Arthur has developed a wretched habit of comparing Merlin to fluffy woodland animals, and it’s beginning to be a bit of a problem.
It wouldn’t have been much of a problem if it had stayed in Arthur’s mind, where it belonged. But Arthur has never been good at keeping his feelings under wraps. Increasingly often, he finds himself letting Merlin off with a simple flick of the ears instead of sending him to the stocks where he belongs, or pretending he doesn’t like sausages just so he can see Merlin’s impish grin as he nabs leftover sausage off of Arthur’s plate.
Arthur would have gotten rid of the sentiment long ago if he only knew how, but he doesn’t have any idea what may have sparked it all.
Maybe it’s the eyes. Merlin’s eyes are the clearest shade of blue Arthur has ever seen, offset by thick lashes the color of soot, and all in all wretchedly pretty. It’s unfair how much Merlin can accomplish with a flutter of his eyelashes, what with how utterly insubordinate he is most of the time.
Or maybe it’s those ridiculous scarves of his. Merlin has a strange fondness for the things, refusing to take them off even in the peak of summer when most of the court has resorted to stripping down to their thinnest shifts and bathing five times a day. Merlin doesn’t even sweat, which is doubly frustrating. It doesn’t make any sense—after all, it isn’t any of Arthur’s business what Merlin wears, is it?
(Truth be told, Arthur does have the right to tell Merlin what to wear, as well as what to eat, where to sleep, and even what time to go to sleep at. Merlin is his manservant, after all, and by the laws of Camelot Arthur can command him to do pretty much anything except murder the king.
But Arthur knows that while Merlin may nod and say yes, sire all he likes, he will only truly listen to whatever command suits his whims.
Worst manservant in the five kingdoms indeed.)
“Good heavens,” Arthur groans after the umpteenth time Merlin cracks a twig underfoot with a loud snap. “Will you stop crashing about like a frightened baby deer? We’re out hunting, you idiot!”
“Frightened baby deer?” Merlin asks, blinking coyly. Someone so utterly infuriating shouldn’t have the ability to render Arthur momentarily speechless like this, which only fuels Arthur’s growing understanding that the world isn’t really meant to be fair. Arthur swears Merlin is doing it on purpose, the smug bastard.
“I was talking about you,” Arthur says.
“Oh, I know,” Merlin says. “I just thought it wasn’t a very accurate nickname, is all. Rather sweet of you though.”
Merlin’s smile is both secretive and content, as if he knows something that Arthur doesn’t. Arthur swears he sees Merlin’s pupils shimmer strangely for a moment, almost like a cat’s, but he blinks and Merlin is just plain old Merlin again.
Arthur calls him a daffodil and Merlin laughs.
“You look like a startled stoat,” Arthur complains, and Merlin glances sidelong at him with eyes that look strangely yellowish in the sun.
“You’re such a girl’s—”
“—Blouse, I know,” Merlin says, and grins, canines glinting wickedly in the low light of the fireplace.
It’s only when Arthur finds out that Merlin is a bloody dragon that everything clicks into place.
“A dragon!” Arthur hisses. He has the strangest urge to jump about and wave his hands to the sky like a madman, but he can’t really afford to lose his dignity when he’s already dangerously close to losing his sanity as it is. Merlin, with his wide innocent eyes and slender limbs, a gods-forsaken dragon. Gods, if it were Morgana Arthur wouldn’t have been half as surprised. “You,” he says, finding forming complete sentences rather beyond himself at the moment. “Dragon. All this time.”
“Don’t strain yourself, sire,” rumbles Merlin-the-dragon helpfully. Arthur glares at him, and his massive jaws snap shut. Good, Arthur thinks. Serves him right, the secretive bastard.
The reveal had been rather anticlimactic, all things considered, but the fact doesn’t help alleviate Arthur’s shock one bit.
They had been out on a hunting trip, just the two of them.
His father’s court had only grown more unforgiving towards him after he ascended the position of crown prince, most council meetings ending with a bunch of tutting noblemen and his father’s displeased gaze levelled towards him. But Arthur can’t exactly help that politics make his head ache, that as much as he wishes to make the lives of his people better he feels he’d do it much better with a sword on the battlefield than in council meetings that drag on and on and on and never seem to end.
Merlin, on the other hand, is simple. He laughs at Arthur when he’s being an idiot and encourages him shamelessly when he isn’t, and some day Arthur feels like there’s nothing he couldn’t do if only Merlin stayed by his side. So the hunting trip had seemed like a good idea, at the time. Arthur would have been able to let go and act like the loud youth of twenty-two summers that he really was, instead of the eerily stoic Crown Prince everyone at home seemed to expect him to be.
Then the bandits had shown up.
“How on earth?” Arthur splutters.
The only person he’d told about the hunting trip was Morgana. She’d seemed much paler and more withdrawn ever since her return from the Druid camp, and Arthur had wanted to cheer her up. But that was it.
Arthur isn’t an idiot. He’d heard about the increased bandit activity in the darkling woods, and they’d stayed away from well-travelled roads on purpose. Most bandits, after all, aren’t idiotic enough to venture into the woods with the simple hope to run into a travelling party or to. This one, apparently, is.
They’re surprisingly well-equipped, even though their swords are a bit rusted and their crossbows the slightest bit creaky. Rust or creakiness, however, only goes so much towards turning the tides in Arthur’s favor. (Merlin doesn’t count—a quick look shows that Merlin has ducked behind the tree-line, as always. To be completely honest, though, Arthur is glad that Merlin at least will be safe—Merlin is his, cheeky smile and happy bounding gait and all, and Arthur doesn’t think he could honestly bear to be parted from him now.)
Arthur is one of the best fighters in Camelot, but his ego isn’t so inflated that his brain functions are suffering from it. Even he knows that thirty to one are damning odds.
There’s a rustle in the undergrowth and Merlin’s tousled head of dark hair pops up.
“No,” Arthur mouths.
Merlin sighs, resigned, and slips Arthur an apologetic glance out of pupils that have suddenly turned narrow like a cat’s.
Then he turns into a bloody dragon.
Merlin as a dragon is terrifyingly large.
His scales are dark as night, with yellow eyes the color of newly coined gold. His tail loops comfortably around the clearing that Arthur is standing in, and he has to be at least several times Arthur’s height around his shoulders. Arthur doubts that he would fit inside the throne room as he is now.
Merlin breathes out, and thick smoke clouds the air before Arthur.
Arthur stumbles backwards despite himself. His feet crunch on the charred remains of what must have once been a bandit. Gods. Arthur has killed his fair share of men, but this is something else entirely. It’s Merlin who has done this. Merlin, who looks like a startled stoat when he’s surprised, who probably has the sweetest smile in the five kingdoms, who puffs up like an angry kitten when he’s upset—
And Merlin had laughed at him every single time he’d voiced these thoughts out loud.
Of course he had—gods, this beast probably eats deer for breakfast. Entire herds of them.
Merlin stacks one ginormous paw on top of the other, resting his snout on it. His right eye swivels to look at Arthur.
“I couldn’t have let them gone unharmed,” he growls. “Not after they’d dared attack you.”
“Alright,” Arthur says. He has passed Camelot’s knight trials, and they were probably the most convoluted set of questions Arthur has ever seen in his life. He can cope with this.
Merlin is a dragon. A very large one. Check.
Merlin is apparently more than inclined to char-grill people on his behalf. Also check.
Well. It could be worse. Merlin could also have decided to fry Arthur instead—Arthur had certainly thrown enough goblets and plates at him—but he hadn’t, has he?
“What I don’t understand is,” Arthur says after the initial shock has passed, which takes a rather long while. “Why on earth did you decide to be my manservant?”
“You don’t like it?” Merlin asks. He looks rather hurt, which is completely unfair, because Arthur is the one who is fighting a massive headache here because of the bombshell of a revelation Merlin dropped on him. Merlin shifts back to his human form with a shimmer.
The overall effect is terribly unfair. Those large blue eyes could probably make Arthur forgive him pretty much anything.
“No,” Arthur says. “Yes. No. Gods.” He narrows his eyes. “You were laughing at me all the while, weren’t you?”
Merlin’s lips press together guiltily. Of course he should be—now that Arthur thinks of it, Merlin had almost always had that expression of barely contained laughter on days when Arthur was being practically ‘prattish’.
Gods. Arthur probably should be feeling much more put-upon than he is. Merlin should be grateful that Arthur is all for letting bygones be bygones, the secretive bastard.
“Well,” Merlin prevaricates. A faint blush dusts his cheeks. “Maybe? When I first started working at Camelot, yes. Then I ended up liking you much more than I probably should have.”
Arthur could choose not to believe Merlin. He’d been lying to Arthur all this while, after all.
But Arthur can’t bring himself to do that.
Not with the way that Merlin is looking at him, lips upturned and gaze shy from underneath those stuttering lashes of his. Raw and fond and real.
“Oh,” Arthur says. “Alright. I can live with that.”
Merlin beams up at him with eyes that have turned their natural yellow, pupils growing into slits, and when Merlin hugs him, a smattering of scales scratching roughly against his cheek, Arthur sighs and accepts that this is simply his life now.
Things could be much worse, after all. And this is something Arthur can certainly live with.
They end up in Arthur’s room a short while later.
“Wait,” Arthur says, as Merlin presses him against a nearby tree and begins kissing him like his life depends upon it. As much as he would like to continue where this is going, Arthur has Very Important training tomorrow, that he won’t be able to get out of unless he suddenly contracts some kind of life-threatening illness, and he doesn’t fancy the idea of going through his moves with tree-bark burn on his back.
“Shh,” Merlin whispers, pressing a finger against Arthur’s lip. “I’ve got this all figured out, believe me.”
Teleportation, as it turns out, is a very convenient skill.
Things progress very quickly after that.
“Mine,” Merlin hisses, sharp nails dragging over Arthur’s flanks and making him gasp.
“Yes,” Arthur mutters back, surprising himself with how much he means the words.
All in all, Arthur titles the afternoon a big success. This, he thinks as he lets his palm rest on the heat of Merlin’s flank, fired up like an open furnace, can’t possibly compare to dragging carcasses of large hairy animals all the way back to Camelot.
He just hopes that the horses make it back safely.
It’s a long way to Camelot, after all.
“Now that we’re doing this,” Merlin says, gesturing towards Arthur. Arthur is lying sideways on his bed, indulging himself by watching Merlin pad about in his chambers barefooted and shirtless. “I think you might want to know that your sister is planning to assassinate your father.”
“Wait.” Arthur says. “I don’t have a sister.”
“You know, Morgana,” Merlin says impatiently. Then he pauses, eyes growing large. “Oh wait. You didn’t know?”
“Morgana is my sister?” Arthur gapes. “But she only came to live with us when—wait. She can’t be planning to off father. She only got back from the druid camp a few days ago, remember?”
Arthur presses his hands to his temples, feeling an encroaching headache. “Please don’t tell me that Morgana wasn’t really kidnapped by the druids.”
“Alright,” Merlin says. “She wasn’t really kidnapped by the druids.”
Arthur narrows his eyes at Merlin. “You’re just indulging me, aren’t you?”
“No?” Merlin says, lashes fluttering over wide-opened eyes. Gods, Merlin is just indulging him. It’s so obvious it isn’t even funny.
“Seven hells.” Arthur curses. Merlin pads over to seat himself on the edge of Arthur’s bed.
“Well,” he says, “Now that we’re at it, I think that you should know—”
“Wait,” Arthur says after a while. “Those bandits were surprisingly well-informed.”
“Yes,” Merlin says, in what Arthur is beginning to recognize as his humor-Arthur voice.
“I hadn’t told anyone except Morgana where I was going,” Arthur continues.
“Yes?” Merlin replies, wide-eyed.
“Oh, drop the act, I know you aren’t as oblivious as you look. Wait.” It’s truly ridiculous how often Arthur has had to say that phrase these days. “Did my sister just try to murder me?”
“…Yes?” Merlin is blinking now.
“Not helping,” Arthur mutters, and throws a pillow at him.
The entire pickle resolves itself surprisingly peacefully.
Morgana, who most certainly hadn’t been kidnapped by the druids, leaves Camelot several days later. She then returns to lay siege to Camelot in about half a dozen different ways. The time with the immortal army had been pretty squicky, but Merlin sorts all of them out, and Camelot stands to see another day.
Sometime after the third attempt, Merlin declares that he and Morgana ought to have a little chat and princess-naps her to a mountainside cave. Arthur has no idea what the two talked about, nor does he want to know, but it must have worked somehow. A mere fortnight later, Arthur is called out to share a late-night picnic with the both of them.
Morgana is wearing a tattered dark dress, and her eyelids are painted a deep sickly shade of purple. All in all, she looks ridiculous, which Arthur informs her of right away.
“So do you,” Morgana snaps back almost as if on instinct. “Wait. Aren’t you angry?”
“Why would I be?”
“There was that time with the immortal army,” Morgana says. “And the mess with the skeletons, and the—”
Arthur remembers the skeletons. They had been an awful bother to hack at; Arthur had nearly chipped his sword on the ribcage of one of them.
“Alright,” he says. “I think I’m getting a little upset now.”
“Don’t joke with me,” Morgana snaps. Her eyes are wide enough for the whites to show around the edges, and her fists are clenched tight and white-knuckled. “This isn’t something for you to laugh about.”
“I know,” Arthur says. “But you’re not plotting to take over Camelot again, are you?”
Morgana slides Merlin a look and shakes her head.
“Look,” Arthur says, softening his voice. “Everyone makes mistakes. I don’t believe in holding grudges about them forever.”
Hells, Arthur himself has spilt an appalling amount of blood for someone who hasn’t even reached thirty summers of age. Morgana stares at Arthur for a long, long while before breaking into a smile ringed with tears.
“Gods,” Morgana whispers. “Gods, you’re such a prat.” Then she adds: “You know I still have magic, right? It won’t go away. I might blow up a wall because I got angry and I couldn’t control it, or turn somebody into a stoat.”
“That’s fine,” Arthur says, fighting to keep the satisfied note out of his voice. “Merlin likes me too much to let any of those happen to me anyways.”
Morgana smacks him on the arm, laughing, and it’s the best thing that has happened to him in a long, long while.
The following winter is long and bitter, and Uther contracts a hacking cough.
Despite all of the complicated history between them, Uther is still one of Gaius’ oldest friends. Gaius tries all of the remedies written down in his books, and some more without, but it is to no avail. The king is declared dead on the first day of spring, just as the late queen’s flower garden bursts into bloom.
It had been a peaceful death—the king had passed away in his sleep. But it does not erase the fact that both of Arthur’s parents have left him now.
Arthur stumbles into his chambers after a long, sleepless night standing vigil, only to find Merlin sitting on his bed.
“You should be happy, shouldn’t you?” Arthur asks in a fit of irrational anger. “The king can’t behead you anymore.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Arthur,” Merlin says with one perfectly arched brow. “You know better than anyone that you aren’t going to get rid of me by being a prick.” His voice softens. “Come here,” he says. “I know it’s been a long night.”
“You can’t speak to your lord like that,” Arthur mutters. When Merlin smiles at him, soft and a little tentative, he knows that everything will be all right in the end.
Life goes on.
“I can’t do this,” Arthur complains as Merlin threads lace through the openings of his tunic. It’s Pendragon red, velvet, embroidered with threads of literal gold; and most importantly, one of the most uncomfortable things Arthur has ever had the misfortune to wear.
“Can’t do what?” Merlin asks. Deft fingers run across Arthur’s shoulders and down his arms, pausing now and then to flick off invisible bits of lint.
“The banquet, what else? Merlin, I swear, you’re just making fun of me on purpose.”
“But you’re simply irresistible when you’re all irked up, sire,” Merlin hums. He pulls back to study Arthur with smug yellow eyes that look like a cat that got the cream. Merlin has grown far more insolent with Arthur since Arthur has found out about his true identity—not that it really counts as insolence when Merlin could swallow Arthur down in one gulp if he were so inclined.
It’s not that Arthur misses their old relationship, really. Looking back, there had been so many secrets between them that it’s a literal miracle everything hadn’t come crashing down around their ears. Still, this new Merlin will take quite a bit more getting used to.
The curve of Merlin’s lips as he smiles up at him through his lashes, though, are achingly familiar. Arthur’s own lips twitch in response.
“Come on now, Arthur,” Merlin says, eyes twinkling with mirth. “It would hardly be the king’s banquet if the king weren’t there, would it? Besides, I don’t see what there is to be nervous about. It’s just going to be a bunch of doddering old fools from the council.”
“I wouldn’t be half as nervous if it were only them,” Arthur sighs.
Uncle Agravaine had been an undeniable asset in running the kingdom after his father’s demise; that much is undeniable. (And if the man had seemed a bit too gleeful about the entire situation, well, it’s none of Arthur’s business really. Agravaine is an admirable politician, his love towards Arthur is genuine if a bit stilted, and that is all Arthur could ever ask for.)
Still, he has the unfortunate habit of trying to match Arthur up with every eligible prince—and princess—in the five kingdoms, and he has overdone himself this time around. Excessively.
“How bad could it be?” Merlin asks.
“There are going to be princesses,” Arthur replies. “Loads and loads of them.”
“Princesses?” Merlin’s fingers tighten momentarily on Arthur’s shoulder, fingertips pinpricks of heat even through the thick fabric of his tunic. Merlin’s natural heat flares like a forge in a gale. Arthur turns only to see Merlin’s eyes flickering yellow-blue-yellow, scales sparking across his face.
“No shifting in my bedchambers!” Arthur yelps. It’s only happened once before, but it isn’t an experience he cares to repeat. The stone-mason had been furious, and he hadn’t listened no matter how hard Arthur had tried to explain that he hadn’t taken a battering ram to his chamber’s floor on purpose. (Which—why would Arthur even want to do such a thing, anyway? He isn’t a raving madman, no matter how bad his tempers can get.)
“Try me,” Merlin growls, thumping angrily across Arthur’s floor. Heat flares dangerously in the air between them. “Bring a princess home with you, and charred floors are going to be the least of your worries.”
Arthur stays on high alert for the next week or so, as Merlin stomps, harrumphs, and huffs across Arthur’s room, generally using every method known to man to radiate irritation from his every pore. Gods, Arthur knows that technically Merlin is older than him, but sometimes he can be such a bloody child.
(And no, Merlin sticking his tongue out at Arthur hadn’t helped his case at all.)
The attack comes when Arthur is least expecting it.
“Merlin,” Arthur mutters, batting futilely against the long, lithe heat of Merlin’s body. The boy may look skinny, but Arthur knows that it’s all sinewy, lean muscle, and when he sets his mind to it he can be like a wall of stone. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” Merlin purrs, rubbing himself contentedly against Arthur’s side. “Just wait a moment.”
“I have to get up right now, you great big ninny,” Arthur says. “And you’re tickling me.”
“What, me?” Merlin asks, exaggeratedly coy. Something pricks gently at Arthur’s neck.
“Oh for the love of—nevermind,” Arthur groans, finally succeeding at pushing Merlin off of him. Merlin lands soundlessly on the balls of his feet and stands, a smug smile stretching across his features. “I’m blaming you if I’m late for the banquet.”
“With the princesses?” Merlin asks, a growl coloring his voice.
“Yes, with the princesses, and the princes, and all of their cousins thrice-removed! Now get out for a moment so I can get ready!”
“As you wish, my lord,” Merlin says meekly.
In retrospect, that’s when Arthur should have begun to worry.
But he doesn’t.
Can’t, because he barely has time to rearrange his cloak around his shoulders before servants are busting into his chambers and politely dragging him towards the great hall, where the feast is being held.
“My king,” Merlin whispers with surprising possessiveness as he bends down to pour Arthur’s wine.
Arthur fights not to blush despite himself.
He can’t afford to make a fool of himself in front of no fewer than ninety-five lords and ladies, after all.
Arthur has made a fool of himself.
But what is driving him crazy is that he doesn’t understand why.
No-one has outright laughed at him, of course. Camelot has been doing rather well these past months, if Arthur does say so himself, and no-one probably wants to insult its monarch through something as undignified as a giggle. Also there’s the fact that Arthur is pretty good at looking stoic when he wants to, and he has made sure to stay his most regal over the course of the feast.
But there are the sidelong looks, and the whispers behind opened fans, and even some scandalized blushes. Arthur, on the other hand, is only this far away from completely losing his temper and leaping up from his seat, yelling and waving his arms like a madman.
“If you may excuse me, sire,” says Princess Mithian. She’s one of the few people today who hasn’t been shy to tell Arthur what they thought, which is a gigantic plus—Arthur isn’t a porcelain doll made just to sit and look pretty, thank you very much. “That’s a very interesting, er, birthmark that you have there.” Her eyes are sparkling with mirth.
“Pardon?” Arthur asks, dumbstruck.
“Here,” she says, and hands Arthur one of those pocket mirrors that ladies like to carry around. It’s small and a bit tarnished, but the bite mark near Arthur’s collar stands out in stark relief.
The red, clearly magical, very clearly new bite-mark that’s shaped like a bloody dragon.
Oh gods, Arthur is going to murder his useless excuse of a manservant. That is, unless Merlin doesn’t combust under the force of Arthur’s glare first.
“Mine,” Merlin mouths, and loops Arthur a smile from across the room.
“Excuse me, my lady,” Arthur says. “I think I may need to go talk to someone. Urgently.”
“State matters?” Mithian asks, a smile tugging at her lips.
“Yes,” Arthur growls. “Now if you’ll excuse me.”
There is some murdering (or enraged planning of said murder, because Arthur needs to do some serious thinking as to whether Merlin’s ridiculous possessiveness truly is a murder-able offense) to be carried out, after all.