Title: The Once And Future Pain In My Ass
Author: Ras Elased
Rating: PG-13 for language
Word Count: ~6K
Summary: "This has got to be the worst ambush ever. I'm feeling a little insulted, actually." Harry Dresden has had a lot of cases—a lot of weird cases—but this one may take the cake. Or the crown. Whatever.
A/N: The Dresden Files/Merlin crossover that has been eating my brain for the last six months. I stayed close to about 99.9% of Dresden Files canon, and the only thing I added was the bit about Harry's mother, which honestly, I don't think is much of a stretch. Standalone fic, though I may make this part of a bigger fic if I feel so inclined. Maybe. I haven't decided yet. This should make sense even if you've never heard of Dresden Files before. Huge thanks to anevivi, puckling, and sulien77 for the awesome beta work!
Never sneak up on a wizard. We tend to be a jumpy bunch. We'll most likely fry your ass and ask questions later.
Or maybe that's just me.
Not that anyone can blame me. In the last few years, I've had all sorts of big nasties waiting to jump me in the shadows. And sometimes in broad daylight. Demons, ghouls, trolls, other wizards, werewolves, vampires—from the Black, Red, and White Courts, since I'm a popular guy with the bloodsuckers, apparently—an entire army of zombies, Chicago Mafia overlords, skinwalkers, the Jolly Green Giant, my own Faerie Godmother, and oh yeah, a horde of ten-foot tall angry goats. Just to name a few.
Ha, you think I'm joking. That's cute. We'll see who's laughing when an invisible demon jumps out to eat your face.
I suppose you could say these kinds of messes come with the territory. See, not only am I a wizard, I'm also a private investigator. Harry Dresden: the only professional wizard listed in the yellow pages. I specialize in the kinds of cases that most of Chicago PD's finest won't touch with a ten-thousand-foot pole. Naturally, given the kinds of 'friends' I make in this business, this translates to a neon flashing target above my head, big enough to be seen from space. Add that to the fact that I'm roughly the height of a professional basketball player, have jet black hair, and prefer to wear a long leather duster straight from the set of El Dorado, and…Well, let's just say I'm a pretty easy guy to spot in a crowd, and it's gotten me into a bit of trouble in the past.
So when I came home to find my protective wards obliterated and my front door ajar, I was understandably a bit…tense. My wards are like a magical security system, except they're less like one of those piddly home alarms and more like the fences in Jurassic Park—the kind that deliver enough juice to send a T-Rex into a coma. (What I lack in finesse I make up in sheer he-man rock slinging.) They're also completely impossible to break without the breakee suffering enough bad mojo to land themselves in traction. So the fact that they had been sliced through as cleanly and easily as a hot knife through butter made the hair at the back of my neck stand on end.
I reached into the pocket of my long leather duster and pulled out my blasting rod, a wooden stick covered in magical runes I use to channel and control my fire magic. In my left hand I shook out my shield bracelet and gripped my rune staff. My left hand was charred to a crisp a while back and even though I've regained a bit of flexibility, my grip was weaker than I'd like. For a moment I considered pulling out the .44 revolver I carry around in my other pocket, because a couple of sticks aren't nearly as intimidating to an intruder as a big ass gun. But if the person/thing/monster inside my apartment was as powerful as I thought it was, not even conjuring a hurricane in my living room would be enough to intimidate it. If worse came to worse I could always just use my staff like a baseball bat to clobber whatever was on the other side of my door.
Well, unless it's a giant slimy monster with six-inch fangs. Then I'll probably just turn tail and get the hell out of there. No sense in sticking around to be lunch meat.
Gently, I placed my hand on the door and eased it open a crack. The low glare of candlelight filtered through so I knew someone was inside, because I never leave the candles burning when I'm out. I have enough bad luck without tempting fate.
I nudged the door open wide enough to slip through as silently as I could. Which wasn't very. Still, given the fact that nothing huge and ugly leapt out at me, I figured I was in the clear. I assumed my cat Mister had hightailed it the moment the intruder busted through the wards, but I wondered vaguely why my overprotective guard dog Mouse hadn't already taken out whoever or whatever was in there. No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than I felt a hot flash of anger and fear. I only hoped I was wrong, that maybe Mouse had enough sense to get out of there instead of facing down something powerful enough to take down my wards. But God help whoever was inside if they had laid a hand on my dog.
I heard a vague clatter coming from the kitchen, and I made my way along the wall. The ice box door was open, but it was too dark to see whatever was rummaging around inside. Deciding the element of surprise was in my favor, for once, I whirled around the corner and shouted, "Fuego!" The fireball I conjured roared across the kitchen before it hit something like an invisible wall around the intruder. It fizzled into nothing but a few shimmering heat waves as the intruder stood and turned, raising one of his completely unsinged eyebrows.
"Right. If this is how you welcome your guests, it's no wonder you never have company," the kid said. And that's all he was, really. I skinny twig of a kid dressed in stupidly tight, faded jeans and a blue vintage t-shirt so worn through that there was a small hole at the collar and the design was faded to a vague grey blob. He wore some sort of red claw pendant over the shirt that looked like one of those tacky fake talismans young wannabe wizards buy at hack magic shops. He had a messy black mop of hair that did little to hide his ginormous elephant ears on the sides of his head, and his pronounced cheekbones and deep-set eyes should have added to the emaciated look, but combined with the vibrant, vivid blue of his eyes he just looked a bit like an innocent, eager kid. "Since it's obviously beyond your capabilities, I'll save you the burden of being a good host and just offer us both a pint, shall I?" the kid asked with a distinct British lilt. He reached back into the fridge and pulled out two of Mac's finest, then frowned and whispered conspiratorially, "You know, Mac would kill you if he knew you were serving these cold, right?"
I shook my head in consternation, then eyed the kid dubiously. "Are you even old enough to have beer?"
Offering a crooked half-grin, the kid said, "I'd show you my ID, but it's a fake."
I felt my patience wearing thin. "So I guess it wouldn't do me any good if I asked who the hell are you?" A few sparks flew out of the tip of my blasting rod. I reined in my anger just enough to control it, but the power of emotions is what feeds my magic. At least my short temper has its uses. "And how the fuck did you get into my house?" I added. Even if some punk kid was somehow able to get past my wards without getting toasted, my pets would never stand for an intruder. Well, alright, Mister is a lazy furball, but if nothing else, my hulking Foo dog Mouse should have been all over this guy. He can sense evil a lot better than I can, as evidenced by my track record.
As if on cue, Mouse bounded out into the living room. I'm a tall guy—I even have to duck under ceiling fans—and Mouse's head hits me at about mid-chest when he's on all fours. I half expected the kid to run screaming for the hills at the sight of the monstrous black beast. Instead, Mouse nuzzled his giant wet nose up under the kid's hand and angled a look of sad puppy eyes upwards. The kid set one of the beers down on a nearby table and settled an easy hand on Mouse's head, long fingers scratching while a look of doggy bliss settled over Mouse's face.
I stared, open jawed, at the traitor.
The kid popped open his beer and slumped onto my least lumpy couch. "By the way, do you ever go to your office?"
I watched in dumbfounded shock as Mouse settled onto the couch next to him and flopped his beachball-sized head in the kid's lap. "Uh…"
"I only ask because I've been waiting there for the last two days. I finally gave up and just looked up your home address."
I blinked. "This has got to be the worst ambush ever. I'm feeling a little insulted, actually."
The kid nearly spit his beer out over my thrift store rug. "Ambush? Why would you—Oh! No, no, that's not it at all. I'm here to hire you."
Somehow, that was the most shocking thing of this entire bizarre experience. "Hire me?"
"Yes." The kid reached into his back pocket, withdrawing a folded, wrinkled piece of yellow paper. He handed it to me, and I hesitated. When I didn't sense any magical booby traps, I took it and unfolded it to find myself staring at my own yellowpages ad.
The Once And Future Pain In My Ass
HARRY DRESDEN — WIZARD
Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations.
Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates.
No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties or Other Entertainment
I frowned. I should really add a line about that Potter kid. You have no idea how many crank calls I get on any given day.
I looked back up to find the kid staring at me, his face more earnest than I'd yet seen. "I need you to find someone."
As jobs went, it wasn't exactly unconventional. Finding lost things—even people—was sort of my specialty. Despite the minor home invasion, this wasn't shaping up to be the weirdest case I'd ever had. Hell, this wasn't shaping up to be the weirdest case I'd had this week. After a moment's hesitation, I pocketed my blasting rod and reached over to the table where the kid had set the beer, popped the top, and took a healthy swig. "Okay, kid, I'll bite. Who do you need found?"
Instantly, the kid was on his feet. Mouse huffed quietly at the loss of his pillow, and I cast him a sideways glare. The kid pulled another paper from his back pocket and unfolded it with a kind of reverence that he definitely hadn't shown for my torn-out yellowpages ad. I could tell from just a glance that the paper was old, and as he passed the paper into my hands I could feel the magic struggling to hold it together. So, really old, then. "I need you to find this man," he said.
I looked down and saw the faded image of a young man. He had blonde hair, the fringe falling haphazardly across blue eyes bright enough to rival the kid's. It was almost impossible to tell his age, appearing to be somewhere between early twenties and mid-thirties, and he was wearing an almost regal expression that was at odds with the wry twist of his mouth. But the thing that struck me most was the emotion captured in the drawing, a strange kind of reverence evident in each faded line. I'm no art critic—hell, I don't even have good taste—but even I could tell that the man in the drawing was clearly the object of some very heavy adoration. I snuck a glance at the kid and said, "You're one hell of an artist, I'll grant you that."
The kid smiled sadly, not taking his eyes off his own drawing. "I drew it a long, long time ago. I was afraid I'd forget what he looked like."
Okay. Weird. This kid barely looked old enough to get into an R-rated movie, let alone have drawn a picture on what appeared to be thousand year old parchment. "Look, there isn't much I can do with a picture. Do you have any of his personal items?"
The kid immediately pulled the red claw pendant over his head. "There's this," he said, handing it over without hesitation. That was twice now he'd handed me things that had obvious deep personal significance without even a pause. Don't get me wrong, I like to think I'm an honorable guy, but I don't usually inspire that kind of trust from strangers. Especially strangers from the magical side of things. I had to wonder if this kid was always this trusting, or if was just something special about me.
I looked down at the drawing and pendant in my hands disparagingly. "That's not exactly what I was hoping for. It would be better if—"
"I know," the kid interrupted. "You wanted hair, or blood maybe. Even if I had those, it wouldn't make any difference."
I frowned. "Why not?"
The kid's answer was immediate. "Because he'll have a different body now," he shrugged blithely.
I felt my eyebrows rocket up my forehead and my fingers instinctively twitched towards my blasting rod. In my line of work, statements like that were never a good sign. A dozen possible magical scenarios for needing a new body flashed through my mind: necromancy, soul conjuring, dark magic gone wrong. Hell's bells. But this kid was young, had probably just come into his powers a few years ago. It was possible he didn't know what kind of forces he was dealing with. But dark magic left a mark on a person—a taint, or a stain—and now that I concentrated, I could sense it. It was buried deep, but it was there. This kid had killed, and he'd done it using magic.
My blasting rod was out and pointed at the kid's heart before I'd even made the conscious decision. The kid's eyes widened, and it was almost enough for me to drop my hand then and there. Almost. "Sorry, kid," I said. "You seem nice enough, but you've broken the First Law of Magic, and if the White Council finds out—"
The kid made a sound of sheer, utter disgust. "Don't get me started on the White Council! They wouldn't know Justice if it fell from the heavens and knocked their heads out from up their arses."
And, alright, so maybe I tended to agree with the kid, but that wasn't the point. "Look, kid, I've seen the effects of black magic first hand. I know what it does to a person." It was true. My mentor had been twisted by black magic, and he'd tried to drag me with him.
"I'm sure you have," the kid said a bit too knowingly for comfort's sake. "And you think it's gotten a hold of me?"
The truth was that I wasn't sure. The way a person used magic left a mark, and yes, this kid had taken lives using magic. But it wasn't like he was the only one in the room with that kind of history. I'd killed my mentor to save myself, and I'd done it using magic. And the kid seemed nice enough—maybe a bit dim, a bit too trusting and overly friendly—but nothing that warranted the kind of execution he would face if the White Council ever found out.
Slowly, I lowered my blasting rod. "No," I said. "I don't think it has." Still, I could always be wrong. I'd been tricked by the innocent, helpless damsel in distress act before. Not that the kid was really a damsel. Well, unless you counted the cheekbones and the girly eyelashes.
The kid cocked his head and gave me a penetrating look you don't normally see on someone so young. "You're a Warden for the Council," he said gravely. "If they find out you let me go, it would be your head on the chopping block."
I squared my shoulders. It wasn't like me to stick my neck out for strangers, but something about this kid made him feel like something more than a stranger. It was probably the reason I hadn't kicked him out yet—well, that and the bizarre feeling I got that if he wanted to, the kid could squash me like a bug. And wasn't that a bit terrifying? Still, I answered the only way I could. "Sometimes you've got to do what's right, and damn the consequences." The kid gave me a long, incredulous stare that slowly melted into a smile I might almost describe as fond if I saw it on the face of any of my friends. I narrowed my eyes skeptically. "What?"
The kid shook his head, grin still firmly in place. "You just remind me so much of your mo—of someone I used to know."
"Right," I said, wondering if this kid could possibly get any more cryptic and suspicious. "So, about this friend of yours, does he have a name?"
"He does, but it may have changed. I'm not really sure how this whole thing works." Again with the cryptic. Did this kid have some sort of quota on cryptic statements he needed to reach by the end of the night? "But don't worry, I've got something better than a name. Or, well, actually, you have it."
Before I could ask what the hell he was talking about, the kid made a beeline for my bedroom and didn't even pause before he reached under my mattress. And alright, definitely not the best hiding place when you're a teenager trying to stash your porn somewhere safe, but when you're a powerful wizard trying to hide a potent, magical weapon—well, apparently it still sucks as a hiding place.
I had a moment of panic when I realized what the kid was looking for, and I shouted, "Hell's bells! Don't touch that, kid!" But it was already too late. The kid pulled the sword out from under my bed and all I could think about was the last time I'd let someone unworthy wield the sword and its power had been lost. It had been nothing short of a miracle when its power was restored. I'd moved the sword to a myriad of hiding places over the years, and apparently the latest one wasn't as safe as I'd thought.
The kid withdrew the sword from its sheath, revealing the polished blade that shone more brightly than should have been possible in the dim candlelight. The last time I'd seen it hold that faint glow was when it had been wielded by Michael, one of my best friends and a Knight of the Cross—yes, a real knight, with shiny metal armor and a minivan full of Little-Leaguers that he coached every Saturday. If there ever was a modern version of a true Knight of the Round Table, it was Michael. He had been the last Knight to wield Amoracchius, and he had passed it into my care when he'd been too injured to carry on with his duties. I was supposed to find its new owner and pass it on, but, well, it turns out finding someone who's both a descendant of royal blood and a warrior for justice is pretty damn difficult. Especially in Chicago.
The kid cradled the softly glowing blade and gazed at it with an expression usually reserved for old friends and long lost lovers. My moment of panic subsided when I realized the sword was responding to the kid's touch as it had to Michael's. I stared at the kid, because surely, this was not the new owner I'd been looking for, was it? Some of my incredulity must have shown on my face, because the kid tore his eyes away from the sword long enough to cast me a quick glance and said, "Oh, it's okay! The sword's safe with me. I made it." He smiled brightly, and I felt my eyebrows start to telegraph 'bullshit' loud and clear. The kid must have picked up on it, because his cheeks tinged pink and he added, "Well, sort of. I helped, anyway."
I couldn't help but boggle at the kid. First he had broken through my wards with no problems, had batted aside my (admittedly impulsive) attack without any visible effort, and now he was claiming to have helped make an ancient, powerful sword rumored to be Excalibur itself. I couldn't figure out if he was a really good liar or just batshit insane. It was too much to even try to understand, and I still didn't have an answer to the simplest question I'd asked from the start. I repeated it again, this time feeling even more frustrated and out of my depth than before. "Who are you?"
A strange smirk spread over the kid's face. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
I felt my hands ball into very frustrated fists and said through clenched teeth, "Try me."
And the kid's face lit up with a smile brighter than the glow of the sword currently cradled lovingly across his chest. "I'm Merlin."
I blinked. "You're right. I don't believe you."
The kid—Merlin, or what the fuck ever—rolled his eyes. "Every bloody time, it's the same thing," he muttered, mostly to himself. "Fine. I guess we'll have to do this the hard way," he said, tucking the sword under one arm and leveling a steady look at my eyes.
It took me all of two seconds to realize what was happening, and I barely looked away in time. "Stars and stones, kid!" I cursed, shouting at the wall to avoid further eye contact. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
The kid sighed in frustration. "Harry, I'm positive you've heard of a soulgaze before."
Hell yes, I'd heard of them. I'd even had more than a few of them, and I tried to avoid them as a general rule.
A soulgaze is just what it sounds like: a way to look into the other person's soul. And as the old saying goes, the eyes are the windows to the soul, so you can guess how a soulgaze is initiated. Think about if you walked up to a stranger and stared in their eyes for even five seconds. It would be incredibly uncomfortable and incredibly intimate, and you would leave feeling like you'd just bared a part of your soul to another person. Well, when that kind of eye contact is made involving at least one person with magical ability, it's even worse. You actually see the other person's soul. Granted, it's usually just a highly symbolic representation, and it's different depending on who's doing the viewing, but it's not something you can ever take back. It stays in your memories forever, never fading, as clear and sharp at the moment it happened. I've seen some truly beautiful souls, and I've seen some souls that are utterly terrifying. They all stay with me.
So the fact that this kid was trying to initiate a soulgaze was either the bravest or the stupidest thing he could have possibly done.
"This is the only way to prove to you who I am." He clutched at my shoulders and forced me to face him. I'm not a burly guy, but the kid must have been a lot stronger than he looked. "It has to be done, Harry."
"Like hell!" I countered. It was kinda hard to glare daggers with my eyes shut, but I like to think I managed.
The kid sighed, obviously frustrated. "Look, I know the things you've Seen, Harry. I know because I've Seen them too. There's very little you've Seen that I haven't, in fact." I felt my incredulous snort made my thoughts on that statement clear. "But none of that pain, none of that sorrow, even that beauty—none of it can hold a candle to the day I lost him." The kid's hand tightened over mine, still clutching the drawing and the charm. His voice held the hint of pain and determination that I recognized all too well. After all, I knew a little something about lost love, myself. "And none of it will matter until the day I find him again. So suck it up, stop being such a clotpole, and open your eyes."
Hesitantly and mostly against my will, one eye cracked upon to glare somewhere in the vicinity of the kid's nose. "What the hell is a clotpole?"
He huffed a laugh then, sounding a bit tired and weary, but probably guessing correctly that I was pretty close to cracking. "Harry, please. I know what you'll See, and I promise, you'll be able to handle it."
Dammit. I refused to be coddled by some kid about 15 years my junior. I nodded, reluctantly, and forced my eyes to meet his.
For what seemed like a long time, it was like nothing had happened. Then, slowly, I realized that the blue eyes I'd been fixated on had changed. The kid had aged about a century in the last five seconds, and he hadn't aged well. He had more wrinkles than my clothes on laundry day and giant, hairy ears covered in liver spots. The floor-length white beard was new, but his eyes were the exact same shade of vibrant, stormy blue I'd seen before. Although he was a hundred years old he was anything but feeble, standing tall with his chin held high and defiant. But more than that, there was an aura of power sparking gold all around him, a nonexistent wind whipping at his clothes and long white beard. There was an electric buzz in the air like the kind that made your hair stand up just before a big ass bolt of lightning fried you to a charcoal briquette.
The image only lasted a second before my vision expanded and I was able to take in more than just the man before me. I could see now we were in a cave, walled in by solid rock on one side and the other open in an abyss, a vast, dark nothing. I could feel the waves of emptiness coming off it like a physical force, pressing into me with an overwhelming ache. I didn't know what should be there, but I knew it should be something.
When I turned back, I saw that the man was straddling the void, one half trapped in the wall of the stone cavern and the other just…missing. There was nothing there but loss and loneliness.
Abruptly, I was pulled back into myself, and once again found myself staring into vivid blue. And thank God that soulgazes could only happen once between two people, because now I couldn't tear my eyes away. The kid—Merlin…holy shit, Merlin—still looked as young as before, except for his eyes. Now I could see that his eyes held about a hundred lifetimes worth of knowledge.
I was still trying to catch my breath when Merlin said, softly, "Do you know what it's like, to lose your soulmate?" I opened my mouth to make some undoubtedly stupid remark, but was thankfully saved when Merlin ignored me and continued. "I'm not talking about someone you love very deeply. I'm talking about the person who completes you, makes you whole. Losing that is like having half your body torn away." I looked down at my disfigured hand, buried under my thick leather glove, practically unusable. "Somehow," Merlin said quietly, "I think you can understand that."
The silver light of Amoracchius cast Merlin's cheekbones into sharp relief and did nothing to hide the haunted, hopeful look in those ancient blue eyes. I glanced once more at the drawing. "So…you want me to find your soulmate," I said, not believing those words had actually come out of my mouth.
The corner of Merlin's mouth turned up. "Yes."
"The Once and Future King," I continued, increasingly bewildered.
Merlin offered a sad, baleful smirk. "Hopefully more 'present' than 'future', but essentially, yes."
I wondered how the hell I'd even start to look for King Arthur. Clearly, the fact that I was even considering it made me wonder if my steady accumulation of head injuries was starting to take its toll. Then I remembered the crushing sense of loss from that cave and I felt the familiar pang in my chest that I'm always trying to convince myself is just acid reflux. It never works.
And besides, who turns down Merlin? I mean, really?
"Alright," I sighed. "I'll see what I can do." And then, because being a smartass is something of a reflex for me, I added, "You want me to find the Holy Grail while I'm at it?"
The corner of Merlin's mouth turned up slightly, and the next thing I knew he burst out laughing. It wasn't the booming laughter of some ageless, all-powerful wizard. It wasn't the dry, jaded chuckles of a man forced to live for endless, lonely centuries. It was just the laughter of some kid, no different from anybody you might pass on the street. It sounded…nice. I wondered how often the kid got to laugh like that in the last thousand years, and immediately decided it probably wasn't enough.
I scrubbed a hand through my hair. I hated to bring it up, but, well, it's not like a guy can survive on just warm and fuzzy feelings. "Look, about my payment—"
Merlin blinked. "Oh, I don't have any money," he said, bemused.
Okay, so that changed everything. Epic mythical quests were all well and good, but only if they paid the bills. "Right. Well, see ya around. Good luck with that whole King Arthur thing."
"Look, don't take it personally. I once billed an archangel, okay? Turned out he was a cheapskate, but not everyone is the Great and Powerful Merlin." I gestured grandly at the skinny, unkempt kid. "A wizard's got to eat, and I can't pay the rent with sunshine and rainbows."
Merlin frowned. "Well, I may not have money, but I…I know things. I could tell you—"
I snorted. And, yeah, probably not a good idea to piss off the greatest wizard to have ever lived, but well, I never claimed to be all that bright. I eyeballed him and replied with heavy sarcasm, "No offense, kid, but I think I'm a little too old to be your apprentice." I turned and made my way to the door, muttering, "Don't let the wards hit your ass on the way out."
Just as my hand closed around the doorknob, Merlin's voice rang out in a desperate shout. "Your mother's name was Margaret LeFay!" I froze. I didn't turn, but apparently it was still enough encouragement for Merlin to continue, his voice a bit softer this time, "Although, when I knew her, she went by another name."
I stared at my fist, white-knuckled on the door. I didn't know much about my mother. She'd died giving birth to me, and I'd been able to piece together a bit of her history from before she met my father. My pulse pounded in my ears, but I didn't take my hand off the door. It was like my body had become frozen in shock, too overwhelmed to do much besides turn and glare suspiciously over my shoulder. I croaked out a stuttered, "You're…you're telling me that my mother was…"
"Morgana LeFay," he nodded gravely. "Trust me, she was nothing like the stories say. At least, not entirely. She was one of the bravest and best people I've known, even after—" he stopped himself, glancing away and swallowing thickly before he looked back. "Your father was good for her," he said quietly, a sad half-smile on his face. "I could tell you about her, if you like?" And god, I wanted nothing else. Merlin came to stand beside me and placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. It was enough to break me from my shocked trance, and I let my head fall forward to thud loudly against the steel door. "Please, Harry. I need your help on this."
I sighed. I knew enough to admit defeat when it was flashing like a Vegas Marquee right in front of my face. "Why do you even need me?" I blurted, finally turning to face him. "Not to sound ungrateful, but if you're Merlin and everything, why do you expect me to be able to find him when you can't?"
Merlin frowned and shoved his hands in the pockets of his too-tight jeans. "I've tried, believe me. But something's blocking me. Or someone. I'm not…I'm not really sure." He scrubbed a hand through his hair in frustration. "But I have been doing this for a while. I can probably offer you a few pointers, if you think it would help?"
I leveled him with a flat glare. "Gee, ya think? Like how about where to even start?"
"Oh, that's easy. To find the beginning, you must start at the end." Merlin grinned wryly, looking far too amused at having made yet another cryptic statement.
I fought to keep the corners of my mouth from turning up in an answering smile. "Right. Don't try to start acting all wise and mysterious. It doesn't suit you."
Merlin rolled his eyes dramatically. "Fine. Spoil my fun." Then, almost to himself, he added, "I never thought I'd sympathize with that bloody dragon. Look, it's simple. When you want to find something, your car keys or the remote, where do you usually start looking for it?"
"Uh, the last place you saw it?"
Merlin beamed. "Exactly."
I stared, trying to dredge up my ninth grade English lessons. I vaguely recalled something about King Arthur dying, and Merlin taking his body to… "—Avalon. You want me to start looking at Avalon?"
Merlin nodded. "Yes. Well. I want us to start looking at Avalon." And before I could say I was as likely to find Avalon as I was the Holy Grail in this whole mess, Merlin had taken the sword out from under his arm and plunged it into the air as if it were a solid wall. Using both hands, he pulled downward, slicing open a hole in space. Immediately, light and noise spilled into the dim room, wind whipping at Merlin's hair and clothes. I simply gawked, because I recognized someone opening a Way to the Nevernever when I saw it, and right, of course Avalon would be in faerie country. Because that's the kind of luck I have.
As if reading my mind—and who knew, maybe he was—Merlin nearly shouted over the sound of rushing wind, "By the way, if we run into your Faerie Godmother, let me deal with it. I've got something of a history with the Sidhe."
I eyed the suddenly fierce expression on Merlin's face and shouted back, "Why doesn't that surprise me?"
Merlin sheathed Amoracchius and the light in the room dimmed a bit. He held it out to me and I just stood there, dumbstruck. "But…it's Excalibur. Don't you think you should be the one to—"
Merlin smiled. "Are you kidding? I was absolute rubbish at keeping this thing safe. You're doing a much better job of it than me, so far."
Reluctantly, I took the sword back, holding the sheath in my one good hand. The other I scrubbed over my face and muttered darkly, "How do I get myself into these messes?"
Merlin grinned brightly and offered a halfhearted shrug. He clamped a friendly hand on my shoulder, and just before he pulled us both into the Nevernever, he answered, "Blame destiny. It's always worked for me."