As they parked the car Merlin peered out, almost clambering over Arthur's lap to look at the horse grazing peacefully in the nearby field. It lifted it's head as Arthur opened the car door, releasing his seatbelt and Merlin's. The horse stared for a moment, flicking it's ears and slowly chewing before dropping it's head again and continuing to graze.
"All right, wait a minute!" Arthur said laughing as Merlin attempted to slither over his lap to get out. He caught Merlin around the waist and waited until Uther reached the door to let Merlin climb out.
Uther had decided that morning that they could go out, as a family. Taking Merlin out. Which was, Uther thought, an important part of Merlin's development.
When he had gone into Arthur's room that morning he had smirked at the pair of them. Merlin snuggled up against Arthur, his dark head resting on Arthur's chest, and Arthur had looped a casual arm around Merlin and Merlin had his arm around Teddylot. Uther stared at them for a long moment before Merlin had stirred, opening his eyes and yawning. He blinked several times and then, sensing Uther, turned to stare up at him with wide blue eyes. Merlin looked startled to see him there and Uther noticed the flicker of nerves.
Merlin was probably more than aware that no one would hurt him, but he was never sure, when something new occurred, what the reaction would be. Uther smiled at him, and Merlin gave a big beaming grin, relaxing again as he realised it was fine to snuggle up with Arthur overnight.
"Are you all right Merlin?"
Merlin had blinked and nodded. Arthur stirred, but didn't wake, giving a snore as he shifted. Uther rolled his eyes slightly and Merlin giggled.
"Come on you, time to be washed and dressed," Uther said reaching down for Merlin. The little boy obliged and lifted his arms to let Uther pick him up. As he did it Uther knew he was babying Merlin. No doubt Merlin could manage getting himself washed and dressed, and they would have to stop mollycoddling at some point soon, but Uther found it easy to justify.
He could neither prove, nor disprove his theory. But Uther remained convinced that Merlin had been at the facility his entire life. He had been born there. Gaius was the best expert that Uther had on magic and it was clear that Merlin's power was unique. Merlin had been trapped in that place, and having seen the circumstances the children had been in, gentle treatment was something that Merlin had never really received. He had been treated as a thing, an asset they wanted to use, and experiment on.
As he carried Merlin to the bathroom the little boy wrapped his arms around Uther's neck, relaxing against him. Uther petted his back gently, deciding that babying Merlin was entirely fine. Merlin liked it, he responded to it. In fact Uther found it hard to believe how easy it had been. Although Merlin had been nervous in his first week or so in his custody he had accepted the care and fussing. Morgana had started the hard work, playing with Merlin, and Arthur appeared to have finished it. Merlin adored Arthur, quite obviously more attached to him than the rest of them.
Uther didn't doubt that Merlin liked all the members of his household, he had even managed to work some kind of charm on Kilgharrah, who usually refused all manner of affections. The big lumbering cat, however, never minded when Merlin went to pet him, and would often settle down on Merlin's bed. Uther hadn't been surprised to find Kilgharrah on Arthur's bed that morning, because Merlin had been there as well.
He lifted Merlin off his hip and placed him down, settling his bare feet onto the thick bathmat. Knowing what was next Merlin went to the sink and ran the water, putting the plug in to let it fill when it was hot enough. Uther passed him things and supervised Merlin washing his face, something that didn't actually need supervision but he did it, remembering when he had done the same for Arthur and Morgana. That was probably another reason that Merlin got babied. All three older adults of the house missed the children which was why Uther had never thrown anything away. Time and again he announced they would sort it, and give some to charities, but it never got done. Uther now felt glad that he hadn't done it.
"Right let's get you dressed and then we can rouse those two from their beds and go out somewhere nice."
Merlin smiled at the idea, letting Uther take his hand and lead him down the corridor towards his room.
The room was now cluttered with all manner of things. The train set remained laid out on the floor, and the other toys seemed to cover all available surfaces, but they were placed tidily, organised in some way that only Merlin seemed to understand. It was as Merlin wriggled into a long sleeved tee-shirt in a light material, and Uther rummaged in the wardrobe to find Merlin a pair of jeans that Arthur padded swiftly along the corridor and appeared in the doorway.
"Oh, I wondered where Merlin had gone," he said to his father as Merlin tangled himself up, struggling to get his arms and head through the sleeves and neck of his tee-shirt. Uther turned and straightened him up, tugging the material down. The weather had warmed up but Uther didn't want Merlin's scars on show. He didn't need any more attention than he already had. Gaius had given them an oil which would help fade them, but Merlin would probably have to live with some of them for the rest of his life. Uther had considered consulting a plastic surgeon, but that could, he eventually concluded, wait until Merlin was a little older.
"Well, I thought after breakfast we could go out, rather than lazing in bed all day."
"It's only just turned half past eight," Arthur argued. "And we were up late watching the thunderstorm."
"I know, I heard it. Hunith rang me on the house phone to check on Merlin but by that time you had commandeered him. You seemed to be doing a good enough job so I left you to it."
Merlin sat on the bed and started to get his feet into his jeans, pulling the material up his still skinny legs. Then he flopped back lifting his hips to pull them up over his backside. Once he had fastened his trousers he lay back on the bed and grinned at them.
"Put your socks on," Uther ordered him. Merlin obliged and then slid off the end of the bed, waiting patiently for one of them to take his hand and lead him downstairs to breakfast.
"So," Arthur had asked. "Where shall we go then?"
Merlin now pulled Arthur's arm, his little hand tightly clenched in his as Arthur pushed open the gate.
"All right, the animals aren't going anywhere!" Arthur laughed. Merlin ignored him, insistently tugging Arthur's hand to get him over to the fence. The horse took several steps forward, until it stood close to the fence, and it leant over. Merlin tensed, hesitating at the huge head inclined towards him, and he pressed himself against Arthur's legs. Arthur laughed, letting Merlin cling to him.
"Silly, he isn't going to hurt you."
"It's a she," Morgana informed Arthur primly holding out her hand to let the horse sniff her. Then Morgana gently rubbed the mare's face. The horse gave a heavy snort and Merlin carefully lifted his hand up. Very carefully Morgana directed the mare's head so it could sniff Merlin's hand. Merlin's eyes widened and he petted between the horse's nostrils. He gave a little gasp and tensed as she snorted again. He snatched his hand away as she licked him.
They all watched Merlin's reaction. Uther looked around, the small farm hadn't changed much over the years. He had brought the children here when they were small. Arthur hadn't really shown that much interest, but Morgana had often enjoyed visiting, and had very much enjoyed the pony rides and cart rides over the years. Although even she seemed a little old for such a venture. Merlin, however, did not. He stared around, looking at the fields and the animals in them. Arthur kept a tight hold of his hand as they made their way down the short pathway.
"Right, let's have a bit of a walk round and then we can stop and get a drink in the cafe," Uther said.
"Sounds good. What do you want to look at first Merlin?" Balinor asked. Merlin looked up at him and then around at the farm. After a moment's thought he turned his head as one of the cows gave a loud bellow. Arthur laughed as Merlin, quite purposefully, dragged him off in the direction of the noise. Smiling indulgently the rest of them followed.
Merlin appeared utterly enchanted with everything. He stared at the animals with awe, shrinking back sometimes if they came close to the fence, and he stared wide-eyed if they made any sort of noise. It seemed like any normal family outing, until they got to the goats. Merlin peered at the animal stood calmly close to the fence, Morgana leant over and petted it's head. The goat carried on chewing, docilely standing while she did so, until she frowned.
"Oh, he's got a cut on his shoulder," she announced lifting the long hair out of the way. It wasn't particularly big but looked deep, the wound seeping slightly.
"I suppose we could tell the staff. There was someone up by the chickens," Arthur mused, turning his head. He swivelled round again as Morgana gasped. Merlin had carefully put his hand through the wire of the fence, reaching over and pressing his hand to the wound. Uther stepped forward, inclining his head to see Merlin's eyes flash golden. As he pulled his hand back the wound on the goat had vanished. As Uther eased Arthur back, out of his way, he tried not to move to swiftly and alarm Merlin. Uther took hold of Merlin's little hand, easing the long sleeve of his tee-shirt back. All of them jumped as, slowly, a line seemed to appear on Merlin's arm, the skin opening up and beads of blood started to well up.
"Shit!" Arthur hissed causing Merlin to jump. He retracted his hand from Uther's and drew his arm to his chest, hunching his shoulders. Arthur didn't think Merlin was reacting to the pain, he now just seemed to want to hide his arm.
"All right," Uther said calmly. He moved to flank Merlin, glancing around and ensuring that no one else had seen Merlin's random display. Gently he took Merlin's wrist making him lift his arm. Hunith rummaged in her bag and produced a tissue. Uther took it from her and carefully dabbed at the cut.
"Is he all right?" she asked.
"It's fine, it's just a little cut. We are probably best to wash it properly, and get a plaster off someone if we can. Come on, Merlin, it's all right."
He handed the tissue back to Hunith and altered his grip to take Merlin's hand, making sure his hold stayed firm enough so Merlin's didn't retreat again. Merlin gazed up at him, tears starting to well up in his big blue eyes and his lower lip wobbled.
"Don't get upset now. And don't make a fuss," he ordered the rest of the adults surrounding him. Morgana reached over to examine the goat's shoulder. He lifted his head, nuzzling against her arm, curious about the sudden examination. Apart from the slightly ruffled hair there was no indication of anything. Merlin had somehow healed the damage, but Morgana guessed, the damage had to go somewhere. She pulled her hand back and followed the rest of them. Uther kept Merlin's hand in his, talking to him in a reassuring voice.
"Don't worry, we'll go and wash it and see if we can get a plaster, and then we'll go and get come ice cream from the cafe. It's all right Merlin."
Merlin gazed up and him, and then dropped his gaze to the cut on his arm. It still bled steadily as they got to the toilets and Arthur helped Merlin wash his arm while Uther ambled off and located a member of staff. The woman followed him into the toilets, carrying a first aid kit with her.
"Oh dear," she announced as she looked at the cut. Then she opened the kit and started to get what she needed out. Merlin's eyes widened as he focussed on her hands, now cleanly encased in latex gloves. He shuffled into Arthur, turning his head to hide away. Arthur gave Uther a glare. Uther gave a subtle nod back and turned to her.
"It's fine we can put the plaster on. I don't think it's anything serious. I think he might have just caught it on some of the fencing."
She peered at the wound, frowning as she looked a little uncertain.
"Are you sure, I can always log it in our accident book."
"I'm sure he'll be fine, it just needs covering really."
"Do you know where it happened? Just so we can check the fencing."
Uther shrugged, unwrapping the plaster, and he spoke in a casual tone, as he applied it to Merlin's arm. The plaster covered almost half the length of his forearm and wrapped completely around it.
"He was somewhere round by the goats. I think he had been stroking them."
"Okay," she said. "I'll have a look, are you sure he'll be all right. I could..."
"It's fine. If we get worried we can take him to the doctor." Uther stopped faffing with the plaster and straightened up, smiling at the girl. "I'm sure an ice cream will make everything all right."
Arthur propped Merlin up as he felt him lean against his side heavily. Uther politely and forcefully got rid of the member of staff, promising to go the office to allow them to write up an accident form. Arthur, feeling Merlin sag, took a firm grip and picked him up. Merlin's head lolled onto his shoulder.
Uther turned, lifting Merlin's chin to assess him. Merlin opened his eyes and blinked at him sleepily.
"I did say this could happen. He's worn himself out."
"But he's been getting better," Hunith said in concern as Arthur carried Merlin into the centre of their clustered group.
"However, he's not performed any magic recently. And this one was something concentrated, a major exertion," Uther said. "Something like this might take a little more energy. Let's go the cafe and buy him a bottle of juice, and some ice cream."
"Good idea. Ice cream would be nice, wouldn't it Merlin?"
As Arthur talked, steadily and happily but not in such an overdone fashion, Merlin lifted his head giving a sleepy smile.
"Come on then, I bet you'll like chocolate best," Arthur announced.
Arthur settled Merlin down while Balinor and Hunith went to buy what they all wanted. Uther went to the office to fill in the accident form and presumably go for as much damage limitation as he could. Both Hunith and Balinor stared at Merlin, on Arthur's lap, for a brief, significant, moment.
"I have to admit, he is very good with him. Somehow he's better than the rest of us," Hunith mused.
"I agree," Balinor said. "I don't think any of us have done badly. If you remember that first week, then Merlin had come on leaps and bounds."
"True. Although he didn't seem to like that first aider."
Balinor frowned as he pondered that one. Hunith carried on talking, filling in her own blanks and voicing her thoughts to her husband.
"Although I can presume that there were doctors and medics at the care home. That accounts for it. I think it was the sight of those gloves."
Balinor huffed. "Probably. But we don't know and that's half the problem. The only thing is that Uther doesn't want to tell us what he knows. He may be trying to do what is best but it's not enough. We need to be prepared for these random things. You weren't, and it was not your fault. It's fair to say that Uther might be trying to spare our feelings but we need to know, because it affects Merlin."
"That's where the scars come from, isn't it?"
Morgana's voice made them both jump. She had left Arthur at the table with Merlin, sneaking up on the pair as she saw the intense conversation. Balinor turned, and Morgana eyed him back steadily. She could tell by the look in his eyes that he didn't want to answer her. Instigating an overwhelming amount of self control she kept her voice calm. Morgana knew she could often get somewhere by throwing a tantrum, it had been something of a speciality of hers while she was younger, but she didn't think this was that kind of occasion. On this one she needed to act with some maturity to get the answers she wanted.
"They got him to do that at the home, I presume. You can't hide the scars from us. I know you don't want him to have to think about it but Merlin gives it away most of the time. He did that almost automatically."
"I noticed that," Balinor said. "As soon as you saw it he reacted."
"And even if Uther doesn't want to tell us exactly what happened to Merlin, it helps us to know. It helps us because then we can help Merlin," Morgana announced. They shuffled up along in the queue, now only one person away from being served.
"Let's not have this conversation here," Balinor said. "Let's just focus on Merlin for the moment."
"Yes, what can I get you?" the man behind the counter asked pleasantly.
From the security of Arthur's knee Merlin goggled as he looked at the ice cream that Morgana handed to him. He held the cornet in both hands, blue eyes wide with awe. Leaning forward he tentatively licked at the cold, creamy substance. He felt tired, and cold, but snuggling against Arthur helped him. Arthur radiated warmth and energy. The ice cream was cold, but a nice sort of cold.
Merlin licked at it like a cat with cream until Uther returned.
"Is everything all right?" Hunith asked.
"Perfectly," Uther said, and smiled as he looked at Merlin. "Is that nice?"
Merlin nodded, licking around his lips and then lapping at the ice cream until he had demolished it and the cornet. He blinked slowly, feeling tired and wanting to sleep, after the nice tasting food he wanted to sleep.
He was drowsy against Arthur as they left and Arthur paused to lift him up and put Merlin on his hip. As Arthur settled him he heard some murmured words. Arthur tightened his grip and followed the others, staying far enough behind to carefully process his thoughts and conceal any reaction he had given. The words were so softly spoken that he still couldn't be sure. Twice before he had heard Merlin, and he still couldn't be sure. What he certainly didn't want to ask his father was if magic could make people think things. Arthur like the close connection he had made with Merlin but it seemed to have come with a massive responsibility clause. So as he talked, he answered Merlin, without seeming to directly answer the question.
"Don't you worry, Merlin," Arthur said gently. "The nice goat would have been fine. The nice people that looked after him and would have cleaned him up and made him better, like we did for you. You didn't need to do what you did. It was nice of you to want to look after the goat, but you shouldn't do that Merlin."
Merlin gave a little whimper in response.
"Don't get upset," Arthur warned gently, running his hand up and down Merlin's back in a reassuring gesture. Merlin clung tighter. "I know it wasn't a big thing, just a little cut, but..."
He faltered, wondering how the hell to phrase it. How did he tell Merlin off, warning him from doing such a thing, without it upsetting him. Merlin didn't like shouting and tellings off. The day Arthur and Uther had had a row it had taken forty minutes to coax Merlin out from under his bed.
"Merlin, did you do that sort of thing in... where you used to live?"
There was a little whimper and Merlin's cheek rubbed against Arthur's shoulder. It took him a moment to realise that Merlin had nodded.
"Okay, so that was why you thought you had to do it today. But you don't Merlin. I know it was only a cut but it's hurts you, and you're only little and things like that shouldn't happen. Promise me Merlin, you won't do anything like that again. You'll just get help, okay?"
Again he felt Merlin's head move.
"Right then. That's a promise."
After that Merlin remained quiet and Arthur had no answers. He didn't want to ask Uther and although he could ask Gaius and swear him to secrecy it seemed unfair to put Gaius in that position. There had only been the three times that Merlin voiced himself, to Arthur. He didn't even want to try careful questioning of the other members of the household to see if they had experienced the same. After thinking about it he decided anyone else would have spoken about it.
As he watched her work with Merlin Arthur pondered the idea of telling Gwen but in the end he had no desire to draw her into a situation where she felt it was only fair to tell Uther, as her employer, what was going on. Arthur could take responsibility but again he had to think. Merlin had communicated with him, and him alone.
He backed out on the basis that Merlin might freak out. Arthur wondered if that made him a hero or a coward.