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Geoffrey of Monmouth was a liar, but that's okay

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The thing about magic is that it's a lot like chest congestion.

Most people haven't experienced the sheer wonder of being able to make apples turn into doves, but they most likely know the odd tickle of having something foreign and familiar in their lungs, heavy and jarring until they find that sweet feeling after getting all that mucus out of them. It's a brilliant metaphor in the way that doing magic is like finally getting to cough.

Merlin hates coughing, but he loves magic.

Maybe it's not a good metaphor after all. Merlin was always pants at coming up with creative things like that.

+

Good metaphor or not, Merlin starts using it as a euphemism in his head. Arthur, bright as he is, never catches on, even when they come across a particularly ornery wizard whose entire family died at the hands of Uther.

So, Arthur says, manfully hiding behind a large rock. Got any ideas? I know I'm asking a lot of you, Merlin, but I really could use an idea right about now. How about a distraction? Can you create a distraction so I can use the element of surprise to save us?

I need to cough. Merlin says.

I hate you so much. Arthur says.

The wizard apparently doesn't find their repartee witty in the least and blows up their large rock, knocking Arthur out in what Merlin can only see as being handed a handkerchief. Things sometimes have a way of turning out for the better like that; good or bad, wizards always are looking out for each other. Except, of course, when they're not.

Either way, Merlin gets to cough, and Arthur wakes up back in Camelot none the wiser.

+

Hunith sent him to Camelot in the hopes of being something great, to be molded into a man under the tutelage of Gaius, her old friend and the physician to one of the most mighty and terrible households in the world.

Merlin went to Camelot and developed a constant cold.

He doesn't think that's what she had in mind. Especially when coughing can result in one's head being off.

She sends chicken soup every winter, though.

Mothers do things like that.

+

Arthur will remind Merlin just how incompetent of a manservant he is at least twenty-two times a day, although the word choice will vary. Arthur is as creative an orator as he is an expert swordsman, so Merlin is never surprised when he's dubbed "useless" when he polishes Arthur's armor less thoroughly than Arthur would like (because Arthur lives his life in absolutes and ideals and not in reality) and then renamed "feckless" when Arthur's demon spawn of a steed refuses to allow Merlin into her stall, which therefore remains unmucked.

This abuse, however, is not abuse at all. Merlin never complains about it -- Okay, so Merlin complains about it, but he also doesn't stand for it and will give back as good as he gets, but the fact remains that it's not abuse.

Morgana thinks so.

Gwen thinks so.

The maids of the castle think so.

The stable boys think so.

Every visiting diplomat thinks so.

Arthur's demonic horse thinks so.

Uther thinks he's never been so proud of his son when he watches Merlin get ordered around and insulted like an ill-favored, old pet.

It's still not abuse, like the way a little boy pulling on a girl's hair is not abuse. It's annoying, but it's not abuse. It's something else entirely.

Arthur knows this, but having grown up with an emotionally-stunted and possibly psychotic father figure and no mother may have broken his ability to have normal feelings like any young man his age. Also, he's the prince and it's great fun.

Merlin knows this, which is why he never coughs on Arthur, no matter how much Arthur deserves to be coughed on.

+

Lancelot once had Merlin up against the wall of Merlin's room and didn't mind the coughing one bit.

But he's somewhere in Wessex training under a hand-to-hand combat expert and doesn't influence this much at all, so we probably could have just skipped this bit.

Merlin does think fondly of that night from time to time, still amazed and somewhat fuzzy-headed at the things Lancelot could do with his tongue. Years from now, Gwen will be in Lancelot's bed and just as amazed and half-conscious.

Right. Sorry.

Moving on.

+

Morgana is terribly fond of Merlin and will spend an hour each day wishing he had been her step-brother instead of the lackwit living down the hall from her. There is something about Merlin that she can't quite put her finger on, and it has nothing to do with all the old magic that lives inside him, rattling around like a chest cold. He is kind, fun, and treats both she and Gwen as equals.

Since Merlin's arrival last fall, she's watched Arthur grow under his manservant's compassion and sheer obstinacy into the man who will someday be, and deserve to be, king. As well as a grasping, devious, jealous little ponce who moons over Merlin as much as he abuses him.

But the thing about Merlin is that while he can be terribly clever, he can also be the biggest bonehead she's ever met. Which is saying something, considering she'd been forced to dine with King Errol last spring.

Because he has not noticed. Or if he has, he has never mentioned it to her during their very fun late night card games, or during their long walks around the grounds, or when he brings her sleeping draught, or any other time. And while she adores Merlin, he can't keep a secret worth a damn. So, no, he must not know.

But he will. Because she has seen it, and she is never wrong.

Also, because Arthur looks ready to snap and despoil Merlin in public at any given moment.

+

For a week after Will's death, Merlin says no more than ten words, which is enough to make Gaius worried, Uther ecstatic, and Arthur look over his shoulder every chance he gets because the only explanation for the silence is insanity and he really doesn't need to go down in history as "That Prince Who Was Almost King If It Hadn't Been For The Deranged Servant That Ate His Face And Took Over Albion". But he does understand that Merlin just lost his best friend, if not his brother, and respects Merlin's right to grieve for his loss in any way he so chooses.

He invites Merlin to his chambers on the sixth day of silence and plies him with enough mead to send Bors, his castle-sized knight in training, into a coma for twenty years in hopes that it will loosen the iron belt clamped around that tongue. Arthur is a great listener and prides himself on the fact; if only people talked to him instead of worship him, although being worshiped isn't a great burden, either.

Thirteen and a half goblets later, Merlin is lounging with Arthur on Arthur's finest linen sheets, a gift from some noblewoman who'd hoped her laundry would be enough to entice Arthur into giving her a crown. He didn't bed her (her elbows scared him), but he did keep the sheets.

"He didn't cough," Merlin slurs into Arthur's armpit, eyes swimming with tears and probably some of the liquor that's built up inside him. "He didn't cough, it was me."

Nine words. Arthur presses himself back against his practically-pilfered sheets and closes his eyes, savoring each one for the surprising gift it is. He reaches up to run his hands through Merlin's hair, ignoring Merlin's pained yelps when his fingers catch on tangles and bits of hay and birds and whatever other plebe things lurk in there, and has no idea what the hell Merlin is talking about.

"Me."

Ten words in a whole week and Arthur feels everything shifting back into place.

Most young men would own up to the emotion at this point.

But because he was raised by Uther and is an emotionally deficient half-wit, Arthur throws Merlin into the stocks the next day for throwing up on his sheets, but mostly because it's Merlin's fault for making him feel like this.

+

Into his second hour in the stocks, Merlin coughs.

Arthur walks around for four days, wondering why the palace rats keep following him.

 

**For those playing the home game, the palace rats look a bit like this:



Arthur's girlish screams upon waking the second morning were completely justified.

+

Despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, Merlin is not oblivious to Gwen's feelings for him. He'd have to be blind, deaf, dumb, and probably dead not to notice the looks she gives him when she thinks he isn't looking or doesn't know where he is in the time-space continuum, the way she back-pedals constantly after letting it slip, like the sheer amount of her babbling will distract him and cause him to forget (sometimes it works), or how she's the quickest to come to his defense no matter the situation.

Gwen's beautiful, inside and out. He'd go so far as to say that she's perfect in every way and he really doesn't understand how the men in Camelot aren't beating each other to death with sticks in order to be the first one at her chamber door. Hell, Morgana most certainly notices Gwen and probably uses every excuse in the book to help her dress, bathe, and sleep. He has eyes, thanks, he's not a total moron.

Their last conversation went something like this:

Gwen: "Hello, Merlin!"
Merlin: "Hey, Gwen. How are you?"
Gwen: "I'm wonderful now! Er, uh, not that I wasn't wonderful before you showed up, because you showing up has no influence over my mood whatsoever, because that would be ridiculous and embarrassing and imply that I'm in love with you --"
Merlin: "Oh, look! Apples!"

He knows exactly how she feels about him, but he won't do anything about it, because the thing is

The thing is

Well, the fact of the matter is stupid, but it's true.

Thing is, he saw Arthur first.

Had she shown up earlier that first day, it all might have been very different.

Actually, that's a lie. It probably was always going to be Arthur.

Which is a bit disheartening, because Merlin never really planned on chaining himself to a total and complete prat, but destiny is a cruel mistress and while the fact of the matter is stupid, it's true.

He saw Arthur first, and he saw Arthur last.

The dragon finds the whole thing hilarious.

+

Anyway, that's only half-true. The "Gwen is an angel fell to earth" is all right, but he really doesn't entertain the possibility of seeing her naked.

Or any girl, for that matter.

+

The blame for that rests solely on Geoff Holt, who despoiled him in his uncle's barn when they were both thirteen and lacking anything else to do. Merlin thought it was the most brilliant experience in his natural born life and wanted to do it again and again and again and see where else Geoff could stick it besides his mouth, because Merlin was (is) a little bit pervy and a lot curious.

It went on like that for seven months until Geoff died in a tragic festival dancing accident.

Which wasn't too bad, because Merlin met Will at the same festival and the rest, as they say, is history.

+

Arthur never, ever notices anyone the way he does Merlin. It's as if one night while Arthur was innocently sleeping in his innocent bed on innocent sheets and innocently dreaming innocent dreams, Merlin snuck in and tied one end of a rope around Arthur's neck and the other around his own hand and now yanks on it whenever he's around to remind Arthur of his presence.

And he is. Everywhere.

It's like that time Owain said "There's a rabbit humping all the dogs!" and Arthur had said "That's ridiculous!" and suddenly everywhere he looked there was the goddamn rabbit, following him around.

Of course, that means that he notices all the people who also notice Merlin, all the stable hands and the chambermaids and the butcher's son and the diplomat's daughter and the pug-faced prince from Cornwall and Gwen and that guy in the forest he ended up killing when the guy tried to kill him first and the sirens and the entire herd of centaurs and Bors (that bastard) and all the others that Arthur could name but doesn't for fear it will cause him to snap and murder every single living soul in the kingdom. Which princes just shouldn't do.

Prince Nodon of Scotia is visiting Camelot in hopes of forging an alliance and is in the middle of a surprisingly interesting tale about his knights and a sea serpent off the coast of Hebrides when Merlin walks in, yanking on the rope around Arthur's neck, with a pitcher of cool water to "quench the thirst of the Prince of Scotia" (except when Merlin says it, it sounds like "for you and your widdle pwaymate"). Arthur is carefully but quickly composing a rather brilliant dressing-down for Merlin when he notices the glint in Prince Nodon's eye and watches Nodon watch Merlin pour them both water.

"Is this your manservant, my lord?" No-Dick inquires lightly, bestowing a filthy smile upon Merlin, who is a paragon of good manners and beams back and bows, that little worm. "How diligently he works!"

He might as well have said "I bet he sucks cock like a dream!" and Arthur doesn't reply, too busy imagining feeling No-Dick's skull pop under his boot.

Merlin only laughs that laugh, the 'la la la I am somehow still alive' one, and says, "Not according to my master."

No-Dick's creepy smile melts into something genuine and all thoughts of dismembering the bastard die a fast death as his heart starts pounding and his gut tightens in protest. Oh god, he can imagine it now. No-Dick's going to formally ask him if he can take Merlin back to Scotia with him where he'll dress him up like a woman and make Merlin his queen and give him tracts of land and castles and lakes and ponies and his own servants and pretty things and have loud and kinky sex with him and will get to taste that smile every night and will know if Merlin really does suck cock like a dream.

While Arthur flirts with a total and complete nervous breakdown, Merlin bows to No-Dick and then to Arthur (although the bow he gives Arthur is kind of rubbish) before taking his leave, No-Dick's eyes on him the entire way out of the hall.

No-Dick turns to him, still smiling. "There is something about him… something pleasing about his mouth when he talks. And so friendly! Are you quite attached to him?"

"I will rip off your testicles and wear them as baubles on my crown."

"What?"

"I said he gets homesick easily and hates to travel."

"Oh. Right. Pity."

"Mm."

+

Dragons see time much differently than humans. Time, for dragons, exists on all planes and occurs simultaneously. So when the dragon tells Merlin that he and Arthur will do great things together, he means it, because it's already happened.

What the dragon doesn't tell Merlin is that the whole thing runs like an episode of "Jerry Springer".

(I'd say more like a Dudley Moore movie, but that's just me.)

+

Arthur's nearly caught Merlin 36.8 times to date.

17 of those times have been in Merlin's own room, because Merlin can't be arsed to lock the door sometimes and Arthur can't be arsed to knock at all. 5 times have been within 100 meters of Camelot, when bandits or would-be assassins wait for Arthur to leave the grounds alone. 13 times have been in the forests surrounding Camelot, where it's practically Party Central for all the wayward wizards who hate Uther and his stupid law and hate Arthur on principle and think Merlin is a total sellout. The last time was in Ealdor, but no one likes to talk about that.

(The .8 shouldn't really count, because it was accidental and, unbeknownst to both of them, prevented an alien invasion that would have ended all life on earth.)

But Arthur kind of has an inkling.

It isn't until he sees Gwen and Morgana's identical "if you do what your father expects you to do, I will kill you and make it look like you fell down the stairs and broke your neck whilst drunk" glares that the proverbial light goes on.

+

The time Arthur actually catches Merlin at it goes like this:

Nimueh, who never really died in the way villains never seem to, returns to Camelot and demands retribution for all that she and the other users of old magic have suffered. She fills her goblets with water and gazes deeply into Arthur's eyes as she tips it.

Stupid witch never sees Merlin lift his hands.

When the storms dissipate and Nimueh is nothing more than a smear of crazy on the ground, Arthur turns to Merlin, who lowers his hands and stares at Arthur as if he's the one who has something to fear.

"You're a sorcerer!"

"It's just a chest cold!"

Arthur's never been this torn between his duty to his father and the love he has for something. This is worse than that time with the baby manticore.

And because Arthur was raised by Uther and therefore has no idea how to handle his emotions, he blurts out, "You can't be a sorcerer because I -- say so! And you're a fucking twat! What sorcerer comes to Camelot and works for a house that condemns magic-users to death?! God, you're so stupid, Merlin! I mean that sincerely! You walk around with that stupid rope and you're all, "la la la I'm still alive even though by all rights I should be dead ten-thousand times over because I have no self-preservation to speak of and I'm a shoddy dresser' --"

"Hey!"

"Shoddy dresser! And you're a sorcerer! That's the worst thing you could possibly be! Why couldn't you have been a bard, or a candlestick maker, or a half-decent manservant, or a prostitute? A prostitute would have been better! You know why? Because my father doesn't have prostitutes hacked at the neck!"

Most young men his age would have said "I love you" better.

Merlin gawks at him, because what do you say to that?

"I am not a shoddy dresser! And you're forgetting that I'm a wizard! A powerful, powerful wizard who could turn you into a birch tree with a thought!" That's what you say.

Arthur pales and resists the urge to stamp his foot (it's a near thing). "I hate birch trees!"**

"I know you do! Which is why I wouldn't have a problem turning you into one!" Merlin runs shaking hands through his hair and gazes imploringly at Arthur. "Arthur…"

Arthur looks like someone kicked his puppy. Or like the law dictates all sorcerers must be killed.

+

Actually, that's not true. It really went like this:

In the summer, Winter comes to Camelot riding a chariot of ice drawn by hounds that howl like the wind. As it would turn out, all the seasons are actual beings who have their own kingdoms in different parts of the world. And Winter, who's rather striking in that 'I will freeze you to death and laugh over your ice coffin, peon' way, is a bit upset with Uther for killing her husband, a mortal man named Havril who'd journeyed to Camelot to help fight in the wars a decade ago. After finding an enchanted sword made of ice on Havril's person, Uther had no choice but to uphold the law.

All of which did not sit well with Winter.

"You stole the one that was most precious to me," Winter says to Uther, huge and scary in the great hall. "It only seems fair that I do the same."

And she looks at Arthur. Who looks back and thinks, Oh my god, I'm going to die.

"A heart of ice, I should think," she says lightly, her eyes already dancing with vindication, hand lifting to do whatever magic she's going to. "A heart of ice to melt in your chest and freeze you into death."

Merlin, who Arthur didn't even know was in the room, stands up at that point and bows before Winter. She blinks at him, confused.

"A sorcerer?" Winter turns to Uther, shocked. "You have a sorcerer living in your court? I've never been subjected to such hypocrisy!"

Gaius gasps something that Arthur can't hear over the blood roaring in his ears.

"What!" Uther demands, getting to his feet. He points a gloved finger at Merlin. "You're a sorcerer?!"

Merlin laughs weakly. "It's just a chest cold." But the change comes over him, the one that says 'la la la I'm incredibly stupid but I'm not leaving you to face this alone', and he kneels at Winter's feet. "Take mine, instead."

Arthur surges to his feet. "Merlin, shut the hell up right now! Don't you dare --"

"I'm not sure he even has a heart to switch. And if he does, it's all mottled and stringy and will probably look ugly on your mantle."

Arthur thinks, Oh my god, I'm going to die.

Merlin smiles winningly at Winter. "You should take mine, if only so your dinner guests don't mock you for having ugly decorations."

Winter regards Merlin for a long moment, just enough time for Arthur to suck as much air into his lungs as he can because he is going to flay Merlin alive with his tongue, and motions for Merlin to stand. "You're willing to lay down your life for him."

Merlin shrugs. "Must be Tuesday. Or any day, actually."

Arthur thinks, Oh my god, I'm going to die.

But Winter only nods sagely, lifting a hand to forestall the guards Uther discreetly motions for, and smiles at Merlin with white lips. "You must love him very deeply to request this of me."

Merlin blushes and shrugs again, prompting Arthur to blush as well. "He's… He's Arthur. And I saw him first."

Arthur doesn't think anything, really, because something has sprung in his brain and there is a faint buzzing in his left ear.

"It is a selfless man, indeed, who would risk their life for a love that cannot be. I can see now why mortal men are so reckless and so full of fear: to have such a small amount of time to spend in life and experience something so everlasting is somewhat of a cosmic tragedy. I thank you, Merlin Emrys, for the reminder that mortal men, too, err. Thank you." Winter bows her white head and the court heaves a sigh of relief.

Until she straightens up and holds out her hand. "So, whenever you're ready."

"Er."

"Oh, come on!"

+

Also a lie. It was actually more like this:

"Arthur, I'm a sorcerer."

"Well, fucking duh."

(It did, however, take Arthur another two weeks to figure it out after that initial inkling he had a few sections up. Merlin is still not a good liar, but he's not half bad when it really counts.)

+

Uther never finds out about Merlin, because Arthur is not an idiot. It wouldn't matter how attached he was to Merlin, wouldn't matter how loyal Merlin was to Arthur; none of it would stop Uther from wielding the ax, himself. Because, let's face it, Uther's just been waiting for an excuse.

But now the balance between him and Merlin has shifted, and he doesn't like it. It was enough before when he was a prince and Merlin a normal manservant. Now, Arthur is still a prince but Merlin is a manservant who could turn him into a chair, and it's all incredibly fascinating, or it would be if Arthur wasn't afraid of ordering Merlin to do anything.

Merlin doesn't think anything's changed. He still shows up every day, ready to attend to Arthur's every need and be awful at all of it, a 'la la la I'm still Merlin' smile on his face and asking if Arthur would like him to magic up some exotic game for Arthur to hunt.

Arthur gapes at him. "Why?"

Merlin looks behind him, as if Arthur is talking to some other sorcerer. "Because… that's my job?"

Arthur grabs Merlin by his shoddy neckerchief and pulls him into his chambers, slamming the doors behind him. "Are you sick in the head?! Why would you ever ask me that in public? Why would you ever ask me that out loud?! Do you want to be killed?! My father could be hiding somewhere, listening!"

Merlin blinks, confused, because Merlin is mentally afflicted. "Yours is the only room in this hall."

"Then he could pop out of a crack in the wall! I wouldn't put it past him!" Arthur storms over to his bed and throws himself upon it and burying his face into a pillow, inhaling his own dried sweat and is rubbing his mouth into the exact spot Merlin'd thrown up on weeks back. "God, you should probably go because I hear stupidity catches, and I can't be king and also have Merlin's Syndrome. So, really, get out. Forever."

Merlin, according to Morgana, is very clever. Merlin, according to Gaius, is hopelessly earnest. Merlin, according to Gwen, is a bit of all right. Merlin, according to Arthur, is different and mentally afflicted on a truly terrifying level.

Merlin, according to Merlin, is sick of waiting for Arthur to make the first move.

So he pounces.

(And coughs a bit to spice things up, because it's already been established that he's a bit pervy.)

+

Below the castle, the dragon snorts.

Jerry. Springer.

+

The thing about magic is that it's a lot like chest congestion.

Most people haven't experienced the sheer wonder of being able to make apples turn into doves, but they most likely know the odd tickle of having something foreign and familiar in their lungs, heavy and jarring until they find that sweet feeling after getting all that mucus out of them. It's a brilliant metaphor in the way that doing magic is like finally getting to cough.

Or maybe the brilliant metaphor is that doing magic is like finally getting to do Arthur.

--------
** Arthur once climbed a birch tree just to prove he could. He promptly fell out of it and broke most of the bones in his right arm. This is why he does not wear white under any circumstances.