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Practice Makes Perfect

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Arthur is surprisingly all right with Merlin having magic. In fact, Merlin thinks he’s a little bit too okay with it.

The secret had come out during a ride in the woods - seriously, Merlin hates the woods, his life would be so much better if they didn’t exist - when a rockfall tried to kill Arthur. Merlin supposes that’s ironic, given how falling objects tend to save Arthur rather a lot, but at the time he really didn’t appreciate the irony. He was too busy knocking the boulders away from the prince’s fragile head, and then kneeling at Arthur’s feet and pleading for forgiveness and clemency.

“I won’t tell anyone,” Arthur had said, awkwardly patting a terrified Merlin’s shoulder. “It’s all right, Merlin, it’s fine – I’ll keep you safe, I give you my word, all right?”

Merlin had maybe cried a bit and Arthur had hesitantly told him not to be a wimp and then shoved Merlin away when Merlin tried to hug him.

It’s definitely nice, now, knowing that he has Arthur’s trust and protection even though Arthur knows about his magic. Merlin feels so much less alone. Sometimes he looks at Arthur and just starts grinning hugely because Arthur has accepted him, completely, magic and all. It’s so nice that you’d think Merlin would never, ever regret revealing his magic to the prince.

You’d be wrong, because now Arthur makes Merlin train with him all the time.

*****

Arthur starts dragging Merlin into the woods for ever-more-frequent “hunting trips”. Once they’re far enough from any form of civilization, Arthur stops putting up a pretence of hunting fuzzy animals and starts hunting Merlin instead.

“I don’t think this is a good idea!” Merlin says the first time, dodging Arthur’s sword.

“Look, Merlin, not all sorcerers will be as incompetent and harmless as you,” Arthur says.

(Merlin decides to translate that to “protective and loyal” and take it as a compliment.)

Therefore,” Arthur continues, “I need to learn to protect myself against magic. Which I can only do if you attack me with magic. So go on.”

“No!” Merlin has to skip away from Arthur’s sword again. “I’m not very good at controlling it, okay? I might actually hurt you. Stop it, I’m being serious!” he yelps as Arthur swings the stupid sword yet again.

Arthur rolls his eyes and sheathes the sword.

“You’re not going to hurt me, Merlin, I’m very capable of defending myself from your uselessness.”

Merlin huffs in outrage, and points out, “Then why do you need to train with me?”

“Merlin,” Arthur says, then. He steps forward, into Merlin’s space, and puts heavy hands on Merlin’s shoulders. “We’ll stay away from lightning and fireballs for now, all right? But,” Arthur continues – over Merlin’s loud shriek of, “For now?” – “I trust you. You won’t hurt me.”

“I won’t mean to,” Merlin protests. “But – ”

Arthur covers his mouth with one hand. “And,” he continues, “I won’t hurt you. Not by accident or for fun or because you accidentally hit me with a fireball. I’ll be careful.”

“I know that.”

“Good,” Arthur says, as if obviously all the issues with his horrible plans have been cleared up. “Come on, let’s figure out how I counter that blasting move you do.”

They figure out that Arthur can hide behind solid objects, try to distract the sorcerer (usually with his sword), or otherwise break his concentration (“I cannot believe you fell for the ‘behind you’ trick, Merlin, are you really that dense?”).

When Arthur finally convinces Merlin to start throwing fireballs, Merlin spends an hour enchanting his shield and armour first. Once Merlin’s done with them, they both repel fire. Merlin still insists Arthur learn to recognize how the spells are cast, so he can dodge instead of blocking unless absolutely necessary. Soon, Arthur can “kill” Merlin every time by getting his sword up to Merlin’s throat without risking severe injury.

*****

“What next?” Arthur asks, after he’s become quite proficient at fighting back against all the offensive spells Merlin knows.

Merlin remembers the times he’s been immobilized by magic, and learns that spell to use on Arthur. He expects Arthur to be reluctant to let him – there’s a difference, after all, between attacking Arthur but leaving him free to defend himself, and stripping him of all his power and putting him entirely at Merlin’s mercy. But Arthur just nods and motions for Merlin to go through with it.

Merlin sits around for fifteen minutes watching a completely motionless Arthur before he lifts the spell around Arthur’s face, allowing him to speak.

“Are you even trying?” Merlin demands.

“Of course I’m trying, but this is impossible!” Arthur cries.

Merlin taps his chin and says, “Maybe you just need proper motivation. I could slather you in honey and put you over an anthill,” he proposes.

Arthur’s eyes narrow. Merlin thinks a finger twitches. He keeps going.

“I could braid your hair like a girl’s, and put flowers in it. Or, I could eat all the sweets you’ve brought with us, one by one, as you watch!”

“I can put you in the stocks,” Arthur threatens.

“Not from there,” Merlin smirks.

He’s pretty sure Arthur breaks the spell at that moment just for the fun of pushing Merlin’s face into the dirt.

*****

The next time Merlin saves Arthur’s life, Arthur actually notices. He gives Merlin a quick nod, because there are many people around, including knights and guards and Arthur’s father. But when they’re alone – well and truly alone, and safe behind the closed and locked door of Arthur’s chambers – Arthur immediately turns to Merlin.

“How many times over do I owe you my life?”

“I’ve stopped counting,” Merlin admits.

He takes Arthur’s armour off in silence, readies the prince for bed. Arthur grabs him before he can leave.

“I know you,” Arthur says, “And I know you aren’t doing this for thanks, or praise, or reward – but, Merlin, thank you. You are the bravest, most selfless man I know, and when I am king, you shall have any reward you choose. And while I am prince, any that is in my power to give to you.”

Merlin can’t help himself.

He hugs Arthur, burrowing his face into a large shoulder and squeezing tight arms around his prince. Hesitant arms rise around Merlin when he whispers into Arthur’s ear, “All I ask is that you stay alive.”

*****

When Merlin tells Arthur about all the times Arthur’s been enchanted, Arthur decides he’s going to learn to fight that, too.

“I’m not sure that’s even possible,” Merlin says.

“Well, it’s going to be,” Arthur insists. “I’m not marrying a troll.”

So Merlin makes love potions for Arthur to try to fight. At Arthur’s insistence, he makes them so Arthur will fall in love with him. (“How else would we test it, Merlin? I won’t play with some innocent girl’s heart by falling temporarily in love with her.”)

They take an extended hunting trip. Each of the potions will last for 24 hours, so once they make camp at a very far away location, Arthur will take one each morning and try to fight it all day, while Merlin allows Arthur to bestow his attentions unhindered.

“But,” Arthur says, “If I anything to make you uncomfortable or scared, if I try to - to lay an unwanted hand on you, Merlin – just knock me out until it’s worn off.”

Merlin agrees, they shake hands, and Arthur drinks the contents of the first little vial.

“This is a horrible idea,” Merlin mutters.

*****

The first time, enchanted Arthur is very clingy.

As soon as he recovers from the initial shock of the potion, he pulls Merlin close to his chest. “Merlin,” he says, happily, burying his nose in Merlin’s hair, just behind his ear, and inhaling deeply.

“Arthur,” Merlin squeaks. He thinks, perhaps, he’s about to regret everything he agreed to very shortly. If Arthur is already this … enamoured… what will he be like in a few hours? This evening? Tonight?

But over the next few hours, Arthur merely cuddles Merlin. His arms remain around Merlin’s waist and shoulders, his hands respectfully at or above Merlin’s waist, and he complains every time Merlin lifts his head from leaning against Arthur’s. When Merlin complains that he’s uncomfortable, that the hard ground is hurting his bottom to sit on, Arthur pulls Merlin into his lap. He pets Merlin’s hair for almost an entire hour.

Once Merlin realizes Arthur isn’t going to try to jump him, he relaxes into the cuddles. Merlin will never admit this - not that he’d have anyone to admit it to, because it’s not like Arthur will ever allow this to be discussed - but it’s very nice. He snuggles a bit closer into Arthur’s chest and lets himself enjoy the petting.

Eventually, Merlin’s stomach starts rumbling and he insists Arthur let him up to make food. Arthur objects initially, and only lets Merlin up when Merlin agrees Arthur doesn’t actually have to let go of him. It’s much slower work to make stew when Arthur is cuddling him. Merlin struggles to keep Arthur’s hands away from the knife he uses to cut up the meat that not-enchanted Arthur hunted earlier, and Arthur away from the hot pot and flames. It’s annoying, but when Merlin gets to stand in the circle of Arthur’s arms and lean back into his chest as he stirs the simmering stew, it’s surprisingly nice.

Merlin manages to convince Arthur to remove an arm long enough to spoon stew into his own mouth, rather than Merlin having to feed him.

When the sun starts to go down, Arthur asks, “Can we go to bed now?”

Arthur doesn’t let Merlin get in his own bedroll, instead wrapping Merlin up in his arms and covering them both with Arthur’s blankets.

“Are you comfortable?” Arthur asks solicitously.

“…I’m fine,” Merlin says, and they go to sleep chest to chest, breathing each other’s air, noses brushing.

*****

As expected, the spell has worn off by the time Arthur wakes up. Merlin - who has maybe been awake for a few minutes, possibly an hour, enjoying the last of this tactile display of affection - expects to be shoved roughly away, but apparently Arthur is sleepy and mellow, because he just looks into Merlin’s face - mere inches away - and says, “I take it I didn’t succeed.”

“Not quite.” Merlin can’t quite hide his smirk, either.

“Was I … respectful towards you?” Arthur checks.

“Very,” Merlin assures him. “I was like your well-beloved teddy bear.”

Arthur blushes, much to Merlin’s delight. “I’m sure you were good at being an inanimate object,” he says.

“Excellent,” Merlin agrees.

Arthur scowls. “Shall we try again?”

Merlin offers him the small leather pouch filled with variously sized and shaped vials, all containing differently coloured liquids. Arthur picks out a small green one without hesitation. Arthur is awful.

Arthur downs the contents of the second vial in a single swallow. He blinks slowly several times.

“So?” Merlin asks.

“So…” Arthur drawls, leering. He takes a large step forward into Merlin’s space. Merlin quickly steps back.

Arthur moves forward again, until Merlin is backed up into a tree and Arthur is standing mere inches away, Arthur’s arms bracketing him and trapping him in place.

“Well, you’re forward today,” Merlin says, nervously.

Am I?” Arthur asks. He leans in so their noses are practically touching and Merlin can feel Arthur’s lips shifting to form the words.

“Ye-es!” Merlin says, the word turning into a squeak when Arthur’s hands start exploring. Below Merlin’s belt. If you know what Merlin means.

When Arthur starts nibbling Merlin’s ear, Merlin decides that’s enough.

His eyes flash gold and Arthur falls back, unconscious.

Merlin straightens his trousers and dries his ear and makes himself a promise he definitely won’t keep to not think about this experience late at night when he’s bored and alone.

*****

At first, the third love potion seems to have much less of an impact on Arthur. He acts nearly normal: he compliments Merlin’s cooking and merely beams a little brighter than usual when Merlin smiles at him. He even shoves Merlin a little, laughing delightedly when Merlin pushes back.

And then Merlin goes to collect more firewood for their campsite, ordering Arthur to stay where he is. (Merlin doesn’t have high enough confidence in enchanted-Arthur’s competence to let him wander about in the forest.)

When Merlin returns with the wood, he finds Arthur sitting in the dirt looking utterly desolate, with - are those actually tear tracks on his cheeks?

Arthur leaps to his feet upon seeing Merlin. “My love! You returned!”

Merlin only just manages to throw the firewood on the ground before he is enveloped in a desperate, crushing embrace. Arthur squishes their faces together and whispers, “I missed you so much.”

Merlin awkwardly pats Arthur on the back. “Missed you too?” he replies.

Arthur finally lets go and Merlin picks up the logs and starts tidying the campsite.

Arthur’s need for Merlin’s attention strikes again when Merlin is making dinner. Merlin is paying attention to chopping vegetables, and ignoring Arthur’s self-aggrandizing story about a tournament he’d won, when he realizes Arthur has stopped prattling and been quiet for a few minutes.

“Arthur?” Merlin asks.

“Am I boring you, Merlin?” Arthur has, sarcastically, asked Merlin this question a number of times. This time is very different, however. This time Arthur sounds incredibly sad. Broken-hearted, even. He looks at Merlin with huge, wounded eyes.

“No, of course not!” Merlin says. It’s very unconvincing, because listening to Arthur’s dumb stories is the worst part of Merlin’s job sometimes. Arthur looks even more hurt. “I love hearing anything you have to say, Arthur,” Merlin tries again.

Arthur considers this for a minute, then brightens immensely.

“So then,” he continues, “I fought a knight from Mercia…”

Merlin doesn’t realize how far Arthur’s newly developed (okay, newly heightened) need for attention goes until night falls, however. In the darkness, Arthur cannot see Merlin or tell whether Merlin is giving him any attention. As Merlin tries to go to sleep, Arthur whispers, “Merlin?”

“Yes?”

“Are you still there?”

“…Yes.”

“Stay there, okay?”

“Okay.”

Arthur repeats the same conversation every five minutes for the next half hour or so. So the next time Arthur asks, Merlin cuddles up with Arthur, putting an arm around his shoulders and pulling him against Merlin’s chest. “I’m right here, and I’m not going anywhere,” Merlin promises. He kisses Arthur’s temple. “Now go to sleep.”

*****

The fourth potion makes Arthur fall in love with the first living thing he sees, which is a tree, and Merlin has to knock him out again before he gets splinters somewhere very uncomfortable.

Under the influence of the fifth potion, Arthur refuses to keep his pants on for more than five minutes. He doesn’t actually do anything. He just seems to think that the sight of his dick alone should entice Merlin. He’s too confused to be offended when Merlin fails to be awed.

The sixth potion makes Arthur want to court Merlin by giving him presents. Since they’re in the forest, his gifts include ripe berries (which he tries to feed Merlin by hand) and animals that the prince slaughters. He also gives Merlin his thick red cloak, which Merlin is not ever giving back, thank you very much.

Finally, a few hours after he drinks the seventh potion, Arthur calls Merlin a hideous clotpole and then beams and says, “I did it!”

“Congratulations,” Merlin says sourly. “You didn’t have to be so mean about it.”

They head back to Camelot that night. Merlin is only sort of glad Arthur is back to normal. He’s missed Arthur’s usual personality - but he’s also going to miss certain parts of this experiment. The hugs, the compliments, the open affection … Merlin has greatly enjoyed that, but he knows Arthur wouldn’t ever treat him that way without the influence of a potion.

*****

Back in Camelot, Merlin finds the next few weeks very confusing.

Sometimes he catches Arthur looking at him in a way he recognizes from Arthur’s time under Potions 1, 3, and 6 - that is, as if Merlin’s the most important, precious thing in his world. Merlin always blushes and looks away quickly, and when he looks back the expression has vanished from Arthur’s face and Arthur is ordering him to complete some menial chore.

More frighteningly, once in a while something about Arthur’s eyes reminds Merlin of the brief moments Arthur spent under the second love potion, before Merlin decided the prince was being far too forward and knocked him out. Merlin tends to flee Arthur’s presence as quickly as possible on these occasions, because Merlin is absolutely unsure what to do with looks of desire being directed at him.

Merlin considers the possibility that it’s some lingering effect of the potions, but research into Gaius’ books turns up no suggestion that this is possible. Also, he never catches Arthur trying to take his pants off at inopportune moments or attempting to make love to a tree, so all evidence points to the potions having worn off as expected.

So, clearly, it’s just a figment of Merlin’s imagination brought on by his wishful thinking, and he ought to ignore it until it goes away. Right?

At least, that’s what Merlin thinks until Arthur kisses him.

After the first glorious moment - during which Merlin kisses back enthusiastically, Merlin pulls away.

“But,” he splutters, disbelieving, “There aren’t any potions left! What are you doing?”

Arthur grins and slides his arms around Merlin’s waist, pulling him closer. He seems to find Merlin’s response very amusing. “I don’t need a potion to like you, Merlin.”

Merlin’s brain stutters and he stares at Arthur’s - very nearby - face for a long moment. “Er - perhaps I should make you an antidote anyways? Just in case?”

“You seem to have forgotten - I can fight off love potions now,” Arthur reminds him. His eyes are sparkling with glee. “I kissed you because I truly find you adorably odd-looking, hilariously clumsy, and stupidly clever, and I like you, and I would like to kiss you again, unless you have any objections?”

“Er,” Merlin says, which is not an objection. Merlin may be startled and confused and speechless, but he definitely does not object.

Arthur leans in again, and Merlin makes his lack of objections very clear.