Arthur is 21 years old, and in those 21 years he has had occasion to visit the Goose and Gander all of four times.
(Five, if one counts the time Pellinore brought two of the wenches and several jugs of ale along on a patrol, but then Arthur'd never actually got his cock into either of the wenches, so that definitely didn't count.)
Sir Leon, barely into his knighthood, had brought him there the first time. The visit was ostensibly for Arthur's first round of cider—so different from the fine wines he'd drunk, watered down, since he was barely out of his cradle. One round of cider had become three, and before Arthur had known which way was what, he'd found himself bundled upstairs by a pretty, if rough-skinned, woman at least 10 years his senior who proceeded to do things to him that made his eyes cross and his toes curl for the four minutes he'd managed to last.
Once recovered, Arthur had tripped over his feet whilst getting back into his trousers, and smacked his head against a table. Leon had carried him back to the citadel and made up a story for his father that didn't involve a barely teenaged heir to the throne getting rat-arsed, his cherry popped and possibly fathering a royal bastard all in the space of roughly 19 minutes.
That had been the first time, anyway. The second time was a few years later. Arthur had stolen to the tavern on his own, palms sweaty, hood covering his head, his blood singing with something he couldn't understand in the aftermath of his first tournament victory. He'd enjoyed two of the wenches that evening, but even they must have noticed the way his eyes had drifted to one of the visiting prize fighters, over and over, during the course of the evening.
On Arthur's next visit, he'd been met by two again. Brother and sister. They were more discreet than Arthur would have thought, for word of his...preferences...never seemed to spread.
The fourth time, though. The fourth time is a bit of a tale.
It all starts when Arthur collapses, sated, against the body of the slight, dark-haired young man who'd led him up the back stairs of the tavern, pretending not to know who he was. Arthur may not be a very frequent visitor to the tavern, but they all know him in the lower town, and even though they all pretended to not notice him when he wandered in from out of the snow, head low, he'd known better. Had known better, and still accepted the sly invitation to go upstairs.
Arthur would have preferred an invitation from someone... closer to home. The very thought had been driving him to distraction of late. He couldn't have that, so he'd have to make due with what he could have, he'd thought as he stripped out of his clothes and pressed his partner to the low, rough bed.
Now, Arthur notices that the man--boy, really-- has thin fingers. They feel fragile where Arthur clasps them in his own, in polite mimicry of post-coital closeness, and Arthur realises why when he looks down into the face of the boy whose stomach he'd just come all over, and finds a girl looking back at him instead.
Arthur jerks away.
"What?" he whispers hoarsely. "What is the meaning of this?"
The girl--woman, really-- grows paler than the snow dancing on the other side of the leaded glass, and shivers. "I...ah, I can explain, my lord."
Arthur rises from the bed. He is building up an impressive rage, although whether it is from being deceived, or from having the illusion stolen, he isn't sure. "Can you now? I suppose I was so drunk I didn't realise I had gone into the wrong room, never mind the wrong body?"
The woman flinches. "No. It's just...just..."
"Just what?" Arthur says, throwing on his clothes.
"I...needed the money. And Daffyd's busy, and really, it's supposed to last longer than that..."
Arthur licks his lips. "I see. So you just...decided you'd pretend to be... Daffyd, was it?"
The woman nods wordlessly. Arthur sees the way her hands are shaking.
"What is your name?" he asks.
"Phi-Philomena, my lord."
Arthur purses his lips. "Desperation can drive us to foolish choices, Philomena," he acknowledges, and a thought takes hold in his mind. "Tell me, though. How does one person assume the form of another without, say, breaking several important laws?"
The woman looks first at the floor, then to the door, before Arthur draws her chin up so their gazes meet.
"Tell me," he says softly.
She shakes her head. "Please, sire. I've a child. I'm all she has in the world, and I can't leave her alone..."
"I won't hurt you," Arthur promises, mind whirling with possibility. "Just tell me how you did it."
If Arthur had thought the wench frightened, it is nothing compared to the shit-scared expression on the peddler's face when he hands over some of the shape-changing tonic to Arthur in a rough-cut bottle. Arthur takes it, gingerly, and feels equal parts revulsion and thrill.
He was mad to even be considering this. Mad, and a traitor, and possibly a bit desperate after too many months of wanting. Wanting, and not taking. Not asking.
They don't exchange names, but again, of course the peddler must know who Arthur is. The wrinkled old man had even addressed him as Sire before Arthur had glared and told him to call him...Lancelot.
He isn't sure where that had come from. Only that, if he were Lancelot, it wouldn't matter if he wanted a servant. Lancelot could court any servant he liked, could save them from gryphons (or wildren, he supposed) or sleep in their beds and no one would ever say a word. Had ever said a word.
He wonders what it had been like in Merlin's little bed.
The thought distracts him enough that the peddler has to repeat the instructions for activating the (magical, bloody hell, sorcery) shape-changing potion. One word to start it and another to make it stop. Arthur repeats the words to himself under his breath, too giddy and sick with possibilities to even spare a reassurance for the terrified old man. Once he has committed them to memory, he rises.
"The potion has belladonna," the peddler warns. "Things may not be as they seem."
Arthur nods, unconcerned. His mind is already back in his chambers, where Merlin is no doubt dawdling over some chore or another. "Thank you," Arthur says, voice low, and he tosses a handful (an entire livelihood, really) of gold coins to the man. Several bounce off the dirt when the peddler fumbles them, but Arthur is already striding back toward the castle gates.
"Si--I mean, Lancelot!" the peddler calls after him. His voice is nearly lost in the snow now swirling about. "Mind what you wish for, when you use it."
Arthur ignores him.
Merlin has been acting strange as well, of late. Nervous and highly-strung, overly enthusiastic and grim by turns. Arthur knows Merlin hates being trapped indoors by snow and frost as much as Arthur does. Perhaps a little bedsport will make Merlin a more cheerful servant, if nothing else.
Tonight, he'll send Merlin out to look after his horse. He'll meet him there, after he's swallowed down the tonic and whispered the words. He wonders what name he should use.
Merlin is, as expected, in his chamber when Arthur strides over the threshhold.
"Were've you been?" Merlin asks. "The King was looking for you."
"I...went for a walk," Arthur stutters.
"A walk?" Merlin replies. "Right before council? You never do that."
"I was feeling...impulsive."
"Yes, Merlin. I realise it's a big word, but it means--"
Merlin scowls at him.
Arthur is a idiot, but of course he already knows this. Has known it for a long time, to own the truth. He's known a lot of things for a long time. He's kept so much to himself that he's not sure what it would be like to give anything away.
Here's to being a fool, he thinks, as he swallows the potion. He stands in front of the mirror and watches in horrified fascination as his features begin to melt away.
"Fool," he hears from behind him, and when he whirls around, the dragon on his shield is talking to him.
"I beg your pardon?" Arthur demands.
"You need to decide what you want to look like before you take it, you dollop head."
"Oh." Arthur turns back to the mirror. What would Merlin find attractive? Unbidden, he starts to transform. His hair becomes brown, shaggy; his body, stockier.
"Yes, very good," the dragon drawls. "I'm sure he won't notice that his dead best mate is trying to seduce him. Well done, you."
Arthur swears, and at a thought, his shoulders narrow, his jawline shifts, and his nose lengthens.
"Better," the dragon says. "Now, run along. You've not much time."
As he watches Merlin go, closing the stable doors behind him, Arthur sinks back against the wall with his trousers undone, come cooling on his belly and dripping down, and the feeling of Merlin pressing him into the hay still fresh in his mind.
It hadn't been enough. Not even close.
On the other side of the room, the Pendragon crest snores lightly.
Arthur is ghastly to Merlin later that evening, and he can't even stop himself. He's angry. At himself, at destiny, at his father and the weather. At Merlin, even.
Merlin, for lowering himself to getting off with a common stableboy when he could have--should have--did have--a prince.
"What do I do now?" he asks his empty chamber, but his shield remains stubbornly silent.
The peddler will never be poor again, not with the amount of gold Arthur tosses his way when it comes time to replenish his store of tonic. Arthur wonders if the concoction ought not come with a warning: Dangerous. May cause drinker to lose all sense of dignity, honor, and restraint.
Because that's what Arthur is doing. By day, he treats Merlin dreadfully, either berating him or evading his eyes, and Arthur isn't stupid. He can see how much it is hurting Merlin to lie with this man he doesn't want, but who is better than nothing at all.
Arthur knows exactly how he feels, but he has no idea how to stop.
"It's quite simple, really," the dragon on his belt says one day. "Stop buying the bloody potion."
Arthur paces his room, waiting for the potion's effect to take hold. "Why don't you just leave me alone?"
"I would do, if you would stop taking the bloody potion." The dragon turns away, muttering "unite all of Albion my arse."
"Arthur?" Merlin says from the door. "I brought your--"
Arthur whirls around. He can feel the magic working in his veins, and he panics. "I didn't send for you!" he shouts. "Get out!"
Merlin does, but not before Arthur glimpses his devastated expression.
Arthur arrives at the stables, desperate to put a smile on Merlin's face in the only way he seems to be able to these days. Instead, Merlin says "trust me" and of course Arthur trusts him, he always has and will still, no matter what Merlin thinks. He's about to tell him so when Merlin sinks to his knees. He mouths Arthur's cock like its the only thing he's thought about all day, and the illusion, coupled with the incredible things Merlin can do with his tongue, drives Arthur out of his mind.
"That's the potion, actually. It's made you barmy."
"I hear he was already halfway there," a new voice replies.
Someone has left one of the army's banners leaning against a wall. The thing is covered in bloody dragons.
"Do dragons...you know...talk?" Arthur asks his father one day, out of the blue.
"Not anymore," Uther replies.
He comes close to confessing, once, has his hand braced against the half-open door to Gaius' chamber, when he hears the furtive whispers from within.
"He knows, Gaius."
"You can't be certain of that, Merlin. Consider. If Arthur knew the truth, would he be letting you look after his armour and bring him his food?"
"He can barely stand to be around me, Gaius. He flinches away from me. He knows."
Gaius is quiet for a moment, and Arthur closes his eyes. He's known he is hurting Merlin with his mercurial moods, his tempers that only get worse the more often Merlin and Idris are together in the stables. He tries to make it up to Merlin, then, to let Merlin have whatever he wants of him while he is disguised. He tries to show Merlin how important he is.
Instead, Merlin apparently thinks Arthur is acting strangely because of the magic, and how is he supposed to reassure him on that score, when Arthur decided long ago that he'll never let on that he knows exactly what nightmare wakes Merlin those nights on patrol? At least not until it is safe.
Then again, that was before Arthur had begun using magic himself to deceive Merlin, and gods, aren't they a pair of clotpoles?
Arthur is a clotpole and he knows it, but it doesn't stop him from slamming his hand against the table that night when Merlin tries too hard to be helpful, tries too hard to pretend he's an open book.
He hears himself say the spiteful words. He doesn't mean them. He's angry with himself, and taking it out on Merlin.
Later, he'll let Merlin take it out on him.
One last time.
"You say that every time."
Arthur looks around, but there's no dragon.
"Want you to fuck me," Arthur murmurs, and wishes he had the courage to say the words when he isn't hiding in Idris' body. Just saying them makes Arthur gasp a little, and his heart beats so loudly he is sure it rings like warning bells through the entire lower town.
"You sure?" Merlin asks him, with rather less enthusiasm than Arthur would like, for when he stores away the memory in his head for later perusal.
"I'm sure," Arthur replies. "But be gentle. It's my first time."
Arthur feels Merlin's cock jerk hard against Arthur's hip, and there's nothing for it. It feels like a victory, despite everything.
Merlin wants him.
He closes his eyes against the feel of Merlin's slippery fingers working inside him and Merlin's mouth hot on his cock. He both wants to see Merlin and can't stand to look at him in equal measure. Merlin is being so careful, and just as kind as he's always been, but he isn't Merlin. He is reserved, and cautious, and shuttered in ways Merlin never used to be, and that sense of being almost-but-not-quite is splitting Arthur in two far more effectively than any weapon adorning his chamber wall is capable of.
It isn't enough for Arthur to make him stop, though. To end this charade.
Instead, he concentrates on jerking his hips back to meet each stab of Merlin's fingers into him, three fingers now, and he feels impossibly stretched and possessed. When the sensation is too much and he tries to back away from it, his cock buries itself down Merlin's throat instead and he is trapped. Merlin is pressing in on him him from every direction, and it is so close to being exactly what Arthur wants but so far away, too, that Arthur thinks his head might simply burst from having to contain both of those thoughts at once.
The sensations--the pressure, the stretch, the slide--are new. He's never felt them before; he's never let Daffyd or Daffyd's sister or anyone do this to him. Only Merlin, and for a long moment he loses himself in the fantasy that Merlin knows who he is with just then, knows it is Arthur he is preparing so carefully.
The fantasy evaporates when Merlin gives a hoarse cry and falls back onto his elbows. His face crumples, and his eyes lower, and Arthur feels guilt pull at that spot just behind his navel--a spot Merlin had managed to find not long after their first meeting, and has managed to strike more times than Arthur can count.
"Why'd you stop?" Arthur asks. "What's wrong?" His breath catches in his throat when he realises Merlin is near tears.
"He's in love with you," the dragon supplies helpfully from behind Merlin. "You, not Idris."
Arthur sits up. You're not real, he thinks. Not real, not real. Go away.
When Arthur looks at Merlin--really looks--he sees the truth written plain as day on his face. Merlin looks despondent. Like doing this is betraying someone else. Could it be? He sends one last look at the dragon, and then takes a deep breath.
"Oh, Merlin. You're in love with someone else," he says, with a unexpected feeling of insight.
Merlin bursts into tears and doesn't protest when Arthur pulls him into his arms. Arthur waits for the dragon to say something, but it has returned to stiff silence, just a bit of paint on a piece of wood, and Arthur feels a new strength rising against the potion's hold on him.
Arthur runs his hands over Merlin's arms, bringing one hand to stroke Merlin's hair, trying to comfort him. "It's okay," he says against Merlin's temple. "Shhh. It's fine. Tell me about it. Tell me."
Merlin launches into a long, breathy ramble about how much he loves Prince Arthur, how much he wants to be there for him, and how much Prince Arthur must hate him for lying to him about the magic, how Merlin has ruined everything.
Arthur doesn't say anything, just holds tight to Merlin as it all comes out in a rush.
"I'm sorry," Merlin adds. "I didn't set out to hurt you," and anything he says after that, Arthur doesn't hear. Merlin is apologising to him for using him, for being dishonest, when all the time Arthur has been doing the same thing. Trying to have something he thought he couldn't have, and hiding the fact that he was using magic to do it.
In truth, he feels a bit sick with shame, but he still can't bring himself to let go. This is Merlin, with no secrets, no holding back, the very thing Arthur has been wanting for so long. Mind what you wish for, the peddler had said.
Arthur takes a deep breath, and lets go of Merlin. "Go to him," he says. "Talk to Arthur. Tell him."
Merlin nods, his face still wet. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, okay," and if Arthur didn't feel ashamed before, the determination in Merlin's eyes would have made sure he did. He helps Merlin dress, and before Merlin can dart away, Arthur pulls on Merlin's hand.
"Just let me," Arthur whispers, and presses a chaste kiss to Merlin's lips. He knows it will probably be the last he ever gets.
Arthur waits twenty minutes, then trudges back to his room. There's no more talking crests or banners. The dragons on the chests of the knights at the gate are motionless, and Arthur doesn't know how he knows, but he's sure the potion wouldn't work for him agin, even if he wanted to use it.
Arthur is an idiot, but it turns out he's a brave one. Perhaps not as brave as Merlin is (well, sometimes, after all, Merlin is still terrified of wildren, and hey, Merlin kept secrets, too) but still, on the whole, really quite brave. He tells Merlin the truth, and while honesty may be its own reward, there are other...benefits...as well.
And had Arthur known it could have been like that the whole time, he'd never have gone to the tavern in the first place.
Merlin stirs in Arthur's embrace, stretches his arms high, and Arthur's breath catches in his throat when Merlin turns and smiles sleepily.
"You know," Merlin says. "I, uh, didn't quite tell you everything."
Arthur raises an eyebrow. "There's more?" He's not sure they can survive anymore honesty that evening.
"There's more," Merlin agrees, and looks down. "I don't really know where to start."
Arthur strokes Merlin's cheek with his knuckles, and melts a little when Merlin nuzzles into the caress. "Start at the beginning," he says.
A smile tugs at the corner of Merlin's mouth. "Well," he begins. "I guess it began when the dragon started talking to me."
When Arthur turns 22, he makes his fifth and last visit to the Goose and Gander. He waves Daffyd off, instead taking Philomena by the hand and leading her upstairs.
When she moves to unlace her bodice, Arthur sets his hands over hers.
"This is for you," he says, drawing a purse from under his cape. It's gold, equal to that he paid for all the bottles of tonic. When she looks at him, confused, Arthur just closes her hands over it more tightly.
"There's a job waiting for you in the castle," he says. "And a room for you and your daughter, should you wish to get away from here and make an honest living."
She still says nothing.
"Believe me when I say that I've found we all have much to gain by being honest," he adds, and with that, he heads back toward the stables. The day is bright and warm, and he's already looking forward to finding Merlin there to... celebrate.