Freya thinks, You killed me, but she looks beyond that at everything that Arthur has become—the good he’s done with his life and the bad he’s undone—and she stretches out her hand toward the boat and does not push it away.
His fingers, still warm, clasp around hers. She pulls him across the last narrow strip of water to Avalon.
reign of constantine iii
The first thing Arthur says to her is “What’s going to happen now?” and Freya ignores him.
It’s several (years) days later when he looks at her from a different angle, at the sourceless light tangling in her hair, and says, startled, “Lady. You were—you were—”
Freya looks at him narrow-eyed, feeling the urge to hurt rise up sharp-tipped and shadowy inside her. She thinks she knows what he means: you were that girl, that monster; you were one of the people I’ve killed without considering. She says, “Merlin’s lover? Yes,” and watches him flinch.
She is the Lady of the Lake, and one of the guardians of Avalon, but sometimes she’s also the girl who was killed just after feeling the first hope she’d known in what seemed like her entire life.
reign of alfred the great
“How is he?” Arthur asks.
It’s been a while: Camelot has crumbled and fallen into nothingness, into hardly more than myth, and the king of Albion hides in a peasant woman’s cottage, brooding over a war and leaving her bread to burn.
Freya turns away from the world and back to Arthur. She doesn’t feel that same fierce wild urge to hurt him—to try to take from him in revenge for what he took from her—anymore.
“Merlin,” Arthur says, clarifies, even though there’s only one he for both of them. He’s learned a little bit of patience since he was prince, but he’s never learned to wait for Freya to decide he’s worth her attention. Maybe he still can’t imagine that there’s anyone who might consider him unworthy.
“The tree thrives.” It is massive, emerald-crowned, with bark soft as velvet and tough as steel. Its roots sprawl through the field in which it stands.
Arthur steps closer, close enough that if he had a sword he could cut her in one leap. She draws force up between them and stops him where he stands. Avalon still knows her as queen, knows Arthur as guest but never master. “And Merlin?” Arthur presses. She can feel the strain of his body where he tests it against her shield.
Freya looks back at the tree. There are birds nesting in the branches, winged and free. She can almost see through the bark, to where Merlin sleeps curled in the heartwood; can almost taste the blazing gold of his magic. “He is well,” she says.
reign of æthelred the ill-advised
“Can you show me?”
Freya looks from the glint of the Danegeld, the bright sails and swift bodies of invading ships, to what was once a forest and has turned to open meadowland. “Here,” she says, moving so Arthur can look over her shoulder, their eyes fixed on the same point.
Arthur’s voice is soft, surprised when he says, “Thank you.”
reign of cnut the great
They watch the ocean together.
“I humbled myself,” Arthur says defensively, and she can feel the quick beat of his heart against her back. “I got quite good at it—”
Freya turns to give him a disbelieving look. “You stood in front of all your subjects—all of them, not just your most trusted friends—and said that your might and the power of all kings were worthless?”
Arthur looks like he wants to claim he did, but—surprisingly, finally—he’s learned better. He shakes his head.
They’re close enough that her hair brushes across his cheek, dragging over the barest ghost of stubble, and although he doesn’t need to breathe Freya can see his breath catch, feel the quick flutter of her own pulse as his eyes darken.
“That’s a shame,” she says, voice low and breaking, and the world between her hands swings from a beach to Merlin’s tree, bowing with age, imperial.
reign of edward the confessor
“You said you were Merlin’s lover,” Arthur blurts out.
Something in Freya that’s thawed and gentled these (centuries) years goes still and edged and frozen again. She lifts her head and looks up at Arthur—draws power to straighten her spine, to weigh her head as if crowned. She holds the magic of Albion gripped in her hands like sword and shield and scepter, ready to strike or defend or dismiss.
Blood darkens the delicate molding of Arthur’s ears. She doesn't think she's ever seen him flush before. He asks, “Can you tell me?”
Freya is knocked off-balance, left asea. “Tell you?” She was expecting…she doesn’t know what she was expecting. Something angry—hostile and selfish. Arthur’s tone is wistful, though; he wants without wanting to take.
She knows, distantly, that it’s been over half a millennium, not just a few years, since they last saw Merlin. It’s only been a few years for her, though (and for Arthur), short enough that grief sometimes still startles her, long enough that she clutches her memories to her like rags against a blizzard, dreading the day when they wear through completely. She wants more than she has, and—
And, fair enough, she understands why Arthur asks.
“You first,” she says: a challenge.
“He said he’d only ever been with one other person,” Arthur says. His eyes meet hers with the clash of blade on blade, and sparks fly under her skin. “He never told me who. I thought for years it was his friend Will.”
“Tell me,” Freya says, because Arthur has had so much more of Merlin than she ever did, because after all the other stories they’ve exchanged this is the only thing left that is only hers. If she’s going to give it to Arthur she wants something of equal value in return—something he held close and precious, something rare and strange and marvelous.
Arthur studies her face like he might a map of enemy territory. “The first time Merlin fucked me I begged for it.”
Even with the blush spreading from his ears across the rest of his skin, it takes Freya a long moment to realize what he’s said: as calm as if it were a normal conversation, as calm as if men of high rank and military inclination were allowed to want that. Understanding sears through her, burning in her racing blood, drying her mouth and stealing the air from her lungs.
Her voice rasps when she says, “All right.”
There’s the faint curl of a smile at the corner of Arthur’s mouth—he knows what he’s done to her, she thinks; it was a good tactical decision on his part; and she shakes her head to try to clear away the image of King Arthur (still hailed as a hero, as a great warrior) thus completely undone.
“It was when he was hiding me,” she begins, sifting through the memories, stitching them back together into a whole, and Arthur listens as if he’d never had anything of Merlin, himself, only a glance in the marketplace or a lonely thought by twilight.
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“Don’t look,” Freya says, and she can feel the bones of Arthur’s wrist shifting beneath her fingers as she squeezes, tries to drag him away from the sight of the world—Albion wrecked again by war, foreign armies taking it again from the people born to the land—
—and battles drowning the country, long and fierce and bloody, and Freya suddenly sees echoes of Camlann—sees ghosts of all the men who died there raising their swords by Saxon and Norman alike and attacking each other as eagerly as the living do.
Arthur won’t look away. Maybe he can’t, she isn’t sure.
She lets go of his wrist and brings her hands to his face, expecting his gold-glinting stubble to sting her palms and surprised when it doesn’t. He lets her turn him now until he’s staring not at the carnage but at her.
His eyes are blank, shallow and fathoms deep at the same time.
“Arthur,” Freya says, slowly, soothingly. “Stay here.” She isn’t frightened—nothing can frighten here in her portion of Avalon, nothing can strike at her or harm her or do anything that she wills it not to; she can’t possibly be frightened—but she feels something anyway: her hands trying to shake against Arthur’s skin, the uneasy speed of her heart. “Here.” Here, where the fields are green and wet only with dew; here with her where there is safety.
Arthur hadn’t seen Sweyn Forkbeard’s conquest, she realizes, chilled by that knowledge—Arthur’s Albion is whole without need of restoration.
When Arthur finally answers her, his voice is broken; he sounds hollow, gutted. But he says it anyway, “Freya,” as if it matters, as if it might bring him comfort, and she tightens her grip against the hard edge of his jaw and says, “It’s only for a little while,” and “if it would hurt Albion in truth you’d be back by now, you’d be gone—”
“And you?” he asks, and he’s focusing on her now, not on wars long-gone, not on the uncrowned boy-king’s fumbling and failed attempt at defense, not on the bastard Norman tightening his grip on Albion, and Freya goes still under the vivid intensity of that focus.
“I don’t know,” she admits. “I don’t know what’s supposed to happen to me.”
His pulse beats wildly beneath her fingers, and she’s cold and hot at the same time, shivering as she stares up at him.
“You’ll go back too,” Arthur says, with that royal arrogance that Merlin and responsibility and time had mostly polished away between the times she met him—as if anything other than what he wants is unthinkable. As if he could reshape the world without magic, with only pride and obstinacy and a sort of willful narrow-mindedness.
Freya thinks she understands, finally, why everyone close to him would follow him anywhere.
She goes up on her toes and pulls his face down to hers, and the first press of their lips together is both shocking and inevitable.