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1. curiosity killed the cat

 

The trouble with spells is that they don't always work the way you think they will.

*

When Merlin was little, his mum used to tell him the story of the kitten who would sit on the hearth, staring up at the chimney. One day, the little cat — it was a boy cat, and sometimes he was called Merlin — uncurled himself from his comfortable, safe warm spot on the hearth, and climbed up into the chimney to see what was up there.

"What did he find?" Merlin would ask, because asking was part of the story. If he didn't ask, his mum wouldn't carry on with the story.

"He found lots of soot."

"Was that all?"

"That was all. Lots of nasty, black soot. He was covered in it, and when he fell back down onto the hearth, a huge cloud of dirty soot came off him and he couldn't stop sneezing. He was so dirty, his mother couldn't lick him clean, so she had to carry him to the river and drop him in."

"Wasn't the river cold, though?" Merlin would ask plaintively.

"Very cold, and the little cat was very miserable when he crawled back out."

Merlin always shivered at that — he didn't like baths, not one little bit. "What happened then?"

"The kitten found his comfy spot on the hearth again, and he stopped wondering what was up the chimney," his mother would say, and tuck his blanket firmly around him, pet his hair, and kiss him goodnight.

Merlin, on the other hand, didn't help wondering if there was something more up the chimney. So, one night, he managed to stay awake very, very late, late enough that his mother was asleep. The fire had died down to dull embers, so the hearth wasn't too warm, though he knew he'd have to be careful.

He wasn't very good at using magic — it didn't seem to do what he meant it to do most of the time — but he managed to climb up the side of the hearth and into the chimney with a bit of help from magic and a lot of help from being skinny and naturally good at finding his way into small spaces. It wasn't very nice in the chimney though. It was dark, and he kept getting soot in his eyes, and before he could help himself, he was sneezing just like the kitten.

He stayed very still and quiet after that, hoping and hoping his mother hadn't heard him. She had a special knack for finding him though, even when he was in really good hiding places, so he wasn't really surprised when he heard her voice calling up the chimney.

She made him have a bath as soon as he came out. There wasn't any hot water, of course, not at that time of night with the fire almost out, so it was a cold bath, and his mother scrubbed him with a bristly brush for a long time.

She tucked him up carefully in bed afterwards, though, and gave him another goodnight kiss, so he knew she wasn't too angry with him.

He still always wondered what he might have found if he'd made it further up the chimney.

*

Merlin really, really wants to hear what's going on. Arthur's been closeted with Gaius for ages now, and Merlin's been sent to his room, which is ridiculous. He's tried listening at the door, but the door's too sturdy and Gaius and Arthur must be keeping their voices low. He's tried opening the door, just a fraction, but it creaked and Gaius shouted up at him to close it.

It's incredibly annoying. It's probably something totally mundane and boring, but it's the fact that they're keeping it from him that's driving Merlin crazy.

His magic book is in Gaius' room (carefully hidden, so no worries there, but also completely inaccessible at the moment) but Merlin thinks he can improvise a spell. He doesn't want to risk doing anything to the door in case it's visible on the other side, or works both ways. But his ears, those he can do something about. He can magic them to hear better. It's a brilliant idea, if he says so himself.

He mutters a few words. Yn bardd cleddi dialwyg.

It works perfectly. Almost too well, because he can hear a man whistling in the courtyard, and the guards on duty whispering complaints to each other and a boy and girl arguing over a spinning top, but he tunes them out as best he can and concentrates on Gaius and Arthur's voices.

"Just make sure you come back tomorrow for another dose — it really is only properly effective if you take the correct number of doses."

"I will, thank you, Gaius. And thank you for your discretion in this matter."

"Always. Besides, it won't hurt Merlin to learn that he doesn't need to know everything."

"He is so very—curious, isn't he?" Arthur says.

"I believe the word you were looking for, Sire, is nosy."

They both laugh. Merlin scowls.

"How much longer do you want me to keep Merlin in his room?" Gaius asks.

"Oh, I think a few more minutes will suffice — by then he'll be thoroughly convinced he's missed something intriguing." Merlin can hear the smirk in Arthur's voice. "Oh, and tell him he's to come to my chambers before the feast tonight."

"I'm glad you're keeping him out of mischief."

"I wouldn't go that far — it's an uphill battle with Merlin — but I am trying."

Merlin splutters so hard he barely hears the rest of the conversation.

He glares at Gaius when Gaius eventually lets him out of the room, but he refuses to live up to expectations and ask what was going on.

Unexpectedly, Gaius is the one who brings it up. "Aren't you curious about what Prince Arthur had to say?" he asks Merlin.

"No, not at all," Merlin says haughtily.

"No, I suppose you aren't," Gaius says, looking inscrutable. He picks up a pestle and mortar and starts grinding rosemary.

"I'm really not," Merlin says eventually, once the silence gets to feel peculiar.

"No. After all, you heard everything."

"I had the door shut," Merlin exclaims indignantly.

"And since when would that be a problem for a sorcerer with extremely large ears?"

"My ears aren't that—" Merlin starts, putting his hands up to his ears instinctively, and then feeling around them in horror. They are that large. They're enormous. He runs to a mirror and picks it up. "Oh," he gulps.

*

Merlin tries all sorts of spells.

Initially, he starts out carefully. Small, simple spells that are easily reversed if they go wrong. He tries a glamour spell, but he can't get it to work on his ears alone. Besides, for some unknown reason it seems to make him look like a dark haired Arthur, and that is just too weird. He tries a vanishing spell, but that makes his ears go completely invisible. He eventually tries a reducing spell, even though he's wary of trying anything like that on himself — he doesn't want to reduce other things by accident. Maybe he's not committed enough to it, but it doesn't work.

He manages to reverse the hearing ability, but nothing he does reduces the size of his ears. They're enormous. They flap in the breeze from the open window. They look like a failed attempt to give himself wings, which just makes it even more embarrassing when he'd thought such a thing impossible.

Gaius, the old traitor, sits through it all with a completely dispassionate look on his face, hiding the grin Merlin knows perfectly well is underneath.

"Go on," Merlin says. "Laugh at me. I know you want to."

"Not at all, Merlin. Though I do think this is an interesting lesson for you to learn."

"Yes, well, I just wish I could have learned it in a less visible way. Because there's no way Arthur isn't going to notice. I don't suppose you could send him a message saying I'm indisposed? Something contagious, so he won't come by?"

"No, Merlin, I am not going to lie to the prince over this. You'll just have to—cover your ears or something."

The hat. He's going to have to voluntarily wear the servants hat. Urgh. Merlin hates his life.

*

By dint of a lot of sneaking around, Merlin manages to get to Arthur's chambers without being seen, and before Arthur. He puts on the hated costume, shoving the hat down as far as it will go, and waits for Arthur.

Arthur raises an eyebrow very expressively when he arrives. "What, run out of clean laundry, Merlin?" he asks. "Or are you feeling the cold today?"

"I just thought it would be appropriate attire for this evening," Merlin says, with great dignity.

Arthur simply laughs at him — he has no sense of dignity.

*

He nearly takes the hat off countless times. Luckily, each time he remembers that extremely large, clearly magically altered ears are worse than a feathered hat. Though it's a close thing.

Fortunately it's almost worn off by the next morning, enough that he's able to go about his duties without resorting to disguise, and by the evening his ears are back to normal.

"I think they're a little smaller than they were before," Merlin says, checking out both of them in turn in the little hand mirror.

"I rather think that's just in comparison," Gaius says.

 

 

2. where you are I long to be

 

The trouble with Merlin is that he never learns.

*

Merlin has been very careful not to use magic around Arthur for anything other than essential reasons. (Saving Arthur's life and cleaning his armour both count as essentials).

But Arthur has been acting oddly lately, and also he's been popping up out of the blue, in unexpected places, and it's beginning to frustrate Merlin. He likes to know where Arthur is. Just for practical reasons, of course — Merlin has to be careful about using magic, and if he knows where Arthur is, then it's a lot easier. That's all it is.

A tracking spell is incredibly easy, as it turns out. It only takes him a few minutes in the archives to find a plan of the castle, a few minutes more to distract Geoffrey long enough to allow Merlin to magic up a copy of it. Then all he has to do is draw a little stick figure Arthur (with a lop-sided crown and a smirky grin), say a few words, and little stick figure Arthur immediately jumps to the courtyard. Sure enough, when Merlin looks out of the window, Arthur's in the courtyard, just returned from touring some local villages, checking to see that the crop blight that has affected a valley to the west hasn't spread outside the valley.

The map is larger than Merlin would like — even folded up it's bulky, and when he stuffs it down the front of his tunic it rustles somewhat suspiciously, but he eventually rolls it up and stuffs it in his belt. If anyone asks, he'll say it's lessons from Gaius. After all, he can easily make it appear that way if anyone is determined to see it.

Merlin soon learns that Arthur gets around a lot. For all that he can appear the idle, spoilt prince, he isn't actually idle at all.

Merlin checks the map at frequent intervals, especially when he's in Arthur's chambers, doing his work by magic, or anywhere else doing his work by magic for that matter. Little stick figure Arthur is at the main gate, in the armoury, in the refractory, the chapel, striding very fast on little stick legs along various corridors, and, for several hours at a time, in the king's throne room, no doubt doing kingly business. It's the only time the little stick figure seems to sit down in the day, aside from meal times.

When Merlin undresses for bed, he puts the parchment safely under his pillow. He means to leave it there, because he doesn't need to know where Arthur is every hour of the day. And the whole purpose of it is simply to ensure Merlin doesn't get caught using magic. Which he's not doing when he's in bed, asleep. But he can't seem to sleep, and he's itching to check it, so he thinks if he just takes a quick look, that will satisfy his curiosity and he'll go straight to sleep afterwards.

He waves his hand at the candle stub beside his bed and it leaps into life. He feels a bit guilty as he unrolls the map, but he ignores that. When he looks at the map, he's taken aback. Little stick figure Arthur isn't lying down in his room, as Merlin had expected. Or even lying down in anyone else's room, which Merlin might have considered briefly and chosen not to think about. Arthur is standing outside Gaius' and Merlin's rooms. Just—standing there. He appears to be leaning against the door arch; the stick figure was a little lopsided to start with though, so it might just be that. It's strange.

Merlin watches the map. The little stick figure doesn't move until Merlin's candle stub is almost burned out. The last Merlin sees is the stick figure walking slowly — far slower than Arthur's usual brisk pace — back to Arthur's room.

He's still there in the morning when Merlin wakes up. He doesn't think about the fact that he checks the map before he does anything else.

After that, Merlin can't stop himself checking each night. Some nights Arthur stays in his room — and Merlin emphatically doesn't watch to see if he moves around much, or if there's anything to suggest he has company in his bed — but other nights, late, Arthur walks slowly across the castle and stands outside Gaius' and Merlin's rooms.

Merlin can't think of an explanation. Arthur isn't ill, that he can see, and if he were, surely he'd simply visit Gaius in the daytime. Even if it were an embarrassing complaint, he knows Gaius can be trusted to be discreet. It's just not like him.

He debates just opening the door. Waiting until Arthur's standing there and surprising him. But, somehow, that feels even worse than what he's already doing.

The next day he burns the map. It crinkles as it burns, and Merlin has a sudden horrifying notion that maybe burning little stick figure Arthur will harm Arthur in some way, but it's too late, the courtyard is already burning and the stick figure is blackened. Reason tells him that all he's done is end the spell, but he can't help racing through the castle to the courtyard, and he only breathes easily when he sees Arthur in the middle, arm slung around one of his knights, laughing at some joke.

He misses it, though, knowing where Arthur is. Checking at night and watching the stick figure on the other side of the door.

 

 

3. a pain in the arse

 

The trouble with Arthur is that he always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

*

Arthur told him to be quiet.

That's why Merlin did it.

*

Merlin never has worked out why Arthur takes him on hunting trips. There are plenty of squires who'd kill for the opportunity — only last week one tried to bribe Merlin to pretend to be sick so he could go in Merlin's place — and it's not as though Arthur thinks Merlin's actually any help on a hunting trip. When Arthur goes into stealth mode and starts communicating with hand signals and eyebrow raises and all that kind of thing, Merlin goes blank. There's a deaf woman in the village next to Ealdor, and she manages to communicate with her hands in some uncanny fashion - her family understand her, and Hunith always manages to make sense of what she was saying. Merlin never could. It's as though he's tone deaf to body language or something.

It would help if Arthur actually took the time to explain in advance what he means when he's circling his left hand in the air and dipping his right hand down and wiggling both eyebrows.

As it is, Arthur hasn't explained any of the increasing complicated and thoroughly ambiguous signals he's using, so of course Merlin gets it wrong and goes left when he should go right and zigs when he should have zagged and ends up stumbling noisily into a bog. He might possibly have flailed a little in order to keep from falling over in the bog, which is perfectly understandable because bog water smells and no one wants to fall into it. Unfortunately, the boar they've been stalking since the sun was facing the other way catches sight of him and goes crashing loudly away through the undergrowth, sending a flock of birds noisily into the air. Which means he's scared off any other prey within hearing. As Arthur points out, one word at a time, jabbing his finger into Merlin's chest to punctuate each and every word. Merlin's going to have a finger shaped bruise there tomorrow.

"I can't believe I brought you," Arthur says (again).

"I wish you hadn't," Merlin mutters as he pulls his boot out of the bog. He puts it back on his wet and muddy foot.

He squelches, loudly, with every step.

"For heaven's sake, Merlin, can't you at least try to be quiet?" Arthur hisses. He's insisted that they will bring something home from the hunt today, even if Merlin has made it almost impossible, so they're back into stealth mode, Arthur in the lead, Merlin right behind him, and half a dozen knights fanned out behind them.

So Merlin is quiet. In fact, he spells himself quiet.

Turns out, it's quite a subtle sort of spell, that needs a delicate touch, and Merlin muttering it miserably under his breath doesn't constitute a delicate touch.

He's not so much quiet as completely soundless. So when Arthur sends him forward to flush out a deer, and Merlin accidentally sends the deer fleeing in the wrong direction, he can't call out to abort the chase. And when he crashes in the undergrowth, no one hears him. But they do see movement when he's pushing himself up on his hands and knees, a flash of brown which apparently looks just like a deer, and the next thing Merlin knows he's flat on his face on the ground, in agony, with an arrow in his bum.

It hurts.

A lot.

"Merlin, you bloody idiot, what the hell were you doing?" Arthur says, but he's surprisingly gentle with his hands as he checks Merlin. He kneels down beside Merlin. "I'm not going to take the arrow out here — it might cause the wound to bleed more, so we'll carry you back as you are. Try not to move too much, it'll just make it worse."

Merlin nods and presumably Arthur just thinks he's not talking because of the pain.

Arthur insists on carrying one end of the improvised stretcher. If Merlin could talk, he'd make a joke about Arthur just wanting to check out his arse all the way. Probably a good thing he can't.

 

 

4. be careful what you wish for

 

The trouble with Merlin's life is that if something can go wrong, it will. It's pretty much guaranteed.

*

The silence spell wears off quickly, which is a good thing as Merlin can't actually speak to reverse it. Merlin's rather pathetically grateful that at least one thing goes right for him.

*

For the first few days after Gaius removes the arrow from Merlin's bum, Arthur is uncommonly nice to Merlin. He obviously feels guilty about shooting Merlin, though he still insists it was Merlin's own fault (and Merlin can't really disagree, seeing as it was his own fault).

It doesn't last long. And whether it's a reaction to being nice for so long, or what, Merlin doesn't know, but Arthur goes from being unusually nice to unusually annoying. He nags Merlin over everything — nothing's good enough.

"Do this again, Merlin." "You're not trying hard enough, Merlin." "Where the hell have you been, Merlin?"

Merlin is well and truly fed up. And possibly not thinking entirely straight, after six hours solid of polishing armour under Arthur's eyes, with no chance of sneaking in a little bit of magic to help things along.

It's only meant to be a little spell.

It backfires. Spectacularly. Of course it does. This is Merlin's life, after all.

*

"Come here, Merlin," Arthur says, and he's smiling at Merlin in a way that Merlin can't quite pinpoint. He's sure he's seen this sort of smile before, but definitely not on Arthur's face when he's looking at Merlin.

Merlin actually looks around the courtyard, just to check that there isn't someone else called Merlin standing behind him.

There isn't. There's Mungus the baker and Fergus and little Betty the scullery maid's daughter. No other Merlins.

"Sire?" Merlin says, but doesn't move.

So Arthur comes to him. And runs his fingers through Merlin's hair. "Your hair is looking exceptionally soft today. Do you use some herb infusion from Gaius?"

"I, um, ur—"

"You must let me have some if you do. Mmmh," Arthur says, and he's—he's sniffing Merlin's hair. He's standing in the middle of the courtyard, sniffing Merlin's hair. "Smells good," he says.

"This is some kind of joke, right?" Merlin says, because it has to be.

Arthur looks hurt. His face sort of crumples, and his mouth turns down and his eyes go all damp. "I'm just trying to be nice," he says, gives Merlin's hair one more stroke, and walks away mournfully.

*

Merlin's still convinced it's a joke. He hadn't realised Arthur could be such a good actor, but still, there's nothing else it could be but a joke.

Except it's not a one off.

When Merlin goes to Arthur's room to turn down his bed sheets, Arthur's there. Sitting on the window seat, peering out of the window onto the courtyard, even though it's dark outside. He looks plaintive, but as soon as he sees Merlin he smiles happily.

"Merlin, I'm so glad to see you," he says. Then he gets up, walks across the room and embraces Merlin. The sort of stifling, huge hug you give someone you love whom you haven't seen for years, not your incompetent, irritating manservant.

"Um, Arthur?" Merlin says, and awkwardly extricates himself from the hug.

"I'm sorry. I suppose you don't like to be hugged that much, especially by me. You probably don't even like me that much." Arthur looks incredibly sad at that idea.

"Oh, no, it's, um, fine. Hugs are good, yes. Hugging, um. And I do like you."

"You do?" Arthur asks, and his face lights up in pleasurable anticipation.

Merlin wonders if the wisest answer would be no, but that would be a lie, and he rather thinks Arthur might cry or something equally awful. "Yes," he says, and then he's smashed up against Arthur's chest in another hug.

"I'm so glad," Arthur says. "Morgana said you liked me, but I wasn't sure."

"Morgana?"

"Yes, I asked her."

"Oh."

Merlin manages to get out with only two more hugs to interrupt his work. And then spends the night trying to work out what's happened.

*

He comes to the uncomfortable answer that it's his fault. Arthur's clearly not joking — there's just no way he'd go all weepy if he were in his right mind, not even for the best prank in the world — so it has to be a spell. And well, Merlin did cast a little spell on him the other day. Just a small one. A discreet nudge, just to make Arthur a bit nicer.

And now Arthur is all open and touchy feely and hugging Merlin and—

Merlin is doomed.

Merlin is never doing magic again once he's got this fixed.

Merlin's going to go to Arthur's rooms right now.

He's half way there before he asks himself what on earth he's doing. He should be avoiding Arthur, at least until he's worked out how to reverse the spell — he can't exactly remember it, but he's sure he can reverse it, it might just take a while — and yet here he is doing the exact opposite.

He has to be honest with himself.

He winces.

So, honesty. He's heading towards Arthur's rooms because he's likes being hugged by Arthur. He likes the feel of it, the warmth of it, the affection of it. And he likes feeling that Arthur cares about him.

He's—oh, fuck, he's got feelings for Arthur. Strong feelings. The sort that make his belly flutter and make his cock twitch, and that is oh so very bad and he needs to turn around right this moment.

He steels himself, and turns around.

*

Luckily, he doesn't need Arthur around to try to reverse the spell. He cast it using hairs from his hairbrush, so he can do the same to reverse it. Of course, it's hard to tell if it's working or not without Arthur present, but Merlin's learning to tell when a spell is working by the feel in the air after he's said the words. After his fifth attempt, there's a sharpness in the air, like the feeling on his skin when he rubs wool over his hair and sparks fly out.

*

"We are not talking about what happened," is the first thing Arthur says. "I don't know what happened, and I don't even want to know. And most especially, I do not want you to mention it to anyone."

Merlin doesn't blame him. He nods agreement, relieved. And then opens his mouth. "But, you know, if we were to talk—"

"Merlin!"

"Okay, no talking. Understood."

Apparently no talking makes for a very uncomfortable atmosphere. Normally they can just not talk naturally. Today they're not talking very awkwardly. Merlin casts around in his mind for something harmless to discuss, but of course now his mind goes blank on anything he could possibly say to Arthur.

*

It drags on for days.

"Have you and Arthur fought?" Gwen asks.

"No. Why do you ask that?" Merlin asks.

"Um, well, nothing really. You just seem a little—different. Or something. Not saying that it's anything bad, just, well, I wondered."

"Nope, no fighting. Me and Arthur, we're best mates."

Which of course is when Arthur calls him. "Merlin, you incompetent tosser, what have you done with my gardcorp?" It's the longest sentence Arthur's spoken to him since the whole incident.

"Well, got to go, duty calls," Merlin tells Gwen, and goes running over to Arthur. Where they go back to communicating through occasional grunts on Arthur's part and yeses and noes from Merlin.

Merlin can see Gwen shaking her head in the distance; he ignores her and feigns being busy.

*

The next day, Arthur gets a bloody nose. Not even from training, proper. Just an accident on the sidelines with a carelessly carried lance and a large wooden box that meets Arthur's face and sends him flying.

The page carrying the box is terrified. Normally Merlin would have collapsed with laughter at the sight of Arthur laid low so ignominiously, but instead he's checking Arthur out, feeling the back of his head for lumps and gently pressing his hastily rolled up scarf which he's just dunked in cold water to Arthur's nose. Even after he's certain Arthur's fine, merely furious and embarrassed, he can only bring himself to laugh a bit.

He doesn't even laugh later, when Arthur finally goes to see Gaius — Merlin assumes that Arthur's trying to prove how manly he is by going about his duties all day with blood dripping down his face — and Gaius gives him a herb compress to hold to his nose, and threatens to bind it on if Arthur doesn't take the rest of the day off.

Merlin has a problem.

*

Arthur's being fitted for a new jacket. Red, of course, though Merlin thinks blue would suit him well, bring out the colour of his eyes, and oh, he has to stop thinking things like that.

Merlin doesn't see why he has to hang around while Arthur's being fitted. All he's doing is handing over pieces of chalk and putting them back down again, and watching while the tailor keeps making admiring — and wholly inappropriate — exclamations at the breadth of Arthur's shoulders and the width of his chest.

Every time Merlin makes motions towards leaving, though, Arthur finds a reason — excuse, more like it — for Merlin to stay. He even makes Merlin put out the fire, scrape out the ashes and half burned logs, and restart it, because, "I don't like the smell of ash smoke, Merlin, you know that. There are oak logs in the basket, use those."

They smell exactly the same, of course.

Finally the tailor leaves, and they're alone.

There's the usual uncomfortable silence, which Merlin can't even cover up by going about his duties because he's already done everything he can do in the room at least twice over today.

Eventually Arthur clears his throat.

"Clearly I was under some strange compulsion the other day, and said things that were patently untrue and no doubt made you feel uncomfortable. I wish to apologise for any unpleasantness that caused for you, and assure you that it won't happen again."

It sounds rehearsed and incredibly forced and Merlin isn't sure whether he feels more embarrassed for himself or for Arthur.

"So you don't want to hug me then," he says, because inappropriate jokes are his forte.

"Of course not," Arthur sneers. "As though I'd want to hug you. Of all people. Really." He makes some sort of snorting sound to emphasize his point, which Merlin thinks is overkill. And is also what finally convinces Merlin that Arthur is lying through his teeth.

Not that he can come out and say it. He'll just have to be a little bit crafty. He can do that.

 

 

5. the truth will set you free

 

The good thing about magic is that sometimes, even when it appears to be going spectacularly wrong, it surprises you.

*

It all starts with Arthur lying to him. He tells Merlin he's been with his father all afternoon, when Merlin saw him only a few minutes earlier, coming from the silversmith.

Not that Arthur lying to him is a terribly unusual thing. Merlin thinks Arthur would insist the sky was green if Merlin commented on it being blue, just to be annoying. And there's been a lot of lying over the whole hugging business. Merlin will even admit that he's been lying as much as Arthur over that. Because really, he's not going to stand there and say he likes Arthur hugging him. That just wouldn't be on.

This lie, though, is particularly annoying, and it takes Merlin all day to work out why.

When he does work it out, he's a bit ashamed. Because it turns out the reason he's upset is that it was a lie Arthur didn't intend him to recognise as a lie. It wasn't some casual lie Arthur knew Merlin would see right through. They both use those kind of lies all the time — they don't mean anything. This does, though, somehow. Arthur lied deliberately to Merlin, and Merlin is really pissed off about that.

Admittedly, it's not a huge lie. It's not on the scale, say, of pretending not to be a sorcerer when you are. It's a little white lie, really.

Doesn't make Merlin any less annoyed.

Knowing he's being irrational doesn't make him any less annoyed either.

*

Merlin doesn't even intend to cast a spell. It's more of a wish, really. A wish combined with a bad mood and a flare up of temper that he doesn't really understand. It's probably his temper that does it, makes the wish turn out true, even though he hadn't intended it to.

Unless he had, subconsciously.

*

It takes a while for him to work out what's happening.

Gwen's the first one to surprise him.

"Morning, Gwen," Merlin greets her. "Lovely flowers."

"Thank you. They're for Morgana."

"She's really lucky to have a maidservant like you," Merlin says, sincerely. Gwen blushes, but looks pleased. "Where is Morgana, by the way? I have a potion for her from Gaius."

"She's with Sir Elyan, in his chambers. She's having an affair with him, and I think it's just to spite Arthur only it's not working because Arthur either hasn't noticed or doesn't seem to mind even though it's been going on for some weeks now, and oh, my—" Gwen claps her hand over her mouth in horror.

Merlin's pretty sure his own expression is equally horrified.

"I'll just, um, be finding her later," he says, and runs. He tries to block out the sound of Gwen telling him that Morgana's usually with Sir Elyan for several hours, so Merlin shouldn't try to find her for a while yet, as she's only been gone for half an hour. He just hopes she stops babbling before anyone else hears.

*

Gaius is reading when Merlin gets back, but closes his book as soon as he hears Merlin come in.

"What're you reading?" Merlin asks, only curious because Gaius seems to be trying to hide the book.

"I'm looking for a cure for impotence," Gaius answers immediately, and then looks most disconcerted.

Merlin doesn't have a clue what to say. He thinks eww would probably be too insulting, but it's the only thing that comes to mind.

"I'm just going to go to my room for a bit. To study," Merlin says.

Gaius nods, but Merlin has the feeling Gaius is watching him until he's in his room.

*

Merlin tries not to flush when he sees Morgana next, but it's difficult. He can't quite get rid of the mental picture of her with Sir Elyan, and he really doesn't want to say anything inappropriate.

He settles for a simple greeting. "Good afternoon, Morgana. How are you?" There, that was simple and polite and nothing could go wrong with that.

"Incredibly sore, actually," Morgana replies. Her eyes go huge and she opens and closes her mouth wordlessly.

Merlin, thankfully, has been struck equally dumb. He just nods at her and walks on down the corridor.

This is the point at which he realises something is extraordinarily wrong and that he needs to go straight to Gaius and sort it out. Which would no doubt have been the wisest course of action, if it weren't for Arthur waylaying him on route and insisting Merlin follow him to his chambers.

Merlin follows him silently. It's obvious that people are being unusually honest around him — and presumably only to him, or he'd surely have heard mention of it already — but he's not sure what's prompting it. Whether it's just happening, or if he has to speak, or what.

"Merlin, how many times do I have to call your name before you answer?" Arthur says in his face, and Merlin realises he'd become a little distracted by the whole honesty issue.

"Sorry," Merlin says, and tries to concentrate on Arthur, and on not somehow forcing him to be honest about things he'd rather not mention. Except, well, there is the matter of that visit to Gaius that Arthur for some reason decided to keep secret. Merlin leans nonchalantly against Arthur's bedpost. "Did Gaius manage to sort out your problem the other day? What was it again?"

"Oh, that, yes. Just a cold, but I didn't want anyone knowing I'd picked up a cold in the summer — it would make me look feeble." Arthur looks puzzled at himself for admitting that.

It's about now that Merlin remembers wishing that people would be honest with him. A careless wish — and maybe he might have muttered a few words under his breath at the same time — only now it's coming true. And he needs to do something about it, before there's a repetition of the hugging incident. Merlin really has caused Arthur enough embarrassment — however much of a prat Arthur can be, Merlin knows this isn't fair on him. He should just leave. Go and fix it.

Right now.

Or now.

Except he doesn't. He stands there, pondering all the questions he wants to know the answers to. Or questions that he thinks he knows the answer to, but would like to hear out loud.

"Merlin! Honestly, what is up with you today? You're in a world of your own."

"Sorry, Arthur. What did you want me for?" Merlin only means to ask why Arthur's called him to his rooms and what he's supposed to be doing.

Arthur, unfortunately, doesn't read the question that way at all. "I want you because you drive me crazy and yet at the same time you're the one person I truly trust with my life, and because I can't get you out of my mind and—"

Merlin stuffs his hand over Arthur's mouth. "I'm sorry," he says. "I just think it's better if you don't talk at the moment."

Arthur gives him a horrified nod. "Mnnggllnng," he says from behind Merlin's hand. It's hard to tell if it's complimentary or not. Merlin chooses to take it as a query about what's going on.

"I believe—" Merlin thinks really quickly, "you must have eaten some enchanted mushrooms for dinner. They induce truthfulness, but they do wear off quite quickly, or so I've heard. The effect should have faded in an hour or so." Merlin just needs to discreetly reverse the spell in an hour, and no one will be the wiser. Well, apart from Merlin having heard a whole load of secrets.

Arthur pulls Merlin's hand away from his mouth. "You ate the same mushrooms as me," he points out.

"Ah, yes," Merlin says.

"So you're compelled to tell the truth too," Arthur says and there's a glint in his eye.

Merlin owes him this. "Yes," he lies.

"So," Arthur says, "how do you feel about me?"

Merlin gulps. He almost wishes he were under a spell, because at least then it'd be easier — the words would just come out without him having to think about it. "I, um, like you. A lot. And I'm, well, really glad you feel like that about me. I mean, it's crazy," Merlin continues, warming to the subject now he's committed to it, "because I really thought you were the biggest prat I'd ever met when I first saw you, and I still think you're a prat at times, quite a lot of the time really, but there's just something about you."

"Wow, that really is flattering," Arthur says sarcastically, but Merlin thinks he's more amused than anything.

"Do you think we could just get past the talking stuff, and, you know, do something?" Merlin asks hopefully.

"You do occasionally make sensible suggestions," Arthur admits. And grabs Merlin by the arms and kisses him.

Merlin's been kissed before. Everything from innocent pecks on the cheek to dirty kisses tumbling in the hay. But he's never been kissed like this, with such conviction and power and Merlin begins to feel a little weak in the legs.

"Bed," he manages, in a brief pause.

"Another sensible suggestion," Arthur says. "Two in one day — what is the world coming to?" He doesn't give Merlin time to think up a retort. Just pushes him back on the bed, where Merlin lands and bounces slightly on the soft mattress. Definitely way better than a haystack.

Arthur follows, kneeling over him.

Merlin lies there and grins up at Arthur. "So, d'you think I'm gorgeous?" he asks, wiggling his hips ridiculously.

"Not really. You're too skinny and pale and you're not my type at all," Arthur says, and Merlin resolves to reverse the spell the second Arthur looks away. "Yet, oddly enough, I can't imagine anything I want more right now than to shag you senseless. Although I'd be more than happy to blow you, if you prefer that. Or anything, really, so long as we're both naked."

"Oh."

"If that's all right with you, that is?" Arthur asks, though he's looking at Merlin's groin, and it's quite obvious that he knows exactly how very much all right that is with Merlin. Incredibly all right.

Merlin just nods.

Arthur's shirt and hose have never been more infuriatingly difficult to remove. Merlin is all thumbs, and instead of helping, Arthur sits back on his haunches and watches Merlin struggle. He's just as hard as Merlin is, but either he's into torturing himself, or he's got a lot more self-control than is normal.

"I'm beginning to think sex with you is going to be awful," Merlin says, sulkily, as he manages to get another lace into a knot.

"Sex with me is going to be so wonderful you'll wonder how you ever managed without," Arthur replies. "You know it is." Apparently honesty hasn't deflated his ego one whit.

"Well, unless you give me a hand here, everything is going to go off before either of us are even undressed."

"Ah, little Merlin is getting a little eager."

"Less of the little, thank you," Merlin retorts. He's practically bursting his breeches, he's so hard. Just in case Arthur hasn't fully got the point, Merlin takes his hand and places it over the bulge. "See?" he says.

It has the gratifying effect of making Arthur twitch, noticeably, and start to strip off Merlin's clothing. "Oy, careful," Merlin says, as Arthur pulls his breeches down with little regard to the merchandise underneath.

Once Merlin is naked, Arthur takes over removing his own clothing, dealing with the knots by the simple method of tugging and tearing. Merlin would complain — after all, the mending will come his way tomorrow — but then Arthur's kneeling over him, naked, all muscle and hardness, and Merlin can't find it in him to say anything, least of all complain.

Arthur, however, clearly isn't quite satisfied, because he gets up, muttering something to himself. Merlin takes the opportunity to whisper the words he's (fairly) sure will reverse the spell. It seems only right he should do so before anything more happens.

He tests it out as Arthur comes back, though he's momentarily distracted by the bottle of oil in Arthur's hand, and the lean lines of Arthur's body, and the way his cock is bobbing, hard, in front of him. Arthur is extremely fit — not that he wasn't aware of that before, just, somehow, seeing him up close like this, he's even more impressive. And hot. Merlin gulps, and tries to concentrate on something other than how much he wants Arthur to fuck him right this second.

"So," he says experimentally, carefully keeping his eyes above waist height so he can concentrate a little better, "when did you first want to shag me?"

Arthur turns faintly pink, but doesn't answer. Then he smiles, a huge, relieved grin. "I didn't answer that," he says.

Merlin raises an eyebrow. "And you say I'm the master of the obvious. I think you've just stolen my title."

"I mean, you idiot, that the effect of the mushrooms must have worn off."

"Yeah," Merlin says. He doesn't mean to look disappointed or anything — he isn't, obviously, because he ended the spell deliberately — it's just that it was kind of nice, for a while, having Arthur admit stuff to him.

Arthur leans over him, but he doesn't have the smirk Merlin's expecting.

"I'm not going to suddenly deny I want this, you know. I mean, I think it's pretty obvious I do," he says, motioning down his body.

"Is that why you wait around outside my rooms at night?" Merlin asks, then winces because there's no way he should know about that.

Arthur doesn't question how he knows, thankfully. Just nods, and flushes a little. "I've, well, wanted this for some time," he admits, his voice gruffer than usual, and that confession means more to Merlin than anything else Arthur's said all day.

"Yeah, me too," Merlin says, and he's rarely been so heartfelt. He'd say more, but Arthur's stroking oil down Merlin's cock, and then down his own, and then he's lying next to Merlin, pressing them both together, rubbing up against him, and Merlin just holds on. Holds on and kisses Arthur, because it's his turn to try to make Arthur feel weak, so he nips at Arthur's lip until Arthur opens his mouth and then it gets messy and hot and Merlin's almost dizzy with want.

"I'm not going to hold on long enough to fuck you," Arthur says, breathless and even huskier. "Not this time."

"This, good," Merlin manages.

The oil's spread, slick between them, and Merlin's never felt anything quite this wonderful. It's almost like using magic, the heightened awareness he gets in the middle of a spell, the lingering high he feels afterwards when the power is still tingling through his body. It's better even than magic. It's—slippery, he soon discovers, as he tries to feel up Arthur's arse and discovers the oil has gone everywhere.

He laughs.

"What's so funny?" Arthur asks, but Merlin can't manage words. He just keeps laughing and then Arthur's laughing too, and they're shaking against each other. Merlin muffles his laughter in Arthur's neck, biting him, and what makes him want to do that he has no idea but Arthur just tilts his head back and groans, bares his neck for it.

Merlin comes first, spilling out between them until he's soft and it almost hurts to feel Arthur up against him, and then Arthur pushes him on his back and takes himself in hand, long steady strokes that would make Merlin think Arthur were calm if it weren't for the racing of his breath and the sheen of sweat on his chest.

Arthur's incredible. His hair's plastered to his forehead and his lips are curled back and he looks magnificent. Merlin almost wants to tell him he has every right to be arrogant, because he's so beautiful. He thinks he might be a little bit stupid from the sex.

A few more strokes and Arthur pulses over Merlin, long strands that mingle with the mess Merlin has made. Merlin idly lifts his head and strokes his finger through it.

Arthur collapses by the side of him, and for a moment, Merlin thinks that's it. He should get up and get a clean cloth, wipe them up — he is Arthur's manservant, after all. But Arthur pulls him in close, a hug almost, and Merlin finds himself with his head on Arthur's chest, Arthur's breathing already becoming more relaxed.

"What," Merlin says, "you're just going to go to sleep now?"

"Mmm," says Arthur, sounding as though he's already more asleep than awake.

Merlin wriggles slightly, and manages to pull the bed clothes over them without moving out of Arthur's embrace. He only uses a little bit of magic to do it.

"Mmm," Arthur repeats, and Merlin smiles into his chest.

*

You're a cuddler," Merlin says when he feels Arthur stir in the morning.

"Am not," Arthur denies instantly.

"Then why is your arm around me?" Merlin snuggles into Arthur to prove his point.

"Oh, do shut up, Merlin."

Merlin thinks Arthur would be more convincing if he didn't still have his arm around Merlin, but he decides not to mention that. He likes it, after all. It doesn't stop him mocking though. "You're a secret cuddler."

"I'm going to throw you out of bed if you don't shut up," Arthur says, though he still hasn't moved.

"Even if I do this?" Merlin says, and wraps his hand around Arthur's cock.

Arthur gulps audibly. "Just—just do it without talking," he orders, and Merlin laughs and does as he's told.

This time.

*

"Here, you might like this," Arthur says later, once they're both up and dressed. He hands over a small velvet bag.

"What is it?"

"Just open it and see," Arthur says. He looks a bit uncomfortable.

It's a silver dragon pin. "Um," Merlin says, eloquently. Then realises this must be the reason Arthur lied to him about visiting the silversmith. "Oh."

"I just thought you should wear the Pendragon symbol, seeing as you're part of the household," Arthur says, as though it's a trifle. He turns to head out of the room.

"Arthur," Merlin calls out, and Arthur pauses a moment. "Thank you," Merlin says.

*

The best thing about magic is that, sometimes, there's a very happy ending.