Title: Quickening Days
Wordcount: 22,174 (HOLY SHIT)
Notes: In which dragons & ghosts & prejudices are confronted, Merlin wears a hat (twice) and a dress (once), Arthur breaks some crockery (lots), there are more pranks than pillowfights but at least one of each, and many secrets are revealed.
This idea jumped me one day, sunk its teeth into my jugular and refused to let go until it was written. Apparently I have a burning need to contribute to the infamous fandom subgenre known as 'Merlin wears a dress'; I just didn't expect it to grow (and grow, and grow, and grow) an actual plot. For everyone who's wondering where the kissing is: it happens eventually! I promise!
This is the longest thing I have ever written in my entire life, and in a grand Antipodean fuck-you-too to the sudden proliferation of winter-themed fics in the fandom, it is a summer story.
The title is drawn from the fact that another name for the rowan tree is the Quicken. Bless you, Wikipedia.
"Arthur! Are you awake?"
As a person who had owned many dogs since childhood, Arthur knew how to encourage desirable behaviour through reinforcement, and so the day Merlin actually learned to knock, Arthur thought that he might do something nice for him. Something like...not immediately revising his plans for that evening's feast to include the feathery hat which, no matter what Merlin said, was still hilarious.
Today did not seem to be that day.
"I am now."
"Sorry," Merlin said, not looking it at all. "You should get up. Something's wrong with Morgana."
Arthur struggled upright, ignoring the abrupt chill in his stomach. "What do you mean by wrong?"
"She won't wake up."
"I'm afraid so."
Arthur groaned and rubbed at his face. "Right. Clothes, Merlin. For once let's pretend you're actually a competent manservant, shall we?"
Merlin must have been worried, because he didn't even bother to parry the insult; he just nodded and went to pull some clothes out of the wardrobe.
Gaius was still examining Morgana when they reached her room, and Arthur's father was looming at the foot of her bed with a stormcloud expression that Arthur knew well: the king wanted someone to blame. He prudently directed Merlin to one side of the room with a dig of his elbow, and they shuffled over to join Gwen.
"Anything?" Merlin asked her.
The girl shook her head; she looked pinched and worried, and her hands were folding and unfolding the fabric of her skirt. "No change, and Gaius hasn't said much."
Gaius looked up. "Guinevere."
"Yes." She hurried to his side immediately.
"Are you certain the Lady Morgana was feeling well last night? She did not complain of any headaches, or eat anything that might not have agreed with her?"
"No, she was fine, she was --" Gwen looked down and touched one sheet in a gentle gesture. "She was talking about what she wanted to wear to the feast tonight, telling me to make sure her red dress was clean. She was fine."
"All right. Thank you." Gaius straightened up.
"No, sire." Gaius shook his head. "I believe this to be a different affliction to that created by Edwin, if indeed it is an affliction at all. Her body has not closed down in any way, and she seems perfectly healthy, just --"
"Just?" Uther snapped.
"Asleep, sire. She's asleep. And dreaming, as far as I can tell."
As if on cue, Morgana's head turned on the pillow and an uneasy sound that might have been a word, might have been a sigh, came from her mouth. Arthur had the sudden urge to punch something.
"Well, then, wake her up."
"I can't, sire."
Gaius, Arthur felt, was being remarkably calm about the whole thing. He wasn't sure if he wanted to applaud the man for not letting Uther's agitation detract from his work, or charge forward and take him by the shoulders and shake an answer out of him. "You said it might not be an affliction at all. Will she wake up on her own, then?" he said.
"She may." But Gaius didn't sound very certain. "I admit, I am worried that I'm unable to rouse her, but there is always a chance her body is simply reacting to something and needs time to rest. She does not seem to be in any immediate danger, at least, sire." That last was directed back at Uther, who had begun to pace. "I will go and search through my books, but in the meantime, if someone could stay with her --"
"I will," Gwen said at once.
"-- thank you. Let me know immediately if her condition changes in any way."
"Good. Keep me informed, Gaius." The king nodded at Gaius and left, leaving the room feeling a great deal larger, and Gaius began to pack up his things.
"Can I get you anything?" Merlin asked Gwen, as she started to pull a chair across the room. "Have you had breakfast?"
"No. I mean, I -- I'm fine. But. Could you? That would be so kind."
"Right, I'll just --" Merlin started, but Arthur had already strode over to the door. Really, Merlin could be pathetically inefficient sometimes.
"Hello. You." He snapped his fingers at the nearest passing servant, who gave a startled but surprisingly elegant bow. Arthur blinked and then remembered that this was normal, and then wondered if he could somehow convince Merlin to start doing it. Unlikely.
"We need breakfast in here. For --" He looked back into the room. "Three?"
"Oh, no, please, you don't have to --" Gwen was saying, but Arthur ignored her.
"For three," he repeated firmly, "At once," and the servant bowed again, then turned around and walked quickly in the direction of the kitchens.
"Thank you, sire, but are you sure you wouldn't rather..." Gwen looked flustered and Arthur shrugged, wishing she wouldn't make such a fuss of it.
"We've got to eat somewhere. I was awakened by a very rude manservant and dragged out of my room without food this morning, and I'm starving. Merlin, go and clear off a table."
Arthur caught just a flash of the mocking face that Merlin made at Gwen, but in the same moment Morgana muttered something and her sleeping face creased into a frown, and by the time he'd finished catching his breath in the hope that her eyes would open, there didn't seem much point in starting an argument.
"Merlin," Gaius said from the doorway, "I'll need your help once you've eaten, please."
"Yes, all right."
Arthur settled himself in a chair and watched Gwen's easy bustle and Merlin's slightly less graceful efforts to help her. Years ago in his first real fight he had discovered what every soldier learns, which was that danger and battle-dust throw people together in a way that no peacetime friendship could ever match, and there had been something briefly glorious in the way the four of them had faced down Kanan's men. Something in the sure grip of Gwen's hand around a sword's hilt and the unladylike cries rising from Morgana's throat as her hair made dark untidy whips in the air, something about the way Merlin fought with little skill but fierce courage, that had made Arthur feel that maybe being King wouldn't be as lonely as all that. Not if he had people like this to rely on.
"Don't think too hard, there," said Merlin, "you wouldn't want to tire yourself out."
Arthur aimed a half-hearted kick at him as he walked past to collect the platters of food, but Merlin danced out of the way and laughed and really, even if one of them was asleep, Arthur felt too comfortable in the presence of these three people to care.
After their impromptu breakfast-party, the rest of the day seemed to drag: Merlin disappeared to help Gaius, Gwen stayed with Morgana, and Arthur spent some time destroying straw targets and wondering if there was any way he could get out of going to the feast. His father had refused to cancel it on Morgana's account, not wanting to alarm the court while they still weren't sure what was wrong or offend the visiting nobles in whose honour it was being held. But Arthur wasn't in the mood for anything associated with formal meals -- well. Almost anything.
"Arthur, no," Merlin whined. "Once was enough."
"Hat," Arthur insisted, cramming it onto his head.
Merlin opened his mouth in that slow way that meant he was about to say something even more blatantly insubordinate than usual. Arthur leaned closer, ducking feathers, and decided to fight dirty.
"That's an order, Merlin," he said in the most dangerous voice he could muster, and Merlin swallowed hard but didn't really look scared, just -- startled. His eyes fluttered shut for a brief moment, lashes crooked and dark against his cheeks, and for absolutely no reason that he could fathom Arthur found himself thinking about snow.
"It's just a stupid hat," Merlin said when he opened his eyes again, "and you're a madman," but he didn't take it off.
As far as feasts to honour visiting nobles went, this one was almost entirely unremarkable: the venison was good, the toasts were elaborate compliments woven through with political threats, and the guest of honour seated next to Arthur proceeded to talk his ear off about grain taxes and the perils of relying on seasonal export for a good hour before Arthur could excuse himself to mingle without seeming rude.
"Gwen!" He tried to sound lordly instead of desperate, but she was almost out of earshot in the crowded room and Arthur needed that alcohol right the hell now. "Gwen, for pity's sake --"
Gwen looked very amused as she watched him down a goblet in four long gulps. "Enjoying your evening, sire?"
"Oh, yes," Arthur said bitterly. He let the goblet clatter back onto her tray and picked up another. "Isn't it fortunate that I have such a deep and abiding interest in the effects of storage mildew on the price of barley. Where's Merlin? I bet he's hiding so I don't notice that he took the hat off."
"I think he's over near the musician's corner." Gwen swung the tray to avoid the alarming breadth of a passing lady's skirt, and looked at the drink in Arthur's hand. "The wine is quite strong tonight, sire," she said in the mildest possible voice.
"Thank you, Guinevere," he said; sternly enough that she got the point, but not unkindly. She tended to look out for Morgana in that way, and was much less subtle about it, and this was the first time she'd left her lady's side since that morning. Arthur was prepared to allow her the liberty.
Merlin was indeed hovering in the corner Gwen had indicated, and he had indeed managed to divest himself of both hat and cloak, but the look on his face as Arthur approached wasn't guilty in the slightest; it was frighteningly, transparently pleased. He took a few fast steps forward from the side of a woman in a green dress, and bowed deeply as Arthur walked up to him.
"My lord," he said as he straightened up. Arthur, taken aback, was about to say something sarcastic and approving when Merlin added, "Help!" in a frantic hiss, and then his face changed and he looked like Merlin again.
"Prince Arthur," the woman behind him trilled, and swept her way forward to curl a heavily-ringed hand around Merlin's arm. Merlin mouthed Help one more time; Arthur bit his lip and fought very hard not to howl with laughter. "Allow me to express my sincere admiration for the efforts your court has gone to on our behalf."
"You are too gracious, my lady." Arthur kept smiling and fuck, what was her name, she was the one with the puffy red hair piled up almost as high as her head again, probably a few years shy of Uther's age, and he'd completely forgotten her name two seconds after being introduced to her because Merlin had been blowing feathers out of his face and scowling in Arthur's peripheral vision.
Not unlike what he was doing now, in fact.
"Delightful food, and such elegant trimmings, and of course the other decorations are difficult to fault as well," and she -- was she -- she was actually stroking Merlin's arm. Arthur felt his own mouth give a helpless twitch, and Merlin's scowl became something between a glare and a pleading look, but the lady -- E, her name started with E, Ester, Emily, Emilia, that was it -- seemed to take Arthur's expression as some kind of encouragement, because she went on: "Your highness's manservant has been most attentive, and I hope you won't mind if I continue to monopolise his services. Such an obliging and handsome young man," she purred, looking at Merlin with a predatory expression that seemed to completely overlook the way he was practically vibrating with the desire to escape.
Arthur schooled his face into polite interest again and had time to take two steadying breaths before he realised that, oh holy buggering god, she was asking his permission.
"Er," he said helpfully.
"Yes?" Her hand was doing the stroking thing again.
Arthur allowed himself one long, wonderful moment in which he pretended to consider the request and Merlin made horrified NO NO NO motions, and then he gave his most charmingly apologetic smile.
"On any other night, Lady Emilia, I would be delighted to lend you my manservant's...services." He ignored the choking sound made by Merlin and continued. "Unfortunately, he has been most inefficient today, and I must insist that he returns to my chambers and finishes his assigned tasks before I allow him any leisure time."
"A pity." Lady Emilia let out a great sigh, and Merlin dragged his arm clear with a look of naked relief.
"Enjoy your evening, your ladyship. Merlin, come with me." Arthur nodded, turned on his heel and started to walk back to the high table. Merlin caught up with him before he'd taken three strides.
"You enjoyed that," Merlin said accusingly, and then shuddered. "Ugh, her hand, it was so -- wine, wine, I need," and he waved towards Arthur's goblet.
"You can't have mine, we'll get you another one," Arthur said, looking around for a servant. A normal servant, one who was actually doing their job and not being propositioned by noblewomen.
"No news of Morgana?" Merlin asked.
Arthur shook his head. "Gaius is with her. He'd come and tell us if anything changed." And Arthur didn't really want to think about Morgana, he'd been doing an excellent job of ignoring her absence, thank you very much, so he took hold of Merlin's arm and sat them both down at the high table and ordered a servant to bring wine. Lots of it. Bottles, if possible.
An hour later they were completely pissed, Uther was giving them very disapproving looks, and Arthur had discovered that while Merlin couldn't hold his wine at all he was surprisingly knowledgable on the subject of barley storage. It was all working out fine until Arthur got back to his chambers and discovered that he'd lost Merlin somewhere in the hallway. He sat down heavily on his bed and contemplated the tight lacings of his boots.
Or he could sleep in his boots. Absolutely. Soldiers did it all the time.
"Oops." Merlin entered the room in a manner that suggested he hadn't entirely meant for the door to fall open when he leaned on it, but he was glad it had.
"Boots," Arthur ordered, lifting one.
"Look!" Merlin displayed a small vial. "Prevents hangnail. Hangover. It's from one of Gaius's books, I made it last week as an experiment --"
"You made it?" Arthur said, dubious.
Merlin screwed up his face and it eventually fell into a wounded expression. "From a recipe. And it's just herbs and things. Not poisonous. I checked. Don't you trust me? Here." He tipped the vial back and took a long swig.
Arthur, who by this point was sobering up just enough to anticipate the next morning's headache, groaned and held out a hand. "Oh, fine, give it here."
It smelled like the foul teas that Gaius gave Arthur in winter when he caught a cold, but it had a spicy aftertaste that wasn't completely unpleasant.
"If I die," he informed Merlin, "I shall beat you myself. With a large stick."
"I wouldn't let you die," Merlin said, as though this was the most ridiculous thing in the world, and then he crouched down and stared intently at Arthur's boots for a while.
The boots came off, eventually, though the right one required such a violent tug that Merlin stumbled backwards and into a table. A blue bowl, some decorative pottery thing that Arthur had never used for anything but kept around because it had been a gift from some foreign princess or other, wobbled off the edge of the table and shattered. They winced in unison at the sound.
"Shit," Arthur muttered. "Okay, leave it. Tomorrow. Clean up tomorrow."
Merlin might have said something then, but Arthur's face had found a blissful angle in his pillow and he was falling asleep with a speed that was almost violent.
For a moment Arthur was, for the very first time, almost pleased at Merlin's inability to knock; he never appreciated having someone pound on his door the morning after he'd been drinking. But then he realised that his head was clear -- in fact, he didn’t feel in any way worse for wear. That elixir of Merlin's had worked brilliantly, and Arthur would make sure to congratulate him on this once he finished being properly annoyed about the lack of knocking.
Merlin closed the door behind him. "Are you awake?"
Arthur glared at him. "No," he said, but he wasn't quite awake enough for the full effect of the sarcasm to make itself known, and so he ended up just sounding uncertain.
Merlin looked startled, and fidgeted with his hands for a moment before saying, "Um, anyway, get up. There's something wrong with Morgana."
This time the look Merlin gave him was flat-out weird. "Worse than what? All I know is that there's something wrong," he said carefully.
"Worse than yesterday, Merlin." Arthur sat up and swung his legs over the bed. "Are you slower than usual today? Of course there's something wrong, we already knew that."
"Oh, thank god," Merlin said, and leaned against the closed door with a sigh of relief that left him looking slightly crazed. "I thought I was going insane all by myself. Look. Everyone else is acting like it's yesterday all over again, like Morgana only just fell asleep, it's crazy. They're saying exactly the same things and doing the same things and okay my memories of last night aren't exactly crystal-clear but I'm fairly sure that bowl was broken when I left the room."
Arthur followed his pointing hand and then the bottom plummeted out of his perfectly healthy stomach, because there was the bowl. On the table. Balanced and intact. Every part of Arthur's body seemed to tense at once in something that he wasn't prepared to admit was fear. Whatever this was, whatever was happening to him, it wasn't something he could overcome with a sword; so he did what he usually did when faced with something outside of his experience and control. He got angry.
"What's happening? What's causing this?"
"Don't look at me," Merlin protested. "I know as much as you do. And I really think the problem is with everyone else, unless we managed to have exactly the same prophetic hallucination."
Arthur thought about the previous day: Gwen's laughter and anxious looks during breakfast, the ache of his shoulder when he landed a blow at the wrong angle, the feeling of a goblet of wine hitting the back of his throat and the coherency of his mind in rapid succession. "No," he said firmly. "That day happened."
"Then why is it just us that seem to think so?" Merlin looked even more worried, but he left the vicinity of the door and walked over to the wardrobe, where he pulled out the clothes that Arthur had donned at the beginning of the definitely-yesterday. They were fresh and clean, and for the first time Arthur realised that he was wearing his normal nightclothes and not the feast garments in which he had fallen asleep. The knot of unease in his chest gave an unpleasant spasm. "We'd better hurry," Merlin said, laying the clothes out on the bed, "we need to be in Morgana's chambers so we can hear Gaius tell your father that she's asleep."
Arthur nodded and was mostly naked by the time he thought to ask, "Is that how it works, do you think? Do we need to do everything exactly the same?"
Merlin shrugged and turned to gaze fixedly out of the window while Arthur changed, because he was a girl sometimes. "Maybe. I'm playing it safe. If we're the only ones who have lived the day before --" and fuck, wasn't that a sentence that Arthur had never expected to hear emerging from someone's mouth "-- then we'd better react to everything just as we would. Did. You know."
That seemed to work fine, at least to begin with. The hardest part was trying to have exactly the same conversation with Gwen over breakfast; they kept remembering topics in the wrong order and blurting them out, but Gwen just seemed to think that they were worried about Morgana, so she didn't say anything beyond a brief sympathetic comment about how tense they were, and how she was sure Gaius would find something soon.
After breakfast, Merlin caught Arthur's arm in the corridor outside Morgana's room. "I think we're allowed to act differently. A bit. We screwed that conversation up royally and I ate my bread before my apple and nothing horrible happened, so..."
"Good." Arthur lowered his voice even further; this had been niggling at him ever since he heard Gaius pronounce his lack of diagnosis for the second time. "Do you think this whole thing has anything to do with Morgana's sickness? Some kind of curse, perhaps?"
"It’s possible." Merlin rubbed a hand at the back of his head. "There's someone I'm going to talk to, they might be able to help. I'll come and find you." And then he headed towards Gaius's rooms at almost a jog, before Arthur could ask about who he was planning to consult. This felt strange, the two of them conspiring against something unknowable and huge, but strange in a familiar way. Merlin might have been a poor excuse for a servant, but as a friend with whom to face down danger, he wasn't half bad.
Arthur really didn't want to repeat all the sword drills he'd gone through the previous day, but he decided to compromise by doing some archery practice in the same area of the palace grounds. He only got as far as hunting down a servant who wasn't completely inept and sending him out to set up the targets, however, when he was waylaid on his way to the armoury.
"My lord Arthur!" One of the palace stewards sketched a bow, and the young man behind him -- no, he was a boy, still in his teens -- did the same, though a moment too late. "This boy is from one of the villages just beyond Camelot, and he insists on speaking to you. I was going to tell him to come back another day, but since you're right here...perhaps you wish to hear what he has to say?"
Well, this was certainly new. But yesterday Arthur hadn't been walking past this door at this precise time. He fixed the boy with a suspicious glance; he had the same out-of-place air with which Merlin had arrived in Camelot.
"I don't suppose you're going to tell me that you have a remedy to cure all ills, are you?" Arthur demanded.
The boy blinked. "Um, no?"
"No, sire," said the steward reprovingly.
"No, sire." Ugh. Peasants. Did they train them in that expression of scruffy insouciance, in those tiny villages? "I'm here to request protection, sire. For my village."
"Protection against thieving murderous bandits, I suppose?" was Arthur's next guess. Well, if his life had decided to start repeating itself...
"No," the boy said, looking at Arthur as if he were slightly mad. He was just like Merlin, really, Arthur reflected with irritation. "Against the screaming ghost."
The steward gave Arthur one of those perfectly pitched glances that only the most experienced servants could manage. It said: I tried to get him to leave, and I wish to share a moment of disdain with you while simultaneously acknowledging that if were were to ever actually share anything of substance, I would let you have nine parts out of ten. As is only your due. Because you are the Crown Prince.
Arthur was fascinated, and wondered if he could order Merlin to take lessons in that kind of glance, because his manservant's repertoire seemed to consist of 'I'm confused', 'I think you're an idiot', and the slightly more complicated 'I know you're the Crown Prince and I still think you're an idiot, because apparently I like being thrown in the stocks'.
Arthur resurfaced. "What? Start again. A screaming ghost?"
Yes, as it turned out: the boy's village was like every other tiny village except for the fact that for one day every year a loud screaming was heard. It was as regular as the rains, and carried no other strange occurences with it, and as far as Arthur could make out some kind of story had sprung up around it, about a ghost who was doomed to haunt the nearby caves and only make its torment heard on this one day every year.
"How long has this been going on?" Arthur asked. The kid was in earnest, and this was hardly the most outrageous thing that Arthur had had proven very real to him in the last few months.
"A long time. Since before I was born." The boy had started dropping his 'sire's again. "And the ghost has never done anything to hurt the village, but this year the screaming has been happening more often, more and more often, and it's getting louder. Some people are saying that someone must have accidentally disturbed the ghost's bones, and now it's going to take its revenge on us all."
Arthur frowned. "And what, exactly, do you expect my men to do? Kill a ghost?"
The boy nodded, looking very relieved, and Arthur was spared from having to think up a good response to that when Merlin hurried up to them.
"Arthur, there you are," he said, earning a look of sniffy disapproval from the steward.
"I beg your pardon, Merlin?" Arthur raised his eyebrows.
"Oh. Sorry. My lord." Merlin swept on. "I think I may have found something related to that problem we were discussing earlier," He made an incredibly unsubtle come on, come on motion with his head, and Arthur considered punching him.
"I will inform my father of your situation," he told the boy. "I can promise no more. Where is your village?"
"A few hours' ride, due south-east. It's on the river. Thank you, sire," he added, and Arthur nodded to the steward.
"Show him out."
"At once, sire."
"What was that about?" Merlin watched the two of them leave.
"Something I might think about once we've sorted out this repeating day mess," Arthur said firmly. "One problem at a time. Now, did you manage to get some answers in between addressing me with complete disrespect?"
"Not exactly." Merlin looked unhappy. "But this -- person -- that I mentioned, well, he wants to meet you. I think he knows something about what's been happening to us, but he won't tell me unless you're there too."
"Who is this person?"
Merlin winced. "You're not going to like this."
Arthur looked at him, a horrible suspicion growing. "Merlin. Is this another sorcerer?"
Merlin winced again. "Just...wait until we get there, please. He'll explain. He said he'd explain."
So Arthur waited, and then couldn't decide which outrage to get angry about first: the fact that Merlin had made friends with the Great Dragon -- because clearly he had some kind of imbecilic blind spot when it came to magic -- or the fact that said dragon took one look at he and Merlin standing together on the disgracefully flimsy ledge and immediately leapt into a spiel about soulmates.
Arthur curled his hand around his dagger and forced his hot, fluid rage into something that would allow him to form sentences. "How dare you," he hissed, turning on Merlin, whose face seemed to be on the point of dissolving in its own tense misery. "My father imprisoned this monster so that it could serve as an example, not so that insolent, suicidal idiots could go behind their prince's back and have chats with it. I should have you thrown in the dungeons, do you even know -- did you even think -- how dangerous --"
Merlin's face was white in the light of his torch, which was shaking and guttering in his unsteady grip. "Arthur, I know, I -- look, you can do whatever you want to me later, but I think it knows something about what's going on, and what other options do we have at this point?"
Arthur turned back to the Dragon itself; it was, he had to admit, a much more intimidating target for his anger. But he was a Pendragon and he was going to be King one day and he would not be intimidated. "Did you do this to us? Is this some kind of foul magical trickery?"
There was a short silence and then the Dragon spoke in that low, amused tone. "Greetings to you too, Prince Arthur. Long have I waited to see your face. And fear not, young Pendragon -- I do not hold you accountable for the sins of your father."
"My father is the king and you will not speak about him in that manner, ow," as Merlin trod on his foot and made a desperate face.
"I am a prisoner of this circle as much as you are, young prince." The Dragon's tail did something alarming and the next instant Arthur's dagger was half-drawn on instinct, but the beast just settled itself into a new position on the rocks. "Which is no mean thing. We are under the influence of a very great Seer indeed."
"What?" Arthur heard himself and Merlin say in unison. Arthur recovered first.
"A Seer? But how did they -- and who is it? And why can we remember yesterday?"
The Dragon laughed. The sound set Arthur's teeth on edge. "The unravelling of this knot will be a great and important step in your journey together."
"It always does that." Merlin frowned. "Just when it's starting to be useful, it goes back to talking about intertwined destinies."
"How do I know you're not lying?" Arthur snapped at the thing. "Give me details. "
But the Dragon just laughed again and lowered its head onto its front legs in a pointed indication that this ridiculous interview was over. They were halfway up the stairs and Arthur was about to recommence the yelling when Merlin gave a deep sigh beside him.
"You're going to like this even less," Merlin said, "but I know who the Seer is."
Merlin stopped and took hold of both of Arthur's arms; Arthur was so surprised that some of his anger disappeared. "You can't talk about this to anyone," Merlin said urgently, "and please, please don't just explode, listen to me, because it's not simple and it's important that you understand that she doesn't have a choice."
"Morgana," Merlin blurted, and his fingers tightened almost to the point of pain, but Arthur barely noticed past the initial sudden sting. "It's Morgana. Think about it. You know she has nightmares, terrible ones, and now -- well, doesn't it seem like she's lost in one? Like her power isn't letting her wake up from whatever she's Seeing?"
"No. We don't know it's a Seer. I don't trust that dragon," Arthur said, leaning back against the wall, but his heart wasn't in it; for the first time since he'd woken up, pieces were grinding into place, and it made far too much sense to argue against.
"Arthur, I know this isn't what you want to hear." Merlin's fingers released their grip, but he kept one hand flat on Arthur's arm, possibly in some kind of misguided attempt at soothing him. The annoying thing was that it was working: Arthur couldn't quite gather his previous heat of anger, even with this new revelation to deal with. "But you know Morgana. You know she wouldn't do anything to hurt you, or Uther, or Camelot, or -- you." He looked about as serious as Arthur had ever seen him, and he was learning to listen to Merlin when he looked like that.
But…Morgana. Arthur felt like a large part of his world had been smashed to pieces like the blue bowl, and reassembled by a child with no skill for craftwork.
"She helped the Druid boy."
"So did we!" Merlin said. "And that had nothing to do with magic, and you know it. That was about doing what was right. Morgana is a Seer, and I think she's doing something to cause all of this, but I don't think she's doing it on purpose. She wouldn't."
Arthur took a deep breath and shoved it all down, somewhere tight and distant within himself, from which he could draw it out later and think it over. One problem at a time. "So what do we do now? We can hardly wake her up, not if Gaius couldn't."
"Gaius." Merlin dropped his hand finally and nodded. "We should ask him for help. He'll know what to do, if anyone does."
"And how exactly is that conversation going to work, Merlin? Hello, Gaius, you won't remember this, but this day has happened before."
A smile stole onto Merlin's face, and then he laughed, and after a moment Arthur found himself smiling too. Despite everything. "Well," Merlin said cheerfully, "it's worth a try."
Actually, Gaius only said, "What?" and then, "Go over that bit again," and then "Merlin, slow down," three or four times, and then sat down heavily and rubbed his forehead.
"You believe us?" Arthur asked, surprised.
"Well, as tempted as I am to accuse the two of you of getting into the wine that's been put aside for the feast --"
"No! Though, we did drink that wine. Yesterday. At the feast."
"-- thank you, Merlin, yes, I do understand what you're telling me. And I'm sure you have better things to do than concoct stories with which to waste my time, so I am left with no option other than to believe you. And yes, Prince Arthur," he nodded uncomfortably in Arthur's direction, "I believe the Lady Morgana to have the Seer's gift, though she herself is only aware of it to a very limited extent. All she knows is that she dreams dangers and sometimes they come to pass. You understand why I have kept this secret on her behalf." He looked at the table. "Your father's judgement is just and good in many areas, but magic is not one of them, and I fear he would react poorly and with no consideration for the Lady Morgana's own feelings and actions."
The shattered feeling was starting to curl through Arthur again; he waved a hand in curt dismissal of the topic. "I am not interested in discussing Morgana herself at this point. I wish to know what we can do, and what will happen if she doesn't wake up. Will the day repeat itself again? Why is it that only Merlin and I were aware of the true passage of time?"
"I'm afraid I have no answers for you on that score, unless..." Gaius looked at Merlin. "There are a very few plants that possess the ability to protect against some specific forms of magic. Have your diligent botanical studies managed to hammer any of this knowledge into your stubborn head, Merlin?"
"Um. I can't -- oh." Merlin's eyed widened. "Oh. Rowan berries." He turned the wide-eyed look on Arthur. "The potion we drank, it had rowan berries in it."
"Merlin." Gaius tapped his fingers against the table.
"I was practicing! Studying!" Merlin protested. "Like you keep telling me to! It was in one of your books of medicines, it looked easy, it was just to prevent hangovers."
Gaius sighed and stood up again, and went over to one of his shelves. "Rowan berries have very few uses in medicine; I use them in winter to help clear the nose and throat, but their taste precludes their use in cooking, and the current weather is too warm for colds. Little wonder that you two were the only ones whose minds retained the ability to experience reality in a straight line. Merlin, make yourself useful and boil some water, please."
Merlin hurried over to the fire and Arthur sat down and watched Gaius shake some dark berries into a saucer. "You're going to give some to Morgana?"
"No, this is for us. I'm not going to sit through Merlin's dreadful attempts at an explanation a second time -- besides, I suspect the hangover potion will have left your bodies by the end of tonight, so you'll wake up just as trapped as everyone else. I'm afraid rowan will be little help to Morgana if she is creating the circle."
"But we could give it to more people, surely?" Merlin called.
"No." Arthur looked at Gaius, who nodded. "Even if everyone is aware of it, we're still in the same day. The weather is the same, and everything was in the same spot when we woke up. The blue bowl, Merlin. Think about it. People would panic."
"Very good, sire." Gaius started to crush the berries with a pestle. "Better for us to keep quiet and see what we can do about fixing it. With any luck, nobody will ever know it happened."
"And in the meantime," said Merlin, bringing over a pan of water, "we relive the same day?"
"As far as possible." Gaius poured the berries in. "You two should go to the feast, just as you -- you did. I was planning to relieve Gwen and watch over Morgana, but I think I'll stay here and read some more. I might be able to find a precedent, and with any luck, a solution."
Which was how Arthur found himself, once again, talking Merlin into the full ceremonial outfit of the servants of Camelot.
"No. I wore it last time, I looked like an idiot, I'm sure it was hilarious for you, and I'm not wearing it again."
"You might destroy reality if you don't wear the hat," Arthur tried.
After a long pause, Merlin groaned and rubbed his forehead. "I can't believe we're in a situation where you can say that and I can almost take you seriously. No. We've been doing things differently all day, I refuse to believe that what I wear tonight would make any difference."
Arthur smirked. "You know, Lady Emilia might not be so keen on you this time. If you wore the hat."
Merlin put it on without another word.
The feast was even less fun the second time around. The speeches were the same, the food was the same, Gwen wasn't there, and Lady Emilia showed no signs of being deterred by a feathery hat. Arthur watched her watching Merlin, who seemed to be trying to avoid her by never standing still for more than ten seconds, and then took pity on his manservant's frazzled expression and beckoned him over.
"Stay here and talk about barley again, you were good at that," he ordered. "I'll distract her."
Merlin gave him a look of fervent gratitude. "Have I mentioned that sometimes you're a bearable human being?"
Arthur laughed and removed the hat from Merlin's head. "Sit. Hide. If she can turn into a simpering mess on your behalf, I'm sure she'll appreciate talking to someone who actually possesses a modicum of charm."
"That rules you out, then."
"Watch and learn," Arthur said airily, and strode in the direction of the fluffy red hair.
Insultingly, however, the Lady Emilia seemed delighted with Arthur's attempts at flattering small talk only because she believed him to be a sympathetic ear when it came to her effusive admiration of 'that dark-haired boy in the amusing hat who was around here a few minutes ago', and did Arthur know where he'd gone, and could Arthur possibly tell her who he was?
"Oh, he's nobody. A servant. Barely worth looking at." Arthur tried to take her arm and turn her to face the musicians, but the damn woman was like a donkey with its eye out for an elusive carrot.
"Such fine cheekbones, and such a dreamy smile," she rambled. "Don't you agree, Prince Arthur?"
This was the stupidest conversation Arthur had ever taken part in. He glanced quickly over at the high table and yes, all right, he supposed that Merlin's cheekbones were more pronounced than a normal person's cheekbones, especially when he was grinning like that, but there was no reason at all for the woman to lose her head over Merlin's bone structure when he was such a generally obnoxious person in every other respect.
"You can't have him," Arthur said, exasperated; he might as well save time, and he was sick of being charming. "And you're not his type. I suggest you try Sir Jerome's manservant, or possibly Sir Jerome himself. Excuse me."
He gave the fastest bow he'd ever given and high-tailed it back to where Merlin was sitting. "I told her you have a terrible venereal disease," he told Merlin, who coughed on a mouthful of water.
"I'm obliged to you, my lord. Can I leave this feast yet?"
"Yes, all right, off you go." Arthur tilted his head towards the door. "I'm going to make my excuses as well."
Merlin hovered for a moment before leaving. "Smash the bowl."
Arthur blinked, and then worked it out. "As a test?"
"If it's whole again tomorrow, we're still stuck in the same day." Merlin nodded. "Do you want my help? Now, I mean?"
"I'm not drunk this time, I think I'm capable of managing my own boots." Arthur waved a hand in dismissal and then went to tell his father that he'd come down with an awful headache.
It felt odd, standing in his chambers and deliberately dropping the bowl onto the ground, but satisfying as well; Arthur had been itching to destroy something for many hours. And as though the sound of breaking pottery was a cork pulled from the neck of a bottle, everything leaked out and started to swirl around in his mind again: the dragon, Merlin, Morgana, Gaius. Webs of secrets and magic that had been woven in his castle, without his knowledge, by the people closest to him.
Arthur was a long time in falling asleep.