Chapter 1: Merlin
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?"
Chapter 2: Mohana
Mohana woke up.
For a moment before she was fully conscious, her dream lingered, as dreams do. In a few minutes she would have forgotten it, but for those last few seconds, that in-between realm of thought and memory, there was something pleasant and easy in the air, an overwhelming feeling of comfort.
She finally gave up on the remnants of slumber and opened her eyes. It was early still, the late summer light peeking in at the windows. Mohana felt exhausted, but she knew that she wouldn't be going back to sleep anytime soon - not when the memories of the night before came flooding back in with a startling clarity.
The thing was - Mohana may not have known that much about the legends, may not have had the same passion for fairy tales and mythology that Gwen did, but she knew as much about the Arthurian stories as did anyone who'd grown up in England. And like everyone else, she knew who the villains were. But that didn't bear thinking about right now.
Instead, she lay back for another moment and tried to remember the dream better, for a few more minutes of respite from what had now become her real life. The dream had been about Gwen, she knew - possibly about the first time they had met, as freshers and new roommates? Or perhaps it had been of the first time they had really connected, after one of those sweeping late-night conversations that seemed so unbelievable until one actually experiences them, so typical of uni and each so unique in their own way. Mohana didn't even remember what this one had been about, probably something about family with dashes of philosophy and silliness thrown randomly in. All she knew was that by the end of it, she could look over at Gwen and feel that burst of warmth, of familiarity and connection grown out of nothing more than a few weeks.
Or maybe it had been of a moment that took place a year later, a reprise of that same sudden link, except that now it was grounded in so much more - in a year of shared experiences, of trials and tribulations together, of a very few squabbles and many more agreements. That had been the day Gwen took her to Brick Lane for the first time - Mohana had never been, but something about stopping in the sweet stores to buy kulfi with her now-best friend made her bubble up with happiness in a way she didn't know how to express.
It was that time, when she looked over at her roommate, that Mohana realized she was in love.
But that didn't bear thinking about either.
"Morning," said Arjun when they had all emerged for breakfast the next morning, looking just as worn out as Mohana felt - though Merlin always looked that way in the morning, so it was hard to tell any difference.
"Morning," Mohana echoed, sitting down at the table as her brother plopped down a plate of scrambled eggs in front of her, just the way she liked them. While Mohana had tossed and turned for the rest of the night after their - adventure, Arjun had clearly just been up for ages, cooking away a storm. The kitchen held tantalizing smells of coffee and tea, bacon and eggs, pancakes, and, to Mohana's astonishment, sambar and dosais. She didn't know quite what Arjun had to be stressed about in this whole debacle, but her rumbling stomach wasn't complaining.
The others joined them at the table, digging in without comment. At least, until Merlin managed to open his eyes and tear himself away from his coffee long enough to register the glum faces surrounding him. "Uh," said Merlin, sounding a bit puzzled. "I realize I could be way off track here, but is there anyone else here who's excited about this?"
"'This' being the whole destiny crap?" said Arjun, sardonic, and Merlin deflated a little.
"I'll take that as a no, then," he said, then hesitated. "May I ask why?"
Mohana looked at the other three. She wasn't sure what their reasons were, but she certainly wasn't about to voice hers. Gwen she did wonder about - after so many years of reading about magical realms and mythical creatures in all her YA fantasy novels, Mohana assumed that Gwen to would be thrilled by the idea.
Finally, Arjun said, "I don't like being told what to do."
Which...wasn't precisely true. Between the two of them growing up in Uddhar's household, Arjun had been the obedient one, the Good Son with the reputation to live up to. Mohana sometimes thought that Arjun's greatest fear was rebelling against Uddhar - at least, in any of the ways that mattered. Maybe instructions from a talking stone dragon didn't quite fall under the same category.
"But think of what we've been told to do! We're supposed to go on - on quests," said Merlin, warming up to his subject, "to important places in the British Isles to look for magical objects and maybe even experience magic."
"You mean you'll get to use magic," Arjun pointed out.
"Well, and Morgana too if the legends are correct," Merlin said.
Mohana didn't answer, focusing on dipping her piece of dosai in the miloga powder and coconut chutney that Arjun had managed to dig up from somewhere. She wasn't particularly ready to share her insecurities with anyone else just yet. If ever.
"How are we supposed to find these places, anyway?" said Lancelot, speaking for the first time.
Gwen, too, stirred a bit at that. "The dragon said something about finding Camelot here in London, where the power is."
"But all the historical evidence place the important sites in Wales - Tintagel, the battles at Badon and Camlann," said Merlin.
"Yes, but if I understood the dragon correctly, Albion didn't correspond exactly to Britain in a geographic sense, so we're looking for places where these spots have latched onto power. Kind of like in American Gods, or maybe a little more like the ancient Greek sites moving to America in the Percy Jackson books. Anyway, some of the hints of magic may have seeped through nonetheless, so it might be possible to look into references to Camelot or Arthuriana in London."
They all stared at her, and Mohana thought that maybe she'd been right about Gwen's potential enthusiasm. There was no doubt that it was overshadowed by something else, but still. "Sounds good to me," she said. "I say Gwen has the most expertise in this area, so we should listen to her."
"If by expertise you mean a childhood spent holed up with fantasy books," Gwen said, clearly embarrassed. "And not just a childhood, at that."
"I do," said Mohana, and that got her a shy smile in return.
After breakfast, the others decided to begin researching, but Mohana begged off for a shower. She still felt...unsettled after the night before, no matter how much excitement she might feign for Gwen's sake.
She had barely closed the door to her room before it opened again.
"I can't believe you're going along with this," said Arjun.
Mohana froze for an instant, then sighed, turning to face her brother. "Close the door," she said softly. Once he had done so - "What do you mean?"
"You're just as reluctant to go forward with this as I am," said Arjun, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "Don't lie to me, I can tell."
Mohana didn't try to deny it, just stared back at him. "I don't understand what you're so upset about," she said finally.
"I'm -" Arjun threw up his hands in frustration. "This is all complete rubbish! We're not reincarnated versions of people from the Arthurian legends! There is no such thing as magic!"
"What, the talking stone dragon we saw last night didn't convince you of that? Do you think we were all under mass hypnosis?"
"Okay, maybe there is something magical, or at least something that is impossible for us to explain," Arjun allowed, "but that doesn't mean that we're supposed to be involved in it."
"Why not?" Mohana had reasons for hoping that was true, but little justification for why it might be.
"Because - look at us! We're Indian. Tamilian. We're not figures from Celtic myths," said Arjun with derision.
So this was what had been bothering Arjun? Mohana felt disappointment and a sort of dread settle in her stomach, because Arjun was really very naive if he thought that something like ethnicity could keep them from being swept forward by the hands of fate. "Since when did you care about being Indian?" she replied. "I'd have thought you'd be thrilled to find out you're the reincarnation of the ancient king of the Britons."
"Well, I'm not, alright?" said Arjun, scowling right back at her. "It's not like I hate our culture, it's just that I never felt part of it. You know that."
"I'm not sure there's much of a difference with you," said Mohana. Then, because she was feeling a little vicious, she added, "You know, maybe the dragon is right. You're the one who wanted to go around being called Arthur all your life. Maybe now you're paying for it."
She regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth. And there was the chance for Arjun to lash back at her, to point out that her own assumed name had been even more dangerous for her, that at least he was still the hero of this story. But the look on Arjun's face was hurt mixed with some measure of undertanding, and it almost made Mohana want to strike at him again, to keep that insight from turning into pity.
And, oh god, those were precisely the kind of thoughts she did not want to be considering right now. Not about Arjun.
"I'm sorry," she said, rubbing her eyes, and Arjun continued to watch her. "I - need to go take a shower, alright? Maybe you should go and angst at someone else for a bit." And that wasn't much better, was it. But she couldn't help but feel the usual satisfaction she got when Arjun scowled at her again, when she succeeded in annoying her brother. She'd never thought much of it before, but now it seemed dangerous, another step down the path into outright resentment.
She was so, so screwed.
By the time she returned to the living room, Arjun had gone out grocery shopping - "He said he needed more yellow split peas and bitter gourd," said Lancelot when Mohana asked, which was never a good sign - and Gwen had found something promising in her research.
"Okay, don't laugh," she said, "but I found this book called London's Camelot and the Secrets of the Grail, and it covers this theory that Camelot may have actually been located in Trent Park, up at the end of the Piccadilly Line."
"Isn't that where Middlesex University is?" Mohana said.
Gwen nodded. "The whole park used to be part of Enfield Chase, which was a hunting area for Henry IV. But even earlier than that, part of the estate included a small moated island that was known as Camlet Moat since at least the 12th century. The author of this book, at least, thinks that name derived from Camelot." She frowned down at her laptop screen. "I need to download the eBook for more information - can I put it on your Kindle, Lancelot?"
When Arjun got back, he found them already scrambling together some sandwiches and fruit to take with them on an impromptu field trip. "Sorry," said Mohana, slapping his shoulder, "you're just going to have to wait until dinner to make pitlai."
"Where exactly is this place?" said Arjun, looking disgruntled.
"At the eastern end of the Piccadilly Line," Gwen repeated.
Mohana gave her brother a meaningful look. They'd been riding the Tube together since they were kids, and yet there were a few places they'd never been - a few places they'd always wanted to visit, and never had the excuse or opportunity - and if only for that, this trip might be worth it.
"Does that mean -?" said Arjun, his eyes widening in realization.
"Oh yes," said Mohana with a grin, the first spark of happiness she'd felt since the night before. "We are going to Cockfosters."
Trent Park was a very short walk from the Cockfosters Station, after Mohana and Arjun had insisted on taking pictures of themselves with the "Welcome to Cockfosters" sign. That kept both of cheered up for a while, but by the time they'd made their way into the park, Gwen was accounting everything important she'd learned from reading the book on the train. It had put Arjun in a sour mood again.
When Gwen mentioned some of the author's conclusions came from links to tarot, he seemed to be unable to keep silent any longer. "I can't believe we're going to this place based on some random book you found in a mystical website," he said crossly.
"It's called Camlet Moat," said Merlin, giving him a look. "Doesn't that sound like Camelot to you?"
"Even if it does, there are hundreds of sites around the country that supposedly have Arthurian links. Why this one?"
"Because Gwen's research makes sense, and," said Merlin, pausing slightly for effect, "I have a feeling about this one."
"At worst this should be a nice place for a picnic," said Gwen, reasonable as always. "It's lovely out."
Arjun looked a little abashed in the face of Gwen's good-natured optimism, though his scowl returned when Merlin stuck his tongue out at him.
The walk to the moat was very pleasant; they passed two small lakes where Merlin wanted to stop and feed the ducks bits of their sandwich crusts, but Arjun swatted at him until he followed them up the hill. It was lovely, but hardly seemed the site of mystical ancient wonder - not even the playground of the Plantagenets' as the signs announced - when at every corner they met a jogger or a couple walking their dog.
"Are we sure this is the right place?" said Lancelot, voicing Mohana's thoughts.
Gwen frowned down at the computer print-out. "It says we should be coming up to a fence pretty soon - oh!"
Even as they approached the gate, the atmosphere seemed to change - not in any substantial way, but as they went over the little land-bridge to cross the moat, it was easy to imagine the place shrouded in mist and secrets, a hangover from older times, preserved in natural beauty and a kind of quaint charm. The little island itself was not very big, but covered in trees, while the moat held a thin sheen of mossy-colored algae blanketing most of it. There was no one else around except for a few ducks floating through the layer of green atop the water, but even they made little sound, and the shadows of the trees on the island played off of the moat with only a little sunshine bleeding through.
"Okay," said Arjun, clearly trying to sound skeptical but coming out hushed instead. "Feel anything, Merlin?"
Merlin was silent for so long that everyone else turned to look at him. "Merlin?" said Gwen.
"Yes," said Merlin slowly. "I do, but it's hard to describe. It's like - a tingling sensation on my skin, but not physical."
Mohana watched him in fascination. She didn't feel anything herself - was she supposed to? She shivered a little at the thought.
Merlin started walking around, ducking under branches and climbing over shrubs on a little path that traced the circumference of the little island. The others followed him, making their way through as quietly as possible. The scene felt fragile, almost brittle, as if anything too disruptive would shatter the calm together.
"You know, many people have claimed to see the ghost of a beautiful woman haunting this place, and they said it was Guinevere," Gwen whispered to her. Mohana give her a sidelong look; she agreed, of course, that Gwen was absolutely lovely to behold, but it wasn't like Gwen herself to imply such a thing. "Of course, they also called her the White Lady, so I can't really picture myself being anything like that," Gwen continued, and Mohana stifled a giggle.
In front of them, Merlin stopped abruptly on a little shore in front of a moss-covered log, half-sunk into the water.
"What is it, Merlin?" said Lancelot softly when he hadn't said anything for a long while, frowning down at the water.
"I need a container of some kind," Merlin murmured. "Does anyone have a water bottle?"
Arjun emptied the remains of his drinking water at the base of a tree and handed the bottle to Merlin, who took it with a nod of thanks and knelt down to touch the water, shifting the algae minutely and letting his fingers be immersed.
"Yes, that's it," said Merlin, almost to himself, and dipped the bottle into the water, filling it with just a little of the moat water. His hand hovered over the water a little longer, as if he could feel something emanating from it, and for an instant Mohana could have sworn that his eyes went a little golden.
Then Merlin shook his head and stood, capping the bottle and turning back to the group. He looked normal again, or as normal as he ever looked, though a little dazed. "Something about the water," he said, as if confirming it. "I don't know what it's for, but that's what we came here to get."
"How exactly do you know that?" said Gwen, eyes wide.
"I can't explain it," said Merlin with a helpless shrug. "It just - felt right. Does that sound idiotic?"
"Yes," said Arjun, and somehow that lightened the mood again, let them escape back from this frozen moment of time - or intersection with a magical realm, Mohana corrected to herself, though it was still too difficult to properly imagine - into their own lives. Whatever those lives may be.
"You're probably right," said Merlin with a laugh, looking sheepish. "But anyway I think it's the right thing to do." He glanced around again. "Shall we get out of here?"
"Please," said Mohana, to her surprise. She hadn't realized how uncomfortable she felt with this whole place until someone else hinted at it. But she did, undoubtedly, and now every nerve was buzzing with the desire to leave, leave, leave.
Only Merlin gave her an odd look as they left, but it was enough to make her nervous.
It was Gwen who knocked on Mohana's door that night. "Hey," she said softly, poking her head in. "May I join you?"
Since Mohana had just been fulfilling stereotypes of angsting but lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling - and wow, she hadn't done that for years - there was no real excuse she could give to keep Gwen out. Even if she'd wanted to. "Of course," she said, sitting up, shifting to face Gwen cross-legged on the bed.
"Are you alright?" Gwen blurted out, unintentionally direct as ever, fidgeting just so slightly with her characteristic, endearing awkwardness. "Only you don't seem like you've been alright. I mean, not sick or anything, just...different."
Mohana couldn't help but smile at that, and before she could stop herself, she laid a hand on Gwen's knee. Gwen stilled beneath her touch, and it made something swoop in Mohana's stomach. She wondered what would happen if she leaned forward and kissed Gwen right now. If Gwen would mind. If Gwen would kiss her back.
But so much uncertainty in her life, that was not a risk she was willing to take.
"I'm no worse than the rest of us," she told Gwen. It was partly true - at least she knew Arjun was having quite a hard time with this as well, even if she didn't think his reasons were quit as justified. "Just...all of this. You know?"
"Yeah," said Gwen, releasing a long breath. "Even after what we saw today, I still can't quite believe it. Maybe I don't want to believe it."
"I'd have thought you'd be the most thrilled," Mohana commented, drawing her hand back with a twinge of regret and leaning back against the wall. "Like one of your favorite stories come alive."
"But that's just it," Gwen insisted, sounding earnest. "Those are stories. And I know every story has truth to it, and in turn that they can make an impression on our lives, blah blah blah. But there's a reason I like fantasy - because it has elements of truth that are spun into something more wonderous, something unbelievable, created and sustained by a person's imagination." Gwen studied her hands, tracing one of the lines in her palm with one finger. "I'm not religious, you know. I'm open-minded enough about things I don't understand, but I never needed to know that there are truly supernatural things which cannot be explained except as magic."
"Isn't the idea of 'magic' relative, though?" said Mohana. "Magic is anything that cannot be explained. But that doesn't mean eventually we can't figure it out. Then it will be just another earthly phenomenon like any other that used to perplex us."
"Yes, but this is testing even my ability to suspend my disbelief," said Gwen. "I mean, reincarnation? Who actually believes in that and has tried to rationalize it?"
"A whole lot of Hindus," said Mohana wryly.
Gwen gave a little gasp. "Oh, that was incredibly rude of me - and thoughtless - I'm so sorry!"
"It's alright, Gwen," Mohana reassured her. "I had trouble believing in it myself. I wouldn't exactly call myself devout."
Gwen hesitated. "What's it like?" she said finally.
"What, reincarnation?" said Mohana, quirking her lips.
"India," said Gwen simply.
Mohana thought about that for a moment. "It's hot," she began, "and crowded, urban-crowded, and dry and dusty - and also humid and green and rural, and sometimes bitterly cold. And pretty much anything else you can imagine."
Gwen laughed. "Fair enough. I guess it's hard to generalize about such a huge and diverse place."
"And I haven't even seen that much of it, mostly just the south. But there is a smell that always reminds me of India," Mohana admitted. "Well, of Chennai, I suppose, but I think of it as the smell of India. Not spices or incense or anything - but in the summer here, when you're out on the road, there's a particular mixture of heat, smoke, exhaust, and sweat - but it's not necessarily unpleasant - and that always gives me flashbacks." It was Mohana's turn to laugh, a little self-conscious. "That sounds stupid, doesn't it."
"No, it doesn't," said Gwen, soft. "I'd love to go experience it for myself."
"I'd love to take you with me," Mohana replied, looking up to meet Gwen's eyes.
And she could see something there that made her breath catch in her throat—a look of such caring and wanting that Mohana suddenly knew with an unfounded certainty that she could have anything she wanted from Gwen. Even if Gwen didn't yet know it herself. It was written all over Gwen's face, if not her mind, and Mohana could just lean forward, make her understand it too.
If only it was that simple.
"I'm really tired," said Mohana suddenly, and it was no surprise that Gwen started because Mohana sounded loud even to her own ears. She tried to mold her voice into a more acceptable tone - not nervous, not excited, certainly not the voice of someone making a gigantic mistake. Because this was the right thing to do.
"It's been a long day," she added, more calmly, and at least that took a little bit of the stricken look off of Gwen's face. "I'm sure you're exhausted too."
"Of course," said Gwen, a little hushed, but it was enough that Mohana had to dig her fingernails into her palm out of sight to keep from taking the words back, trying to recreate that moment.
Gwen stood. "G'night, Morgana," she said, eyes searching, as if trying to give Mohana one more chance to fix this.
"G'night, Gwen," Mohana replied, soft, and waited until she heard the click of the door to take her head into her hands.
Mohana woke up.
She was crying, she realized, tears running down her cheek with abandon, and there was a choking feeling that clawed at her throat. Her skin blazed with the same sensation she'd felt at Camlet, but multiplied a hundredfold, and only now did she realize that this was the feeling that Merlin had described.
It took her a few more seconds to remember the dream, and then she was gasping for breath again.
There was a hill, and upon that hill there had been fire and blood, rain and death, clashes of metal and the wild bursts of magic. And there had been anger, running through her own veins, a rage mixed with righteousness that made it all the more dangerous. While she did not remember the specifics, Mohana knew that it came as a result of betrayal - not on her end, as she might have expected, but a betrayal that made her the victim, the banished one. It made just a little bit too much sense.
But the most terrifying part had come after - when the blood melted away into the grass, and the fire was washed out, and death sank into the ground in the natural cycle, but the anger lay lost, unresolved but forgotten. It had the power to make her even more furious, that it had been written out of the story, and life had continued as if nothing had happened. In the last moments of the dream the hill had still been there - a hill piled on top of another hill, really, and she could swear it looked familiar - but it was green and alive again, a facade of peace that made Mohana want to scream.
Well, she certainly wasn't getting back to sleep any time soon.
Mohana wiped her eyes and let her breathing relax, trying not to think about the dream, just to breathe. When she had calmed down, she got out of bed and did what she normally did in her bouts of insomnia, whether nightmare-induced or not: made a cup of hot cocoa, and parked herself on the couch with a DVD in hand. She debated using her laptop to make sure she wouldn't wake anyone else up, but she'd seen this one a million times so she figured it was okay to play it on the TV as long as the volume was low.
Once settled into the couch, she started the episode and became so engrossed that she didn't even hear the sound of a door opening and someone else coming out of their bedroom, into the living room.
"'Born Under a Bad Sign', huh?"
Mohana looked up to see Merlin in the doorway. Damn it, of course it had to be the one person who actually knew Supernatural. She didn't say anything, just nodded, and turned back to the screen as Merlin came to join her on the couch.
He sat silently and watched with her through all the important emotional parts, through possessed-Sam asking Dean to kill him and knocking Dean out when he refused. But by the time they got to Sam torturing Jo, Merlin couldn't seem to sit still any longer.
"You know," he said conversationally, "my friend Will has this theory about Supernatural fans - that in any two-sibling family who watches it, the older sibling will identify more with Dean, and the younger with Sam. He and I are both only children so we've never really tested it out. With you and Arthur, though - I'm not sure it works too well."
Mohana barked out a laugh. Okay, a metaphor that blatant and astute deserved an honest answer. "Our dynamics are a little complicated by the fact that I'm adopted."
"Really?" said Merlin in surprise.
"Yeah, Uddhar and Indrani were told they couldn't have children, so they looked for another British-Tamilian baby to adopt. But then Arthur came about unexpectedly, and, well." She smiled a little bitterly as onscreen Sam fired a shot straight into Dean's shoulder.
Merlin looked confused. "So...Arthur's whole spiel about incest - what was that?"
"That was Arthur being overly sensitive because a few too many people have pointed out that we aren't biologically-related and thus could end up together," Mohana said wryly, and Merlin laughed. "Anyway, to answer your previous question, our circumstances gave Arthur more of the birth child, Good Son, Dean Winchester vibe. Without the whole responsible older brother part." She paused, then added, "And I guess I'm more like Sam than I ever realized."
"What, because you think you have a destiny that involves you turning evil?"
Mohana gave him a sharp look. "What makes you think that?"
Merlin considered her, his head slightly tilted. "Actually I was guessing, but I this confirms it—I'm right, aren't I? That's what's been making you try to distance yourself? You think that history is supposed to repeat itself, and that means that you, as the Morgana le Fey of legend, will be on the opposite side from us."
"Is that such a strange conclusion to make?" said Mohana finally, not bothering to deny any of it. At least someone else was saying it aloud—it made her feel a little less crazy for thinking all of this. Though that wasn't much consolation.
"I suppose not," said Merlin finally. "But it doesn't have to mean you're evil. Haven't you ever read Mists of Avalon?"
That almost shut her up, but - "I just don't like the idea that anything I do is out of my control. And even if I'm doing these things for the right reasons, for justified reasons, I still don't want them to happen. I don't want to hate my brother."
"Then you won't," said Merlin, as if it were really that simple. "I don't think this means we've lost our free will, Morgana. I think it's just pointing us in a certain direction."
Mohana didn't think she had it in her to be that hopeful. Naive. "Whatever," she said finally. "Don't tell anyone else about this discussion, okay? Especially my brother, or Gwen." When Merlin opened his mouth to protest, Mohana gave him a pointed look. "Merlin, please," she insisted. "This doesn't concern them right now. This is for me to figure out."
Merlin didn't say anything, but eventually he gave a reluctant nod.
"Thank you," said Mohana.
They sat in silence until the end credits came up on the television, and Mohana said, "I do have to admit, there's another thing I have in common with Sam Winchester."
Merlin looked at her sidelong. "What's that?"
"I had a dream," said Mohana, "and I know where we need to go next."
Chapter 3: Arthur
"Remind me why you're going to Edinburgh?" said Uddhar.
Arthur looked over at Morgana helplessly. On the one hand he would love to dump this entirely on her lap to explain because hey, he was kind of wondering the same thing himself. On the other hand, he was a little afraid that Morgana might try to tell the truth - if only to irritate Uddhar - and he didn't think "I had a prophetic dream that we have to go on a quest to a mountain called Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh to recover a magical object from our past lives" would go over so well with their father.
To Arthur's relief, Morgana just gave him an exasperated look before turning back to Uddhar and saying, "Just a little trip before everyone else's classes start up. We thought it would be a good way to get to know each other as flatmates. We might go to some other places as well, but we haven't decided yet."
Uddhar made a sort of harrumphing noise that, fortunately, was not an objection, which was pretty much the best they could hope to get out of him anyway.
Actually, all things considered, this had to be one of the best of their weekly dinners in a long time—Uddhar had barely nagged of them at all, and in turn Morgana had done very little to provoke him. Arthur was ready to call it a success.
"Georgina Whitby from over at Westman Financial was asking about you," Uddhar told Morgana. "Her son's around your age, she wanted to know if you were single." He took another sip of his wine. "Go on a date with him, will you? Maybe two or three, it would be good for my connection with his mother. I may need a favor from Westman in a few months."
Okay, maybe Arthur had spoken a little too soon. Uddhar tried to do this with them sometimes, use them as chess pieces in one of the hundreds of business games he played for a living, and Morgana almost always resented it. Arthur waited for the inevitable explosion.
"Sorry, Dad, I can't," said Morgana, lifting a spoon of crème brulee to her mouth.
Uddhar frowned, displeased. "Why? You aren't seeing anyone, are you?"
"No," said Morgana lightly, "but I'm not interested in dating men."
...this was not at all what Arthur had been expecting. "What?" he said, voice coming out too loud, but he couldn't bring himself to care very much. What the hell did Morgana think she was doing?
At that, Morgana's facade of nonchalance faded and she thrust out her chin, defiant. "I'm not interested in dating men, Arjun, because I'm gay. Is that so unbelievable?"
Not exactly - unbelievable was not the word Arthur would have used, considering what their father didn't know about Morgana's experimental times at uni. But he'd never thought Morgana serious about it, really. And even then, it was another thing entirely to believe it inside versus to say it to their father.
Uddhar, too, was staring in disbelief, a slop of wine staining the table cloth like a visual marker of the betrayal that had been committed here. "No, you aren't," he said finally, wiping his mouth quickly with his napkin and signaling a waiter for the cheque.
Morgana bristled even more at that, furious, but Arthur thought he could make out a glint of satisfaction in her eyes - as if she'd been raring for a fight. It made his stomach drop even more than before, because that was never, ever a good sign.
"Excuse me?" Morgana was saying dangerously. Arthur's hands gripped on his own napkin under the table.
"You aren't gay," said Uddhar as if the word had a bitter taste to it. "I understand these things can be confusing in your youth, but -"
"Fuck you," Morgana spat, and shit, this was really getting out of control.
"How dare you -" Uddhar began, voice rising, but Arthur grabbed his wrist.
"Dad, not here," he said, trying to sound firm, calm. "You both need to calm down, we're in a restaurant."
Uddhar stared at Arthur now, lips tightening in suppressed rage. It was a look Arthur had seen too many times in his life, and one that he had always feared beyond anything else, even as it goaded his sister on to further heights of disobedience. Finally, Uddhar's jaw clenched and he said, "For once, Arjun is right," which didn't sting at all, before throwing a few hundred pounds onto the cheque bill that the waiter had discreetly slipped onto their table, and standing. "To the car. Now."
The resulting fight was not their worst, perhaps, but it certainly made the top ten list in Arthur's opinion. He'd managed to wrestle the car keys from his father's hands as they waited for the valet to return their car, Uddhar and Morgana already distracted by yelling at each other, which at least meant that they hadn't gotten into an accident on the way home to boot. They had gone at each other without gloves on, accusations and name-calling on both sides, and somehow it came out that Morgana hadn't requested vacation for this little trip of theirs so much as she had quit her job, which set Uddhar off on an entirely new track. By the time they got to the townhouse, Arthur's ears were ringing from the screaming, feeling almost nauseated at the vitriol that had been behind it, on both sides.
He managed to tug Morgana away and into their flat. Arthur thought he was ready to do some shouting himself. "What the hell was that?" he said after Morgana had slammed the door behind them.
"That is called bigotry, Arthur, I thought you'd have learned big words like that by now," said Morgana, stalking up the stairs.
Arthur followed her, resisting the urge to stomp his feet in frustration. "That's not what I meant. Why the fuck did you have to go and say that?"
They'd reached the living room, and Morgana whirled around to face him, expression contorting from mere anger into something downright vicious. "Oh, so are you going to follow in dear old daddy's footsteps as usual and try to keep me in the closet as well? Why am I even surprised?"
And that, that was completely and utterly undeserved. "That's not what I meant," Arthur gritted out again. "You know I don't care who you like - and I accept whoever you are—and you know I would even back you up on anything against Dad. But don't pretend that was just you baring your soul to us just now. You were trying to provoke him, and you damn well succeeded."
"So? That doesn't keep it from being true, or keep his reaction from being despicable."
Arthur stared at his sister. "What has gotten into you?" he said, baffled not only by the events of this evening but by the underlying current of pure, dark bitterness in Morgana's voice. This went deeper than any of Morgana's usual efforts to get a rise out of their father, the fights that she normal picked. Something was very, very wrong.
He was aware somehow that all their friends had emerged from their rooms right now, tiptoeing on the edges of the invisible arena that Arthur and Morgana had somehow drawn out for themselves, but he couldn't bring himself to care if they heard. Maybe this concerned all of them, after all. "You've been acting bizarre ever since - and you quit your job? Why didn't you tell me?"
"Believe it or not, I don't have to tell you everything," Morgana snarled, and Arthur inadvertently took a step back, startled by the depth of her rage. "And I should think the reasons would be fairly obvious. They're all right here, if you look hard enough, but you wouldn't bother to do that, would you, Arthur? You just cower at Dad's feet and meekly do his bidding. You're just as bad as he is - maybe worse."
Arthur was, for once, shocked into silence, and he just watched blankly as Morgana turned and went to her own room, slamming the door again for effect. He and Morgana didn't fight like this. They picked on each other constantly, yes, but when it came down to the important things, they had an unspoken alliance. Even as children, Arthur would play peacemaker after any fight between his father and sister, taking Morgana's side in a more placating way, and usually Uddhar would come around eventually. In turn, Morgana had always been there to reassure Arthur of his own self-worth whenever Uddhar came close to shredding it. She had usually done it through sarcasm, of course, but that was what worked for them - insulting and teasing each other because they knew it wasn't real, that their bickering was a privilege allowed by their deep connection, respect, and love for each other, something that was rarely shaken.
But this was different. This wasn't the Morgana he knew.
Arthur didn't know how long he'd been standing there before Gwen was at his side, touching his arm. "What happened?" she asked, softly.
He felt the anger seep out of him, leaving only confusion and a bone-deep weariness. God, these past few days had been - fuck. "She came out over dinner," he said, voice already dull, "in a way designed to provoke him."
"Came out?" said Gwen, and Arthur was both worried and relieved by her own astonishment. "As in..."
"Said she's gay, yes," Arthur confirmed, and Gwen's eyes widened. "Oh, and she quit her job yesterday. Didn't even give notice or anything, just said she was leaving." Arthur ran a hand over his head, fingers clenching at his hair for a moment before letting go, sighing. "Something's wrong, and I have no idea what it is."
Gwen bit her lip. "I'll go and talk to her," she offered. Arthur just gave a listless nod and made his way to the kitchen.
He had gotten out a cutting board and knife, and was rummaging in the pantry by the time Merlin and Lancelot came in. Lance came over to him straight away, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder. "You alright, mate?" he said quietly.
"I'm fine," said Arthur, frowning. Damn it, they were out of onions - he'd avoided buying new produce in light of their departure the next day. Okay, he'd just have to make some kind of dish with whatever frozen vegetables they had.
Arthur stalked back to the fridge, poking around until he found a bag of haricot green beans stuffed into the back of the freezer as if he had been saving it just for this occasion. Then he took out a large frying pan and set it on the stove, pouring a bit of oil and setting it on high heat. Next was the spice drawer, where he took out little fingerfuls of black mustard seeds and cumin seeds without bothering to measure them, waiting for the oil to get hot enough that the seeds would sizzle as soon as he added them.
This was one of the first dishes his father had ever taught him to make - it wasn't anything particularly special, just a way of preparing vegetables that worked with a variety of them. But there was a little bit of technique to the beginning part, and Arthur had felt proud and more than a little thrilled when he'd first gotten it right, had added the spices at the right time and made his father smile in approval. He knew his father had never cooked at all until Arthur's mother passed away, and then took pains to learn from his own mother, becoming as skilled at it as he was with anything he put his mind to. In a way, Arthur grew to like cooking because it was a way of connecting with both of his parents - his mother's memory, and his father's journey in coping with her death.
Arthur could tell the oil was hot enough by the wavy texture it got rolling on the pan, so he tossed the seeds in, covering them immediately and taking the pan off the stove for a moment as they fried. When the mustard seeds had finished popping, he removed the cover and added a dry chili pepper and another fingerful of urad dal, a small white lentil that tasted crunchy and delicious when fried. When the lentils began to turn light brown, he put the pan back onto the hot stove and shook out the bag of frozen green beans onto the pan, leaning back as they sizzled as well in the hot oil.
From there on it was easy, sautéing the green beans with the spices until they were fully cooked, adding salt and dried unsweetened coconut flakes for flavor. Arthur knew that Lancelot and Merlin were still in the room, watching him from the kitchen table. But even with the prospect of their eyes on his back, it still calmed him somehow to mix the beans with a wooden spoon, make sure they cooked evenly and didn't stick to the bottom of the pan.
"Done," said Arthur with finality, turning the stove off and scooping the beans into a bowl, which he brought to the table and set in front of his friends before sitting down with them.
Lancelot immediately began picking at the beans with his fingers, hissing and dropping them from the heat, while Merlin looked on doubtfully. "Green beans?" said Merlin.
"Oh, I haven't made these before for you, have I?" said Arthur as Lancelot managed to find a piece that didn't burn his hands and popped it into his mouth.
"They're really good," Lance confirmed to Merlin. "Believe me, I didn't like green beans before either."
Merlin shrugged and tried a piece, and the look on his face was so gratifying that Arthur couldn't help but grin. He always appreciated people enjoying his food, of course, but there was an extra thrill when it was Merlin. Arthur liked to think it was because Merlin underestimated him and it was nice to counter those assumptions, but really, Merlin had stopped being skeptical of Arthur's character for a while now.
He didn't want to admit that it was Merlin's approval and happiness itself that he liked. It made him feel vulnerable, and just a little too excited in a way that he couldn't explain.
"So," said Lancelot as Merlin began to stuff green beans into his mouth in a way that made him look more than a little idiotic. "Morgana came out."
"Yes," said Arthur with a sigh. "And if you didn't pick up from our fight, it didn't go over so well with our dad."
"I thought you said he's not all that traditional?" said Merlin, muffled.
"You don't have to be traditional and Indian to be a homophobe," said Arthur wryly, as Lancelot nodded agreement. "Though I'm not sure he's even that. It's - there are different levels of being traditional, you know? My father considers himself liberal compared to his parents, which for him means that he'd be okay with us dating people who aren't Indian."
Merlin frowned, swallowing. "But wasn't your mum British too?"
"Still of Indian origin," said Arthur, "and even that was a huge controversy in their family. His parents wanted to go back to India and find a girl for him, an appropriate girl, and they were furious when he met my mum here and fell in love with her."
"But...why, if she was Indian too? Just because she was born here?"
"Not exactly. Her family was from a different part of India - still the south, but Kerala, which is on the opposite coast from Tamil Nadu - and, worst of all in my grandparents' eyes, she wasn't from the right caste."
Even Lancelot blinked at that; Arthur realized he had never told his best mate this particular story before either. "But...wasn't the caste system abolished in India?"
"Officially, yes," said Arthur, snorting. "But people from higher caste families still care, even if they pretend not to. My dad's family was Brahmin, the highest caste—and Tam-Brams, or Tamilian Brahmins, seem to care even more than those from other parts of the country. My mom wasn't even much lower in the hierarchy, just one caste level down, but that was too much for them." Arthur sighed. "So my father was rebelling against his family just by marrying my mother."
"And because of that he thinks he knows what it feels like," Lancelot guessed, and Arthur nodded.
"Yeah. But his understanding goes only so far, especially because he thinks he knows what it feels like, since that should obviously mean that what he doesn't understand is objectively unacceptable." Arthur sank his head into his hands. "So that's a problem. But the worst part is that Morgana said it at all."
Merlin stiffened almost imperceptibly at that, but Arthur could tell right away, lifting his head again to watch him. "So you think she should have just kept quiet?" Merlin said, trying to sound calm, even as Arthur could hear the undercurrents of like father, like son? in his voice.
"No!" said Arthur, frustrated. "That's not what I - I'm fine with Morgana being -"
He choked a little on the words, though, because there was something else bothering him - an uneasy feeling inside him whenever he thought too hard about the content of Morgana's confession. It had rattled him, made him wonder how he hadn't realized it about his sister before, how this could have come so out of nowhere for him - and, worst of all, made him wonder how Morgana could be so sure of something like this. It baffled Arthur, made him want to shy away from the idea entirely, and that repulsion in turn made him feel awful because he didn't want to be a bigot, he wasn't.
But it was even scarier to admit that there may be something else about it that had shaken him so much.
"I don't care what Morgana is or does for herself," Arthur said finally. "She's my sister, and I love her. But I do care about her motivations behind it, and believe me, this was not about her expressing her true self. This was her picking a fight." Arthur rubbed at his temples. "Something's up - something's bothering her enough to want to make both my father and me angry - and I don't know what it is."
Merlin looked a little shifty at that, his eyes refusing to meet Arthur's gaze, picking at the green beans again. Arthur frowned. Did Merlin know something that he wasn't saying? But how could he? Unless Morgana had confided in him already instead of Arthur, which was a surprisingly upsetting thought.
Gwen entered the kitchen then, joining them at the table, and Arthur was distracted by the unhappy look on her face. "She won't tell me anything," Gwen said even as Arthur's heart sank. "It's like she's barely there. She won't talk to me at all."
That settled Arthur's questions because if Morgana wasn't saying anything to either him or Gwen, there was no way she had spilled her guts to Merlin, whom she barely knew in comparison. But it didn't help at all.
They all sat at the table glumly for a few more minutes, the remainder of the green beans growing cold and untouched. Finally Lancelot shook his head a little and got up, saying gently, "Come on, we should all get some rest. We have an early start in the morning."
The train to Edinburgh left King's Cross at 6:04 in the morning, which meant that Gwen and Lancelot fell asleep pretty much as soon as they began to move.
Arthur looked across the small table at Merlin; they were both at the window seats with their friends dozing next to them. Morgana had fucked off to who knew where, still refusing to speak to Arthur and barely saying a word to anyone else. Arthur wanted to be mad but all he could find the energy to be was worried, and even then not enough go looking for her—not when she was likely to lash out at him again, and that might incite him to anger all over again.
Too tired to be mad, but not tired enough to fall back into sleep; so Arthur looked over at Merlin with a small smile and offered Merlin his iPhone to take a picture of sleeping Gwen.
"Isn't she just too precious," Merlin said softly, returning the phone.
"Cuter than this one, at any rate," Arthur agreed, indicating to a lightly snoring Lancelot.
"You should hear my mate Will, he can not only fall asleep anywhere but can out-snore the best of him at the same time," said Merlin with a laugh.
They spent some time in companionable silence, glancing out the window. Arthur loved mornings—he was at his best early in the day, both in terms of work and cooking, but his love of the dawn had originally stemmed from the pleasure of seeing the sun rise. It was lifting just above the horizon by now, and Arthur couldn't help but feel a spark of happiness at the sight.
When he looked away from the window again he found Merlin watching him, considering. "What?" said Arthur, feeling self-conscious.
"Can I ask you a question?" said Merlin. Arthur nodded, a little wary, and Merlin continued, "Why'd you change your name?"
Arthur blinked. "What?" he said again.
"Arjun," said Merlin. "It's not that hard to pronounce or anything. Why'd you want to change it?"
"You wouldn't understand," said Arthur, his tone dismissive.
"Oh please, I'm sure whichever name you went with, I got teased more for mine than you ever did."
"That's not what it's about." Merlin watched him patiently, and Arthur sighed. "Look, I didn't grow up in Hounslow or Harrow or anywhere with hundreds of aunties up and down the street and the Indian grocer on the corner. I was raised in Kensington, with just Morgana and my dad. I never really felt like my culture was part of me - not in India, and not around other British-Indians."
"You sound rather bitter about it," Merlin pointed out.
Arthur glared. "Yes, fine, so maybe I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder, alright? Does that make you happy?"
"No," said Merlin softly, but Arthur went on as if he hadn't heard Merlin at all.
"It didn't help that my dad was doing practically the same thing, trying to fit the mold of the perfect English businessman, and he wanted me to be the same way. He let Morgana do what she wanted, but I was supposed to follow in his footsteps to the letter. So yes, I took at English nickname to try and fit in. I didn't know it was going to end up saddling me with an absurd destiny."
He looked out the window again, jaw clenching. "Fair enough," Merlin said, still quiet. "Thank you for telling me."
Arthur cleared his throat. "So. Do you know how we're actually getting to this Arthur's Seat place once we reach Edinburgh?"
"I have directions," Merlin offered, digging through his satchel for a sheaf of print-outs. "There were some really useful websites. Thank god for the Internet, huh?"
"Definitely," said Arthur, trying to sound more enthusiastic, and, he was sure, failing completely. He hoped they reached Edinburgh quickly. The sooner this was over, the better.
"So what is Arthur's Seat?" Lancelot asked as they set off from Holyrood Park Road. "Is there actually anything seat-like on top?"
Gwen laughed. "No, the seat is the mountain itself - well, the volcano, I guess, though it's supposedly extinct. And it was a prehistoric hill fort, so people have speculated that it was the site of Camelot. There are many places from where the name could have come, though - possibly a bastardization of 'Archer's Seat' since it was high enough to have a military advantage."
"You're sure this is the place that you dreamed about?" Arthur asked his sister.
"Yes, Arthur, I know what I saw," Morgana snapped. "Why do you have to question everything when you're barely contributing to this mission, and it's all supposed to be about you anyway?"
"Fine," said Arthur, stung. "Sorry I asked."
"There is a reference to King Arthur in an old Welsh poem called Y Gododdin that suggests there was a fort named after Arthur somewhere in Scotland," said Gwen hurriedly, attempting to play peacemaker as usual.
"Oh, I remember reading about Y Gododdin in school," said Lancelot, "but I didn't know it had any Arthurian references."
"Apparently it's very minor, though I am going off of Wikipedia here. Maybe we should look into the original texts."
As the others continued to discuss the stories, Arthur walked a little faster, trying to pull ahead. He didn't want to listen to this, not again, and he didn't particularly want to deal with Morgana's surliness either. Let the cheerful ones keep on chattering together while his sister lurked behind, and he went on in front like the leader was supposed to do.
Though that part wasn't wrong, exactly. Arthur had always been the ringleader in any group of friends he had growing up—the confident one, the one with the initiative, the one willing to take the fall for any trouble to come along. None of that was the problem—the traditional reluctant leader crisis of confidence—no, Arthur knew he could lead his friends in any kind of quest or fight if he needed to.
The question was what they were fighting for.
He'd meant what he'd said to Merlin about not being part of the Indian community in London. It was more alienating than actually being in India, where at least he had a reason to feel like an outsider, an excuse to fall back on when he did something wrong: he was English. But with the diaspora desi crowd, he had nothing to explain why he wasn't Indian enough.
And maybe that would've been okay, if he could have successfully become English enough instead. But that wasn't how it worked when you had skin this color and a name that was difficult to pronounce, no matter how hard he tried to cover it. Not that he was ashamed, exactly. Was it too much to ask that people didn't make assumptions about him before they really knew him, didn't have expectations that he would speak Hindi, know all the Bollywood songs, root for India in cricket?
The other thing was—Arthur had always been proud of the fact that his family hadn't been traditional, that they'd embraced the future. Staying tied to the Indian community had seemed not only backwards but insular, as if people of Indian origin could only identify with other Indians, couldn't break out of their shells enough to be live in this multicultural society. Arthur had thought it made him open-minded, to not care about his friends' backgrounds, ethnic or otherwise.
Of course, it was hard to call it "not caring" when he had, for all intents and purposes, made an effort not to hang out with other Indians.
Now here they were, being told that the past was all that mattered, that the past was supposed to define him, goad him on. Only it wasn't the past he'd grown up with. Maybe at one time he'd thought it was the kind of past he wanted—okay, not the medieval part—but of someone who fit in completely in their society, so much so that everyone else aspired to be exactly like him.
Now, he wasn't so sure.
"Arthur. Are you alright?"
Merlin, damn him, had apparently refused to stay behind, catching up to Arthur instead. Wonderful.
"I'm fine," said Arthur shortly, then immediately felt bad as a look of hurt crossed over Merlin's face. Fuck. He'd been trying to be less of a jerk after that discussion with Merlin - though he couldn't tell Merlin that his reasons right now for acting this way were entirely different and not personal. That would involve admitting the converse about his original reactions to meeting Merlin, and Arthur didn't think he was quite ready to explain that even to himself.
"I'm sorry," he said before Merlin could reply. "That was - I didn't mean to sound like that. I'm just trying to think something through, and I'm having some trouble with it."
"Well, if you want to be alone..." said Merlin, though fortunately he no longer looked offended, just hesitant.
"No," Arthur found himself saying, "no, it's alright." And, strangely, he realized that it was true.
They hiked in companionable silence for a while, scrambling across the Salisbury Crags until they reached the beginning of a steep path up the seat itself. "Let's wait for the others," Arthur suggested, and they sat down on the slightly damp, boggy grass.
"So," said Merlin, "mind if I ask what's bugging you?"
Arthur fidgeted with a shoelace. "It's, um. Kind of hard to explain."
"Try me," Merlin insisted, then turned a little pink. "I mean, if you want to. No pressure."
Arthur had to laugh at that, because Merlin trying to be delicate and understanding was sort of adorable. Merlin flushed even more but gave him a reluctant grin in return, and the sight of that was enough to make Arthur's heart give a bit of a lurch.
He cleared his throat. "I, er, have some questions about this whole thing, I guess."
"Don't we all," said Merlin, voice wry.
"Well, yes, but." Arthur peered at him, squinting from the glare that was now back-lighting Merlin, silhouetting him as a dark shape against the sun. "Tell me, Merlin, why do you think we were reincarnated now?"
Merlin blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Why now? Arthur's—I'm supposed to come back in a time of great need and peril for Britain, or Albion, or whatever, right? Why now?"
"Maybe this is as bad as things had to get for you to be summoned back?" Merlin said, biting his lip a little, and shit, shit, the word 'adorable' just kept popping up in Arthur's mind no matter how hard he tried to stop it. "Maybe now magic is the only possible solution for any of our current catastrophes, like climate change, or AIDS? Though that is a terrifying idea."
"But why Britain specifically?" Arthur persisted. "Why are we supposed to lead the charge?"
Merlin frowned at him. "I feel like you're trying to make some kind of point that I'm really not getting."
Fair enough. "I have a theory," Arthur said. "Think about it - I don't know about anyone else's families, but my father is at least a part of the reincarnation thing. So that means something was going on around the time of my father's birth that necessitated our eventual return."
"Was he born during the war?"
Arthur shook his head. "He was born in 1947. The year India and Pakistan became independent from Britain."
"Okay, so?" said Merlin, still clearly baffled.
"It was the break-up of the British Empire," said Arthur, "or at least it heralded the break-up. The Cold War, losing colonial territory - all of that put us in the backseat to the Americans, right?"
"But - you can't determine something like that," Merlin argued. "There were tons of different events and factors that you could call turning points for the decline of the British Empire - if there has been a decline, either in Britain or in imperialism, rather than just the development of a different form -"
"I know," Arthur interrupted him. "You're right - there are so many different ways you can measure power and prosperity, we can't be certain of any one. But from the way the Dragon talked, I'm pretty sure he meant power in a military sense of some sort, not in a quality-of-life sense. And regardless, you can't deny that what we're doing is not about saving the world, it's about saving - and elevating - Albion. How am I supposed to accept that when I come from a culture that was oppressed by Britain for so long?"
Merlin's mouth was actually hanging open a little in surprise, and Arthur had an irrational urge to trace Merlin's lower lip with his thumb.
"I thought your issue was that you don't identify very much with being Indian," Merlin said finally.
"Yeah, well, this has made me rethink some things," said Arthur. He shook his head, dropping his voice a little louder as the others approached, finally catching up to them. "Look, I'm not saying that I'm bowing out. I'm just trying to reconcile the idea of who I grew up as - even if I thought I didn't want to be that person - with the person I'm apparently destined to be."
Merlin looked troubled at this, but Lancelot was nearing them, preventing him from replying. "This the final path up to the Seat?" asked Lancelot.
"Looks like it," said Arthur, standing and holding out a hand to pull Merlin up. The combination of the warmth of Merlin's hand and the piercing look Merlin was giving him made a shiver go up Arthur's spine, and he dropped his hand quickly as Gwen and Morgana joined them.
"Well, what are we waiting for?" said Morgana tartly. Arthur resisted the urge to glare at her. Mostly.
The final switch-backs up to the seat were steep and spare, but the views of Edinburgh were undoubtedly gorgeous. Glancing out, Arthur could almost imagine what it might feel like to be a warlord of some sort, watching enemy forces get nearer and nearer as he readied for battle from their hilltop advantage. It sent a different sort of thrill through him - excited and frightened all at once, and more than a little unwanted.
The very top of the Seat was made entirely of rock, rainwater pooling into the crevices between the porous landing. "We're not getting water here too, are we?" Lancelot asked.
"No, we're looking for something solid this time," said Merlin.
"Maybe we should try over by the monument," Gwen suggested, and they made their way over to the small white statue resting on the highest point of the rock.
Arthur knew even before they saw it that there was going to be something atop the monument, something they would not have seen from afar, possibly something that no one else could see. It was a weird feeling, this certainty that came from nowhere he could trace. He wondered if this was what magic felt like for Merlin, a power that felt familiar and exotically new all at once.
"Is that - ?" Morgana said in a hushed voice as the small, wooden goblet appeared on top, as if it had always been there and they just hadn't been looking properly.
"The Holy Grail?" said Gwen in a puzzled, but equally soft tone. "But that's a Christian story. I assumed it was just a way the Albion magic had melded into Britain's society..."
"It's not the Holy Grail," said Merlin, reaching out to touch the cup, stroke his hand over the rough wood. Then he handed the cup to Arthur. Their fingers brushed. "Though it was probably what inspired that legend. It's called the Cup of Life."
No one asked him how he knew; they all stared at the cup in Arthur's hand in equally fascinated astonishment because somehow, even after talking dragons and prophetic dreams, even after their first quest, the appearance of an actual mystical object made this somehow more real than anything had before.
"I'm starving," Arthur said when they returned to their hostel, "and I could use a pint." The others nodded in agreement.
"I've heard of a few good places," Merlin offered. "I, er, may have looked into it before we came."
"Lead the way," said Arthur grandly, waving Merlin forward.
The pub was called The Reverie and sported chandeliers, leather seats, and live folk music - not normally Arthur's type of thing, but he was appeased when he saw they had a local IPA on tap.
"Mmm," said Arthur appreciatively. "Morgana, you have to try this."
"I know nothing about real ale," Merlin admitted, watching Morgana take a sip. "What does IPA stand for?"
Morgana gave what sounded like a mock-gasp of horror, though Arthur suspected it was most genuine. "Blasphemy!"
"These two are obsessed with real ale," Lancelot informed Merlin. "As soon as they were old enough, their father signed them up for this association -"
"It's called the Campaign for Real Ale, or CAMRA," said Arthur loftily.
"- and they go to various ale festivals and meetings and act very supercilious about the whole thing," Lancelot finished, and Arthur shot him a glare.
"Right," said Merlin, sounding amused. "So, what is IPA?"
"India Pale Ale," said Morgana. "It's not from India, it's what they used to ship to India because it was hoppy enough that it would survive the journey."
Arthur braced himself for Merlin to make some comment about colonialism and drinking the brew of the oppressors, but instead Merlin's brow furrowed in confusion, and he said, "Hoppy?"
This time Arthur and Morgana gave twin gasps that were not even a little sarcastic.
The evening progressed in a lively fashion. Arthur ordered another pint for himself since Morgana had sneakily stolen his first one, and then another as they began to order their food. Then came the hilarious spectacle that was their friends sampling an appetizer of haggis.
Gwen closed her eyes, scrunching up her face in apprehension as she put a piece in her mouth. "Mfh," she said, then, thoughtfully, "huh. It's...actually pretty good?"
"You're right," said Merlin, sounding just as surprised. "This is delicious."
"Sure you don't want to have a bite?" Lancelot offered Arthur, who shuddered.
"I wouldn't touch that with a ten-foot pole, even if I did eat non-veg," Morgana confirmed.
"But you both are missing out on an important cultural experience!"
"I can think of a far better way to take advantage of Scotland," said Arthur, and signalled for the bartender. "What do you have in the way of whiskey?"
As The Reverie turned out to have 81 different types of single malt and he felt it incumbent on him to try as many as humanly possible, by the time they left the pub, Arthur was quite pleasantly drunk.
He wasn't really paying much attention to the conversation as they hailed a taxi and managed to squeeze inside, thinking instead about how maybe this whole destiny thing wasn't so bad, not if it made him and his friends into this fantastic team of heroes who went on spectacular quests. He spent most of the ride contemplating a fitting name for their band - damn Enid Blyton for stealing "the Famous Five" - and it wasn't until Merlin had tugged him out of the backseat and they were making their way to the back of a line on the sidewalk that Arthur realized they were going clubbing.
The others were a bit ahead of them in the line, since apparently Arthur had taken a long time getting out of the taxi, so it was just him and Merlin. If you didn't count all the other people jostling them.
"You alright?" Merlin said.
"I like dancing," Arthur informed him, then whipped his head around to make sure no one they knew had overheard. Once he'd confirmed that they were still safe, he brought a finger to his lips."But it's a secret, shhhh."
Merlin was wearing this really big grin, the kind of smile that really should have looked stupid because it made his face look wider, which emphasized how much his ears stuck out. It should have looked stupid - but somehow it didn't, because of the way it also made Merlin's eyes shine. "Why does it have to be secret?"
"Because!" said Arthur, annoyed that Merlin couldn't see how obvious it was. "It does! This is very serious, Merlin." And because Merlin didn't look as if he were taking it very seriously, Arthur decided he should clamp his hand over Merlin's mouth, to keep the secret in.
Merlin's eyes became rather large, which did look funny, making Arthur burst into giggles. Then he remembered the importance of the situation and sobered - well, not literally. "Promise?" he said to Merlin, making his voice as stern as possible.
"I promise," Merlin murmured, his lips tickling Arthur's palm in a way that was kind of pleasant. Arthur might have kept his hand there, just to feel when Merlin spoke again, but somehow they were the next in line and the bouncer was beckoning them impatiently. He took his hand back reluctantly and reached for his wallet instead.
Inside, the decor was shiny and curlicued, more than a little glammed up, and the lights seemed to be magenta-tinted. "Why is everything pink?" Arthur asked over the sound of the music which was, he suspected, largely disco.
He could swear Merlin blushed at the question, but maybe that was just the light. "Um. Because we're in the Pink Quarter? It's a gay bar?"
"Oh!" said Arthur, relieved. He hadn't been imagining the pinkness then.
"Is that alright?" Merlin asked, sounding doubtful.
Arthur gave him an exasperated look. "I've been to gay clubs before, Mer-lin. Sometimes they're more fun than the not gay bars. Especially when they play ABBA." He sighed dreamily. "I love ABBA too."
“What?“ said Merlin in disbelief.
"It's a cultural thing," said Arthur, defensive. "All Indians like ABBA."
Merlin cracked up at that, and it was Arthur's turn to drag him by the hand onto the dance floor to find their friends.
A couple hours later, he was dragging Merlin back off the dance floor, to sit at the ridiculously stylish bar. He didn't know how the others still had energy to dance, especially after he and Morgana had belted out the words to "Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)" at the top of their voices when it came on, but he suspected something sinister. Then again, it had been an exhausting day.
Arthur thought that certainly deserved another drink or two. He wasn't risking cocktails anymore and this place had shite beer, so: "Tequila!"
Merlin eyed him, wary, which made Arthur feel a little insulted. "Haven't you had enough to drink?"
"Not since we've gotten here," Arthur pointed out. "Come on, I'm buying."
Merlin laughed, evidently giving in, and Arthur couldn't help gazing at him rather fondly. He looked good like this, even in the pink lighting, flushed and happy from the dancing. And Arthur didn't really know what it was about Merlin that made him want to do something crazy - that Merlin always made him feel that way - but as the bartender set their shots outs, he figured this was as good a time as any.
He watched Merlin lick the side of his hand, something decidedly more than fondness stirring in his stomach, and before Merlin could do anything more Arthur had grabbed his hand.
"W-what are you doing?" Merlin said as Arthur sprinkled the salt.
"What does it look like?" Arthur retorted, and licked the salt back off Merlin's hand, took his shot, and reached for the wedge of lime to bite into it, the sharp, acidic taste cooling the burn in his throat.
Merlin was staring at him. Arthur realized that there was still a little salt in that juncture between Merlin's thumb and fingers, and it seemed a shame to let it go to waste, so he leaned forward and licked it again.
"Oh god," Merlin said, sounding strangled, "you really can't do this to me."
"Why not?" Arthur asked, thinking it was a reasonable question.
And that made Arthur take another good look at Merlin, at the way he had closed his eyes as if in pain, at the color rising in his cheeks that clearly was not just the lighting, and something shocky and hot blazed through Arthur, realization and want all at once.
Merlin liked him.
And Arthur...Arthur liked Merlin back.
"I'm not a homophobe!" he blurted in equal parts epiphany and relief.
Merlin opened his eyes, glaring. "That's very nice, Arthur, but right now you're just being a tease."
Arthur grinned at him, the familiar look of exasperation making him feel even more confident. He let Merlin have his hand back and raised his eyebrows. "Take your shot, Merlin."
Merlin kept glaring as he sprinkled more salt, drank his shot and slammed it down, and put the wedge of lime to his lips. He had barely removed it when Arthur leaned forward and kissed Merlin.
He made a surprised noise that made Arthur feel even more thrilled, almost giddy. Arthur could taste the mix of tequila and lime in Merlin's mouth, licking his way into it, and he was fully intending to explore further when Merlin grabbed his shoulders and pushed him back.
Arthur opened his mouth to say something indignant about that, but Merlin looked simultaneously angry and utterly miserable, which was really not the reaction Arthur had been hoping for. "What?" he said, his stomach dropping out at the thought that maybe he had been wrong, might have misread Merlin completely.
"You're - you're drunk," Merlin said plaintively, "and if you think it makes you less of a homophobe to impose your drunken experimentation on a queer guy, you are way out of line - actually that probably makes you more of a homophobe, since you're just assuming that I'd be willing to indulge you -"
"Merlin," Arthur whispered, feeling completely horrible.
" - and it's even worse because I do want to, god, you don't even know how much, and it's so fucking unfair that - mfh!"
Arthur kissed him slower this time, placing a hand on Merlin's neck to steady himself, and then pulled back, looking Merlin in the eye. "I do know," he murmured, stroking across Merlin's jaw with his thumb. "I really, really do. Because it's the same for me."
He could feel Merlin's breath speed up, the panicked look melting away from his face. "Arthur," he said faintly, and there went Arthur's stomach again, twisting with desire -
Except it wasn't all desire, he realized, and leaned away from Merlin. His head was spinning too much for it to be all the kiss, and he could barely catch his balance on his own barstool.
"Arthur?" Merlin said again, worried.
"...I'm sorry," Arthur managed preemptively, and had time to think that this was so bloody stereotypical, like in some awful romantic comedy, before he retched all over the floor.
Gwen shook him awake the next morning. Arthur cracked an eye open and winced at the sunlight hitting him. His head felt heavy and stuffed, his stomach still queasy, mouth dry as dust. Fuck, it had been a long time since he'd been this hungover.
He had only vague memories of getting home the night before—leaning on Merlin and Lancelot alternately, feeling disgusting and helpless, someone helping him wash himself up and get into the hostel bed. His cheeks burned with the memory of the embarrassment of vomiting in a bar.
And a little bit at what had come just before.
"Sorry," Gwen said apologetically. "But Morgana just had her dream. We're leaving for Cardiff."
"What, right now?" Arthur rasped.
"We thought it was best to let you sleep as long as possible," Gwen explained. "We went ahead and made all the plans—arranged to stay with Lancelot's family there, booked our train. It leaves in an hour."
Arthur groaned half-heartedly. "Well then, I guess I'd better get up."
By the time they boarded the train he was feeling slightly more alive, after a shower and three cups of tea. The only problem was that it also meant he had to actively think about last night. He'd apologized profusely to his friends for acting like a wild, reckless fresher again, and thanked them for helping him home, but he'd mostly avoided Merlin's eyes while doing it.
It wasn't that he regretted it, exactly. It was all just a bit...overwhelming.
No one commented when Arthur went off to sit at a window seat by himself, at the other end of the carriage from his friends. There were barely any other passengers anyway.
Arthur spent some more time looking rather angstily out the window. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Gwen and Merlin whispering to each other at the opposite side of the carriage. It difficult to keep his eyes off of Merlin as long as Merlin wasn't looking at him—just seeing him made Arthur's heart swell and speed up simultaneously, and it was a little alarming. And oh god, now Merlin had stood up, looking determined, and was actually coming down the aisle towards him. Arthur turned his gaze away quickly, until Merlin was close enough that it was ridiculous to pretend anything else.
"Hi," said Merlin, sounding uncertain.
Arthur gave him a week smile and met his eyes finally. "Hi." He gestured to the seat next to him. "Want to sit?"
"Thanks," Merlin said, joining him. "Um. Are you okay?"
Part of Arthur wanted to keep his distance still, to keep all of this at bay until he was fully ready to deal with it. But that was the problem with Merlin—he pushed at Arthur, even when he didn't mean to, and somehow it made Arthur want to do things that weren't comfortable, venture into that risky territory of laying his heart bare.
"It's just - it's a lot to process," he said. "Finding out I'm a reincarnation of an ancient king of the Britons, but also the Indian kid I grew up as. Being told that I'm supposed to help you reintroduce magic into a world that has no idea it's coming." He stopped, swallowing, willing himself forward. "Realizing I'm gay."
He could almost feel the sharp stare Merlin was giving him, though Arthur refused to turn and meet his eyes. "You didn't know before?" said Merlin quietly.
"No. Not until -"
The truth was, he'd never felt this way about anyone before in his life. He'd been attracted to people - or at least he'd thought so, though even that paled in comparison to the way a smile from Merlin stopped his breath and made his stomach twist into knots - and he'd gone for women because he was supposed to, dating girls that he enjoyed spending time with.
He'd sometimes wondered if he was missing something. Arthur remembered going on a couple dates with Gwen when she and Morgana had first become friends, and Gwen had stopped him after the second to say that she liked him very much but there was no spark. And he hadn't known how to explain that this was a metaphor he'd only ever heard of from books and movies, not anything he'd really felt himself, or been able to distinguish from plain old liking.
But this, Merlin, who made him belligerent and stand-offish in one moment and then had him spilling his heart out at the next, who had him feeling fluttery at the most absurd things - this was entirely and intoxicatingly new.
Arthur dropped his head into his hands, huffing out a laugh. "Fuck. I'm sorry if I've been an ass."
"If?" said Merlin archly, and Arthur raised his head to glare at him, but then Merlin was cupping Arthur's face in his hands kissing him, leisurely, almost an echo of last night except even more carefully, as if it were something he'd been thinking about for ages. The thought itself made Arthur shiver and reach out to curl his own hands around Merlin's neck, needing to ground himself by holding onto something, Merlin, before he lost his head entirely.
Merlin broke away from him after a moment, an uneasy look on his face. "Merlin?" said Arthur carefully, trying not to worry right away.
"There's something else I have to talk to you about," said Merlin. He must have noticed something in Arthur's expression because he said quickly, "Not about this, god. This is fine. This is more than fine, this is amazing." He leaned in to kiss Arthur again, chaste but familiar, and Arthur didn't want to admit how comforting that was.
"Alright," said Arthur, when Merlin leaned back again, a goofy sort of smile on his face. "What is it, then?"
The smile faded back into that same air of concern. "Um," said Merlin, hesitating one last time before forging on. "It's about your sister."
Chapter 4: Lancelot
"I have one condition for this Cardiff trip," Morgana announced.
Lancelot was pretty sure he knew what was coming. "What?" he said warily.
"We are going to the Who exhibit!"
Arthur gave a half-hearted groan, and Lancelot felt like doing the same thing. Not that he had anything in particular against Doctor Who - and admittedly it had been quite a thrill to see his hometown featured in a hit TV programme - but the novelty had worn off after, oh, the third visit to the exhibit or so.
Still. Even Lancelot could tell that this was the happiest Morgana had looked since this whole debacle began. She and Merlin were high-fiving and wearing matching grins as Merlin added, "And the Ianto memorial, I hear it's amazing."
"Alright," said Lancelot with a sigh. "But let's go leave our things at my house first."
It was exciting to bring his friends home for the first time - not only home, but to his city, the place he'd grown up. There were only so many things that could be explained and reminisced about aloud; it was another thing to see that slice of life. With Arthur and Morgana, at least, Lancelot had gotten a hint of that. It was wonderful to have it be the other way around.
"Okay, why are there signs everywhere advertising 'BRAINS' in all capital letters?" Arthur asked as they walked down the street from the bus stop. "Is Cardiff secretly a zombie city?"
"It's the name of a local ale," said Lancelot with a laugh, "and the best one, too."
"So that sign saying 'BRAINS BEER' isn't for a pub where zombies and humans could sit down together for a peaceful meal?" said Merlin, sounding disappointed.
"Now I'm imagining an episode of Torchwood where there are zombies around Cardiff saying 'BRAAAAINS' and everyone just keeps handing them pints," said Morgana.
"Wouldn't they have to be alien zombies to be on Torchwood?"
"Alright everyone, we're here," said Lancelot, feeling some relief at having reached his house. He dug around in the potted plant for the spare key before opening the door and calling out, "Anyone home?"
He wasn't expecting an answer - usually his parents didn't get home from work until 6:00 or so - but to his surprise there was a breathless call of, "Lance! Is that you?"
Mama came out from the workout room a minute later, beaming and holding her arms out. "Mijo!"
"Mi vieja," Lancelot answered with a grin, so happy to see her that he didn't even mind her still being sweaty from the treadmill.
"I apologize for not being more presentable," she said once Lancelot had introduced his friends. "Come in, I'll make a pot of tea."
His parents had met Arthur and Morgana before, but only briefly, so there were a lot of questions for Lancelot's mother to ask his friends—all the usual inquiries about their studies, their families, what they'd seen so far on this trip. Lancelot spaced out a little, happy just to be sitting here in his warm kitchen, in the house he'd grown up in. It was comforting, especially right now when around every corner they seemed to encounter something new in this adventure, and most disconcertingly, new things about themselves. Lance wanted to take a break from thinking about what his past life might have been like, and the only place he could truly do it was here, where everything around him was peppered with associations from a life he remembered living.
By the time he tuned back into the conversation, the roles had reversed and his friends were asking his mother about her lives. "How did you and Lance's father decide to come to Wales?" Gwen was saying curiously.
"We both grew up in a town called Puerto Madryn in northern Patagonia, which was originally founded by a group of Welsh settlers in the early nineteenth century," Mama began.
"There were Welsh settlers in Argentina?" said Arthur. "I had no idea."
"Neither do most people," Mama laughed. "And of course when that part of Patagonia was later integrated into Argentina, it became Spanish-controlled, but there is still some Welsh culture there. For example, Lance's father's name is Eduardo, but his last name is Brown from his Welsh ancestors. Anyway, it's a lovely place, but we grew up in a turbulent time - the Dirty War started in 1976, which was our first year in university in Buenos Aires."
Lancelot tilted his head and watched his mother curiously. Both she and his father rarely mentioned the Proceso, the military junta that had so effectively terrorized the state for years. Lance didn't think they'd lost anyone close to them the dictatorship, but he knew they'd had acquaintances at the university who had been "disappeared".
And even for themselves, Lancelot couldn't imagine what it would be like to live in such a place and time. To be so terrified and silenced by a hidden power, one that had been legitimized only through violence. From everything Lancelot knew about that time, the term "Dirty War" was disingenuous, since very few people acknowledged what was truly going on. He didn't know how it was possible to go on pretending that everything was alright, to hold that fear back so tightly, because to do anything else was dangerous.
Mama was continuing, "Students especially were targeted back then, so we looked for other places to go, and since we both spoke some Welsh from having a childhood interest in it, we were accepted with scholarships to the University of Cardiff." She smiled. "Good timing, really - another few years and the UK might not have taken any Argentines, on account of the Malvinas."
"Their name for the Falkland Islands," Lancelot translated.
"Che, not to an Argentine!" Mama mock-scolded. "Still our territory, you know."
"Oh no, Ma, my loyalties are split, whatever shall I do?" Lancelot deadpanned, and his mother cuffed his head as he grinned.
"Just wait until your father comes home, we'll see what he has to say about that," said Mama in a stern voice, then gave him such a lovely smile that Lancelot just had to hug her again.
"Hey, I think we'll go down to the Bay," he told her as they took the cups back into the kitchen. "They want to see the Doctor Who exhibit."
Mama gave him a knowing look. "This will be how many times you've gone?"
"Oh, I've lost count. But they're my friends", said Lancelot with a shrug, and his mother smiled gave him a warm smile.
At the exhibition Merlin and Morgana were of course in raptures over everything - the TARDIS, the various incarnations of Daleks and Cybermen over the years, the costumes worn by the main actors - and even Gwen was posing for pictures with Donna's clothes and K9. Lance hung back with Arthur, who no longer seemed derisive so much as mildly amused.
"I have to talk to you about something," Arthur said suddenly, and Lancelot looked up in surprise.
"O...kay?" he said, drawing out the word in slight confusion. Best mates though they were, they'd never been particularly good at the talking thing. Morgana was the person Arthur ranted to whenever he was upset; Lancelot was the one who took him out to the pub afterwards.
Whatever they had was based on camaraderie and simple understanding, not drawn out discussions. And Lancelot had never thought any less of their friendship for it. But now, when Morgana was out of reach and Arthur seemed to have a million different things piled onto his shoulders to bear, Lancelot didn't know quite how to help.
Arthur smirked a little as if he knew exactly what Lancelot was thinking. "Yeah, I know," Arthur said, confirming Lancelot's thoughts, and they smiled at each other in a conspiratorial, how have our lives come to this? kind of way that made Lancelot feel a little better. "But I've been talking to Merlin and...well, he told me something about Morgana."
Lancelot listened patiently as Arthur explained that Morgana apparently thought of herself as the villain of the story, fated to turn against them. It certainly explained a lot about her behavior. Arthur continued, "And...well, we kind of thought you might be the best to watch out for her."
"Me?" said Lancelot, blinking. "Why?"
"She clearly doesn't want to talk to me, and after one discussion they had she seems to be ignoring Merlin as well," Arthur said. "You're, well, more neutral. Less of a threat."
Maybe, but they seemed to be forgetting a much more obvious answer. "Er, what about Gwen? You know, her best friend?"
Arthur turned his gaze over to where Merlin, Morgana, and Gwen were having fun with a recording device that would make their voices come out like Daleks. Lancelot followed his gaze. Gwen and Merlin were giggling together as they went from saying "exterminate" to "obliterate" to "who do we appreciate?" And Morgana was still looking happy, but there was a shadow over her face, and Lance noticed with surprise that she seemed to be keeping a solid distance between herself and Gwen, leaning carefully around Gwen to take her turn.
"That's the other thing Merlin said, and the other thing I wanted to talk to you about," said Arthur quietly. "She's not trusting Gwen either. Merlin has a theory about that."
"He thinks she's in love with Gwen," Arthur said, words coming out a little rushed and jumbled, and oh. Oh.
"Oh," said Lancelot, staring back at the girls. "Well."
"Does Merlin think that Gwen feels the same way?"
"He's not sure," Arthur said cautiously, "but it's a distinct possibility." He was watching Lancelot now, clearly trying to hide his concern. "You used to fancy her, didn't you?"
"Gwen?" said Lancelot. "Well. Yes. But that was a while ago."
Arthur nodded. "'kay, but if you need to talk about it, I, er..." He trailed off. "You know."
"Yeah," said Lancelot, shifting uncomfortably. This was why they didn't do the talking thing so much; all things told, they were pretty rubbish at it.
Arthur gave him a friendly clap on the shoulder and a reassuring smile, then turned to follow the others. "Wait," Lancelot said, grabbing his arm to tug him back for a moment. "What about you?"
Because he too was concerned about Morgana, and he liked Merlin well enough, and goodness knows he didn't want anything to worry Gwen - but it was Arthur who was his best friend, Arthur who had been there for him in those same, subtle ways, through the death of Lance's dog, through his grandmother's stroke, through stressful exams, and family fights, and other heartaches and heartbreaks. Despite their inability to articulate it to each other, Lancelot needed Arthur to know that he...well. Cared.
"I...I'm fine," Arthur said. "For now."
"And Merlin?" Lancelot persisted. "I mean, you and Merlin?"
Arthur went very still for a moment, only his eyes flickering nervously. When it came out, his voice sounded stilted. "What about me and Merlin?"
"You're, uh. Good?" said Lancelot awkwardly. "I just wanted to, er, make sure."
Arthur gave him a small, hesitant smile. "Yeah," he said, voice calmer, lower. "We're good."
"...good," repeated Lancelot, relieved, and returned the hearty shoulder clap.
Clearly the other friends Lancelot had accompanied to the exhibit hadn't been nearly as fanatic because for Merlin and Morgana, the Who-centric tour didn't seem to be over after they left. From the Red Lion Centre they crossed the street over to the Roald Dahl Plass in front of the Wales Millenium Center, where they took pictures of each other in front of the fountain and "tried" to look for the invisible Torchwood elevator. Then to the waterfront, where Merlin and Morgana claimed the Ianto memorial was supposed to be.
"I think it's around here somewhere," said Merlin as they descended a small flight of stairs to a lower deck by the water. "This spot looks familiar - I think this is where the usual door into Torchwood is supposed to be? But I don't see a door, just the wall with some fliers - whoa." He stopped short, staring over at the the wall.
Lancelot went, closer, frowning, and it took him a moment to realize that the pieces of paper covering the entire wall weren't fliers but a mix of drawings, photos, poems, letters, crafts, flowers, and even coffee cups. He saw plain piece of paper, laminated to protect from the rain, that read:
This was - Lancelot had assumed that a "memorial" to commemorate a dead character would be so much simpler, maybe just a picture and a few flowers strewn around. He hadn't expected so many declarations of love and affection, so many heartfelt confessions from people who had never seen a queer character on screen before, who had seen Ianto as a role model and inspiration, no matter how fictional he might be.
They went through and read almost every piece, laughing at some of the jokes and comics, smiling at other letters and poems. Morgana touched one, a letter from a 16 year old girl who talked about how Ianto had inspired her to come out to her parents, and drew her hand back to her mouth, tears running down her cheeks.
"Are you okay, Morgana?" said Lancelot, tentative.
She wiped the back of her hand across her face. "Yes, I - I'm fine."
"I didn't know you were so attached to Ianto," said Gwen softly. "I thought you didn't even like Torchwood after the first series." She was watching Morgana, and Lancelot thought suddenly that Merlin and Arthur were right about the two girls, maybe more than they even knew. It was written all over Gwen's face: not just concern or worry about Morgana, but the kind of sadness that comes from feeling someone else's pain in your own body.
It made Lancelot sort of wistful himself. Not over Gwen; not exactly. He'd meant it when he told Arthur that he no longer fancied Gwen - it had just been a little crush, back when they'd first met. His feelings might have grown into something stronger if not for the fact that she and Arthur had gone on a few dates, and even though it was never serious, she still seemed somehow off-limits for Lancelot. And then after finishing uni they'd all decided to be flatmates, and that had just made things too complicated.
Although looking at the situation now, maybe that was what made him feel a little bitter - the fact that the others were all pairing up around him. It seemed like a small thing in the face of their major problems, and Lancelot knew that for Arthur and Merlin, at least, it may even be a comfort to have this at the same time. Who knew what was going to happen with Morgana and Gwen, but whatever it was, Lancelot knew he wasn't going to be a part of it.
"You're right," Morgana was saying to Gwen, still sniffing. "But that's what makes me feel so upset about this - I was sad when Ianto died but I wasn't heartbroken, and here are all the testimonies from the people who were. People were really hurt by this, more than I had imagined."
"That's one way of looking at it," said Merlin, voice quiet. "But this makes me incredibly happy - to know that there are people who care so much, and that they could connect over it here, create and display that caring for all the world to see. I think it's amazing."
"It is," Morgana agreed. "It's wonderful. It really is." She touched the letter again, fingers rubbing over the words. "But it still makes me sad."
"Lance?" said Gwen softly. "Are you alright?"
They'd separated out again during the walk back to his house - Morgana off in front, striding ahead like he was on a mission, and Merlin and Arthur trailing behind, deep in conversation. Lancelot had fallen in-step with Gwen, still deep in thought.
"Yes," he said, then thought about it. "Well, mostly."
He looked back at Gwen and was surprised to see that she was giving him a rather rueful smile. "Poor Lance," she murmured. "None of us have asked how you feel about this whole situation, have we?"
"It's alright," Lancelot said, feeling embarrassed.
"Not really," said Gwen, shaking her head. "So tell me now. What are your feelings about our epic destiny?" She was smiling, but also looking at him expectantly.
Lancelot tried to gather his thoughts. He was certainly reluctant to take part in this, but he thought that was mostly his own personal feelings, the same exclusion he'd felt when realizing that his friends were pairing up.
Because even with this issue of magic, that was the crux of the situation, wasn't it? Lancelot had never particularly felt like an outsider before. He and Arthur were very close, of course, and he'd been friends with Morgana and Gwen even before they'd all moved in together. Merlin was newer, of course, but Lancelot had felt an immediate kinship with him. This whole destiny thing only seemed to reinforce and justify that connection at first, except Lancelot didn't know how he fit into that. He didn't think the stories about him were going to apply particularly - for one thing, the famed Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle didn't even seem relevant, despite his former feelings for Gwen. Lancelot didn't think that was particularly how this reincarnation thing worked, anyway.
But that left him without a clear role in this adventure - not magical, not the Once and Future King.
Gwen was the only other person who might understand that.
"I suppose I feel a little wary of the idea of magic," he said, trying to voice his thoughts. "There is so much we still don't understand about it - even Morgana and Merlin, and they're the ones actually experiencing it."
"I know what you mean," Gwen agreed. "Sometimes it frightens me a little." She shrugged a little, giving him another crooked smile. "But then I think of all the good it could do."
That made Lancelot feel ashamed of himself for a moment, self-centered and narrow-minded. Just because he didn't have magic didn't make it bad.
Except - was it really self-centered to feel what the rest of the world would likely be feeling when magic returned?
Suddenly Lancelot thought of his mother's face earlier that day, talking so carefully about the unimaginable horrors of la dictadura, and Lance's own musings on such all-consuming power. He hadn't made the connection at the time, but there was a reason those thoughts had made it to the forefront of his mind.
"It's just - how are we saving the world by doing this?" Lancelot blurted out. "Is magic going to help us deal with poverty, or world hunger, or climate change? Is Arthur going to be able to use Excalibur to defeat the global economic crisis?"
"Maybe?" said Gwen, though she did look doubtful. "I suppose we don't know exactly what it can do - Merlin's only felt hints of it. But think of the potential there - shouldn't we explore that?"
"I think that's what physicists said when they were looking into fission," said Lancelot, "and all the great ones regretted it later." He sighed. "Look, I think in the old days of Camelot - the things Morgana has dreamed about - magic wasn't just a thing, it was part of an identity too. Some people were born with it, and if they were persecuted for that, it was unjust. But that's not true anymore. Or if it is, it's going to be giving a whole lot of unregulated power to a select group of people, which will probably create a whole new hegemony and way to oppress people, and." Lancelot shrugged helplessly. "It would change everything, Gwen."
Gwen looked at him askance. "Isn't change a good thing?"
"Only if it's change that is accessible to everyone," said Lancelot quietly.
Gwen frowned, clearly turning over the ideas in her mind, but they had arrived back at Lance's house by then. He could tell from the car parked outside that his father was home, and pushed away all thoughts to go greet him as well.
That night, after they'd all bedded down on the floor of the guest room, Lancelot lay awake thinking. Thinking, and half-waiting: the sob came within an hour or two of the others falling asleep.
He sat up, barely able to make out the shape of Morgana sitting up in her own sleeping bag, her chest rising and falling with sharp intakes of breath. Well, then. It seemed this was his chance.
Lance struggled to his feet and picked his way around the sleeping forms of his friends. Morgana hadn't looked up at the sound of his movements, but neither did she flinch in surprise when Lancelot rested a hand on her shoulder.
"Come into the kitchen, I'll make you a cuppa," he whispered, then turned and went before she could argue.
Morgana emerged from the room a few minutes later, just as the kettle had reached a boil. Her eyes were red but dry now, and she padded over in the fluffy house shoes Mama had lent her, watching silently as Lancelot stirred sugar and milk into the two cups of tea. He handed her one and she gave a mumbled "Thanks" before he led her to sit with him at the dining room table.
"So," he said, fixing her with his gaze. "What aren't you telling us about these dreams of yours?"
Lancelot regretted the phrasing almost as soon as the words had left his mouth because it put Morgana immediately on the defensive, like a wolf raising its haunches and baring its teeth. "I don't have to tell you everything," she said, and Lancelot could almost imagine it being a snarl.
"That's not what I meant," said Lancelot, trying to sound gentler. "I meant - you don't owe us anything, Morgana. You have the right to keep all of it to yourself if you want to. I know it's been a huge burden to be the messenger of these dreams for us - we can all see what a toll it's taking on you." He paused. "But we're your friends too, and I think it might help you to tell us about it."
Morgana drooped a little, staring down at where her hands were wrapped around her mug. "It's not that simple," she said finally.
"Sometimes things that sound complicated in your head are a lot simpler when you say them out loud."
Morgana sighed, meeting his eyes. "I appreciate the advice, Lance, condescending as it may sound, but I know that's not your intention. However, this is something I can - and need - to handle on my own."
"Why?" Lancelot found himself persisting. "I never understood that about heroes. Why does anything have to be their cross to bear alone? Heroes of all people need help, and they usually suffer when they reject it."
"I'm not talking about being a hero, here."
"Well, maybe there isn't much of a difference," Lancelot said, forging ahead, even though he suspected this would be dangerous territory. "Sometimes villains are just heroes on the wrong side of history."
Morgana stared at him, her gaze almost accusatory. But she didn't say anything about it, didn't ask if anyone had talked to him her thoughts. Lance got the impression that she barely cared. "Then I don't want to be either of them," Morgana said with a tone of finality. She dropped her gaze back down to her cup, sipping and it and saying in an almost stiff, formal voice, "Thank you for the tea."
This was - Lancelot didn't know what to say to her now. He'd met Morgana for the first time a couple years before, after he and Arthur had become friends at UCL and later roommates, but before this summer he'd always known her as "Arthur's sister". And this was certainly a side of her he'd never seen before, this distanced, cool defiance. Morgana had never been the soft and cuddly type, but she'd always seemed more alive than this - more engaged, more invested. Not as if she were pushing people away just for the sake of it.
"Alright," he said quietly, letting it go for now. "I assume you know where we're going to find the next object?"
Morgana smiled a little at that. "And our next destination after that. It seems the prophecies have gotten more efficient. Merlin and Gwen will be thrilled - it's Dublin."
"Come on. We should get some more sleep. It'll take your mind off of all this, being better-rested."
"Well," said Morgana, sounding unconvinced, "I'll try."
Lancelot hadn't been inside Cardiff Castle since he was a boy, grammar school expeditions to learn about local history that had bored him even at that time because his parents told the stories better. Still, he'd always liked the fact that it was in the center of the city, the remnants of ancient Roman walls surrounded by the modernity of 21st century Cardiff. It was a constant reminder that history was not so very far away, that it was worth something to look back, if only to contrast it with the present.
They bought their tickets and entered through the gates set into the outer wall, leading into the open green in the center of the fort. It was a Saturday in the busiest part of the year, so there were dozens of other tourists roaming the grass and up on the ramparts, but Lancelot hoped it wouldn't impede their searching at all. To the left was the new church-like area; in front of them on the other end of the lawn was the Norman keep, the oldest entire part of the castle. Gwen, however, had eyes only for a large structure to their right.
"A trebuchet!" she said, delighted.
"Um, Gwen, I don't think that's an original," said Merlin.
Gwen looked embarrassed and annoyed at the same time. "I know, but it's still a nice replica. Think of how far you could hit enemy walls with that - maybe set them on fire - it's incredible, isn't it?"
"Okay, wow," said Arthur, "I had no idea Gwen was so bloodthirsty. I'm a little frightened now."
"You should have seen her when we were five," said Merlin darkly. "I wanted to play make-believe games where we both went on adventures together, but Gwen just wanted to whack me around with a wooden sword."
"Yes, I'm sorry Merlin, I know it's had a permanent effect," Gwen sighed, then grinned at Merlin when he punched her arm in retaliation.
"Alright, first off we should go into the visitor centre for the introductory film," Arthur read off his pamphlet.
Morgana frowned. "That sounds an awful lot like sightseeing to me. We're here for business."
"Says the person who spent most of yesterday cooing over model Daleks. Come on, Mor-ga-na," Arthur wheedled.
She gave a sudden, sharp grin. "Oh yes, I did forget about your love of audioguides, how can I deprive you of that?"
Audioguides? Lancelot mouthed at Merlin and Gwen, who shrugged back at him.
It turned out that Arthur was not only a complete nerd about historical sites, but he was the kind who needed to know every last detail about them and, as a result, was all but gleeful to accept the small audioguide that was offered for free.
"I feel like I'm seeing a whole new side of you," said Merlin, smirking.
"It is occasionally useful - he can pick out the important bits for us so that we don't have to listen to it," said Morgana. "Otherwise, pretty dorky."
"Actually, it's kind of hot," said Merlin, sounding thoughtful. Arthur looked at him quickly, and Lancelot had the feeling that if his face could have shown a blush, Arthur would have been bright red - but not displeased. Lancelot and Gwen exchanged secret smiles as Morgana rolled her eyes.
At Arthur's insistence they started down the inside of the exterior walls, Arthur listening intently to the commentary. He would throw out random interesting facts for the group, about its transformation from a set of Roman forts to a Norman castle, then eventually a Victorian mansion, but Lancelot lagged behind a little, having heard most of it before.
It was different, being here, compared to Camlet Moat and Arthur's Seat. Lance knew that those places had more solid connections to the "real" Camelot, even if it existed in another realm entirely. But it was so much easier to imagine here - the dark stone halls, the narrow spiral staircases, the arrow slots set into the walls, the circular towers, the ramparts. By the time they had made it around to the keep side of the complex, Lancelot was imagining the five of them in ages past, knights and ladies of old, kings and queens, sorcerers and warriors.
It was easier to imagine that he'd thought.
"Lance!" He looked up at the sound of Gwen's voice, shaking him from his reverie. She was giving him a quizzical look. "We're going up to the keep now, yeah?"
"Right," said Lancelot, following them out to the green once more.
"You're sure you don't need more water, right?" Gwen asked as they crossed the small moat and ascended up the slippery steps.
"No, that was a one-time thing," said Merlin absently. "That's all I know at the moment."
There was another small green inside the keep itself, and they fanned out to search the area. As usual, Lancelot felt a little useless, not knowing what to look for, not having any kind of connection to these objects, be they magical or former possessions of King Arthur. He was pretty sure the old sword of Lancelot had nothing to do with their mission, no matter how important a role the original Lancelot may have played.
"I haven't found anything out of the ordinary," Merlin called after they'd been looking around - while simultaneously trying not to look suspicious to their fellow tourists - for fifteen minutes.
"Me neither," Arthur confirmed as Gwen and Lancelot nodded their agreement.
Morgana wasn't listening to them, frowning up at the top of keep. The walls of the Norman keep were crumbling at the edges, but there was another high tower lookout accessible by newly-built wooden stairs lining the inner walls, filled with dozens of French school kids traversing up and down. "I think we should try up there," she said, and there was an odd quality to her voice, something wary and certain all at once.
They followed her up to the top; there was a great view of the rest of the city from here, the stadium and high-rises filling out the space past the castle and before the bay.
"Hey, listen to this," Arthur said a minute later. "So the keep has remained pretty intact from when it was built after the Norman invasion, but the rest of the place was remodeled extensively, right? They've been mentioning the lords and marquesses and such that ordered the renovations, but for the first time they've dropped the name of the main landscape architect who redid the grounds."
"And?" said Merlin as Lancelot's heart sank.
"And," said Arthur as if savoring it, "his name was Lancelot Brown! Apparently he was a really famous English gardener, so famous and respected that he was known as Capability Brown." Arthur grinned at Lancelot. "Isn't that a weird coincidence?"
"Yes," Lancelot echoed, voice hollow, "very weird."
"Hold on," said Merlin. "Doesn't your middle name start with C?"
"Um," said Lancelot, floundering a little. "Well. Yes. My parents did have a thing about Lancelot Brown, so. Um."
There was a pause before Arthur said, incredulous, "Are you saying your full name is Lancelot Capability Brown?"
Lancelot sighed. "My father is an architect and my mother is a professor of Welsh history. Coupled with the fact that our name was already Brown, and the Arthurian legend was Welsh, they thought it was perfect."
Gwen was giggling, and even Morgana looked amused, if distracted. Arthur glared at him. "We've been friends for how many years and you never told me this?"
"It's not exactly something I like to publicize!" Lancelot exclaimed, though he was smiling himself. He wasn't terribly embarrassed by it, but it did lend itself to certain jokes that he preferred to avoid.
"My, Lancelot, I never knew you were so...capable," Gwen tittered, and yep, there it was. Lancelot gave another put-upon sigh even as the others burst into laughter.
All the others except Morgana, who was looking around and hushing them. Lancelot followed her lead and realized that for the first time, they were alone on the top of the tower, though who knew how long it would last.
When he looked back, Morgana was already moving towards a section of the wall, pressing her hand to the second stone from the top. "Did you dream about this too?" Gwen said curiously as they came to join her.
"No," said Morgana, brow furrowed, "I just...know somehow."
"Like I did," Merlin said, nodding. "You must be growing into your magic too."
"Here, Merlin, I need your help," said Morgana, only half-listening, and Merlin laid his own hand on top of hers, pressing down into the wall.
Lancelot could hear the sound of new footsteps tromping up the stairs. "Whatever you're doing, you need to do it fast," he warned.
"I don't know what we're doing," Merlin said in a plaintive tone, but Morgana shushed him again and closed her eyes.
Lancelot stared as a bright yellow glow seeped out from beneath their joined fingers; he could hear Gwen gasp beside him as the light grew brighter. Merlin shivered and closed his eyes as well, and Morgana said something under her breath - a word that sounded nothing like any language Lancelot had heard before - and then suddenly both were opening their eyes with a sharp breath, their irises glowing as twin pairs of fire, and Lancelot couldn't help but draw back in shock.
Just as suddenly the fire faded, and then Merlin and Morgana were slumping forward. The others ran to help them, Gwen and Arthur catching Merlin as he fell, and Lancelot lifting Morgana to her feet, supporting her weight just as another batch of tourists made their way noisily onto the look-out platform.
"What happened?" Lancelot whispered urgently. Morgana didn't say anything, just rested her head on Lancelot's shoulder and tipped her hand into his. Lancelot looked down; she was holding a piece of amber, wrapped in a sharp metal claw, that Lancelot knew hadn't been there before Morgana and Merlin had pressed their hands to the wall.
"What the hell," Lancelot muttered under his breath as they made their way quickly down the stairs, out of the keep, and finally out the main gates into the city part of Cardiff again, as if trying to outrun the remains of the past that they'd found. This was getting stranger and stranger.
Lancelot knew something was wrong as soon as they got home; both of his parents looked worried, and stood up from the kitchen table when they came in.
"What is it?" he asked them.
"We just heard on the radio," said his father. "There's rioting in London."
Chapter 5: Gwen
Gwen had never been able to sleep on boats.
Alright, perhaps calling their enormous ferry a "boat" was not quite accurate. But despite the almost luxurious lounges and, more importantly, the early hour, it remained that there were only ordinary seats to kip out on. It felt a bit like trying to sleep on an airplane - not just the lack of beds, but the sterile, supposedly unobtrusive lighting, the dark sky outside, the strange, weighty silence of all their sleeping fellow passengers.
They shouldn't have had to take the overnight trip at all, but their original ferry from Holyhead was cancelled. At that point it seemed silly to keep up their reservation for a hostel in Dublin, since they planned on finding their next object and then going straight to Kilkenny to stay with Gwen's family and Merlin's mother, so they decided on the ferry equivalent of the red-eye. They'd spent many hours sitting around in a pub - and then, once practically everything in the tiny Welsh town had closed up for the night, a few more hours at the ferry terminal. They hadn't departed until 2:00 am.
Which left Gwen here, awake while everyone else, including her friends, napped on any available flat space. At least she could move around on the ferry, unlike an plane, though when she had tried to go out onto the open deck an attendant had stopped her. Apparently the romance of watching the sun come up outside didn't supercede Irish Ferries' liability fears. She was sitting at the window, looking at the sea through the glass instead, waiting for that glimmer of light to announce the dawn.
"Didn't think I'd be back so soon," said a voice behind her, and Gwen turned to see Merlin.
She smiled at him as he sat down next to her. "Yeah. Couldn't sleep?"
Merlin shrugged. "I could, but I woke up and saw you weren't there, so I thought I'd come find you."
"You should sleep, you don't have to worry about me."
"But I do worry about you. And you worry about me. At least it's mutual?" Merlin gave her a shameless grin.
"Berk," Gwen retorted, rolling her eyes.
Merlin just smiled back. After a minute, he said, "These riots in London. Are you worried?"
"Well, of course," said Gwen, puzzled.
"But more than the normal way?" Merlin persisted.
"You're going to have to explain," Gwen told him - Merlin had this tendency to talk around subjects he was unsure of, and, in classic passive-aggressive fashion, would try to make others bring it up themselves by asking questions. Gwen had known him long enough to see right through it.
Merlin sighed. "I don't know, it just makes me feel that what we're doing is more...urgent, somehow. Like it just got closer to home."
"I understand what you mean but we're working as hard as we can, Merlin."
"Yes, yes, I know. I just thought I'd put it out there."
Gwen looked at him shrewdly. "Merlin," she said in a warning tone.
"What?" Merlin replied, trying to act innocent.
"If you really believed that we're doing all we can to get magic back, then you wouldn't have 'put it out there'. Which means you know something about other people having doubts. Have you been talking to Lancelot?"
"Lancelot?" said Merlin, surprised. "Er, no. It's mostly Arthur, really, and - well, I know everyone has concerns about what we're doing. Do you?"
Gwen knew it was essentially the same question she had posed to Lancelot, but suddenly it seemed more complex, weightier. "I don't know," she said though it was untrue: she did have concerns, she had always had concerns, but she didn't yet know how to articulate them, even to herself. Which wasn't going to be good enough for Merlin.
She rubbed her brow, feeling the exhaustion seep in behind her eyes. "Can we discuss this later?" she said. "I couldn't sleep but I'm still very tired."
"Yeah, sure," Merlin said, sounding dissatisfied. "Well. Has Morgana told you where in Dublin we're going?"
Trinity College had a beautiful campus. For the longest time it had been Gwen's dream to attend, until she decided to try getting out of Ireland for uni. Still, there was something romantic about the place, the alma mater of Stoker, Beckett, Wilde, and so many more literary and cultural heroes of their country. Gwen knew UCL and Bloomsbury itself had their own history, but they didn't feel quite hers yet; though she had never lived or gone to school in Dublin, Trinity somehow did.
As they neared the library building, a horrifying thought struck Gwen. "Merlin," she hissed, pulling his arm. "We're not going to have to steal the Book of Kells, are we?"
Merlin's eyes grew round and astonished. "I don't know," he said. "Morgana just said a library and an old book - I assumed she meant in the Long Room. I mean, there are thousands of old books there. Right?"
"Morgana, was it a very large book? With huge, elaborate lettering?" Gwen asked urgently.
"Not that I can remember," Morgana frowned. "What is this Book of Kells anyway?"
"It's an old manuscript with various Christian Gospels," said Gwen, "and it's gorgeously-colored and decorated. I think it's about from the ninth century?"
"I don't think it would be something that prominent," Morgana mused. "More likely it's a book that no one's really ever noticed before."
"I hope you're right," said Gwen grimly. "Because even if we could use both of your magic to steal the Book of Kells, I'm not sure I'd want to."
Fortunately, by the time they had bought their tickets and made it into the exhibition, Merlin was shaking his head. "No, it's not here," he murmured to Gwen as the others pored over the scanned and enlarged images from the book, and then finally the actual pages of the centuries-old scripture, carefully restored and preserved in softly-lit glass cases. Gwen and Merlin had seen it before, of course, but it still gave Gwen a shiver of excitement to know that this had been lovingly created by monks so long ago - that they had tempered the vellum, prepared the inks, and painstakingly written out the Latin words, not knowing that their work would survive for all this time. At least, not the manuscript itself. Perhaps they would not have been surprised that the stories survived, as they always did, though the generations - survived and repeated and evolved, blended and adapted and smoothed out to fit the age.
It was still fascinating to Gwen, though - it always had been. She didn't know if that fascination was borne out of a childhood of reading, or if she had been drawn to literature, particularly fantasy, from that same impulse. She thought they would have prepared her more for this, though. Her friends saw her as the expert because she knew the ways that these tales went, yes - but one thing she had never anticipated was how different it would feel to actually be in a story. And maybe that too should have been obvious - characters had told her before, Sam in Lord of the Rings saying "the great stories never end" - but it was different. It was overwhelmingly different.
They made their way through the exhibit and finally into the Long Room, the aptly named library that stretched down a lovely, wood-paneled hall. There were all sorts of important documents and books on display here as well, from political pamphlets to Joyce's scribblings. The real attraction was, however, the enormous shelves that lined the entire chamber, stuffed top to bottom with what seemed like all old tomes in the world.
The attraction, yes, and also the part that was most strictly off limits for tourists. After Gwen's initial fears about the Book of Kells, this had been her next concern: even if Merlin and Morgana's magic-senses allowed them to find the book, how on earth were they going to sneak it out of here?
Gwen didn't feel the same excitement about it that she'd had when they broke into UCL. Really, that seemed like ages ago, a more naive time in her life, without any of the desperate urgency that their quests had taken on. Maybe it was the news from back in London, or maybe the tasks were wearing down on all of them, bit by bit. Whatever it was, Gwen just wanted to find this book and go home as soon as possible.
She'd wandered off a little from her friends, peering up at the stacks, when Arthur came up beside her. "Trouble at mill," he murmured.
"Merlin says he can't feel anything, Morgana says it must be here. I thought I'd stay out of it."
"Probably wise," Gwen smiled. She looked sidelong at Arthur and decided this was as good a time as any for the talk she'd been planning. "So. Merlin."
"Merlin," Arthur agreed easily, which was certainly encouraging.
"If you hurt him," Gwen said evenly, "I will actually have to hurt you in return. Maybe not physically, but in some possible way that you won't see coming. I've done it before."
Arthur's eyes had widened comically. "Can you be more specific?"
"Remember that bloke that cheated on Morgana in our third year?"
"You mean the only person who has ever dared to do anything behind Morgana's back? Yes, I remember him."
"Do you remember whatever happened to him?"
The look of awe on Arthur's face was rather gratifying, even when mixed with a measure of petulance. "What about the possibility of Merlin hurting me?" he said, sounding injured. "Am I the only one getting the fear of Gwen put into him?"
Gwen patted his arm, consoling. "Oh, that's Morgana's job."
"It's unlikely she cares about about that right now."
"She will," Gwen promised, hoping that it was true. "When things - well." Get back to normal, she had intended to say. But who knew what that meant anymore.
"Hey," said Arthur suddenly, more cheerful. "Speaking of my sister, and in the spirit of fairness, does that mean I get to threaten you?"
He said it in the same jocular tone they'd both been using, but the words made Gwen run cold. She looked down and took a rather shuddering breath, unable to think of anything to reply to that. "I -"
"Gwen, Arthur," Lancelot's voice said softly from behind them. "We need to go."
"Did they find it?" said Gwen, surprised.
Lancelot coughed. "Er, no. They were asked to leave for arguing too loudly. So we may have to come back in a few hours."
Merlin and Morgana were still fighting, albeit more quietly, as they filed out of the library and into the gift shop at the end of the tour. "I know it's there," Morgana was saying.
Merlin shook his head, adamant. "it may be close, but not in that room."
"I can feel it's presence growing stronger and stronger," Morgana insisted.
Gwen rolled her eyes and turned her attention to the books offered at the shop in the history of Trinity and especially the book of Kells. She was always tempted by these kind of displays, despite knowing how overpriced they were - they were just so pretty. Like this one that was styled to look old and crumbly, filled with Latin inscriptions in the first half, though there must have been some kind of translation in the back. Still, the attempt at authenticity was rather dazzling.
"Wait, you mean you feel it more now?" she heard Arthur say, rather distantly, but Gwen was distracted by trying to read some of the words in the gift book. Hold on, this wasn't Latin...
"Guys?" she said aloud, interrupting their conversation. "I think I found something."
Merlin was engrossed in the book for their entire bus ride to Kilkenny. The writing was unintelligible to Gwen, and presumably to Lancelot and Arthur as well, but Merlin could read it as if it were English. Morgana had refused to touch it so far, which made Gwen feel simultaneously less and more worried about her.
She sent Ely a text when they were close, so her sister was at least awake when they arrived at the house. Gwen had no idea how she ever managed to make it to class when she was at uni, but at home on break she was rarely up before 3.
"Did you really have to come back so soon?" her sister complained when she answered the door.
"Shut up," said Gwen, hugging her. "Anyway, I brought your favorite person."
"Merlin's not my favorite person anymore," said Ely, raising her eyebrows. "Not since he forgot my birthday this year."
"I'm sorry!" Merlin cried. "I've apologized for that about a hundred times!"
"Not enough," Ely said tartly, but deigned to hug him as well, and then Arthur and Morgana whom she'd met before when visiting Gwen during undergrad. That left only Lancelot, who stood looking uncharacteristically awkward. "You must be Lance," Ely said, looking as if she were about to go in for a hug with him as well, but settling for an extended hand instead.
"Yes," said Lancelot, flushing a little. Gwen looked at him with interest as they shook hands. "It's so good to meet you."
"So why are you actually here?" Ely said as they brought their things inside.
"Road trip, like I said," Gwen told her. "And now it seems like a bad time to return to London - have you heard about the riots?"
"Yes," said Ely, turning sober. "They seem to be spreading to different neighborhoods. It's crazy."
"When will Dad be home?"
"Around 6-ish, I should think. He and Hunith have planned a joint dinner of sorts. Nothing too special, just a nice way to welcome your friends."
"Speaking of my mother," said Merlin, tone dry, "I'd better go and see her before she accuses me of favoring your house over mine. Would you all like to come and meet her?"
The others agreed, but Gwen shook her head. "I think I'd like to rest for a bit - didn't really sleep last night. Give Hunith my apologies, and I'll see her tonight."
It wasn't exactly a lie: Gwen was tired, but she wanted the space and time more to think than to sleep. She took her things upstairs and spent a few minutes making her bed, just taking in the space. strange, being in her old room; it took her back to a place where she didn't really want to be anymore.
Gwen couldn't say that she'd had an unhappy childhood, or even a lonely one - she'd always had friends, long-time family friends like Merlin even after her mother died, school chums throughout her youth, and of course Ely. But there had always been a sense that she was waiting for something, shrouding herself with books and stories to prepare for what was really supposed to be her life.
She thought she'd grown out of that hope, when she came to London for uni and got a taste of independence - it convinced her that she had to make her life by actively trying to. That realization was a sign of maturity, she'd thought.
Then why had she felt a spark of satisfaction when she'd been told she had a destiny?
It was grown-up in its own way, rough-edged and serious. Especially considering her part in this whole thing. Not that Gwen thought of herself as particularly interesting or noteworthy, but when she'd dreamed of becoming part of legend, it had been only natural to see herself as the hero. She didn't begrudge Arthur the role, but being so far off to the side wasn't very fulfilling. There were all sorts of ways in which people could or couldn't distinguish themselves, of course, but being left on the outskirts of this one made Gwen seem particularly ordinary.
She didn't feel ordinary.
Gwen knew too that Lancelot had a point about magic and how that separation would play out for the rest of the world. She'd been so busy thinking of all the good that magic could do - and, admittedly, dismissing her own feelings on magic as self-centered and jealous.
She sat on her bed, gazing at her bookshelf, filled now only with her childhood books - mostly fantasy and mythology. It was so strange to think of her past being written in those mythologies, in The Once and Future King and T.A. Barron's Lost Years of Merlin books, in the work of Sir Thomas Malory and Marion Zimmer Bradley, even in a roundabout way in the works of her favorite author, Diana Wynne Jones.
But perhaps even stranger were all the mythologies that weren't represented - her copies of The Iliad and The Odyssey were glaring out at her as if in accusation, not to mention the Mahabharata, her set of Japanese folktales, The One Thousand and One Nights, and of course the ones closest to her identity: stories of Ireland and tales of Jamaica, of the Tuatha Dé Danann and Anansi the trickster, and so, so many more. It seemed ridiculous and almost unfair that out of all these amazing origins and legends, only one should be true.
Gwen frowned to herself at the thought. Maybe that was her essential problem as well. This was a wonderful story to be part of, but ultimately, it didn't feel like her story.
Was that just jealousy at not being the center of attention? Or was it possible that other stories could also be true?
"Gwen!" she heard her father's voice calling from down below, and she put the thoughts away for the time being.
Dinner was a quiet affair, mostly for Hunith and Dad to get to know their friends. Afterwards, Merlin insisted that since it was their first time in Ireland, they had to experience a night out in Kilkenny pubs.
"The only thing special about pubs here is Kilkenny beer," Gwen pointed out.
"Exactly," said Merlin. "Are you coming?"
Ely was looking tempted - she'd spent most of the meal talking to Lancelot and clearly didn't want to stop - but she seemed to read something in Gwen's face that made her shake her head. "Nah, we need some sisterly bonding time," she told Merlin.
"Suit yourselves. Hey you Englishers - and Welshman - prepare yourself for a night of wonders!"
"With nitrogenated beer? Unlikely," Arthur scoffed, and Merlin hit him as they went out the front door, Morgana and Lancelot following obediently.
Ely turned back to Gwen. "Tea and Monty Python?"
"Please," said Gwen earnestly.
They curled up on the couch with Dad until he decided it was past his bedtime, then continued with all of their favorite episodes. It was their classic family method of comfort, since Mum had been the one to introduce them all to Flying Circus at what was probably too young an age for her children. It always reminded Gwen of her, but in a way that made her laugh, made her think of those happy moments Mum'd had in her last few days instead of the bad ones.
It was almost 1 by the time they let the screen go dark. They sat tucked together in silence for a few moments, Ely's head on Gwen's shoulder.
"Soooo, about Lancelot," said Ely.
Gwen rolled her eyes but smiled anyway. "Yes, he's single."
"Oh, that's pretty obvious, the way he keeps looking wistfully at Merlin and Arthur, or at you and Morgana together." Before Gwen could say anything about that, Ely continued, "No, I was going to ask if he was straight."
Gwen snorted. "What, you don't have gaydar but you have single-dar?" That didn't sound quite right. Singledom-dar?
"He's reading straight to me, but I know all your guy friends are gay."
"That's not true!" said Gwen indignantly, straightening. Ely gave a little start and sat up herself, half-turned into the couch to look at Gwen. "Merlin's not gay, he's pan," Gwen continued.
"Okay, you don't have any straight male friends," Ely amended. "And exes don't count."
"What about Fred?"
"Who used to be Freya; just because he likes girls doesn't necessarily make him straight, you know that!"
"He could identify that way if he wanted to."
"But he doesn't."
"He's our cousin!"
"You didn't rule out relatives," said Gwen, pointing a finger at her sister.
"Look, it's not a bad thing," said Ely. "Why are you so upset about the idea?"
"I guess...I like to think of myself as someone who can get along with anyone," Gwen admitted.
Ely gave her a fond but exasperated look. "And you are. You're disgustingly nice to everyone, you always have been. I'm just saying that the people you're really close to tend to be - how can I put this - adamantly not heteronormative. Which you have to admit is less likely for straight guys. After all, it's easier to understand something you feel as well."
Gwen looked at her sister sideways. "Why do I get the feeling that this whole line of questioning was more about me than about Lancelot?"
"Well, it wasn't when I started off," said Ely. "But you didn't really think I was going to let that go, did you?" She looked at Gwen with a small smile on her face. "So what is going on with you and Morgana?"
Gwen sighed, giving up and running a hand through her hair. "I have no idea."
"Okay, maybe we should start off with an easier question. How do you feel about Morgana?"
"That's not much easier." Ely gave her a pointed look. "It's just - I never even thought about it, you know." Another skeptical glare. "Not the girls part of it. I've been attracted to girls before, just not enough to do anything about it. But I'd never thought that way about Morgana. Maybe it's stupid, but our friendship was so amazing, I didn't need anything more. And, well, neither of us was dating anyone else seriously that whole time."
"And then?" Ely prompted.
"First she came out to her father," said Gwen with a rueful smile. "But I think what really clinched it was her drawing away. She's—" Gwen hesitated, half-considering telling her sister about this whole situation, but she wasn't sure she wanted to get Ely unnecessarily involved. "She's been going through some rough times and her reaction to them is to distance herself and push all of us away, even me and her brother."
"Well, you shouldn't let her," Ely said as if it were that easy.
"I've been trying," said Gwen. "It's harder than you make it sound. But nevertheless, not having her around—having her say barely two words to me sometimes—it made me miss her like crazy, even when she was right there. And at those few times when she was in a good mood, it made me ecstatic." Gwen sighed. "It's scary, finding out your emotions can be tied so closely to someone else's."
Ely was silent for a moment. Finally, she said, "Maybe that's what makes it worth it."
There was a noise at the front door, and Gwen sighed, the quiet peace of their conversation disturbed. Merlin was grinning when she opened the door to find a somewhat droopy Lancelot and Arthur, being held up mostly by Morgana. "They liked our beer far more than expected," Merlin explained.
"It's toooooooo flat," Arthur informed her. "But it tastes so good!"
Gwen laughed and helped them inside. Between the four sober people, they managed to get Lancelot and Arthur into the their sleeping bags in the small side-room on the ground floor. Dad was still somewhat old-fashioned in splitting up sleeping arrangements ostensibly by gender but actually by sexual orientation, though granted he knew too little about her friends to properly enforce the rule. Maybe even about Gwen herself.
Either way, it was just Gwen and Morgana in her room that night. The thought of sharing a bed made something flutter in Gwen's stomach, which was silly because they'd done it a hundred times before.
It wasn't until they had turned out the lights that Gwen realized it was the first time she'd been alone with Morgana since they'd left London. She listened to the quiet rhythm of Morgana's breathing for a few moments, Morgana's back to her, and Gwen felt her heart stutter uncertainly in her chest. There were so many things she wanted to ask Morgana, and they were all crowding inside her: why won't you tell me what's wrong and don't you trust me and have you ever thought about how good we could be?
But she knew she couldn't ask those things; and even if she could, Morgana wouldn't answer them.
"I was thinking today about everything the dragon said," she murmured instead, tucking the questions away into the back of her mind again. "About Albion as a magic realm that merged with Earth to become legend in our history."
For a moment she thought Morgana was not going to answer, asleep or pretending to be, but eventually replied, "And?"
"And," said Gwen, "what Albion is not the only realm?"
"I don't understand."
"There are so many different unexplained stories and myths from around the world. Why is it only this one that has its roots in truth?" Gwen took a deep breath. "What if there are thousands of other realms, also fighting to return?"
Morgana was silent for another moment. "We have no proof of that."
"We could look for it. This quest of ours doesn't have a time limit, does it? Other than your dreams telling us where to look?"
Morgana rolled onto her back. In the darkness Gwen could just make out that she was staring at the ceiling. "Well, even if there are, what would it matter for us? This is the legend that we're connected to. We're destined to make it happen."
"Just because someone has the ability to be a fantastic dancer doesn't mean that they are required to spend their life doing that," Gwen said, frustrated. "Having magic and dreams doesn't mandate what you do with them. Nor does having coincidental names and nicknames."
"Do you really believe that?" Morgana said, uncertain.
Gwen wasn't entirely sure that she did. She wasn't sure of anything. But the possibilities and the doubt in Morgana's voice made her say firmly, "Yes. And if we need to find out more, why don't we stay here for a few days instead of returning to London, doing some research? After all, Ireland has its own mythology. We could look for remnants of another realm here, like the fairy realm Tír na nÓg."
"Okay," said Morgana, her voice very, very small, and it felt to Gwen like releasing a sigh of relief.
On impulse, she slipped her hand between them under the covers to grasp Morgana's. Before Morgana could say or do anything, she squeezed gently and said softly, "G'night, Morgana."
It took a few minutes, but eventually Morgana twined their fingers together and replied, equally soft, "G'night, Gwen."
Gwen woke to an empty bed and immediately knew that something was wrong.
She glanced at the clock; it was five, only a few hours after she'd fallen asleep. Morgana must have had another nightmare. The idea made Gwen's heart sink. She went downstairs as quickly as she could.
Morgana was on her laptop at the kitchen table. She barely glanced up when Gwen walked in.
"What was it?" Gwen asked, Morgana's indifference jarring after the night before.
"We have to go back to London," Morgana said, almost monotone. "Our quests are done and I know where we need to go to bring Albion back."
"What happened to staying here for a little to look into other ideas?" Gwen said, thrown.
Morgana closed the laptop lid and finally looked at her. Gwen saw that she had been crying. "Four people have been killed so far in the riots," she said, and Gwen gave a little gasp. "People who were just trying to keep their shops from demolished. And maybe it shouldn't matter, but three of them were of South Asian origin."
Gwen had no idea what to say. "Morgana, that's horrible. I can't imagine what their families and communities are going through." She took a deep breath. "But we don't know that it's related."
"But what if it is?" Morgana said, some emotion coming into her voice. "What if it's a sign, that the longer we wait, the more chaotic things will become?"
"Do you really believe that?" Gwen whispered, echoing Morgana's words from the night before.
"I don't have a choice."
Gwen pulled out a chair, sitting sideways to face Morgana. "You always have a choice," she said, the words sounding cliche in her mouth, but she knew that they were true.
Tears brimmed in Morgana's eyes again. "Not a good one," she said, and then Morgana turned her face away from Gwen's as the tears began to stream down.
And that was about all Gwen could stand; all of the pain and sadness that she could bear to see in Morgana, could bear to feel inside herself. Even if she didn't know how to make this better, she had to do something.
"Morgana," she said, voice barely making any sound, and cleared her throat. "Morgana." When Morgana didn't turn, she put her a hand on her jaw and turned her head for her, thumbing at the tears. Then she leaned forward and kissed them away, on Morgana's cheeks and under her eyes, and then on her nose just because she could. Morgana had gone completely still, but Gwen persisted, finally bringing her mouth to Morgana's, pressing their lips together.
And then suddenly Morgana was wrenching herself, standing and backing away so quickly that the chair skittered behind her. "Gwen, I can't," said Morgana, utterly wretched.
And maybe before Gwen would have taken that a rejection of herself, been embarrassed and ashamed and never mentioned it again. But Gwen had seen Morgana's mood and behavior in the past few weeks, and now she had tasted the longing and desire on Morgana's lips, and there was no denying what that meant.
"Why not?" she said, voice almost harsh. "What absurd reason have you come up with to keep us from being together?"
"It's not absurd," Morgana insisted, but the wild look in her eyes belied the words.
"Then what is it?" Gwen demanded.
Morgana spread her arms out, helpless. "It's all of this," she said, "destiny, fate, whatever you want to call it. Our lives are going to follow the legend, and I don't need to tell you all the consequences of that."
"What, you think this whole thing means I'm going to grow up to marry your brother, and then cheat on him with Lancelot?"
"No, I don't care about all of that," Morgana said. "I don't think that part is written in the stars. But some things are, and - Gwen. I couldn't bear to bring you down with me."
It hit Gwen all at once, so obvious that she could barely believe it had taken her this long to understand, and yet so utterly stupid that she could hardly take it seriously. "You mean -"
"We all know how this story ends, Gwen," said Morgana, hoarse. "I've dreamt of it, and I've felt it. Once my magic comes back, I have another path to follow."
"That - you - do you realize how ridiculous that sounds?" Gwen cried. "No one gets to decide your fate for you. You have a choice."
"Then how do you explain everything we've seen so far?" said Morgana softly.
"Do you even know what this dark path of yours is?" Gwen asked, marveling that her tone hadn't come out more sarcastic.
"I'll dream of it," said Morgana simply.
Gwen made a noise that sounded like a growl even to her, and grabbed Morgana's face to pull her in again. Morgana came willingly, her arms fitting around Gwen's body easily, tightening them until their bodies were pressed together so tightly that Gwen could feel Morgana shaking.
Gwen hardly cared; if this was the only way she could convince Morgana, nothing was going to stop her. She kissed Morgana ruthlessly, leaving no time for thinking, scarcely time for breathing, punctuating every kiss with a nip or a thrust of her tongue. And Morgana seemed to just be taking it, fingers digging harder into Gwen's back with every kiss, sending sparks up Gwen's already-melting spine. This was it: Gwen could do this forever if that was what it took, and with Morgana so willing to give in physically, she must be able to do it with her heart as well.
Until Gwen realized that Morgana's kisses were not redemptive but desperate, the last gasps of air before drowning, taking everything she could get before dooming herself.
Gwen pulled her mouth away abruptly, panting, still clutching at Morgana, bringing their faces so close their noses were almost touching. "And this?" she whispered, the words brushing onto Morgana's lips in a plea. "Do you ever dream of this?"
Morgana tilted her head ever-so-slightly forward until their foreheads were pressed up against each other, leaning on Gwen for one last moment of support, and Gwen could almost feel the words before she said them. "Only when I'm awake."
Chapter 6: Merlin
It was past midnight by the time they arrived at the Old Bailey after a long day of travel.
Or at least, that was the landmark that Morgana had recognized from her dream, but Merlin suspected that they were really there to approach the former site of the infamous Newgate Prison. The link was perhaps tenuous, but Sir Thomas Malory had once been incarcerated there. Perhaps he had felt Albion seeping through the cracks of the realm.
"Remind me why you know that?" Arthur said, voice hushed as they walked there from their flat.
"My dissertation, remember?"
They were silent for the rest of the walk, as they had been nearly all day. It had been a long, tense journey back, the reverse trip of bus, ferry, and rail having taken them the entire day. They all seemed brittle, ready to crumble at any moment of trouble: Gwen and Morgana, who had had apparently had some kind of fight; Lancelot, who looked both wistful at breaking his new flirtation with Elyan and nervous about their quest; and Arthur, whom Merlin was actually having trouble reading at the moment. He was quiet, but Merlin sensed there was something more troubled brimming under the surface of his calm.
They stopped at the intersection of the Holborn Viaduct and Old Bailey road. "Maybe what we really need is to be going to the crossroads?” Merlin joked, looking at Morgana in Supernatural solidarity, but apparently the circumstances were too grave for such things because she didn't even meet his gaze. Merlin swallowed, trying to steady himself. "Alright, the only clue we have at the moment is Newgate, so it would make sense to go to place that is marked as the original site for the prison.”
They found the plaque on one of the walls of the Old Bailey, small and insignificant next to the more magnificent inscriptions in the area, of peace and justice and health for all. But Merlin knew right away that he’d been right – he glanced at Morgana and saw that she felt it too, because there was a power emanating from the plaque that was stronger than any he’d experienced before – stronger than the water at Camlet, or the stone at Cardiff Castle; even stronger than the pulse of magic he’d felt when Morgana woke up from her last nightmare, eyes ablaze. This was it.
Then, there was a sound behind them.
All five of them whipped around and stared in shock at the spectral shape of the dragon approaching them. He was not corporeal in any way – his form was not a body of flesh or stone, but a meeting of what looked like wisps of smoke, fanning around him to create a shape that shifted and moved before their eyes. The dragon was larger, too, enormous, and for the first time Merlin thought he might know what it meant to be afraid of this creature.
“How –” said Arthur, but it came out as a dry wheeze and he swallowed, Adam’s apple bobbing, before trying again. “How are you here? You said you could only take the form of inanimate or dead beings.”
The dragon eyed them calmly. “There is a legend of a spirit – a ghost, I think you call it – of dog that haunted these parts.”
“The Black Dog of Newgate,” said Merlin, hushed.
The dragon nodded. “And as you have no doubt discovered, the realms meet here and release enough magic that I am able to inhabit this form. It gives me more freedom than the cold stone and metal to which I have become accustomed.”
“Why are you here?” said Morgana suddenly.
“To congratulate you,” said the dragon as if it were obvious. “You have done very well in the tasks that I have set you. And I wanted to be there in the final moment of glory.” He inclined his head. “Do you know what to do?”
“Yes,” said Merlin, and found that he did. He turned to give the instructions to his friends, but they were moving already, somehow just as aware.
Lancelot held the Cup as Gwen slowly poured the water into it, and together they held the goblet’s stem and looked at Merlin and Morgana. Merlin opened his book and Morgana gripped the stone tightly in her hands, closing her eyes to concentrate as Merlin began to chant, and Lance and Gwen tipped the water to fall on the pavement.
As Merlin let out the familiar-yet-foreign words, he could feel the energy rising up from where the water had fallen, seeping into the ground as if it were soft dirt instead of concrete. Slowly, a bronze colored shape began to emerge from the pavement, a rubbed-smooth hilt, and Merlin chanted faster.
He finished the incantation and they all watched in awe as the sword continued to rise. It only came halfway out of the ground, the other end still sunk into the pavement, waiting to be pulled out.
Merlin looked at Arthur then. Arthur was looking at the sword with a kind of reverence that he hadn’t seen before on Arthur’s face, but also with nervousness, as if he didn’t want to be feeling this kind of respect.
“There you go,” said the dragon softly, and Merlin had no idea why Arthur would be feeling nervous because he felt amazing. The magic was already bleeding out before the sword was even out of the stone, and it was rising up, curling around Merlin and Morgana and the dragon, making Merlin’s blood thrum with pleasure and excitement. This was how it was supposed to be, Merlin thought as Arthur slowly, tentatively gripped the hilt of the sword, this felt perfect, this felt so right –
But just because it felt right didn’t make it so.
“Arthur,” said Merlin quietly before he even really knew what he was doing. Arthur didn’t hear him, still concentrating entirely on the sword, and the right feeling was still there, coaxing Merlin into staying silent, but his brain seemed to be coming back on board now, telling him to think about this – about his reasons for wanting this, about the misplaced guilt he’d been feeling for having rid Albion of magic in the first place, about the beauty of the magic itself.
He’d thought he had something to feel ashamed of, his previous self having taken something like this away from everyone – and maybe it had been the wrong thing to do, but one thing he knew now was that no matter what the other Merlin’s reasons had been, making the decision to bind the magic away had not been easy. Not if the magic sang to him as it did now, not if it felt even half as essential as it did to Merlin now after only a few minutes. The other Merlin must have thought it through, he realized, must have struggled against his own instincts, and that had to count for something.
And this wasn’t the same decision anyway, was it? Because maybe Lance and Gwen were right about what reintroducing magic would be for the world – and maybe Morgana was right about the dangers of destiny – and Arthur about what this meant for Britain as a hegemonic power – and Merlin had spent so much time trying to reassure each of them that he’d barely stopped to think of what his own motivations were, why he wanted this so much.
Merlin thought about fate and the paths they’d been given, about Albion and the other possible realms that existed, about everything the dragon had said, everything.
And then Merlin said, “Arjun.”
Arthur – Arjun looked at him in surprise, his reverie broken, and Merlin held a hand up, indicating for him to stop. Slowly Arjun let go of the hilt, still looking puzzled, and Merlin could feel the tension in the air as he turned back to the dragon.
“The tasks that you set for us?” Merlin said.
“Excuse me?” said the dragon, a wisp of smoke detaching from his snout as if he were huffing it out.
“You just said that we did well in the tasks that you set for us,” said Merlin. “But I thought those tasks were supposed to be pre-determined. Not that you had decided them.”"A figure of speech," said the dragon, dismissive.
"Really?" said Merlin, cocking an eyebrow. "Because I'm not so sure."
"You doubt me, young warlock? Why, if I may ask?"
"I think maybe you did set these tasks for us," said Merlin, struggling to gather all the threads together in his head. "Or arranged them somehow. I think you were unable to bring back Albion yourself, so you needed our help, and orchestrated everything in between to convince us to help you."
"Even if this preposterous notion were true," the dragon said, "what does it matter? Albion must return. My...methods are irrelevant."
"Must it?" Gwen's voice piped up.
"What?" said the dragon, whipping its smoky head around.
"Why must Albion return?" Gwen persisted. "It is only one of thousands of realms, isn't it?"
For the first time, the dragon looked shocked, an emotion somehow visible to Merlin even in this form. It shook off the expression quickly, glaring at Gwen. "It is only Albion that is destined to return. You know that."
"We only know it from you," said Lancelot, joining in. "But I'm not so sure I believe in destiny anymore. And as much good as it could do, bringing Albion back - there is greater risk of harm. Why should we be the ones to take on the responsibility of magic, harness that power?"
They were all moving closer to each other now; Merlin could feel their power gathering, not just of the magic but of the force of their wills, their free wills. Only Mohana still looked hesitant, standing apart, as if she couldn't let herself believe in the strength of her friends.
"Mohana," Merlin said softly.
"Mohana," Gwen repeated, holding out her hand.
And then Mohana was taking it, drawing herself into their group of friends, finally rejecting the mandates of destiny, and turned to look defiantly at the dragon.
"You dare to cross me?" the dragon demanded, still shocked. "You will regret it. I may not be able to bring Albion back alone, but do not think you would leave this place unscathed should you attempt to fight me."
The dragon reared up, its ghostly form blurring larger and larger, and without warning, it opened its mouth and breathed out a huge gust of smoke at them. It was not nearly as hot as real fire, but hot enough to singe them and force itself into their lungs. Merlin was bent over, choking on the smoke, as his friends coughed and gasped for breath beside him.
"Who do you think you are, to refuse the power of Albion?" the dragon taunted.
Merlin wheezed, trying to get some air, and managed to say, "Just ordinary people. Unlike you, Kilgarrah."
The dragon roared, and Merlin tried to use the magic to shield them from the smoke. It was not that easy, though; the dragon had done something to bind it back from them, and while Merlin had read the book back to front, he hadn't learned many spells. In fact, the dragon's name was one of the few gems he had picked up, useless though it was.
"How did you learn my name?" Kilgarrah growled.
Or was it so useless?
Merlin straightened slowly, his mind racing. Names had power, after all; their own names had pretty much gotten them into this mess, hadn't they? Perhaps they could solve it as well. Perhaps -
"Kilgarrah," Merlin shouted, and the dragon winced as if in actual pain. "You do not belong here, and neither does the magic anymore. I hereby banish you to the halfway realm of Albion, where I hope you may find some peace."
For a moment Merlin waited with bated breath, waiting for the inevitable laughter at his ridiculous attempt.
Then Kilgarrah screeched in true fury, screaming up to the sky, thrusting open its wings. And with one, two beats of his wings, the smoke dissolved into nothing.
Merlin caught his breath, scarcely able to believe it. He looked around at his friends, bruised and burned and worse for the wear, but alive, safe, strong.
"Gwen," Mohana croaked out, brushing Gwen's hair out of her face. And then suddenly she was kissing the living daylights out of Gwen, so fast and intense that Merlin half-wondered if the smoke would ever be exhaled.
He turned to Lancelot and Arjun and smiled, twining his hand in Arjun's.
"What now?" Arjun said, the relief of the moment dawning in his expression.
"I don't know, Arjun Pandiyarajan," said Merlin softly. "And isn't that how it should be?"
"Yes," said Arjun, and Merlin laughed.