Art masterpost: http://amphigoury.livejournal.com/16103.html
The sky never changed. Everything else did - the people, the buildings, the fields and the forests; even the mountains seemed to grow or shrink as the centuries rolled by. But Albion's sky was always the same, overcast and low, readying for rain or recovering from one, stormy blue and as familiar as the eyes of an old beloved friend.
"Hello again," he said, trying out his voice, and pressed his palms to the cold earth.
He always woke up here, at the place where he'd fallen. The first time had been a struggle, a moment of sick confusion. He couldn't understand what was happening and couldn't properly fall back into his own body, too used to the weightless dreamstate of Avalon. He didn't remember his first death, only the rending pain of the wound and the sight of his blood pumping through the mail, drifting in and out of consciousness for hours, being soothed by Morgana's hands, their boat gliding into the mist. But the first awakening was still fresh in his mind - the harshness of air, the awful tenderness of his skin, the feeling of being lost, cast out, wronged somehow.
He knew the drill now. He sat up and stretched, enjoying the youthful strength of his back and the lightness of his body, everything he'd taken for granted when he'd been twenty five for the first time.
He wore his old hunting clothes, as usual - good, warm and sturdy, plain and non-descript. There was some gold in the pockets of his long coat, and if the past was any indication, these few ancient coins could make him a rich man.
He often wondered how it all worked. He thought that the coins he brought with him every time stayed here, and every time he returned a new handful of coins came with him. If he kept bringing more, some day they would no longer be a rarity, and he wouldn't be able to sell them so advantageously.
But perhaps it was the same handful of coins every time, and once he was gone they too melted into thin air or turned to dust in someone's coffers. Perhaps the same happened to his body each time it fell down behind him.
Merlin would know. Merlin knew about these things. But wherever Merlin was now, it wasn't here. And that was for the best, Arthur truly believed that. Merlin had tired of wars centuries ago, and he'd earned some peace.
Arthur got up and walked down the slope of the hill, taking in the new sights. Last time there had been a dirt track at the foot of the hill, and that was where he'd seen an automobile for the first time. It had been a terrifying miracle of a sight, even after he had seen trains and steam boats, and he couldn't vouch that he had handled it with sufficient dignity. But now he felt prepared for anything, and he was anxious to see this bright new future.
The road was now wide and paved in tarmac, and Arthur kicked at the solid, smooth surface with a satisfied grin. The country had prospered in his absence. Last time he'd been here roads like this were still a novelty and a luxury. Now it seemed they stretched even to the quiet countryside.
The last war, the worst of all of them, had threatened to drown half the world in blood and poison, and had seemed like it would never end. But here was proof that the war had been over for a long time and his country had grown richer and stronger in the years of peace. Every storm passes, however bad. This one would pass, too.
He walked by the roadside, heading east, till he heard the rumbling of an engine. The pitch was different from what he remembered, the sound quieter; the auto-mobile was different too, sleek and fantastically shaped, wrapping around its passenger in a safe cocoon of steel. It was quick and it handled the corners deftly, whispering over the road on soft tyres. Arthur longed to drive one.
Arthur waved to the motorist and waited for the vehicle to roll to a complete stop before approaching, remembering his motor safety training. The driver fiddled with something on the inside of the door, and the glass window smoothly slid down in its frame.
The driver was a woman, and she was wearing an army uniform. A soldier, then. Perfect. The uniform was different from the last time, but not drastically so: still fitted and utilitarian, in muted earthy tones.
"Hello," Arthur said pleasantly. He remembered the trendy slang from the last time, but he'd learned that trends changed fast and it was always best to stick to the simplest language. "I wish to join the war effort. Can you take me to a place where I might start?"
She stared at him, wary and serious, narrowing her eyes.
"If that's a come-on, you'll be sorry," she said.
"We're at war, aren't we?" he asked, brushing off everything baffling with an ease born of lengthy practice. "I want to fight for my country."
"I'm going to London," she said.
"Sounds good," he nodded. London must still be the capital; it always pleased him when things endured.
"Everyone with sense is running to the countryside," she said. "Do you really want to go to London?"
"Wherever the fight is," he shrugged.
She pushed the door open and beckoned him inside. He settled on the soft seat, choking a little on the stink of oil and petrol.
"Let's go then, hero," she said, and the world lurched backwards around them.
This whole thing was, as were most of the joys and frustrations in Arthur's life, probably Merlin's fault.
Arthur wasn't sure when it had started; he hadn't paid much attention. The first time Arthur had really listened was on the eve of a battle, the last one in his first campaign as a king.
"Tomorrow Albion will be born," Merlin said, as they lay together in Arthur's tent.
"If we win," Arthur said. His fingers were on Merlin's arm, touching gingerly. He thought of the power swirling and humming under that pale skin, and stroked lightly, imagining magic as colours and currents and golden light.
"We'll win," said Merlin. "We'll unite the land, and it will prosper under your rule. And there will be peace. And Albion will love you."
"People will appreciate a just rule," Arthur agreed. "This kingdom was all but run into the ground. Life will be better here for the common folk."
"It's not even that. It's your destiny to unite the land. Albion wants to be born. The two of you are tied together."
Merlin rolled up on his elbow. His eyes were huge and serious, startling dark blue.
"It's like the land has a soul," he said. "I feel it, my magic feels it. And I can feel it loves you. It's right here."
He pressed a hand to his own naked chest, and Arthur pushed it down and laid a ring of furious love bites there, over Merlin's stupid heart, feeling invincible and happy.
The next day, as the sun was setting over the ravaged battlefield, he stood at the top of the hill, sword steaming in his hand, drunk on victory, and felt the same rush of bliss and belonging. Albion was his now, to nurture and lead to glory, and at that moment he was in love with every inch of his kingdom, from sea to sea, every town, tree and rock, and felt possessively protective of every one of his subjects. And he felt loved; only right then, looking into Merlin's shining eyes, he didn't think that had anything to do with magic or the soul of the land.
The peace didn't come easily; it had to be born in blood. They kept at it for years, and it felt like they were bringing up a difficult child together. Sometimes Arthur despaired, and Merlin put his foot down and talked sense into him. Sometimes Merlin got lost in his own elaborate plans or worked himself into a frenzy over a difficult choice, and it was Arthur's turn to be the wise one.
There had been wars; in one battle Arthur was unseated from his horse and slashed across the middle. When he came to - under tall trees, away from the fight - his blood was everywhere, staining Merlin's arms to the elbows as he cut Arthur's shirt off.
"How bad is it?" Arthur asked with numb lips. Merlin's face was ghostly white, his eyes dark.
"It's fine," Merlin said. He scooped up a handful of dirt from the forest floor and pressed it into the wound.
"Are you - completely - out of your -" Arthur stuttered, but the pain was gone. Merlin's hand was steady and warm on him, glowing with power.
"Albion needs you alive," Merlin said calmly. "The earth will lend you its strength. Try to get some sleep, Lancelot has the battle well in hand."
Arthur was back in his armour in two days. The wound faded in a week, and hadn't even scarred.
They'd put an end to the last of the internal struggles, and fought off an invasion from across the sea. And then, just when it should have been a time to enjoy the peace and let the war-weary kingdom rest and recover, there was famine.
It was his fault, just as it had been his fault that time he'd shot the unicorn. He'd reached too far and dragged his kingdom through too many battles, and all the grain stores were depleted, the treasury drained. They needed this harvest desperately, but the weather had turned against them, as if to punish his pride and ambition.
They tried to devise plans, calling on their friends overseas for help, but whatever they were able to do, it wouldn't save everyone. People were going to starve and die, and the death toll was going to be worse than all the lives lost in the wars he'd waged put together.
He spent a day at the edge of a field, idly stroking dying shoots of grain and watching Merlin try every spell he knew.
"I could force a few fields to yield a harvest, I think," said Merlin tiredly, stumbling over the rows to crouch at his side. "I'll have to keep at it every day, if the weather doesn't change. But that's..."
That wouldn't be enough. Not even for Camelot, let alone the whole kingdom.
"There must be something we can do," said Arthur. "Something - if I could pass a test again, or..."
"There is something," Merlin nodded. "I don't know if it'll work. But let's try it."
They rode off the same day, for the lands that used to be Cenred's many years ago.
"I don't really understand this kind of magic," Merlin said. "Nobody does, I think. There was a sorceress who was centuries old, and she had no idea how to control this life and death stuff. And I'm only..."
He trailed off, counting in his head.
"Thirty eight," Arthur said.
"Wow. That means you're forty."
"You look the same," Merlin said. "Strange."
He didn't. He looked his age, he knew it. His face had hardened, and the lines around his eyes were deep. His hair was greying, though it was too fair for the silver strands to stand out. He still felt strong, but there were soft places on his body now, skin sagging a little here and there, no matter how hard he trained. They were all older. Gwaine's hair had started thinning and he'd cut it short; Leon had gone bald, and Gwen's dresses were looser, skimming her rounded curves. Only Merlin still looked the same, every bit a gawky fresh-faced boy barely in his twenties, as if he'd been too busy with the matters of state and had forgotten to age.
But Arthur knew what Merlin meant. Whenever he thought of his friends he pictured them young, the way they all used to be. Under Gwen's regal demeanour he still saw that sweet girl he'd kissed for the first time in her tiny house in the Lower Town. Every time he looked at Gwaine he remembered that rakish drunk in a loosely laced shirt, and Lancelot's face was still painfully earnest and full of hope, the way he'd been when he'd first petitioned to become a knight.
Perhaps Arthur only saw the marks age had left on the others because he felt them on himself. Merlin, cheerfully untouched by passage of time, had no reason to notice any changes.
They stopped at a grove, and Merlin went to talk to his contacts. Arthur waited, chewing on a mouldy piece of bread, and tried not to get his hopes up.
Merlin had returned with a few druids in tow, and they spent the rest of the day whispering among each other and arranging twigs and bird feathers in arcane patterns on the forest floor.
"Shouldn't you get on with it?" Arthur asked.
"It's a night kind of magic," said Merlin.
When the moon rose another druid arrived, leading a starved-looking cow. The beast's eyes were murky; its bones were sharp under its pelt, as if they were about to split it open from the inside.
"Is that really necessary?" Merlin asked the others.
"The spell is very old," said one of the men. "It's possible that some parts of it are only superstition, and could be skipped. But do you want to risk failure just because you're squeamish?"
Merlin sighed and shook his head. The druids slaughtered the cow with one swift knife stroke, and began skinning it.
"All right, let's begin," said Merlin. "You should get undressed."
"Me?" Arthur asked. "I thought..."
He thought Merlin had brought him here for company, because he was too much of a girl to try a difficult spell by himself. He hadn't expected to be able to help in any meaningful way.
"I told you before," Merlin said. "You're tied to this land, it loves you. We're going to try to heal it with your lifeforce."
"Will I die?" he asked. It wouldn't be too high a price to pay for saving thousands of lives; he'd been prepared to do that back when he'd still been a prince, when it was only Camelot at stake. But the kingdom still had no heir. He had to get his affairs in order before doing this.
"Of course not, don't be an idiot, I'd never let that happen," Merlin said, almost angry. "Just strip."
Arthur undressed and knelt naked at the spot they showed him. The druids whispered some spells over a clean knife and made a small nick on his arm, below his elbow. They made him stay there and bleed into the ground till he was dizzy.
"Enough," Merlin kept saying, staring at the blood as it dripped off Arthur's fingers. "That has to be enough, stop it."
"Let's do this right," Arthur said, slurring words like a drunk. "They clearly know what they're doing better than you do."
His arm was cold and numb when they finally put some moss on the cut and bandaged it. The cow pelt was spread on the ground now, skin down, the other side hastily scrubbed but still wet and caked with blood and gore.
"You have to get into this," Merlin said apologetically. "And then I'll do the last part."
Arthur walked the few wobbly steps and lay on the slick surface. The stink was overwhelming; he tried to hold his breath, but then they folded the rest of the pelt over him, wrapping him in it head to toe, and he had no choice but to breathe it in.
He dimly heard Merlin's voice chanting strange words near him. Then he passed out from the stench and blood loss.
He woke up sitting in a cold stream. A young, very naked druid girl was scrubbing him clean with a handful of dry grass.
"It's done," she said. "It went better than we expected. Emrys's gift is elemental; it's not suited to this kind of magic. But he's the only one with enough power. He'll need to rest now. You have to let him."
He nodded and tried not to look at her small pert breasts as she efficiently washed him all over. She pulled him out of the brook and led him back to the rest of the druids, huddled around the fire. Merlin was curled up near them, wrapped in Arthur's cloak, asleep. Arthur was helped back into his clothes and handed a cup of some bitter, hot brew.
"We've put some herbs in your bags," said one of the druids. "They'll help you recover. Your physician should know what to do with them. The land has accepted your gift. It recognises you as the true king."
"That's good," he mumbled.
"You're mortal," said another druid. "The land will suffer when you're gone. Emrys has made some hasty decisions. He's still a child."
"He's thirty eight," Arthur said, looking at Merlin's face, innocent and soft in his sleep, so young.
"He thinks he can keep you alive forever," a druid said. "He refuses to accept the order of things. But that's the nature of his gift."
By the time he'd made himself swallow the rest of his drink they were all gone, faded into the darkness. He managed to haul Merlin up onto his horse and mount himself, and he rode back to Camelot in a slow step, dozing off every few minutes.
Arthur was bed-ridden for a week after that, feverish and too ill to move much. He still made himself walk in small circles around his room, leaning on Gwen's shoulder or supported by Lancelot's arms, trying to keep his body limber; then slept off the cost of his grand efforts, sweating into his sheets. The spell had sapped all his strength, but he was on the mend, and so was Albion. The sun shone every day, and generous warm showers poured onto the starved land, and the crops were taking. They'd have a harvest.
Merlin slept without stirring, curled tightly at the edge of Arthur's bed. Gwaine spent hours by the bedside, stroking his hair, peering into his face.
"We need to wake him up," he kept saying worriedly. "We need to try to feed him, at least, pour some water in his mouth. He must be thirsty."
"They told me to let him rest," Arthur said, drinking his herb brew cupful after cupful. "We should let him."
Merlin woke up on the fifth day and crawled across the bed, yawning, pawing at Arthur to check his pulse.
"We're never doing that again," he said.
"We'll never have to," Arthur agreed. "We're making arrangements already. We'll stockpile food and make trade agreements; we'll never have a lean year again. And, you know what? You could have warned me. Cow hide, really?"
"I thought it would be less gross if it was sudden. You know, you're kind of married to Albion now."
"I'm married to Gwen," Arthur said, combing sweaty strands of hair off Merlin's face. "I was thinking. If there's a magic like that, maybe there's a spell that could..."
"Morgause said - that vision she conjured, it said I was conceived by magic."
"It was a lie. I told you that."
"I know, but maybe... Merlin, I'm forty. Gwen is forty four. We need an heir, we're running out of time."
He'd never relented, but they all kept hoping for a child for another decade, till time ran out. And when it did, Gwen told him she was leaving.
"But I love you," Arthur stuttered out, uselessly. She smiled and laid a soft hand on his cheek.
"I know you do," she said. "You always loved me the best you could. And I love you too. And Lancelot does, you know that. We're not doing this to hurt you."
"But I thought we were happy," he said. They were, they were all friends, everything between them had been settled and agreed years ago. They still spent three nights every month making love in his bed, on the dates Gwen and Merlin would carefully glean from moon phases, they kept trying, and it had been good. Sometimes Arthur would ask Lancelot to join them, and it was good too, even better. Arthur had been hoping - if the child was born with dark eyes and hair, everyone would just think he took after his mother. Sometimes Merlin was there too, weaving small, cautious fertility spells that didn't seem to do anything, and they'd make him stop and pull him into bed with them. It had been so good.
"You don't need me any more," she said. "I did all I could. We won the fealty of your people, and your reign is secure. You should take a young bride. Maybe the fault was with me, maybe you can still have an heir."
"I don't want you to leave. Why can't you stay? You and Lancelot don't have to hide, if that bothers you. You know I only asked you to keep up appearances so the legitimacy of our child wouldn't be doubted. It doesn't matter now. The people love you, they'll accept it."
"Arthur, I was never meant for this," she said. "I'm not suited for this life. I did my best, but now that we know I'll never bear you a child, I just want to live what time I have left the way I want to. I want to be with the man who can give me everything he is, and I want to give him everything. Not just stolen glances and secret meetings in the night, and a corner in your bed."
"But why - is this about Merlin? I thought you'd..."
"It's not about Merlin," she sighed. "Merlin would rip his heart out with his bare hands if he thought it would make us happy. It's about you. You could never love me the way Lancelot does, and it's not your fault. You belong to your kingdom, and everything else comes second. I've always felt like a mistress, intruding on your true love."
"No, Gwen. That's just - listen, it's probably because Merlin messed up some spells. He'll undo it."
"It's always been like this," she said. "I've always known it. We all have. We helped you carry your burden; we just want to rest now."
"I'd have given it all up for you," he said, remembering that first flush of romance, when everything seemed so grand and urgent.
"I'm glad you didn't," she said. "You've become a great king, and you've changed this land for the better. You've changed people's lives for the better. I'm proud to have had a part in it. If you'd chosen me, all we'd have now would be a poorly run farm and an unhappy marriage. You have your kingdom, and it has you, and none of us would have it any other way."
It hurt for a long time, but they had a kingdom to run, and the pain faded, swept away by daily toil.
"We need to choose a successor," Arthur told Merlin one morning. They'd been lazing in bed together; Merlin was still sleepy, nuzzling at him with soft warm lips.
"Why," Merlin drawled and kissed a wet line through white hairs on Arthur's chest. "It's not like you're old."
Arthur looked at his own hand, wrinkled and marked with age spots, resting on impossibly smooth, glowing skin of Merlin's back, and didn't argue.
"For me it's between you and Gwaine right now," he said.
"Well, I'm not doing it," Merlin huffed. "And Gwaine is older than you, by six months."
"We'll need a younger man, yes. But without the queen - we need a successor in place now, in case something happens."
"I won't let anything happen to you. Besides, I don't think Albion would let you go."
In the end, Merlin wasn't there to save him, and he was defeated, and he died. But Albion hadn't let him go. Over and over, whenever the kingdom was in trouble, whenever there was a war and a threat of invasion, Arthur found himself on the field of his last battle, in the same place he'd fallen and the same age he'd been when he'd first claimed this land for himself.
He didn't know why it happened. It could be destiny. It could be something he'd willed on himself somehow, because he loved his kingdom the way he couldn't love his wife, the way only Merlin really understood. It could be the will of the land, crying for him like a child stirred by a nightmare.
Or it could all be Merlin's fault. He might have messed up some spells, or even done this on purpose, when he'd fused Arthur's blood with Albion's soil, when he'd wrapped him in that damned cow skin and used his lifeforce to save the harvest, or any other time he wove his magic without even telling Arthur what it did.
Arthur liked to blame it all on Merlin. It gave him an excuse to grumble at Merlin, and that was always satisfying, even if the conversation only happened in his head.
"You did this to me, I just know it," he told Merlin over and over, century after century. "I'm stuck here because of you. I hope you're happy."
Merlin in his head laughed, crinkling his eyes, and showed no remorse whatsoever, as if he knew Arthur was only putting on a show. Of course he'd know. He'd understand why Arthur liked coming back and seeing his kingdom prosper, and even why it felt good to fight again. Arthur probably hadn't been a good husband, and he hadn't been as good a king as he'd wanted to be. But he was a born warrior. This was something he could do well.
"I hope you're happy, Merlin," Arthur mumbled to himself sometimes, resting between battles. "Wherever you are, I'm sure you're happy."
The sky was on fire.
Arthur had been directed to a shelter, but he couldn't leave the street. It was awful to watch, and yet he couldn't look away.
Thick columns of smoke rose up from the burning buildings, and up in the sky there was more, trails of it left by the planes ripping through the sky, clouds from the ones that'd been hit. White lines of fire streamed from the planes, and more shot up to the planes from the ground defences. Search lights crossed and turned, caught on the clouds of smoke; at first it seemed like utter chaos, but Arthur could already see formations, discern the patterns of the attacks.
The sound was terrible, worse than the sight, so it was better to look, and to try learning what the changes in the deafening roar of the battle meant. The chilling low wail was the sound of a bomb coming down, and it would be followed by the blast, sometimes shaking the ground so much Arthur would lose his footing and stumble to the nearest wall, half-deaf. For a moment after that everything seemed quieter, as if the worst had happened and there was going to be respite now, a lull. But the battle went on, for hours and hours, all through the night.
Arthur remembered the time when Camelot had been attacked by the dragon, remembered the fire pouring from the sky and the beating of enormous wings. They'd been so scared then; they'd thought it was the worst kind of calamity, they'd thought they were doomed. And it had only been one dragon.
This was incomparable, unthinkable, so bad his mind kept shrinking away from facing the full horror of it. But this time Arthur didn't have to stand there, helpless, waiting for a wave of fire to come down on him and his people. He could fight back.
He just needed to learn to fly.
Forging an identity in the chaotic times of war was never difficult. Most of the time Arthur simply stuck with his own name. He hadn't expected any complications and was taken aback when an old man in the recruitment office jumped up and stared at him as if he'd seen a ghost.
"Arthur Pendragon," he muttered. "Same face. Spitting image."
"Pardon?" Arthur said, but he already understood his mistake. It had only been twenty-two years since he'd fought his last war. Usually many decades would pass outside Avalon between his campaigns; after they'd defeated Buonaparte he'd not been called for nearly a century. The Crimea, India, Afganistan, China, Africa and the Americas – all that had happened without him. Albion was happy to expand and stretch out, and only required his presence when the trouble was close to home and invasion was a possibility.
But it seemed that history was speeding up, and some of those who fought at his side in the last great war were still alive and could remember him.
"You're Captain Pendragon's lad, aren't you?" the man said. "Arthur Pendragon was your father, wasn't he?"
"Yes," said Arthur and blushed. After all this time he still hadn't got the hang of lying convincingly.
"Same face!" the man said again. "I thought my old Captain had risen from the grave! I served under your old man on the Hindenburg line, lad, and let me tell you, there was none braver. He looked after us, and he fought like a lion, and the way he died – he saved a lot of people that day."
Arthur listened and nodded, stiff and a little nauseated. He didn't recognise this man. There were a lot of them in his last command, and they'd all looked the same: frightened boys, worn ragged by months in the trenches. It was strange that one of them would remember him twenty two years later.
"I want to join the Royal Air Force," he said as soon as the man stopped extolling the virtues of his dead self to draw a breath. "I've heard more pilots are needed."
He already knew that the RAF accepted everyone willing and able. But the old man swiftly pulled some strings and arranged for a trip to an active air field, to see the Spitfires up close and to talk to the pilots, to ask them for advice and guidance.
"You go and make you father proud, lad," he told Arthur. "Arthur Pendragon is a hell of a name to live up to."
Arthur nodded, swallowing an uncomfortable lump in his throat, and went to meet his future brothers in arms.
The pilots on stand-by were waiting to see if there was going to be a raid: if there was they'd get scrambled and sent off to drive back the bombers. They seemed to welcome the distraction of talking to an eager recruit, and he tried to learn as much as he could. He had a lot to catch up on. He stared into the dark eyes of the pilot who talked to him, and thought to himself that seeing the familiar faces was by far the worst part of the whole thing.
It kept happening, and he tried to get used to it. He knew that his memory could be playing tricks on him, and he was seeing an exact resemblance where there was perhaps little. It was worse when they had the same names, which, by some terrible joke of fate, they often did.
This pilot's name was Javier. He was Spanish, a Republican soldier, exiled from his country by Franco and his nationalists. He had come to England from a refugee camp in France, and joined the RAF to continue fighting.
His call sign was Lancelot, and that's what everyone called him.
His wingman was a tall, quiet man called Percy, and their mechanic was a girl, dark-skinned and beautiful, even with her hair swept under her cap and her face streaked with grease.
"I'm Guinevere," she said. "My mother was Welsh, I know nobody can pronounce it, just call me Gwen."
He nodded, unable to look her in the face, staring down at the dirty, calloused hands of the woman who'd never been his wife. Every glance Lancelot gave her was painfully familiar, the same heat and longing Arthur had seen him struggle with for many years.
She told him about the Spitfires, what they could do, what to watch out for. He barely listened till one word shook him out of his reverie.
"Merlin?" he asked.
She smiled and led him to a plane that'd been opened up for repairs, and showed him the engine, nestled among the metal entrails of the machine.
"The Merlin engine," she said. "The heart of your aircraft. This is a masterpiece, the best of British, that's what gives us that bit of edge over the Messers. My father works for Rolls-Royce, he makes them. That's what keeps your Spitfire in the sky."
"It's... named after a bird, right?"
"All Rolls-Royce engines are. But this one is a bit magical, so we like to think it's named after a wizard. You know, there used to be this great sorcerer, he served King Arthur -"
"Yes, I know," Arthur said. "I know about him."
"We just need to keep your Merlin happy and healthy, and he'll see you home safe," she said, and went on with the mechanic talk.
Arthur had to excuse himself and step outside for a bit of air. His hands shook, and he didn't want anyone to see that and think he'd be unsuited to be a pilot.
"Merlin," he said, smiling. Tears sprang from his eyes, falling easily like tears of joy, and he let himself cry for a while, wiping his face with a sleeve whenever anyone passed too close. "Merlin, oh, you'd get such a kick out of this."
When he came back Lancelot let him into the cockpit, which was a lot more pleasant than the innards of a tank, and explained all the controls. Then he quizzed Arthur on them, pleased to find him a quick student.
"It will be a few months before they'll let you at a Spitfire," he said. "They'll have you fly a Tiger Moth first, study the theory – but you'll qualify in no time. I hope you'll get posted here. We need men like you."
"You should marry her," Arthur said, and smiled when Lancelot's eyes darted across the field to find Gwen.
"She deserves so much better," Lancelot said with a little sad grin. "All I have now is a bunk in the barracks. And I never know if I'm going to land when I take off. I can't ask her to do that."
"You're a fool," Arthur told him. "Her heart is full of love, she can't live on duty and fighting like you or me. If you refuse to be with her, sooner or later she'll give up on you and settle for someone else. And they won't be happy, and you won't. You'll just make three people miserable. Marry her."
Arthur had no right to talk to an officer like this; he was barely a recruit. But maybe, in some unexplicable way, some part of Lancelot remembered him, too, as his former king, because he only nodded shortly as if acknowledging an order.
There was still a matter of some medical tests, but Arthur wasn't worried about those. He was fighting fit. He expected to be commissioned tomorrow, to get his uniform and be stationed somewhere for training. He'd been told that he wouldn't get leave for the first few weeks, so he went for a long walk to enjoy freedom and idleness while he could. He circled the streets of an unfamiliar suburb, trying not to look at the rubble and the paper strips on the windows. There could be another air raid later that night, but for now, if he ignored certain details, everything looked almost peaceful.
But he didn't feel at peace, and it was more than the usual war time worries. He felt anxious, hunted. He was being watched.
Once he realised that, he changed the pattern of his walk. He walked slower, stopped and turned back, trying to gauge his surroundings from reflections in the shop windows that weren't broken or plastered over with severe white-on-red posters. He spotted his pursuer quickly enough. The man's hat was pulled low, and the collar of his trenchcoat was turned up, but Arthur was pretty sure he'd never seen him before, not in this life or any other. He have tried to shake him off, but instead he kept his pace leisurely and headed to the warehouses by the railway.
Arthur slipped into a sheltered nook between buildings and waited till his pursuer barrelled past him and wheeled on the spot. Then he bounded round the corner and pinned the man to the wall with a forearm to his throat.
The man was weedy and didn't seem to have any hand-to-hand combat expertise. Arthur lightly punched him in the gut to wind him, then held him down till the man stopped struggling and clawing at Arthur's arm and just hung there, drawing too-shallow, laboured breaths.
"I'm going to let you breathe," Arthur said. "And you're going to tell me why you're following me. Deal?"
The man nodded, wheezing, and Arthur pulled back a little.
"Talk," he ordered.
The man licked his lips, still gathering his breath. His eyes were shifty, as if he was struggling not to focus on something behind Arthur's back.
Arthur turned to look, and a wet and foul-smelling cloth was pressed to his face. There were suddenly men around him, four or five, too close – he hadn't noticed them at all. He'd been childishly excited by this chase, and had paid no attention to anything else.
The man who’d clumsily tailed him had only been the bait. The others were a different sort altogether. They'd approached soundlessly, and now they were wrestling Arthur to the ground, skillfully, making sure not to injure him.
He couldn't twist away from the wet cloth they kept shoving at his face, and he tried not to inhale through it, but he could only hold his breath for so long. They twisted his arm sharply and he gulped in some air, stunned by the pain, and it was over.
He woke up to a faceful of cold water, and jerked backwards, forcing his eyes open.
He was tied to a dinner chair. His ankles were strapped to the chair legs, and his elbows and wrists were tied to the armrests. The ropes were tight, and went around the backs of his palms so he couldn't even form fists with his hands.
There were three men standing in front of him, and there were more behind him, where he couldn't see. He saw their shadows on the dusty floor, and heard them breathing behind his back. Two more, five in all. Their clothes were dark and non-descript, and he didn't recognise their faces.
They were in an abandoned house lit by a few kerosene lamps on the floor. The windows were smashed, and the furniture was broken and scattered. Apart from the chair he was on, there was a small intact table standing nearby, covered with cloth. One of the men folded the cloth back and let Arthur see an array of surgical instruments, neatly lined up.
"Arthur Pendragon," said another man. "New recruit with the RAF. Last address in a bombed area, no living family."
Arthur carefully tested the ropes. They held fast, but the chair was old and creaked slightly. Not that breaking free would do him any good against five men who were probably armed.
He had no idea why had they grabbed him. He hadn't even started training, he barely knew anything yet. They had taken a lot more trouble than he was worth.
"You're going to tell us your secret," the man said. "What's so special about you, Arthur Pendragon?"
Arthur set his jaw and tried to think why his secret would be of any worth to the enemy. He wasn't a king anymore; he wasn't even remotely related to the current royal family; he was a nobody now, even if his real indentity was known. He had no control over the power, or curse, which kept returning him to the land of the living; he didn't even know how it worked. He couldn't teach anyone else how to do it. Mostly he kept his secrets because he didn't want people to think he was insane. If he told his captors the truth, they'd gain nothing from it.
Then again, if they were wasting time on him they probably had a reason. Most likely someone had figured out he was the same Arthur Pendragon who'd fought them in the last war and they were hoping to find the secret of immortality. It could be that rumours of the Cup of Life had surfaced, and they'd managed to link them to him.
He didn't have much experience of being interrogated by someone who knew what they were doing. But he'd had some cursory training and he'd heard the stories. The only way was to keep your mouth shut or, if you couldn't, to repeat your name and rank over and over again. It wasn't possible to outsmart people who were torturing you, or to glean any information from them without revealing your own secrets. It just wasn't possible to think that clearly through the pain, not for long.
One of the men stepped up to him and slapped him across the face with his leather gloves, and then again and again, harder and harder. When Arthur tried to tuck his face away from the blows, the one who stood behind fisted a hand in his hair and held him still under the stinging slaps.
It hurt a lot, but the humiliation was worse, and being slapped like this made him feel more helpless than the ropes had. That, Arthur supposed, was the point. Intimidate a man, strip him of his dignity, and his fighting spirit will be broken.
They stopped and let him catch his breath.
"What is your link to the Golden Dawn?" one of them asked.
He tried to keep his face impassive, but his confusion must have shown.
"I don't think he knows," said one of the men in German. Arthur had learned the language in the last war, just like he'd learned Spanish and French in the wars before that.
"He knows something," answered another and he punched Arthur in the mouth, too lightly to daze him or to shatter his teeth, just hard enough to make him taste his own blood. While he was trying to swallow it and keep quiet through the pain he was hit in the stomach, and he coughed, spluttering blood over his chin.
"Arthur," said one of the torturers softly, fingering the tools on the table. Arthur tried not to look at them, or guess at their function. "Understand, if you keep silent for hours or even days, you will inconvenience us very little. You're only making this harder for yourself."
He pinned Arthur's hand to the armrest of the chair and thrust a needle under his fingernail. The pain was unexpectedly sharp, and Arhtur couldn't bite down a scream. He strained against the ropes, riding it out, and they hit him in the face again, with their fists now, but still not hard enough to concuss him.
One of the men grasped his chin, digging his fingers into bruised skin, and wrenched his head up.
"Why is the sorcerer looking for you?" he asked.
"What?" Arthur muttered through his swollen lips, certain he'd misheard. He wasn't going to talk; his intention was not to say a word, but the question caught him off-guard.
"The sorcerer," the man repeated, carefully ennuncuiating the foreign words. "The boy with the golden eyes. Why is he looking for you?"
Arthur barely felt the next few blows, or the pain from another needle. He stopped listening to their questions, deafened by the pounding of his heart. Everything faded, was swept away by this new knowledge. The sorcerer was looking for him. Merlin was alive.
He'd always believed that, somewhere deep in his heart. Merlin hadn't aged in all the decades Arthur had known him, so it stood to reason he wouldn't have aged in fourteen centuries. Arthur liked to think that Merlin was alive and well, living a good, simple life somewere on a farm by a lake. Arthur had never looked for him, because of his fear he might find a gravestone. Or, worse, he might find Merlin who'd never got better, who had been tortured for centuries by the same malady that took him away from Arthur's side. Merlin's mind might've been destroyed by pain while his ageless body lingered without any hope of respite, and Arthur wouldn't be able to help him. It was better not to search for him; instead he would hope, and defend their country from all foes so Merlin would never have to face another war and could live in peace.
And he'd been right. Merlin was alive, and presumably sane and healthy if he was looking for Arthur. But it also meant Merlin could be about to walk into a trap.
The men noticed that he was drifting off and splashed more water in his face. His chest was soaked; he was cold. The pain started to wear him down, and he shivered against the ropes, finally feeling truly scared. Merlin had been waiting for him for over a millenium. It couldn't end like this.
"Oh, he won't find you," one of the men told him. "Don't expect to be rescued. Our friends have already taken care of him. He's probably – how do you say it? - spilling the beans right now. It doesn't matter if you talk, because he will. Their methods are subtler than ours."
They hit him again; he twitched weakly, telling himself they were lying to him and trying to rob him of hope. Mind games were a part of any interrogation.
"Our methods are crude," said one of the torturers and picked up an instrument from the table. "But they are effective. Why is the sorcerer looking for you?"
"Because he missed me," said Arthur grimly, and braced himself for more.
He’d just felt the touch of the cold metal when all the lamps went out at once and the room was plunged into perfect darkness before exploding into a flash of blue light.
"Kill him!" shouted someone in German. There were gun shots, white traces of bullets piercing the black laced with blue; a gun muzzle briefly grazed Arthur's head and disappeared. Arthur rocked forward, yanking the chair after himself till he could put his weight on his feet, and then threw himself backwards as hard as he could. The chair joints cracked, as he'd hoped, and he frantically squirmed against the loosened ropes. By the time he'd twisted free, swinging a chair leg and looking for a target, the shots and the screams had stopped and the blue light died down, leaving him in the dark again.
There was a sillouette in the doorway, barely discernable in the weak starlight. All Arthur could see was the golden glow of the man's eyes and big ears sticking out of his messy hair. The man stood very still, with a hand out-thrust, last sparks of the deadly spell crackling between his fingers, but there was something in his posture, some coltish, youthful awkwardness, that robbed it of all menace.
"Merlin," said Arthur, and even as he'd heard himself voice the name, he knew he was wrong.
The lamps lit again, all at once, sparked by magic. The man walked into the room, stepping over the bloodied corpses of the spies.
"I'm not Merlin," he said.
"I know," Arthur said. The sorcerer looked nothing like Merlin. There was no resemblance at all.
"Merlin has been gone from this world for many centuries," said the sorcerer.
"I know," said Arthur. The needles were still lodged in his fingers; he grasped the metal with his teeth and pulled them out, carelessly, using the pain to distract himself from the gnawing ache in his chest.
"I think it's time for him to return," said the sorcerer. "Wouldn't you agree, Your Highness?"
Something had happened to Merlin in the last years of Arthur's reign. It started with the nightmares, and at first Arthur had thought that was all it was, bad dreams caused by too much rich food at supper. The dreams didn't even make sense.
The first time Arthur was woken up by Merlin's screams he panicked, thinking they were under attack. He'd reached for his sword, grabbed Merlin and shoved him back, shielding him from danger, before he opened his eyes.
But they were alone in the bedroom, and Merlin was drenched in sweat, his eyes unseeing and wet with tears.
"I killed my parents," he muttered.
Arthur put down the sword and roughly shook Merlin fully awake.
"It was a stupid dream," he explained. "Just a dream."
Merlin's face was still a white mask, and Arthur gave him another shake.
"You didn't kill your parents, you moron," he said. "You've never even met your father. And you certainly didn't kill your mother. She died because she was seventy eight."
When Hunith fell ill they'd brought her to Camelot, to live with them. She was so well looked after; she passed away in her sleep, with her son curled up at the foot of her bed. It was a good, long life, a good death.
"Not that time," Merlin muttered nonsensically. "I should never have dragged them into this. It was my fight, my destiny. I shouldn't have done that to them."
Arthur kept hitting him with a pillow till he'd knocked his odd mood out of him, and then they had a very satisfying tussle followed by an even better tumble, and the dream was forgotten.
But the nightmares kept happening. Merlin would jump awake, wheezing in panic, or stay asleep and writhe on the bed, moaning "Will, Will," or screaming Morgana's name. Soon he was afraid to go to sleep, and spent whole nights sitting up against the headboard, blindly staring into the darkness.
"Oh, it's only right," he said after that's been going on for a while. "I've done a lot of horrible things in my life. Would be weird if I never had to pay."
"Everything we did was for the good of our people," Arthur said. "All you've done, you've done in my service. Because I'd ordered you to. The responsibility is mine, not yours."
"You don't know about most of the things I've done."
"Then tell me," he demanded. Merlin needed to unburden himself, then Arthur could laugh at him and make light of all his terrible secrets. But Merlin ignored him, and when Arthur tried to get his attention by tickling sensitive spots on his ribs he got up and left the room.
Arthur had got a sleeping draught from the court physician and forced it down Merlin's throat on schedule, whether he liked it or not. That stopped the nightmares, but instead turned them into waking dreams, and that was a lot worse.
They'd just come back from a ride, and were dismounting in the courtyard. Merlin looked flushed and content; his hair was a cheerful mess with crushed leaves caught in the curls. They'd stopped in a forest before and lain in the grass under the trees, and Arthur had kissed Merlin's smiling sunlight-dappled face, pressed him into the forest floor and moved over him, slid between his slim thighs, feeling young and loved.
Merlin got off his horse first and moved to Arthur's side to hold his stirrup, as he still did sometimes out of force of habit, or just because he liked to. Arthur smiled at him and leaned down to pluck a leaf out of his hair, and dropped his riding glove.
Merlin glanced at it and it stopped mid-air, hanging by the horse flank. Arthur had just started reaching for it when Merlin suddenly crashed to his knees and let the glove fall to the ground.
"Sire, please, no," he moaned, bending low, raking his fingers through the dust.
Arthur jumped down and picked him up. He dragged Merlin inside the castle, trying to shield him from the onlookers with his body. People were staring; servants, grooms, guards, they were all staring at their court sorcerer, white and shaking, stiff with terror in his king's arms.
Once there were inside, safe from prying eyes for a moment, he hugged Merlin tight and tipped his face up, stroking his cheeks, hoping to soothe him.
"What is it?" he whispered. "What's wrong?"
"It's all right," said Merlin, loosening against him. "I... I forgot magic wasn't banned."
"What? Merlin, it hasn't been banned for decades."
"I know that," Merlin closed his eyes. He looked very tired. "I just – I thought for a moment that it was still banned and I'd forgotten that it wasn't. I thought you were going to have me executed."
"It is, yes. I know it is, Arthur. It's fine."
"I wouldn't have had you executed. Not even back then, I'd never have let that happen," Arthur said. Merlin smiled at him weakly, as if he didn't believe it even though it was the truth. At least, there had come a time when Arthur would have sheltered Merlin from Uther's wrath at any cost.
But there had been time, in the beginning, when things had been different, when he would have dragged his traitorous peasant servant to the chopping block himself if he'd discovered his magic. Even after Merlin had drunk poison for him. Maybe especially after that, when the betrayal would have hurt all the more.
Merlin had a lot of wine at dinner that night and slept soundly, snoring. Arthur lay awake beside him and thought what it must have been like for him all those years, to live in secrecy and fear, like a spy in his own home, always waiting to be discovered.
"You wouldn't have been executed, anyway," he told Merlin at breakfast. "You're a sorcerer. You'd have escaped or something. It's stupid to worry about it now, when it's all in the past, but even back then you were never in real danger. Right?"
Merlin glanced up from the sausage he'd been idly disemboweling for the last ten minutes. For one moment there was real anger in his eyes, something Arthur couldn't remember seeing before.
"It's all in the past," said Merlin, probably mocking him, but his voice was so tight it was hard to tell.
But the past kept creeping into their present, taking hold of Merlin till he barely paid attention to anything that was happening around him, lost in his memories. Sometimes in the middle of a conversation he'd been sluggishly following he'd flinch and press his hand to Arthur's chest or his belly.
"You're bleeding," he'd say, his voice shaking.
"I'm not," Arthur would answer as calmly and patiently as he could.
"Right, no, no, I just thought, trick of the light," Merlin would agree and drop his hand.
Merlin had his own set of rooms, spacious and richly decorated. They stood empty for decades, but recently Merlin had started spending time in them. Once, after he hadn't shown up for a council meeting, Arthur found him there, sat on the floor, fixing a bandage on his hand. The bandage was made of a ripped up pillow cover, and Merlin had wound it sloppily, twisted and loose, and was now trying to tighten the knot with his teeth.
"What happened?" Arthur batted his protesting hands away and unravelled the cloth. Merlin's knuckles were torn and bleeding, badly swollen.
"Nothing," said Merlin. "Just... being clumsy."
"Let's take you to have this healed," Arthur said. They had a druid healer now, working alongside the court physician. She could make an injury like that melt away in hours.
"No, I want a bandage," Merlin said petulantly, like a stubborn child.
Arthur relented and bandaged his hand properly. Merlin sat there listlessly, flexing his fingers as if he wanted to make the cuts smart.
"I know what I should have told Morgana," he said quietly. "There was a moment when I should have said just this one thing to her, and none of that would have happened. I should have known it back then, all the right words. I probably did, I should have said it. I don't know why I didn't say it."
"Her choices were her own," Arthur said. Merlin shrugged and stayed in his room for three days, till Gwaine dragged him out and into the Rising Sun where they'd both got disgracefully drunk, got into a brawl and saddled the Royal Treasury with an enormous bill. To his last days Arthur never found out what they did with all the pickled eggs.
"I made Mordred what he is," Merlin told Arthur a few months later, out of the blue. "I set him on his path that day, when I decided his life could be forfeited for the greater good."
"Stop talking drivel, Merlin. We make decisions like that every day. In every battle it's us or them, and it's not about the value of any given life."
"It was, though," Merlin said. "I decided his life was worth less than yours. And it is. I should have killed him right then, when he was still a child. I shouldn't have hesitated. You can't make a decision like that and still think you have a heart. It was cowardly to let myself – I had no right to feel pity, or compassion. No right. Not after making a choice like that. You can't do that kind of thing by halves, and hope to keep your hands clean."
"You can't just stop feeling because you had to make some hard choices," Arthur said. "And we shouldn't. That's what happened to my father. He thought that to be a good king he had to be ruthless, above remorse and regrets. And you know where that led him."
He's never spoken ill of his father, and wouldn't allow anyone else to do so. This was a huge concession on his part, and he'd thought Merlin would appreciate that. But Merlin dully stared past him; he's not even heard. That wasn't the first time he'd lost interest in the conversation just as Arthur had found the way to explain, with logic and facts, why there was no reason for Merlin to beat himself up.
Arthur decided it had to be a spell, some kind of dark curse that'd been put on his sorcerer by their enemies. He could almost feel its will, as if it was a separate being, a monster lurking somewhere in Merlin's mind. It hated Merlin and worked against him, methodically cutting off every source of joy in his life till all that was left was sadness. It kept Merlin deaf to words of encouragement, ruined his enjoyment of food, made him too tired to go on walks and horse rides, and often chased him away from Arthur's bed. It made him shun feasts and company of friends and shut himself in his rooms, alone and miserable. So Arthur had gathered the best sorcerers Albion had and ordered them to find the evil magic and destroy it.
They all stared at him in confusion.
"Nobody could bespell Emrys like that," they said. "Nobody has the power. If someone did, he'd break it quickly."
"Maybe he did it to himself," said Arthur impatiently. "Maybe he mucked up some magic. You know how he is."
"None of us has the power to break the spell of Emrys's," they droned, and he hated their sycophantic admiration that left Merlin unaided.
They checked anyway, in secret, so their Emrys wouldn't be angry with them, and found no spells, no magical malice.
"I think he's battle-weary," said Gwaine one day. He and Arthur were drinking alone. This happened more often now - Merlin had lost all interest in mead and merriment.
"He's not been in a battle for years. He should be getting better, not worse."
"Sometimes it happens like this," Gwaine sighed. "I've not seen anything like, but that's because men hide it, like it's something shameful. And he's hiding it, too. Barely anyone else notices apart from us. He's even trying to hide it from you. He doesn't want you to worry."
"He tells you more than he does me," Arthur said, even though it stung to admit it.
"Maybe," said Gwaine, which meant yes, and also that he wasn't going to share Merlin's secrets.
"If there's anything I can do – if you know of anything I'm doing wrong, you have to tell me. I order you to."
"Oh, I'd tell you if I knew."
Gwaine had never been one to mince words. But often Arthur caught something in his eyes, a bitter kind of reproach, as if Gwaine secretly resented him for failing Merlin when he'd needed him the most.
"You're angry with me," said Merlin once, staring out of the window with his back to Arthur.
"I suppose I am a bit," Arthur admitted. "Nothing I do is good enough to make you so much as smile. It's annoying. But, well. Maybe I'm just not the kind of person who can make someone happy."
He hadn't given his wife what she'd needed; he'd never truly understood what that was. It only stood to reason he wouldn't be able do that for Merlin, either.
"I am happy with you," Merlin said. "I've always been. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe I don't deserve to be so happy. Not after everything."
"You deserve every happiness, Merlin. By the royal decree, I make it so. I can, you know."
Merlin turned and gave him a small amused smile.
"I'm your king," Arthur said, encouraged. "I order you to be happy. If you defy me, it's back in the stocks with you."
Merlin actually laughed, and came over to straddle Arthur's lap and give him a long kiss.
"No, it wouldn't do to let the people see my court sorcerer in such undignified position," Arthur continued, babbling out everything that came to mind to press his advantage while he had it. He wasn't sure why it was working; on another day the same words would have reduced Merlin to tears or white-faced fury. "I'll install the stocks in my room and keep you there for my private enjoyment. And it won't be food I'll be tossing in your face."
"Tyrant," chuckled Merlin and pushed him flat onto the bed. "Tie me up tonight."
There had been good days, sometimes good weeks. Sometimes Merlin would sleep well and wake up smiling, and they'd laugh together and walk in the sun, and the passion between them would be sweet and sharp, like it always was in the time of their youth. Sometimes Merlin would stay in bed all day, weeping like a hurt child, and wouldn't say a word to anyone.
Arthur was feeling battle-weary himself, and he didn't know how to fight this war. When he couldn't take it any longer he'd ride out and stay away for days, letting Gwaine deal with both Merlin's moods and the affairs of the kingdom.
When Merlin told him he was going away for a while, Arthur felt a shameful kind of relief.
"I'll go with you," he said nevertheless. "Or Gwaine will, if you'd rather..."
"No, I need to be alone," Merlin said. "I'm going to see some old friends, travel a bit, have a think. I want to see this kingdom as the people do, not from your castle. Just, to see it was all worth it, for them. I want to live in a forest for some time, to listen to the earth. I need to remember who I am. I think... I'm lost. I need to find myself again."
"You are coming back," Arthur said, making it an order, not a question.
"Of course. My place is with you. But I'm no use to you like this. A sorcerer who's losing his mind isn't a great ally."
"You're just... weary," said Arthur. He couldn't accept that thought, even if it had occurred to him sometimes. Madness was supposed to run in his family. It couldn't happen to Merlin.
That's how he'd seen Merlin for the last time: walking out of the castle on foot, with a small pack strapped to his shoulders. When he turned to wave to Arthur, his smile was bright and joyful, and he looked so young, so hopeful.
He'd sent Arthur a handful of messages from his travels. A dazed-looking bird would burst into Arthur's bedroom window and land on Arthur's shoulder, then demandingly claw at his skin till he took off a pouch tied to its neck. The messages were mostly inane lines about weather or food, but they still made Arthur smile for days. Sometimes Merlin would send him a beautiful flower or a sweet fruit from a faraway land; of course, being Merlin, he never quite thought that through. Arthur poked at the wilted, mouldy mess in the pouch and laughed, and imagined Merlin's pout when he berated his silliness later.
And then the last message came, telling him that Mordred's army was marching on Camelot. Merlin wrote that he was coming back, and he'd be by Arthur's side when they went into battle, and they'd win, and he'd stay, he wouldn't leave again.
Arthur waited till the last moment, and then set off without him, hoping Merlin would meet them at Camlann.
He told himself Merlin had been delayed, had taken a wrong turn, got distracted picking flowers. Anything could have happened – Merlin could have been half way across the world when he'd scryed Mordred's plans. It might take him weeks to get back.
Merlin never arrived. When Mordred's sword sunk into his gut, Arthur had a brief, uncontrollable flash of a thought: he's dead, isn't he, nothing short of death would have kept him away, Merlin's dead.
But he'd mostly managed not to think like that since.
"Merlin isn't dead," said the sorcerer. "He's trapped outside of time."
He led Arthur out of the house, onto a dark empty street. Most of the houses were destroyed by the bombs; even the one Arthur had been held in was half-rubble.
"Has he been imprisoned all this time?" Arthur asked, struggling to imagine what fourteen centuries of captivity would be like.
"It's not like that. Your enemies knew the only way to get to you would be to separate you from Merlin. They couldn't kill him, and whatever spell they could put on him, they knew he'd break it given enough time. So they made sure time was the one thing he wouldn't have."
"Is he still living that last moment, when he was captured? Was his mind stuck like that?"
"He's not – Sire, nothing is happening to him. He doesn't really exist right now. All the time that has passed - it passed him by, he didn't feel it."
Arthur stopped, his mind swarming with too many questions.
"I can take you to him," the sorcerer said. "I'll explain everything on the way. Your Highness, please. I've sworn fealty to you. You can trust me."
They rounded a corner; Arthur expected to see the shimmer of a magical portal, but instead the sorcerer got into a parked car and started the engine. Arthur took the passenger seat and gave him a chance to negotiate the turn as they set off.
"All right, talk," he said, surreptitiously clutching at his seat. Driving was still a bit too exciting. "Who are you?"
"Gilli," said the man. "You don't remember me, do you? I didn't think you would. We've never spoken. But I fought your father in a tournament once."
"You!" Arthur gasped, suddenly recalling the face, and the gracelless lanky body that seemed like it might topple sideways just from the weight of a sword. "That's how you were winning! You used magic – you cheated!"
Gilli smiled, keeping his eyes on the road.
"There were no rules in the open tournament. No weapon was banned."
"Oh, but magic was banned in the whole kingdom," said Arthur heatedly. "And your opponents didn't expect it. So it was cheating!"
During Arthur's reign magic was allowed at open tournaments, and it hadn't nesessarily given the fighters a winning edge. He'd seen many sorcerers knocked out while they struggled to finish a spell. But the principle stood.
And then it finally dawned on him.
"Gilli," he said. "Are you like me?"
"Oh, no. Nobody is like you, Your Highness."
"You shouldn't call me that. I'm not a king anymore. Why are you still alive, then?"
"Magic," Gilli said simply. "If you know how to use it, you can live forever. Merlin helped me craft the first few spells. We were friends. Kin."
Gilly pulled back his sleeve and let Arthur see red runes painted into his skin, on the inside of his arm.
"Merlin put these here," he said. "I'm covered in them now, but he'd started me off."
"Immortality," Arthur breathed.
"No. Only the means to slow and reverse aging. I wanted to prolong my life to finish my study of magic. There was so much to learn. I needed more time."
He smiled again, fondly, at his memories.
"Merlin said I'd never learn it all. That magic was endless. And he was right. All this time, and I'm still a novice. There's still so much to learn."
"Did you learn how to rescue him?" Arthur asked, not in the mood for idle talk.
"I can't. But I hoped you might do it."
"I've no magic..."
"You're tied to Merlin. Your destinies are one," said Gilli as he drove them out of town and turned onto a wide empty road. The car nearly floated on the smooth surface; it was so different from being on a horse. "And you have beaten the pull of time. This power, however you came by it, can break the spell."
"You've been looking for me," Arthur remembered. "Is this why?"
"I found Merlin centuries ago," he said. "My people worked to free him, but we failed. So we waited for you. Your return has been foretold. But we thought you'd return in a blaze of glory to reclaim your kindgom..."
"Sorry to disappoint," said Arthur testily. "I don't think Albion needs reclaiming. It's doing fine. It just needs defending."
"I understand," said Gilli politely. "The burden of the crown must be heavy. I remember how Merlin suffered, and he only stood at your side."
"This is a terrible time to free him," Arthur said, remembering Merlin's lost expression when he was taken by a waking nightmare. "We're at war. I don't want him to see any of this. It might make him worse."
"There's never a good time," shrugged Gilli. "You only come at times of trouble, I know this now. I finally found something of yours to focus my searching spells, and I nearly got to you in Belgium, but you died before we could speak. And we need Merlin. Now more than ever."
"Will you have him fight enemy bombers? That's - "
"There's a greater threat," said Gilli. He drove west, back to Wales; if Merlin was there, it meant he'd nearly made it to Camlann before he was trapped. He'd been so close.
"There's a group of my people, aided by those who believe that magic is sacred and necessary. We call ourselves The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn."
"Oh," nodded Arthur. "So that's my link to it. I wondered what the Nazis were talking about."
Gilli glanced at Arthur's battered face, guiltily squirmed in his seat and handed him a handkerchief. Arthur leaned to the side mirror and rubbed at the drying blood, trying not to worry the bruises.
"I should have got to you sooner," Gilli said. "I hadn't expected betrayal. It seems the Order has been infiltrated; my search had led them straight to you. They sent sorcerers to stop me, but, well. I guess they underestimated just how old and skilled I was."
"So the enemy has sorcerers," Arthur nodded. He's not encountered battle magic for a long time, but he knew it must still exist. Magic was endless and eternal, as Merlin always said.
"Not just sorcerers," Gilli sighed. "A society like ours. They're very powerful, and they're working on something that's never been done before. They're trying to channel magic straight into destruction. They're crafting a new weapon, and they mean to take the skies."
"Damn. Our air defences are barely holding as it is..."
"We need Merlin's council, at least," said Gilli. "If he can't fight, he could instruct us. We can't lose this war. We can't."
He stopped the car abruptly. They were on a narrow country lane, with no town or village in sight, surrounded by a forest. On their left the ground sloped down, to the black water of a small still lake.
"Is he here?" Arthur asked.
"It's not far. I want to get something you might need. Come with me."
They walked to the lake's edge; Gilli knelt on the rocky shore and moved his finger over the surface, drawing an intricate symbol. Water sparked under his touch, glowing; it looked yards deep this close to the shore, and Arthur found himself clutching the branches of nearby willows to fight off a sudden rush of dizziness and stop himself stepping right into that black depth.
Something moved through the pillar of light Gilli had conjured within the lake, then surged up, soundlessly breaking the surface. Arthur stepped away from the shore, tugging Gilli along, expecting a magical beast or an angry spirit.
But it was only a girl, young and pretty, wet-slick black hair plastered to her pale skin. She smiled at them, easily treading water a few yards from the shore.
"Hurray," said Gilli and pointed at Arthur in triumph. "Found him."
"So that's Arthur," she swam a litte closer and caught a willow branch to steady herself in the water.
"I'm usually a lot better looking," Arthur said, smiling back at her with his swollen mouth.
"I'll fix it," she said. "Come closer. No need to make your friends worry, is there?"
"Don't bother, I'll do it," said Gilli, and she huffed at him.
"So why didn't that occure to you till now?" she asked. "Anyway, your healing spells are worse than injuries. Come here, Arthur."
He did and knelt at the water, at the spot where Gilli had stood then he summoned her. He thought to help her onto the shore, but this close he could see the transparent shimmer of her skin, the strange glow of her eyes, and he understood.
"Are you the Lady of this lake?" he asked.
"My name is Freya."
She scooped up a handful of lake water and poured it on Arthur's face. The throbbing pain faded instantly, and he tipped his chin up, letting the soothing drops linger on his skin. She did it again; as she touched him, Arthur felt his body dip through the surface of skin, like through water.
"That's better," she said, sinking back into the lake. Her dress looked peculiarly familiar, just like something Morgana would have worn in the old days. "Are you going to see Merlin now?"
"I hope so," he said. "Did you know him?"
Of course Merlin would be friends with every sprite and spirit in the land. That was just like him.
Her smile was wistful, sad.
"Can we have it now?" Gilli asked.
"Of course. It's been waiting."
She dived under and disappeared. Arthur experimentally pressed on his face, searching for bruises and cuts, but they all seemed to be gone.
"She wouldn't let me touch it," Gilli said. "I barely talked her into letting me use it for my spell. She'd only give it to you, or Merlin."
Freya's head bobbed up onto the surface again. She raised her arms; she was holding a sword, its runed blade resting on her palms.
"Oh," Arthur said, touching the familiar markings. "I wondered where it went."
"Morgana gave it to me for safekeeping," she said as he took Excalibur from her and twirled it in his hand, the handle moulding into his palm like he'd held it only yesterday.
"Go and free him," she said. "And tell him to come and see me some time. I've missed him so much."
She stretched her hand to Gilli in a farewell, and he touched it gently, his fingers sinking into hers, making her skin ripple. And then, with one last splash, she was gone.
They drove for another hour. Arthur cradled his sword in his lap, resting his palm on the handle. His last sword, the one he had during Napoleonic wars, had been a small, light thing, a swift curved blade, and he was good with it, but he'd missed the weight and the power of the old weapons. He'd had a sword in the last war as well, but that one had never tasted blood. A blade was of little use in modern warfare.
"Merlin is strong," Gilli said. "Not just his magic. He's strong. He's the bravest man I know. He'll want to fight."
"When did you last speak to him?"
"He came to see me when he'd left Camelot to travel. That must have been just a few months before he was trapped."
"Then you know," Arthur said, tightening his fingers on Excalibur. "Strong or not, he wasn't well."
"I don't know what we'll do if he can't fight," said Gilli. "My order is powerful, but I can't trust any of them now. I don't know which of my people are working for the enemy, or how many of them."
"Maybe if you'd been paying more attention, you'd have noticed the traitors sooner," said Arthur. Then he remembered a time when everyone in his closest circles was lying to him. Merlin, Morgana, Uther - and he'd never suspected a thing.
"It's not that simple. The Order of the Golden Dawn and the Vril Society of Berlin used to be friends. We were all friends. Scholars of magic. When our countries went to war, the old ties weren't all broken, it seems."
"But how can our people work against their own country? Why are they aiding the enemy?"
"You have to understand," said Gilli, pained. "This country hadn't been always kind to magic. Your father's purges were the worst, but there were more afterwards. Even now - yes, we don't hide any more, the Order is a known entity, it has many friends in high places. But mostly we're left free because we're not seen as a threat. The Government doesn't take us very seriously, and we make sure to keep our ambitions modest. All we want is to pursue knowledge. But the kind of respect we had when Merlin stood by your throne - we've never had that since."
"Betraying your country isn't the way to get respect," Arthur spat out.
"Our countries betrayed us over and over, and some of us aren't willing to forgive. The last court sorcerer, the Russian one - have you heard what they did to him?"
"Yes, I was around at the time. But I heard he was killed because he was bedding the queen," Arthur said, flinching in distaste at voicing filthy gossip.
"No. Well, maybe that happened, Grigori was half-incubus, after all, but that's not the point. That kind of hate and violence - that was because he was feared. Because he was one of us."
Arthur kept silent, remembering the chopping block in the castle courtyard, and the pyres, and, in later centuries, the witch hunts. He'd not seen any; he'd not been on Albion's soil most of the time then, busy fighting the Dutch, the French, the Spanish. But he'd heard the rumours, and they pained him. The loss of lives was always a tragedy, but making peace with the Old Religion was a piece of his legacy he'd been proud of, and it had been cast away.
"Our friends in Germany allied themselves with the right people as they were rising to power," Gilli said. "Later they were publicly disowned, or the old circle was, but the core of it, the Vril Society, is working directly with their leadership. They have respect and power. They must have offered this to my brothers and sisters in the Order in exchange for their help. You can't understand how tempting this would be."
"I'm surprised you're still loyal," said Arthur, with more disdain than he'd meant to.
"It's not loyalty so much as common sense," Gilli said. "We can't lose this war. This isn't just a conquest. This is a purge. The enemy is set to exterminate everyone they deem unworthy to live. Men who love men, women who love women. Priests and followers of other religions. People of other races - the wrong colour, the wrong blood."
Arthur stared at him in disbelief. Religion was a choice, although he knew a lot of people who'd sooner die than renounce their beliefs; he couldn't understand, but he respected that. Love - love wasn't a choice, but at least one could hide their heart's desires, choose to be loveless rather than be hunted. Cruel and senseless as their persecution was, at least these transgressions could be avoided. But nobody could hide what they looked like, or choose to have different blood in their veins.
"Oh, that's been going on for some time," Gilli said. "It's been a while since any country in Europe had a Moorish royal. Now most people think your queen was as white as snow. Have you seen one of these before?"
He fished a small charm from under his shirt and showed it to Arthur.
"Oh yes," Arthur nodded. "Shield of David. Are you an Israelite?"
"You know very well I'm Welsh," said Gilli curtly. The talk of the purge made him angry, white-lipped, shaky, and Arthur made sure to keep an eye on the road. "But I'd lived with them for a while. They took me in, and let me study the magic of Kabbalah. They taught me of the One Who Is."
"One who what?"
"God," said Gilli. "I've had a very long life. I've seen a lot of evil. If not for the light of faith, I would have gone insane a long time ago."
"I heard Jesus helps a lot of people," said Arthur respectfully. "He's kind and powerful. Oh, wait, no, you worship his father, right? Iehova?"
"Oh, my heathen king," Gilli smiled. "We all worship the same God. Even you, a non-believer, work His will. And this time, I hope you might help deliver His people from evil. They're being hunted. Some in the Order think it's because of their magic, because the enemy fears it, but so few of them have the skill or the power. Just like there's so few of us on this isle who are born with the gift. It can't be that - this level of destruction, just because... We have to stop the invasion here. We can't let them take our land, and we have to drive them back. We have to free everyone."
"Let's free Merlin first," Arthur said. "How are we going to do that? Are there spells? Will you need my blood?"
"I'm not quite sure," Gilli said. "I'm just hoping it will come to you."
He stopped at a mountain side, and they took a small footpath till it faded into the undergrowth, and then picked their way through brush and rocks and damp grass. Eventually Gilli found the entrance to a cave and beckoned Arthur inside.
The cave was damp and tiny, just enough of a space for a small travelling party to find cover for a night, or for a bear to make it its home. Gilli muttered a spell and made the walls glow mutely with a diffuse bluish light.
In the middle of a cave sat a big chunk of smooth black stone, very out of place next to the grainy limestone of the mountain.
"Here it is," Gilli said. "The focal point."
The cave walls and floor were covered in painted symbols. There were traces of paint and minute scratches on the rock itself, barely marring the sleek surface.
"We tried everything," Gilli sighed.
"Is he inside that?" Arthur asked and pressed his palm to the cold stone. The rock was just about big enough to fit a person inside, if it was hollow.
"He's not anywhere right now. This is just the centre of the spell."
"Are you absolutely certain? Have you tried chiselling this down to make sure he's not in there?"
"That's impossible. This isn't just a rock," Gilli said. "It's pure element of earth, crystallised into a state of complete inertia."
"I think you'll find that's what rocks are."
Gilli suppressed an impatient sigh.
"It's an indestructible magical rock, Sire," he said. "It needs to be destroyed for the spell to be undone. I can't explain it more simply than this."
"All right," Arthur said. "I know what to do. I want to be alone when I do this. Wait outside, I'll yell if I need help."
Gilli shuffled his feet a little, frowning, but then reluctantly left the cave. Arthur walked around the rock, running his hand over its surface.
He knew what to do; it wasn't hard to figure out. Here he stood, holding the only sword that could slide easily through solid rock. At least, it had once before, and it could do that only when it was in Arthur's hand. He was the only one who was meant to wield Excalibur; Merlin had always been annoyingly adamant about that.
Arthur had never tried bashing this sword at rocks since then, as he had no intention of ruining his favourite blade for the sake of idle curiosity. But the power must still be there.
He grasped the sword with both hands and lifted it to chest level, his body easily falling into the correct stance for a thrust. He set the sword point to the stone and took a breath.
"You'd better not be in there," he said, and pushed.
The blade sunk into the rock, not meeting any resistance. The stone hissed and bubbled where the metal touched it, radiating strange yellowish glow. Arthur drove Excalibur half-way in and stopped to wipe his shaky, clammy hands on his trousers.
"Right," he said out loud. "Now what?"
He'd expected the rock to crack or vaporise at the touch of the blade, the way magical things tended to do when Merlin broke the spells that held them together. But the rock was just as solid as before, only now it had Excalibur stuck in it.
"Oh, right," Arthur said and took the handle again. He pulled the sword out, and it went with the same eager thrill as when Arthur had done this the first time, when he'd first claimed this blade and his crown.
There was a bright flash, all in all a lot less dramatic than Arthur had expected, and then the rock was gone, just like that, no shards or dust clouds, and in its place was Merlin.
Arthur had been wondering sometimes if he was starting to forget Merlin's face, if the memory of it was by now something nebulous and idealised, nothing to do with the real thing. But Merlin was exactly like in his memories, same face he saw in all his dreams, the face Arthur knew better than his own; Merlin was real, real, and the whole world seemed changed, reborn and transformed, real again.
Merlin was alive, unharmed; he whirled around, snarling, his eyes blazing gold, his hands full of fire.
"Merlin!" Arthur yelled, ducking behind Excalibur. The runed blade had been known to deflect a spell or two on occasion.
He wanted to say that whatever threat Merlin was fighting it was a dream, not real - but then he remembered that time hadn't passed for Merlin. Just a moment ago he'd been battling enemies who were herding him into a trap.
Merlin shot out a hand, his face still fierce, and Arthur expected an attack, but Merlin grabbed him and shoved him behind his back, still waving a ball of fire in his hand to ward off the unseen attackers.
"They're gone," Arthur said. Merlin's grip on his shoulder was painfully hard, and his hand was hot, too hot to bear, searing him through his coat. "Merlin, they're gone. They'd trapped you and left you here, and they've been gone for a long time."
Merlin let go of him, slowly calming down.
"I'd only just found you," Arthur said. "It took a while. I didn't know where you were."
"How long - Arthur, Mordred is - "
"He's dead. Mordred is dead. I killed him."
His last fight with Mordred had been desperate and chaotic. Mordred had been blinded by anger, and Arthur weighed down by age. They fell at the same time, but Mordred had died before Morgana came to weep over him and carry Arthur away.
Merlin closed his eyes and nodded, and abruptly pulled Arthur into a crushing hug. His hands were still warmer than human skin should be, but they didn't burn anymore.
"Sorry I wasn't there," he mumbled into Arthur's neck.
"It's all right," Arthur said and let Excalibur clatter onto the cave floor, and put both arms around Merlin's wiry back. He felt just like he used to, smelled the same; their bodies fitted together so easily, known and familiar, as if they'd never been apart. As if everything that'd happened since Merlin left Camelot was just a confusing, long dream, and now Arthur was awake again, alive again.
"You'd warned us," Arthur said. "It made all the difference."
"I guess that changed the future," said Merlin, still clutching at him tight. "I didn't think - so we won?"
"Well," Arthur said and cleared his throat. "Well, we're at war again. But it's a different one."
"Oh, we'll win that too," said Merlin brightly and pulled back to look at him.
Arthur had been hoping Merlin wouldn't notice right away that something was amiss. He wanted Merlin to have the comfort of familiar things, at least for a moment. In the dim light of the cave, in that first minute of confusion, Arthur wouldn't seem that different from the last time they'd seen each other. He still wielded Excalibur, and still wore his old clothes. He'd been expecting to get a uniform soon, so changing his outfit hadn't seemed worth the bother. High boots and a long coat didn't look that out of place in this time. His laced-up tunic had attracted some stares until he'd bought a knitted vest to put over it. He used to have a vest not unlike this one. He'd never worn it - it was too plain and peasant-like for a king's everyday attire, and he hadn't dared put it on when he went hunting, for fear of ruining it. It had been a gift from Hunith.
But even Merlin had to notice that he looked decades younger. Arthur would have to explain, and he had no idea where to begin.
Merlin ran his thumb down Arthur's cheek and smiled.
"You look better," he said. "You've been looking so tired lately. I think this, being apart for a bit, did us both a lot of good."
"I missed you," Arthur said.
"I missed you too. So much. But, you know, maybe that was just what I needed, to miss you like that. Wherever I went, all I thought about was going home. And then couldn't even remember why I'd wanted to leave. All I need to get better is right back home. We've beaten monsters and huge armies together; there's nothing we can't win against. Right?"
Arthur nodded, too many words stuck in his throat. Merlin was smiling at him, beautiful and hopeful and alive, and right here, back where he belonged. Arthur squeezed his shoulders tighter, and realised he was shaking all over. Merlin ran a soothing hand down his arm, frowning a little.
"I missed you," Arthur repeated stupidly. Merlin's face blurred in his eyes, and then Merlin was kissing him, dropping quick pecks all over his face, licking tears from his cheeks.
"Me too, me too," he whispered. "It's okay, Arthur, I'm back now."
"I didn't know where you were," Arthur babbled, leaning on Merlin to stay upright. "I didn't know. It's been so long."
"How long - " Merlin started, and Arthur shut him up with a hard, angry kiss. He yanked Merlin's scarf off and kissed his neck, the white skin on his collarbones, the dip between them, feeling Merlin's pulse under his tongue.
Merlin squirmed and laughed and pulled them both down to the cave floor. There was stubble on his face, and it prickled and burned when Arthur kissed him. Merlin's hands were teasing under Arthur's shirt, plucking at the ties of his trousers.
"Are we safe here?" he asked. "Do we have a moment?"
He lightly pressed the heel of his hand to Arthur's cock, and it jumped to full hardness so fast that it hurt.
"I posted a sentry," Arthur mumbled, dizzy and helpless under Merlin's familiar touch.
Merlin grinned, yanking down Arthur's trousers and dropping his own with no finesse, shameless and easy as always.
"Damn, Arthur, it's been months," he said. "Even longer for you, I guess."
Arthur nodded and let Merlin straddle his thighs and gathered him closer to kiss him again.
"You're so hard," Merlin muttered against his lips and wrapped his hand around them both, stroking in ragged impatient jerks.
"I've not touched anyone since you," Arthur confessed. He'd touched people, of course; he'd fought people, he'd huddled with others for warmth in tents and trenches, carried the wounded off the battlefield. But the thought of doing this with someone else had never crossed his mind.
Merlin grinned, pleased, and squeezed harder, and Arthur came right then, spurting over his fingers. He got on his knees, grabbed Merlin's hips and yanked him to his feet.
"Really, how long was I in there?" Merlin asked again, but Arthur's mouth was already busy. He licked around the head of Merlin's cock and swallowed him as deep as he could, gagging for the lack of practice, comforted by the familiar smells and tastes, ignoring the way the burn in his jaw and throat made his eyes prickle and moisten again.
When Merlin came, Arthur pressed his wet face to Merlin's warm stomach and stayed there, unable to unlock his arms and let him go.
"Um," Merlin said, uncertainly petting the top of Arthur's head. "We should... probably... Are you all right there?"
"Yes, let's get a move on," Arthur said. He wiped his face on Merlin's shirt, picked up the Excalibur and marched them out of the cave.
Their sentry was pacing outside, nervous and sullen.
"Gilli!" Merlin yelped, and they embraced as old friends.
"So good to see you again," Gilli said. "I'm sorry it took us so long. Has he explained everything to you?"
"About that," Arthur said. "I'm quite tired. I've had a very long day."
"Understandable," said Gilli warily.
"I'm going to have a nap. Why don't you bring Merlin up to date on everything he'd missed?"
Gilli frowned at him, but Arthur only patted him on the shoulder. The sorcerer had sworn fealty to him, so Arthur felt he might as well make him do the hard work.
"Good man," Arthur said and strolled to the car, leaving them behind. He climbed onto the back seat, shook off his coat and pulled it over his head.
Merlin exclaimed something outside, loudly, and Arthur forcibly shut his mind against it. He'd had a lot of practice at that; he'd slept through artillery fire and the screams of wounded men in field hospitals. He could easily sleep through this.
He'd just about fallen asleep, dreaming in vivid, repeating patterns, when Merlin roughly shook him awake. He flipped Arthur on his back and loomed over him ominously, staring. His eyes were backlit with a swirl of magic, too bright, impossible to read.
"Right," he said, running a hand over Arthur's face. "Yeah, I remember now. You used to have wrinkles. Here and here."
"Only an idiot like you wouldn't have noticed," Arthur said, goading. Sometimes, when Merlin was just about to be swallowed by misery, Arthur could needle him into getting angry instead. That he could deal with; the alternatives were a lot worse.
"How many times?" Merlin asked and gave him another half-shove, digging his fingers into Arthur's arms. "How many times did you die?"
"How the fuck should I know? Did you expect me to keep tally just in case you ever asked?"
"How many times?"
"A dozen, maybe," Arthur said reluctantly. It was a lot more, but he really hadn't been counting.
"How long each time?"
"Couple of years. Sometimes a bit longer. Sometimes just a few moths."
"You hardly lived," Merlin said and started to pull away, retreating inside himself to that remote place where he'd be lost for hours.
Arthur grabbed the back of his neck and held him in place, frantically searching for just the right words.
He'd never thought about living past any of the wars he'd fought. It was good to fight, to be useful in his country's time of need. Afterwards he could've adjusted to the changing times, found a peaceful occupation, forged new ties with new people - but he simply didn't see the point.
And every time, at the end of every war, just as victory was imminent, fate had always offered him a way out. A suicide mission to volunteer for, an arrow or a bullet to take for someone else, or something foolish and meaningless, like a stray cannon ball he'd see coming, and wouldn't run from. And then he'd be back in the mist, his head in Morgana's lap, his soul at peace.
"I'd lived," he told Merlin. "We both did, and don't you forget it. We had a long life together. We accomplished many things. Don't you dare belittle that. Everything afterwards was a gift."
"What sort of gift is that? Fighting, and dying, and always being alone..."
"I've never been alone - Merlin, I always ended up commanding a large regiment! I never had five minutes to myself!"
"I should have been with you," Merlin muttered, and his mouth started to twist awfully, working to swallow a sob. Arthur pulled him closer and kissed him, gently nudging at his lips till they stopped shaking.
"Well, as you said," Arthur whispered when Merlin seemed to have calmed down a little. "Some time apart was good for us, right?"
"Fuck you, don't twist my words," Merlin grumbled and pressed against him with the whole length of his body. "I almost forgot how annoying you are. Well, that's it. There will be no more dying, is that understood?"
"Are you giving me orders now?"
"Why shouldn't I? You're not the king anymore. You're just some guy. And I'm still the sorcerer. Maybe you should be my manservant."
Arthur snorted with derision and shifted under Merlin to better settle them on the narrow seat.
"Listen," he said. "If you... Did Gilli explain about the war?"
"Some," said Merlin, tucking his legs along Arthur's. "Sounds bad. But he has a plan."
"Listen, if you don't want to fight, I won't ask you to," Arthur said. That was supposed to have been the first thing he said to Merlin, but he'd got sidetracked. "We'll take you to a safe place. He probably told you a lot of rubbish, like it all rests on you, but wars are different now. One person can't turn the tide. If you just want to rest - it's okay, we'll be fine."
"Don't be daft. My place is with you."
"You're crushing me," Merlin said with a laugh, not pulling away. Arthur tried to loosen his arms a little, but it wasn't easy.
"I'm not letting you out of my sight," Merlin said. "Ever. You're useless without me. The moment I left, you died."
"Oh, that's bollocks, it wasn't the same moment - I was just fine for five months!"
"Yeah, you survived on your own for a whole five months, great achievement - if you're eight years old! And since then all you've done is die over and over again!"
"I did more than that! I served my country! I made a bloody huge difference, if you want to know, I - "
"Never tell me," said Merlin and jerked free. "I don't want to know. I can't."
They sat together a while. There was a small red spot on the a side of Merlin's neck, where Arthur'd kissed him too hard.
"All right," Arthur said. "What's the plan, then?"
Merlin unlocked the door, not fumbling it too much, and waved to Gilli, who climbed into the driver's seat and started the car. They headed back East.
"Don't worry, this is pretty safe," Arthur said, reassuringly squeezing Merlin's fingers, and was met with a blank stare. "You're not scared?"
"Come on, Arthur," Merlin sighed. "Wraiths are scary. Questing Beasts are scary. This is just a cart."
"Yeah, fine. So, what about that Vril Society?"
"Their headquarters must be in Berlin," Gilli said. "It's probably safer if you find your own way there. I have a friend there, he can be trusted. I'll try to contact him and enlist his help."
"What's Vril? Ridiculous name for a society, isn't it?"
"Well. They say Vril is a substance they can harness through mental concentration. It's the brightest light and all-encompassing power, and it can both heal and destroy. It permeates all things, it can reduce a city to ruins or animate dead matter..."
"So Vril is magic."
"Of course it is. They think by giving it a new name they will seem more powerful. As if they have something that's never existed before."
Merlin nodded to himself, thinking.
"So we need to get across the water, to Saxon lands. Why is it always the Saxons?"
"Not always," Arthur said. "Often Franks. Though we've been friends lately, they were on our side in this one, but they lost, they're conquered right now. Never mind that, I'll explain later. What do we do when we get to Berlin?"
"The Vril Society is working on a new magical weapon," said Gilli. "It's going to rain death from the sky. Nothing we have will be a match for it. They call these things ball lightnings, or flying saucers."
"It's like a small plate," said Arthur. "It doesn't sound that deadly, actually."
"Hm," said Merlin sceptically. "I don't know. Remember all the trouble we had with one medium sized cup?"
"They nearly got to the Cup of Life, you know," said Gilli. "Two years ago the Nazis had it in their hands."
"But - no, we hid it! We sent it so far away, it was protected..."
"It still left a trail in stories and legends. Two scholars from across the sea had traced its path, and the Nazis followed them. But don't worry, it's safe now. It's deep within the earth."
"All right," said Merlin, sucking in deep breaths. "All right, that's good. Fuck, I thought that was one thing we did right, and we didn't even do that very well. But, fine. So we find these saucers and we destroy them, and - what's that?"
There was a red glow at the horizon, in front of them. The dawn was close and the sky was paling already, and they could see a veil of the black smoke rising to the sky. London was burning.
"You told me they'd still not crossed the sea," Merlin said, staring at the faraway fires. "Did they - Gilli, you told me we've not been invaded yet! Are we too late?"
"We're not," said Arthur, rubbing his tense back. "Merlin, it's been two hundred years since we fought on our own soil. Our enemies can't set foot on this isle, we're holding them back. This is all they can do - they fly over and burn our cities from the air, and then we chase them off."
"How do they fly?" Merlin asked. "On wyverns?"
Arthur bit down a moan and turned away so Merlin wouldn't see his face.
This was going to be impossible. It was still difficult for him, every time. Just a few decades would change the world almost beyond recognition, and he'd have to learn everything anew. He was quick to pick up changes in the language, had no trouble catching up on political developments, but it was the small, mundane things that frustrated him the most. Once he'd wrecked his quarters in a fit of rage because he couldn't figure out how to fasten his new uniform; when he saw a steam train for the first time, he'd screamed in front of his men.
Merlin wasn't going to adjust. The changes were too great. He'd live in the permanent state of shock, and any healing he'd done on his travels would be undone in a matter of days.
"I wish it were wyverns," sighed Gilli. "That would be easy, now that you're back. It's just cars like this one, only with wings."
"Yeah, we're never that lucky," said Merlin, thoughtfully drumming his fingers on the back of Gilli's seat. "Maybe there's something we can do to help defend against air attacks. If he agrees - "
"I thought about it," Gilli nodded. "But even if he's still around -"
"He's alive, I can feel him."
"No, Merlin. The enemies are too many, and they're very quick in the air. They'd kill him."
"What are you talking about?" Arthur demanded. "Who's he?"
"It's doesn't matter," Merlin said. "We can't built a whole strategy around one person, Sire, that's what you've always taught me. It's a vulnerability. Otherwise we'd have gone on most campaigns by ourselves, with just Leon and Gwaine for company."
"You shouldn't keep secrets from me, Merlin," Arthur said, without much hope. They'd been over this too many times. "Secrets are poison. You know what they did to Morgana and my father. I still think that's what made you sick back then. If you'd only told me..."
"You know, I've just realised that Gwaine is dead," said Merlin slowly, ignoring Arthur's words of reason, as usual. "Well, of course he is. It's been fourteen centuries. Everyone is dead, right? It's just us."
"There's your friend, Freya the lake sprite," Arthur said, and Merlin smiled sadly.
"I knew we were going to die," he said. "I'm not stupid, right, I knew it, we weren't young anymore. All our parents were dead, and it would be our turn soon. It's just, Gwaine. He was always so... alive."
"No man is worth your tears," said Arthur quickly. Merlin knew it was just a phrase. He'd watched Arthur weep for hours over Uther's body. But he'd always said it, and sometimes it helped.
"Yeah, yeah," Merlin nodded, rubbing his eyes. "He told me - remember that time he was wounded and his lungs were - he told me then, Merlin, if I die, when you think about me, remember the times I made you smile. Let me make you smile again. That's what I'm going to do, yeah."
"He really loved you," Arthur said. He'd gotten over that jealousy a long time ago.
"We'll grieve after the war," said Gilli and drove them into the city.
He kept to the streets that had been mostly untouched by the bombing, but there were still islands of rubble here and there. Whole houses stood blackened by the flames. Arthur tried to imagine how all this would look to Merlin, this tall, beautiful city unlike anything he'd ever seen, so terribly scarred by the war, seemingly beyond recovery.
"It will be fine," he told Merlin. "London burned to the ground before, and they rebuilt it. They'll rebuild this again."
"If they have the chance," said Merlin grimly, nodding at the lines of posters glued to the buildings that were still standing. "I think that says 'Freedom is in peril'. It's a siege, isn't it? The whole country is under siege."
"Read that one," said Arthur, pointing left. "These are messages from the King, that's his crest on top. Look, it says 'Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory'. Cheerfulness, Merlin. The King commands you to stay cheerful."
"I didn't swear fealty to that one," mumbled Merlin dejectedly.
"There's a third poster," said Gilli and stopped the car. "It's been made, but it will only be distributed if the invasion is imminent. Do you know what it will say? If the enemy marches on our land, do you know what the King will say to his people?"
"What?" asked Arthur, even though he wasn't sure he wanted to know. Merlin didn't need to hear whatever grim words had already been prepared in case the worst happened.
"Keep calm and carry on."
Arthur barked out a stunned laugh. Even Merlin raised his head and grinned.
"Yes," said Gilli. "This country you've built - it will carry on. Well, we should part ways here, in case I'm still being watched. Once you're in Berlin, contact me the usual way."
They spent all day in a pub that stayed open. Arthur got Merlin food and a stack of newspapers, then ran out to a post office to send a telegram to the air field, hoping he'd spelled Lancelot's odd foreign name correctly.
It was a long shot. The telegram might not find its way to him, and Lancelot might decide not to come. He'd only met Arthur once, briefly, and he might not even remember him. He could be on duty, unable to get to London. But they could spare a day or two to wait for him. Arthur hoped he was doing the right thing, and that seeing a familiar face would cheer Merlin up and reassure him somehow.
He bought maps and some German books and rushed back, glad to find Merlin where he'd left him, reading.
"How are you getting on with those?" he asked.
"Spelling's gone to pot," Merlin said, frowning tightly. His fingers were black from tracing the fine text on freshly printed pages. "But I can read it. Picking up lots of new words. This war is just - the numbers of killed and wounded, they don't make any sense. It's thousands. I can't imagine. It's more people than used to live in the whole of Camelot."
"Yes, I know. Take a break. I want to teach you some German. Of course, you'd better not try to speak it when we're there, just stick with me and pretend you're a mute idiot, should come naturally. But just in case."
He opened a book of fairy-tales, to start with something simple, and read a few lines out loud, getting ready to translate and explain.
"Oh, I know this," Merlin said. "It's dragon language. I can speak it."
"King Arthur is a pompous overbearing stupid-headed man who doesn't have faith in his sorcerer," said Merlin in an odd German dialect. "See? I'll have to pick up the right accent, but that's easy, listen, listen, I can already talk like a Londoner," he added, drawing and distorting his vowels the way the patrons around them were doing.
"Hm," said Arthur.
"I'm good at this," said Merlin, reaching for the newspapers again. "All sorcerers have to be. Spells are very precise; one wrong sound, and bam, you're a toad. Well, all right, not really, it's more like bam and nothing happens. Turning people into proper toads is very hard, not for a novice."
"Can't remember last time you were this chatty," Arthur confessed. "So, are you really feeling up to this?"
"I wish you'd stopped looking at me like I'm a lame horse," Merlin said. "I'm not going to - "
He shoved the newspapers at Arthur, jabbing his fingers at the text and the pictures.
"You've read these, haven't you? We've no time to sit around feeling sorry for ourselves. We have to be up to this. Did you get the maps? They've renamed everything, I can't understand what's going on if I can't tell what's where."
Arthur pushed Merlin's untouched plate to the side and unfolded the map of the world on the table, to give him a sense of the scale.
"First of all," he said, gesturing at the drawings of the two hemispheres. "I should tell you that the world is round."
It had taken him a while to come to grips with this, and even now he couldn't remember the explanation for this peculiar fact.
"Oh, that makes more sense," Merlin nodded.
"Yes, it's like, you know," Merlin waved a hand and the soup flew up from his plate and rolled into an untidy ball in the air. It swirled on its axis, sloshing drops of broth on the table. "That's how it's always felt to me."
"Put your soup back and eat it, you're skin and bones," Arthur commanded, trying to hide his relief, grateful that Merlin's magic was shielding him from some of the strangeness of this new world. "Fine, so here we are. This is Albion."
"Used to be bigger on the old maps," Merlin pouted.
"Well, looks are deceiving. All of this, this and this are kind of ours too."
They talked and studied the maps, just like in the old days, in Camelot's council chambers. Arthur used to have a recurring dream about this. He'd dreamt that Merlin was with him on his current war campaign, and had never left. In the dreams he helped Arthur plan the next attack, sweeping his long fingers over the maps of Hastings or Waterloo. His ideas were often useful, and on waking Arthur would cling to them and weave them into solid strategies. That helped him through the first suffocating moments of waking up alone.
"Who are you waiting for?" Merlin asked suddenly. Sometimes in the dreams he'd read Arthur's mind and ask him questions about things he'd never said. Arthur tensed, trying not to panic.
"What?" he asked, stalling. This wasn't a dream. He knew that.
"We could just as well go over this on the way, when we stop for the night. But we're not setting off, and you keep looking at the door."
"I guess I'd better warn you," Arthur said. "Look, there are people in this time - they're just normal people. Not like me or Gilli. They were born here, twenty-something years ago. They wouldn't know you. But they look a bit like... Maybe it's a bad idea. I thought it would be like a little piece of home. We can leave."
"No, let's wait," said Merlin, staring at the map, voice flat and dull. "I'm curious now."
"I don't even know if they'll show up. And it might be too strange for you."
Merlin gave a little amused snort.
"You think out of everything that's what will confuse me the most? No, Arthur, don't worry. I've been to the Cave of Prophecies. More than once. I've looked into the crystals. Nothing is too strange after that."
He never liked to talk about the Crystal Cave, but often used to ramble and moan about it in his sleep. Whenever he'd mentioned the crystals, his eyes shadowed, shifting from blue to grey, as if he was seeing them again: the infinite futures, crossing and collapsing, the one true path to find in the mirror labyrinth. Sometimes Arthur thought that alone could drive a man mad.
"Did you ever see any of this?" Arthur asked.
"You know," Merlin said with a crooked smile. "I never thought to look past our lifetime."
The bell at the front of the pub jingled again, and as Gwen stepped in through the door that Lancelot - Javier - was holding for her, Arthur realised that he still hadn't devised a convincing story to tell them.
"Now remember," he said and squeezed Merlin's hand. "It's not them."
"No, it's them," Merlin whispered, digging his fingers into Arthur's skin. "Arthur, it's them! They feel - they're not, but some part of them - "
Arthur hushed him and rose to greet them. All three of them wore civilian clothes, stuffy wool suits with square shoulders that made Percival look comically wide. Gwen's narrow skirt barely covered her knees. Arthur had only ever seen her bare legs before when they were in bed together.
"Arthur," she said, rushing to their table. "What happened? When you didn't show up for your tests today, everyone was so worried."
"Captain Simmons called the airfield," said Lancelot. "He asked if we'd put you off, or if you looked like you were coming down with something. We told him you were eager to join. We thought..."
Then they noticed Merlin, who was still staring at them, mouth hanging open, eyes wide and moist.
"Who's that then?" Percival asked.
"Hi," said Merlin. "Hello. I'm - I'm me, I'm... Arthur, what were you going to join? You didn't tell me."
"I was going to defend London against air attacks. With them. That's what they do. This is Percy Smith, Gwen Thornton, and Javier Guerrero - yeah, just call him Lancelot. Thank you all for coming. I know it's odd, you barely know me..."
"We thought you'd been killed in the raid last night," said Percival bluntly. "When Lancelot got your telegram, they made me drive all the way here. And here you are, safe and sound. Sitting in a pub with your mate. We thought you wanted to fight."
"Oh, he does," said Merlin. "He always does, can't hold him back. But we're needed elsewhere right now. There's important work to be done. I'm, I'm Merlin. Hi."
"Merlin!" gasped Gwen. "Like the engine! I just knew, when I said it yesterday, they way you - I knew there was a story behind it!"
"What kind of a name is Merlin?" frowned Percival.
"I think it's a codename," nodded Lancelot and took a seat by the table. "I told you, Percy. He's a soldier. He's fought before. You have, Arthur, haven't you?"
"You have that look," Percy nodded. "My old man had that look. And you talk and walk like a soldier."
"But why didn't you tell us?" Gwen asked. "You said you were a new recruit..."
"Because he couldn't," said Lancelot and swiftly grasped Arthur's hand. "You didn't have these yesterday. I've seen marks like that before, in Spain."
Arthur twisted his hand free and tugged his sleeve down to cover the raw bruises left on his wrist by the ropes. Two of his fingernails had turned purple, with ugly black lines in the centre where the needles had gone in.
"It's best if I don't tell you everything," said Merlin calmly, even though his jaw ticked as he stared at the bruises. "But there's definitely more to Arthur than meets the eye. Unfortunately, you're not the only ones who've noticed that."
"Oh dear," said Gwen in a hissing whisper. "You're secret agents!"
She and Percival swiftly grabbed a chair each and they all huddled closely at the table, devouring Arthur and Merlin with shining wide eyes.
"We can neither confirm nor deny that," said Arthur quickly. It seemed odd that they would jump at this wild conjecture so readily, but that was how the human mind worked. Arthur himself had spent his youth coming up with very reasonable, completely non-magical explanations for all Merlin's little oddities: why his bumbling manservant always ended up at the centre of improbable coincidences, why things seemed to move on their own accord around him, why he sometimes spoke in tongues and had yellow glowing eyes. If you wanted to believe in something, you could always find a way to bend logic to the right conclusion. And they wanted to believe he was a good man, he could see that, and they welcomed the thrill of adventure.
"Spies!" whispered Percival excitedly.
"This is what I'm guessing, you don't have to tell us if it's true," muttered Lancelot, conspicuously glancing about. "Arthur has worked deep undercover, but he was decommissioned. That's why he doesn't have a record with the army, even though he'd obviously seen action."
"I thought I was free to join the RAF," Arthur shrugged. Lancelot's story wasn't that far off the mark.
"But your identity has been compromised. And you were captured and interrogated. There are German spies right here, in London."
"Well, a few less now," Arthur said. "There might be more, but that's being dealt with. They didn't get anything from me."
"Of course, we know you wouldn't talk," nodded Gwen. The look she gave him was disconcertingly familiar, starry-eyed. "We'll never tell anyone. You can trust us. Did you rescue him, Merlin? That's such a great codename, by the way!"
"It was my friend," said Merlin. "I was... away. But I'm back now."
He took a breath and finally smiled at them, and reached out to softly touch their hands.
"I'm glad to have met you," he said. "You're - you're wonderful people. I know you can defend our kingdom. Me and Arthur are going to help you. We'll make sure there's one less thing for you to worry about, when you're fighting them off."
They all exhaled in awe and leaned closer in.
"Are you going back in the field?" Lancelot asked. "Is that why you called us here? Do you need our help?"
"Why would spies need our help?" Percival muttered.
"Well, if the agency is infiltrated, they might need someone the Nazis don't have an eye on..."
"No, I just," Arthur said. "I don't know anyone else in London. Merlin doesn't either. I just wanted to say goodbye to you. I thought we could have a drink together, before we go off. And I wanted to ask you to make something up for Captain Simmons. I don't want him to think that Arthur Pendragon's son is a coward."
"He never thought that," said Percival. "But, yes. We'll explain."
"And, Gwen, I do need to ask a favour from you," Arthur said. "Merlin needs..."
What Merlin needed was a friend, someone he could talk to without having to put on a brave face. Merlin's best friend used to be Gwaine, but Gwen was the first friend he'd made when he came to Camelot. She was the one who taught him how to look after Arthur's armour; the two of them had been thick as thieves even before Merlin's first week of service was over. Arthur hoped that he might connect with this girl, too, and find some comfort in her company. And he wanted to talk to the others without Merlin here. He needed advice.
"As you can see, Merlin needs new clothes," Arthur said. "Could you help him at least try to look presentable?"
"What's wrong with my clothes?" asked Merlin defensively, adjusting his neck scarf.
"Nothing, if you're going undercover as a Welsh shepherd," she said and got up. "Come on, Merlin. My brother lives not far from here, I'm sure some of his stuff will fit you."
"No, take him shopping, please, buy him nice things," said Arthur and passed her a handful of paper money.
"That's not going to be easy, not with rationing, but I have a plan," she nodded.
She threaded his arm around hers and pulled him out of the pub, quick and determined.
"It will do him good to spend an hour with a pretty girl," Arthur said. "Before he's back in the fight."
"He's a bit... odd," Percival said.
"Yes," said Arthur. "He's... Fuck, I don't know if I'm doing the right thing. He's shell shocked."
They had a name for it now. He'd learnt it in the Great War. They'd had to name it, because the sickness of the heart had been claiming more soldiers as wars had changed. In the old times honed skills and well-tended armour could see you through a battle, but even then there had been chaotic fights, when you didn't even see the man who killed you. But to march through the field while cannons tore men to shreds the the right and left of you, or to rise from the trenches into a hale of bullets - that kind of warfare required a special brand of courage, akin to lunacy.
But at least he didn't have to explain. They understood, and nodded, tightening their jaws, and Arthur knew they wouldn't look down on Merlin for not being invincible.
"What does command say?" Percival asked.
"That he's strong," said Arthur bitterly, remembering Gilli's calm, callous conviction. "Come on, you know what command always says. Your country needs you; if you can stand, you can fight. He's been away for a bit, and he says he's better. But - "
"Are you afraid he'll freeze up when you're out there?"
"He won't. He won't, it's just. I don't know what it will do to him."
"He's dear to you, isn't he," said Lancelot. "Personally. You're close, I can tell."
Arthur took a breath and stared at the sticky table top.
Merlin wasn't dear to him. He was necessary, like air. He was part of Arthur's soul, and now, looking back, Arthur couldn't understand how exactly he had managed to fight, and think, and walk around all those years without Merlin by his side.
"There are no words in the language for what he is to me," he said hollowly. Lancelot smiled, as if he disagreed and knew the exact words. Maybe he did. He'd always been better with that stuff, with words and feelings.
"My dad had that," said Percy reluctantly. "Shell shock. He didn't talk about it much. But he told me once - when it happened, his captain made him sleep all day, and then took him back to the front line, and made him just sit there. And talked to him. About us back home, and the war, and everything, for two days straight. That's what you're supposed to do, he said. Talk."
"I tried that," Arthur shrugged. "I don't know what else I can say."
"I had that too," said Lancelot. "Or something like, maybe. When I was in that camp, I couldn't sleep. I thought I was going mad. I kept seeing fire, and all their faces..."
Percival shifted in his chair and pressed his shoulder to Lancelot's. They stayed like that, both silently watching as Lancelot's fingers stopped trembling.
"But, you know what?" Lancelot said with a soft smile. "Since I got back in the air, I've been just fine. I have a reason to carry on now, and work to do. I'm myself again. Maybe it's for the best that you're needed again. It could do him good."
They got drinks and talked some more, and before they'd got through their pints Gwen and Merlin came back, hand in hand, nearly skipping with excitement, like a young couple returning from a date. Merlin's face was flushed from the wind, and his eyes sparkled brightly, probably due to the sugar from the liquorice stick he was sucking on.
"How do I look?" he enquired, twirling about.
He wore a dark, fitted woollen suit that hugged his waist and made him stand up straighter and look taller. The white collar of his shirt showed off his neck, and his tie was deep blue, a hue that made his skin glow.
"Same as always," said Arthur. "Ridiculous, incompetent and possibly drunk. I like the colours. Wait - did you keep your boots? Merlin!"
"I'm not breaking in new boots while we're on a quest! These are fine!"
"I like them," said Merlin and pulled on his necktie. "I'm already going to be uncomfortable enough in all this. This is stupid, what does this do? It's not going to keep me warm or anything."
"Oh God yeah, these bloody nooses," nodded Percival, clawing at his own tie. "Hellish things."
"While you sat around gossiping about me, Gwen came up with a plan for how to get us to Berlin," Merlin announced, and Arthur rose from his seat to smack him on the head.
"Merlin!" he hissed. "How many times - secret mission! It means you're supposed to keep it secret!"
"Come on, they're our friends," said Merlin disarmingly.
"Someone could be watching us right now!"
"No, I'd have noticed," said Merlin and bit off a chunk of liquorice. "This is great, do you want some? I bought loads!"
"Are you thinking your admirer could help them?" Lancelot asked, and Gwen laughed.
"He's not my admirer! He's just a flirt, he's like that with everyone. With both of you as well, by the way."
"Yeah, that's true," Percival nodded. "Listen, we were posted to the coast before, and that's where we met him. He's a French smuggler, but don't hold that against him. He's a decent chap."
"He crosses the channel at least three times a week," said Lancelot. "He carries weapons for the Resistance, among other things. He could smuggle you in, too."
"Well, that's sorted," said Merlin. "Arthur, look what I bought."
He hefted the thing he'd brought with him and put in on the table. It was long, black, oddly shaped.
"It's a lute box," he announced.
"Oh come on, Gwen, it doesn't matter, it's not like I'm going to try to put a lute in it. We can carry our things in it."
"Spying equipment?" asked Percival in a reverent whisper.
"Yes, that," said Merlin and opened the box slightly to show Arthur an old, beaten-up scabbard half-hidden under a stack of spare shirts.
Arthur nodded. Excalibur was behind his chair, tucked against the wall, swathed in blankets he had taken from Gilli's car. A scabbard would be handy. He had no idea what use a sword could be on their quest, but it was a good, trusty weapon, infused with old magic. His hands had missed it.
"I got you a hat," said Merlin with an evil smile and fished around in the box.
This had to be a revenge for all the times he'd made Merlin wear official livery. Arthur braced himself for the sight of some feathered monstrosity, but the hat was actually quite nice. Muted brown, made of soft felt, with a practical wide brim. Arthur shrugged, twirled the hat in his hands and put it on.
"It's called a fedora," said Merlin and reached out to adjust the hat, with the same gesture he used to straighten Arthur's crown on his forehead. Gwen smiled, and the men nodded approvingly, and for a brief moment it was as if they were all sat around a different table, in a different place and time, shadows of old friends filling the empty spaces between them.
Arthur thought about them later, on the last train to the coast, dozing on an uncomfortable bench with his new hat shadowing his eyes. The train car moved smoothly on the rails, barely rocking despite the incredible speed. The clattering of metal under them was loud and regular; Arthur couldn't remember why exactly the train made that sound, and couldn't explain it to Merlin when he asked. But he liked it. It was soothing.
He heard a short muted scream and reached to the left without opening his eyes.
He still did this, after all this time. Every time a pained scream cut through his dreams, he thought he was back in Camelot, in his own bed, and he always reached for Merlin to shake him out of the nightmare. His fingers would meet nothing - trench dirt, bed sheets, wall of a tent. Then he'd wake up, and realise the voice wasn't Merlin's. It was someone else, someone outside, on another pallet, on another hospital bed, it was never Merlin because Merlin was gone.
Except this time Merlin was here. He was soundly asleep, tucked against Arthur's side, his even breaths puffing against Arthur's neck. Arthur stroked his warm stomach and glanced around.
The train was getting less crowded as they moved further from London. Every bench was still taken, and every isle was filled with bags and boxes, but no passengers now had to perch on their suitcases for the lack of seats.
A few benches from them a man was rubbing at his chest, breathing heavily. He must've been the one who'd screamed. A girl lifted her rumpled head off his shoulder and reached for him, frowning with concern.
"Just a dream, love," the man told her. "Go back to sleep."
A woman in the opposite seat gave Arthur a knowing, sad smile.
"I'm the same," she said. "Whenever a child cried in the bomb shelter, I'd wake up thinking it was these two."
She had two children with her, both asleep with their heads in her lap. The boy looked about seven; his legs in short trousers dangled off the seat, feet bumping softly against his mother's shins when the train swayed. The girl was smaller, three or four, chubby and pretty, curled on her side like a kitten, her little fists tucked to her chest.
"He's not a child," Arthur stopped petting Merlin and tried to sit up straighter, but Merlin grumbled in his sleep and leaned on him more. Arthur's left arm was going to be numb by the end of the journey.
"This bloody war's flayed everyone raw," the woman said. "My husband's out there every night, under the bombs, putting out fires. And when he comes home he wants a long cuddle, bless him. He's staying with his Mum while I'm away. He wants her to fuss over him."
Arthur had only just noticed how many children there were on the train. Their families must be taking them to the countryside, away from the burning city.
"It's good that you're going," he said. "He'll miss you, but it'll be better for him, knowing you're all safe."
"I'm just dropping them at their gran's," the woman patted her daughter's brown curls. "Then I'm heading back. I'm a nurse, I'm needed."
There was nothing he could say to that which wasn't a platitude, so he simply nodded. But that must have been all right, because she smiled at him again.
A few stops later she woke her children up and led them off the train. An elderly woman met them at the platform, and they all embraced; Arthur waved at them from his window, but they didn't notice.
For a while Arthur watched the dark shapes of trees blur past the window, listened to Merlin's soft snores and wondered if it would be against the law to kiss him.
He'd heard his soldiers talk about it: it had been illegal for men to share more than a friendship. Maybe it still was. Arthur didn't understand why, but laws had been getting more complicated over the centuries, and some didn't make any sense out of context.
Uther's laws had been very simple. Any theft was punished the same way, whether the culprits stole out of greed or mischief or because they were half-mad with hunger. Murderers were hanged, regardless of circumstance, unless they'd killed in combat, in accordance with the Knights' Code. And there was only one punishment for any kind of sorcery.
Uther said that was the purest, fairest justice. By the time Arthur had taken the crown, he didn't think so. But he knew he couldn't just pardon everyone he felt sorry for, or mete out arbitrary punishments as seemed fitting, and he couldn't ask that of his officials.
So they tried to make better laws, fairer ones. By the end of his reign the book of laws read like an epic poem in an obscure tongue; Arthur couldn't remember why he'd signed some of his decrees, but he knew there had been a good reason at the time.
Maybe there had been a good reason once to outlaw this. Arthur glanced at Merlin's pouting mouth and decided that he didn't care. He shielded their faces with his hat and softly kissed Merlin's lips.
Merlin hummed in his sleep and clung to him, drawing Arthur's tongue in his sleep-sour mouth. They kissed for a while, in slow, dreamy strokes of their lips. Then Merlin flinched and bolted upright, gasping.
"It's just a dream," said Arthur. "You're okay, shh, just a dream."
"No no, that actually happened," Merlin mumbled, blinking. "We're in the future!"
He looked around with a manic smile, and tapped on the thick glass of the train window.
"Distant future, full of wonders," he laughed. "You know, Elyan used to fantasise about this all the time. He said one day blacksmiths would make contraptions that would put my magic to shame. He tried making something - it was just something silly, I don't think it worked. And here we are, in a huge iron cart, flying faster than an arrow."
He settled back with his head on Arthur's shoulder, playing with his fingers.
"Here we are. And you're immortal."
"Kind of," Arthur said. He was very much mortal; he was, in fact, the world's greatest expert on dying. But there was no need to split hairs.
"And Morgana is in Avalon. At peace, in the mists."
"She is. I think she's happy."
"She is. I saw into Avalon once, did you know? She would be happy there. And Mordred is dead, and Gilli is the court sorcerer... It actually all turned out a lot better than I thought it would. I thought..."
"You did worry a lot over absolutely nothing. Finally we can agree on that."
"And our friends are still here. Some part of them, at least. Have you met the others, too?"
"From time to time. Most of the knights - they often end up as soldiers, so sometimes we fought together..."
"You lot," Merlin huffed. "Just can't stop clobbering things with sticks. I'm glad they were with you."
They hadn't been with him, exactly. He preferred not to make personal connections, because war is war, and people die, and you never know who you'll lose. There was a time, centuries ago, when he and his men got ambushed during reconnaissance mission. A man who looked like Leon took an arrow in the stomach, and Arthur had carried him for miles back to their camp. For the last few hours he knew he was dragging a corpse. He knew, and he couldn't stop, and couldn't let go.
"I met your mother once," he remembered.
"About a hundred years ago. She worked in a field hospital. She was younger than I remembered her, thirty, maybe."
Merlin listened intently, with a hopeful smile.
"Um, that's it. We never spoke. I avoided her, actually. I knew she wouldn't recognise me, but - I was still afraid she'd ask why you weren't with me."
"I'm with you now," Merlin said and tightened his fingers on Arthur's hand.
"I still don't know if I should be taking you to war again."
"Well then, it's good that you aren't."
Arthur pulled back to look at his face and Merlin stuck his tongue out at him, grinning.
"I'm taking you with me, you dumb arse," Merlin said. "You can't fight this kind of magic, even Gilli can't. So it's my quest. I'm just letting you tag along."
"How big of you."
"I figure you'll be safer where I can keep an eye on you."
Merlin sighed and stared out of the window again.
"And I do need a guide," he said. "Everything's changed. I don't understand most of - this. It's a bit scary. But I think we'll manage. When I first came to Camelot, I didn't understand anything about the court. And I fared pretty well."
He turned and nuzzled at Arthur's neck. An old woman across the aisle averted her eyes with a private smile.
"Um," Arthur said. "Well. You didn't, actually. You were in the castle's dungeons before your first day was over."
"That doesn't count. It was completely your fault."
They'd found the pub Gwen had told them about, where her admirer conducted his shady business, and squeezed through the drinking crowd.
"I'm going to ask the barman to point him out to us, wait here," Arthur said, but Merlin had already peeled off and rushed to the corner table, where a lanky long-haired man was nursing his pint, flipping through a battered notebook.
"Gwaine!" Merlin yelled, flailing his arms like he was about to fling himself into the man's lap.
"Gwenaël," said the stranger and rose to his feet, smiling at Merlin leeringly. "But for you, I shall be whoever you want me to be."
His accent was very slight, and he looked exactly the same, down to the soft sparks in his eyes and artful mess of stubble framing his wide lips.
"Mr - I'm sorry, I don't know your last name," Arthur said.
"No last names. Let's keep the business simple."
"Fine. I'm Arthur. This is Merlin."
"Hello, Merlin," the man took Merlin's hand and lifted it as if he was about to kiss Merlin's fingers.
"Gw- Gwenaël," said Merlin with a happy laugh. "Hi."
"No, please, call me Gwaine. I like how that sounds. I think this should be my name from now on, so I think of you whenever I introduce myself."
"Oh for fuck's sake," Arthur sighed and shouldered between them. "We seek passage to the continent. We heard you were the man to talk to. Lancelot and Guinevere send their regards, by the way."
"And Percival," Merlin reminded. "Gwaine. Hi. I didn't know it would be you. I mean - I didn't know that's how you'd look. Uh, that doesn't sound right either, does it?"
"English is a strange language," Gwaine shrugged. "Where are you from? I can't place your accent, forgive me."
"Nobody can place his accent," Arthur grumbled. "Because that accent doesn't exist anymore. But he's basically Welsh. So, the continent. I don't have much money left, but..."
"Why would you want to go to the continent? It has fallen. We've signed our country away, it's theirs now. You should enjoy your fair isle while it's free."
"I've been to France," said Merlin suddenly. "It's called France now, right?"
"They've not renamed it yet," Gwaine said.
"Is that where you grew up? While I was travelling, I went there. It was very pretty. The food was a bit... garlicky, but I liked their bread. And cheese, do you remember, Arthur, I sent you some cheese! Did you like it?"
"It had turned mouldy by the time I got it."
"Yeah, it was like that from the start. I've not learned the language very well, though."
"France wouldn't be the way you remember it," said Gwaine. "You shouldn't go. Not now. Maybe some day, if..."
"We need to go now," Merlin sighed. "Gwaine, please. We're going anyway, but I'd like to go with you."
The man closed his notebook and stuffed it in his pocket.
"Both of you?"
"Then my next appointment is cancelled. We can leave now, if you're ready."
"He just flutters his eyelashes at you, and you snap to attention?" Arthur huffed. "Nothing ever changes. There's no rush, tend to your little smuggling business, we'll wait."
"There's no point. With your weight, I can't take any more cargo. I'll have to leave behind some of the merchandise I've already got."
Gwaine had a car waiting outside, tucked into an alley by the pub, and he drove them out of Dover, up the coast and into the fields, to a shabby farmhouse.
They were greeted by a stern-faced middle-aged woman.
"What's all this?" she asked, squinting at them suspiciously. "Where are the crates?"
"I've got passengers instead," said Gwaine.
"Gwenaël, you know I'm only helping you because it's about fighting the Jerries," she frowned. "This isn't a touring operation."
"They're paying. Money's money."
"They'd better be paying their weight in perfume," she said and stomped back into the house.
There was a large shape tucked next to the barn, its silhouette stark and familiar.
"It's a German aeroplane," said Arthur, staring.
Gwaine grinned and patted an edge of the upturned metal wing.
"Yes, she's pretty ugly," he said. "But wait till you see her in action."
"I saw them in action. Over London."
Gwaine shrugged, unperturbed.
"Not this model," he said. "This baby is just a few months old. Brand new and improved. They've not been used in combat yet."
He opened the dome over the back part of the cockpit and hauled out a heavy crate.
"This is a two-seater," he said. "But I've ripped the gunner's seat out, so if we make some room, you both should be able to squeeze in here. It won't be comfortable, but it's a short enough trip."
"And why would you just happen to have a brand new German aeroplane?"
"My group raided a German airfield," said Gwaine casually. "Gotta love a good suicide mission. I managed to lift this one, and we blew up the rest."
"Oh, Gwaine," laughed Merlin affectionately. Gwaine puffed out his chest and made a show out of lifting another crate.
"I had an old Stuka before," he said. "They were easy to capture, during the Spanish campaign those bombers fell out of the sky left and right. They didn't have an autopilot yet, so when pilots blacked out on a dive, sometimes they couldn't recover fast enough to pull up again. I flew it for a while, but then it crashed into the sea."
"Wow," said Merlin, enraptured. "What happened?"
Gwaine pulled a bottle of whiskey out of the crate and uncapped it expertly.
"Can't really remember, I was drunk," he said and took a long swig straight from the bottle. "All right, get in."
When Arthur decided to join the RAF, he'd thought that aerial combat wouldn't be much different to learning to fence from horseback, or to fight with guns instead of blades: just a new skill to master, new weapons to get used to. Now, surrounded by loud noise and juddering machinery, separated from the abyss below by a thin metal wall, he wasn't so sure.
The aeroplane continued to climb, slowly and shakily, as if the air was riddled with invisible potholes. Arthur's body felt heavy, pressed against the sharp edges of the crates. He thought about the engine that held them in the air and kept them from falling: small parts clanking against each other, fragile springs, a mess of valves and pistons, countless components that could fail.
Merlin was calmly staring at the clouds through the dome above them, and Arthur began to worry that his unflappable attitude wasn't a good thing. Merlin's numbness to fear and confusion could be another side of that numbness to joy that had coloured their last years together.
There was an odd pressure building inside his head; suddenly it turned into a dull ache, and he went half-deaf.
"Something is wrong," he said loudly, rubbing at his ears.
"Oh, yes, that," Merlin nodded. "Just keep swallowing, it will pass soon."
"How would you know?"
"I've flown before."
"You can fly?" Arthur asked. He still didn't know the full extent of Merlin's power; he doubted even Merlin did.
"I have my means," Merlin smiled.
"So you can just..."
Arthur imagined Merlin soaring through the air, thin and long like an arrow, arms thrown wide like wings. Then he pictured himself hanging off Merlin's back like a sack of grain – no, travelling like this was probably easier. Definitely more dignified.
"Yeah, I can do all kinds of stuff," Merlin said with a shrug. "But I think it's best for me not to show my hand till we know what we're up against. We should blend in, do what they do in the future."
"That's wise," Arthur admitted. "I'll make a strategist out of you yet."
"Besides, if we hadn't done this, we wouldn't have met Gwaine!"
"He's not... No, Merlin, listen, I know you're used to Gwaine rushing to do your every bidding. But this man – he doesn't even know you. Doesn't it seem strange he's so eager to help you?"
"No," said Merlin simply, looking at him with a soft smile. "Remember when we first met him? He didn't know us, and he jumped into a bar brawl to save us. That's just how he is."
Arthur huffed and swallowed again, and this time his ears miraculously cleared. The aeroplane had levelled, rumbling along steadily. There were still many dangers; they could be spotted by enemy aircraft heading to raid London, and they didn't have the weapons to fight back. Arthur tried to think about this to stop himself thinking about the way Merlin had looked at the stranger who wore his dead friend's face.
Arthur had been alone for a very long time, and he'd found it bearable. He hadn't craved attachments; he'd enjoyed his privacy. He'd never had much when he'd been a royal.
But now he had Merlin back, and everything was different. The idea that something, or someone, could infringe on this, take some of it away, even the tiniest bit – the thought stirred something desperate and ugly in him, something he didn't want to admit to.
Arthur had never considered himself a jealous man. Merlin had always been welcome to his marital bed, and he loved to watch him bury his face between Gwen's thighs, or arch off the bed as Lancelot worked at him with his tongue. On long campaigns away they'd sometimes shared with the knights, but he'd never asked Merlin where he spent his rare nights away, and hadn't needed to know if he and Gwaine were lovers. But things were different then.
"I never asked you to be faithful," he said. Merlin glanced at him with a puzzled frown and Arthur rushed on, struggling for words.
"You know why that was," he said. "At least, I always thought you understood. We both knew from the start I couldn't be faithful to you. I had to marry some day, to sire children. But I'm not a king any more, I can do what I like. So, now... I'm asking."
"Wow," said Merlin after an unbearably long pause. "After all these years, I'm still surprised sometimes what a prat you can be."
"Well, this isn't about me, is it? It's about Gwaine! What is it with the two of you, why does everything have to be a pissing contest? He barely said two words to me, and here you are, trying to mark your territory!"
"It is! Otherwise you'd have said all this years ago, when you decided not to remarry!"
"I couldn't then," Arthur shrugged. "So my marriage had failed; it wasn't your fault, and your... friends weren't to blame either. I couldn't ask you to chuck them all just because I wanted you to myself. But now there's no one, there's just us, and I don't want you to start anything before you at least give me a chance -"
Merlin bit his lip and pushed toward him, awkwardly vaulting Gwaine's crates. He looked like he was about to land a punch, but instead he grabbed Arthur by the neck and yanked him closer, into a wet, rough kiss.
"You're mad," he mumbled, grazing Arthur's lips with sharp teeth. "You're a lunatic."
"Yes, fine, I know," Arthur conceded, kissing him back gently, trying to soothe. "I know I won't lose you. Not to Gwaine, not to - it's not like that with us, it's more than that - just forget I said anything."
"No," said Merlin and squirmed into a small space between crates and cockpit wall, to press against Arthur. "I want you to have me all to yourself, Sire. I'd like that."
They kissed, slowly, in silence, for a very long time. Arthur curled his fingers over the sharp angles of Merlin's shoulders and licked across his mouth, and felt hopeful.
"It will be good," he said finally. "I'll – everything will be different, you'll see. So many things went wrong last time. Things didn't even started out right. This time - "
Merlin pulled him closer and shut him up with more of those soft, lingering kisses, and Arthur let him, let himself float in mid-air, high above the sea, and not think, not worry about anything.
The aeroplane jerked around them; the engine groaned at a different pitch, and Arthur's body became weightless. The feeling was physically sickening.
"We're falling," Arthur said, trying to stay calm and not to dig his fingers into Merlin's arms.
"Don't worry. If we fall, I'll catch us."
It lasted forever. The aeroplane slid into a sickening nose-dive and levelled again in a shaky, stuttering motion.
"What's he doing, that drunken idiot," Arthur groaned, queasy from helplessness more than the changing altitude. "There aren't any bumps in the air, it shouldn't feel like we're being dragged over rocks!"
"Almost there," Merlin promised, and soon they hit the ground hard, then rattled forward at an impossible speed.
"Ow, ow," Merlin grunted, scrambling to brace himself and Arthur against the cockpit walls.
When they climbed out the ground didn't feel solid under Arthur's feet; it wobbled and lurched whenever he stopped concentrating. Some people were unloading the crates and arguing with Gwaine in French, talking too fast for him to follow. They weren't paying any attention to Arthur, and he gave in to a flash of vertigo and knelt on a neglected field covered by rotting ears of wheat.
Merlin crouched by his side, palming at the ground, and then lay down and stretched flat on his belly.
"Merlin, if you're making a fool of yourself to make me look less of a weakling," said Arthur, swallowing to stave off nausea. "Then, by all means, carry on."
"I'm listening to the magic. If Gilli is right, and the Vril people have been trying to pull the magic from the land, I should sense the distortion." Merlin frowned and pushed up. "No, it's still too far. I need to get closer."
The Frenchmen had unloaded the plane and were now pushing it off the field, towards a large barn. The farmhouse beside it was half burned, its windows dark and gaping. Arthur wondered what had happened here and what had become of the people who used to tend this field, but thought it best not to think of that any further.
"What's all the commotion?" he asked instead, after Gwaine had joined them on the remains of last summer's harvest.
"They don't think I charged you enough."
"I can give you more money!" said Merlin. "It's just painted paper, right?"
"Don't give it another thought," Gwaine shrugged. "So I guess you're a forger?"
"I'm many things," Merlin said coyly.
"I'm dying to know what your game is." Gwaine smiled. "I can tell it's not your first tango, my guess is that you're planning something exciting. But, of course, the less we know, the safer we are. We're going to drive you to Calais in a covered truck, so if you're captured you won't be able to lead them back to our base."
"We'd never betray you, Gwaine," said Merlin.
Arthur worried his sore fingernails and nodded:
"I'll be in town for a couple of days. There's a bar at the docks, you can find me there. If you need anything – I guess you're good for papers, but weapons, information..."
"We have what we need," said Arthur. "Actually, can I borrow a gun? I want to shoot a couple of bullets. Is it safe here?"
Gwaine narrowed his eyes, but obligingly produced a handgun from under his jacket. The model was unfamiliar, but the principle stayed the same. Arthur nodded and led Merlin to the line of trees at the edge of the field.
"I want to show you something," he said. "This is what they use now instead of crossbows. They have bigger ones, with more precision and power, but these are handy. Easy to carry or conceal, easy to shoot. Every enemy soldier will have one of these at least. Now watch."
He quickly took aim, guided by instincts from the last war, and fired into the middle of the nearest oak.
"Fuck," squeaked Merlin, clutching at his ears. "Ow, that's really loud. You could have warned me!"
"Did you see where it went?"
"Yeah, into that tree..."
"Go and take a look. I want you to see what it did."
"I get the idea, Arthur."
"Go and take a look."
Merlin rolled his eyes and trudged toward the tree. The Frenchmen had stopped their work, distracted by the shot, but were back at it now, loading crates into a big car with a wagon attached to it.
"We're almost ready," called Gwaine. Merlin was walking back now, pale, stumbling at the rows of broken wheat stalks.
"Okay," said Merlin. "Okay, yeah. You've made your point."
"Not yet. I want you to shoot it now."
"Arthur, I don't want to. I get it."
"You don't. You need to know how easy it is. How fast the enemy can do it. You need to know you can't hesitate. Come on," he pressed the gun into Merlin's clammy hand and guided him into the correct stance. "Just put your finger there... and squeeze. Harder."
The shot fired; Merlin's whole body jerked against Arthur's hold, and he dropped the weapon.
"It hurts," he said, rubbing his hand. "And I think it went wide. It's not that easy."
"You'll be better after a few days of practice. Everyone we face will have had more. You have to remember that."
"Well, this is going to be a fun trip for you without any weapons training," said Gwaine worriedly. "I'd kind of assumed you knew what you were doing..."
"I don't need weapons, Gwaine," said Merlin. "I am a weapon."
"Merlin..." Arthur started, and Merlin shook his head, baring his teeth in a stubborn grimace.
"No. I won't hide and lie again. Not now. I have magic, Gwaine."
"Magic? Like in a circus, or like the spiritual-"
"Like this," said Merlin and whipped his hand toward the oak, and the old tree shuddered, shedding the last of dead leaves, and split along the middle with a loud groan. The mutilated trunk swayed, sagging under its own weight; a few branches snapped off and fell down, on to the twisted roots.
"Guns can't do that," muttered Merlin, and Arthur decided to stand back and let him work through his anger, and to explain about cannon at a better time. Merlin aimed his right palm at another tree, hissing out his favourite fire spell, and stuttered mid-word when Gwaine caught him by both wrists and gave him a gentle shake.
"Don't," Gwaine said. "Stop destroying the French countryside, it's suffered enough."
Merlin stared at him, huffing angry breaths through flaring nostrils, and his eyes were yellow with magic, thoughtless and wild.
"You're not a weapon," Gwaine said. "You're a man. Merlin, my friend, you're a man."
"You don't know," said Merlin. "You've no idea what's going on. There are sorcerers in Berlin, people like me; they would fight. They would put all their magic behind those... guns, and machines, and they'll march with the invading army, to burn our kingdom down. And I have to stop them. I have to stop them."
"I know what's happening to you," said Gwaine softly. "It's happening to my men, too. Fighting changes you, of course it does, it has to. But if we forget we're human, the war will never end."
Merlin laughed harshly, rocked forward and pressed his forehead to Gwaine's shoulder.
"I know that. Fuck, you think I don't know that?" he mumbled. "Gwaine. Please. Come with us."
"To Berlin? Are you sure?" Gwaine shot Arthur a confused glance over Merlin's shoulder, and Arthur shrugged. He'd half-expected this.
"It's his mission. If he says he needs you, he needs you. Look, I understand that you have duties here, and it will be dangerous..."
"I could do with a holiday," said Gwaine cheerfully. "Even real soldiers get to go on leave. And what's life without thrills?"
"Thanks, Gwaine," said Merlin weakly, still clinging to him. "It's just... we're fighting the same enemy, so I thought... we don't really know this land, we could use help..."
He pulled back and quickly wiped at his face with his sleeve.
"I'm better, I swear," he told Arthur with a crooked, forced smile. "I'm just, I don't know. I'll go and get our things."
He went to gather their possessions from where the Frenchmen had dumped them on the field. Gwaine gave him an encouraging wave, and turned to stare at the ruined tree.
"Blood of Christ," he whispered. "That was..."
"That was nothing," Arthur said. "The things you're going to see if you come with us – listen, if you don't want to do it, I'll explain that to him. You've no reason to trust us. As far as you know, we're just a couple of lunatics going to the heart of enemy territory on some half-baked suicide mission..."
"You don't need to oversell it, I've already agreed," Gwaine grinned. "I'm not about to miss out on an adventure of a lifetime. Well, you seem less than thrilled to have me along, so if - "
"Actually, I'd be very grateful if you would join us," Arthur admitted grudgingly. "You are – I mean, you seem like a competent fighter and a good man. And you know what to say to him when he's... I never seem to know what to say."
"It's because you're too close. Nothing's easier than dispensing sage advice to complete strangers, my friend," said Gwaine, and although the endearment was just an annoying French figure of speech, it sounded real somehow.
"Friends," Arthur nodded and offered a handshake.
Gwaine had decided that trying to fly inland would be too dangerous, and that they should travel by train. They took the longer route, via Lille and Paris; Gwaine thought it would be faster and safer than trying to cut through Belgium, and he wanted to see some friends in Paris, fellow resistance fighters, to coordinate their efforts.
They had a small compartment all to themselves, and could talk to each other in English without drawing attention. The train was halted and searched by soldiers every few hours, but the papers Merlin had made to Gwaine's instructions seemed to satisfy them. The black guitar case holding Arthur's sword and Gwaine's gun was stowed under a seat with all the other bags. Merlin had enchanted it to be "mostly invisible", whatever that meant. The soldiers looked right at it and pushed it aside without opening it, before rifling through other luggage.
At one of the stops Gwaine ran across the platform and came back with provisions. The food was familiar from the last war – hearty crusty bread, mellow cheese and strong, heady French wine. Merlin chewed on a bread crust without enthusiasm, and seized the whole bottle of wine for himself, taking long, greedy swigs with grim abandonment.
"It's unwatered," Arthur warned.
"Of course it's unwatered!" said Gwaine, looking wounded. "Just because our country is conquered, we're not going to start watering down our Bordeaux! This isn't the best year, I give you that..."
"He's just not used to strong wine."
That wasn't exactly true. Since the nightmares had started, Merlin could put away yards of ale on a bad day, sometimes drinking unwatered whiskey till he made himself sick. Arthur had never been sure if he should put a stop to it, because at least on those days Merlin was out at an inn, talking to people, not moping alone somewhere dark. Besides, when Merlin was nursing a hangover he seemed quite cheerful, as if a headache kept other pains at bay.
"Oh, shut up, Arthur," Merlin said, defiantly gulping down more. "I can hold my drink just fine. If you recall, no matter how much I drank I never ran out on a balcony bollock naked yelling 'I'm the king of all I survey!'"
"That's because you'd be under the table by that point! And that was just once, I was merry, all right? How about I remind you of the time you turned the water in our well into mead?"
"Everyone liked that!"
"Yeah, till it was time to feed children, wash floors and do laundry."
"I undid it the same day, it only took me a few tries..."
"The whole town stank for weeks! Just give me this bottle before you turn this train into a pumpkin."
"I won't – ugh, you're such an overbearing clotpole, would you stop nagging?"
"I will when you behave like an adult and remember that we're on a mission..."
"Christ, the way you bicker," chuckled Gwaine. "How long have you been married?"
"We're not married," said Merlin sadly and took another enormous gulp of the wine. He was drunk already, badly slurring his words, heading to maudlin phase. "Not anymore. Our wife left us for our friend."
"Merlin, he's just making a bad joke," said Arthur. "And she wasn't our wife."
"What, I loved her too!"
It was true, he always had. Sometimes Arthur got an impression that Merlin had been more invested in their marriage than either of them. Merlin made them admit their first spark of attraction, and then kept fanning it till it blossomed into something more. He dragged confessions out of them both, passed messages, arranged dates, protected them against all odds. He'd convinced Arthur that Gwen would make a fine queen; he oversaw all the wedding preparations, and began setting up a nursery weeks after their wedding night. He'd made sure that bright, cosy room was kept tidy and clean of dust for many long years, ready and waiting.
He settled every argument they'd ever had, and he'd always been welcome in their bed, both of them wanted him there. Gwen had fancied him before she first kissed Arthur, even before she'd met Lancelot. Merlin kept talking about the names he thought would be great for their future babies, till Gwen asked him to stop. It had been his marriage, as much as theirs. When Gwen had decided to leave she spoke to Merlin first.
"Yes, but when you say our wife, it makes her sound like a floozy," Arthur explained.
"Actually, her fucking off with your friend sounds a lot worse," said Gwaine.
"No, it wasn't like that. It was love," said Merlin. "We're not angry."
He finished his wine and blinked owlishly, staring at the empty bottle in confusion.
"I'm just going to..."
"Be sick all over yourself?"
"No, I'll just nap," Merlin announced and slumped over Arthur's shoulder, burying his nose in Arthur's collar, and started hoarsely snoring right away.
Gwaine looked at him, smiling warmly, affectionately, just the way the old Gwaine used to stare at Merlin when his back was turned.
"You're lovers, aren't you?" he asked.
"Among other things, yes," Arthur said tersely, supporting Merlin's heavy limp body with an arm around his waist.
"Why ever did you marry someone else, you imbecile," Gwaine sighed. "You're everything to him. Even I can see it."
"I had to. And it was with his blessing, he pretty much chose her for me. He preferred that I married his friend rather than some snooty airhead my father had picked."
"Ah," Gwaine nodded. "That. Yes, you don't have to explain, my father was a vicomte."
"Really? So you're..."
"No. I'm nothing," Gwaine said, calmly busying himself with food. "My parents are gone, my name is on the wanted list, my family estate is a military base, my factory is making bullets to help keep my country on its knees. And that's as much as I'm going to tell you about my past. This is who I am now."
He brushed crumbs off his hands and toasted Arthur with his bottle.
"We'll stop overnight in Paris," he said. "I'll get you to a safehouse. You both look like you could do with some rest before we go further."
The safehouse was a small dingy flat in Montmartre, empty save for a few mattresses laid out on the floor in every room.
"It's not much," said Gwaine. "Just a hideout."
"Oh, we've had worse," Merlin assured him. "I didn't even have a mattress till I was nineteen. This is great."
"Leave your things here, and I'll give you a tour of the city. It's unlike anything you'll have ever seen, I promise you that. This will be a night you'll never forget."
"I just want to stay in," said Merlin, giving Arthur a sneaky, hungry glance. "You know. Sleep."
As soon as Gwaine was out of the door, Merlin grabbed Arthur by the collar, knocked his fedora hat off and kissed him, deeply, possessively.
"So, now that you have me all to yourself," he said with a goofy grin. "What are you going to do with me?"
"Oh, same old, really," Arthur mumbled, licking the warm, soft skin of Merlin's neck, and toppled him to the nearest mattress.
It took them a while to peel Merlin out of his new clothes; Arthur helped him get out of the tie, work buttons and cufflinks through the small holes and wriggle out of the braces, all the time greedily kissing and pawing at every inch of baring skin.
"I swear, getting a man out of full armour is faster than this," growled Merlin, clawing at his sock suspenders. "This is stupid, oh, come on, take this off, get naked, now, now."
And then they were naked, stretched together on the thin mattress, chest to chest, pressed against each other, fitting together in breathtakingly familiar ways. Arthur covered Merlin with his body, aligning them everywhere, legs, toes, cocks, bellies, and just held him there, feeling Merlin breathe under his weight, feeling his skin and known, loved angles and lengths of him, remembering and relishing every muscle, every jut of a bone, every bit of him.
"You're back, you're back," he said. He wanted to say so much more, find words for everything bubbling up in his chest.
"I'm back," said Merlin happily, rocking softly against him. "Oh, look at you. You're all new."
He ran soft fingertips over Arthur's back, arms, pushed him up to stroke his chest, smiling.
"Wow, Arthur. All your scars are gone, even the one from the Questing Beast. It's like none of that happened."
He pulled Arthur closer and kissed him, mashing their mouths together, hard and rough, scraping Arthur's back with his ragged fingernails, as if he wanted to mark Arthur's unblemished skin in a new way, make it tell a different story.
He grabbed Arthur's hand, whispered a word, and there was slippery slickness between their palms, an old spell Merlin had made up during one of their campaigns together when nothing else had been handy and they had been mad with lust, desperate to get inside each other. Merlin pushed Arthur's hand down and opened his legs, pushing upward, urging him on.
Arthur ran shaky fingers over the curve of Merlin's arse and suddenly remembered the last few times they'd done this. Merlin would drift off in the middle of being fucked, heavy in Arthur's arms. Then he'd open his eyes, and they'd be dark and empty.
It only ever lasted a moment, and then Merlin would be back, but Arthur wasn't ready to see that again, couldn't risk it.
"No," he said and rolled them over. "I'd rather you do all the work tonight."
Merlin eagerly climbed on top of him and hoisted one of Arthur's legs on his shoulder.
"Still so kingly," Merlin laughed, pushing slippery fingers into Arthur's arse till his breath hitched from the half-forgotten feeling of a burning, sweet stretch. "All right, Sire, I shall serve you."
When Merlin's cock forced him open, he wanted to cry from relief and joy, and Merlin barely gave him a second to breathe before rocking in deeper.
"Oh, Arthur, Arthur, you're..." he moaned.
"Am I all new inside too?" Arthur panted out, and Merlin laughed and kissed him again, and fucked him with strong, steady thrusts, and Arthur wanted this to go on forever, and barely lasted a minute.
"Damn," he mumbled against Merlin's lips as he was kissed through his bliss.
"Want me to stop?"
"No. Fuck no. No way."
Arthur wanted to shut his eyes and relish every slide of Merlin's cock against the tenderest bits of him, but he couldn't stop looking at Merlin's smiling face, the way he bit his lip every time he pushed into him, and then the way his eyes shut and mouth fell open as he shoved in hard, losing his rhythm, fucking Arthur's breath out with the force of his thrusts. He cried out sharply, shuddering, and his eyes sparkled gold, and just the sight of it made Arthur's spent cock jump again.
They lay tangled together, Merlin's cock slowly going soft inside Arthur, slipping out bit by bit, his warm come trickling down on the dirty sheets. Arthur held him tight, almost afraid to breathe. It felt different; kind of the way it felt first time they'd fucked after Arthur had found out about the magic. Raw, more real, a little scary. New.
"Feel awful now," Merlin said.
"Pulled your back?"
"No," said Merlin with an awkward chuckle. "No, I didn't mean – I feel great. Just guilty. Doesn't seem right to enjoy ourselves when the war is going on."
"Come on. We used to fuck like mad weasels before every battle. Brought the tent down countless times."
"Yes, but, then the other army was camped on the other side of the field, waiting just like we were. It's different now. They're burning London while we're... Every time we rest, more people die."
"Merlin, stop it. You used to be the one who'd tell me to rest even when a war was going on. To eat even when my people were starving. Can't save anyone if we're too weak to fight."
"Yeah," Merlin sighed and shifted against him, as if trying to pull back and curl in on himself. Arthur didn't let go, and Merlin stilled again, restlessly playing with Arthur's hair. "Heh, I used to be so wise when I was young. When I was nineteen, I had all the answers. I knew who I was, my destiny, who my friends were. What was right, what was wrong. I miss that clarity. Wasn't I supposed to get wiser with age?"
"I know, it's such a let-down," Arthur agreed. "I've been waiting for that sage wisdom, and it just never happens. After Gilli, I'm probably the oldest person in the world, if you put all my years of life together. And I don't feel any wiser. I just feel... like I always have."
"I'm sorry that happened to you, Arthur."
"Don't be. I'm glad it did."
"How can you be glad? All that fighting, and dying, and endless wars..."
"Merlin, I'm alive. I should have been dead for centuries, and I'm alive, of course I'm glad. I don't know why it's so hard for you to grasp, it's basic human nature. Everyone loves to be alive."
"Yes, they do, don't they," said Merlin thoughtfully.
Arthur grasped his naked shoulder and gave him a little shake.
"Hey. You never told me – and I guess you had your reasons, however idiotic they were. But now it's all in the past. Fourteen centuries in the past. It doesn't matter anymore. So you can tell me now, can't you? What happened to you back then?"
"I don't really know," said Merlin with a small catch to his voice, and was quiet for a long time, breathing unevenly against Arthur's shoulder.
"It wasn't any one thing," he said just as Arthur was beginning to lose patience. "Everything just... we'd been fighting for so long, one war after another, and I was so tired. I just wanted to rest. But there was never time, we had to keep going. And then we had peace, and finally everything was good, we'd achieved everything we'd set out to do. And you didn't need me anymore."
"I needed you."
"Well, to advise, maybe. But you didn't really need my advice by then. You were ready, you were a great king, you had your hands full but you were doing well. And I thought I could finally rest. And that's, that's when it all started. It's just as Gwaine says. It was like the war never ended for me. I kept dreaming about it, all the blood, all those faces, all the people we'd killed, all the people we'd lost. Everything I'd done wrong, or could have done better. Sometimes even when I wasn't asleep - I'd be in a room, talking to you, and then I'd be on a battlefield, or... somewhere. And it was so real, like it was still happening. And even when I was myself, I kept thinking about it. All the things I'd thought I'd forgotten, wanted to forget - they all came back, and I couldn't keep them out of my head, and I couldn't see anything else. All I had was remorse, and regrets, and guilt. No rest for the wicked Merlin."
"You're not wicked. Merlin, this is such nonsense."
"I know. It all sounds so stupid when I say it out loud. That's why I never wanted to tell you. It's all just... stupid."
"It is, and I'll tell you why. You've nothing to regret, Merlin. We built something together, something beautiful and enduring. I'm proud of it, and you should be, too. It's an insult to our memory to belittle our work like that!"
"Our memory? We're not actually dead, Arthur."
"You know what I mean. Yes, a lot of people died in the wars we waged. But a lot more people were saved, and so many more people had better lives because of us. And I think we had destiny on our side, guiding our hand, because..."
He rolled to the side, to look Merlin in the face, and felt once again that giddy, awed delight that filled him every time he thought of this.
"My father always told me a king must be heartless sometimes. That I'd have to make horrific decisions, do unspeakable things for the good of the kingdom, and bear that burden for the rest of my life. But... it just never happened. Yes, there were tough choices, but we never had to sacrifice our honour and do something truly awful. It was like something was watching over us. Some divine thing, maybe, you know? Maybe the Old Religion was grateful that we'd brought it back, maybe the gods... But something was helping us along, steering us clear from darker paths. Making sure we didn't have any regrets. Keeping us true to ourselves."
He'd never shared that with anyone, keeping this odd, hopeful faith close to heart, but he thought Merlin of all people would understand. He was probably the only one who could. But
Merlin just stared back at him blankly, twisting his fingers in the rumpled sheets.
"I don't know, yeah, it sounds odd," shrugged Arthur, disappointed. "Maybe we were just lucky."
"We weren't that lucky," said Merlin flatly. "Actually."
Arthur looked in his still, expressionless face, and felt suddenly cold, had to struggle to suppress shivers.
"Please don't get angry," Merlin sighed tiredly. "I don't want to fight right now."
"Explain," Arthur demanded, and Merlin nodded and drew a long breath.
"You were right, it's just as you said. We were building something beautiful. A kingdom that rewarded merit, valued equality, looked after the unfortunate, protected the helpless. A kingdom where everyone was worth fighting for, no matter who they were. And you were at the heart of that all. Goodly king Arthur, stalwart and pure of heart. Just like in all the songs they sang about you, it was all true. And I wanted you to stay like that. True to yourself. Not just for your sake, but for our kingdom, too. So, whenever a horrific choice came our way... I made it."
"Fuck," said Arthur, barely able to comprehend this. "You... fuck."
Merlin tried to grin; his eyelashes were wet with tears, but his face was still slack, his voice monotonous, expressionless.
"By the time you took your crown I'd been doing that for years. Before you'd learned about my magic I had no one to turn to, so I just went ahead and did it. I'd remove every threat myself, sometimes before you noticed it. And then, when you were king, there were things I didn't want you to know about. Things I didn't want on your conscience. So..."
"You - you had no right."
"I don't want to fight right now," Merlin repeated stubbornly. "And, you know, it's not like I went around slaughtering everyone who looked at you funnily. I did the best with the choices I had. Or so I thought at the time. I thought I could live with it, that it was justified. And I didn't think much about it, until..."
He suddenly shuddered all over and rolled closer, burrowing into Arthur's arms. Arthur nearly pushed him away, wanted to hit him, to yell and throw things, but managed to stifle his anger and put an arm around Merlin's cold back.
"I tried to fight it," mumbled Merlin near his ear. "I tried not to think about it and to enjoy the peace, the new Camelot, everything. I wanted to wake up and feel happy just because it was a sunny day, like I used to. It was so difficult. I wanted it to stop. That's the stupidest thing of all: it was all in my head, what was I fighting against? My own head?"
"Well," said Arthur, calmed bit by bit by the feel of Merlin's heartbeat against his chest. "You've always been your worst enemy. No surprise there."
"And then," Merlin carried on in a sudden breathless rush of words. "Then I just couldn't stop thinking about it, and I didn't even want to be happy anymore. It was easier to stop struggling, and give into that misery, and for a time it was a relief. I believed I'd deserved it, that it was my place. That maybe there would be some kind of peace if I just sank as deep as I could, let it have me. But there wasn't. There wasn't. And then one day I woke up and thought, what was the point of doing this?"
"Everything. Every day was a torture, and I was no use to anybody. All I was doing was spreading my misery around. There was just no point in carrying on, I didn't owe that to anyone. And that's when I decided to..."
"No," Arthur blurted out, clutching at him in fear.
"Oh, no. No. I'd decided to go travelling. Break out of the rut, look for help. Because it wasn't just unhappiness and bad memories anymore, it was crazy thinking. It was actual madness coming my way. And it helped, I did get better. So that's all in the past. Done with. And I'm sorry for having been – I just feel embarrassed now, mostly."
"You keep saying you're better," said Arthur cautiously.
"Well, I am! And now we're in the future, and, really, none of it matters anymore. Everyone I killed, everyone I didn't save – they'd be dead now anyway. Everyone we helped is dead now, too. None of it really matters now. Might as well never have happened. And we have a quest, it's always easier to pull your socks up when you have work to do. So, yeah."
Arthur spread his coat over them and they lay together in the darkness. He felt oddly tired, wrung out, like after a full day of treaty negotiations, and he struggled for something to say. There must be words, he thought, a few sentences that would make everything right, but he couldn't find them.
The door opened slowly, and Gwaine's voice whispered something in French. Several pairs of feet tip-toed across the room, past their mattress, into the other bedroom. The light there went on, spilling from under the shut door, and the apartment filled with the sound of hushed whispers, rustles of cloth and female giggles.
"Typical," Arthur whispered. "Wasn't he supposed to be coordinating the efforts of the resistance?"
"He's definitely coordinating some sort of effort there," Merlin laughed quietly. "Oh, Gwaine. Do you think that's his resistance friends or someone he's just met at an inn?"
"I'm sure he'll insist on telling us all about it tomorrow," said Arthur and pressed a kiss to Merlin's hair. "Okay. I'm not angry. And I'm glad you're better. Now sleep."
They were on a train again before dawn, and got to Berlin at dusk. Arthur's accent didn't allow him to pass for a Berliner, but it sounded similar to some provincial dialects, and his blond hair seemed to reassure the shopkeepers. They had dinner at a dingy eatery near the station; Merlin quickly slurped up his soup, poured a glass of water into the empty bowl and stared into it for a while, whispering under his breath.
"I'm going to assume it's magic, and not a sign of too much wine two days in a row," said Gwaine.
Merlin swirled water in the scrying bowl and got up.
"Our contact is ready to see us right now. Let's go."
They headed southward, to the meeting place Gilli had named for them.
"It's like they're not even at war," Merlin said, openly gaping at the sights like a hapless tourist. "Everything is so... tidy."
"They're at war all right," said Arthur and tried to pull his hat down. There were a lot of young women on the streets, and many of them gave him eager, hungry glances. This often happened during wartime when most of the younger men were away, posted to some distant front.
"Oh," said Merlin, pointing at the charred ruins of a small Gothic church. "Oh, look. Was that us?"
"Yes, probably," said Gwaine with mean satisfaction.
"I didn't know our planes could fly this far inland."
"This is about as far as they can get. After Dunkirk that's all your people can do – send in bombers. And, well. You."
"Hopefully we'll prove to be a more elegant solution," Arthur joked.
"Yeah," nodded Merlin. "I know it's war, but... it's a city. There are children here."
There was a small bunch of boys marching down a street, led by an adult. They all wore the same clothes – neat little shirts, neckties, knee socks and short trousers, and their little faces were proud and serious as they concentrated on keeping the right pace.
"Look at them," said Merlin, smiling. "Are they training to be squires?"
"They're training to be cannon fodder," Gwaine said. "Come on, let's just get this done."
They walked for a few more blocks, watching the sun set behind the tall stone buildings.
"It's definitely happening," Merlin told them. "Gilli was right, I can feel it now. Magic is twisted up here, the Vril people had been doing something to it. It normally just flows through the land, along the leylines, but here there's a pull and a knot, and it's not far away. I could find the centre of it, I think."
"Let's focus on the task at hand," Arthur said. "I wonder what our contact is like."
"Like me, probably," Merlin shrugged.
"Well, yes, I know he'll be a sorcerer. I was wondering what kind of man he is."
"That's what I meant. He's Gilli's good friend, and Gilli doesn't make friends easily. I was about the only one back in the day. So this guy is probably a bit like me."
Arthur tried to picture that, and couldn't. If pressed, he couldn't have described what Merlin was like as a man, as a person. Merlin was Merlin, and there was only one Merlin in the world, and that was that, as far as Arthur was concerned.
"So we're supposed to stroll down that street, and he'll watch us to make sure it's safe and we're not watched. Then he'll approach us and ask if we've seen his dog that's run away, and we're supposed to say... what's that?"
The street was dark and deserted by now; a large van pulled up to one of the houses half a block away, and several armed men in grey uniforms got out and spread on the pavement, surrounding the door.
"They're arresting someone," said Gwaine grimly.
"There are criminals in there?"
"These guys don't bother with crooks. They would be after some enemies of the state. Jews, dissidents, homosexuals..."
One of the soldiers kicked the door, knocking it off the hinges, and half of the soldiers filed inside the house. The rest stayed with the car, guns at the ready.
"I don't know what those words mean," Merlin said. "I don't think I care, though."
He crossed the street and headed toward the soldiers in long, quick strides.
"Merlin, we should stay on the mission," said Arthur, catching up with him.
"When I swore fealty to you," said Merlin through clenched teeth. "I promised to myself I'd never again stand by and watch this happen. I'd let too many people be dragged to the block for what they were; I wouldn't do it anymore."
Arthur fumbled for the catch of the guitar case and shifted the scabbard under his coat, getting ready to draw.
"There's no talking him out of it," he told Gwaine. A few people were being pushed outside and herded into the van: three men and one woman, their faces pale and twisted with despair. "This will get messy, you should probably - "
"Are you serious? I've wanted to do this for so long," said Gwaine, his hand already on his gun under his jacket. "I'll get the driver."
He headed to the front of the car, swaying and whistling off-key, pretending to be drunk. Merlin kept walking straight at the soldiers, and they were already shouting warnings at him, waving their guns, motioning for them to walk away. So far they'd only seen the two of them as annoying passers-by, but they didn't have more than a few seconds before that changed.
"What's the plan?" Arthur asked quietly.
"Light," Merlin said.
He gave the soldiers his best inconspicuous, moronic smile and lifted his open palms, and Arthur shut his eyes.
Even with his eyes closed the white flash was painful, overwhelming. It coloured his vision pink, and he could almost see the silhouettes of the soldiers through his eyelids. The men screamed; the van growled like a waking beast, but then a gunshot sounded, and the engine choked, then fell silent.
The soldiers who had been hit with the full force of Merlin's light were blinded for the moment, stumbling and clawing at their eyes. One of them hoisted a gun, about to shoot blind, and Merlin broke his neck with the snap of his fingers.
Three more soldiers were already inside the car with their prisoners, and they now jumped out, preparing to shoot at them from close range. Arthur darted under the line of fire and cut them down in three smooth, quick thrusts. The sword sang in his hand, revelling in the feel of the battle; he turned to the others, but Gwaine and Merlin had disposed of them already.
"You're safe now," Merlin said to the prisoners in his odd version of German. They were huddled at the back of the van, staring at them wide-eyed. The whole battle had barely taken ten seconds. "You can come out. We'll take you to safety."
"We'll take the van," said Gwaine. He'd shot the driver through the car window, and was now knocking the shards of blood-spattered glass out of the frame with his gun, trying to slip his arm inside to get to unlock the door. "We probably won't get far in it, but – oh, shit."
Arthur turned to follow his glance, and saw a man standing at the end of the street. It was a patrol solder, they'd seen plenty of them earlier all around the city. This one was just a boy, he couldn't be older than eighteen. He was too skinny for his uniform, blue-eyed and very blond, his eyebrows almost white. He stared at them and the bodies around their feet, frozen, and then started screaming.
Gwaine took a shot at him, and the boy darted behind the corner, still yelling. They heard more voices, and then the rumble of heavy boots on cobblestones.
They darted behind the car just in time; a full patrol ran into the street, yelling demands to surrender, and then someone fired a long round of bullets across the car, making it shudder.
"Run, I'll cover," said Gwaine, carefully peeking around the side of the cabin.
"Gwaine, no!" Merlin protested.
"This is a good plan, we'll cover his retreat when we get to cover," Arthur said and turned to the others. "You have to lead the way."
One of the men nodded, pushed off the side of the van and ran for the nearest alley. They all followed; gunshot sounded behind their backs, and then Gwaine opened fire, forcing the patrol to take cover.
"All right," Arthur said once they'd rounded the corner. "Now cover him."
Merlin nodded and stepped into the street, recklessly, a perfect target.
"Gwaine, run!" he yelled and hurtled a ball of lightning down the street. It rolled at the soldiers, crackling and spreading, shooting out long tendrils of unearthly light. The men fired at it, and the bullets sank into the white crackling mess, making it sparkle wildly and grow bigger, taking up the whole of the street, singeing the walls of the houses on the both sides.
Gwaine was running to them; he was just a few steps away when a single shot fired from the left, barely heard over the hum of the lightning, and Gwaine crashed to the ground.
One of the soldiers had gone around the line of houses and crept up on them through a different alley. He was crouching there, half-hidden behind a low stone fence, about to take another shot at them. Merlin turned to him and screamed; from the corner of his eye Arthur saw the man thrown back with savage force, his clothes and probably flesh torn from his body as he was cruelly twisted mid-air – but he couldn't spare another look, he had to get to Gwaine.
Gwaine was already getting up on his own, and Arthur pulled him up and propped him over his shoulder.
"I'm fine," Gwaine said. "Just a flesh wound. I can walk."
There was a freely bleeding bullet-hole above his knee, but the leg seemed to hold his weight, the bone wasn't shattered. They ran through the labyrinth of narrow alleys, led by the people they'd rescued. The patrol had raised the alarm – they could hear shouts and heavy footfall getting closer from all directions, and from somewhere further off came the wailing sound of a siren, echoing between the houses.
"We can cut through that street, we can get to - " said the woman, and then grabbed them and pulled them to a small recess between two houses.
A few soldiers stood at the end of the alley; the soldiers hadn't noticed them yet, but that way was blocked. They had to double back, and hope to find another route.
"Maybe they'll leave," one of the men muttered, and they waited, huddled against the wall.
Gwaine was sickly pale, glassy-eyed and sluggish, his trouser leg slick with dark blood.
"We need to stop that bleeding," Arthur told him. "Hold on a bit longer, don't swoon on us, we'll see to that as soon as we find better cover."
"Arthur," Gwaine whispered and pressed his gun in Arthur's hand. "I can't be taken alive. I know too much. You have to make sure. Promise me."
Arthur took the gun, nodding, mostly to give the man peace of mind. He didn't think he'd be able to fulfil that kind of promise.
Merlin was watching the soldiers, his jaw set grimly.
"We won't lose them like this," he said. "We're just about surrounded here. Arthur, you have to get everyone to safety. Make sure they're safe. Look after Gwaine. Go."
"Me? What about you?"
"I'll stay and fight."
He stepped out onto the street and whipped a lance of fire at the soldiers. One fell; the other ducked for cover, shouting for backup.
"Go!" Merlin yelled. Fire crackled between his fingers; his bony face, distorted by rage, seemed barely human. "Arthur, go!"
Arthur reached for him and was pushed back by the angry invisible force. More soldiers were taking cover at the end of the alley, and more were probably on the way. Merlin would hold the enemies back for as long as it took, covering their escape, but Arthur couldn't -
A dark, tall figure darted at them from the nearest alleyway, and Arthur took aim at it before he saw that it wasn't a soldier. The man wore civilian clothes and was unarmed. When he reached Merlin he fell to his knees by his feet and pressed his palms to the cobblestones.
The street rippled under his hands like a stormy sea; the old cobblestones scattered, ripped up by a force that pushed upwards from somewhere deep underground. A thick column of clay and earth rose up, twisting and tightening. It grew quickly, lurching upwards, sucking the broken cobblestones inside itself, forming a giant shape. It looked like a man crafted from clay by a child's hands: squat and thick, a little lopsided, with disproportionately long arms. It was now at least fifteen feet tall, and it was moving, stretching its wide shoulders, turning its round head, blinking two little slits in its face.
The men at the end of the alley yelled a word Arthur didn't recognise, over and over, and let loose a wide volley of bullets. The shots sunk into the monster's chest with wet sucking plops; it raised its long arms and moved at the soldiers. Arthur expected it to growl or roar, but the clay monster walked silently, intent on its target.
"It'll stay and fight," said the kneeling stranger and rose to his feet. "Come with me."
They ran from the sounds of the battle, ducking through the narrow streets, till they ended in a stone well between blind, windowless back walls.
"Dead end," said Arthur.
"No such thing," said the sorcerer and crouched down again. Arthur stepped back, expecting another conjured monster, but when the paved ground opened up to a gaping hole nothing came out, except for the strong waft of foul air.
The sorcerer quickly spoke to the others in a language Arthur didn't understand, and they jumped down, landing with a splash a few feet below. Arthur followed them, cringing when the liquid waste licked at his boots, and prepared to catch Gwaine to save him from falling and getting dirty water in his open wound.
Once they were all down in the narrow round tunnel, the sorcerer reached up and the ground closed above them, leaving them in complete, stuffy darkness.
They stood there, huddled close, listening to the distant noises and sirens above. Then the darkness softened and bloomed with a low blue light. A glowing sphere rose from Merlin's palm and hung above their heads, illuminating the way.
"I suppose you're Merlin," said the sorcerer.
"And you're, you're B-Benesh," Merlin stuttered, staring at the stranger in open awe. He must have been impressed by that trick with the clay giant.
"Wait, we're doing this wrong," said Benesh. "Have you seen my dog?"
They both let out the identical, nervous laughs of men coming down from battle.
"There's a dry spot that way," said Benesh. "We should see to the wounded."
They splashed through the tunnel in single file. The thick stench was awful, making them tear up and forcing them to breathe noisily through their mouths.
"That was incredible, that warrior you conjured," said Merlin. "Is he alive? Can they kill him?"
"Of course it's not alive. Only God can create life. It's just a golem, dirt and magic. It will fight for a while, and then crumble up."
"Wow. Can you teach me that spell?"
"I can try," said the man cordially. "But it probably has to be in your blood. My family was from Prague, that's where my ancestors first crafted the spell... Here. More light, please."
Merlin made the blue glow brighter, and Arthur helped Gwaine lie down in a small alcove in the side of the tunnel. Benesh ripped up Gwaine's trouser leg, brushed the blood off with his palms and frowned.
"I'll stop the bleeding," he said. "This will hurt a lot."
"Aren't you a soothsayer," Gwaine laughed weakly. Arthur pinned his legs to help him keep still, and Merlin hugged his shoulders and squeezed his hand. Benesh pressed his palms to Gwaine's skin, over entry and exit wounds, and muttered a spell. Golden light flashed briefly under his hands; Gwaine shuddered and exhaled.
"Yeah, it really hurts a lot," he said and passed out in Merlin's arms.
"Might as well let him rest," said Benesh. "I need to get these people out of the city, before all the roads are blocked. I'll be back soon, and we'll take him to a doctor."
"Okay, Benesh," said Merlin with a weird, watery smile. "Stay safe."
The rescued prisoners muttered their thanks; Benesh conjured a small flame in the palm of his hand and they headed off down the tunnel. Arthur climbed inside the alcove to sit by Merlin's side; Merlin pillowed Gwaine's head on his lap, and Arthur propped Gwaine's wounded thigh over his legs, to keep it raised. The bullet wound was gone. In its place now there was a smooth flat scar that looked like an old burn mark. But that cure seemed only skin deep, and the wound could still be bleeding inside.
"I didn't want to say anything in front of the locals," said Merlin. "But they have the worst catacombs I've ever seen – seriously, it's like they use them as an outhouse."
"Actually, they do. In a city this size it's impossible to clean up all the waste, it would pile up on the streets. So they pour it all down these tunnels, below the ground, and then the rain washes it away."
"Ah," said Merlin, uninterested, already distracted by his thoughts.
"So, what do you think about our contact? Brave man, isn't he? I like him. You know, he looks like someone I've met before, but I can't figure out who. Does he remind you of someone?"
"He looks like my father," Merlin said quietly.
"What are you talking about, you don't know what your father looked like. Oh! I didn't realise it at first, because he's so much younger now. Do you remember Balinor, the last Dragonlord? Remember, we went looking for him when the dragon broke out of the dungeon, and we found him and – you must remember him. You fell to pieces when he died, I saw you..."
"I remember him," said Merlin. "He was my father."
Arthur looked at his profile, limned in blue from the magical light, and suddenly saw the resemblance, and wondered how he hadn't noticed before. Even the age-worn bearded face of the last Dragonlord seemed somehow familiar when they first met him; this young man, Benesh, could be Merlin's brother. They had the same unruly dark hair, same nose, same chin, same curve to their eyebrows, same way of stubbornly setting their mouth. Merlin's face was softer, more delicate, as if Hunith's beauty had tempered the boldness of his father's features. But it was easy to see both of them in Merlin, their blood mixing to create his unique, striking looks.
"But you told me you didn't know him," Arthur said. "Just like I didn't know my mother – we talked about it, you told me... Were you lying? Why would you lie about something like that?"
"I wouldn't - I didn't know," said Merlin, slumping a little against Arthur's shoulder, pressing his sharp bony elbow to Arthur's side. That shouldn't be reassuring, but somehow always was. "My mother never said, and Gauis only told me on the day we rode out to find him. So... in the end, I only knew my father for a few hours. Not much you can learn in that time, really."
"Why didn't you tell me who he was?"
"I don't know, Arthur, why do you think I didn't tell you I'm the son of a banished criminal and might have magic in my blood?" Merlin snapped, glaring at him.
"I wouldn't have told my father! It wasn't - "
It wasn't your fault, he was going to say, and bit his tongue just in time. He still remembered the first years of his reign, when he'd been making peace with druids and other enemies of Camelot. That's what they'd said as they offered him their hands in friendship, to seal their treaties. They'd looked him in the face and said that it wasn't his fault he was his father's son, wasn't his fault he had that mad monster's blood in his veins, that they could forgive him that, that he was nothing like a Pendragon. And he smiled at them and shook their hands, even as rage boiled inside him and he wanted to break their fingers in his grip.
"I knew you probably wouldn't have. But there was no need to take that risk," Merlin shrugged, and it stung, but it was, Arthur supposed, understandable.
"Why haven't you ever said anything?" he pressed anyway. "In all those years..."
"Didn't see a point to dredging it up," said Merlin curtly. "He was d-dead, so..."
With an angry twist of his fingers he broke the glowing sphere, plunging them in the darkness again. There was no light source at all, Arthur couldn't even see his hands; the only points of reference against the pitch black were the weight of Gwaine's body on his lap, the shaking of Merlin's shoulder against his and the muffled wet noises Merlin was making.
"Merlin, this is childish," Arthur said. "I know you're crying."
"Well... I still don't want you to see it," Merlin mumbled.
"I've seen it before."
"That was b-before. I'm fine now, I'm not going to – we're on a quest. We've work to do. I'm..."
"No man should be ashamed to cry over his parents," said Arthur and tugged him closer. Merlin's face was slick with tears, leaving wet spots on Arthur's neck. "You saw me when my father died. You know I mean it."
"I can't do this," Merlin sobbed into his shoulder. "It will happen again, won't it? Balinor was hiding out in those caves for twenty years, he'd been safe there. And then we came and dragged him into the fight, and the next day he was dead. And now Benesh – Arthur, he's so young, he looks barely twenty. And we're going to drag him into this, and he... I can't watch him die again. I can't."
"He's not your father, though," Arthur said.
"Yeah, thanks, that makes it all right," laughed Merlin bitterly, sniffing in the dark.
"No, fine, he might have Balinor's spirit in him or – however that works, but he's a different man. He's not hiding in caves. You saw him, this isn't the first time he's taken condemned people to safety. And you know it wasn't the first time he set that thing loose on the town's guard. Golem – that was the word the soldiers were shouting, they'd seen it before. He's in the fight already, and he's brave and reckless. So we better join forces with him. We'll all be safer that way."
That seemed to help: Merlin nodded and stilled, breathing evenly now.
"I don't think he's different," he said.
"I didn't mean your father was a coward. He did agree to help us in the end."
"I think Balinor was like this when he was young. Before he lost his dragon. Before Camelot started hunting him. I think... the fight just goes out of you as you get older. Well. Not you, obviously."
Arthur smiled and blindly punched him in the shoulder, both to cheer him up and to thank him for a compliment. Merlin rocked against him with a soft annoyed huff.
"Hang on," Arthur said. "If your father was a dragonlord, does it mean you're - "
"Yeah. I inherited his power."
"What a pair we are," Arthur laughed. "A king without a kingdom and a dragonlord without a dragon."
"The kingdom's still there," Merlin said. His palm slid across Arthur's thigh; he found Arthur's hand in the dark and held it.
"If the dragon hadn't escaped," Arthur said. "If it was still chained up when I became king, I'd... I'd have trusted you with it. I'd have let you try to tame it."
"It's not a horse, Arthur."
"Of course not, it was huge and breathed fire! Imagine the kind of power..."
"No. It wouldn't have agreed to fight in our wars," Merlin said sleepily, tired out by the tears. "It would have helped us against sorcery, but it wouldn't have burned enemy armies for us."
"No, I wouldn't have wanted it to," Arthur conceded. "I wouldn't want to rule by fear. That would be against everything we were trying to do. Still, dragon. Could have been useful."
"Less than you think, probably. After twenty years of captivity he'd just want to fly about and laze in the sun and complain that he was the last of his kind and wyverns were stupid and clingy and boring to shag. Well. That'd be my guess, anyway."
He shifted against Arthur's side and brought the light back, letting it float softly upwards, illuminating his face, dry now, calm.
"That twist in the magic," he said. "It's very close. Something's weird about it though – well, everything's weird about it, really, but... I guess we'll find out soon enough."
Benesh returned and led them through the stinking tunnels, confidently picking his way through maze-like turns and crossings. Gwaine was still unconscious, and Arthur carried him on his back, trying not to pant too loudly from the effort.
They ended up in a narrow well and climbed up a slippery metal ladder. Benesh pushed open the heavy round lid and they squeezed through it, and they were back on ground level in a narrow back alley.
It was well past midnight now; the sky was black, and the stars shone weakly, dimmed by the distant street lights. They slipped past a few dark-windowed houses; Benesh unlocked a small door set below ground level and quietly ushered them inside.
The large room was lit by a single bare electrical bulb hanging from the oppressively low ceiling. The grey stone floor and windowless walls were a grim sight; the cold damp room must have been a scullery, couldn't be meant for living in. But there was a bed made on a pallet by the wall, and next to it was an old stuffed chair with a knitted blanket slung over an arm, and a small bookcase full of cheap paper-bound volumes.
"Do you live here?" asked Merlin as they lowered Gwaine onto the bed.
"No, I just sleep here sometimes," said Benesh, hastily sending small zingy bursts of magic over his filth-stained clothes. "Use magic to remove the smell, we can't talk to people stinking like this. How does my hair look?"
"This is hardly a time for vanity," Arthur started, feeling for Gwaine's skittering pulse. Before he could work up to something insulting, the door at the top of the short staircase leading further into the building creaked open, and he reached for his sword.
An elderly man in a dressing gown raised a disapproving eyebrow at him and walked in, slowly shuffling his feet in soft slippers. He didn't look as old as the last time Arthur had seen him, more as he had done in the first memories Arthur had from his childhood. There were still some dark streaks in the man's greying hair, and he stood taller, his back not yet bent with age. But it was Gaius, and Merlin recognised him too and went very still by Arthur's side, trying to reign himself in.
"Benesh," the old man said. "What have you done now? In fact, don't bother telling me, I'm sure I'll read all about that in the morning paper."
"Herr Doktor," Benesh elbowed Merlin, urging him to bow in greeting. "Our friend is wounded, could you..."
"Of course, let's see," said the man without hesitation and went to kneel by the pallet, but Merlin awkwardly lunged forward and grabbed the man in a hug, plastering himself to his chest.
"Sorry, sorry," he mumbled. "I'm just - so grateful that you'll help us. I know it's dangerous for you, I'm sorry."
"This is Merlin and Arthur, they came from England to join the fight," Benesh explained as the old man blinked and delicately tried to extricate himself from Merlin's long arms.
"Ah, Merlin and Arthur, how lovely," said the doctor. "Young man, that's quite enough full-body contact. I thought the British were supposed to be reserved."
He shooed them out of his light and examined the wound, probing the spell-seared skin with quick fingers.
"I told you not to do this, Benesh," he said. "This magic is crude and barbaric."
"He was bleeding..."
"And now he's bleeding internally, and I'll have to open him up again. You promised me you'd learn a better first-aid spell."
"Oh, who has the time," Benesh tried to joke, and wilted under the doctor's glare.
"Get him ready while I scrub up," the old man ordered and shuffled out.
"Don't mind the way he grumbles," Benesh told them while they dragged Gwaine upstairs and into the tidy house, and then into a pristine room with white walls and glass cabinets that didn't look anything like the mysterious clutter of Gaius's chambers the way Arthur remembered them. "Doctor Kai has known my family for ages, he helped deliver me when I was born, we can trust him. He'll help."
They laid Gwaine on the operating table, and Benesh rummaged through the cabinets, gathering supplies.
"We'll need boiled water, honey and the extract of - " said Merlin, and then a young woman hurried into the room, adjusting her nurse's uniform.
"Just use this," Benesh shoved a bottle of carbolic acid at him and stepped forward, surreptitiously smoothing his hair down. "Um. Sorry for waking you up at this hour, Fraulein Hilda. You don't have to – it's really just a flesh wound, I can assist..."
"Don't be silly, Benesh," she said, stifling a yawn. "I can catch up on my beauty sleep when nobody's bleeding to death. You're not hurt, are you? Every time Kai wakes me up at night, I... I worry, you know."
"No, I'm fine," he muttered, fidgeting as if he couldn't think what to do with his hands. "Are you well? You look well. You look very nice."
"Liar," she smiled. "I have pillow creases on my face."
"They... look nice too," Benesh said, blushing brightly and sticking his hand in a nearby flower pot. A tiny golem, about six inches in height, climbed over the rim of the pot and leapt on to the desk, trailing crumbs of rich black soil over the spotless surface. It ran toward the girl, bent its chubby legs and dramatically fell on its knees, then bowed to her deeply, pressing its arms to its small chest.
She laughed, amused and pleased, and only then Arthur recognised her. That was how Hunith had looked when she laughed, joyful and carefree, as if all the years had fallen off her face in an instant and she was a young girl again, just as pretty as she must have been in her twenties.
Hilda and Benesh stared at each other, grinning awkwardly, both flushed and bright-eyed, and Arthur felt like he was intruding on something intensely private, although they weren't even talking. Merlin kept methodically scrubbing dirt and blood off Gwaine's skin, and he was smiling too, the smile that was Hunith's and Balinor's at once.
"This is so strange," he whispered to Arthur. "It's like... I never dreamt I'd get to see them like this."
"I asked you to prepare the room for an operation, not to spray dirt over it," said the doctor from the doorway, sour-faced. Benesh grabbed the golem and stuffed it back into the flower pot, and Hilda rushed to Gwaine's side, tucking stray strands of hair under her cap.
"He's lost a lot of blood, so I won't let you move him," said the doctor. "You're all staying here till he's ready to leave. Benesh, get them settled, you know where the blankets are. Now get out, all of you."
"No, I can help, I'll stay and help," said Merlin, clutching at Gwaine's shoulders. "I used to be apprentice to a physician, I know what to do."
"Leave, he'll be fine, I promise you," said Hilda softly. "You don't want to watch your friend being cut open. He'll need you when he's recovering, so you should rest now."
The filed out of the room; there was nothing to do now but wait. Arthur already felt his muscles cramp with restless anticipation and his stomach flip with worry, and he knew it would be worse for Merlin.
"Well," Arthur said. "I think we might have attracted a bit more attention than we'd planned. We might need to lie low for a while before we make our next move."
"That's just what the enemy would expect," said Merlin. "They already caught up with you once in London, I'm sure they knew we were heading here. If we wait we're just giving them more time to prepare."
"I've been waiting for months while Gilli searched for you," Benesh said. He looked wild and twitchy, as if the short encounter with a pretty girl had left him intoxicated. "He said I didn't have enough power to face the Vril-masters alone. I'm sick of waiting. Let's go right now."
Their target, that twist in the magic that Merlin had sensed earlier, was just outside the city, in a small factory in the industrial district. It was meant to be empty at night except for a small security detail, and they still had a few hours before sunrise, when the factory would fill up with workers.
"I have tried to watch it since I found it, but I can't get close enough without fighting the guards. And I didn't want them to tighten up the security before we're ready for a full attack," said Benesh, walking side-by-side with Merlin, their lanky legs easily falling in step. "I think that's where they're making those new weapons, and I think it's probably the only location. I can't sense any shifts in magic anywhere else, at least not nearby. If we destroy this one, it will at least set them back."
"They might be able to rebuild it," Merlin said. "What we really need to do is get to the Vril-masters."
"I know, I know," Benesh sighed. "I've no idea how. But we'll come up with something together. I'm glad you're finally here, I really need your help with this."
"And we're grateful for your help," said Arthur. "It can't possibly be easy for you to take arms against your own country."
They needed friends, and it was tempting to trust this young man wholeheartedly, as Merlin clearly did. But Benesh was a German, and it was never wise to trust a turncoat blindly.
"It's not my country," said Benesh with a grimace. "It hasn't been since they banished me. I might have been born and grown up here, but now I'm just like you: a spy and a saboteur behind enemy lines."
Merlin stumbled and stared at him, and for a moment Arthur was also struck by the coincidence – Merlin's father Balinor had been banished too, it seemed like a pattern really could be repeating itself... But it was probably just that it was in character for Benesh and Balinor to get themselves into trouble.
"You were banished?" Arthur asked anyway. "Why?"
"Why?" Benesh snapped. "Have you been living under a rock for the last two years? Or do you just not give a damn what happens to other people, as long as your little island is safe?"
"I was inside a rock, actually," said Merlin. "And Gilli didn't tell me much, but... Have you been living in hiding for two years? Where do you sleep, when it's not in that cellar? In those stinking tunnels?"
"Different places. It's best to keep moving around," said Benesh, tugging down his sleeves like Merlin did sometimes when he was embarrassed. Arthur had only just noticed how worn Benesh's clothes were, even though he kept them clean with magic. He had a thin scarf tightly wound around his neck, and at first Arthur had thought it endearing, a little sign of Merlin's strange bond with this man. Now he could see Benesh was just trying to keep warm in clothes that were too thin for the season.
"That's terrible," said Merlin. "And – you're so thin – are you eating enough?"
"Oh, shut up," said Benesh, hunching sullenly. He looked even younger when he pouted, every inch a street urchin. "You're not my father."
"No, I'm not," Merlin agreed. "But... it's dangerous for you here. I don't understand why Gilli didn't invite you to stay with him."
"He did. He's known my family for generations, of course he did. When my parents died he wanted me to come to England, and to study magic and work with him. But I can't leave. If we just run, if we don't stand and fight, this will never end. If they complete those flying weapons then England will fall, and then the rest of Europe, and eventually there will be nowhere left for us to run to. I have to stay and do what I can."
"That's commendable," Arthur had to admit, and then, to lighten the mood, tried to joke: "And we both thought you were staying because of the girl."
He thought Benesh would blush and laugh, but instead the man rocked back as if Arthur had punched him.
"No, no, not Hilda, nothing's going on," Benesh said. "We're not, we've never – it's not like that."
"But she likes you," said Merlin. "And you like her, I saw you - "
"So what? It's not like I can marry her! That's illegal!"
"Why?" Arthur asked, and Benesh gave him another angry stare, as if Arthur was at fault for not knowing every odd law and custom of a foreign land.
"Oh, who cares why!" Merlin huffed. "Who cares about marriage at all, it's only a ritual! If you love each other - "
"We can't. If she even touched me, she could be put in prison for years."
"That wouldn't scare her," said Merlin heatedly. "She'd risk that. She's sheltering a French spy right now, tending to his wounds. I'm sure that's more illegal than... whatever the two of you would, um... Get up to."
"That's different, though," Benesh sighed. "Hilda and doctor Kai, they'd never turn away someone in need. Kai says a patient is a patient, if he ever refused to heal someone, no matter who they were, then he's not a doctor at all. But it's one thing to take a risk to save someone's life. I can't put her in danger just so we can be together in sin. She shouldn't be beholden to someone who sleeps in the sewers. She needs a man who'll look after her, who can marry her before God and the people, and I can't even go out for a walk with her. We can't ever be seen together. She needs someone she doesn't have to hide, someone she can be proud of."
"I know she's proud of you," Merlin said quietly. "Shouldn't you let her decide what she needs?"
Benesh turned away with a shrug and walked silently, stomping his scuffed boots on the cobblestones.
"Are you all alone, then?" Merlin asked. "Do you have anyone, apart from Gilli, Kai and Hilda? What about your family, what happened to your parents?"
"Krystallnacht," Benesh said, and when they both looked at him, puzzled, he explained. "They were killed in the riot."
"I'm sorry," Arthur said while Merlin swallowed miserably, probably thinking of how it felt to have Balinor die in his arms. "But you should take solace and pride in how brave they were. They rioted against this – I don't really know what's going on here, but there's obviously a lot of injustice toward Germany's own citizens, and - "
"My parents didn't riot," said Benesh tiredly. "They were minding the shop. The city rioted against them. Have you really not heard? Gilli told me it was in The Times."
"Tell us," Merlin asked. Arthur elbowed him in the side, cautioning him to reconsider, but Merlin solemnly shook his head. "No, Arthur, I need to know this. Benesh, tell us, please."
And he told them, not sparing any details, as they walked out of the city. He seemed to have told this story before – he didn't struggle for words, didn't repeat himself. But whether he'd told it once or a hundred times before it was still fresh and raw in his mind, his anger and pain naked and obvious.
"Stop," Arthur begged soon, but Merlin touched his wrist to silence him and asked Benesh to carry on.
"I'd have been arrested too," Benesh continued. "But that was when I summoned my first golem. My father had never let me try before, he said the old stories warned of the dangers. Of course, right then I didn't care. It wasn't much of a golem, but it helped me escape. Our house was seized by the Government, so I went to hiding. I spent the next three months trying to master the summoning spell, I wanted to rescue everyone who was arrested. It was hard going without a teacher, and Gilli wouldn't help me. Every time I scried with him he said I wasn't ready, it would be suicide, and I should just leave Germany and head for safety. In the end those who survived in the camps were released but exiled from the country. The rest of my family made it to America, but I'm going to stay here, where my parents are buried. I have to fight back. And no, I'm not staying here because of Hilda. In fact, she'd be the only reason I'd ever leave. I'm not an idiot, I know I can't save everyone by myself. But I could ruin her life, and if I left she'd be so much safer..."
Merlin let out a suspicious sniffle, and Arthur wanted to put his arms around him, but was afraid that gentleness would only make it worse right now.
"Aren't you glad you asked?" he said instead.
"I had to know," Merlin answered.
They went down to the sewers again, and the tunnels took them under the outer perimeter of the guarded facility, right into the factory basement.
"It's here," Merlin said, shivering. "Right on top of us. This way."
They crept through the dark corridors, encountering small patrols here and there. Merlin and Benesh kept the soldiers silent while Arthur cut them down. They managed to ascend several levels of the building without raising an alarm, Merlin unlocking every door on the way with whispered spells. Arthur could sense it too now – a strange hum under his skin that grew stronger with every step and made his sword arm itch.
"There," Benesh said. "Can you feel it? Right behind this door."
Merlin put his hand on the lock, ready to cast a spell to open it, but the heavy door readily swayed inwards under his touch.
They stepped into the dark room; from the way their quiet footsteps echoed, Arthur could tell it was huge. In the middle of it, hovering soundlessly above the concrete floor, was a sphere several yards in diameter. Its sides glinted dully, cast of some dark metal, and it glowed with a blue-white light which hurt their eyes. A band of light stretched across the sphere, and more lights shone from the regular circular openings that covered the entire surface of the thing.
"Okay," said Merlin. "This looks nothing like a small plate."
There was a loud metallic bang, and harsh electric light flooded the room. The doors behind them slammed shut, and the locks clicked home inside the metal.
The room they were in was even bigger than Arthur had thought, and there were narrow metal walkways running along the walls high above them. They were packed with soldiers, dozens of them, all armed with machine guns and taking careful aim at the three of them.
"It really doesn't, does it?" an unpleasantly familiar voice rang through the room from one of the galleries. "Quite a misnomer. Still, I'm sure it won't disappoint."
"The Witchfinder!" Merlin cried.
The man laughed. It was the same sickly amused laugh that used to scare Arthur as a child, long before he knew who and what Aredian really was.
"I like that," the man said. He wore an army uniform, an officer's hat and black coat, but he had the same bearing, the same intimidating presence. "But I can't claim that title, I'm afraid. You didn't take much finding, my little witches. You came right to me."
"Don't worry," Benesh whispered to them. "I can raise a golem in here, it'll protect us from bullets."
Arthur looked at the guns pointing at them from all directions, and said nothing.
"We've been expecting you," the man with Aredian's face continued. "We've already moved the production of the new weapons to a safer location. This one is just the bait to bring you in. Though I really don't understand why we bothered to take such precautions,"
he smiled. "Look what the enemy sent to foil our plans. A boy, a Jew, and a man with a sword."
Some of the soldiers laughed. Arthur changed his grip on the sword, refusing to be affected by Aredian's ridicule. He wasn't just armed with a sword against the machine guns; he also had Gwaine's handgun on him. It wouldn't make much of a difference to the outcome of the battle, but would be enough to put a bullet through Aredian's head.
"Arthur Pendragon, I presume," the man said. "I guess the sorcerer has found you after all. We know that Gilli of the Golden Dawn is still in England, so who might your companions be? Is one of you Merlin? My superiors very much hoped you would bring Merlin here."
"Who are they, exactly?" Arthur asked. If they survived this they needed to have learnt all they could.
Aredian ignored him, thoughtfully studying their faces.
"I think you're Merlin," he said, pointing a long bony finger at Merlin's face. Merlin winced and paled, as if he was still a hapless servant in Camelot about to get in a world of trouble. "Stay right there. I'd love to have a long chat with all of you, but my orders are to perform a field test against the powerful sorcerer. You will be a moving target for our weapon. You two surrender and come up here, if you want to live. It will get very messy down there in a few moments."
"We're fine here," Benesh called out loudly. He looked unafraid, angry and confident. "You might want to run while we're busy with this thing, because once we're done with it, we're coming for you."
"I think you might be the one who's been making those mud monsters all over town," said Aredian with a thin smile. "I'm glad we're going to get rid of that little annoyance as well. I'd love to find out who's been sheltering you all that time, but I'll catch them anyway. Having two sorcerers for our test will be... quite useful."
He waved a hand in a black leather glove, and the saucer-thing whirred in motion. It quickly spun around itself, trailing light and sparks, and rose softly, rotating above their heads, aiming at them with one gun port and then another, as if reflecting on which was the right weapon to choose.
Arthur scanned the room, trying to figure out who was controlling the device, but he couldn't see anyone. He thought the operators might be behind the wall, in another room, hunching over the vast array of controls, watching them through spy-holes and periscopes. Or, more likely, the thing was being controlled by sorcerers, and they could be right here, on the gallery above, hidden among the soldiers, whispering spells behind their gun sights.
Or the thing could be moving and aiming at them by itself, guided by some sort of demented mechanical brain inside its casing, or sniffing them out with the magic that blazed from its seams. The very thought was chilling, more terrifying than all the machine guns aimed squarely at his chest.
When Arthur had faced a column of tanks rolling towards his unit's position, he knew there were men inside those machines, men just like him, fragile and mortal. When he watched bombs fall on London, he knew there were bombers in the sky, vulnerable targets piloted by men who made mistakes, miscalculated, died before their planes hit the ground. This thing was a new kind of abomination: something half-alive and cunning, a killing instinct in a metal shell, incapable of fear or mercy, unstoppable. It would change the nature of wars forever, if they let it.
"The moment we defeat it, the soldiers will start shooting at us," Benesh said. "We need to be ready."
"Merlin, divert it till I give a signal," Arthur ordered. "Me and Benesh will go after the soldiers; make it look good so they'll be distracted - "
The saucer spun again, so fast that it blurred in a ball of awful humming light, and then a wide ray shot out from it, straight at their faces, blinding, bright enough to stun.
Merlin darted forward and threw a shield in the way of the light. Arthur had seen him do that hundreds of times; remembered how the translucent film used to glimmer and ripple softly when arrows and crossbolts hit it. He'd never seen it like this. It pulsed dark red, and it kept caving in under the pressure of the ray boring into it, breaking into sparks and swirls closer and closer to their faces.
The men on the galleries were silent, watching them intently. Merlin grunted and planted his feet wider, and tried to push the shield out. The film turned blotchy, veined in green and purple, and started to wrinkle at the edges, painfully curling inwards. Merlin's fingers were white, but his hand was steady, and the shield held.
The saucer stopped spitting fire and floated backwards, playfully twirling on its axis. Then it suddenly zigzagged through the room, changing direction rapidly, swirling fast; it reminded Arthur of a story from a tattered Bible he used to leaf through during Napoleonic war, something involving unearthly chariots of fire, with wheels full of eyes. It curved around them and lashed another ray at their feet, as though trying to catch Merlin off-balance. Benesh ducked down and made a ripple in the floor, raising it like a barrier; the ray of light slid off Merlin's shield and blazed through the concrete, which burned, charred and bubbled in a way stone had no right to do.
"Good, keep it up!" said Arthur. He finally spotted the ladder leading up to the gallery, but they had to get past the saucer to reach it. "Let's push toward the east wall."
He made a move, cautiously, hoping that the soldiers wouldn't start shooting too early, not until they were among them and could use them as shields. The saucer dived at him and spat out two rays at once, and then a third, spinning, showering the room with fire.
"Merlin!" Arthur yelled, ducking back behind the shield. "When I told you to divert it, I didn't mean let it actually kill us!"
"I'm not," Merlin panted. "It's playing with me – Arthur, I can't hold it."
"Let's see how sturdy that casing is," Benesh muttered. He crouched and slammed his palms on the floor. The concrete slabs crumbled; two golems rose up swiftly, pushing their way through, then heading for the saucer, fearlessly walking right into the blazing rays.
"Should take it a while to burn through them," said Benesh; but he suddenly cried out in surprise. A single brush of the saucer's fire had made the golems crumble, then they were scattered across the floor, losing limbs, breaking into pieces.
"No!" Benesh yelled. "This can't be! This thing's magic isn't even magic, it's – what the hell is it?"
"I don't know!" Merlin cried back, gathering the shield back up, shaking with effort. "It's like some kind of... Vril!"
They couldn't keep this up for long. Arthur made another lunge toward the ladder, and the saucer spat a single short burst of fire at him, catching his left hand. Benesh yanked him back behind cover; above them Aredian was chuckling with pleasure, like a man amused by the antics of kittens.
The saucer looped above them and let out a showy, wide fan of fire. Merlin hissed through clenched teeth and, instead of raising a shield in front of them, pushed at the thing with his magic. It turned in a graceless, stuttering arc, and the ray of white light whipped the wall and the gallery, and the men on it. There were no screams. The light hurt worse than fire, Arthur had had to fight against screaming from the pain in his burned hand, but the men must have died before they felt anything.
"Hold! Spread out!" Aredian yelled, and the soldiers quickly shuffled around on the walkway, taking positions between the bodies of their comrades. Under different circumstances he'd have admired their bravery. The saucer righted itself and floated higher, cautiously, searching for a better firing position.
"In theory, to turn it on them is a great idea," said Benesh quietly. "But if we manage it again, they'll kill us. I'm surprised they are still holding fire. So next time we have to get them all."
"Yeah, I don't know. It's slippery. Maybe if we both grab at it..."
Arthur could barely think through the pain; the burn was severe, and already badly blistering. But there was something familiar just on the edge of agony, something almost comforting, a warm song under his skin, a quiet, sure call.
"I want to try something," he said, gripping the sword tighter. "Force it down."
"Do you want to stab it?" Benesh asked. "It's metal!"
The sorcerers exchanged a glance and threw their hands up, stretching out their fingers in unison. The saucer wobbled, fighting against their joined will, fired a ray that went hopelessly wide, and then dropped a good few yards, shuddering and buzzing, glowing brighter, as if it was getting angry now, about to stop toying with them and to fight them in earnest. Before it could take better aim Arthur lunged forward and thrust Excalibur into the glowing band.
He had no idea what would happen; he was hoping the sword might pierce the magic and get to the saucer's inner mechanism , or that he might be able to lever the blade and crack the thing open like a walnut and let his warlocks at its soft innards. He didn't even see what actually happened, because the moment the tip of the blade touched the light Benesh grabbed the back of his neck and threw both him and Merlin down with a force Arthur hadn't thought possible from his skinny arms.
There was a strange sound and a lot of light, and then sudden darkness, and then there were screams.
Benesh held them down till the screaming stopped. It didn't take long, and then there was just quiet, punctuated by soft, almost melodic sound.
"Okay," whispered Benesh. "Merlin, it's okay, it's over. You can let your shield down."
"Ugh," said Merlin. "F-fuck."
They sat up slowly, awkwardly climbing off each other in the darkness. Merlin made a light and let it float to the ceiling, to illuminate the whole room.
The electrical lamps hanging from the ceiling were broken; the floor around them was covered in shards of glass. The walls were charred black, and the men up on the galleries weren't moving, slumped where they'd stood. The quiet sound they'd heard was blood dripping to the floor from the walkways. It was still flowing, plinking softly into the deepening dark puddles.
The flying saucer was now several pieces of steaming, twisted metal scattered all over the room, each piece no bigger than a man's head. The white-blue glow had gone, without leaving even a lingering spark.
"I've... no idea what happened," said Merlin. "Benesh, did you know this would happen?"
"No, but," Benesh shrugged. "If I've learnt anything in the last two years, it's knowing when it's time to duck for cover. You can't stay on the run without that kind of instinct. That thing – that was the source of the twist in the magic, wasn't it? That Vril inside of it was what we felt. And now..."
"Now it's gone," Merlin said. "It's a dead end."
They walked back in silence, grimly watching the sunlight turn from grey to pink over the stone buildings. Gwaine was waiting for them in the basement, sat stiffly on the pallet by the wall. At the sight of them he smiled and languidly reclined on the pillows.
"So I guess I missed all the fun," he said. "Really, you couldn't have waited a few hours? One little scratch, and you ditch me like that?"
"Sorry," said Merlin and crouched to inspect bandages in Gwaine's naked thigh. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine. Better than fine, actually, the good doctor gave me some lovely morphine. Speaking of fine things, have you seen that little nurse? Anyway, I assume you won, so why the long faces?"
"We survived," Merlin crawled on the pallet and curled up on the edge, his back pressed to Gwaine's side. "I'm really tired, I think I need to sleep."
"We've not lost yet," said Benesh and ran up the stairs into the house, and Arthur sank into the chair, exhausted. Merlin was quietly staring into space, ignoring Gwaine's questions, so Arthur told Gwaine about their expedition to the factory and the messy fight with the saucer.
"So we're back to square one for the moment," he finished, cradling his burned hand in his lap.
"Are you sure there are more saucers? Maybe there was just that one prototype," Gwaine said.
"That's a nice thought, but I doubt it," Arthur said. "And we can't take that chance. Not after what we've seen. If there are more, we need to destroy them."
"They're not here," said Merlin, not stirring.
"They could have relocated that factory almost anywhere in Europe," said Gwaine. "They own half the world right now. France – Christ, they could even be in my family's factory right now. Belgium, Denmark, Italy – maybe they're even in Africa. But we'll find them."
"I don't know how to destroy them when we do," Merlin mumbled. He wasn't even blinking, just staring intently at the bare grey wall. "I don't understand what happened to that one."
"Maybe it just exploded. If it was a prototype, anything could have happened. Machinery malfunctions all the time. When I was rich, I used to test race aeroplanes for fun. There was this one, a gorgeous little thing..."
He launched into a rambling story about a faulty engine and making a death-defying crash-landing in a field next to three lovely picnicking ladies. He was probably making it all up as he went along, but bit by bit Merlin's shoulders relaxed a little, and a shadow of smile lit up his face. Gwaine had always been good at making him forget his worries.
Merlin fell asleep, still curled up on himself, his long fingers clutching the edge of the mattress. Gwaine stopped talking and lightly stroked the back of his hand through Merlin's tangled hair. That simple gesture of affection was too familiar from their other life, a millennium ago, and it made Arthur's chest ache.
"Sometimes I wonder if he'd be better off with you," Arthur confessed. "I mean – someone like you. I'm not easy to be with."
"That's not up to either of us," Gwaine shrugged.
"I just don't understand why this happened to him and not me. I've seen a lot of wars and horrors. By now – a lot more than he did. And I don't feel like this. You, too – you said it happened to some of your men, but you seem just fine. The nightmares, the sadness, the regrets, the hopelessness – we should have that, too. Why aren't we affected?"
"Does it matter? We should just count our blessings and enjoy life while we can."
"He used to say I was a bit thick," Arthur said. "Maybe that's it."
"Maybe you are a bit thick," he said. "Because it sounds like you're not happy that you're fine."
"I'm just... guilty, I suppose. He's suffering, he's obviously in pain most of the time, and I don't even understand what's happening to him. And it's my fault, after all. Every battle he's fought, every choice he's made, it's because he follows me. And this is where it's got him."
"He'll be fine. It won't always be like this. The war will end eventually."
"There will be another war," Arthur said. "There's always another war."
Gwaine rolled his eyes.
"You're just tired. Go and get your hand seen to. If the doctor doesn't give you morphine, I'll try to charm some out of that nurse. I think she likes me."
"Yes," said Arthur, suddenly hopeful again. "Yes, I should talk to a doctor."
He found doctor Kai in a tidy reception room, talking to someone over the telephone. He waited politely for the end of the call, making an effort not to eavesdrop.
"Where's Benesh?" he asked afterwards.
"In the bathroom upstairs," Kai said. "He likes to use my bathtub for scrying; he claims he can talk to several people at once that way. He and his English friend – Gilli, is it? - they're trying to contact sorcerers all around the globe, everyone they know. They're hoping that someone would have felt the presence of Vril energy somewhere."
"Sounds like a plan."
"I'm not so sure," Kai said, twitching an eyebrow. "If the Vril-masters are sorcerers, they know that others of their kind would be able to sense the flying saucers. Their location place must be too well hidden, or too well protected, for it to be found by sorcerers. Or both. But I might be able to help there."
"Why are you helping us?" Arthur asked. "I understand why you'd shelter Benesh and treat the wounded, that's the actions of a kind man, but why side with the enemy? You're German, aren't you?"
"Yes," the man said. "But I understand very well what's at stake. Come on, I'll treat your injury."
Arthur let him inspect his burns but refused the offer of a painkilling injection. The old doctor had a familiar light touch, and at this point his hand was already numb from too much pain. He always preferred to keep a clear head, if he could.
"I need to ask you something," he said as the doctor cleaned and disinfected the raw burned skin.
"Talk away, it will help you bear it," Kai muttered.
It wasn't what Arthur came to ask, but this too seemed important to know, to understand.
"How did this happen? No, I know this has happened before. There have been wars of conquest, and there have been purges. But this, the cruelty, the anger – and this isn't just a whim of a monarch, is it? I read about it, there were elections, voting. This was the will of the people."
"In a way, at one point," the doctor half-agreed.
"How can a whole nation be taken by such madness?"
"Well," the doctor finished dabbing Arthur's hand with a viciously stinging solution and reached for a different jar on a shelf. "Like with most such things, this one had started with a seductive vision. Have you any idea what this country was like twenty years ago? We'd just lost the war, and we'd been forced into a humiliating, ruinous surrender. It was utter chaos, despair. A different kind of poverty where hard-earned money would turn to dust before you could buy food for your family. And then came a promise that our nation had hope, a divine fate and a great future, and a unique role to play in history."
"To conquer the whole of Europe? That's not a unique dream."
"To change the world. The idea was that we wouldn't embrace the menace of communism, or the soulless rot of capitalism. We'd pave our own way. If we came together, as brothers in blood, as sons of the ancient kings and heroes, we'd unite the world and lead humankind to achieve its full potential. We'd transform the race of men into what it was meant to be: strong, beautiful, glorious."
"That sounds completely insane."
"Oh, please," said the doctor, slapping a dollop of some disgusting grey goop on the burns. "I know you must understand it on some level. You're a patriot, and you're proud of your heritage, it's obvious from the codenames you chose. If your partner is Merlin, then you must have named yourself Arthur after the legendary king of the Britons. Wasn't that his dream as well - to unite the land by conquest and lead his nation to glory? Didn't he believe in the superiority of his people, didn't he think the world would be better under their rule?"
"It was nothing like this!"
"How was it different, young man?" asked the old men quietly. "Explain this to me, if you can."
"Albion, and the rule of Camelot – that wasn't about national superiority, or purity of blood. It didn't matter what people and what life you were born into, what colour your skin was, what gods you worshipped. Everyone was equal at the Round Table, everyone was welcome under Camelot's banner. The nation of Albion was a brotherhood of people who believed in a just and fair world," Arthur said, remembering how Merlin's eyes used to shine when he'd say those words. "Whoever they were, that was the only thing that mattered: that they believed in equality, honour and justice, that they wanted to make the world a better place, and would fight for it. That was what united us. That was our goal and our dream."
"Yes, I'm sure people of all colours, all around the world start their day with a prayer of gratitude that they belong to the British Empire," said the doctor poisonously. "Welcomed as equals, no less."
"Okay, no, I'm sure they're not," Arthur conceded. "The colonies - that's not right, that will have to change, and soon. I'm not saying everything went as was planned. Even in King Arthur's time a lot of things went wrong. But that dream – I still believe in it. I still think it's worth fighting for."
"Ah, what I wouldn't give to be young and self-righteous again," the doctor sighed. "It's a wonderful feeling, isn't it? Here, take this, it will help prevent infection. Was there anything else you wanted? I'm not in the mood to argue about politics right now."
Arthur swallowed the pills and nodded.
"I actually came to ask for medical advice," he said. "Would you be able to diagnose a patient if I describe all the symptoms to you?"
He'd seen the strides medical science had made over the centuries. The plagues that used to decimate whole kingdoms were easily prevented these days, nearly extinct. Many of the diseases and infections that were fatal in his time could be cured now with a few pills and potions. Even though Camelot's physicians could find nothing wrong with Merlin back then, maybe now there was an answer.
He told the doctor about Merlin's mysterious malady, everything he'd seen himself, everything Merlin had said. The old man listened, nodding thoughtfully.
"So?" Arthur asked when he could think of nothing else to add. "What do you think?"
"My first diagnosis would be depression," the doctor said. "Perhaps occurring as a part of traumatic neurosis. Not uncommon in soldiers at a time like this. Nervous disorders aren't my speciality, so this is just a guess, you understand."
"So it's a nervous thing after all? Is it really all in his head?"
"Many things are. Love, for one."
"Love is in the heart," said Arthur and blushed when the old man chuckled at him.
"Well, you're right, of course. Love starts with a thought, an emotion, and then, if allowed to grow, it spreads into your heart and your blood. It changes you, makes you happy, healthy, strong. You can't fall out of love at will. It's an addiction, in a way. Similarly, if despair takes a hold of your mind, it can poison your whole body. It won't let go, it will feed on itself, and the weaker its victim becomes the harder it gets to fight back. It's a vicious circle, and it's quite dangerous. You must have heard of people who died from a broken heart."
"Is it fatal?" Arthur asked, chilled by the thought. Somehow he'd never considered this possibility.
"Not necessarily by itself. But it does make a patient more susceptible to a host of other diseases, and prevents them from taking care of themselves properly. And, of course, there's a danger that life itself might become too much of a struggle..."
"So, what's the cure?"
"It's not that simple, my dear boy."
"I don't care," Arthur said. "Whatever it is, I'll get it for him. Just tell me what I need to find."
"If you're hoping for a magic pill that will make it all go away..."
"Doesn't have to be magical," Arthur muttered, feeling stupid. "Is there not..."
"Nothing like that, I'm afraid. Not yet, anyway. I suppose in the past vaccinations would seem like miracles; perhaps, some day there will be a pill that can cure troubled mind and soul. Till then – well, there are some herbal remedies that might soothe the symptoms. There are treatments based on psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, though I'm not certain which of them deliver results and which are utter quackery. But this will only manage the disease, it probably won't go away completely. The danger of relapse will always be there."
"But he can be happy again? There's hope, right?"
"Of course. It will be a struggle sometimes, but recovery is possible."
"Okay," Arthur nodded, dizzy with relief. "Okay, so what do I do?"
"I think you're doing it already. You obviously care for him, so keep it up. It will often be frustrating for you, but you have to remember it's harder for him. Simply care for him, and keep him going. And – I loathe to say this, but – it might be best that he's still fighting, despite his illness. He has a reason to carry on, human lives depend on him. He's needed. It's a powerful feeling. It's the very antithesis of despair."
A sudden, loud trill of the doorbell made the doctor jump in his seat. Arthur slipped his hand under his coat, feeling for Gwaine's gun.
"Are you expecting someone?" he asked.
"Yes, yes, I am," the old man said. "It's just that... I always expected them to come for me one day. But they'll come at night, most likely. This is probably a friend of mine – Arthur, go and find Benesh and make sure you both stay out of sight."
Arthur waited by the staircase, his finger on the gun's trigger, till the doctor unlocked the door and welcomed his visitor in.
"Well, Kai, what's so important that you couldn't tell me over the telephone?" said a gruff voice that reminded Arthur of Camelot's perpetually annoyed old librarian.
"Gottfried, old friend, thank you for coming," said the doctor, and Arthur took it as a sign that all was well and headed upstairs.
Benesh sat on the floor in the tiled bathroom, grimly swirling his fingers over the surface of a filled bathtub.
"Anything?" Arthur asked.
"Nothing. Nowhere. We spoke to people all over Europe and the Americas, even in Africa, Tibet, Siberia... Nobody can sense any change in magic. It's like they took those things to the Moon."
"It's only been a few hours," Arthur said. "We'll keep looking."
"You don't understand. We felt it, the Vril-force that powers the weapon, and Merlin will tell you the same thing. Magic runs through every bit of land, through the blood of every living creature, it's a natural part of the world. The only way to change magic into something like that, something with that much inert will and raw power, would be to pull magic from the land and compress and twist it till it can't flow back in, till it becomes something new entirely. If you pull at it forcibly and bend it like that to your will, it will be felt by sorcerers for miles around. Merlin told me he could sense that one saucer all the way from France. According to Gilli's sources, there's an army of those things being built somewhere. To power something like that you'd have to pull magic from such a vast stretch of land – a whole continent, maybe. I just don't understand how is it possible that no one can sense it. I guess the only explanation is that someone is lying to us. I don't want to think they're traitors, they could just be too scared to help us. But it means we can't trust anyone, and we're back where we started."
They fell silent, thinking. Arthur could just about hear of doctor Kai and his visitor talking downstairs.
"Who's that?" Benesh asked. "Is that a patient? I thought the surgery was closed today."
"It's the doctor's friend. I think his name is Gottfried."
"I didn't know they were still friends," Benesh said through clenched teeth. "Do you know where he works? He used to be friends with my father, and now - why would Kai talk to him?"
He quietly edged out of the bathroom and crept down the stairs.
"The Doctor asked us to stay out of sight," Arthur told him.
"I want to know what's going on," Benesh hissed.
They shifted closer; the voices were clearer now, and they could hear every word.
"Do you understand what you're asking? Kai, are you out of your mind?" said Gottfried.
"I know you can get this information. You have access to every piece of paper that makes it to the archive."
"That's not what I'm talking about – Kai, this is treason!"
"I know very well what it could cost us both. But I need you to do this."
"Why? Why are you doing this, have you been recruited by – God, Kai, who are you working for? What happened to you?"
"I don't believe the Party should have these kinds of weapons at their disposal. Not right now. I think it will lead to disaster," said the doctor calmly.
"Kai, listen to yourself!"
"No, you listen to me. You must understand they were counting on those new weapons. It was an integral part of their battle plan. It's obvious now that the Battle of Britain wasn't supposed to start before the new weapons were ready. The bombing of Berlin forced our hand, he had to retaliate, and we attacked ahead of schedule. That's why the Blitz is taking so long, and the losses are so great, and we've all but given up on the naval invasion."
"And now you want those weapons destroyed? Do you want Germany to lose another war? Kai, you used to love this country!"
"I still do. And I don't want another defeat. I hope that the loss of the flying weapons will force the Party to reconsider the expansion plans. Right now we can negotiate peace treaties from a position of strength. I want the war to stop now, before it's too late for us. If Americans get involved, if we attack the Soviets... Gottfried, if we lose against them, the fallout will be horrific. They'll tear our country to pieces. They'll destroy it."
"The Americans will never get involved," said Gottfried dismissively. "And we won't attack the Soviets, we have a pact..."
"Don't be naïve."
They were both quiet for a while. Benesh was listening, biting his lips till they were white.
"But with those weapons we could win," Gottfried said.
"Maybe we could. Or maybe the Americans or the Soviets will build weapons of equal power, and when we clash the world will be left a blackened husk."
"Or maybe we'll succeed. Maybe we'll win the war and we'll unite the world, and we'll reclaim the glory of our nation! Kai, that was our dream, you used to believe! What happened?"
"I realised what the price was," the doctor said. "Haven't you by now?"
Benesh shifted closer, nearly pressing his ear to the closed door. Gottfried hadn't replied for a few moments.
"There had to be sacrifices," he said in the end.
"Right," the doctor said, and suddenly yanked the door open and grabbed Benesh by the sleeve. He threw a warning glance at Arthur, hauled Benesh into the room and closed the door again.
"Do you remember Benesh?" he asked. "He's grown up a lot, but I'm sure you recognise him."
"Oh god, no. No. Why is he still in the country? Kai, why is he here? If someone sees him in your house..."
"You can't even talk to him, can you? All you see when you look at him is the danger he's putting me in. When I see him look at Hilda, I don't see two beautiful children in love. All I see is a race crime about to happen, and the danger he's putting her in."
"No, Kai, not Hilda! She's an orphan, you were supposed to look after her!"
"I'm trying. I'm doing my best to break her heart and keep her away from the boy she loves. He's an orphan now too, have you forgotten? He's lost everything, all he has is clothes on his back. I'm trying to convince him to run away from everything he's ever known, and try his luck in another country, penniless and alone..."
"Let me go," Benesh huffed. "I won't stand here and... just..."
He pushed through the door and stormed out, and Arthur stayed and kept listening.
"That boy's a part of a problem," the doctor said. "I think you understand how it will be solved. You know what's happening in Poland right now. I only hear rumours, but you read the reports, you know the details. This is the plan, that's what going to happen in every country we'll conquer. This is the price of our dream. Do you really think we should win this war?"
"You've lost your mind," Gottfried whispered.
"Maybe you're right. This is my last stand, you know. The young ones are fearless, they feel immortal. I'm getting old, Gottfried, my body is failing me, and I'm more and more afraid of pain and death. Soon I won't have the courage to take any risks. And I'll turn a blind eye to everything around me, and want nothing but to live out the rest of my days in peace. I'll watch millions die, and I'll feel nothing. Soon we'll forget what was done, what we allowed to happen, and we'll think ourselves innocent, good, honourable men. If you don't care what the Party is doing to its enemies, think of what it's doing to us. What it's turning us into."
"I should report you for sedition," said Gottfried. His voice was shaking.
"If you feel that's your duty. But for the sake of old friendship, could you give me a short warning so I can send Hilda away?"
The man hadn't answered, and walked to the door. Arthur ducked out of sight and waited for him to leave the house.
The doctor was meticulously straightening jars on the shelves, checking the labels, as if nothing had happened.
"You should run before it's too late," Arthur told him. "You can't take this chance – he'll tell on you."
"He won't," said the old man. "Are you hungry? Hilda should be taking dinner to your friends right now. Why don't you go and join them?"
Hilda was in a corridor leading to the basement, crouching on the floor next to a tray of food and a medical kit – she must have been going to change Gwaine's bandages. Merlin was kneeling at her feet, clenching his hands in her skirts, hiding his face against her shoulder, and he was talking, babbling helplessly as if the words were tearing their way up his throat.
"...we fought for so long, and lost so much. We sacrificed our friends, our loved ones, we did terrible things, because we thought we were going to make a difference. That we'd make the world better. And it was all for nothing. All of it. Nothing changed. There's still wars, and tyranny, and hatred, and purges. All that's different is that now there are more powerful weapons. It's not better at all, it's so much worse. Now even more people will die even uglier deaths. Evil has won, and all our lives, everything we did was for nothing. I can't - I can't take this anymore, I just want everything to stop. I need it to stop. This is so pointless, there's no - "
Arthur stepped closer, and Merlin winced, swallowing sobs and words.
"I don't mean that," he said quickly. "Arthur, I don't really mean it."
"Please leave," Hilda mouthed at him, and he obediently shuffled back behind a corner.
He didn't know where else to go – they were blocking the way to the basement, and he didn't want to go back to the house to impose on the doctor's hospitality, and he didn't want to leave Merlin in this state. So he stayed just out of sight, listening, getting tired of all the eavesdropping.
"I didn't want him to hear that," Merlin muttered. "I don't want him to feel like this."
"Merlin, listen," Hilda said. "Listen to me. Evil hasn't won anything. The world isn't actually a battle between good and evil. The world is good. It's made of good. You know this, right?"
Merlin had quieted down, and Arthur hoped he was listening to her and considering her words.
"Evil comes and goes, and wars start and end. And every minute, even now, even among the worst of horrors, there's good. People live, make friends, fall in love, babies are born, beautiful things are created, songs are written that will be sung for years. People live, smile, hope and laugh. As long as there's life, there's good in the world. If you helped one person, if you gave someone one more year to live, then you brought something wonderful into the world, because life is what matters, because life – life is a joy."
"I just can't feel it," said Merlin weakly. "I can't even remember what it felt like."
"Sometimes we can't. But then we just have to... know it, I guess. We just have to believe it, keep that faith. When your mother isn't here to put her arms around you, you still know she loves you, don't you?"
"Yeah," said Merlin with a short tearful laugh. "I do."
"You can still feel it, I think, deep down. Otherwise it wouldn't you hurt so much to think of people dying and suffering. Even though you can't feel right now how precious your life is, you know theirs are. It's all in your heart, all that joy is still there, and it will come back. We'll all feel that again. I promise you, we all will. Just – wait for it, look for it, and it will come."
Merlin sighed deeply and shifted on the floor.
"Okay," he said, and sniffed noisily. "Yeah, okay, I'll try."
Arthur let him cling to her for a while longer, and then walked up to them again.
"Let her go, stop clutching at her skirts like a baby," he said. "She's not your mother."
Merlin nodded and rubbed at his face, and let Arthur pull him to his feet and up the stairs to the bathroom.
Arthur filled the sink, bent Merlin over it and washed his face, scrubbing traces of tears off his cheeks.
"Stop, don't," Merlin muttered, listlessly trying to push his hands away. "You shouldn't be doing this."
"Why not? You're the one who always harped on about equality, and you used to do this for me," said Arthur and dunked Merlin's face into cold water just to make him splutter in outrage. "Remember, after my father's funeral you pulled me out of bed, washed my face, dressed me and dragged me to the coronation. I could barely walk."
"You were fine after you got there."
"I had to be, it was my coronation."
Merlin dried his face with a towel and then slid down to sit on the floor, as if the short walk and the effort of washing up exhausted him completely.
"Arthur," he said. "I don't think I can do this. You should get Gilli here. He'll help you, he's probably a better sorcerer than I am by now, he's had all that time to learn."
"All right," Arthur nodded. "I'll get Benesh to contact him, he'll pick up where we left off. We'll step down from this quest and go back to England, or maybe somewhere safe, away from the war. That would probably be better for you."
"Because when you aren't fit to fight, you have to get off the battlefield. Haven't I taught you that?"
"Yes, but you..."
"I'll go where you go," said Arthur.
"I don't want you to," Merlin said with a frown.
"So? Since when do you expect me to listen to you?"
"I mean it. I hate being like this, and I don't want you to see it. It's disgusting, and I'm useless, I'll only be a burden."
"I'd been without you for a long time," Arthur said. "I've had enough of being without you. If you're fit to fight, we'll fight. If not, we'll go away till you heal, and if you don't, then we'll just stay there and rest. I go where you go, and that's final."
"Arthur, come on, why are you - "
"Because I love you," Arthur said abruptly, forcefully cutting him off, and Merlin hiccuped in surprise and blinked his swollen, blood-shot eyes.
"I love you," Arthur said again. The words felt strange on his lips, as if he'd never said them to Merlin before. Perhaps he really hadn't. There had never seemed to be a need.
"I always loved you," he said. Saying it made him feel dizzy, like looking down over the edge of a cliff. "Even when I thought you were the worst servant in history who was probably drunk half of the time and had more guts than brains. And when I found out about your magic, when I thought you were a traitor and a monster – I hated myself for it, but I still loved you, I couldn't stop. And when I was married, I loved you, and I think everyone knew that. And when it was just us, I loved you more than ever, and when I was without you, I still did, and now - "
He stopped, breathless and shivering. Merlin was watching him with a soft smile, and his eyes were warm, shining. Happy.
"You're a half of me," Arthur told him. "I'm not whole without you. Whatever happens to you, happens to me. So you're ill, well, we'll fight it together, and we'll win."
"Why are you crying?" Merlin asked. Arthur swiped a hand over his face and stared at his wet fingers in surprise.
"I don't know," he said. "I didn't even notice. Why were you crying before?"
"I've forgotten," said Merlin and laughed, and pulled him closer. They kissed, laughing senselessly against each other's lips.
"We're a mess," Merlin sighed, smiling. "But... I think maybe we'll be okay."
"Of course we will be."
They went to back to the basement; it was getting dark, and they stepped quietly, trying not to disturb the household. The glass door of the operating room was lit from the inside, and they could see two silhouettes moving there – one was Hilda, and the other, long and thin, was Benesh, who seemed to be arguing with her about something.
Merlin lingered, worriedly trying to catch their conversation.
"Come on, this is rude," Arthur whispered and tried to tug him along.
"He's probably going to leave the country," Merlin said. "He must be telling her this."
The silhouettes pushed apart, then suddenly moved closer and pressed against the door, kissing with desperate urgency. Arthur could just about see their faces though the uneven glass surface, but then Merlin grabbed his shoulder and pulled him away.
"Don't look, that's almost my parents," he muttered, red to the tips of his ears.
"So Merlin, do you want a brother or a sister?" Arthur teased, and Merlin grinned and blushed even more.
They crept back to the basement, where Gwaine was soundly asleep on the pallet, his bandages changed and clean. Two plates of some sort of cabbage stew were waiting for them on the floor; next to Gwaine's pillow there was a cleaned plate and three empty bottles of beer.
"What a bastard," Arthur laughed. "He drank our share."
"Well, you know, it's Gwaine," Merlin shrugged and pulled Arthur into the armchair.
They kissed till they were both shaking with need, and then made love right there in the tattered armchair, slowly, quietly, biting back every sound that might wake Gwaine.
"I love you too," Merlin whispered, riding Arthur in a stuttering, tortuously sweet rhythm.
"Shut up, I know," Arthur muttered against his lips, palming his hips, clutching him closer, determined never to let him go.
Afterwards they ate the cold cabbage stew, sitting on the floor side by side, pressing together just to feel each other's warmth.
"This is awful," Merlin complained, making a face. "I can't believe you're just gobbling it up. Ugh."
"All the rat you fed me toughened me up, I reckon," Arthur said and Merlin laughed at that, making Gwaine stir and grumble in his sleep. Arthur couldn't guess what would happen tomorrow, but they had this, now, and it was enough.
Arthur woke up in the armchair, his clothes buttoned up again, his legs wrapped in the blanket. He remembered dozing off on the floor, leaning on Merlin's shoulder; Merlin must have settled him here.
Merlin was sitting on the pallet, staring down at the sheets, and he was holding Excalibur, slowly stroking his palms along the naked blade.
Arthur tensed, trying to judge the distance between them. The blade was sharp; he'd been looking after it himself since he got the sword back. Merlin only had to turn his hand and it would slice him to the bone, and Arthur wouldn't have time to snatch the sword away.
"Hey," he said softly, trying not to startle.
"Oh, good morning, lazy daisy," said Merlin brightly, and Arthur laughed out loud from relief, just from seeing the smile on Merlin's face.
Merlin picked the newspapers he had laid out on the bed and showed Arthur a page.
"Look, this is the German king. Bit of a relief, right?"
"He's not actually a king – what do you mean, a bit of a relief?"
"Well, since we're fighting him, it's just good to know he doesn't look like – anyone."
"Who did you think he'd look like?" Arthur asked sternly, even though the thought had occurred to him as soon as he'd heard about the new purge. He'd been terrified of opening a newspaper and seeing his father's face there.
"Nobody," said Merlin innocently. "Still, good to know!"
"Just to be sure, Merlin, I thought I'd check – you're not thinking of assassinating him, are you?"
"Oh, no. Well, I've considered it. Who wouldn't have? He's childless; I was hoping there would be confusion over the succession, at least – but Gwaine explained to me that's not how it works now. This king is more like a warchief, really. He's already named his friends to be his successors."
"Yes, and they'd all be chosen for their dedication to his cause," Arthur nodded. "Nothing would change if we kill one man. Maybe even killing a hundred won't do it."
"Besides, after what Benesh told us about that assassination two years ago, I can't risk it. Whatever we do will only be blamed on innocents and used as an excuse to brutalise them. No, we'll do this right."
Merlin cradled Excalibur in his hands and lifted it up, caressing the runes on the blade.
"I've figured out what happened with that saucer," he said. "Do you know what dragonfire is?"
"Yes, it's a fire that comes out of a dragon," said Arthur as patronisingly as he could.
"It's really a kind of magic. We all have some magic in us, a little in you, more in me, but dragons are made of magic. It boils in their blood, and churns in their stomachs, they breathe it in and out and they can bend it to their will. That's what the Vril-masters are doing, they're bending and twisting magic till it only obeys them, the ones who forced it into submission. They're not doing it the way dragons did; maybe they found some kind of artefact to use as a centre, but it's essentially the same thing. Vril is almost impossible to control, even for me. And dragon magic is almost impossible to break."
"But you're a Dragonlord. Doesn't that mean you can..."
"I can compel a dragon, if I choose to. I can't actually overpower his magic. But... this can. Arthur, this sword has been burnished in dragon's breath. I didn't really understand what it meant till now. The Great Dragon made this for you. He's given you power over magic. Even magic like his. Even magic like Vril."
Arthur took the sword from him; the blade seemed warmer and heavier, as if the magic that infused it had been woken up by Merlin's touch, was stirring into something even greater.
"But how," he breathed. "When – did you force the dragon to do it before it died? After I'd wounded it? You were already a Dragonlord then, weren't you?"
"No, Kilgarrah did it long before, when he was still in the dungeon. He called me, and I came to talk to him, and he charged me with the task to keep you safe and guide you. And then I asked him for this, to make a weapon that would protect you against any foe, and he gave it to us, willingly. He believed in you, even when you were just a prattish boy."
Arthur stared at the blade, and then at Merlin. Merlin was smiling at him, glowing with pride, just as he used to when he watched Arthur train with the knights, or fight in tournaments, or address his people before a battle.
"I kind of forgot what it was all about, but I remember now," he said. "So it seems we still have our destiny, and we still have our quest. We should get on with it. Everyone is upstairs, just waiting for you to wake up. They think they've discovered where the flying saucers are. Gaius's friend – I mean, Kai's friend Gottfried brought him some papers from secret archives, just this morning. Apparently it's all in there."
"I didn't think he would," Arthur said.
"Well, he did. Didn't you hear what a very wise woman said? The world is made of good."
Benesh and Gwaine were in the doctor's small study upstairs, looking at a map of the world.
"How's the leg?" Arthur asked.
"The bleeding's stopped, I'll walk it off," said Gwaine. He'd raided some cigarettes from Kai's bureau, with the doctor's permission Arthur hoped, and was now smoking in obvious delight, puffing long streams of smoke through his nostrils.
"Doesn't that hurt?" Merlin asked him.
"A bit," Gwaine said, suggestively flicking his tongue. "In a good way."
Arthur refused an offered cigarette – he'd never quite developed the habit – and leafed through the papers on the table.
"We've read them already," said Benesh. "And there's just one place that makes sense. This says Germany sent a secret expedition to Antarctica last year, to establish a base there. That's where they must be. That's why no sorcerers we know could sense it."
"Antarctica? Is that somewhere in America?" Merlin asked. "I've not really memorised any places on that side of the maps."
"No, it's this," Gwaine pointed at the white bit at the bottom of the map, and then, for good measure, grabbed a small decorative globe off Kai's desk. He turned it over and jabbed his finger next to the point where the axis pierced the sphere. "This."
"Huh," Merlin said. "That's kind of like the arse of the world!"
"It really, really is," sighed Benesh. "It's a frozen desert, ice miles thick over the bare rock. Nothing grows there, nothing lives there. And it's really cold."
"We'll wrap up," said Arthur. "We'll buy mittens, and scarves. Besides, if I understand this correctly, isn't it summer there right now?"
"It's still not going to be pleasant," said Gwaine. "But first we need to get there. I think we should head to Portugal, and from there get on the boat to the Americas. Then we'll travel south to Argentina, and from there take a freight ship to the shores of Antarctica. We should be able to get an aircraft carrier there, and buy a plane. The base must be somewhere here, south of Africa, near the Prime Meridian. We should probably make landfall a few hundred miles away from there. Maybe here, around the peninsular, but we'll have to hire sailors anyway, they should advise us where's best. Then we will fly inland..."
"That will take too long," said Merlin. "The Vril-masters know we're looking for them; I don't think we have much time. Can't we just take your plane and fly like this?"
He trailed his finger straight down the map, across Europe and Mediterranean and the majestic expanse of Africa, and the Southern Ocean, painted flat, cheerful blue, all the way down to the white jagged shores of the frozen continent.
"No, we can't. Merlin, my Stuka can fly about a thousand miles without landing, at best. That's this far," Gwaine put two fingers against the map, marking the distance. "Maybe in Europe we could find airfields to land and refuel. I even know a place in Morocco where we'd be welcome, but further than that – I don't know if we'll be able to find a human dwelling every thousand miles. Huge parts of Africa are desert, and we can only carry so much fuel. And once we reach the ocean – well, obviously, it's simply impossible."
"If it's about fuel, then we don't need any," Merlin shrugged. "There's just this one thing that has to rotate to keep the plane in the air, right? I can do that, for as long as it takes. I can do that in my sleep, literally."
"Are we all going to fit in a Stuka?" Benesh asked.
"You're not going," Merlin said with steel in his voice. "You have to stay here and look after Kai and Hilda. They're in great danger now because they've helped us; you have to make sure they're safe."
Benesh blinked at him, looking betrayed. Gwaine blew a plume of smoke toward the ceiling and smiled widely.
"You can't leave now, kid," he said. "Even though I firmly believe that the flame of passion shouldn't be constrained, it's still bad form to run as soon as you've plucked the fruit. I saw Freulein Hilda this morning. She's positively glowing. You've obviously done a great job, but if you need any advice on the finer points, I'm here for you."
"Don't you dare talk about her like that!"
"You have to stay, Benesh," Merlin said. "You have to, you've no idea how important it is."
Benesh gave him a suspicious, hard stare.
"Do you know something?" he asked. "Gilli told me you've been to the cave of the prophecies. Have you seen my future? I know I shouldn't ask, but..."
"If you leave her, you'll both always regret it," Merlin said. "That's all the prophecy I have for you."
"But we'd come back," Benesh said. "Wouldn't we? We defeated that one saucer, we can defeat them all and come back, right? I wouldn't be away long. I have to fight. It's my fight as much as yours; more so!"
"You're not going," said Merlin, softly, in a tone that brooked no argument. Benesh shook his head in exasperation and stomped off.
"We are coming back, though, aren't we?" Arthur asked later, when Gwaine wasn't listening. "You're not thinking..."
"No, of course we're coming back," said Merlin confidently. "It's just, you know."
Arthur nodded and nudged him with an elbow.
"Yeah, I know. I didn't want to be hard on him, he's a good lad, but once we're in Artarctica, ice golems would be ridiculously useless."
"Yes," Merlin agreed. "There is that."
They flew from Calais to Morocco in one stretch, in seven hours. Powered by Merlin's magic, the plane was quiet, sliding through the sky smoothly, birdlike. Gwaine started the engine during the last part of the descent and landed on a small private airfield, as he'd arranged beforehand with a friend of his, and tumbled out of the cockpit, groaning like an old man.
"Never done anything like that before," he said. "I'm all stiff, and not in a good way."
Arthur hadn't fared much better; somewhere over Spain he was sure he was going to vomit into his fedora, and he'd had to clutch Merlin's hands to fight that off. His legs, cramped for most of the flight against the crates of supplies, were weak, full of pins and needles.
"We need to keep limber, or we'll be useless when we get there," he said. "We should train together."
"You could wrestle," Merlin suggested eagerly. "I'll watch and judge who wins!"
"Next time we land I'll teach you how to fence," Arthur suggested and Gwaine laughed, still rubbing the small of his back.
"Oh, that's priceless, Arthur, that really is. Yes, I'll fence against you, I'd love to see you cry like a girl. Let's go into town, a friend of mine has a gin joint there. Rick will know where we can get a pair of foils."
They spent an evening in a bar, listening to mellow, soulful songs, sipping expensive alcohol. Gwaine spoke to the proprietor, a short, surly American, and came back to their table, smiling sadly.
"He's really changed," he said. "He fought in Italy and Spain – Lancelot met him there, by the way, small world, huh? Now he's a different man from the one I used to know in Paris. I think it might be about the woman. He wouldn't talk about it, but I think she broke his heart."
"They'll meet again," said Merlin, tapping his foot to the tune of the piano. "It will all work out."
They flew into the desert before dawn, and watched the sunrise over sands, sky striped in impossibly bright colours, dunes softly blushing under the early morning light. By noon the cockpit was unbearably stuffy, the metal walls painfully hot to the touch. Gwaine landed the plane in a small outcrop of trees; there was barely a shade, but it was better than none. They shared some dry biscuits and water, and then Arthur and Gwaine picked up the foils and went for it.
It'd been a very long time since Arthur had any practice with the light, whip-like blade, and there was no shame in being beaten so thoroughly. Gwaine's technique wasn't suited to real combat and he still favoured his wounded leg, but they played by the rules of the sport, and Arthur could barely score a touch. Gwaine stripped to the waist, and his chest glistened with sweat. Merlin watched them fence intently, sucking on a biscuit in a way that completely ruined Arthur's focus.
"All right," Arthur conceded when it was best eight out of seventeen to Gwaine. "But with a sword or a mace I'd completely destroyed you."
"You keep telling that to yourself."
They flew further, and landed when the sun began to dip down towards the horizon. Gwaine's shoulders were burned red from the hour of frolicking shirtless under the bright sun. Arthur tried not to be gleeful or think of it as divine retribution. Doctor Kai had given him some salve for his burn, which Merlin applied to his hand thrice daily, and he generously shared a dollop with Gwaine. They ate spicy food they'd bought in Casablanca, and drank wine Gwaine brought from Calais. After the sun had set the sudden chill caught them by surprise. They built a small fire from the dry twigs of the nearby trees, and got out the furs they bought back in Germany in preparation for the Antarctic summer.
They rolled together, burrowed under their coats and slept on the ground, like they used to during campaigns when they couldn’t pitch tents. Gwaine still had the same annoying habit of twitching in his sleep, but Arthur had got used to that even before he was king.
He woke up from the chill at his side where Merlin wasn't, and squirmed, trying to disentangle himself from the furs, still half-asleep.
"I'm here," Merlin called. He sat by the remnants of their fire, poking a twig in the embers. He blew on the glowing end of the twig, and sparks flew from it, falling into a Pendragon crest against the black of the night.
"All right?" Arthur whispered.
"Yeah. Just, sometimes when I wake up I can't quite breathe. It passes."
"We should have talked to the doctor about that."
"I have. I had a good talk with him before we left. He said this could happen sometimes, and I shouldn't worry. Joint pains, too."
"That's just old age," Arthur said and poked him with a foot. Merlin grinned and crawled back to lie between him and Gwaine, warming his cold hands between Arthur's thighs.
"I've been thinking about the battle," he said when Gwaine stopped making unhappy sounds from being jostled and started snoring again.
"Let's say we had a friend who could help. But I don't think he'd fare well against Vril. And – if he dies, I – I'm not sure what to do."
"That's easy. Keep him in reserve, see how the battle goes and where he'd do best, don't put him against the wrong opponent. Remember that time in Deva, when we had a squad of militia? We didn't send them at the enemy knights, because we knew how that would go. We set up a flank attack..."
"Oh yeah, I remember. That was a good campaign."
"Yes, we did well there."
Merlin moved his warmed hands to cup Arthur's cock, and Arthur pinned him to the sand and kissed his smiling mouth, and watched moonlight sparkle in his eyes.
For the most of next few days they flew over dull, bare sand, and when they reached grassy land Merlin clung to the dome of the cockpit, watching the wildlife below.
Arthur couldn't tell if it was the anticipation of the coming battle, or something that had happened in Berlin, but Merlin seemed different. There was new light in his eyes, as if he was waking up from a long doze, noticing the world around him anew. Arthur tried not to wonder if that would last; watching Merlin smile like this was a joy in itself, a gift.
"That's the ugliest unicorn I'd ever seen," Merlin said. "Oh, oh, Arthur, look at that! Horses with stripes! Bet you'd love one."
"That's zebras," said Arthur and imagined himself astride a garish steed. "No, they're a bit small for me."
"Hah, you're not that tall. Oh, look! That thing, with the neck! That's amazing!"
Just when they started to get used to the heat they reached the ocean, and circled the rocky shoreline till Gwaine found a flat place to land, and then went to the beach for a wash.
"Not a moment to soon," Gwaine said, shedding his clothes on the rocks. "No offence, but you both really smell."
They waded into the waves naked; ocean salt bit at Arthur's healing burn, but it was bearable. Merlin kept getting knocked over by the waves and laughing, splashing in the shallows; his body pale and beautiful, dark hair on his chest slicked by the water, his face, baked by the African sun, speckled with tiny freckles.
Then they dressed, and stood on the shore, looking southward. There was nothing there, just the flat, empty line of the horizon.
"Two and a half thousand miles, give or take," Gwaine said. Salty water had made his hair even more lush and shiny, and it looked spectacular blowing behind him in the ocean breeze. "Can you really do this, Merlin?"
"Oh, sure," said Merlin and threw a rock into the ocean, skimming it toward the unseen distant shore. "Easy."
The flight over the ocean was endless. Once they left the African shore behind there was nothing to mark their progress against, just the monotonous patterns of waves and more waves. Even the sun was hanging in the same position low above the horizon and wouldn't go down, as if time had stopped altogether and they weren't moving at all, would always be stuck there, suspended between water and sky. It'd been growing steadily colder, and that was the only sign that they were getting closer.
Then there were icebergs, small islands of white among the grey-blue, a welcome sight after thousands of miles of nothing. The first ones they saw were flat at the top, barely rising above the waves, and then there were more and more, tall and fantastically shaped, like a fleet of ships spreading into the ocean, to venture north and slowly melt into the warm waves. They saw a whale flip its giant tail between the mounds of ice, and then a few dark specks moving on one of the icebergs, recklessly diving off its sides, some smaller creatures Arthur didn't recognise.
And then, finally, there was Antarctica. The shoreline had sprung up upon them unexpectedly, and was approaching fast, taking shape. It was a startling white and blue, with taller mountains tinted golden pink further in the distance.
"Arthur, look," Merlin said. "The mountains! They're floating!"
Far, far away the tallest peaks seemed to hover above the rest of the continent, like something from a fairytale: white castles in the sky, crafted by a thought of a magician, held up by nothing but will and wonder.
"That's a mirage," Arthur said. "We saw it over the desert."
"Don't spoil it with your – dollopheadednes! Just look how beautiful it is. I thought it would be the arse end of the world, and it's just so..."
"Yes, all right," Arthur agreed and watched the mountains with him, pressing against his side, and scratched the glass clean when it started to ice on the inside.
At the coast they were hit by a strong sidewind. The hull of the plane groaned, fighting against it, but they got through. They landed close to the shore, on the first flat patch of snow Gwaine could find. He climbed out of the cabin, blue-lipped, shaking, trying to flex his fingers.
"Should have dressed in Africa, what was I thinking," he stuttered while they wrapped him in his coat.
The sun hadn't set, it still hovered over the icy ocean uncertainly, but it must have been close to midnight. Merlin stretched a small bubble of warmth under the plane and they huddled there, watching the film of magic flutter in the cold wind, and then they slept.
When Arthur opened his eyes again Gwaine was awake, sipping from a flask and rubbing his leg.
"The cold can't be good for the wound," Arthur said compassionately, and Gwaine shared with him his breakfast of neat scotch. The sun was still up, on the other side of the sky now. Merlin was at the edge of the water, surrounded by a flock of strange clumsy birds, and he seemed to be communing with them, flapping his arms in the same way as they flapped their stubby wings.
"He said we're very close," Gwaine said. "An hour's flight at most."
It took even less than that – they had barely gained altitude when Gwaine suddenly threw the plane into a nauseating loop, flew back, low above the jagged ice peaks, and dropped down in a painful, abrupt landing behind a small mountain ridge.
They climbed up it, and crawled the last few feet to the summit on their bellies. Gwaine found the target with his field binoculars, then passed them around.
It was a black dot in the distance, stark against the white. Through the binoculars it could be seen to be a squat building several stories high. Arthur could see a few men patrolling outside, wrapped in thick furs, and above the building two familiar spheric shapes were moving, dancing idly in the air, circling the roof, diving and rising again.
"It's smaller that I expected," Arthur said. "Smaller even than that factory in Berlin."
"I think it's mostly below ground," Merlin said. He turned around to lie on his back and stared at the sky for a while, thinking, or listening to the distant pulse of Vril.
"Gwaine," he said. "Could you fly from here without magic?"
"Probably. The tanks are still mostly full, and we have all the extra fuel I brought. We could just about get to Argentina, if we refuel at the end of the peninsular. We might have to crash land and ditch the plane at the shore, but I don't mind doing that. Why? Is this in case you're wounded?"
"No. I want you to fly there now, without us."
Gwaine leaned back and stared at Merlin coolly.
"Well, that's obviously not going to happen," he said.
"Gwaine, I need you to go. If we lose here, nobody would know what we'd discovered. Someone has to tell everyone."
"I thought you could talk to sorcerers all around the world. Can't you send them a message?"
"No, not from here, it's too far," Merlin said and blinked earnestly, staring Gwaine straight in the face.
In hindsight Arthur had often wondered how Merlin had managed to keep his magic secret for so long, because he was, in fact, an incredibly poor liar. He had many tell tale signs. When he lied his voice changed, his eyes widened, and Arthur knew that under the hood of his coat his ears would be flushed at the tips. He could always tell when Merlin was lying, as long as he wasn't lying to him.
"He's right, Gwaine, you have to go," Arthur said. "You need to bring this intelligence back. I'm sure we'll win, we have the sword and the element of surprise, but if we don't finish the job we'll need an army to mop this up."
"Benesh knows where we went - "
"Benesh has a paper from a German archive, and conjecture. That's not going to be enough to order a military strike at a time like this, with defences already stretched thin. You have the proof now. You've seen it with your own eyes, you have the location."
Gwaine shifted away from the top of the ridge, dug a cigarette case from under his coat and lit up, clumsily grasping the thin paper stick with his gloved fingers.
"I suppose I see your point," he said. "Okay, I'm going to stay here, with the plane, and if you don't make it back..."
"We can't risk it. For all we know the saucers might patrol the area, and if they spot you, the intelligence would be lost. You have to go now, while you can."
"How the hell are you going to get back without me?"
"We will," said Merlin with a smile. "Once I don't have to worry about alerting the enemy, I can do a lot of things. We'll probably be in London before you."
They argued till they were too cold to lay on the icy rocks, and then they climbed down the mountain and argued some more, pacing around the plane. Arthur knew Gwaine wasn't going to change Merlin's mind, and was probably protesting just to drag out the good-bye.
Together they pushed the plane on to a flat stretch of snow long enough for take off, and Arthur took his glove off to shake Gwaine's hand properly. Gwaine yanked him into a hug and slapped him on the back, and then did the same to Merlin. Merlin wouldn't let go, silently clinging to him, and Gwaine kept patting his back, hard, as if he was determined to make the farewell as manly as possible.
Finally it was over with, and they watched the plane speed away over the snow and take off sharply, and then it was gone, lost in the blinding whiteness.
"You have already contacted Gilli, haven't you?" Arthur asked.
"Yes, we spoke this morning, before I went to look at the penguins," said Merlin nonchalantly. "I could sense then exactly where this place was, and thought I had better let him know."
"Good, it's good that he knows. I'm sure Gwaine will make it. But just in case he gets drunk in Argentina and forgets about his mission."
It was a several mile walk to the base. They picked their way through the icy cliffs and headed down into the valley, walking unhurriedly, saving their strength. It was about as cold as the bitterest winter Camelot had ever seen, but the sun was shining and there wasn't much of a breeze, and the biting chill was bracing, pleasant, making Arthur's face tingle, and icy air burned dry and crisp inside his lungs.
After a couple of miles Merlin started shivering and pulled a bubble of warmth around them, and then took off his mittens and pushed back the fur-trimmed hood of his coat to rub at his ears.
"Almost there," said Arthur reassuringly, squinting happily at the bright, bright sun in the clear skies. "Merlin, if I die..."
"You're not going to die. I told you, there will be no more of that."
"Well, if I do – ," he stopped and squeezed Merlin's shoulder through the thick fur. "The war isn't over, far from it. I'll probably just pop right back in Wales."
He wanted to ask Merlin not to grieve, not to be upset at all, and leave his body where it would fall. He didn't need to be laid to rest, because he wasn't planning to rest, he was coming back. But the heartfelt words didn't sound right in his head, and Arthur gave up on and fell back on what he did best: commands and insults.
"So I want you to head straight back to England and meet me in London. And don't keep me waiting. No dawdling, no playing with penguins, no stopping over in Africa to get me a riding zebra. That's an order, do you understand?"
"Yes, Sire," Merlin smiled, and Arthur wanted to pull him closer and kiss him, but it never seemed right before battle. Even if they didn't have an army standing at their back, watching and waiting for a command, it still didn't feel appropriate.
He gave Merlin a firm pat on the shoulder, straightened his scarf and pulled his hood back up, and they kept going.
Closer to the compound Merlin made a little snow blizzard to wrap around them and cover their approach. Arthur kept an eye on two saucers in the sky, but the men patrolling the building noticed them first.
Gwaine had left Arthur his handgun and all the ammo he'd brought, and Arthur started shooting as soon as he saw them reach for their machine guns. Two of them fell and the rest rushed to the low fence around the building to take cover, firing as they ran. Merlin deflected the shots with a wave of his hand and pushed the men back into the open, under Arthur's bullets.
The saucers stopped and dived at them, both at once. They were bigger than the one they had seen before with a flared disk in the middle which did make them look like laden, chunky plates. Rays of Vril laced the ground around their feet, leaving deep gouges in the ice. Merlin grunted and threw one of the saucers down, making it crash into the snow yards away from them. A pillar of white shot up, showering Arthur with dry scratchy flakes, and he thrust Excalibur into the middle of that, blindly, hoping the magic of the sword would do the trick.
Next moment he was flying backwards, Merlin's hand bruising his arm in a hard grip. They were both wrapped in a shield of magic, blown back by the power of the blast. He saw a deep crater where the exploded saucer had been, and the other saucer striping the sky with rays, aiming at them; then they hit the ground and he couldn't see anything for a moment, his breath knocked out of him, his face caked in snow. He still held the sword, and he tightened his cold fingers on the hilt.
More soldiers ran out of the building while they struggled to get up. A volley of bullets whistled past them, and Arthur tried to push Merlin down, but he was already pulling at the second saucer, fighting against its will. A wave of Vril came down on them, and Arthur put up his blade, hoping to deflect it. It worked - the rays changed direction, clipped one of the soldiers and made the others halt their fire and back off. The saucer hovered in the air, resisting Merlin's power; Arthur gripped his sword like a dart and threw it up, praying he wasn't going to lose their only reliable weapon.
It hit the target, and this time he got to see it. The saucer flashed dark blue all over, and then something spun out of its middle, ripping through the metal casing like paper. Merlin's shield slammed into it just as it exploded, and pushed the blast from them, toward the enemy soldiers. Arthur noticed he had his eyes closed, because he was trying to look away, too.
They walked over to the crater; Excalibur was safe, untarnished. The hilt and blade were warm, and it hurt Arthur's chilled hands to touch them.
The blood looked very bright on white ground, but it was already freezing, seeping into the snow crystals, turning pale pink.
"Not that I don't love my magic sword," said Arthur. "But, think about it, Merlin, how much handier would a magic crossbow be right now?"
"There's no pleasing you," Merlin said, and tried to smile with blue shaking lips.
Someone opened fire at them from above, from the windows of the building, and two more saucers rose in the air. They ran to the building, under the cover of its walls, to the entrance. Merlin muttered a spell and stroked the door, feeling for the lock. The spell wouldn't work; he bared his teeth and slammed both hands into the thick metal, and it crumpled under his palms as if he had punched a sheet of paper.
"They'll be waiting for us inside," Arthur whispered. "Ready?"
Merlin pulled his mittens off with his teeth, rubbed his hands together and nodded.
Arthur took position by the edge of the door frame, ripped the ruined door off the hinges and ducked away. A spell rolled past him: a displacement of air, and a nearly tangible deadly intent that always made a primal part of him cringe and shiver even as he chanted to himself that it was Merlin, Merlin. Then he grabbed Merlin by the scruff of his neck and yanked him out of the doorway.
Merlin chose fire, because he was cold, maybe. It was always effective, but Arthur wished he's gone for something that killed cleaner.
The shooting halted after a few rounds, drowned by the screams. A few soldiers pushed outside and tried to roll on the packed snow to beat down the flames. Arthur shot them to stop the pain.
When it was over they went in, carefully breathing through their mouths. Arthur took a machine gun from the hands of a corpse and rifled through the bodies to gather ammo.
Then another wave of the guards was on them. Arthur had never used a machine gun before, and for one terrifying moment he couldn't master the recoil, was spraying bullets everywhere. Merlin covered with a burst of lighting that took out a few lights along the narrow corridor and fanned out into the wider space beyond, doing enough damage by the sound of it.
"Right, I have it, let's push on," Arthur said, and they ran into the belly of the base, head on, wrapped in magic.
It was a maze of corridors and huge cavernous rooms. He could only spare a moment's glance at the surroundings – he saw squat metalworking machines like in that factory in Berlin, and in other rooms huge white panels covered in knobs, levers and dials. When they dropped a few floors down there were several rooms full of smaller saucers, stacked up along the walls to the ceiling, dark and dead, waiting to be filled with Vril.
The soldiers kept coming. Arthur shot at them in short bursts to better control his aim, only stopping to pick up more ammo. Merlin seemed to know the way, and he kept them shielded from bullets, and Arthur tried not to think of this as a slaughter.
He shrugged off his heavy furs when he started sweating, and then regretted it. Every skirmish ended up at close range, and now their blood landed on his hands, the sleeves of his leather coat. The pulse of Vril was everywhere, pervasive like air pressure, like a constant hum inside his skull. As they rounded a corner three fist-sized saucers whirred at them, and Arthur dropped the gun to slash them with the sword.
There wasn't enough space for manoeuvre in the narrow corridor; Merlin managed to shield him from the blast, but got clipped himself. He was pushed to a far wall; when he stood up again his chin was bleeding freely, a whole chunk of skin taken clear off.
"Stay sharp, dammit," said Arthur and tore a piece of cloth out of his tunic to staunch the bleeding. He held it to Merlin's face, pressing down hard. Merlin skin was oddly cold, and he was so pale that the shadows under his eyes looked green.
"Arthur, it's just a scratch," he said. "We're here, it's down that passage."
Two soldiers were guarding the door, clutching their guns in a nervous grip. They must have heard the alarm, the shots and the screams, but have probably been ordered to keep to their posts. They stared at Arthur's blood-spattered clothes, and then at the crackling ball of magic in Merlin's hand.
"Run," Merlin advised.
One of them dropped his gun and bolted; the other stood his ground and opened fire, and Arthur made sure he died quickly.
Behind the door there was a small room, furnished as a make-shift bedroom and a study. On a folding table in the middle was a chunk of crystal, floating inches above the surface, wrapped in ripples of magic. A thin pillar of bright blue-white light shone from the crystal downwards, through a hole in the table, and disappeared into a hole in the floor.
This is how Vril is made, Arthur thought to himself. It looked too mundane, yet impossible to understand. So he didn't try, instead focusing on the Vril-master.
A woman stood by the table with her hand on the crystal. Her fingers moved softly in the glow of magic, weaving it into new shapes. She wore an officer's uniform: trousers, high boots, heavy jacket that drowned her small form. Her fair hair was tucked neatly under the hat, exposing old scars on her forehead, and her eyes were cold, unsurprised.
"I'm glad you made it," she said. "Always nice to see a familiar face."
"Morgause," Arthur said. "You – how – why? You can't be – why are you working for them?"
She sighed, rolling her eyes.
"Oh, Arthur. The Fuhrer is just another Cenred. A little man with a little kingdom and big ambitions. His usefulness is running out, but he still has a few years left - "
Arthur pulled the trigger and sent a long round of bullets through her middle.
The bullets disappeared, fizzling out inches away from her chest. She moved her fingers, and the air around her shimmered, laced with thin tendrils of Vril. Most stayed wrapped tightly against her, holding her in a protective cage, but some twitched and stretched threateningly in Arthur's direction.
"Right," said Arthur and dropped the useless weapon - partly to mollify her, mostly to keep his hands free for his sword.
"A crystal from the cave," Merlin said, nodding at the table. "Is that what you're using as a centre? Clever."
"The heart of a dragon would also have worked," she said with a broad smile. "It's quite easy to do here. The rotation of the Earth creates a nice momentum."
"Why are you doing this," Merlin asked. "Morgause, why are you still doing this?"
"What else is there, Merlin?" she shrugged. "It's this or being stepped on. Pushed aside, cast away, forgotten. There's this, and then there's oblivion."
Her expression was stony, dead, and she still looked beautiful despite the scars, but something ugly was lurking in her dark eyes, some deep, old pain, tinged by manic excitement.
"There's more," Merlin said. "There's life."
She laughed, too loudly, startling them.
"You brought your little king," she said. "Your bad penny. Does he make you feel alive? Does he make you feel like you matter?"
"Yes," said Merlin softly. "He does. Have you been alone all this time? Did you forget how it felt?"
"Don't you dare," she hissed. "The two of you took everything away from me. Everything that was mine, you took it and you ruined it all. And now you came here to insult me. Don't you dare."
Vril quickened around her again, but she still wasn't attacking, and Arthur couldn't understand why.
"So what will you do?" Merlin asked her. "What is the plan? Rule the world?"
"Rule it. Burn it. I've not decided yet."
"Do you think it will bring you peace?"
She pursed her lips, frowned. Her hand on the crystal became restless.
"So you don't care about the war, about the people who'll die," Merlin said. "What about the magic? You know it's wrong, what you're doing. It's violence. Magic is what we are; you can't force it like this."
"Poor Merlin. You don't know, do you? While you slept, people broke into the fabric of the world. They reached deeper than magic, into the very forces that hold matter together. And you know what they'll do with this knowledge. They always do the same thing. They'll make weapons. In a few years my ball lightnings will be obsolete. In a decade men will be able to burn the world to ashes all by themselves. This is the dusk of the magicians, Merlin, these are our last days, the last time we'll ever matter. After this we'll wither in the shadows. Even you."
"You could just stop," Merlin said pleadingly. "If you just stop, I'll let you go."
Arthur kept silent. He wasn't going to promise her mercy.
"There's no stopping this," she said. "You've destroyed some of my creations. I don't know how, but you did. You saw what happened, you felt it. When Vril unravels, all the magic that went into making it bursts free. It's angry, and it rages blindly, and it will destroy all it touches. I've been working on this for a long time. We're standing above a sea of Vril, the ground beneath us is filled with it. If you break my hold on it, the freed magic will rend this building apart. Half a continent will be swallowed by a maelstrom of magic, and it will tear us to pieces. It will overpower us, break our shields, and consume us alive. Not just our bodies, Merlin. All of us. The very magic that holds you together, every bit of it, in your skin, blood and bones, it will all be ripped from you. It will be sucked into a whirlpool of wild power, and it will scatter over the snow, seep to the core of the earth, spin out into the leylines, and it will be all gone. Everything that was you – all will be gone."
They looked into each other's eyes, caught in some distressingly private moment. Merlin didn't seem surprised by her words, or even a little worried.
"Is that why you're here?" she asked. There was an wistful undertone to her voice, like she was making some kind of filthy, secret promise. "Is that what you want? Merlin, do you want me to bring you peace?"
"No," Merlin said. "Thanks. I'll be fine."
"Merlin," Arthur called. His palms were sweating, and he wiped them dry to have a sure grip on the sword. "Is this - "
"No, she lies," Merlin said lightly. "She always lies. Do it."
He threw up his hand and his power slammed into the Vril. The air boiled where they touched. Morgause stumbled back a step, and Arthur drew Excalibur and thrust it into the crystal.
It shattered, and the bright pillar disappeared. For one heartbeat nothing happened, and Arthur believed that would be that: they'd done it, they'd won, and now he could kill Morgause and take Merlin home.
And then the building started to shake. The first tremor threw them to the floor; Morgause laughed and gracefully rolled back to her feet.
"So this is how it ends," she said.
She shrugged off her jacket, and stood before them in a thin white shirt, her eyes glowing bright red. She spread her hands and conjured fire, and then stopped. He lips shook and she let the flames die between her fingers.
"Sister," she said.
Morgana was in the room with them. She stood between Arthur and Merlin, wearing her old green dress and emeralds in her hair, and she wasn't looking at either of them. Merlin made a pained sound and reached for her, and she moved, easily avoiding his hands, and walked to Morgause.
They hugged tightly; Morgana was real, not a spectre, not a vision. Morgause clung to her, clutching Morgana's shoulders with her small hands.
"Come with me," Morgana said, stroking her hair. "It's time. We'll walk through the mist together, and there will be no more pain. No more darkness. I promise you, there'll be only love."
Another tremor came from below; the floor cracked open and a white stream of light spat out. Merlin conjured a shield against it. The building shook again, harder, and Arthur grabbed for the wall to stay upright. When he looked up again Morgause and Morgana were gone, and just the two of them were left in the room.
The crack in the floor was still releasing waves of angry force, and it had already bored through the ceiling. Merlin's hand was bleeding. He cradled it to his chest, under his coat, staining his shirt.
"Did magic do this?" Arthur asked, and saw Merlin's terrified eyes, and knew. "She didn't lie. Damn, Merlin! Can this really kill you? What do we do?"
"We need to get out of here," Merlin said. "We need to get to the roof."
The door to the roof was padlocked, and Arthur wasted the last of his bullets shooting the lock off. The door flew open, blown in by a gust of icy wind, and they pushed on to the roof, struggling to pull freezing air into their lungs.
Everything was white. The whirlwind of magic raged all around the building, throwing up masses of snow. It was a blizzard, pierced through by bright lightning; every faceful of snow felt like a brush of sharp claws.
Merlin threw his head back and yelled a spell. Arthur held him, steadying him against the wind, and waited.
"Nothing's happening!" he shouted over the howl of the wind. The sun was hidden behind the mess of magic and snow, and it was so cold he could already barely move his lips. "It's still - "
"I can't stop it! I - " Merlin started, and then his throat seized from the cold and he choked, struggling to breathe.
Arthur pulled him to a sheltered spot near a vent and wedged them both against some pipes. When he touched the metal of the roof his hand stuck to it. He yanked it free and it left a red smear on the roof, but it hadn't hurt at all, and the wound didn't even bleed. Around the pale red of the torn skin his hand was startling, chalky white.
The building was falling apart, shuddering under them with loud metallic groans. Merlin put up his bubble of warmth around them, but he couldn't make it hold for more than a few moments. He tried again and again, and each time it was torn away by the angry swirls of wild magic. Merlin's teeth were rattling, and he could no longer push spells through his numb lips, but he kept trying.
"Don't bother," Arthur said after a while.
"C-cold, it hurts," Merlin protested. His lips looked raw, sluggishly seeping blood.
"It won't in a moment," Arthur said, woozy and sleepy. He felt no pain already. He was getting warmer by the second; it was pleasant.
Something big gave underneath them and the building sagged sideways. There was a series of explosions just below ground level; the roof snapped, splitting down a long crack just a few feet from them, and a white torrent of magic spat out of it toward the sky. It burned Arthur's skin and he turned his face away, hiding it against the folds of Merlin's coat. Merlin's hair was iced in white at the ends, and he'd stopped shivering.
"This is it, I guess," Arthur whispered. "I want you to do something for me."
"What, now?" managed Merlin indignantly.
"Take me with you. I don't want to carry on. I've done enough, I think. I don't want to come back if you're not here."
He didn't know if Merlin could break the cycle of his reincarnation, but it was a nice thought. They could pass into the afterlife together. Or, like the others, they could be born anew, different and fresh. Even if Arthur didn't remember Merlin, they'd meet again, somehow. He knew that much.
"I told you," Merlin muttered. It was barely a sound, badly slurred. "No. More. Dying."
Arthur laughed and looked up, to rest his eyes on the white empty chaos. But there was something there, high above them, beyond the mess of snow and magic. Something dark was moving through the sky, trying to descend, looping through the air when it was pushed back by the swirling currents.
"Look. I think one of them got away," he said. "Merlin, can you - "
Merlin shifted against him and lifted an arm, and at the same time a pillar of fire shot down from the flying thing above them, cutting a clear path through the magical storm. Arthur pressed against Merlin, trying to shield their faces, but the fire stopped inches away from them, held back by a golden film of Merlin's spell. The warmth felt alien and wrong, and made him cry out in pain.
The shield broke at the same time as the fire died down, and Merlin dropped his arm and sagged against Arthur's side. The thing in the sky dived into the steaming tunnel left by the fire and rushed at them.
It was a dragon, Arthur realised through the fog in his head, a dragon, flying down at them with its wings folded and its claws outstretched. It could be the same dragon, except he'd dealt a mortal wound to that one. Merlin had told him he had.
He reached to draw his sword, but couldn't grasp the handle. His fingers wouldn't bend; he couldn't feel his hands at all, couldn't even tell if he had fingers. His arms and legs were dead weights, useless. He pushed to his feet to meet the beast head on, and toppled straight over, sprawling on the roof face-down, defenceless. The dragon was on them already; its claws closed around Arthur's middle, gently, carefully.
Arthur was lying on dry warm ground, and thick dust felt soft against his sore skin. He couldn't move, even when he gathered enough strength to try. From the way his face hurt he suspected the numbness of his limbs was a blessing.
Merlin was curled on his side nearby, his arms listlessly stretched in front of him. Every bare inch of skin was covered in bloody blisters, but his eyes were open. The dragon stood over him, crouched on all fours, enormous and scaly. Its fanged maw hovered close to Merlin's limp body, and Merlin seemed unafraid.
"I didn't think you'd make it," Merlin said.
"I've been waiting in New Zealand since you'd landed in Antarctica," said the dragon. Its voice reverberated around them, made even stranger by a ghostly whisper that curled under each sound. "When I'd sensed where you were going, I knew you'd need me. I was on my way before I heard you."
"Thanks," said Merlin weakly.
"You should have called me sooner. You should have asked for my counsel. That was reckless, young warlock."
"Sorry," said Merlin and awkwardly craned his neck to look at his hands. "My fingers are black. That's not good, right?"
"I can heal that," said the dragon gruffly and bowed its head, and exhaled. The air around Merlin shuddered, as if boiling.
Merlin groaned and pulled his hands to his chest, and carefully flexed his fingers.
"Help Arthur," he said. "Please."
The dragon walked a step to the side, sending a soft shudder through the ground, and stared down at Arthur.
"I thought I killed you," Arthur said, and the dragon opened its mouth and smiled. Its breath smelled like a dog's, but with a touch of brimstone.
Next time Arthur opened his eyes they were in a different place. The sky above them was high and clear, the kind of blue that was too blue to exist in reality.
The ground was almost bare, sun-scorched. There was a thin forest of unfamiliar trees not far away, and a glimmer of the ocean in the distance. Arthur was laid out in the shadow of a small bush, with Merlin's coat pillowed under his head. The dragon stretched on the ground nearby, half on its side, its hind paws sprawled wide and its belly exposed to the sun. Merlin sat by the dragon's head, talking to him excitedly. The dragon listened with a toothy grin, and sometimes let out a booming chuckle.
Arthur got up, checking himself for injuries. Everything seemed to be functioning, though he could do with another ten hours or so of solid rest. Merlin smiled at him, touched a gentle hand to the dragon's muzzle and beckoned Arthur to the small stream nearby.
He stretched a hand over water, pulled a few pints of it into the air and made it roll into muddy-looking ball. He made it swirl, shedding dry dust back into the stream, till the water was clear and sparkling under the bright sun.
"Nothing to drink from," he said. Arthur cupped his hands and dipped them into the cold spinning ball to fill them. The water tasted of Merlin's magic, sharp and crisp, and he drank till he was so full he could barely stand upright.
"Couldn't find any food," said Merlin, tugging him back into the shade. "There are bears in that forest, but they're tiny and they just nap on the trees..."
"I'm not desperate yet," said Arthur and lightly kissed Merlin's chapped lips, tasting metallic tang of blood.
Merlin had a lot of explaining to do, but that could wait. Arthur obviously hadn't killed the dragon, and he hoped he'd at least damaged it severely. That battle was known as one of his greatest feats, and he wasn't ready to let it go.
"That was a good quest!" Merlin said brightly. "Travels, and penguins, and golems, and all the people we'd met..."
"Wasn't half bad," Arthur agreed. "The war isn't over, though."
"No," said Merlin. "We can win it. But it will still probably take years. It's going to get worse before it gets better, but we'll do it."
"Morgause said something about the dusk of the magicians..."
"Oh, well," Merlin shrugged. "Maybe we won't matter as much as we used to. Maybe we'll never be able to change the world by ourselves. But we'll still be able to help out. The world is okay, really. We just need to keep it safe. We should head back home now. Kilgarrah doesn't want to fly us over, he says he's not a horse and I'm just taking advantage, but we're probably too heavy to carry that far over the ocean. He's getting on a bit, I think."
"I thought dragons didn't age past adulthood."
"They can still get lazy and cranky. We'll take a boat, he said he'd lend me the money."
"He has money?"
"Well, treasure. He has hoards, he likes shiny things."
Arthur glanced over at the dragon. It smirked back at him and rolled on to its belly; its claws scraped deep gouges in the ground, tearing up bunches of dry grass.
Merlin squinted at the sky, smiling broadly.
"Feels so good," he said. "Just being alive, you know? Everything looks so beautiful. All the colours are bright, even the air tastes great. It's like I've been waking up, remembering who I am. Who we are. If I start moping again, remind this of this day, okay?"
"There will be even better days," Arthur said.
"Yeah. We're together, and you're not going to die anymore. We'll have a whole new lifetime. We'll make new friends, see new places. Hey, after the war is over, we should go travelling. Just laze about, swim, eat lots of foreign food..."
"Let's not talk about food right now," Arthur said. His stomach rumbled needily, though it wasn't too bad yet, as long as he didn't think about it. Merlin's skin was still marred with healing bruises, but he looked strong. Happy.
"They have private cabins on those big boats," he told Merlin. "The journey will be long, so we'll have plenty of time to catch up on everything."
Merlin grinned and leaned closer to kiss him. The dragon tactfully turned away.
"Let's go then," Merlin said. "Wait, I'm going to try to talk Kilgarrah into letting you ride him, you'll love it."
He got up and ran over to the dragon, light on his feet. Arthur tipped his face up, to the bright sun, and thought about the mists, and Avalon, and his destiny.
"Sorry," he said quietly. "Whatever my fate is, it will have to wait. I'm needed here. Can't just leave him to wander the world alone. Looks like I might be a while."
Click to go to art masterpost to leave feedback for amphigoury!