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Give the Dragon a Chilli

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Merlin pulled out the top drawer of his dresser to find it empty, and he knew it was going to be one of those mornings where he started his day with a peace negotiation.

He took in a deep breath, pulled out his fuzziest pair of socks, then exhaled as he walked down the hall.

His roommate, the little devil that she was, was sleeping innocently amongst her hoard. Merlin had called it a pillow fort once, which had earned him a burn mark on his favorite blanket. It was a mighty dragon’s hoard , not a flimsy pillow fort .

Aithusa’s taste in hoarding items had changed over the years. When she had been a little hatchling, just a year old and still the size of a kitten, she collected mostly coins, paper clips, and the sparse jewelry that Merlin owned. A couple years later she changed her hoard, clearing out the old items (and Merlin had enough coins to pay for a fairly nice dinner once he cashed in) and replaced them with wires and bits of electronics. Merlin’s old ipod hadn’t lasted a day (not that he still used it). Currently, at five years old, Aithusa was on a phase of pillows, blankets, and Merlin’s scarves. Sometimes she stole his old t-shirts that were worn soft with age, but she mostly kept his clothes alone. Except for his scarves.

“Aithusa, I need at least one scarf.” Merlin said, knowing that the little dragon was only pretending to sleep because she knew she was in trouble. His scarves were there last night, and not there this morning. She knew why he was here.

She blinked open her blue eyes and pretended to yawn. She made a rolling sound in her chest, as if asking what he wanted.

Merlin sighed, then he held up the socks. “Trade? Come on, Aithusa. It’s freezing out and I need my scarf.”

She eyed the socks and then narrowed her eyes at him. She yapped and then shook her head, curling around her blankets, as if to protect them.

“Oh no you don’t.” Merlin said and walked up to her and she flared her wings. She was no bigger than a house cat, but with her longer claws and the ability to breathe fire, she was slightly more intimidating.  It had never stopped Merlin before, so he dove right for her. Aithusa batted her tail at him, but he grabbed at her blanket, trying to find at least one of his scarves as she attacked him. She threatened him with little bursts of embers from her nostrils, but he just blew them away with a small wind spell. That didn’t make her happy. She tackled him and he fell into her pillow pile, scattering what felt like dozens of blankets and pillows across her room.

“Aithusa!” Merlin yelped as she landed on his chest. He saw a glimpse of red and grabbed for it, even as the dragon nipped at his ears. “Ah-ha!” Merlin yelled triumphant. Until he realized he wasn’t holding his scarf, but a pair of pants. That weren’t his. “Ah!” He yelped as he dropped them. Aithusa skidded forward, her claws skidding across the wood floor. She curled around a pile of things, as if Merlin couldn’t see it under her body.

“Aithusa.” Merlin said, putting his hands on his hips. “What did you do?”

Aithusa purred at him, cocking her head to the side innocently.

“Oh don’t play coy with me, missy.” Merlin said, and grabbed her before she could attack. Beneath her there were several pairs of pants, socks, and one pair of fur-lined gloves. None of them were Merlin’s. He looked at the white dragon in his arms, who seemed to be looking anywhere but him. Her long neck was bent around so Merlin couldn’t stare her down.

Aithusa .” Merlin said. “Where did you get these?”

She rolled a purring noise in her chest, looking at him tentatively. She gave him big innocent dragon eyes and swished her tail.

“Oh no, you don’t.” Merlin said, pointing a finger at her, “You’re not getting away with this, you devious reptile. You’re going to collect up everything that isn’t yours and we are going to return it.”

She started to make a whining noise, but Merlin cut her off. “Remember what we said about hoards? You can hoard whatever you want, but you can not steal anything.” Merlin pointed to the various socks, none of which seemed to be from the same pair. Dragons, apparently, had a very bad conceptualization of private property.

She whined, but this time she swished her tail and wrapped her wings around Merlin’s shoulders, in the form of a dragon hug.

“Alright you little devil.” Merlin said, hugging her back. “Collect everything up- including my scarf- and I’ll lend you my fuzzy socks.” She seemed to perk up and hopped down from his arms, skittering across the hoard as she collected up items with her snout and claws.

By the time Merlin ate breakfast and returned to Aithusa’s room, there was a considerable pile of pants and socks, as well as Merlin’s red scarf (and his blue one, but Merlin let it slide). He gathered the items into a laundry basket and then tossed Aithusa the purple socks, who caught them in mid-air with her wings helping her glide back down. She slipped under a blanket with the socks, disappearing from sight.

Dragons .” Merlin sighed and went into the living room with the stolen items.

Since the items came from somewhere in the building (hopefully) Merlin decided to post a notice in the lobby where the man whose pants were in his dragon’s hoard was likely to see it.

With a picture of the items printed out Merlin quickly wrote out a message: “My dragon is a little sh*t. She decided to hoard some items that weren’t her own and I found them only recently. If these are yours, please contact me in room 304 so I may return them (and apologize). -Merlin”

Merlin pulled on his scrubs and then on his way to work he pinned the notice to the lobby corkboard. He only hoped someone would see it soon.

***

Every time Merlin came back from the grocery store, it felt like he was struggling under the weight of several bags, and always had to resort to a simple lifting spell. It wasn’t because he ate a lot, but because he was caring for a dragon. She went through raw meat and baby carrots like crazy. He grunted as he shifted his keys from his hand into one of the bags, deciding he would get them later. Before making his way to the stairs, he took a glance at the week-old notice on the lobby corkboard to see it sitting there, still untouched.

At this point he figured he should just throw out the lost items (Aithusa would be annoyed that she wouldn’t get to keep them, but Merlin would be damned if he let her win this round). When he opened the door to the staircase, he was surprised to hear the tapping of animal feet bounding down the stairs, followed by an annoyed voice yelling “Get back here!”

A brown blob streaked past him, surprising him enough that the door slammed into his side and he stumbled backward.

“Cavall!” A man barrelled down the steps, banging the door open this time on Merlin’s elbow. Merlin yelped as the man passed him, not even giving Merlin a second glance. He raced forward and grabbed the dog, a German Shepard puppy that seemed to think he was playing a game as he barked and wagged his tail excitedly.

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing.” The man said to the dog, “You’re not going out without a sweater.” The man held onto the dog, his other hand holding a beige sweater. The man situated the dog, holding him down between his legs as he tried to get the sweater over the dog’s head.

“Need a hand?” Merlin asked, as the man struggled to put the dog’s legs through the sweater. The man looked up in surprise, and Merlin got a proper look at him. Damn, Merlin thought to himself, it wasn’t fair at all for someone to be that handsome.

“How long have you been there?” The man asked.

“You ran into me on the way down here” Merlin said, setting down the bags and coming over to the pair. The dog, who only had one leg through the sweater, wiggled out of the man’s grip and trotted over to Merlin. He sniffed at Merlin’s leg, the sweater flopping onto the ground.

Cavall ” The man berated before looking up at Merlin, “Sorry, he's just a puppy.”

“It’s alright, I like animals.” Merlin said, bending over and letting the German Shepherd sniff his hand. Merlin thought of his own animal and corrected himself, “Well most of the time I like animals. Aithusa’s been a pain in my ass for the last week.”

“Your dog?” The man asked.

“Dragon.” Merlin corrected. “She started a new hoard and she’s been driving me insane for the last couple months. I mean, having a dragon is nice in the winter when you don’t need a furnace, but I swear it’s never a dull day.”

“You have a... dragon .” The man said, raising a brow at Merlin, his blue eyes widening. “In your apartment?”

Merlin realized this was an odd thing to say, especially since most dragons lived in sanctuaries and were the size of cars. “She’s a baby dragon.”

“A baby dragon...with a hoard.” The man repeated. “What the hell does a baby dragon even hoard?”

“Well apparently she likes to steal socks and pants. Though she’s quite fond of my scarves.” Merlin nodded over to the lobby corkboard, “I’ve been trying to find out who they belong to. Wouldn’t happen to be yours, would they?”

The man looked at Merlin as if he thought he was the maddest person he ever came across. He walked over to the corkboard and Merlin watched as the man looked at the print out and froze in place. He tore down the paper and held up the page.

“I’m not sure if I should be more concerned that you have a dragon in your flat or that she is apparently fond of my pants .” Arthur said, his cheeks flaming.

Merlin groaned, “Jesus, I am so sorry. I told her not to hoard anything that wasn’t hers or mine, but she’s just a baby and doesn’t always understand.”

“It’s alright, I suppose.” The man sounded more confused than concerned, and Merlin was happy for that. He looked at the print out before looking up again. “Merlin? Is that your name?”

“Yeah?” Merlin raised a brow, wondering if he should be offended by his tone. “You have a dog named Cavall .”

“His name’s Cavall because my name’s Arthur ” said the man with an imperious tone worthy of a king. It made Merlin laugh, and it excited Cavall who placed both his front paws on Merlin’s thighs and sniffed Merlin. He was obviously still a puppy, with his large ears, big paws, and clumsy movements. Arthur rushed over, and tried to amend his dog’s poor manners, but Merlin loved animals. In response, he rubbed the dog’s ears.

“He probably smells Aithusa.” Merlin gently putting Cavall back on the floor. “Do I smell like dragon ash?” He asked the dog as he rubbed up and down the dog’s back until he fell onto his side and let Merlin rub his belly.

“Does she breathe fire at you?” Arthur asked, slightly scandalized.

“Not usually. Mostly little embers.” Merlin said. “She’s been moody because I moved all the stuff- well, I guess your stuff- out of her hoard. She’s not been happy with me.”

“Why doesn’t she steal your clothes?” Arthur asked, looking back at the print out, which showed a considerable pile of clothes. It must be more than a bit odd to find out the pants you lost were stolen by a dragon.

Merlin shrugged. “She never liked any of them except my scarves. Maybe you’ve got nice detergent?”

Arthur narrowed his eyes as he asked seriously, “Do dragons like detergent?”

“I don’t know.” Merlin laughed. “Aithusa’s never hoarded blankets and pillows before.”

“I wouldn’t know either, I’ve never seen a dragon before.” Arthur said.

“You’ve never… “ Merlin asked. “Haven’t you ever been to a dragon sanctuary as a kid? Or seen them fly overhead in the North?” When Merlin was in school, going to the Sanctuaries was the most popular field trip next to the zoo and the museum. Merlin couldn’t imagine a life without ever seeing a dragon, especially since he practically grew up with them.

Arthur shook his head, “My dad wasn’t keen on dragons. He never let me go.”

Merlin knew the type of people who didn’t like dragons. They were the same type of people who had tried to kill them off centuries before, and the same people who were currently trying to cut funding to dragon sanctuaries. They were also the type of people who usually hated sorcerers. Merlin eyed Arthur carefully, hoping he wasn’t such a person. Arthur must have felt Merlin’s scrutiny because he smiled at Merlin.

“I don’t know much about dragons, but this dragon hardly seems threatening. She’s stealing socks.” Arthur raised a brow, “Hardly intimidating. Actually kind of measly for a dragon.”

Merlin smiled, “Yeah. She’s a bit of a toddler.”

Arthur laughed. “I think I know the feeling.” He bent down to Cavall and finally put on the sweater properly and linked up the lead to his collar. “It’s cold outside.” Arthur said, and Merlin couldn’t help but notice a blush on Arthur’s cheeks. Merlin couldn’t help but think Arthur didn’t look like the type of man who would put his dog in a sweater.

Arthur nodded over to the door, “I’m on my way to work, right now. Would you mind if I picked up my things this evening?”

“Sounds good to me.” Merlin said. “I’ll be home all evening.”

“Perfect. See you then.” Arthur picked up Cavall’s lead and nodded at Merlin before heading out the door.

***

“Aithusa.” Merlin warned her as she climbed up his trouser leg. If he wasn’t wearing a belt she would have pulled them down by now. Merlin continued cooking over the stovetop, despite the dragon attached to his leg. “Food will be ready in ten minutes. Patience, remember?”

She whined at him and Merlin decided he needed his leg to move around the kitchen. He threw a carrot from his salad across the kitchen, she detached her claws from his leg and bounded across the floor, munching happily.

Her dinner was usually chunks of whatever raw meat Merlin bought that week, but Merlin had a rule about no food until he was ready to eat (unless he was running very late). He had a system, and if Aithusa wanted to live in an apartment then she needed to follow the rules.

Merlin was washing his hands, when someone knocked at the door. With the towel in hand, he answered the door to see Arthur and Cavall.

“I just came from work, I hope I didn’t interrupt.” Arthur said.

“No, I was just making dinner, come on in.” Merlin opened the door wide to let in Arthur and Cavall. “Would you like anything to drink?”

“No, thank you.” Arthur’s voice caught at the end when Cavall suddenly tugged at the lead and dragged Arthur forward. The dog’s claws clacked against the hardwood floor and he whined a bit. Merlin looked around and saw that Aithusa was watching the other animal hesitantly from the hall. She crept forward slowly but Cavall didn’t seem scared by the dragon at all, still pulling on the lead.

“Cavall, heel.” Arthur said, trying to hold back his dog. Obviously Cavall was still in training.

“It’s alright, Aithusa won’t hurt him.” Merlin walked over to Aithusa, picking her up and cradling her in his arms. She held onto his shoulders, but her head turned over to keep an eye on Cavall. Merlin bent down so that Cavall could reach Aithusa face to face. She stuck out her snout to the dog, who sniffed her.

“Hey there, Cavall.” Merlin said, “This is Aithusa. Probably a little weird for you, huh?”

The dog snuffed out a breath, as if the smell of Aithusa was odd for his nose. Then he licked at her snout, making Aithusa chirp and wiggle her head in surprise. She squirmed to be let down, and Merlin didn’t have much choice when she pushed out her wings. She was much smaller than the German shepard, but she was still a dragon. Aithusa circled Cavall, ducking under the lead on which Arthur had a firm grip. He eyed the white dragon warily, leaning away from her. Merlin didn’t blame him. Most people only saw dragons from afar or behind fences at sanctuaries and Arthur had said he had never seen a dragon in person before.

As Aithusa circled Cavall, the dog did the same, smelling her as if she were a weird dog or perhaps a scaly cat. Cavall looked up to Arthur and then back at Aithusa, wagging his tail happily, as if to tell his owner that he liked the new creature.

Merlin watched as Arthur’s wary expression split into a smile. “Cavall, you’re too curious for your own good.” Arthur sighed before leaning down and unclipping the lead. “Don’t get yourself burned.” Arthur said as Cavall trotted toward Aithusa.

“I can fire proof your dog for a bit, if that would make you feel better?” Merlin said, throwing caution to the wind. If Arthur didn’t like sorcerers, then he could pick up his stuff and leave.

“You can…?” Arthur asked, his brows raised high.

Merlin pointed to himself. “Sorcerer.” He waited for Arthur’s reaction, but none came. “She’s better than she used to be, but little embers can escape her every once and a while.” Merlin gestured to Aithusa, who was watching Cavall’s tail with fascination. She copied the motion with her own tail, but it curled around too much to look similar. She ended up curling it around herself and flicking the tip multiple times.

“I think we’ll skip the spell.” Arthur said. “We won’t be here long.”

“Oh. Right.” Merlin nodded, wondering if that was Arthur’s way of excusing himself from the apartment. “Here, let me get your things.” He gestured for Arthur to follow him to Aithusa’s room. The room used to be a bedroom, but now there wasn’t any furniture except for shelf-like structure along the walls that Merlin had built so that Aithusa could climb and practice flying. In the corner of the room and spreading out to the center was a pile of large pillows and blankets, scattered with the occasional piece of clothing.

Near the door, Merlin picked up the laundry basket full of clothes.

“You’ve probably been looking for these.” Merlin held out the nice pair of fur-lined gloves.

Arthur made a noise of surprise, “I was wondering where those went. I thought I left them at a restaurant two weeks ago.”

“How did she get into your flat, anyway?” Merlin asked. It wasn't unusual for Aithusa to roam around outside when Merlin was home but getting into someone else’s apartment was another thing entirely.

“I was wondering that too. I think she must have climbed through my bathroom window. It’s not very big and I had never worried about closing it.” Arthur paused, “Until now of course. But I suppose if more of my things go missing, I know where to find them.” He looked over to Aithusa, and Merlin was happy to see that Arthur was watching the dragon with a smile. He didn't seem to be displeased by Merlin’s burglarizing flying lizard.

“I promise she won’t do it again. Well- I promise I told her to stop.” Merlin gave a hesitant smile.

“Well, I hope she stops because I was running low on pants, but if so, I know they’re in good hands. Or rather claws?” Arthur cracked a grin.

“That was a truly terrible joke.” Merlin said with a laugh, and despite himself he was truly hoping Arthur would stick around for a while. “Would you like to stay for dinner? It’s the least I could do.”

“Well, I don’t think I’m leaving anytime soon.” Arthur said nodding over to the hoard of blankets and pillows where Cavall was jumping onto the pillows, chasing after Aithusa, who was diving in and out of the hoard with more ease than the dog.

“Aw” Merlin cooed. “She doesn’t often get to play with animals her own size.”

Arthur looked at him like he was odd again, but Merlin shrugged it off. “Chicken marsala?” Merlin asked.

“If you have enough.” Arthur said.

“I have plenty. Come on.” Merlin lead them back to the kitchen and gestured for Arthur to sit while he finished.

“Do you always bring your dog to work?” Merlin asked as he drained the pasta.

“I own Camelot Training Center. It’s a gym and rehabilitation center. No one really minds Cavall running around. He helps some of my clients relax.” Arthur said, and Merlin noticed that Arthur’s black polo shirt had the CTC symbol on the breast pocket.

“I’ve heard of it, actually.” Merlin said, thinking of his friend, Freya, who went to CTC. He wondered if Arthur knew of her, but didn’t want to ask and dull the mood just in case. “Do you work with people, or are you just the owner?”

“I’m a trainer and physical therapist as well.” Arthur said.

Merlin looked over his shoulder to notice, not for the first time, that Arthur was quite fit. Arthur coughed and Merlin knew he had been looking too long at his broad shoulders and barrel chest. Merlin turned back to the food, hoping the cooking would explain the flush in his face.

“Is Cavall a trainer too?” Merlin asked with a smile to cover his pause.

Arthur laughed, tipping back his head. “If running around and wagging his tail is seen as encouragement, maybe he’s a coach of some sort.”

“I’ve heard pep talks are very important.” Merlin countered, setting the food onto two plates. “Dogs are always encouraging creatures.”

“Cavall seems to be that way.” Arthur looked over his shoulder to where Cavall was walking around, sniffing the apartment curiously. When he caught sight of Arthur looking at him, he bounded over.

“Hey there, boy.” Arthur rubbed Cavall’s ears and made affectionate noises as Cavall licked his cheek. Merlin realized that if he let this man stay for much longer, he would fall for him in a heartbeat.

Merlin set down the plate and then put Aithusa’s food on the other side of the room in the cat-tree-turned-dragon-nest. She still had trouble flying, but she managed to flap her wings enough to make it up to the food.

“Would Cavall want some meat? I’ve cut up some steak for Aithusa.” Merlin said, looking up to Aithusa, who was munching on a chunk of meat, which turned her snout pink.

Arthur looked over to Cavall, who was excited by the smell of food. “Maybe a little. Don’t want to spoil him.”

Merlin held out a chunk, and Cavall sat and patiently waited. Thinking of Arthur, Merlin wasn’t surprised to see that Cavall was moderately trained, even if he was excitable. Merlin tossed the piece, and Cavall tried to catch it mid-air and missed. Nonetheless, it didn’t stop his enthusiasm. Merlin collected a few more pieces and set down a bowl, before washing his hands and sitting across from Arthur.

“So what do you do, Merlin, to be able to afford steaks for your dragon?” Arthur asked as he tucked into his food.

“I’m a medical sorcerer at Avalon Hospital.” Merlin answered.

Arthur choked a bit on his wine, but it was barely a second's hesitation before Arthur glossed over it. “How long have you been working there?”

“A couple years.” Merlin said, wondering why Arthur had been surprised but decided he didn't know Arthur well enough to ask.

They talked throughout dinner, and even after the food was all gone. Merlin talked about his work, and how he had studied medicinal magic at Avalon University. Arthur listened intently and mentioned that he had been in the army before he returned to study kinesiology at Camelot University. He spoke of the training center, noting the similarity between Merlin’s work as a magical doctor and Arthur’s work with rehabilitation. They skirted over magical injuries, even though it was something they both worked with directly, since it was a sensitive topic. Merlin was adamant that the source of the problem was not magic itself but the malicious people who used magic to injure others. But he didn’t want to bring up such a debate at the moment.

Arthur asked about Aithusa, and the quirks of having a baby dragon living with Merlin. “You must have odd stories about having a pet dragon.”

“She’s not really a pet.” Merlin answered, pushing his empty plate away from himself as he leaned back in his chair. “Dragon’s aren’t animals the way dogs or cats are. They’re intelligent magical creatures that have their own societies and language. Right now, she’s less of a pet and I’m more of a...babysitter. A surrogate parent?” Merlin offered with a shrug. “Anyways, she comes in handy in the winter.”

Aithusa must have known they were talking about her because she trotted over to Merlin and crawled up his leg until she was sitting on his lap. Cavall, who had been sitting next to Arthur throughout the meal in the hopes of scraps, lifted his head and watched her with large golden eyes.

“How so?” Arthur asked.

Merlin set his hand on the crook of her wings, and itched the scales there. Aithusa fluttered her wings and purred happily. “Sometimes in the winter she sleeps in my room so I don’t have to use the furnace as often. Dragons are both ectothermic and endothermic. She can create fire in her belly to warm herself.” Merlin lifted her long neck to expose the spot on her chest that heated under his touch. “But she also needs to absorb heat. So she likes curling around me or sitting in the embers of a fire.”

“Huh. I’m sure I learned this in school when I was younger, but as you can tell I grew up in a very non-magic household.”

Merlin shrugged awkwardly. “I grew up with magic in my veins. It’s as natural to me as anything else.”

Arthur nodded and leaned forward. “Magic is natural in the world. Everyone should see it as natural as anything else.”

Merlin, surprised by Arthur’s conviction, smiled unabashed. “Exactly.”

Aithusa lifted her neck and laid it across Merlin’s chest so that her snout rested right under his neck. She nudged her snout, poking at him. Merlin looked down, his chin knocking against Aithusa’s nose.

Arthur laughed as he asked, “What in the world is she doing?”

“She’s bothering me because she wants dessert.” Merlin sighed as Aithusa continued to nudge him. “Okay, okay. Hold on Aithusa.” He set her down as he stood up, and she happily bounced down to the floor to follow him to the kitchen.

He pulled out his dragon-proof jar and popped it open.

“Are those chillies?” Arthur asked incredulously.

“Dragons love spicy things.” As if to prove his point, Aithusa used her hind legs to jump and snatch the chilli right out of Merlin’s hand. “Oi!” Merlin yelped in surprise. “ Patience , Aithusa.”

The little dragon didn’t seem too sorry about her actions as she munched on the chilli. She licked her snout and a little bit of smoke came out of her nostrils. Her big blue eyes looked up at him, her tail curling around her body as she begged for more.

Merlin snorted out a laugh. “God, look at those eyes. I’m the worst Dragon dad ever.” Even though he had a rule about only one chilli a night, he threw down another one. Aithusa squeaked in delight as she caught the chilli.

As Merlin and Arthur continued to talk, Aithusa curled up on her dragon nest, where she watched them lazily, and Cavall curled up at Arthur’s feet, until Arthur noticed he was asleep.

“I better get him home.” Arthur said, picking up the rather large puppy and carrying him like a child. The dog snuffled, and licked Arthur’s face sleepily. Arthur set him down on his feet and picked up the laundry basket full of his returned property.

“Well, I’m glad you could stay.” Merlin said. “It was lovely meeting you. Even if it was under odd circumstances.”

Arthur laughed, “Yes, I suppose there are better ways of meeting your neighbors.” He held out his hand, “All the same- Thank you for dinner.”

“Anytime.” Merlin said, shaking his hand and hoping he would see Arthur again.

***

The next day, Arthur showed up at Merlin’s door unannounced.

“Oh, I wasn’t sure if you would be on shift or not. I came by earlier and you weren’t home.” Arthur said as soon as Merlin opened the door. “I wanted to give this back” Arthur held up the laundry basket.

“Oh, thanks.” Merlin had completely forgotten about it. Not that he had forgotten about Arthur.

“Well…” Arthur stood awkwardly.

Merlin blurted out, “Aithusa is sorry, by the way.”

“She’s... sorry ?” Arthur asked with raised brows.

“Yeah, she came into my room last night and dropped off my fluffy socks. She never gives back anything from her hoard willingly. I think she realized she wasn’t supposed to steal and it was her way of apologizing.”

“Ah.” Arthur said, looking amused more than anything else. “Well, it’s no harm done.” Arthur smiled before adding, “So you have fluffy socks?”

“My feet get cold.” Merlin said quickly, not sure why he found it embarrassing.

“Course they do.” Arthur said, his eyes alight with mirth.

There was a long pause and Merlin wracked his brain for something to keep Arthur to stay.

“Well-” Merlin started as Arthur said, “I was-”

They both paused.

Arthur spoke up first. “I think it might be best if I got your number- you know if Aithusa needs my pants for her hoard and she decides to burglarize again.” Arthur held out his phone, and Merlin looked down at in surprise. He had to bite his lip to hold in his smile as he tapped in his number.

“You know Cavall isn’t a very good guard dog if he let a dragon into your apartment.” Merlin said as he handed back the phone.

Arthur rolled his eyes as he tapped out something on his phone. A second later Merlin’s phone trilled.

“I’ll talk to you later, Merlin.” Arthur said and Merlin couldn’t help but watch him go until he was down the stairs. Merlin pulled out his phone and read the message ‘Arthur Pendragon. Flat 207. Victim of Pant-Hoarding Baby Dragon.’

***

Despite asking for Merlin’s number for purely pant-related-reasons (which sounded much more appealing than it was in reality) Arthur messaged Merlin about anything that came to mind. They began to have daily conversations in between Merlin’s shifts at the hospital and Arthur’s training sessions. He must have been a little giddy and all too conspicuous because it was only a day before Gwen, one of the nurses who worked with medicinal sorcerers, found out why he was smiling like an idiot whenever his phone buzzed. Now every time he pulled out his phone, even if it was work related, she would ask Merlin if it was Arthur just to watch him blush.

On Thursday, Merlin was on the last hour of his shift at the hospital when his phone buzzed again with a text from Arthur. The message only included a picture of what Merlin assumed was one of the work-out rooms at Camelot Training Center. There were treadmills and ellipticals with a wall of mirrors on one side of the room and a few people scattered across the machines. In the center of the picture was Cavall curled up and fast asleep on one of the treadmills. On the ground there was a propped up paper that read ‘Sleeping on the job.’

Merlin quickly typed back a few heart-eye emojis and ‘Give him a raise’ before he headed over to his next patient.

Merlin checked his phone again during his afternoon break, and found another message from Arthur. ‘Oh now he wants to work.’ Arthur had sent back with a picture of Cavall on the treadmill, but this time the puppy was fully awake and walking. Unfortunately, someone was trying to use the treadmill and Cavall was trotting between the man’s legs. Fortunately, the man on the treadmill was smiling down at the excited puppy. Merlin had to hold back his laugh as he sent back ‘He’s trying his best.’

On the metro ride back home, while he had no reception underground, Merlin came up with the perfect response. When he arrived at the building, Merlin ran up the stairs to his apartment, and searched for Aithusa. Luckily, the little dragon was there by the door to greet him, as she sometimes did. She hopped up his leg and Merlin caught her so that she was cradled in his arms.

“Hello there, little one.” Merlin said, and put down his bag as he itched Aithusa’s wings.

He pulled out a piece of paper from his printer and wrote out the sign. Walking to Aithusa’s room, he plopped her down onto her hoard of blankets and pillows, and then propped up the sign. He snapped the photo and sent it to Arthur. The sign read, ‘I steal my neighbor’s pants and socks for my pillow fort hoard.’ Aithusa, to her credit, didn't look the least bit guilty. Her tail was curled around the sign and her wide blue eyes were looking at the camera innocently.

Arthur responded back with ‘Dragon shaming is a new level.’

‘It’s a good thing she can’t read. I’d be nothing but a pile of ash rn.’ Merlin typed.

When Arthur didn’t respond back, Merlin figured he was busy so he went back to the kitchen and started his dinner. An hour later his phone buzzed with a message from Arthur. ‘To return the favor, would you like to come over for dinner this Friday? The pants-stealer is welcome to come along too.’

Merlin smiled, looking down at mentioned pants-stealer.

“If something comes of this,” Merlin said to Aithusa, “You can have as many chillis as you want.”

Aithusa only understood the word ‘chillies’ and she swished her tail back and forth, not unlike Cavall.

Merlin typed, ‘I’ll bring a bottle of wine and the pants-stealer.’

***

“So you have a date?” Gwen asked as she leaned up against the counter. Merlin flipped over the clipboard and read over his next patient’s medical and magical history. Gwen poked his sigh. “Excuse me, Doctor Emrys, I think you’re blushing.”

“I am not.” Merlin said as he pulled on his teal scrubs to hide the blush that ran up his neck. “It’s just dinner.”

Gwen rolled her eyes, “Only you, Merlin. Let me know if Aithusa’s a good matchmaker, will you?”

“Like you need a matchmaker. Isn’t your true love waiting for you?” Merlin teased back, nodding toward the hospital doors where somewhere in the parking lot Police Officer McDreamy was waiting for Gwen.

Gwen turned as pink as her scrubs and Merlin felt triumphant. “Yeah, but I actually asked Lance out.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m getting there.” Merlin said, before glaring at Gwen, “Hey, wasn’t I the one who forced you to send that text to him?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Gwen slapped down a couple files and raised a brow at Merlin. “Go finish your shift so you can leave on time to see your friend .”

Merlin had to laugh as Gwen walked away and Lance met her at the door. Merlin smiled at them and Lance waved at him as they left the hospital.

Pushing aside Gwen’s teasing and the butterflies in his stomach, Merlin went on to see his next patient. As he walked down the hall, his magic flowed through the hospital easily, picking out the magic behind the closed doors and privacy curtains as if it was a surveillance system. When Merlin examined a patient his magic could reach out to feel the illness of the body if he concentrated, but detecting the illness of magic was like waving a bright red flag in Merlin’s face. The diseased magic and its cause had always been easy to spot for Merlin as if it was inflamed as a vivid bruise. When Merlin had first studied medicinal sorcerery at university he discovered that most sorcerers didn’t have the same ease at diagnosing patients. But then again, Merlin’s magic had always been strong.

Merlin went through his shift in a banal haze. He spoke to patients, concentrated on the cases, filled out prescriptions, and explained medical conditions to loved ones in a soft voice. By the time he was back in the locker room, changing into his clothes and throwing in his scrubs, he had forgotten his anxiety about seeing Arthur again.

Back at his flat, Merlin cleaned up and pulled his nice blue jumper. Then he went to search for the pants-stealer. He found her in her room, napping under her blankets. When she saw him she perked up, happy to see that he was home. She yipped happily at him as he pulled her into his arms, “Ready to see Cavall again?” He asked, knowing that the little dragon was fascinated with the puppy.

With a bottle of wine and Aithusa by his side, Merlin walked downstairs to Flat 207. Well, Merlin walked . Aithusa glided. Using the top of the stairs as a landing pad, she glided down the stairs and skidded to the next landing before turning and gliding down the next flight of stairs. She looked back up at Merlin from down the stairs and gave him a smug look, as if to prove she was faster and therefore superior to Merlin. Dragons , Merlin thought with an inner roll of his eyes. It was a good thing that Merlin only lived a floor above Arthur or else Aithusa would be zipping down the entire building’s staircase at full speed.

At the door to Arthur’s flat, Aithusa impatiently waited at Merlin’s ankles. As soon as Merlin knocked on the door, Arthur flung it open and said, “I have a confession to make.”

Merlin raised a brow and waited.

“I’m absolute shit at cooking.” Arthur confessed desperately. “How do you feel about ordering pizza?”

Merlin laughed as he stepped into the flat. “I think that I don’t care as long as I get to eat.” Aithusa rushed into the flat as soon as Merlin stepped inside. She looked around the new place with excitement and found Cavall who wagged his tail in greeting.

“I’m glad, because honestly I don’t want to poison you with my cooking.” Arthur said.

“You can’t be-”

“If you’re going to say I’m not that bad, you’re wrong. So wrong. There was an incident with a chicken and no one will ever let me forget about it.”

Arthur led Merlin into the kitchen, gesturing for Merlin to take a seat at the table as he uncorked the wine. He poured two glasses as he retold the story of how eighteen-year-old Arthur had tried to woo a girl with chicken. Merlin laughed into his wine as Arthur described how he had just thrown the entire chicken onto the oven. No prepping. Not even a pan beneath it. Apparently the smoke had caused the fire alarm and sprinklers to go off.

Arthur concluded with, “So now I’m banned from cooking anything that isn’t canned soup or toast.”

“Well, did you get the girl in the end?” Merlin asked.

“No, she thought I was a disaster, which to be fair, I was. But she didn’t need to be so blunt about it.” Arthur shrugged. “Anyways, it turned out the excessive flirting with girls was compensation for being gay.”

Merlin snorted with surprise, figuring that Arthur was straight after the chicken-wooing-story. Merlin coughed for a moment,  “Sorry, I just thought-”

“So did I.” Arthur answered with a smile. “Believe me, after going into the army and seeing a lot of fit blokes in uniform, you figure it out fairly quickly.”

“Oh my god.” Merlin burst out laughing. “Not that I don’t agree wholeheartedly, but please tell me there was more thought than that for joining the army?”

“There was a lot of factors into it.” Arthur said, oddly diplomatic. Merlin couldn’t help but notice he looked a little uncomfortable as he said, “It was something I always wanted to do.”

“And now you work with soldiers at your center, right?” Merlin asked.

Arthur nodded, “Anyone who needs rehab, but a lot are soldiers. We work with all kind of injuries, including magical.”

There was an awkward pause and Merlin bit his lip trying not the say anything. In some twisted logic, many people blamed all sorcerers for the cause of magical injuries or even magic as a whole. It was ironic because some of those people who hated sorcerers were his patients, and then Merlin had to heal them with his magic. It was a sensitive topic, and Merlin wondered if Arthur distrusted magic because of the injuries he had seen during his time in the army.

“You know, when we were out there,” Arthur said as he looked down at his drink, “Magic saved my skin so many times. Some soldiers come back angry and bitter because magic was used against them even though it was hardly different than the guns and IEDs. But I can’t ever forget how many sorcerers risked their lives without any thanks.”

Merlin looked up to see Arthur’s gaze was somewhere else. Merlin opened his mouth to say something more, perhaps to say he wished more people saw it that way, but Arthur only shook his head suddenly to clear his thoughts. “I’ll order the pizza, shall I? Any preference?”

“Mushrooms and olives?” Merlin offered.

“Any preference on sausage?” Arthur asked.

“Only if it comes in uniform.” Merlin gave a cheeky smile.

Arthur’s eyes widened and then he barked out a laugh, his head tipping back. “You’re cheeky.”

“So people tell me.” Merlin said, taking a sip of his wine to cover his smile.

Arthur pulled out his phone, ordering in the pizza. Merlin left him to the order and found his way to the living room. The coffee table was cluttered with some fitness magazines, a forgotten mug of tea, and Merlin couldn’t help but smile at the sight of a puppy training book. Blankets and pillows were piled over the back of the couch, which faced a fairly large and expensive looking television.

In the center of the room Cavall and Aithusa were rolling around as if they were old pals.

“Be careful with him, ‘thusa.” Merlin said as she nibbled on the puppy’s large ears. In response, Cavall laid on top of her, wagging his tail as his entire weight held Aithusa down and she struggled to move. Apparently Cavall could hold his own against a dragon.

“Good boy.” Merlin said with a laugh as Aithusa whined in defeat.

“It'll be here in thirty.” Arthur said as he walked into the living room, “Make yourself comfortable- Ah, Jesus! Cavall!”

Arthur barked at his dog, who had his jaws around the base of Aithusa’s neck where it met with her shoulder. Aithusa’s neck was long enough to twist around and nibble at the back of Cavall’s neck in turn.

“Oh she’s fine.” Merlin said, knowing that ‘fighting’ was how puppies learned each other's limits, as was the same for hatchling dragons. “Her scales are as strong as steel. Nothing is getting through that.”

As for Cavall, Aithusa had learned long ago not to bite or nibble too hard. She hadn’t so much as nicked Merlin since her first year out of the egg. When she had been only a few weeks old she had learned how to bite gently, although Merlin’s ears still had dozens of scars where the kitten-sized dragon had nibbled them enthusiastically.

The German Shepherd and the dragon looked up at Arthur with wide pleading eyes. Cavall looked guilty, but Aithusa looked surprised someone dared to command her. She only humored Merlin and pretended to go along with his rules, as evident by how Merlin met Arthur in the first place.

While Cavall was distracted Aithusa wiggled out from under him and landed on top of him. She swished her tail happily and Cavall recognized the gesture and wagged his tail in return.

Arthur grabbed a toy off the side table, a knotted rope, and Cavall instantly perked up. Arthur sat cross legged in front of Cavall, who chomped on the toy as soon as it was in biting distance. Arthur tugged on it and Cavall pulled back. Aithusa, unhappy to see her playmate was distracted, glared at Arthur. She quickly changed her mind when Arthur let Cavall have the toy and then Cavall turned to Aithusa, as if offering it. Aithusa sniffed the toy and then tugged on it, starting a new game of tug of war.

Arthur rubbed Cavall’s fur, though he wasn’t so easily distracted from his game with Aithusa. Cavall tugged with his rear legs holding his ground, while the little dragon was barely trying. Merlin wondered if she was going to tear the rope by accident.

“How old is Cavall?” Merlin asked as he sat on the couch, watching Arthur play with the two animals.

“Only five months.” Arthur said.

“Not very old at all. Did you buy him as a newborn puppy?” Merlin asked.

Arthur nodded, “One of my clients was looking for people to buy puppies after her German Shepherd accidently got pregnant. She had eight puppies that she didn’t know what to do with. I hadn’t been planning on buying a dog...but, you know.” Arthur shrugged. Cavall had given up and Aithusa was gnawing on the rope with interest. Arthur pulled Cavall into his lap, his paws in the air looking like a very large baby in Arthur’s arms. “He was a bit of an impulse buy.  Never regretted it for a second though.” Arthur rubbed Cavall’s belly and his tail wapped at Arthur’s leg loudly. “He keeps me company.”

“Do you need the company?” Merlin asked and immediately wished he had asked a different question. It was just this side of too personal. As if Arthur was going to admit to being lonely or wanting a dog for any number of reasons.

Arthur gave a shy smile, his eyes on Cavall rather than on Merlin. “Maybe. I just didn’t know it at the time.”

“It was sort of the opposite with me.” Merlin said, diverting the topic before Arthur thought he was prying too much. “Aithusa refused to leave my side.”

“Really?” Arthur asked, watching the dragon who was now on her back with all four claws on the toy with her teeth at one of the knots. Merlin was sure she would unknot the toy by the end of the night.

“Yeah, we have this joke that Aithusa is the only duckling-dragon because she imprinted on me.” Merlin said.

“We?” Arthur asked.

Merlin nodded, “The caretakers at the sanctuary.”

“I was wondering that.” Arthur said. “Where did you even get a dragon?”

“The Emrys Dragon Sanctuary.” Merlin said. “I hatched her after we found her egg deep inside a cave. It’s so rare to find eggs like that in this day and age. Most are hatched as soon as the mother lays them.”

You hatched her.”  Arthur repeated. “You’re…”

“Yeah.” Merlin ran a hand over the back of his neck. He pointed to himself as he said, “Merlin Emrys.” Arthur may not have ever been to a Dragon sanctuary, but most people knew the name Emrys. Hardly anyone would know him by his face, but if they heard his last name, they often asked if he was related to the Emrys Dragonlords.

“Oh.” Arthur said, looking over at Merlin and then at Aithusa.  It was always a bit odd to tell people he was a dragonlord. Some people were awed by the powers of dragonlords, others feared it. Merlin still wasn’t sure where Arthur stood on all things magic.

“That actually explains a lot.” Arthur stated simply.

Merlin smiled, tension releasing from his shoulders.

Merlin remembered how he hatched Aithusa’s egg five years ago. As he had said her name the egg had crackled under his magic and Aithusa poked her snout out of the shell. Merlin had cried like a happy parent as he cradled her in his hands and she nibbled on his thumb. When she was barely a week old she had curled up on Merlin’s shoulders and bit down on his ear (making him bleed excessively) and somehow marking him as hers. All the while, managing to endear herself to him at the same time. After that, Aithusa wouldn’t leave him alone. She had liked the other humans on the dragon sanctuary, and some of the other dragons too, but she always went back to Merlin.

When he had gotten the job at Avalon Hospital, there had been fighting words thrown in the Emrys household. Merlin had to persuade his dad that Aithusa could live with him in the city. Balinor Emrys was a stubborn man and had not relented easily. The straw that had broke the camel’s back was when they had tried having other caretakers deal with Aithusa and she went ballistic. Merlin was sure there were still scorch marks in the dragon nursery. Now Merlin and his father had a deal where he brought her back to the sanctuary every couple months. Since Merlin visited his family often, and his mother would hunt him down if he stayed away very long, it wasn’t too much of a compromise.

“Do you know how long it took me to find a landlord willing to take in a baby dragon?” Merlin asked with some exasperation.

“A miracle, if you ask me.” Arthur said. “Do dragons usually get attached to... dragonlords ?” Merlin could tell the word stuck oddly on Arthur’s tongue.

“No.” Merlin shook his head. “Dragons are my kin, but they don’t really stick around like pets. They’re like odd cousins that only come around when they want. Except they fly and breathe fire.”

Arthur laughed, “I’m sure I don’t have a cousin like that.”

“Really? I have several.” Merlin said with a grin.

Arthur looked over to Aithusa, as Cavall was still lying comfortably in his lap. Aithusa was watching the pair with bright blue eyes (rope toy now completely unknotted). Arthur reached out his hand and Aithusa looked at it with confusion. Aithusa walked forward, not bothering to smell the hand like Arthur probably expected and moved so that Arthur’s hand was hovering above her wings.

“She likes the notch between wing and shoulder itched.” Merlin said when Arthur hesitated, probably confused by the action. Arthur pressed his fingers down, finding a place between her scales that made Aithusa flutter her wings happily.

“Oh.” Arthur breathed out. “She’s warm.”

Merlin laughed lightly, “What were you expecting?”

“Not sure.” Arthur said as Aithusa laid her long neck on Arthur’s knee, next to Cavall’s head. Arthur smiled as if he won a prize. “I never imagined that I would touch a dragon. She’s amazing.” Arthur, pressed his luck and ran a light finger over the spines on her back.

“She’s alright.” Merlin teased. Aithusa chirped at him with a glare, making Arthur lift his hand hesitantly. When he didn’t go back to petting her she snaked her head up to his hand and tugged on it lightly.

Aithusa insisted on Arthur petting her and Cavall eventually became too antsy to sit in Arthur’s lap much longer. He jumped onto the couch next to Merlin instead and looked up expectantly, probably hoping for a new playmate. Merlin whispered a spell and Cavall’s toy flew into his hand from where Aithusa had left it. Cavall barked excitedly, probably feeling the magic in the air. Animals were usually more attuned to it than humans. He tugged on the rope with Cavall for a while, while Aithusa trained Arthur to pet her.

When the pizza arrived Merlin and Arthur ate over the cardboard box like they were still in uni and batted away Cavall’s eager chomps and Aithusa’s curious claws. Arthur put in a Bond movie that they talked at more than they watched. They finished off the pizza and Merlin snuck some sausage to Cavall, to which he earned the new title of Best Puppy Friend.

After the pizza was all gone, Cavall curled up with his head on Merlin’s lap and since her usual spot on Merlin was taken, Aithusa decided Arthur was a fair substitute. She sat on his lap and turned her neck around so that she could nibble on his hand, indicating that she wanted him to pet her. Arthur, too new to the workings of dragons, was all too eager to comply. Merlin usually just batted her away when she did that since she was so persistent. Arthur’s hands were large enough to wrap around her easily, and he situated her better on his lap. Merlin watched with amusement as Arthur ran his fingers over her scales, making Aithusa chirp contentedly and ruffle up her scales before curling up into a tight ball. Merlin knew she must have been warm in Arthur’s lap, her little chest radiating heat as well as absorbing the heat from Arthur’s body.

At the end of the movie Aithusa was sleeping in his lap.

Merlin picked her up from Arthur’s lap and she settled happily in Merlin’s arms, not waking at all. Arthur picked up the empty pizza box and the empty glasses as Merlin grabbed his coat with his free hand.

“Sorry.” Arthur said. “I didn’t mean to put her to sleep.”

“It’s alright.” Merlin said. “You were probably warm and comfy.”

Arthur raised a brow, “Not my usual compliment, but I’ll take it.”

“Well, she is a dragon after all.” Merlin nodded down to the pants-stealing-lizard in his arms.

“True.” Arthur said, following Merlin as he headed to the door.

Merlin hesitated at the threshold. “Thanks for dinner. Even if you ordered in.”

Arthur smiled, “No problem. You’re welcome back again anytime.”

Arthur didn’t open the door, looking like he was waiting for something. He ran a hand through his hair. “I was wondering- You said that Aithusa doesn’t get to spend much time with any, erm, animals that are her size.” Arthur looked up hesitantly, “I don’t know if you take dragons on walks, but if you’d like, Cavall and I usually go on a run on Saturday mornings.”

Merlin felt himself relax, somehow relieved at making more plans to see Arthur again. “Where do you usually go running? We don’t really go on walks but I do take her Camelot West Park.”

“The field?” Arthur asked. “I have a car, I’d be happy to drive us there if you want.”

“Sounds perfect to me.” Merlin said.

“Perfect.” Arthur nodded. He opened the door, “I’ll see you tomorrow then?”

Merlin nodded, slightly grateful that he had Aithusa in his arms, which meant he couldn’t haul Arthur into an embarrassingly eager hug. Instead he gave a small wave and then walked up the stairs with a baby dragon snoozing on his shoulder.

***

The next morning Merlin woke up and gathered his things in a duffle. As soon as Aithusa saw the duffle, she went from dazedly slumped in a morning-haze to perfectly perky and ready to go. Merlin tried to take her to the park as much as possible, but sometimes his work at the hospital got in the way. He made up for it with as much play time indoors as he could.

As he made it down the flight of stairs and at the pace he was going he was almost gliding down like Aithusa. When he knocked on Arthur’s door it took a while before Arthur answered.

Arthur flung open the door as he simultaneously pulled on a shirt and Merlin caught sight of his chest. He snapped his eyes back up to Arthur’s face which looked frazzled. Now Merlin noticed that Arthur’s blond hair was completely sticking up on the left side of his head, as if he had just rolled out of bed and hadn’t even looked in the mirror.

“I’m late. Sorry, mornings are not my best.” Arthur opened the door wider to let Merlin in. “I’ll be ready in a second, hold on.”

Cavall barked in greeting, the lead in his mouth and his tail wagging excitedly. Merlin bent down and patted the dog, sneaking a sideways glance at Arthur who was bending over to tie his trainers. As he straightened he ran a hand through his hair hurriedly and Merlin looked back to Cavall so that he wasn’t caught looking.

“It’s alright,” Merlin said. “I’ve managed to become a morning person after working at the hospital so long.”

“You would think the army would have disciplined me more, eh?” Arthur said as he grabbed his keys and a backpack. “But, Jesus, I just love sleeping. Mornings are a pain in my ass.”

Merlin laughed and couldn’t help but think that he wanted to make Arthur’s morning’s worth while. Cavall gave another bark and both Merlin and Arthur were alerted to the fact they were taking too long for Cavall’s liking.

“Okay, okay. We’re going.” Arthur said, as he clipped Cavall’s lead to his collar. As they made their way down the stairs to the underground carpark, Arthur looked over to Merlin, “That seems like a lot of stuff for a walk.”

“Oh, you’ll see.” Merlin said as he held open the garage door for Arthur. “Shall we?”

Arthur nodded and they walked through the aisles to Arthur’s car. Merlin told Aithusa to sit in the back of the car and she swished her tail happily in response, looking eager to be in a car. She didn’t get to go on car rides often since Merlin didn’t own one.

“Ready?” Arthur asked as Merlin set his duffle under his feet on the passenger side.

“Ready.” Merlin said, and Arthur started the car and they set off.

On the way there, Arthur cracked open the back window and Cavall stuck out his nose, his ears flapping in the wind. Aithusa watched the cars behind them from the rear window, probably scaring the people behind them. Drivers were probably expecting to see a baby dragon as much as they were expecting to see a lion cub.

Arthur pulled into the empty gravel carpark next to the large expanse of grass. Most people went to this park on warm Saturday afternoons, and since it was still a fairly cold winter morning, they had the park all to themselves.

Arthur opened the car door and didn’t bother putting Cavall on the lead. Cavall happily ran into the field, only looking back momentarily at Arthur before barking at the birds in the trees and chasing after the wind in the grass.

Merlin pulled out his duffle and set it onto the grass field, while Aithusa trotted next to him.

Arthur bumped Merlin’s shoulder, “Alright, Mr. Mysterious. What’s in the bag?”

Merlin held up a finger, telling Arthur to wait, before opening it up. Merlin pulled out the black and white drone, about the size of a football. He clicked it on and found the remote control.

“What in the world are you going to do with…” Arthur’s speech slowed as he looked at the drone and then back to Aithusa. “You’re kidding me.”

“Well…” Merlin said with a smile, “She’s got to learn to fly somehow. And practice makes perfect, yeah?”

The drone motors started to whirr and it lifted off the ground, hovering at Merlin’s shoulder. Aithusa climbed Merlin’s leg and onto his back so that her front claws held onto his shoulders, back claws on his hips, and her snout rested on his right shoulder, eye to eye with the drone. Her wings stretched out, ready to catch a bit of wind at any moment.

Arthur laughed, “It appears that you’ve grown wings.” He said, as he pointed to Aithusa on his back.

Merlin gave Arthur a cocky smile, wiggling his shoulders so that Aithusa shifted with the movement and her wings unfurled more. It only made Arthur laugh more and Aithusa started to whine with excitement.

“Alright, alright.” Merlin said to Aithusa. He clicked a few buttons on the control, and the drone flew forward. Aithusa crawled so that all four feet were on Merlin’s right shoulder, her wings above his head. Technically she was supposed to start on the ground to properly practice flying, but Merlin figured she could have some fun before they started.

Aithusa pounced and Merlin had to hold his ground as she put all her weight onto his shoulder. He moved the drone forward so she wouldn’t catch it as she glided across the air. She flapped a couple times, keeping up for a while before she lost elevation and glided down to the ground.

Merlin kept the drone at shoulder height, encouraging Aithusa to work her wings to get off the ground and then stay off the ground.

Arthur made a humming noise. “Interesting.” Merlin looked to him, and Arthur answered his unasked question. “Can she fly? I assumed before that she could, but now… ” He gestured to where Aithusa was bounding across the field, not getting very high off the ground. At some point Cavall had noticed the drone and barked at it. He tracked it for a while before chasing after something else.

“She’s not very good at flying.” Merlin explained. “A lot of dragons learn how to fly by her age, but she was never very strong.”

“I can tell. She seems to struggle getting off the ground.” Arthur said, watching Aithusa carefully. “I wonder if it's some injury or just strength.” Arthur contemplated and Merlin remembered that this was what Arthur did for a living.

“Her wings formed oddly in her egg.” Merlin said. “We figured that with practice she’ll be able to fly just like any dragon, though she’ll never be very agile.”

“You said dragons usually fly by this age?” Arthur’s brow creased, and Merlin could tell he was trying to put his knowledge to work.

“It’s not exact. Some dragons learn earlier and some learn later. Though most do within the first ten years. In dragon years that’s barely a blink of an eye considering they live for hundreds of years.”

“Huh. That must be odd to think she’ll still be young when you’re old.” Arthur said.

Merlin shrugged. “Dragons are a constant magic present in the world. They don’t age and die the same way non-magic creatures do.” Merlin thought of the dragons he knew back home, and figured he was just like a pet that they knew for a few years, rather than the other way around. “I’m just her caretaker, for now.”

“And a very good caretaker at that.” Arthur said. Merlin almost grinned at the compliment, but he bit his lip to stop himself.

“Aren’t you and Cavall supposed to be on a run?” Merlin deflected, and Arthur gave him a bright expression as he laughed. Arthur whistled to Cavall, who came running. Arthur threw Merlin a cocky look over his shoulder as he started to jog with Cavall at his heels.

Merlin watched him go, enjoying the view. Merlin thought that football shorts had no right to look that good on anyone. The moment must have been too long because Aithusa smashed into him impatiently batting her wings on his head.

“Oi! Oi! Alright, alright, I’m working on it, okay.” Merlin pushed her off and she yapped at him insistently. Merlin mockingly yapped back and started up the drone again.

Merlin worked with Aithusa, turning the drone and lifting it higher every few minutes. The flying practice was mostly for Aithusa to gain wing strength, but she also needed to work on wing movement. Merlin would have to travel to Ealdor again so Aithusa could train with dragons, but for now this was sufficient.

Arthur ran the field with Cavall, circling them too many times for Merlin to remember. Every time he came by he would pause, take a drink from his water bottle and pour out some water for Cavall. Arthur was entirely too distracting, smiling at Merlin as his broad chest moved with heavy breaths and his hair stuck to his brow.

After half an hour or so, Arthur finished his run. Cavall was panting and his tongue hung out, but his tail never stopped wagging and he was circling Arthur like he had hung the moon.

Merlin drove the drone for one last practice loop in the sky, Aithusa trailing behind the drone as she chased it. Then he landed it and gave Aithusa the command to bring in the drone. She clutched it in her teeth carefully and galloped toward him, half running and half using her wings.

As Merlin packed up the drone, Arthur stretched his muscles next to him. He was sitting with his legs out, touching his toes when Merlin turned to him. Arthur let out a huff, as he fell into the grass with a thump, his arms and legs out like a starfish.

“Tired?” Merlin laughed, as Cavall moved from his water bowl and over to Arthur’s prone form. Arthur batted him away, his nose scrunching up as Cavall licked his face. Cavall splayed out next to Arthur, cooling off in the mid-morning air.

“Good kind of tired.” Arthur said. “How was Aithusa’s work out?”

“Good. Slow but steady progress.” Merlin answered as he sat down next to Arthur.

“That’s how it goes.” Arthur said, and Merlin figured he would know. Arthur turned his head and looked up at Merlin. “I have a bit of an odd question. I’m always thinking too much on a run, I hope you don’t mind?”

“Go ahead. What wonders did you think up while running around a field?” Merlin teased.

Arthur smiled “Well, as I ran around a field where a dragon was flying about- I was wondering about magic. You mentioned that you worked at Avalon?” Merlin nodded, letting Arthur continued. “Do you use magic a lot outside of work?”

Merlin thought about it for a moment. He shrugged, “I don’t know what would count as ‘a lot’ but I use it more than once a day. Depends on what I need that day.” Merlin tipped his head to side as he looked at Arthur. “Why?”

Arthur shrugged, pulling at the grass absentmindedly. “Let’s just say that I didn’t just grow up in an anti-magic household, but the topic was banned entirely.”

“Surely you learned a bit about it? In school?” Merlin asked, remembering the projects he did for the school fair.

Arthur shook his head, “Do you know who Uther Pendragon is?”

Merlin squinted a bit as he tried to remember why the name sounded familiar. “Isn’t he one of those asshole radical anti-magic conservatives?”

Arthur laughed a bit before his smile turned into a sigh. “Yeah. He’s my father.”

“Oh.” Merlin said, looking at Arthur with wide eyes. “ Oh .” he repeated as he pictured the life under such a man. Magic would be painted as the ultimate evil. Sorcerers would be demons and sorcery would be preached like hellfire and brimstone of the Dark Ages. Merlin looked at Arthur, who had been nothing but kind to him, even after Merlin’s magical winged lizard had been caught breaking and entering into his home. Merlin cocked his head to the side,  “I don’t want to sound offensive but- well to be honest, most children follow their parent’s beliefs. Why the hell aren’t you burning me at the stake right now?”

Arthur laughed, “I suppose it’s the rebellious streak in me.” His smile slipped as he shook his head and his eyes turned serious. “I never had the same hate that my father has.”

“What made him so against magic?” Merlin asked, a question which always ran through his mind when he heard of people like Uther Pendragon.

“He wasn’t always against magic.” Arthur said, “I was actually born with the aid of a medicinal sorcerer.”

“Then why-?”

“My birth had complications. My mother didn’t make it and my father blamed the medicinal sorcerer.”

Arthur’s eyes tracked the clouds above his head as he said, “My father cannot trust magic or sorcerers, but I’m not like him. I know that I wasn’t always as understanding as I am now. Before I joined the army I hate to admit that I was a bit prejudiced.” Arthur didn’t look Merlin in the eye, “But I'm not the same man.”

Merlin watched Arthur speak, even as he looked anywhere but Merlin.

“Maybe I was scared of magic and that’s why I was hesitant to accept it, but I don’t think much scares me now besides hidden IEDs. There was a sorcerer. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old and he was in the field with us. He cast a shield between me and that bomb. My father would have that kind of power banned under the guise of protecting people, but it saved my life.”

Merlin paused, thinking over Arthur’s words. Cavall, whined a bit and rested his head reassuringly on Arthur’s chest and Arthur rubbed his ears absentmindedly.

“Let me guess,” Merlin said with a sigh, “He wants anyone with magic to be under government regulation?”

“He once told me if it were possible, he would eliminate it entirely.” Arthur’s mouth twisted. Merlin paled at the thought. He could not even begin to imagine his life without his magic nestled in his chest.

Arthur shrugged, “I don’t know many people with magic because when I first meet people they think I’m like my father.”

“You must know a few sorcerers?”

“Some of my clients have magic- but since many of them are working with me because of it, I tend not to prod too much.”

“Fair enough.”

“My sister has magic.” Arthur said suddenly, as if he had been holding it back.

“But your father-?”

“Didn't take it well.” Arthur said with a wince. “She found out when she was still in sixth form and I was just fifteen. She kept getting these nightmares. Horrible night terrors that would wake me up from all the way down the hall. I would have to calm her down until she woke up. But when she figured out what the night terrors were, that they were warped versions of the future, she told our father that she wanted to study sorcery- to better control the visions. He kicked her out. We haven’t spoken since.”

Arthur sighed and Merlin hadn’t a clue how he was saying all this so calmly, because Merlin felt anger and sorrow rise in his chest. Arthur continued, “Sometimes I think he would have been fine if she had magic, as long as she didn’t ‘ practice witchcraft .’ But as soon as she said that she wanted to control the magic in order to stop the night terrors, he kicked her out.”

“Arthur.” Merlin said, the emotion welling in his chest even if Arthur had said it offhand.

Arthur waved his hand to stop Merlin’s sympathy. “She works at a magic nonprofit now. After being kicked out, it couldn’t have been easy and I’m glad she’s figured it all out. I've tried contacting her, to say- I’m not even sure what, maybe that I’m sorry- but she never answered my calls. She must think that I’m just like my father.”

It all slotted into place. Arthur’s curiosity of magic juxtaposed his father’s beliefs, while his support for people of magic paralleled his sister’s ostracism. Merlin wanted to reach out to tell Arthur that he had been a child when his sister left and there wasn’t anything to be sorry for- that it wasn’t his fault. Arthur hadn’t shown any signs of needing the comfort, but all the same Merlin wanted to run his fingers over Arthur’s hair to take away the crease in his brows.

Instead Merlin sighed to himself and said, “I’ve always had family and friends that supported me. Even when I came across people that hated magic, I always had someone to fall back on. Maybe she found support somewhere else, but I think she would like having you back in her life.”

“Maybe.” Arthur said with a final note, and Merlin knew he wouldn’t hear more about it. He turned his head to Merlin. “It must have been an interesting life to grow up on a dragon sanctuary?”

“It was.” Merlin thought of the wide open spaces, hills covered in dewy grass while dragons circled above. He remembered the caves where dragons hid and the secret caverns where he explored as a young boy.  Merlin will never forget the first time he saw the sanctuary, the way it felt like a new adventure and like coming home all at once.

“I didn’t always live there though. I moved to the dragon sanctuary when I was nine. Before that it was just mum and I.”

He had been playing in the front lawn of Hunith’s tiny cottage when a tall bearded man with dark long hair had appeared at the gate. Merlin, still too young to heed staring, remembered gawking at the man’s forearms which were covered in colorful dragon tattoos. The man had asked Merlin if a woman named Hunith lived there. At the time Merlin hadn’t understood the man’s shock when he replied that Hunith was his mother, or why he had asked Merlin’s age and then looked like he was doing a quick calculation in his head. Even when he was seven years old, Merlin had looked like Balinor, and in retrospect it was obvious that Balinor had only taken a few seconds to figure out who Merlin was.

“My Dad hadn’t even known I existed until I was seven.” Merlin said. “My parents reconnected and then married when I was nine. We moved to Ealdor, the center of the dragon sanctuary.”

“Living on a dragon sanctuary isn’t the most typical childhood. There weren’t many children running around, but one of the caretakers had a son, Will, and we were thick as thieves. We used to climb into caves and play games. One time there was a sleeping dragon amongst her hoard and we had to hightail it out of there. You’ve never seen two eleven year olds run so fast!”

Arthur laughed, his eyes crinkling at the sides. “Jesus, Merlin, you must have been a terror to your poor mum.”

Merlin grinned, “I really was. She likes to remind me of it all the time too.”

“Trouble-maker that you are.” Arthur teased.

They settled into comfortable silence, the wind blowing over the grass lightly and the sun slowly rising in the sky. Aithusa stretched leisurely and waddled over to Cavall. She settled by his side, where Merlin was sure he was blazing hot from his run. Merlin leaned back on his hands and tipped his head up to the sky.

Merlin was roused from his daydreaming when Arthur sat up, groaning slightly as his muscles shifted.

“Would you like to see some magic?” Merlin asked all of a sudden.

Arthur looked over at him. “Now?”

“Why not?” Merlin said.

Arthur looked around as if it was secret, and Merlin figured that it was almost ingrained in Arthur to treat magic as forbidden. Merlin, who had always been told to keep his magic relatively hidden in public in case someone didn’t take kindly to him, understood the sentiment.

“Here.” Merlin said with an open hand. In his palm three marble-sized glowing spheres floated. Will and he used to play with marbles as kids, and this trick used to drive him mad.

Arthur sat up straight to look at the marbles carefully.  He reached out a hand to the magic, “Are they-?”

“They won’t hurt you.” Merlin said.

Arthur touched one, and it bounced off his finger and toward Merlin. Then he scooped up the one next to it and held it in his hand. “They’re cold. I was expecting them to be hot.”

“Depends on the weather and how my magic feels.” Merlin explained. “Watch this.” Merlin grinned as he held one between his forefinger and thumb, squeezing enough so that it popped in his hand. Little bits of magic escaped and dispersed like embers. He moved his hand through the embers and they collected across his hand before they disappeared like evaporating water droplets. Of course, when Merlin had made the magic marbles when they were kids, he didn’t tell Will and would wait for them to pop unexpectedly, then laugh at Will’s shocked scream.

Arthur looked at the one in his hand and did the same. The magic spluttered, burst between his fingers, and the embers caught on his face. Arthur yelped in surprise, his hands flying to his face. They were gone in a second, but Arthur still wiped at his cheek frantically.

Merlin laughed and Arthur scrunched up his nose and smacked his shoulder. Meanwhile Aithusa eyed the third ball of magic and caught it in her mouth. It burst and the embers escaped through her nostrils and she shook her head at the unexpected sensation.

Arthur laughed, snorting a bit, and Aithusa made a rolling noise in her chest in a copy of Arthur’s laugh. Merlin had to hide his grin behind his hand, despite the fact that Arthur’s laugh was joyously unhindered, it was also rather loud and brazen.

“What’s she doing?” Arthur asked, keeping a wary eye on the dragon.

“She’s just teasing. It means she likes you.” Merlin said, running a hand over Aithusa’s snout, where the mock-laugh had escaped, and pulled the tiny horns on her brow. Aithusa playfully nipped at him and rubbed her head on Merlin’s hand.

“Dragons show affection by making fun?”

Merlin grinned, “I’m fairly certain that's the same as human flirting, isn’t it?”

“Fair point.” Arthur said, before pausing. “Wait. Did a dragon just flirt with me?

Merlin burst out laughing at Arthur’s distress, unable to stop laughing even when Arthur pushed him over into the grass.

***

At Avalon Hospital, Merlin was scrolling through his emails when he was surprised to read an email from Freya Lake.

Freya had been one of Merlin’s first patients when he came to work at Avalon. As a green-hand, Merlin was slow to hit his stride as a medicinal sorcerer, but treating Freya had been one of the hardest weeks for him. She had only been sixteen years old when she had been taken to Avalon after experiencing what the witnesses thought was a standard seizure. It was only after the A&E doctors couldn’t figure out why she had experienced the seizure, when she had never had one before, that they called in Merlin to do a cursory examination. From that point on it had been equally easy and hard. Easy, because it only took Merlin a few tests to diagnose her. Hard, because he had to tell a young girl that she had Parris’ syndrome, a chronic incurable illness.

Parris’ syndrome, colloquially referred to as the Demon’s Curse or the Devil’s Possession,was named for the earliest recorded case from the Parris’ family in Massachusetts during the 17th century. Both colloquialisms were horrendous misnomers, since the illness developed naturally in a person, so therefore had never been the result of a malicious curse, nor was it a possession from a demon or anything else. Patients like Freya would experience seizures, which often included their bodies contorting, inadvertently harming themselves, and speaking gibberish (previously believed to be demonic languages, and ergo why many people thought patients were possessed). In fact the seizures were a result of the person’s own magic beginning to attack their own body. The misconception that people with Parris Syndrome were a danger to those around them, because they could not control their magic, was unfounded and, frankly, angried Merlin to no end.

When Merlin had diagnosed Freya, there wasn’t much he could do for her. He prescribed the medicinal potions which would calm her magic when the fits were unbearable and recommended local physical therapy centers. Magical illnesses like Freya’s only worsened with time and she would have to learn to deal with the symptoms.

Merlin heard from Freya when she came in every once and a while. They had even gotten lunch together a few times, and Merlin liked her. He didn’t see her often, but when he heard from her, she seemed to be managing the symptoms well enough. So he was surprised to receive an email from her.

In the email Freya said that she had been going to Camelot Training Center for the last year. She said that the last place she went for physical therapy wasn't that great, so she switched to CTC, and she had been doing better- or as best as she could be doing with the seizures. One of her counselors recommended that she might want to look into magic therapy as well, which is why she emailed him.  She asked Merlin if he would like to be a consultant for her.

Merlin had never been a consultant, and told her so, but he also wrote back that he would like to help her out. Maybe he could help plan out a routine or consult with her trainer to better aid in magical training.

Personally, Merlin was happy to hear that Freya approved of Camelot Training Center. Maybe this just added another tally of reasons why Merlin thought Aithusa deserved all the chillies in the world for inadvertently bringing Arthur into his life.

When Merlin arrived the next week at Camelot Training Center, the first thing he noticed was the sleek new look of the building. The doors were tall glass, which welcomed Merlin into a steel and red lobby and reception desk. A man with a black shirt and gold embroidered “CTC” on the pocket, with a nametag that read “Leon” was standing behind the reception desk.

Merlin greeted him, “Hello, I'm here to consult for Freya Lake.”

The man looked down at a slip of paper and asked “Dr. Emrys?”

“That's me.” Merlin said and showed him his badge.

“Perfect. Freya is just inside, down the hall to the left.” The man pressed a button and the half-door which led down the hall clicked open.

It didn't take Merlin long to find Freya, who was waiting for him in front of what looked like the entrance to an exercise room.

“Merlin!” Freya greeted and pulled him into a hug. Merlin smiled and remembered the young girl he met years ago who had been so scared to even move. Now he wrapped his arms around her for a moment as he said, “Freya, it's so good to see you again.”

As he pulled away to look at her, he immediately saw the bruise on her cheek, just managing to have missed her eye. It was bright purple, and looked tender around her jaw. Without thought, he tilted her head with gentle fingers, examining the extent of the bruising.

“It was only yesterday.” Freya said. “It'll go away in a bit. I'm keeping the cream on it.” As she brushed her hair away from her face he noted the scratches on her arms.

“Good. That's good.” Merlin said, thinking to himself that as least it wasn't a broken nose or black eye.

“Merlin you're mothering me.” Freya said with a smile, and only then did Merlin notice he was still frowning down at the injury.

He pulled away, “Sorry. Went into doctor mode for a moment. It's not that bad, it's just instinct to check on people.”

“I know. Don't worry, it only lasted a minute but apparently it was a rough one. Woke up with this.” She gestured to the bruise. Probably a good thing you're here for my appointment today then.”

“I'll do what I can. Just lead the way,” Merlin mock bowed and Freya laughed as she took him into the exercise room, past the array of machines and cabinets of equipment and to the end of the room near a few mirrors and a pile of mats.

“Arthur should be here in a bit, he said he had to take his dog out before we started our session.”

“Arthur?” Merlin felt a zing of surprise run through him. He thought he might run into Arthur while he was here but he hadn’t thought Arthur would be Freya’s trainer.

Speak of the devil, not a moment later Merlin heard dog paws on the padded floor and suddenly there was a very excited puppy crashing into him.

“Hey there, Cavall!” Merlin said as he rubbed his sides.

“Merlin?”

Merlin turned to see Arthur, wearing his black CTC shirt, black joggers, and a very confused expression.

Merlin smiled, “Fancy seeing you here.”

Arthur laughed, “I work here you dolt. Why are you here?”

Merlin nodded to Freya, “I'm Freya’s medicinal sorcerer consultant.”

“Huh,” Arthur said, “That's a coincidence.”

“You know each other?” Freya asked, looking over at Merlin with a tilt to her head. Merlin wasn’t sure how to explain how he knew Arthur, or whether or not Arthur would even call Merlin his friend.

Arthur answered her, “We live in the same apartment building.”

“Oh, well, then I suppose we can skip introductions.” Freya said, “What was your plan for today, Arthur?”

“I thought we could do your normal routine while I spoke with your medicinal sorcerer.” Arthur turned to Merlin, “Sounds good?”

“Fine by me. But I must warn you, I've never consulted on a case like this before.”

Freya touched his arm, “Yeah but you know magic better than anyone I've ever met.”

“Well…” Merlin hesitated, “It takes practice.”

“Which is why we’re here. Arthur?” Freya turned to her trainer, waiting for instruction.

“Of course. Shall we?” Arthur gestured for Merlin and Freya to follow him. He led them to an open area of the room where there were a pile of mats in various colors and a set of mirrors to their left and a mural of Camelot City behind them.

“We usually start with stretches and yoga.” Arthur set down two mats and held out another, “You’re welcome to join us.”

“Sure.” Merlin said and took the bright purple mat from Arthur’s hand to set it down so that he was in a circle with Arthur and Freya.

Cavall, attention-seeker at all times, decided the middle was a good place to sit, his nose pointing towards Freya. She laughed and lightly batted the eager pup away.

“Come on Cavall.” Arthur said, taking his dog by the middle and placing him outside the circle. “Leave Freya alone.” In response Cavall hunched low on his front paws, his rear in the air as his tail wagged briskly. Arthur sighed and put his hands on his hips, “No I’m not playing with you.” Cavall whined.

“Looks like he needs another run.” Merlin said, “Aithusa is getting cabin fever too. We should go on another run.”

“It’s not like I don’t take him out.” Arthur complained, still looking at the energetic puppy who was now prancing on his feet with excitement.

“He’s precious.” Freya said and then turned to Merlin, “How is little Aithusa, by the way? Last time I saw you she had just started a new hoard and you were complaining about buying new pillows.”

Merlin felt the blush rise up his neck and to his ears. “She's… Well…” Merlin looked to Arthur who was clearly trying not to laugh. Merlin had to cover his face as Arthur broke and finally started laughing. Merlin sighed, “God she's my problem child, that's what she is.”

“Oh now I have to know!” Freya grinned.

Arthur was still laughing and Merlin rolled his eyes, “Shut up you prat it's not that funny.”

“Oh  but it is, Merlin. It is.” Arthur grinned as if victorious. “Come on, Freya. I’ll tell you as we stretch.”

Arthur started the session with a few warm up movements and stretches, but after a few minutes when they sat down to touch their toes, Arthur started his story, “So about two months ago I started to notice that I was missing some clothes.”

Freya cocked a brow at Arthur as she bent sideways to stretch her sides.

“It's relevant, just wait.” Arthur continued. “First it was my gloves. Then a sock or two. A few pairs of pants.”

“At first I thought I was misplacing them in the wash. Or there was an interdimensional crack between my hamper and my bathroom wall that I didn't know about, but I didn't think too much of it until I had to go out and buy more pants because I had practically lost all of them.”

“I'm starting to see where this is going.” Freya said.

“Oh that's good, because believe me, my theory of a dimension to the Lost Sock Realm was about as plausible as a cute baby dragon sneaking into my home and stealing all my pants.” Arthur said, which caused Freya to burst out laughing.

“I'm telling ‘thusa that you think she's cute.” Merlin said as he stretched his hands all the way down to his toes.

“She's a little thief.” Arthur said, his tone all play as his eyes squinted with mirth.

“Oh good lord how did you find out? You didn't catch her taking something did you?” Freya said, “That would have been a fright.”

“Lord no, could you imagine?” Arthur snorted, “I'm not sure what I would have done if I just found a dragon in my apartment.”

“Probably have fainted.” Merlin suggested with a grin.

“I would not have!” Arthur exclaimed.

Merlin rolled his eyes and continued, “I found Aithusa’s stash. She'd been hiding her little treasure trove from me, and once I found it, I posted on the apartment bulletin board the lost items. I ran into Arthur and asked if they were his.”

“That was a weird day.” Arthur said. “But anyways, that’s how I met a dragon.” Arthur stood up and rolled his shoulders, then gave his hand to Freya to help her up. “Ready for the next part?”

“You mean the part that I can do, but you can’t?” Freya grinned.

“Yeah, yeah. Just get started while I talk to Merlin.”

Freya leaned into Merlin, pretending to whisper with her hand over her mouth, “Arthur can’t do yoga to save his life. He can barely touch his toes.”

“I am built for strength. Not flexibility.” Arthur crossed his arms over his chest, which Merlin conceded, did indeed emphasize the strength in his pectorals. “Besides I can meditate as well as anyone else. Go through the poses, and no back talk.” Arthur made a face at her, which Freya returned.

It made Merlin happy to see Freya so relaxed. When Merlin had first met her she had been hidden away in her protective shell. It was good that she felt comfortable. Merlin had a feeling that the last therapy center she visited they treated her like a syndrome and not a person.

Arthur stepped away so that they could speak and not interrupt Freya’s focus as she bent into her first pose.

“Tell me about your routine with Freya.” Merlin asked.

“We don’t work a lot with her magic- well obviously- but it’s mostly physical. With a lot of my clients- with any injury- we focus on building up strength. Although Freya has gained muscle since she’s been working with me, that isn’t our focus. I decided it was best to focus on inner strength. Handling one’s body through stretching, yoga, and basic use of the muscle.”

Merlin hummed to himself, watching as Freya moved her arms above her head with her eyes closed.

“So, it’s about getting to know one’s body?” Merlin asked.

“Yes, and relaxation can help prevent the magical seizures, though of course they’ll never go away.”

Merlin nodded, “Have you ever done any magic work at all?”

Arthur shook his head. “As you know, I don’t have any magic. I have sorcerers on staff but Freya said she would rather stick with me as her trainer.”

“She’s comfortable with you.” Merlin said. “It’s important that she trusts you. It’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Arthur looked down. “I know. She’s had seizures during our sessions before. Afterwards she told me that I had helped her better than her last trainer. I can't imagine what the previous trainer did, since I only followed protocol as best I could.”

Merlin crossed his arms as he said, “When she switched centers, she told me it was because her precious center didn't know how to deal with Parris Syndrome. My theory is that they didn't care enough to look into it.”

Arthur huffed in agreement. “So, you have any ideas to integrate magic?”

“Sort of.” Merlin said, with the beginnings of an idea in his mind. “But let’s continue the session first.”

Merlin watched as Arthur helped Freya through the rest of her yoga and workout. He laughed when Freya made Arthur try and contort into a Yoga pose. He was not as bad as Freya had said, but he definitely wasn’t graceful and his leg couldn’t lift as high as Freya’s. With a grin Merlin copied Freya’s pose effortlessly and laughed as Arthur’s eyes widen and jaw dropped. Merlin felt a little victorious in that.

At the end of her session, they returned to the circle of mats to meditate.

“I think I know how you would want to work your magic into your workouts.” Merlin said to Freya. “It’s going to be like working out a muscle you rarely use, but I think you can do it.”

“That’s what yoga feels like most of the time.” Freya said.

“That’s where I got the idea.” He said, “So you won’t be able to handle the magic exactly, but just be able to feel it and relax it, like a new muscle.”

Merlin continued by explaining how to focus on her magic. “After today you will have to do this on your own because I won’t be here, but let me show you. May I?” He reached out to touch her hand which was face up on her crossed legs. She nodded.

“I’m just going to search out my magic- like when I diagnosis, okay?” After she nodded a second time, Merlin closed his eyes. He closed out all his other senses and tried to focus narrowly on his magic, and any other magic in the room. He felt another sorcerer distant in the building- probably one of Arthur’s employees or clients- and then Freya right in front of him. Her magic was minimal and tucked away deep inside her. He felt Freya’s hand twitch and Merlin opened his eyes again, pulling his own magic away from hers.

“It’s always weird when you do that.” Freya said, but she didn’t seem too disconcerted.

“Think you can do it?”

Freya hesitated, “Might take me a while.”

“No rush.” Merlin said.

Freya closed her eyes again and meditated. Merlin and Arthur waited patiently. Arthur rolled his shoulders and to Merlin’s amusement he seemed be trying to stretch out his legs a little more.

The room wasn't full by any means, but there were only a few scattered clients across the work-out machines. Besides the whirr of a treadmill and the distant conversation between two employees near the rack of towels, there wasn't much noise to interfere with Freya’s meditation. Until a man sidled up to their circle to straddle a nearby bench press. He punched Arthur in the shoulder, “What’s this Artie? A pow wow?”

“Hey, Val. I’m in a middle of a session.” Arthur said, hinting to the man to go away. Merlin eyed the client. He was tall, broad, and if Merlin were the type to make judgements by first impressions, he was all brawn and no brains.

“Just curious, mate. We doing couple sessions now?”

“No, this is Dr. Merlin Emrys, Freya’s consultant.” Arthur raised a brow. “We’re trying to meditate. If that wasn't obvious.” Arthur was stiff, but his tone wasn’t harsh. Arthur seemed friendly to the other man, so Merlin figured Val was a regular at CTC.

“Consultant, eh? What for?” Val looked to Merlin.

Arthur rolled his eyes, “Val you know we don’t break confidenti-”

Freya, who throughout the entire interruption had been trying to meditate, opened her eyes and glared up at Val, “ Parris Syndrome . Now if you don’t mind? I'm trying to meditate.”

Merlin had to bite back a smile as Freya closed her eyes again, effectively having the last word.

Val looked taken aback. At first Merlin thought it was the snappiness of Freya’s tone but then he had to open his mouth.

“Shouldn’t you be in a separate area for that?” Val’s nose scrunched in disgust as he looked down at Freya.

Merlin froze. Slowly Merlin looked up to Val, eyeing him up and down. Definitely brawn and no brains. “Excuse me?”

“A separate area.” He repeated, as if it was obvious. He appeared to believe he was being polite. “ You know .” He made a vague, yet insulting, gesture towards Freya.

Merlin turned to Freya, wondering if she was hearing the same thing he was hearing. In only a few seconds she looked completely different from before. No longer smiling and bouncing with happiness, her shoulders were curled in and her eyes were on the ground, unable to meet Merlin’s. Her expression, although turned down, was also one of angry. Merlin turned to Arthur who looked gobsmacked.

“Val, that’s not-” Arthur tried to say, but Merlin’s mood had snapped and he interrupted.

“Are you seriously trying to segregate my friend from the rest of the gym?” Merlin asked.

“I mean no disrespect.” Val said, even though he was looking at Freya like she was contagious, even leaning back in his chair a bit.

Merlin a raised brow,  “So we can go back to our session, now that you have so graciously bestowed your approval?”

“Oi, no need to get touchy mate. I’m just trying to keep everyone safe. No one knows what that skuld will do.”

Merlin froze. He had heard that word before, the nasty term that had its roots in medieval witch hunts. It was a slur he had heard as a child, as kids yelled it at him before they even realized the full extent of the meaning. Before he had even understood the full hatred behind the word. He had heard it whispered in his non-magical medical classes at uni. He saw it in dripping graffiti around town, as if it didn’t mean a painful death by pyre just for being born with magic.

Very slowly Merlin stood up, looking down at Val he asked between his teeth, “What did you just call her?”

Val stood up so that they were toe to toe. “Don’t get your panties in a twist.”

Merlin hated being the bigger person. He really hated that he had to be the bigger person despite the fact that he and his kin were the ones being oppressed. That he had to just take the hits because that was the right thing to do. It infuriated him.

Val smiled, “Go ahead, skuld, shoot me with a spell and see who wins the court case.”

Merlin punched him in the jaw.

Arthur, who up until that point had looked too surprised to say anything, was up in an instant. He reached out to Merlin- as if to hold him back but Merlin wasn’t going to punch him again. He just needed to do that once.

Val on the other hand, was ready to go at it. Bent over, he groaned as he ran a hand over his jaw. Then he straightened up, eyes locking on Merlin like a mad bull, and launched himself forward. Luckily Arthur was a step ahead of him and grabbed him before he collided with Merlin.

At that point the few people in the room were looking at them, and the employees rushed over to see the commotion. Merlin turned to Freya, asking with a look if she was alright, and although her eyes were wide she looked pleasantly surprised.

Val grunted and disentangled himself from Arthur, turning to shout at him. “You're just going to let him do that? There are criminals running loose in here without any kind of protection for the rest of us and you're going to let them?”

Criminals . Because for many people still, being born with magic was a crime.

Arthur didn't look surprised anymore. His expression was completely blank, his eyes focused and his lips in a perfectly straight line. Merlin had never seen Arthur looks so cold.

Arthur’s voice was emotionless as he said, “I have to agree. Criminals really shouldn’t be running around like this. Percival,” Arthur looked over to one of his employees. “Please show the criminal out.”

Percival, who looked like he could take three Val’s, stepped up to Val and grabbed him roughly by the arm. “Follow me, sir.”

Val’s eyes widened and he looked like he was about to burst a vein in his bright red idiotic forehead. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“You're lucky I'm not pressing hate speech charges against you.” Arthur’s voice was firm. “I don’t stand for any kind of discrimination here, you should know that Val. You’re going to have to find yourself another center. If you come here again, I’ll have Percival escort you off the property.”

To give Val some credit, he didn't leave without a fight, but hitting Percival looked like punching a wall. He yelled profanities, most at Merlin and Freya.

He open and closed his fist, feeling the ache of bruised knuckles. He turned to Freya and cleared his throat, “Sorry. I probably shouldn't have punched him.”

“Probably not.” Freya said looking up at him, and Merlin saw a smile playing on her lips, “You really couldn't have taken him.”

Merlin smiled, “I could have.”

“You really couldn't have.” Arthur said, lifting up Merlin’s arm to look at his hand. He moved Merlin’s fingers and Merlin opened and closed his fist to show Arthur that he was fine.

“I'm a doctor, I know how to punch someone and not hurt myself.”

“I'm not sure that's what your medical degree should be used for.” Arthur sighed as he confirmed Merlin’s hand was fine. He smiled as he said, “You’re kind of impulsive, you know that?”

“Might be. It's just that I hate that word. I hate that he used it against you.” Merlin looked at Freya with a weak smile before turning back to Arthur, “I didn't mean for you to lose a client.”

Arthur scoffed, “Don't apologize for rooting out a bigot.”

Merlin smiled. “I feel a bit bad for making a scene. And that definitely didn't help with your meditation.”

Freya shrugged, “It's alright I don't think I'll be able to meditate today, but maybe next session?”

“Next session, of course.” Arthur nodded, “all else considered, I think it was a productive session. Let me walk you out? Merlin, I'll be right back.”

“Of course.” Merlin said, giving Freya a quick hug before they left.

Merlin felt restless now that the commotion had died down. He tried to sit and wait for Arthur to return, but he couldn't manage to sit still. He stood up to pace, as his mind ran over everything. He hoped Freya was alright. Arthur was probably talking to her as he walked to out. Merlin wondered if Arthur was upset with Merlin, but he didn't think so. If anything Arthur seemed more upset with Val. Merlin had been surprised by the malice in Arthur’s voice after Val had said those things. It was probably a shock for Arthur that one of his clients wasn't who Arthur had thought they were.

Merlin was so caught up in his own thoughts and the pace of his feet on the rubber floor, that he didn't notice Arthur’s return.

“Hey.” Arthur grabbed his arm. “You alright?”

Merlin jumped with surprise but gave a quick smile, “Yeah, just twitchy.”

“If you need to let off some steam, we have rooms that can withstand any magic.” Arthur said, nodding to the way Merlin was tapping his fingers incessantly. “Might make you feel better.”

Merlin thought about saying no and going home to forget about the entire incident. Then he thought that maybe it would be better if he let himself react probably to the emotions coursing through his system. It was always better to let them out, rather than forget them.

Merlin shrugged, “Yeah, might as well.”

Arthur led him down to the underground level. “We rent out these rooms for anyone who wants to practice new magic or exercise it.” Arthur clicked a few buttons on a control panel in front of a large empty room with glass windows that reached floor to ceiling. As Merlin stepped inside his footsteps echoed across the tiled floors and plain white walls, reminding him of an enclosed racquetball court.

“I'll leave you be.” Arthur said, patting Merlin on the shoulder.

Merlin closed his eyes and nodded minutely. He waited to hear the door click shut as Arthur left him alone. Then he dropped all other thoughts away and let his magic free.

His magic felt and moved under his command. He could sense magic out like he did in the Hospital, or change the world around him with a spell. At the moment he focused on his magic’s emotion, because his magic was a part of his mind as well as his body. He breathed in and felt the anger, the crackle of lightning. He breathed out and felt the bolt strike in front of him with a deafening boom. He focused on the zap of electricity before rolling in a cloud of frustration and annoyance. Time passed as the storm and his magic filled the room, though Merlin had no clue how much. When the clouds rolled over, his magic settled on sadness as the rain poured down, starting with a drizzle and then a downpour until he was entirely soaked through. He breathed deep in his lungs, and then he felt the emotional uplift and the moment. The storm broke apart and the magic formed bursts of light in various colors. Light green, fading into teal and then wisps of purple.

He sighed as he opened his eyes, finally feeling his magic happily situated in his body. He was as wet as if he had jumped into a swimming pool, his clothes clinging to his skin. Physically he felt drained after what must have been thirty minutes of magic release, but his mind was peacefully clear. He rolled his shoulders and felt the release of tension.

He looked down to see that the water from his storm had drained away and there wasn’t so much as a scorch mark on the pristine floor. The rooms must have been spelled every so often to keep them intact. Merlin would have to ask Arthur about it later.

Thinking a warm bath at home would feel amazing at the moment, now that he was soaked through anyways. Merlin turned to the door and stopped in his tracks when he saw Arthur still standing behind the glass door, despite the fact that Merlin must have been in the training room for at least half an hour.

At the sign of Arthur’s wide eyes, Merlin felt himself flush. Creating weather was not the sign of a mediocre sorcerer. Not many people with magic could so much as conjure lightning at their will, let alone a storm. When Arthur mentioned letting off some ‘steam’ that's probably what he meant, because that's what most magic users did.

Merlin wiped the water out of his eyes and dabbed at his shirt hopelessly. He tried not to attract too much attention to himself as he wrung out his shirt, despite the fact that Arthur’s eyes were glued to him.

When he stepped out of the room and Arthur must have pulled himself together enough to speak. “Feel better?”

Merlin nodded, “I needed that. Thank you.”

Arthur looked at the room and back at Merlin, looking like he couldn't put the two puzzle pieces together. Arthur picked up a dry towel from a nearby bench and handed to Merlin without a word. Merlin took it gratefully and dried his face.

“Merlin.” Arthur paused, and Merlin knew the question that was forming in his mind before he even spoke it. “What’s your number on the Avicenna Range?”

Although people asked Merlin this question all the time, Merlin didn't always like answering it, because describing his magic on an one to twenty scale was as odd as using IQ to describe common sense. Merlin’s magic was complicated: it was small enough to fit in his body, fluid enough to fill an entire room, and as dynamic as his moods.

“Twenty.” Merlin said.

He watched Arthur’s eyes grow wide.

Arthur waited a moment before asking, “You’re serious?”

“It’s just a number.” Which was an understatement, considering that there were only a few scattered cases of sorcerers living in all of Europe with a twenty on the Avicenna Range. Merlin was aware how powerful his magic was, and kept that to himself most the time. “Avalon Hospital barely looked at my credentials after they saw that I was a AR20. But to their credit, I am also very good at my job.”

Arthur laughed, tipping his head back with his eyes closed. “For God’s sake, Merlin. There’s just something about you.”

“Something good I hope?”

“Oh something wildly good, as far as I can see.” Arthur said as he pulled on Merlin’s arm to bring him closer. “Let's get you to the locker room, you're like a drowned cat. And then I'm buying you lunch. No arguing.”

Merlin didn't even want to protest, he smiled and said, “Well, if you insist.”

***

Seeing Arthur became a routine. They saw each other at least once a week, if not on a trip to the park for Cavall and Aithusa, then they ordered take-away on the weekend and talked over movies. On another weekend, a few of Arthur’s work friends (Percival, Leon, Elyan, and Gwaine) invited Merlin along to a pub crawl. That night Merlin revealed himself to be a lightweight, and Arthur teased him mercilessly. As they walked home, Percival carried a drunk Gwaine piggyback style and Arthur laughingly mocked a clumsy Merlin as he half-carried half-dragged him back to their building.

Aithusa still hoarded pillows and blankets, but every once and a while she would sneakily slip away with Arthur’s hoodie, and then keep it in her hoard when he forgot he had even brought a hoodie with him. On more than one occasion Arthur had come over to Merlin’s apartment asking if Aithusa had taken something of his, and every time Aithusa tried to hide Arthur’s clothes in her hoard and give them big innocent blue eyes. Merlin was convinced at this point that she was doing it to tease Arthur.

Merlin worked shifts at the hospital, and his breaks involved chatting with Gwen with the exception of some texts from Arthur (and pictures of Cavall in dumb situations, including a memorable one where Arthur was holding Cavall in the pool, and the puppy had a swimming cap over his ears.)

But one Friday’s routine was knocking Merlin off his feet. His shift at Avalon felt like he had gone through Hell and back. Using his magic was always exhausting. It wasn’t just physically tiring, but also mentally draining. Sometimes Merlin barely used his magic, but today was not that day.

Merlin’s day started at 3am, and his shift hadn’t been easy.  It was one patient after the other. Although it was a typical day it was a kind of day where breaks felt too short and there was hardly enough time to get anything done. By the end of his shift, when he was already tired, a patient in critical condition arrived at the A&E. Merlin, being a AR20, meant that sometimes he was literally the only person in the hospital who could save a patient. But even after working on the patient hours over his shift, the patient still didn’t make it. The other doctors and nurses told him there was nothing he could have done, and he knows they’re right, but that didn’t mean it hurt less to know that even his magic couldn’t save someone. By the time he was ready to leave, he had depleted all his energy and was ready to eat whatever was in his fridge and then pass out.

Then on his way home from work he remembered he had made plans with Arthur to go for an evening run in the park. Merlin barely made it up the stairs, and he knew that a run was definitely not an option.  When Merlin stumbled into his flat, Aithusa appeared to be on the same page because she was sleeping amongst her hoard.

Merlin flopped down onto his bed, his face smashed into his pillow. He didn’t want to cancel plans with Arthur, especially since he looked forward to seeing him, but he didn’t think he could move two feet from where he was.

He picked up his phone.

“Hello?” Arthur answered.

“Hey, Arthur” Merlin said with a sigh.

“Hey, how are you?”

“Could be better.” Merlin admitted. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to cancel tonight.”

“Oh.” He felt even worse at the sound of Arthur's disappointment.

“Yeah” Merlin said, looking up at the ceiling. “I’m just knackered. I had a long shift.”

There was a pause and Merlin heard some shuffling in the background. “Anything I could do?”

“No, no.” Merlin said. “I think I just feel like lying about and being lazy until I can feel my feet again.” Merlin joked, but then winced when his back twinged painfully. Standing for the better part of 12 hours was starting to show its effects.

Arthur seemed to have missed the joke. Arthur’s voice shifted into trainer-voice, just like Merlin’s shifted into doctor-voice when he was on shift. “You should take a warm bath and keep your feet up. Get some liquids and food in you. Do you want me to pick something up for you?”

“Oh. No, Arthur, I’m really alright-”

“I was going to grab some food after work, I can drop it by this evening if you want.”

Merlin paused, contemplating how much he wanted to burden Arthur vesus how much he didn’t want to get up to make food for himself. Laziness won.

“If it’s not out of your way…”

“Of course not.” Arthur said. “I’ll be there in an hour.” Arthur hung up, and Merlin wondered how calling Arthur to cancel plans had failed so spectacularly.

With an hour to wait for Arthur, Merlin made himself a cup of tea and put up his feet as he flipped through his phone. Then Merlin decided to take Arthur’s advice and went to his bath to soak his sore body. He sunk into the hot water with a groan, casting a simple spell so that the water wouldn’t lose its heat as quickly. He leaned back, stretching his long limbs as much as he could in the small tub, and closed his eyes.

Then someone was knocking at the door. Merlin startled, realizing that he had drifted off. The water was cool and he felt much better, although his skin was wrinkled as a prune.

“Hold on!” He called out and scrambled to get his robe, pulling it on quickly and rushing to the door with it barely closed. He pulled open the door, where Arthur was waiting for him.

Arthur’s mouth was open as if he was about to say something, but stopped. He looked down at Merlin and his obvious state of undress, his eyes wide with surprise.

“I just got out of the bath.” Merlin said, self aware of the fact that he was dripping onto the floor.

“I can see that.” Arthur said, and Merlin didn't fail to notice the quick flash of darkness in his eyes when they lingered over his bare chest.  Arthur looked up at Merlin’s eyes again, “I brought you a sandwich and crisps.” Arthur stepped inside and walked to Merlin’s kitchen without invitation.

“Set them on the table” Merlin said, shutting the door, “I’m sorry for canceling.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Arthur said with a wave of his hand. “I don’t think Cavall minds. I gave him a treat and he seems to think it's a holiday.” Arthur set down the food on the counter and nodded back toward the door. “I’ll let you rest then. Unless you need anything else?”

Merlin thought about lying around his apartment.  Being alone wasn’t the worst thing to do after a strenuous day, but after the day he had, he didn't really want to be alone.

“We can watch something if you like?”

Arthur’s smile grew wide, “I’ll pull up a film, then?”

“My laptop is in the living room, I should be logged in.” Merlin nodded toward the room. “I’ll just-” Merlin gestured to himself, “Put on some clothes.”

Arthur’s eyes looked down for a moment, before saying, “That would be good, yeah.”

“Right.” Merlin hurried into his bedroom. He had to make himself breathe deeply a couple times in order to get rid of the blush that had run up his face. Then he pulled on an old t-shirt that was stretched around the neck and a pair of black joggers. Usually he at least tried to look relatively nice around Arthur, but Merlin was too tired to care. He picked up the food from the kitchen, already popping a couple crisps in his mouth as he walked back to the living room. Arthur was scrolling through a movie list when Merlin plopped down on the couch next to him.

Merlin must have scarfed down his sandwich quickly because after he was done Arthur looked up at him with a raised brow. “Hungry?”

Merlin gave a half smile. “I didn’t have much to eat today.”

“That bad?” Arthur asked, knowing his day must have been bad if Merlin skipped food. Although Merlin’s love for food didn’t rival Arthur’s. Merlin hadn’t failed to notice how Arthur was always snacking on protein bars, crisps, and carrots (the last of which he claimed were for Cavall but he usually ate as many as he gave to Cavall).

“Magic-tired.” Merlin groaned as he laid back in the cushions. “It’s like a bloody hangover.”

Arthur flicked a crisp at him and said, “You have to take care of yourself.”

Merlin took the crisp, which had landed on his chest, and ate it. “I was busy.”

Arthur rolled his eyes and let it go, “What genre of film aids magic hangovers?”

“God, I barely have my eyes open now- Something with not a lot of thinking.”

“Well then, it's settled: an action film with very little plot, vibrant colors, and as always, lots of explosions.” Arthur said solemnly as he selected a film.

As the movie progressed the light from the window faded, the screen left the room in a wash of dark blues and flashes of yellow. Usually they talked over any movie they watched but tonight, other than the occasional comment or laugh, they were quiet. Merin curled up with a blanket, the movie almost lulling him to sleep as the music swelled and the action continued. Arthur laid back, his arm stretched across the back of the couch, almost around Merlin's shoulders.

Two hours later, as the credits rolled on the screen, Merlin was warm, loose, and sleepy. Merlin closed his eyes and listened to the credit music as he felt the warmth from Arthur’s body, so close to his side. He could almost imagine moving an inch closer and curling into Arthur’s embrace. Arthur shifted next to him and Merlin thought dimly about opening his eyes, but they were too heavy at the moment. Merlin wondered if he could handle sleeping on the couch or if it was worth the effort to move to his bed. One night on the couch couldn’t hurt, though his back would hate him in the morning.

Merlin felt Arthur's shift again, and Merlin felt bad for dozing off. Though Arthur hadn’t stood up to leave, so he couldn’t be too annoyed. Then Merlin felt Arthur’s side press against his, and the soft brush of something against his hair. Arthur was warm and Merlin reveled in it, almost pressing close and falling asleep where he was. But curiosity won't out and he opened his eyes.

Merlin looked up and Arthur’s eyes widened with surprise.

“Oh.” Arthur breathed out. “You’re awake.”

Merlin realized Arthur had shifted closer, his cheek just skimming the side of Merlin’s head as if to rest his cheek casually on Merlin’s hair. Drowsily, Merlin looked over Arthur’s face, from the light color of his eyelashes, over the bump of his nose, and down to the curve of his lower lip.

It wasn’t too much of a move to kiss him. All Merlin did was lean forward slightly to press his lips to Arthur’s, and then tilt his head to capture Arthur’s lip between his own. Arthur twitched and held still for a single breath before he sighed against Merlin’s lips and pressed forward into another kiss. There was a spark as Merlin felt the warmth of Arthur’s skin against his own.

As they pulled away, Merlin opened his eyes to see Arthur’s eyelids were low and his eyes dazed.

“Hi.” Merlin whispered.

“Hey.” Arthur’s smile was crooked as he whispered back. Arthur tilted his head and bumped his nose against Merlin’s playfully. Merlin smiled as Arthur’s hand cupped his neck, comforting and exhilarating all at once as he pulled Merlin into another kiss.

Merlin kissed lazily, letting Arthur lead him. Arthur pulled Merlin closer and Merlin’s hands found their way to hang loosely around Arthur’s shoulders.

The second time they pulled back, Merlin wished he was back to kissing Arthur almost immediately. He ran a hand into Arthur’s hair and looked up at Arthur, asking without words why Arthur had stopped.

Arthur leaned his forehead against Merlin’s temple, his breath skimming Merlin’s cheek. “So that happened.”

Merlin hummed and ran his lips over Arthur’s jaw. He closed his eyes again as he laid his head against Arthur’s shoulder, his warmth making him sleepy and his kisses making him content.

“If you fall asleep I’m never letting you forget it.”

Merlin hummed again and buried his face into Arthur’s jumper.

“Merlin.” Arthur poked his side and Merlin squirmed, closing his eyes tighter. “Merlin.”

“Shh, I’m sleeping.” Merlin hid his smile as he pressed closer to Arthur.

“You are not.”

“Well, you are very warm and comfy.”

“Did Aithusa tell you that?”

“Had to try if for myself.” Merlin looked up and let his smile grow wide.

Arthur didn’t answer, he caught Merlin’s lips between his own. He said all he needed to with a snip of his teeth against Merlin’s lips followed by a soft press of lips. Merlin laughed into the kiss, pulling Arthur closer and letting one kiss turn infinite, one after another.

Later, when Arthur was standing in the threshold to say goodnight, Merlin wanted nothing more than to pull him into his bed and curl around him. Instead he pressed close to Arthur and kissed his cheek with a whispered promise to see him soon. The way Arthur’s eyes crinkled as he smiled in response seemed like answer enough.

***

“So I’m taking you out this Sunday.” Merlin said into his phone the next day as soon as Arthur answered.

Arthur laughed loudly in greeting, “So you do remember last night. I thought you might have been sleep walking.”

“Nope, wide awake.” Merlin said, then added, “Well, mostly awake. But I remember the good bits.”

“The good bits eh?” Arthur asked.

“Yeah that sandwich was divine, where did you get it?” Merlin teased, still remembering Arthur’s lips on his own.

“Oh fuck off.” Arthur laughed.

“Mm, so I was thinking Sunday.” Merlin repeated.

“Yeah?”

“Yes.” Merlin said. “So clear your schedule.”

“And where are we going?”

“It’s a secret.”

“Can I at least get a hint?”

“Nope.” Merin popped his lips. “Meet me at noon and you’ll see.”

“How am I even supposed to- You’re going to be like this aren’t you?”

“Like what?”

There was a pause, then, “Unpredictable? Infuriating?”

“Mm, I was thinking wonderfully spontaneous.” Merlin said, knowing full well that Arthur was smiling on the other end of the phone.

The next day Merlin went to Arthur’s apartment and he hadn’t even knocked on the door when Arthur opened it. He propped his hip against the doorframe and crossed his arms.

“Going to tell me where we're going?” Arthur asked.

“Nope.” Merlin stayed true to his word. As they left the building and made their way to the underground, he didn't budge no matter how much Arthur asked.

Instead he distracted Arthur with stories from his week and soon enough he got Arthur talking too. By the time they were downtown, Arthur had appeared to have forgotten that Merlin was taking them to a undisclosed location. When Merlin stopped abruptly, Arthur skidded and looked around confused. Then he looked up and saw where they were.

“Are you seriously taking me on a field trip Merlin?”

“I thought it would be fun.” Merlin gave a tentative grin. “Come on, you want to know about magic right?” Merlin gestured to The Museum of the History of Magic and said, “This is the best place to start.”

“Alright.” Arthur said, “I have to warn you though, I always thought history was boring when I was in school.”

“You won't be bored. Trust me.” Merlin grabbed his hand and pulled Arthur up the steps of the grand building. Although the history of magic reached back to the beginning of time, the study hadn't been well regarded until the mid twentieth century. The building was dark marble but with sleek silver metal in a mix of ancient and modern.

They stepped inside the lobby of the museum, where they greeted with the standard museum security. As they pulled out their keys and phones from their pockets so they could go through the metal detectors, Merlin remembered that he always had problems with security. His thoughts were confirmed only a second later.

“Excuse me, sir.” Said the security guard, “Can you step through again?”

Merlin gave a weak smile to Arthur, who was already picking up his phone and keys on the other side.

“Of course.” Merlin said, looking up at the metal detector and wasn't surprised to see a magic detector on it as well. Magic detectors were only meant to pick up traces of magical objects or dark magic, but from Merlin’s experience they tended to pick up on high levels of personal magic. Whether it was intentional or not, magical security always targeted people who had a fifteen or higher on the Avicenna Range. Merlin internally prayed they were lenient. Travelling on his holiday to America, where security was much stricter, had been a nightmare.

Merlin stepped through the detector and the security guard frowned at their screen a second time. They looked up at him and he smiled, “Yeah, this happens a lot.”

The security guard sighed, but nonetheless they stood up from their desk with a handheld magic detector in hand, “Hands above your head.”

Merlin knew the routine. He held his hands on the back of his head and spread his stance. The security guard only gave him a quick once over before they nodded their head. “You're fine. Sorry about that.”

“No worries.” Merlin picked up his keys and phone from the conveyor belt, with a look behind himself to see a family of six eyeing him oddly. The security guard was just doing their job, not that it didn’t annoy Merlin.

“Alright?” Arthur asked, obviously confused.

“Sorry I should have warned you. I forgot that my magic sets those things off like mad.” Merlin admitted. “You should see me in an airport. I get pulled over every time.”

“Why are they worried about magic in a museum about magic?”

“They aren't.” Merlin clarified. “They're worried about the people who would use magic to hurt others. Some people forget that they aren't the same thing.”

Arthur looked away, “I just meant-”

Merlin took Arthur’s hand, “I know.” He smiled and was glad to see Arthur’s lips pull up a little. “Come on, let's head inside.”

They paid for their tickets and stuck onto their jumpers the admission sticker, a round druid symbol. Then they stepped inside to the large atrium, where the sounds of the museum echoed. There were children’s delighted squeals and parents yelling, along with the sounds of tour guides speaking calming throughout the space.

The centerpiece of the round room was a dragon skeleton. It was huge, filling up the entire space and the spines of the wings were held open by wires at the top of the dome. The skull, framed with large horns noting it as a male dragon, hung low to the ground so the patrons could look at it properly. The plaque listed off the species, how old it was when it died, and accounts of this dragon throughout history. At the bottom, in small print, it read, ‘Donated by the Emrys Dragonlords.’ The dragon had probably been donated decades ago, probably by his grandfather or one of his great uncles.

“Will Aithusa ever get that big?” Arthur asked, looking at the huge claws on the skeleton.

“Give her a couple hundred years.” From the look on Arthur’s face Merlin could tell that the idea of Aithusa growing to be so large and the idea of the little playful dragon clashed in his mind.

Merlin looked up at the dragon skull, “I wonder if Aithusa hoards in the future, what will she hoard? Maybe androids? Space rocks?”

Arthur laughed, “She would like an android. It could do her bidding for her.”

“My purpose is obsolete then.” Merlin said with a put upon sigh. “I guess if someone has to take care of her once I’m gone, I think I’d only be happy if it was a cool robot.”

They moved on, turning down the halls and looking at the other magical creatures. A unicorn horn, the skull of a griffin, the poisonous fangs from a questing beast, scales from a wyvern, a vial of poison from a serket, and feathers from a phoenix. They turned down another hall and came across magical objects and their history, a cursed goblet from medieval times, a magic wand from the 19th century, an enchanted scimitar from the 15th century, and an entire display filled with at least a hundred crystals.

They climbed the stairs to the next floor, and found Merlin’s favorite space. There was an entire hall dedicated to magic and medicine. The main display was dedicated to the great thinker Avicenna himself, including his texts on healing, medicine, and alchemy tools from the 9th century. Through the ages, the hall displayed magical objects that Merlin had learned about while he studied medicine at uni: magical healing bracelets, vials of potions, pressed flowers for cures, and giant tomes of all magical curses and illnesses.

Merlin pointed at one of the books, “Had to read that thing in my first year. It was horrid.”

“What is it?” Arthur asked, looking down at the plaque.

“A list of all the known magical illnesses in the world.” Merlin corrected himself. “Well, for the time and place. It was written in Wales in the 10th century, so despite being huge, it’s not all of them.”

Jesus , you had to read that?” Arthur looked at the tome with wide eyes.

“Yeah, some of them are about the same effect but different causes. It drove me insane when we had an exam on love curses. Every love curse does about the same thing but there are 636 love spells and over 150 use hair, another fifty or so use a scrap of cloth, and others are just enchantments. Half the class failed that exam.”

“How about you?”

“Perfect score, of course,” Merlin didn't mention that he had studied until it felt like his eyes were going to fall out. Arthur looked impressed and with a grin Merlin added. “I’m very good at what I do.”

“So you said.” Arthur said, “I’m beginning to believe you.”

Merlin snorted. “Didn’t believe me before?”

“You didn’t leave the best first impressions, remember? You’re raising an impolite dragon.”

Aithusa . I knew she would be my downfall.” Merlin pretended to curse, but he remembered all the times Aithusa had put him in an odd situation. At least one led to Arthur.

The end of the hall had a patron plaque, at the top of the list was Avalon Hospital, which wasn’t very surprising at all.

They wandered down the corridors, looking at the paintings framed along the walls, until they came across the next exhibition, Magic and War.

There were weapons of warfare which were enhanced or had been meant to be enhanced by magic: swords, metal shields, maces, armor, and a chunk of stone wall which took up a large space in the hall. Across the way there were tools of espionage and underground warfare: looking glasses, Seer’s stones, as well as, mandrake root and poison. It was at the display of defensive magic that Arthur stopped. Inside the glass case there was a sorcerer’s robe, dimly lit in a display with a description of basic defensive spells. Arthur’s eyes were stuck on the diagram of a sorcerer holding up a golden shield, with the basic instructions for how to create one.

Merlin took Arthur’s hand and leaned closer to him. Arthur loosened his hand, for a second Merlin felt embarrassed for having been pushed off. But before Merlin could move away Arthur’s arm slipped around his waist and he whispered in his ear, “Come on” and pulled him by his waist.

They walked to the last set of displays, featuring modern warfare from the Falklands War to modern day. Arthur pointed out where he was stationed on a display map as well as some of the shorthand code he had learned for offensive spells. Merlin listened with a close ear, reveling in the warmth of Arthur’s side and hand on his hip.

Once they exited the hall, they took the lift to the basement where there was a cafe and grabbed some lunch. Over their meals Merlin talked about the field trips he took to museums in Cardiff, as well as the field trips at the Emrys Dragon Sanctuary. Merlin had been a tour guide during his summers of secondary school so he knew the basic ins and outs of teaching kids about dragons and magic.

“It's not fair, you know everything about this stuff.” Arthur said with a wave to the museum, meaning magic. “Where am I supposed to take you next time? I can't take you to the gym for a date.”

Merlin grinned and rested his chin on his hands. “Are we going on a second date, then? A bit presumptuous, Mr. Pendragon. We're not done with the first yet.”

Arthur only looked embarrassed for a moment before he leaned forward in his seat, “Of course we are, Merlin. I have to prove I'm good at something .”

“Don't be too hard on yourself, I’m sure you're good at something.” He smiled and added, “We'll just have to go on dates until you find something.”

Arthur’s grin was a bit lecherous when he said, “I think we'll find something.”

Merlin had to drink some water to cover up how much that look flustered him.

After they finished up their lunch, they moved back up to the first floor of the museum. They roamed the halls leisurely, talking about anything and occasionally pointing out things they recognized.

There was a hallway, lined each side with posters and portraits of famous magic rights activists from all around the world, since the late 18th century. Merlin had seen their portraits pasted all over his history books. Even his father had a magic rights posters from the 80s in his office, that read “Magic Equality!” and “Save the Dragons!” It was old news to Merlin, but Arthur was engrossed by the descriptions. The sentiment on the plaques was probably the opposite of what was told to him as a child.

At the end of the hallway Arthur pointed to the plaque about a relatively new nonprofit called The Magic Network. Arthur said, “My sister, Morgana, works at the Magic Network.”

Merlin read the plaque, which described the work The Magic Network did, including magic informational sessions at schools, providing legal assistance to sorcerers, and aiding young sorcerers, many of whom were homeless due to unemployment and lack of knowledge of magical illness. It was a movement that Merlin not only appreciated, but also came across all the time.

“How did you find her?” Merlin asked.

Arthur shrugged, “Googled her name. It was pure luck that her name was in an article about The Magic Network. I did some digging and she was listed as one of their lawyers.”

“It looks like they do a lot of good work.” Merlin said, “The fight for equality isn't over yet.”

“Was your father ever apart of that Dragon rights movement?” Arthur asked, veering the subject away from his sister.

Merlin snorted, “Apart of it? He practically spearheaded the movement.” Merlin had heard tale after tale about dragon sanctuary funds being cut, the dwindling lands for dragons, and the blatant disrespect of dragons. “Don't get my Dad started on the riot in ‘77, it just starts him on a roll of how many times he's been arrested. His sleeves are mostly dragons or runes that he got during the movement.”

“Your dad has tattoo sleeves?”

“Both arms.” Merlin nodded, “He was a bit of a rebel. My mum seems practical in comparison.”

“Jesus, I'd love to see your Sunday dinners.” Arthur said with a laugh.

“Again with the presumptuous attitude. A little early to meet the parents, don't you think?” Merlin teased.

Arthur rolled his eyes, “Shut it, Merlin.”

Merlin laughed and winked at him, finding that he loved to tease Arthur. He would have to find something else to tease him about, just to get a rise out of him.

They continued walking until they were at the the other end of the museum, where Merlin’s eyes caught on two signs. The first he saw was the large banner above an archway which read, “Open Magic Area” and the smaller one on a pillar which read, “Please refrain from large displays of magic inside the museum.”

The room was round, surrounded with tall pillars, under a skylight in a vaulted ceiling. Inside kids were running around, some museum staff holding out their hands in displays of magic. Merlin didn't even notice he was wandering over until Arthur said, “Let's go in” and nudged him through the archway.

They watched the staff members perform simple light magic, benign blue and red sparks flying from their hands. A parent was repeating the same spell to show their children again, while other kids watched closely. It was the most openly-magic atmosphere that Merlin had ever seen in public.

“This must be new.” He said, “I've never seen…” He trailed off as a guest enchanted some of the pamphlets to fly above everyone’s heads, before they fell to the floor a moment later.

“It's so free.” Arthur said, watching the various magic users across the room. Merlin watched as Arthur’s smile brightened when a little boy, no older than five years old, sparked out a single red light from his palm and then ran to his mom with shrieks of joy.

Arthur moved them to a bench on the edge of the room, to watch the magic flow across the scene. As Merlin watched he felt Arthur's hand rest on his knee. When he looked over Arthur have him a soft smile.

They sat for a while and Merlin was about to ask if Arthur wanted to head out, when he was cut off by the sound of a baby’s cry. There was a small whine and then a second later, a baby was screaming. Both Merlin and Arthur winced at the sound. Merlin felt bad for the young woman who wiggled toys in front of the baby, desperately trying to calm him. “Aidan, please.” She sighed, pushing back her brown hair from her eyes.

She pushed the stroller back and forth to no effect. When she saw Merlin looking, she gave him an apologetic look. Without much thought he stepped forward, “Hi there. Aidan was it?”

She nodded, punctuated by a scream from Aidan himself. “I’m sorry, my baby brother is just-”

He shook his head, cutting off her apology, and gave her a smile before kneeling down to get a look at the red-faced child. He whispered a few words and opened his palm to reveal a small cluster of butterflies. He blew on them and they scattered into the air above the stroller and towards the sister. The child’s crying hadn’t stopped, but it had slowed as he looked up at the colorful display. Soon enough the crying slowed until it stopped entirely, and the baby’s eyes grew as wide as saucers while he watched the butterflies glide and land on his stroller.

“Oh you’re a lifesaver.” She said with a sigh. “Thank you so much.”

“No worries.” Merlin felt oddly light, since he hardly used magic in public without any worry of a negative reaction. “I’m sure he’ll be back to crying in an hour or so.”

“Oh, I'm sure you're right, but thank you anyways. I'm Sefa, by the way.” She held out her hand.

“Merlin.” He replied as he shook her hand.

“You do lovely work. I could never make butterflies so well off the top of my head.”

“Butterflies have always been my favorite.”

Arthur stepped up next to him and casually rested his hand on Merlin’s hip. “Merlin, it seems you have a request.”

“Hm?” Merlin turned to see Arthur, along with some kids who were looking at the butterflies with wide eyes. “Oh.”

One of them stepped forward, “E-excuse me, sir. Can you make some more butterflies, please.”

Merlin’s heart melted a little. Arthur whispered in his ear, teasingly, “No large displays of magic, Merlin.”

“Shush.” Merlin pinched his side, satisfied when Arthur jumped a little.

He knelt down and he knew the exact moment his eyes flashed gold because the kids all squealed with delight. He held out both fists, faced down, and nodded down for them to pick between them. One child tapped on his left and he opened it to reveal blue butterflies, which flew above their heads. Some tried to catch them and others just pointed happily. Then a young girl tapped on his right hand and Merlin didn't want to disappoint her, so his eyes glowed gold a second time and revealed a handful of red butterflies.

Merlin stood up as he made a light wind so that the butterflies lazily circled the room.

Arthur leaned close to him and whispered, “Make one for me?”

Merlin smiled as he reached up to Arthur’s face, his eyes flashing as he pulled a golden butterfly from behind his ear. Arthur laughed breathlessly, his eyes watching the butterfly on Merlin’s index finger. Arthur touched the butterfly tentatively and it fluttered onto his fringe, gold on gold. Merlin blew on the butterfly, making Arthur twitch a little, and the butterfly fluttered away to join the red and blue ones being chased by the children.

“Ready to head out?” Merlin asked.

“Hold on.” Arthur grabbed Merlin’s jaw and pulled him into a kiss. When he pulled back he said “Yeah, now I am.”

Merlin’s grin spread across his face as he took Arthur’s hand and they headed toward the exit.

***

“Excuse me, Dr. Emrys?” Gwen poked her head into the examination room. “There’s a bit of an emergency. We need your expertise.” To anyone else in the room it wasn’t obvious that something was wrong, but Merlin and Gwen had been friends for years and he knew their code. His high level magic was needed, and he better come sooner rather than later.

Merlin smiled to his patient. “Excuse me, I’ll be back as soon as I can. For now, I’ll call in Dr. Nemeth.” Merlin threw a quick glance to Gwen, asking her to give the message to Mithian.

He stepped out of the door, “What’s happened?” he asked, following her with quick steps and a hope that whatever it was it wouldn’t run into his break time. Even though Avalon Hospital had the best medicinal magic department in Britain, it was still (in Merlin’s opinion) disgustingly understaffed and underfunded. As one of the only high level medicinal sorcerers, he was often running around the hospital and working over time.

“We didn’t think much of it.” Gwen said, which is never how Merlin wanted to hear about a patient. It was always the issues that were unexpected that were the worse. She continued, “He came in with what we thought was just a bad fever. Then his magic started acting up.”

“I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop” Merlin said warily.

“He’s barely a AR3.” Gwen said.

“There it is.” Merlin sighed. Magic under a level five rarely acted up, and sometimes people under ten never contradicted a magical illnesses. The fact that it manifested first as a physical non-magic reaction was also concerning.

Merlin picked up the patient’s chart outside the examination room, scanning it quickly. “I’ll look him over. I’ll see you on break?”

“You better.” Gwen said, “You still have to tell me how your date went.”

“I’m not telling you anything, you gossip.” Merlin said, throwing her a smile as he slipped into the examination room.

When Merlin stepped into the room it took him a while to find the magic acting up. If Merlin couldn’t find anything at first glance, it was no wonder the other medicinal sorcerers didn’t find anything right away. As Gwen had said, the man, David Bryson, a low level magic user, had a fever and his magic was weak and sickly. Unfortunately, even after twenty minutes of talking with him and doing the basic tests on his magic, the symptoms were still too vague to give Merlin any concrete diagnosis. Weak magic and a fever could be anything at this point. Merlin signed Bryson off for another overnight stay in the hospital, with a reassuring pat on his shoulder. If nothing developed overnight Merlin would have to notify Dr. Nimueh Pelleas, Avalon hospital’s undiagnosed cases specialist.

When Merlin entered the break room Gwen was leaning on the counter next to the microwave, where her leftovers were circling. Merlin pulled out his food from the fridge and ate with Gwen as she told him a story about Lance arresting some idiot kids who tried to steal a petting zoo goat. Merlin almost made his entire break without Gwen needling him about Arthur, but he should have known better.

“Okay enough about me.” Gwen said, wiping her hands on a napkin, as if wiping her hands of the topic. “Tell me all about your date.”

“It went well.” Merlin said, holding back his smile just to annoy Gwen. She eyed him long enough that he had to break into a laugh and she kicked him in the ankles. “Alright, alright. It was great.” Merlin still couldn’t forget the way Arthur had looked at him when Merlin teased him, or the way they had kissed goodbye in front of his apartment door for what felt like ages.

“And?” Gwen prompted.

And .” Merlin mocked. “And Arthur is taking me out this weekend.”

“Oh Arthur.” Gwen elongated his name and fluttered her eyelashes, as if mocking him. “What's it been? Only a couple weeks of dating and you're already all heart-eyes about him.”

Merlin groaned. “You're the worst.”

Gwen grinned. “I'm the best.”

They wrapped up lunch, with only minimal poking from Gwen. She asked where they were going on their date, but she didn’t believe Merlin when he said that he didn’t know. Arthur had kept it a secret, probably because Merlin had kept it a secret on the first date. He hoped this wouldn’t spiral into a series of more and more competitive secret dates. Arthur seemed the type. Not that Merlin was admitting to being competitive (though he didn’t think for a second that Arthur could beat him if it came to that.)

When Saturday came around, Arthur still didn’t tell Merlin where they were going. Instead he gathered Cavall, Aithusa, and Merlin into his car, along with a backpack and a couple water bottles.

“I'm starting to get concerned.” Merlin said when they had been driving for over twenty minutes, heading out of the city.

“We're almost there.” Arthur said, and Cavall barked excitedly. Obviously the puppy knew where they were going but not Merlin.

Arthur pulled over the car at an outpost with a sign that read, The Meredor Trail. Past the outpost and down a gravel path there were rolling hills and a scattering of woods. Arthur stepped out of the car, and let Cavall out without clipping him on the lead. Aithusa stepped out behind the dog, sniffing the new air tentatively. Merlin looked across the landscape where the wind played through the grassy hills and the sky stretched far above them.

Merlin jumped when there was a knock on the passenger side window. “You going to stay in there all afternoon?” Arthur asked.

Merlin unclipped his seatbelt and stepped out of the car, deciding that he would let Arthur take him on this adventure, wherever they were going. Merlin was glad he had worn  trainers like Arthur had ordered, because it seemed like they were going to be walking for some time. They set off on the gravel path, leading them up and down the hills, little creatures scurrying up trees and birds racing above their heads. It turned out that Arthur was in his element in the open air. The sun brightened his hair and the wind painted his cheeks red. He was energized and kept throwing smiles back at Merlin as he led them on a hike.

“You know just because this isn’t a gym, doesn't mean this isn't exercise.” Merlin pointed out.

“Exercise is good for you, Merlin.” Arthur said, breathing in the fresh air. “And besides, this is more about the view than the hike.”

Merlin was hardly one to complain, especially as he looked across the landscape. The hills were painted in all shades of green, against a bright blue sky and shifting clouds. The great open spaces reminded him of home. He half expected a dragon to circle above them.

Cavall was ecstatic to be off the lead, trotting a few paces in front of Arthur, but looking back every once and a while to check he was there. Aithusa had started the hike on Merlin’s shoulders, but soon enough she was testing out her wings. The wind let her hover without much effort. When she glided back down to the ground she bounded back up to Merlin, skidding in the gravel and then jumping with all her might to catch another gust of wind. Merlin only had to caution her, after she let out her wings too quickly and the wind pushed her down the trail a couples meters. Merlin caught her with his magic and gave her a look. After that, she trotted ahead to join Cavall, who was happily sniffing every rock and bush he could see.

As the path widened, Arthur fell back to walk side by side with Merlin. They kept a brisk pace, but not enough that Merlin felt out of breath. Arthur would surely win if it came down to a race.

In front of them, Aithusa must have tired because she thought it was a good idea to climb on top of Cavall. Cavall didn't seem to mind, and continued on his merry way. Merlin thought it was amusing until Aithusa accidentally let out her wings and with a little bounce in his step, Cavall lifted off the ground for a few seconds.

Aithusa. Be careful. ” Merlin said in dragon tongue, not to command her but to make sure she understood him. Even if she couldn't speak yet, Aithusa understood. She tucked her wings in tightly and for once she actually looked apologetic. Cavall, of course, didn't seem to mind and barked excitedly at having flown.

“Jesus, what language was that?” Arthur asked.

“Dragon tongue.” Merlin said. “You should hear my Dad. He always sounds livid when he speaks it.” To be fair, Dragonlords typically only spoke in Dragon tongue when something was wrong, so Balinor was usually angry as Hell when he used it.

As they continued walking, Arthur broke off from the trail, leading them down a dirt path separated from the designated gravel trail. The path sloped upwards through the hills and trees began to line either side of the path. Although it was hardly hot, the trees gave some shade for Merlin’s heated skin. Arthur did have a point, the exercise felt good as his heart pumped and his skin tingled with sweat.

At one point they had to climb over a fallen tree, moss growing over the bark and its roots reaching up to the sky. Aithusa leaped over the log with a bound and Cavall scurried under. Arthur climbed on top first and then pulled Merlin up. Merlin almost lost his footing on top of the log, but Arthur steadied him with his hands spreading across Merlin’s narrow hips.

Suddenly nose to nose, Merlin whispered. “Hey.”

“Hi.” Arthur said. Merlin thought Arthur was going to kiss him, but then Arthur said “We're almost there” and stepped off the log and held out a hand to help Merlin down.

Merlin would have been disappointed but he didn’t trust his own feet on top of the log and kissing was better on solid ground. Merlin grabbed the offered hand and hopped down. Arthur was right, they only walked a minute more before they arrived. As they walked farther the foliage thinned. The trees separated at the edge to reveal the top of a hill where grass met a flat boulder. From here they could look across the rolling landscape with the woods around them and the sky above them.

Merlin turned around to see Arthur with his backpack on the ground, a blanket in one hand and a lunch pack in the other. He gave Merlin a shy smile.

Merlin bit his lip to stop from grinning, “You're kind of a romantic sop, aren't you?”

“Don't know what you're talking about.” Arthur said as he laid out the blanket.

“So this isn't a romantic picnic?”

“This is a hike. And now we're having lunch.” Arthur said, pulling out food. The last item out of the bag was a bag of kibble which he opened for Cavall, and a bundle of baby carrots for Aithusa.

Merlin bit his tongue, restraining himself from teasing Arthur. It was nice to know Arthur was soppy, even if he would never say it himself. Like another layer of Arthur that was open for Merlin to explore.

Cavall investigated the area and Aithusa decided a sunbaked rock was a good place for a nap. Merlin sat cross-legged on the blanket as Arthur set out everything. Then the wind picked up. Since the boulder was out of the wooded path, the trees weren't blocking the wind and they bore the brunt of it. Food wrappers flew away and the temperature dropped noticeably. Merlin stopped the wrappers with his magic and grabbed them with his hands before they went too far, but then the blanket picked up and flapped angrily. Merlin laughed as Arthur desperately tried to hold everything down all at once, to no effect.

“You're a mess.” Merlin said as Arthur was laying flat on his stomach with his hands on the edges of the blanket.

“Hey!” Arthur said, sounding offended.

In response, Merlin flicked his wrist and put up a shield which blocked the wind instantly. “Don't worry, I like it.” Merlin pushed Arthur onto his back and kissed him. The wind flared up, but the blanket didn’t budge.

“This would have worked.” Arthur said between kisses.

“Mmhm.” Merlin hummed as he continued to kiss him.

“It’s just windy today.” Arthur said

“Shush. I’m trying to kiss you.”

“Mmf.” Arthur said in response as Merlin covered his lips with his own.

A moment later, Merlin looked down at Arthur, ruffling his fringe and dragging the tips of his fingers from his temple to his cheekbone. Arthur’s eyes were low, his smile lazy and content.

“Your eyes flash gold when there's a big gust of wind.” Arthur whispered as the wind blew over the shield.

“Oh. I didn't notice.” Merlin only felt the wind push at his magic after Arthur mentioned it.

“You’re gorgeous, you know that?”

Caught off guard by the compliment, all Merlin said was “Oh.”

Arthur’s smile was a bit smug. Merlin was reluctant to admit that if this was Arthur kicking up the charm, it was working wonders. Because, as Arthur ran his hand over Merlin’s jaw and his eyes scanned his face, Merlin knew that he meant it. As much as Merlin liked the compliment and loved that cocky smile on Arthur’s lips, Merlin had to do something about that cocksure attitude. He leaned in, as if going in for a kiss, then flicked Arthur’s nose. “ Kiss-ass. ” He hissed.

“Ow!” Arthur yelped, before bursting out laughing. “ What the hell?

Merlin laughed, then he actually kissed him, cupping Arthur’s jaw and not holding back despite Arthur’s initial grumping about his nose. They snogged like teenagers, curled up on the blanket behind the shield as the wind gusted overhead.

“Don’t ever expect a compliment from me ever again.” Arthur grumbled, rubbing his nose as if Merlin had punched him, instead of a light flick of his fingers.

Merlin pressed a final kiss to Arthur’s cheek, and gave him a smile, “Come on, you sop. What food did you bring?”

Arthur pulled out sandwiches, which he admitted that he had made but should be good enough for consumption. They weren't bad, in Merlin’s opinion but it was hard to mess up picnic food. They ate while facing the wide open view, the sun warm and the wind cool. Cavall rested on the blanket at their feet and Aithusa sun bathed on a nearby rock.

After watching the clouds roll by, they decided to head back. They packed up the picnic, and Merlin let down the shield. Cavall sat patiently, his tail wagging, and Aithusa woke up after falling asleep on the sun-warmed rock. The walk back was just just as peacefully quiet as it was before, but this time they there was a finality that the date was coming to a close, and Merlin wanted anything but.

It was obvious the exercise had worn out their companions, because on the car ride back Cavall and Aithusa fell asleep in the back seat. When they arrived at Arthur’s apartment, Cavall went straight to his bed before the door even closed behind them. Lazily following with her tail dragging on the floor, Aithusa crawled into the dog bed next to Cavall and fell asleep almost instantly. The little bed was full, with the puppy curled around a little ball of a baby dragon. With that, Merlin knew he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Arthur stepped up behind Merlin so that his chest was pressed to Merlin’s back, “How would you feel about a shower?”

Merlin felt his heart stutter in his chest. The car ride had cooled him down, but he was still hot and sticky from the hike. Merlin ran his hands down to where Arthur’s were gripping his hips. “Would you be joining me?”

“Well, it’s my shower. So you would be joining me.” Arthur pressed his lips to Merlin’s neck.

“Presumptuous, again.”

“Is that a yes?” Arthur said, finally figuring out that teasing was Merlin’s affection.

Merlin closed his eyes and smiled, “Yeah.”

Despite having flats in the same building, Arthur’s bathroom was larger than Merlin’s. Instead of a shower-tub combination, Arthur had a porcelain tub above which was a tiny window just big enough for a clever baby dragon to slip through. Next to the tub there was a glass shower which was just spacious enough for two if they pressed closed together.

Merlin watched as Arthur pulled off his shirt and tossed it to the floor. With a glance, Arthur looked up as he deliberately unbuttoned his jeans. Merlin could take a hint and pulled off his shirt quickly and without any grace.

While Merlin was busy taking off his shoes, he heard the shower start and looked up in time to see Arthur step under the spray with his back towards Merlin. His blond hair darkened as he ran a hand over his fringe to keep it from running into his eyes. Merlin’s eyed the trail of water that slipped down Arthur’s stomach as he ran a hand all the way down.

“Tie your laces too tight?” Arthur asked, shaking Merlin out of his thoughts to realize that he was still hovering over his shoelaces absentmindedly.

“Oh fuck .” Merlin pulled off his shoes hurriedly and shimmied out of his trousers and pants in one go, which made Arthur laugh.

“Come here.” Arthur pulled Merlin into the shower and shut the door behind him. Merlin sighed as the water hit his back, feeling his muscles relax and the sticky residue of sweat roll off his skin. Arthur’s calloused hands ran along his sides, maneuvering them so that the water was falling onto both their sides.

God .” Arthur groaned as he tipped Merlin’s head to the side and mouthed at Merlin’s neck. Merlin hummed happily as Arthur dragged his teeth down his pulse point and licked along his throat.

Merlin knew that they were both exhilarated from the hike, blood pumping fast and their muscles twitching for more, more, and more . Arthur had smelled like the fresh air of the woods and the sweat from the exercise, but as the steam filled the room Merlin lost his senses to a purer scent that surrounded them. As they kissed, Merlin had to clutch onto Arthur’s shoulder tighter before he lost his mind from just kissing.

Merlin broke away and ran his hands through Arthur's hair, watching the water running down the strands and then over his Roman nose. He pressed a kiss to the bump there, just because he could. Arthur twitched and pulled away to give Merlin a bemused look.

“You’re an odd one.” Arthur said as his hands roamed Merlin’s sides, dipping into his lower back.

“Like me anyway?” Merlin teased, not giving time for Arthur to answer before he kissed him. From the way Arthur held on tight, he didn’t seem to mind at all.

“Let me?” Arthur’s voice was deep, rough, and he could ask anything in that voice and Merlin would say yes.

As soon as Merlin nodded his head, Arthur turned Merlin around so that he was facing the tiled wall of the shower. A moment later, Arthur ran a bar of soap over his shoulders and his thumbs pressed into the muscle of his shoulders, giving Merlin a massage. Suddenly Merlin had to widen his stance to keep upright. It was obvious Arthur knew exactly how to give a massage because his fingers dug into Merlin’s pressure points and made him shiver, even under the warm spray of water. He mouthed at Merlin’s shoulder and his hands kneaded Merlin’s back, peppering kisses over his skin every once and a while. Merlin dipped his head down as Arthur pressed flush behind him, his chin resting on Merlin’s shoulder, “Alright?”

Merlin dragged out a noise, something between a whine and a moan. He turned around and faintly heard Arthur’s breath hitch as Merlin pulled him into a messy kiss.

As they kissed Merlin’s hands wandered lower where Arthur’s cock was pressing into his thigh. Arthur rocked forward as Merlin wrapped his hand around him, but he didn't break the kiss. Merlin didn't relent, his hand keeping a steady pace until Arthur broke away with a gasp and a plea. Arthur’s face flushed and his hand flew above his head to clutch the top of the glass shower wall to keep his balance.

“Merlin.” Arthur’s eyes were closed tightly, and his voice almost sounded like a warning.

Merlin buried his face in the crook of Arthur’s neck, one hand supporting Arthur against the glass as his other stroked Arthur in a fast tight grip. Arthur was making soft noises that Merlin wanted to bottled up and keep forever. As Arthur came with a wordless gasp, he tensed and pulled Merlin as close as possible. Merlin’s heart was racing in his chest as he pressed a row of kisses onto Arthur’s shoulder and murmured to him, barely audible above the noise of the shower.

Fuck .” Arthur’s voice was thick as his hands shakingly held onto Merlin. “Bedroom. We need a bed, before we fall on our arses.”

Merlin had to agree, because he did not trust his legs to hold him up any longer. They stumbled out of the shower, slipping damply against each other.

“Come here you.” Merlin gave a flirty look as he grabbed a towel and flung it around Arthur’s ass, shimming it back and forth. The flirting was useless on Arthur who apparently was hopelessly cuddly after an orgasm. He wrapped himself around Merlin with a dopey smile on his lips and nuzzled Merlin’s neck. It did little to dry them off, but Merlin couldn’t find it in himself to give a damn.

Using the towel, Merlin led Arthur out of the bathroom. Arthur got the hint and followed, grabbing at Merlin and kissing him as Merlin walked backwards. Soon enough Arthur was kicking his bedroom door closed behind them.

Arthur pushed Merlin down onto the bed, hovering over Merlin and kissing him thoroughly.  Merlin vaguely thought that he was still very wet from the shower and Arthur’s pillows would be a mess, but he was soon distracted as Arthur’s lips traveled from his neck to his chest, and then down to his hips. Merlin let out a gasp as Arthur wrapped a hand around his cock and took him in his mouth. Then really didn't care about the damn pillows.

Merlin’s skin tingled and his hands grasped desperately at Arthur’s shoulders as Arthur ran his tongue over the head of his cock and bobbed his head down. It was only as Arthur’s lips dragged across his hip that Merlin had a moment to breathe.  With all of Arthur’s attention on him, Merlin’s mind was lost in a haze. His heart beat furiously in his chest and he moaned out unintelligibly as he tipped over the edge of pleasure.

As Merlin caught his breath he felt Arthur crawl over him and kiss his shoulder, moving to his neck, jaw, and then lips. Merlin kissed back, lazy and dazed, pulling Arthur close until they were flush together. Arthur was warm against his skin, and still damp from the shower, making them slip against each other.

“Mm, that was good.” Merlin said, more than a little blissed out.

Arthur made a noise of agreement, “Yeah,” as he continued to kiss Merlin. “Does that usually happen?”

“Hm?” Merlin asked, pulling away so that he could look at Arthur.

Arthur raised a brow at him. “So that doesn’t usually happen?”

“What?” Merlin asked again, waking a bit from his daze.

“Your magic, Merlin. It went mad.” Arthur smiled, his hands cupping Merlin’s jaw as he whispered, “Your eyes were gold as you came.”

“Oh Jesus.” Merlin’s face flamed with embarrassment. Perhaps the haze and adrenaline he had felt wasn’t just his lust. He hadn’t meant to let his magic act out so wildly, but he had been worked up after the hike and Arthur had been so, so good.

“A gust of wind knocked all the things off my dresser.” Arthur whispered as he pressed more kisses on Merlin’s neck. “And I’m fairly certain my clock isn’t supposed to read  89:12pm.”

“Fuck, that's embarrassing.” Merlin buried his face to the crook of Arthur’s shoulder. He wasn’t sure if he was more embarrassed for lack of control or because Arthur sounded so turned on.  

“That good, am I?”

Merlin looked up and poked Arthur in the chest. “Don't get a big head about it.”

“That's a ‘yes.’” Arthur grinned triumphantly.

Merlin narrowed his eyes, “That's a ‘make my magic go wild a second time, and maybe I'll admit it.’”

“A challenge I am willing to take on.” Arthur said as he shifted to straddle Merlin.

Later, after the clock had zapped out completely and a few sparks had flown (quite literally) they laid sprawled across the bed. Merlin was panting, his limbs wobbly from exertion and his head fuzzy.

Merlin swallowed while he caught his breath, “Best two out of three.”

Arthur was out of breath too, but at Merlin’s challenge he started laughing so hard that no sound escaped him.

Hours later, Merlin woke up to the sound of a drawer squeaking on its hinges. He squirmed slightly, feeling a weight on his shoulder that told him Arthur was still sleeping. He opened his eyes, adjusting to the light in the dark room, looking down to see Arthur’s head in the crook of his shoulder and his arm curled across Merlin’s chest. At another noise, sounding suspiciously of skittering claws, Merlin looked over to the dresser, the top of which was still clear of Arthur’s things. But the dresser was not clear, because at the top there was a bulgar-dragon with a pair of socks in her snout and a dark fabric tucked under her wing. She froze. Merlin narrowed his eyes. Slowly, she dropped the socks and carefully closed the drawer, making it creak again. Arthur stirred a little at the noise, but didn't wake. Aithusa hopped down from the dresser, and skidded out of the room, and Merlin didn't fail to notice she hadn't dropped whatever was under her wing. Merlin sighed, deciding it was something to leave for later, and nestled closer to Arthur.

***

Things with Arthur were going well. Scratch that, things with Arthur were going spectacular. After what Merlin liked to call their ‘soppy picnic adventure’ (and what Arthur called ‘a hike, Merlin, for God’s sake, it was a hike ’) they altered their schedules to see each other more and more. They went out to the park for Aithusa and Cavall’s exercise during the weekend and usually had dinner sometime during the week- and then snogged for far too long when they said goodbye. Gwen teased him about his relationship with Arthur. Merlin usually retaliated with pointing out that she and Lance were the epitome of Romantic Lovers. She usually smacked him over the head with her files when he did that.

So overall, things were going well with Arthur. Merlin even managed, with a little niggling of his boss, to switch his weekend shift with another medicinal sorcerer so that he could recover from a “cold” (i.e. spend an obscene amount of time in bed with Arthur). Normally Merlin wouldn’t do such a thing, because he honestly loved his job, but Merlin had yet to take a sick day all year and Dr. Muirden hadn’t minded taking Merlin’s shift. He would have felt bad for taking the day off but honestly he had never felt more happy as he laid in bed with Arthur, exchanging stories and kissing like they had all the time in the world. Merlin told Arthur about the first time he took care of a dragon at the Emrys Dragon Sanctuary and as he listened to Arthur regale the epic tale of how at ten years old he scored his first goal which won his football team the game.

But Merlin should have remembered Murphy’s Law. Because if things were going well, then something bad was bound to happen.

At Avalon Hospital, David Bryson, the low level sorcerer who had come in with an unknown magic illness, still had not been diagnosed despite the fact that he been admitted to Avalon a month before. It was a troubling omen.

After a month in the hospital, the patient was coherent and his body was functioning, but he was still wasn’t healthy. Merlin had tested for several magical illnesses, but none came back positive even after Dr. Nimueh Pelleas had been working on his case. The case worried Merlin not because of Nimueh (in fact, she was a level AR17 and very dedicated to healing her patients) but what did worry him was the fact that Nimueh had yet to diagnose him. If Nimueh couldn’t figure it out, Merlin wondered if they really could cure the patient at all.

Perhaps with more time and more specialists they could have figured it out without too much worry. But then another patient came into Avalon A&E. She was a level AR5, had the same symptoms, and neither Merlin nor Nimueh knew the cause. That made two patients with the same unknown illness. One case was an anomaly. Two was an issue.

Then, on the next day, Merlin was doing his rounds when Gwen interrupted him. He looked up from his files and where his patient was sitting on examination table to see Gwen peak her head in.

“Dr. Emrys. We have another case .” Gwen didn’t need to explain what case she meant. News on the unknown illness (and Nimueh’s frustration about it) had spread around the hospital like wildfire.

Merlin didn’t like that sound of that. He turned to Gwen and said, “I’ll be there in a moment.”

Gwen cleared her throat. “There are three patients waiting for you.”

Merlin froze in his seat. Correction: One case was an anomaly, two was an issue, and three was verging on an outbreak.

With a clank, Merlin set down his file and stood up. “I’ll be there right now.” He gave a quick smile to the patient in front of him. “Excuse me, I’m needed elsewhere. I'll send over another doctor to you as soon as possible.”

“Is something wrong, doctor?” The patient asked, picking up on Merlin’s urgency.

“Nothing to worry about just yet. These things pop up every once and a while.” Merlin have a comforting smile.

When he left the room and paged Mithian to cover his round, Merlin turned to Gwen, “Please tell me it's just a thing that pops up.”

“You're far too good at comforting people under bad circumstances, even for a doctor.” Gwen said grimly. “Three patients came in over the course of the morning. None of them related. We put them into urgent care with the other two patients. I thought it best to tell you first. I’m going to Nimueh now.”

“She’s not going to be happy.” Merlin grumbled.

“She’ll go ballistic, but I can handle her. Go on,” She ushered him down the hall. “I’ve got to notify Nimueh and then I’m right behind you to take the routine tests.”

Merlin rushed to Urgent Care to find exactly what he didn’t want to find. Nothing.  Like the first two patients, these three had magical inflammation, a slight fever, and were all below a 10 on the Avicenna Range. What worried him was the difference in their levels. If they were all AR3’s that was one thing but they were varying from 3 to 10.

Only ten minutes later Nimueh arrived, followed by Gwen and a cart of testing equipment.

“Guinevere,” Nimueh nodded to the patients and Gwen gave a quick nod before going over to the patients, asking them questions and beginning to collect samples.

Nimueh grabbed Merlin's arm and dragged him over to the nurse’s desk. “Anything?”

“Nothing. All I can say is that it's the same as the first case. If I had to make a guess, the patient with AR10 has a more severe case. She’s more exhausted than any of the others and her magic is weaker. But other than that, I can't tell why any of their magic is inflamed.

“It has to be a virus.” Nimueh said, mostly to herself. “I've managed to keep the first patient’s fever down with medicine but his magic isn't responding to any of my treatments.”

“Something had to have changed over the month.” Merlin asked.

Nimueh’s lips thinned. “The only change is for the worse. Bryson isn’t used to such magic exhaustion. Not when he’s only an AR3. The magic inflammation is draining him, and at this rate he will barely be able to stand in a week.”

Merlin tapped his fingers restlessly on the nurse’s desk. “There has to be something causing it.”

“If it’s a magical virus- which would be the most likely cause- it’s one we’ve never seen before. I've contacted a few spell casters to examine the case and start on a cure.”

Merlin gnawed on his lip with worry. A new spell would certainly cure the magical virus, but creating a spell which was perfect would take too long. If Nimueh was correct, the first patient needed a cure sooner rather than later. Who would know what would happen to him if the inflammation continued?

“I’ll need all the medicinal sorcerers I can get to help create the curing spell. Do I have your magic?” Nimueh asked, her eyes as piercing as ever.

Merlin nodded, “Of course. I’ll do anything I can to help.”

***

The morning alarm on his phone was going off somewhere in the room, but as a Merlin groped around the bed and nightstand, he couldn't find it.

Something grumbled loudly at him and pushed him.

“Hold on.” Merlin groaned, eyes not even open as he hung off the side of the bed to find his trousers and pull out his phone. He tapped the screen and heard an answering moan of gratitude from behind him. Then he felt the lump in the bed move over and wrap around his waist.

“You'll hurt your neck like that.” Arthur slurred, referring to the way Merlin still hadn't moved back onto the bed, with the upper half of his body hanging off the side.

“Gotta get up.” Merlin answered as Arthur dragged him back into the bed and promptly laid on top of him.

“Stay.” Arthur nuzzled closer.

“You have work too, you know.” Merlin mumbled.

“Not until nine o'clock. Like a sane person.”

Merlin lazily pointed to himself, “Doctor.”

Arthur hummed and started to kiss Merlin’s shoulder. He was giving Merlin the same big-eyed look that had worked far too well the night before. Except this time it was accompanied by fluffy bedhead and warm hands kneading his sides.

“I'm going to be late.” Merlin moaned, “Remind me not to listen to you when you try to seduce me on a work night.”

“Why would I remind you not to listen to me? Besides, it worked didn’t it?” Arthur looked far too pleased, a lazy content smile on his lips and tiny creases in his cheek from lying on his pillow.

“You're an idiot.” Merlin said, “And I really can't stay. You know how work has been.” For the past week Avalon had had more patients with the same unknown illness. Merlin hadn't even managed see Arthur for their usual dinner, let alone get proper rest. Plus, he wasn’t certain if he had logged in hours for the last couple days, or if he was just coming into the hospital anytime he could so they could find a cure as soon as possible.

“I know.” Arthur said, “Just don’t over work yourself.” Which is why Arthur had coerced Merlin the night before to stay at his place, otherwise Merlin would have taken a nap and then gone back to work.

“Says the man who goes into work on his day off.”

“Not all the time.” Arthur countered.

“Yet you didn’t deny it.” Merlin smiled before he sat up to start collecting his clothes. He didn’t get very far. Arthur pulled him back down onto the bed with a loud thump and Merlin yelped in surprise. The noise alerted Cavall down the hall.

Oh no .” Arthur’s eyes widened comically.

Only a second later, there was the distinct sound of paws skittering across hardwood floors. The bedroom door slammed open and Cavall pounced onto Arthur, his paws pushing Arthur’s chest down.

Cavall! ” Arthur shouted, but it was too late. The puppy, who had grown almost to full size in the few months that Merlin had known Arthur, easily laid across Arthur’s body and greeted him with a heavy full-body hug. He licked Arthur’s face a few times and Arthur’s nose wrinkled.

“Good morning, Cavall.” Merlin said with a laugh, rubbing over his ears and the scruff of his neck. Cavall looked up and licked Merlin’s hand, but he stayed where he was pinning Arthur to the bed.

Arthur dropped his head to the pillow and groaned, “Cavall, you cockblock.”

Merlin laughed even more, “He’s making sure I get to work on time. Good puppy.” Merlin kissed the German Shepherd on the head and received a very happy wag of the tail in response.

As Merlin pulled on his clothes, Cavall rearranged himself in the spot where Merlin had slept and curled up with Arthur. By the time Merlin was dressed, Arthur had accepted his fate and was petting Cavall contently.

“I’ll see you later.” Merlin leaned over Cavall to give Arthur a goodbye kiss.

“Say hello to Aithusa for me.” Arthur said, “Call me when you’re free this week.”

“M’kay” Merlin mumbled over Arthur’s lips for a second kiss, lingering longer than he should.

He pulled away and gave Cavall a goodbye pet, and then hurried to his apartment.

When he opened his front door Aithusa was on her post in the kitchen, and chirped accusingly at him.

“I know, I know. I’m late! Give me a second!” Merlin muttered to Aithusa as he pulled off his clothes and ran down the hall to the shower. Usually he would throw his clothes into the hamper, because the hall was free game for Aithusa to nab them, but he didn’t have time. He chucked them anywhere and danced on one foot and then the other to get his socks off and then lunged into the shower. As he turned on the water he heard wings flap across the hall and the clank of his belt. He sighed, knowing he would have to get his jeans later.

He scrambled into his scrubs and chopped up Aithusa’s breakfast, before grabbing his coat and keys. Aithusa yapped at him

“I’ve got to go, little one.” Merlin said as he picked her up and kissed her snout. “I will see you tonight, I promise. Lots to do today, I’ll be home as soon as I can.” She nuzzled his chest with a small purr and then flapped her wings, telling him to let her down. He did so and she scurried over to the meat he had left her for breakfast.  With a final goodbye, he ran out the door and to the tube station.

He wasn’t late, but it was a close call. He skidded into work, swiped his card, and received an amused look from Gwen when he ran past her on his way down the hall.

“Well looks like someone slept in this morning!” She called out to him teasingly.

“It's bloody Arthur’s fault!” Merlin was unable to hide his grin, which made her laugh.

By the time Merlin made it to the magic illness unit, he had caught his breath and was back on track. He pulled on his lab coat as he walked down the hall to his first patient, letting out his magic before he even turned the corridor. He could barely feel the magic of each patient, which was disconcerting. Although magic weakened when sick, like other part of the body, it was usually at least detectable to as sorcerer as powerful as Merlin. Nimueh had said she would do tests on the patients to see if they could use their magic, but it didn’t seem like it was slipping away, just that it was weakening the patient until they were delirious and unable to function.

This section of the hospital had been unofficially designated as the sector for patients experiencing symptoms of the unknown illness. Nimueh had been working on the patients with her group of specialists, but there was still only a vague list of symptoms and possible spelling-cures. The virus seemed to drain any person of magic, making them physically weak and delirious. Their magic was inflamed and they didn’t seem to be able to use it properly, the same way a patient’s voice would be rough and hard to use when ill with bronchitis.

Fortunately, a few of the patients had been moved out of the sector after a few hours of observation when they were diagnosed with another magical illness. There had only been three cases as these, and they were diagnosed with a common curse or just the magic-flu  which would be easily cured by Avalon’s the medicinal sorcerers.

Merlin checked over the patients, taking down their symptoms and any changes from when he saw them yesterday. Most of the patients were sleeping or just stared at the wall dazedly. It was unsettling to watch, but it made Merlin want to help all the more. A few were coherent enough to greet him, and usually that would have reassured him, but they were weaker than before. By the next day they would surely be as delirious as the others. When he looped back around the sector to the check-in desk, he caught sight of Gwen over her files. She gave him a nod and pointed to the front door. He watched as a gurney was rolled in from an ambulance which had just arrived. Merlin let out his magic and his heart sank as his magic recognized the unknown illness.

He gave Gwen a small smile which he hoped said ‘thanks for the tip off’ before he ran over to the EMTs and doctors.

“...weakened and was barely conscious the entire ride here. Brother says it happened suddenly. No drugs. No alcohol. He just collapsed.” The EMT reported to one of the A&E doctors.

Merlin jogged to catch up with them, and nodded to the A&E doctor, “I think I can be of some help.”

“Dr. Emrys.” The Doctor greeted, and Merlin recognized her now as Dr. Ferris who he had worked with only a few times. She gave him a worried look, “Is it one of your cases?”

“Let me check. What do you know?” He looked to the EMT who nodded their head and listed off what had happened. The young man, no prior major illnesses, had been tired all week according to his older brother who had called the ambulance. He had thought it might have just been a head-cold until he tried to do some magic- a basic cleaning spell for the kitchen- and found himself weakened even more than usual. The brother said they were just sitting down to watch the game when the patient passed out for no reason. He only commented that he seemed ‘a bit out of it’ before the collapse.

“His AR level?” Merlin asked.

“Fairly high. He's an AR12.” said the EMT.

Merlin sighed, “That’s what I thought. Dr. Ferris, I’ll be taking him off your hands.”

She frowned, “Is there anything I can do for you and the other medicinal sorcerers?”

“Circulate the symptoms around the A&E staff, we should have an official list coming around soon.” Merlin checked his watch as he remembered that he had a meeting with the other medicinal sorcerers today. Which had started five minutes ago. Damn. “If you get any weakened patients- and I mean any at all- page a medicinal sorcerer as soon as possible. The faster we diagnose the sooner we can cure this virus.”

“Yes, of course.” Dr. Ferris nodded and jogged off as Merlin bent over the patient to check their vitals.

“Should I keep this in mind, Doctor?” the EMT asked.

Merlin looked up from the patient. “Keep it in mind if you get a call about a collapse, but don’t spread it around just yet. Last thing we need is panic.”

“Understood. Hopefully I won’t see you again today.” The EMT gave a smile and turned on their heal, jogging back to the A&E entrance.

Merlin looked over the patient once more before he called a few nurses over to take the patient to the sector where the other undiagnosed patients were roomed. Then he checked his watch and dashed down the corridor and up the stairs. He was going to be late. Again. Apparently it was turning out to be one of those days.

Merlin barely had time to straighten his lab coat before he entered the boardroom, where all eyes turned to him.

“Ah, Dr. Emrys, nice of you to join us.” Director Gaius White said with a bemused smile. “We were wondering about your absence.”

“Sorry I'm late. Another patient just came in.” Merlin said, eyes landing on Nimueh, whose expression tightened at his news.

Merlin took the empty spot next to Mithian, who appeared to be the only non-magical in the room. As he looked around, Merlin was surprised to see that he only recognized half the people sat around the table. Gaius was at the head of the table, then on one side sat a row of medicinal sorcerers and on the other sat a group of business people Merlin had never seen before.

Gaius turned to one of the businesswomen and said, “Dr. Emrys is one of our best medicinal sorcerers, he will also be apart of the team with specialist Dr. Alator Catha and Dr. Helen Mora.”

Mithian slid over the meeting agenda and Merlin quickly scanned it as Gaius continued his overview. Two things popped out to him immediately, the first was the scheduled presentation by Nimueh, and second was the presentation by two Magic Activist nonprofits, the Forbearnan Initiative and The Magic Network.

“Dr. Pelleas, if you would?” Gaius said stepping aside so Nimueh would have the floor.

Nimueh picked up a marker and began to write on the whiteboard behind her, “Excuse me for the lack of presentation, my team and I have barely had time for rest, let alone to create a presentation. This will have to do.”

“I'm sure you're all aware why we're here, so let's get down to it. We have fourteen- now fifteen patients who have come into Avalon with an unknown magical virus. Since people with magic are only five percent of the city’s population, I am considering this an outbreak and we don't want an epidemic on our hands.”

Nimueh wrote down the facts on the board, before turning back to the room. “In regards to the virus itself, in very basic layman's terms, it's a magic mononucleosis.” Nimueh wrote out the symptoms. “Patients experience extreme exhaustion, delirium, and inflammation of magic. Any use of magic exhausts them further, to the point of confusion and inability to function.”

“What's unusual here is that the first few patients were very low level sorcerers. But now more and more sorcerers with AR10 and above are coming in. The virus is affecting them later, but more swiftly and harshly.”

Nimueh looked to Merlin. “Emrys, what was the patient's AR level?”

Merlin cleared his throat, “He's an AR12. He collapsed suddenly today with little to no obvious warning after performing a simple spell.”

“Exactly.” Nimueh said, “High level sorcerers are at an extreme risk, but that is not to say that low level sorcerers are not in danger. I worry it may affect them more because they rarely deal with magic exhaustion.”

“My team will be working around the clock. We need to create a curing-spell before we lose someone else.”

Merlin’s head snapped up at these words, and before he could stop himself, he asked, “Someone else?”

“The first patient, David Bryson, passed this morning.” Nimueh said, her voice tight and her entire countenance stiff. “His body wasn't able to take the exhaustion after weeks of strain.”

Merlin had to bite back his curse as he solemnly nodded his head. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Are there any questions?” Nimueh turned to the business people, who Merlin now assumed were part of the nonprofits.

“A few,” said one woman with curled blonde hair. “If we are to help we will need to know the cause of this virus, as well as how many people it's affecting.”

“The virus is spread like any other virus. Interaction with those who carry the virus. If people are kept in a sanitary environment and do not use their magic until healed, they shouldn’t spread it. Anyone can carry the virus, but it will only affect people who have magic.” Nimueh sighed, “As for your other point, we have the numbers for Avalon, but not the numbers for other hospitals in the area- which lack any medicinal sorcerer units. Plus, it is uncertain if others are affected and not seeking professional help. Normally fifteen patients with the same virus wouldn’t cause such an alarm, but since it is only affecting five percent of Camelot’s overall population and the numbers seem to be growing exponentially, we are worried that this may cause an epidemic in the Magic community.”

The blonde woman nodded as she tapped away at her tablet.

Gaius cleared his throat, “What plans do the Magic Network and the Forbearnan Initiative have for helping the magic community?”

The business woman with sleek black hair answered, “We need to spread the news of this virus quickly, so that those who may be affected can seek proper treatment, but in a way which won’t cause a panic. On either side.”

“Either side?” Gaius asked.

“The magic community will need to watch out for the virus, but I worry about the anti-magic advocates. We want to make clear that this virus isn't caused by a curse. It's a virus, just like any non-magical illness. The last thing anyone needs are a hundred people ringing the hospital for magic samples so that someone can track down the sorcerers responsible.”

Merlin’s nose scrunched in revulsion at the thought. It was horrible to think of witch hunts like that, but that wasn’t even how one would go about tracking a curse.

“Areidian would love that.” The blonde woman rolled her eyes.

The black haired woman continued. “No one wants a witch hunt. Especially since this isn’t even caused by a curse. Aredian and his cronies at Matthew Hopkins’ Journal are begging for a news story like this. But I’ll make sure nothing like that happens. The staff at the Magic Network will draw up informational pamphlets which we will circulate through the city’s centers, shelters, and other magic-organizations. Plus we will provide any legal aid if comes to that.”

The blonde nodded her head in agreement, “The Forbearnan Initiative will send our support to Avalon, of course. In a few days we’ll rally the support for any extra costs that may arise.”

“And it is much appreciated, Morgause,” Gaius said, “And to you as well, Morgana. We will need all the help we can get while Nimueh and her team work on a cure. Avalon’s PR department is already on my back about this.”

Morgause made some polite answer, but Merlin barely heard her. As soon as Gaius had said ‘Morgana’ Merlin’s eyes had locked onto the black haired woman’s face. She looked nothing like Arthur, but the chances that there were two Morgana’s working for the Magic Network were slim to none.

Gaius closed the meeting with a few words and a promise to send out all the notes and finished information by email at the end of the day.

“Merlin, have you had lunch yet?” Mithian asked as they stood from their seats.

“I haven’t. Would you like to get lunch in a bit?” Merlin asked, keeping an eye on Morgana who was speaking with Nimueh at the edge of the room.

“Sure, I’ll meet you there in ten. I’ve got to drop off my papers at my office.” Mithian said, and Merlin promised to meet her at their usual spot in the hospital cafeteria.

He lingered at the entrance of the board room for a while, wondering what he should do. If he spoke to Morgana, he was rudely butting into Arthur’s business, but if he didn’t he would feel guilty for not trying. He had to do something, but he didn’t have a clue what he would even say to Arthur’s sister, or what she would think if she found out Merlin knew her brother.

Before he had come to any conclusions he saw Morgana step out of the room and headed for the exit. He took a chance and called out to her.

“Morgana Pendragon.”

She froze. When she turned on her heel, she looked outraged.

“My name is LeFay.” She stepped up to him, her eyes piercing.

Merlin raised his hands defensively. “So you are Morgana?”

She and Arthur could not look any less alike. Where Arthur was light haired, tanned, and blue eyed, she was dark haired, pale, and green eyed. The resemblance was only in the determined set of her lips and the strong glint in her eyes.

“I am. Who exactly are you?”

“Dr. Merlin Emrys, medicinal sorcerer, AR20.”

Her eyes widened. After a pause she flipped over her notebook and looked through what Merlin assumed was her notes on Nimueh’s team to check if Merlin was telling the truth. She raised a brow in surprise before she looked back at him.

Merlin began in earnest, “The Magic Network could really help us. I’m glad to see you here.”

She tapped her manicured nails against her notes, “How do you know Uther Pendragon?”

“I don't.” Merlin answered.

She didn't seem to believe him. “I changed my name from Pendragon to LeFay years ago, so how do you know that name?”

“I don't know Uther. I know your brother. Arthur.”

Her hands tightened on the notebook clutched to her chest and Merlin could tell it wasn’t out of anger, but a defensive reaction. She hadn’t expected him to say that.

“How do you know Arthur?” She asked.

“He's my…” It should have been an easy statement considering the fact that he woke up in Arthur’s bed just that morning, but they had yet to clarify their relationship. Instead Merlin said, “I'm dating him.”

Her eyes widened. She was surprised, Merlin thought to himself that she probably didn't know her brother was gay. He felt a twinge in his chest, surprised and heartbroken to realize how little she knew of Arthur.

“It’s none of my business, I know that, but I can’t walk away without speaking to you. It’s eating Arthur up that he hasn’t talked to you in years.” Merlin said, "He tried to contact you, but he told me that you had ignored all his calls. I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but why?”

Her voice was stiff as she said, “I don’t know what Arthur told you, but he never contacted me after Uther kicked me out of the house. I have no reason to want to speak to my brother.”

Merlin shook his head, unbelieving. “He told me he tried everything after you left. He said Uther had blocked him at every door and all your info changed. He told me that he tried to call you when he went into the army. And again, when you began to work for the Magic Network.”

Opening her mouth to speak, she looked wrongfooted, and her eyes looked far off for a moment. Then she shook herself and simply stated, “That can’t be right. I haven’t heard from Arthur since he was fifteen. He never wanted to see me again.”

Merlin’s heart tightened, “That's not what Arthur told me.”

“Uther...” She muttered to herself. Family was never black and white, Merlin thought.

She eyed Merlin carefully, looking down at his white coat and then back up to his eyes. “You're really a AR20, aren't you?” Merlin, although surprised by the question, nodded. “And Arthur knows?” She appeared skeptical.

“Of course he does. Arthur is nothing like his father.” Merlin said seriously.

Morgana’s face betrayed nothing, but her stiff stance clearly said that she was uncomfortable.

“Morgana,” Merlin started, but was stopped when she turned to leave. Merlin quickly stepped in front of her. “Camelot Training Center.” He blurted. “Arthur runs a center. He helps people with magical injuries. Look into it. Please.”

“This isn’t any of your business, Dr. Emrys.” She snapped, “Are you going to tell him you saw me?”

Merlin wondered why it would matter. “Arthur’s important to me. I won't keep this from him.”

Her jaw clenched, and Merlin recognized the gesture as one of Arthur’s or perhaps it was a family trait.  “Give me one day.”

Merlin looked down at her, making sure she could see how serious he was when he said, “Are you going to contact him?”

“If I don't, you'll know that I don't want to.”

Merlin glared at her, but her gaze never faltered. She nodded her head as a farewell and turned on her heel. Merlin hated to watch her leave, but he knew he couldn't make her stay.

***

Merlin didn’t get a lot of sleep for the next two days. He was at the hospital as much as they let him, and when he was at home he was sleeping or caring for Aithusa. On the second day, Gwen eventually sent him home after she caught him trying to take on another shift. When he did get home, although he was exhausted from work, his mind wandered to Morgana LeFey. He wanted to meet up with Arthur, but it would have to wait until he was more awake.

The next evening he called Arthur over for dinner. He ordered take-away and chopped up the best meat for Aithusa as a treat, since he hadn’t been able to spend as much time with her over the last two days as he would have liked. When Aithusa hopped onto Arthur’s lap to greet him, he wrinkled his nose and said that she smelled like grilled steaks, which pulled a laugh out of Merlin.

They sat on the couch, half-watching and half-talking over the television. Arthur talked about work and asked about Merlin’s workload with the outbreak of the magical virus. Throughout dinner it was becoming more and more clear that Arthur didn’t have any news about hearing from Morgana. Merlin hoped that maybe Arthur wanted to keep it to himself, to process hearing from his sister.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Arthur asked with a wary look. He smiled, “Whatever you’re thinking about don’t hurt yourself.”

Merlin wished he could laugh and tease Arthur back, but he had a sinking feeling in his stomach.

“Nothing interesting has happened to you in the last couple days?” Merlin asked, hoping Arthur would give him good news.

“No… Why?” Arthur laughed, “What's with you?”

Merlin buried his face in his hands. Fuck.

“Merlin?” Arthur’s hand rested on Merlin’s arm hesitantly, picking up on Merlin’s mood.

Merlin took in a deep breath and looked up, “I have to tell you something. And it's not going to be...nice.”

“Okay.” Arthur said, his voice wary, “What is it?”

“I saw your sister the other day.”

Arthur reeled back, his mouth opening in shock. “Morgana? You saw Morgana?”

“She was at the hospital.” Arthur’s eyes widened and his hands tightened into fists, and Merlin quickly corrected his mistake, “She was fine! She’s okay. She was in a meeting with Avalon’s medicinal sorcerers and The Magic Network. She's fine.”

Arthur relaxed, but his shoulders were still tense and the easy atmosphere of dinner at home vanished completely.

Merlin sighed, “I told her that I knew you. That I was dating you. I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t thinking and accidently outed you to your sister.” Merlin gave an apologetic smile.

Arthur waved his hand, “Doesn’t matter to me. I’m just glad that she has some news of me at all. What happened? What did she say?”

Merlin sighed, “I don't think she knew that you had tried to contact her. She didn't seem to believe me when I said that you had. I tried telling her that you weren’t anti-magic. But she said if you didn't hear from her, then…” Merlin didn't finish, but from the fallen look on Arthur's face, he didn't need to.

Arthur stood up suddenly and walked from one edge of the living room to the other. Merlin could only sit on the couch and watch as Arthur paced. His voice was stern as he asked,  “She said she didn't get my calls? Tell me what she said, exactly .”

“She said you hadn't tried to contact her since she left home. I told her that wasn't true.”

Arthur ran a hand through his hair, “When I was still in school I tried contacting her but all her numbers and accounts had been canceled. I tried again when I told my father I wasn't going into politics and went into the army, but I couldn’t find her. There was no way Uther could have cut off the calls to The Magic Network. Right?” He looked at Merlin, confusion marring his expression.

“I don't know Arthur. I don't know.” Merlin said. Uther Pendragon may have some sway in the world, but he certainly didn’t have that much power.

“She was there about the outbreak?” Arthur asked.

“Yeah.” Merlin said. “She's helping to spread the word and give representation to people if need be. To make sure no one blames magic or something else ridiculous.”

“Oh.” Arthur nodded, “I'm glad. How did…? She still look the same?”

Merlin couldn't tell what Morgana had looked like before, but he didn't point this out to Arthur.

“She looks nothing like you.” Merlin said with a tight smile. “She's quite intense. I thought she was going to kill me just with a look.”

Arthur barked out a short laugh. “That would be her.”

He stopped pacing. Arthur’s hands pressed to his lips and he breathed in deeply as he thought. But as a minute ticked by it became clear that neither of them knew what else to say and Arthur was working himself up. He ran a hand over his face and turned away from Merlin.

“I should go.” Arthur said.

“Don't.” Merlin stood up and held onto Arthur’s arm even though he wouldn’t look at Merlin. “Arthur. I'm sorry.”

“It's not your fault.” Arthur said tersely, his voice rough.

Merlin stepped in front of Arthur and wrapped his arms around Arthur’s shoulders. Arthur didn't move. Merlin held him close, feeling the tension in Arthur’s shoulders, tight as a bowstring. Arthur barely moved and he never relaxed in Merlin’s arms.

“It's alright.” Merlin pressed a kiss to Arthur’s shoulder. “Will you stay the night?”

“I don't know.” Arthur said, still not hiding his expression from Merlin. “I should go.”

“You don't have to” Merlin said softly, “I wouldn't mind.”

“I just,” Arthur swallowed, “I need to go.”

“Okay.” Merlin rubbed his hands up and down Arthur’s arms. “Okay. I'll be here if you need anything.”

Arthur nodded and cleared his throat before moving out of Merlin’s embrace.

At the door, Arthur paused and leaned in to give Merlin a quick kiss to his cheek.

“Call me later.” Merlin said.

Arthur nodded, “Thank you. For talking with her. It means a lot.”

“Of course.”

Arthur closed the door and Merlin felt useless. Aithusa chirped unhappily at him from where she was still curled on the armchair.

“Yeah, ‘thusa.” Merlin sighed. “Me too.”

***

It had been less than a week after meeting with the Magic Network and the Forbearnan Initiative, but Merlin had felt like it had been eons. Once the Magic Network sent out the pamphlets to every magic organization, homeless shelter, and medical group, then a steady flow of patients came into Avalon. It was what Nimueh had feared: there were lower level AR sorcerers who weren’t used to the magical exhaustion and emergency cases of higher AR sorcerers. Their symptoms were similar and equally dangerous but their differences made it hard to detect.

Of course there were also patients who were experiencing normal magical exhaustion after over exerting themselves. They came to Avalon in fear that their exhaustion wasn’t the normal kind, and were safely reassured (after a dozen tests) that they weren’t ill. But for every one of those patients, another four with the virus arrived. The numbers shot up to twenty, and then thirty.

As an AR20, Merlin had his hands full. The other medicinal sorcerers working on the virus, Dr. Mora and Dr. Catha, were both AR15s and as helpful as they were it took them three times longer to identify the virus. Then, any medicinal sorcerer or nurse below AR15, which was the entire staff, took five times as long. So Merlin was put on A&E duty, which meant that he had to be there as soon as a patient came in with any suspicious symptoms.

For the next week all Merlin did was eat, sleep, and work at the hospital. Or at least, he assumed it was a week. He wasn’t keeping track of the days per se. He managed to come home at least once a day to see Aithusa, who usually wrapped herself around him like a warm blanket and started purring up a storm. It was a dragon habit which Merlin had always believed to be human-like in nature. If a dragon was tired or in need of comfort, then they huddled together and warmed them up. And that is exactly what Aithusa did when she saw Merlin. She purred and became a little furnace in his lap as he ate food. He rubbed her wings absentmindedly and made sure to make her food before he passed out for a few hours. Then he was back at the hospital.

The only real meal he had was one afternoon late in the week when Arthur came over. He brought food from a restaurant that didn’t offer take-away, but Arthur must have used his charm to convince them to package it all up because there was a huge bag of food on Merlin’s table.

“Eat up.” Arthur said, “You look like you haven’t eaten in days.”

“I have! I’m just skinny, you prat.” Merlin rolled his eyes. His pride didn’t get in the way though, because a moment later he was digging into his food.

Even if Arthur didn’t say it in so many words, he knew Arthur had just missed Merlin. When he had rung, Arthur had all but demanded to buy food. But even if Arthur wouldn’t say it, Cavall was being fairly obvious about it. Cavall, now seven months, still wasn’t completely adjusted to his training and often jumped up on Merlin and nudged his hand with his wet nose. Although he didn’t bark with happiness when he saw Aithusa, he did prance in place for several seconds before he pounced on her, initiating a long overdue game of wrestling.

After they had eaten, Merlin watched Arthur hesitantly, wondering how to tell Arthur that he was too exhausted to be any real company. “I’m a bit knackered after today.” He said. “I think I ought to just go to sleep…”

Arthur dropped the dirty dishes in the sink before he turned and stepped up to Merlin, “Yeah, I figured.” He pulled Merlin by the hips and turned him around so that he could push him down the hall. “Go on. Get on your pajamas and all that. I’ll be there after I take Cavall out.”

Merlin didn’t have much of a say after that. Arthur nudged him down the hall and then whistled for Cavall to follow him. Merlin had pulled on his flannels and t-shirt by the time Arthur came back with Cavall at his heels. Arthur didn’t say anything, just chucked off his shirt and trousers until he was left in just his pants. He crawled into bed, followed by Cavall who circled the foot of the bed a couple times before lying down.

“Arthur... “ Merlin hesitated. “it’s three in the afternoon on your day off. I don’t want to make you get on my weird doctor sleep-schedule.”

“You don’t have a choice, Merlin.” Arthur raised his brows and opened his arms as he waited for Merlin to join him.

Merlin bit his lip and he found that he was trying to hold back a smile. So he sighed and crawled into bed next to Arthur.

“Come here,” Merlin cupped Arthur’s jaw and kissed him.

“Mm, what was that for?” Arthur asked.

“For being disgustingly sweet in the most stubborn way” Merlin answered, “I’m going to pass out embarrassingly quickly, so you better set an alarm. I’m back at the hospital for the evening shift.”

“I got it,” Arthur tapped on his phone before he curled an arm around Merlin’s waist. “Now go to sleep or else I’ll sic Cavall on you.”

“Oh no, not the cuddle monster.” Merlin said between a yawn, stealing a quick glance at where Cavall was lying across Arthur’s leg.

“A terrifying guard dog.”

“Well he does play with a dragon.” Merlin mumbled.

“That has to get him points.”

“‘Thusa’s too cute to be scary.” Merlin nuzzled into Arthur’s chest, feeling warm and content.

“Damn, you have a point” was the last thing Merlin remembered Arthur saying before he fell asleep.

***

Forty-seven.

That was how many patients had contracted the virus. Merlin had told Arthur outright that he wouldn’t have any time to see him until they figured out the virus. Merlin had had to get sleep when he could, working with Nimueh and her specialists all week. They ran test after test, and altered spells and potions alike, trying to find the cure. At the end of the week, it felt like curing the virus was what he had always been doing and would do forever.

Merlin was taking a nap in the breakroom when he heard a knock and then the door opening. He grumbled as he opened his eyes, looking up to see Gwen standing in the doorway with a travel mug of coffee.

“Time’s up.” She said.

Merlin moaned as he sat up, stretching his back and cracking his shoulders. “What time is it?”

“Ten at night.”

Merlin realized that meant little to him. “It’s Thursday, right?”

“Friday, but you were close, love.” She handed him the coffee, “Drink up. A&E already asked where you were.. I told them you hadn’t gotten a full night’s rest for a week. They haven't called back yet but the guilt will wear off in bit.”

Merlin sighed as he warmed his hands on the mug. “I should go before they bother you again.”

“It’s alright. I just told them that we should hire more medicinal sorcerers.”

“Damn right, it’s what I’ve been saying for years.” Merlin said, taking a sip of the hot coffee. Gwen remembered the sugar and he wanted to hug her. Unfortunately he didn’t have time. “I’ll see you later?”

“Maybe. Last time I saw Nimueh she said she wanted to see you too. Haven’t a clue how she keep going like that. I think she’s drinking mugs of espresso. Maybe go to her after a round at A&E.”

Merlin nodded and started walking backwards to the A&E, “Thanks, Gwen. I’ll buy you a muffin at the cafeteria later!”

“You better!” Gwen called back and waved him off.

When Merlin arrived at A&E he had finished his coffee right as Dr. Ferris spotted him. She opened her mouth but Merlin just raised his hand, “Just tell me the room number.”

“Room A102.” She said and handed over a stack of patient’s files. “A103 and A104.”

Merlin grumbled as he looked through the files quickly. “Any other medicinal sorcerers on staff?”

“Dr. Catha is covering A105.”

“Small mercies.” Merlin said and gave a quick nod as a goodbye, then dashed to the first patient.

The first two patients were low level ARs who Merlin sent off to the Nimueh’s sector as soon as possible. The third patient, Merlin noted as he looked over her files, was AR13 and younger than most of the other patients, at age sixteen.

He stepped inside and his heart sank as he recognized the sister from the Museum of Magic. She was lying on the bed with her eyes on the ceiling, and she didn’t turn her head when Merlin entered the room. There was an older woman sitting in the corner, worrying away at the scarf in her hands.

“Hello, you must be Mrs. Rudan.” Merlin said as he stepped over to the sink and washed his hands quickly. “I’m Dr. Emrys and I’ll be taking care of Sefa today. Can you tell me what happened?” Merlin had already read the nurse’s notes, but he found that it helped calmed the patient’s family if they appeared to be helping.

The mother nodded, “She passed out after trying to do some magic for Aidan- her littler brother, I mean. She seemed more grumpy than usual, but you know how teenagers can be? I didn’t think she was too tired.  I heard about that thing going around but I didn’t think.”

Merlin softly interjected the worried mother. “It’s alright, Mrs. Rudan. With her level of magic, it’s typical that the symptoms come on suddenly. I’ll do my best to see to her.”

Merlin stepped up to the side of Sefa’s bed and turned her face so that he could look in her eyes, pulling out his light and testing her pupil dilation.

“Hello there, Sefa. Can you hear me?” He flashed the light over her pupils, but they stayed blown wide. That was worrisome indeed.

For a moment her eyes seemed to lock onto Merlin and she whispered, “...butterflies.”

Mrs. Rudan made a noise of concern, but Merlin shook his head. “That’s right, Sefa. Do you remember me?”

Sefa made a very minute nod of her head.

“That’s good.” Merlin smiled down at her, “My name’s Dr. Merlin Emrys. I’ll be taking care of you. I’m going to listen to your heartbeat. Hold on, this will be a bit cold.” He pulled on his stethoscope and listened to her heart beat, which was strong and a healthy pace. That at least was good. “Sefa, can you tell me where you are?”

Her eyes didn’t seem as focused as they had been a moment before. “Aidan.” She said. “They flutter by, Aidan.”

Merlin closed his eyes, feeling his heart sink in his chest. “Sefa. Do you know where you are?” Merlin repeated.

“Hospital.” She whispered. That was even more worrisome. She was out of it enough to not respond properly, but coherent enough to know where she was was. He didn’t want to worry the mother just yet, but Sefa was further along than Merlin would have liked to see. He pulled himself together before turning to Sefa’s mother.

He smiled, “We met at the Museum of Magic. I made a few butterflies for Aidan.”

“Oh, she mentioned a sorcerer there. She told me that she had never seen magic like it.” Mrs. Rudan said, her eyes on her daughter. She stepped up and held onto her daughter’s hand. “Dr. Emrys, will she be alright?”

Merlin clenched his jaw as he controlled his facial expression. “Our best medicinal sorcerers are working on a curing-spell as we speak. We’ll do everything we can, but you need to know that this virus is dangerous. She needs rest and she mustn’t use any magic until she’s recovered.”

Merlin paged Nimueh’s nurses as he said, “I’m calling some nurses to take her to another sector of the hospital where we can put her under observation. I’ll come by to check on her personally.” Merlin touched Sefa’s hand, “I’ll see you later, Sefa.”

She didn’t respond.

Merlin left the A&E room and headed toward the lab where he knew Nimueh would be working. This virus was spreading and they needed a cure or a preventative sooner rather than later.

As soon as Merlin walked into the lab, Nimueh said, “Where have you been?”

“Getting some proper sleep so I can properly take care of these people.” Merlin snapped. They were all on edge, but Nimueh didn’t need to make him feel guilty about basic human functions. “I’ve sent another three patients to your ward. What more do you have?”

“We’re close.” Nimueh said, ignoring Merlin’s comment. “It’s in our grasp. We need a couple more people working on spell run-throughs. Think you’re up to it?”

“Of course.” Merlin said and got to work.

***

It was Sunday. Or at least, Merlin thought it was Sunday. He hadn’t kept up with the days, only keep track of times through when he last ate and slept. Right now he was just happy that he was going home for a short break. Merlin was grabbing a cafeteria coffee before he headed out when he saw Gwen, who was reading something on her phone with pursed lips.

“That face.” Merlin said as he sat across from her, “Whatever caused that face, I'm not going to like it.”

Gwen sighed, “Better just look at it.” she slid her phone over and Merlin already knew it was bad news as soon as he saw the loopy font unique to Matthew Hopkins. The headline, in large damning letters, said “ Fate’s Karma: Magic Curse Aims to Kill Thousands of Camelot Sorcerers .”

Merlin sighed, “Really?”

Gwen rolled her eyes.

“Nimueh told me that throughout Camelot and its four neighboring cities, there are about three hundred cases. I admit that is a huge percentage of the magic population, which is already small, but this is absurd.”

“It’s Matthew Hopkins . It's rubbish. Paragraph after paragraph of fear tactics and bigotry. They think it's either an evil sorcerer targeting more sorcerers because apparently people of magic are violent and always at war with each other. Or it's God’s plague for their practice of dark witchcraft.”

Merlin felt his stomach churn, “Fuck, they're disgusting.”

“Sorry, I just thought you should know.”

“I hate those kind of people.” Merlin said, “At least The Magic Network is working on spreading facts.”

“Someone should put them in their place.” Gwen said. “Are you heading home soon?”

“Yeah. After I eat I’m going home to pick up my bag.” Merlin said, “I'll be back in an hour or so.”

Gwen nodded although she didn't look happy about Merlin returning for another shift. She would probably have told him to not return until tomorrow if she had known just how many hours he had been working.

Merlin said his goodbye and headed for the metro. The platform felt packed as Merlin waited for his train, people bumping into him and knocking him.

A particularly harsh push knocked his elbow and pushed him back, tipping his coffee over and straight into his chest.

“Oi, watch it, asshole” Merlin snapped to the person rushing past him. He didn't even look back at Merlin. At least his coffee had cooled on his walk to the metro, though the feeling of cool sticky coffee was horribly unpleasant.

To add onto his bad day, Merlin wasn't used to the rush hour on the metro because he usually commuted at odd hours thanks to his shifts. Now he was crammed in a crowded metro car at the end of the day with this scrubs sticking to him and all he could think about was whether or not he had time to grab a bagel. He would kill for a bagel.

Finally he made it out of the metro and started walking quickly down the street. In his mind he was making a list of all the things he needed to grab and needed to do before heading back to Avalon. Extra pair of clothes, toothbrush, and a water bottle. Take a quick shower, feed Aithusa, and grab a bagel. He was so distracted he almost didn’t notice the lights changing color as he was about to walk into the street. He halted immediately, taking two steps back from the curb and trying not to look like he had almost stepped out onto a busy road. Finally he saw his apartment down the road. Thank god.

“Fancy meeting you here”

Merlin was pulled out of his thoughts to see Arthur turning the corner with Cavall trotting along on his lead. Merlin smiled, waiting a moment for Arthur to catch up with him.

Arthur placed a hand on Merlin’s hip and pressed a kiss to his cheek, “Hey, you. Haven't seen you in ages.” Arthur looked down to Merlin’s coffee-stained shirt. “Problem with your coffee?”

“Something like that.” Merlin said tersely, “I’m just picking up a few things and then I’m heading back.”

“Alright.” Arthur’s brow furrowed, “When's the last time you've been home?”

“Yesterday morning.” Merlin said, because he at least remembered to feed Aithusa. She was mostly self-sufficient, but he would never neglect her.

Merlin opened the door to their building, and they walked side by side up the stairs. On the second floor Arthur slipped into his own apartment to drop off Cavall, but then he immediately joined Merlin again and followed him up to his flat. Merlin was feeling testy and didn’t want company, but he wasn’t going to tell Arthur to leave. The problem wasn’t that he didn’t want to see Arthur, but that he did. There wasn’t anything more he would have liked than to spend a some quality time with Arthur, but he couldn’t. He was tired, cranky, and didn’t have time to think about anything besides work. Arthur was a distraction.

When the door shut behind them, Merlin felt Arthur’s hands on his hips, being pulled into a kiss. Merlin kissed him but pulled away quickly.

“I don’t have a lot of time.” Merlin said as he moved away and down the hall.

“I’ll only be here for a bit, I promise.” Arthur was pulling off his coat and hoodie. He hadn't taken the hint to leave. Much to Merlin’s annoyance. Knowing that he didn’t have the mental capacity at the moment to politely tell Arthur to leave Merlin decided to let him stay for the moment.

“Fine. I’m going to grab a few things.” Merlin waved a hand at him then he headed to his room to change out of his dirty scrubs, grab an extra set plus his phone charger. Back in the kitchen he poured out some cereal, because he seemed to be out of everything else. (He mourned the thought of his bagel). He would need to go shopping eventually, maybe tomorrow.

Merlin’s phone buzzed in his pocket as he was eating his cereal. It was a message from Nimueh, telling him he was needed within the hour to check on her new spell.

“Merlin?”

“Hm?”

Merlin looked up, and he immediately knew he had been caught not paying attention. It was obvious that Arthur had said something to him, and he hadn’t heard a word.

“What?”

“Are you certain you’re feeling okay?” Arthur said, his voice tentative, “With this thing going around you should keep an eye out.”

“I’m fine.” Merlin said, typing back a message to Nimueh that he would be there in an hour.

“Merlin, this virus sounds serious.” Arthur said, “Maybe you should take a few days off.”

What? And let more people get sick while I’m laying about in my flat?” Merlin said tersely.

Arthur didn’t have a clue what it was like at Avalon right now. He hadn’t seen the way his patients were slowly dying in their beds, without any recognition of what was happening to them. How Sefa, sweet young Sefa with a little brother that liked butterflies, was fading before her mother’s eyes. Merlin was one of the few medicinal sorcerers able to save the dozen of lives in Avalon. He could not just take a few days off like nothing was happening. “People with magic, people who have lived their entire lives without even a magical cold, are dying. I have a responsibility to help them.”

“You’re an AR20. I’ve seen what they’re saying. Your magic is more vulnerable than anyone else’s.” Arthur said, as if Merlin didn’t know his AR level or that he was vulnerable to the virus, just like every other person of magic. Hell, he had been there with the rest of the medicinal sorcerers when they were figuring out the symptoms. Merlin was well aware of the risks, for himself and if he didn’t try and help cure this thing.

Merlin felt the anger rise in his chest. “Yeah, I am an AR20, so I am one of the only goddamn doctors who can do this. Some hospitals in the area don't even have medicinal sorcerers and are sending more patients my way. I'm seeing people lose their loved ones at an alarming rate. I should I leave them to die? Should I not try?”

“That wasn’t what I meant.” Arthur shot back. “I just meant to get some rest, so you can-”

Merlin cut him off “There are hundreds of vulnerable people and I can help them. Shouldn’t I be out there doing all I can?”

“You have to think about yourself too!” Arthur’s voice filled the room. “There has to be some kind of protection you can put on yourself. A charm- or a spell-”

Merlin stood up, bowl in hand, and walked away to the sink.

Arthur didn’t stop, despite the fact that Merlin had turned his back on him.

Arthur followed, “At least try to take care of yourself! You look a right mess.”

Merlin sneered as he slammed his dishes down, “Charming as always.”

Arthur glared, “You're going to get ill at this rate.”

Merlin turned on his heel, face to face with Arthur. “We don’t know what’s killing them in the first place. How am I supposed to put a protection charm on myself from something we can’t even cure?” Merlin ground his teeth, “I don't have time for this. I have to go back to the hospital.”

“Just wait a second. This is serious-” Arthur said as Merlin walked past him.

“Don't you think that I know that, of all people?” Merlin whirled around to glare at Arthur, his head beginning to pound with a headache. “You just don’t get it, Arthur. You can’t get it.

Arthur huffed, “Just because I don’t have magic-”

“Yeah, you don’t have magic, so this doesn’t concern you.” Merlin wasn’t really thinking about his words anymore, just snapping angrily.

“Of course it concerns me. This is about you.” Arthur yelled back.

“I am not the only sorcerer around, you know that right? This is about the dozens of sorcerers dying.” Merlin pointed to himself, “ I care about those people, Arthur. I want them to live to see tomorrow. Because I actually give a damn about people of magic.”

Arthur reeled a bit, taking a step back from Merlin. “You don’t think I give a damn about people of magic?”

“It’s what Morgana thinks, isn’t it? She might be onto something.”

Arthur’s jaw worked for a second, the muscle tensing. When he spoke he was terse, “Fine. That’s just fine . Maybe I should go.”

“Maybe you should.” Merlin bit out, not deigning to look at Arthur.

With a rough hand Arthur picked up his coat as he stormed out of the kitchen, whipping it around so that the buttons clashed with the doorway. He opened the apartment door as he pulled on the coat with a huff. Just as he was about to leave, he stopped and turned to Merlin, his expression thunderous.

“You know, I was genuinely worried about you.” Arthur snarled, “Sorry to be a bother.”

Then he slammed the door shut.

The sound of the door echoed in Merlin’s head for a while, like a dull thud that repeated like a pulse. He felt the cool refrigerator door against his heated skin. He closed his eyes, focusing on the darkness instead of the burning lights in his dim kitchen.

Aithusa came out of the hall, obviously she had heard the yelling, but probably didn't understand it. She chirped a little at Merlin with confusion. Merlin looked at her. Food, he thought. He turned around, opened the refrigerator, and pulled out Aithusa’s food and placed it in her bowl. She looked at it and then back to Merlin, chirping again. Merlin couldn’t imagine what she found wrong with the food, but didn’t have time to lecture her.

Merlin rubbed his tired dry eyes as he looked down at the little dragon. “That’s fresh and I don’t have time for your whining. I know you just want to eat with me, but I don’t have time.”

Merlin cleaned his hands and then grabbed his last protein bar for his bag.

As he stuffed everything into the duffle bag, he felt Aithusa curl around his ankle and then begin to heat herself up. She rubbed her snout to his shin. Comforting, Merlin thought. That’s what she was doing.

Merlin shook his head, ignoring how much that worsened his headache. He bent down and rubbed her head, his hand running down her neck with a fluid motion.

“I’ve go to go. Be good, alright? I'll be home tonight, I promise.”

She chirped again, looking displeased and skittish. She flapped her wings violently against Merlin’s leg. Merlin had to pry her off his trousers.

“I’ve got to go.” Merlin grabbed the things he needed and his coat, giving a last look at his apartment.

Arthur had left his hoodie.

Merlin closed the door and hurried down the stairs to catch the next metro to the hospital.

***

It had been a week and a day since Medlin had last seen or heard from Arthur. Merlin had buried himself in work, unable to persuade himself to go to Arthur’s. He couldn't even begin to think of what to say. He didn't have much time to spare a thought for Arthur but when he did, he wondered if Arthur had tried to go to Merlin’s apartment. It probably didn't matter. Merlin was barely at his apartment anyways.

A hundred patients. That was the count at the moment. Most of them were from Camelot, but many had been moved from Camelot’s only other hospital and a few from the outer regions of the city. Ten people had already died. Merlin felt each of their weights like a burden on his shoulders. It was hard on all of them. Even Nimueh was looking worn down.

Merlin would admit that it wasn’t his best week. He argued and snarled at anyone who spoke to him. Even kind Gwen, who snapped back at him and asked what crawled up his ass. He was tired from days without proper sleep and emotionally drained after days upon days of working with patients who he knew he couldn’t cure. He worked hard, but his body was tired and his mind was sluggish. The more tired he was, the slower he worked and the more frustrated he became. Then, every time a patient passed away, the entire cycle worsened.

Merlin didn’t even know what day it was when he was suddenly awoken with a loud crack.

Merlin jerked awake, surprised to see that he was in the lab and not at his flat or in the break room. He looked across the metal table to see Nimueh glaring at him. Rubbing his face warily, Merlin looked at Nimueh’s metal clipboard which she must have slammed on the table to wake him.

In a cool tone Nimueh said, “Dr. Emrys, are you having a pleasant nap?”

Merlin didn’t like her tone and glared at her. “I was waiting for the tests to run through.”

They both looked to the centrifuge, where the samples were sitting. If Merlin had fallen asleep they probably had been there for a long while. He didn’t know what time it was, but it didn’t matter because he didn’t know what time it had been when he started the tests.

Nimueh shook her head and “Go home, Merlin.” Nimueh said, “Dr. Catha and I can finish the rest.”

“But it will take longer with less of us working.”

Nimueh cut off the rest of his argument by taking him by the shoulder and pulling him roughly to his feet. “Go home. You're no use to me in your current state. You’re a liability like this.”

Merlin felt like a chastised child, and he wanted to tell her where she could shove her damned tests, but he hadn't the energy to argue. That probably proved her point.

He remembered standing up to leave, but he didn't remember leaving the lab. He must have grabbed at least his wallet and keys because the next time he was aware of himself, he was on the metro. He didn't have his duffle bag. He must have left it. He thought about going back to the hospital but he soon forgot what he had to grab.

All his senses were blocked. His hearing was muffled, like being dipped in water. He couldn’t smell anything, even down in the metro that always at least smelled like the rush of people or the smoke of fuel. His vision was there, but it was like his brain only allowed him to focus in every twenty minutes.

On the other hand, when his senses came alive, they were overwhelming. The light was far too bright. The sound of people talking meters away sounded like they were shouting in his ear. His skin was oversensitive and he felt every vibration in the floor.

His apartment was right in front of him, so he must have gotten off at the right station.

It was disorienting to step into his apartment when he didn't know what time of day it was. It was probably morning since the sun was streaming into his living room on the East side of the flat.

Suddenly the living room floor was coming closer and closer. Merlin wondered when he started to bend down and why.

Merlin heard a thump. It sounded muffled, so he wondered for a moment if Aithusa had gotten into something she shouldn’t have. She did that a lot. Silly dragons.

Looking up, Merlin watched as the sun caught on the bottom of his sofa. There were a lot of dust motes in his living room.  When had he last dusted? Merlin snorted, making the motes flutter. He didn’t dust. He didn’t even have a duster. Merlin tried to laugh, but the side of his face seemed to be pressed into the floor and it really hindered his facial movements. He tried to scrunch up his nose. It worked, but his forehead hurt like hell. He must have hit it. Maybe that had been the thump.

It was cold, despite the sun shining down on him and the rug beneath him. He wondered if he still had that blanket on the sofa, but he was too tired to lift his head all that way. His lids closed and he forgot everything.

***

A moment later, he felt something warm on his cheek. He opened his eyes and saw a pair of blue eyes and white scales very close to him. He smiled when Aithusa pressed her snout to his cheek repeatedly.

“Kisses” Merlin tried to say, but all that came out was a long hissing noise.

Then, as if turning on a switch, sound came to Merlin’s world in full force. There was scratching and screeching that made Merlin’s head ring. For a moment he couldn’t register anything but the loud noise of claws and yapping. Claws were circling and circling on the wooden floor, pacing frantically. Whining filled the room, desperate loud chirps that repeated over and over again. Wings beat against the air, swirling the dust motes above Merlin’s eyes, clearing out any other noise for a few moments. He wondered why Aithusa was acting out so violently. She didn't usually misbehave this much unless she was angry with him. Maybe he had taken his socks from her hoard again. She always got worked up about her hoard.

Aithusa nudged him with her snout, a sob-like sound escaping her. She curled in close to his chest, her small body heating up against him. As Aithusa’s scales brushed his skin, a line from Merlin’s Dragonology textbook suddenly overran his mind: ‘Despite their reclusive reputation, dragons are social creatures and develop strong bonds with their kin. For example, when a kinsman is ill or injured another dragon will typically heat their own body to provide warmth.’ The line ran over Merlin’s mind over and over, yet Merlin couldn’t understand any of it. The words were jumbled in his head.

Warm and content with his dragon, Merlin’s vision blurred and he closed his eyes. Everything stopped again.

***

His eyes were still closed when he heard someone knocking at the door. But if Merlin was sleeping it must be too early for visitors. Or too late. He wasn't sure. It was dark, not a hint of sunlight, and Merlin didn’t need to get up yet.

The knocking was rather loud, so he opened his eyes, and then was surprised at how fast he had made it to the living room to check on the door, although he had never seen it from this low angle.

He heard Aithusa on the other side of the door, but that couldn’t be right because Aithusa should be in the apartment, not outside. Why was Aithusa outside? The door smashed in, making the dust motes swirl in a crazy dance around the splintered door frame. He had never seen anyone break down a door in person.

He heard his name being called and then Aithusa ran over to him, curling up by his side. Merlin’s line of sight could only see a pair of trousers and running shoes. Merlin tried to look up but his eyes were too tired.

“Oh, Jesus. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Merlin don't do this to me, damn you.”

He felt fingers press to his pulse point in his neck, followed by the sound of a shaky sigh, “Oh thank God.”

Merlin felt warm hands press to his forehead, tilting his chin up so he could see more, but he only saw his ceiling. There was a crack in the paint above his head. His head felt heavy, impossible to move as hands maneuvered him to look up. He saw a blur of skin and blond hair.

“Arthur.” Merlin said, but again it just came out as a long “Ahrr” It took him a moment but his vision focused on a worried looking Arthur.

Something jostled him and Arthur’s mouth was moving but Merlin could not hear him.

“Damn it, Merlin!” Arthur shouted and suddenly Merlin could hear and he flinched from the force of the loudness.

“We’re taking you to Avalon.”

“Mmm” Merlin curled into Arthur’s chest, wondering why it felt like he was floating, why he couldn't feel the floor anymore, and why his head felt so heavy in comparison to the rest of his body.

He closed his eyes and when he opened them again, it was dark. He felt cool leather seating and opened his eyes to see lights on a black dashboard.

Arthur was looking at him. He seemed to be talking, but the words came in and out. “Merlin- love, look at me. Do you- where- are?

“Merlin, please answer me, you’re scaring me.”

“‘Thur?” The beginning of Arthur’s name caught in his throat, but he managed to speak with a second try. Everything was a little less blurry this time. “Arthur.”

“Thank God. Merlin please try and stay awake, okay? I’m taking you to Avalon as soon as I can.”

“I work there.” Merlin stated, wondering why his voice sounded so far away.

Arthur’s brow pinched together.

“Aren’t you cross with me?” Merlin asked with slurred words. Arthur smiled a little, which confused Merlin more. “Why you smiling? I was an arse. I think.”

“You were.” Arthur said, pressing a kiss to Merlin’s forehead, “An utter arse.”

“Arse.” Merlin repeated. Then he closed his eyes and leaned into Arthur’s hands.

“No you don’t! You have got to stay awake-! Merlin!

Merlin didn’t hear the rest.

***

The next time Merlin woke, all he saw was the blurry white and blue of Avalon. It didn't register any worry in him, until he realized he was seeing it from the patient’s point of view. He looked at the long expansion the metal gurney, the white cabinets across from him, and the blue curtains next to him. His eyes scanned the room, catching sight of Nimueh.

She was frowning at him.

“Do you know where you are?” She asked, though her tone suggested this wasn't the first time she had asked the question.

“Avalon.” He said, blinking rapidly as his vision blurred again.

“What day is it?”

He hadn't a clue. Merlin shook his head, making his world spin faster.

“After you left the lab this morning do you remember what happened?”

Merlin thought he shook his head, but the ground tilted and he wasn’t sure if he had moved or not. The rush of blood in his ears was too loud, he could barely hear her.

“Merlin, you have to-” The rest of her words were cut short, the sound of his heartbeat overpowering anything else. He felt an overwhelming pain in his head and the sudden loss of feeling to his senses. He blacked out.

***

Merlin could only see the bright light above him. He heard voices but couldn't distinguish who was speaking.

“Hold this.”

“Attach the sensors.”

“No- yeah that one.”

“This better work-”

“Merlin helped develop the spell himself.”

“He can't keep losing consciousness like this-”

“Alright just like that-”

“Hold on for one moment.”

“Hand me that-”

“Ready?”

He felt something hit him with a terrifyingly strong force, and then nothing.

***

The next time he awoke, Gwen was standing over him changing his IV. She didn't see that he was awake and Merlin went under before he could catch her attention.

***

First he heard the constant beep of an Intensive Care monitor. He breathed in deeply and felt the cool flow of oxygen in his nostrils. He shifted and felt his body ache all over. It took him a minute or two to finally open his eyes, blinking at the bright light of the hospital room. His eyes followed the line of his arm, to the IV, up to the drip hanging above his head. Across from his bed was a clock on the wall, which read ten o'clock. Due to the quietness around him, he was betting it was ten o'clock at night.

He looked around and saw Gwen walking by his room. He caught her eye, and when she saw him, she stopped immediately and hurried into his room.

“Oh it's so good to see you awake.” She rushed forward and he felt the brush of her curly hair as she pressed a kiss to his cheek. “How are you feeling?”

Merlin cleared his throat, and she handed him a cup of water, with the efficiently only a nurse had. He drank and noticed his hands were shaking.

Merlin cleared his throat again, “Like shit.”

Gwen smiled. “To be expected. You’ve been out for a over twenty-four hours.”

“What happened?” Merlin asked.

“You contracted the virus.” Gwen said. “Since you're an AR20 and you had already been exhausted, it hit you harder and faster than any other patient. It's a miracle Nimueh developed a spell to cure you in such a short amount of time. She said your symptoms were so pronounced that she actually was able to find the curing spell. For everyone.”

“Well,” Merlin gave a wry smile, “Happy to help.”

Gwen frowned at him. “Don't do that ever again, Merlin. I swear, I never want to see you coming into A&E like that again.”

“How did I get here?”

“You don't remember?”

“Last thing I remember was Nimueh telling me to go home, but even that's blurry.”

“Arthur brought you in. Which, by the way, is not how I wanted to meet him.” Gwen joked. “He carried you into A&E. He stayed the night but I told him to go back home, take care of himself. Took some convincing.”

“Huh.” Merlin said, closing his tired eyes. “We had a fight. Or rather, I made a fight. I hadn't heard from him in a week.”

He felt Gwen hold his hand, “All must have been forgiven because he was worried sick about you.”

Merlin drowsily answered, “Hope so.”

He felt Gwen squeeze his hand one last time, “Get some rest.” Then he heard her rustle the privacy curtains and her footsteps faded away.

***

The next time Merlin awoke he felt a little better. He still felt like every muscle in his body had been strained, but he didn’t feel like he would pass out at any second either. Nimueh came in and gave him a run down of the spell and what happened. Normally she wouldn’t with any patient, but Merlin had been so insistent she probably thought it would ease his mind. Dr. Mithian came by and gave him a cup of jello, which made him smile.

He was just managing to open up the jello and dig into his first food in days when he heard the sound of paws on the hospital tile. A moment later Cavall was at his bed.

Merlin smiled, “Hey there, puppy.” Cavall wagged his tail excited and put his front paws on the side of Merlin’s hospital bed, resting his head near Merlin’s elbow. Merlin rubbed his ears and was greeted with several licks.

Merlin turned his attention away from Cavall, finally looking up to his owner. Arthur set down a huge bouquet of colorful wildflowers on Merlin’s bedside table.

“Hey.” Arthur whispered, although he had no reason to be quiet. Merlin couldn’t help but notice the dark circles under Arthur’s eyes.

Merlin reached out, and Arthur immediately stepped closer. Merlin touched Arthur’s face, “Hi.”

Arthur leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Merlin’s cheek, but he didn’t move right away, staying with his nose pressing to Merlin’s temple.

Merlin leaned into the touch, closing his eyes, “Arthur, I’m so sorry.”

“No, none of that.” Arthur pulled away, running his hand over Merlin’s cheek.

“No, let me apologize.” Merlin worked his throat, “Those horrible things I said were uncalled for. I know you care. You care so much, Arthur. It's why I fell for your in the first place.”

Arthur ran his hand down Merlin’s arm until he intertwined their fingers together. “You weren’t being yourself. I should have known something was wrong. I never should have let my pride get in the way and checked on you last week.”

Merlin shook his head, “I pushed you away. I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” Arthur said. “All forgotten, yeah?”

Merlin nodded. He leaned forward to kiss Arthur. His lips were dry from the oxygen, but Arthur didn’t seem to mind, capturing Merlin’s lips and holding Merlin’s hand tight.

“I was so scared, Merlin.” Arthur said when he pulled away. “Don't do something so stupid again.”

Merlin smiled, “I got the same talk from Gwen. She said you brought me in?”

“You don’t remember, do you?” Arthur continued when Merlin shook his head. “I was at home when I heard Aithusa crawling through my bathroom window. I've never seen her like that. She bit me and was clawing me so bad that she tore through my jeans.”

Merlin looked down and noticed the bandage around Arthur’s hand. “She bit you? That doesn’t sound like ‘Thusa.”

“It’s alright, she was just trying to communicate with me. It took me a minute to figure out the only thing that would make her so frantic. I had to break down your door, sorry about that. I had the landlord fix it.” Arthur looked away as he continued, “Seeing you on the floor like that, Merlin.” Arthur  swallowed, “I’m serious, I will kill you myself if you do that to me again.”

Merlin huffed out a laugh, “How contrary of you.”

Arthur ran a hand over Merlin’s hair. “I called Leon to look after Cavall and Aithusa, then I drove you to Avalon. They were working on you for hours. Dr. Blake told me you were one of the worst cases.”

“Yeah,” Merlin nodded, “Probably didn’t help that I was already tired.”

“Yeah.” Arthur shook his head, “You’re an idiot.”

“Yeah but now you can take care of me?” Merlin said hesitantly.

“An idiot.” Arthur repeated. “I'm not leaving you alone ever again, you know that?”

Merlin squeezed his hand. “Fine by me.”

Arthur sat in the chair next to Merlin’s bed and talked with him as he ate his jello. Cavall managed to hop up onto Merlin’s bed. Technically Cavall shouldn't have been in the hospital and Merlin wondered how Arthur managed to get him inside. He wondered if Arthur convinced the receptionist that Cavall was an assist dog. Either way, he was grateful for the lovable puppy and his owner’s presence.

***

The next day Merlin was instructed to not get out of bed and sleep as much as possible. Luckily he was still tired enough that he slept most of the morning. But there was only so much sleep one could do, even when one has experienced extreme exhaustion. His mother always told him it was ironic that he became a medicinal sorcerer, because he was horrible patient who never sat still or took his medicine without complaining.

After being caught out of bed by a passing nurse, Merlin was sulkily reading a magazine and wishing he could see Aithusa. At the very least Arthur had sent him pictures of her playing with Cavall, which had brightened his dull morning.

His bored sulking was interrupted by a knock at the door frame. At first he only saw the bundle of lavender flowers, but then he recognized the black hair and perfectly elegant suit. “Hello, Dr. Emrys.

“Ms. LeFay.” Merlin said, unable to keep the surprise out of his voice. “How nice to see you.”

She stepped forward a little, but didn’t enter all the way into the room, as if hesitant. “I just got out of a meeting with one of the patients and Dr. Nimueh Blake told me what happened. I came by to see how you were.”

“That…” Merlin struggled to think of what to say. “...is very kind of you.”

Morgana shifted, her heels making a small clicking noise against the tile floor.

“I appreciate you coming by,” Merlin said, and hesitantly added on, “But you don't really know me. Is this about Arthur?”

Morgana, although she gave off the appearance of a clever cat with a mouse, now looked like a mouse caught in a trap. She sighed and gestured to the seat beside Merlin’s bed. “May I?”

“Of course.” Merlin said.

She said down, fidgeting with the flowers in her lap. She adjusted a few of the leaves nervously. “You have to understand this from my point of view, Dr. Emrys.”

“Merlin.” He corrected.

“Merlin. You have to know that I have believed for years that my brother wanted nothing to do with me because of my magic. When you said those things about Arthur, I couldn't even begin to believe you.”

Merlin waited for the other shoe to drop.

“I'm afraid you planted a seed of hope in me, Merlin.” She gave a wry smile. “It took me a week or so, but I did eventually look up Camelot Training Center. And you were right.”

“I'm glad to hear that.” Merlin said. “But I’m sensing there’s more to it.”

Morgana smiled. “Right you are. It didn't really explain why you said Arthur had contacted me at The Magic Network but I had never received any calls. It took a lot of meticulous hours of sifting through notes and phone records but I finally came across the issue. When Arthur had contacted me at The Magic Network, my assistant had told me a Mr. Pendragon had called. I had assumed it was my father.”

“Oh.” Merlin said. “ Oh .”

“I blocked his number without any thought. I had had word that Arthur had gone into the army, and assumed he was still abroad. I hadn’t a clue that he was back home and going to university.”

“I can see the confusion.” Merlin said, “I'm only sorry that it caused so many years of anxiety.”

“Yes, well. If I can be honest with you, I haven’t a clue what my next step is. It has been a bit of a whirlwind since you talked to me. I'm not sure if I'm ready to see my little brother again.” She adjusted the flowers on her lap again and Merlin got the impression Morgana LeFay wasn’t usually the type to nervously fidget.

“I'm not sure I will be helpful for that part.” Merlin said with a smile, “I'm a bit biased in his favor.”

Morgana gave him a smile, the first he had seen from her. “I suppose you would be, since you’re in love with him and all.”

He couldn’t help the heat that rose in his neck and face. “Well, it's a bit too soon for that ...” Merlin replied diplomatically, “But yes, something like that.”

“Still, I am happy to hear he has someone like you.” She said. “I’ll have to let you convince me to see him again.”

“I’ve been told that I can be very persuasive.” Merlin said.

She smiled faintly, a bare twitch of her lips. There was a short pause, and then she stood, “Thank you for talking with me, Merlin. Truly. But I should allow you to rest. Where should I put the flowers?”

“By the cabinet should be perfect. I can see them best there.” Merlin said, gesturing to the counter across from Merlin’s bed and behind the room’s entrance, where Arthur’s own flowers were sitting.

Then two things happened at once. Morgana placed the flowers on the counter, stepping out of the line of the door’s view, and then Arthur walked into the room.

Arthur did not see Morgana, standing as she was against the opposite wall. He walked in with his eyes only for Merlin.  “Aithusa has been anxious to see you,” Arthur said as he kissed Merlin in greeting. “I almost smuggled her in my bag.”

Distracted at Arthur’s sudden appearance, Merlin responded by rote, “You would never have made it past the front doors.”

“Yes, but I'm sure the little burglar would have found a way.” Arthur pointed out, running an affectionate hand over Merlin’s hair.

Merlin rolled his eyes at Arthur, and found himself looking across the room to Morgana. She was like a statue, as if Arthur wouldn't see her if she stood still enough.

Arthur turned to see what Merlin was looking at and Merlin felt Arthur’s hands spasm on his shoulder and then squeeze tightly.

“Morgana.” Arthur breathed out.

Perhaps it wasn’t silent enough to hear a pin drop, but as the two siblings looked at each other, it felt like all the sound had been sucked from the room. Then, barely a second later, the noise outside the room, nurses passing by and patients talking, broke the silence.

Merlin cleared his throat, “She came to wish me well.”

“Oh. That was nice.” Arthur said robotically.

It was painful to sit in the silence.

Merlin tried to think of something to say, but there wasn't much he could do.

Arthur cleared his throat.

“Morgana, could we-?” Arthur started, stuttering on what he wanted to say, “Would you want-? Can we speak for a moment?”

“Your voice.” She said and then covered her mouth as if shocked to hear herself speak.

“My voice?” Arthur repeated.

“Your voice used to crack on every other word. I used to call you Wart.”

“Because I croaked like a toad.” Arthur finished. “I also managed to grow taller than you. Though I see you never grew out of your love for heels.”

“They make me taller.”

“So you used to tell me.” Arthur said.

Arthur smiled but looked on the verge of tears. Merlin watched as Morgana eyed her little brother, no longer the teenage boy she remembered.

Arthur cleared his throat, “Morgana, can we talk in private for a moment?”

She nodded, gesturing outside, “I'll be in the waiting room.”

“Yes. Of course.” Arthur said. “I'll be there in a moment.”

Morgana walked outside where Merlin could see her standing in the waiting room. Arthur watched her go, the surprise still evident in his expression.

“Arthur.” Merlin grabbed his hand and squeezed it. “Go. Deep breaths.”

Arthur nodded. “I'll be right back.”

Merlin hugged him, because he looked like he needed it, and then ushered him out of the room, telling Arthur that he would be right here when he returned. He watched Arthur leave, praying for the best.

It was over two hours later, almost at the end of visiting hours, when Arthur returned.

“Hey” Merlin set down the magazine he had been flipping through. “How did it go?”

Arthur shook his head and Merlin figured that meant he didn’t want to talk about it.“Can I just-?” Arthur made a vague gesture toward the bed. Merlin nodded and moved over. The bed was not huge, but Arthur carefully got onto the bed and laid on his side. Merlin curled his arms around Arthur, setting his chin on top of Arthur’s head. With Arthur pressed to his side, Merlin was blissfully warm after sitting in the cold hospital room all day. Merlin relished seeing this side of Arthur, the vulnerable side which asked for comfort, thinking back to the night when Arthur had left immediately after Merlin told him about seeing Morgana.

“Okay?” Merlin asked.

“Yeah. Okay.” Arthur sighed, “It’s going to be okay.”

Merlin closed his eyes and ran his fingers through Arthur’s hair. “Stay until they kick you out?”

“Of course.” Arthur settled in closer and they dozed off together until Arthur had to leave.

***

The next morning, Merlin woke up to the sound of talking. He opened his eyes, not all too surprised to see his father speaking on the phone. He was wearing a jumper, pushed up to his elbows to reveal the red and blue of flying dragons. Merlin recognized his brown leather jacket thrown across the bedside chair.

Balinor caught sight of Merlin and quickly ended his conversation, “He just woke up. I’ll talk to you later, Hunith. Love you too. Yes, of course. Bye.”

“Da?”

Balinor sat down in the chair next to Merlin, moving it as close as possible to Merlin. “Hush now, son.” Balinor said in a soft voice. Merlin felt his father’s work-rough hand take his own.

“You'll be alright.” Balinor whispered, an uncommonly soft tone for the gruff man, running a hand over Merlin’s hair. Merlin moved his head to lean into his father's hand, if not to comfort himself than to comfort his father.

“What time is it?”

“Just past ten in the morning.”

“When did you get here?”

“Early this morning, but you’ve been sleeping.”

Merlin nodded, not sure what else to say. His father wasn’t usually like this. He was caring and loving, but he was never this soft and gentle.

“How are you feeling? Need me to call in a nurse?”

Merlin shook his head, “No. Just need rest.”

Balinor gave his son a wry grin, “Oh, that’s not all you’ll be getting.”

Merlin smiled, that was more like his Da. “Am I on house arrest?”

“You bet your ass.” Balinor said with a harsh tone, but his hand was still running softly through Merlin’s hair. “You aren’t going to leave your bed until your mother deems you ready to leave.”

“Ha. Then you better make changes at home for me to move back home.” Merlin said. “Mum would never want me to leave.”

“Might be good for you. Apparently you can’t be trusted to take care of yourself. Idiot boy.” Balinor kept looking over Merlin, like he was constantly checking him for injuries.

Merlin felt a little guilty at that. “Sorry, Da.”

Balinor rolled his eyes and pulled Merlin forward to press a scratchy kiss to Merlin’s forehead. “My boy, my boy.”

Merlin curled into his Da’s embrace. His father pulled away and Merlin could tell it was hard on him to control himself. Sometimes Merlin thought Balinor had adjusted well to the fatherhood that had been suddenly thrust upon him all those years ago. Merlin could tell Balinor worried constantly over Merlin, though he always acted like it was Hunith who was the worrier.

Balinor squeezed his hand, “I’m going to get you something to eat. I’ll be right back, alright?”

Merlin nodded. “Sure thing, Da.”

Balinor left and Merlin let himself take in a deep breath. Merlin rested his eyes for a moment. He dozed in and out of sleep, until he heard footsteps nearing his door. He opened his eyes, expecting to see his Da and surprised to see Arthur instead.

“Knock, knock.”

Arthur .” Merlin smiled and reached up to kiss him. “What are you doing here?”

“Checking up on you. What else?” Arthur said, pressing another kiss to Merlin’s lips. “How are you feeling?”

“A lot better.” Merlin said. “Though I’m dying for food that isn't jello or pudding.”

Arthur laughed, “I bet. I’ll sneak you in some real food tomorrow.”

“You might not have to, I think I might be discharged soon.” Merlin said. He was about to tell Arthur that he was likely leaving with Balinor to stay in Ealdor for a while, but he was cut off by the sound of his father’s voice.

“Who the hell are you?”

Shit.

Merlin smiled at his father, trying to avoid his own murder.

“This is Arthur.” Merlin said.

“Merlin’s boyfriend.” Arthur said, hammering in the last nail in Merlin’s coffin. But despite the homicidal look on his father’s face, Merlin couldn’t help but smile at the word ‘boyfriend’

“Merlin Carwyn Emrys, you did not mention a boyfriend .” Balinor raised a thick brow. With his wide frame and full sleeve tattoos, Merlin knew that his father was an intimidating figure. Luckily Arthur wasn’t easily intimidated.

“It’s a recent thing. It’s nice to meet you, sir.” Arthur held out his hand. Merlin let out a breath of relief when his father shook Arthur’s hand, though he was still looking at Merlin like he should start digging his own grave.

Merlin smiled, trying to go for innocent, but probably looked horribly guilty.

Balinor set down the food on Merlin’s bedside table and bore down over him. “You haven't talked to your mother in weeks and you’ve been overworking yourself, but now you have a boyfriend ?”

Da .” Merlin started but was soon halted.

“Oh don’t you dare, I am taking you back to your mother and you’ll get the real talking to. You worried her sick.”

“Just her?” Merlin smiled.

“Don't talk yourself out of this.”

“Sorry Da. But to be fair, I didn't know I had a boyfriend either.” Merlin turned to Arthur, whose face was a little flushed.

Arthur coughed, “Now probably now isn’t the time, Merlin.”

Balinor was glaring daggers at Arthur. “Some boyfriend, he let you run yourself into the ground!”

“Da, really.” Merlin insisted. “It was my fault for overworking myself. Arthur tried to make me take a few days off but I was being an idiot.”

Balinor sighed, but reluctantly allowed it. “You're a handful, Merlin. You are.”

Merlin cracked a grin, “Better start writing my eulogy. Mum is gonna kill me.”

“Oh yes.” Balinor laughed. “Better prepare yourself. Once she finds out about Prince Charming over here, you’re in for an earful.”

Merlin grimaced, “Arthur, we have to break up.”

Arthur burst out laughing, “Not a chance.”

***

Epilogue

***

“Aithusa! Leave Hengroen alone! ‘Thusa!

Merlin sprinted after the little white devil as she bounded over the grassy hills of the Dragon sanctuary towards the twenty-foot red dragon.

Luckily Hengroen didn’t seem to mind the young dragon. He stopped and laid on his belly, so that his snout was level to her. It was almost absurd how large the red dragon was in comparison to her. She chirped happily and wiggled back and forth as she batted at the dragon’s snout.

“A curious creature.” Hengroen said in a deep rumbling voice.

Merlin panted as he finally caught up to his ward. “Sorry. She’s still young.”

“All is well young Emrys” said the dragon. Then, because Merlin could never catch a break, Hengroen scooped Aithusa onto his nose, lifting her high above the ground. Aithusa yapped with delight and Merlin had a heart attacked.

“Hengroen! She’s not a very good flyer-!” Hengroen gave the little dragon a nudge and she spread out her wings. As she fell downward, her wings caught the air and she glided down with a joyful squeal.

She swirled around once and then flew directly into Merlin, slamming into his chest and knocking him over. “Oof!” Merlin huffed as he tumbled back into the grass. “Ow. ‘Thusa .”

She didn’t seem at all reprimanded, wiggling happily on top of him. Then she scrambled off him and ran toward Hengroen, yapping for another ride.

Merlin sighed. “Be careful with her, Hen.”

“Of course, young dragonlord.” Hengroen said as he lifted the insistent toddler again.

Merlin jogged back over the hills to where Arthur and Cavall were still playing in the grass. Arthur hadn’t even batted an eye at Hengroen. Apparently his week-long holiday on the dragon sanctuary had made Arthur immune to the oddities of dragonlord life.

“You really shouldn’t be running around, you know.” Arthur said as he tossed Cavall’s rubber toy as far as he could and watching Cavall run after it. “You’re supposed to be recovering.”

“I’m tired of sitting.” Merlin whined, although he did sit back down onto their picnic blanket, just to humor Arthur.

Cavall walked back to them with the toy in his mouth, but he had yet to grasp the concept of fetch, because he refused to return the toy. Arthur had to fight him for it.

Hours later, they returned to the house for dinner with Hunith and Balinor.  Afterwards Arthur helped Hunith clean the dishes while Balinor coddled Aithusa and Merlin pet an exhausted yet contented Cavall.

“I finished something for Aithusa’s hoard today.” Hunith said as she dried her hands. “I know she could only bring a few things and thought she might like something else.”

Merlin rolled his eyes, “And you and Da say that I spoil her.”

Hunith pinched Merlin’s ear as she walked past him, making him yelp. She picked up something from a basket and went over to where Balinor was trying to hold back a laugh. With a little maneuvering, Hunith took Aithusa and pulled something onto her.

“There,” Hunith said as she zipped it up. “Perfect.”

Merlin barked out a laugh. It was a blue sweater, knitted with holes and zippers in the back to accommodate for Aithusa’s wings.

Aithusa nipped at the fabric a few times, rolling around as if trying to figure out what in the world had gotten onto her. A minute or so later, she must have decided the sweater was fluffy and cozy enough for her hoard because she pranced and strutted around the living room like she thought she was the most beautiful dragon in the world.

“Oh, mum.” Merlin said, “How am I supposed to get her to take it off?”

“You’ll figure it out.” Hunith said, in the voice of a very proud grandmother.

“Give her a chilli and take it off while she’s distracted.” Arthur said with a grin as he settled on the couch next to Merlin. “Works on Cavall.”

Merlin smiled at him, wiggling a bit closer so that he was leaning against Arthur. It had taken some convincing to get Arthur to come to Ealdor with him, but Arthur did not have much of a choice once Hunith insisted. He had been nervous at first. Merlin imagined it wasn’t easy to meet the boyfriend’s parents while also be surrounded by fire-breathing dragons. Especially ones that weren’t the size of a cat and cuddled with puppies.

But surprisingly Arthur adjusted to his holiday in Ealdor well. Balinor was still a bit grumpy around Arthur, but Merlin expected nothing less from his protective father. It was his mother that worried him. Hunith was very finicky when it came to her son’s boyfriends and she usually let her feelings be known to Merlin very quickly. But to Merlin’s delight, Hunith adored Arthur. So much so that Merlin knew he was going to be nagged endlessly for not telling her about Arthur sooner.

“Perhaps I will make one for Cavall as well.” Hunith said.

Arthur didn’t protest, instead he smiled back at her. He must have already figured out that Hunith did what she pleased. Content, Merlin yawned and leaned his head onto Arthur’s shoulder.

“Oh, no you don’t.” Arthur said. “Last night you were too stubborn to admit you were tired.” Arthur propped Merlin up and stood up in front of him. “Better go to bed now before I have to carry you upstairs.”

Merlin whined as Arthur pulled him to his feet. “I‘m not tired.” He was interrupted by a yawn, thus ruining any argument he might have made. Merlin hated to admit it, but he was still tired. He had bursts of energy but he was still recuperating from the virus and his own physical exhaustion.

“Whatever you say.” Arthur said as he half guided and half carried Merlin up the stairs to the bedroom. Cavall dutifully followed behind them, already heading for his bed in the corner of the bedroom.

Arthur set Merlin down onto the bed, instructing Merlin to undress as he turned to find Merlin’s pajamas. Merlin was in the middle of pulling off his shirt when he heard Arthur yelp, followed by the sound of wings beating furiously. Merlin looked up to find Aithusa climbing onto Arthur’s shoulders and trying to grab the sleep trousers he had in hand.

“Oh no you don’t!” Arthur said, holding the soft cotton as far away from Aithusa as possible. “Stop it, these aren’t for you.” He grabbed Aithusa and pulled her under his arms, making her whine pleadingly.

“I told you she’s relentless.” Merlin said and a second later he was proven correct. Aithusa’s claws nicked the sleep trousers right out of Arthur’s hand and she deftly wiggled free of his grip. She fluttered across the room and held the pants victoriously in her snout.

“Aithusa!” Arthur said.

“Oh let her have them.” Merlin said as he pulled off his trousers, leaving himself in only his pants. “She’s missing her hoard, and I don’t really need them.”

Arthur frowned down at him, “You’ll get cold.”

“I will not, you big sop.” Merlin laughed as Arthur fussed with the blankets.

“You might.” Arthur said, but then Aithusa climbed onto the bed and settled next to Merlin. The stolen pajama bottoms were tucked under her wing, where she probably hoped Merlin and Arthur would forget about them. She was followed by Cavall, who laid across Merlin’s legs. Between the dragon and the puppy, Merlin figured it was going to be a nicely heated bed.

Merlin raised a brow at Arthur. “I think I will be fine.”

Arthur huffed out a laugh, “Alright, budge over all of you.”

He pulled off his shirt and his jeans. When he threw them across the room to Aithusa’s travel-sized hoard, the little dragon chirped happily.

“Yeah, yeah. Thank me later. Now, move over.” Arthur picked up the dragon and then he took her spot at Merlin’s side. Aithusa whined at being moved away from Merlin and promptly wiggled her way in between Merlin and Arthur’s chests. Cavall, having felt left out, huffed loudly and laid across Arthur and Merlin’s legs.

“Great, now I won't be able to move at all.” Merlin complained even as he curled closer to Arthur, nestling Aithusa under his chin.

“Hush.” Arthur said as he pressed a kiss to Merlin’s temple. “Get some rest.”

Merlin closed his eyes, content to be amongst his own hoard.