards his companion with a raised eyebrow. "I'm crown prince."

Merlin tilts his lips into what he hopes is a coy look. "I believe that is my point, Sire."

Arthur huffs, but the corners of his mouth twitch, too. "I needed additional bedding on a particularly chilly evening."

"I see." He pauses for about half a second, but is emboldened by the wine. "And you haven't a bedwarmer whose services you could've called upon?"

Arthur's jaw tightens, then he shrugs. "Not really my style, if you must know."

"I see. So you've not—" Merlin tilts his head towards the bed. He feels almost lightheaded with the drink and the talk, and he's enjoying it most definitely.

“Don’t be silly, of course I’ve—“ Arthur stops short, and Merlin knows he's just too polite to be any more specific with a lady in the room. Merlin also thinks he's perhaps the most adorable person possible.

“But not with men?” The question just sort of slips out.

Arthur splutters. “No, not with men. What kind of question is that?”

Merlin shrugs. "Just a question."

"I'm the Prince of Camelot."

"No one's arguing against that."

"You sound like my manservant," snaps Arthur.

"Oh." Arthur's tone says very clearly that this is a bad thing.

"Who, in point of fact, does bed men."

"Oh!"

"Yes."

"And does this… bother you, Your Highness?"

"No, of course not."

"It seems to."

"A little."

"Why?"

To Merlin's surprise, Arthur sighs heavily, and only hesitates for a moment before answering. "I don't know, and that weighs on me. It's none of my business who Merlin is…tupping." He looks towards the lady he doesn't know is actually said manservant, and his face is chagrined. "My sincerest apologies, Lady Merida. Where are my manners, in speaking of such things?"

Merlin can't help but smile a little at Arthur's inexorable politeness. "I asked you, remember? Terribly impertinent of me, I realise. But I'm only here for a few more days, aren't I? And this wine—" He presses a hand to his cheek, which is indeed very warm. This body is a bloody nuisance. "I do believe it has stolen my senses."

Suddenly, softly, there's a hand atop his, even more warmth against his skin, and he looks up, startled, to see Arthur very near to him, very near indeed. The prince's eyes are dark and earnest in the firelight, and if Merlin didn't know better—

There's a knock at the partially-opened door, and Merlin startles back like a caught deer. (And that notion doesn't lead him down a mental path with regards to Arthur's skill at tracking, hunting, and using a shaft, no, not at all.)

"Your Highness," says the guard, his tone a mixture of bored and respectful. "It's the hour."

Arthur exhales. "Of course. Thank you." He stands, then looks down at Merlin. "My lady," he says, and he does sound regretful as he holds out a hand. Merlin takes it without thought, allowing himself to be stood up. His hems, thankfully, cooperate, as do his shoes. "I do apologise, but princes are never without a schedule to keep."

"I know," Merlin responds absently. His brain seems to be hampered by a feeling like being very pleasantly buried in down feathers, and he can't seem to get past what just nearly seems to have happened— "I mean, I can imagine. Not that I've known many princes. Or any at all. Or, at least, not very well, of cour—"

"Merida." Arthur's hand is on his jaw again, and oh, Merlin had never thought such a simple touch would be so bloody nice. An ache blooms in his chest. "I have enjoyed our time together this evening."

"As have I, Your Highness."

"Arthur. My name is Arthur."

Merlin feels his cheeks warm with the smile he cannot hide. "Arthur, then."

---

Gaius thinks it's the most ridiculous idea ever. "Downright idiotic, if you ask me. Which, might I remind you, you did."

Merlin shifts his skirts; he's figured out that the trick to the privy is rolling the fabric up, and has become much less annoyed with them as a result. "It was really more of a rhetorical—"

"Don't do it, Merlin," Gaius repeats, his tone positively dire as he glares across his mortar and pestle at Merlin, one eyebrow nearly at his hairline.

Merlin throws his hands up in the air. Regardless of how nice it is to be called by his actual name, he feels as though he has a point of fact which Gaius is ignoring. "What on earth else am I supposed to do? I'm no musician, or poet—"

"Heavens, don't I know it."

"—and I can't just bow out! Surely that would be suspicious—"

"More suspicious than magic? Have you gone round the bend for certain this time? Do you not remember how the king treated the last person who performed magic in his court?"

"But this will be fake magic, Gaius! Sleight of hand, no nefarious intent at all. Perfectly harmless!"

Gaius's eyebrow is still mocking him. "I'll believe it when I see it."

Merlin stands, grasping his skirts automatically and barely even wobbling on his shoes. "You'll see it, then. I promise."

---

Because Merlin knows, just knows, that it's all going to be perfectly fine.

Which means, of course, it goes terribly, horribly wrong.

---

After an hour of beautiful women singing beautifully, or playing lute beautifully, or playing harp beautifully, Merlin has had about enough of soppy love songs and is fairly certain that everyone else has, too.

So when he stands, he puts up a hand to acknowledge the polite applause, and grins at the overly-well-dressed audience. He pulls out his juggling bags, wee bags of beans sewn securely shut, and starts tossing them into the air in a well-practiced motion, so well-practiced he starts to speak with nary a fumble.

"My name is Merida de Harfleur, second daughter to the Baron of Pembroke, and I am about to give you the best show of trickery this castle's ever seen." Merlin's certain of his routine's superiority, in fact, because he's had to sit through a lot of the previous displays as Arthur's manservant. Well, stand, really, but now that he's been a courtier he thinks back on that fondly.

He runs through his whole repertoire, from disappearing coins to appearing flowers to pulling a dove out of a hat. (That one's his favourite.) And if he uses a little actual magic to help this faux-magic along, well, then, who's to know but him?

He ends with a literal bang, of Gaius's secret powder Merlin did not discover because he knocked the canister off the shelf and nearly blew the room to pieces, no, not at all. It's very impressive and the small crowd is on their feet, applauding. Even Uther looks vaguely impressed, although still with lips curled in slight suspicion.

Arthur looks like he can't decide whether to throw up or throw Merlin—Merida—over his shoulder and haul her to his chambers. It's Merlin's new favourite expression on him, he decides, and he's trying to think of ways to tilt the situation to his advantage when suddenly there's another bang, and one of the other contestants stands with a huff.

"You call that magic? I'll show you magic."

The room fills with a sweet-smelling fog, punctuated by flashes of green lightning, and Merlin nearly rolls his eyes. Why must all sorcerers have a fondness for the dramatic? It really would go much more smoothly if they just—

Then he hears Arthur's oof of pained surprise and is across the room in an instant, barrelling through courtiers and smoke and chairs with hardly a thought about bruises or the spell he'd unthinkingly cast to help him along the way.

He's stymied by an invisible wall, as ridiculous as that sounds, and although he's not the worst at real magic he hasn't exactly run across this situation before, so he just bangs several useless spells at it, his mind and heart racing madly.

When the magical fog clears enough for him to see beyond the barrier, Arthur is in a chair, wide eyes staring up at a small woman in a fine court dress, the line between her brows from squinting down at books even more pronounced as she glares down at him.

Because it's Cristiana, the one he'd called Mercury, the one who'd always had her nose either in the air or in a book and of course it's her. It's always the smart ones, Merlin thinks. Or the quiet ones. Or—

"Where is your sorcerer now?" Cristiana asks Arthur, and Arthur's eyes narrow as Merlin's heart seizes with surprise. "I came here because there's a rumour that you have a powerful sorcerer living in your pocket, and I figured any prince who could do that would be a very great prince indeed."

"I've no idea what you're talking about," Arthur says haughtily, before the golden bindings—which are very pretty for an evil enchantment—tighten and he winces into silence.

"Yes, I can tell. Not the brightest, are you?"

"Oi!" Merlin shouts, banging at the barrier, but neither of them turn. Blast and damn. This sorceress is very thorough. He'd be impressed if he had a moment, but as it is—

She flicks her wrist and Arthur jerks back, pain flashing across his face. "Apparently your sorcerer isn't all that powerful, either. Or else he would've come charging to your rescue, would he not?"

"Steady on," Merlin rebuts uselessly at them, "now that's just—"

Well, it's sort of true, he then thinks. Tickling spells and turning handkerchiefs into butterflies are all fine and good, but what use is it? Is he?

She flicks her wrist again, and Arthur's grimace sticks around longer this time, a small scratch of blood appearing along one jaw.

Merlin's heart leaps in his chest and thuds against his ribcage insistently. He has to do something. He has to.

He looks around wildly, and notices for the first time that everyone else in the room has slumped to the floor in their finery. They seem to be breathing, and Merlin realises with some surprise that the fog must've had a sleeping agent in it, and that whatever protection he had reflexively thrown up around himself had spared him its effects.

Perhaps he's not so useless, after all.

A kernel of hope forms in his chest, and he focuses on it. He thinks at it, thinks at it hard, shoving all other thoughts out of his head except for magic and Arthur, because this is what he's here for. This is what he's supposed to do, and that must mean that however impossible it seems, it's there, within his reach— within him

There's a great dirty crack.

He's not sure how it happens, even long afterwards. But when he next opens his eyes, he's inside the barrier, Arthur is slumped back in the chair snoring soundly—

And at their feet is a dainty white finch.

---

It chirrups loudly as Merlin heads toward the prince. He runs his hands over Arthur's prone form, checking for further damage and making a noise of relief when none is apparent.

Then he turns and glares at the chirruping bird, who has hopped over and attempted to pierce a hole in the still-standing barrier with its beak. "Oh, stop that," he admonishes, "I'm not going to stomp on you, but you'd better believe you're not going anywhere."

It seems mollified, but is none too pleased when Merlin manages to conjure a cage (all right, really he just summons one from Gaius's quarters, which is much less impressive) and stuffs her into it.

Just as he turns to Arthur, contemplating what spell to try to wake him up, there's another crack, although this one much smaller, that disintegrates the barrier and jolts magic through Merlin like a strangely cold thunderbolt.

He freezes.

Then he looks down, although he really doesn't need to because he can feel it, because it's like settling back into a favourite set of clothes after a long day—and yes, there's his old body, his very male body, in a very lovely plum-coloured dress that sets off his eyes and hair quite nicely—

Murmurs wind their way to Merlin's ears, and when he looks around in alarm, he sees the people on the floor starting to stir. Arthur's eyelids begin to flutter.

Merlin grabs his skirts, and, upon second thought, the birdcage, and runs.

---

"Gaius!" There's a little bit of a wail in Merlin's voice as he pushes through Gaius's heavy chamber door with a strength borne of the thrill of battle still running through his veins. All right, it hadn't been a battle, exactly, but Merlin still feels his blood racing and his heart thumping madly.

Both of Gaius's eyebrows go up as he takes stock of Merlin. "What on earth—"

"The bookish one," Merlin manages breathlessly. "The bookish one was a sorceress, which shouldn't've surprised me but really one can never tell, and I should know that but I still forget sometimes—obviously— Anyway, she got all angry about my fake magic, and did this thing, this great invisible wall sort of thing, and was having a go at Arthur to get to me! At least I think that was why, and I don't know how it happened but now she's a bird and I'm—"

He runs out of air. The cage thumps down to the floor rather gracelessly, the finch squawking indignantly.

"And you're not?" Gaius supplies.

"Ha bloody ha," Merlin manages after gulping in a breath or two. "Change me back! You've got to change me back, so I can go back and make sure that everything's all right!"

The finch chirrups again, almost nervously, and Merlin feels Gaius guiding him by the elbow back to his pallet. He sinks down without thought, the excitement of the incident suddenly abandoning him and leaving him exhausted.

"Is the prince in any immediate danger?"

Merlin shakes his head. "No. Not unless one of the other ladies is a sorceress, too." Alarmed once more, he struggles to stand back up, but his body is so confused, it won't quite cooperate. "Gaius, what if—"

"Odds are not great that that is the case, Merlin," Gaius says reasonably, and Merlin slumps back onto the pallet. "But let's get you changed back so you can go make sure of it, all right?"

Merlin nods. "Yes, let's." He straightens his spine. "I'm ready."

It isn't until after he says the words of the spell, and Merlin winces through the spread of pain, that his mind clears enough to remember how the rest of this goes: with him unconscious for several hours.

He looks up at his mentor accusingly. "Gaius! You tricked me!"

Gaius shakes his head, but there's real concern there. "Good night, Merlin."

"Aarrggh--"

---

The chirruping of the finch wakes him up. He peers at it with one eye. "Bloody bird," he mutters.

He hears a chuckle. It takes him a moment to realise it isn't Gaius's.

He sits up, one hand going to his skirts and the other to his hair, checking to make sure— "Arthur!"

"Lady Merida," Arthur says with a polite nod and a smile playing at his lips. "How fare you this morning?"

Merlin sighs. "Is it morning?"

"I'm afraid so," Gaius chimes in from the other side of his chambers. Of course, Merlin thinks, Arthur would never be alone with a lady, especially so early in the day and with the lady apparently unwell.

"I'm fine," Merlin says with a wave of his hand. "More importantly, Your Highness, how are you?"

"I am well now that I've had some rest, thank you for inquiring." Arthur's face takes on nearly a sheepish look, and it's delightful. "Although I feel I've escaped rather a nasty headache, considering I cannot remember much of last night, and can only assume it was due to too much wine."

Merlin straightens in surprise, then tries to hide it by touching his toes to the floor and rearranging his skirts. "Oh?"

"Yes, as much as it shames me to say. I remember your--" His lips do twitch with a smirk, then. "--peculiar show, but not anything after that."

"Oh, good."

Arthur cocks an eyebrow at him. "Beg pardon?"

"Erm." Merlin thinks fast. "The rest of the evening was dreadful, I promise you. Just some Northern poetry that went on for hours—or at least seemed to—and was so soporific that everyone chose to retire directly afterwards. I felt poorly, so I came here, and Gaius was kind enough to give me a sleeping draught."

"Well, that's disappointing, about the poetry," Arthur says congenially. "Although it does mean you stole the show."

Merlin feels his skin heat up. "Did I?"

Arthur holds his gaze, his eyes warm and earnest. "Certainly."

There's a strange, tense moment, then. Merlin doesn't know at all what to make of the expression on Arthur's face, but he feels it down to his toes.

There's a cough from the other side of the room.

The moment bursts, and Arthur straightens, face becoming merely friendly again. "I'm glad to see you are well, my lady, and look forward to seeing you this evening." He nods politely, then makes his exit.

Merlin tries not to focus too much on the view as he leaves. "What's this evening, Gaius?" he asks absently.

"Why, the ball, of course."

Merlin turns to him. "They're still having the ball?" He's honestly surprised.

"Of course they are," Gaius responds, a hint of admonishment in his voice. "Takes more than a little missing time—that was very good of you to do, by the way—to put the king off his schedule."

"I didn't do it on purpose," Merlin reminds him. "The prince almost died."

"Ah, but he doesn't know that, now, does he?"

Merlin makes a face. "No."

"And you should keep it that way."

"Yes, we all know how great I am at that sort of thing."

At Gaius's look, Merlin puts his hands up in submission. "Fine. Fine, I'll just smile prettily until the whole mess is behind us, shall I?"

"That sounds most agreeable, yes. And this you is quite beautiful, you know. Quite capable of—as you so just put it—smiling prettily."

Merlin shakes his head. "I don't know about that, but it'll do."

Gaius sighs, but it's fond. "What ever shall I do with you, my dear boy?"

---

The ball is much louder than Merlin expected, among other things. He wanders past some jugglers—skilled, he'll admit—and some fire-breathers—not so much of a skill, but admirable nonetheless—towards the food tables, his ears battered by the din of a reed-heavy group of musicians who seem to have got a head start on the wine.

Which is flowing copiously, as well as beer and mead. He's about to investigate the boar's head when a strong arm reaches round his waist and pulls him around a corner.

He's about to yell until he realises it's Arthur. Then he still wants to yell, but settles for huffing and glaring. "I suppose a prince can just manhandled a woman whenever he wants, can he?"

Arthur immediately looks stricken. "No, I would never—I just—"

Merlin waves a hand. "I know you're not that sort of lad. I was just startled."

"Oh, good," Arthur says, and he does seem relieved. "I could not go another minute if I thought I'd offended you." Arthur holds out an arm, and Merlin takes it, despite the fact that Arthur's headed away from the castle. If Arthur's not concerned about clucking courtiers and untoward gossip, then neither is Merlin. He'll be 'gone' in less than a day, anyway.

They end up half a field-length from the ball, their backs against the castle wall, looking up at the stars. It's so silly, Merlin thinks, but it's also really rather nice. Arthur is warm beside him in the fall night air, and the conversation is light and witty. Arthur's genuine interest in Merida is clear, and trying to disentangle all of it makes Merlin feel as though he's already had a great deal of wine. Or maybe that's just Arthur.

A breeze comes through and he twitches involuntarily at the feel of it on his face (the rest of him is covered; Gaius would never be one to go about creating a scandal). Arthur immediately moves closer, in fact moving to face Merlin, to put himself between this lady and the wind. It's incredibly chivalric, and so very innately Arthur that Merlin can't help but smile.

He lets himself look at Arthur's face, really look. Just drink it in, the planes and the angles and the texture softened by the darkness of the night.

"Hello, there, Arthur of the Pendragon," he says finally, and his lady's voice is quiet, full of sweetness he didn't intend to express.

Arthur's expression takes on a definite tinge of affection, though, so Merlin is all right with it. "Hello, Merida of Pembroke. Are you chilled at all?"

Merlin shakes his head, and he's telling the truth. "Not at all, with you here."

He immediately feels foolish at his words when Arthur pauses. But then the prince starts to speak.

"It's really very strange," he says, his voice full of a sort of surprised wonder. "I thought, surely, it would be perfect, to have the object of my affections be in a body just like this." He trails a hand up Merlin's arm, along the softness Merlin himself has just barely got used to. "It's beautiful, it really is, and I expect under normal circumstances it would please a person, a prince, very well enough indeed."

Well, don't those words sound ominous? Merlin's wee heart goes from thumping to racing, and everything suddenly feels closed in. "I don't understand."

Arthur chuckles, and it's a bit wry, but not unkind. "Of course you don't."

He moves gracefully, crowding Merlin against the wall, gently but solidly invading Merlin's personal space, braced up with hands on either side of Merlin's head without getting entangled in any of Merlin's mess of black curls.

Merlin's heart squeezes in his chest, and his body shifts into Arthur's without his strict permission. It's all…off, though, wrong in angle and softness and Merlin can't understand how he wants to be anywhere but here and nowhere but here at the same bloody time.

"And?" he asks, his voice frustratingly uneven. "Are you going to enlighten me?"

Arthur's eyes search his, even as one hand comes up to cup Merlin's cheek, in a gesture that's becoming achingly familiar. "I have become very attached to you, and I do hope you entered this contest in truth, not just in obligation."

Merlin swallows. "I did," he says, and for once he is not lying. Not exactly. He'd marry Arthur in a second…if they lived in a time and place where such things were possible. He wonders absently if such a place has ever existed. Or ever will.

Arthur's smile brings Merlin back from such musings. "I thought as much," he says quietly. "And I am very glad for it."

Merlin's brow furrows; he senses that's not all. "But…?"

"But," Arthur begins, leaning down until his lips are right next to Merlin's ear, the air hot and tight. "Much to my surprise, I find I wish you were back in your true form right now… Merlin."

Merlin gasps. He literally feels the air get sucked out of his lungs at Arthur's words, and it takes him a moment to form any words of his own.

When he does, they leave his mouth without his permission, much as usual.

And with a great shove to Arthur's chest.

"You arse."

Arthur looks up at him from where Merlin has pushed him, just a few feet away but in a rather surprised slouch. "I'm the arse?"

"How long have you known?" Merlin demands.

But Arthur is indignant. "How am I the arse when you're the one trying to trick me into—"

Merlin has to stop him saying it. "No! I wasn't, I swear it."

Arthur tilts his head at him, rather like a puppy and Oh Merlin has got to stop thinking these ridiculous things. He blames it on the spell. "You weren't trying to trick me into marriage?"

"No!" Merlin says firmly. "I'm not an idiot, all right? I hardly want to stay in this form forever, thanks very much. I was just trying to—to trick you out of marriage."

"Now you're just speaking nonsense."

Merlin chooses his words carefully, Gaius's warning ringing in his ears. "Well, at first I wanted to make sure none of the ladies were, I dunno, assassins or something—" At Arthur's raised eyebrow, he rushes on. "Stranger things have happened, and you know it!"

Arthur inclines his chin. "Granted. But you said that was only at first."

"Sire, you don't want to marry any of these strangers, you said so yourself."

"So, what? You were doing me a favour?"

"Yes! Yes, exactly. Saving you from yourself."

"Merlin."

"What."

"You completely and utterly are an idiot."

"Oh, right, now, that's it. If you could just stay where you are, I'll be taking my leave." He pushes off the wall and makes to stride right past Arthur—

Only to feel Arthur's hand encircle his wrist. "Merlin," he hears, and it's Arthur's quiet voice, the voice that comes out when lives have been lost, or when Arthur is worrying over a decision he has to make on behalf of the kingdom. Merlin is one of the few people to have heard it, he knows.

It's not enough to keep him from snapping back, though. "What? What could you possibly have to say that would—"

"Pumpkins," Arthur says puzzlingly, his voice still soft.

"Beg pardon?"

Arthur's hand is still on his wrist, but loosely. Merlin, much to his chagrin, is not inclined to pull away, even though he knows Arthur would not stop him. "You asked when I knew. I knew when she—when you said 'pumpkins'."

Merlin stares at him. "That was days ago!"

Arthur shrugs one shoulder. "I wanted to see if…if it would work."

"If it would work," Merlin repeats flatly.

"Yes." And Merlin watches as Arthur breathes in and out, hard, as if steeling himself for something trying. "I wanted to see if having you in this body would work to banish the improper thoughts I'd been having about your other one."

Merlin's mouth falls open again. Precious little sound comes out, though, as Merlin's mind trips over itself in its haste to catch up with these events. Something akin to hope is starting to sneak in, as well, and it's all very confusing.

"You're serious," he says finally, his heart thudding in his chest like it's going to escape.

Arthur's eyes are wide, but the set of his jaw… Merlin knows it well. Arthur absolutely does mean this, all of this. It's madness, pure madness, but…truth. And now Merlin is stuck, stuck in this body and in this situation, and what he wants seems closer but still very far away and he doesn't know how to even begin navigating the distance.

"Yes, Merlin," Arthur then replies, fond exasperation staining his tone. "I'm more serious than I've been about anything in my entire life."

"That's saying rather a lot," Merlin replies thoughtlessly.

Arthur huffs. "I found fire-breathers for you! Admittedly they're not also contortionists, but you're a hard nut to crack, despite being somewhat of a nin—"

To hell and back with it, Merlin thinks, getting up on his tippy-toes and leaning in until his lips stop Arthur's words with a kiss.

They're not his lips, not really, but it is his affection in them, and it is still quite nice. Nicer still when Arthur makes a noise and gathers him close, pulling him away from the wall and fully into his embrace.

The kiss is not chaste for very long, Merlin too desperate to drink Arthur in, despite the circumstances, and Arthur disinclined to argue, for once. "Merlin," he murmurs in between advances, and Merlin breaks the kiss and rests his forehead on Arthur's jaw.

"Say my name again," he says, and does not care a whit how breathless he sounds.

"Merlin…"

Merlin closes his eyes and savours. "Oh, that's lovely."

"As are you," Arthur says. One of his hands comes up to Merlin's hair, and Merlin tips back enough to look at his face. His expression is thoughtful.

"I find myself… exceedingly fond of you," he begins, and Merlin nearly laughs. "But I did mean it when I— Well—"

"Arthur," Merlin says gently, pressing his lips against Arthur's jawline and enjoying the tightening of Arthur's embrace in response. "I do not intend to stay this way beyond the conclusion of this dreadful contest."

Arthur exhales in relief. "Oh, fantastic." He frames Merlin's face with his hands and captures Merlin's lips briefly. "It's lovely, but it's not you."

His brows draw together suddenly. Merlin has a feeling he knows why. "What if…" he begins, trying to think it through. "What if you declare me the winner, and I…"

Arthur shakes his head. "And you just beg off? That won't work. No one would buy it."

Merlin rolls his eyes. "Think you're that irresistible, don't you?"

Arthur kisses him, and Merlin can feel the chuckle behind it. "No, you idiot. I think you are."

Merlin's mouth closes with a snap. "…oh."

"Yes."

"Alright, well… What if… What if you did marry her? I could—she could—come back? Every once in a while? From where she's, I dunno, watching over one of your other holds?"

Arthur presses his lips together thoughtfully. "I suppose that has merit. It's not unheard of."

"It's not."

"My father will not understand," he says, a hint of hesitance.

"But he'll allow it."

"I expect, yes."

"And he'll still respect you."

"Will he?"

Merlin pulls up short. "Yes, of course. Why wouldn't he?"

"Well," Arthur says, one hand finding Merlin's jaw, tracing along it softly. "I will be taking up with the Court Sorcerer."

"You— You what, now?"

"Admit it, Merlin, you're a terrible servant."

"I am no such thing! I protect you from assassins! And yourself!"

"Exactly. You're a terrible servant, but an excellent Advisor."

Merlin finds he cannot argue with this. And if it means he never has to polish armour or scrub a floor again, even with the aid of magic, then he is one hundred percent behind it. Also— "That means you won't get to make me wear terrible hats anymore, you realise?"

Arthur purses his lips. "Yes, I will."

"No, you will not, and this just keeps getting madder the more we discuss it."

"I agree."

"So can we be done discussing it?"

Arthur grins at him, and presses him back against the wall. "Absolutely."

---

The next few days are a blur for Merlin, when he looks back. Here's what he remembers:

- The courtier he'd nicknamed Mars chucks her shoe at his head when Arthur declares Merida the contest's winner. That's hard to forget.

- Uther engages Merida in possibly the most awkward conversation Merlin has ever, ever had. In case you were wondering, Uther's opinions on wifely duties are actually quite civil and forward-thinking. But still. Awkward. Something Merlin would rather forget, and therefore assuredly never will.

- Merlin manages to only slide a few feet during Merida's trip down the aisle. The veil is surprisingly blinding, all right, and the fancy bridal shoes are even worse than the previous pair, and he's so sick of being in the wrong body he wants to vomit. Arthur's look of amused affection once Merlin makes it to him, though, and the warmth of his hand in Merida's, are tremendous comfort. Merlin sets his jaw, trying to filter out the bad things and concentrate on Arthur's face, then nods for the ceremony to begin.

- Transfiguring a swath of Gaius's miscellaneous baskets and crockery into ladies things in order to make an appropriate faux-exit from the kingdom is actually rather entertaining. Arthur watches raptly, his eyes alight with wonder, stealing kisses when it gets to be too much. Their laughter is rich in the warm, familiar room, and he cannot wait for this all to be over.

---

"What do you mean, you're not sure how to change me back?"

Gaius shrugs. He clearly does not understand how important it is that Merlin transform back as soon as possible. Probably because he doesn't know that Merlin and Arthur are…postponing intimate relations until then. "You did it yourself, last time."

"Yes, but not on purpose! Oh, Gaius, you are the worst." Merlin throws himself down into a chair, imagining scenarios in which he's stuck in this body for weeks and weeks and knowing he'll positively die of frustration before anything is sorted out.

His bridegroom—and isn't that a hilarious thought?—is looking at him thoughtfully. "How did it happen last time, anyway?"

Merlin's eyes widen. He has completely forgotten to tell Arthur the tale of what really transpired the night of the musicale.

"Oh, hell."

---

"So you just… wished it very forcefully?" Arthur says carefully from his chair beside the fire in his chambers. Merlin is curled up in the chair opposite, chin on his knees and frustration across his brow.

"Arthur."

"I know, I should be grateful you saved my life, and I am, but you must admit it does seem rather silly that it's so haphazard."

"You have no idea," Merlin mumbles.

"Perhaps," Arthur says reasonably, the delusional dear, "could you try to do that again?"

Merlin huffs. "No!"

"Why not?"

"You were in danger, Arthur. It was the heat of the battle, I was feeling very—Well, I was feeling very much, is all, and this little body just kind of—" He makes a vague 'flying apart' sort of gesture. "Couldn't not."

He sighs, puts his chin back on his knees, and resumes staring into the fire.

"Right," Arthur says, getting up and coming to stand in front of Merlin. "I've an idea."

Merlin raises an eyebrow at him but doesn't otherwise move. "What, are you offering to throw yourself off the parapet into a hay cart to scare me back into my true form?"

"Tempting," Arthur says wryly as he lowers himself to his knees at the foot of Merlin's chair.

And oh, that's a very nice picture indeed.

"Arthur…?"

"I know," Arthur says, looking up at Merlin, "that we've agreed we'd both rather wait until you're actually you again before we… consummate this. But at the moment, we're sort of stuck. And I think—" He reaches up and gently tugs at Merida's dress-clad knees, and Merlin acquiesces, letting them down until his toes touch the floor. Arthur shifts forward until he's essentially in between Merida's legs.

Merlin isn't dumb; this body isn't dumb, either, and has already started responding, just to the idea. "You think perhaps it would help?"

"You mentioned the heat of the battle," Arthur murmurs as he slides his hands slowly up Merida's thighs. The dress warms under his touch. As does Merlin.

"Y-yes, I did—"

"And being so overwhelmed by feelings as to drown out thoughts…"

Merlin's lips curve. "You think you're that good, do you?"

Arthur looks up at him, and the glint in his eyes is rather wicked. "Let's see, shall we?"

Merlin bites his lip, tempted to stop and think about it, but thinking hasn't worked in this particular situation and—Oh, and Arthur's hands have slid up to his hips, thumbs teasing the apex of his thighs through the fabric of the dress.

"Arthur," Merlin groans, reaching for those hands and lifting them off. Arthur opens his mouth and from his expression Merlin knows he's about to apologise, so Merlin cuts him off. "Do it."

Arthur's mouth closes. "Really?"

Merlin nods, then reaches down and pulls Merida's skirts up, slowly, a smirk playing at his lips. "Let's see what you've got. Your Highness."

---

Arthur comes at it with nearly the same expression he does when strategising a battle scenario, and Merlin almost laughs. This body is delightfully responsive, though, and laughter is soon to be the furthest thing from Merlin's mind.

Arthur accepts Merlin's gesture of raised skirts and continues to push them upwards slowly. He explores the exposed skin with his hands, leaving trails of tingles before following with his lips and that is very nice indeed. The picture of the prince's fair head bent in supplication, his eyes closing in contentment as he maps out new territory— Well, Merlin definitely has a new favourite Arthur Expression now, that's for certain.

He tangles his fingers in that hair. "Arthur…"

"Hmm?" Arthur looks up at him, cheek resting against the inside of Merida's knee, and Merlin's heart squeezes with affection.

He tugs.

Arthur grins.

---

But instead of heading for the prize, as Merlin assumes he will, Arthur slides his hands behind Merida's hips, palms her bum, and urges her forward. "Budge up," he says, and Merlin's so distracted by the feeling of Arthur's hands on his arse that he does as instructed, sliding against the fabric of the dress until he's essentially sprawled on the edge of the chair. It'd be uncomfortable in a bigger body, but in this one it works, which Merlin files away for future reference.

Then fingers are sliding up his inner thigh and he grunts, closing his eyes and opening up without hesitation. It's weird, yes, but still delicious, to feel intimate touch from this person with whom he's so besotted he'd spelled himself mad. Nearly literally.

Arthur's fingers never leave him, so Merlin is a little startled when his voice rumbles quietly in Merida's ear. He's moved to kneel towards the side of the chair, and Merlin feels Merida's body tilt towards him like a plant towards the sun. And he finds can't really blame it.

"I have imagined this, this week, of course," Arthur murmurs as his fingers lazily explore. "You're lovely in this body, as well. And much pleasure can be derived from it."

As if to make his point, his questing fingers find their goal, and Merlin sucks in a breath. "Apparently," he replies, not caring at the decidedly hoarse quality. "Do that again."

Arthur does, and again and again, and Merlin can't help but moan and twitch, this body reacting fiercely. He feels it building in him like a thunderstorm, and reaches up, reaches for any part of Arthur he can find.

Lips kiss his palm gently, with a small sound of affection, before sliding until his hand is on Arthur's cheek. "But I've had far more time to contemplate what I'll get to do with your other form," Arthur continues, almost conversationally. His fingers do not stop.

"Oh?" Merlin says shakily. "How long?"

There is a definite chuckle. "Would 'when I first saw you' be too ridiculous an answer?"

"No," Merlin says, shaking his head, "I knew then, too. Or at least my magic did— Ah, bloody hell—"

Arthur has slid a finger inside him. It's so nice, and not nearly nice enough, but when Arthur manages somehow (he's much more dexterous than Merlin has given him credit for) to continue his ministrations both inside of Merida and out, Merlin immediately ceases to wish for more.

He feels his hips shift restlessly, then they find rhythm with Arthur's fingers, and he clutches at Arthur's jaw and thinks it can't possibly get any better than this.

Then Arthur starts talking again. His inflection is calm but the timbre is rough, gratifyingly rough, and Merlin focuses on it. Just it and the feeling in this body. His magic is languorous in his blood. Waiting.

"I've thought an awful lots about all the usual things, of course," Arthur says, "although I highly doubt any of them would be just 'usual' with you, my brilliant but slightly clumsy sorcerer."

"Arthur..." Merlin grinds out, his hips moving faster and Arthur adjusting accordingly. He's close, he's so close—

"But I must be honest, all I can think about some nights is what you must taste like." Merlin groans, turning his head into the chair and pushing his hips into Arthur's hand. "But not just... Not just your mouth, or your seed."

Merlin feels his toes start to curl, his muscles start to tense— "Arthur, I'm— It's—"

Arthur leans impossibly closer, his hand working Merlin sweetly but just hard enough. His voice is wrecked, as though this is affecting him as much as it's affecting Merlin. "I want to lick into you, where a prince should not be improper enough to want to go. Would that be—Would that be all right? Would that be something you'd like?"

Pleasure coalesces, like water rushing downhill, and Merlin's delicate body bows in the chair as he cries out. It's purely nonsense words, Merlin is certain as he floats around in it for a moment, his body happily shuddering, curling, grasping.

Arthur's movements slow but do not stop, not at first, and Merida's body flexes with it, until a strangled laugh comes out of Merlin and he reaches out. He sits up enough, manages to get his satiated body upright enough to pull Arthur round front again, to wrap legs around his torso and positively attack his mouth with kisses.

Arthur shudders into him. Merlin can feel evidence of the effect he's had on the prince, pressing insistently through his trousers, and immediately plunges a hand past lacings and into the warmth.

"Yes," he says into Arthur's open mouth, biting at his lip as his hand works the most basic form of magic known to humans. "Yes, Arthur, that would be something I'd like, something I'd enjoy very much, you hopeless idiot."

"It didn't work, Merlin," Arthur protests, though his arms are tight around Merida's waist, his hand buried desperately in her hair. "The spell is still— You don't have to—Oh, god, Merlin—"

"I don't care about that right now," Merlin whispers fiercely against his lips. "I don't care. I just— I just bloody love you. You are the most earnest, stubborn, ridiculous, brave, noble man I will ever meet, and you should let me give you this."

He kisses Arthur until Arthur is reduced to a panting mess.

"Please," Merlin says against his mouth, their breaths mingled hotly and their thundering heartbeats in sync. "Just— Let go."

Arthur pulls at him, crushes their lips together, and does.

---

There's a great dirty crack.

---

When Merlin dares look, he sees himself, actually himself—and sees Arthur sat back on his haunches, rubbing his jaw with an amused expression on his face.

"Well," he says, "you are indeed accident-prone in either body."

"Oh, Arthur!" Merlin lunges forward and throws his arms around the prince, toppling them both back onto the rug in front of the hearth. "You are a genius. I can't believe that worked!"

Arthur shifts, and Merlin finds himself—his real self, and it's as glorious as a pasty right out of the ovens—slightly on top of Arthur, looking down at his flushed face. Their shoes have been kicked off at some point, and their clothes are askew but have survived. Which is good, because Merlin doesn't even want to think about having to explain this bit to Gaius.

Arthur looks up at him, and for a moment Merlin is struck by worry, that now that he's a man again Arthur will take it all back, cry foul, push him away—

But it doesn't happen. Arthur reaches up with one hand and cups Merlin's cheek, and it's a different cheek but the touch is the same and look on his face is full of the very same, very true affection. Merlin feels himself warming up all over again.

Then Arthur speaks, and his cocky expression is firmly back in place (though his hand doesn't move). "I figured out you were bespelled from a single word, of course I'm a genius."

Merlin scoffs. "I hardly see the relevance."

"True. But I didn't even need to be a genius to sort it out, seeing as you also nicked a loaf of my bread."

"I did not!"

Arthur gives him a look.

Merlin harrumphs, and flops down onto the rug. Well, half on Arthur, really. Merlin's real form may be tall and full of elbows, but they still fit together somehow. "All right, so I did. It's like a twitch, sometimes. Like having to cough. And everything else was so strange, it was… it was comforting, you know?"

"Is that why you were in my rooms that first day without invitation?"

"I—Erm." Merlin finds he has no good rebuttal for that.

"I knew she wasn't lost. You weren't, I mean, and yet you insisted on fawning over me—"

Merlin sits up, putting out one hand to steady himself and finding it on Arthur's chest. He rather decides he likes it there, and doesn't remove it. "I did not!"

Arthur raises one eyebrow. One of his hands comes up to cover Merlin's. Merlin's real fingers are long and dextrous, where Arthur's are more blunt. Yielding power in an entirely different way. "You literally slid into my arms, Merlin."

"On accident!"

The eyebrow goes back down as Arthur sobers. He trails a finger along Merlin's cheekbone. "I really should've known straight away, though. Your eyes…"

Merlin's lips curl, and he leans down the slightest bit, until the air between them stretches. "Like the sea after a storm, I believe it was?"

"Cheeky." The finger slides back behind Merlin's ear and becomes a hand on the back of his neck—no hair to get in the way, glorious—pulling him down for a kiss.

Their first. Sort of.

Merlin pauses at the last moment, teasing. "Sire."

"Merlin…"

It's everything a first kiss never is, different than their others, but echoing with the same affection. So not very different afterall. Merlin gets lost in it for a while, and hopes belatedly that this much happiness hasn't led to any sorts of magical disasters in the near radius.

Arthur ends the kiss, and Merlin can feel his smile. "And it was 'during' a storm. During. Get it right. Now can we please move to the bed?"

"No," Merlin says, not at all petulantly as he lays back down. "I'm comfortable."

"You're lazy, you mean."

"That, too," Merlin says agreeably. He's so content he'd probably agree to ice dancing with a hippopotamus. "Also, need I remind you? I am a wizard." He raises a hand casually, and two pillows lift lazily off Arthur's bed and float towards them.

Arthur grunts. "Did you ever actually do a single chore for me?"

Merlin is affronted. "It's still work, I'll have you know!"

"Mm-hmm," is Arthur's sole reply. He seems to be distracted suddenly by Merlin's hands. "Lazy bag of bones. Never did a day's honest work in your life."

Merlin waggles his fingers in what he's sure is a not at all menacing manner. "I could stop your heart with a look, you know."

Arthur rolls until Merlin is beneath him, pillows somehow in exactly the right place. Merlin's legs open and the angle is finally right, finally what he'd been waiting for.

The look on Arthur's face is a beautiful mix of amused and earnest. "Is it too soon to say you already do?"

Merlin snorts a laugh, and it's decidedly unladylike. He reaches up to slide a hand into Arthur's hair. "Have some dignity. You are a prince."

"Crown prince," Arthur corrects with a grin.

"Thank you for the distinction," Merlin says wryly. "I was in danger of forgetting."

He rocks Arthur back, and he doesn't let go.

Not for a very, very long time.

fin