A/N: Response to this prompt/plot bunny on LJ: "Merlin and Arthur are hunting and they see a snake. Merlin isn't fussed but Arthur is scared out of his wits. Merlin determines to find out why. I'll give you a cookie if he's afraid of them cause of some lesson Uther taught him as a child (h/c fic)"
"This is pointless," Merlin whined as he carefully footed down a steep river bank into a dry river bed as they hunted for game.
"There are still some dead fish around," Arthur said, though even he could see that there weren't, not really. "Easy food for the beasts around here."
"They're all in some nice, shady area and away from this heat," Merlin retorted, absolutely accustomed to the banter by now. "None of them are stupid enough to venture out in this weather."
Arthur sighed. Merlin took that for the sign of defeat it was, and plunked down on a large rock just behind him. He took one large drink from the skin of water, before handing it to Arthur, who drained it.
He handed it back to Merlin, who glanced around nervously, much to Arthur's amusement, then kneeled on the ground and placed his hand against the dry ground, and started muttering in tongues under his breath, and soon, there was water coming up from deep within the earth, rising up into the air and into the skin, before Merlin capped it, and the water seeped back deep into the parched soil.
"Shall we head back?" Merlin asked, fatigue in his voice if not his body, but noticed that Arthur wasn't paying attention, staring in horror at something over Merlin's shoulder.
Alarmed, Merlin whirled around, but he saw nothing of interest, really, on the river bank, which reached just up to his chest. No dangerous looking person, no beast, nothing – just a small, innocuous snake in the yellowed grass, its green and yellow scales blending in perfectly as it slept on a warming rock.
He turned back, and his eyebrows rose in realization that it was, indeed, the languid snake that Arthur was staring it.
They disappeared into his hairline as Arthur took a step back, and shook his head to himself, as he said, "Let's go, now."
"It's just a snake," Merlin said, with a shrug.
Merlin reached a hand out to touch the snake, when Arthur's shot out and grabbed Merlin's wrist.
"What're you doing?!" Arthur asked.
"Petting it," Merlin said, slightly confused, both as to the anger and fear tingeing Arthur's voice and to the vice of flesh Arthur had around his wrist.
"Petting is what you do with small, fluffy animals – not ugly, scaled, leg-less lizards."
Merlin just stared at Arthur, honestly quiet bewildered by this, before the pieces fit together in his mind, like a new spell that formed somewhere between Merlin's subconscious and his books. "You're afraid of snakes?"
Arthur's sudden release of his grip on Merlin and the way he looked sharply away was all the answer he needed.
And Merlin, of course, laughed.
"Prince Pratface, himself, can face down a bloody Questing Beast like nothing and yet be bested by a simple grass snake!" Merlin said, leaning against the wall to support himself.
Arthur scowled, before pinning Merlin against the river's wall, pinning the wizard with his body, and growling into his ear, "It. Is. Not. Funny!"
Merlin snorted, but, mockingly schooling his face, said, "Of course, sssssire."
Scowling increasing at the inherent hiss in his title, Arthur said, "C'mon – we're heading back."
Later that night, after a round of wonderful sex, Merlin lay comfortingly curled over Arthur, fingers trailing up and down the prince's sweaty chest, as he broke the subject with, "Why snakes of all things?"
Arthur groaned and rolled away. "Did you have to ruin it?"
"Yes," Merlin said, bluntly, snapping his fingers so they were both in shifts and sleeping breeches instantly. "C'mon? Of all the things to be afraid of-"
"I'm not afraid of them!" Arthur said. "I just…don't like them. Some people don't like cats, some people don't like fruits, and I don't like snakes."
"…did you really think I would believe that?" Merlin asked, as Arthur stood by the fireplace, his arms crossed.
Arthur sighed. "I was hoping you would."
"Tell me – what's so fearful about snakes?"
The prince growled. "Drop it. That's a bloody order."
Arthur whipped around, murder in his eyes, as he said, "I mean it."
All of a sudden, Merlin got the feeling that there was something much deeper running, here. Sobering up, he said, "So do I."
Arthur deflated, head dropping as he breathed heavily through his memories. Merlin, seeing this, stood up and wrapped his arms around the man, offering his shoulder for Arthur to sink his head into.
"Tell me," Merlin whispered softly.
Arthur nodded and began his tale.
"You are almost ten years old, Arthur," his father practically growled, clutching the white mouse even tighter in his left hand, and Arthur's arm tighter in his right.
Being dragged along by his father through the castle halls, Arthur ignored the sympathetic stares of the castle staff, and said, "I caught him and tended him, myself, and-"
"He's a weakness," Uther said, stiffly.
Uther just grabbed a box from the pile by the armory, and walked out to the hillside, and ignoring his son's protests, grabbed a snake from the ground and dumped it in the box, setting it on the ground, between their feet.
Arthur's eyes widened. "F-Father, no-IVORY!"
He shut his eyes as the little white mouse fell in, but Uther cuffed him, harshly, and said, "Watch, Arthur."
He swallowed, and opened his eyes, and watched as the damnable hissing monster wrapped his body tightly around his beloved pet.
The little mouse's squeaks of terror were ringing in his ears.
He cried when the snake first bit into the struggling mouse, blood spattering everywhere, all over the box's interiors.
Now the mouse's long, dragging squeal of pain made another tear fall down the boy's cheek, and sob outright as his father backhanded him and said, "Never cry. It is a weakness we cannot afford."
He swallowed back the tears that wanted to erupt as the mouse finally went limp.
"You keep as few familiars close to you as possible," Uther said. "Less weak spots for your enemy to exploit."
The little boy nodded as the mouse's head plunged into the snake's gawping mouth. "Yes, Father."
"It would not do for you to make yourself overtly prone to emotional manipulation. A life for a life – you may not have a full life of love, but you keep the life of power. It's the balance we as royalty must suffer."
Again, an obedient, grieving, "Yes, Father."
"Now – come. Forget about the mouse."
And Arthur followed.
"Don't. Say. It," Arthur growled, turning on his side, his back to Merlin. "I may not have liked it, but my father was right – too many familiars is a weakness."
"He didn't have to be so harsh about it," Merlin said. "Making your watch a pet get eaten."
"Just…forget about it," Arthur said. "That only started me on snakes. Lots of things built up on it. Valiant certainly didn't help."
Merlin rolled his eyes, before he had a thought. "You said the mouse was all white?"
"Why else would I name the damn thing Ivory?" Arthur retorted. "All white, short tail, big ears. Maybe that's why I like you so much."
Merlin laughed, but didn't say another word.
A moment later, Arthur blinked as he heard a vaguely familiar sound of shifting flesh and bone behind him on the bed.
He turned around, and his eyes widened when he saw what Merlin had turned into.
"Merlin?" he asked.
The little mouse looked reproachful – only Merlin could manage to do that while as a mouse – and shook its head.
Catching on, Arthur tried again with, "Ivory?"
Now the mouse nodded, and trotted over the bed sheets to sniff at the frozen prince's thigh.
His eyes were suspiciously shining.
Internally, Merlin grinned when Arthur scooped him up and held him close to his chest.
"Ivory," Arthur was murmuring, stroking the little mouse-Merlin, murmuring that name over and over again, and nothing else, but that was all right.
Re-unions with long lost friends had a tendency of doing that to you.
A few scratches on Arthur's chest, and Merlin was brought up and deposited on Arthur's shoulder, the man turning his head to brush his cheeks against the rough fur.
Merlin got himself settled down as Arthur started stroking him again, and nudged his nose against the flat expanse of skin on Arthur's cheek.
"Thank you, Merlin," Arthur said, shaky.
Merlin let out a squeak. "I take that to mean 'you're welcome'?"
The mouse nodded, and Arthur smiled, taking Merlin in his hands again, kissing the mouse's head (not that he'd ever admit it, later on), and setting it down on the bed.
A moment later, Merlin, the human, was leaning back against the pillows again, one hand sneaking towards Arthur's, and clasping around it.
"Thank you," Arthur said, hoarsely.
Leaning over, Merlin responded with just a kiss.
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