Summary: Arthur exiles Merlin for his own safety, but even from afar Merlin manages to make his presence felt anyway.
Word Count: ~3,300
Notes: Many thanks to the wonderful jandjsalmon for much-needed concrit and cheerleading.
Arthur pinched the inside corners of his eyes together and sighed, his initial elation at having received a letter from Merlin elbowed out of the way by irritation at actually having to read a letter from Merlin. His handwriting was atrocious, and trying to read this simple missive was like deciphering garbled, ancient text from a foreign land. Arthur half suspected he'd learnt his letters from a roving band of inebriated monkeys.
OlGx Hxtbnv, the letter read.
Dear Arthur, Arthur translated.
I hope you haven't been alarmed by the things I've sent. I tried to make them recognisable enough so you'd know they were from me and that I'm all right.
Arthur made a note not to tell Merlin, whenever they saw each other next, that nearly all the things he had mysteriously received looked like plain rocks. And the ones that hadn't, Arthur had wadded up in masses of linen and dumped in the lake just in case they were accursed objects meant to destroy him in his sleep.
But I know you don't notice things sometimes, even when they're right in front of you, so I thought I had better write you instead.
"Oh, you little toad," said Arthur at the sheer gall of Merlin bringing that up. So he hadn't realised Merlin was a sorcerer until three months ago, when Merlin had exploded a stupid, giant beast that had pinned Arthur down in the forest with the intention of eating him. It wasn't his fault that Merlin usually chose to perform magic during highly distracting situations like Arthur nearly getting killed. And when one was facing death, one usually tried to focus all of one's attention on the life-threatening thing, and not on one's silly manservant.
After that debacle, Arthur, in a fit of pique, had confined him to the dungeons for half an afternoon before forcing him into exile, as he'd realised that Merlin would do anything to protect him, and in Camelot, Merlin's form of anything had the high likelihood of someday ending him up at the executioner's block. And as Arthur would rather have Merlin somewhere else and alive, instead of here and headless, he had made Merlin go away.
Merlin had not been terribly understanding about it at the time.
If I've done this right, this letter should have wedged inside one of your boots, so no one else will find it.
And hadn't that been an unpleasant early morning surprise.
I'm getting on well enough and am learning a lot of new things, with
He probably would have, too, except Arthur refused to find a new manservant after Merlin's departure. Not that there was a dearth of capable replacements, but some things -- people -- just weren't meant to be replaced.
Arthur squinted. On further inspection, it might have said Love, Merlin, but love and Merlin resolutely did not go together, especially not with the letter 'I' in front of them, so Arthur made himself settle on the meringue. Perhaps Merlin had been feeling peckish at the time.
Stuffing the letter under his pillow would not be considered the most prudent thing in the world to do, so Arthur tucked the letter away in a little wooden chest that contained some of his mother's old jewellery and other prized keepsakes.
More small, plain rocks and other benign objects showed up with regularity at the foot of his bed, and Arthur kept those, too.
A year went by, and Arthur had to commission one of the carpenters to fashion him another wooden box. And if this gave rise to certain implications about just how high he held Merlin in regard, Arthur was careful not to give voice to them. It was easier that way.
Accustomed as he was to receiving inanimate objects, Arthur started in surprise when one day he discovered a dark grey cat curled up on his bed, one dainty paw resting on a piece of parchment.
"Hello," said Arthur suspiciously, with one hand on the hilt of his sword. One never knew. He carefully slipped the parchment out from under the paw.
I have sent you a cat, said Merlin's scrawl.
"I see you have also gone insane," Arthur said.
I thought you might enjoy the occasional company. It is quite an independent creature, so don't worry if it disappears from time to time. Lemon Meringue.
"Hm," said Arthur, folding the letter neatly, and peered uncertainly at the cat, which leapt off the bed and rubbed the length of its lean body against Arthur's legs with a low purr. "Well, I suppose this is all right," he said begrudgingly. "Just don't make a mess, as I have no manservant to not clean it up."
The cat headbutted him in the shin.
True to his word, Merlin's cat did not stay for long, trotting out next to Arthur when he left his chambers later that afternoon and vanishing shortly thereafter. It reappeared every other week or so, sometimes sitting patiently at the edge of the field when Arthur conducted his knights' training, sometimes curling up in Arthur's lap while he read a book, and sometimes regarding Arthur wisely with clear blue eyes when Arthur had got used to its presence and started talking to it.
"I hope you don't have rabies," Arthur said thoughtfully, and it managed to radiate enough disgust in Arthur's direction that he was made reasonably certain that Merlin hadn't foisted on him a severely diseased cat for larks.
"Well, it's clear Merlin's your master, seeing how lazy you are," Arthur said when it dozed off contentedly in his lap, and the cat idly swished its tail in his face.
"This new gaggle of squires is absolutely hopeless. Especially the ginger one," Arthur said a few weeks later to the cat as it pattered quietly next to him on the way up to his chambers after a training session. The cat mewed its agreement.
"If you see Merlin, tell him --" Arthur said one day, and then felt silly, as cats were not particularly known for their speaking capabilities. Then again, it was probably best that no one be able to repeat his mawkish sentiments. "Tell him it's not the same without him here to muck everything up all the time."
The cat nuzzled his neck then, and jumped onto one of the windowsills and disappeared into the sun. It never stayed for more than half a day, usually turning up in the early afternoon, just in time for Arthur to feed it a few scraps from the remains of his midday meal, and running off well before nightfall. It made Arthur feel a little sorry, as he'd got to quite like having the thing around, but he wasn't going to imprison the poor animal just because sometimes he felt like having something soft and warm to sleep next to at night.
There was a very good reason for the cat's timetable, though Arthur wouldn't find out until well after autumn chill began settling over Camelot, when its visits became more infrequent.
Dear Arthur, said the letter that he had squashed and crunched when he'd shoved his foot into his boot one cold morning. The cat is okay, if you were worried.
"I wasn't," said Arthur, though he was.
Only it's been getting quite cold lately, and travelling all the way there is a bit rough. He misses you, though.
"Oh," said Arthur. "Well."
I miss Camelot and everybody.
"Hmph," said Arthur.
Stay warm. Lemon Meringue.
The cat had obviously not received such instructions from Merlin, however, as it stealthily trailed a chambermaid into Arthur's room one winter's day, fur slicked down with melted snow and looking more pathetic than anything Arthur had ever seen. It hugged the shadowed corners and kept out of sight until the chambermaid took her leave, at which point Arthur threw a sheet on it, rubbing most of the water away, and parked it in front of the fire.
"You idiot," Arthur said. "Both of you. When you see Merlin, tell him I said so. I'm sure he doesn't hear it enough now that I'm not there to remind him. That idiot," he added for good measure, albeit a little wistfully.
The cat fell asleep near the base of the fireplace, purring softly as Arthur absently stroked its head. It stirred drowsily when there came a knock at the door with an urgent summons for Arthur from his father. Arthur sprang to his feet and hurried out of his chambers, shutting the door quickly behind him and failing to notice that the cat had tried to dash after him and instead ran face first into the closed door.
Arthur returned hours later at twilight, the last dregs of sunset dimly visible through his frosted windows. All he saw of the cat at that point was a flash of grey fur darting into the adjoining room where his bath and basin were housed, accompanied by a distressed yowl.
"Yes, what great pleasure it is to see you, too," Arthur said dryly. He shrugged out of his doublet, throwing it on the bed, and went in search of the cat, on the pretext of washing his hands.
The cat was nowhere to be seen, though all the doors and windows were shut tight to keep out the draught, and Arthur couldn't make out any point of egress. When Merlin had said it would occasionally disappear, Arthur didn't think he had meant of the into thin air variety. "Are you in here?" he asked, feeling a bit stupid.
There was a shuffling sound coming from the far corner, behind the screen Arthur'd had installed next to his bath after Merlin had gone because the chambermaids were unabashed oglers; at least when Merlin had done it, he'd had the good sense to be discreet about it, though Arthur wouldn't exactly have minded if he hadn't been. Arthur hadn't minded a lot of things when it came to Merlin.
From the gap between the bottom of the screen and the stone floor, Arthur noted with startlement a pair of human feet. His sword was in the other room, but he couldn't very well let this trespasser out of sight to go and get his weapon. Arthur picked up an empty brass ewer; one good swing was all he needed.
"Show yourself," Arthur demanded.
More shuffling. Then, "Er, I'd really prefer not to, if that's all right."
Arthur dropped the pitcher. He hadn't heard that voice in well over a year, but still it was unmistakable and utterly welcome, sweet and stirring as a hymn. He stalked forward and toppled the screen over, stunned into speechlessness by the sight that greeted him. And even if he had been capable of speech at that very moment, he wouldn't have even known where on earth to start.
There Merlin stood, stark naked.
It was like taking a cannonball to the chest, the deep ache that pierced his heart, as Arthur came to terms in an instant with just how much he had missed Merlin, and it left him wanting for breath. Arthur stared helplessly.
Merlin was snow-white as ever, where his blush didn't reach, and wiry; the way the dim candlelights played in flicker and shadow across his body suggested he had picked up a bit of muscle since. His hair was longer, unruly and curling into his eyes and under his ears, and he'd grown a soft, short beard that would have looked really good, except there was a purplish bruise flowering over Merlin's right cheek.
"What happened to your face?" Arthur asked when he managed to stop his heart leaping for long enough to find his voice. It wasn't really the question he needed answered the most, but as his brain had just only recently begun functioning again, it was best to start with small things and work his way up.
"Hm?" Merlin said, as his face was probably the least of his worries at present. "Oh. Smacked into the door trying to get out." He clicked his teeth together in an expression that fell somewhere between a smile and a grimace. "Look, er, sire," he said, and it sounded weird from disuse, "could you perhaps lend me a sheet or something?"
"Right," Arthur said, glad to have something to do or else he might have disgraced himself just staring slack-jawed some more. Arthur looked around futilely -- the chambermaids were distressingly thorough -- and clasped a hand over Merlin's shoulder to lead him into the bedroom, just to keep him in sight. From his wardrobe, Arthur produced a set of nightclothes, which Merlin slipped on gratefully.
"Mm, how are you?" Merlin asked inanely, fiddling with the hem of his nightshirt.
Arthur levelled him with a heated look. "How am I? How am I? You should bloody well know, Merlin; you've been parading around here as a cat all this while, and -- and spying on me, and letting me think that you -- you --" He gestured wildly, losing steam, unable to focus on shouting at Merlin because there was that ache again and shouting at Merlin wasn't the thing he wanted to do at all. "Oh, for god's sake, come here," he rasped, striding forward, and planted his hands on either side of Merlin's face and kissed him.
Whatever Merlin had expected from the end of Arthur's diatribe, apparently it was not this. He stiffened for a second and opened his mouth to speak, but Arthur, who knew well Merlin's penchant for unnecessary talking and was quite skilled at risk analysis, decided this was a perfect opportunity to gently suck Merlin's lower lip between his teeth. Words disintegrated in Merlin's throat as he opened up to Arthur, leaving a soft moan hanging in the air, and it was a beautiful thing.
Arthur drew back after a while, playing with the hair at the nape of Merlin's neck before sitting down at the table and gesturing for Merlin to do the same. Merlin flopped into the proffered chair, all limbs, and Arthur wondered how he'd managed to reconcile all that mess with the easy grace with which he'd moved as a cat. He realised there was something seriously wrong and yet perfectly sensible about all those words strung together at once, but that was Merlin in a nutshell, really, who managed to take all his absurd qualities and fashion them into an oddly remarkable whole.
"Well. Now would be a good time to explain --" Arthur gestured vaguely "-- everything."
"Er," said Merlin, at a loss.
"Perhaps we could start with the fact that you are a cat."
"Well, not permanently."
Arthur looked him up and down. "That has been established."
"It's a potion. I learnt how to do it last year, and I thought -- I just wanted to check in on you. See if you were all right," Merlin said earnestly, and sighed. "It wears off after a while, though, which is why I never stayed. Until you trapped me in here."
"It's not my fault you didn't have enough foresight to expect that all the windows and doors would be kept closed in the middle of winter, Merlin," Arthur said pointedly. His jaw shifted as he tried to work out what to say next; the list seemed endless. "What if someone had seen you? You shouldn't have come back," he said, and tried to mean it, but there was no denying how much lighter he felt now that Merlin was here.
"I know," said Merlin, and proceeded to completely miss Arthur's point. "It only made it harder to stay away after that."
"I meant --" Arthur began, and then decided not to argue it after all, because it was clear that whatever the consequences, Merlin would always find a way back to him, in some way, shape or form. Literally. The thought made his cheeks feel a bit heated. "Well. I suppose your utter failure at thinking things through isn't without its merits this time," he said, and the slow grin he received in return told him that Merlin had correctly interpreted the statement as I missed you, too, not that him kissing Merlin hadn't gotten the point well across already.
"Still," Arthur went on, "couldn't you have turned yourself into something -- smaller -- to try and get out of here? A rat or something?" He felt his moorings on reality unravel a little, voluntarily participating in a conversation about magical metamorphoses.
"I can't change into things at will, Arthur. Besides, do you know how difficult it is to turn yourself into a cat in the first place?"
"I can't say it's ever crossed my mind."
"Very," Merlin said. "And -- well, as I said, there's a potion; I can't do it with just spoken magic. And cats don't have pockets."
"I suppose that explains the nudity as well."
Merlin looked down self-consciously. "Er, yeah. I hadn't planned for you to see that, obviously."
Arthur leaned forward, his knees bumping into Merlin's. "Well, considering all the times you secretly ogled me while I was having my bath, I'd say fair's fair."
Pink tinged Merlin's face and his eyes went a bit wide, though he declined to say anything.
"But I understand if you couldn't help yourself," Arthur went on loftily, "in the face of such a stunning display of perfect manhood."
That earned him a massive eye-roll, though Merlin's eyes were full of laughter when they came to rest on him again. "Would you and your colossal ego like to be alone, your highness?" Merlin asked obsequiously, standing as though about to leave, though of course he had nowhere to go.
"Tempting," said Arthur, as his fingers closed over Merlin's wrist. "But I'd much rather you stayed."
The kiss, when it came, spoke to everything they didn't need to say. They understood one another, as perfectly as the way their lips met and their hands touched and their bodies moved, two halves of a whole. Arthur fisted a hand in Merlin's hair, their warm breaths mingling and hearts soaring, and Arthur wondered why they had never dared before when they were so obviously made for this.
Later, when Merlin found himself naked for the second time that night, he didn't seem to mind too much.
Much later, well before dawn, they found an old, black cloak of Arthur's that settled like the night sky over Merlin's shoulders, and together they snuck through the long shadows in the courtyard. Arthur said goodbye to Merlin at the edge of the woods, promises heavy on their lips.
A few days passed before Arthur received word from Merlin again, when he did himself a mild injury pulling his boots on, a sharp corner of Merlin's letter stabbing his sole. Along with this, a small parcel at the foot of his bed, which contained a multitude of small bottles filled with truly odious-looking contents.
Dear Arthur, DO NOT DRINK THESE.
Arthur frowned, insulted. Of course he wasn't going to just ingest mysterious little vials of green gunk for no reason.
They are for me, so I can leave more inconspicuously next time.
The cat potion, clearly. Arthur fingered one of the vials and very briefly wondered what kind of cat he'd make. He decided he never wanted to know, especially not if any of that stuff had to get anywhere near his tongue. Admirable of Merlin, really, to put himself through this all the time for Arthur's sake, but that was Merlin through and through.
Not to be presumptuous, but I made a double batch. By the way, you're not doing anything important tomorrow night, are you?
Arthur smiled widely.