Warnings: Possibly unsatisfying conclusion!
Chapter Eleven: Catharsis
Merlin drifted into awareness in complete warmth and comfort.
"You've been asleep for five days," Gaius said.
"I may have used a little too much of the sleeping draught."
That answered the question of why Merlin wasn't in a horrible amount of pain. There was still a faint throbbing from the very base of his back, right where the tail—
Merlin sat up suddenly and cursed the bad decision when his vision wavered.
If it were even possible, his eyes grew even wider. "Gaius, my voice—I'm not a cat!"
Gaius pulled a chair up next to the cot and settled down. "Arthur told me what happened, as much as he could. He couldn't say for sure how you got the scratches on your back, but he suspected it was an animal."
"A wolf," Merlin affirmed.
"He also said there was some underground chamber, and it suddenly caved in with no warning."
Merlin held Gaius' stare.
They both knew that "no warning" generally meant "magic".
Gaius sighed. "You're lucky there's not going to be any permanent damage. Your leg was nearly infected, but it's healing fine now." Gaius briefly placed a hand over Merlin's head, and Merlin could almost feel the way his cat ears would have twitched.
"There's someone else," Merlin remembered with a jerk. "There's someone else like me."
"I find it hard to believe there could be anyone else like you, my boy."
Merlin twitched at the dead-pan sarcasm. "Another person trapped as an animal," he said. "He helped Arthur find me."
"Are you certain?"
"Mostly," Merlin admitted, "But if I can talk now, and I have my magic—" His fingers flexed with the familiar sensation of warmth and power at their tips. "Gaius, I think I can change him back."
Gaius' hands tightened on the bedsheets. "Merlin, you can't be serious. You think it wise to go back there and blatantly use your magic on another person?"
"I won't," said Merlin. "I'll bring him back here. You can give him some of that god-awful sleeping draught."
Gaius' silence was enough for Merlin to know the plan wasn't terrible.
But then Gaius broke it.
"I wish you would have just stayed home."
Merlin winced at the quiet words, but he stuffed his guilt down when Gaius' hard grip turned into a gentle pat on Merlin's shoulder.
Gaius got up to let Merlin have his rest.
He paused in the doorway. "There's one other thing."
Merlin's back almost tickled at the ghost sensation of fur raising on end, but he met Gaius' steady gaze with a resolve of his own.
"Arthur believes a sorcerer cursed you into becoming a cat."
"I'm coming with you," Arthur repeated through gritted teeth.
"I'll only be gone for a week," Merlin said. "Your men have already cleared that trail five times over."
"Yeah, well we both know how capable you are at finding trouble. Besides, Morgana is still out there, somewhere."
Merlin huffed, but he caught the way Arthur's eyes slid over his shoulders, where the tips of fresh pink scars were no doubt peaking out from under Merlin's neckerchief.
Just another set to add to his collection.
"Did you mean what you said to Morgana?" Merlin asked.
Merlin's grip on his reigns tightened, but he held Arthur's eye contact. "That the people of Camelot would be judged on their actions, not their magic?"
"Merlin, if this whole quest of yours is about getting your hands on one of those magic weapons of Morgana's—"
"Don't be stupid, Arthur."
Not like Merlin needed a magical object.
Arthur sighed. "Yes. I meant what I said. If those people were not willingly performing magic, then they should be judged accordingly."
Merlin released his death grip.
"Fine," Merlin gave in, "You can come. But don't start complaining that you're bored and I'm too slow, and too noisy, and—"
Merlin couldn't place why the seriousness in Arthur's voice sent a shiver down his back.
Their journey was considerably less eventful the second time around—no wild animal attacks, no sorcerer traps, just a casual trek through the forest on a now beaten path.
The first evening they stopped in a dense grove of trees, and Merlin slid off of his horse's back, his shoulders giving a relieved pop.
Merlin didn't say anything when Arthur tended to his horse on his own, before joining Merlin to collect firewood.
Maybe Arthur was just eager to eat and sleep.
"You really thought I was a girl?"
"I still think you're a girl most days."
"But seriously, didn't anyone teach you basic biology?"
Merlin grinned when a heavy hand thwacked him on the shoulder.
The second evening they stopped, Merlin had barely finished collecting firewood before Arthur started the night's stew himself.
"Finally got sick of my cooking?"
"As if you can even call your slop 'cooking'."
Merlin couldn't complain when a bowl of hot stew landed in his lap.
By the end of the third afternoon, they were coming up on their makeshift camp from weeks ago, the only evidence a mound of charred coal not yet erased by the rains.
They only briefly laid out their things and tied up their horses before Merlin set off in the direction of Morgana's former hideout. His nose twitched at the memory of following a pine smoke trail.
Arthur accompanied him.
They'd made it to where they could see sun just touching a pit of rubble when Arthur grabbed Merlin's arm.
"Why are we here, Merlin?"
Merlin hadn't told Arthur about the owl—in fact, all he'd said was that he needed a week off to revisit a hunch. In the blink of an eye, Arthur had rescheduled two court meetings and a knighting to join him.
(Merlin had walked around in a dazed confusion for half an hour afterward.)
Now the cover story was on the tip of his tongue—about the sorcerer from court being in league with Morgana, and his suspicions about an owl who might have suffered a similar fate as Merlin himself, and maybe Gaius had some potion to help.
But Merlin choked the half-truth down.
"You'll just have to trust me, Sire," he said instead.
Arthur's eyes roved over Merlin's face. His mouth hardened and he turned his entire body to face Merlin.
"You should know—You did Camelot proud, Merlin. Even with all the odds against you. If it were in my power to knight my manservant, you would have the same title as Gwaine or Percival or Elyan. But as it stands," Arthur laid a heavy hand on Merlin's shoulder, "Know that you've earned your place by our side as our equal."
Merlin swallowed, his throat suddenly tight.
"I'll be at the camp."
Merlin felt a rush of gratitude at Arthur's retreating back. It almost ached.
Dusk was falling quickly by the time Merlin steeled himself to cover the little distance left between the safety of the trees and the tomb of rock that had almost been his own.
(He swallowed around the sudden dryness in his mouth, as if he were still choking on dust, an oppressive weight against his back, the stale air getting thinner, the hitch of breath from Morgana—)
Merlin wished he'd paid attention just a tiny bit to Arthur's hunting "lessons". Surely there was some sort of owl call?
He needn't have worried.
A blur of shadow and a near soundless rush of air was his only warning as a large tawny owl with bright amber eyes settled onto one of the larger boulders. The shock of silver feathers on its head was no less brilliant now that Merlin was a human.
Merlin gulped at the piercing glare and raised his hands in surrender. "It's John, right?"
The owl didn't blink.
"You probably saved my life," Merlin said. "Arthur would have given up looking for me if it weren't for you. So, thank you."
A tension Merlin hadn't even realised he had eased when the owl cocked its head to the side, and finally lets its wings fall loosely. Merlin mirrored the action subconsciously.
"Back at my home—Camelot, I mean—there's someone there who can help you," Merlin said. "He's the one who got me back to this form."
It wasn't really a lie—it was Merlin after all who'd changed himself back, and Merlin would have to be the one to save John as well.
It was just safer if he didn't say that outright.
"You can come back with us," Merlin continued when the bird made no move. "Arthur probably suspects already, but he knows its not your fault. He..." Merlin trailed off when his heart clenched.
There was something so terribly human about the pain he swore he could see reflected in wide amber eyes.
The owl—John let out a heartbreaking trill. He hopped down onto the dirt in front of Merlin and balanced on one foot. His other reached out, a single talon masterfully extended in a way Merlin was all too familiar with.
Merlin knelt down to have a closer look as John scratched out a picture in the damp dirt.
Slowly, four stick figures began to take shape.
"That's your family?"
Two were small, clearly children.
The sharp curve of John's talon rested almost lovingly along one of the figures. But then with a harsh screech, he raked his talons across the image, again and again until only one figured remained unscathed.
"You have no one to come back to."
John tipped his head a fraction.
However it came to pass—however John had found himself working for Morgana and ultimately transformed into a bird of prey—there was nothing left for him.
John extended his talon again, poised to say more, when suddenly a second owl darted past.
Merlin scrambled back, halfway to his feet even as the second owl disappeared back into the dense tree coverage.
John gave a one-winged shrug and a glint of—was that hope?—lit in his eyes. He spared another glance at the marred stick figures, his wings drooping.
Then his silver-capped head tipped back, and he extended his wings out.
Merlin was no less impressed by their size now than when Merlin had been no larger than Percival's boot.
"I'm sorry, in any case," Merlin said. "I hope you can find peace here."
But already John was giving in to his new instincts, and when the she-owl swooped past for a second time, he threw himself into the air and awkwardly caught her draft, wings beating vigorously as they carried him up and after her.
He didn't come back.
(Arthur didn't say anything when Merlin returned just as the last sliver of sunlight was being swallowed by the cover of dusk. He simply stood, patted Merlin on the shoulder, and left to take first watch.
He never did find out what Merlin had come here to do.)
When Merlin woke the next morning, he was no longer surprised to find that the camp was already mostly packed, the horses already eating. Whatever it was that had changed in Arthur's head, Merlin decided it wasn't so bad.
He was, however, still surprised that Arthur was practically beaming down at him.
"What is it you say in the mornings? Get your ass out of bed?"
"I'm sure I've never said that." A slow grin tugged at the corners of Merlin's mouth. "Although there was that one time when your ears—"
Merlin ducked away from Arthur's half-hearted swat, and relished the way his own laugh came out distinctly non-feline.
"Thank you, Arthur."
Arthur blinked, then narrowed his eyes. "What for?"
"Giving me a reason to come back."
— The cat came back.
He just couldn't stay away. —