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Title: Falco Columbarius
Author: [livejournal.com profile] serotonin_storm
Fandom: Merlin
Rating: PG
Character/Pairing: Arthur/Merlin
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Word Count: 2700 words
Summary: It was the winter after Merlin's disappearance that Arthur first noticed the falcon.
Notes: A heartfelt thanks to [livejournal.com profile] oxoniensis for the beta!

Arthur was in high spirits, lazy with the midsummer heat and strong wine, the day Merlin vanished.

He'd always loved the summer. He loved its sunshine and long days, the plentiful game and trips to the lake. Even when it became too unbearably hot to trap himself in his chainmail, summer put Arthur in a favourable mood.

Merlin, however, was not similarly inclined.

He sweated like a pig. It really was too good.

"Problem, Merlin?" asked Arthur, biting into a delicious strawberry and watching sweat trickle down the back of Merlin's neck onto his already soaked scarf. Why Merlin was wearing the ridiculous thing in this heat was beyond him. In fact, why Merlin wore it at all was a great and terrible mystery.

"Oh, bugger off," muttered Merlin as he fitted Arthur's bed with a sheet.

"Excuse me?" Arthur said, in a giving frame of mind.

"I said nope, no problems," Merlin lied cheerfully.

Arthur smiled lazily, sinking lower on his chair. "Good. I will be in need of service at the feast this evening, Merlin," he said. After all, what good was a feast if one couldn't use it to torture one's manservant? Merlin was fun when he was put-out.

Merlin frowned, abandoning a bed that was clearly not satisfactorily made. "You won't."

"I will."

"You won't."

"I will," he said, smirking. "Properly outfitted service."

Scowling, Merlin said, "And here I thought the job of a prince was to make his people happy, and act chivalrous and noble, and the like. Not order them around in unnecessarily embarrassing situations for a laugh."

"You're hardly people, Merlin."

"Oh, oh!" Merlin sounded affronted. "Pray tell, what am I, then?"

"Well," Arthur said, "judging by the state of your chambers, mildly intelligent wildlife."

"Funny, you're a funny man."

"I am quite hilarious, Merlin," agreed Arthur. "It's all part of being crown prince, you'll find. Now, fetch me some more fruit."

"Crown prat, more like," Merlin said under his breath as he left the room.

That was the last anyone heard of him.

--

Arthur sent search parties one after one. Each returned empty-handed.

One day well into autumn, there was talk of a corpse in the forest. Arthur sent men to retrieve it but stayed behind himself, unsure what kind of leader he'd be faced with Merlin dead and cold on the ground. He waited, staring out over the courtyard as the body was recovered and carried to the castle.

The corpse his men held between them as they came into view was wrapped in a thick, white cloth, but Arthur could see already that it was the right size. He bit his lip hard, tasting blood, and tried to remain calm as he waited for the report.

One of his knights broke off from the rest. "Sire," he said, approaching Arthur hesitantly.

Impatient and fearing the worst, Arthur said, "Yes?"

"It was the innkeeper's son, Sire," the knight said. "He was a frail fellow, just keeled over."

"I'm sorry," Arthur said respectfully. He was sickly relieved at the news, and guilty with it.

He sent out another search party.

Morgana said to him once, "Arthur, you're being ridiculous. What if he just... left?"

"Merlin wouldn't do that!" Guinevere had protested, heartfelt. Arthur couldn't answer through his fury, because Merlin was a dunce and a clown, but he wouldn't. He would not just leave without saying goodbye unless he was in trouble, Arthur was sure.

He was sure.

Even so, Uther put a stop to the searches soon enough.

--

Life went on, of course. Arthur hired a new manservant, competent, small-eared and not nearly as fun to harass, and ignored the irrational pang of disappointment he felt every time he saw Gaius without Merlin.

--

It was the winter after Merlin's disappearance that Arthur first noticed the falcon.

It was a majestic creature: wings a greyish blue, tail feathers ink black, its eyes a startling gold. It perched on a tree branch just outside his window, tracking Arthur's movement through his chambers. Arthur cooed at it, feeling foolish even as he did so.

The falcon shifted on the branch, whistling in greeting. "Shoo," Arthur ordered, waving an arm threateningly.

The bird seemed amused at his attentions, hopping about on the branch in what Arthur felt was a rather graceless way. Giving one last call, it did as it was told and flew away.

Arthur could not help but hope that he might see it once again.

--

He did, in fact. One of his knights spotted it with excitement the very next morning. It was, after all, an unusual time of the year for falcons.

--

And there it was again, the following day. It watched him from its perch upon a windowsill, and Arthur would swear on Camelot itself that it chirped at the most inopportune moments purposefully just to make him stumble.

--

He saw it twice more after that, first observing a hunt -- loudly, the damn thing scaring off the rest of the wildlife -- and then soaring overhead as Arthur took a trip through town. It swooped low and took off with Arthur's favourite cloak while he was looking the other way, and left him to suffer winter's chill all the way back to the castle.

Arthur had reached the limit of his patience. Something would have to be done.

--

The falcon appeared a final time while Arthur was accompanying Morgana and her maidservant on their morning walk, as he was sometimes obligated to do. It soared from tree to tree, never more than an arm's length behind them.

Swearing, Arthur came abruptly to a halt. "That is it! I cannot take this any longer. That bird, it is -- the damn thing is following me. I swear it."

Morgana stopped as well, heavy skirts twirling about her ankles, and stared openly. She gave an incredulous half-laugh. "Surely you must be joking."

"The bird, Sire?" Guinevere chimed, face clouded with concerned.

"Yes. That bird," he said firmly, and pointed. The falcon trilled, shrill and piercing, in agreement.

"Why, that's mad," said Gwen, and Arthur heard Morgana stifle a laugh. The moment Gwen realized what she had said, her eyes went wide with horror. "That is to say, sire -- it is a very stressful time for us all," she hedged, "what with Merlin's disappearance. Not that you aren't calm, of course, you're very composed -- but not so composed that we don't know that you care, naturally. I mean -- I simply mean perhaps -- "

"Perhaps what, Guinevere?" He threw up his arms, frustrated and angry and half afraid he was mad. "Perhaps I am imagining falcons in my grief?"

"I apologize, Sire," said Gwen, inclining her head respectfully. She was the picture of loyal servitude, and yet Arthur could very nearly feel her dismissal. He felt a stab of longing for Merlin's idiotic enthusiasm. But now was not the time for that. Merlin would return, but at the moment, Arthur had matters to which he had to attend.

Namely, the infernal bird stalking him.

He turned on his heel, levelling the falcon with his finest, most terrifying glare, straight from Uther's extensive repertoire. He gazed straight into the falcon's gold, gold eyes, and the falcon looked back, cocking its head.

"I will rid myself of you, wretched creature," he told the bird. "If it is the very last thing I do."

The falcon, for its part, appeared unimpressed.

--

About one thing Arthur was certain: this was a very, very simple bird.

There he was, arrow point at its breast, and still the falcon did not move. "You moronic bird," he hissed, stupidly upset that he was about to meet his goal. Except that when Arthur had thought of this moment, he had assumed the bird would have the sense to fly away from its hunter.

He dropped his bow, aghast, as the falcon moved to a closer branch. "Have you no survival instincts to speak of?" he groaned.

The bird coasted over to him and landed a bit unsteadily on his shoulder.

A very, very simple bird, indeed.

--

The falcon would not leave after that. If he shook it from his shoulder, it returned to trailing him tree by tree, and the moment his guard dropped, it was perched upon his shoulder once again.

Secretly, he imagined it looked regal. Very secretly, of course.

"This is unhealthy, Arthur," said Morgana when she saw. Gwen pursed her lips and schooled her expression into something carefully sympathetic.

Uther was not any more pleased about the situation. "I do not even wish to consider what diseases you could get from that thing," he said, then ordered Arthur to find Gaius and ask him just that.

"You're more trouble than you're worth," said Arthur to the bird. It voiced its disapproval loudly into his ear.

The physician was not in his chambers, nor about the castle. Arthur eventually located him as he returned from gathering herbs, very obviously worn out without Merlin's help.

"Ah, Gaius." He smiled, taking the baskets from the old man and carrying them into Gaius' chambers. "Just the man I wanted to see. My father -- "

"You wish to know about the Merlin," Gaius said, nodding tiredly.

"What about Merlin?" asked Arthur, too startled to protest being interrupted, and very nearly dropping the baskets of ingredients.

"The bird on your shoulder," Gaius said, "it is a type of small falcon." He waved dismissively, sitting hunched at a stool at his bench and reaching for a container of something foul looking. "It is called a Merlin."

And that is when Arthur knew.

--

He managed to contain himself until he was safely inside his chambers, at which point he spun sharply and dislodged the weight upon his shoulder.

At first he could only whisper it, squeeze the sound past the lump in his throat -- but he remembered so vividly, the worry and the confusion and the loneliness he would like to have denied, and he cried angrily, "Merlin!"

The bird settled on the back of Arthur's chair and bobbed its head.

"Merlin," he gasped, and a wave of relief that washed over him.

Merlin the falcon sang happily.

"You -- you -- " For a moment, he couldn't even speak, too infuriated to form a coherent thought past, He's alive. But the moment came and went, and he shouted in Merlin's direction, "You moron! You complete imbecile! You've been missing for nearly half a year, do you realize, Merlin? People had given you up for dead and gone. And all this time you've been flitting around, unconcerned about it all, haven't you?"

Merlin whistled in protest, but Arthur barrelled on. "And what took you so long to find me? You've been gone since summer! You could have been eaten, you know, or did you not even consider that?"

Arthur's own words caught up to him, then, and he went cold. He took a deep breath. Merlin flapped his wings in what Arthur could only assume was annoyance, and seeing him there, Arthur's anger paled. Because Merlin was here and alive, still reassuringly incompetent in whatever form.

There was one more thing Arthur needed to take care of, however. "I assume for you to be... so afflicted -- " He waved. " -- a higher form of treason than you normally indulge in must have been involved. Listen very carefully, Merlin, and commit it to your admittedly tiny bird brain: I do not need to know. I will take you to Gaius, and he will fix you."

Arthur had to believe that.

He found some satisfaction in the fact that Merlin had moved further away from him as he had yelled, but the very second Arthur's shoulders slumped, Merlin flew back over, landing on his knee and walking across his thigh, pressing close to his belly.

He sighed, too exhausted to make a proper fuss about it. "Familiar, aren't we, Merlin? There will be no hugging when you're my manservant again, let me be perfectly clear."

Merlin ruffled his feathers, and Arthur chose simply to pretend that meant yes.

There was only so much treason he could stomach in one day, after all.

--

What followed was one of the most awkward conversations of Arthur's life, for he could not simply tell Gaius that Merlin had magicked himself into a bird like an idiot, but he found he was remarkably poor at being subtle. Gaius was beginning to look at him like he was mentally afflicted.

"Fix Merlin," he said finally, exasperated.

Gaius grimaced. "Sire, the bird is not ill. I have examined it thoroughly. There is nothing wrong with the creature."

"No," Arthur said, gritting his teeth. "Fix Merlin."

"Oh," said Gaius, blinking. He took a closer look at Merlin, who preened. "Oh! Oh dear, Merlin." He glanced at Arthur, then down again, and added, "You may leave, Sire. The bird is in good hands."

Relieved, Arthur left.

--

Merlin did not reappear that day, nor to tend to him the next morning, and Arthur left for training with his knights in a state of repressed disappointment and worry. If Gaius could not fix Merlin... But Gaius would, he was certain.

He returned to his chambers frustrated and drenched in sweat, waving away his manservant's attempts to remove his armour. "Leave me," he barked, and the boy scurried away obediently.

"It's a relief to see you're still a bully, sire," came a voice from behind him. Arthur spun quickly, and sure enough, there was Merlin, sitting at his table with his head in his hands.

"It is a relief to see you still have no idea how to address your betters," he said, unable to keep his smile at bay.

Merlin grinned his ridiculous big grin right back at Arthur. He looked almost the same, though his hair had grown just long enough to cover the tips of his ears, and he had the beginnings of a beard now. "You coo at birds," he said, teasing.

"I have no idea what you're talking about, Merlin," he said. Then, "You will speak of that to no one."

"Don't want the kingdom to know you're a big softie?"

"I am not a softie," he protested. "I happen to like birds, that is all. That is not the issue," he interrupted before Merlin could reply. "You will explain to me what happened."

"Well, there may have been words involved," Merlin said sheepishly. "Birds can't exactly speak, I've found."

"You've... found," Arthur echoed darkly.

Merlin raised his hands in surrender. "Oi, don't look at me like that. Okay, maybe I didn't think it completely through. It all turned out all right in the end, though, didn't it."

"You were a terribly stupid bird," said Arthur, "who nearly got himself shot."

Merlin laughed. "I knew you wouldn't shoot me. You're a softie for birds. Anyhow, I could fly away if I had to. At the beginning I was unaccustomed to all the flapping, but it's really quite fun once you get the... hang... " He trailed off, shrugging.

"Terribly. Stupid," Arthur repeated.

"I'm a much better person," agreed Merlin, nodding as he stood.

"That is debatable." He watched as Merlin moved closer, much too close for comfort, and yet Arthur grabbed his sleeve when he made to turn away.

"You missed me," Merlin said, placing a hand on Arthur's shoulder.

"Yes," Arthur admitted grudgingly.

"I'm not going anywhere. You won't be able to get rid of me," he promised. He leaned close, breath warm on Arthur's cheek. "I heard we're two sides of a coin, you know."

"Merlin," whispered Arthur as he slid his hand to the back of Merlin's neck, "if you would kindly shut up..."

"Right," Merlin said, and kissed him.

--

Years later, Arthur would manage to inherit Camelot from Uther without any great Merlin-induced catastrophe, and Merlin would eventually, after a rough start or two, learn to become a falcon without getting trapped that way.

Arthur, of course, would approve. As someone once said, he was a softie for birds.
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