In retrospect, it’s extremely lucky that Uther’s there at the time. (Whatever else becomes of what happened, Merlin will always remember it as one of the few times he’s been happy to be around Uther at all and the only time he’s ever been glad to have Uther present at a time involving magic.)
Early in the morning (far earlier than anyone should be awake, in Merlin’s opinion), a messenger comes to Camelot from one of the villages a few hours’ ride from the castle. He tells Uther of the desperate situation of his village, how most of their crops have mysteriously died, withered away into nothing or flattened onto the ground in circles. The last plague against Camelot is apparently still fresh in Uther’s mind, as he decides he and Arthur will ride out as soon as it is light, taking Gaius and Merlin with them.
The morning is cold, and Merlin ends up spending quite a bit of time trying to wrap his cloak tightly around him while not falling off the horse. About half an hour into the ride, Arthur pulls his horse back to ride alongside Merlin, which apparently is a cue for Gaius to move ahead, next to Uther. Uther and Gaius start conversing in tones that are as hushed as possible while on horseback. They’re quiet enough that Merlin can’t hear them, anyway, so he turns towards Arthur.
He’s vaguely planning on asking Arthur if he’s positive he hasn’t killed any unicorns lately, but the question dies on his lips when he gets a good look at Arthur. The prince is tense in his saddle, expression closed off and carefully neutral, and Merlin knows Arthur’s already thinking of that on his own.
So instead, he says, “Bet you anything it’s a hoax.”
Arthur’s eyes flick over to him. “What makes you say that?”
“It’s an old trick, some of the boys in villages around Ealdor played it,” Merlin says, managing to sound fairly convincing for all that he’s making this up as he goes. “Flatten all the wheat into shapes, or circles, and claim some sorcerer did it.”
Arthur raises one eyebrow, skeptical. “Why on earth would anyone do that?”
“For attention,” Merlin replies, growing more confident in his story. “Or just for laughs. See how many castle folk and nobles you can get believing you and spreading rumors about magic crop circles.”
Arthur stares at him for a moment, then gives a satisfied nod. “Well. That solves that question, then.”
“What question?” Merlin asks.
“Why you spend so much time in the stocks,” Arthur says. “If you country boys find amusement in flattening crops into circles, you must be thrilled by getting pelted with vegetables.”
Merlin scowls. “See if I trust you with important village secrets ever again,” he says, but Arthur’s jaw isn’t set as tight any more and there’s amusement in his eyes, so Merlin considers the mission successful.
It turns out that Merlin’s wrong. Though there isn’t quite the decimation the messenger claimed there was, there are indeed large swaths of crops crushed down, and the people of the village are clearly panicked over it. Moreover, the area around the ruined crops feels – wrong, somehow, in a way that makes Merlin uneasy standing close to them.
Uther spends a few moments talking with the village head, then leaves their horses with the guards that had accompanied them while he, Arthur, and Gaius head over the hill and out into the thick of the destroyed crops. Merlin follows, the feeling of unease growing and leaving him constantly looking over his shoulder.
It’s only because of this that he sees her, a young woman standing amongst the few remaining healthy crops and glaring at them while Gaius is collecting samples.
Merlin starts to say something, to warn them, but she’s next to them in a blink of an eye, gesturing at them. Merlin reacts immediately, knocking Arthur to the ground. Some kind of green fire blooms above them, close enough that Merlin can feel the searing heat against his back. He presses himself closer against Arthur, attempting to shield the prince with his body (which, normally, would be very interested in his current position, but the combination of a murderous sorceress, Uther and Gaius standing a few feet away, and the very real chance of being burned to death by magic fire seem to have put a damper on that).
The heat stops relatively quickly, and Arthur shoves Merlin off of him and jumps up, hand reaching for his sword. Merlin stands as well, chest tight and heart beating wildly. It’s only when he sees the sorceress collapsed on the ground with the hilt of Uther’s dagger sticking out from her back that Merlin allows himself to feel both relief and belated terror of what could have happened.
Merlin wants to make certain Arthur’s unharmed, but Uther’s looking at Merlin in this odd way that Merlin recognizes, and last saw right before he was made Arthur’s manservant. Most of his relief fades and turns to panic as he tries to think of what more Uther can reward him with.
Before Uther can say anything, though, there’s a flash of light bright enough that Merlin’s temporarily blinded. When he stops seeing spots, the witch is standing up (apparently much less dead than they had thought) and pointing at Arthur. Uther lunges for her and she screams at him, then disappears. Uther draws up short, looking furious.
“We must go after her. Ar –” Uther cuts off as he spins to look at Arthur, fury changing to horror.
Dread fills Merlin, and for a long moment he just stands there, not wanting to see what’s happened. Finally he turns, and sees that Arthur’s gone. Just, completely gone, although there is a large pile of his clothes and cloak on the ground. Tangled up in them is a large golden dog, who seems to be unconscious. Merlin stares numbly at the dog until Uther shoves past him, carefully wrapping the dog – Arthur – in Arthur’s cloak.
“No one is to know about this,” Uther snaps. “He was – injured, by the witch, and can take no visitors.”
“I will make sure of it, sire,” Gaius says.
“You will stay with him,” Uther tells Merlin. “If you allow anyone to see th–” He stops, teeth grinding. “Do not leave his side until I find this witch. I will execute her myself.”
Merlin must have stammered out his agreement, or maybe Uther didn’t wait to hear it, because Uther’s moving back to the horses. The ride back is tense and silent, and Arthur stays unconscious the entire time. It seems to go much faster than the journey to the village, and before Merlin realizes it, he finds himself in Arthur’s chambers, alone with the sleeping Arthur-dog and with orders to send for Gaius as soon as Arthur awakes.
“This is really not good,” Merlin tells Arthur.
There’s no answer, though Merlin wasn’t expecting one, and Merlin pulls a chair up next to Arthur’s bed to wait. It doesn’t take long before Arthur stirs, stretches, and then looks around.
“Arthur?” Merlin asks, hesitantly.
Arthur swings his head around to look at him, but doesn’t say anything and Merlin finds himself deflating a little. He supposes it would be too much to hope for, that the sorceress would have turned Arthur into a talking dog.
“Are you, um. All right?” Merlin says, rather lamely.
Arthur gives him this look. It’s a very familiar look, one that says Merlin’s being an idiot, and though it’s not quite the same as the look human Arthur gives him and looks a little unsettling on a dog, in an odd way it reassures Merlin a bit. At least Arthur still seems to be a little bit himself.
“Shut up,” Merlin tells him.
Arthur turns away from him and stretches again, then jumps off the bed. Merlin stands, stepping towards him to get a closer look. Arthur as a dog is big, possibly one of the biggest dogs Merlin’s seen (his head comes past Merlin’s waist, and Merlin figures if Arthur stood on his hind legs, they might be about the same height), and built sturdy, muscular even in dog form. He’s golden in color, a slightly different shade than his hair, and his fur looks soft and thick, like the perfect length to bury fingers in. Merlin finds himself reaching to do just that and stops himself, locking his hands firmly behind his back.
“I’m supposed to send for Gaius,” Merlin says. “Just – wait here a moment, all right?”
He darts out to tell the servant waiting outside Arthur’s chambers that Gaius is needed, then returns to Arthur’s side. Arthur hasn’t moved, and he eyes Merlin as Merlin sits back down in the chair. They wait in silence until Gaius arrives, and Merlin immediately stands to corner him.
“Have they found her? Have you found anything? What have you told people about what happened?” Merlin asks.
“Settle down, Merlin,” Gaius says absently, kneeling down to examine Arthur.
Arthur holds still and lets him, looking infinitely more patient than Merlin himself is feeling.
“I’ve told the court that Arthur’s injuries are serious and at a grave risk for infection, but will heal up fine as long as he isn’t exposed to anyone,” Gaius says when he’s finished. “That will keep everyone satisfied for now. As for the rest of it, we’re working as quickly as possible. You’ll know of any new information as soon as I do.”
Merlin thinks this is entirely unfair, and says so.
Gaius just looks at him. “Arthur needs you right now,” he says. “You must take care of him.”
“I always take care of him,” Merlin replies, resisting the urge to pout.
“Then you shouldn’t have any difficulty doing so now,” Gaius says, already heading out the door.
That night, Arthur refuses to sleep. Merlin supposes he can’t really blame him, since he’s not entirely sure how well he’d do at sleeping about twelve hours after being turned into a dog. But Arthur has a nice, big, warm, soft bed all to himself, and Merlin’s got a bedroll stretched out on cold, hard stone, so he’s finding it a little hard to be sympathetic. Arthur’s obsessive thrashing, the sound of hard nails scratching against the sheets, and the frequent irritated puppy noises coming from Arthur’s bed are making it even more difficult to sleep.
Finally, Merlin gets up to stoke the embers in the fireplace, building up a fire again in the hopes that the added warmth will make Arthur fall asleep. It doesn’t; it just makes him give a short, clipped bark.
Merlin turns to face the bed, irritated. “It figures that even as a dog, you’d be a prat,” he informs the lump of blankets.
The lump shifts, and Arthur’s nose peeks out from underneath the blankets. Merlin can just barely see it in the light of the fire, and he does not find it cute. Not at all.
“You are not cute,” he says, feeling the need to stress that out loud as well as in his mind. “You are the opposite of cute, and you are going to shut up and let me sleep.”
Arthur gives what can only be described as a pathetic whimper (and Merlin promises himself to never, ever stop teasing Arthur about that, once all of this is done), and wiggles forward, freeing the rest of his muzzle and his eyes from the blankets. He fixes a pleading gaze on Merlin, and despite his best wishes, Merlin finds some of his irritation vanishing. “Oh, all right. But I want you to remember that this is under protest.”
Merlin crosses the room and sits down on the edge of the bed, hesitantly resting his hand on top of the blankets covering the rest of Arthur’s head. A section of the blankets starts moving slowly, and it takes Merlin a few seconds to realize that Arthur’s wagging his tail. Arthur scoots forward a little more, resting his head on Merlin’s leg and looking up at him. After another moment of internal debating, weighing just how likely it is that Merlin’ll end up in the stocks again if Arthur remembers this when he turns back against the weight of Arthur’s (literal) puppy dog eyes, Merlin moves his hand to scratch behind Arthur’s ears.
The response is a huff of warm breath against his knee and a contented murmur as Arthur’s eyes slip shut. Soon, Arthur’s breathing slows, becomes heavy, and Merlin allows himself to hope that Arthur’s asleep. Merlin holds perfectly still, slowly petting Arthur’s head (he’s too tired to think about how odd that sounds), until he’s almost positive that Arthur’s sleeping. Then he very carefully shifts, sliding his knee out from under Arthur’s muzzle. Arthur makes a sleepy, disgruntled noise and Merlin freezes.
Arthur’s eyes open again and glare at him. If Merlin had any doubts that this was Arthur (which he doesn’t, really, since he was there when it happened, but still), he absolutely doesn’t have any now. That look is entirely Arthur, arrogant and annoyed, and Merlin finds himself rolling his eyes.
“I am not sitting here all night,” Merlin says, standing up to prove his point.
Arthur barks again, and Merlin hastily sits back down. Somehow, even as a dog, Arthur manages to look smug, and Merlin glares at him.
“Don’t do that,” he hisses through clenched teeth. “Don’t you think people will start to wonder why someone as gravely injured as you’re supposed to be is allowed to have a barking dog in his room?”
Arthur chooses to respond to this by pushing his cold nose against Merlin’s hand. Merlin groans and flops back against the pillows. He’s so tired his eyes close by themselves, and then he grins.
“Fine,” he comments, burrowing under the blankets in defiance. “But I’m sleeping here.”
Merlin expects some kind of protest, maybe even another bark, but instead Arthur just shifts a little closer to him. Merlin curls up for warmth, back facing Arthur, and suddenly Arthur’s just – snuggling up against his back, as close as he can possibly get. Arthur’s muzzle presses against the back of Merlin’s neck, nose resting against the back of his head so that Merlin’s hair ruffles a bit every time Arthur exhales. Merlin starts to open his mouth to, to complain, or comment on the absolute, complete weirdness that is this, but Arthur’s warm against his back and the bed is ridiculously soft, and Merlin finds himself falling asleep before he can even formulate what he’s really going to say.
Arthur apparently likes jumping on people. The first full day he’s a dog, he does it quite a lot. When Merlin goes to the privy, Arthur jumps on him when he comes out. When Merlin goes into the outer chambers to retrieve the food that a servant has left by the outer door, Arthur jumps up on him when he returns to the inner chambers (which is the most irritating one, since it means he’s forced to balance the food and attempt to dodge a great big dog pawing at him). Sometimes when Merlin’s just standing across the room from him, Arthur darts over and plants his paws on Merlin’s chest.
It seems to be an expression of excitement, considering his tail’s always wagging at a speed Merlin didn’t think possible, but Merlin can’t get over the fact that Arthur likes jumping on people and finds it a bit traumatizing every time Arthur does it to him. Well, okay, traumatizing and slightly amusing. He’s leaning towards being more amused than traumatized (especially when he discovers that the only thing that will stop the jumping is getting down on the floor to tousle Arthur’s ears and wrestle with him a bit, which puts Arthur right on the road to being amusing, entertaining, and even just a little bit endearing). Then Merlin realizes he’s not sure if it’s people Arthur likes jumping on, or just Merlin himself, as Merlin’s the only person allowed to see Arthur at the moment. Well, aside from the few times a day Merlin takes Arthur outside of the castle to do dog-like things, but Merlin rushes him quickly through the corridors and doesn’t allow anyone to get too close. It helps that Merlin’s gotten quite good at a nice little “you don’t notice me, nothing to see here” charm.
Anyway, Merlin’s point is proven on the morning of the second day, when Gaius pulls himself away from researching to make a visit to Arthur’s chambers, keeping up the “Arthur is seriously injured” cover story. Arthur makes no move to jump on Gaius, and is the picture of a well-mannered, princely puppy.
“You should be the one to take care of him,” Merlin grumbles, concluding that Arthur only jumps on him to get dirty pawprints on Merlin’s favorite shirt. “He behaves around you.”
Gaius raises one eyebrow and looks over to where Arthur is sitting calmly by his bed. “You mean he isn’t normally like this?”
“No!” Merlin replies indignantly, ignoring the obvious sarcastic response in favor of getting to complain to another human. “He’s, he’s irritating, and loud, and he keeps looking at me in this ridiculously smug way.”
The corners of Gaius’s mouth twitch. “He’s a dog, Merlin. Dogs can’t look smug.”
“He’s not just a dog, he’s Arthur,” Merlin protests, but he can see Gaius is losing a battle with his smile, so Merlin gives up.
Gaius goes over to take a brief look at Arthur, then nods and returns to Merlin’s side.
“Well, there hasn’t been any change,” Gaius says.
Merlin blinks, thinking he could have told him that. “Was there supposed to be?”
Gaius shrugs one shoulder. “I’d hoped…Well, no matter. I have a few promising leads, but it’ll take some more looking into. I’ve brought up some books for you, along with some of your things.” He nods at the leather bag he’d deposited by the door on his arrival. “With you being stuck in here all day, it’s the perfect time to do some research. Uther won’t be coming here.”
Merlin’s not surprised by that. He imagines that Uther doesn’t want to think about how magic is affecting his son, and that if he can distance himself from the situation, he can pretend it’s not happening. A darker part of Merlin says that if Uther is distancing himself from what’s happening, he can distance himself from the potentially negative outcomes, but Merlin doesn’t allow himself to dwell on that thought. “At least it’ll be something to do,” Merlin says in response to the books.
“But if you get the books back with pawprints on them, it’s not my fault,” he adds sulkily as Gaius leaves.
Merlin discovers that it’s exceedingly difficult to do any form of reading with Arthur around. Well, no, actually, he doesn’t discover that, seeing as he knew that before, but he does discover that it’s even worse when Arthur is around and a dog.
Yesterday, Arthur seemed to be mostly content to stay in the room, as long as he could pounce on Merlin and wrestle around with him a bit. But today, Arthur’s got cabin fever, or maybe he’s just extremely displeased that Merlin is paying more attention to some musty old books than him. Whatever the reason, he’s restless, pacing around the room and pawing randomly at Merlin in an attempt to get his attention.
When that fails, Arthur apparently decides that the best way to amuse himself is to run frantically around his chambers, over his bed and around the table and back again in endless loops. For some reason, this proves to be the most distracting Arthur has ever been (possibly because he’s a very noisy runner as a dog) and Merlin finds himself repeatedly watching Arthur have his little freak-out, or whatever it is.
Sometime during all the running, Arthur manages to find a hard leather ball. Merlin’s seen it before, when Arthur injured his hand and Gaius had him do some kind of exercises with it. Hopefully Gaius has more, because by the time Merlin realizes Arthur’s found it, the ball is covered with saliva and definitely looking worse for the wear.
Merlin isn’t terribly pleased with this, although really, that’s only because the way Merlin discovers Arthur has the ball is when Arthur drops it into his lap. Merlin jumps, startled out of his book reading, and stares at the ball in his lap. He looks up at Arthur, who’s standing by the chair with a pleased expression. Merlin absolutely does not want to touch the ball, but he doesn’t want it sitting in his lap either, so he picks it up with a grimace and chucks it away.
Arthur goes chasing after it, and returns a moment later to drop it in his lap again. Merlin groans.
“Oh, this is so not happening. I have work to do! Don’t you want to be human again?” Merlin asks.
Arthur bows his head, crouching down slightly with his butt sticking up in the air while his tail wags enthusiastically.
Merlin can’t help but be charmed. “Why do you have to be adorable in every form?” he asks, throwing the ball again.
Arthur adores this new game, and he’s so obviously happy about it that Merlin finds himself throwing the ball until his arm feels like it’s going to fall off. Fortunately, early in the evening, Arthur finally seems to get tired. He retreats to the rug in front of the fire, stretching out to sleep. Merlin looks longingly at the warm fire, but goes to sit at the table and resumes his reading.
The room grows cold as night sets in. Merlin gives up on researching at the table when he realizes his teeth are chattering, and makes for the bed with his current book. He arranges the pillows so he can sit comfortably against them, pulls the covers up around his waist, and rests the book in his lap. Arthur looks up at him from his position by the fire, but doesn’t move, and Merlin turns his full attention to the book.
At least until he leans forward, examining a passage closer, and suddenly finds Arthur on the bed with him. Before he can react, Arthur darts behind him. He wriggles around, settling himself more comfortably, until he’s sandwiched between Merlin and the stack of fluffy pillows. Merlin’s now completely unable to lean back again, stuck hunched over the book. He blinks, then turns slightly to stare at Arthur.
“How on earth is that comfortable?” Merlin asks.
Arthur responds by wagging his tail slightly and settling his head on his forepaws.
“I hate you,” Merlin grumbles, then vindictively scoots an inch or two forward and leans back against Arthur like he would the pillows.
Arthur gives a contented little huff of air and wags his tail again. Merlin scowls. That is entirely unfair. Arthur is supposed to be utterly crushed by Merlin’s retaliation, or at least visibly upset, not giving him happy puppy looks. Merlin sighs and resigns himself to the new position, pulling his knees up and propping the book against his thighs. He has to admit that his back is warmer now (which, he concludes, is probably why Arthur decided that squishing himself between Merlin and the pillows was the most comfortable place ever).
“I bet you’re nice and warm now. Which also isn’t fair. Of the two of us, who’s got the nice coat of fur?” Merlin asks, but said coat of fur is thick and soft against Merlin’s back, and the warmth and Arthur’s steady breathing are calming enough that Merlin doesn’t even sound irritated.
There’s no reaction from Arthur, and Merlin assumes that he’s already fallen asleep. Merlin sighs, trying not to feel discouraged and lonely. He focuses on Arthur’s breathing in an attempt to remind himself that he’s not alone, that Arthur is right there, but he’s only moderately successful, so he throws himself back into researching. He reads until the words start blurring together and swimming around the pages and his eyes keep shutting by themselves and taking longer and longer to convince to open again. Then he gives up, and is tired enough that he just checks to make sure Arthur is sleeping before floating the book over to the table and causing a gust of wind to blow out the candles.
He snuggles under the covers, using the still sleeping Arthur as a pillow, and takes a moment to be mildly concerned about getting used to the soft mattress and quality linens just in time to have to go back to his own bed. He’ll just have to make sure Arthur’s back before that happens. Merlin’s already been spoiled having a mattress at all, he’ll have to mock himself forever if he gets used royal finery and forgets that sleeping on the floor was once the most comfortable thing he ever knew.
He’s just about on the verge of sleep when Arthur registers that Merlin has moved. This is apparently unacceptable, because Arthur makes a displeased sound and stands, causing Merlin’s head to drop down on the bed. Merlin pushes himself up on his elbows and glares at Arthur as Arthur worms his way under the blankets. Arthur is unperturbed, so Merlin rolls his eyes and rearranges the pillows so he can lie back against them. Arthur settles himself at Merlin’s side under the blankets, head on Merlin’s shoulder and one paw on his chest.
Merlin considers making some comment about how only Merlin’s allowed to be used as a pillow, or that Arthur’s still single mindedly concerned with his own comfort, but he knows he’ll get no response. He’s not even sure Arthur’ll understand him, which takes all of the fun out of it and makes it seem just pointless and kind of depressing. Instead, Merlin just drapes an arm over Arthur’s neck and strokes absently through the fur on his back.
After a little bit of throwing the ball the next day, Arthur curls up for a nap and Merlin uses the time to make a quick visit to Gaius’s quarters. Merlin’s having no success in any of the books he’s looking at (the only mention of shape-shifting so far is people doing it intentionally, along with lots of warnings about the difficulty and level of danger), and he’s desperately hoping Gaius will have had more luck.
“Transforming something into another, especially changing a living creature into another, is infinitely complex. If the slightest thing were to go wrong – one tiny part not completely changed or changed in a slightly different way – the consequences would be dire,” Gaius tells him.
Merlin processes this, and tries to imagine what would have happened if Arthur’s spine had gone a little crooked, or his heart had been left too large or made a little too small. The thought makes him shiver and leaves him with a cold kind of anger. “She could’ve killed him. She could’ve been trying to kill him.”
“Given her first attempt, that seems to have been her intention,” Gaius replies grimly. “Though why she used a spell like this is a mystery.”
“Maybe she panicked, and it was the only one she could think of,” Merlin suggests, thinking of the times he’s rather conspicuously called on gusts of wind to knock heavy tree branches onto people when he could’ve easily made them trip or something, simply because the wind was the first thing he thought of. But it didn’t matter, at least not until Arthur was back. After that, Merlin would be quite ready to consider her intentions, and to make sure she considered it thoroughly as well. “There has to be some kind of reversing spell, doesn’t there? I mean, I turned a statue into a living dog and back, I have to be able to do this.”
“I have no doubt that you possess the power,” Gaius says. “But the spells I know of are ancient, and complicated. And while no harm could come to the statue with repeated attempts of the spell, miscasting a spell on Arthur –”
“Would not be good,” Merlin finishes, remember how long he spent practicing on the statue and wincing. “So – what, we just sit around and do nothing?”
“We research,” Gaius says. “Perhaps there’s a spell I’m not thinking of, or more information that can help us. Uther’s men are out searching for the sorceress, we can hope they find her quickly.”
“What good will that do?” Merlin asks grumpily. Researching and waiting for the sorceress to be found didn’t seem much better than doing nothing to him. “It isn’t as if she’ll just undo the spell if we ask.”
“An enchantment like this should end when the one who cast it is dead,” Gaius tells him.
“Oh,” Merlin says softly, and thinks that – for the first time he can remember – he’ll be glad to witness the execution of a magic user in Camelot.
One morning, Merlin wakes up to an empty bed (and he refuses to think about what it says that after only a few days, that feels weird and lonely). He calls Arthur’s name, but gets no response. Trying hard not to be worried – and failing rather spectacularly – Merlin scrambles out of the bed and begins to hunt around the chambers for the missing dog.
After a few panicked minutes of searching, Merlin finds him half hidden behind the tub, chewing contentedly on a pair of boots. A pair of boots that, on closer inspection, turn out to be Merlin’s. Merlin makes a strangled sound, causing Arthur to look up at him, and Merlin swears that smug look is back. Part of him is still worried (because Arthur is chewing on shoes, and that alone is enough to convince Merlin that Arthur is not really in control of himself), but the bigger part of him is so very irritated that Arthur chose his shoes to chew on. Merlin’s. Not one of the dozen or so pairs of certainly more tasty shoes that Arthur has, but Merlin’s.
Merlin concludes that yes, there is some dog in there, but Arthur’s fighting with it. He doesn’t care that this conclusion is mostly based on smug looks and shoe chewing preference and likely not at all scientific, he’s certain of it. Because it would be so like Arthur to go, “Well, all right, if I have to chew on boots, I don’t want to ruin mine, but Merlin’s, oh no, Merlin’s are perfectly fine to ruin. Never mind that I have a hundred pairs and Merlin just has the one. It’s my goal in life to make Merlin’s life difficult, anyway, so really this dog thing is quite convenient.”
Merlin finds himself as annoyed as it Arthur’d actually said that and he says firmly, “No. Bad Arthur. Very bad Arthur. No biscuits. And I’m not petting you all day.”
The smug look (and there is a smug look, damn it, no matter how many times Gaius says dogs can’t look smug) fades, and Arthur drops the boot. His head hangs down, tail between his legs, and he looks so miserable that Merlin finds himself relenting.
“All right, maybe I’ll pet you a little bit.”
That evening, Merlin realizes it’s now been four days, which is over half of a week, and that thought brings a moment of doubt. What if, what if they can’t figure out how to fix this? What if Arthur’s just – stuck as a dog, forever? He tries to tell himself that there’s no way that could happen, that Arthur’s destined to be a great king, and he can’t rule as a dog. That the dragon wouldn’t have gone on and on about destiny and paths and coins if Arthur was only going to end up as the wrong species forever, but as Merlin’s still not really on speaking terms with the dragon, that thought holds little comfort. It also sparks another thought, that Merlin should probably go talk to the dragon, ask it if it knows anything that can be done for Arthur.
He really doesn’t want to, and he’s not even sure the dragon will help after their last conversation, but if he and Gauis don’t find anything soon, Merlin thinks he’s going to have to suck it up and go ask. He wouldn’t do it for himself, not after what the dragon did, but for Arthur – well, despite repeated comments about his obliviousness and slights against his obviously immense intelligence, Merlin has, in fact, noticed that there’s not much he wouldn’t do for Arthur.
And – and Merlin misses him. It’s only been four days (well, a little over four, if you count part of the day Arthur was turned into a dog), which really isn’t that long, now that Merlin thinks about it, but it’s been the quietest four days of Merlin’s life. He’ll never tell Arthur, not ever, but Merlin’s gotten used to Arthur’s insults and banter and it just doesn’t seem right without them. And he misses Arthur’s eyes, his human eyes, how he can use them to say things like “Merlin you’re an idiot” and “Yes, Merlin, this ridiculous thing that I’m asking you do to does in fact have no purpose but to amuse me and I know that you know that but you have to do it anyway because I’m the crown prince” and occasionally “Wow, Merlin, I’m slightly impressed and have clearly underestimated your immense intelligence, which is far greater than mine” (except maybe Merlin adds that last part himself, but only because he knows Arthur would add it if he had made further progress in not being a prat) and even “I’m honestly glad you’re around, Merlin, and that you’re my friend,” all when his mouth is saying something completely different.
Something bumps against Merlin’s hip, pulling him from his thoughts (which is fortunate, all things considered, since thinking about how much he misses Arthur’s eyes is ridiculously, well, girly, and not something Merlin should be doing. Or would be doing, if Arthur was human, so really this is all Arthur’s fault). Merlin glances down and sees Arthur looking up at him curiously. Merlin smiles at him in what he hopes is a reassuring manner, then finishes clearing the table with a sigh and goes to sit down on the bed.
Arthur apparently didn’t buy the smile, because he jumps up on the bed next to Merlin and rests his head and front paws in his lap. He noses Merlin’s shirt, snuffling softly against his stomach until Merlin gives another, more genuine smile and scratches behind Arthur’s ears. He lets himself take the comfort Arthur’s clearly trying to give him, even if it is bittersweet. Both because Arthur’s the one under a spell and should be the one getting comforted, and because it’s just another reminder that Arthur isn’t himself. Arthur as a dog seems to be able to sense Merlin’s emotions better than Arthur ever could as a human, even if he tried.
Merlin looks down at Arthur as he strokes his fingers through the thick fur at Arthur’s neck. “I wish I could talk to you,” Merlin says quietly, then amends, “I wish I could talk to you and actually get an answer. I wish I knew what you were thinking.”
And I wish I had opposable thumbs again, Arthur’s voice says dryly. Which of us has the more pressing problem?
Merlin starts, looking around wildly before staring at Arthur. “I’ve gone insane.” Clearly, he’s been spending too much time alone and talking to a dog. Arthur as a dog. Without Arthur talking back. He’s started imaging Arthur’s responses.
What do you mean gone? Arthur asks. You’ve always been insane. Most especially because you’re still just sitting here. You’re clearly not sad any more, thanks to me, so the least you could do in return is throw the ball. Come on. Just a couple of throws? Please? The ball’s right there. Right there, Merlin.
“I know where the ball is, thank you,” Merlin snaps.
Arthur’s ears twitch and he lifts his head up. You heard that?
“Yes,” Merlin says, then pauses. “Er. No. Kind of? I don’t think I’m hearing it, really, it’s only in my head. Like I’m having a thought, but it’s in your voice. And it feels like you.”
What do you mean it feels like me? Arthur asks.
“I dunno,” Merlin replies. “It’s just very – Arthur-y.” Like the warmth of the sun and the cold of steel, strong and exciting and safe and a little bit scary, all rolled up in one. But that doesn’t seem like it’d be the best thing to tell him. “Anyway, shouldn’t we be worrying about the more important thing? Why I can suddenly understand you?”
Maybe it’s wearing off, Arthur says excitedly.
“Maybe,” Merlin says doubtfully, not allowing himself to hope. “But then, wouldn’t you just talk?”
I don’t have anything to talk with, Arthur replies primly. But you can hear me, so maybe that means I’m starting to be able to think straight.
“You couldn’t do that as a human,” Merlin responds.
You’re just too simple to understand my thinking, Arthur says, in a tone that manages to be both sympathetic and condescending at the same time.
Merlin can’t help it, he grins widely. He’d missed this. Poking fun at Arthur, having Arthur insult him back, it was just second nature now. He’d had no idea just how much until he didn’t have it, until Arthur’s half of the conversation was gone. The realization would be a little unsettling if Merlin hadn’t already resigned himself to being completely in love with the prat.
You realize that your silence and idiotic smiling are only proving my point, Arthur informs him. What is so amusing?
“Nothing,” Merlin says hastily. Saying ‘I missed you insulting me’ would sound ridiculous, not to mention insane, and would only make Arthur even more smug. “We should go show Gaius what’s happened. Maybe he’ll know what it means.”
Sadly, Gaius doesn’t know what it means. In fact, he can’t even hear Arthur. Although to his credit, if he thinks Merlin’s gone crazy from spending so much time alone with a dog, he doesn’t say anything, and he seems to believe them after only a few demonstrations that Arthur understands what both of them are saying.
While Arthur noses about Merlin’s room, Merlin pulls Gaius aside.
“I think I did this,” Merlin says, keeping his voice low so Arthur can’t hear them. “Right before it happened, I was thinking how much I wanted to be able to understand him.”
“That’s entirely possible,” Gaius says, then shakes his head. “You have to be more careful, Merlin. Especially now that we know Arthur can understand us. Fortunately he believes it’s the spell wearing off, but you can’t allow something like this to happen again.”
“I know,” Merlin replies, feeling a little guilty. “But it’s not as though I meant for this to happen. And it could be good, right? It’ll be easier this way. He can help us research.”
“Perhaps,” Gaius says. “At the very least, we should be able to gather some more information.”
“How?” Merlin asks, blinking.
Gaius smiles. “By asking him.”
For the next hour, Gaius quizzes Arthur on everything from what it felt like when he was being turned into a dog to how he feels now to the differences between being a dog and being a human. Arthur doesn’t remember anything about when the spell was cast on him and his responses to his feelings are vague, but he’s able to describe the differences in some detail. He’s faster now, and able to hear and smell better, although his sight has diminished and he can’t see colors the way he used to. That apparently interests Gaius, who goes off on a bit of a tangent there. Arthur answers the questions as best as he can, but Merlin can sense Arthur’s discomfort.
“It’s, er, getting late,” Merlin says when Gaius pauses for a moment. “We should probably go get some sleep.”
Gaius looks startled, then slightly sheepish. “Er, yes. Of course. Thank you, your Highness.”
Arthur inclines his head, then he and Merlin retreat back to Arthur’s rooms. Merlin wasn’t lying about it getting late, though, and he decides that sleep sounds like a very good idea. Arthur jumps up on the bed with him and Merlin lifts his arm so Arthur can move closer, then drapes it across Arthur’s neck. The position is familiar and comfortable, and Merlin knows he should probably find that odd, now that he can talk to Arthur, but he can’t bring himself too.
Arthur doesn’t seem to have noticed that perhaps sleeping in the same bed as his manservant might be a little odd, even if he is currently a dog, and Merlin doesn’t dare bring it to his attention. It’s probably masochistic of him, but Merlin likes curling up with Arthur too much to want to it to stop. He knows it’ll have to eventually, of course, when Arthur turns back into a human, but that just makes him want to cling to it even more while he has it.
He should be content to just lie there, but apparently he’s just as curious as Gaius, and he wonders about the vague answers Arthur gave as to how he felt before Merlin could understand him.
“Why were you always jumping on me, before?” Merlin asks before he can help himself.
Arthur’s quite for a moment, then he says, I don’t know. I just – liked you being there, liked it when you came into the room. Things were simpler. When I was happy, I was happy. There was no room for anything else.
Merlin considers that. It makes a certain kind of sense, he supposes. Arthur wasn’t really any different, just everything he felt was exaggerated, or something. It explained why he more wild around Merlin than Gaius. Even as a human, Merlin got to see parts of Arthur that no one else did. No one else got to see Arthur behaving like a five year old, after all, even if sometimes the results of that were having to wear ridiculous outfits. No one else saw Arthur when he lost faith in himself, either, or hear about Arthur’s doubts. “I liked it,” Merlin says, and he isn’t really talking about the jumping.
That’s because you’re odd, Arthur replies.
Merlin doesn’t disagree. “What about now?”
Now? Arthur repeats. It’s, still kind of there, I guess. But it isn’t as overwhelming. He pauses, then admits, I almost miss it. It was easier, getting to feel things and just act on them, without having to worry about them.
Merlin moves his hand to scratch behind Arthur’s ears. “You could still do that,” he suggests. “When you’re human.”
Arthur sighs, but tilts his head slightly into Merlin’s touch. You know I can’t.
Merlin does, but he wishes he didn’t. “Not all of the time. Not with everyone. But you can with me.”
Arthur doesn’t reply to that, so after a moment, Merlin adds, “I already know you’re a prat, anyway.”
Arthur huffs in response.
Merlin grins. “But a soft-hearted prat.”
I am not soft-hearted, Arthur protests indignantly.
“No, of course not,” Merlin agrees tolerantly.
You better not be spreading that around the castle, Arthur warns.
“I would never do something like that,” Merlin replies. Which is mostly true. Probably.
See that you don’t, Arthur grumbles. Now shut up. I’m trying to sleep.
When Merlin takes Arthur out the next afternoon, Arthur’s completely horrible. He refuses to stay near Merlin and keeps wandering off, exploring anything that catches his fancy. He also seems intent on getting dangerously close to everyone they see, leaving Merlin constantly panicking and putting all his concentration into maintaining their unnoticeable-ness. By the time they get back to Arthur’s chambers, Merlin’s nearly had over a dozen heart attacks, and has concluded that Arthur is the most idiotic and attention-whoring person on the planet.
You used your magic, didn’t you? Arthur asks in a tone of voice that would be accompanied by a pout if he had lips. Put some kind of spell on me, made me invisible. That’s not fair, you know. It’s cheating.
“Not when it seems you’re physically incapable of not drawing attention to yourself,” Merlin replies immediately, glaring at him in irritation.
I’ll have you know, I - Arthur retorts, and he probably continues, but Merlin doesn’t hear him because the full realization of what Arthur has said finally hits him.
Arthur knows. Arthur knows, and all Merlin can do is stand there and stare at him in shock and horror. Merlin knows he should say something, and he’s trying to, really, but he can’t seem to get his brain to think words, let alone force his mouth to say them. And maybe that’s a good thing, because likely all he’d end up doing is being ridiculously obvious and repeating ‘You know’ over and over until it makes sense in his head, or being equally ridiculously accusatory and demanding to know why, if Arthur knew this whole time, he didn’t have the decency to tell Merlin that he knew and save Merlin the threat of discovery and the fear of Arthur’s reaction. He wonders how long Arthur has known, and that seems to be a safe enough question, perhaps he should ask that when he can get his mouth to work again.
Or perhaps he should have said anything, anything at all, anything other than continue to stare at Arthur, because Arthur’s stopped talking now and is just staring back at him in confusion. Merlin sees the second it turns to comprehension, and then Arthur’s hackles are raised and he’s glaring at Merlin, growling softly.
You didn’t know I knew, Arthur says, and even his voice in Merlin’s head sounds like a growl.
Merlin bites his tongue to keep from saying something about how Arthur is clearly more willing to state the obvious than Merlin himself is.
You were lying to me, Arthur presses.
“Obviously, I wasn’t,” Merlin replies before he can help himself.
Arthur growls again, and this time it’s accompanied by a bearing of his teeth. Obviously, you failed miserably at it. But you thought you were. You were trying to.
“Arthur, I – I thought,” Merlin tries. “I didn’t –”
I know what you didn’t, Arthur snaps, but the anger fades out of him. He sits down, tail curling around his legs, and refuses to meet Merlin’s eyes.
The unspoken ‘you didn’t trust me’ hangs heavy between them until Merlin can’t take it anymore. He drops to his knees in front of Arthur and does with Arthur the dog what he never allows himself to do with Arthur the human; he throws his arms around Arthur’s neck and hugs him. Arthur stiffens, but he doesn’t move, and Merlin buries his face in Arthur’s fur, tangles his fingers in it as he holds him close.
“I trusted you,” he murmurs against Arthur’s shoulder. “I did. I do. I wasn’t worried about – about that.” Which is a bit of a lie, but only because Merlin would have to be completely crazy not to be at least a little concerned that he might be facing a death sentence if he was found out. Mostly, Merlin hadn’t really thought Arthur might have him killed. Might send him away, maybe, or fire him, or treat him with suspicion and disgust, but not kill him. “Not for awhile, anyway, I haven’t thought you would – but I couldn’t get banished, or sacked, because then I couldn’t be around you, and I have to be around you because I have to protect you and I thought –” He knows he’s babbling, so he hesitates for a moment, then says quietly, “I was worried you’d hate me. I couldn’t stand it if you did.”
Arthur sighs, and rests his head on Merlin’s shoulder. I don’t hate you, Merlin. I should’ve thought that was fairly obvious. It’s not common practice for princes to risk their own life to save their servants, you know.
“I know that,” Merlin says, even though sometimes he forgets just how much Arthur has done that shows he really cares for Merlin. “It’s – it was just – you’ve been told your whole life that all magic was evil. When you found out, I didn’t want you to think of me differently because of – because of what I am. To not want me around anymore.” It’s easier saying this, letting it out, when Arthur’s not himself. When he’s covered with soft, fluffy fur that Merlin can cling to, when Merlin doesn’t have to look into Arthur’s eyes and try to read emotions in the expressions on Arthur’s face. “And even if you didn’t, treat me differently, I mean, you’d still have to choose and I didn’t ever want to make you, because if you sided with me, then it’d mean your father –” Whatever confidence Merlin’s gained from Arthur being a dog falters there, and he trails off.
My father, Arthur says in a tone that somehow manages to convey agreement and resentment, longing and bitterness, hesitation and determination all in one.
Merlin thinks it’s probably because he’s only hearing Arthur’s voice in his head, and maybe that means he’s able to feel the emotion behind the thought. His heart breaks, just a little, and he tangles his fingers tighter in Arthur’s fur. “I’m sorry,” he says, even though he’s not sure what he’s apologizing for. For having magic, for trying to hide it from Arthur, for Arthur having to admit that the King is wrong, that his father is wrong, for the situation in general.
Arthur tilts his head a bit, nuzzling gently against Merlin’s neck. He stays silent for a long moment, then says, Well, at least now it makes sense why you and Gaius kept going out of hearing distance to have secret conversations. And why I haven’t seen you try to fix this with your magic. He pauses. You are trying, though, right?
Merlin pulls back, a little offended. “Of course we’re trying. It’s not that simple, we have to find the right spell and I have to be able to do it properly. I can’t just start trying magic on you, something really bad could happen to you.”
Arthur makes a vague noise of agreement, then says mildly, And you can’t let that happen.
Merlin eyes him, suspicious. “I’d rather it didn’t, yes.”
Because you can’t live without me, Arthur says triumphantly.
Merlin blinks at him. “I – what? Where are you getting this from?”
From you, Arthur replies, sounding a little too gleeful for Merlin’s taste. You’ve just said that.
Merlin frowns, trying to remember exactly what he said when he was babbling in an attempt to explain himself. “Have not.”
Oh, you did, Arthur says smugly. You love me, and you couldn’t stand to be without my presence.
That’s actually hitting a little too close to the truth. All right, it’s hitting exactly on the truth, but Merlin’s already told Arthur one huge, traumatic, life altering secret today (or rather, found out that it hadn’t been as much of a secret as he’d thought, but it’s almost the same thing) and he figures it’s unlikely either of them can handle another one.
So he just says, “You’re delusional.”
Arthur backs up, out of Merlin’s grasp, and looks at him. If he could, Merlin knows Arthur would be smirking right now, and he thinks he sees a hint of one anyway.
Merlin groans. “You are a dog,” he informs Arthur. “You are not allowed to be able to smirk at me and look smug like that.” He pauses, considering. “On second thought, you are. In fact, you’re allowed to do it all the time. Even in front of Gaius. Especially in front of Gaius.” Merlin would prove to him that Arthur could bloody well look smug even as a dog, damn it.
Arthur perks up a little at the mention of Gaius’s name. Can we go see Gaius now? He might have found something. You can tell him that I know about you, maybe he’ll have something for us to try.
He seems to have been utterly distracted from their previous conversation, and Merlin allows himself a moment to wish that it was as easy to get Arthur to stop taunting him when he was human. He doesn’t really mean it, though. Arthur wouldn’t be nearly as fun if he could be distracted from their banter this easily.
“All right,” Merlin agrees, though he’s half dreading telling Gaius that he’s apparently failed at keeping his magic secret. The chance of getting Arthur back was worth the risk of facing Gaius’s disapproving eyebrow. Marginally. “We’ll go see Gaius.”
Arthur’s thrilled, and makes no move to stray from Merlin’s side on the way there. How did you keep me from wandering off before? Arthur asks suddenly, sounding curious.
Merlin considers the question and realizes that he doesn’t have an answer. “I don’t know. I didn’t, really. I mean, it wasn’t as if I could put a leash on you or anything. I guess I was vaguely planning on using – you know –” He makes a hand gesture that’s supposed to mean magic.
Arthur gets it, but he gives his head a shake. We need to work on your hand signaling.
Merlin glares at him. “Anyway, it wasn’t an issue, because you just never went too far from me. Guess you-as-a-dog wanted to stay close.”
Oh. Arthur is silent for the moment, possibly considering that. I thought that was just me.
The thought is so soft and faded that Merlin isn’t sure if it was there or he just imagined it.
I suppose even as a dog I realized that it was a bad idea to let you out of my sight. You always get into trouble, Arthur says.
Merlin snorts, but manages to avoid pointing out which one of them is currently under an enchantment. He concludes that the earlier comment was indeed in his imagination, which should probably worry him, but it isn’t the first time that his internal monologue somehow wound up sounding like Arthur.
Gaius is leaning over a thick book when they arrive at his quarters. He looks up as Merlin shuts the door behind them, expression tired and a little resigned.
Merlin’s stomach sinks a little. “I’m guessing that doesn’t mean there’s good news?”
“I’m afraid not,” Gaius replies. “Uther is growing impatient and is more determined than ever to find this sorceress. He’s seeing magic everywhere.”
Merlin knows what that means. It means innocent people are going to die. He looks over at Arthur, who is standing very still.
We have to fix this, Arthur says.
“I know, we –” Merlin starts, but Arthur cuts him off.
Now. We have to fix this now. Ask Gaius if there is a spell you can try. Any spell.
Merlin swallows slightly. “Arthur wants to know if – if there’s a spell I can try.”
Gaius’s eyebrows shoot up.
“Arthur knows,” Merlin adds, just in case Gaius hadn’t gotten that. And also partly just to be able to say it out-loud.
“I see,” Gaius says, and then drops it.
Merlin is relieved, until Gaius gives him a look that says they will most definitely be talking about this later.
“I’m afraid there isn’t one,” Gaius says. “Not one that I’ve been able to find, at least, that doesn’t have more of a chance of killing you than turning you back.”
“And you’re no good to anyone dead, so we’re not trying those,” Merlin comments before Arthur can say anything.
“I’m afraid the only way to undo this will be the death of the one who cast the spell,” Gaius tells them.
Arthur nods. We will find her, then. Surely there has to be a way to track people with sorcery.
For someone raised to hate magic, Arthur seems to be awfully eager to use it, but Merlin relays Arthur’s comment to Gaius anyway.
Gaius considers. “There is something,” he says slowly. “I remember a spell…” He trails off, and begins hunting through a stack of books. “Most magic users leave a trace of their magic behind when they cast spells. Normally it goes unnoticed, unless the spell is particularly strong. But some powerful sorcerers have been able to sense this, to be able to read who’s cast a spell and even know where someone is based on where the sense of their magic feels the strongest.”
Merlin remembers how the ruined crops made him feel uneasy. “And we can use this to find her?”
“You might be able to,” Gaius says, then smiles as he finds the right page. “Here it is. A trace of her magic should still be on Arthur. This spell should allow you to see that, and then use it to find her.”
The idea that there’s a piece of a sorceress on me is very unsettling, Arthur says.
“More unsettling than the fact that you still have her spell on you and are a dog?” Merlin asks.
Point taken, Arthur grumbles. Go on, then, do the spell.
Merlin wants to retort that it’s not that simple, but Arthur’s looking at him expectantly. Expectantly, not fearfully or with disgust, after Arthur’s just asked him to do magic. That alone is enough that Merlin just silently takes the book. Gaius instructs him on the correct pronunciation, and Merlin says the spell, closing his eyes as he feels it take effect.
For a moment, Arthur feels – green. It’s an odd sensation, since Merlin had been fairly certain that you couldn’t feel colors until now. Then the feeling shifts, moves farther away, and suddenly Merlin can sense her. He doesn’t know where she is, exactly, but he can feel where she is.
Merlin opens his eyes. “I can get us to her.”
Good, Arthur says determinedly. We’re leaving an hour before dawn.
Neither Gaius nor Merlin manage to convince Arthur that going after the sorceress is a bad idea, so in the dark hours of the morning, Merlin and Arthur sneak out of the castle.
“Your father is going to have me killed when he finds out we’re missing,” Merlin hisses once they’re a little ways into the woods.
He won’t know we’re gone until we get back, Arthur replies confidently.
“That isn’t reassuring,” Merlin says.
Arthur ignores him. Are you sure we’re going the right way?
Merlin closes his eyes briefly, then nods. “Yeah.”
They walk a little bit in silence, then Merlin asks, “How’re you expecting to fight her? I’ve brought your sword, but it won’t do much good if you can’t use it.”
I’ve got other ways of fighting now, Arthur answers. They’ll work. We’ll sneak up on her, and you can distract her while I take her out.
“Brilliant plan,” Merlin mutters.
He’d said it too quietly for Arthur to hear normally, but of course, he hears it now.
It is, Arthur informs him. I don’t see you coming up with anything better.
Merlin doesn’t reply, because he can’t really argue with that. It’s dawn now, the sky just starting to lighten, and he still hasn’t slept. His brain really isn’t up for plan making.
They move as quickly as possible, Merlin’s sense of where the sorceress is getting strong the closer they get to her. She still remains frustratingly far, though, and at midday Arthur draws to a stop.
Can’t you do something? he demands. Get a better read on where she is, or get us closer, or something?
“I’m doing the best I can,” Merlin snaps, but he knows Arthur is probably more frustrated than he is.
So Merlin closes his eyes, concentrating on the green, slightly uneasy feel of the sorceress in his mind. He focuses harder, willing the sense to sharpen, to get stronger, and then suddenly he feels like the world is spinning out from under him.
When he opens his eyes, he and Arthur are in a small hut, a few feet away from the chair that the sorceress is sitting in.
When I said get us closer, I didn’t mean drop us right on top of her, Arthur says.
Merlin would reply, but he’s too busy being shocked. He hadn’t actually known he could do that. He knows why he won’t be doing it very much in the future, though, as his knees buckle under him and he winds up on all fours, staring at the ground and breathing heavily while trying not to throw up.
The sorceress stands up, looking startled. “What are you doing here?”
“That should be obvious,” Merlin replies. He thinks he probably has enough energy to stand up, but he doesn’t want to waste it and instead tries to look as threatening as he can while sitting on the ground.
Arthur does a better job of it, moving in front of Merlin and growling, teeth bared and hackles raised.
“Oh,” she says, voice quiet as she hunches in on herself a bit. “I – I didn’t mean for that to happen.”
Merlin eyes her, suspicious. “Why did you attack us?”
“You were messing up my work,” she replies desperately, dropping back into her chair. “I couldn’t think, just couldn’t allow that to happen.”
What work? Arthur demands. More sorcery?
“What work?” Merlin asks her.
“My spell work. In the crops,” she answers. “Symbols. Spells. They’re new spells. No, old spells. Old symbols, new spell. I made the spell myself. Worked it into the magic of the harvest. The crops make it work. I can show you. They’ll find me.”
Arthur stops growling, and shifts uneasily from one paw to another. What is she talking about?
“I have no idea,” Merlin replies.
The sorceress seems to think that she’s talking to him. “It’s for my family, so they can find me. So they can bring me home. I don’t want to be alone anymore. I’m so tired of being alone. I want to go home.”
Merlin finds some of his anger ebbing away, replaced by pity. But that doesn’t change much. “Can you turn him back?”
“No,” she says. “I can’t. You know I can’t.”
“He can’t stay like this,” Merlin says, his voice a little desperate. He almost wishes she was attacking them. It would make things so much easier.
She just looks at them. “You chose him,” she tells Merlin. “We all know you chose him. Rumors spread even when the one who tells them is dead. I know that.” She nods, then stands, green fire crackling at her fingertips.
Merlin has a second to regret his wish before he forces his body to move so he can roll out of the fire’s path.
Arthur dodges as well, and before she can adjust to their new locations, he’s already pounced on her. He pins her to the ground, claws digging into her shoulders as he bites at her neck, instinctively searching for a killing blow.
She shrieks and shoves him off of her with fists covered in fire, sending him flying against one of the walls of the hut. He lands in a heap, patches of fur singed, and struggles to get up.
Merlin suddenly finds he does indeed have the strength to stand, drawing her attention. She turns the green fire on him, and he holds up a hand. He’s reacting without realizing what he’s doing now, he just feels the magic pouring from his body, doing what he wants before he knows he wants it. The fire touches him, but it feels like warm breath, almost tickling, and he laughs.
The sorceress looks scared, but Merlin’d stopped pitying her the second before she pointed the fire in Arthur direction. Merlin points at her now and the fire doubles back, winding around her. He expects her to stop it, but she doesn’t. Maybe she’s insane enough that she doesn’t want to, maybe she can’t remember how, or maybe she simply can’t, maybe Merlin’s making her make it or even the one making it now, though if he is he isn’t aware of it.
He hopes it’s one of the first two, because he can’t stop it, either, and he doesn’t want to. She’s smiling, now, laughing even as her face warps and becomes unrecognizable, but Merlin doesn’t know if it’s that she’s happy, thinking she’ll get to see her family again, or if she’s just insane. He’s not sure he cares.
When the fire fades, there’s nothing left of the sorceress but ashes. Merlin stares at them for a moment, not sure what he’s supposed to feel. Something other than this combination of relief and sadness and joy and disgust, probably, but before he can dwell on it he realizes that it’d probably be a good idea to actually check and make sure that the enchantment is broken before he feels too much joy.
He looks over, and nearly falls to his knees in relief when he sees Arthur standing there. He’s leaning against a chair for support, but he’s completely human. And also completely naked, which makes Merlin exceedingly grateful that he’d thought to bring Arthur’s clothes.
“Suppose that means she’s dead, then,” Arthur says, his voice sounding a bit hoarse.
It’s still quite possibly the best thing that Merlin’s heard in awhile, and he finds himself grinning a bit. “You’ve no idea how good it is to see you.”
“Yes, I imagine it must have been very difficult for you,” Arthur replies, scowling at him.
“Oh, it was. Traumatizing,” Merlin says with a nod. “Don’t think you could ever understand it.”
“You must be ever so grateful that I’m back and fully capable of ordering you into the stocks again,” Arthur retorts. “Now shut up and give me my clothes.”
Merlin helps Arthur get dressed, and then the two of them leave the hut as quickly as possible. They stop by a nearby river to clean up a bit, and for Merlin to take care of Arthur’s burns and cuts as best as he can.
“She was crazy,” Merlin says when he’s finished. “But I don’t know if she was evil.”
“I’m sorry,” Arthur tells him quietly, refusing to meet his eyes.
“Why?” Merlin asks.
“You had to kill her,” Arthur replies.
Yes, Merlin had, but he can’t bring himself to be too sad over it. He’d felt sympathy for her. She was alone, had possibly been driven mad by it, and that wasn’t her fault. Merlin knows whose fault it probably was, who had most likely been the one to take her family from her. He truly had wanted to help her, right up until she’d threatened Arthur. It’d happened before, with the sidhe. Ulfric had only wanted to give his daughter a better life, after all, but none of that matters to Merlin with Arthur’s in danger. “She isn’t the first magic user I’ve killed,” Merlin admits softly.
Arthur bites the corner of his lip. “Ulfric and Sophia.”
Merlin blinks, surprised. “I thought you didn’t remember what happened?”
“I didn’t,” Arthur replies. “I still don’t, really. It’s hazy. But I remember enough to know that you saved me. Stopped them.”
“Yes. I did. And Nimueh.” And whoever had been pretending to be Lady Helen, back when he first met Arthur, but that had been an ‘I dropped a chandelier on you’ sort of death rather than an ‘I magically blasted you into tiny pieces’ kind, and Merlin didn’t count that in with the other three.
Arthur looks up at him in confusion. “Who?”
It’s then that Merlin realizes that no one has ever told Arthur the name of the sorceress who’s tried to kill him so many times. Now that he thinks about it, it’s obvious that he didn’t know, but it’s just – never occurred to Merlin before, just how much he knew about the things that happened to them that Arthur didn’t. Merlin allows himself a moment to think that it won’t be like that in the future, won’t be him secretly trying to stop the unthinkable from happening and making up some story to tell Arthur. It’ll be more like tonight, both of them working together, no secrets. Or anyway, no secrets relating to magic.
“The sorceress who conjured the afanc. And poisoned me with the mortaeus, and sent the questing beast after you.” Merlin isn’t certain, really, if that last one had been Nimueh, but he’s decided to blame it on her anyway.
“Was that what you were doing?” Arthur asks, looking at him intently. “When you left the castle, the night you said goodbye to me?”
“Yes,” Merlin says softly, looking away. “And no. I went to trade my life for yours, actually, but she wasn’t being fair.”
Arthur makes a sound somewhere between a snort and a chuckle at that. After a moment, he says, “So you killed her.”
“I think I did, anyway,” Merlin replies. “She seemed dead, but Gaius says she’s really powerful, so it might not have worked.”
“But the witch tonight, she’s definitely dead?” Arthur asks.
Merlin nods. “Yeah. You’re back to normal, anyway, that’s proof enough for me.”
There’s a moment of silence, then Arthur looks away again. “Still. It can’t have been easy.”
Merlin shakes his head. “It was her or you. A choice like that – it wasn’t even a choice, really. She was right about one thing, at least.”
Arthur glances back at him. “What’s that?”
“I’ve chosen you,” Merlin says, knowing he means it in more than one way. In more than the ways Arthur will take it. “Always.”
Arthur looks at him in a way that Merlin doesn’t recognize. Like there’s so many things he wants to say to that, but can’t bring himself to say any of them, and Merlin thinks that maybe he recognizes it, after all. Or at least knows how that feels.
“Sometimes I look at you, Merlin, and I can see the way things could be,” Arthur says softly.
“Yeah? How do they look?” Merlin asks.
Something in Arthur’s expression changes, like he’s snapping into awareness a bit. “Well, you’ll look ridiculous, as always. And I’ll still be gorgeous, of course.”
“Of course,” Merlin agrees.
Arthur smirks at him, then abruptly reaches out to brush something off of Merlin’s cheek. “But we’d be brilliant,” he says, almost regretfully, then stands up and starts back towards Camelot.
Merlin blinks after him before staggering to his feet and lurching after him. “It will be brilliant,” he tells Arthur when he catches up to him.
They get back to the castle in the middle of the night. The guards see them coming and probably have minor nervous break downs, considering the crown prince who’s supposed to be recuperating in his room is now walking towards them, bloody and exhausted.
“Your highness!” one of them says, with the false bravado of someone incredibly nervous and trying to hide it. “You’re supposed to be under the care of the court physician.”
“I was,” Arthur replies. “And likely will be again soon. But someone had to take care of that sorceress, didn’t they?”
He breezes by without waiting for an answer, and Merlin trails after him. By the time they get to the king’s chambers, Uther has already heard about their return. Merlin fears the worst, but Uther seems to be too busy being thrilled that not only is Arthur human again, but managed to track down and kill a witch even while under her spell to be annoyed about or even notice that Merlin sort of failed in his mission to keep Arthur hidden in his room.
“By morning, he’ll have the entire castle knowing about how I single handedly searched out the witch and defeated her even while on my death bed,” Arthur comments tiredly after they’ve been dismissed and are walking back to Arthur’s chambers.
“Yeah, well, I’m used to you getting credit for all of the things I do,” Merlin replies absently, tugging open Arthur’s door and waiting for him to walk into the rooms first.
Arthur stops in the doorway, though, looking at him with a frown.
“I was joking,” Merlin says hastily. “I don’t want the credit, honest.”
“Whether or not you want it, one day I’ll make certain you get it,” Arthur promises quietly.
Merlin doesn’t know what to say to that, so he just ducks his head a bit and attempts to nudge Arthur inside the room. “C’mon. I’m going to fall asleep standing here, and you have to be as bad as me.”
Arthur’s response is cut off when he yawns, which prompts him to glare at nothing before stalking into his room. Merlin follows him, stripping off his tunic and kicking off boots as he goes. He heads immediately for the bed, crawling into it and snuggling into his favorite position. He’s almost asleep, quick as that, but he drifts a little bit more awake when Arthur clears his throat.
“Hmm?” Merlin asks, looking up at him.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Arthur says, gesturing at his torn and bloody clothes.
“Oh.” Merlin sits up slightly and looks at Arthur, muttering a quick spell to make the rips and blood disappear. The rest of his energy goes with them, and he realizes that was probably not the most intelligent idea as he sags back against the pillow.
Arthur apparently agrees with him, because he curses and moves to the bed, looking worried.
“S’fine. Just tired,” Merlin tells him.
Arthur rolls his eyes. “Idiot.”
“Have Gaius,” Merlin says.
Arthur blinks. “What?”
“Look at you. Check m’work,” Merlin mumbles.
“Ah. In the morning,” Arthur replies. “I trust you did a good enough job that a few hours sleep isn’t going to kill me.”
Merlin wants to say that Arthur has more faith in his skills than Merlin himself does, but he’s tired and by the time he’s decided that, Arthur has already chucked off his own shirt and boots and crawled into the bed. Merlin shifts automatically, adjusting his position to make room for Arthur to snuggle up next to him.
It’s only when Arthur does so and Merlin notices that he’s adjusted for the wrong height that Merlin realizes all of the ways this is so terribly wrong. Merlin squirms, attempting to get away, but he’s weak and Arthur’s arm on his chest is more than capable of pinning him down.
“What’re you doing?” Arthur asks.
“I – we shouldn’t. This is a bad idea,” Merlin says.
“I don’t see anything wrong with it,” Arthur says. “We’ve been sleeping in the same bed this whole miserable week.”
Merlin tries to find a way to explain how different that is without admitting how very much in love he is with Arthur. He fails. “S’different. You were a dog.”
Arthur tenses a bit, but he doesn’t move his arm. “Yes,” he agrees. “And now I’m not, and one night in the same bed as me won’t kill you. You don’t even have enough energy to sit up.”
Merlin would argue with him, but he’s pretty sure Arthur’s right, so he just tries to force himself to relax. It’s easier than the thought, possibly because he’s completely exhausted and already used to Arthur’s bed. “Wasn’t all completely miserable, was it?” Merlin asks, thinking of Arthur’s slightly wistful tone when he talked about how nice it was to get to act on his feelings.
Arthur’s arm tightens around him, just a little bit. “No,” Arthur says quietly. “It wasn’t all miserable. Go to sleep, Merlin.”
When Merlin wakes up in the morning, the first thing he notices is that he’s deliriously comfortable. And warm. And his fingers are stroking absently through soft hair. In the moments between sleep and alertness, Merlin doesn’t think anything of this, seeing as it’s the way he’s been waking up for nearly a week. When he opens his eyes, though, and sees that the head pillowed on his chest is very human, he quietly freaks out. He forces his fingers to untangle themselves from Arthur’s hair, and then panics when Arthur’s eyes open.
“Don’t stop,” Arthur says softly.
Merlin stares at Arthur for a long moment, searching for any signs of sleep, or possibly dementia, but Arthur’s eyes are bright and clear. Merlin keeps his own gaze on Arthur’s as he uncurls his fingers, running them once again through Arthur’s hair. Arthur stays still for a moment, then he presses a kiss against Merlin’s chest. He drags his lips across Merlin’s chest and up his neck, kissing the corner of his mouth. Merlin’s quite sure he stops breathing for a moment, pulse quickening, and Arthur pulls back a bit to look at him.
“You kissed me,” Merlin says, because he can’t quite believe this is real.
“You noticed that, did you? It seems your observational skills are at least adequate,” Arthur says, and despite his confident tone Merlin can see something like uncertainty in his expression.
Merlin pulls his fingers from Arthur’s hair, resting his hand on Arthur’s cheek and brushing his thumb over his bottom lip. “Why?”
Arthur leans into the touch, pursing his lips the tiniest bit to place a soft kiss on the pad of Merlin’s thumb. “You asked me to.”
“I definitely didn’t,” Merlin replies. “At least not out-loud.”
“You did,” Arthur counters. “You told me I could act on the way I felt, when I was with you.”
Oh. Oh. “Best thing I ever said,” Merlin says, and thinks that’s possibly the most understated comment of the century.
“Yes,” Arthur agrees. “Imagine that, you managing to say something good.”
“I’m brilliant,” Merlin informs him, then grins a bit. “You know, we must be the only two people in all of the kingdoms that couldn’t manage to do this without one of us turning into a dog.”
Arthur grins back at him. “Yes, well. When I was a dog, I knew exactly how I felt.”
“What did you feel?” He’s half expecting a sarcastic response, given the obviousness of the question, but he needs to ask it.
“That you were mine,” Arthur says, voice low, and leans in closer to mouth along Merlin’s jawline.
Merlin’s breath hitches, but he’s apparently a complete idiot and unable of keeping his mouth shut when he really, really should, and he finds himself saying, “Is that some kind of possessive holdover from you being a dog or is it something I’m going to have to put up with all the time?”
Arthur huffs out a slightly surprised chuckle and pulls back again. “You are not right in the head, do you know that?”
“Yeah,” Merlin replies. “But you like me, what does that say about you?”
“That I’m touched as well,” Arthur says, shaking his head. Then he lets his arm fold under him, collapsing half on top of the mattress and half on top of Merlin. He turns his face towards Merlin, lips pressing lightly against his temple.
“Hey,” Merlin protests. “You’re heavy. If one of us is going to be used as a pillow, it’s going to be you.”
“But you’re so much more comfortable, Merlin,” Arthur murmurs against his skin, tilting his mouth down to graze his teeth across Merlin’s earlobe.
Merlin decides that Arthur being heavy isn’t really important at the moment. Especially when Arthur shifted to give him a real kiss, long and lazy.
When Arthur pulls back, he slides a few inches away, though he doesn’t release Merlin from his grasp, and drops his head back on the pillow. “Since you are incapable of shutting your idiotic mouth long enough for me to ravish you, I’m going back to sleep.”
That, Merlin decides, is really, really, really unfair. “Shutting up now, I swear.”
“It’s too late,” comes the muffled reply. “I’m not interested now. Check back when I wake up.”
“Liar,” Merlin replies, because one advantage of being half-under Arthur is that he can easily tell that Arthur is very interested. Merlin shifts his leg, pressing his thigh against the bulge in Arthur’s trousers, and grins triumphantly at Arthur’s sharp intake of breath.
Then Merlin squirms out of Arthur’s grasp and rolls out of the bed. “If you’re not going to ravish me, you don’t get to sleep, either. C’mon, we have a physician to see.”
Arthur groans and buries his face deeper into the pillow. “You are intolerable.”
“Yeah,” Merlin agrees. “How dare I care about your well-being and want to make sure your wounds are properly treated. Completely horrible of me. I should work on that.”
“You should,” Arthur replies. “But first you should come back to bed.”
Merlin shakes his head and manages to find his discarded tunic, tugging it on over his head. “Nu-uh. We have to get Gaius to look at you.”
Arthur sits up, scowling at him. “You are supposed to do what I say. It’s your job.”
Merlin grins at him. “It’s my job to protect you. Can’t have your wounds getting infected and limbs falling off just because you didn’t get the court physician to look after you. What would Camelot do without you?” He hesitates, then says what he would normally just think to himself, “Forget Camelot, what would I do without you?”
Arthur’s expression softens. “Stop being so sensible.”
“Hmmm, no,” Merlin says. “It happens rarely enough for me as it is, I have to take advantage of it.”
“Well, that is true,” Arthur says as he stands up and pulls on his tunic.
Merlin rolls his eyes. “Why do I put up with you?”
Arthur grabs his boots and begins putting them on. “Is it because I’m incredibly charming, and handsome, and brave?”
Merlin would roll his eyes again, but he’s fairly certain the over-activity isn’t good for them. “It’s because I love you, you great big prat.”
Arthur stops and just looks at him. For a long moment, there’s silence between them, and Merlin can read the returned feelings in Arthur’s gaze even though he’s not saying anything. Then Arthur grins at him and Merlin smiles back. Arthur returns to putting on his boots, while Merlin goes on the hunt for his own (which are technically Arthur’s, magicked to Merlin’s size, but since Arthur was the one who ruined his last ones, Merlin feels that he has a right to them).
Just before they leave the room, Arthur grabs his wrist and Merlin suddenly finds himself pinned up against the wall by the door. Arthur leans in and kisses him fiercely, long enough that they’re both a bit breathless by the time Arthur pulls away.
“When we get back,” Arthur murmurs, eyes locked intently on Merlin’s. “I’m going to make sure you won’t be saying anything sensible for the rest of the day.”
Merlin swallows thickly and remains frozen there for a few moments after Arthur has yanked open the door. Then he hurries after him, praying that Gaius gets done quickly.