Arthur had not been expecting this. He had thought this afternoon would be just like any other afternoon he spend on his horse - a quick ride through the woods, a calmer ride through some peaceful clearings, a brief stop to watch some fish in a stream, and then back to Camelot. Of course, he should have known that Merlin would find some way to make it a less than average day.
He had given Merlin the day off. There wasn't anything too important to do at the castle while he was off riding and relaxing and clearing his head - he figured he could afford Merlin the same opportunity.
When he came into the clearing, he thought for one wild moment that Merlin had somehow followed him or known his route ahead of time. But as he hopped off his horse and ran over to his manservant, he realized that Merlin had no knowledge of Arthur's presence and seemed to be in the clearing for his own purposes.
Merlin was sitting in the middle of the large field, cross-legged and hunched over, focusing on something in front of him. Arthur stumbled when he realized that Merlin could be out in this field for some... private time.
Merlin turned his head at the sound of Arthur tripping over his own feet.
"Merlin," Arthur said awkwardly. "What are you doing here?"
Merlin glanced down at his lap, then back over his shoulder at Arthur. "Um."
"You know what? I'll just... leave you to it." Arthur tried to smile as he started backing up.
"No, come look," Merlin said quietly.
Arthur's eyes bulged. "What?"
"I... I found it."
Arthur blinked and realized that Merlin wasn't doing what he had thought Merlin was doing. He took a few steps closer until he could see over Merlin's should and down into Merlin's lap.
"Merlin!" Arthur startled and took a step back. "What are you doing with that?"
"I found it," Merlin said again. "I think it's some sort of rare bird."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Surely you know what that is."
Merlin smiled innocently up at Arthur and Arthur walked around to Merlin's front and knelt down. There was a small, white, winged thing curled up in Merlin's lap. It blinked happily up at Arthur and Arthur couldn't help but think the word 'adorable.' Merlin stroked it's back with his long fingers and stared at Arthur, waiting for an explanation.
"It's a dragon."
Merlin's eyes widened comically. "How could it be a dragon?"
"What kind of question is that?"
Merlin's fingertips traced the top edge of the dragon's wings and the dragon squeaked with pleasure.
"Are you sure it's a dragon? Where could it have come from?"
Arthur reached out tentatively and petted the dragon's scaly head. The dragon let out a soft purring sound, unfurled its tail, and stroked Arthur's wrist with it.
"It likes you," Merlin said, grinning.
"Yes, well." Arthur cleared his throat. "That egg must have survived, after all."
"There's no other explanation." Arthur let the dragon caress his wrist for a few more moments, but then he pulled his hand away and got to his feet. "We have to do something about it."
"Like what?" Merlin asked warily. "It's not hurting anyone."
"But it will."
Merlin shook his head. "You're wrong, Arthur. Dragon's aren't evil."
"There's no living person who will ever be able to control that thing when it grows up," Arthur explained. "The last dragonlord is dead, remember?"
Merlin looked down at the dragon and sighed. "You're wrong. It won't hurt Camelot. You have no way of seeing the future, Arthur. If we... if we're nice to it, if we don't chain it up in a cave for several decades, it will have no reason to hurt anyone."
Arthur looked down at the baby dragon and wanted to believe what Merlin said.
"It likes you," Merlin reminded him. "It likes me, too. It's never hurt me."
"Well - wait, what do you mean 'never'? You said you just found it."
Merlin smiled guiltily. "No, I said I found it. I didn't specify when."
Arthur sighed and crouched back down. The dragon immediately reached out for Arthur with its tail. Arthur held out his hand and let the dragon wrap its tail around some of his fingers.
"Why didn't you ever mention it?"
"I didn't think it was worth mentioning. I didn't realize it was a dragon."
Arthur brushed his thumb along the dragon's tail and tried to think of what his father would have done. There was no way he was going to chain this innocent baby to a cave wall. He didn't relish the thought of what his uncle would advise him to do, either. He didn't know how fast dragons matured, but this one seemed very young, so he figured he would have at least a few years before he had to make any real decisions.
"Can you keep this between us?" he asked.
The dragon nodded and Arthur couldn't help but smile.
"Of course," Merlin said, sounding relieved. "I won't tell anyone."
"Good." Arthur reluctantly pulled his hand out of the dragon's reassuring grip and stood again. "I'll see you in the morning, then."
He walked back to his horse without waiting for a reply. He traced the skin where the dragon's tail had been - he wrapped his fingers around the warm skin, trying to get back the comforting feeling the dragon had given him.
He had not been expecting this