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If You Had to Take Sides with the Animals

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Before every show, Arthur puts on his coat.

It's his own coat, sewed by Gwen and Merlin, made out of brighter red fabric than his father's, cloth bought wholesale instead of made over from something else, gold braid picked carefully off one of the elephant harnesses and sewed to the cuffs and collar. He looks like someone else, someone who doesn't spend his nights shoveling elephant shit and setting up tents or driving a rickety wagon on endless dusty roads, someone who could make magic happen for the audience. He hopes he doesn't look like his father.

Every time, Merlin smooths the coat on his shoulders and smiles at him in the dusty glass of the cracked mirror. Every time, Arthur smiles back and picks up his hat from the table in front of him, puts it on and strides out into the big top.

*

Freya doesn't speak to him for three months after she joins the circus. Merlin is the one to report her progress, the one to ready her for shows. Gwen is the one to fuss over her costumes and her meals. Morgana tells him to wait, that she'll come to him on her own.

They're somewhere in the endless stretch of Oklahoma, and she's wearing an old shirt he recognizes as one of Merlin's and a pair of gloves that must be stitched together from old horse tack. “They miss you,” she says, as soon as she's appeared out of nowhere.

“Who do?”

“The cats. They say they were yours, before your father died. I've told them you have other things to do, but they'd like to see you.”

Arthur stares, but they've known since the beginning that the girl is a little queer, and Merlin says she's no odder than Morgana or even himself, so Arthur trusts that. “I'll go see them, then.”

“Come now.”

Arthur does, and follows Freya to the carts the lions and the tiger travel on. She lets them out and they swarm around her like housecats, eating meat from her palm, and then turn to Arthur and expect their ears scratched. He's always been tolerated, but never adored the way Freya clearly is, and Arthur stands and watches for a long time.

He visits them more often, after that.

*

The first time he climbs into Merlin's bunk, it's after his father has caned Merlin for speaking to the freaks too much (back when they traveled in their own little caravan in the back and Arthur's father only spoke to them because he had to, because they made him money), and they're both sixteen.

Merlin is red-eyed, hissing when Arthur touches his back. “I only like to hear his stories,” he explains. “It could so easily be any of us in that cage. It could be me. I just want to talk to him.”

“You can't, Merlin, you can't, he'll make you leave, he'll leave you in the next city. He always says we can find stable hands anywhere. I know you know some illusions, you could do those, he might keep you then.”

Merlin is wide-eyed, panicked about something, and a second later he kisses Arthur, and Arthur is lost, kissing him back, kissing his lips bruised and his cheeks pink, and in between kisses Merlin whispers, high and shaky, “God, Arthur, if he knew, if he knew” until Arthur stops his mouth.

*

Arthur says that one of the horses threw his father when he was out for a ride, when the constables in the nearest town ask.

*

“We have a stowaway,” Morgana says, somewhere in Ohio, and Arthur thinks it's the first time he's seen her smile since he took over Pendragon Circus.

Arthur, though, has an instant headache. “A stowaway? Morgana, we don't need another mouth to feed.”

“This one will pay for itself.”

He lets her lead him to the cat cage, and there's a girl sitting there in the cage easy as can be, with Llamrei's head in her lap like that's where she always takes her naps. The girl seems wary of the people collecting outside the cage, but she has no fear at all that the cats might hurt her.

Arthur has known, since it became necessary, that he should sell the cats, since he was the only one trained to take care of them, but he couldn't bear to do it. Seeing the girl there, in her frayed straw hat and calico dress, is a relief he can't quite express, and he has to clear his throat before he turns to Gwen. “Take care of her, will you? Elena needs a new bunkmate since Morgause left.”

The girl gives him a long searching look, but she doesn't speak, doesn't say anything until Gwen bustles forward and starts speaking quietly to her.

Arthur turns and finds Merlin standing to the side, watching the girl with fascinated eyes, and there's a little pang in that, knowing that he never had Merlin's instant interest like that. He's always had to work for it, to struggle and try to be sure that nothing he or his father ever did would make Merlin leave him.

But then again, sometimes it's a little sweeter for knowing that Merlin's love is hard-won.

*

Merlin leaves when they're eighteen, for just a few months. Arthur's father says they're well rid of the boy, and Arthur feels queasy all the time, like nothing settles in his stomach right with Merlin gone. Morgana cossets him and Gwen always finds something new for him to do, but still nothing feels right until Merlin comes back, catching them outside of Cincinnati and offering no explanations but a new crop of illusions.

Arthur's father puts him in the show, because Pendragon Circus is on a decline and they need fresh blood. Merlin is at least that, with his stupid city hat pulled rakishly low over his eyes while he makes fire that doesn't burn and lifts things in the air and pulls flowers out of the air for pretty girls and never, ever explains to Arthur how he does it.

He hears Merlin whispering with Morgana soon after he comes back, barely a breath, “If he knew ...”

Arthur feels sick again.

*

Freya is the first new arrival they've had since Arthur took over the circus, and even if she didn't have her way with the animals Arthur thinks they would all be fascinated by her. She refuses to say exactly where she's from, why she's here, but circuses are full of secrets.

She likes Merlin. She'll talk to Morgana or Gwen, but she smiles around Merlin, seems to lose some of the tension and the pallor that she carries whenever she's speaking to a human.

She likes the cats too. She's quiet during shows—Arthur has to speak more during her act than he does anyone else's, though he's often pulled into conversation during Merlin's—but no audience can help but be enthralled by her. Gwen puts her in pretty gowns and lawn gloves and Freya captivates, speaking quietly to the cats, never touching a whip or anything else that might hurt them and getting them to do anything at all that she asks of them.

Merlin watches her still, and Arthur watches too, and maybe it's because she's new, and maybe it's because she's unusual, and maybe it isn't.

*

“It's a good thing we live in a circus,” Merlin says, content and sun-soaked and seventeen, on top of a wagon when he should be working. “Nobody minds if things are a little bit odd here.” He looks up at Arthur and grins. “Well, no one but your father.”

“I think odd is good,” Arthur says firmly, and leans down to kiss him.

*

Arthur kisses Freya because Merlin never will, after a show one night when all three of them are laughing, drunk on applause. She only pauses for a moment before she kisses him back, and when Arthur pulls away to look at Merlin, Merlin has his fingers pressed over his mouth like he's trying to imagine the sensation.

“Well?” says Arthur, and thinks it's too gruff, but Freya goes up on her tiptoes and presses her lips to his again, and a second later Merlin is next to them, his arms around them both, pressing his smiling face against Arthur's shoulder.

*

It's only hours after Arthur's father dies that Merlin comes to find him. Arthur doesn't want words of comfort, and is about to open his mouth and say so, but Merlin shakes his head. “I have to say this now, or you'll never forgive me. I only couldn't while he was alive because I knew you couldn't lie to him, and I didn't want to end up no better off than your cats. Like ...”

“Like the Dragon, and those like him,” says Arthur, so Merlin doesn't have to. Arthur knows exactly what cruelties his father has committed, and intends to begin remedying them as soon as he can bring himself to face anyone.

“Yes, like them.” And then he lifts his hand and fills his palm with fire, a trick Arthur has seen dozens of times by now, but he becomes very suddenly aware that he's never seen Merlin's face while he did it, because he's sure he would remember if he'd ever seen Merlin's eyes turn gold.

*

“I want her,” Merlin whispers into the night, some time after they've stopped pretending that the reason they share a bunk is anything but that they love each other. “Do you hate me for that? I still want you, but I want her as well.”

Arthur thinks of visiting Freya and the cats, of how she speaks little to him but sometimes sits next to him, their shoulders almost touching, in complete silence for an hour at a time, how sometimes his time with her is the only true rest he gets during a day, and how precious each smile he wins from her feels. “Nobody minds if things are a little odd here,” he says, and Merlin knows him well enough to know what he means.

*

Before every show, Freya ties Arthur's cravat.

He's known how to tie it almost since he could walk, but it feels good, intimate, every time she does it, with a proprietary little smile and an eventual pat, like she wants to keep it in place, just before she stands on her tiptoes to kiss him briefly on the mouth.

He puts on his coat himself, the one that Merlin and Gwen made him for his own, while she steps back, and Merlin steps forward to smooth it for him, to smile at him in the mirror.

Arthur picks up his hat and walks out into the big top, leaving them together, knowing they'll come out when he calls their names.