The end of the world, Arthur Pendragon would come to realize, began with a broken teapot in the early hours before dawn. Of course, the Prince of Wales wouldn't know it was a teapot until much later that afternoon when standing at his window in contemplation, well after the house staff at Clarence House had cleared away all traces of the incident.
In truth, had it not been for the teapot-shaped hole in the tea service on his dresser, Prince Arthur would likely have dismissed the event in a few days as a figment of his imagination. After all, Arthur wasn't the sort to really trust bizarre happenings between dusk and dawn; Morgana was fanciful enough for the both of them.
He certainly hadn’t told his father the truth of what had happened. As far as the king was concerned, an intruder had managed to sneak past the palace security detail and the Prince had confronted him before the man managed to escape. It wasn’t the first time someone had made their way into the royal bedchambers uninvited over the years. As far as Arthur knew, it was the first time the intruder had escaped with the palace on high alert without using any conventional means of departure.
His windows were locked from the inside. The men at arms in the hallway were the first to answer the alarm. He’d only turned his back for a moment.
Arthur had given a brief statement to the Press Secretary shortly after the incident -which was by no means what the BBC eventually got their hands on - and that, and far as he was concerned, was the end of it. He knew it wouldn’t be the end of it for the Household staff. To the British People, he felt violated through blatant disregard for his privacy yet ever faithful in the goodness of mankind; in his own terms, he wanted his damn teapot replaced and to see the man in the courtyard below being pelted with rotten vegetables for waking him up in the middle of the goddamn night.
The sunlight was making a valiant attempt between the clouds over St. James Park. He frowned, running the morning over in his head for the twentieth time in as many minutes as his eyes followed three groups of Asian school children trudging along the Mall.
Arthur had woken abruptly at the sound of a thud and a muttered curse. At his call, all sound had suspiciously ceased - which was indication enough for Arthur that snatching an ornate rapier from the wall and stalking the room was an entirely justifiable action. The last time he had woken like this in the night, he had been seven and Morgana had managed to stow a badger in his dresser.
“Show yourself.” He knew he didn’t quite have the imperious doom that his father had seemingly mastered, but Arthur rather liked to think that he had learnt something about striking fear in the hearts of men through the years.
He spun at the sound of shattering ceramic and the accompanying curse, leveling his sword at the dark shape that pulled itself into the silhouette of a man. If this person had managed to make it past every security precaution the building had, it meant he must have either taken out the security team or had friends on the inside – it was inconceivable that a man that clumsy could have sneaked past anyone. “What have you done to the staff?”
“What?” the darkness spluttered. “Nothing. Where...”
The man was Irish, Arthur thought, inching closer with the blade. If this was a stunt by the IRA Arthur might actually be in danger. “How did you get in here? You swear they haven’t been harmed? Who helped you?”
“I don’t know, you’re the first person I’ve seen and I think you’re mad,” the man had replied slowly, two dark masses rising that the Prince had to assume where hands as the man stepped backwards a few paces.
“Why are you here?” He was slowly shifting towards the security alert. If he had learned anything from his great grandmother, it was that most trespassers could be caught with very little to-do if one just distracted them long enough for the Staff to arrive. Then again, she had offered her visitors tea, not held them at sword point. In hindsight, Arthur decided that since the man had broken his teapot that course of action likely would have been a poor choice anyhow.
“It would help if I knew where ‘here’ was,” was the dry reply. “Look –“
“Under section 128 of the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act, trespassing on these premises is a criminal offence.” Arthur gestured with the blade. “Keep your hands above your head.”
“Or what, you’ll kebab me? I don’t need a sword to take you. I’m just going to go and you’ll never see me again, yeah? Sorry to interrupt your beauty sleep, your Highness.”
The Prince hit the alarm and flipped the lights, sending a dark haired youth staggering back under the glare. “Security is on its way. Any of your friends inside Clarence House will be found and dealt with.”
The young man blinked gormlessly as his eyes adjusted to the flight of darkness. His gaze flickered rapidly around the room, landing on the Prince with a look of abject terror. “Fuck,” he said with feeling.
And Prince Arthur wasn’t entirely sure if he didn’t believe just for a moment that the man truly hadn’t known where he was.
But that was impossible.
Arthur had turned at the sound of his doors opening, and then the man was gone, leaving the Crown Prince to explain an empty room to the five guardsmen who had answered his call.
When the search of the building and grounds had turned up no sign of the man, Morgana had taken Arthur aside and asked him to be honest. He couldn’t remember exactly what he’d called her, but knew he’d certainly implied it was in evidence that given the choice, strange men in the middle of the night would far prefer sneaking into his chambers than hers.
It had gone downhill from there and despite his pride, Arthur would reluctantly admit that the Duchess of Edinburgh had come out of that encounter the better.
Merlin Emrys first met Gwaine McDonnell at The Friend at Hand, a small bar tucked away behind the Russell Square tube stop. To be precise, Merlin Emrys first met Gwaine McDonnell in a bar fight at The Friend at Hand, when the Scotsman had chatted up the wrong man's bird, made a few too many disparaging comments about the English and accidentally emptied a lager down the front of a footballer's trousers.
Merlin likes to tell himself it was accidentally. Really, the smirk the Scotsman was sporting as it happened made it rather difficult to argue, but argue it he did.
It wasn't that Gwaine was a bad sort - he had a CV full of charitable work and an Oxford education which helped Merlin convince Gaius to let the man hang around - it was that he had qualms with the sort he referred to as 'plummy English bastards', a penchant for mischief and an incredibly strong sense of loyalty towards the underdogs. It was the combined sort of personality that was forever getting him into scraps at pubs across London proper and more than one rugby match he'd turned up to in full highlander gear to cheer his boys to victory - despite professing he found the game to be nothing more than 'an excuse for grown men to touch each other in front of an audience'.
He still watched matches in the flat when he thought Merlin wasn't looking.
He was, Merlin discovered some time later, the son of a Scottish businessman from an old family that had owned more than his fair share of the Northern Isles and probably all of Orkney. That was before he up and died, leaving Gwaine a fortune he refused to touch and titles he never went by.
So it was from an ill-advised teaming of a scrawny Irish boy and a brawling Scotsman that landed Merlin with a black eye and an incredibly cheerful flatmate - an incredibly cheerful flatmate that was currently grinning like a fox over a mixing bowl of corn flakes.
Merlin decided the best course of action was to ignore him and hope he got tired and wandered away.
The room was so quiet as he went about his morning routine that the optimistic part of his brain told him Gwaine had in fact vacated the premises. So convincing was that part of his brain that Merlin was completely unprepared for walking back into the kitchen and seeing the dark-haired man in the exact same place with the exact same knowing grin stretched across his face framed artistically by a well-trimmed beard. It cost him a shattered mug and tea seeping through his slippers.
“You went out last night,” was what broke the conversational silence, as though Merlin's cursing as he grabbed a cloth and started piling the broken ceramic together wasn’t actually happening.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” he said distractedly, leaning down to cast about for a piece he had seen skitter across the floor. They were going to have to sweep again soon.
“Oh leave it,” Gwaine said setting the heavy glass bowl down. “Just wave your hand, do what you do and be done with it.”
“You know, it's you saying things like that which get me into trouble with Gaius.” But Merlin grinned a little, watching as the old mug reassembled itself from the small pile on the floor. A little magic here and there he supposed couldn't be that bad. Besides, he'd really liked that mug.
Gwaine crossed his arms and ankles, leaning back in his chair smugly. “What would really irk that old man is knowing his doting apprentice is sneaking home in the wee hours without proper supervision.”
“I suppose you qualify as proper supervision?”
“Only the most proper, my friend,” he affirmed.
“If you must know,” Merlin said, setting the mug down with a clunk in the sink, “I was having a scintillating and informative chat with the Prince of Wales. I rather think Gaius would find that proper enough.”
“Now you're having me on!” Gwaine's grin grew impossibly large. “You're never boring, that's for certain.”
"You don't believe me." Merlin shot the other man an innocent look as he spread his arms wide. "I'll have you know I can be quite the charmer."
"’Course you can." Gwaine stood, abandoning his breakfast as he tugged on his coat. "Next time you're up to this fibbing lark I suggest an easier sell. Maybe a lady-friend...no, no I can see why you went with the Prince of Wales on this one."
"Hey!" Merlin protested. Gwaine just grinned, ducking out the door.
Did you know there’s a unicorn in Kew Gardens? - M
Arthur read the note a third time, tucked it in his pocket and went down to breakfast. He read it a fourth time discreetly under the table, shooting the Duchess of Edinburgh a calculating look over fresh orange juice, and again as his personal secretary read his schedule out for the following day.
He couldn’t come up with a single explanation for why it had appeared on his nightstand that morning aside from Morgana and her idea of a joke. He retaliated that evening by hiding all of her pillows in the second floor service closet.
Gwen Thomson, whom Gwaine had taken to calling ‘Smithy’ much to everyone’s bemusement, was waiting for Merlin at the front gate in a pair of dirty coveralls and her hands on her hips.
“You certainly took your time, Wizard Boy,” she said with a warm smile across her tanned face. “You have no idea how hard it is to keep tabs on a fictional creature.”
“Smithy!” Gwaine bounded up behind him, throwing an arm over Merlin's shoulders as he grinned, holding out a flower he'd likely snagged on the walk from Kew Bridge Station. “You, me...Merlin. A romantic garden walk?”
“Still not happening,” she replied good-naturedly, well accustomed by now to the man's wild overtures and still resolute in refusing them. She’d once told Merlin that she was certain the Scot was more entertained this way, and besides that, she liked her men brave, bold and quiet. “Now come along or I'm leaving you behind.”
“We're grabbing something to eat first, right?” The man said cheerfully as he raced to catch up.
“You said it was a unicorn?” Merlin said curiously, taking a bite of the chocolate croissant Gwaine had made them stop for on their way, a steaming paper cup in the other hand.
They were standing on the edge of the lake, peering into the settling mist.
Gwen crossed her arms. “It certainly looked like one. You don't often see glowing horses with horns walking by.”
“Wasn't just some uni kids messing around, yeah?” Gwaine said after a deep drink of coffee. “Got a hold of some cello-tape and a plunger?”
The look the woman shot him was bordering on incredulous. “A plunger.”
He held up his hands. “Sometimes the eyes see what the heart wants it to.”
“I wasn't seeing things,” she said firmly.
“I believe you.” Merlin frowned, tapping his thumb distractedly against his cup as he stared off across the lake. “That doesn't much look like a horse to me.”
He wasn't quite certain what he expected seeing a unicorn would be like; it wasn't something he'd actually sat about considering. It was like the rest of the world ceased to matter and Merlin knew the other two had caught sight of it across the water from Gwaine's silence and the hand on his shoulder. Not much made Gwaine hold his tongue.
“What do we do?” Gwen said softly once it had moved on. “For Heaven's sake, it leaves flowers where it walks. If more people see it, the Press is going descend like harpies.”
“You don't think it's romantic? I thought pretty girls were all for princesses and unicorns and knights in shining armour,” the Scotsman was still staring after the creature, a strange look on his face.
“Gwaine?” Merlin waved a hand in front of his face.
Gwen landed a thump on Gwaine's shoulder. “Looks like it got to you more than it ever did me.”
“What?” He blinked, shaking off whatever he had been thinking of. “Just reminded me of my mother, that's all.”
“You are one strange man.”
“I'll need to talk to Gaius about this,” Merlin lamented while taking the last bite of his forgotten pastry. “He might have some idea of how to go about dealing with mythical things that prove to be not so mythical.”
“Well, the numbers for the Gardens should be low over the next week or so. We look like we're in for some bad weather, so hopefully that'll give us some time to work out what to do with it.” Gwen looked thoughtful. “You're certain you just can't...make it smaller?”
“What, goat-sized so you can take it home?”
Gwen had just shrugged disappointedly when he refused point blank.
“The bloody French are at it again.” Uther snorted, tossing the morning paper across the wood inlay table and reaching for his glass.
“Student riots should hardly count as ‘at it again’,” Morgana said dryly from her place across the room, daintily swiping marmite across a slice of toast, “as though England has never had a riot.”
“Yes, well the majority of English riots do not have a history of preceding revolutions or beheading their monarchs, so I rather think that the world should be more concerned where the French are involved.”
Arthur was barely listening to his father, looking out instead over the sunlight breaking up the morning fog. It was happening more frequently than he remembered, waking up to the indistinct grey blanketing London, but he supposed it was just turning into an early autumn.
“You’re forgetting Cromwell,” Morgana had moved on to an orange, her perfectly manicured nails piercing the rind as she spoke. “The English are just as likely support regicide as the next country when incited.”
“As ever, you are a joy to dine with Morgana. Arthur,” The Prince tore his eyes away from the window, focusing on the King across the table, “I suspect you are over the shock of your late-night intruder?”
“I wasn’t shocked --” he rethought his words quickly at the cocked eyebrow from the Duchess, “Yes. Yes, I am more than capable of resuming my schedule.”
“Excellent.” He nodded approvingly. “Leon assures me that everything has been done to secure the grounds in my absence, but I expect that should this prove to be merely a precursor you both will remove yourselves from London early and join me at the Balmoral Estate until it blows over.”
“It was nothing, Father.” And Arthur couldn't shake the surreal feeling that had accompanied finding the missing teapot back in place that morning as though it had never left. It made him wonder if he hadn't just been imagining the whole thing. Morgana was just underlining that by leaving silly little notes to mock him. Perhaps she had hidden it earlier in the day and he just hadn't noticed?
“I should hope so.”
“I hardly think Scotland is the best place to hide if there is to be a civil uprising,” Morgana said dryly.
Arthur shot her a warning glance, but Uther seemed content to ignore her words, choosing instead to take this moment to push back from the table. “My plane leaves tomorrow morning. Hopefully, I shall not see you both until October.”
“Milord,” the Duchess supplied, and Arthur swore he saw the faintest twitch at his father’s eye.
“Merlin, would you care to explain why you thought it was a good idea to write notes about magical creatures and then magically mislay them?” Gaius was staring at him with a distinctly disapproving air. He was absolutely convinced that the old man had spent years perfecting that look to pull out on just such occasions, for he really was quite accomplished at it.
He hadn't meant to lose them. Merlin really just hadn't had time to contact Gaius on his way to investigate things, what with the alarming frequency at which the cases seemed to be happening. He'd happened across a neat little spell one afternoon and that had been it. He'd written what he needed help with and willed the thing on its way to find that help.
He'd really just assumed Gaius was on the receiving end. It wasn't as if there were that many experts on magical happenstance or owners of accurate mythological bestiaries populating the Greater London Area.
“It wasn't. It was a terrible idea,” Merlin said with practised sincerity. “I won't do it again.”
The next time he intended to get the spell right.
Gaius shook his head as held a small vial up to the light, a clear violet substance reflecting back through the glass. “I told you to get that mobile for a reason, you know.”
Merlin thought quickly of the small device he'd been so fascinated with all those months ago, lying on his desk at home. He'd been too fascinated with it, and it currently lay in about four pieces. He'd been unable to put back together properly even with magic, much to his chagrin, and had never really got around to replacing it. He decided it was best Gaius didn't know about that.
“You're to be on your best behaviour tonight, Merlin,” the old man said as he stowed the vial away with a dozen other like it in his satchel. “You may be on friendly terms with the Duchess of Edinburgh, but -”
“I won't cause a political scandal, you have my word.”
“There's a good lad. Now, I have to make some deliveries, but I want to see you outside and presentable by half five.”
Merlin gave the man a mock salute and a wide smile.
“The Crown is always pleased to support the worthy causes in our community and the world. Today, we stand in a turbulent time where uncertainties and fears run rampant when peace and prosperity should reign. It is our most reverent hope that charitable organizations and bodies such as those supported by the Prince’s Trust work together with people - real people - on the front lines to alleviate sorrow and bring about a brighter future for our youth.”
Arthur always had mixed feelings about giving a public address, particularly when they were usually penned by either bureaucrats or by people who had done only the most cursory investigation into the organizations he was meant to speak to. His favorite writer had been a frantic, harried looking man in glasses who had a habit of downing his frustrations in cups of coffee the size of his head. They had got on marvelously, if only for the three months he had held the position. He had been replaced by a stern looking man in his late fifties that had a disturbing habit of waxing lyrical about the history of the monarchy and hinting about the royal cousins the young Prince should consider courting.
He had since begun rearranging his scripts into something that he felt more comfortable with actually saying to the general public - at least when he was certain that Geoffrey was occupied elsewhere and not hanging about in the wings waiting to swoop down and level that disappointed stare upon the Prince.
The Charity of the Day was the Greater Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, who had recently begun a campaign to lead into the Christmas season, counting on the holiday spirit to bolster the generosity typically lacking in the hearts of the general populous. They were holding a gala that evening in the Savoy’s Lancaster Ballroom to kick-start the drive and as Morgana had convinced him to lend his support, Arthur found that somehow he had been shoved into a tuxedo and pushed on stage.
“The richest of London require a member of their peerage to point them in the right direction for fashionably opening their wallets,” she had said calmly, patting his shoulder in a gesture that from anyone else would have been reassuring, “and there is no one more qualified for the job than their very own media darling. Let’s earn your living, Prince Charming.”
Morgana was smiling now just off-stage with his head of security and three members of his team. The others had set up around the building like silent gargoyles waiting to be called into action. Despite being an unexpected spokesman, Arthur was enjoying himself immensely.
Or rather, Arthur was enjoying himself until he caught sight of a dark-haired man with over-sized ears having a rushed whispering match with an elderly gentleman at table 16. The Prince realized he had stopped speaking when Morgana hissed at him and suddenly the man had turned to look at him with a frown. Arthur fumbled for where he had left off. Was that recognition he had seen? It hadn’t really looked like it. But maybe he just couldn’t tell because of the lights. Then again, maybe he was hallucinating; if the man didn't look guilty then maybe it was just coincidence that he looked remarkably similar to the intruder that night.
The Duchess of Edinburgh stepped in and salvaged his speech with a finesse he had always envied, and Leon clapped him on the back in sympathetic support. He took a champagne flute and downed in it two painful gulps when he thought no one was looking.
“You can relax, Your Highness,” Leon was at his side, deftly swiping the empty glass from his hands and offering an amused look, “the Prince of Wales is enough of a distraction to the audience that I’m quite certain that your words were the last thing on their minds.”
“How much longer do I have to be here?” he muttered. Now he was itching to remove the bowtie and kick off the stiff black shoes - the ones he never wore long enough to break in but just long enough to get blisters. He knew he would have to wait until he could see the inside of a car.
“Circulate a little. Breathe,” Leon supplied helpfully.
“You’re not leaving until I do, Arthur darling,” Morgana said firmly as she joined them, the microphone once more in the capable hands of the event host. “Now is the time for dancing and stimulating conversation and meeting the staff. Consider socializing the gainful employment that pays your bills; God knows they expect it to be.”
“You expect it to be, you mean.”
“Yes, dear, because I was born Irish and still believe your silly English royalty needs to do something to earn its bread and butter,” she shot back. “Now put on that smile I know you have and look approachable.”
The old man Morgana approached was dressed up in a brown tweed suit with long white hair pulled back and a pair of heavy black rimmed spectacles resting on his nose. He was apparently a strong advocate for further government support towards something or other. Arthur honestly hadn’t been able to keep her words straight as he realized that the man standing to the doctor’s left with an open smile for the Duchess was the one from table 16.
The man turned and held his stare curiously in a dark blue number that looked like it’d come from Topman. Not that he actually knew what a store like that had in stock – of course he didn't. He only realized he was frowning when Morgana's sharp elbow hit his side, and Arthur inexplicably felt a bit ashamed that he was the first to look away, offering the older man a public smile and a handshake when Morgana introduced them.
“Gaius here is responsible for the remarkable new research branch working out of Bloomsbury. Truly fantastic work.” She smiled warmly. “He’s been a dear friend in helping with all those troublesome nights I’d been having. It’s astounding what a few herbs can do without all those chemicals and additives, isn’t it?”
“I’m sure it’s riveting,” Arthur supplied when it looked like she expected a response, and the old man seemed awfully proud of himself. The Prince found despite his resolve to ignore the man’s companion, Arthur couldn’t help shooting discreet glances in his direction when he felt he could get away with it. The man met each glance with a raised brow as though the Prince wasn’t being at all discreet and was, in fact, staring at him like a gaping peasant. Which he wasn’t.
Morgana tugged the young man forward with one hand as the other relieved Arthur of the champagne flute in an almost absentminded manner, hand brushing his; as if she was accustomed to depriving Arthur of his alcohol as a matter of course at events such as these.
"And this -" Morgana seemed to blank for a moment. "I..."
"Oh dear, if you'll excuse me...lovely meeting you," Arthur said hastily as Morgana shook off her stupor and started introducing the other man. Off in the distance he saw that Dame Catriona had caught sight of him and the last thing he wanted that evening was to deal with the woman whose main goal in life was to become his step mother. He would apologize to Morgana later. If the gods were kind they would be gone in an hour and he wouldn't have to worry about gold-digging trolls or large-eared Irish men with mops for hair.
“Is it just me, or are the clouds sitting remarkably low this evening?” Arthur marveled as they stepped into the brisk night air. The lamps on the street beyond were hazy and indistinct, nothing more than a diffused glow in the distance. He had spent the rest of the evening making small talk with a number of dignitaries when he couldn't avoid them, and keeping an eye on that doctor when he could. Leon had caught Arthur lurking about one too many times though and had soon put a stop to that.
Morgana glanced his way. “You certainly remarked, so I would have to conclude it is a plausible statement.”
“Any thicker and one could get lost,” he muttered, loosening his tie now that he knew his security had prepared the area for their departure, confident no unseemly photos would be turning up in Hello Magazine or the like.
“Why don’t we give the old detail a slip and go have a pint,” she said in a low voice as they walked towards the dark tinted cars waiting in the Savoy’s courtyard. “Disappear into the fey mists. I’m sure Soho has any number of shady pubs where they’d never find us.”
“Don’t tempt me,” he responded in kind. “The Press would have a field day if we were caught. In Soho no less. They'd have absolute kittens over those photos.”
“So would the King,” Leon said in a stage whisper, materializing to open the door for them, giving the Duchess a wink. “Though if you were to disappear into the ether, the White Horse in the West End is a rather nice joint for a night out.”
Morgana grinned and pushed Arthur into the depths of the car.
They sat in amiable silence for the length of three breaths before Arthur felt the need to pry, which he was quite proud of since he had been wanting to turn on her since the travesty that was his speech.
“Who was the man with your doctor friend?” Arthur inquired carefully as the lights flashed by along the Strand. Or rather, his intent had been towards careful, but the look Morgana sent him indicated he had the care of a pile driver. Really, he wasn’t quite certain why he deserved that look.
“If you wanted to be introduced, you should have said so when the man was available to be introduced,” she replied flippantly. “I was under the impression you didn’t care who anyone at the gala was.”
“They are all citizens of the Crown,” he said irritably. “Mostly. Of course I care who they are.”
“A fetching young doctor more than most.”
“He most certainly was not fetching. If anything, he was shifty,” Arthur objected. “A shifty air about him, not a fetching one -”
“- I really don’t know where you...Emrys?”
“Doctor Emrys,” she affirmed, not bothering to hide the smirk that painted her face. “My other doctor friend. He wasn’t very impressed by you this evening, I might add. You left before you said one word to him, and he really is quite a gifted young man. You could have at least shaken his hand. You should have.”
Arthur crossed his arms, staring out the window at the passing taxis in the gloom as they stopped at a red light. “I’m his Crown Prince. I think you’ll find that it’s a criminal offence to be unimpressed. Besides, if I'm not introduced I have no reason to shake his hand.”
Leon had agreed on occasion while the King was out of town to let them travel in unmarked cars and without all the hassle of a police escort. It drew exactly no attention at night, cost the tax payers far less money and meant they had a more leisured trip home from their engagements that otherwise would have been a blurred glimpse of the city highlighted in flashing blue lights. The downside was that it was a more leisured trip home to spend with Morgana when she was in one of her difficult moods.
“Well I think you’ll find Doctor Emrys a bit harder to impress than your average blonde twat. And yes, I am counting that swimsuit model. I think she’d have been just as impressed by a well formed carrot.”
“Morgause is blonde,” he pointed out, “and she’s never been impressed.”
Morgana scoffed. “She’s not a twat.”
“In your opinion,” Arthur conceded magnanimously.
The rest of the drive was conducted in silence, but Arthur couldn’t help but think the dark-haired woman had won. What, he wasn’t quite sure, but he did know that she seemed to do so frequently and that he was not at all pleased by it.
Arthur received five more notes over the next grey two weeks as they neared the threshold of October. He accused Morgana outright of sneaking into his room during the night after the third, emerging from the argument like a guilty child when she had called him on his own trespasses of retribution.
On the twenty-first, the fog was so heavy St. James Park was invisible from his bedroom window. The BBC was running a special on inclement weather. His Staff had begun rescheduling his appointments to take place in the receiving rooms at Clarence House.
On the twenty-third, they were running a news bulletin on missing persons. The numbers had risen to such an alarming rate that the police were suggesting an organization of body snatchers operating within England. A day later, a whole school group had gone missing from Regent’s Park along with the Police who later went to investigate. Parks were consequently shut down.
Uther had called when the news reached him, demanding to know if the Press was fabricating sensationalism to boost their ratings. When Arthur had assured him that there was no way of knowing without actually visiting the Regent's Park, and being expressly ordered to do no such thing, Uther had told him the Prince and Morgana would be catching the next helicopter to the airport.
“These certainly aren’t flying conditions, Father,” he had responded firmly into the phone, shooting Morgana an exasperated look across the room. “The moment the fog lifts. Yes.”
The phone clicked back into place, and he threw himself onto the sofa across from her, not for the first time wishing it were more comfortable to do so. There was something to say for modern furniture that antiques simply lacked. “That, as you’ve likely guessed, was the call to the Highlands, my Lady.”
“It’s for the best.”
“You’re agreeing with my father,” Arthur said slowly. “Are you feeling well?”
It was the first time he noticed just how frail the woman on the settee appeared, a jarring polarized glimpse of the woman in his mind. Like she hadn’t slept for days. He sprang off his seat, his frown deepening as she slapped away his hands. “Good God, Morgana, what –“
“Nothing. It’s sensible.” She crossed her arms, resolutely refusing to look at him. “Weather like this would feel oppressive to anyone. We should leave London.”
“You hate Balmoral. And you look wretched; what’s wrong?”
“I just haven’t been sleeping well.” She pushed him aside as she stood. “I think Scotland is a lovely idea.”
He frowned. “Wasn’t that Gaius fellow helping with that?”
“It’s complicated, Arthur, I don’t expect you to understand.” The way she was looking at him sent a cold curling sensation in his stomach; like she was looking at something through him, “You should ask Leon to stay, at least until we leave.”
On the twenty-fourth the head chef at Clarence House and three guardsmen failed to report in to work.
“But why is it happening now?”
“Why does anything happen when it does?” the old man's disembodied voice wafted from behind the shelves before he came into view.
“My magic has never gone wrong on me. It's only started since these things started deciding to vacation in London. I just can't seem to get that sending spell to work properly,” he said in a muffled voice, face pillowed in his arms across an open volume.
Gaius frowned down at him, setting a large stack of books on the table at his elbow. “Morgana mentioned that the young Prince has been receiving rather strange messages on his nightstand. I am rather inclined to believe that they may in fact be your wayward handiwork. She seemed inclined to think so.”
“My notes would never think that Arthur Pendragon would be more helpful than you, Gaius.” Merlin pulled himself upright, flipped a page despondently. “I think the poor things just got devoured by the void. Next time I'll just...make them into birds or something.”
“I did not get special permission for you to view the King's Collection so that you could learn useless party tricks, Merlin. Every spell in those volumes requires extremely specific control and focus to work in even the remotest proximity to their intended use! What exactly did you do to get them to disappear in the first place?”
Merlin shrugged. “I folded it up and told it I was going to need some help. I was thinking about you the whole time. Mostly. Look, I -”
“Merlin,” Gaius said sternly.
“Alright, so I was also maybe worrying about Arthur throwing me in the Tower of London for breaking his tea service the first time, but I went back and fixed that, and my magic's never really acted up on me before. It knew I was trying to send it to you, so --”
“What tea service? If I understand you correctly, you sent the first note before you'd ever met the young Prince,” Gaius intoned, one eyebrow raised impossibly high.
“Well, not in the traditional sense of being introduced; I mean, there aren't that many people around to do the introducing at that time of night --”
“Merlin," Gaius said slowly, "please tell me you did not use an ill-advised spell in the middle of the night that landed you in the Prince's presence and you did not tell me about it.”
“It wasn't ill-advised! And if I hadn't accidentally run into that dresser he would never have woken up, and I'd have been gone before he even saw me!”
The other eyebrow had raise to meet the first. “You were in his bedchambers?”
“Look, that's really not the point," Merlin objected. "He didn't say anything at the dinner, so I'm quite certain he did even know it was me!”
“And what is the point, exactly, in your opinion?”
“...I'm not sure anymore.”
“Merlin, putting aside your disturbing habit of entering the Prince's bedchambers in the wee hours of morning-”
“It's not a habit!” he protested.
Gaius held up a hand and continued, “ -the point seems to be that you 'asked' your magic to put you in contact with someone who had the ability to help with the situations you were finding yourself in. Now, despite your proclivities towards inviting disaster, there might be a chance that given its frequency His Royal Highness is in fact the best recipient of your communications.”
“What could Arthur possibly do to help me sort out magical disturbances?”
“I'm not entirely certain. Perhaps having this discussion with Prince Arthur is one way to discover an answer. Not, I suggest, a discussion to be had while sneaking about in the dark like a delinquent," he said sternly. "What you had best hope is that recent events are not merely indication of a downwards slide, though perhaps it is Arthur's fate to help you avert potential disaster.”
“Gaius, the man's highest achievement is to be able to look bloody fantastic for cameras. If there's a fight coming, I'm probably in it alone.”
The old man frowned, tapping a finger on the desk as he thought before disappearing behind the bookshelves once more. When he returned, it was with a slim bound book that he placed meaningfully in front of Merlin.
“There was a story once, of a two great men who united this land. A king with the heart of a dragon and the loyalty of the strongest wizard the world had ever known. It was a story of the Old Ways. King Arthur and Merlin.”
“This is meant for children,” Merlin said slowly. “It has pictures. Lots of pictures.”
“Then it should be easy for you to read,” Gaius responded in kind. “You don't seem to remember much of your childhood; this might be a good time for a refresher. Besides the author was an old friend of mine.”
“Gaius, just because -”
“Before you came to me, I had never seen anyone quite like you, Merlin,” the old man interrupted, crossing to sink into his chair. “At the hospital, you could quote Shakespeare like a thespian and list the founders of the East India Company alphabetically. You knew seven different remedies for breaking a fever from things one could find in a grocer’s. But you couldn't tell me where you'd taken your A-Levels. At times you look about as if you can't remember where you are anymore.”
“I know I'm a little odd -”
“Magic like yours doesn't exist in this world, Merlin,” Gaius said firmly, “but here you are. The only records we have of something like you are in books of lore and children's tales. You might just be proof that magic once had as much a place in this land as science or religion. I think the world is cracking – has been weakening for longer than you can imagine and doesn't have much time left. Your magic chose Arthur. I think together, you might just have a chance to save the world.”
“You know no one believes those stories anymore. Just because I'm a little bit magic, and Arthur's a big blond prince like the one on the cover doesn't mean we're destined to fight injustice together.”
“Nevertheless, I expect you and he to have a serious conversation about just what you know and what has been happening in his city. Maybe he knows something you do not. Maybe something he says will make you realize that which you could not on your own. If the world truly is cracking, you won't be able to handle it by yourself and I certainly am in no shape to be of much assistance in a firefight. In fact, I intend to locate the King and keep him informed of the situation so that the necessary precautions can be taken on a national level, should it come to that.”
“You expect me to jump back over to Clarence House and tell the Prince you've nominated him to be my one-man army in a potential war against all things magic bent on destroying London. I'm certain that will go over well.”
“No, Merlin. I'm expecting you to be an adult and have a serious conversation about national security. To consider that maybe this is what your magic is for. In the meantime, I expect you to study every possibility you could face so that you are well equipped to keep both yourself and England's future alive.”
"Well equipped by the words of a cracked children's author."
"I'll have you know that Myrrdin Wyllt was an accomplished academic with several hundred published works. Now get started."
The Prince of Wales bolted awake and was on his feet in the middle of his four-poster before he registered the source of the voice. “Show yourself!”
“Look, I’m not here to wish harm on your Royal Person, and I’m sorry but this is really important.”
Arthur found himself squinting as something flashed gold and a soft blue glow started at the foot of his bed before hovering a few feet from the man’s nose. The same man from the gala was staring back at him intently. Doctor Emrys.
“Of course,” he said resigned, collapsing back onto his mattress and throwing an arm over his eyes. “I suppose it was you leaving ridiculous messages all week as well.”
“They’re not ridiculous.”
The man actually sounds indignant, Arthur thought. He propped himself up on one elbow, leveling a stare at the dark-haired man, “Unicorns and mermaids? Faeries in the British Museum?”
The man was nodding earnestly.
“I’m going mad,” the Prince started chuckling softly, running a hand tiredly through his hair. “Cabin fever. Morgana always said I would, but I thought she was just taking the piss.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake. I suppose that explains why you haven’t called your brute squad down on me yet like last time.”
“If I called them, would they catch you?” he asked curiously.
“Well, there you go. I'm going mad.” Arthur pulled the covers back into place and punched his pillow a few times before settling down once more.
The other man looked like he was about to develop a twitch. “Your reaction to thinking you’re going mad is to just...what, go back to sleep?”
“Yes, I find it a far more practical reaction than the alternatives. Would you turn that light off?”
“Listen. I promised I would at least give talking to you a chance. Magic is coming back,” the man said in a low voice, and Arthur cracked an eye open in irritation. “I don’t know how, but magical things –creatures- have been appearing across London and I don’t know what it is, but the fog... I’ve been dealing with things as best I can, but I can't, and Gaius says –“
“Magical things,” Arthur interrupted carefully. “And what will the note say tomorrow? There’s a dragon in Southbank? A sphinx hiding out in Highgate? People are going missing and I’m hallucinating a scruffy doctor that wants to discuss unicorns.”
“Gods, Arthur, do you always have to be such an arse? The notes went to you for a reason.”
“You’re my hallucination; you don’t get to speak to me like that.”
“I’m not a bloody hallucination, you pompous git.” The young man threw his hands in the air. “This might very well be the end of the world and you’re not even listening to me!”
“Alright, fine. Fine.” Arthur sat up, unable to deny that he was perhaps enjoying this a bit more than was advisable. Though really, the amount of worry and stress that was heaped upon his shoulders thanks to his near religious watching of the news lately surely deserved some enjoyment – even if it was only delivered at breaking point. “Dr. Not-Hallucination, Defender of the Realm from All Things Magical, please, enlighten me to the magical wonders of the world under this auspicious moon. The secret universe of witchery.”
“My name is Merlin,” he said firmly.
Arthur couldn’t help the snort that escaped, though he quickly stamped down on the smile threatening to crack across his face. While he was stuck indoors, worried sick about the state of his people, he was being visited by a man out of a storybook. A storybook that his father had outright banned from his home when he'd found it, at that, though Arthur still had a copy stashed with his mother's photo; it had been his favourite as a child. “Of course it is. Where's your hat?”
“That’s it.” The man, Merlin, looked furious. “I don’t care what they said. I don’t care if the whole world falls to pieces because I couldn’t convince you to stop being a conceited prick. I was told to give you a message, Arthur Pendragon, that you and I might just be able to save the world. But clearly I’m on my own here. So much for a legendary king.”
“I hope you’re indigestion.”
Merlin disappeared just as cold water sloshed over the prince’s head. Arthur blinked. Cold water with a hint of lemon.
“I hear you wet your bed this morning,” Morgana said pleasantly from her place amongst the covers. She had a book propped up against her bent knees and a cup of tea in her hands. She had decided that if they were to be put under veritable house arrest there was no need to stand on formality – particularly when they were operating on a less than skeleton house staff.
Arthur had felt it was unnecessarily cruel to demand the full Household report for duty when so many were worried about their families and loved ones. He had given them the choice, and they understandably had chosen their homes. His father would be appalled. Geoffrey would be appalled.
Shops across London had closed their doors in what the BBC was calling a temporary consumer halt. Others, like the grocers, had been dealing openly with bulk sales of canned goods and other products that hadn't seen such success since the wartime efforts. No one knew what they were expecting, and the population was quietly terrified. Arthur knew there were still a fair number of people who made their way to their respective jobs regardless of world crises. It was the British way.
Arthur's job was to reassure the public beyond the reach of a politician. His father, however, was always to be the first and foremost to do so and until he made his address, Arthur had nothing to do himself.
As it stood, bored out of his mind, Arthur had decided to camp out at the end of Morgana's bed to keep her company. When he'd first taken a seat, pulling his feet up and staring her down as if daring her to comment, she'd done nothing but raise a perfect eyebrow as though she knew what he was thinking. Like boredom was his excuse, not his motivator. But then, she was an insufferable irritant anyhow, so he knew quite well she was just projecting.
“Do you remember that story that Professor Wyllt used to read us?” Back when they were children, his father had hired a number of private tutors before they’d been shipped off to respective boarding schools. Professor Wyllt he remembered as being one of his favourite.
“Old Myrrdin Wyllt?” she asked, putting a finger down to keep her place, “Why are you thinking of that old man?”
“The wizard Merlin paid me a visit last night,” he replied nonchalantly, twirling the dagger she’d given him on his tenth birthday as he stared at the blankness out the window. "Poured water over my head." Arthur was too tired to come up with a more plausible reason for why his bed was still damp and lemony. He started at the sound of Morgana choking on her tea.
“Merlin Emrys,” she intoned carefully after a moment. “Doctor Merlin Emrys visited you.”
“My god, that really is his first name?” Arthur spluttered. He was certain he hadn't said anything that would have linked that man to what he'd said, and yet she had known. Did that make it one of her pranks? She could have secreted the man into the building, bribed the staff into ignoring his escape...
He ducked the pillow she launched at his head. “Yes you, nitwit! Now why was Merlin here and why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“What? What?” He pointed the blade at her in disbelief before stabbing his finger in the general direction of his chambers. “Maybe because he magically appeared in the middle of my bloody chambers without opening any doors or anyone noticing? Because he said his name was Merlin? Really Morgana!”
“You really are an absolute clod, aren’t you.” She didn't seem to be acting like it was a prank. And he still couldn't figure out how they would have managed to rig up a bucket system over his head without him noticing and leaving no traces of it in his escape.
“Watch it,” he growled over his musings. “You're too old to believe in fairy tales.”
“And you're too dense to hallucinate, you twat,” Morgana's foot pushed hard against his thigh, making him readjust his seat on her bed. “Get him back here.”
“And how do you expect I do that, wave my magic sword and tell him 'King Arthur' demands it?” he shot back peevishly.
She peered at him suspiciously. “Do you have a magic sword?”
“No,” Arthur snapped. “No wonder you know the man; you're both mental.”
“At least you could tell me what he said.”
“Magic , Morgana. The wizard Merlin, who is apparently a shifty looking bloke in his twenties, said that magic was coming back.”
Morgana said nothing and Arthur was disturbed to find that her silence unsettled him the most. Maybe Merlin had been there after all. She pulled out her mobile and sent off a message or two, placing the device within easy reach.
They spent the rest of the afternoon on her bed, Morgana finishing one book and picking up another, a frown on her face all the while. Arthur alternated between watching the spin of his blade and staring out at the whiteness beyond the window pane, wondering if maybe he should fish out that old book one more time or if she was just having one ridiculously involved laugh at his expense.
“I just want the fog to clear,” Arthur said, staring hard out through the white in the general direction of the Horse Palace. It was so dense he was surprised it hadn't started seeping into the building, leaving curling wisps at their feet as they walked. If the fog cleared he'd have to make the journey north into the highlands, but at least he'd be able to disappear into the hills for a change; get away from the depressing stone walls of London for a time.
“I don’t.” Morgana was curled on the chesterfield under a thick afghan. She had spent the last few days typing away on her mobile, attempting to contact god knows who with seemingly little success. His own mobile wasn't even picking up a signal anymore.
“People are getting lost in it, Morgana. Something terrible is happening out there; if the fog lifts, maybe we can do something.” He had to believe something could get done. People did not simply go missing, not without cause; if they found the cause they could do something about it.
“If the fog lifts, terrible won’t even be the worst of it. Merlin would have known what to do.”
“What does that even mean?”
Morgana was silent, staring at the hands piled against her knees.
The King broadcast on BBC Radio One, reassuring the public that the government had everything in hand and were doing their best to look into the strange occurrences. Arthur wasn't sure how the rest of the public was taking it. He knew that words from the Throne had held the nation together through even the thickest of times, inspiring national pride, uniting the British people, but all that had been against something the nation could see. The Germans, the French, the Spanish; banding together to weather the storm. How did one band against a silent threat that crept into one's home?
The final broadcast from the BBC showed black feathers piled under empty roosts at the Tower, tethers swinging loose, cages emptied. That was when Arthur knew Morgana had been right.
The fog lifted on the morning of the seventh, unremarked by the population of London until much later that day when it was apparent that the grim half-light was all that was coming. Satellites had all seemingly short-circuited overnight and even cable systems were having difficulties. Each station on the telly showed similar screens: This is not a test.
“It's scientifically impossible,” Arthur had said, standing beside a silent Leon at the windows in the drawing room. He was one of the few staff that had not only stuck around, but moved into spare chambers after the Prince had voiced Morgana’s suggestion.
No word yet from our correspondents overseas. Leon had managed to find an old radio in the kitchens and brought it up when it was clear the television wasn't broadcasting. Experts believe this phenomenon could be the combined result of a natural cycle or solar flare that has caused –
The tin voices cut out as Arthur flipped it off in frustration. “A solar flare.”
“It could be why satellites are down,” his head of security said reasonably.
The Prince crossed his arms, staring down Leon. “Do you even know what effect a solar flare would have on a satellite?”
The man shrugged. “They're in space. Satellites are in space. I'm sure it's entirely reasonable to assume that it would have a negative effect on the whole situation.”
“Did a solar flare kill all the ravens?” Arthur asked pointedly.
“I don't know. Solar flares aren't something we were trained for,” Leon replied reasonably. "You should be packing, Your Highness."
Arthur frowned. “I suppose my father expects us all to abandon ship and retreat to his Fortress of Solitude while the world falls apart?”
“There's an army helicopter on its way," Leon agreed. "It's due to meet us in an hour at the Horse Guards yard.”
“Right. I'll inform Morgana to get ready – I need something to do. I feel like we're just running away here.”
“When there is something to be done, you will do it, Sir. No one can fight the forces of nature.”
Eleven members of the Royal Household – the only staff that had stayed on through the unusual events - had gathered in the sandy yard east of the park, each holding either a flashlight or flare to mark the landing zone.
The sound of the helicopter echoed off the stone as it neared...and something else that had the Prince and his Security personnel frowning up at the sky. A screech then, or something more - something that Arthur suspected sounded a bit like tearing through metal, and the definite sound of a failing engine. He felt his stomach drop out as he spied the bulk form of the craft appearing over the edge of the Horse Guard, and he knew before it happened that it wouldn't clear the building; already dipping too low, crashing and sending chunks of twisted metal and stone plummeting into the yard. He had already grabbed for Morgana and the nearest body, dragging them across the sand and into the street catching sight of Leon and his team doing likewise not far off.
“What the hell just happened?” Percival, one of Leon's men was helping a young secretary to her feet from where she'd tripped, still staring back at the wreckage in the yard and the few who hadn't been able to get out of the way. The few Arthur hadn't been able to save. Something popped and there was a small explosion from the engine as the helicopter died. Three of their group hadn't made it.
“The pilots...” Arthur said helplessly. “We have to see if the pilots survived. And the staff. We have to -”
“We're getting you away from here, Your Highness,” Leon said firmly, hands fisting in the prince's shirt and pulling him towards the tree line of St. James'. “Percival and -”
A screech broke through the air and before he'd really thought about it, Arthur was using the distraction to twist away from his security's grasp, racing doggedly towards the crash with Percy close at his heels. He skidded to a stop at the first body, shaking off the other man's hand at his shoulder. His hands came away bloody. Arthur wiped them on his trousers as he surveyed the scene; one of the Household was under part of the fallen stonework, the other caught staring glassy-eyed under the twisted tail of the vehicle.
He caught sight of movement in the cockpit and had his hand on the door as he called to his Staff, “Percy, help me with -”
“Your Highness, stay still.” The other man was staring up at the sky, one hand holding Arthur's forearm in an iron grip.
“What in God's name...” the sound he couldn't place earlier, he realized as he caught sight of the creature banking in a slow circle overhead, had been wing-beats. A giant reptilian beast with two taloned feet, teeth the length of his forearm and wings the size of a tram, to be precise. Wings that it was now folding to plunge head first towards the group he had left behind.
“Into the building!” Leon's gun fired on the creature three times in succession, and Morgana had spurred the others into action, sprinting across the grounds towards Arthur and the safety of the Cavalry Museum. She easily outpaced them, and he found he was never so glad of her years of dragging him out at St. Andrews for runs at the break of dawn as he was at that exact moment.
The beast had grabbed the secretary. Arthur felt sick that a part of him was glad that tearing her apart seemed to distract the creature. He wrenched open the door of the Helicopter, pulling the pilot from his seat, and with Percy's help the two of them supported the man as they made a stumbling dash, clearing the distance to safety. More gunshots covered their retreat, but so did the cries.
He dropped the pilot without really meaning to once they made the door, staggering forward and falling hard against the wall, relearning how to breathe. Leon slammed the door closed behind him.
“The others -”
“That thing wasn't alone,” Leon said in a strained voice and Arthur was too tired to press.
Morgana seemed to be trembling a few paces away.
Their little group sat in silence; whether from shock and exhaustion or in mourning for the men and women they had left beyond the doors he didn't know. Most likely all of the above. What did one do for people in shock? To the extent of his knowledge, the police usually handed out blankets. Maybe if he found some blankets, he could give them to the others and the world would right itself once more. He vowed to find some just as soon as his legs stopped shaking.
After what Arthur imagined was perhaps an hour or so after the sounds from outside had fallen quiet, he carefully pushed to his feet making his way over to where Morgana sat. She had done what she could for the young pilot, he knew, but the man lay unnaturally still against the wall.
“Inhaled too much smoke, I think,” she said in a low voice as Arthur felt for a pulse, letting his hand fall back to his side and setting his jaw. “Or the concussion. Or any number of things none of us here are qualified to treat.”
“I know,” he murmured, closing his eyes and swallowing against the insidious fear crawling in his stomach. “I just need to...I need to do something. We need to find food, get an idea of what's going on out there...I just saw people dying Morgana, how do we even --.”
“You're right, give me your hand.” She pulled herself up, brushing off her trousers with a few brisk swipes and ignoring the dark smears she left behind. When she spoke, her voice was strong. “Percy, you and Arthur are going to see if you can find something for us to eat later and find us something to sleep on that's more comfortable than stone. Leon, we're off to find a landline and anything else useful for the end of the world.”
She held up a hand, cutting off Arthur from responding. “There are flying lizards outside that may or may not be dragons. I think this qualifies as an 'End of the World' scenario.”
“It's strange.” Arthur had taken to peering around corners before proceeding, and if Percy found it odd he wasn't saying anything. The Prince felt it was being prudent. “London is a city of over seven and a half million people, not to mention the tourists. Where is everyone?”
"If they're sensible, they're likely hiding out at home." Percy was eyeing the display cases with interest. "The Horse Guards have an armoury. We should grab some supplies, something that might stand a chance against giant scaly beasts."
"Leon's handgun didn't seem to have much of an effect. Spears maybe? It worked for St. George." He pushed open a large wooden door, stepping into a long dim lit room with wooden stalls and the distinct smell of horses. "The Stable Block. God, I didn't even think...they've just left the horses here."
“It's not an age of cavalry anymore, Sire. Men feel more comfortable with a tank for armour rather than wearing a tin can, particularly against things bigger than they are. A horse is more mobile than a car, though. We'd probably stand a better chance on one if those claws can cut through steel like they can stone," the man said thoughtfully, following through into the room. There was a rustling sound and Percy had thrown himself in front of the Prince as a dark form barreled its way across the stables, what looked like a broom waving in the air.
"Don't get no ideas!" It was a young man, Arthur noted as he stared down the length of broom wavering between Percy's nose and his, in jeans and a ratty grey jumper. Short brown hair cropped in military style. Not much more than a boy, really. "These belong to the Royal Guard and you'll not steal them for no joy rides."
Arthur put a hand on Percy's shoulder who looked ready to give the boy a good wallop. He was a bear of a man, it likely wouldn’t have ended well. "Have you been here, taking care of these creatures?"
"Somebody had to." The young man was still glaring, hands white-knuckled in their grip.
"You know your way around the building?"
"Been living here a week now."
"I'm Arthur. This is Percival, my...well I'm not sure what you are anymore, Percy," the prince frowned. "I can hardly expect you and Leon to continue your duties to the Crown given the situation."
"I can't speak for Leon, Your Highness, but I think you'll find that I intend to do just that. Even against young ruffians wielding brooms."
The boy was darting glances between them now, taking a cautionary step back before realizing he was in fact the young ruffian in question at which point the broom was suddenly as far away from his hands as possible, clattering against the wall. "I'm sorry. God, is that a...I'm not ending up in the Tower for that, am I? I would've known, Sir. Sire. Your Highness. I just...I don't watch much telly and -"
"What's your name?"
"Jim Dagonet. I mean, Jim Dagonet, Sire."
"Well Jim Dagonet Sire, would you like to join us?" he held out a hand, mindful of the way Percy was watching them like a hawk. "We may not be many, but I think it's safer if we all stick together. A good deal friendlier too."
The boy was enthusiastic as he grabbed Arthur's hand, pumping it solidly a good number of times before Percy cleared his throat gruffly. The Prince rolled his shoulder surreptitiously, hoping neither man caught the action once his hand was released. "Most people call me Dagonet."
Morgana and Leon returned not long after the three of them had deposited the corpse of the pilot in one of the empty stalls in the Stable Block. Arthur didn't like the idea of just leaving the poor man's body behind, but they couldn't just let it sit out in the open. If he had his way, they'd have fetched the others from outside and found some way to honour them, but if those creatures were still at their door it was not an option. He wasn't even sure if they would find anything.
They had accepted Dagonet with little more than a raised brow and quick round of introductions. It turned out that though he had been living there for a number of days, the food he had the foresight to stock had been intended for the horses while he had planned to simply make regular runs to nearby shops himself. He hadn't counted on shop owners locking up and going home or on having to survive a siege.
“Landlines are down,” Morgana said tersely. “The radio in the back room is still receiving a signal from somewhere – it seems like this isn't just a localized attack.”
Arthur stared at her with a tight dread. “How big are we talking?”
She and Leon exchanged glances and he knew intrinsically it was bad. “Before the satellites went down, a few people were able to send a number of photos to the world news agencies...”
“The whole world,” he hazarded.
“We don't know,” Leon replied grimly. “What we do know is that the British Isle and Ireland are shut off from the mainland by some sort of cloud bank. No one's got through. Someone had a photo of what they labelled as a kraken pulling down ships crossing the Channel.”
Percy shook his head. “What's important is right here, right now. We can't do anything for the poor sods outside of London if we can't even figure out a way to deal with what's going on in the City. It's like a damn Asian monster film out there.”
“Number 10 is around the corner. Isn't the council room there supposed to be the most defensible room in Britain?”
“The War Chambers are – but they’re too far out if the enemy’s already here.”
“And what will we do there?” Morgana said critically, “Lock ourselves in and wait until we run out of food? And that's supposing that there isn't already the Prime Minister and a bunch of parliamentary House staff kipping out there already.”
“They'd make room for the Crown Prince and company,” Percy maintained.
“They shouldn't have to,” the Prince said flatly. “I do not intend to hide for the remainder of my life, nor would I ever force my position as a reason to be allowed concessions in such a dire time.”
“What do you propose, Your Highness?” Leon was watching him with an approving smile. Arthur wasn't quite sure he knew what to do with that or the four sets of eyes that seemed to expect him to take charge. Even Morgana who loved nothing more than to rib him about authority was silent
“People have died today. We have no idea what it looks like out there right now, but we can at least assume that there are a number of very large, very dangerous creatures roaming the city.” He was concentrating quite hard on not picturing the young secretary in that moment, staring hard at the stone beneath his feet. “There is a very high chance that there are other people still out there and still in danger– I refuse to believe that over seven million people could die so quickly; not when London has withstood so much already. There are tunnels and strong houses leftover from the wars. The Underground that connects so much of the city - those things did not look like they'd have an easy time there. I for one intend to face this threat like a Briton and take back our city.”
“I think we all need to get some sleep.” Morgana was watching Arthur appraisingly. “It has been an incredibly stressful day for everyone and no doubt we will have clearer minds if we can put some distance to the events of this afternoon.”
He was remarkably thankful for how well the Duchess seemed to be taking everything, grounding him in ways he never thought she could; he wasn't sure at all what he would have done if she had broken down on him. Morgana in tears wasn't something he thought he would ever be able to handle.
Arthur didn't sleep that night, curled in one of the armchairs they'd found and pulled into a corner. The others had all agreed they would camp out under the vaulted ceiling in the museum section and despite Morgana's half-hearted protestations over privacy and stone floors, he knew that she was glad to remain close. The dorms above the stables were well outfitted, but the view out over the smoking remains of the helicopter was hardly something they wanted to look at just yet, and one room had a nasty crack snaking along the ceiling from impact. No one wanted to stay near windows in case they drew unwanted attention.
They had piled blankets from the stables into makeshift bedrolls. He had draped one over Morgana's shoulders when they'd first brought them back, and she had given him a quizzical look he had refused to answer, instead dividing the padding up for four and determinedly taking a chair for himself.
Dinner had been chocolate and shortbread from the gift shop and watery porridge oats with carrots cooked up with the aid of an electric kettle and the stable pantry. The next day they would have to sort out what to do.
For the first time in his life, Arthur Pendragon felt like he was truly responsible for the lives of the people around him. The corpse in the stables only enforced that feeling. Morgana had nearly forced a piece of chocolate down his throat that evening, but Arthur found he barely tasted it - when she wasn't paying him quite so much attention, he passed the remainder of his meal off to Dagonet.
As the others had laid themselves down for the night, Morgana had knelt by his chair, resting a hand carefully on his knee. He had expected her to tell him it wasn't his fault; that she could see him tying his insides in knots over nothing.
“I knew they were coming,” she had said instead in a low voice. “I saw it. Last week, after the charity dinner with Merlin. I started to remember. You haven't yet.”
It didn't make sense to him why Morgana would think of that then; it wasn't as if she knew what the future held in store. “No one could have foreseen this.”
“I did. And I'm sorry,” was all she said, patting his leg before moving away.
Sometime in the night he had dug a crumpled note out of his pocket and remembered the scent of lemons and a frustrated young doctor asking for help. He folded it neatly, replacing it with care.
And then, Arthur started thinking.
It was the darkest night he could remember, devoid of even the faintest street lamps. It made way for the dim gloom that heralded the beginning of a new day. Arthur set about preparing for a breakfast while the others slept. He was determined to pull his weight, even if he was unsure of how to go about it yet.
“We're going to burn his body,” Arthur said calmly after they had porridge and tea, “and then we are going to see if we can find someone who might be able to help us.”
He didn't have another plan. If the army was out there, then he was certain those men and women were doing their damnedest. If they weren't, then he wasn't sure what use heavy artillery would be to their rag-tag little group. He'd trained briefly with the RAF. If he could get to a plane perhaps he'd be of some use, but he knew without a doubt he had no intention of sharing the sky with dragons; there was likely no contest between the two. Arthur still couldn't believe he could think that with any sense of gravity.
“Sire, to burn -”
“It is the least we can do, Percival,” Arthur said firmly. “I will not leave him to rot in the stables.”
Not when the pilot had only come that day for Arthur's sake.
“Just someone generally,” Leon asked wryly, “or did you have someone particular in mind?”
He glanced over at Morgana who not only seemed to understand but approve. “I think I know of a man in particular, if we can find him.”
“Who can fight off dragons.”
“Yes,” Arthur said with far more confidence than he felt, “I believe dealing with mythical creatures is something on his CV.”
“Right.” Leon stood. “Where to?”
Morgana smiled, “I think we're off to see the Wizard.”
The Wizard was hiding.
Lance was discreetly waving him down from the tube entrance across the street where he, Gwen and Gwaine had taken refuge, but the two gryphon circling hadn't spotted them yet and Merlin wasn't very keen to see how fast they could move. Having Lance save him once was more than enough.
The other man was making strange hand gestures now, and though he had only known Lance for a total of two hours and twenty-seven minutes, Merlin was positive that absolutely no one outside of over-muscled athletes could decipher such things without a veritable handbook. A handbook annotated and cross referenced with colour coding and copious graphics. He and Gwaine got on smashingly.
Merlin almost didn't see the shadow in time to duck back. He swore that last creature had looked like a gargoyle.
He closed his eyes, counted to ten and dashed across the street, ducking and weaving like a madman until Lance's strong hands grabbed his shirt, pulling him forcibly into the building.
“This is not how I expected to spend my Tuesday, Merlin,” Lance said in a low voice.
“If it was, I would be seriously worried about you, Dulac.”
Yesterday, when the sky broke and the world fell apart, Merlin hadn't really expected it to get this bad. Yes, Gaius had warned him rather severely before he up and left the City. Yes, he'd been ordered to read a stack of tomes taller than he was and told he'd better 'hope to God you sort this mess out'. Because apparently, he'd mucked things up quite badly when he doused the Crown Prince in dishwater instead of standing by his side like a magical watchdog. But a stuck-up blond prince stood as little chance against a gryphon as a banker did, so he really hadn't expected quite so bad of a fall out.
Granted, if he could work out why it was happening at all, he hoped that might be explained.
If it wasn't for the fact that people were now dead, Merlin felt his actions would have been entirely justified given the man's attitude. Not that he could see how behaving differently that night could have prevented the veritable war zone London seemed to have become, but Gaius had told him that Dragons couldn't lie, even artistic renderings of them. And the one he'd drawn in Gaius' office had seemed pretty sure of itself even if it did fixate on twinned souls and bound destinies.
Merlin winced as the stone Gwaine had chucked glanced off the back of his head. “You two really do have a death wish, don't you. Downstairs. Now.”
“I'm not the one that decided to raid a pub in the middle of the end of the world, Gwaine,” he hissed in return, locking the gate and scrambling over to the stairs with Lance quick on his tail. “God, spiral stairs. I hate spiral stairs.”
“Don't worry mate, only 175 more to go,” the man grinned, taking the steps two at a time.
He plastered a smile on his face for his comrades and did his damnedest not to think this was all his fault.
Leon had managed to find a copy of London A to Z under a pile of books in one of the offices and they'd spread the fold-up inside as flat as they could on one of the displays.
Though they knew the city in theory, neither he nor Morgana had ever had the opportunity to wander it at ground level long enough to memorize all the twists and turns. For that, the other three were invaluable in planning. Even Morgana seemed to have a reasonable idea of where they might locate the young doctor.
Though they weren't sure how it would apply to the current London.
“He may like spending his weekends at Convent Gardens,” Arthur said in frustration, “but that doesn't mean that when giant lizards appear in the sky he's going to be shopping.”
“Well I think it's reasonable to assume that he could be in the vicinity!” she shot back. “Besides, I think it's more likely that he would have been up in Bloomsbury at the time. Gaius has an office out of the Medical Association on Woburn, not to mention Dr. Emrys has been helping out at Ormond.”
Percy shifted uncomfortably, “I don't mean to sound pessimistic, but we can't just wander London proper looking for a single man who may or may not still be alive.”
“The man can take on dragons,” Leon said with enough seriousness that Arthur couldn't accuse him of being facetious. “If he's the man we need, he'll be alive.”
They turned to look at Dagonet who was staring hard at the map.
The boy looked up, meeting Arthur's eyes without preamble. “Convent Gardens, the British Medical Association building and the Greater Ormond Street Hospital. They're all on or close to the Piccadilly Line.”
“The Underground probably isn't running, I doubt their union would have them working through a catastrophe.”
“The whole system has an auto-override. Even if the electricity is still up, metal on the rail will shut down the current between stations.” Leon tapped the map thoughtfully, “We could stay out of sight most of the way if we're heading up that direction.”
“Do dragons like caves or high places?” Percy frowned. “If those things can get into the tunnels we'd be trapped.”
“We'd have a better chance of surviving if we travel under a roof than in the open air. It's a good idea,” Dagonet seemed to light up under the Prince's approving hand on his shoulder. Arthur turned to the Duchess who seemed to be staring through the map. “Morgana?”
“We need to get there before the sun reaches its zenith,” she said without hesitation. "The Underground is safe for now."
Arthur looked at her dumbfounded, hands shaking inches away from his head. “What does that even mean Morgana! There's a cloud cover as thick as custard out there. We haven't seen the sun clear in over a fortnight!”
“This time of year, we're looking at about half twelve,” Leon supplied helpfully, looking at his watch in contemplation.
“If we're heading underground, we're going to need supplies; at the very least, some way of getting into a station,” Percy added. “They're all going to be in lock-down unless someone else has already been down there.”
The Prince's mouth set in a thin line, still watching the vacant expression on the Duchess as he tried to puzzle out what was happening to her. Over the past two days she had been saying the strangest things while offering no explanation for their purpose or function; often times not appearing to have noticed she'd said anything at all.
“Then it looks like we have some scavenging to do in the next few hours.”
“I cannot believe you rolled a cider keg out of there with a mutant cat-bird on your tail,” Gwen said, taking a deep drink from her pint in the soft blue-tinted glow from Merlin's light.
They had camped out just off the northbound platform level near the defunct elevators, surrounded by Tesco bags and rucksack of Gwaine's with the spoils of his impromptu run to the Friend at Hand. Merlin suspected it was a little less impromptu when the man had pulled out a pair of his favourite metal steins.
“No better way to celebrate surviving the apocalypse than a good dose of liquor,” the man said jovially, giving Merlin a wink and passing Lance the bottle of whiskey he'd liberated.
“I thought you were banned from that pub.”
“It's a long list, you can't expect me to remember them all. That one was my favourite, too,” Gwaine gave his heart a pat. "So close to the flat."
The Frenchman took a small swig with a grimace, passing it quickly off to Merlin who took it gratefully. “We can't stay here forever.”
“Tomorrow, yeah?” The Scotsman was busy tearing open packets of sausages and rashers. “Want to help a lad out with some fire?”
“Fire in an enclosed space with nothing to burn?” Lance said dubiously.
“Don't need fuel.” Merlin placed a hand in the centre of their circle where Gwaine had helpfully pushed their supplies aside, concentrating intently on the ground beneath his fingers, raising his arm slowly as he spoke, “Heorþ se fýrgnást.”
A cheerful little fire took shape in the space with a small stone barrier surrounding.
“Now that,” Lance said with feeling, “is a handy little trick.”
Gwaine gave him a hard pat on the back, grinning. "Had him practice that beauty for months."
“No fuel, no smoke,” he said a little proudly, "perfect for flat barbequing without a grill." Gwaine was looking at him pointedly, a sausage in his extended hand. Merlin sighed, and with a flick of his wrist the meat had settled itself above the flames much to the other man's satisfaction.
“I nominate Merlin as the official chef of our little band of outlaws. What say you, Smithy, Dulac?” He said with a grin lying back on his elbows to wait, a sentiment that Gwen and Lance seemed happy to share.
When they were all fed and content, they agreed to rest in shifts, none of them having slept much the first night they'd huddled together wondering if they'd see the day. Gwaine was out like a light within five minutes of Merlin agreeing to take first watch, and after some subtle manipulation Gwen had convinced Lance that he too should rest while she kept their 'little wizard' company. Had it been anyone else, he might have taken offence.
Gwen's solid presence at his side was more comforting than he liked to admit. He'd first met the woman seven years ago at a police station in East London when he'd gone in to pick up the belongings that had scattered at the accident site. She'd been there to post bail for her brother who had somehow got caught up with a serious investigation in Upney and they'd struck up a conversation over paperwork. They'd met up again the following week. Two drinks and an unfortunate produce isle caper later, they discovered they got on magnificently and had been great friends ever since. There was something about her that was just so familiar he never could refuse the woman.
She leant closer, just enough to bump his shoulder with hers where they sat on the bottom few steps near the platform, Merlin's light shifting lazily overhead. “You're worrying again.”
He sighed, twisting his neck from his bowed shoulders to give her a small smile. “One of us has to be responsible.”
“Which is why I'm seriously worried that you think it should be you,” Gwen replied. “You once spent three weeks trying to choreograph squirrels to spell 'we're watching you' in Hyde Park when you should have been studying for your exit exam.”
“I knew I'd pass,” he said easily. She didn't need to know that he'd only taken medicine because it was something he was fairly certain he'd done before his accident. He had somehow retained extensive knowledge of the practice despite being unable to remember who he was as a person. He could easily say the same for history and literature.
“My point is,” she reached out, giving his knee a soft squeeze, “we're going to get through this.”
He let out a breath in one big huff, staring out into the darkness of the tracks. “What do you think we should be doing?”
“I don't know,” Gwen replied honestly, lacing her fingers together around her knees. “If we knew what or why things were happening, I'd say we should try to do what we could to fix things. Right now, I think maybe we should think about the others.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well think about it, Merlin. Gwaine and I were both with you when this whole thing started, but Lance wasn't. We only met up with him because he tried to whack a gryphon with a cricket bat to save your skinny arse.”
“My arse is perfect, Gwen Thomson.” He ducked the swat she aimed at his head.
“There are bound to be other groups of people out there that are looking for a direction or that need our help. With you, with us, maybe we can do some good. Don't you think we should at least try to find them?”
“Where would we even start?”
Gwen shrugged. “The next stop down the line. And then the next. We keep moving and hope our efforts pay off.”
Merlin gave her a real smile, throwing an arm over her shoulder and hugging her close. Sometimes, just sometimes, he knew he could see the heart of a queen amongst men, and in those moments her certainty made him believe that everything would be alright.
The pyre was a hasty pile of straw and wooden planks that had once been a barrier across the visitor's window in the stables, pried loose by the crowbar Dagonet had fetched from the tools cupboard. It was all stacked in a hasty pile just outside the entrance, and between the four men they manoeuvred the body wrapped in a Union flag from the shop onto the centre as quickly as possible. The remains of the House Staff that fell behind were nowhere to be seen.
No one had known what to say for the unidentified pilot.
“We do for one what we could not for others,” the Prince had finally said solemnly, keeping his head high and refusing to look skyward as he had circled the body, thrusting a burning brand into the pile at intervals, “and pray that the favour be returned should our fortune desert us.”
They took a moment to watch in silence, to ensure the fire would catch, before Leon and Percy had forced the Prince to retreat back into the relative safety of the building.
Gathered once more in the stables, they had debated in earnest about the fate of the horses. It was concluded that they would have to be released before they left to give the horses a chance to survive. It would be next to impossible to get the horses into the tunnels and be able to provide for them for more than a few days. In addition, the two members of the security team argued the very real possibility that the animals would react poorly to massive predators on their tail. Modern cavalry horses, particularly those used for show, were hardly conditioned for battle. Arthur couldn't argue against avoiding serious injury, so riding was out.
The Prince worked with steadfast determination alongside Dagonet, stripping the horses of all tack and tether while the others packed what might be useful in gaudy tourist carry-alls. Morgana retained her perverse humour and had handed him over a sack with his own over-sized face smiling back at him. When they were ready, they pushed open the stable doors and ducked out into the half-light, each with a hand-held torch they'd rustled up from the guard posts.
The stuck close to the sides of buildings, following Leon and Percy's lead as the two men had insisted and Arthur made sure to keep a firm grip on Morgana's hand despite her protest at being treated like a child. Dagonet slunk like a shadow at the Prince's side.
Whitehall Place was silent as they crept steadily towards the Thames, and the constant worry without a visible threat was eating away at Arthur's nerves with every step they took.
Embankment was the point they'd agree to make towards; it wasn't on the Piccadilly Line, but the others were convinced it shouldn't be too difficult to head north by following the Northern Line tracks as far as Leicester Square before branching east. Embankment also provided the quickest and most direct route to head underground. At Leon's signal, they darted across Northumberland Avenue and past the Playhouse Theatre.
“There's a grocer's here,” the older man said, pulling up short at the shop under the National Rail tracks. “We should grab what we can before we go under. Who knows when we'll get another chance.”
“No more than twenty minutes to spare.” Morgana looked pale even as she walked to the glass doors, torch in hand. “We need to be out of sight very, very soon.”
Arthur wasn't sure how she seemed so certain about that, but he couldn't argue that it came across as something deeper than just fear. He trusted her judgement.
“Right,” he said, hefting the crowbar they'd taken from the stables in one hand before swinging it like a bat, shattering the sliding door with hairline cracks. Two more strikes opened a hole large enough for them to enter. “Twenty minutes. We take what we can and then we're gone.”
Arthur pushed Dagonet through the hole, watching his little group disappear one after the other into the darkened interior before bringing up the rear. He'd honestly never been inside a grocer's like this; even at uni he'd eaten in the Hall with the others or ordered in. The closest he'd ever come was walking through Harrods Food Hall a few times after hours with Morgana and once with his father, but he thought he knew the basics.
He let his torch sweep along the aisles. Arthur could hear the others rooting about, someone stuffing cans into a sack a row over, Leon calling for Percy to find water. Dagonet he found stuffing sweets quick as he could into the bag between his knees. The Prince found a small section of hardware, making sure to stow practical things like more batteries, twine, a can-opener, before moving on to the food shelves. Arthur counted no less than six rats skittering about as time wore on.
When Morgana called the time, they all crawled out again, Percy leading their exit and signalling the all-clear before they continued their journey. The entrance ahead was gated, just as Leon had expected, but the masonry to the right was cracking, and the metal grate was bending under the pressure from the stone. Something had hit the roof above. Something large.
Arthur and Percy got to work right away, dropping their bags and wedging the crowbar into the cracked wall, prying to loosen the grate. Dimly he was aware of Morgana to his left, staring off into the small park.
“Almost have it, now.” He jumped back a bit as part of the wall they were working at crashed to the ground. “Leon, if you get through, we can pass supplies through and ease the way.”
He and Percy grabbed hold of the thin metal of the gate, using their weight to bend it into a larger opening as Leon clambered through. “Morgana, Dagonet. I want you both through this gate, no arguments.”
The Duchess calmly hefted two bags through the hole to Leon first before accepting Percy's help in scaling the gate, Leon catching her on the other side. Dagonet had no difficulty in bolting up and through.
Once everything was handed through into the darkness, Percy insisted he would be the last of their group and he had barely let his feet touch the ground inside the station before they saw it. Leon had immediately ordered they all shut off their torches with a hushed command, and without a word they had all shuffled back, deeper into the darkness.
It looked like a giant wildcat. Or it would have, if not for the massive black bat wings protruding from its shoulders. The thing stalked out of the small park on silent feet, something white dangling from its jaws.
Arthur couldn't help but feel a little indignant when he realized it was a swan. Swans were royal property. His Mother's. If that creature was going to poach his Mother's swans – the thought broke when Morgana's hand found his forearm, gripping it tight in the dark.
The beast's head jerked skyward before snarling around its mouthful and bounding north, away from river. Three massive shadows flickered across the street, disappearing after it.
“Come on,” Arthur said in a hoarse voice. “We need to get deeper.”
“You know, if we got a couple of bikes and roped them together, we'd be able to make like a cart. We could take a whole lot more with us.” Gwaine was frowning at the keg sitting at the top of the stairs with a contemplative air. "Isn't there a Barclays rental line nearby?"
Gwen smacked the man hard across his back, hefting her bag into a higher position. “It's been two days and already you're trying to make us adapt to a life of mole-people.”
“It's just a waste,” he insisted stubbornly. "Remind me again why we couldn't just kip out in our flat?"
"You do remember that group of gryphons, don't you?" Merlin had already bent down to examine the track, well used to Gwaine's suggestions of ingenuity. He tossed one of the man's empty cans at the rail. “We're good. Lance, give me a hand getting down.”
Travel was much easier than he'd expected. He made sure to keep a few witch-lights drifting in a line beside them and relied on Gwen's freakishly detailed memory of the tracks to keep them in the right direction at change points. Her father had been a technician with the Transit Commission for thirty years. Apparently their home had been plastered with blueprints of the system, and he didn't doubt she'd learned to read the maps before anything else.
At Holborn they'd debated heading west on the Central but the debate hadn't lasted long. Without a destination in mind, their direction seemed inconsequential and Gwen had determined they should keep on if only to break them out of the dark mood that settled upon the realization.
“The Drama Centre's a block north, and the Art College.” Gwen squinted up at the dark shape of the stairwell on the southbound platform. “There might be some students around here.”
“At the very least there's a Sainsbury's,” Gwaine added.
Lance shot the other man an incredulous look. “Good lord, man. We've been walking for maybe a half hour.”
“We should grab some torches.” Merlin gave the metal service ladder a good shake before clambering up to the platform, holding out a hand to help Gwen over the top. “If we get split up or something I don't think it's best to only be relying on my magic.”
“You really think that there might be some poor sod up at street level?” The Scotsman dropped his bags with the pile the others had left and bounded up the ladder as though it were a gentle slope. Merlin blamed the man's athletics on being raised like a mountain goat in the Highlands. “A fashion student needing to double check that his stitches are sorted during a monster attack. Now that's dedication to the Art. Maybe someone's painting it for posterity.”
“Don't be such an arse.”
“Don't worry, yeah? I won't let the baddies ruin your hair,” Merlin said with a grin. “We've got to make sure you look your best for Da Vinci. Come on, Gwen – Gwen?”
"There shouldn't be any electricity running down here anymore aside from the auxiliary emergency generator." The dark-skinned girl was staring up at a light down the platform. “I'm getting a closer look,” she said.
Lance took one look at the others before he took off towards it at a dash, Gwaine and Merlin holding Gwen firmly in place. She kicked the Scot's shins and levelled a glare at Merlin who let go and took a step back, hands in the air. He knew a death glare when he saw one.
“Investigating strange things in the dark is not the best way to keep alive,” Merlin said in defence.
"Oh but Lance you're okay with running off into the void," she shot back.
"He's a fearsome cricket warrior, there's no way I'm stepping in his path."
"I'll show you fearsome."
When it was clear that nothing untoward seemed to have happened to the Frenchman they followed pace, Gwaine muttering the whole way about unnatural freakish women. “Well?”
With the witch-lights bobbing along the ceiling it was apparent that the light had only been the electronic call sign for the next train, scrolling through gibberish letters. Gwen stared pointedly at Merlin.
“Why is it on?” She asked after delivering a well aimed punch to Lance's shoulder. He took it like a man.
“Why wouldn't it be. It's broken down, anyhow.” Gwaine was peering up at the flickering orange lights. “I think it just said 'NEXT FROG 2 MINUTES'”
“The ones at Russell Square weren't on this morning. Or last night. The switch lights all along the track are off and have been for some time,” Gwen insisted. “The only lights that are on are powered by the emergency breakers, and they don't hook into the announcement boards.”
“No, look.” Lance's finger suddenly trailed the text panning the screen. “It's saying something.”
“Arthur,” Merlin read aloud, “Where...are you...Arthur?”
Something was off; he could feel his heart catch as he watched the scrolling letters. There was nothing more. The same message repeating over and over again in the dark.
“Arthur. Where are you, Arthur?” Gwaine repeated, crossing his arms. “Who's Arthur? Gwen might've been right; some artsy folk must've thought it'd be a laugh to mess with the signs when no one's about. They're probably hiding up in the ticket booth.”
“It's the Prince. He must still be alive.” He knew the others were staring at him.
“You know there's any number of blokes out there named Arthur, Merlin,” Gwen said slowly. “I think Gwaine might be right about this one.”
“I'm right, you're right,” Gwaine smirked. “We heading up?”
“No. They're looking for the Prince,” Merlin said firmly.
“Right, so if someone is looking for the Prince -”
Realisation hit him like cold water and he had a fleeting memory of the look on Arthur's face the last time he'd seen him. “Then it means that someone is behind this.”
Gwaine's hands found his shoulders, pulling Merlin around to face him and giving him a good shake. “You mean 'this' as in...all of this? Merlin, who could possibly send out gryphons and winged monkeys to ransack London just to locate the Royal Arse?”
“...I don't know.”
“It could just be the army,” Gwen said sensibly. “Maybe they lost him in the confusion and they're trying to track him down, make sure he's alright.”
“It's possible,” Lance agreed. "Though one would think that proper protocol would have them using 'HRH' or Your Majesty to be specific."
Gwaine was still staring intently at Merlin.
“It's magic,” he said simply.
“I trust him,” Gwaine cut off Gwen's protest.
“Gwen, it's magic. Arthur Pendragon doesn't believe in magic, ergo, whoever sent this message, whoever is looking for him, is not someone he knows.”
“So if we know that there is someone orchestrating this,” Lance reasoned, “and we know that they want the Prince for something, shouldn't we then try to at least find him?”
“What we should do is keep moving. I don't know if the message is localized or being broadcast on anything that communicates, but it seems prudent to assume that whoever is sending it may know someone is down here. We're heading up.” Merlin pointed to the stairs. He waited until everyone had passed him before he destroyed the sign in a shower of fire and sparks. Merlin hoped it passed through the connecting system.
"What the bloody hell was that for?"
"The less people know that message, the safer he will be," Merlin said grimly. "Upstairs."
Arthur had assumed rather naïvely that the Underground would be one track leading in one direction. Never having ridden the trains himself, his knowledge of the system relied solely on the great solid lines inked across the maps prevalent in handbooks of the city which seemed fairly straight forward and colourful. He hadn't expected a warren of service tunnels and junctions criss-crossing and maze-like beyond the platform's edge. And it was hot.
“The steam tunnels run alongside the tracks in some sections.” Leon had said when he'd made comment. Arthur decided resolutely not to complain if it meant Morgana would shoot him looks like he should know these things already. But Leon didn't say anything else about it, leading like he knew where they were going with his torchlight wavering along in the distance.
Percy handed around plastic bottles of water. Arthur drained half of it in one go. “If we want to meet up with the other line, it'll be easier to cross over to the other track like everyone else here.”
They had reached the second point where the track had raised, and a sweep of Arthur's torch up the walls revealed a line of posters for Channel 4. Morgana was already lifting bags up onto the platform.
When they had all left the tracks, Percy's light flickered along the ceiling searching for the direction to the blue line. Arthur caught sight of the exit.
“Arthur, don't you dare,” the Duchess said in warning when she noticed the light fixated on the way out.
“What?” He forced innocence into his voice, “I think we should stop, have something to eat.”
She was still eyeing him suspiciously, but the others seemed to accept his suggestion of a break. He fished about in one of their bags, pulling out an apple and sitting down while shooting her a challenging look. The crunch under his bite echoed in the tunnel.
“Fine.” He remembered the way she had watched him at breakfast, staring meaningfully at him until he had scraped his bowl clean.
“It's as good a place as any,” Leon said democratically. “We need to keep our strength up.”
It didn't take long for them to set up a small lunch out of what they'd scavenged from the shop by the river. Morgana set about making up sandwiches from packaged bread and preserves while Leon handed around dried meat and bags of crisps. Had it not been for the fact that they were sitting underground in a ring of torchlight, he could almost imagine they were on a picnic with friends. It was a novel concept, and one that he wilfully allowed himself to believe for a few moments despite knowing his father would never have permitted such a thing. Uther was very strict about what constituted royal behaviour when dealing with the staff and public.
Arthur wondered vaguely how Balmoral was standing up to this; if his father had found somewhere safe or if he was marshalling the troops to take back his kingdom. He wondered if he would come out of this a King.
He wondered if he was ready, should that be the case.
When the others were well into their lunch, Arthur got to his feet and grabbed his torch as he went. “I won't be a moment.”
“And where do you think you're going?” Morgana said archly. She knew, somehow, though he was never sure if it was truly her knowing or just guessing freakishly well.
He held up his hands calmly. “Forgive me, we do not all have iron bladders. I'm only human.”
“Your Highness, I'll accompany -”
“Despite what my father may have led you to believe, Leon, I am not a child,” he said peevishly. “Let's not make this into more than it needs to be.”
"And if you get caught with your pants down facing a wyvern I'm sure you'll handle yourself magnificently." The Duchess pointed her sandwich at him in a disturbingly menacing fashion. “You have five minutes or I'm coming after you myself.”
He made sure his steps were light on the metal escalators. When he reached the surface, he took a moment to just breathe, appreciating the cool air wafting through the gaps in the grating. They would have to surface as often as they could; the underground's ventilation system was poor at best even working with the generators, and without the movement of trains the air was bound to grow stale and oppressive. He had no intention of remaining trapped in the old Victorian labyrinth for longer than they needed to be. The generators powering the emergency lights giving out on them was only a matter of time.
Arthur hopped the turnstiles, pacing over to the gated doors and curling his fingers through the metal. No one had tampered with these doors. No one had tried to save themselves here.
He let out a breath and headed back down.
The locks on Holborn's gates slid open under Merlin's hand. Gwaine's suggestion of anyone hiding out in the service rooms quickly proved a dead end; no one had been there before them, every lock still in place from when the workers had last clocked out for the day and every breaker still firmly off. They'd picked up some of the torches locked up for the technicians on their search, so he didn't count it as entirely fruitless.
“Can you see anything?” Gwen said softly, trying to peer around the Scotsman's shoulders into the street.
“A deserted street,” the man replied. “A couple of cars that look like they got on the wrong side of a coo.”
Merlin ducked out into the street, scanning the skies for sign of anything. There was scaffolding set up across a building down the road where they were re-facing the stone, and he couldn't stop picturing it filled with roosting creatures lying in wait. The glass front of the shop opposite was shattered. “Something got into that Sainsbury's.”
Gwaine had pushed his way past, surveying the area. “Someone's been here though.” He jerked a thumb down at the Costa on the corner where someone had covered the windows with depictions of rats wearing bomber jackets and riding dragons. One had the words 'taking back the streets' painted across the signboard it held. “Fucking Banksy.”
As they were examining the stencils, Lance's hand shot out and grabbed Gwaine's shoulder. When the man gave him a questioning look, the Frenchmen nodded down High Holborn where they could just see something dash into an alley by the chemist's.
“Right.” Gwaine tested his grip on the metal piping he'd picked up along the track, edging his way along the street. “Whatever it was, it was small.”
Merlin wanted to groan in frustration, because he was fairly certain they'd all agreed upon avoiding confrontation with big scary monsters that might want to eat them, but clearly he needed to be more specific as to what counted under that heading. He was positive that the books he'd been reading had creatures of all shapes and sizes that had no qualms with eating them. Or poisoning them. Or just being a general nuisance. He crept quickly after his flatmate, running over everything he could think of that might get them out alive, a litany of variations on 'this is not how I wanted to go' pressing against his skull.
Before he had even registered that they had reached the dark crevasse between buildings, Gwaine dashed forward, hand already darting out and pinning his quarry against the brick wall, pipe held under its nose dangerously. Lance was standing just behind him, his cricket bat poised and ready.
“It's just a boy!” Gwen latched onto Gwaine's arm, tugging on his forearm to loosen his grip at the child's throat. “Leave off him already.”
There was a firm set to Gwaine's jaw, and he glanced at Merlin for confirmation before letting the boy's feet touch the ground, hands slowly releasing his shirt. “Sorry, kid.”
“There's nothing on him,” Merlin said slowly, reaching out and trying to see if he could find anything unusual. The boy, for his part, looked absolutely terrified under a layer of dirt but he was trying to hide it well, his hand still clenching tight around a bag from the Superdrug. “What's your name? I'm Merlin. I'm a doctor over at Ormond. The big scary one is Gwaine, and that's Lance and Gwen.”
“...Tristan,” he said in a strong Cornish accent, his eyes darting to the road looking as though he was contemplating bolting.
“Tristan. We're not going to hurt you.” Gwen pushed Gwaine aside, brushing a hand across the boy's cheek. He couldn't have been more than ten. “It's not safe to be out wandering alone. We can help you.”
“Look, we need to get off the streets.” Merlin plastered on a friendly smile. “Come with us -”
“I'm not going anywhere without Isolde.”
“Is she nearby?” Their small group had a quick silent debate before Merlin held out a hand. “Then we'll come with you.”
“What're we doing mucking about below ground?” Gwaine said, shooting Merlin an amused look as boy led them all through a service entrance and into the lobby of the Chancery Court Hotel. Their torches flickered across the mahogany reception and white marbled floors. Gwen seemed so fascinated by the light catching in the crystal chandeliers above their heads that she nearly tripped over the oval table in the centre of the hall.
They bypassed the elevator alcove and headed to the stairs. Tristan led them to the first floor and down the dark corridor and Merlin wondered just how brave the kid must have been over the past few days.
The suite they entered was poorly lit with the shifting glow of candle stubs, and the boy was quick to move to the bed side, digging out his spoils from the outside world. Bandages and plasters. Antiseptics.
Isolde, it turned out, was a young girl in her teens who had suffered a long gash down her leg from a run in with a winged-monkey that apparently had claws the size of steak knives and an attraction to blondes. Tristan had retreated with her before venturing out for supplies.
“Léohtfruma,” Merlin spoke softly, raising a hand and letting the room fill with a warm glow from the overhead lights. It was far easier to use what already existed and if he was going to help the children, he knew he would need to have a clear view of what he was dealing with. He hadn't expected the boy to round on him with that terrified expression, spray antiseptic in his face and crouch like a trapped animal. Gwaine had Tristan in a headlock, one arm twisted behind his back before Merlin could even curse.
“Bloody ow!” he moaned, scrubbing at his eyes to stop the sting. Someone pressed a wet cloth to his hands and he muttered a thanks.
“You're one of them!”
“Cut it out, kid.” Gwaine gave the boy a firm shake. “Does he even look like a deranged beastie to you? We're the good guys.”
“Let him go. I should have warned him first,” Merlin sighed as he began rolling up his sleeves, blinking past the pain and taking in the pallid girl on the stained sheets. “We're going to fix her, Tristan. Please trust me.”
“Come with me, let's get you cleaned up while Doctor Emrys does his job.” Gwen pinched Gwaine on the way by who gave her an affronted look as she passed. “Merlin is just special.”
It took some time, but eventually exhaustion beat out and the boy relented.
“The kid's in love with her.” Gwen said softly, long after Merlin had seen to the girl and they had both fallen asleep on clean beds in the room one over. She had cleaned them both up and made sure they had something warm to eat once Isolde had come to under his care. “She's on her way to becoming his aunt, and he's in love with her.”
“She's only sixteen,” Merlin responded dully, staring at his hands. Without his magic working deep to root out the infection that had set in, he was certain they would have lost her. It was still seeing things like that – knowing that the body under his hands could grow cold because he couldn't do it, couldn't fix it– that made something in him break. Merlin knew his theory. He knew that the irrational anxiety that arose each and every time he saw blood was rooted in something. Maybe he was a failed doctor, before the accident. Maybe he had lost someone.
“His uncle's only twenty. Or was. I don't know.” She let out a huff of breath, “He said they were all together, walking down the street in the fog. One minute they were together, the next, they couldn't find him. No sound, no nothing.”
“People used to get lost in the mist.” He glanced across at her, trying to remember the research Gaius had forced upon him. “The Fair Folk called it to confuse travellers, lead them astray when they walked too close to sacred spots.”
“You think that's what's happened to everyone?”
“I don't know. I'd like to think so; that everyone's just wandering. Better than thinking they were eaten by wyverns, yeah?”
“Yeah.” She passed him a sweet Belgian waffle packet. “You should get some sleep, Wizard Boy. We'll wake Lance to have a go at moping about in the dark.”
As they had travelled, Arthur swore he had heard noises echoing through the darkness along the tracks, but no one else heard anything and they encountered no one as they went. Leon had said it was likely rats in the tunnels.
His torch had caught what remained of a screen attached to the ceiling at one of the stations; it looked as though it had been melted by something. There was another further down the platform that shared the same fate. He decided not to mention it to the others.
Under Morgana’s instruction they surfaced at Russell Square. As they climbed to platform level, Leon pointed out a pile of litter remains tucked away to the wall and Arthur felt himself begin to hope that perhaps there were others like them that had survived. The small keg they found shortly thereafter warranted an amused smirk from Morgana.
The gate at street level had clearly been tampered with, but it was shut tight and they had needed a crowbar once more to shift it.
It was more than a little nerve wracking to make their way down the street, Arthur constantly checking the skies while Percy and Morgana took the lead. She had suggested they make their way to Merlin’s flat first, hoping to pick up some indication of where he might have ended up. How she knew where that was, Arthur decided to corner her on later, for now he was just thankful that one of them knew where they were heading.
They were nearing Hunter Street when they heard the shouting. Leon had pulled Morgana to the back of their group before he and Percy taking off at a run with Arthur close behind.
As they neared Coram Fields it was apparent that the sound was coming from a young dark-skinned man holding his own against what looked like a mix between a bird of prey and a lion. A gryphon, his mind supplied helpfully before he told it off. The man was firing two hand guns at the beast, and it didn’t look like it was doing damage so much as distracting it with the shots.
The three of them ran into the mix, firing the arms they had scavenged from the Horse Guards. He hadn’t expected it to work. The creature looked startled by their approach and with a flap of its wings it took off into the air, leaving them scrambling to keep their footing in the strong down draft.
The beast was letting out a bone shaking screech and looked to be banking in a wide arch. Arthur let out a shout to the others and they wasted no time in taking off further down the road, Morgana and Dagonet at their side.
“In here.” Morgana pulled up abruptly, rattling the handle of one of the town homes. Percy took over, lending his shoulder to the effort. After three solid attempts the door gave way under his assault. They piled in, kicking the door shut behind them.
“Arthur Pendragon,” said the Prince, extending one hand to the man while he bent over to catch his breath. “A pleasure.”
“Elyan.” The man’s grip was firm. “Elyan Thomson. Good timing.”
"The door will hold," Morgana said and Arthur swore for a moment he'd seen a golden tinge to her eyes. He glanced at the door against Percy's back. There was no damage, no evidence of where they'd broken through. Arthur shook his head to clear it; they must have been lucky in the angle of force.
The hallway they stood in was a common area, he realized, a set of stairs leading up and away with a number-plated door behind where Leon rested. A block of flats, then. Morgana was already on her way up and Arthur gave Elyan a pat on the back, bounding up after her, still high on adrenaline.
The apartment was small. He left Leon and Percy in the kitchen once they'd caught up, standing awkwardly around the circular wooden table in the centre of the room nearly hidden under books and old mugs. It didn’t look like the inhabitants had done dishes in weeks. Morgana was already gone, striding off into the living area to disappear.
He nodded to his two men. “You might want to see if you can figure out what he was working on since I assume this is the right address. I’ll go help her with the other rooms.”
Elyan had followed after Morgana and Arthur found him holding a picture frame in his hands. “I haven’t been able to find her,” he said by way of explanation when he noticed the Prince staring.
“My sister.” He turned the frame, a smiling young woman had her arms thrown about the grinning doctor in a park somewhere. “The last time I spoke to her, she told me to avoid parks, green areas. When I didn’t hear back from her, I thought maybe that’s where she’d gone. She had a strong independent streak in her.”
"She seems to be acquainted with the right fellow." At Elyan's look, he added, "Merlin Emrys; we're looking for him ourselves. With any luck she'll be with him."
"I haven't seen another living soul for three days. The mist took everyone."
Arthur let himself sink into the well-worn sofa, jumping at the feel of something biting into his leg. He pulled out a small silver dragon with a frown. "You found us. She'll be alright; Merlin will see to that." He wasn't at all certain if that was a true statement, but it felt right to say - at the very least, it was what Elyan needed to hear. If Arthur was good at anything, it was saying what people wanted to hear from him.
Morgana had emerged from the room he assumed must have been Merlin's and tossed a bundle of clothes at his head. "You are covered in filth," she said by way of explanation. “And you could do with a shave – that poor excuse for facial hair is an embarrassment to the Crown.”
Elyan raised a brow at that and Arthur knew there was wry amusement hiding behind that expression. He couldn't argue with the Duchess though; his clothes were scratchy and stiff, dried blood and dirt and God knows what else ground into his knees. The underground had left a thin layer of black grime that had mixed with his sweat and caked onto his skin.
"You think the shower might be working?" Arthur wasn't certain a shower would even scratch the surface.
Morgana snorted. "Do you have any idea how many magical creatures work through water? I wouldn't trust tap water for anything in these circumstances – who knows what has got to the reservoirs. Merlin used to keep some bottled water in the closet. Do what you can."
"Cheers," he muttered as she passed by to deal with the others.
Gwaine had woken Merlin at quarter past four with a hand over his mouth. “There’s a wee beastie rooting about in the kitchens,” he said in a low voice.
“When you say wee...”
“Big enough to eat us, small enough for it to take two bites,” the Scot replied with good humour and that was that. They gathered everything they needed, Lance taking Isolde in his arms while Gwaine and Gwen grabbed bundles they had prepared the night before. Merlin took point and Tristan pulled up the rear.
They slipped out the main entrance, Merlin whispering to the locks hurriedly and waiting to be sure everyone was out before sealing doors behind them. The world outside was pitch dark and open. If they were attacked now, Merlin wasn’t sure he would be able to protect everyone let alone keep a low profile when his witch lights weren’t nearly bright enough to fight by.
“Back to the underground,” Gwaine had said firmly. "It's the most defensible place for us now if we want to keep moving." He shifted his load over to Lance and took a turn bearing the young girl while Tristan looked on with concern.
He stopped, scanning the street warily of the sibilant voice on the wind. "You heard that, right?" he asked distractedly to Gwen on his right.
"Yeah, I ..." Gwen let out a cry and stumbled back into Lance as something seemed to pull itself together from thin air. A ghost? Merlin was tense, wondering what he might know to deal with whatever it was before it could attack.
"Emrys...he is...not with you," it said softly, a woman's face shifting in and out before his eyes. Two other faces pushed forward into the light, insubstantial as the first. "We thought. We thought. Together. The King is never far."
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said carefully. "The King is not with me. I think he's in Scotland now."
"Merlin..." Gwaine's warning voice came from his left, where another of the creatures was twining around the Scotsman.
"Close, but not here. It is good. We did not want. Though we thought. We continue our task. In peace, Emrys."
They disappeared like fog, leaving Merlin's small party standing in a tight circle in the dark.
"Well that was more than a little nerve wracking," Lance said into the silence. "Proves they're looking for royalty, at least."
"Right. Maybe they'll leave London alone now. Underground, then?"
"Please," Gwen said with feeling.
That was how they found themselves trudging along underground once more, westward along the Central line. They had left the last station ten minutes in the past when they heard the sounds.
Merlin froze stock still at the scuffling echoing through the tracks. He’d heard it earlier, but it had taken him a good fifty feet to isolate it from the sound they themselves were making in the gravel. Lance lowered Isolde to the ground slowly as the others noticed he’d stopped. “We’ve been too lucky,” he said softly.
"Could be some friendly earth sprites this time?" Gwaine quipped without much strength. "Tell them the King's in Canada on a Commonwealth tour."
Gwen pulled the children to the back of their little group and Merlin pushed until the light grew stronger through the tunnel. He stood flanked by Gwaine and Lance, each who had pulled out a metal bar they’d found along the service tunnels. They dropped into a defensive stance and Merlin wondered vaguely why he wasn’t terrified. Why he felt like the three of them could take on the world.
What did happen was far less dramatic than they were anticipating.
Far down the track, just where it bent a little to the right at the edge of the light, a hand poked out around the corner. It was holding something that caught the light and reflected it blindingly back at them. “Oy! You on the good side or the bad side?” echoed loudly down the tunnel.
Merlin straightened, glancing at Gwaine. “The good side?” he ventured after a minute.
And that was how they met Elena Godwyn.
“What's this?” Arthur pushed aside the haphazard collection of old books and vials and coffee-stained papers, clearing off the old wooden desk to peer closer. “It looks like it was drawn by a child.”
In the bottom left corner someone had taken a black fountain pen and scratched a picture of something about the size of his hand, Arthur guessed. It looked vaguely like a dragon.
“Well, Dr. Gaius did work with children on occasion.” Morgana said from across the room from where she was riffling through the cabinets, “One was bound to leave a mark sooner or later.”
The prince nodded thoughtfully, picking up a few of the papers and wondered rather depressingly how they were going to track down a man who could literally be anywhere in the city. For all they knew, the man had chosen that one day to be out in Canary Wharf.
They had found nothing useful at the man's flat aside from a note from Dr. Gaius about the King's Collection dated two weeks ago and the knowledge that Merlin had a flatmate. Or two, judging by the sheer mess in the place. There was a disturbing amount of hair product in the bathroom for only two men - though Merlin had hardly looked like he knew what product was, let alone the proper use of a hairbrush. Once they'd changed, they had decided to move onto their next location: Dr. Gaius' offices. Thankfully, avoiding the parks as per the advice of Elyan’s sister had made the journey mostly uneventful.
Dragons are notorious for neutrality. In earlier works, the role of the dragon was one of balance, mediating the lesser magical forces to ensure an equal distribution of power. Arthur frowned, re-reading the lines once more. The old man had papers about magic lying about on his desk? This role, researchers postulate, was itself tempered by another class of beings known as the Dragonlords. Dragonlords, a powerful breed if we are to believe the legends, were hunted to near extinction, though while they walked the earth they held dominion over Dragons and their lesser cousins, the Wyvern and Kraken.
“Morgana,” she turned at his voice, poised with a dusty looking volume in hand, “just what was the doctor working on with Emrys? What were they doing for you?”
“I don't know the details, Arthur. Gaius was helping me...” She looked frustrated, “Look, I was having these dreams – nightmares, really. He's an old friend of your father's, you know, Gaius. I kept seeing things. I do see things. I saw you fall off that horse last year the week before it happened. The accident on the Underground months ago, Uther changing his breakfast to include porridge oats.”
“Father having porridge oats counts as a nightmare to you?”
“I dream of the future, Arthur,” she said icily. “He used to help me temper that.”
He planted his hands on the desk, leaning forward. “If you went to sleep now, could you see where we will find Merlin Emrys?”
“You're taking it remarkably well this time,” Morgana folded her arms, leaning back against the bookcase.
“You seem rather certain of yourself and now hardly seems the time to be dismissing strange occurrences, wouldn't you say?” Arthur said dryly. “Could you do it?”
“It doesn't work like that.”
“Pity, it never does. That would have been a useful trick.” He went back to studying the contents of the desk, scanning the sheaves of paper quickly. "It's not the Middle Ages; I can hardly call you a witch and throw you to the wolves even if I was so inclined."
“You warm the cockles of my heart. What are you even looking at?” She strode over, peering over his shoulder. “A dragon, whether live or made animate...?”
“If we assume that Merlin Emrys was here sometime in the last week, researching whatever is going on in the city, it seems reasonable to deduct that there might be some evidence as to where he's run off to. Or why.” Arthur glanced down at the ink picture again, “I think he drew this. Or Gaius did, though from what I've seen of the two of them I'm rather inclined to believe that something this awful must be Merlin's handiwork. We were attacked by a wyvern. And you said a kraken was pulling down ships in the Channel. Could we be dealing with a rogue Dragonlord?”
"Not a local one, if that's the case." There was something bitter in her voice that had Arthur glancing up at her, trying to place just where that sentiment had come from before deciding it would just have to be yet another thing they spoke of later.
Arthur ran his fingers lightly across the surface of the desk, feeling a fondness for the image that disturbed him on numerous levels. It was then that he noticed the ink starting to shift beneath his hand. Arthur pulled his arm back quickly, unable to help marvelling at seeing the little dragon stretch and pace, blinking up at them in the torchlight.
“That, Arthur Pendragon,” the dragon on the desk said in a faint voice, “depends entirely upon one's opinion of what it means to be alive.”
“It can speak,” he breathed.
“Yes, but I think you're missing something.” Morgana poked at it with a pen. “How did you know his name?”
The drawing stared back at her without a word.
Arthur frowned. “You must answer. It says here a dragon can only speak the truth.”
“I must do nothing,” it replied archly. “Choosing to speak the truth and choosing to speak at all are equally mine to choose. You are no kin of mine.”
“Would you be kind enough to tell us if Merlin was here or where he might be now?” Morgana pinched Arthur's side, stopping the indignant retort on his tongue. “Arthur and I have been looking for him.”
“Had one listened to the other in days past, there may not have been the need. Witch and Warlock and King and none the wiser.”
“Yes, I was foolish. I understand that,” Arthur ground out. “The future may very well depend on us finding him.”
“The Old Religion is looking for you, young Pendragon. The future depends not just on who finds you first, but who is strong enough to retain you. The Emrys is lost. It is your Destiny to light the path and yours to set pieces in motion.”
Arthur really did not like the look Morgana was shooting him at that moment - as though she knew he was about to duck out and leave her alone at the Ascot but couldn't say anything to prove it. At least now he knew how she'd known all those times. Percy gave a shout from the hallway and they knew their time was up.
“Can you tell us how to stop this?” he said urgently, staring intently at the swirls of ink. “Please.”
“The contract has been writ. You must take control of the Old Ways,” the dragon replied, “by breaking one hold and forging another.”
“That is really not as useful as you think it is,” Arthur said over his shoulder as Morgana started pulling him out the door. “If you could just help with finding Dr. Emrys...”
“The Emrys will always find his King. Remember young Pendragon, when the road of Destiny lies before us, we need only set foot upon the path.”
Elena Godwyn, daughter of Lord Godwyn as it turned out, was an absolutely wonderful and opinionated young woman who could easily hold her own against even the likes of Gwaine. Shortly after their impromptu meeting underground, she had arranged for them to halt for breakfast, was absolutely fascinated by Merlin's abilities, and had talked him into demonstrating for her a number of absolutely trivial tricks.
"Yes, yes, Merlin can hold fire in his hands," Gwaine grumbled over his tea. "Magic's not nearly as exciting when he's using it to wake you up in the mornings."
"He lights you on fire?" she exclaimed with an accent that was dangerously close to being more posh than the Crown Prince's.
"Douses with water, actually. Lemon water."
"Really," Elena looked suitably impressed, which really wasn't what Gwaine had been going for at all. "How do you add the lemon?"
"Oh...I'm not sure, really." Merlin frowned. "I've never thought about it. But we really should be moving. Piccadilly's bound to have a few people hiding out; we could find them before it gets dark again if we move now."
Their little group turned as one to look at the woman. Gwen frowned. "You don't have to come with us, Lady Elena, that's your choice -"
"Oh no, I'm sticking with you. But really, I do not think it's at all advisable to head in that direction. I just came from there, you see."
"I can show you." She held up a finger, the other hand rooting about in her handbag and withdrawing a mobile. A few strokes later and she was passing the device over to Merlin, the others peering over his shoulder to see the screen. "I found myself in a rather odd situation, you must understand. I think the news agencies may be very interested in the footage."
On screen there was a view through metal bars, slightly out of focus until the lens shifted clearing the metal edge. Dark shapes were passing through the air, dropping bundles into the centre of the street at the base of a large statue.
"Is that Piccadilly Circus?" Gwen spluttered incredulously, one finger pointing at the golden cupid figure set atop the stone fountain.
"Keep watching," Elena said calmly. "It gets better."
The camera zoomed painfully slow in on the statue, and Merlin could make out another figure standing on its mounting, arms slung casually about its waist. She was beautiful - blonde, slim and a regal bearing that demanded attention; she was also giving instructions to a pair of stone monsters with a smile on her face.
"I didn't know mobiles had zoom functions," Gwaine muttered before Gwen backhanded his shoulder.
"It's top of the line," Elena waved a hand airily. "From Japan."
The shot panned down and Merlin squinted, peering closer at the tiny screen. He could see a pile of junk. Plates and bags, books and mugs. Pillows, T-shirts. If he looked closely enough he recognized them as novelty items and tourist junk. "Is that...?"
"Prince Arthur emblazoned merchandise. Yes," Elena answered with a smug smile. "It seems our Prince has a fan."
"Right, we avoid Piccadilly then," Merlin said in a detached manner, eyes never leaving the screen. He heard the murmured assent of the others at his back.
"Oh! Mister Wizard." Elena clutched at Merlin's sleeve. "Can your magic charge my mobile?"
“Is anyone else vaguely disturbed that Nightmare Barbie seems to be holding the reins in this town?” Gwaine jerked a hand over his shoulder as they walked.
“Is anyone else more than vaguely disturbed that it looked like she'd built a throne in the middle of Piccadilly Circus out of Prince Arthur paraphernalia?” Gwen added. “I mean, really, it's like she's found everything with his face on it in all of London and piled it there.”
“Everything but the real thing,” Lance said softly, catching Merlin's eye.
Merlin already knew what Lance was thinking. He was thinking it himself. Hell, they probably all were. And the thought horrified him. “She's the one looking for him. She did this.”
"It certainly would seem that way," Elena agreed. "Those creatures were bringing things to her; they didn't seem at all inclined to attack her."
“Look, this probably makes me a terrible person,” Gwen glanced back the way they'd come worriedly as they walked, “but since I don't think at this point it could make much of a difference – we can't hand over anyone to a rabid fanatic like that even if it might make this stop. It's...it's inhumane."
“Even if we did, there's no guarantee that someone like that wouldn't just set him and her up as some sort of High Royalty of the World and reign in terror for the rest of our days. We need a direction that covers all bases.” Gwaine was ever the pragmatist.
"I agree. I have no intention of letting that woman get her hands on Arthur Pendragon," Elena said firmly. "Lunatics like her do not have the rational abilities to govern properly. You simply must find him first."
Lance had been a solid presence at Merlin's side as they walked, clearly thinking with much more reserve than Merlin's flatmate. “You said you've spoken to the Prince before.”
“Kind of hard not to speak to him when he had a sword pointed at my nose, yeah?” Merlin replied with a wry grin.
“You said a few days ago you also sent him correspondence,” Lance reasoned. “I assume both were done by non-traditional means?”
Merlin froze mid-step as the thought hit him, forcing the others to slow down around him. He was doing that frequently, it seemed. “I did.”
“Couldn't you just...repeat that? Take yourself to him and save the travel?”
“I...I'm not sure how I did it the first time,” he admitted. “It was an accident. I was looking for a short-cut and it really didn't last that long. The other time it was...more of a projection really. I could do that, but we'd have to be somewhere we knew without a doubt was safe. I'm not at all confident in my ability to be physically aware in two places at once. Also, I knew generally where he was at the time.”
“You could send a note, like you did before,” Gwen supplied. “Then you needn't worry about moving yourself about.”
“I don't even know how they got to him in the first place. I meant for them to go to Gaius. What if I mean for it to go to Arthur this time and they end up with my mother? And he can't respond to them – if he could, I'd likely have gotten a response telling me to bugger off after the first.”
"Prince Arthur telling you to 'bugger off'?" Elena said with an amused glance. "That hardly seems fitting for His Royal Highness."
"Clearly you've never met the man," Merlin grumbled.
She smiled. "Clearly."
“Well this is the only lead we have," Lance said with a frown. "I suppose this means we should start trying to find you a safe house.”
“What are our options?”
Gwen thought for a moment, clearly running through a list of impossible things that only she would know of. “...We need to stay off Piccadilly line, so the rooms off the Aldwych platform from Holborn won't do. They built a few air raid shelters on the Northern line on both sides of the river. The Deep Levels are probably the safest place in all of Britain.”
“What's closest to Warren Street?” Gwaine crossed his arms, casting a glance across to where Isolde and Tristan were sharing a sandwich. They wouldn't be able to travel to the end of a line quickly with her leg as it was. “If Merlin's going to try this, we should do it before the princess manages to get himself into trouble.”
“Camden Town,” she said confidently. “About an hour's walk, maybe two with the kids.”
“Whoa, warn a mate!” Arthur jumped at the voice behind him, hastily zipping himself up. He'd only just stepped away from the others for a moment to relieve himself, if something had happened in that time... “God, Percy? What -”
He grabbed his torch from the ground, spinning to find a dark-haired man staring at him in dumbfounded shock. Staring with a very disturbed expression, if truth be told. “Who the hell...”
“Arthur!” The man snapped out of his daze and the Prince squinted in the darkness trying to make him out.
“Jesus, I've been trying to find you for the last ten minutes. You're bloody impossible -”
“Ten minutes?” he said incredulously. “Ten minutes?”
The man had a hand over his eyes, the other flailing generally in his direction. “- and I find you with your pants down.”
“Now hold on just a minute!”
“Where are you?” Merlin cut him off. He was keeping his eyes stolidly on the tunnel wall, Arthur noted, and he couldn't help but feel mildly affronted by that.
“I'm decent, you know. You have permission to look about.”
“Where are you?” he snapped and the Prince hesitated as he met the angry glare. A blaze of light lit up the tunnel.
“Russell Square!” he returned, opening his arms wide and gesturing at the walls. "You really have a terrible habit of wandering into places, don't you!"
“I don't have much time -”
“I'm sorry, am I keeping you?” Arthur had no idea why this man made him so ready to rise to a fight, just that he was more than ready for one. Deep down he knew – he knew – this was the last man he should antagonize, but he was done with cryptic messages and fruitless searching. “By all means, just waltz in ask your questions and swan off.”
“I'm not actually there - here - you conceited prick, and I can't protect you if I can't find you,” Merlin said in irritation. “Look, I don't know why you're there, you shouldn't be. You should be as far away from that line as possible.”
We were looking for you, Arthur wanted to snarl. “Where should we be?”
“Camden. If you're on the Underground, we'll meet you at Camden Town station. If you don't – just stay away from Piccadilly Circus, please. ”
When Merlin disappeared again, leaving Arthur in the dark, he could hear the sounds of the rest of his group calling to him as they approached; checking in on him. There was something that bothered him terribly though he couldn't place it. He didn't like being the one that needed protecting, he decided. He didn't like having to seek out the aid of someone, particularly someone like Merlin.
And at the same time, he wanted nothing more than to let someone else take on the responsibility of seeing everyone out alive.
"I'm here," he called into the dark. "I'm on my way back."
“Merlin, come back to us man.” Gwaine's hands were firm on his shoulders, anchoring him in the dim chamber. “You had us thinking you'd clocked out on us.”
“That man is insufferable,” Merlin rasped. His head felt a bit like the time Gwaine had hijacked his evening and they'd hit up seven bars in an ill-advised pub crawl before he’d been dragged out for a football match at the park.
The Scotsman patted his palm against Merlin's cheek a few times as Merlin tried to focus. “You found him though. Is he going to get his royal backside moving?”
“Yes I found him.” The room filled with a warm light. “I think we need to prepare to have some visitors.”
“How many?” Merlin shook his head; he should have asked. The whole situation had been rather distracting though and Gwaine seemed to understand. “Lance and I will go stand lookout; Elena and Tris need a break by now anyhow.”
"Sleeping. Gwen thinks you should probably check in with her later tonight."
Arthur sat crouched back against the curve of the tunnel walls at platform level. His backside was filthy – hell, he was no doubt covered head to foot once again in a layer of black grime that settled heavily in the Underground. He wondered, as he stared into the darkness at a hand idly twisting the little metal dragon, how many showers it would take to melt away the layers that felt like they were seeping into his bones. At best, he’d managed to wash his face at Merlin’s flat, shaving off the beard he’d grown to give himself at least some semblance of normality. What he would give for a hot bath to soak in.
Elyan came to squat next to him, passing Arthur a bottle of water. He found he liked Elyan. The man didn’t posture or force anything; wasn’t impressed by Arthur’s titles or cowed by Morgana’s personality. He treated Arthur like a person.
“Is she with him?” Elyan asked into the silence.
Arthur was silent a moment, one thumb worrying the label of the water. “I don’t know.”
Elyan didn’t respond, and Arthur didn’t expect him to. It was hard for Arthur not to pin his hopes on Merlin – to wrestle down the ridiculous notion that their trouble were nearly over, because when they found him Arthur knew it would only be the start. It must be doubly hard for Elyan. This was their only lead for his sister; it was better to steel his heart against hope now than suffer through potential despair. If Morgana was wrong about Merlin, it was better to have a contingency plan.
Arthur cupped the little dragon in one hand, shoving it into a pocket. He just didn’t know what that plan was.
“Come on.” He got to his feet, offering Elyan a hand in the gloom. “We’ll know soon enough.”
There was a faint splash as Arthur jumped down onto the tracks and he grimaced. The ground had become increasingly soft, mud-like, over the past hour. He did his best not to think of what that meant. Whatever happened, they would have to make a decision soon; the Underground would not support them for much longer. Arthur only hoped the water would stay at bay long enough to see them safely out.
“State your business.”
Arthur pulled up short as Leon, Percy and apparently their new recruit Dagonet, raced to stand between the Prince and the two dark shapes that pulled away from the tunnel wall. They had the riffles they had taken from the Hourseguards levelled and Arthur had drawn his parade sabre. He tried to stifle the irritation that started to bubble at the idea that they thought he needed protection more than themselves. “Is this Camden Town?”
“Aye,” said the man, a Scotsman by the sound of it, his torch flicking on and resting on the Prince’s face. For an instant Arthur felt ridiculously self-conscious of the bags they carried, of the bedraggled picture they made grime covered and standing knee deep in water, but then his pride kicked back in with a vengeance.
He frowned, lowering his sword and pulling a hand up to deflect the glare. “I'm Arthur.”
“That's nice.” The men seemed nonplussed at the fact that there were two rifles pointed at their heads, or the chill of the waters around them.
“Nice?” Percy huffed, earning himself a quick flick of the torch before it was back on Arthur. The man knew what he was doing and Arthur was quite certain also knew he was being an absolute berk about it. If he was blind at the end of this, he was holding Merlin responsible. He felt something small bump into his calf and told himself it was only a rat. They had seen dozens over the past hour swimming madly as they sought refuge in the rising waters.
“It's not answering the question you were asked, now is it. Makes you sound shifty. Avoiding something.”
“This is ridiculous.”
Arthur held up a hand to stave off Percy's objection. “Lower your weapons.” The others seemed to take his lead, letting the Prince act as their spokesman even as Percy reluctantly let his barrel drop. “We're here to see Dr. Merlin Emrys.” Arthur wondered if all the man's companions were as rude as he was, but the other figure in the dark seemed quiet and assessing. "A wyvern killed my House Staff and my citizens have gone missing. Merlin suggested he could help with that."
They stood silently, Arthur with his eyes still closed carefully against the torch. Dagonet shifted uneasily at his side. They all knew they were being judged somehow and even Morgana kept her mouth shut despite the fact she was probably losing as much feeling in her feet as Arthur from the cold. He had hardly noticed the shift when the stifling heat had slowly given way to frigid cold. When the red glow beyond his eyelids shifted away, Arthur let out a slow breath. The man turned gesturing for them to follow while his companion moved to take up the rear. Arthur’s night vision was well and truly shot, but he soldier on, steps careful and distrusting enough that the rest of his party slowed to match his speed.
“If you hurt him,” the Scotsman said conversationally in a low voice, “you should know that I have no qualms throwing you to the harpies upstairs, crown or no.”
Arthur decided it was best not to comment. The last thing he wanted was to pick a fight with a mad Scot in the bowels of London - particularly when he couldn't be certain the man was joking about the harpies. In a few minutes he could distinguish shapes once more and he gave Leon, who had been hovering at his side since their encounter, a tight nod.
The path they travelled led them over the tracks and back to the street level. Percy held up a hand when they reached the top, motioning for the others to stand back in the shadow of the stairs. The Scotsman gave the dark-haired man a nod and scanned the street.
“The entrance is around back,” the man said with a slight French lilt. “Keep to the wall, move swiftly and don’t draw attention to yourselves. Gwaine will go first.”
They watched as Gwaine slipped out the grating, keeping low and scanning the sky as he went.
“Dagonet, you’re with me,” Percival said in a low voice. The younger boy was trembling, but his grip tightened around his bag and he shuffled into place by the giant of a man.
In turn, they all filtered out, the Frenchman bringing up the rear and Arthur felt a mad rush of adrenaline fill his system, beating down the fear that threatened to overwhelm him. There were shapes in the sky, distant, but wheeling, sharp cries echoing across the empty city. The metal doorway they dashed towards was set in a nondescript brick wall, completely unobtrusive to anyone who didn’t already know it was there. When they all piled in, Arthur staggered, Percy catching him before he tripped down into the inky abyss. A steep spiral stair waited beyond.
They were crowded in the landing just beyond the door, and through the shifting bodies and flickering torchlight Arthur could see a small caged lift and two stairwells twisting downwards.
“Lift’s out,” Gwaine’s voice echoed up along the shaft. “Don't fall behind now!”
Arthur grimaced, knowing without a doubt this was going to result in no small amount of nausea as the torches bobbed along with them around the curves, but he followed doggedly onwards. At the bottom of the stairs, all one hundred and sixty-seven of them, the man had pushed open an old steel door labelled 'South Cross-Tunnel B1' and was waiting in a narrow but well lit tunnel.
“It's an old air-raid shelter,” Leon said approvingly, running a hand along the curved concrete wall once he'd followed through. They were stained from above, fissures running the length of the tunnel and rust springing up from metal joints and supports. “Nothing can get in here without us knowing about it.”
“And if they do?” Elyan glanced back at the stairwell. “Only one entrance, we’d be cut off.”
“Double helix staircase,” the Frenchman clapped him on the shoulder as he passed. “Down one level and you have your exit. Hopefully we won’t need it though – pumps are only working at half. Bit more of a dunking than you’d like, I’m sure.”
“Ladies and gent's loo, to your left,” the Scot gestured, “Merlin's got a few of them up and running off the reserve water for the time being - perfectly safe and enchantment-free if you want to get cleaned up. The far tunnels we've shifted a few boxes, got a set of bunks open you're welcome to while you're with us. Lance here can show you where to settle.”
The Prince nodded to his group as they passed him, following after the other man along the tunnel. Morgana gave his arm a pat on the way by.
“Where is Dr Emrys?” Arthur asked firmly, arms crossed and waiting.
“What, you don't want to freshen up first?” the Scot stared at him a moment before holding up his hands in mock surrender. "I didn't know the Princess of Wales was in the doctor's fan club."
Arthur stared him down, reminding himself in a rolling internal monologue that bloody murder needed to wait until he had sussed out the best course forward. And who was expendable.
Merlin, when Arthur was finally shown to a door at the end of the tunnel, was sitting next to a young red-head, a wide smile on his face and laughter in hers. Small coins were performing tricks and flashing in the light between them and Arthur couldn’t help pausing to watch from the doorway.
The Scotsman knocked lightly against the metal frame before he wandered off. The girl went very still. Her eyes stared at him with something Arthur refused to call fear. The feeling roiling in his gut was compounded when the dark-haired man turning to see what had caught her eye and the doctor’s grin dropped away. It wasn’t as if he were the bad guy here.
“Your leg’s feeling better then?” Merlin said to the girl, giving her a smile that was nowhere near what it had been; as though he was under inspection now. When she nodded, he helped her to her feet, decidedly not looking at the Prince until he saw her safely out into the main tunnel of the shelter. He made a gesture to someone sharply before ducking back in. Arthur assumed it had to be the Scot.
“You’re here,” Merlin had the temerity to say after what seemed like an age in itself.
“No thanks to your bodyguards,” he replied tetchily. “And you called me on having a brute squad.”
The man’s brow furrowed. “They’re not bodyguards. They’re friends, though I don’t suppose you’d understand that concept.”
Arthur could feel his hackles rising. He knew the path this would follow, even if he wasn’t sure why they couldn’t seem to stop sniping at each other. No one had ever made him react that way before and it wasn’t at all what they should be doing. He stamped down on his knee-jerk response, trying to keep focused on what mattered. “Why am I here? I assume you have a plan.”
Merlin seemed thrown for a moment, scratching the back of his neck. “Keep you alive?”
“...as much as I appreciate that, it’s hardly what I call a plan.” Arthur rubbed the bridge of his nose. He honestly had thought that the man had some brilliant insight into the situation; that all Arthur had to do was find him and with a little hard work the world would right itself. Instead he had probably doomed them all by leading them to an idiot would could do magic tricks. “Didn’t you and your dragon work all this out beforehand?”
“My dragon?” Realization hit the man like a brick and he narrowed his eyes. “You were looking for me.” When Arthur refused to respond to that accusation, he continued. “That time when I caught you with your trousers down –“
“Hey -” He interjected.
“- my trousers? God, those are my trousers - you were already looking for me, gone through my things and you were still acting like a twat.” Merlin was staring hard at Arthur, one hand fisted in his hair.
“I’m not now,” Arthur grit out.
"What? ...No, I - no, you’re not.” Merlin frowned, slumping onto the floor. “I’m sorry. I don’t know if it’s something about you or just everything else. You make me want to...”
“You certainly make it easy.”
“You didn’t really give me a chance to make a good first impression, you know," he pointed accusingly. "And holding a sword at my throat was hardly flattering for yours, yeah?”
“You were the one lurking about in my rooms,” Arthur couldn’t resist pointing out.
The man waved a hand. “That wasn’t intentional. It’s not like anyone would plan on watching you sleep.”
“You were watching me sleep?” There was something about their back and forth that made it all seem so easy - each retort sliding into the next, and the unplaced familiarity of the whole thing was building up to a mighty frustration simmering below the surface.
“No! God, this feels like meeting Morgana all over again.”
“Should I be worried over your intentions towards my relatives now as well?” He stood over the young doctor, arms crossed and a scowl on his face. "Are you stalking the entire Royal Family, or just the ones in line for the Throne?"
“Look, sit down. I'm not stalking anyone. Gwen says I owe you an explanation, and granted I’d want one in your position, but I’m sure as hell not saying anything if you’re going to loom like a bloody executioner,” said Merlin tightly. Arthur set his jaw and lowered himself to the thin patient's bunk running along the one wall. Part of him wanted to push Merlin up against a wall and force answers out of him - another traitorous part just wanted to push him against anything, demanding contact of any kind. The urge to simply reach out to touch the man was nearly overwhelming.
“Are they...are we safe here?” Arthur tried, clamping down on his irrational reactions. Merlin looked identical to the man he had seen in his chambers what seemed like weeks ago, if not a little more worn, a little more tired.
Merlin shrugged, perched tense inches away. “Hardly anyone thinks about these tunnels - the post-war generation hasn't had a need to - and there’re only one entrance. Pumps are running, so we won’t drown. It’s the safest place we can be in London for the time being, but it won’t be for long. You’re going to have to trust me for now.”
“Emrys, I have just spent three days hiding in my own city from scaly beasts that shouldn’t exist. I have seen my people torn apart and terrified. And now I find a man who can do the impossible; appear out of thin air, juggle coins without touching them - not to mention one that seems to have a habit of breaking the law. Forgive me if I’m not inclined to trust you.”
“You came anyways. And you're wearing my trousers.”
“Mine were thrown in a dustbin. As to why we came, Morgana seems to believe in you,” and I have no idea what to do on my own, Arthur refused to add. “If we’re safe here for now, we have time; you can start there. How did you find her?”
Merlin seemed like he wanted to protest before he folded. “Morgana found me. Seven years ago...there was an accident. You might not believe it, but she found me. Made sure I got taken care of and when I was released, got me in contact with Doctor Gaius.”
Arthur listened silently, trying to remember if the woman had told him any of this before. He hadn’t ever really listened to her, he realised. That was back before St. Andrew’s though. They tried not to have much to do with each other in those days. The Press had seemed to make it their mission to make suggestive remarks over any pictures they got their hands on, and at eighteen being told his pseudo-sister was his future wife made their relationship rather difficult at best.
“I didn’t know who she was at the time; we didn’t really have a conversation until months after. It went arse about face. She called me a dim pilchard and I said she was a venomous harpy,” he said blithely, and Arthur choked back a snort. “It took us three weeks to have a civil conversation, but she kept coming back and Gaius kept trying to keep the peace. She was one of the only people I had.”
“You can’t expect me to believe that.” Arthur shot the man a dubious glance. “Your friends –“
“- no one came for me, Arthur. No one came, and I didn’t know where to look,” the way Merlin spoke indicated it might still hurt, and Arthur felt a bit like the prat the man accused him of being. “She’s the first face I remember seeing, and she stuck around. She kept talking about you though, yeah?” He had the audacity to smile. “I think it was complaining about the Royals that eventually paved some common ground.”
“You know, telling me you spent years gossiping about me with the Duchess of Edinburgh really doesn’t help the case against your stalker tendencies. If Percy heard you I’m not sure I would blame his ensuing actions.”
“You asked,” Merlin looked like he would say more, but there was a knock at the door and it opened for a dark-skinned girl with an easy smile. Elyan’s sister, Arthur realised with a start, she had been with Merlin after all. That was one small mercy.
“I thought you might be hungry.” She seemed to have no compunction against striding into the room, depositing a plate and fork on each man’s laps and a bottle to Merlin. “The others are eating like wolves, and we had to make sure you two hadn’t had a go at one another yet.”
“I’m not about to scrap like a peasant,” Arthur said dryly. It was then that he actually took the time to look at his plate and his words disappeared. It was hot. Not only was it hot, it wasn’t canned or pre-packaged or dried. Somehow they had managed to find and cook a chicken with vege and spices. And sauce. Arthur wondering fleetingly how they'd kept the meat preserved and then decided he was just hungry enough to not really care.
“Thank you, Gwen.” Merlin, he realised, was looking ridiculously smug at the Prince’s reaction. That is, until the woman bent to whisper something in his ear and he flushed. Looking flustered, he grabbed his plate and pushed her out into the hall, calling, “You tell Morgana to mind her own business!”
Meanwhile, Arthur was doing his best not to inhale his food.
The other man sat back down, silently holding out a metal stein he’d filled with red wine and Arthur accepted it for the temporary peace offering it was.
“What did the dragon mean,” he asked once he’d cleared half his plate, “that the Old Religion was looking for me? Is that you? He called you the Emrys. Not everyone gets a definite article before their name.”
“...your name. The beast never once said Merlin. It rabbited on with ‘the Emrys’ this and ‘the Emrys’ that.”
“...honestly?” Merlin said around a mouthful of vegetables. “It’s the name Morgana gave me. She filled out the forms for my release and I just kept it. Never told me why.” He made a beckoning gesture with one hand, and Arthur realised he was motioning for the stein. To his shock, the man snatched the mug and took a deep swig before handing it back. He had absolutely no sense of propriety. “And I’m not...well, I was looking for you, but I don’t think I’m the one he was talking about. I think he was trying to warn you.”
“Why did you draw it in the first place? Surely you discussed something of merit.” The other man looked embarrassed, of all things. “You didn’t even ask it anything important?”
“Of course it was important!” Merlin protested. “I wasn’t about to run over to Clarence House to apologize if I wasn’t sure I needed to.”
Arthur gave him an affronted look. “As far as I recall, you didn’t apologise for anything that night.”
“You call dumping water over my head trying”
"No, I call you trying," was the muttered reply.
The man jumped to his feet as Percy pushed through the door, something undefined and dangerous crackling across his fingers. His guard gave Merlin a wary glance before turning to the Prince. “Your Highness, the Lady Morgana wishes to speak with you.”
“Thank you.” Percy nodded and disappeared before Arthur turned and stepped into Merlin’s space, raising a hand under his nose and filled with a tight coil of something settling low in his stomach. “You would do well to keep a better handle on yourself. I will not abide by you and yours threatening me and mine with magic, and I certainly won’t stand for your temper.”
The words hardly seemed like his but he couldn’t seem to stop, like they were an echo of something he had once heard forcing themselves to the surface. He wanted to reach out, and that frustration made him angry - unfortunately angry Arthur had little to no filter between his brain and tongue.
“He startled me,” Merlin gave a hard shove to Arthur's shoulder, forcing him to take a step back and Arthur thought in frustration that they had gone back to the beginning again, “and I will do what I have to for us to get out of this alive.”
He realized with a startling clarity that he had to get away from Merlin before he did something he would regret. Arthur slammed the door behind him as he left. Being alone with that man made him feel like he was overdue to explode and sooner or later one of them was going to give. It was completely childish, he realised, but it made him feel marginally better. He wished there were a few more doors to slam in his retreat.
"Arthur?" Morgana appeared from the sleeping area at the noise, a frown on her face. Her eyes were searching his face as if looking for something indefinable. "Did you work it out?"
"I highly doubt I will ever be able to 'work it out' with that man," Arthur replied sharply. "I cannot believe we need him. How are the others?"
"Elyan’s with his sister now. He wants to thank you." Morgana was watching him with something he knew by now was dangerous. "Also, you fiancée is having a marvellous time swapping recipes with Leon."
"My...you can't mean Elena? She's not my -" He felt something inside him break. Before he knew it, Morgana was steering him into the room and up to the blonde woman, a wide smirk on her face. "Elena...!" he said as he plastered a pained smile on his face.
"Arthur," she responded expectantly, one brow arched as she waited for him to find something to say.
"...so glad you...could join us," he finished lamely. His head was starting to pound. Of all the people to survive this disaster, of course it had to be Lord Godwyn's daughter sitting before him. He wondered if she had ever gotten over her penchant for being a walking disaster or if she had just been lucky this time.
“I don’t think it’s going to work, Gwen.” Merlin had holed himself up in the ladies’ toilets, sitting curled under the abandoned sink fixtures. “He barely listens to me. We can’t even seem to carry on a civil conversation for more than a few moments, how are we meant to work together to solve anything?”
“Morgana’s suggestion is to lock the two of you in a room, tell him you fancy him and leave you there.” Gwen nudged his shoulder. “Maybe once you two work off your tension you’ll find you get on.”
“You may think you’re being helpful, Guinevere, but I can assure you you’re not.”
“Merlin, I’ve known you for quite some time now, and I know that you’ve always seemed most alive after you’ve had some time with that woman, having a go over the Prince.” She levelled a stare at him. “And you know that you kept all those press clippings she brought you even though you tell her you burnt them. They’re in that shoebox under your bed. I'm willing to bet she knows too.”
“You’ve been going through my things.” He knew he should be upset over that, but this was Gwen and he was beyond weary. "The man is well fit - even if he is a bit of a wanker."
“Look,” she relented, “the reason you two can’t work it out right now is because you’re looking at him like you have to prove something, and he’s looking at you and not knowing where he fits in. Where does the Crown Prince stand with an all-powerful wizard?” Gwen’s fingers carded through his hair like he was a child. “He’s a natural born leader, Merlin; the sooner you realize that the sooner things will work out. Make him understand that you’re not threatening his position; advise him, don’t just tell him what to do.”
“I don’t know what to do. It seems like he spent a half hour in Gaius’ office and managed to learn more about what’s happening than I did.”
“Then hear him out and piece together the path ahead," Gwen said sensibly as she got to her feet. "I think we're all a little out of our depths here, we could use a good plan.”
Merlin gave her a rueful smile, accepting the outstretched hand she offered. “And what’s the Duchess telling him now?”
“I hope: that he should stop being a child and play nice with others.”
“He’s not going to take that well.”
“No, but he needs to hear it. Just like you need to hear me telling you to stop being such a girl and hiding out in the Ladies’ toilets every time you need to think,” said Gwen. “I’m sure Elena and Morgana would like a chance in here before they go to sleep.”
"It's a sanctuary, Gwen. The man's too much of a gentleman to bother me here."
"Yeah, you could learn something from that, you great numpty."
Gwaine and Lance had made fast friends with Leon, Percy and Elyan, Merlin noted as they made their way into the area they’d designated as living space. Gwaine even seemed to warm up to Arthur after Merlin had a word with him about it, and they were chatting away like they had known each other for years. Gwen pointed with a smile at where Isolde and Tristan were curled up together on one of the lower bunks right near the wall they’d erected from the boxes they’d shifted. The tunnels here were frigid, meant to house thousands of Londoners and compensate for the heat through sheer volume.
Jim Dagonet and Elena looked to be having a rather heated whispered debate over horses as they passed into the access tunnel.
The shelter had originally been intended only for the most dire of situations during the war, and as it was the two main sleeping chambers were lined on either side with tight bunks and a centre row of two side by side. From what Gwen had told them, between the two levels that ran the length of the tunnels, the space could have easily housed thousands of people packed next to each other waiting out the air raid sirens. After the War, the City had relegated their use over to archival storage in most locations, full of back-up documents no one had looked at in decades.
They'd had the foresight to nick pillows and duvets from the Chancery – or at least Gwaine and Gwen had, rolling them up tightly and binding them with twine before enlisting Merlin's aid to lighten their loads – which served as passable bedrolls, making the whole ordeal of sleeping on what was essentially no more than a metal shelf far more bearable.
“Morgana.” Merlin grinned, grasping her forearm in greeting. “I'm glad you made it here with us.” Gwen ducked her head to excuse herself and made a beeline for Lance and her brother.
“I'm glad you've finally stopped sulking, Merlin, it's not very flattering,” she said in a low voice, a knowing smirk on her face. "I couldn't leave you to face this alone, now could I?"
He shot a look over her shoulder at where Arthur was laughing quietly over something Gwen had said. “You didn't tell him about me. It might have gone better, that first night. He might have listened to me about the magic if -”
“Even if I had, he wouldn't have believed it. Arthur needs to see things, touch them; he doesn't like having to take things on faith.”
“I would have shown him,” Merlin insisted. Just what he'd have shown the Prince, he wasn't sure, but he was certain that things could have been much smoother in general. Somehow.
“You didn't know you needed him until it was too late, Merlin, and I’m not allowed helping you with this. You wouldn't have shown him if he'd stormed into Gaius' office and demanded it of you. And believe me, if he thought I was baiting him, he would have,” she leaned in and kissed him firmly on the cheek. “Get some rest. You'll remember soon enough.”
Merlin nodded, letting her pass by. It was then he noticed that Arthur was staring at him, a small frown on his face. Whatever conclusion he could draw from that was shaken away as Gwaine bounded over, clapping Merlin on the shoulder and directing him over to one of the centre bunks he had claimed earlier that day for a nap. “Percy and I drew the short straw tonight, so you and the Royal Arse are going to catch some shut-eye.”
“Fine by me,” Merlin yawned. He'd crawled under the folded covers before he registered Arthur standing stiffly on the other side with Morgana, having a conversation entirely through facial expression and aborted hand motions. Merlin rolled his eyes, laying his head down and wondering just what his life had become.
His peace didn't last long as he jumped at the creak of weight settling onto the adjacent bunk. The Prince held his stare like a challenge.
“It's not going to be a problem, is it?” and Merlin wasn't entirely sure if the man didn't actually want him to object. Knowing Morgana, Arthur was looking for something he could use as definite proof he could use to have his own way. Merlin didn't feel like enabling him.
“Not at all,” he hunkered down obstinately, keeping his back like a wall to the Prince and did his best to pretend the man didn't exist.
That night when Arthur dreamt, it was of Leon in armour, and unhorsing Lance in the lists. Of Guinevere in tears over something he couldn’t stop and Morgana in his mother’s crown, smirking like the devil. Of a clumsy Merlin with a wide smile.
When he woke hours later, it was with one hand wrapped lightly around Merlin’s wrist. He spent the rest of the early morning sitting out in the medical room trying to get images of hunting boar out of his mind.
“Arthur seems to be under the impression that you and I are having a torrid love affair on the side,” Morgana said conversationally as she poured orange juice into Gwaine’s stein and handed it to Merlin. She gave Arthur a few thumps on the back when it looked like he was choking on his own drink.
“I just thought I’d put it out in the open, darling.”
Merlin blinked before burying his nose in the cup, trying to work out what one was meant to say in response to a declaration like that. Apparently now that it was said, Arthur was staring at him like he fully expected a response. As if the idea wasn’t completely ridiculous. “No, Arthur, I am not having my wicked way with the Duchess of Edinburgh.”
“Or Gwaine,” Morgana added unhelpfully. "Which would be the far more likely candidate. Merlin's never had much luck with the ladies."
Merlin rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand, wondering if doing so might make his brain stop wanting to spontaneously combust every time the woman opened her mouth. “Thank you, Morgana. That was wholly necessary for the Crown Prince to know.”
He was exhausted, despite having slept the night through. At some point, it felt like someone had hijacked his dreams and pulled him into a place he hadn’t dreamt of for years. He dreamt of a father, whom he could never find in waking and of Gwaine devouring two dozen pickled eggs. He dreamt of polishing metal until it gleamed and Morgana clutching at his shirt as she lay dying in his arms. He had needed to keep her in sight all through breakfast just to reassure himself it had been a dream and trailing her had earned him a number of suspicious glances from the prince. Morgana, however, seemed to understand.
“Too many angles for a man like me,” Gwaine said jovially in response and snagged one of Merlin’s sausages as he appeared behind them seeking his own lunch. “The Duchess, however...”
“Not happening, Highlander,” she said calmly after his retreating form. He raised a free hand over his shoulder just before he turned into the living space to rejoin Elena and the others. She shook her head, glancing back at Merlin, “Now this place will do for a day or two longer, but her search parties are going to get a little more adventurous and we can’t just hide here forever. And you are going to have to stop flashing magic about like a clown, Merlin, or she’s going to start wondering why there’s a surge sitting in one place.”
He was about to object that his magic was nothing like a clown, but Arthur interrupted first. “You saw something?”
“You know she’s a Seer?” Merlin pointed at the Prince and Arthur shot him a silencing look.
“Just that there’s some psychotic blond woman who’s going to be turning the Tower into her winter hideaway,” Morgana said selectively while she ignored Merlin’s outburst. “Arthur hiding away in caves and tunnels is the last thing she’d expect - we have a few days before she’ll think to focus on the Underground entrances unless you do something foolish.” Merlin was certain he’d feel much better about her words if she wasn’t staring at him unnervingly. More so if Arthur hadn’t in turn added his to it.
“What?” he asked defensively.
“You’re lighting this place, aren’t you,” Arthur sighed. “And here I was hoping there were additional generators up and running.”
"Yes, and keeping ventilation system running and the reserve water pumps working and preserving the food so we can all survive down here," Merlin said tetchily. "You tell me which of those you'd like me to cut back on. My magic is essential."
"Because coin tricks are essential," Arthur shot back.
“Cut it out," Morgana reprimanded. "I’m going to take Elena and the boys up and find something clean to wear and more water; Isolde simply should not be left in those rags any longer and we’ve all trudged through enough rivers to last a lifetime. By the time I get back, I expect some progress.” Morgana stood, brushing off her pants as she levelled a glare at Arthur. “No you're not coming with, and no Merlin, you're not cleaning them magically. Essentials only.”
“I won’t let you put yourself at risk just because you want to go shopping, Morgana,” Arthur argued just as Merlin said: “Keep Gwaine away from The End of the World,” which earned him an incredulous look from the prince.
“What? I don’t want him bringing back more liquor.”
“It's a pub, Arthur,” Morgana said dryly as she leaned out into the tunnel gesturing for the others, “and if you keep objecting, I promise I’ll find something absolutely ridiculous to replace what’s left of your wardrobe. There is no excuse to live in one's own filth, even at the end of things.”
"What's left of my wardrobe," Merlin muttered darkly and Arthur tossed a bread crust at him.
Morgana shook her head with an exasperated sound as she took her leave.
“Well?” the prince looked at Merlin expectantly once they were alone.
“What did Morgana say about your clownish antics?”
“That you would look darling with the ears of an ass,” Merlin said under his breath.
“What was that?”
A stern voice that sounded far too much like Gwen for his liking told him to stop being difficult, so he feigned innocence and supplied, “To cut it out or I'll face her wrath?”
Arthur nodded agreeably. “And she is a terrible woman to cross. Now, we have torches for a reason. That's one less essential magic expenditure.”
He sighed, giving Gwen and the kids a heads up before grabbing a couple torches and cutting the lights. She had told him to let Arthur lead. He figured letting the man give some orders might be a place to start, though he couldn't shake the feeling that sitting with Arthur in dark tunnels had never turned out well before. Not that he had much experience with that.
“We're going to have to capture this woman before we can burn her,” Arthur opened with once Merlin had rejoined him in the medical room. “How do you catch a sorceress?”
“I'm sorry, what?”
“Catch her. Keep up, Merlin.”
“Did you say burn her?” he spluttered and Arthur just gave him a look in the torchlight like he was mentally deficient.
“I suppose we could try the drowning method, but I'm fairly sure that's to test if she is a witch, which we already know she is. Unless it works like that Oz book and she melts.” Arthur paused thoughtfully. “Carrying water bottles might not be a bad idea.”
“You mean to tell me that you're suggesting we ambush a woman who can reshape the laws of reality and squirt her with a water pistol?”
“Well when you say it like that...” the shadows made his face sharp as he scowled. “Maybe Gwaine has an idea; the Scots always did have a way with witches.”
The grip Merlin had on his hair was really starting to hurt as he stared at the Prince in absolute disbelief. This man was going to drive him insane. “Your solution to magical threats is to kill them? What makes you think that killing her will solve anything?”
“No! Not necessarily! Not if she's broken the boundaries of the world beyond repair!” Merlin could honestly see Arthur rushing headlong into the fray, pushing forward only because he knew the quickest way to end a battle was by killing the man in command. He was probably just simple enough to believe that there would be no further ramifications. “What if she's the only one who can send them back? I don't know how to open the mists, do you? You can’t just run in - and if she catches you?" Merlin could feel himself snap, thoughts piling atop of each other as he raced through Arthur-related scenarios. "How do you expect to get close enough without her using you for her nefarious - everything is resting on - and you would, wouldn't you -”
"Get a hold of yourself, man."
Merlin reeled back from Arthur's slap. Flashes of helping Arthur shift wood from a door feeling exhausted beyond belief. Of staring up at Arthur after being trounced soundly knowing it made his prince feel better about his day. Merlin’s hand found his cheek and he worked his jaw trying to source out how much it was going to hurt later. In all fairness, he realised he might have been getting a little hysterical at the thought of the woman getting a hold of the prince before they had figured out how to use him properly. And wasn't that a thought.
Arthur was staring at his palm like it held the secrets of the universe. Merlin was going to ask him what was wrong until the man's hand flashed out, wrapping itself around Merlin's wrist and suddenly he was climbing a stone wall, Arthur taunting him onwards. He was stoking a fire while his prince lay convalescing. He was watching Arthur raise his sword and hearing the answering cry of a village - no, of an army. A hundred different images passed his eyes before he could tear his arm away and when he did his legs gave out on him and he slid down the curved wall to the floor.
The prince seemed to be faring little better, but he chose to stumble to the door, calling to Gwen as he passed into the access tunnel, his torch wavering along the path to the loo. The door slamming echoed through the dark.
“Merlin, you're going to have to say something eventually.” Gwen had an arm about his shoulders, pressed next to him against the wall. Again.
Morgana had returned about an hour and a half after she and the others had braved the stairs. He could hear her faintly through the door of the medical chamber. Arthur apparently had sealed himself in the toilets, making her threats to go in and drag him out rather feeble, though she kept at it. It was getting to be a bit of a habit, Merlin thought dryly. Gwen had clearly said something to Gwaine and Leon that assured them not to start a row, because they were off with their spoils to share with the children, leaving the strife in the hands of the women.
His own bag lay in the old rusted sink on the counter, and in the half-light of the torches he almost couldn’t see the plastic face of the Prince staring back at him. Morgana had probably chosen those bags on purpose, the wench.
“...what was the first thing you said to me, Guinevere?” Merlin asked softly. How did one mention the discovery that the Crown Prince of Britain's skin was a potential hallucinogen?
“I think it was along the lines of ‘Alright? Mind if I borrow that pen?’” she replied with good humour. “I’m not sure I ever gave it back.”
There was a strange disconnect in his mind that he hadn’t felt since waking up in a hospital cot. “You sure you didn’t introduce yourself as Morgana’s maid?”
Gwen cuffed him lightly over the head. “Now not only is that a ridiculous thought, but why would I just announce that to anyone at the precinct?”
“...No, you’re right.”
"Of course I am," she replied amiably.
The voices outside were getting louder, and he pressed closer to the wall as the door was pushed open. An angry Arthur forced his way past Morgana into the room. "Merlin, you and I are -"
"I'm not leaving him alone with you if it's going to end with one of you locked in a bathroom again! We don’t have time for this," Morgana said firmly, and Gwen tightened her hold around Merlin's shoulders. “Honestly, after all these years you still both behave like children around each other.”
The prince's raised hand clenched into a fist before he took a deep breath, letting his grip go slack. "I give you my word, Morgana, Guinevere..." he hesitated, something flickering across his face before he managed to control it, "Gwen. We are perfectly capable of having an adult conversation. He will return to you in fine spirits. Won't you, Merlin."
Merlin wasn't at all sure he could agree to that statement but the look Arthur was shooting him was so unreasonably familiar that he was on his feet making excuses to the girls before he could think. Arthur, Merlin could tell, had to stop himself from grabbing Merlin and dragging him bodily down the tunnel.
Instead, he settled for striding purposefully past the first living space and toilets and gestured for Merlin to enter the parallel chamber. To make his point - one which Merlin feared he had yet to grasp - the Prince began piling boxes from the wall bunks in front of the door once it was closed.
"What if there's a fire?" he put forth weakly before Arthur glared over his shoulder. Merlin opted to stay silent until the man was finished after that. It wasn’t as though he had nowhere to go – there was at least a half mile of darkness behind him, but the point was solid. If Merlin ran, Arthur was sure to give chase.
When the Prince had taken a seat on a small pile he'd made, he leaned forward, resting his arms across his knees and gave Merlin a level stare.
"When I touch you," he began, and Merlin really really didn't think he wanted to be having this conversation with the Crown Prince in the dark, "I see things that I shouldn't. Someone else’s life." Merlin was going to protest but Arthur staved him off with a hand which Merlin was beginning to realise was a terribly pretentious habit of his. "Tell me this is your magic. Tell me that this is your doing, you will promise never to do that to me again and we get this mess sorted. Tell me, Merlin."
"I can't." Merlin spread his arms wide in the dark. "Do you think I want to be seeing Freya die? Or Balinor? Do you think I want the muscle memory of spending hours mucking out your horses? Do you think I want to see you marry Gwen?" His brain caught up to his mouth and he was staring at the Prince in stunned silence. Suddenly the ground was a very appealing thing to focus on.
"...Guinevere is..." Arthur started before he quickly reconsidered. "If this is not your doing, then what is it?"
“I don’t know; memories, hallucinations? Does it matter? If you recall, you instigated it. You just don’t touch me, and nothing will happen; it’s not that hard.”
The Prince was silent. For his part, Arthur was still trying to work out everything he had learned while his kingdom fell and how it could be used to their advantage. The Dragon had said he needed to break the woman’s hold; if she was doing this to get at him, had the creature meant for them to break the hold Arthur had over her? Did he have a hold over her? Could he use her apparent want of him to their advantage? Was it to break the hold she held over the magic she seemed to command? Would Merlin be useful in that? He’d spent the last few hours thinking half-formed thoughts and trying not to remember what he had seen. Or had it been 'break one hold' and it had nothing to do with her at all?
“How are you lost, Merlin?” The thought came to him as he watched Merlin pacing in the dark, one of the many questions he had darting about his brain as he sat puzzling out the dragon's words. The man hadn’t even thought to ask the creature he had summoned for any solutions, so Arthur really didn’t have the highest hopes from him. “The only thing I can think of from what I know of you is that you have amnesia. You don't know where to go because -”
“Let me out.” The man stopped pacing. "I'm not having this conversation with you."
“Not until we have something.” It made sense in a twisted sort of way. If Merlin didn’t know what to do because he couldn’t remember, then perhaps it was that he needed whatever this thing between them was to help him find the way again. What didn’t make sense to Arthur was why it was making him hallucinate at the same time. “You do. I’m not stupid, Merlin. You probably knew Morgana before; she would have had no need to do what she did otherwise. She could have let the hospital deal with you. Did you tell Morgana where to find you? What name to use?”
"She helped me because she's a decent human being. It's what people do, Arthur. We help each other."
"You knew it was going to happen." Arthur insisted.
“If I knew my accident was going to happen, why on earth would I have let it happen?” Merlin said fiercely. “I don’t know how it is with royalty, but ordinary people don't just walk into injury.”
“You’re hardly ordinary,” Arthur pointed out, “and despite not knowing yourself, you managed to get into a good university and no doubt had all your paperwork sorted so you could get licensed as a doctor. Everything was lined up nicely for you, wasn't it. You knew it was going to happen - what I can't figure out is why did Morgana go along with it?”
“It doesn’t matter who I am or where I'm from, Arthur!”
“I think it does,” he said stubbornly. “The Dragon said you needed me to find the way; if you don’t know what way that is, then maybe that’s what this is.”
“You’re listening to ink and magic.” Merlin threw up his hands. “Do you even know how ridiculous that is?”
“Right now? Not that ridiculous. Morgana can see the future, you seek out unicorns and we’re hiding out from things that only exist in children’s stories. Ealdor, Merlin.”
“What?” The other man had a hand to the bridge of his nose, but looked up sharply at his non-sequitur.
“You were born in Ealdor. It's where you're from.” It felt like the strangest thing to think that he knew he was right without a doubt. He knew next to nothing about this man; he had no reason to. And yet he did.
“I was born in Surrey,” Merlin said firmly.
“I assume you went to Surrey when you read that on your forms; I don’t think you found any real evidence of it,” he insisted. “You’ve an Irish accent. If you grew up in Surrey that wouldn’t be the case.”
“Well maybe I grew up in Ireland.”
Arthur made a decision, knowing he would likely regret it. It was too easy to catch this man off guard and he had wrapped a hand around the side of Merlin's neck before he could get away.
A castle was burning. There was Merlin, lying on a hillside when he was meant to be in the council chambers. Hunith. Hunith handing him a wooden bowl with porridge thick enough to stand a spoon. Facing down men who could not die; men who were dead; men who were magic; men who wanted him dead. So many battles. Guinevere in a white shift, age settling like a dear friend around her shoulders as she rode off with Lancelot. Sitting alone in his father’s chair.
His hand slipped to grab at Merlin’s shirt and he opened his eyes, realizing he was far closer than he’d intended to be. He wasn't alone. Merlin was here, and he wasn't alone. “Merlin...” what is happening?
“You always did do whatever you wanted,” Merlin responded quietly before he composed himself, the accent that had slipped now firmly back in place. “No. You can't just go forcing people into your view of the world, Arthur Pendragon. Just forget it and come on; the others have probably made something to eat by now.”
Merlin was gone. Guinevere was gone. Morgana and Lancelot and his knights. Gone.
Arthur let Merlin pull away and start unblocking the door. Whatever progress they had made, he wasn't sure he was willing to press it any longer; this wasn't ever supposed to be about anyone other than Merlin.
Arthur was playing cards with the others in a small ring of torches. From where Merlin stood, it looked like the prince was doing fairly well for himself; a small pile of the crackers they’d been using for tokens sitting at his knee. He even seemed able to anticipate Gwaine’s cheats. Despite that, Merlin couldn't help but think Arthur's smiles were a little less bright than they should be. That when Arthur laughed, really laughed, his head threw back and his voice rang clear, as fierce as starlight. This Arthur was a pale withdrawn man with a pocketful of masks.
“Have you remembered?” he jumped at Morgana’s voice at his shoulder. Since she had arrived with Arthur, he had noticed something different about the Duchess. She kept looking at him like she expected at any moment he would change before her eyes, become something more than an awkward doctor trying to keep his friends alive. Now he wondered if the Prince hadn’t maybe been right. Merlin might not remember, but he couldn't be certain about Morgana.
“Is that what’s happening to us?” he watched her carefully. What he had seen of Morgana didn’t make him inclined to trust her intentions anymore. She smirked. “I don’t understand how it’s possible. It’s not like everyone starts hallucinating past lives or...or whatever this is.
“Oh Merlin, you haven’t broken through yet,” her disappointment seemed balanced by a strange amount of amusement. “I don’t think you expected it to take this long.”
Perhaps Arthur had been right. Perhaps Morgana knew far more than he ever suspected about his past. "What aren't you telling me?"
"Her name is Vivian, Merlin," she replied instead, holding up Elena's phone, watching the blonde on screen reshaping Eros to resemble the Crown Prince.
"That wasn't on the recording..." And Morgana could do more magic than she'd ever told him.
Morgana waved a hand. "I wanted to check in on her. Modern technology works so much more smoothly than water - no shifting or light sources - and someone needs to keep an eye on her."
"...Vivian?" There was something more familiar about her now, he realized, though it was still just out of reach in his thoughts.
"Yes, Vivian. And she will stop at nothing until she has him." Morgana turned to stare at the blond prince. "I didn't recognize her the first time I saw her from Elena, it has been a long time and the Old Religion has changed her so. What compels her to act as she does cannot be broken; you will have to go about things a different way."
"What do you mean, can't be broken? If she's under an enchantment, there's always a way to break it," Merlin frowned. He liked the idea that she could be saved; that killing her wasn't the sole solution to their problems. "Nothing is fixed."
"The conditions, Merlin. She hadn't formed the connections yet to meet the conditions required to lift the enchantment and now there is none left who can. You were lucky last time with Arthur – everyone loved him. You could have broken it yourself, even I could have then. Now, I need you to be silent and think very hard about remembering because we can't go much further if you don't." Morgana laid a palm against the side of his face. "It gets better, I promise. Go help Elena with supper; maybe chopping things will help."
"I didn't realise you two were engaged," Merlin said, giving Elena a friendly smile he wasn't quite feeling. He had found his feet had taken him to the small canteen built into the shelter as per Morgana's instructions and was now tasked with helping to prepare a meal for the thirteen members of their little group.
"Arthur Pendragon and I?" she put down her knife, giving him a level stare. "If we were engaged, I don't think I'd ever be able to escape the Press, do you?"
"I suppose not."
"When we were younger, he used to call me Little Miss Left Foot behind my back," she admitted in a low voice, "all because he couldn't stand that I was better in a saddle. I was a bit clumsy out of it, then, you see. I spent more time on a horse than on my own two feet. Absolutely terrible dancer." She picked up handfuls of cubed potatoes, dropping them into a large pot with practiced grace. "A little heat, if you will Master Wizard."
Merlin grinned, eyes flashing gold under the burner. "Morgana just called you the fiancée. Perhaps it was one of her unique jokes."
"She's right in a way. Our fathers have been pushing the idea for as long as I can remember," Elena said distractedly. "I spent a great deal of time overseas as a result." She was shining her torch around under the metal countertop searching for ingredients Gwen had stowed neatly, her hair pulled back messily and looking far from the striking noblewoman she had earlier. Merlin found her liked her better like this. "We need more mushrooms; he absolutely despises those."
Yes, he liked her very much indeed.
"Morgana, you've been staring at one or both of us since we got back. I didn't hurt him." Arthur sank down onto the bunk next to the Duchess, a steaming cup of weak tea between his palms – what came of using the same leaves one too many times. He wanted to think he wasn't avoiding the Lady Godwyn, but if Arthur was honest, that was exactly what he had been doing, particularly since they ate. It was remarkably hard in such as small space.
"You didn't hurt him now, but your actions may still lead to harm." She took the cup from his unprotesting hands and had a sip, making a face at the taste. And really, Arthur thought it was unfair of her to assume he would ever hurt that man. Any man, really.
"Have you 'Seen' me hurt him? If you tell me, I swear to you that I will change it. I...I'm seeing things myself," he admitted quietly, eyes watching others further down the tunnel. "They feel like memories, Morgana. I thought I was going mad, but he sees them too; I know he does. You were the King's Ward."
"I was your sister." She took his hands that he realized were shaking in small little tremors and wrapped them back firmly around the warm tea.
"You'll always be my sister," Arthur agreed. "I would never hurt him - I drank poison for him, you know."
"So did I," Morgana said in a voice so low Arthur swore he'd misheard it.
He summoned all the authority he could muster. "Tell me what's going on. Who is he - why can I remember the impossible and why do you seem to know so much?"
"I just may be able to." She looked contemplative. "I can't tell him, he forbid it…but he never expected to have to safeguard against his King. You've always been his blind spot, Arthur Pendragon." She stood, casting a glance to where Merlin and Gwaine were regaling the others with stories of their exploits. "Come with me."
Arthur cast a final glance over at the others, catching Leon's inquisitive eye and shaking his head. Something had changed in Morgana since the fog had fallen. She was no longer the girl who threw muffins at him in the morning and had tried to dye his hair blue when he was five. This Morgana was starting to unsettle him.
"Merlin said he met you when he had an accident; the same one, I'll wager, where he lost his memories," he said once she had closed the door to the Medical room. The closed space was getting to him. The closed space, and the darkness waiting just beyond their little haven.
"You're remarkably observant for the Arthur I know," she said, peering at him in the half-light. Arthur decided to take that as a compliment. "I blame the media."
"When did you really meet him?"
"Shortly after you did, Arthur, when the witch tried to kill you. He was a simpleton from the country and he kept making eyes at me." She folded her arms, watching him with piercing eyes.
"Morgana - "
"No. You asked, Arthur, now you must understand. You, for good or ill, are the last King to be recognized by the Old Religion. This is not your first life. Hic jacet Arturus rex quondam rexque futurus. You weren't an Oxford scholar, but St. Andrews wasn't so bad on their Latin."
"Here lies Arthur?...Look, let's say that every word in that book was true - "
"He wrote it for you; to help you remember when he forgot, when he was gone. He's been waiting a long time."
Arthur held up a hand, not wanting to be distracted. "The king in that story either died from his wounds or is sleeping them off somewhere under a mound of dirt, which I equate to meaning the same thing. I am very much alive, Morgana."
"Oh Arthur," he stood firm as she gave him a sad smile, one hand brushing away his bangs, "you were meant to be there. Then Merlin broke the covenant and stole you away."
"Merlin stole me from my last resting place," Arthur said slowly.
"Gods forgive him, but he loved you, Arthur. The Old Religion had done so much to you both that he couldn't bear the thought of handing you over to them in the end, regardless of their agreement. You don't know what a chore that was. Blood contracts are never easy to manipulate."
"Alright." He took a deep breath and let it slide away, staring hard at the floor. It was too much and he felt he needed more than anything to understand. He wasn't sure how to reconcile the idea that he had already died once. "My memories. Why can't I recall any of this? Why didn't you tell me any of this years ago?"
"You were mortally wounded then. The Old Religion was going to let you sleep it off because it needed you still, so Merlin did the best he could to hide you away and let you heal. You needed much more rest than he had anticipated; we lost you in time," she said regretfully. "I never foresaw this happening, and Merlin's precautions put me quite literally in the same boat. I couldn't tell you because I didn't know. I had forgotten."
"It's why you changed, when you remembered. I have memories of you...few, but enough." He turned to look at her with narrowed eyes. "How are you tied to this - Why? And everyone else, they were there - are there in my head. Gwen. Guinevere. My wife."
"I am Merlin's greatest enemy," Morgana said blithely with a wave of her hand. "He is my Downfall and my Doom; Arch Nemesis, when he's feeling particularly dramatic. The others are all part of the natural rebirth cycle. Merlin helpfully suggested names to their parents and grandparents once he recognized them and they helped us to locate you when you finally turned up. A little nod to old times. I'm sorry about your mother, Arthur dear. He really tried to save her this time."
"If you're the enemy -" He didn't want to think of his mother; not now. Not linger on the thought of what it might have been like if she had been around as a child, or what sort of man his father might have been with a queen at his side.
"Spare me," she cut him off with a wave of her hand. "That time has come and gone. Even if I wanted to, I am tied to Merlin. You could call it my eternal punishment; he always did take retribution to the extremes. Immortality would be infinitely more boring without someone to reminisce with about the old days, though, so I suspect he did it as much for himself as anything else. If he hadn't he may very well have gone mad himself."
"He's...you're both immortal? That's what you meant," he said in realization. "That Old Wyllt was really...Merlin wrote...but that's impossible."
"The Emrys. The Immortal. He doesn't really have a last name, and he thought it might be a bit funny this time around. He conquered death within months of meeting you, Arthur, though he didn't realize it until much later. He did it to save your life, actually. Every time since – gods, Arthur, your heartsblood must have been bound a dozen times over."
"He's in his twenties!" Arthur protested.
Morgana let out a laugh. "Merlin has always fabricated the illusion of age for your vanity. Being an old man for ten years was nothing compared to aging slowly with you back then. I don't know why he bothered. Imagine what it would have done for the image of Camelot if the other kingdoms knew your sorcerer was ageless." There was a wistful tone to her voice that worried him. An immortal man would be seen as a god, and a manmade god was a disaster waiting to fall.
"You mastered death as well?" This woman he had thought of as a sister, who may just be his sister if she was to be believed, was becoming something else entirely. He both needed, and dreaded, to know what she had done that made Merlin think she needed eternal punishment.
"I was never that powerful. Merlin is unique - Oh. Oh, I think I see." A slow smile was spreading across her face. "You don't need to remember to solve this; he does. Remember and accept. But he needs you to do it.; he made you the key."
"What do you mean?" Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose, scrubbing his eyes tiredly as he eased himself down onto the patient bunk. "There is a much simpler way to explain this."
"You are the people's King. The land's King. You will always be so because it is who you are. You're like a sword, Arthur. A plough. Once you have been forged, you exist. The land will stay strong and the bonds will be renewed." She poked him hard in the chest. "Merlin...oh it doesn't matter. I could explain to you, but it's not you that needs to know! You know your role, what is important is that he remembers his."
"So what you're saying is that I'm a tool," Arthur said slowly, not entirely certain if he should be offended by this turn of conversation. "When he remembers, he's going to use me and the world will right itself?"
"Exactly. He hasn't remembered yet though," she frowned. "Why? You've had ample time together, it makes no sense. He needs to assume his rightful role."
"I...when I touch his skin, there are memories, images. But it's not clear; there's too much." He wasn't sure if he liked this idea - that he was a prize dog to take the show.
"He has over fifteen hundred years of memories, Arthur. I suspect that if he hasn't remembered everything by now, it's indication that you should be touching more skin, don't you?" Morgana smirked, and now that look seemed harsher, crueller than he remembered. "You were meant to shake his hand at the dinner - had a gradual remembering before this happened, and now you're fighting it when he needs them the most."
"Look, all that aside how does any of this help with saving my people? This woman represents one side of a contractual agreement and wants me because I am an old King that she was promised, and Merlin wants me because he, what, loves me?" It would be so easy to call the whole idea ridiculous. Last week, he would have. "And whichever has me in the end wins the day? What about the people of London? Of Britain? If I give myself over to her, will that end this?"
"Don't you even dare think that, Arthur Pendragon; the people of Britain would only be the beginning." Morgana's eyes flashed angrily. "Vivian is not so simple to surmise, and while Merlin's actions may have seemed selfish at the time, knowing that woman is the current High Priestess, I wholly support his decision. You have no idea what the world would become if you were her King. Agreement or no, that woman is dangerous."
"Tell me everything, then," Arthur snapped. "Lay it on the table and let me decide for myself what course we must take."
"You decide?" Morgana's expression shifted to something akin to amusement. "What you can decide is whether to save the others or sulk in the dark over how unfair your little life is. When Merlin remembers, we will all be safe once more."
He frowned, lacing his fingers together, resting his arms across his knees. Talking to Morgana had always been a difficult experience, but this woman had changed into something else entirely. He wasn't quite sure any longer if he trusted where her interests lay. He wasn't sure he trusted Merlin's either.
Her words didn't make sense to him; he was the one the woman was after, that much was clear from the recording. If he was that important to this situation, he felt he should at least know why it had come about and the details of his involvement. Perhaps the memories he had seen flashes of would illuminate a path - though Morgana had admitted that Merlin was a root cause of the problem, so likely whatever the woman was after had been kept from him even back then.
Two people wanted to use him - and if he had made an agreement, if Merlin had made an agreement concerning him that had never been honoured, then which side was in the right? Perhaps if he turned himself over - no, offered a parley - he would be able to negotiate terms. There was no guarantee that Merlin would have the ability to see to the safe return of London's citizens; from what he'd seen of the man, he was having a difficult enough time holding it together with only a handful of charges. There was no guarantee that Merlin was even thinking beyond their little group at all.
"When he remembers," Morgana was staring at him with eyes that knew more than he was comfortable with, "you will know. Do nothing tonight; we all need rest before we can face the dawn."
Gwaine had, it turned out, liberated a few bottles of real champagne while they were above ground. He passed them around that night, everyone sitting in a companionable circle surrounded by torches and musty old boxes.
Arthur offered Merlin a small smile as he settled on the floor next to the man's knee. God help him, but there was something in him that wanted assurances that the man was sitting there – was still going to be sitting there in a few minutes, in a few hours. Something that made him think that if he blinked, if he looked away, he'd be that man sitting alone in an empty castle once more; that this man was his salvation.
He hated the feeling. Hated it, and clung to it all the same.
“To camaraderie in dark times,” the Scotsman said as he unwound the cage and let the cork fly to the astonished delight of Isolde.
“To seeing the end of days and not being the cause,” Morgana said lightly, raising another bottle and taking a sip.
It was ridiculous, should be terrifying, but with Merlin's leg pressed warmly against his arm, the fabric of his jeans just this side of worn, Arthur felt undeniably comfortable under it all. Somewhere, under all that bluster, Arthur found himself wondering if Morgana had been right - if Merlin had loved his King so fiercely that he stole him from time. If maybe Merlin was remembering the same things, the same moments Arthur was, and just what the man would do if Arthur was to simply reach out for him in the dark.
The evening dissolved into a time of shared memories and amusing anecdotes, and for a time Arthur knew this was something they all had desperately needed. He certainly had.
He didn't know what tomorrow would bring. Arthur had been struggling under uncertainty for days, wondering if there was something waiting for them on the other side. Here, surrounded with laughter and sharing a bottle with the young doctor like teenagers again, he felt like he could just be for a time.
Maybe Merlin was once a great magician, powerful enough to deny death. Maybe Arthur had once been that broken man on the throne. For that night, at least, it didn't matter. He would give himself this.
Merlin had the constitution of a woman, Arthur noted with amusement and was idly magicking paper rabbits to hop about amongst the shadows, flushed and grinning. Gwaine and Leon had started balling up old files from one of the boxes and begun a game of target practice with Elyan and Dagonet.
“I thought Morgana told you to stop being a clown?” Arthur said as he craned his neck to watch the grinning man.
“Doesn't take much spark; just a little push. Shapes want to be what they are, I think.”
“It's paper. Shouldn't it want to be paper?”
Merlin tapped his nose carefully. “But we imagined it into the shape of a rabbit, see? We took something that was happy to be a flat piece of paper, and made it into something it hadn't thought of before. Now it looks like a rabbit, and it thinks, 'why can't I be a rabbit?' So I gave it a push, and now it's a rabbit. Sort of.”
Arthur thought about that for a moment, fingering the silver figure in his pocket. He thought about it, and then was forced to admit to himself that understanding Merlin's version of an explanation was obviously something he was never meant to achieve. “So you're saying you forced paper to take on a new identity that made it want to be something it was never meant to be?”
“It's just paper, Arthur,” Merlin laughed, “and I didn't make it want to be a rabbit. Someone else fashioned them, I just gave them a push.”
“How did you learn that?”
“When a painting wasn't a painting and stone wanted to bark. Do you know, that rock slobbered all over your mail?” Merlin shook his head, taking another drink from the bottle Arthur quickly pulled away from him. “You called me clumsy for having to polish it twice.”
Arthur frowned. “You, Doctor, are a complete lightweight and fanciful dreamer.”
“What are you fiddling with?” the man peered down at Arthur's lap. “Really, Sire, most people wait 'till they're alone, if you know -”
“What?” Arthur looked up and caught Elena with a raised brow in his direction. “God no, Merlin, you utter – here.” He pulled the little dragon out of his pocket, showing it forcefully to Elena before tossing it to Merlin. “Sat on it in your flat.”
“Hello,” Merlin was peering at the small creature unfurling its wings in a stretch. He'd barely touched it, Arthur realized as he watched. If Merlin could do that sort of thing unconsciously, what would he become at full strength? With years – centuries – under his belt? “I think he's yours.”
“Well, I got him in Cardiff. That makes him a Welsh dragon, and you're the -”
“What the blazes am I going to do with a miniature dragon, Merlin?” The creature shook itself and let out a miniature yawn. “Does it speak? Do you speak?”
Arthur ducked as the thing launched itself into the air, and Leon was on his feet in a heartbeat. “Merlin,” Leon said in a low voice, his eyes trained on the silver glinting through the shadows as Percy and Lance moved slowly to support.
“It won't hurt you. It’s not a real dragon until it’s named,” Merlin said confidently. It chose that moment to land on Leon's head and let out a little cough of fire. “Of course, I’m not an expert on the matter…”
Merlin woke to Arthur's hand at his shoulder, the other pressing the blanket across his mouth and a small torch held between his teeth. Merlin levelled his best glare at the man. The effect, he knew, was likely spoiled by position and circumstance, but he gave it his best shot.
The prince just jerked his head, a determined set to his face.
"I can't have been sleeping more than four hours," Merlin said in a low voice once they'd sneaked out of the living area, heading towards the secondary tunnel. Arthur waited for him to enter before following, shutting the door behind them and sliding the rusted bolt into place. The other man hadn't slept yet, he realised; Merlin was positive he would have woken at the shift of weight on the bunk unless Arthur had taken rest elsewhere. Considering how they seemed to get on most of the time, Merlin wouldn't have been surprised.
Merlin pulled up a witch light, noticing the little dragon had followed them in, its tail curled around the door bolt where it sat. Merlin stared at the Prince expectantly. "Are you going to tell me what this is about?"
"This is hardly the ideal setting," the man said almost to himself, scrubbing a hand across his face.
Arthur sized him up for a moment. "Are...do you think of me as a tool, Merlin Emrys?"
"I don't think I understand the question," Merlin said in confusion. Being underground for so long was wreaking havoc on his mind and Merlin felt well and truly exhausted.
"You said that you would do whatever you had to in order to get us out of this alive," Arthur repeated as Merlin tried to follow his logic. "What if you had to hand me over to that woman? Would you do that if you had to?"
"I would never give you to her." This was something Merlin could handle. Vivian was insane. If the man needed reassurances that Merlin wouldn't forsake him, he could do that with ease. The Prince was nodding to himself, hands planted on his hips and staring off to Merlin's left.
"What if I ordered you to?"
"I said I'd protect you, Arthur. Whatever else happens, I won't fail in that."
"Right. You need your memories back so that you can protect the others, that much has been made clear to me - so that you know exactly what you're up against." The man was mulling over something in his head. All Merlin could think of was how much he wished he was back in his flat fast asleep, far from worrying about flying lizards and deranged witches where his biggest issue was deciding what sort of eggs he'd like for breakfast.
Whatever it was, Arthur seemed to make a decision, and in doing so Merlin was shocked by how striking he looked in the half-light when he was determined to act. It was that feeling that allowed him to be taken completely by surprise when Arthur grabbed him by the shirt and slammed him up against the door.
"What are you doing?" he hissed, shifting his shoulders against the metal at his back. The prince had his head bowed before he raised his eyes, staring at Merlin with a set jaw.
"I'm helping you remember," he replied, and Merlin flinched as Arthur pressed forward to hold him in place, his bare hands bracketing Merlin's neck, "and I'm not letting go until you do." The images started pulling up before his eyes, blending into his vision as they slotted themselves into his subconscious. The Rising Sun in the evening time, Gwaine laughing next to Arthur. Gwen teaching him how to mend britches in the sunlight. He almost didn't register Arthur pressing their foreheads together, the Prince's hands a vicelike grip on his face.
Thom the blacksmith pleading innocence. The knights cornering a black panther with the eyes of a terrified young girl.
He wanted to fight it. He tried, pulling the man's wrists to get him to loosen his grip, but Arthur held firm. Arthur, flushed and happy, a goblet of watered wine in hand before the fire. Chess on a cold winter night. Arthur sweating and thrashing, dying slowly - calling lightning from the sky.
The Prince shifted against him on the outskirts of his senses, and he felt the press of lips against his.
The sword and the lake. The sword and the stone. The King, blinding in his glory. He couldn't think straight, Merlin's own hands working against him as he pulled the Prince closer, sneaking under his button-down and pressing palms flat against his stomach. He was watching Arthur court Gwen. He was watching Arthur grow into the King Albion needed; the High King, as Merlin lay entire kingdoms at his feet. Merlin was pressing back, he realised, trying to match each of Arthur's touches with one of his own fuelled by memories that were reclaiming him. Fuelled by years of searching stretching behind him, of needing to believe he would find his King once more.
The spot the Prince had always twitched from when Merlin had dressed him in the mornings. The feeling of losing him time and again. Of close calls that had seemed so final. Destiny and chicken. The corner of his mouth when he smiled. Arthur. Just Arthur.
This wasn't how it had been; Arthur had never reached for him like this before and he knew it with a startling clarity. Arthur had never reached and Merlin had never dared. They hadn't the time or space whether they had wanted to or not and Arthur had always been so focused on what Camelot wanted - what Camelot needed. If he had known then what destiny had planned, Merlin knew he would have reached. He would never have left Arthur to his fate.
But Merlin had. He'd gone away, and then it had been too late, and then there were years and ages of wandering and then...then there was a cradle and a squalling child. Then there was Arthur.
"I looked for you," he said against Arthur's skin. "I needed you." He remembered.
The wall at his back was shifting, the ground at his feet was shaking, and Merlin could feel the tremors running through the earth. He could feel the others, startling awake; feel the moment the magic shifted focus. Merlin pressed kisses against the corner of Arthur's mouth, trying to ignore the incessant tug at the back of his mind.
"You're alive." Arthur was solid under Merlin's touch and every bit the man he remembered; the King. "I should have been there."
"You are a complete fool, Merlin," Merlin smiled against Arthur's cheek as the King spoke. "Complete and utter moron. Do you remember?"
"Yes, I --Arthur?" Merlin broke off as his King pulled out of reach. He knew the face the man was pulling; he knew what was going on behind his eyes, what was shutting down. Merlin wondered for a brief and terrible moment just what Arthur's memories had been. "Arthur, what are you -"
"You couldn't have waited until after some breakfast, could you!" Morgana shouted through the door, cutting off Merlin's worry. "We have to move. Now!"
"Oh God, Morgana," Arthur glanced at the door, his face stone.
"Vivian knows," Merlin realised as his mind sorted through everything that had returned. "We need to get out of here. She knows something is happening, she knows I've found the King." He wrenched open the door, rushing into the main tunnel and nearly colliding with the others. Everyone was already heading to the stairs.
“Vivian?” Arthur said sharply. "Olaf's Vivian?"
"Morgana -" Merlin cut out. If they got pinned here Vivian would tear the ground apart and open the shelter like a tin can.
"She was at the Tower, Merlin," she cut in, casting a wary eye at Arthur and for Merlin it just confirmed what he already knew the man was thinking. "Or will be. I rather think she might be here soon."
The last time Arthur-the-King had seen Morgana, he had been delirious from blood loss knowing she had destroyed everything he lived for. Merlin had had centuries to get over the betrayal; he had seen her penance. Arthur had every right to extract his revenge; what worried Merlin was just how silent the other man had become. He wondered if the memories of the Duchess of Edinburgh were enough to temper his memories of the would-be Queen.
"Come on, Merlin." Gwen had grabbed his arm, tugging him after the others into the stairs before he could register having moved. He frantically craned his neck to find Arthur but Gwen pulled him upwards. "He's coming, he's coming. Leon's bringing up the rear."
The air in the stairwells, unregulated by Merlin's manipulation of the filtration systems, was heavy and stale, made worse by the dust and debris from the shaking ground that ringed them in. Finding their footing was hazardous at best in the dark, and Merlin found himself stumbling blindly with the others, a collection of impressive bruises setting in with each fall.
Arthur, each time Merlin frantically sought him out, was helping to support a terrified Isolde limping along under the strain of her injury.
"The shaft can't take much more," Arthur shouted. "And the train tunnels aren't built to withstand earthquakes of this magnitude, let alone magical ones! We can’t head back underground"
"If we surface we're open targets!" Merlin shot back. He was putting everything he could into holding the concrete steps together as they climbed.
"If we stay underground we'll be crushed. We stay up." Arthur's tone brooked no arguments. By the look on the other's faces they were all too happy to give up the tight spaces for open air as though they had forgotten the things that lurked above. Merlin cursed as he pushed onwards towards the surface - the relative safety of the past few days had given them all a sense of security that Merlin couldn't guarantee aboveground.
Merlin threw what he could had into masking their presence once they surfaced to the remains of the Camden Town station. There was a hole in one wall that looked large enough to pass through and they dashed forward from the Deep Level Shelter into the cover of the station, stumbling and staggering over shifting debris in their path, and casting worried glances up at the half-roof above. Lance and Percival moved to stack what they could to stopper the hole, bolster their defences as much as they could.
Merlin’s shield made no difference. The very earth knew where the King was now, the world outside their broken shell of bricks was soon swarming with creatures come to pay homage, to see the King returned to the land. Gwaine let out a curse from where they stood, peering out the grating onto the street. In the centre of it all stood the High Priestess.
Vivian was wearing the red of the Old Religion, dark as dried blood in the half-light. Her eyes were on Arthur alone.
"There you are," Vivian said conversationally, as though she wasn't surrounded by ruins and beasts. She took a step forward, one hand extended in invitation dripping with open affection. "I waited for you, Arthur, I waited and waited and you never came."
"Vivian," Arthur started, stepping in front of Isolde cautiously. Vivian closed her eyes and smiled at the sound, of Arthur’s voice shaping itself around her name.
"Arthur, no." Merlin knew Arthur. He knew the man was terribly predisposed to putting himself in harm's way. "She's gone mad, Arthur; she's not Olaf's daughter any longer -"
"Vivian," Arthur repeated firmly. "Are you responsible for this? For my people getting lost in the mists and preyed upon these last few weeks?"
She smiled, fingers curling in entreaty. "I waited for you, Arthur, my King."
"What did you do?"
"You didn't come to me. Others came. Thousands of others, but you didn't. So I came to you. The boundaries of the world cannot stop true love." Vivian stepped forward again, pressing against the shields Merlin had erected. Morgana raised a hand beside his, reinforcing his strength but he could feel them thinning still, giving way to the High Priestess who had accepted the fealty and stewardship so readily. She must have made every sacrifice to tether herself so completely to the Old Ways.
“This shouldn’t have happened, Merlin,” Morgana hissed under the strain. Merlin felt it as she did, but refused to give Morgana that satisfaction. There was no way in hell Vivian should have been able to amass more power than Merlin, but magic needed a conduit, and Vivian had volunteered.
"What happened to you, Vivian?" Arthur was staring at her hard enough that Merlin knew he was trying to see the young girl she had once been; the one who had been so strong and independent before Trickler had interfered. He was seeing a girl that needed to be saved. Merlin needed to act before Arthur did something stupid.
"Gwaine, Lancelot," Merlin said sharply. "Keep Arthur safe."
The men, all five, moved without question to flank the King just as Merlin tipped his head back, staring straight into the sky through the broken roof and began to speak. When he spoke, it was with the authority of the last of his kind; a call that he demanded be answered. He could not hold their protection on his own, not against the power Vivian had pulled about herself over the centuries.
In a heartbeat, fire scorched a line across their vision, Percival throwing himself across Gwen to shield her from the heat before it became as much about the debris. There were several successive thumps on the remaining structure, scaled tails curling around and through broken stones. Vivian let out an angry shriek, snarling in a most unlady-like manner at the snout of a lizard the size of a lorry.
"He is mine, Emrys! You have no right to keep us apart!" Merlin could hear over the barrier of Dragonfire. "Nothing but a servant! I will tear you apart for your presumptions!"
"So what now?" Arthur said in a low voice, the first sound to break the silence between them in half an hour.
Merlin considered him for a moment. "I don't know."
The others were crouched together on the first landing, Morgana charged wordlessly with keeping them calm and collected. She and Merlin had treated their wounds in the first few minutes, a wide collection of scrapes and bruises from their dash to the surface fading under the soft glow of magic. Arthur had silently refused care and neither she nor Merlin had argued. Gwen had an arm around Isolde now, Tristan pressed close to the girl's far side. Gwaine had started up a card game with the battered pack he'd had in his pocket since the night before when it became apparent that they were under siege, though Elyan and Leon still shot Arthur glances now and again. After a horrendous roar from below and a resulting rumble no one had suggested they retreat to the tracks.
For now this was it.
"We have no supplies. We have no weapons - aside from you." Arthur fell silent again. He could feel Merlin's worry in the air around him; the man had always fidgeted when Arthur thought, as though the idea was dangerous in itself. Arthur couldn't bring himself to be properly irritated by the thought.
"You haven't said anything about it," Merlin said carefully after a time, staring at the crackling fire across the doorway. Arthur didn't need to ask what he meant. "You should."
"Forgive me, Merlin," Arthur snapped as quietly as he could manage, "if not everyone can accustom themselves so easily to having another life shoved inside their skull. Just...just leave off."
"Are you alright?"
"Alright?" Arthur choked back a laugh. "I died Merlin. I remember dying; steel ripping apart my lungs - choking on my own blood. Do you have any idea how horrifying that is? To know what it feels like with absolute certainty? So no, Merlin, I'm not alright. I don't know if I could ever be alright, but I'm trying."
Merlin was staring hard at him now and Arthur felt a bit of grim satisfaction. A small dark part of him wanted to shift off some of the pain floating about in his mind; the feeling of desertion and isolation from everyone who had ever meant something in his life. His life, his past, not some invading King of old. Just Arthur Pendragon, then and now. His petty thoughts and blame weren't useful, it wouldn't restore London.
London had survived plague and air raids and civil war. It had survived fires and near constant rainfall. It had survived because its people survived, heads held high to clear and rebuild and carry on. It was the British way. Now they sat in a London that was crumbling around them, bereft of its people so absolutely that Arthur wasn't sure it could ever be saved. Would the island still be Britain if there were no civilians, no institutions, no government? Would Britain run the way of old Albion, becoming something new with new inhabitants and new value systems? He couldn’t let that happen again.
Arthur dragged a hand over his face, feeling the weariness taking up residence in his bones. If he were any sort of proper ruler he would be thinking of how to get them back, how to reverse the damage that had been done. If he was younger...but he wasn't, not now. He couldn’t think like the Prince of Wales alone anymore. Now he was also thinking of the last time he had seen Merlin, back then. How everything had slotted back into place and the world had felt right again. Like he was seeing Merlin on the day he rode back to Camelot with Gaius in the rain or standing next to him on the parapets in the gold of a setting sun.
He had known, that day in his tent, that he was going to die. Arthur had nothing left to fight for and Mordred had every advantage. Mordred had Morgana. He had a future he could see spanning into the distance. And Arthur - Arthur had an empty throne, an empty bed and conspicuous seats at his once full table.
In the end, he was content going to his grave knowing he had been able to see that vision of Merlin, real or imagined. The last of his bastions. The only one who had come home to him.
"Look, can you and I step away for a bit? I need to clear my head and Morgana being right there isn't helping any." Arthur lurched to his feet, quickly enough that Merlin reached out to steady him, hands gripping tightly at elbow and wrist. There was no grand shock, no hostile takeovers of his senses. Just Merlin. Just Merlin was enough. "Will the barrier hold?"
Merlin nodded, his fingers slowly retreating. "The dragons hold it for now; nothing can enter. At least being a Dragonlord has some standing against the Priestess."
Arthur turned on his heel, leaving Merlin to have words with the others. Merlin had given him twenty-three years of being just Prince Arthur once more, a new set of memories to dull the old and a new set of rules with which to re-evaluate the past. A world of space travel and Elton John and constitutional governments, where his role in society was less demanding of personal sacrifice and more acting stand-in for national tradition. Where the mad and ill were medicated and cared for rather than accused of sorcery and burnt at the stake.
He had often wondered in his first life, both when watching Merlin's easy banter and more frequently in his sudden absence, if Merlin himself was real or imagined. If Merlin wasn't just some figment of his imagination constructed when Arthur needed him most, as he had been in the final days. The man had always been there to voice what Arthur never could, to complain over long council meetings and rage against Uther's iron grip. He was the unfettered emotion Arthur could never indulge in as Crown Prince, and eventually became the reserve and tempering wisdom Arthur the King had needed when he was feeling particularly young and brash.
He was, for all intents, Arthur's better half. It was that more than anything that made him seem too perfectly opposite to be real.
Love, Arthur had always considered to be a bit of a battlefield in its own right. Before Merlin - and Arthur wasn't certain just when he had begun to count his life in eras of Merlin, his presence and absence - before Merlin, Arthur had never really allowed himself to think about it. He forged treaties and carried on social diplomacy, but to actually love someone was a declaration and risk it was better not to undertake. He'd never had need to hold affection for a single individual and convinced himself that he couldn't afford to place one person above the needs of his people. If he married, it was better to do so with a clear head and no weakness to exploit.
And then Merlin had come along and started lobbing bloody boulders at Arthur's fortifications with an impertinence that knew no bounds; started pointing out just how emotionally constipated Arthur truly was and making him want. And then Gwen had - nice, safe, familiar Gwen - in that brief moment between Sir William and chicken, flared up in attack with what was so quintessential Merlin that Arthur had been forced to pay attention. Had thought fleetingly: What if? What if. What if Merlin was right and this was a battle worth fighting? And soon it was all he could think about.
Deep down, Arthur knew that Gwen was madly, deeply irrevocably in love with Lancelot. Deep down, Arthur knew that he had first started paying attention to Guinevere when he had been staring in wonder at her flashing eyes and thinking: 'Dear God, but I can see why Merlin likes you.' Under Merlin's hounding and Gwen's own utterly solid support throughout the following strife, she managed to become firmly rooted in Arthur's little family and never once judged him with the eyes of the Court. For that, Arthur loved her fiercely.
He still needed to fight - his father, their social standing, her own reservations - but it kept him focused. He would fight for his own choice in the matter of his wife. He would fight to change the prospects of his people. He would fight to be worthy of the devotion of his friends. And all the while, Merlin stood at his side and smiled.
By the time Arthur realized that the affection he held for Gwen - though strong, so very strong - was not quite the same affection Gwen shared with his First Knight, they had already set events in motion. Guinevere was his strength, his support, his sensible voice in the dark and his closest friend after Merlin. Without her, he would have been utterly ruined when Merlin disappeared. With her, it had still taken months before he stopped watching the horizon for Merlin's return; before he stopped requesting an extra meal sent up to his chamber on long nights of paperwork or removed the extra chair from before his fire.
Gwen was his confidant, and deep down Arthur knew that she was more aware than he had ever been. He had hurt her too deeply, too often, to be forgiven. The night she left, she had folded his hands around the Queen's circlet, saying, 'We both know it was never meant for me.' It was a battle Lancelot had won years ago; rightfully, just as his knighthood.
Merlin looked cautious now, restrained as he had rarely ever been in Arthur's memories. They had retreated to the ticket office, a small cramped space, with Arthur perched awkwardly half on the counter.
"Do you think this is a tear - like before? Will we have to lose someone to mend it?" It was his turn to walk into the rift if it was needed, as it had been his right all those years ago only to have Lancelot beat him to it. This time he would be sure not to let anyone else take his place.
"I don't know. We didn't encounter any spirits of the dead; Zephyrs, yes, spirits, no. Did you?"
"No," Arthur crossed his arms, staring hard at Merlin's right shoulder. Merlin waited silently, giving Arthur the space to think. "You trust her." After everything Morgana has done to destroy me, he wanted to add. After the deaths she has caused?
"I trust that she cannot harm me, or lie to me," was Merlin's slow response. He didn’t need to ask who Arthur had meant. "She has had many years to work through her feelings regarding Uther's Camelot versus yours." Merlin shifted to lean against the counter beside Arthur, pressed close against his side.
Arthur supposed it didn't really matter, whether Merlin trusted Morgana or not. Arthur trusted Merlin. Merlin would be his shield, and Arthur would return the favour. They would be alright.
"Did you ever -" Arthur started before changing his mind and trying again. "If I wasn't a King - a Prince - or...or if...if the world wasn't crumbling around us - did you ever think if we were just Arthur and just Merlin, that we might have been good?" Merlin was staring at Arthur like he had two heads and Arthur knew that he had probably failed miserably at what he'd intended to say. "The two of us," he clarified.
"To me, we've always been just Arthur and Merlin," Merlin replied.
Arthur nodded, forcing the cold knot in his stomach to quiet. "Right."
"We've always been Arthur and Merlin," Merlin said again. "We'd never have gotten on any other way, the two of us. But yeah, I think we might have had a chance."
He raised his head then to catch Merlin's eye not that far from his own. Arthur leaned closer, his right hand twisting in the neck of Merlin's ratty jumper as the other shifted his balance against the ticket counter. "Why did you run off, then?”
“I didn’t run off,” Merlin objected.
“You did. That woman, Ninnian -"
"Tricked me," Merlin said softly. "Does 'til the day I die' mean nothing anymore?"
Arthur snorted. "You can't die."
"Then I'll be at your side for a bloody long time, won't I."
Arthur could feel the shape of Merlin's lips brushing against his own, the press of breath with each exhale. He could still piece together fragments of that moment underground, amidst the onslaught of memories. It couldn't last though, not like this. They needed time and space and for a solid structure between them and the rest of the world. Arthur had to solve this first.
But he was only a man. Arthur gave himself a moment longer, hovering just on the edge of something before letting Merlin go; firm hands settling on his shoulders and pushing Merlin back into his own space. He had made his decision.
"Get the others over here, Merlin," Arthur swallowed, assuming the voice he used to command his knights, eyes refusing to register the shell-shocked expression that passed across Merlin's face. "Everyone. I'm going to try to get a good look at our current situation in the meantime -"
"- and we will come up with a plan, a course of action," Arthur continued firmly.
Merlin shook his head. "Look, I don't know what this is or...we go together. I'm not leaving you again. There's not much difference or room to move about -"
"Between the two of us, who is better at hunting, Merlin, at stealth?" Merlin looked unconvinced and still more than a little frustrated. Granted, Arthur's reasons were a moot point when one factored in Merlin's innate talents but it brought Arthur a sense of familiarity that he knew Merlin could appreciate. Arthur wrapped a hand around the back of Merlin's neck, pulling his forehead close. "I know you can save her, Merlin. Under that gormless simpleton act you've got going is a man who's just a little bit brilliant and I know you're going to save her. You're going to save us all. We'll do what we do best, you and I."
"I don't know where to start."
"I trust you," Arthur gave Merlin's shoulder a shove. "We'll pull through this. Now gather the troops and wait here."
Merlin fisted Arthur's collar, leaning down that slight distance and pressing a firm kiss against his mouth, almost like marking territory. For once, in all his battles, Arthur didn't mind giving ground.
As Arthur approached the crumbled ruin of steps and grating he could see the restless forms prowling outside. The Dragonfire burnt now without heat, a twisting barrier of light. The little silver dragon was pacing, digging miniature silver claws into his shoulder and Arthur was steeling himself for action.
"Only one way for it," Arthur said to himself, though he liked to think it was for the dragon's benefit; he wasn't sure the dragon could even understand him yet.
When this was over, Arthur told himself, he was going to drag Merlin to the State Rooms of Buckingham Palace and debauch the man on the carpets commissioned for Henry VIII and re-appropriated by his great great grandmother. Lay him out on Elizabeth's tables and keep him abed for longer than Lennon and Ono ever imagined.
But first, Arthur had to walk through fire and face the mistakes of his youth.
He closed his eyes and stepped into the barrier, Morgana's words repeating in his mind. 'He never expected to have to safeguard against his King.' When the blinding light against his eyes faded, Arthur cracked open his eyes, staring straight ahead and ignoring the scaled snouts that flanked him.
"Vivian," he called with a resigned boldness, trying to imagine Merlin crouched and waiting with the others, trusting Arthur would join them shortly. Merlin was there. He was safe. He wasn't going to race out of the rubble and throw himself in harm's way. Not this time.
Vivian barrelled into him from nowhere and far faster than he had ever expected, crushing against him as though trying to meld them as one until he coughed for air.
"I will raze them to the ground for you, my love," he could hear her muttering. "For holding you hostage, for -"
"Clemency." Arthur tightened his hold around her slim shoulders. He could snap her neck right here. Her guard was down, she wouldn’t notice until it was done. "You will show them clemency for keeping me in good health."
"For you, for you my love. You are kind and brave and noble my Prince, my King. I have so much to show you."
Arthur could feel the little dragon curled up under his collar, next to his skin. He couldn’t do it. Merlin would come through. They would get out of this whole and Vivian would get the help she needed. "You will let me go, Vivian. If you love me, you will release me."
"I will never let you go. Oh Arthur, don't you see? Don't you see what they've done to you? The lies they have told you. You love me, Arthur, you love me always and I will burn them for -"
"Take me away from here, Vivian," Arthur said sharply. "If you leave them alone - swear no harm will come to them - I will come with you. Always."
"I've already picked out my dress," she said happily. "It matches the flower you first gave me, do you remember?"
"Of course," Arthur hedged, shooting a glance back towards the crumbling station. It wasn't a promise, but if he could distract her it just might give the others a chance. Arthur set his jaw as the winds started to whip around them in a roaring gale. He just needed to give Merlin time. Time and the space in which to move.
"It's all a bit Shakespeare, isn't it?" Gwen said lightly in the back room of the station, Lance's arms curved around her.
"What?" Merlin asked distractedly. He couldn't fathom what Arthur thought he was playing at - he should have insisted at least Gwaine accompany the man.
"The Athenians in the forest. You said it was some sort of eye drop, didn't you? Applied while they were sleeping, and now she's all twitterpatted about the wrong someone."
Merlin shot a glance at Morgana. "It couldn't be, could it?" He had never stopped to think back then of how it had happened, just that it needed to be fixed - once Arthur was back to normal, Merlin hadn't had a reason to push further. If it wasn't an enchantment, if it was a potion, there was an antidote.
"You think Smithy's right?" Gwaine folded his arms, levelling a stare. "Where does one find the King of the Faeries these days?"
"There is no King of the Fey," Morgana replied in a voice that implied that she knew what Merlin was currently thinking despite answering the others. "Mab only keeps consorts."
"But this Mab might have an antidote to whatever's got the woman all..." Gwaine made a few gestures at eye level.
"It's been too long," Merlin started to pace, shooting Morgana a look. "Where is he?"
Arthur had said to trust him. But then, this was Arthur, and Arthur had a history of not thinking things through and running headlong into danger and -- Merlin vaulted the turnstiles and raced up the stair to the front of the station, roaring at the dragon kind that surrounded them. "Where is he? The King, where is the King?"
You asked for no one to enter.
"WHERE. IS. HE."
The Boy King decided to leave.
Merlin felt the air leave his lungs. He had lost him. He had lost Arthur again.
"Merlin!" Morgana grabbed at his arm and without a thought she was thrown across the ruins of Camden Town. The others were there now, Gwen rushing to Morgana's side, the men dog-piling on Merlin and Isolde shrieking and crying in the corner. They couldn't hold him for long. Merlin pushed his magic out through his skin, slowly forcing the weight surrounding him to push away from the source of his expanding power. He released his hold, letting the men - Arthur's knights, he thought vaguely - tumble to the ground. But they weren't Arthur’s knights. They had failed and now their King was gone. Gone.
"Merlin wait." Morgana was on her feet again, pale as a sheet as she navigated the sprawled bodies around the rubble.
"I'm getting him back. If you think to interfere -"
"You can't just - Merlin, you can't fight the High Priestess, not like this!" Morgana held her ground.
"I killed one Priestess, I can kill another." Arthur was gone. So many centuries of waiting, waiting, and Arthur had been taken from him once again.
"You killed a woman with maybe thirty years on her side, Vivian has had a millennia. And you know Arthur never would have wanted - "
Merlin snarled. "You have no idea what Arthur would want. When have you ever known what Arthur wanted!"
"He would have wanted you to be safe," Elena said firmly, wrapping an arm about Morgana's shoulders. "He would have wanted to ensure that you never had to fight, but if the time ever came, you did so with intelligence and careful planning. Now we were on to something, weren't we?"
Merlin was silent, holding Morgana's eye as he fought to keep his anger under control. She knew the things running through his head then, the treachery and betrayals. She had cut Arthur to the bone time and again because she had known exactly where his armour was weakest. Well Arthur was Merlin’s weakness, the only weakness he had left, and damned if calling Merlin’s safety into question would quell his fires.
"The Arthur Pendragon I knew hated war, and hated seeing his people put in harm's way." Elena's head was held high and when Merlin turned to look at her there was no fear in her eyes, as strong and proud as Godwyn’s daughter had been all those centuries ago. "He has given us time. She will not harm him, and I doubt he would willingly submit to whatever she has planned. Now we can either use that time to sort out a solution, or we get as far away from here as possible and hope to God someone else does."
She was right. Damn it, but she was right. Arthur was doing what Arthur had always done best just as he said he would; drawing attention towards himself and away from anyone else who might get hurt. Merlin let his frustration out with a shout and a sharp gesture, sending half of the broken grating hurtling through the flames and crashing against the buildings opposite. He felt the rage rush out of him in one exhausting wave and collapsed in a crouch, hands pressing hard into his eyes.
Arthur wanted Merlin to save her.
"Merlin..." Gwen's hand rested between his shoulder blades.
"I will go into the Other Country," Merlin said to the ground. "I will find an antidote. I will raise an army. I will bind every last soul and creature until she has nothing -"
"Merlin, look at me." Gwen's face swam before his eyes and her hands were warm points of focus on his skin. "You're scaring me. You're scaring everyone, though Gwaine's got too much pride to be showing it."
"What else can I do, Guinevere?” Merlin snarled softly. “Look at them, they all expect me to fix everything, to save them, and all I can think of - I love him, Gwen. What Vivian is doing - I understand."
"Arthur is our Prince too, Merlin," Gwen said carefully, brushing back his bangs with one hand. "You are not anything like her. You have us. We can help."
"I will go into Mab's court. If you intend to fight for the King - for Arthur - you know what you must do." Morgana stood tall and strong, still paler than she had been in centuries, still caught with fear in her eyes, but every bit as proud as she had been all those years ago, challenging Uther for his crimes. "You have my loyalty, Emrys, and so does the King.”
"I will support her," Elena added firmly to everyone's surprise.
Dagonet stepped forward. “Me too. I can help.”
"If I do this, Morgana," Merlin said carefully, pushing all the others out of his awareness. "If I do this, I will lose myself. I will be putting my foot on a path I will never be able to leave."
"Your path has always been with Arthur - do you really think anything can change that?"
"You have twenty-four hours," Merlin's voice hardly even felt his own. "Twenty-four hours or I bring the battle to Vivian." If Morgana failed to win the allegiance of the Fair Folk, Merlin knew it would be a losing battle - but he would rather die fighting than watch what Arthur would become as Vivian's King. He would sooner erase London from history. Morgana didn't reach out to lay a hand on his shoulder though he could tell she was itching to. She knew the stakes; she had seen the fall of Camelot and the destruction Merlin had wrought.
“The Fey favour youth,” Morgana said in a flat voice. “I will need every advantage if you want the lost ones to return.”
“You can be brave, can’t you Tristan?” Elena said encouragingly. “Isolde? Imagine, the Summer Court, just like the stories.”
"I'll need your favour." Morgana was grim-faced in the half-light. She had seen the Summer Courts already. She had survived.
Merlin nodded tiredly, tearing off a strip of his shirt. "Ic áscire." He watched with detached eyes as blood began to bead in a thin line across his palm, swelling to a puddle in his cupped hand amidst Gwen's gasped concern.
"My life," Merlin let his magic rise, "freely given to serve the King. I state my claim in the name of the High King and my intent to assume the mantle of the High Priest of the Old Religion. By this token you shall know me."
Morgana pressed the tattered cloth to his hand. Merlin held her eye as his blood soaked through the fibres. "I name Morgana Pendragon, adopted of the Fey, my emissary. Her word as my will in the Undying Lands, the Other Country and the Courts of the Fair Folk, wherever they may abide."
He could feel the magic pooling like fire behind his eyes and by the look on the faces of the others, he knew it was manifesting.
Morgana took a steadying breath and paced to the nearest intact piece of wall. She had scavenged a piece of chalk from the transit office and Merlin couldn't bring himself to be angry, knowing she had been planning for this eventuality on some level; the pulse of magic under his skin was too insistent for something as inconsequential as emotion. With a shaking hand, she drew a doorway.
"You asked for this," Merlin said in a low voice against her ear. He caught her hand in his own, pressed up against her back as he traced the lines with confident strokes.
"That's how you get into the courts of the faeries?" Gwaine said with no small bit of incredulity. "We could have been having feasts with the Wee Ones for years."
"Gwaine," Merlin said as he pressed his hand against the brick beside Morgana's, "if I ever see you trying this, I will burn every last ounce of liquor in our flat." The outline flared gold and there was a grating sound like gravel under tyres as the wall swung open under their hands.
Once this was over, Merlin was certain he wouldn’t have a flat to go home to.
Arthur came to feeling like he had woken from a terrible dream. The sheets were soft and clean against his skin, there was a faint scent of rose wafting through the air and there was a warm body pressed against his side. He was content.
It was unusual that his bed-mate stuck around to see the light of day, he couldn't remember anyone having done that since Guinevere - Arthur opened his eyes, forcing them to adjust to the stone ceiling above his head. This wasn't Camelot, with its painted wood beams, or Clarence House's ornate detailing. He could feel every muscle in his body wound tight as he slowly turned to his right.
Princess Vivian was staring at him with bright blue eyes and perfectly coiffed blonde curls no more than three inches away. "You're finally awake!"
Arthur couldn't help the full body flinch, shifting him a good foot to the right or the resulting scramble out of bed that left him tangled in Egyptian cotton. He was naked, he realized with a rolling stomach. He clutched at the sheets as he stared at her accusingly.
He had to remember last night. What had he done? What had she done? He remembered something about a bath. He wouldn’t have…
"Vivian...where are my clothes?" Arthur asked like he was approaching a dangerous beast.
"Those rags." Vivian had crawled across the bed, a red shift slipping dangerously low on her shoulders. "You look better like this."
Arthur's eyes darted to look for an exit. If the woman wasn't a mad sorceress unwillingly infatuated with him, as a man Arthur thought this situation might have been far less unappealing. Even with that slightly crazed look to her eyes, Vivian was an incredibly attractive woman. Then he remembered Merlin sleeping a foot away on the floor of his mother’s hut, staring at the hunched curve of Merlin’s back in a darkened inn, watching Merlin leap headlong into a spirit and fall motionless to the ground. It was then that Arthur realised he was doomed. There would never be a replacement for what Merlin inspired in him.
"Vivian,” Arthur said, more because the woman seemed to like hearing him say her name than anything else. “I would truly appreciate something to wear. I think you would look...beautiful in clothes, layers. Give some...mystery," he hazarded. "You wouldn't want people to think we were...improper before our wedding, do you? There’s going to be a ceremony, yes? I’m the Crown Prince, I can’t have anything less than perfect. A big ceremony, with…pomp. We haven’t already…"
His heart was starting to calm from the initial shock, but the adrenaline was still coursing through his veins and he really was trying to look anywhere but the young woman quite literally willing to throw herself at him. “We definitely need a courting phase.”
Last night - Arthur remembered just as Vivian huffed, motioning to a shape he hadn't noticed before.
"Dear Lord," he breathed, catching sight of light glinting off bronze skin.
It was what Arthur assumed had once been the fountain in Piccadilly, sporting his own face and accompanied by what looked like rather fearsome metal wings. He was fairly certain the original statue's wings hadn't looked quite so sharp, but then, they hadn't been made of individual feathers, razorblade thin, able to bend and fold behind it either. The bronze man approached with a bundle of fabric in hand, but paused in its approach to accept an affectionate petting from Vivian. It was wearing his face, he realized, the thought finally striking home.
Arthur knew he was failing rather spectacularly at keeping an incredulous look of disgust from his features. Fortunately for him, Vivian didn't seem to notice. Arthur snatched the clothing away from the bronze hands as soon as it came within range and fumbled hastily to pull on pants without dropping his sheets.
Last night, Vivian had transported them to the courtyard of the Tower of London. The old fortress had been draped in a strange amalgamation of banners, the red and black tree of the old religion hanging next to the red and gold of the Pendragon crest. It reminded him of the awful time he had returned to Camelot under Morgana’s tyranny – he would have to see them burned as soon as he was able. In his later years Arthur had adopted his own insignia, a red dragon on a field of white to give homage to the past and hope for the future; Vivian, it seemed, had taken note. The pennant of King Arthur flew from the battlements.
The situation Arthur had faced had been as awkward as the current intensity Vivian displayed, but he had thought to curtail that enthusiasm by pointing out he had spent the last few weeks underground and filthy. What he hadn’t expected was to be rushed off into the royal chambers, his clothes firmly torn from him by that bronze monstrosity and summarily scrubbed raw while Vivian sat by and watched. She had taken it upon herself to rain rose petals over the water as he was bathed. Arthur left the tub feeling dirtier than he had previously. Somehow he had managed to convince Vivian to fetch a store of wine to celebrate, and proceeded to toast to everything he could think of, drinking himself and, he hoped, Vivian into a deep slumber. At the very least, incapable of any sort of carnal activity. He remembers speaking profusely on pacing themselves, of how a royal marriage needed an audience, the right timing.
“What happens now, Vivian?” Arthur kept a wary eye shifting between the bronze statue and the blonde witch, unsure which posed more of a threat. “Why were you looking for me?”
“Why, so we could be together, Arthur dearest, like we wanted,” Vivian replied with a girlish giggle. “Always.”
“You need to realise you’re under a spell, you don’t actually love me, Vivian. You can’t stand me. I’m arrogant and,” Arthur tried to remember everything Merlin had ever called him in their long years together, “…and pig-headed. Supercilious. An absolute prat. A dollop-head. No, not that, but the other things certainly.”
“Arthur, my love, when we marry we will be the absolute envy of everyone. We’re perfect for each other.”
“We won’t be,” Arthur said firmly. “I am sorry we did not save you; that I stole your life. I shaped you into this, directly or not, and it was my responsibility to fix. I will marry you if it means you will stop this nonsense, but marriage should be based on truth and love. If I marry you, I won’t ever lie to you. I am in love, Vivian, but it is not with you.”
“You said you were mine, always. You said you love me.” Vivian was advancing now and Arthur’s warning bells started ringing rather loudly. “I can fix that.”
“You can’t fix the way a person feels, Vivian,” Arthur protested. “I will marry you, Vivian, but then we set about fixing what you’ve done.”
“But that’s not the way you feel, my Love,” Vivian spoke as if Arthur were particularly dense. “That serving boy has done something to you. I have learned and trained, my Sweet, I know how to bring back the man I love, the man who loves me. And he will be my King forever more.”
Arthur knew in that moment that this was decidedly Not Good. The little silver dragon that had stayed by his side took to the air in a frenzy when Arthur dodged the bronze hands coming at him. Fire shot out over his shoulder from the little beast before it was dashed against the wall. He grabbed the nearest thing to him and brought it down hard on the Arthur facsimile Vivian had animated, a harsh clang reverberating through the air as he tried to duck and sprint for the exit. Arthur didn’t make it. He hadn’t even slowed the creature down. One flash of Vivian’s eyes had him thrown back against the wall, knocking his head hard against the stone.
[“Merlin?” Arthur turned back, casting the other man a questioning glance. “You’re coming, right? No need standing about in this drafty old place any longer.”
The Tower of London was a ruin. Merlin had called dragons and all manner of beast to descend on Vivian’s fortress and they had destroyed it quite completely. The City of London was likely to be right miffed about that, but given the circumstances Arthur thought it was unlikely Merlin could be held accountable for the damage. By all rights it was royal property anyhow. He would pardon Merlin when the time came.
At the moment, Arthur was far more concerned with dragging Merlin off to Clarence House while the population started trickling back in – give themselves a few hours of privacy before communications were re-established and speeches had to be made.
A smile pulled at Merlin’s lips, small but there. “Yes. I’m right behind you.”
The Knights were watching the perimeter; eyes sharp for the advent of the mist that would herald the return of London’s first citizens as the magical creatures retreated, fading between the realities. And Morgana…Morgana had her arms wrapped around Gwen, standing off in the doorway waiting for him. She had a stony look about her face, staring back at the two of them with such focus that Arthur felt an unease settle in his stomach. Something was wrong.
Arthur paused in his step, turning around to ask Merlin what she was waiting for, what they weren’t telling him. But Merlin was fading - like the dragons and the bastets and the gryphons – right before his eyes.
“Merlin!” Arthur hardly remembered moving before he was passing through Merlin’s spectre in the courtyard, stumbling to a halt a few feet past him. He could see Morgana through Merlin, grip tight around Gwen’s shoulders, holding the woman back from the same instinct. “You can’t be,” Arthur protested.
“I’m sorry, Arthur.” Merlin gave Arthur a small counterfeit smile. “It was the only way I could bring them back for you.”
“I am your King. You can’t just –“
Arthur woke in a cold sweat, lurching forward and clutching at his head. There was a massive lump, likely the cause of the wave of nausea and his inability to focus on the embroidered coverlet across his lap. The feeling was far more familiar now than it had been a month prior – Arthur knew now he had suffered more concussions in his dual life than any man had right to. It was a wonder he still functioned.
He blinked past the pain, tilting his head slowly to glimpse at the room. It still wasn’t home. He still wasn’t wearing anything, though this time there looked to be a neat pile of clothes laid on a chair to his left in red and gold and browns. Something that looked suspiciously like an old cloak Arthur once had, ermine lined and a great collar of wolf’s mane.
The back of his neck itched and he rubbed a hand up and down it as he got his bearings. He had dreamt of Merlin – clumsy, foolish, interfering Merlin. The man simply could not leave Arthur alone, even there.]
“Where’s Elena?” Gwaine said, first to notice Morgana stepping through into their shelter alone. Morgana glanced at him, mouth set tight. “The bairns, where are they?”
“The antidote?” Merlin voice echoed up from where he had retreated once Morgana had left them, further underground and closer to the rising waters.
“Here,” Morgana said tiredly. “The Fey have also consented to withdrawing their support of the Priestess during contention –“
“But will not support me.” Merlin climbed the stairs, curling his fingers around fractured brick when he reached the surface.
“…No. You know their way.”
Gwaine’s fist hit the gate, making a crash that reverberated through the air. “Where are they?”
“With the Fey still. They are whole and well.” Morgana shot Gwaine a glance.
“They’re safer out of the way,” Gwen said softly, with a hand placed gently on Gwaine’s back. “We can’t take children into a fire fight.”
“You’ve eroded her strength, that has to be worth something,” Lance pointed out. “What is their support worth? What sort of numbers?”
Merlin was silent, so Morgana answered in his stead. “They have closed paths and recalled their dominions, elves, goblins, pixies, gnomes, the three races of Sidhe and their compatriots. The Nymphs and Dryads operate independently, as do Zephyrs and Salamanders – given time, we might win them to our cause. Quadrupeds like gryphons are unpredictable, they will follow strength or whomever has bound their service – and from what we saw, Vivian has woken a number of statues across the city; those will respond only to her.”
“Eight of us don’t stand a chance taking them head on and it would take too long to bind them each individually. I would have to try for all at once,” Merlin said, his skin feeling too tight for his body. “If I fail, that’s it. Vivian will tear me apart.”
“I never thought we would be negotiating election terms with magical beasties,” Gwaine said with a bitter bite to his voice, and Merlin knew he was still worried over Elena, as though he could tell there was more Morgana wasn’t telling them. Merlin knew he was right.
“Merlin’s a Dragonlord,” Leon adds. “That bolsters our numbers some.”
“Dragons will not fly into a full war, not against their own kind, whether I ask them to or not.”
“The priestess’ hold over the creatures of the Old Ways is tenuous at the best of times, but binding still. If that hold should break there will be nothing keeping them at bay,” Morgana said. “If it does, Merlin will have a chance to bind them into his service.”
“And if it doesn’t?” Gwen asked from her place next to Lance.
“Then the five men have a choice to make, and Gwen had best be as far from Vivian as she can be.” Morgana’s gaze never lifted from Merlin for more than a few brief glances at the others. He knew she could see the weight of this piling on his shoulders; knew she had felt it herself once before. “You’re not as strong as you once were, but you can do it, Merlin.”
“The woman doesn’t like a little competition?” Gwaine quips though the humour falls flat.
Morgana’s gaze lands on Gwen, discomforting and brief. “Vivian has a long memory and Guinevere has a memorable face.”
“I’ve never –“
“No, but you look close enough to someone who has.”
“And after?” Merlin’s voice is quiet. “What about Arthur’s people?”
“The exchange will be made, when the time is right.”
Merlin held Morgana’s eyes, reading what the woman wasn’t saying. Elena had played host to the Sidhe before and they had been loath to lose her then. The others - whatever deal Morgana had struck, he was certain he wouldn’t want to know the details. Merlin had to trust that Arthur’s citizens wouldn’t wander out of the mists fifty years out of time, or any number of the tricks the Fey played on mortals. Merlin had to trust Morgana.
“I’ve brought you a present.”
Morgana stood at the sentinel Byward Tower of the curtain wall, Middle Tower at her back and the gaudy tourist shop beyond it. A cold iron chain was wrapped around one fist. There was a choked grunt as she tightened her grip and she could feel Merlin’s tremble through her fine leather gloves. Years she had dreamt of this feeling, of walking the man through every indignity she could imagine. Morgana couldn’t deny that she hadn’t at least entertained the idea back then of the five men - formed up a respective distance behind her - as a Blood Guard to rival the ages. They had sided with her brother, and she had patched together what had been left.
Vivian, perched atop the curtain wall, let out a laugh. “You, who stood beside the wretch when he sought to keep my love from me? If you persist, Morgana dearest, I just might forget the clemency you’ve been shown.”
They had made their way to the Tower with relative ease – the majority of creatures had, finding nothing left in the City proper, moved further afield while others merely set up roost on the Tower grounds. The gryphons had taken over Tower Bridge, peering down at them like a terrifying murder of crows lying in wait. It didn’t stop the men from arming themselves to the teeth. Their weapons alone would be useless, but it had made them feel safer so Morgana had left them to their ways.
“My actions were not my own, your Grace,” Morgana bent her head despite her pride, keeping her eyes trained on the gravel at her feet. Once, she would never have dreamt that she would be forced to pay homage to a raving lunatic like Vivian. Morgana could still remember the rumours she had heard filtering through the kingdoms, of Olaf’s daughter refusing all suits, of Olaf’s untimely death. Merlin had said Trickler must have been at fault – that at the time he had mistakenly assumed that Arthur’s charms, as they were, must have simply got through to her despite all rational explanation. That somehow talk of destiny and chicken had won her heart. Merlin’s intuition had always been a bit crap. She could see Merlin’s fierce glare in her periphery. “Since my time on the Blessed Isle, this insolent fool overcame me in my grief over my dear brother and bound me to his will.”
“And you wish me to believe you are not still?”
“Is he not bound in iron?” Morgana gave a tug of the chain, forcing Merlin up to his knees from where he rested on his ankles. The cuffs at his neck and wrists, the cold iron pressed against his skin, obstructed even Merlin’s magic – Merlin was as helpless as Gwen or Dagonet might be. Perhaps worse, given how dependant the man had always been on letting his magic seep into his daily life. “I have come to serve the Old Ways once more.”
“And the others?”
“Your citizens, come to bear witness to your hand-fasting and the rise of the true King.” Morgana said smoothly.
Vivian gave a twist of her wrist and three knights made of metal wire marched through the Byward gate, surrounding their small group. “They look like knights.”
“If you would have us serve as knights, my lady,” Gwaine called up with a grin he had pulled from somewhere. “We were the King’s honour guard once, if it pleases you.”
Morgana hid her frown. Gwaine couldn’t possibly remember – none but the three of them had been wrapped in Merlin’s enchantment. Vivian seemed to be considering his words though, and Morgana let Merlin slump back down, exhausted. As far as Gwaine was concerned, the plan was simple: get into the Tower, get Arthur the antidote and let him and Merlin neutralize the enemy. Merlin was Morgana’s currency into Vivian’s good graces; she hadn’t thought to account for the fierce loyalty that seemed to resonate among anyone remotely associated with the two of them. Neither Gwaine nor Lance would stand for seeing Merlin trussed up without their supervision while Leon and Percival were itching to race headlong after their prince. Elyan was convinced that he owed it to Merlin for safeguarding his sister and wanted to return the favour – not to mention eliminating the threat Morgana had so pleasantly illustrated to her person. All five thrummed with the idea of a band of brothers saving the world in true British fashion. Just as they had been, just as it seemed they always would be.
If they survived, well and good. But as fond as Arthur was of his knights, with the current stakes she couldn’t afford to be concerned with them. Or the leviathan that seemed to have taken up residency in the Thames to her left, rearing up from the dirty water and sending waterfalls into a river that should not have been deep enough to house it. She kept her gaze firmly on the ground, focused on the silence between her and the blonde witch.
“You will enter,” Vivian decided after a time. “My love was partial to his knights – he will decide if he wishes to keep you still. And you,” she waved a hand in Morgana’s direction, “you are his blood, and perhaps I will allow that pismire to dance in motley before I put his head on a pike.”
Merlin was pulled to his feet and Morgana relieved of his chain by one of Vivian’s metal knights. She didn’t object as they were herded through the gates and down Water Lane. Glancing up at St Tomas’s Tower she saw a glint of gold or bronze and half imagined it might be Arthur staring down at them from the leaded windows. Soon, Brother, Morgana thought to herself, I just hope you haven’t done anything foolish.
It was three days before Morgana would get a chance to see Arthur – the real Arthur, not the bronze monstrosity that silently prowled the battlements with its retinue of metal knights– and she felt that she was slowly going mad. There had been no noticeable shift in magic, but each breath had Morgana on edge that it might happen in the next moment.
“Oh thank the gods,” Morgana said in exhale. “I thought you were gone the way of the princes.”
Arthur gave her a wry smile, pulling her in and clapping her hard on the back. “Vivian said my sister had come. Welcome.”
Morgana shook her head, scanning the room and letting her magic feel the way. There was nothing monitoring the area. But then, Arthur wouldn’t know that.
“We don’t have much time, Arthur. I know we’ve had our differences, but Merlin needs you –“ Morgana paused as Arthur winced, a hand going to the back of his head. “What has she done to you?”
Arthur waved her off. “Hit my head on something, I suppose. What were you saying?”
She peered at him closely, trying to see beyond the painfully familiar tunic he sported. “We found an antidote. If she uses this as she would a belladonna tincture, it just may break the enchantment.” Morgana slipped the vial from her pocket holding it out in the slanting light. “Arthur…are you certain you’re alright?”
“It’s fine Morgana, I forgive you,” Arthur said with a smile. “I know you feel I should hold some sort of grudge against you, but that’s all in the past. I’m just glad you’ve come.”
Morgana’s fingers curled around the vial, slowly pulling it back as her eyes narrowed. “…why?”
“Don’t be foolish, Morgana. I always wanted you at my wedding.”
“…you want to marry Vivian.”
“I want to share my life with the one I love.” Arthur had a hand fisted in his hair and a smile pulled across his face.
Morgana frowned. “You can’t say it, can you.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Who do you love, Arthur?”
“I love Vivian.” His voice didn’t falter and his smile never wavered and Morgana knew this was going to be a serious step backwards in her plan.
“Do you know what this is, Arthur?” Morgana’s fingers twisted in the cloth she had borne into the Undying Lands, pulling it out of her pocket and holding it out. It was stained brown and crumpled and caused the wrinkle between Arthur’s eyes to deepen. “It’s Merlin’s blessing. His blood. He’s going to save you, Arthur.”
“It’s a dirty scrap of cloth,” he said in reply. “He never was very good with gestures.” But his hand was already closing around it, fingers curling the fabric tightly into his fist.
Morgana said nothing, staring hard at the man who had been her family, enemy and friend.
“My wedding will be on the full moon,” Arthur said quietly. “I hope you will all be there.”
When Merlin first arrived, most of his concentration had been on placing one foot in front of the other until he got somewhere he could rest. He’d experienced cold iron only briefly, many years ago, and had seen no insurmountable difficulties in donning it if it granted him access into Vivian’s stronghold. He’d heard stories – how he wouldn’t be able to cast, how it would make him queasy, perhaps light-headed – he’d retched the last time, when an hour or so had past and he had been released. He didn’t like the idea of wearing it again, but for Arthur he would do anything.
The inner ward of the Tower had become a strange sort of menagerie, full of pacing statues and creatures watching and weighing their entrance. Their lives were dependant on Vivian’s will now, though really that only went so far. Any of the beasts could grow bored and decide to test their fetters. Merlin was certain Vivian wouldn’t even register if Lance or Percival were to lose an arm to a curious basilisk. In cold iron chains, Merlin himself could do little to discourage a gryphon or wyvern, both of which had a special affinity for men. He should have questioned where Morgana had been able to find them – how she had known exactly where the Royals kept such things for times of need.
But none of that was on Merlin’s mind after a few hours. Exhaustion was seeping into his limbs; exhaustion, and bright shining pain in his joints, making it arduous to even shade his eyes from the sun. Before the afternoon was out, he had passed out for the first time.
Merlin measured his time in bouts of consciousness now; often, he found he forgot where he had left off and would begin anew. It had been dark once, perhaps twice in a row, but he refused to believe he had lost an entire day in the blink of an eye like that. A day, he judged, perhaps two.
He couldn’t remember struggling, but he felt he must have and his skin was rubbed raw where his wrists touched the metal cuffs, bruises stretching up his forearms. Sometimes as he gazed at his arms, more lucid but only just, Merlin imagined the dark stains were growing from the metal itself – a foreign body invading, claiming territory it had no right to. He would beg then, turning to the nearest shape in his blurring world. Most times he got no reply. Rarely there would be a weight on his shoulder, his back, his forehead. It was those times he came to fear more than the silence and absence; with each pressure would come a flash of sweet relief and a terrible, near unbearable, shock of withdrawal. Comfort ringing him, taunting him, racing across his skin and refusing to settle.
It was magic, Merlin recognized in a detached part of his brain. Earth magic, the power of life, elemental and pure. The sort of magic that used to flow continuously through him and now…now his body was bleeding itself dry with nothing to stopper the wound.
There was a reason he was there. Merlin had agreed to this. He wished he could remember why.
Morgana had been a part of it. Treacherous witch of a woman - how could he have trusted her, why did he trust her? He would kill her a thousand times over when he was free. She had done this. She was responsible.
The illusive pressure was back, making power skitter across his senses and pulling him upright. Something – water? – was trickling down his throat and he opened his eyes. Merlin spluttered against the stream, raising a hand to fist in the fabric near his face.
“It’s alright, Merlin,” the man seemed to be saying. He looked an awful lot like Gwaine had in his youth.
“Please,” Merlin said as loudly as he could manage. “You can’t trust her. Morgana. She’s going to kill him. She already killed him.” Merlin curled in on himself, fighting the wave of nausea that accompanied the slippery need skirting under his skin. He was like a sponge, dry and cracking in the sunlight and praying for rain. “Arthur! You need to take these off. Take them off!”
The hands around his shoulders tightened and Merlin felt himself falling, darkness overtaking him in one great torrent.
“He’s not doing well,” Elyan said in a low voice as he fell into step beside Morgana. He didn’t need to say who, she already knew.
“He wouldn’t be,” she replied crisply. “A few more days and he’ll likely be dead.”
Merlin had been steadily deteriorating over the past three days. Vivian was feeding him a pittance of what a man might need to survive, and without his magic Merlin’s body was unable to fill in the gaps. But poor nutrition alone wasn’t what was killing him – Merlin was his magic in ways Morgana could never replicate. His condition was worsening far more quickly than anyone had expected. He already spent most of his hours unconscious on the grass of the inner courtyard, chained to the old raven roosts and oblivious to any interactions - not Vivian pouring water or wine over his prone body, not the knights crouching at his side checking on him when they could. He might have stirred for Arthur, but not once had her brother even come in sight of Merlin’s chains.
“Gwaine’s been watching the patrol,” Elyan said as he shot a look at a stone lion watching them as they passed, “and Percy’s confident of Vivian’s –“
“No,” Morgana said sharply. The last thing she needed was Arthur’s knights acting independently. With Arthur himself out of commission and only a passing idea of the cause, everything that she had carefully planned was rather quickly disintegrating around her. She could feel Merlin’s magic skittering around under her skin, free for her use as his envoy, making her a conduit for powers she’d never dreamt of holding – with nowhere else to go, it filled her to bursting...she might even be able to challenge Vivian. Vivian had rudimentary training, mostly self-taught, though Morgana had herself shared the Blessed Isle with the woman for a number of months. She hadn’t foreseen this when she had spoken of Arthur’s fate after Camlann, how he would pass through the mists and live forever…
She really should have seen it coming.
“What do you mean, no?” Elyan had stopped her, one hand catching her elbow forcing her to face him. Centuries ago, she would have taken the hand for his impudence. Weeks ago, Leon or her security detail would have interceded and perhaps roughed him up some. Now she merely wrenched her arm away, levelling a cool stare.
“He needs to stay where he is.” Morgana could just see Merlin from where they stood, on his side, one hand curled in the grass and wood chips. “You all take enough risks feeding him as is.”
“You said yourself, he’s going to die.”
“Arthur would never let that happen,” Morgana said confidently. “Tell this to Gwaine. He is to wait. Everything will be fine.”
“You spoke with him then?”
Morgana remembers the blankness in Arthur’s eyes and feels the burning weight of the vial in her pocket. “He just needs a little time now, and moving Merlin would draw attention we don’t need. I need to speak with Vivian.”
“And the rest of us?”
“…whatever happens, you keep those creatures off Merlin. If they turn…you release him, not before.”
“My sister said to trust you, so for her I will, but know that I will not watch a good man die.” Elyan catches her hand, presses a long thin dagger into her palm. “Leon wants you to have it. Said he’ll check in with you next.”
“Anything else?” Morgana pursed her lips, nestling the dagger between waistband and hip. They had been pillaging the museum buildings it seemed. Vivian cared little for England’s history.
“Don’t get yourself killed either.”
Vivian in herself, Morgana knew, wasn’t the threat. This Vivian was a vapid, single-minded leech – now that she had what she wanted, nothing but a direct threat to her prize would catch her attention. The greatest threat was the position of power she had managed to acquire for herself in her overwhelming quest to be reunited with Arthur. The role Vivian had assumed was solely responsible for the welfare and governance of the Old Ways, its creatures and lands much as the Kings of old. The role Vivian played was a woman hell bent on doing everything possible with her influence to hold open the gates between realms, the world be damned. Magic had receded to Avalon, to the Blessed Isle, to the land of the Fair Folk for a reason – the longer she acted as a bridge between the worlds, the closer they all came to collapse.
Arthur understood this. Arthur’s strength and nobility and courage made him loved of the earth. Arthur, despite everything, would always do what needed for the good of the people, for the good of his kingdom, for the good of the land. Always. And Merlin…Merlin would always follow Arthur’s decision for good or ill because Merlin has always believed in Arthur the way only Merlin can. Arthur would destroy himself for the land, and Merlin would destroy himself for Arthur.
Vivian had changed that balance. This Arthur, this Vivian, they would tear the world asunder to live out Vivian’s petty little dreams. That is why Morgana found herself seated on the edge of Vivian’s large four-poster, watching the blonde woman trying on England’s Crown Jewels in an ornate mirror, wondering just how she could salvage everything.
“I should just marry him now,” Vivian said, raising her chin and admiring herself. “I will. Tonight. We’ve waited too long as it is.”
“Of course,” Morgana responded as encouragingly as she could manage. “Only, you want it to be perfect, don’t you?”
“You said that when you first arrived, Morgana. I want to be married. What has the moon’s position or whatever nonsense you believe to do with true love?” Vivian said with a flourish.
“If the moon is full, your bond will last forever and every blessing will be tenfold,” Morgana lied easily, her mind still racing through contingency plans. It was the Blood Moon, the last full moon before Samhain. She had felt a chill run through her bones when she’d heard Arthur in his chambers. “A few days. It’s not so long.”
Arthur couldn’t have slept with Vivian yet, despite their four day head start – he would have held off as long as he could before the woman altered him, and when Morgana had spoken with her brother, she could see he was fighting still despite his affliction. A pledge made in the aftermath…it would hold stronger than a hand-fasting, as strong as a blood vow. No. Vivian was a traditionalist. A verbal binding, solidified that night in their marriage bed. If only Merlin had stated his intent and jumped the man that night at the Savoy, guard detail be damned, this whole catastrophe would have played out differently.
It was then Morgana notices the large glass jar tucked away beside the mirror, half hidden by a discarded shift. Its contents were shifting, writhing and Morgana tilted her head, listening, remembering – Merlin trussed up from the rafters of a hovel where he was the one shifting, writhing, exhausted and spent. Muffled unearthly shrieks. There will only be one thought in your head: Kill Arthur Pendragon.
“I don’t believe you,” Vivian said, breaking Morgana’s thoughts. “Our love will last forever whether the gods bless it or not.”
“Then why haven’t you already said vows?” She could burn the creature. Arthur would be free, it would take Vivian some time if done at the right moment before she realized…
Vivian set the ornate crown down with an angry clatter. “My love believes your superstitious nonsense, and for him I will wait.” Morgana was silent as Vivian stood, going to the chest she found god knows where and filled with clothing. She lets out a breath Morgana feels like she’s been holding since seeing Arthur. Whatever command Vivian had given the snake latched at the back of Arthur’s cranium, it hadn’t been to obey her absolutely. He was still fighting.
It was to love her, Morgana realized with a rush, likely only her or some variation thereof. The foolish, thoughtless wench. No wonder they hadn’t fallen into bed, or eloped to Peru. Love was such a slippery, subjective thing to define and Arthur no doubt was using every advantage he could to work around the imperative.
Something is shifting in the air, something massive and unpredicted. Vivian nearly stumbles, the feeling hits her so hard, and it is then Morgana knows what it is that has changed. She is on her feet before Vivian has regained her composure, before Vivian has even registered what was happening herself. Gwaine had freed Merlin.
There is no time left.
There are noises, shrieks and cries erupting from the Tower grounds below but inside Vivian’s room there is only a choked gasp. A scrambling of fingers for purchase on a pant leg behind. The shift and slide of Vivian as she is lowered to the stone floor. Morgana adds a soft wet sound as she withdraws Leon’s dagger. She doesn’t have time to stay, to close the eyes of the High Priestess or send her on her way with all the ceremony the Old Religion commands. What she does is snatch the jar from its resting place, tuck it in Vivian’s arm and say a firm, clear, “Hie fortendaþ.”
She is gone as they catch fire, racing fast as she can to find the King.
Arthur, when Morgana finds him, isn’t in the old palace rooms but outside on the battlements, crouched against the crenelated stone, forehead pressed to his knees and hands fisted at his nape. The dead serpent must hurt like hell she thought fleetingly as she dragged the man to his feet. His eyes were wild in a way Morgana had never seen, not even after first Wyvern had torn through the copter – and that…that made her stomach twist unpleasantly and her grip tighten in his red tunic.
“I need you with me, Arthur,” she says urgently, one hand forcing his face towards her, giving him something to focus on. Whether she was the best focus for him at the moment was debatable, but there was no one else. The air was thinning. Over the past few weeks it had been steadily filling and thrumming with magic, and to Morgana at least it had been mounting to near unbearable, but now…now it was rushing with torrential force to one focal point in the centre of the yard leaving Morgana’s grasp weak, a mere tendril of what she’d had access to even a handful of minutes ago.
She’d had a theory of what might happen – in fact she’d counted on a small boost of excess power when the manacles fell off to sway the tide if he had to wrestle control from Vivian. What she hadn’t counted on was his body’s reaction to the deprivation; its need, like a parched man trying to drown himself. There seemed to be no end to the flow, as though instead of merely replenishing his stock he was being converted into an avatar of pure magic. At this point she wasn’t even certain how to stop it.
“We are all in a terrifying amount of danger right now, Arthur,” Morgana all but shouted. “We’re surrounded by wild creatures bigger than your damn warhorse and Merlin’s –“
Arthur knocked away her hands, staggering to his feet and pressing himself between the crenels to see into the courtyard. He was sprinting towards the nearest staircase before Morgana could catch him, and really, she should have anticipated his reaction. Dazed and terrified as he was, Arthur would never leave Merlin to face anything alone.
Merlin’s eyes were glowing brighter than any torch, his back arched like a drawn bow and energy crackling across his fingers. He wasn’t speaking. He was barely reacting to anything around him. The only thing between Merlin and the creatures frantic and agitate or wild and vicious were five untrained men with a jumbled array of weapons. He looked so small in that courtyard, dressed in his tatty t-shirt and torn trousers.
Percival seemed to be fending off a giant wolf creature with an ornamental mace, tinged blue and dancing with a strange fire. Arthur side-stepped a gryphon, his eyes on Merlin who still seemed so impossibly far away. Gwaine stumbled to Arthur’s left and Arthur caught up the wooden stake Gwaine had dropped, driving it through the beast harrying his knight. He ignored the man’s grudging acknowledgement and thanks. Merlin must have been magicking things the knights could use, consciously or not – Arthur was fairly certain the Tower of London didn’t have a magical arsenal stashed away somewhere and he distinctly remembered the feeling of good Camelot steel shattering against gryphon flesh. What he would do for Excalibur in his hand.
Merlin was – well, standing was hardly the correct word for it, but Arthur had no other words to describe the picture he made – but he stood where the raven roosts had once been, now scattered and flattened in concentric circles at Merlin’s feet. Arthur’s urge was to get to Merlin, wraps his hands about Merlin’s shoulders and shake him until he came back to himself – back to something resembling the clumsy man with the kerchief and not this strange, frightening creature before him. That urge took a back seat when Arthur’s mind caught up with his instinct and the very air seemed itself to crackle violently the closer he came. He couldn’t shake Merlin back to his senses if he died before he got there.
Arthur had to find a way to end this. Whatever Merlin was doing, whatever he had come to realize about his own role in this massive disaster, was clearly not going to plan. All along Arthur had been told that he and Merlin were each part of the solution – by the dragon in the study, by Morgana’s excited ravings, by Merlin himself however indirectly in his sorry excuse for an apology. If that were so, what then was Arthur’s role now?
The dragon had said something about holds and contracts; that the contract had already been written - written, but perhaps not signed. The covenant? The one Morgana had spoken of, sealed with blood, promising Arthur to Avalon?
It’s Merlin’s blessing. His blood. Morgana’s voice is saying in his head. Arthur dimly remembers seeing Morgana when his own thoughts were fighting him, remembers a scrap of cloth pressed into his hand. Your heartsblood must have been bound a dozen times over.
Arthur doesn’t know what he’s doing. He doesn’t know if his suspicions have ground to stand on or if he’s going to die in a matter of minutes from magical backlash or just be overwhelmed by a basilisk. What he does know is he needs to get to Merlin, and if this doesn’t work he’s going to walk into the fire and see how Destiny deals with that.
He cuts his hand, presses the stained and crumpled fabric to the wound and lets his blood soak into the weave as much as it can. He hopes the knights are holding their own. Along with the many things he has already admitted to this day, Arthur does not know what words might be appropriate or if words are even necessary to create the special magical contractually binding whatever that he’s seriously hoping exists on some official level.
What he does say is, “Merlin, you’re mine. You’ve been mine since the day I met you and like hell am I going to let whatever this is take you away from me. You see this?” Arthur holds up his hand, blood dripping down his forearm where the cloth couldn’t catch it. “This is it. I’m pledging whatever I am, was or will be to you, you insufferable man. Now I’m coming over there and we’re going to sort this out.”
Arthur braced himself before setting his jaw and marching determinedly towards what he rather wished wouldn’t be his grisly demise.
Remarkably, Arthur makes it unscathed to stand before Merlin. Either his ham-handed blundering had worked or he really had had nothing to worry about in the first place. He decided in a distant part of his mind that it was definitely the former.
Where Arthur’s fingers brushed the skin of Merlin’s arm, pain lanced through his hand and up. Arthur frowned, clamping first one hand and then the other around the man’s upper arms despite it. The blood from the slice in his palm slicked his hand, but he ignored it, tightening his fingers and holding on. “Look at me, Merlin,” he said when Merlin’s gaze remained skyward and his heels still had no purchase. “Look at me.”
He must have been loud enough, or there was something to be said for this King business, because Merlin’s chin slowly lowered, his eyes dimming from a searchlight brilliance to the light of a fire. “You need to stop this,” Arthur said firmly, feeling as though his arms would burn up from the inside if he held on much longer and knowing all the same that he didn’t dare let go. “We’re counting on you, Merlin. Send these creatures home.”
Merlin’s voice sounded rough and small in the pandemonium around them and Arthur strained to hear him. “I don’t know how to.”
“Yes you do,” Arthur insisted. “You’re the most powerful wizard I have ever known and I wouldn’t just pledge myself to any damn sorcerer that came along. You tell them the party’s over and you order them to go home.” One of Merlin’s arms was raising and Arthur awkwardly let it, keeping grip firm and his eyes locked on the golden ones before him. He didn’t see the mists rising around them or listen to the sounds cutting out and fading into the distance.
Merlin’s eyes were coming to focus on him now, the gold no more than a simple ring inside his iris and Arthur felt his heart stutter a few beats in relief. There was too much he needed to say to Merlin - Merlin, who looked like he was strung so high he likely wouldn’t remember a question long enough to answer it.
“What am I going to do with you, Merlin?” he said instead.
Merlin felt like he was going to burst. Like he’d been living at the bottom of the ocean hemmed in, pushing back but surviving, and then suddenly finding himself on the surface, everything that he’d been pushing so hard against gone, leaving him staggering and disoriented. But that’s wrong too. The pressure wasn’t gone, it was inside him. It had gone from trying to force its way in to trying to force its way out, and Merlin wished desperately it would just make up its mind.
And suddenly there was a counterpoint in the cacophony trapped inside him, twin points cancelling the tremors threatening to tear him apart.
Look at me.
Merlin heard the command straight through to his bones, a command that demanded to be answered. He fought through the light that was blinding him and raging through his body. It wasn’t easy. His spine felt like it might snap under the pressure, but he endured.
Stop this, the voice said as Merlin’s focus shifted in and out on the face before him, as he tried to think beyond the terrifying thought that he was quickly losing himself, being consumed from the inside out. The man before him seemed like he was twenty one, fresh-faced and determined. He seemed like he was forty one, golden bearded and lined with experience. He was bleeding and he was laughing and he was pinning Merlin to the ground with his stare alone. Send these creatures home.
He had to obey. Failing this man, failing Arthur, would break him, but no words were coming to mind. No spells or incantations. He simply didn’t know the answer, even with everything he had been through – and because of it, he was going to lose everything Arthur was fighting for.
“I don’t know how,” he said. And he was afraid. Afraid that in a moment the hands would leave him as they had left him all those other times, casting him back into the inferno because he wasn’t good enough.
When Arthur spoke again, Merlin could feel his firm conviction seeping into his skin. The King’s command took a hold of his magic and made it refined, focused and unable to be ignored. Merlin didn’t need words. He didn’t need experience or ritual. He took the King’s command and he wove everything that was coursing through him into the words.
Arthur’s hands were still wrapped about his arms and Merlin could see the frown marring his face, the crease between his brows. His lips were moving again but Merlin couldn’t catch what he was saying. Merlin hardly knew he was falling and then there was nothing but black.
When Merlin woke, it was to fresh sheets and sunlight.
He sat up, closing his eyes in a rush of light-headedness. He was wearing a worn t-shirt, emblazoned with a cannon and proclaiming proudly “Gunners, 1886!” in red and gold – further investigation revealed a pair of loose plaid boxers, equally old and just as soft. There was a tea service sitting steaming on the bedside table. Merlin took a moment to just stare at the rising steam before his suspicions rose. His eyes roved over the room taking in the familiar furnishings.
There were voices raised just outside the ornate wooden door and Merlin padded over, pressing his ear to the wood.
“What do you think you’re doing, Arthur?” Merlin recognized as Morgana’s voice, coming muffled and still sharp.
“Go away, Morgana, he’s been through enough without you harping on about destiny for another millennia.”
“This isn’t something you can control!”
“He’s essentially my husband now - I damn well can keep him at my side without your leave.”
Merlin opened the door only to have Morgana and Arthur both breeze past him, Arthur pulling him along in their wake and kicking it shut behind them. “Arthur – what’s –“
“You should be sleeping,” Arthur responded sternly, though Arthur’s hand slid down past Merlin’s wrist, tangling their fingers and holding Merlin at his side.
“Husband?” was all Merlin could really manage at that point.
“My brother claimed you when he assumed his Kingship,” Morgana said dryly, wholly unsurprised that Merlin was both awake and eavesdropping. “Which is well and good, but the other realm is going to call you home to sort out the mess that woman left behind, and the Fey –“
Arthur’s grip tightened infinitesimally. “Merlin has a home.”
Merlin would have believed Arthur’s confident mask if not for the dampness of the palm pressed tightly to his own, or the fingers that held on just a bit too tightly. Arthur thought Merlin was going to disappear, he realized with a start. Merlin was having difficulty coming to terms with managing the thought that first, he was clean and tucked away in Clarence House rather than starving in the mud of the Tower, and second, that Arthur was not only standing next to him but his skin seemed to be thrumming where it pressed against his own. It made thinking a rather involved process.
“Merlin,” Morgana turned to Merlin in exasperation, “you need to return with them, you have a responsibility –“
“He has a responsibility here,” Arthur said in a firm voice just this side of shouting.
And Merlin had to fight the urge to buckle under Arthur’s words – he had never wanted this role. But in the end, Arthur would never have forgiven himself or Merlin if Merlin hadn’t done everything he could to save his people. He might be protesting now, but he didn’t understand the stakes. The fact that he was protesting at all had to be enough.
“She’s right, Arthur,” Merlin said despite everything that told him to shut up, stay silent, let Arthur win this one. He had a few days, so long as he had passed the borders before Samhain. “I knew the cost when I challenged the head of the Old Ways. Someone needs to be on the other side of the mist to seal the ways and -”
“So let her do it,” Arthur interrupts again. “I told you I wasn’t letting this take you from me, and I damn well meant it.”
Merlin had long forgotten just how unsettling a staring match between Pendragons truly was, neither giving an inch until their mental war had been waged on every front, every position tested and weighed until a victor was clear. Arthur wasn’t letting go of Merlin’s hand, but nor was he willing to look at him and Merlin had the impression that Arthur knew on some level that he might be fighting a losing battle – that if he looked at Merlin, Merlin would confirm his defeat with a glance. Merlin didn’t want to. He was exactly like Vivian.
But Arthur’s happiness wasn’t dependant on Merlin, and that was why Merlin could let this go.
“You can’t be gone forever, Merlin,” Morgana said carefully. Maybe Morgana was on the losing side and the best she could hope to do was mitigate the fallout. Merlin had finally found Arthur after centuries of waiting, and no force in the world could shift Arthur once his mind was made up save, perhaps, for Merlin. Merlin tried to see what he had missed, what might have given Arthur an advantage that Morgana would concede to.
“Look, Merlin has essentially become a King in his own right. He has the right to appoint a regent in his absence. I’m not letting him go, so there’s going to be an absence. Conveniently, we have a magic user right here who has both royal upbringing and a working knowledge of the way Merlin would want things run. Lo and behold a solution presents itself,” Arthur said with a wave of his free hand, the one with a clean white bandage stark against his skin.
Arthur was suggesting Morgana take his place – Morgana, who had coveted that sort of power and freedom for years. She had sought it, grasped it and lost it just the same as her claim to Uther’s recognition, and eventually his throne. Morgana knew Merlin was thinking it too. Would that work? Was Merlin willing to give Morgana more freedom than he already had? Could he trust her for a chance to stay with Arthur? If there was a chance to give Arthur his kingdom and stay by his side…
“A regent wouldn’t work forever – that’s how things fell apart in the first place, one person rising up and taking control that could be toppled by the next one to come along,” Morgana argued, though Merlin could see the eagerness in her eyes. “We were all place-holding for the Emrys.”
“Well then we’ll go to Avalon or the Blessed Isle, the two of us together, when we’re done here, and if you’ve taken things over, fine then. I’m sure we’d be quite happy to be set up in a summer home somewhere quiet while you go on about your ruling the realm, wouldn’t we Merlin?” Arthur’s thumb was rubbing circles across Merlin’s knuckle and Merlin was trying valiantly not to be distracted, which he’s certain was Arthur’s aim anyhow. “I’m sure with a little persuasion he’ll even support you should someone come by to topple you, provided you’re not ruling in terror or trying to off us in the night.”
“You’re already my emissary,” Merlin said slowly. He was still caught up on what Arthur’s idea of persuasion might be. “You speak with my voice in all courts and get on better with the Fey than I ever did. If you’re willing –“
“The gods know you’d never get anything done mooning over your King for the next seventy years,” Morgana said with a smirk.
She knelt before him with more grace than he could ever muster and in that moment Merlin remembered the one other time Morgana had done so, face streaked with dirt and tears, blood caked down her robes and Arthur lying broken between them. He had bound her then, to live at his will for the rest of time, to pay penance for what she had wrought and to experience every last shred of pain he could wring out of her sorry existence. And now, at Arthur’s will, Merlin was offering her power and position beyond imagining.
Merlin was surprised to find that he was finished. He had Arthur back, and that was enough.
It wasn’t until Morgana took her leave that Arthur’s grip loosened.
“What happened, Arthur?” Merlin asked. He can’t remember seeing Vivian; he can barely remember much of anything after Camden Town.
Arthur dragged him over to the large four-poster, a firm hand on Merlin’s shoulder forcing him to sit. “You need to rest.”
“I feel fine!” Merlin objected, which wasn’t entirely true, but he knew Arthur was deflecting. “Where’s Gwen? The others? God, I didn’t -”
“Gwen is with her brother now,” Arthur interrupted, calmly kicking off his shoes as he spoke. “You kept her safe, Merlin, and the others are recovering.”
“You should go to her.”
Arthur tossed Merlin a strange look as he under the cuffs of his shirt. “Why?”
Merlin balked. “Why? She’s –“
Suddenly Arthur’s arms were on either side of him, and Arthur was leaning forward, shocking Merlin enough that he was leaning back before he realized it had happened. “No. She isn’t. I know what you’re thinking, and I need you to stop. You think Gwen cares that I’m in here with you? Why?” Merlin shivered as one of Arthur’s hands found its way under his shirt, resting flat against his stomach. “She’s just some girl I met in an air raid shelter, Merlin. Even without our history, don’t you think the man who saved my kingdom deserves a bit more of my attention than that?”
“I didn’t save your kingdom,” Merlin said even as his fingers were threading through the hair at Arthur’s temple.
“The mists returned a few days ago, people are wandering back. You’ve been out of it for quite some time; you don’t even remember being fed like an invalid, do you.” Arthur was moving forward, his knee braced on the bed and his hand guiding Merlin to shift. “Now I’m only going to say this once, Merlin. I want you. I think I’ve always wanted you – if not from the first impudent thing out of your mouth, then certainly from any number of occasions after. Even Guinevere knew it. And right now, the only thing I want more than shagging you senseless is making sure you’re getting the rest you need to recover.”
“I might need you to say that again.”
Arthur let himself flop onto Merlin, eliciting a grunt and smirked against Merlin’s shoulder. “That’s a shame.”
“If shagging’s on the table, I’m not that tired.”
"We'll try the table tomorrow," Arthur replied magnanimously, "after the bed and perhaps the sideboard. And the floor of the receiving room - I'm looking forward to that one."
So it was with Arthur's weight across his side and his arms wrapped tight around Merlin's chest on the four-poster in Clarence House that Merlin drifted off to sleep that night with promises pressed into his skin.