Arthur went to bed in a prince's suite, in a bed of satin and velvet and goosedown, idly fondling one of the ugly little rings Lady Rowena had given him over dinner that night. Rowena had come from somewhere in the east with a simpering smile, a variety of low-cut gowns and a total lack of tact that bordered on the astonishing. Arthur's mind, however, was not on Rowena; instead he was mainly thinking un-princely thoughts about his manservant.
There were times when he thought that Merlin was nothing more than a manservant--perhaps, in some ways, a friend, though Arthur had had so few of those he couldn't really tell for sure. (And no, that wasn't grounds for unbearable angst and drama in his life--he viewed it as an inevitable consequence of his station, like the green rash the crown sometimes gave him on his forehead.) But then there were other times--times like tonight, when that feather-brained doxy Rowena had been flirting all too obviously and Merlin had been clutching the wine bottles a little too tightly, so tense the feather in his hat had been quivering--Arthur thought that maybe, just maybe...
...but it was so hard to tell, so hard to guess what, if anything, was going on in that head of his from one minute to the next, if Merlin thought of him in anything like the same way, and Arthur didn't dare act unless he knew for certain...
Arthur fell asleep to such thoughts and woke up to scratchy wool blankets and a straw mattress and a draft through the window and Gaius pounding on the door screaming "Arthur! Arthur, wake up, Prince Merlin wants to see you!"
He sat upright, taking in the room--Merlin's room, dammit--and Merlin's clothes, or something very much like them, hanging out of the cupboard--and the ring still in his hand. He did the reasonable thing then, which was to shout, "Oh, bloody fuck."
It took, in hindsight, far too long and far too many stupid questions for Gaius to assure Arthur that he was really, really not joking. Logic, as tutors had long ago tried to teach Arthur, favored the least complicated solution to any problem. An elaborate hoax implicating Merlin, Gaius, and a tailor (as the clothes were so much like Merlin's, but cut to a size that made Arthur feel awkward and skinny) that involved drugging him, moving him to another room, changing his clothes and then pretending he was his own manservant, with no obvious punchline in sight--that was illogical.
Sorcery, on the other hand, was always a possibility.
He dressed in the scratchy and ill-fitting clothes, pulled on the well-worn boots and went to see "Prince" Merlin in full confidence that he would be equally discomfitted by the sudden role reversal and they could immediately work on getting this sorted--Arthur had a few theories about that bitch Rowena already and was prepared to test them at the point of a sword. But when he arrived, he found a familiar room and Merlin in familiar clothes, as they were Arthur's, though cut to create the illusion that Merlin was fit and muscular. Merlin looked up from where he was fastening his belt and gave an oddly avuncular sigh with no sign that he found anything out of the ordinary. "There you are," he said. "I was beginning to think I'd have to tidy up myself."
"Sorry...sire," Arthur said, and even managed not to throw up afterward. He'd really been hoping Merlin would be aware of the problem, so at the very least he'd have somebody to complain to. But after having Gaius check the index of every book on mental aberrations in his considerable library, Arthur wasn't about to let anyone else in on this predicament unless he had to, which mean Merlin had to stay in the dark for now. Though that didn't mean he couldn't do a spot of subtle reconnoitering in the process. "Did you, ah, need me for anything special, this morning? Something really unusual, maybe?" he asked hopefully.
Merlin looked at him with one eyebrow raised in an eerie imitation of Gaius. "No," he said. "Not really."
"No? So it's just a," Arthur gestured vaguely. "Normal morning?"
"I..." And there Merlin paused, just a bit, and fiddled with something on his finger. Rowena's ring, and Arthur remembered he'd given the mate to Merlin before sending him off for the night--Merlin had asked for it, just to see it, and Arthur had said here, keep it, one is quite ugly enough for me. So since they each had one when they went to bed...oh, so going to kill her. "That's strange," Merlin continued. "It's like there's something I've forgotten to do."
"Hate that feeling," Arthur agreed firmly, hoping to elicit a little something more.
But Merlin just said "Mmm," sort of absently, then shook his head and grabbed a pair of gloves from the table. "Anyway, I'm to go riding with Lady Rowena this morning, and I'd like you to muck out my stables while I'm gone. I've got some clothes that need mending in that pile over there--" Which, to Arthur, was indistinguishable from any other pile all over the bloody room-- "if you could take those down to the maids, and I'm drilling with the knights this afternoon, so please also have my armor cleaned. If you can manage all that before I get back?"
Arthur realized he couldn't answer if he kept grinding his teeth. "Sure," he managed to squeak. "No problem."
"Good man, Arthur," Merlin said with a little grin, and clapped him on the shoulder before sweeping out in a flutter of long red coat. Arthur felt something like indigestion or outrage beginning in his chest; he liked that coat.
"Fuck this," he muttered as soon as the door was closed, and glared at the pile of laundry, which burst into flames.
The armor was not cleaned, nor the stables mucked, by the time Merlin and Rowena returned--Rowena laughing cheerily, Merlin looking faintly ill--but Arthur had succeeded in setting fire to most of Merlin's laundry with his mind. Putting it out again was turning out to be more of a problem, but as the capper to the most bizarre morning of his life, it was really pretty amazing and probably not at terrifying as it should've been. It felt strangely natural, even if no reasonable definition of the word "natural" could possibly apply; it was easy as breathing, almost too easy, and kind of fun.
What this had to do with swapping places with was anyone's guess, but Arthur supposed it made about as much sense as any sort of magic, really. Why snakes in the shield? How can flowers grow in caves? Whose idea was it to combine a lion and a bird? Et cetera. He wondered if Merlin had suddenly gained the ability to fly or something.
Arthur wasn't stupid enough to linger and get caught in the bedroom with a heap of charred linen, so as soon as he saw Merlin's return from the window he gathered up an armful of scorched laundry and made a run for it. He at least knew where the castle laundry was, on account of having spent most of his early adolescence sneaking down there in hopes of getting a glimpse of Morgana's underclothes or perhaps the damp and heaving bosom of Twyla, the laundress, whose bosom was quite substantial. (There was also Bert, the boy who tended the fires in the laundry and generally went without a shirt; Arthur had seen his fill of his bosom and more than a few regions southward, but Twyla had sent him away when she caught him "corrupting" the little prince. Her bosom had been doing the most enchanting bounce during that rant. It was a deeply confusing memory for Arthur.)
On the stairs, he collided--almost literally--with Gwen. "Careful there," she said, catching the pile of shirts before they were strewn over three floors. Then she noticed the burns. "What on earth happened to these?"
"Fireplace," Arthur blurted. "They jumped in. Awful scene, really. I don't know how I'm going to tell Merlin his clothes are suicidal." That got him a giggle, but not much of one, and even if it wasn't a good joke Arthur expected a bit more than that. But Gwen looked pale, with puffy dark spots under her eyes, and Arthur found himself asking, "Are you, er, all right?"
Gwen bit her lip and looked around a bit before leaning in. "It's...it's Morgana," she said.
"What about her?" Arthur thought, actually meaning, please tell me she's switched lives with some one so I can have a peer group.
But Gwen said, "The nightmares. I've never seen them so bad. Half the night she was talking in her sleep, saying...well, terrible things, and she's forbidden me to talk to Gaius." Gwen's eyes lit up. "She didn't say anything about talking to you, though, did she?"
"Of course not," Arthur said, and he wanted to ask a million questions, starting with since when has Morgana got nightmares? but instead he assured Gwen, "I promise you that I will violate your deepest confidence and go running to Gaius immediately with the secret you made me swear to keep."
Gwen grinned at him. "You're a good friend, Arthur," she said warmly, and climbed a step to give him a kiss on the cheek before bouncing off with a bit more spring in her step.
Arthur may have stared after her with his mouth hanging open, but only for a moment. It wasn't that casual affection bothered him, per se--just because he never got any didn't mean others should do without--but for some reason it suddenly occurred to him that maybe Merlin got that kiss on the cheek from Gwen, in some real world that made sense. Maybe he got it a lot, even.
Not that he was envious or anything. He just had to stop halfway to the laundry to extinguish another shirt.
Merlin seemed surprisingly magnanimous about Arthur's failure at being working-class when he found out about it--more generous than Arthur ever was to him. "Honestly, I don't care," he said as Arthur helped him into his armor--which was somehow subtly different from the armor Arthur wore in his real life, had to be, because it was so damn tricky to get on. "Anything to get me away from that woman."
"Rowena's a raging bitch," Arthur agreed firmly. "I think you should have her arrested."
Merlin made a face. "God, no. I think I'm meant to be marrying her or something." Arthur spluttered incoherently and dropped the helmet, which Merlin seemed to find a normal conversational turn. "I mean, nobody's said anything, but the way Father's been acting...I think maybe Sophia gave him ideas."
"The one you tried to elope with?" Arthur asked. (It was small consolation that, in this world, he'd obviously been the one to beat Merlin about the head with a stick and drag him home. Very, very small.)
Merlin nodded. "Rowena, though...there's something about her that bothers me and I can't put my finger on it." He frowned up at Arthur. "Are you all right?"
"Peachy," Arthur assured him. "Never been better."
"You grind your teeth whenever I talk about Rowena," Merlin said. "And you were acting funny at dinner last night."
No, you were acting funny, Arthur thought, and oh, wasn't this rich--he'd been thinking about getting inside Merlin's head, hadn't he, and instead he got every other part of Merlin's life. "I just get a bad feeling around her," Arthur said breezily. "Very bad feeling. Bribing you with those rings, that's not exactly queenly behavior, is it?"
"I wouldn't call it bribery, but you're right," and Merlin got that look again, like something was on the tip of his tongue. And once again, he shook it off. "Thanks for the help, Arthur. You don't have to hang around if you don't want--we won't be done until dinnertime."
"No, no," Arthur said, and earned him another incredulous look. "I wouldn't miss this for the world."
Because Arthur had seen Merlin with a sword, in the real world, and he was hysterically funny as long as you didn't stop to think that maybe some day he'd actually have to defend himself with it. Arthur found himself a good perch on the edge of the field, and settled in for a bit of entertainment to make up for the trauma of the morning. He watched Merlin give some quiet instructions to the knights--quiet, god, they'll barely hear him in the middle of a battle, yelling is one of the things you've got to practice-- and then take up a guard position, facing into the group.
Sir Cador came at him, using a two-handed broadsword, the kind that could cave in a helmet or crush a wrist as easily as slicing an apple. Arthur gripped the stone of the ledge he sat as Merlin held his ground--
--and then twisted out of the way of Cador's swing at the last possible second. "What, is this dancing class?" Arthur blurted, because there was nobody around to hear him. "Stand and fight, that's how--oh," because Merlin had turned his twist into an elegant stroke at Cador's exposed flank, tagging him hard above the kidney. "Beginner's luck," Arthur muttered.
Cador recovered easily enough and they squared up again, only this time Merlin was letting his shield arm droop, creating a perfect opening over his left shoulder. Cador would've been an idiot not to go for it, except once again Merlin seemed to perfectly anticipate the stroke; he used the edge of the shield to deflect it wide, and when Cador let one hand go from the broadsword Merlin took the opening for a savage thrust at Cador's exposed belly. It was hard enough to wind him; in a battle, it would've been the perfect chance to break some ribs, maybe even punch through the ringmail. Cador had the good sense to retreat out of Merlin's reach while he caught his breath, but Merlin didn't press the advantage; just resumed his guard and waited.
"You're about a foot taller than him," Arthur advised Cador from afar. "Choke up on him. He can't dance forever."
Cador was apparently thinking he same thing, because he adjusted his grip and then feinted, drawing Merlin's shield arm out and forcing him to parry with his sword. But Merlin, the little shit, dove down and ducked under the swing and bashed Cador's leading knee with his shield; Cador howled and staggered, losing his grip on the broadsword again, and then Merlin was up and swinging viciously at his neck--only at the last minute did he pull the blow and twist to use the flat of the blade, or Cador would've been picking rings of mail out of his skin for the rest of the day. As it was, it rang hard on Cador's helmet, and now Merlin was inside his guard, punching him in the face with his greaved right fist--"You're going to break the joints!" Arthur protested, even before he remembered he'd have to mend them--before wheeling his sword down, under Cador's, to sweep his feet out from under him. Cador landed gracelessly on his back and swiped his helmet off to pinch off the flow of blood from his nose.
Merlin didn't even seem to be breathing heavy as he beckoned to the next knight in the line.
Arthur watched with mounting incredulity as Merlin danced his way around every knight on the field. He rarely took the offense unless he had a perfect opening; he lured opponents in and then turned their own stroke around on them, using speed and an unexpected amount of grace. Arthur wasn't sure which outraged him more: that this Merlin was so bloody good at what he did, or that the knights were falling so easily for what were (to Arthur, eventually) very obvious and cheap tricks. If it wouldn't land him in Gaius's tender care--or worse, the stocks--Arthur would've gone out there and started lecturing them personally on everything they were doing wrong, and then demonstrated by knocking Merlin down one or twice or maybe five times.
"Fuck this," Arthur thought, suddenly suspicious. He snuck back to the armory and located his second-favorite practice sword (Merlin had, of course, taken the first.)
He had been training to be a warrior for as long as he could remember; his first toys were model knights, hard-edged creations with tiny movable joints so he could re-enact the best battles of the tournaments. He'd held his first sword, a wooden model, as soon as he was old enough to stand; weapons had always felt like extensions of his body. The motions of the drills were as natural as breathing.
Until now, because suddenly the grip and balance were just gone, he couldn't make a swing that went anywhere near where he wanted it, and within two attempts his wrist was starting to twinge in a troubling way. What he could do, however, was throw his sword in frustration, and somehow this caused all the other swords in the armory to sail through the air in a rain of steely death; he ducked and covered his head with his arms as they piled up against the far wall. Fuck.
"Think, Arthur," he muttered to himself while he sorted out the mess before anyone saw it. "You've switched everything but bodies with Merlin. Different families, different work, different skills..." And perhaps--perhaps--they even looked a bit different, but Arthur was not going to admit to ogling Merlin's newly-muscled chest and arms (so much better than Bert the laundry boy) if it meant he had to admit his own physique may have slightly...diminished itself. Besides, the weather was unseasonably cold.
They hadn't switched personalities, or at least Arthur didn't think so--he still felt basically Arthurian, though of course if he did change his personality he wasn't sure he'd notice. Merlin, more to the point, still seemed basically like Merlin the servant, friendly and a bit hopeless--though weirdly polite, to boot, and also surprisingly sneaky. Arthur remembered that he'd stacked up his plates after breakfast and left clothes on the floor; Arthur generally kept his own clothes off the floor (well, more often than not) but he couldn't ever recall bothering to stack the plates for Merlin no matter how much Merlin bitched about it. Even his swordplay seemed to suit him, like his wordplay, all unexpected thrusts and trick openings.
So Merlin had acquired a skill at combat that was equivalent to Arthur's, but not exactly the same. And Arthur...could set fires with his mind.
Now it was him with something on the tip of his tongue, and he couldn't quite figure out what it was.
He still had to muck the stables that day, and no, it turned out fire was not a useful shortcut for that; and there was attending Merlin at another big dinner, which was downright disconcerting, what with Uther right there, saying all the cutting and awkward things he normally said to Arthur, only now to a different target. Merlin was crap at hiding how much it bothered him, and really, Arthur had managed that trick a long time ago...but then again, Merlin never could hide anything.
Morgana was there, looking half-dead, and so Arthur had to avoid Gwen's death glare rather than admit he'd forgotten to talk to Gaius all day. (What with being in the wrong life, he thought he had some excuses.) So was Rowena, and she was fawning over Merlin just as blatantly as she'd fawned over Arthur the night before, which really made Arthur want to set her on fire a little bit. (He was careful to check that thought he moment he saw smoke curling off the edge of her sleeve, though. Getting beheaded as a sorcerer would greatly impinge on his plans to sort out the universe.) The bitch had passed off wicked magic rings on him, and now was carrying on like nothing had happened. Was this all some kind of elaborate plot to get into Merlin's pants? Hell, she could've just asked, and Arthur would've shoved the ungrateful prat into the line of fire, since he was so obviously enjoying it...except he wasn't...and this was really about Rowena and her evil plots, as opposed to Rowena grabbing Merlin's hands and smiling at him.
The wine bottle in Arthur's hand exploded slightly, but unfortunately, Rowena wasn't brained by flying glass.
"All right, spill it," Merlin said. "What's your problem with Rowena?"
"What problem with Rowena?" Arthur asked. He didn't ask, Can we discuss this when you've got trousers on? He honestly had no idea why Merlin should decided to have deep conversations while he was in the bath and Arthur was folding laundry to hide the scorch marks (and to avoid looking at Merlin in the bath). Maybe water made him thoughtful? Some people said it did. Arthur never felt thoughtful in the bath, and he couldn't specifically recall if Merlin had ever had a bath before, though of course he was not thinking about Merlin in baths, he was folding laundry and plotting to kill Rowena.
"You look like you're plotting to kill her half the time," Merlin said, and Arthur nearly started another small fire out of alarm. "And don't lie, because nobody just accidentally squeezes a wine bottle hard enough to shatter it. You've been giving her the evil eye practically since she got here, Arthur. What's up?"
He wanted to bluster something about bad omens, but Merlin and his nakedness were right there, looking at him, expecting something of material worth. And Merlin did seem to know, on some level, that something was amiss here, and maybe that Rowena was to blame--at least, he showed more awareness than anyone else in the castle, including Uther, which hurt in more ways than Arthur wanted to admit. "Do you ever wonder," he asked slowly, "if, maybe...if we were different people...if things would be, y'know, different?"
"Um...yes?" Merlin said, with a little laugh.
"So that came out wrong," Arthur grumbled. "What I meant is...I mean, if I wasn't...or if you weren't prince," because it was easier than having to refer to himself as a servant, even in the hypothetical. "What would that be like?"
"What, to see how the other half lives?" Merlin shrugged. "No boring council meetings."
"No tax policy," Arthur suggested.
Merlin smiled, and started feeling around for his towel down at the foot of the bath. "No overnight border patrols."
"No Rowenas." Arthur steeled himself and crossed the room to put the towel in Merlin's hand (and then wrap him up in it. Possibly he'd secure it with nails.)
But Merlin grabbed Arthur's hand, holding on tight despite his slippery fingers. "And no manservants," he said quietly, in a husky voice, and god, how had Arthur never noticed Merlin's eyes were so damn blue before? Was this new? Arthur swallowed hard, because this was so not where he'd hoped the conversation would go, and yet he couldn't actually complain about it. "If we were...different people," Merlin added, before pulling his hand back.
"Yeah," Arthur croaked. "Different."
Merlin frowned slightly, watching Arthur's face. "I wouldn't--that is, I'd never want you to feel...obligated," he said haltingly, and oh god, was he actually--did he--
"Oblig--" Arthur almost laughed, and reached for Merlin's hand this time. "Merlin, mucking the stable is an obligation. This--this is--" If there was a this, if this was really what Arthur thought it was--
Merlin leaned in and kissed him then, shutting down any other thoughts. It was soft and chaste and weirdly sort of sweet, until Merlin parted his lips and cupped one hand around Arthur's jaw. Arthur pawed at Merlin's shoulders, not caring that he was slopping water down his shirt--it was the blue one, anyway, he never liked the blue one--nor that he still smelled of the stables, nor that this was all happening in an incredibly problematic context that he was supposed to be trying to undo instead of enjoying the hell out of--
Merlin sucked in Arthur's lower lip, pulling a little gasp out of him. At the same moment, the windows rattled, the fire popped loudly, and every candle in the room suddenly burst into flame.
Arthur pulled back immediately, lest he start Merlin on fire as well, and he could tell by the devastated and bewildered look on Merlin's face that he hadn't noticed the fire and explosions and was drawing all the wrong conclusions. "Sorry," he blurted, "I'm so sorry, I just, Gaius--" Arthur scrambled out of the room and ran for it, flat-out, as if he could outrun the fire burning inside him, threatening to escape.
He barely slowed through Gaius's work room, pausing just enough to shout, "Morgana's going mad, you didn't hear it from me!" before locking himself in the little bedroom. There were candles here--he lit them all, great towering flames that ate them down to stubs within minutes, and that seemed to release some of the pent-up energy. He still felt like he'd swallowed a hot coal, but it didn't seem ready to burn its way out of his chest any time soon.
Gaius knocked on the door. "Arthur? Is everything all right?"
"Yeah," Arthur said. "Fantastic."
"What's this about Morgana?"
"Gwen said she's having hideous nightmares or something." Arthur curled up on his side, clothes and all. "Gaius, I...I'm really tired. Think I'm going to get some sleep."
Gaius didn't answer for a minute, but suddenly there was a very audible sigh from the other side of the door. "Fine," Gaius said. "I'm sure to find out all the details sooner or later anyway, and probably in the least convenient possible way. Good night, Arthur."
What the hell was all that supposed to mean? "Night, Gaius," Arthur said weakly, and pressed his face into the pillow.
It was a long time before Arthur got to sleep that night, between the burning inside him and all the aches and pains of a day spent playing servant. He'd felt less sore after certain tournaments in his life. But still, eventually, he slept, and when he finally did he was overtaken by dreams far more vivid than he'd ever experienced before.
He dreamed about Ealdor, for some reason, and Hunith, and working in fields and sleeping on floors and messing about with Will in the forest, blowing things up just to see awe and pleasure in his eyes. He dreamed of coming to Camelot, of picking a fight with what turned out to be Prince Merlin Pendragon, of daring to use magic to save the whingy little git's life and getting service as his reward. He dreamed of snakes in shields and griffins in forests, of drinking poison for Merlin and watching Merlin drink poison for him, of burning that fairy bitch Sophia to ashes and then dragging Merlin out of the water, lips on cold lips, willing him to breath even if Arthur had to do it for him. He dreamed of fire and water and secrets, of calling down lightening, of holding life and death in his hands, and of an enormous voice somewhere below him calling out Arthur...Arthur..."ARTHUR!"
That woke him with a start, ripping him out of the dreams; the candles made a feeble effort to light themselves again, fragments of wick flaring in their puddles of wax, but the room was otherwise dark and still and empty.
Well, except for the booming voice in his ear that said, "ARTHUR, YOU IDIOT, GET DOWN HERE THIS INSTANT!"
Very few people had ever dared to call Arthur an idiot, and none of them had ever been invisible before...except, no, this wasn't an invisible voice, it was just coming from somewhere very far below. The dungeons, maybe? Or was there something below the dungeons? Frankly, he'd never had much reason to look, even though he knew the stories about his father capturing the last of the dragons--he sometimes suspected those were all made up anyway.
But there was a...feeling, a presence, like the mental equivalent of someone tugging on his sleeve, and that voice hadn't sounded particularly happy, so Arthur dragged himself out of bed and started a systematic search of the castle. It had started raining at some point in the night, so he had no moonlight to help him out, but he discovered with a bit of concentration he could conjure a flame about the size of his thumbnail out of thin air to light his way--which was pretty bloody cool, and also slightly terrifying after the near-firestorm in the prince's room (because he still couldn't think of it as Merlin's, not at the moment). Moreover, it was likely to get him beheaded if anyone saw it, and since Arthur had no desire to die a peasant he tried not to conjure the light unless he really, really needed it.
The levels above-ground were quiet, unless you counted the king's snoring and Morgana talking in her sleep; the latter didn't sound particularly happy, but Arthur chalked it up to those nightmares and moved on. It was too late for even the rowdiest of the knights to be slinking up from the lower town and too early for even the most devoted servants to be up, so no one interrupted him as he made his way lower and lower, eventually coming to the mouth of the dungeons, where the guards slept in shifts to deter any late-night jailbreaks. They were playing dice, and it turned out it was just as easy to put out fires as it was to conjure them; Arthur simply extinguished the torches, and while the guards fumbled to protect their winnings or steal someone else's, he slipped past them entirely and felt his way down the tunnel in the dark. He planned to conjure up the flame again, but it turned out to be unnecessary--he found a stack of torches further down the passageway (by stepping in them and nearly falling on his arse).
The upper cells were empty, and so were the lower cells, and so were the lower lower cells, the ones without any windows at all; they hadn't been used in Arthur's memory, and they didn't even have the moldy-straw smell of the others to show that someone had ever been down there. And then there were steps, and passages, and more steps, and a broken gate. And beyond that--
"Finally. Took you long enough."
Arthur found himself standing on a small ledge, overlooking a vast cavern--one big enough to swallow all of the castle, it seemed. And perched on a crag opposite him was an actual, honest, totally-not-made-up dragon. For some reason, his first, blank-brained thought was, It doesn't look a thing like the drawings. Then he realized it was also talking. And that it was talking to him.
"I...you...you're...huh," was about the most intelligent thing Arthur could say for a few minutes. Also, "You're a dragon."
The dragon sighed, narrowing its eyes. "Oh, god, you really are as stupid as they tell me."
"Look, this has not been the best day of my life," Arthur said defensively.
"Nor mine," the dragon snapped. "And things are about to get much worse."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Arthur paused. "Wait a minute, do you know who I am?"
"You are meant to be Prince Arthur Pendragon, the heir to Camelot," the dragon said, and somehow hearing someone else--or, well, something, maybe he wasn't exactly in a frame of mind to debate pronouns--hearing another voice tell him what he already knew let something relax in the back of Arthur's mind that he didn't even know was knotted. "However, a powerful and ancient magic has been put to work that is tearing apart the very fabric of the world."
"You mean how I switched placed with Merlin?" Arthur asked dubiously. He certainly considered that a crisis, but not exactly one of world-tearing proportions.
The dragon nodded. "You must undo this spell and restore the natural order of things, or the consequences will be severe."
"Right," Arthur said. "Got to kill Rowena. Won't be too much of a problem if I wait for her to lean over a candle--"
The dragon made a growly noise, and Arthur was abruptly reminded that it was big enough to swallow him in one bite and he didn't have a sword. "The girl had no idea what she was doing," it declared. "She's as caught up in the effects of the spell as everyone else. It is the rings you need, and Merlin, though the gods only know how you'll manage it."
Arthur put his fist on his hip and tried to look very kingly and severe, in case that would actually work on the dragon. "Just what sort of spell is this, anyway? And why are you and I the only ones unaffected?"
"The ring in your left pocket," the dragon said. "Look at it."
Arthur juggled the torch around--but, yes, he'd been carrying the damn ring around all day. It was an unremarkable ring, silver with a dark red stone that sat on the band like a bead of blood. Its mate--the one Merlin was wearing right now--looked basically the same, though Arthur didn't remember either of them looking so creepy before. "All right, what about it?"
"That ring and its equal are known as Rings of Hermes," the dragon explained. "The inscription on the inside of the band reads, 'A gift from heart to well-match'd heart.'"
"That's lovely," Arthur said, even though it looks like a load of squiggles to him. "What's it mean?"
"The girl believed it was a simple love spell, and that it could be combined with an incantation to steal your heart away. Apparently it's gotten out that that's the only way you'll notice a girl," it added in an undertone.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Arthur demanded.
"Nothing," the dragon said; it may have even coughed, if dragons did that. "The point is, she was hopelessly wrong and yet still had enough power and will to enact the incantation that activated the rings. It just so happened that you and Merlin were both holding them when she did so--ironically, if you're still had both in your posession, nothing would've happened."
"Yes, right, irony is a bitch, let's all have a laugh. So what did happen?"
It paused, either for dramatic effect or to continue irritation the hell out of Arthur. "The Rings of Hermes were not created for love, boy. Originally they were made to allow two people to temporarily experience each other's life--the sort of exchange that you and Merlin have unfortunately undergone--for the purpose of gaining perspective and wisdom. Later, they were sometimes used by the unscrupulous and unworthy for a more permanent change of lifestyle. They proved so dangerous that all were destroyed, or hidden away--at least, as long as there were wizards of sufficient power and moral character to keep an eye out for them."
Arthur mostly ignored the second half of that speech. Experience each other's life...the dreams...the fire..."Are you," he asked. "Are you say Merlin is--that this is--that he--"
"Yessss?" the dragon asked languidly.
Arthur shook his head. He may have even stamped his foot. "Merlin is not a sorcerer."
The dragon stared at him through half-closed eyes. "You've dreamed his life, Arthur--that's the Old Religion trying its best to mend the damage the rings have wrought. You can feel his magic even as we speak."
"He's Merlin, though!" Arthur said. "I mean, he's hopeless! At everything! He couldn't tell a convincing lie to save his life!" He thought suddenly of the afanc's plague and Merlin storming into the council chambers to die in Gwen's place--and remembered, unbidden, as if it had been himself, guilt-wracked and terrified, and Merlin apologizing for him in an embarrassed way--"My god, he can't even tell the truth properly!"
The doubled memories made Arthur's head hurt; so did the laughter of the dragon, but that faded quickly. "Even when the rings were used on common people, with common lives, they caused great damage to the natural order of the world; that's why they were meant to be used temporarily, and why they were later banned. But you have a destiny, Arthur, and not even the Old Religion can alter the stars. Until you and Merlin are back where you belong, the world will continue to fray, and the damage will not be confined to Camelot, or even Albion."
"Wait, destiny?" Arthur asked. "What destiny? And what kind of damage? I mean, I want to put things right as much as you do, but I need a little more information here."
"The damage has already begun," the dragon said, and then it spread out its wings. Arthur would not have called himself any kind of dragon expert, as this was his first, but he was reasonably well-versed in various other animals and he was pretty certain that things with wings ought to be able to, you know, fly. These wings did not look aerodynamic; they were torn and tattered, pocked with holes big enough for a man to crawl through, crusted with at least two different colors of disgustingness--one might be blood, but Arthur had no idea about the other. "I am too old and much too clever to be affected by the magic of the rings, and so the Old Religion must heal the wound in other ways."
"That...does not look good," Arthur said. Then he realized: "Wait a minute, what about me? Why do I still still remember things how they were? I'm not going to get some kind of skin disease, am I?"
The dragon snorted. "No, young Arthur, you will not. Merlin's magic is what protects you--and puts you in gravest danger. The rings can interchange families and histories, but they cannot alter his soul; the best they could do was displace parts of it, in an attempt to preserve things as they were."
"So I've got a bit a Merlin's soul flopping about inside me?" Arthur asked. It wasn't exactly a comfortable thought; for some reason he pictured it in the form of one of those neck scarves, as if it were stuck to the bottom of his boot.
"You have a power you are well-nigh incapable of controlling," the dragon said. "And you'll need to control it; only another warlock can break the spell, Arthur, and for the time being, that warlock is you." It paused. "May all the gods be merciful for that."
"I think I understand now why Father locked you up down here," Arthur grumbled.
The dragon snorted, and flapped its ruined wings in vain for a few minutes; then it looked slightly embarrassed. "If you could just turn around for a moment..."
"Why?" Arthur demanded.
"Turn around," the dragon snapped.
Arthur folded his arms, mindful of the torch. "What are you planning to do behind my back?"
"Turn around!" the dragon roared, spewing a fireball in Arthur's direction--and it said he couldn't control himself? Arthur dove for the floor, but he still didn't miss the dragon toddling weakly off its rock, a tremendous chain clattering behind it, down into the depths of the cave.
"Fine!" he bellowed after it. "Have your dramatic exit scene! See if I care! I hope it's your balls that rot off next!" He continued in this vein for some time, until he was headsore and raw in the throat; the dragon didn't come back, and it was only after Arthur started to trudge back up the stairs that he realized the evil beast hadn't told him how to reverse the spell on the rings.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck," he chanted, all the way up the stairs, pausing only long enough to harass the dungeon guards some more (he may have moved some coins about on the table in the dark, but they deserved it for dicing on duty). At least he knew what was going on now, sort of, but as for what to do about it...and anyway, what did a dragon with moldy wings mean in the long run? How much "damage" could actually--
A clap of thunder, a flash of lightening, and a blood-curdling scream hit in rapid succession, and Arthur didn't have to think twice about following the scream to its source: Morgana's room. "Morgana!" he shouted, pounding on the door while she screamed. "Morgana, let me in!"
He heard glass shatter, and another scream briefly joined the first one; then the door flew open and he was faced with Gwen in only a bed gown, wild-eyed and seemingly strung out on her very last nerve. Morgana was sitting upright in bed, eyes wide open, screaming her fool head off. Through the shattered window behind the screen, Arthur could hear the wind and rain and a succession of small wet thuds that were too dull to be hail and too heavy to be raindrops.
Gwen just stood there, breathing too fast, numb with shock; Arthur tried shaking Morgana, but her body was rigid as wood, and slapping her had no effect. (Though he supposed that he would have the memory of it for future reference, when she tempted him to violence in other, less terrifying circumstances.) "Water," he called to Gwen over the noise. "Throw water on her!"
"The pitcher is empty!" she shouted back. A few curious onlookers were starting to gather in the hallway, though so far nobody was asking what Arthur was doing in a lady's room in the middle of the night. Arthur seized the pitcher from Gwen and went to the broken window, since it sounded loud enough for the pitcher to fill with rainwater in a moment or two.
He went round to the window and froze in place. Half of a frog was twitching on the floor, in a puddle of rain mixed with blood; another frog, mostly intact, was impaled on a splinter of glass. Out in the courtyard, frogs were falling from the sky to splatter dramatically on the paving stones and steps and bannisters.
Morgana suddenly stopped screaming. "Fire," she said in a strange voice that barely sounded like her own. "Fire, and iron, and blood. The stars will go out on Albion."
So that's the kind of damage it means, Arthur thought numbly.
He somehow ended up back in bed, but he barely slept; come morning, the environs around the castle were littered with frogs both living and dead, and when Gaius nagged Arthur out of bed he stood on the steps leading up to the room and asked, "Hypothetically, if I've run utterly mad, would I be able to tell?"
Gaius, who was examining frog shrapnel altogether too close to his breakfast plate, just looked up and did the eyebrow thing. "I did attempt to diagnose you yesterday, Arthur, and you insisted at great volume that you were fine."
"Yes, well, I might have changed my mind." He took his own plate of eggs and bread and tried to concentrate on the food so his brain would stop running in tiny little circles.
Fact: he and Merlin had switched lives.
Fact: Merlin was a warlock and had been hiding this from him for about a million years. All right, since he came to Camelot. Close enough.
Fact: The natural order of the universe was coming apart at the seams, what with Morgana going mad and the rain of frogs.
Fact: Merlin had been lying to him this entire time.
Fact: Arthur was now solely responsible for saving all Albion from destruction.
Fact: It wasn't like Arthur was an idiot, either--Merlin was actively hiding things from him.
Fact: Arthur had no idea what to do next.
Fact: Why didn't Merlin trust him? Did he think Arthur wasn't going to understand? Did he think Arthur wasn't going to be grateful for all the life-saving? Especially after the fiasco with the druid brat--no, no, not thinking about that sort of thing, because the echoes of someone else's memories just make his head hurt even worse.
Fact: He and Merlin had switched lives...
"If you're done massacring your breakfast," Gaius said, "everyone with a spare hand has been requested to help with the, ah, sanitation."
Arthur realized he'd torn apart his bread into tiny pieces. "I'm not hungry," he declared, and stomped out into the courtyard.
At least chasing frogs around with a shovel gave ample opportunity to exorcise his immediate feelings of anger and betrayal--not as well as a good round or five with the knights, but since he couldn't be trusted to hold a sword by the right end at the moment it would have to do. By the time he'd filled his sack with little corpses, it was mid-morning, and one of the kitchen staff who was manning the piles of burning frogs told Arthur, "Prince Merlin is looking for you."
Oh, yes, Merlin. Who was living it up in Arthur's life, who'd lied to him about being a sorcerer, whom Arthur had snogged and then run out on and now he probably thought Arthur was a freak and there's this random bit about soulsand...god, could this possibly get any worse? "Wonderful," Arthur told the cook, and dumped his frog sack on the flames. "If I don't come back, please tell my mother I love her."
Arthur was halfway up a staircase inside before he realized what he'd said, and it stopped him in mid-step. It's a figure of speech, he told himself. I know who my mother was, and she's dead. She didn't live in Ealdor and write letters to Gaius. That was Merlin's life, which hopefully he'd be resuming shortly. Arthur totally knew the difference.
He found Merlin stomping about the prince's room, muttering to himself under his breath and picking up various articles of clothing only to drop them again immediately. He had on the red coat again, and one part of Arthur's brain couldn't help but notice the color suited him while various other parts were occupied with being annoyed, betrayed, exhausted, hungry, and apprehensive. It didn't leave much room for deference in the mix. "You wanted me?" he asked, and then tried not to flinch because oh god that was an unfortunate choice of words.
Merlin glanced up, and his expression sort of flattened out--he looked less angry, but no more happy. Just...less everything. "I hadn't seen you yet today," he said. "I thought I should give you some instructions before I go to the lower town."
"What's in the lower town?" Arthur asked.
"My father," Merlin said, and wow, Arthur hadn't know it was possible to back that much resentment into one word, "has ordered me to locate the sorcerer responsible for last night's, er, disturbance. And he seems to think the lower town is the most appropriate place to start."
"As opposed to...?"
"Lady Rowena's rooms," Merlin said, and there was the seething anger again. "I told him that she was the only newcomer to the castle, and since the frogs didn't fall more than three feet from the curtain wall it was the castle that was the target, it makes sense to start with her--what?"
Because Arthur had been unable to resist the urge to slap his open palm against his face. "Of course she's the first suspect, but she's a guest," he reminded Merlin. "You don't just say that about a guest. What if you were wrong?"
"I'm not wrong, though!" Merlin said. "We've both had a bad feeling about her since she got here, and it makes sense."
Completely inappropriate affection bubbled up from somewhere in Arthur's chest; prince or pauper, Merlin couldn't just leave anything be. "So when the search in the town turns up nothing, she's the first target within the castle. After, you know, the royal household, so it doesn't look like you're singling anybody out," he suggested.
Merlin looked at him oddly. "Since when did you know so much about etiquette?"
Shit. "I don't," Arthur said, trying to keep a straight face. "I'm completely talking out of my arse. In fact, I may even be insane, you can ask Gaius."
That got him a snort of laughter, and even a bit of a smile. "God, you're weird," Merlin said in a warm tone of voice that should not have made Arthur's heart flutter anything like it did. But a moment later the smile was gone, and Merlin was rubbing one of his temples with a pinched expression. "Ugh, d'you think Gaius has anything for a headache?"
"He has about six things for headaches, and they all smell horrible," Arthur said. "You all right?"
Merlin shrugged. "Seeing as I was dragged out of bed in the middle of the night by a rain of frogs..."
"Hey, at least you didn't have to shovel them up this morning," Arthur pointed out, but he couldn't muster much indignation; a sudden fear had sparked in him, after seeing the dragon's rotten wings and Morgana screaming and all those frogs...and Merlin had stopped his indignant pacing just within arm's reach. Hardly even thinking, Arthur reached out and touched Merlin's shoulder, a little too close to the neck to be entirely innocent.
Two things happened at once. First, Merlin's face went instantly slack, as if all the tension in his head and shoulders had evaporated at once. Second, Arthur felt something flare inside him--not the firestorm of the night before (god, was it only the night before?) but similar, like a flame had kindled somewhere in the vicinity of his heart. Maybe the first time round he'd been too distracted to notice (what with the snogging and all) but now he recognized the feeling for what it was, and pulled his hand away immediately. The prickling heat faded, slowly, and almost reluctantly, which was good; Merlin gave Arthur a piercing look, which was very, very bad.
"Gwen," Arthur blurted, before Merlin could say anything; that just made Merlin's face close up with something like hurt. "I mean, me and Gwen. I mean Gwen and I can search Rowena's rooms while you're in the town."
"Right," Merlin said slowly. "Because she won't be suspicious of strange servants coming in and out of her rooms."
"We'll say we're checking for frogs," Arthur said. "I'll carry a shovel. It'll look very official."
Merlin nodded, seemingly reluctant. "All right. And if you find anything..."
"I'll come find you straight away," Arthur promised. He knew all too well what the word of a servant would mean against Lady Rowena, and somehow he felt that trying to explain how he wasn't actually a servant would probably do harm than good to his credibility.
"Right." Merlin rubbed his temple again. "I'm going to the lower town. Be careful, and don't get caught, and when you're done snooping, could you figure out what happened to all my shirts? It looks like they got dropped in a fire or something."
"Of course," Arthur promised, and luckily Merlin was already sweeping his way out and didn't see him flinch.
Arthur figured Gwen would be in Morgana's room--did she ever leave these days, even in the real world?--and he was right; when he knocked, she called, "Just a minute!" and he took it as permission to come in.
The broken window had been covered with a piece of oilcloth until a glazier could repair it; there was no sign of any more frogs or fragments thereof, and Morgana was sitting in a chair, staring with her eyes dilated larger than Arthur thought possible. "Good morning, uh, Lady Morgana," he said, and hoped that once this was sorted out she never remembered him saying the words.
"Hello, Arthur," she said in a singsong voice. "Aren't they beautiful flowers?"
He looked around the room, but he didn't see any flowers; there was an empty vase on a table, and a that was about it. "Aren't, uh, are what--"
Gwen came out of another corner and put her finger to her lips. "They're lovely flowers, Morgana," she said loudly.
"I like pink," Morgana sighed, and grinned widely.
Gwen waved Arthur into the hallway, where he immediately asked, "What on Earth--"
"I know," she sighed. "Gaius couldn't get her to calm down any other way. She just kept talking about death and fire and..." Gwen shuddered; she looked like she'd slept even less than Arthur had. "Did you need something?"
"Er, yeah," he said. "Merlin and I have this theory about who caused the frogs--maybe Morgana's nightmares, too," he added, on the logic that it all had to be interconnected somehow. (Having more than one secret sorcerer around the castle would just be weird.)
"Is it somebody named Hermes?" Gwen asked suddenly.
Arthur blinked at her. "How did you know--?"
"Morgana...some of the things she was saying." She shrugged. "Something about breaking Hermes forever, she said that a few times. Then again, she was also saying something about slashed dragons, and after Gaius gave her the medicine she started muttering 'the circle must be broken' for a while so I wasn't sure what to make of anything..."
"Well, it's actually Lady Rowena," Arthur said, determined to stay on the topic. "Who started the problem, I mean. So somebody needs to go through her rooms and look for, you know...magicky...stuff."
Gwen looked at the door, and for a moment Arthur thought she was going to refuse, but then she squared her shoulders. "Just let me get Morgana put to bed," she said. "It won't take long, will it?"
"In and out like that," Arthur promised. "Just let me get a shovel."
In the end it was anticlimactic; Gwen found an excuse to deliver some flowers to Rowena's room and pretended to see a frog, which was Arthur's cue to step in, wielding his shovel (he deliberately chose one encrusted with frog guts for effect) and promising to rid the room of the nasty beast. Rowena didn't seem to know which was more horrifying, Arthur or the alleged frog, and cleared out of her own free will. "All right, that'll keep her out for a while," he declared, and tossed the shovel in the corner. "Start looking."
He dug into one of her trunks first--Rowena had come with an alarming number of trunks--and started pulling out handfuls of silky and satiny lady-things. He stopped when Gwen screeched "Arthur!" in a scandalized tone.
"What?" he asked. "Did you not get the part where we're searching for things?"
"That's her clothes!" Gwen said. "She could have underwear in there! Private things!"
"Private magical things," Arthur pointed out.
Gwen seized a flimsy shift from Arthur's hands. "I'll look through her clothes," she said. "You look at...not her clothes. Deal?"
"Fine," he said. "Deal."
He wasn't entirely certain what he was looking for, exactly, which made things harder; the dragon said Rowena had a spell to go with the rings, but Arthur didn't know if it would be on parchment or in a book or engraved on a stone tablet or what. Really, considering how often various warlocks, sorcerers and practitioners of the black arts threatened Camelot, one would think somebody had done some kind of research...but as it was, Arthur was just hoping he'd know the thing on sight, or even that it might have a helpful label. (Wicked Plot, maybe, or Book of Villainous Sorcery.) He went through an enormous jewelry box and an equally huge box of make-up, a case that turned out to contain a hideously out-of-tune lute, an entire truck of different sorts of pointy hats, a book...
He paused on the book. Scraps of paper and parchment were sticking out between the pages. "Hang on," he told Gwen, who was efficiently rifling through trunk number two. He started to flip through the pages.
Gwen huffed at him. "You think it's a spellbook or something?"
"Does Rowena seem like a reading sort of person to you?" he asked. It was a book of prayers, it looked like, invocations to the old gods, but the scraps between the pages were poems and verses of songs and one that said buy more salt, and then he came to one piece of parchment--badly cut and badly scraped--that made his hands itch with magic. He could barely read the sloppy lettering on it, but he knew in his gut--or that place behind his heart--that this was it. "Got it."
Gwen tried to take it from him to look. "Are you sure?"
"Call it a hunch." He stuffed the parchment into his pocket and tossed the book onto the jumble of hats. "Thanks for your help, Gwen."
"Hold on," she said. "We can't just leave her things like this, she'll know we searched."
Arthur shrugged, and shouldered his shovel. "We'll say it was a very energetic frog."
She sighed and shook her head and declared, "You are hopeless," in an affectionate tone of voice, but she also made only a token effort to sort out the rainbow of gowns trailing from a trunk before following him out of the room.
Arthur was a man of his word, but he had also studied rhetoric (about as successfully as he'd studied logic) so he knew full well that his word actually only meant whatever he wanted it to mean. He went straight from Rowena's room to the bedroom in Gaius' laboratory, locked himself in, and went to work on the spell. It wasn't any language he recognized, and he wasn't sure about what some of the letters were, but he could feel that it was powerful, that it had to be the right thing. He made certain he had the Hermes ring in his hand--he'd seen that Merlin was wearing the other--and solemnly intoned the words on the parchement.
He tried saying it louder. He tried pronouncing things differently, or substituting some of the letters that weren't exactly clear, or moving the accents around. He tried saying it in different tones of voice. He tried gestures. When that nearly resulted in the ring getting flung out the window, he gave up and flopped down on the bed and swore at the dragon a lot. How hard would it be to toss in a step-by-step solution in the middle of the history lesson? If the same spell didn't work to undo the damage, how was Arthur supposed to fix it?
He remembered the dragon had said he'd need Merlin's help. Not that Merlin should know anything about magic, since he was theoretically living Arthur's very non-magical life, with all his distinctly unsupernatural memories. Though of course with variations, like how he seemed to really actively hate Uther, whereas Arthur just sometimes occasionally wished he had a father who could not be described as intermittently evil. (Part of him wondered if this was another limit of the magic--even if it made Uther and Merlin think they were father and son, maybe there was still something missing, some bond that meant Arthur could disappoint in a million ways and Uther could murder a thousand blacksmiths and they were still, helplessly, hopelessly, family, and all each other had.)
But the magic seemed to recognize its proper owner--that was the only explanation Arthur could think of for why it went nuts whenever they were close together. He wondered if Merlin would remember everything, if he got his magic back (and if Arthur would thus forget). Maybe Merlin knew something Arthur didn't that would make the spell work, even though Arthur was supposed to have a version of all Merlin's memories and so he ought to know everything Merlin would properly know about magic, and the dragon could just go fuck itself. Unless of course, one of those little differences actually meant something. If, in the real world, Merlin had heard something or done something or read something in the book that Arthur, in his altered past, couldn't recall...
Wait a minute, what book? He sat up and looked around the little bedroom. Of course that book; he knew exactly which book, it had just...snuck up on him. Which didn't mean anything. The dragon said Merlin's magic would protect him from losing his real memories, so unless he somehow lost the magic...which he wasn't going to do, right? The Old Religion was holding it all together.
And as the rain of frogs attested, doing a wonderful job.
Arthur dug the book out of its hiding place, feeling the same magical itch in his palms that he got from Rowena's spell, times about a thousand. His head crowded with mixed-up memories as he flipped through a few random pages, taking in the exquisite lettering, detailed illustrations, and careful instructions for how to turn somebody into a newt (which Arthur noted were marked with a piece of string for easy reference). There wasn't any index, so he had to sort of flip through and hope that the Hermes Rings were mentioned somewhere; if they weren't, he'd go back down into the dungeon and make the bloody dragon tell him what to do. Somehow. Probably he should bring the shovel.
He was nearly at the end of the book when he heard Gaius stomping about in the outer room. "Arthur!" he called. "Arthur, come here, I need your help!"
He left the book on the bed, open to his stopping point, and found Gaius ladling a vivid purple liquid out of a bucket and into a series of vials. "What's that?" Arthur asked, flinching when the sickly-sweet smell of the stuff hit him.
"Prince Merlin and his men drew it out of the wells in the lower town," Gaius said. "Help me fill these vials so we can tell if it's safe to drink."
Arthur held up a vial to the light; the contents were nearly opaque. "You mean this is water?"
Gaius sighed. "Your powers of observation never cease to amaze me, Arthur."
He took the ladle from Gaius and started filling the vials. "It smells like...grapes," he observed. "Or maybe what you'd think grapes would smell like if you'd never actually smelled grapes before. Like more than grapes."
"It's apparently coming out of the pumps for the castle as well, only pink," Gaius said, and dropped a burning brand into one of the vials; whatever was in the liquid, it was definitely not water, because it burned with a bluish, rippling flame. "Troubling."
"Just a little." And another reason Arthur needed to solve the problem as quickly as he could, because a rain of frogs was an inconvenience, but Camelot couldn't survive without water. They'd been through this one before.
"We need to explore its actions upon various organic systems," Gaius declared. "Are there any of those frogs left from this morning, do you think?
Before Arthur could answer (emphatically in the negative) there was a knock on the door. Merlin came it without waiting for an answer, and at first Arthur thought he understood why--he looked distinctly ill, with a graying complexion and circles under his eyes. But Merlin was followed in by several men at arms, and his first words were, "I'm sorry, Gaius, but the king has asked us to step up the searches in light of the attack on the water supply."
"I must protest," Gaius said, but he made no effort to stop the king's men from rifling through his books and papers. "Do you really think I wouldn't notice a sorcerer hiding under my own nose?"
"It's just a formality," Merlin said dully, and made his way up the steps to Arthur's room.
Gaius gave Arthur the eyebrow, and it took him approximately two and a half seconds to realize what that meant and another second to realize what it meant meant. He shoved past a guard and leapt into the room, to find Merlin going through his cupboard. The book was still open on the bed, face-up and incriminating. "You, ah, you think you're going to find something in there?" Arthur asked, trying to edge his way to the bed without looking like he was edging his way anywhere.
"I just said it's a formality," Merlin said with a bit more snap; his eyes, at close range, were bloodshot. "Unless you nicked one of the frogs this morning for a pet..."
"Well, you know, they're just so cute and cuddly before they splatter." Arthur tried frantically to think if there was anything incriminating in the cupboard--had he ever been in Merlin's cupboard before? He hadn't noticed anything particularly sorcerous when he got dressed that morning, and of course now that he actually needed to remember something of this altered life, the false memories weren't coming to him.
"Did you find anything in Rowena's room?" Merlin asked in a non-too-hushed voice, apparently heedless of the men turning over Gaius's room beyond.
"Yeah, actually," Arthur said. "I was just, uh, waiting for you to get back."
Merlin looked at him. "Well? What was it?"
"It's a--I think it's a magic spell," Arthur said, and then cursed himself, because he'd tucked the parchment between the pages of the book.
"And where is it?" Merlin asked, but it was all right, Arthur could be completely calm about this. He picked up the book, slapping it shut as he did so, and pulled Rowena's parchment out. He tucked the book under his arm as he turned, and handed the parchment to Merlin, and for a moment he thought he was completely in the clear.
But Merlin took only a cursory glance at the parchment, and then his eyes focused on the book. Dammit. "What's that?"
"This?" Arthur took the book and flashed it briefly at Merlin--luckily there were no markings on the cover to give it away. "Just something I borrowed from Gaius. I was, er, trying to look up the words--"
"Let me see it," Merlin said suddenly, and reached for the book.
Arthur, on pure stupid reflex, pulled it back--and knew instantly that he was caught. "I told you, it's one of Gaius's," he said anyway. "It's not magical."
Merlin looked him in the eye. "Come on, Arthur, just let me have a look."
"You don't have to," Arthur said, trying for noble and commanding and ended up with weasley and whiny.
Merlin's mouth bent into a frown, and as he snapped "What's so important that I can't--" he reached for the book, faster than he ought to be, too fast for Arthur to get entirely out of the way.
Their fingers overlapped on the book's cover and it was like a little explosion in Arthur's chest. He couldn't breathe for a moment--he had to hunch his shoulders again the heat and pressure inside, and he wondered what Merlin would do if Arthur's heart just burst out of him, then and there. But Merlin--this time, Merlin noticed, he must have noticed, because he gasped a little bit and his too-pale cheeks became suddenly, vividly flushed. Like he felt something, too. Perhaps like he knew.
There were men-at-arms mere feet away, too close and too many, so all Arthur could do was stare into Merlin's face and will him to remember, understand, whatever. Merlin stared back, blank and uncomprehending, but unlike Arthur he didn't seem to be in pain--in fact, every heartbeat brought more even color back to his face, and even the broken veins in his eyes seemed to be thinning and fading away. An idea half-formed in Arthur's head, or perhaps more like an urge, and he--well, there wasn't really a good word for it. He pushed some of that painful fire out, not into the candles or the book or the all-too-flammable furniture, but into Merlin, or through him, or something like that.
The pain eased for a moment, and for a moment Arthur saw little tongues of fire bloom in Merlin's eyes, gold swirling over and subsuming the blue. He wondered if his own eyes looked the same.
Then Merlin jerked away, stepping back and panting like he'd just fought off an army. The golden light in his eyes went away, and Arthur was left with nothing but the heartburn ache in his chest. "All right," Merlin said; his first try was shaky, but then he manage a firmer tone. "All right. We're done here. I expect you to attend me in my quarters tonight."
"Yes, sire," Arthur said, and he even managed to stay on his feet until Merlin and the soldiers had gone, just barely. Then he collapsed onto the bed, still hugging the book to his chest, and concentrated on being able to breathe.
It was no surprise that Gaius came looking for him almost immediately. "Arthur? What's the matter?"
"Just," Arthur said, but talking hurt, like the inside of his throat was scorched. He swallowed. "Nothing. I'm all right."
"You most certainly are not." Gaius pried the book out of Arthur's hands and pressed a palm to his forehead. "Dear god, boy, you're burning up. When did your symptoms start?"
Arthur shrugged as best he could. "Yesterday morning. You know, when I woke up mad." Gaius gave him the eyebrow again. "Look, I'll be fine. Everything's under control."
"Did Prince Merlin see the book?" Gaius asked.
"Nyeo," Arthur said. "It's complicated. But I know what kind of spell's on the castle and how to reverse it, I just...need to figure a few things out first."
"Such as?" Gaius asked.
Such as whether Merlin remembers enough of anything to help me, Arthur thought. "I'll explain later," he muttered, hoping he'd have to do no such thing.
Gaius scowled, but patted his arm in a fatherly sort of way, albeit a way Arthur's actual father had never done. "All right, Arthur, I will trust you on this. But in the meantime you will get some rest--at least until that fever goes down. I'd offer you water, but..."
"Rather not take my chances," Arthur agreed. He toed off his boots and stretched out on the bed; Gaius pulled up the blanket for him but refrained from actually tucking him in. He only meant to lie down until the ache in his chest eased, but given the kind of night he'd had, he shouldn't have been surprised that he fell asleep...
He packed a bag, not that he really expected to need anything ever again--more a formality, a habit. He still had a chance to make things right, to make sure Camelot still had its prince and its physician and one desperately devoted farmwife. There was still a way to save everyone.
Well, everyone but himself.
He said his farewells to his mother, even though she was too delirious with fever to respond; he kissed her forehead, but she only blinked the eye that wasn't swollen shut and murmured "Jack?" And it was too late, much too late for Arthur to find out what that meant; he had to put it aside, along with all the ridiculous hopes he'd had for his future. Warlock or not, he was nothing but a farm boy, never to be more than that; he'd finally learned his place, and it was to die for country and future king. He wondered if Merlin would be amused by the news.
One last goodbye to make.
Arthur knew Merlin would be in his room, still weak even though the Questing Beast's bite was basically healed. He pushed his way in, but couldn't bring himself to come past the door. Merlin was sitting by the fire, holding a goblet in his bad hand so he could toy with the edge of the sling with the other; he looked up at the sound of the door, though. "Arthur," he said, sounding genuinely pleased to see him.
Arthur nodded, suddenly and inexplicably nervous. "How are you?" he asked, for want of anything more constructive to say.
"Good," Merlin shrugged with his good shoulder and set the wine goblet aside. "Well, better than I was."
Arthur forced a smile. "I'm pleased."
"Yes, well, Gaius is a talented physician," Merlin said vaguely.
That stung, a bit--Arthur wondered if it would ever stop stinging, even when he was about to make the greatest unacknowledged sacrifice possible. "I need to talk to you," he forced himself to say, and to look up from his boots to Merlin's profile in the firelight.
Merlin, as usual, looked vaguely amused by Arthur's forwardness. "Really? And what's pressing on you so urgently?"
Arthur thought of everything he could possibly say, everything he'd ever wanted to say about Merlin and their unexpected friendship and everything else it could have been, all the hopes he was putting aside. What came out was, "Don't be such a coward."
Whatever Merlin had expected, it wasn't that; his eyebrows rose halfway to his hairline. "Excuse me?"
"All right, not a coward," Arthur said. "But...you're going to be a great king someday, and everybody seems to believe that but your father and you. Just...have a little faith in yourself," And since he was saying his last words anyway, "And don't whinge so much, for god's sake."
Merlin stared at him for a moment, then snorted a little laugh, followed almost immediately by a flinch and a rub at his wounded shoulder. "God, Arthur, just when I think I know you..."
"Oh, don't tell me you don't like it," Arthur said. "It keeps you on your toes. In fact, if you get another servant--" he swallowed against a sudden lump in his throat. "When you get another servant, don't let him be a bootlicker."
"Is this your way of trying to quit your job?" Merlin asked, sounding honestly confused now.
Arthur swallowed again, drinking in a last look at how the firelight played over Merlin's face, the high angle of his cheeks, the red and yellow gloss on his dark hair. "No," he said, struggling around a surge of emotion so big he was surprised he didn't burn himself up with the force of it. "No, I'm happy to be your servant until the day I die."
"Then why does it sound like you're saying goodbye?" Merlin asked quietly.
"Nothing," Arthur said, "it's just...nothing..." because if he didn't get out of here now, he never would. "I just wanted to tell you..."
"To stop whinging?" Merlin asked.
"Yeah," Arthur said firmly.
Merlin looked at him piercingly, like he was waiting for something. "Anything else?"
I've killed people for you. I'll die for you. You're the best friend I've ever had. I might even be a little in love with you. "No," Arthur forced himself to say. "That's all." And he slipped out the door before he could say anything else. He'd never be more than a servant to Merlin; there was no point in pining for something he could never have.
Arthur woke up disoriented, his window filled with a gloaming light that made it impossible to judge the time of day. His head hurt, and so did his chest, but for a moment he was caught up in the all-too-vivid vestiges of the dream. Why was he thinking about that, anyway? Nimueh was dead, everyone had recovered...there was something about Merlin, maybe, something important, but it sat on the tip of Arthur's sleep-addled tongue and he couldn't place what it was.
He slouched out of his room to find Gaius carefully examining a ripe apricot by the light of a candle. "What time's it?" he asked, barely suppressing a yawn.
"Barely six o'clock," Gaius said gravely. "And certainly not the season for apricots."
And just like that, Arthur remembered everything, with the clarity of a knife's edge. He stared at the apricot in Gaius's hand; next to it, just as perfectly ripe, were a date-plum, an apple and a bowl of cherries. The sky outside was lazy-summer hazy, but air in the room had a wintry chill to it--neither of which were appropriate to October. "It's getting worse by the hour," he said out loud.
"Which is why I do hope you are right about your solution to the problem," Gaius said, pushing the fruit aside. "The well in the castle is now running some sort of blue jelly, and the three rats that tasted it all seized and died."
Arthur dropped onto a stool opposite Gaius and pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes. The dragon had promised the magic would protect him...but then again, look at the state of the dragon. Maybe Arthur wasn't going to rot away through his skin, but the Old Religion could eat away his mind, his memories, until no one was left to work out how to fix this and the stars really went out one by one.
Presuming, of course, he was going to let it.
"Gaius," he said, "I'm going to have to ask you to trust me on something really, really big. I know it's going to sound utterly mad, but I--I don't think I can do this alone."
"And here it comes," Gaius said, but it was indulgent, fatherly, not mocking or annoyed. "What have you gotten yourself into now, Arthur?"
"I didn't do anything," he said, but Gaius gave him the eyebrow, so he reached into his pocket for the ring. "Look, have you ever heard of something called a Hermes Ring?"
Gaius's eyes went wide. "So that is what's happened," he said slowly, and Arthur was relieved he wouldn't have to repeat everything the dragon had said. "Do you know who used it?"
"I don't think it matters," Arthur said, because as much as he still wanted to kill Rowena, that was going to have to come later. "She didn't know what she was doing and it's not going to help solve the problem."
"Do you know who's been affected?" Gaius asked. And then, in a low voice. "I must ask--was it Morgana?"
"No!" Arthur said. "God, no, anything wrong with her brain was there when it started. I think." He rubbed his eyes and considered whether it was worth it to tell all the gory details to Gaius--to convince him that two days ago Arthur had been the prince of the realm. Clearer than ever he could hear the voice of the other Arthur, the servant, the peasant, who had once been so desperate to rise above his birth; that voice warned him that Gaius would mock and jeer, or at least be suspicious, and too much was at stake for Arthur to risk that. "The point is, I've got one of the rings and I've got the spell that activated them, but I don't know how to, I don't know, switch them off."
"Well, to begin with, legend has it you need both rings to break the spell," Gaius said. "I presume you know who has the other one?"
"Yeah, I know where to find it." Second finger on Merlin's right hand, not that Arthur had been looking, except for the obvious tactical reasons of knowing where both rings were at a time. (And because Merlin's hands were kind of nice to look at.) "So if I've got both rings together, then the spell will work?"
Gaius went for his books. "The Hermes Rings are shrouded in legend, Arthur. I know of no one who knows exactly how they work." Arthur refrained from bringing up the dragon; he wasn't sure if Gaius knew about that and either way, he didn't want to implicate himself in anything worse than your run of the mill capital sorcery. "Even among sorcerers, the rings were considered too dangerous to use or speak of. The stories that remain to us today say that those who used them took great pains to conceal one or both of the rings afterwards, in order to prevent them being destroyed or used to undo the damage."
Arthur perked up on the word destroy. "So if I just chuck this one in a fire, will it all be over?" He was positive he could do fires.
Cue eyebrow. "Arthur, have you ever heard of the doom that fell upon the Picti? The one that destroyed the great Giant's Causeway between Albion and Hibernia?"
"Nyeo," Arthur said. (The history tutors had been the least successful of all.)
"It is widely believed that was caused by the improper disposal of a Hermes ring," Gaius said.
Arthur spun the ring on the tabletop and then caught it. "Is there anything in the legends that's actually useful, then, or am I going to have to make this up as I go along? Because as little as I want to blow up the castle, I can't just let people all over Camelot die of thirst, either."
"Let us first see what the legends are before we jump to any hasty conclusions," Gaius said, and dropped a stack of books in front of Arthur.
Arthur suddenly remembered why Gaius had been his least favorite tutor.
It was fully dark by the time Arthur looked up from the books, and his eyes were threatening to cross from reading all the fine and spidery print. He'd re-learned everything the dragon had told him, plus about a million examples of ancient sorcerers causing different kinds of mayhem with the rings. Such as the doom of the Picti. Arthur was pretty sure he couldn't create a fireball quite that big.
Only when his own stomach started to growl did Arthur remember that he was supposed to be in Merlin's room for dinner. He shoved the books away and hurried off with a few word for Gaius, his mind already jumping ahead to the conversation he was about to have. Merlin had remembered something, Arthur was sure of it; maybe it wasn't necessarily anything helpful, but having the prince on his side certainly couldn't hurt his chances of getting things sorted out. Maybe he could make Merlin help with the heavy reading. At the very least, they could share a laugh, and maybe after that...
No, not getting ahead of himself. He needed to sort out the rings first, and the angry bit of displaced soul with them, or they wouldn't be able to so much as shake hands without Arthur's heart trying to burst into flames inside him. At least he could explain that bit now, if Merlin realized things had gone wrong; Arthur could explain and make certain Merlin hadn't jumped to any untoward conclusions about all the aborted touching and fleeing that had been going on. Because (he was starting to realize) if the magic meant they were protected from the spell, it was quite likely that one or both of them was going to remember everything later...and Arthur wasn't going to risk any misunderstandings.
(Not that he was quite certain anything here counted. Just because Prince Merlin seemed to fancy Arthur the Servant, it didn't mean Proper Merlin felt anything towards Arthur the Prince. Unless it did. The dragon said the spell couldn't change souls, after all, couldn't really make them other than who they were--Merlin still treated everyone as his equal whether he was supposed to or not, and he was still a sneaky little bastard even if it was with a sword instead of sorcery, and if he had really saved Arthur from the Questing Beast, had been ready to lay down his life like that...but it was all confused in his head, because Arthur seemed to be inappropriately besotted with Merlin in any life, and with everything so upside-down he couldn't trust his own feelings, never mind extrapolating them into an alternate universe.)
He was halfway to his destination when he remembered he was supposed to be serving dinner, and so he had to detour back down to the kitchens for a tray and a healthy dose of disturbing rumors. Plants flowering and bearing fruit out of season, trees growing backwards into the ground, animals running mad as Morgana, rains of frogs and fish and fresh fried eggs...even if Arthur dismissed half of them as hearsay by superstitious and ill-informed wait staff, that left plenty of dangerous signs that the natural order was spinning out of control. Arthur accepted a tray and hurried back up to Merlin's rooms, mind already planning out a dozen different routes the conversation could take.
He couldn't knock properly with his arms full, so he kicked the door twice to announce his presence and then went through backwards, trying to keep the tray balanced--all in all, it was more difficult than it looked. "All right, sire," he called as he maneuvered his way through, "here's your dinner, and now I think we need to have a talk..."
"Yes, we do," Merln said, in a strange strangled voice. Arthur found him standing by the fire, wearing the long red coat; his back was to the door, but not even the flickering shadows could hide the way Merlin swayed on his feet. "Set the tray down, please."
Arthur set it down on the table, asking as he did, "Are you feeling--"
And then Merlin was on him, swinging a naked blade that had been concealed by the coat. Arthur staggered out of the way of the first blow, but Merlin wasn't dancing now, he was pressing the attack, and the rings had robbed Arthur of all his coordination. His back hit the wall, and then the sword was at his throat, pinning him there. Merlin was wearing riding gloves that tucked into his sleeves, and he'd put on a high-collared tunic and knotted a handerkerchief under his chin in a bizarre parody of the scarves Arthur normally saw him in. His face was ghastly white now and sheened with sweat; his eyes were glassy, and spit dribbled from his mouth when he snarled, "Sorcerer."
This was not one of the scenarios Arthur had anticipated. "Merlin, could you put the sword down--"
Instead he pressed harder, enough that Arthur could feel the edge of the sword bite into his skin. "You lied to me," Merlin snarled. "All this time, you've been lying to me, in my own father's house...what else have you been lying about?"
"I've been trying to help you," Arthur protested, trying to stay as calm as he could. (And privately, just a bit, resenting that Merlin got to have hysterics over this, whereas he, Arthur, had had to content himself with smashing a few frogs and then get over it for the good of all Albion.)
Merlin just chuckled evilly. "Help, right," he said. "Like you helped Morgana?"
"I don't know what you're--"
"You were in her room the night she went mad," Merlin said. "You were sneaking about the castle doing god-knows-what the night the frogs fell. And you were oh so helpful about Rowena, searching her rooms for me, telling me just what I wanted to hear...and then you tried to put a spell on me..."
Arthur couldn't even swallow now for fear that the sword would shear off his Adam's apple. "I have never--" he tried to say.
"Liar!" Merlin shouted, trembling with more than just indignation. "I felt it, there, in your room...even this morning...you're trying to, to bewitch me, to seduce me, making me see things...want to make yourself the king..."
Arthur looked into Merlin's glazed eyes, the wide dark pupils, and realized that reason had gone utterly out the window here. "Merlin, you're not well," he said as calmly as he could with a sword to his throat. "You've got it all wrong. Please, let me go, and I'll get Gaius, okay?"
"Are you afraid?" Merlin asked, almost as if Arthur hadn't spoken.
"Just a bit, yeah," Arthur confessed.
Merlin leaned close enough that Arthur could feel the feverish heat pouring off of him, even though they weren't touching. "Then stop me," he hissed. "Use your sorcery and save yourself."
Arthur breathed deeply. "No."
"No," Arthur repeated. "I won't--I won't hurt you, Merlin." Not that he wasn't thinking about it--it would be so easy to call up enough magic to fling Merlin across the room, hold him down, keep him quiet. Easy to reach out and touch him, make that connection and let the magic try to fix whatever had gone so very wrong, because it all had to be connected, didn't it? Morgana was mad, Merlin was ill, apricots were ripe in October and Arthur was the one who had to fix it all.
And maybe, just maybe, something broke through Merlin's mad haze, because for a moment his eyes seemed to really focus properly, and his angry face seemed to slip a little. "You wouldn't let me kill you," he said.
"You would never try," Arthur said, and he realized believed it, in any world, at any time. "Merlin, please, put the sword down."
And Merlin staggered backwards a step, letting the sword fall away. Arthur automatically reached up and felt blood oozing from the cut on his throat, but it wasn't deep or serious, at least compared to whatever was addling Merlin's brains. Merlin stammered "You...you..." a few times without completing the sentence, and then the sword dropped from his gloved fingers. It hit the floor just a beat before Merlin's entire body.
"Shit!" Arthur blurted, and carefully rolled Merlin onto his back. His eyes had rolled up into the back of his head and he was shaking, twitching all over, and even though all his layers of clothing Arthur felt the magic burning in him, as hot as ever, almost too painful to bear. But it wasn't enough to stop the seizure, and so Arthur tore his hands away and staggered, gasping, out into the hall.
A servant--Gregory crossed Arthur's mind, but he really couldn't be sure--was walking the halls with an empty dinner tray. Arthur nearly staggered into him. "Get Gaius," he blurted. "Merlin's ill, he needs Gaius." Gregory stared at Arthur with big blank eyes. "Don't just stand there, you idiot, get help!" Arthur snarled, and went back into the room, leaving the door hanging heedlessly open.
The seizure seemed to be over, but Merlin lay deathly still now, barely breathing. Arthur seized him again, and tried the same trick that had worked in his room earlier, of pushing all that burning magic out and through, back where it belonged, but it wouldn't work when his hands were just clutching Merlin though his clothes; he fumbled briefly to get the gloves off, then gave up and pressed his hands to Merlin's clammy face.
He imagined that this was what water felt like when a dry sponge was dipped in it; the fire was practically sucked out of him, draining away into Merlin's still body. It didn't hurt at all--just the opposite, it felt good, it was a relief to get rid of the heat and pressure that was smothering him from inside. Merlin took a deep breath, and another, and the last thing Arthur remembered seeing was his eyes flicker open briefly, twin pools of golden light.
Waking up in the aftermath was like the worst hangover Arthur had ever had; every part of him hurt in a slightly different way and he could sort out neither time nor space. He was back in his room, he could tell that, and naked; one thin sheet was pulled up to his waist for modesty's sake. The sky outside his window was still dark, and a single candle lit the room. He remembered...lots of things, actually, but all in a jumble, like someone had ripped pages from a book and shuffled them around. There was a curse, or a spell, or something, like when Merlin had accidentally shot the unicorn, only worse...and Merlin was ill...and he, Arthur, he had do...or be...or something...
The door of his room opened, but it was Gwen, not Gaius, and she was carrying a bowl and a rag. "Oh!" she said. "You're awake. Gaius said the fever might not break until morning."
"What happened?" Arthur asked blearily, trying to push himself up.
Gwen was instantly at his side, pushing him back down far too easily. "No, don't, you're sick...you sent someone to Gaius saying Prince Merlin was ill, and when he got there you were both unconscious on the floor. The king is afraid it's another plague." She dipped her rag in the water, wrung it out and laid it across Arthur's forehead; it was blessedly cool, and he sighed in relief. "Gaius is with Merlin now, he asked me to mind you until he got back."
"Where'd you get the water?" Arthur asked, seizing onto a clear memory of cisterns full of pale blue jelly.
"Oh! I took it from the rain barrels," she said with an embarrassed little smile. "I know it's not the cleanest, but it's all we've got, and we're pretty sure we got all the froggy bits out..."
He swiped the rag off his forehead and sat up, and this time Gwen didn't try to stop him; he felt weak and shaky all over, and the sheets were sticking to his skin from old sweat. He was starting to remember now--not perfectly, and in fact there were some terrifying gaps, but he remembered more or less what he had to do and it started with that damn dragon. "Could you," he asked, then swallowed hard in his dry throat. "Could you get me my clothes? I need to...talk to somebody."
She looked at him like he was insane. "Arthur, you passed out only a couple hours ago, and it's the middle of the night. Even if anyone was awake to talk to, you're in no shape to be up walking around."
"It's important," he said. He tried to scratch at the cut on his throat, but it had already been bandaged. "I mean really important. Save-the-world important."
Gwen bit her lower lip. "Has it got something to do with Rowena?"
"Sort of," Arthur said. "It's complicated."
"And it can't wait until morning?"
Arthur just stared at her. "Gwen, Merlin might be dead by morning. There might not be a Camelot in the morning. No."
She hesitated only a minute longer, then drew herself upright and stared him sternly down. "Fine. Then I'll come with you."
"No," Arthur said. "I mean, there's no point in you getting in trouble with Gaius, too. And doesn't Morgana need you?"
"Morgana's been unconscious since lunch," Gwen said bitterly. "And I'll be in even worse trouble if I let you go alone and you fall down a flight of steps or something."
"Fine," Arthur said, unable to spare the energy to argue. "You can come. But I still need my clothes."
Gwen let him alone to dress, and no matter how shaky Arthur's limbs felt, the image of Merlin lying death-like on the ground kept him moving quickly. He had to sit down to get his breeches on, and he stole a moment to breathe deeply and try to finish clearing his head. There was a spell, right, and he needed to break it, because...because he wasn't supposed to be here, wasn't supposed to be this. Whatever that meant. He glanced at the candle, and as an experiment, tried to put it out by magic.
Swallowing hard, Arthur tried a second time, and the room plunged into darkness, but it felt--wrong. Weak. Like the magic was coming from somewhere far away. Which both did and didn't make sense, and that was why he was going to see the dragon, because how was he meant to solve a magical crisis if there wasn't any magic to solve it with?
He re-lit the candle so he could finish dressing, and then, even though it was disgusting, took a sip of water from the bowl to sooth his parched throat. Gwen was waiting for him in Gaius's main workroom, and she brought her own candle so they could make their way down to the dungeons. The castle seemed quiet, though he didn't have the first idea about the time; maybe the residents were all hiding in their rooms, afraid of what new aberrations the night would bring. Frankly, he wouldn't blame anybody for boarding up the windows and hiding under the bed at this point. He wondered what it was like, when you could wait for someone else to save the world.
"Are we going to the dungeon?" Gwen asked after a short while.
"Under the dungeon, actually," Arthur said. The walking around actually seemed to be helping him; he felt stronger, and his mind clearer, and the details were starting to come back to him, though far too sluggishly for his liking. They came to the top of the dungeon stairs, and Arthur reached around to pinch out Gwen's candle with his fingers. "All right, you're going to trust me for this part."
"Of course I trust you," Gwen said. "But the guards--"
"That's what you need to trust me for," he said. "And...for the record, I'm sorry for this bit."
"Arthur, what--" But he hushed her, and she obeyed, creeping down the stairs behind him to just within sight of the dungeon guards. They weren't dicing tonight; they were tense, scared as everyone in Camelot was scared, but they still couldn't see in the dark. Arthur put out the torches--he had to stretch out his hand and really push them out, and Gwen pressed a hand to her mouth to smother her own squeak of surprise. He took her other wrist and they darted right through the confusion and around the curve, where Arthur found the torches by tripping over them, again.
"Arthur what was--oh my god," Gwen said, as he picked up a torch and lit it. "Oh my god, Arthur, your eyes...but you can't be..."
"You can't hold it against me because I already said I'm sorry," Arthur said promptly. "Just...you know why I'd keep it a secret, yeah?"
She nodded, slowly. "Is--is that how you knew Rowena--?"
"Sort of." Arthur adjusted his grip on the torch. "C'mon, there's someone I'd like you to meet."
They wound their way down through the dungeons, and Arthur tried to move briskly past the place where Gwen's father had died to spare her any memories; down the tunnels, past the broken gate, and Gwen was just starting to ask "Where are we?" when they came in sight of the cavern. Arthur rushed forward, hoping the dragon would be on the rock and ready to talk; and he got at least half of what he wanted.
The dragon was sprawled on the rock opposite the ledge. Its wings hung down limply, the membranes all eaten away so the bone spines that should've supported them were left to hang at twisted angles. Patches of scales were missing all over its visible body, revealing raw greenish flesh. Its head was hanging downward, eyes half-open and filmy, and when Arthur shouted "Hey! Hey, you!" it didn't react at all.
"Is that a dragon?" Gwen asked.
"It's meant to be," Arthur said. He found a few small stones and tried throwing them; the first one missed, and the second hit one massive foreleg and knocked another scale off. He let the rest drop. "Come on, you can't give up now! You're supposed to help me!"
The dragon raised its head, just enough to be level with the ledge, but didn't seem to be able to see them clearly. "Arthur, Arthur, Arthur," it said in a singsong voice. "The once and future king."
"Yes, me," Arthur said. "I need to know what's wrong with Merlin. And with me--the magic's not working right."
The dragon bobbed its head silently for a few minutes, then snorted a great deal of greasy black smoke with no flames. "Dark," it muttered. "Why's it so dark? Normally I've got excellent night vision..."
"I don't care about your fucking night vision!" Arthur screamed, forgetting briefly that there was a lady present. "There's no water left, the crops are going mad, Merlin's dying and I need to know how to fix it! Why won't the spell work?"
"Two sides of the same coin," the dragon murmured. "You and Merlin are bound to one another. It won't work without him."
"In case you haven't noticed, he's not a sorcerer anymore!" Arthur shot back. "Also, he's a wee bit delusional at the moment. How the hell is he supposed to help?"
The dragon took a deep breath, then two.
Arthur waited, leaning forward.
"Luuuuucy in the skyyyyy with diiiiiiaaaaamonds..." the dragon began to sing.
Arthur stared at it for a moment, while Gwen covered her ears, and had the terrible realization that he was on his own.
Gwen, of course, had eleven million questions, and the more she asked the more confused Arthur got about them until finally he just snarled "Leave it!" and accidentally lit a candle in a wall sconce. That was little comfort in the overall scheme of things, and Arthur was wearier than before when he stumbled back into Gaius's work room.
To find Gaius waiting for him, looking stone-faced and furious. "When I prescribe bed rest, I generally expect to find my patient either resting or in bed, if not both."
"Sorry," Arthur said. "I just...I had to go look for something."
Gaius held up the second Hermes Ring to glitter in the candlelight. "Not this, I hope?"
Arthur blinked at it for a moment. "You got that off Merlin?"
"I did," Gaius said. "And considering you also had one in your possession, a great number of things have suddenly become clear."
"Gaius, what are you talking about?" Gwen asked. "What is that? What's it got to do with Merlin?"
"Is Merlin okay?" Arthur asked, ignoring the question for a moment so he could flop onto one of Gaius's stools. "I mean, obviously not okay, but--"
"He's weak, but resting," Gaius said. "He hasn't regained consciousness, and his fever is getting steadily worse."
"But Arthur's getting better," Gwen said, and folded her arms again, drawing herself up to her full height (unimpressive though it might be) to glare at them. "I want to know what's going on here," she said, as commanding as any princess.
Gaius opened his mouth, but Arthur figured he could explain it faster and without the history lesson. "Merlin and I sort of...switched places," he said. "Not, like, bodies, but our lives. And until I figure out how to undo it, all this weirdness is going to carry on and get worse, until the world just...falls apart."
"You switched lives?" Gwen asked. "But...but that's impossible..."
"The magic of the rings is powerful enough to rewrite the past, alter memories, even twist the subtleties of bloodlines to its bidding," Gaius said. "But in every record I can find of their use, they have always been used by two sorcerers or two mundane men--never one of each."
"Is that why Merlin's sick?" Arthur said. "Because the magic's supposed to be his and not mine?"
"It's perfectly reasonable," Gaius said. "Although frankly, this is so far out of my depth..."
"We're all out of our depth," Arthur snapped.
Gwen swatted him on the shoulder--what happened to him being too frail to move? "Snapping at each other isn't going to help," she scolded.
Gaius continued. "Before I met you, Arthur--at least, according to my present memories--I had always understood magic to be a thing acquired with much study and practice. The magic you do is of a far different sort--innate and instinctual. It is a part of you as much as your arm or leg. I don't see how it could be transferred to another person without tremendous damage, to your soul if not your body."
"And yet, I'm the one lighting things on fires with my brain," Arthur said. He took a deep breath. "I can...when I'm close to Merlin, it feels like...like the magic's trying to get out. Get home, maybe."
"Which would explain why you lost consciousness when he did," Gaius said. "Arthur, whatever you do, you mustn't go near Merlin again until this is over."
"Excuse me?" Arthur asked. "If I've got a missing bit of his soul, I could save his life--"
"At the cost of your own," Gaius said. "Arthur, even if this magic originally came from Merlin, the rings have made it just as much a part of you. His gain is your loss, and you cannot help him and still muster the strength to stop the rings."
"It's not going to matter if he dies before we find the reversing spell," Arthur snapped. He was somewhat used to the idea that he was worth more than common people in various intangible ways, being a prince, but it never stopped rankling when that meant he couldn't take a perfectly reasonable risk, help where help was needed, follow some insignificant whim. And now that it was Merlin..."I'm forgetting things, Gaius," he confessed. "Yesterday morning I remembered perfectly how the world's supposed to be, and now it's all...mixed up...and the sicker Merlin gets, the more I lose."
Gwen took his hand and gave it a warm squeeze; Gaius looked even more troubled than before, eyebrows lowering severely. "Well," he finally said. "If that is the case, then we haven't a moment to waste. And with Gwen's help, the work should go that much faster..."
He started re-distributing the books, and Arthur groaned. Gwen asked, "But didn't you say you found something in Rowena's room? The spell that started it all?"
"Yeah, but I tried that one already and nothing happened," Arthur said.
"You didn't have both rings at the time," Gaius pointed out. "It certainly can't hurt to try it again."
So Arthur found the book and the spell, took one ring in each hand, and concentrated. This time he could feel something going on, not the usual easy rush of lighting fires and moving things; he could feel something building, that uncomfortable pressure under his skin, until he was sort of surprised that his hair wasn't standing on end with the force of it. He stared at the rings, and could nearly see the sparks flying between them...
And then all the magic seemed to rush out like a burst barrel. Arthur nearly threw the rings across the room. "It's useless," he declared. "Doesn't work."
"It was worth a try," Gwen said. "Maybe if Merlin has one--"
"Already tried that version," Arthur said.
"So we carry on," Gaius said, and opened a book. "If we put our minds to it, I'm sure we can find something by morning."
So they put their minds to it, poring over the most arcane and ancient texts in Gaius's library. For long stretches of time there was no sound but Gaius's occasional distracted snorts, or Gwen occasionally asking about an unfamiliar word; they also accused Arthur of tapping his fingers against the table while he read, though he considered that a bald-faced lie.
He wasn't sure how many hours actually passed like that, but Gaius eventually stood up with much alarming popping of the vertebrae and announced he was going to check on Merlin. Arthur took the chance to push his book away, coaxing an unnatural sound from his own back in the process; he wondered how long he'd had to rub his eyes to make them see straight again.
"What's it like?" Gwen suddenly blurted, startling him. She buried her face in book again. "Sorry. Never mind."
"What's what like?" Arthur asked, just for the change of pace.
"The other...I mean, the real world," she said shyly. "It's strange to think of it like that, isn't it? I mean, this all seems real enough to me...except for the part where you've been a warlock all this time and never told me..."
"Well, excuse me if I didn't want to get hanged," Arthur said. "Or force you to lie for me, which in some ways would be even worse."
"I think that was a nice thing to say?" Gwen said dubiously.
He sighed. "Sorry. I just...a little while ago this all felt like the biggest, strangest joke to ever happen to me, and now...that other world...it's starting to feel more like a dream."
Gwen set her book aside. "Maybe it'll help you remember to talk about it."
Arthur rocked his stool back on two legs like Gaius always told him he shouldn't and stared at the old stains and marks in the tabletop. "Well...I'm the prince," he said. "Feels a bit stupid to stay it like that. Everything else is pretty much the same--I mean, Morgana's the king's ward, you're her maid, Gaius is physician...Merlin's my manservant. I don't know what else to tell you."
"Do you like it?" Gwen asked. "I mean, not like it, but...well, if you've seen the difference now...would you switch? For good?"
"The fate of all Albion's a bit of a steep price for no fancy receptions," Arthur said.
Gwen rolled her eyes. "So if we weren't looking at the end of days, would you?"
Arthur followed a trace with his finger. "I...no. No, I wouldn't. This...even when my memories are starting to slip, I feel like this is wrong, Gwen, like...all my life, I've known that I'm supposed to be something better, something more that just a farmer or a servant, you know? I used to think magic would get me there, make me somebody strong, somebody respected. But instead I ended up shining Merlin's bloody boots."
"Magic doesn't seem to cause anything but trouble," Gwen said. "Well, I mean, not just trouble--but like--it makes a problem first and then it fixes it. Sometimes I can't fault the king for wanting to just be rid of the whole mess."
"No, see, you've got it the wrong way round," Arthur said. "Magic's just...it's like anything else. It's like a horse. No, not a horse--a hammer. You can break things with a hammer, sure, or you can build something or shape something, and the hammer doesn't know any different. Same hammer, but it's who uses it. Uther drove away or killed all the good magicians in Camelot, so we're just left with the bad ones, but if you start with good--if you decide only to use magic to help and not to hurt--one good warlock could do more for his people than any king."
Gwen blinked at him. "Sounds like you've worked it all out, haven't you?"
Arthur shrugged, but something about the motion sent a lance of pain through his head, like someone was stabbing him in the eye with a quill. "I--he did," he said. "This world's Arthur, the warlock. I...didn't know until last night that my manservant was casting spells behind my back, and I still don't think I've quite forgiven him for it."
"But do you agree with him?" Gwen asked. "Or yourself? Don't you have to agree with yourself?"
"I don't think there's actually a pronoun for this situation," Arthur said.
"Well, whatever," Gwen said. "Do you agree about the magic?"
Arthur shrugged. "It's an act of faith, isn't it? A good warlock can save a kingdom, but you have to trust that he is good, that he's not going to go mad or senile or just start turning people into toads all willy-nilly. You're putting your faith in him to do the right thing."
"And how's that different from a regular king?" Gwen asked. "I mean, U--anybody could start getting some funny ideas about justice, one way or another."
Arthur grimaced at what she almost said. "I guess you're right," he said. "But it's a bit easier to stop a king than a sorcerer of the Old Religion."
"Maybe to you," Gwen said. "I mean, you're sort of one of each right now, aren't you? The dragon called you a future king or something..."
"Right," Arthur said, and once again he felt like there was something on the tip of his tongue. "But so's Merlin, and he wasn't exactly eager to partner up for the brighter future of Albion," he added with a gesture at his bandaged neck.
"He's not thinking clearly," Gwen said, picking up her book again. "Put yourself in his place--I mean, you are in his place, right? He's feverish and we're all scared and I'm still not sure I believe half the things I've heard tonight."
Of course. Arthur, in Merlin's place--without the benefit of both sets of memories--he couldn't say what he'd have done. Probably sent Merlin into exile. In Brittany. Stuffed inside a barrel. A small barrel...
Gwen suddenly squeaked, and pointed at a page. "Arthur--what's 'concordance' mean?"
'Haven't a clue," he said. "What's it say?"
"'Then Urien the rings did gather, from the four corners of Albion, and brought them together in one place; and he spake these words of power, and the spheres did re-align, and all the world was brought back into concordance.' Arthur, I think this is it!"
He leap up and snatched the book out of her hands, locating the paragraph and scanning the words that followed.
Then he threw the book across the room. He did not set it on fire, but it was a very near thing.
"What's wrong?" Gwen asked. "Isn't that what you need?"
"It's the same bloody spell that switches them on!" Arthur said. "Word for word! Except the ones Rowena spelled wrong!"
"I...I don't understand," Gwen said. "It said right there he used it to stop the rings..."
Arthur slumped back at his stool and pressed his forehead against the worn tabletop. "That's it. We're doomed."
He wasn't aware of dozing off, but he awoke with a start anyway, from a peculiar dream about watching Merlin drink from a poisoned goblet, though he couldn't sort out where it had been or when. The room was still mostly dark, but Gwen had disappeared and Gaius was back, staring out the windows into a softly bluing sky. "What time's it?" Arthur asked, stifling a yawn.
"Just past dawn," Gaius said absently. "I didn't have the heart to wake you. I sent Guinevere back to bed."
He kneaded the back of his neck, which had twisted up horribly. "If it's dawn, why's it still so bloody dark?"
"That would be because the sun has chosen this morning to rise in the north," Gaius answered.
The words settled heavily in the air. Arthur rubbed his eyes. "We're not going to last another day, are we?" he asked quietly.
"I sincerely doubt it."
He didn't know whether to stand up, sit down, or just fall on the floor and swear at the impossible unfairness of the universe for a bit. "How's Merlin?" he asked.
"Alive, though barely," Gaius said. "I confess I grow tired of watching one or the other of you lingering for hours on your death bed."
"Yeah, well, it's no picnic for us, either," Arthur said. "Gaius, why won't the spell work? If it's the same one coming and going, it ought to work--Rowena made it work and I think she's squashed most of her brain under her pointy hats."
Gaius shook his head. "It may simply be too late. Magic is still a part of the natural order of things, and that has become so perturbed..."
"So do we just give up?" Arthur demanded. "Let the Old Religion tear itself apart?"
"I don't see that we have any choice," Gaius said. "I have found nothing else in all my library that could help us, neither scientific nor magical. What else is left?"
Something! Arthur wanted to say, because there was always something to do, some response that wasn't defeat and resignation. He climbed to his feet and stretched as best he could, then headed for the door. "I'm going to see Merlin," he said. Gaius started to protest. "If there's nothing we can do, then there's no reason not to, right?"
Gaius sighed. "Fine. But do be careful, Arthur."
He smirked, even though the humor felt forced. "When am I not careful?"
"Ever," Gaius said, and managed the ghost of a genuine smile.
Walking the halls of the castle felt strange with all the light coming through the wrong windows; there were fewer people moving about than normal, and Arthur imagined people hiding in their rooms, unable to face the world turned upside-down. He spotted Morgana in a courtyard, staggering about drunkenly and singing the same song the dragon had been, while Gwen and another maid tried to catch her; Arthur watched for a while, until a fine, greenish snow began to fall from the hazy sky, warm and dry and utterly unnatural.
He could fix this. He ought to be able to fix this. He'd held the power of life and death, once; he ought to be able to cast one stupid spell that would put the sun and moon back in order. Restore Morgana's mind. Save Merlin's life. And if it just so happened that the same spell made him a prince, gave him the status and respect he'd always dreamed of...
No. No, Arthur had that status, because he already was a prince, just a severely misplaced one. He had to hold onto that memory, if nothing else. Even if he died, he wasn't going to forget who he really was, and he owed it to Merlin to remember him, too. Even if it now seemed like he'd barely known Merlin at all. Arthur was a prince and he'd die with the dignity of one--sword in hand, he wanted to say, and actually it probably wouldn't be hard to steal one out of the armory just now, if only for appearances...which meant Merlin had a right to die like a warlock, whatever that meant...
No, actually, Arthur knew exactly what that meant. And with a pounding heart he suddenly realized why the dragon had said he'd need Merlin's help. Well, not so much realized it as imagined it, one possible scenario that was utterly insane, but that didn't seem to much of an impediment to anything else around Camelot these days, and it was better than sitting around and waiting for the sky to fall in. He checked his pockets, and yes, he'd managed to bring both the rings and Rowena's copy of the spell, so if this worked...
Well, if this worked it there was a good chance it would kill him. But Arthur had always known he was going to die in a fight, and the fact it wouldn't be one with swords suddenly wasn't important. He'd never thought he'd die as a peasant, but he'd already learned the lesson that his people were more important than his pride.
He ran flat-out to Merlin's room, and lit every torch and candle he passed along the way, probably scaring the few people out and about halfway to death. No matter; they'd blame it on the end of the world. At the doors he froze, struggling to catch his breath and checked again for the rings, both of them, and the spell. Nobody was in this part of the corridor, but Arthur still slipped into Merlin's room quietly and snatched a candlestick off the table to bar the door with before he even looked in the direction of the bed.
Merlin was, just as Arthur had been, naked on the bed, a damp cloth neglected on his brow, a sweaty sheet pulled up over his legs and no higher than the bare edge of modesty. His arms were spread slightly away from his sides and his breathing was shallow and rapid, like he was fighting some kind of intense pain and losing. Arthur put the rings and the spell on the bedside table, within reach, and thought about how exactly to do this. Hands on hands had hurt; hands on face had hurt a lot; the kissing, though, with their hands and mouths all over each other, hadn't hurt at all, so maybe it was a case of the more contact, the better? What the hell, why not. "This is not, for the record, how I actually wanted do this," Arthur said, as if Merlin were awake enough to hear him, and then he stripped out of his clothes and left them in a heap on the floor.
He pulled down the sheet and climbed onto the bed, and at the first touch of skin to skin the magic roared to life, clawing at the inside of Arthur's chest. This time Arthur let it: he wrapped himself around Merlin, basically pulled him into his lap, and watched his pale, clammy skin start to flush to a healthy color. He wrapped his arms loosely around Merlin's chest and pressed their legs together and finally let himself smell his dark hair, and it didn't hurt at all, it felt good--nice--warm but not burning. Even if it didn't work and they were all certain to die, Arthur decided he couldn't possibly regret this.
Merlin made a few small noises and started to move fitfully, so Arthur squeezed him gently. There was a very pleasant moment when Merlin turned his head and nuzzled blindly into Arthur's shoulder, but then reason must've returned, because his brow knit and at long last he opened his eyes. When he saw who he was cuddled against, he made a noise that just might've been a laugh. "Arthur," he said, layering so much meaning onto the two syllables that Arthur was surprised they didn't break.
"Yeah," he said, which felt foolish, but he didn't know what else to say, except possibly Surprise! Or, actually, there was also, "How do you feel?"
"I think this is what going mad feels like," Merlin said, and lay his head on Arthur's shoulder again. "Not all bad, surprisingly."
Arthur could've laid there like that for--well, a long time, without doing anything, but he knew that outside the four walls of the room the world was going to hell and they were running out of time. He spread his hands out over Merlin's ribs, feeling the subtle shifting as he breathed. "I realize this isn't the usual time and place for this sort of conversation, but...do you trust me?"
Merlin snorted. "Course I do, prat."
"I'm serious, Merlin," Arthur said.
Merlin looked up again, and rolled over heavily so he was on his front, mostly draped over Arthur. "When have you ever given me a reason not to?" Merlin asked.
Arthur's heart fluttered, because there were reasons--prince or pauper, he could suddenly think of several reasons why Merlin wouldn't, shouldn't trust him. In one world Arthur had kept the most serious of secrets; in the other he had made arrogant mistakes that nearly cost everything. But before he could voice the unexpected anxiety Merlin stretched up and kissed him, slow and sure, licking his way into his mouth and tangling one hand in his hair. With an argument like that, Arthur really had no choice but to kiss him back and slide his hands down Merlin's flanks, around to the ridge of his spine, and then lower; the thought crossed his mind lazily that hey, they were naked here, there were possibilities...
But Merlin was also trembling in a way that had nothing to do with Arthur's prowess as a kisser, and he couldn't forget the aberrations beyond the doors. He pulled his mouth back and said, "I need you do me a favor."
Merlin outright giggled at that, and dropped his head to rest on Arthur's collarbone. "I really, really wish that was your idea of a come-on."
Arthur let himself pet Merlin's hair, because he could do that, and it might be the only time he got to. "What do you remember?" he asked.
"Things." Merlin took a deep breath and let it out. "Lots of things. Things that don't make any sense."
"That's pretty much been the last three days," Arthur agreed. "And I can--you can fix it. But you just have to trust me."
Merlin looked up again and smiled, not the generous smile of a prince or the sharp-edged smile of a servant, but just Merlin, tired but game. "What do you need me to do?"
Arthur reached out to the nightstand and gathered what they needed. "Hold these," he said, pressing the rings into one of Merlin's hands. "And read this." He pressed Rowena's copy of the spell into the other.
Merlin rolled over, laboriously, so he was laying back against Arthur's chest again. "Just read it?" he asked.
"That's all," Arthur said, and thought about adding, I'm sorry, but it might stop Merlin from doing this and he was increasingly sure that was the only way to make it work. Which was the final proof that Merlin shouldn't trust him, not at all, but it had to be done. For the sake of all Camelot, and for Merlin's own heart beating steadily under his hands.
Merlin took a deep breath and started to slowly read out the spell, with lots of stops and pauses and misplaced accents. Arthur shut his eyes and pressed his face against Merlin's hair again, and he could feel the magic rising, obeying its proper master. He could feel it building just like when he'd tried the spell alone, rising up into an unbearable pressure, to the edge of bursting--
And then a numbness began to sweep Arthur's body, just like he'd hoped and feared. The magic kept building, and he tried to keep his grip firm on Merlin as the strength in his limbs flowed out into the spell. The Old Religion wouldn't break its rules for him; there could only be one warlock in Camelot, one with enough strength to make the spell work. Merlin would live, regain the lost piece of his soul, and Camelot would be safe, and for Arthur, that was worth all the thousands of lost futures he could've dreamed.
He managed to kiss Merlin's hair one last time before everything went dark.
Arthur awoke in a prince's suite, in a bed of satin and velvet and goosedown, and as soon as he realized this he sat bolt upright and threw the Hermes Ring in his hand across the room. The sunlight through the window was bright and, as far as he could tell, coming from the usual direction; his hand flew to his throat and he felt no bandage, no cut. His sword was still in his room and he happily hacked his least-favorite chair to pieces with it just to prove he could, then tried to set the pieces on fire with his mind just to prove he couldn't. Merlin was nowhere to be see, which meant--
Arthur ran into the hall and grabbed the first servant he saw passing--possibly a Gregory, but different to the other one. "You! Over there! What day is it today?"
The servant blinked slightly at the prince in his royal nightshirt standing bare-legged in the hall. "Friday?" he answered warily.
"Friday," Arthur repeated. The same day he'd woken up a peasant, which meant nothing had actually happened. "Of course it is. God, I love Fridays." He was so overexcited that he kissed maybe-a-Gregory on the cheek before stomping back into the room to get dressed properly.
He was only halfway there, though, when the thought occurred to him that Merlin wasn't in the room. If it was still Friday, Merlin ought to be in his own room, of course. But Gaius had been so certain that the Old Religion would kill one of them--and granted, maybe they'd put things in order before then--but still--
Arthur ran flat-out for Merlin's room, and this time there was no misplaced magic to light the candles, but the breeze of his passing was almost enough to put a few of them out.
He burst into Gaius's rooms as Gaius was just sitting down to breakfast. "I went mad but I got better, I'll explain later," Arthur shouted as he ran past, into Merlin's room, and when Gaius seemed likely to follow him, Arthur shut the door and put all his weight against it.
Merlin was sprawled untidily on the bed, undisturbed by Arthur's commotion; every three or four breaths he snored or made one of those ridiculous smacking sounds, but that was okay, because everybody was alive and well and, as far as Arthur could see, as sane as they'd started out. Though he should check on Morgana, just to make sure. Later, though. Much, much, later. Because now that he was certain Merlin was safe and alive, Arthur discovered there were a few other things on his priority list.
As soon as he was sure Gaius wasn't going to try to investigate, Arthur pulled away from the door and crossed to the loose floorboard where the spellbook was kept. He no longer felt anything particularly unique about it, though the newt spell was still marked with a bit of string. He dropped the book on the bed, right in Merlin's lap, shocking him out of his sleep: Merlin scrabbled upright and looked around, looking at the book and at Arthur with dull sleepy shock. Arthur could just about read Merlin's mind through his face: the way his eyebrows dropped and eyes widened when he made the connection between Arthur and spellbook, the sharp snap of his head as he searched Arthur's face, an equally sharp look down at the Hermes Ring clutched loosely in one hand, and then a bug-eyed, open-mouth expression of horror that could only mean he had just remembered everything.
"So this is what we'll do," Arthur said, once he'd given Merlin adequate time to freak out. "First, we're going to have a talk. Second, we're going to have sex. Third, we're going to kill Rowena. Fourth, we will either have more sex or go punch the damn dragon, depending on how late it's gotten and our respective moods. That sound like an appropriate agenda to you?"
Merlin gaped like a fish for a minute, then said, "You--that--I....okay."
"Okay?" Arthur echoed. "Just okay?"
"As long as you explain to me what the fuck happened last night, okay," Merlin said. He even scooted over on the bed, creating a space for Arthur to sit in, which he did. "I mean, you did just offer me sex and all, so it'd be kind of rude..."
"It'd be a lot more than rude," Arthur said, leaning against Merlin's thin pillow and running a hand over the mess of scratchy sheets. There was a moment of precipitous uncertainty, because he knew things in that other twisted world didn't necessarily mean anything for this one; then Merlin hesitantly caught Arthur's hand with his own, and looked at him with a raised eyebrow, like he was asking permission, which Arthur gladly gave.
It was a soft, chaste kiss, which on one hand a was bit silly of them, but really, it was just meant as a promise of what was to come. Arthur made himself pull back from it and pull the book up to rest across both their laps. "So, first question," he said, leaning into Merlin's shoulder. "Can you really turn someone into a newt?"