The first time an ordinary member of the public was imprinted, no-one knew what was going on. No-one knew who was willing to talk about it anyway. And they didn't stay the first very long, medical practitioners who had close contact, family members, or complete strangers, it didn't matter. It wasn't a virus. There was a small news snippet on the local channel about schizophrenia and personality disorders being on the rise.
The first time someone was imprinted in front of Merlin, he shifted them right back. He didn't even think about it, the poor bastard just screamed out wrong to his senses, and he did it without thinking. It was only after he'd done it, not a few seconds later, when the guy in question was probably wondering if he'd had a momentary extremely vivid daydream, that Merlin even realised what he'd done. He'd not lost control of his powers like that in… What? Centuries?
He stared down at the bottle of cheap whisky in his hands (in a paper bag, because he liked to blend in with the locals, even here - especially here) and then muzzily looked back into the flames burning in the oil drum. He thought maybe he'd had too much alcohol if he was losing control. And then decided that the problem was probably only that he hadn't had enough. It took a lot more than the whiff of a barmaid's apron these days to put him out, if they even wore aprons any more, which he suspected they didn't. But if he drank a goodly amount things became blurred enough that he found it hard to distinguish the century he was in, which was a consummation devoutly to be wished, as he'd told old Will back in the day. Indeed, while it wasn't oblivion, it was as close as he was able to get, since he didn't seem to be able to kill himself or his liver sufficiently. And yes, he'd tried.
There were some who might say that Merlin had given up. There were some who might say that, but they weren't here, which was rather the point. Merlin sniffed, trying not to be maudlin, and then rubbed his hands together in their fingerless gloves. It was getting cold again - he might have to replace them soon, since there was getting to be more fingerless than wool.
He liked it here really, with the other homeless and the hopeless, it reminded him in a bizarre way of home. Life with Mum back in Ealdor had been this simple, and with more back-breaking toil even, so maybe here had an advantage. The city overhead meant there was always something to burn for a start, and the company was interesting, if not exactly the most congenial. But there was never anyone to tell him he should pull himself together, no-one to nag or berate him. He could make pictures in the flames and people thought they were hallucinations. Brilliant.
"Just look at yourself, Merlin!" He nearly turned around, it had sounded so much like Morgana's voice. Instead he took another swig. He had his own hallucinations too.
"It's no good," he muttered back, just in case she was real, "I can't find him. I can't find any of you. I never can."
He paused but she didn't answer, which proved nothing. She'd done this for real once, he recalled, in Turkey, in the eleventh century.
"It's always been hard, you know that, relying on chance and rumour," he tried again. Talking to Morgana the Hallucination was much, much better than talking to Arthur the Hallucination, after all. If he talked to Arthur, Merlin tended to down the bottle, so really, he was fine. Peachy, even.
"It's become so completely impossible in the last couple of centuries. That's how long it's been, Morgana. Two hundred years since I've seen any of you. Not Gwen or Will. Not even Mordred." Merlin wiped his eyes in a desultory way, because none of this was new. "There's too many people on this planet to rely on luck any more, you must have realised that. Just too many people…"
Six billion eight million or so at last estimate, Merlin thought. Too many, billions too many, even for his magic. He missed Ar… He missed them all.
In fact, the first time Merlin shifted an imprinted mind back again, he really didn't think it through, he merely supped from his bottle until he fell asleep where he lay, beneath the underpass, wrapped in an old sheepskin coat. He didn't realise it was also the beginning of the end.
Over the next few weeks Merlin reversed the imprints on twenty six minds, a trickle at first, but then the numbers started to steadily increase. He even had to fight for his own mind once, which was peculiar, deeply scary actually, but it did answer the question of whether his magic was attached to the body he was in, or the mind that wielded it. It was a question that he would have been just as happy not to have asked.
Eventually, there were so many affected that even Merlin wanted to know what was happening, and why, but he'd been too out of things this lifetime, he'd drank away the last decade, possibly more, he knew nothing of new scientific developments, he had no contacts that could help.
Perhaps it was inevitable. As the riots started, and the fires began to spread, as humanity turned on itself and lovers became strangers, Merlin couldn't keep up what he was doing - he could make a difference in his own little corner maybe, but not to the whole world. Shifting the invading personalities took all his energy, he felt like that little Dutch boy with his finger in the dam, even as the flood waters were rising all around him.
Eventually, he was fighting an imprint himself once a day at least, getting a glimpse of a foreign place, another mind each time. That was what gave him the idea. Every time he ousted the invading personality from anyone, he could feel the residual energy of the mind that had tried to occupy the body, as well as the flavour of the actual person whose rightful body it was, just a fleeting sense, like the elusive scent of a person, just stepped out of the room. And every time he ejected an imprint, he found he could ensure that the original personality was brought back, there and intact again, as though it had been merely suppressed, not destroyed. He could do that, he reasoned, because he had their unique mental pattern memorised instinctively, the shadow of their soul.
Merlin could do it himself, he knew. That was his idea, an insidious, tempting notion that wouldn't leave him alone. Copying his own mind was easy, it took almost no energy at all. And there were more and more imprints now, and less and less 'actuals'. Merlin wouldn't even be imprinting onto real people, just other thieves, for the most part. It wasn't a large sin, he kept telling himself, people were… dying anyway, all the time, and this way… He kept his breathing even, and swallowed once or twice – hope was a dangerous drug, one he had given up years ago for more chemical pursuits. This way he could find them; Morgana, Gwen – Arthur. Maybe. He could cover so many more people, he could copy himself right around the world, thousands, or even millions of Merlin's all searching at once. Please… Merlin breathed deeply, through the nose. Please let this work. At least let me be selling my soul for a purpose this time.
The Merlin Wave, people called it later. Hundreds of thousands of copies sent out in the blink of an eye. It had an effect that Merlin hadn't anticipated. His mind, his personality, it didn't want violence, he had always abhorred the very idea. Around the world things started to calm down, as Merlin began to take over, and weapons were cast aside in favour of fires being put out, and first aid being administered to the injured. The Butcher imprints, still searching for any last living actuals, were the first targets of the Wave, and the second were the creatures who had sent them. It was as though the world had paused, as though it had time now to draw breath. And all the while, poised in that moment, Merlin searched.
"Hello, Mordred," he said, looking at him out of Adelle DeWitt's sympathetic eyes. "Fancy meeting you here."
The man named Topher Brink, Adelle's mind informed him, at least in this life, looked up and smiled a giant smile.
"Oh hi, Merlin, where have you been, you're kinda late to the party, you know. I let the cat outta the bag, I let the genie out of the bottle, I lived and let live. And they lived, and lived, and…"
His face crumpled again. "I can't stop them, you know. You know?"
Merlin nodded, he did know. For Mordred, it was nearly always too late, every lifetime. He always wanted to rule the world, with the best of intentions, but something always, always went wrong. In this lifetime, he was damaged somehow, and perhaps a little mad - but not with hate, so that was something. Mordred was eternally his own worst enemy, Merlin knew, but nevertheless, when the man started tugging at the silk blouse he was wearing, he let him. Merlin cradled a messy head against his shoulder, and soothed him with a hand in his hair. The actions felt natural, and silently Merlin blessed this Adelle, who seemed to care a great deal, for a great many things.
"We'll stop them," said Merlin softly, whispering into dirty blonde curls, his own heart aching. "I'll find them, and then we'll stop them. Ok?"
"I know what I know, and I know what I know of you, and I know that…" The litany droned on. Merlin's blouse started to become damp with puffed breaths, perhaps even tears, but he couldn't let go.
Then the man in his arms stilled, for just a second, "Very well, Emrys." And the voice was Mordred's once more, as Merlin had first known him, a boy again.
"I'll trust you."
It was much like Merlin might have imagined a spider must feel, if he hadn't actually been a spider once, when he'd been trying out all the animal forms. In actual fact, a spider had very little mind, and what there was involved a study in contrasts, cool and precise instincts and the simple pleasure of the kill. Merlin didn't want to feel like that, but the analogy of the web, at least, couldn't be denied.
His imprints, his copies, spread his magic out, he felt attenuated and insubstantial, his powers not multiplying with him but instead spreading out thinner and thinner. Merlin was glad about that in the moments when he thought about it, he had never really been tempted by megalomania, even at his lowest points, but a thousand sorcerers just as powerful as himself? A million? He was glad the world didn't need to worry about that kind of temptation, it had enough of its own problems, after all.
But his web still worked. He had a tenuous link to each copy, the faintest trace of his magic attached to each one. At the slightest hint of a familiar scent, a tinge of recognition, he could pull an imprint back, and pull the real personality up out of its prison, out of its slumber, and restore it. He thought he could, from a distance, he thought… He was so tired. The mind was such a wonderful thing.
And there it was. A hint, a tiny fragment of familiarity. More than his experience of laying eyes on Mordred, this was a feeling from within, a soul deep bond of affinity, like a friendly kiss on the cheek, like daily burdens shared, like the wild mint and roses all tucked into the vase in her mistress' room. Merlin smiled, all together, all over the world, myriad people looking at him, thinking him mad, Merlin's themselves staring at each other in delight.
Pulled from the darkness, swimming up to the light. As Merlin withdrew his imprint from her head, she looked down, at her broken fingernails and bloody toes. She looked up at the rubble of her city and she wept. Even Merlin couldn't tell if it was in deepest sorrow or selfish happiness.
"It's you," the man said, pushing his dark hair out of his eyes, his skin a little olive in shade this time, a deep pinch between his brows. "I know you."
"Yes," said Merlin, whispered really, careful with the moment, which felt fragile, or was it merely the way the ground seemed to be moving, tarmac becoming liquid and mutable, slipping away beneath his feet?
His lips shaped the name but he couldn't make a sound. It might not be real, he might be hallucinating again.
"Do you remember me?" he asked him at last, as the man stared at him, his handsome features brooding and puzzled, but never - quite - slipping over into suspicion.
Merlin watched as he rubbed his hand over his face then, like he was trying to dislodge memories that were stuck there, like words hanging on a tongue waiting to be tipped over into speech.
"I remember… something. I remember - a castle? A dragon?" The man laughed in disbelief, and Merlin bit his lip, to ground himself in the bright spark of pain. There was the smell of smoke on the air, he realised, a distant rumbling of gunfire, a dying fall of sound. The man was dressed in black combat fatigues, a soldier of some kind, and it made Merlin smile, it was so typical. He stopped after a second though, he didn't want to appear deranged, or worse, wiped.
"It was Camelot, you're seeing Camelot," Merlin said, quickly, and shut his mouth before he could babble, and put the man off. He swallowed.
"Are you sure? It could just be leftover memories from an engagement, maybe? Like Caroline's."
But Merlin could tell that the man didn't really believe that. In fact, Merlin could tell that more and more memories were slotting into place, as they always did when Merlin managed to find one of them. He was always the catalyst. Always alone until he could find them, just one more time.
"Do you remember me, now?" he asked at last, hating the way his voice was so high, the way it broke in the middle with emotion. He didn't want his pity. He wanted…
The man had let his machine gun drop to his side, as he moved towards Merlin, closer and closer still. Looming over him, that groove between his eyes deepening, but the worry lines smoothing out, relaxing, until he whispered, "Is that you in there, Merlin? Really?"
Naturally, as though he had done this a hundred times before, as he has, Priya's mind whispered, as Merlin's memories supplied, Victor gathered him up in his embrace. Merlin slipped his arms around his neck, feeling grit on the skin, but feeling the life too, the pulse in his throat, the beautiful movement of his muscles, strong and sure, as they lifted him up, as they came together at last. And then they kissed, the flavour of smoke in both their mouths, and Merlin thought his shiver, the yearning in his heart, the awful loneliness that was fading away, could all be tasted, could all be felt in that kiss, until he moaned, finally, unable to help himself, "Arthur…"
Arthur raised his head then, gazing down into Merlin's eyes. There was shock there, Merlin thought, but also impatience. And love - that too.
"Merlin, that is actually Priya Tsetsang, not a plaything. You're going to give her body back at once. And you have an explanation for me, I trust? I expect the cessation in fighting is your doing, but really, Merlin, what took you so long?"
Merlin might have been a little angry, at the harsh words, at the assumptions, but he could also feel how hard Arthur was holding on, how tight was his grip. He grinned up at him as impudently as he could make it, and said only, "Come and find me, you giant prat. London. I'll be watching for you under the Eye."
Arthur spluttered, as ridiculously endearing to watch now as it had always been. "What? Why?"
Merlin laughed, even as he prepared to leave Priya, even as he began to gather his magic. His heart swelled in his chest.
"Because it's bigger than Albion - this time we've got a whole world to save!"