God but it had been a long four years. And Merlin had known that they would be, just like he knew that it was alright, Gwen would be back from London on holidays and the like. It wasn't like she was going to be gone forever. He knew those things, but it hadn't made the time any easier. Gwen and Merlin had been raised together, childhood friends through their mothers, and the prospect of being separated for uni was harder than they'd imagined.
But now here they were, Gwen with her B.A. from University College London and Merlin from the National University of Ireland, Cork, and it was Merlin's turn to come to UCL for his Master's. And he couldn't explain how relieved he was that he had one of his best friends in the world already there - ready to meet him on his first day in town, to introduce him to her friends, welcome him to London.
Merlin had barely turned towards the voice, already grinning, when he was half-tackled by a armful of happy Gwen. "Oof!" he protested, trying not to send them both careening backwards, but when he got his balance under control he returned the embrace with full force.
"Gwen," he said with equal affection. "You act like you haven't seen me in years!"
As if he hadn't just been angsting over missing her. Ah well, what she didn't know couldn't hurt her. Or him.
"Well, yes, but last time I saw you was back home," Gwen pointed out. "Now you're here. In London. My city. And I get to show you everything I love about it!"
"Careful, Gwen, don't go betraying your heritage," Merlin teased.
Gwen just rolled her eyes and grabbed his hand, tugging him over to a table towards the back of the pub where a man and woman about their age were sitting and talking. "Speaking of things I love," she said, indicating to the two, who stood up to greet them. "These are my wonderful friends and now flatmates, Morgana and Arthur Pandiyarajan."
The first thought that came to Merlin's mind was that they were both too good-looking to be real - glowing brown skin, jet-black hair, striking features. Arthur was much taller, of course, with a proud nose and enticingly broad shoulders, while Morgana was slim and beautiful in a way Merlin would have called petite if not for the rather fierce glint in her eye. Other than that, Merlin was ashamed to admit that he couldn't really tell whether they actually resembled each other, or if it was just because se they were both, well, clearly of south Asian origin.
"It's so good to finally meet you, Merlin," said Morgana, sticking out her hand, and Merlin was relieved to hear that the warmth in her voice belied her rather intimidating stance. "Gwen talks about you all the time."
"Nonstop," Arthur agreed. Merlin imagined that was supposed to come out in a light, teasing manner, but the way Arthur said it made It sound as if it were actually annoying to him. He shook Merlin's hand rather stiffly too. But maybe Merlin imagining things.
They all sat, knocking knees at the small table, and Morgana's poured Merlin a pint from their pitcher. "How was your trip in?"
"Oh, not bad," Merlin answered, "especially since Gwen was kind enough to bring one of my trunks back here with her when she visited in June. I so hate moving all my things like that. You should see my place, though," he laughed. "It fulfills almost every stereotype I expected from my getting my first flat as a penniless student, right down to holes in the ceiling. Thank god it's temporary."
"Do you where you want to look for a more permanent place?" Morgana asked.
"Anything I can afford," Merlin admitted. "Let me know if you hear of anything, eh?" He took a sip of his ale and tried not to wince outwardly; it was far too bitter for him. "So, Arthur, Morgana, where are you from?"
"Are you seriously asking us that?" Arthur demanded, and Merlin started at the anger in his voice.
"What?" he said, perplexed.
"I don't know why it should be your business, but we are from here. Our grandparents are from India, if that's what you were really wondering - from the great city of Chennai, in fact. Happy now?"
"Um," said Merlin, floundering a little, "I meant, where are you from here? I mean, I think Gwen mentioned that you grew up around the London area, but I know people here tend to feel strongly about their particular areas - right?"
"That is absolutely true," Morgana said, "and I apologize for my brother's appalling rudeness. To answer your question, we grew up in Kensington." She glared at Arthur. "Could you be any more defensive?"
"Sorry," Arthur muttered, but he still looked rather baleful.
Things seemed to continue in that vein throughout the evening—Arthur snapping at nearly anything Merlin said, including his suggestion of popcorn shrimp for the table (Arthur and Morgana were vegetarian); his surprise at Morgana revealing that she had studied business and now worked in marketing (apparently their father was some big-shot CEO); even his amusement that their other flatmate who hadn't been able to make it out tonight was named Lancelot (he and Arthur were best friends from uni). Really, Merlin had just found it strange and somewhat comical that there was a flat full of people with such Arthurian names—not to mention himself—but after Arthur's bristled reaction to his immediate smile, he didn't dare say anything.
By the time their pitcher of beer was empty, Merlin had had just about enough. "I'll get us another round, shall I? Come on, Gwen, help me carry the glasses back."
"We don't need new glasses, you know," she informed him as they stalked up to the bar. "Do you really need help carrying a pitcher?"
"A Guinness for me," Merlin told the bartender, "and another pitcher of—um—whatever they were having before. I can't manage another pint of that stuff," he told Gwen. "But now, more importantly: tell me why we're hanging out with this arsehole?"
Gwen gave him a look. "Because he's my friend's brother, and one of my friends as well. And also because I wanted you to meet him."
"You wanted me to - oh. Oh, no, Gwen, you must be joking."
"Why? He's completely your type!"
"It's been well-established since uni that I don't have a type, Gwen! I don't even care about gender!"
"You do so have a type," Gwen argued.
"Oh really? What would that be?"
"Ridiculously attractive, and as sarcastic as you."
Merlin threw up his hands. "Oh, well, you've just narrowed down the pool considerably. Obviously Arthur and I are destined to be together."
"See, there you go again," Gwen sighed.
"Why not Morgana then?"
"Why not Morgana what?"
"Why not set me up with Morgana? Beautiful, biting wit, a good friend of yours, not a prat."
Gwen blinked. "Um. Well. I didn't really think of it." She paused. "What, do you -"
There was a panicky note to Gwen's voice that Merlin would have to investigate further at some point. In the meantime, he waved a dismissive hand. "Nah, once I got over the first hit of drop-dead-gorgeous, I was fine."
"But not so with Arthur?" Gwen persisted. Merlin scowled, and she poked at him in delight. "Hah! I was right! He's gotten under your skin, now you want him in your pants!"
"Oh god," Merlin groaned, just as Arthur appeared at his elbow.
Merlin gave a rather undignified squawk and, he was sure, turned bright red. "Am I interrupting something?" said Arthur, eyebrows raised.
"No!" said Merlin hurriedly. "I mean, we were just, you know. Catching up." He shot Gwen a look that was half-pleading and half-demanding because, as usual, this was all her bloody fault.
Gwen just gave him a cheeky smile, refusing to even try to rescue him from this situation she'd created.
Arthur was giving them both odd looks, but he said finally, "This place is closing up, I think my sister wants to move us to some cocktail bar. Any ideas?"
"There's this martini place right in Piccadilly," Gwen suggested. "But Merlin hasn't finished his pint here yet."
"Oh don't worry, I will," said Merlin grimly.
By the time they got to the other bar, Merlin was starting to feel the effects of downing most of his latest pint in one go. He had absolutely no desire to admit his tipsiness - especially in front of Arthur, who would probably take his being a lightweight as some reflection on his character or masculinity or some such rubbish - but Merlin couldn't deny he was wobbling a bit. He absolutely was not going fuzzy, however; he just hadn't particularly been paying attention while Morgana ordered them all umbrella-filled drinks, until he took a sip of his and made a face.
"What is this?" Merlin said.
"Their specialty tonight, it's a surprise fruit martini," said Morgana, grinning as she sipped at hers. Gwen was drinking hers with relish, Morgana's paper umbrella already tucked behind Gwen's ear, framed by her curly hair.
Merlin shrugged and tasted it again—okay, not quite as sour this time. He turned to Arthur, ready for some comment about fruity drinks, but Arthur wasn't saying anything. In fact, Arthur wasn't even drinking; his martini glass was half empty and he, too, was making a face, but one that was much more contorted than anything Merlin might have done.
"Arthur, what on earth?" said Morgana, sounding disapproving.
Arthur opened his mouth to say something and coughed, then clutched at his throat, wheezing.
"Arthur!" said Gwen, alarmed. "What's wrong?"
"I—" Arthur tried, and Merlin could see that his throat was swelling up.
"He's - it looks like an allergic reaction," said Merlin. "Morgana! Is Arthur allergic to anything?"
A horrified enlightenment dawned on Morgana's face. "Kiwi, but nothing's ever happened since he was five!" she said frantically. "He stopped carrying his shot thing years ago!"
"Does this have kiwi?" Merlin asked the bartender, who nodded. "Shit," Merlin muttered. He continued, "Call for an ambulance. And you wouldn't happen to have a shot of epinephrine in your first-aid kit?"
"I don't even know what that is," the bartender confessed, white-faced.
Merlin hesitated for only half a second before pulling out his own epi-pen. It scared him to be without it, especially in a bar with a bowl of peanuts on every other table, but when he looked at Arthur's terrified face there wasn't even a question.
Arthur, damn him, apparently wasn't terrified enough to just sit still and let Merlin inject him, shying away when Merlin uncapped the epi-pen. "Are you - sure you - know what you're -" he managed between wheezes.
"Yes," said Merlin, and stuck the shot into his leg.
Merlin was awoken at noon the next day but his cell phone. "'lo?"
There was a pause. "Were you asleep?" said a voice that sounded suspiciously like Arthur Pandiyarajan's, and Merlin resisted groaning.
By the time the ambulance came the night before, Arthur's breathing had cleared up quite a bit, but Merlin was still relieved when the paramedics piled in to take over. "Any of you family?" said one after they'd gotten Arthur onto a gurney.
"I'm his sister," said Morgana, and had joined them in the ambulance to ride to the hospital. Gwen and Merlin followed by cab, and it wasn't until about three in the morning that they were sufficiently reassured of Arthur's stable condition for Merlin to go home, crashing into bed and almost immediate unconsciousness.
"I had a late night, in case you'd forgotten," Merlin said now, already on the defensive. "I'm surprised you're up."
"Well, yes, about last night," said Arthur, sounding a little sheepish. "That's why I was calling. There's something I want to talk to you about - could you come by our place this afternoon?"
"If you wanted to thank me, the phone is really good enough," said Merlin wearily. He doubted that was Arthur's intention at all, the pompous git, but it felt good to get it out.
"No, it isn't," said Arthur, to his surprise. "I know it's out of your way but you did say you weren't too busy today - I promise I'll make it worth your while.
Merlin figured that was the closest Arthur would get to a "please". "Alright," he said. "Gwen gave me the address, I'll be there in an hour."
"Good," said Arthur, and rung off.
As Gwen had said, the townhouse was hardly a five minute walk from the Russell Square Tube Station, so Merlin counted that as a small blessing. And there was something rather magical about the Bloomsbury area - the universities, the literary history, the museums. It was what Merlin had always thought of as the quintessential London neighborhood. At the same time, it was also upscale and genteel enough to make Merlin feel like an outsider, as if the whole place were a kind of exhibition of wealth and high culture for ordinary folk like him to gaze at in disbelieving wonder before returning to their everyday lives.
Merlin shifted his feet as he stood on the doorstep, waiting for it to open, and was relieved when it was answered by Gwen. "Come in!" she said brightly.
"Not that I haven't been dying to see your place," said Merlin, toeing off his trainers to put them with the others stacked neatly on the shoe rack, "but why am I here, exactly?"
"I'll let Arthur explain," Gwen said as she led him upstairs. Merlin took the moment to admire the flat. It was elegant and yet simple in its arrangement, clean white walls interspersed with areas of stylishly exposed brick. Gwen took him into what must have been the living room, where Morgana and Arthur was waiting on the couch.
"Merlin!" said Morgana, giving him a quick hug. "Man of the hour!"
"My hero," said Gwen with a fond look.
"Arthur's hero," said Morgana, mischievous.
"Alright, alright," said Arthur. "Merlin, Gwen may have told you that we've been looking for a fifth flatmate. Since she says your current housing situation is temporary, I'd like to offer you that place - rent-free."
Merlin gaped. This was...absolutely the last thing he'd been expecting. "I couldn't possibly accept that," he said faintly.
"Of course you can," said Morgana, "it's really quite easy. All you have to do is say yes."
"But - I'm not - I mean, I'm perfectly capable of -"
"You saved my life," Arthur interrupted.
For a moment, Merlin was surprised and touched by the gratitude implied in that statement, but Arthur promptly ruined it. "I don't want you hanging that over my head later."
Merlin gaped. "I wouldn't do that!"
"God, you are a stubborn git, aren't you? Just take the offer!" Arthur threw up his hands and stalked into his room.
"Okay, who put him up to this?" Merlin demanded.
"No one, it was his idea," said Gwen. Merlin glared at her. "It's true, I swear!" she insisted, Morgana nodding in agreement. "Not that we took much convincing."
"We'd love to have you, Merlin," Morgana added. "And - the rent really isn't a problem."
"Plus Arthur's not that bad once you get to know him," said Gwen.
Morgana snorted. "No, actually, he is that bad. But that doesn't mean you should refuse his offer." She smiled up at Merlin. "You can help us keep Arthur in line, and Lancelot's lovely. Oh, speak of the devil..." she continued as another tall fellow walked in.
"Uh-oh, what have I done now?" he said with a smile. "Hi, you must be Merlin, it's so good to meet you. I'm Lancelot."
Merlin returned the gesture, trying not to ogle. Trust Gwen to not mention that Lancelot was also smoking. He was a little offended that out of all her hot friends, Gwen had tried to pair him up with Arthur, who was most emphatically not his type.
Arthur returned with a sheaf of papers. "Made up your mind, then? Because I have the lease right here."
Merlin didn't know what to say. Even besides the absurdity of the offer, this was all moving so fast. But he couldn't deny that the prospect of living with Gwen was appealing. Not to mention that Morgana was fantastic and liked him already, and even Lancelot was giving him a friendly, encouraging look. Adding in the great neighborhood, the proximity of the university, and his already draining bank account -
"Okay," Merlin said, letting a grin spread across his face. "Thanks, I'd love to live with all of you."
Gwen whooped and gave him a hug, while Morgana and Lancelot grinned back. Even Arthur's mouth twitched into an almost-smile. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.
Under normal circumstances, Merlin would have stayed in his old flat long enough to run out the two months' rent he'd already paid, but since he was getting to live for free in the townhouse, he didn't feel quite as bad about the waste of money. The next weekend saw him moving out all his stuff, barely enough to fit into two suitcases, out to his new home on Grape Street. His room already had a bed frame, mattress, and closet, and all it took was a quick trip with Gwen and Lancelot to the nearest Argos for other essentials before Merlin pretty much had everything he needed. By early evening he was settled in.
"Hey Merlin, are you ready for dinner?" Lancelot called from the kitchen when Merlin finally emerged from setting up his room.
"Yes please," said Merlin gratefully, joining them at the table. "Hey, so what's the deal with cooking duty? Do you have a roster?"
"Not exactly," said Gwen.
"But you wouldn't happen to be a fantastic cook, would you?" said Morgana.
"Hardly," said Merlin, laughing. "But I'll take a turn as long as you don't blame me when the house burns down."
"No, that's alright," said Morgana with a sigh. "It just means Arthur gets to continue being the chef, and thus get out of the ickier chores. If his food wasn't so good he'd be insufferable. Scratch that, he's insufferable anyway."
Her brother glared at her from where he was rummaging in the refrigerator for drinks, while Merlin tried not to express his astonishment that Arthur was, of all things, an excellent cook. "No one else is any good?" he tried instead.
"Well. Gwen makes a decent omelet, and if Lancelot puts his mind to it he can come up with something vaguely edible. Sorry, Lance." Lancelot gave an easy-going shrug and didn't argue. Morgana continued, "I'm what you might kindly call a disaster."
"Something else we have in common, then," said Merlin with a smile. "What are we having, then, Arthur?"
"Indian food," said Arthur dismissively.
"Mm, I love curry."
That got Arthur's attention. "It's not curry," he informed Merlin as he went to grab silverware, lip curling up in a sneer. "Not what you think of as curry. Although the word curry was a bastardization of a Tamil word."
Merlin gave Morgana a quizzical look behind Arthur's back. "Our family is from Tamil Nadu, that's southern India," Morgana explained. "The food is pretty distinct, and most Indians who live here - including restaurant owners - are from the north. But curry's a pretty generic term anyway. It can mean pretty much any kind of dish with spices."
"So what is the south Indian dish you're making tonight, then?" Merlin asked Arthur, trying to make some kind of peace.
Arthur opened one of the pots, which held a steaming soup filled with tomatoes, lentils, and spices that Merlin couldn't begin to identify. "It's called rasam, you eat it with rice," Arthur told him as Lance began serving himself white rice from the other pot and pouring the soup on top of it.
Merlin did the same, mixing the soup into the rice and then put a spoonful into his mouth, wondering if Arthur's cooking skills would live up to expectations - and promptly burst out into coughs. Merlin fancied himself to have at least a decent tolerance for curry and other spicy foods, but this was like nothing he'd ever tried - not only were his tongue and lips burning, but his nose was running and his eyes were tearing up. He could barely taste the food beneath. At first he suspected that Arthur had deliberately spiked his food apart from the rest, but he abandoned that thought when he saw that the others weren't glaring at Arthur and, instead, were giving him sympathetic looks.
"You'll get used to it," said Gwen, patting his hand.
"Get used to what? My mouth being on fire?" Merlin managed to spit out. He reached for his glass of water, but Arthur snatched it away.
"You've got to be joking," said Merlin. "That's just evil."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Water won't help, it just spreads the spice around. Have some yogurt." When Merlin gave him a confused look, he sighed and grabbed a spoonful of curds, shoving it into Merlin's mouth.
Merlin wondered if he should feel annoyed that Arthur had apparently shifted from picking on him to treating him like a toddler, but perhaps it was an improvement. And hey, the yogurt did help, more than Merlin would have imagined. In fact, now that he could discern some of the underlying flavors, it was good. Delicious, even.
"Huh," said Merlin, looking at Arthur in surprise.
Arthur blinked back at him, and Merlin waited for the inevitable sarcastic comment about Merlin looking slack-jawed and dim-witted, or something, but Arthur just continued to stare, as if somehow surprised himself. "It's good," said Merlin finally, breaking Arthur from his reverie. "Really good."
Arthur gave a gruff, "Thanks," and returned to shoving food into his own mouth. Merlin noticed that Gwen was grinning at him sidelong, but he ignored her resolutely. It was just dinner, after all.
"So, er," said Merlin, deciding to bring up the name issue that had been nagging at him since that night in the pub. "It may be silly, but I have to ask. Does anyone else find this housing situation of ours a little odd?"
"What about it?" said Arthur, frowning.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Well, the fact that we have five people sharing a house, and our names are Merlin, Arthur, Morgana, Lancelot, and Guinevere."
The others all looked surprised, as if it had barely occurred to them. Gwen recovered first, giving a shrug. "You know why that's true for us, Merlin," she said reasonably. "Our mums were studying mythology together at uni," she told the others, "and they made a drunken pact that whoever had the first boy would name him Merlin, and the first girl would be Guinevere, and so on after that. And, unlike most teenagers' drunken pacts, they actually kept it."
"What about your sister, then?" Morgana asked.
"Mum wanted to name her Elaine - you know, like the Lady of Shalott - but Dad had an uncle named Elyan, so they compromised with that."
"Yes, right," said Merlin, "our mums are just weird. But what about the rest of you?"
Lancelot began to fidget. "I'm not named after that Lancelot."
"There are other Lancelots?" said Arthur, doubtful.
"A...friend of my parents," said Lance carefully.
Merlin shrugged at him, and they turned to Arthur and Morgana.
"These aren't our real names," said Arthur as if it were obvious.
"What, you thought our real names," Arthur indicated to his face, "were Arthur and Morgana Pandiyarajan?"
"I thought maybe you were Christian."
"Yes, Merlin, that's why I'm vegetarian."
"There are vegetarian Christians!"
"Alright, you two," said Morgana, rolling her eyes. "Merlin, our real names are Arjun and Mohana, but we go by Arthur and Morgana with our English friends. We found the names in a book when we were little, and thought it was a funny coincidence that our names sound so similar - especially since Dad's name is Uddhar."
Arthur smirked at Merlin. "So are your insane conspiracy theories put to rest?"
Merlin just scowled back at him. "It's hardly an insane conspiracy theory, I just thought it was strange. Hey, Gwen, maybe you should change your dissertation topic to something about this - the proliferation of modern-day references to the Arthurian legend."
Gwen groaned. "Don't even mention that horrid word."
"Dissertation. I'm pretending it doesn't exist."
"You're writing a - one as well, is that right?" Lancelot asked Merlin curiously. "What's is it about."
"It's really quite boring," Merlin hedged.
"Come on," Morgana cajoled. "Go on then."
"Er. Alright. It's about reform of English criminal law in the eighteenth century, mostly focusing on Jeremy Bentham, and the links from his ideas on penitential reform to the development of his philosophy of utilitarianism."
There was a stunned pause. "I can't believe I'm saying this," said Arthur, "but you were actually right about something. That is boring."
"You did Political Studies for your Bachelor's, right? Didn't you have to do Bentham?"
"Yes, exactly. I'm no fan of political theory on a good day, but all that utilitarianism stuff, Mills and Bentham and Sidgwick, was even duller than most."
"The only thing I know about Bentham," said Gwen, clearly trying to head off an argument, "is that they've got his skeleton all dressed up and displayed behind a glass case up at UCL. Which is pretty creepy, if you ask me."
"Dying wishes can be pretty weird," Merlin said.
"What would you do with your body?" mused Morgana.
"Well, this isn't morbid at all," said Arthur. Everyone else ignored him.
"Buried," said Lancelot simply. "Next to my wife."
"I don't care what exactly is done to my remains as long as they end up somewhere natural," said Merlin. "I've heard of this thing where you can have your ashes mixed with fertilizer and then use it to have a tree grown in your memory. Something like that."
"Yeah, as much as I'd love to be carried around as a diamond ring by my great-grandchildren, I'd probably settle for plain old cremation," Morgana agreed. "Plus, you know you've watched too much Supernatural when you want your bones to be salted and burned, just in case."
"I love Supernatural!" said Merlin, delighted. "Well, the early seasons more than the recent stuff, but still!"
"Oh god, you're one of those who thinks the brothers are fucking, don't you?" Arthur groaned.
Merlin flushed but Morgana just gave Arthur an imperious glare. "Don't be so narrow-minded, Arthur."
"It's narrow-minded to think incest is weird?" said Arthur, indignant. "Imagine if someone suggested us having sex? You can't tell me you'd be okay with that, even the idea."
"No," Morgana allowed, "but that has nothing to do with us being siblings."
"Yes, it's the idea of sex with you in itself that's revolting," said Morgana. Gwen snorted with laughter and Merlin couldn't help but join in.
The next few weeks were rather wonderful, really. Despite only knowing Gwen very well, Merlin's feeling of immediate comfort and familiarity with Morgana and Lancelot turned out to be completely justified. By the time August rolled around, Merlin felt quite at home in the townhouse and was even ready for his classes to start in another two weeks.
There was only one outstanding issue: Arthur. The passage of time hadn't helped improve his attitude towards Merlin. It annoyed Merlin more than he could say—partly because he still found the prat kind of stupidly attractive physically. But even that would have been easy to overcome had Merlin not been discovering more and more surprising things about Arthur—his hidden closeness with his sister, his easy friendship with Lancelot and Gwen, his diligence and passion for his studies, his secret love for old episodes of Yes Minister. If Merlin were a fly on the wall he'd have been more than half in love with him already because yes, Gwen had been right, whether Merlin had a "type" or not he found himself irrevocably drawn to Arthur.
The problem was that Arthur clearly didn't feel that way about Merlin—so much the opposite, in fact, that the only time he really seemed to be a jerk was towards Merlin.
"It is odd," Gwen confirmed when he'd asked her about it. "I mean, yes, Arthur can be prickly at first, and Morgana likes to call him an ass because they both pick on each other, but he's really a great person once you get to know him. I really don't understand why he's so hostile to you."
"So basically what you're saying is that for the first time, Arthur has found a person that he hates so much that he's an unmitigated douchebag to them at all times," said Merlin, trying not to sound too dejected.
Gwen patted his shoulder, saying comfortingly, "I'm sure that's not it," but Merlin thought even she looked rather regretful at the way she'd tried to bring Merlin and Arthur together.
After a particularly bad evening that had involved both semi-drunken charades and Arthur attempting to eviscerate him with sarcasm, Merlin decided things had gone far enough. The next day, when his semi-hangover from the previous night had finally disappeared after noon, Merlin steeled himself and knocked on Arthur' bedroom door.
Arthur looked surprised when he opened it, though not at all tired, damn it - of course Merlin was a notorious lightweight and Arthur was a tank with alcohol, because that was how Merlin's life went. "Merlin," Arthur said, bracingly.
"Can we talk?" Merlin said.
Now Arthur's expression was wary, but he replied, "Sure," ushering Merlin in.
Merlin had glanced into Arthur's room before but never noticed much. He didn't know what he'd been expecting - okay, that was an outright lie. He knew exactly what he'd been expecting: something juvenile, right out of a fresher's dorm at uni, an unmade bed and posters of footballers or movies - maybe featuring some busty girls - on the walls.
However, there were barely any decorations at all. Instead, the first thing Merlin noticed was books and magazines everywhere. Not messily, because the room seemed to be lined with shelves for that very purpose. A quick glance told Merlin they were mostly non-fiction, the kind of narrative non-fiction books of history and current affairs that Merlin always looked at and wished he had the time to read: Eric Hobsbawm, Simon Winchester, Samantha Power, Jeremy Scahill. The magazines and newspapers were no less political - all the top British papers and The Economist, of course, but also The New York Times, Le Parisien, The Washington Post, Newsweek, La Tribune, and -
"You read The Wall Street Journal?" said Merlin, raising his eyebrows.
"Have to keep an eye on what Murdoch's doing everywhere, right?" Arthur shrugged. "Now what can I, er, do for you?"
Merlin shook his head from the brief distraction. "Listen," he said, feeling awkward. "I'm just going to come out and say it: I can tell that you don't like me. And I'm sorry if I did anything to offend you, but I really don't know what it is. So I just wanted to ask if there was any way that you could...be less of an ass to me?" It didn't come out as confident and authoritative as he'd wanted, but Arthur's room had blindsided him a bit.
Arthur blinked at him. "I—" he started, then, suddenly, looked rather mortified. "I don't," he said, and it didn't sound like a protest of Merlin's accusations, so Merlin just looked at him questioningly. "Dislike you," Arthur continued, stilted.
"...really?" Merlin said, frowning at him in disbelief.
"Um. Yeah. Really." Arthur gave a short laugh. "I, um. Am just an ass sometimes. I'm sure Morgana's made that pretty clear by now."
That didn't come even close to enough of an explanation for Arthur's particular enmity to Merlin, but at this point, Merlin was going to take all that he can get. "Okay," he said.
"I'll try to be better," Arthur promised. Merlin would have sworn that if his skin wasn't too dark to show the color, he'd be blushing.
"Well. Thanks," said Merlin, and turned to leave, feeling a strange mixture of relief and dissatisfaction with the conversation.
"Merlin?" Arthur called as he opened the door again. Merlin looked back at Arthur, shamefaced and staring at his hands. "I'm sorry," he said, sounding honest and, fuck, completely endearing. "I didn't mean—just. I'm sorry."
"It's okay," said Merlin softly, and somehow that did seem to help.
Things did get better after that; Arthur was still sarcastic and annoying, but usually in a more friendly way, as if letting Merlin in on the joke. Which, Merlin realized, was in some ways worse: turning the insults and needling into playful banter made him even more attracted to Arthur.
"Really, Mer-lin, I have no idea how you managed to survive this long," Arthur would drawl, and Merlin would stick his tongue out while trying desperately not to notice the way Arthur's eyes crinkled up in a special way when he was teasing Merlin, as if only for him
Merlin tried to distract himself by focusing on all the academic preparation he had been avoiding. Classes wouldn't start until the end of August, but there were meetings to be had up at UCL with his adviser, and research to be done in the library.
Merlin was returning from a library expedition one day, passing through the main hallway, when he noticed the cupboard in the corner with the skeleton of Jeremy Bentham. Merlin paused, staring at it from afar, then walked towards it. He'd never taken a particularly good look at it, even after that first dinner conversation with his flatmates, and now seemed as good a time as any.
It was certainly very creepy—it was dressed up in some old clothes and a rather out-of-place hat, so it wasn't just a bare skeleton, but Merlin thought that made it even eerier—as if it was supposed to be a recreation of the man, not a clinical example of his remains. There was a little plaque explaining his contributions to English society and philosophy, as well as his patronage of the university. It was all very ordinary, and Merlin was about to turn and leave when, suddenly, the skeleton opened its mouth.
Merlin stared as it rasped out something unintelligible. "What?" he said stupidly, then wanted to hit himself for replying to a skeleton that he'd probably imagined speaking anyway. But no, there it was, opening its mouth again and saying more clearly, "Come tonight."
"What—how are you—this—come where?"
"Here," said the skeleton, as if it were obvious. "With the others. It is fated that the five come together."
"The others—you mean my flatmates?"
"The five," the skeleton affirmed. "Tonight at the witching hour."
"Uh. How are we supposed to get in?" Merlin asked, trying not to think about how insane this was.
"The chamber will open for the five."
And just like that, the skeleton shifted back into its original position and went utterly still.
"Hello?" Merlin said uncertainly. "Are you still there?"
The skeleton did not respond this time, its hollow eyeholes staring back at him, unmoving. "What the fuck," Merlin muttered to himself, and fled.
"I know it sounds crazy," Merlin said.
There was a stunned pause, until Arthur said finally, "I don't think crazy begins to cover it."
Merlin couldn't even feel insulted by that; it was true. Nevertheless—"Please, just indulge me in this?"
"Let me get this straight," said Morgana, eyebrows raised. "You want us to break into UCL in the middle of the night to go talk to the skeleton of Jeremy Bentham? Because it is fated that we should do so?"
"Please," Merlin said.
Morgana shrugged. "Okay. As long as we're clear."
"You can't be serious," Arthur said to his sister.
"It'll be an adventure! What, are you scared we'll get caught?" Morgana taunted. Merlin had to hide a smile as Arthur scowled back at her—it really was the most effective way of convincing him to do anything. He looked over at Gwen and Lancelot.
"I...honestly have no idea what to say," Gwen told him, looking completely lost.
"Then come," Merlin urged. "Believe me, if I am going crazy, I want to know about it too. I need you all to come confirm it one way or the other."
The skeleton had been right in at least one regard: every single gate or door that they came to opened easily for them, despite the fact that Merlin knew some of them to be kept locked even during the day. It was still utterly bizarre, sneaking around the dark hallways in the middle of the night, keeping their eyes and ears peeled for security guards.
"I want to say this brings back fond memories," Lancelot whispered as they climbed the stairs up into the main wing, "but in truth I've never seen the school like this."
They made their way into the hallway, and Merlin immediately strode over to the display case, rapping gently on the glass. "Hello?" he said, quiet. "We're here."
The skeleton said nothing.
"Hello?" Merlin tried again. "The, um, five have...arrived."
Merlin's heart sank when the skeleton remained silent and immobile. He waited for another moment, not wanting to admit what this might mean, not to mention facing up to his friends after his ridiculous demands this afternoon.
"Okay, I know I haven't been here for a while, but aren't both of those supposed to be lions?" said Arthur slowly from behind him.
Merlin turned to see what he was talking about, and his jaw almost dropped. It was true: where the pair of Koptos Lions statues usually stood was only one lion, and another statue of a dragon.
Merlin opened his mouth to say something, but before he could get any words out, there was a low grinding sound and suddenly the dragon moved. It shook its head back and forth experimentally as the group watched in shock. Yet somehow, Merlin felt the surprise for only a moment before realizing that he had been expecting this - well, maybe not this specifically, but something in this vein. And it was hardly as horrifying as the reanimated skeleton of Jeremy Bentham, so that was a relief.
The dragon looked at them, its gray stone eyes somehow appearing to gleam. "Ah, you are all here. You have done well, young warlock," it said with a nod towards Merlin.
As the only one not completely stunned into silence, Merlin felt bound to reply. "Who are you?" Then, somewhat belatedly, "And what do you mean, warlock?"
"My name is of no consequence," said the dragon. "All you are required to know is that I am the last surviving dragon of Albion."
"The last?" Merlin asked at the exact same moment as Gwen said, "Surviving?"
"Well, in a manner of speaking. I can occupy any dead or inanimate object and mold it to my form, but I no longer possess a body of my own. I was very much tempted to use one of the larger lion statues you have in this city of yours, to give a better approximation of my true splendor, but I thought we would be interrupted in some open, central part of the city."
"No shit, if you'd turned a Trafalgar Square lion into a dragon," said Morgana with a snort.
The dragon ignored her and turned to Merlin. "And yes, the last. I may not have kept my corporal form, but all those before me were extinguished completely. Slain by your father, in fact," it added with a nod towards Arthur.
"My father?" said Arthur, eyebrows knitting in bemusement.
"Well, not in this lifetime, of course," the dragon replied, as if that were a normal sort of thing to say. When they all just gazed back at it blankly, it wrinkled the stone skin of its brow in a way that somehow resembled a frown. "In your previous life, as the Once and Future King. Now being the Future, I suppose."
Now Arthur was outright gaping. "The Once and - what on earth are you talking about?"
"Your past selves. Have you not heard the legends of Camelot?"
"Yes, but those are legends," Lancelot said.
"You have a saying in this age about smoke and fire, I believe," said the dragon mildly.
"If we're from the Arthurian legend," Gwen piped up, "how come Merlin can't do any magic?" She looked at Merlin. "You can't, can you? Can you?"
"No!" Merlin yelped.
"No," the dragon confirmed.
"Then why did you call him a warlock?"
The dragon fixed its beady gaze on Merlin. "In your previous life," and okay, that put a shiver up Merlin's spine, "The fall of Camelot and the death of King Arthur so upset you that - the best way to put it is that you bound all the magic and sent it away from your world so that it could no longer be used as a weapon for evil."
"All of...my magic?" said Merlin.
"All of the magic in the realm."
Merlin's mouth went dry. "But - but what about all the other magicians? Were they evil?"
The dragon let out a sigh, though Merlin wasn't quite sure where the air was coming from. "In those days, the magic came from the land. Some learned to draw from it to perform sorcery, and after your actions they could no longer practice their skill. Others were born with magic, and they kept it until their demise, but it was no longer passed on to their children. So it was for humans and creatures alike - gryphons became eagles, manticores became lions. And so the Albion of magic faded into legend."
"What about you? Aren't you magical? How did you survive?"
"I myself do not know," the dragon admitted. "But even my powers are, as I have said, limited."
"Okay, look, this is ridiculous," said Arthur. "We're supposed to believe that we're reincarnated versions of people from fairy tales? And why us? For one thing, Arthur's not even my real name!"
"Why do you think you decided on that particular name?" said the dragon gravely. "The choice was just as important as anything else."
"Oh thanks, Dumbledore," Arthur muttered. "Okay, how about the fact that I'm Indian?"
"The traces of Albion are tied to your land, the land of your birth. That is all that matters."
"Okay," said Morgana, "so say we believe you. What do you want from us?"
"As I said, it has been foretold that you would return in a time of great need for Albion," said the dragon. "That time is now. And in order to meet that need, you must bring magic back—bring Albion back to this realm, to this place that you call the British Isles. Only then can Albion be saved and restored to its former glory as the greatest kingdom in the world."
The words sent a chill through Merlin, settling something in his bones—something that felt familiar and right, as if he'd always been expecting the feeling. He swallowed. "Alright," he said, voice shaky. "What do we have to do?"