Light flickered across the calm expanse of the great blue lake, and the sun beat mercilessly on the man’s head. He chose a rock from the sandy shore and skipped it; it jumped five times before sinking below the depths. He did it again, and again, anything to pass the time. He loved this place, and he hated it.
The lake was pretty enough, as were the green hills surrounding it. The only sound that broke the stillness was the occasional rumble of a car speeding by on a roadway built too close for the place to feel remote. The day was too warm for the jumper he wore, and sweat trickled like a touch down his neck. He ignored it and skimmed another rock.
He wasn’t sure why he came. He was content enough in London living in his little flat above the chip shop in Shoreditch. But every year in spring when alder and silver birch blossomed, the ache in his chest returned.
At first, it was nothing more than a pang, as though he’d pulled a muscle by flexing too hard, but gradually it grew more severe until he woke up in the middle of the night gasping for air, clawing at his own skin to get at the hollowness underneath. Those nights, it felt like something was missing from the inside, and he knew without knowing why that the only thing that would stop the pain would be to sit on the banks of this lake, skim rocks from its shore, and listen to the calls of birds flitting across its expanse.
After he tired of skipping stones, he sat next to his pack on the shore and listened to the water ripple. Perhaps he had come here as a child. It was hard to recall the details of growing up. His identity, his history, seemed to slip from his grasp the more he sought it, but being here felt right. It felt like home.
The water seemed to sing to him. He took off his clothes and set them in a neat pile, and then he waded until the cool water lapped at his thighs. The water called again, and he dove.
The man hoisted his pack higher on his shoulder and stared at the deep blue water, darker now as the storm approached. In the distance, thunder rumbled and the first drops of rain wet his face. He laughed like a maniac and stretched his arms wide, and the wind whipped his clothing.
His heart beat as though it were powered by the electricity of the lightning.
The years passed by with sedate predictability. He worked five shifts a week as an EMT. He liked to help people. It gave him a small feeling of peace to be able to provide comfort and care during a person’s moment of tragedy. But most days it was hardly enough, and the ache continued to gnaw at his insides. Only his yearly pilgrimage seemed to dampen his distress. However, one year, the ache didn’t go away. It seemed to grow stronger upon his approach. He crumpled at the water’s edge and cupped his hands to drink. The water tasted muddy and a bit like fish. Even so, he sipped another mouthful and wiped the back of his mouth with his trembling hand.
Tears welled in his eyes and dropped onto his cheeks, and his nose and throat clogged, making it hard to breathe. He sobbed out loud, unashamed, since no one was around to hear him. He had never felt so empty, so entirely alone.
He had done something, something horrible, but he didn’t know what or why. Maybe he had committed a murder. Maybe he had killed everyone he loved, and that was why no one remembered him, and he didn’t remember himself.
He hated the lake, and he hated the little sliver of land in the middle of it that always seemed to be shrouded by mist, tantalizing him but never revealing itself. That year, he went back to London and vowed never to return.
Of course he did return. He returned year after year, again and again, and he never grew old. He didn’t know his real name, but he called himself Emerson. He was alone, mostly, but sometimes he had lovers. He didn’t keep them once they started to ask questions—why did he have no family, why did he never sleep? In any case, these partings didn’t hurt him; there were thousands and thousands of men in the city, and he didn’t love any of them. He was sure he couldn’t love anyone. Perhaps that was his curse, and why he had been abandoned.
He walked with a stoic certainty, but there was no haste in his step. He was used to the pain now, and he knew seeing the lake probably wouldn’t help him, not like it once had.
There, on the bank, was a naked man. Emerson froze. He had never seen anyone here before. The man appeared to be unconscious, and he was soaking wet, his hair dark and slick against his head as gentle waves lapped his feet. He almost looked dead.
Without thinking too much about it, Emerson hurried closer and knelt beside the man, feeling for his pulse. It beat, weak but true, and Emerson sighed with relief. He didn’t want this strange man to die, but it looked like he may have tried to drown himself, or maybe he’d simply swum too far and grown exhausted. He was cold, that much was certain, his fine skin nearly translucent and showing the blue-green veins underneath. Emerson glanced down at his jacket and quickly removed it, covering the man’s torso as best he could. At least he was breathing—he didn’t appear to need CPR.
“Hello?” He touched the man’s face gently, but got not response. Next, he shook the man’s shoulder and spoke louder. “Hello. Can you hear me?”
Finally, the man groaned. He started to move like it pained him, and Emerson almost felt the pangs in his own body. “Sir? Are you okay?”
“Merlin!” The man’s eyes shone as he looked up, his face coming alive. He was quite beautiful, Emerson couldn’t help noticing—a full, luscious mouth and a Roman nose, his jaw square and strong. He was like a prince out of a fairy tale.
“What did you call me?” Emerson wrinkled his nose at the strange name.
“Merlin, my gods!” The man scrambled up from the rocky sand, and the jacket Emerson had given him slipped from his shoulder, unveiling a broad chest. The next thing Emerson knew, the man had thrown his arms around him, and he was crushed by a great force, held close against the man’s wet, naked body. The man was warm, much warmer than he’d been merely seconds before when Emerson touched his clammy forehead.
“I’m sorry,” Emerson managed. “But have we met?”
The man’s grip slackened, and when he pulled back, Emerson could see the confusion on his face. He blinked twice in rapid succession. “Don’t you remember me? Merlin, it’s Arthur. Your Arthur. Your king.”
“I’m sorry but . . . you’ve nearly drowned. I think you might be disorientated.”
“I’m not disorientated. I’ve been asleep under the isle for a thousand years! That’s what she told me, at least. But I’d know you anywhere. Has it really been that long?”
Asleep for a thousand years? Emerson flushed and ran a hand through his hair. A strange feeling twisted through his gut. This man was beautiful, but he was clearly insane. He didn’t appear to have any modesty, standing naked with his hands on his hips. He seemed to lack identification, or possessions. Emerson wasn’t sure which absence worried him most.
“Who told you that you’ve been asleep for a thousand years?”
“The lady of the lake, of course. Blast it, Merlin, you really don’t remember me, do you?” The man—Arthur—took another step closer. His blue eyes were warm with concern. “What did you do to yourself?”
Emerson bristled. “Do to myself? I’m not the one standing naked next to a lake with no belongings, my friend.”
“I have belongings,” said Arthur. He turned around and bent down, giving Emerson a full view of a gorgeous backside. When he stood, he flourished a long silver sword, swinging it too close for Emerson’s comfort. In the commotion of finding Arthur, Emerson hadn’t noticed it among the grey rocks, but now he couldn’t believe he’d missed it. The blade was at least three feet long and gleamed brightly in the sun. “Excalibur.” Arthur grinned. “Now, take me to the king, Merlin.”
Emerson fought to control his reaction, not sure how Arthur would react to laughter. As mad as the man clearly was, he was attractive, and the situation was ridiculous. “We don’t have a king. We have a queen.”
“Guinevere?” A faraway look came into Arthur’s eyes. “Of course not, that’s . . . She wouldn’t have lived.” He was talking more to himself than to Emerson, and he paused for a moment, as though thinking something through. “But you, as a sorcerer . . . thank gods you’re here, Merlin, even if you don’t remember me. Why don’t you remember me?” he asked softly.
Now Arthur thought he was a sorcerer. Thinking quickly, Emerson took off his rucksack and fished out the extra pair of sweats he’d brought with him. They would likely be too long and snug, given Arthur’s different proportions, but they would be better than nothing. The last thing they needed was to get arrested for indecent exposure.
“Here, put these on,” Merlin said. “They’ll be a little tight, but they’ll do.”
Arthur took the sweats willingly enough, stabbing his sword into the rocky sand so he could tug them up over his wet hips with both hands. They were lewdly tight, but at least they covered his bits. Emerson chuckled at the way Arthur’s belly bulged over the top. He tossed him a jumper that would probably be too small as well, and a ratty pair of flip-flops that would likely be too big.
Arthur caught them. “I’m not fat, Merlin. In fact, I haven’t eaten in a thousand years. Take me to the tavern at once.” He narrowed his eyebrows. No, king first, tavern second.”
“Let’s start with finding your family,” said Emerson under his breath. He didn’t want to play along too much. It wasn’t right to mock a man in Arthur’s condition.
Still, Arthur frowned at him. “I’m sure you’re the only family I have left,” he said.
Something tugged underneath Emerson’s ribs at that statement, and his unease grew as they made their way back to where Emerson had left his rental car. Maybe they weren’t so different after all.
The police station at the closest village was a tiny brick building with a few cluttered desks and a very curious, if unhelpful, desk sergeant. He made several calls and typed away on his computer while Arthur and Emerson sat in the chairs across from him. With no ID and no report of a missing person matching Arthur’s description, the sergeant couldn’t help them. Arthur refused to name where he lived, though he didn’t make any grandiose statements as he had on the shore of the lake. The more questions the sergeant asked, the more Arthur drew into himself.
The sergeant finally threw his hands up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what else to tell you, mate.”
Emerson leaned forward. “Well, what do I do with him?”
The sergeant frowned, looking between the two of them. “Well, he doesn’t seem to be a danger to anyone.” Luckily, they’d left Arthur’s sword in the car. “I can’t hold him here. There’s a shelter down a few blocks away, if he needs a place to stay the night. I don’t think they’re full up. I can give them a call, if you’d like.”
A shelter. A homeless shelter. The very thought of it made Emerson’s stomach squirm. It felt wrong—horrible, even—to abandon Arthur in his hapless state. Though Emerson wasn’t sure why, he felt strangely responsible for Arthur’s welfare. It must be because he had found him, and Arthur seemed to know him—at least he thought he did. The sergeant hovered with his hand over the phone, waiting for an answer.
“No, that’s okay,” said Emerson. “Thank you for your help.”
Once they were outside again, Emerson wasn’t sure he hadn’t made a mistake. Arthur glowered at him, his earlier bravado gone. They walked silently down the street and passed Emerson’s rental car. Arthur didn’t stop.
“Where are you going?” Emerson said. The day was gradually fading to dusk.
Arthur barely turned his head. “I don’t know. But you obviously aren’t the man I thought you were. I won’t importune you any more.”
“You can’t just leave. You have no money.” It was a valid argument, though Emerson couldn’t even name the real reason he wanted Arthur to stay with him. Arthur was clearly unused to the world around him. He had startled badly when Emerson turned on the ignition to the rental car, though he’d quietened on the ride over, seemingly amazed at how far and fast they could travel in what he dubbed a ‘horseless carriage.’ Other things shocked and surprised him too—the glass door of the police station, the clothes people wore, especially the short skirts and trousers on women. He’d worked hard not show his confusion, but Emerson picked up every wide-eyed glance. Now, the thought of leaving the man to survive on his own was unconscionable.
“I’ll be all right,” said Arthur.
“What about your sword?”
That drew Arthur up short. He seemed to remember himself, and turned back around with a sheepish expression on his face, which he quickly schooled as he approached the car. “I’ll take my sword, please.”
Emerson unlocked the door, but as Arthur reached for the handle, Emerson covered Arthur’s hand with his own. His skin was warm, and it made Emerson’s palm tingle. A strange sense of déjà vu nearly overwhelmed him, and he felt faint.
“Please—let me help you,” he heard himself saying. His voice rang in his ears. “You can’t just walk around town with a sword. That will get you arrested. And you’ll need proper clothes. And a place to stay. And money. Come with me.”
“The lady told me things were different now. I didn’t realize how much . . .” Arthur trailed off as a noise distracted him. A shocked, delighted look came over his face as he glanced overhead, and Emerson raised his eyes too. It was an airplane. Once it had passed, Arthur looked back at Emerson. “You think I’m mad. I’m not. But you look so much like him.” His voice went quiet and soft again, intimate. Emerson found he liked the tone very much—too much, if he was being honest with himself.
He realized he was practically holding Arthur’s hand, and he dropped his own to his side. It didn’t seem to dissuade Arthur. He leaned forward and inhaled, close to Emerson’s ear, and on the exhale his warm breath tickled. “You even smell like him. Better, actually. Sometimes Merlin used to smell like the stables.”
“And whose fault was that?” Again, the words seemed to leave Emerson’s lips before he could think to hold them back.
“It was mine.” Arthur’s expression became thoughtful, and he leaned against the car with one hip. In spite of his too-small clothes, he was incredibly handsome. “Merlin hated it. He didn’t even pretend not to. Such an insolent servant.”
Emerson raised his eyebrows. “Servant?” For some reason, maybe from the way Arthur had looked at him when they first met, he had thought there might be another, more intimate history between Arthur and his Merlin.
Arthur cocked his head. “I’ll come with you, on one condition.”
Emerson didn’t know when the tables had turned enough for Arthur to bargain, but still he asked, “What?”
“Tell me why you were at the lake today. How did you come to find me?”
Emerson bit his lower lip and hesitated. He had never described his strange compulsion to another living soul—he worried it would make him sound crazy. Plus, he had no one to tell; his colleagues were not much more than acquaintances, and he never kept a lover for longer than a month or two.
“I visit the lake, every year. I don’t know why . . . but I can’t help it. It’s almost like . . .” he trailed off. “Never mind. It’s too strange.”
“I’ve just awoken from a thousand-year sleep. Nothing can sound stranger than that.”
“True.” Emerson flushed. He was disarmed by Arthur’s continued proximity, and now some unsettling thoughts occurred to him. He’d never understood why he came to the lake, but there was no denying that the compulsion had a physical manifestation. Even though he hated it, he had been unable to resist. Today, his chest had ached so badly he thought he might die, but now he felt nothing at all. He hadn’t since he’d seen Arthur lying there on the shore. Maybe there was some sort of link between them.
But how could that be? How could he be the man Arthur remembered? A relieving thought occurred to Emerson. Perhaps Arthur did know him, after all—perhaps he was a long lost relative. They were both confused about their pasts. Maybe the same family had abandoned them. Arthur was the only person who’d ever recognized him. Even if he was confused about how, there was no way Emerson could let him go without trying to find out the truth of their connection.
“And what’s you’re name, if it isn’t Merlin?” Arthur asked.
“Emerson,” Emerson lied. He didn’t want to admit to Arthur he wasn’t sure of his real name; it would only give him more fodder for his belief that he was Arthur’s former servant.
“Emerson.” Arthur seemed to be testing the name on his tongue. “All right. Emerson. Where are we going?”
“I’ve rented a room not far from here. I was planning on staying a couple of days by the lake. There are two beds . . .” He flushed. He didn’t know why he’d mentioned the beds, but now he couldn’t stop thinking about sleeping in the same room as Arthur. He didn’t think he would be in danger, but he didn’t want to embarrass himself either. He had no idea how Arthur would react if he knew how attractive Emerson found him.
“Splendid.” Arthur slapped the roof of the car. “Lead on, noble steed.”
Unfortunately, when they checked in, Emerson proved himself a liar once again.
“Sorry, luv,” said the pretty woman behind the counter. She gave him an apologetic smile. “We’re all booked up. Only a king available tonight.”
“A king?” Arthur perked up next to him.
“A king-sized bed,” the woman clarified, seeming to notice Arthur’s clothes for the first time. They would have to get Arthur something fitting once they settled in.
Arthur patted his shoulder. “Oh. Well, that will be perfect then, won’t it Mer—Emerson.”
The woman nodded. “Excellent. Sorry about the mix-up, but glad it doesn’t seem to be too much trouble.” She handed over two keys, and her smile grew warmer, a knowing look appearing in her eyes. Obviously she thought they were a couple, but Arthur had no idea what she’d inferred. He was chattering on about how wonderful it was they’d had a bed specifically for him.
Emerson picked up his bag and led the way to the elevator, then thought better of it and took the stairs. He didn’t want to chance having to explain the mechanics of the thing to Arthur in front of other guests.
The room was small, and the bed took up much of the floor space. Arthur seemed to be taking the situation in stride.
“Well, it’s not a palace, but the bed looks suitable enough.” He flopped down on it and the springs bounced. The delighted look on Arthur’s face told Emerson that, wherever and whenever Arthur had come from, they didn’t have mattress coils there either.
Emerson set down his bag, not sure what to do. Arthur patted the bed next to him. Foolishly, Emerson went. In just a few hours, he would be sharing a bed with a complete stranger. Not that he’d never done that before . . . but this was different.
“Are you sure you don’t mind the room?” Emerson asked.
“Better than sleeping in a lake.” Arthur grinned, and his stomach growled. Emerson remembered what Arthur had said about not eating in a thousand years. He supposed he could live with the hyperbole.
“Come on,” he said, standing again before he got too comfortable. “Let’s get you some clothes and something to eat.”
Back in the room hours later, night had fallen, and Arthur discovered the TV remote.
His face went white as a sheet. “Is this . . . is this sorcery?” Emerson didn’t know why Arthur had seemed to take the existence of automobiles and telephones in stride, but now seemed overwhelmed by the idea of the BBC news hour. “There are people in there, Merlin! We must free them.”
Emerson shook his head. “There are no people in there. Everything you see has been filmed on a camera in another place, and now it’s transmitted here. It’s only a picture showing on the screen. It’s not real.”
“How is it . . . transmitted?” Arthur was pacing back in forth in front of the TV, staring at it intently. He looked much better in his new jeans and button-down shirt, which showed off his build to great effect.
“Um . . . I think it’s probably through a satellite?” Emerson didn’t remember the details of television production and distribution, but he was sure his response wasn’t satisfactory from the way Arthur scrunched his forehead.
“What’s a satellite?”
This went on for some time until Arthur was finally distracted by a singing competition. Emerson took advantage of the moment to slip into the washroom and have a shower. After he’d cleaned up and dressed in soft pyjama bottoms and a T-shirt, he returned to the room to find Arthur sitting just where he’d left him. He looked desolate.
“Did your favourite singer lose, then?” Emerson teased. He came closer, and noticed that Arthur’s eyes were unnaturally bright. They shimmered in the dark room, reflecting the light of the TV.
“I’ve missed so much, Merlin. Emerson. Sorry.” Arthur offered him a wan smile. “I don’t understand this world. I don’t know what to do. Back in Camelot I had a place—a destiny. But now . . .”
He spoke very softly, almost as though he didn’t want Emerson to hear. Emerson sat down next to him on the side of the bed and tried to think of what to say. He didn’t suppose Arthur needed to hear the truth—that Emerson didn’t believe in destiny. Things didn’t happen for a reason: the world just turned and people made their own choices, for good or ill.
“It’ll be okay.”
Emerson didn’t know. Still, he nodded.
“I can’t . . . I can’t help feeling that you are him. I know you say you’re not. And you don’t seem to be a sorcerer. But . . .”
“I thought you said Merlin was your servant?”
“He was my servant. For a time he was only that. And then . . .” Arthur’s words came out stilted, with an embarrassed flush. He broke off as if it pained him, and Emerson knew the two men had been lovers. Obviously Arthur found it hard to admit, and he wasn’t going to press him. He was too tired. It had been such a long day. He yawned.
“That’s it. To bed with you,” said Arthur.
“Are you sure you don’t mind . . .” Emerson gestured weakly at the bed.
“Not at all. During patrols we used to sleep four or five men to a tent. Let me tell you, it smells a lot better in here.”
That night, Emerson slept restlessly. He dreamed he was a powerful sorcerer, in control of a great, fire-breathing beast. A dragon. He spoke in a language he didn’t understand, but in the dream felt like his own. They were flying above a great forest, and fear and terrible hope warred within him as he held on for dear life. Not for his life, but the life of the man he loved. Arthur. Arthur was dying, growing cold in his arms. Kilgharrah, fly faster. Please.
He lurched awake in a sweaty mess, his heart pounding as though he’d run miles. It was still dark, and next to him on the bed, Arthur shifted and moved closer.
“What is it, Merlin? Come here.”
A hand reached out for him, petting his sweaty back, and Emerson’s breathing started to slow. He lay back against the pillow and immediately felt a strong warmth surround him. Arthur held him familiarly, like they had done this a thousand times. Instead of feeling uncomfortable, like he usually did when lovers showed too much tenderness, Emerson relaxed. The nightmare dissipated to the sound of Arthur’s quiet breathing.
When he woke up again, it was morning, and one of Arthur’s arms was around Emerson’s stomach. It was too warm under the covers, but Emerson didn’t want to get up. He wanted to get closer. In fact, it would be very nice to—
He flushed, realizing he was about to turn over and grind his morning erection against Arthur’s thigh. Instead, he turned over, away from Arthur, and tried to will it down. It had been a long time since he’d woken up in bed with another person . . . he couldn’t even remember how many months or years it had been.
“Good morning,” said Arthur. He smiled tiredly, and Emerson couldn’t help noticing the dark circles under his eyes.
“Didn’t you sleep?” he asked, feeling more than professional concern.
“A little. I was afraid I wouldn’t wake up again.”
Under other circumstances, the words would have been startling, but Arthur’s tone was lazy, and he was looking at Emerson like he was the most precious thing in the world. Warmth curled through Emerson’s belly.
It didn’t make sense. He should feel strange waking up in bed with a man he didn’t know, a man who claimed to be a long-dead monarch of a mythological kingdom, and yet Emerson wasn’t worried. In fact, it felt right—more right than anything else in his life.
“What?” Arthur smiled back at him, looking a little embarrassed, and Emerson realized he’d been staring. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, trying to sort through the riot in his brain.
“Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, I’m willing to believe there’s some truth to your story. How—I can’t believe I’m saying this—how would I know it’s true, if I don’t remember?”
“We must make you remember.” Arthur sat up in bed. His face flushed, and he seemed completely unaware that the blankets had fallen down around his hips, unveiling his broad chest and the trail of hair leading down to his groin. Emerson was certain the bulge under the covers was more than just fabric. He tore his eyes away.
“How do we do that?”
“Let us go to Camelot.” Arthur frowned. “No, that won’t do. If the castle still existed you would believe. Perhaps we could take a walk down by the lake?”
But on the drive, Arthur suddenly exclaimed and demanded Emerson pull the car over. He did, though he didn’t know what they were supposed to be looking at; it was only a large sheep pasture surrounded by a stand of trees. A pastoral scene, but an ordinary one.
“This was it,” said Arthur, sweeping his arms wide. “This was where the town was, and the city walls. And there, the palace.” He gestured towards the horizon, where several black sheep and rams grazed on a large, flat-topped hill. It may have been large enough to hold a castle, but Emerson doubted it—there were ruins all over England dating back even to Roman times. A castle from a thousand years ago would have been crumbling, but not completely obliterated. There wasn’t even a stone out of place.
When Arthur turned back to Emerson with an expectant look on his face, Emerson’s heart clenched. He wished he could give Arthur the satisfaction of remembering, but he had nothing. Now that the excitement and confusion of the morning had faded, he was starting to wonder what he was doing.
“Walk up the hill with me, Merlin. I want to show you the view.”
Emerson didn’t bother correcting Arthur at the name. “But this is private land,” he protested even as Arthur ducked under the fence, undeterred. With one longing look back at the rental car, Emerson hurried after, not wanting to take the chance of leaving Arthur alone, especially should he run into an angry farmer.
They walked in silence for a while. The land was pristine, green and fresh, with a glaze of morning dew that soaked into Emerson’s trainers. Their arms brushed companionably as they began the ascent.
“You . . . Merlin used to always hide away in the tavern. Or at least that’s where I thought he was. I didn’t know what he was up to, all those years. Not until the very end.”
“You mean you didn’t know he was a sorcerer?”
Arthur sighed. “It was illegal, you see. My father distrusted magic, and I grew up in his shadow. But I wanted to change things, to bring peace to the land. Merlin was helping me the whole time, with his magic, and I didn’t know.” He scowled, and Emerson could see it was still a sore spot. “I suppose I can’t blame him. But . . . sometimes I wonder what life would have been like if I’d known from the beginning. Would things have been better between us? Or would I have cast him out of the kingdom, or worse? I was not the same man I am now. Dying has a way of giving one perspective.”
“So . . . let me get this sorted,” said Emerson, trying to disguise his heavy breathing. He wasn’t used to vigorous exercise, though it didn’t seem to faze Arthur at all. It was a little concerning given the fact he’d supposedly been in stasis for a thousand years. “Merlin was your servant, but he was helping you . . . protecting you . . . with magic? And you became lovers.”
Arthur nodded, a slight flush colouring his cheeks. “Until I married.”
“Ah. And how did Merlin feel about that?”
“He understood. I needed an heir. I had a duty.” From the tense way Arthur spoke, Emerson could tell that wasn’t the entire story. Perhaps Merlin had claimed to accept the situation but been secretly resentful. He might have felt the same way, had he been in Merlin’s shoes.
At the top of the hill, they paused, and Arthur turned around and gazed down at the sheep and land below. He seemed lost in thought, and Emerson could only imagine what he was remembering.
“What was he like, your Merlin?” Emerson asked to break the silence.
“Oh, he was stubborn. He was insolent. He was a terrible servant.” Arthur scoffed and shook his blond head. “But he was the most loyal, bravest, and dearest person I ever knew. Once, when we were very young, he drank a cup of poison to save my life. I knew at that moment I would never . . .”
Arthur thrust his hands into his pockets. He suddenly looked very young and vulnerable, though he had to be at least thirty. “You don’t want to hear all this.”
“I do want to hear it.” As outlandish as Arthur’s story was, Emerson found himself drawn to it; he supposed at his heart he was a romantic, though he’d long repressed the urge in himself. He wanted to hear all about Arthur’s forbidden love for his loyal servant, a man who apparently held secrets of his own. Even if it was all a fabrication, it was a beautiful story.
“All right,” said Arthur. He took a step closer, and their shoulders touched. As he spoke, rushing over words that were too rapid to be rehearsed, Emerson let himself believe. He drifted with Arthur back a thousand years. He could almost see the people Arthur described as though his words conjured them into reality: the dark-haired witch Morgana, sweet Guinevere, Arthur’s loyal knights.
The morning grew warm as afternoon approached and the sun overhead beat down on Emerson’s back, making him sweat. Still, he didn’t want to break the enchantment Arthur’s tale had woven between them. Most of the story was exciting, some was humorous, but much of it was terribly, heartbreakingly tragic. When Arthur spoke of his own death, it wasn’t with self-pity. He had been mostly concerned for his kingdom . . . and for Merlin, the man he loved but had never truly known.
Emerson felt strange. Something pricked on the edge of his consciousness, a thought or a memory, but the more he chased it the more elusive it became. His nerves tingled, and for a moment he could almost believe he was that sorcerer, that he could command the power of the natural world. At some point, Arthur trailed off, and Emerson realized there were tears streaming down his face.
Arthur looked worried. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“You didn’t.” Emerson choked. He wiped his cheeks with the back of one trembling hand. “I just . . . I wish I was him.”
“I think you are.”
“Then why can’t I remember?” He almost yelled, but And then Arthur was reaching out to him, cradling him close to his broad chest. Emerson closed his eyes and let himself be held.
“Maybe you needed to forget.”
The next several days passed in much the same way. Emerson never tired of hearing about Arthur and Merlin’s adventures, and as long as he seemed willing, Arthur never tired of talking.
Arthur, too, was curious about the modern world. He was fascinated by technology and the history of England, especially the monarchy. And, surprisingly, he was very approving of the democratic process and the elimination of royal absolutism.
“I think that it is only fair for the people to decide who they wish to lead them,” said Arthur one night—their last night in the country.
“I do as well, though of course the leaders they select are not always the most qualified or good.” Emerson was dreading the coming day. He didn’t want to leave this place, and he didn’t want to leave Arthur. But he couldn’t stay. He would be expected back at work . . . though, if he were honest with himself, very few people would miss him.
“Well, I shouldn’t want to be king, not anymore. Not after what it cost.” Arthur sounded thoughtful.
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. What do you do?”
“I help people who are sick or injured.”
“Then I think I would like to help people too.”
Their conversation gradually gave way to sleep, and Emerson dreamed. In the dream, he was bathing Arthur, who was naked in a wooden tub in the centre of the room. He knelt down behind Arthur and ran the coarse cloth over his back, all the while drinking in the gorgeous, forbidden sight of his body. Arthur was erect, and he leaned back in the tub, pretending not to notice as Emerson’s—Merlin’s—hands travelled over his chest and down, down—
The scene changed, and he was on his knees in front of Arthur. He took the base of Arthur’s manhood in hand and stroked it reverently, memorizing the velvety warmth of the shaft. He dared not look up lest he see disapproval in Arthur’s eyes. Instead, he focused on the jutting soft curve of the cock in his hand and brought his lips to it. A tentative kiss on the underside made Arthur gasp, and Merlin took the response as a sign he should proceed. He kissed it again, bolder now, and let his tongue sweep out to taste the musky skin. It was pleasant, Merlin found; salty and warm with a hint of something forbidden.
Trembling hands found his head and stroked through his hair, almost reverent. Merlin wondered if he could feel love in them, if he could feel the same urgent need to possess and be possessed that rose up within him, blotting out all thoughts of righteousness or honour.
Emerson came awake with a gasp, desperately aroused.
Arthur stirred beside him. “What is it?”
“I think I remembered something.” Emerson had fantasized before, but never so viscerally. He could never have conjured the specifics of the foreign room or the feel and taste of the skin under his hands. Now that he was awake, he could still smell the smoke of the wood fire burning.
“What did you remember?”
Emerson let out a nervous laugh as Arthur moved closer. He shut his eyes again and saw Arthur’s exposed throat, felt the hardness of his cock as he stroked. That was how it started—quiet touches that neither of them acknowledged until it became too much to bear, until they needed to feel skin on skin, kiss as they climaxed together. Emerson’s throat felt itchy-hot, and his erection strained against the soft cotton of his pants. It was warm under the covers, and he could feel the air stir as Arthur breathed.
“Please,” Arthur said. “Tell me.”
“I remembered you. Us.” His voice sounded strained; it was so obvious what he had dreamed, he would have been embarrassed with any other man. But Arthur only reached out and stroked the side of his face.
“Maybe, this is what you need to do to remember.”
The kiss was heady and comforting in a way Emerson couldn’t name. It was like he had kissed Arthur a thousand times, but it was also like the first time. He let out a small, startled sound of pleasure as Arthur’s tongue caressed his own. Energy vibrated between them, as if the very air was alive.
Emerson had to get closer. He kissed Arthur desperately, without finesse or self-consciousness. The only thing that mattered was feeling Arthur’s body against his own, the hardness of his cock, his raspy chest hair. Emerson let out a groan as Arthur moved on top of him. He felt crushed under the weight of his body, trapped in the best possible way. He could only thrust upward, against Arthur, and every movement was excruciating pleasure. Arthur seemed just as eager. His hands were nimble and sure. . . Another memory came forward, this one more painful. Arthur leaving his bed for the last time, for Gwen.
“Are you certain . . . it doesn’t have to be this way.” Arthur’s beseeching smile carved a slice out of his heart.
Emerson forced the painful glimmer aside.
Clothes were quickly discarded. Emerson didn’t have time to think about consequences; he didn’t care about anything else. Arthur’s erection was hot and insistent, sliding between his legs. He wanted to spread them and let Arthur plunge inside, so he did. He moved his body sinuously, inviting Arthur to take what he wanted.
“Wait . . .” Arthur said, panting as his movements slowed. “Is there something we can use? Some oil?” He cupped Emerson’s face gently. Emerson could see his concerned eyes in the darkness.
“Oil?” The word sounded funny on his tongue, swollen from kissing. “Oh . . . no, but I do have lube. Lubricant. It’s in my bag. Wait a second.”
Back in bed, he uncapped the bottle and let it drip over Arthur’s fingers. “Touch me,” he whispered against Arthur’s mouth.
Arthur’s hand moved between his legs, searching, and then Emerson cried out as fingers breached him. It wasn’t rough, but it wasn’t gentle either. Both of them were too eager for tenderness. Arthur’s fingers were blunt, but they went deep. They touched Emerson’s very core, and his cock leapt and pulsed with the added stimulation. He panted and tried to calm himself, worried he was on the verge of hysterics. Something else was coming to him . . . something terrible, a memory he had tried so hard to destroy, he’d nearly killed himself in the process.
They rolled again, and Arthur was on top, kissing Emerson with a bruising intensity. He held Emerson’s legs back and open, and then he pushed inside.
Emerson gasped and arched at the penetration. Arthur’s prick was wide, and it stretched him to the limit. It filled him up, and it hurt . . . it hurt like the release of a dam finally bursting. He clutched Arthur’s back, scratching into his skin, as the instinct to mark Arthur, to claim him, took hold. Arthur murmured against his throat, kissing him sweetly. He started to move in a primal, urgent rhythm.
“I love you, Merlin. Love you so much.”
Arthur had never said those words to him before.
Maybe he’d never had to.
Merlin remembered. He remembered the moment Arthur’s breath had left his body. The years that had followed—some terrible, some less so, but all of them lonely . . . waiting . . . waiting. He had not been able to bear it, finally. He had found the spell in a book he’d vowed never to use. A spell to forget: Arthur, his magic, their love, himself.
He had recited the words, alone, over a potion of blood and herbs, and his mind had splintered, leaving him with only the vaguest sense of identity. Even now, the pain of remembering it was more than he could bear. He’d never believed he would hear the words that would end the spell. His mind rushed and swirled as a thousand memories crashed and receded like waves in a violent storm.
“Arthur,” he said, his voice broken. He was on the verge of sobbing, but he didn’t want Arthur to stop. He was the only thing keeping Merlin together.
“Merlin?” The question was filled with meaning, and there was only one answer.
Their bodies sweated as they moved, tangled and grasping to get closer, though they were already as close as two people could be. Merlin urged Arthur on even as Arthur seemed to be holding onto the last shreds of control. His powerful thighs slapped against Merlin’s as he plunged deeply. Merlin was open now, his hole slick and tender. He urged Arthur on, welcoming him inside, welcoming him home.
With one last thrust, Arthur arched and cried out, the sound so wonderfully alive it filled the room. Merlin felt him pulsing as he emptied himself, and that triggered his own orgasm. Energy rushed through him as his climax took hold, and he spurted between them. His entire body suffused with warmth and joy as the rush of magic awakened within him like a homecoming. It was no wonder he had felt adrift for so long.
Afterwards, when they lay together, Arthur was the first to speak. “Not bad for a man who hasn’t lain with anyone for a thousand years.” He traced a light, teasing pattern on Merlin’s shoulder blade.
Merlin’s mind was more settled now, though he supposed it would be some time before he felt completely normal. Still, the fact that Arthur could joke at a time like this gave him hope things would be all right. He rolled over and clasped Arthur’s hand.
“Hello,” he said. “Is it really you?”
“It’s really me. It’s really you?”
“It is now.” He sighed. Once, Arthur had told him to always be himself. He hadn’t obeyed that command, but he knew he couldn’t dwell on it now. What was done was done. They could only move forward.
“And did you remember how . . .?” Arthur gave him a beseeching look.
“It was a spell. Dark magic.” Merlin felt his face flame as he admitted it. He hoped Arthur wouldn’t judge him too harshly. “What you said the other day, about needing to forget—you were right. But I was wrong. I never should have done it.”
“You did it because of me?” Arthur sounded stricken.
Merlin squeezed his hand harder and leaned forward to kiss his lips. “It’s not your fault. I should have believed. I was just so tired of living without you.”
They embraced, and Merlin felt Arthur’s heart thud against his chest. For some reason, he had been given a second chance. They both had. “Tomorrow, will you come with me to London?” The trip back home he’d dreaded was now full of promise. He couldn’t wait to show Arthur the city. He would be so proud of the England he had helped create.
Arthur leaned close, his breath warm in Merlin’s ear. “Where else would I go?”
Merlin hurried down the street, dodging puddles of slush and ice as he went. Smells of exhaust mingled with the scent of food and the crisp fresh air of the night. He was late. Arthur had told him to be back by seven, but the Tube had been slow and the line at the store too long, filled with last-minute holiday shoppers.
He hoped the present would be worth it, and that Arthur wouldn’t mind his lateness too much.
In the street, a horn blared frantically, and Merlin turned just as a taxi skidding on black ice was about to careen into an unsuspecting pedestrian. With a whisper and a nod, Merlin stopped the car, and only waited a second to hear the exclamation of disbelief and relief from horrified bystanders. He smiled secretly to himself. If there was an article in the morning Times about yet another miraculous accident averted, only he and Arthur would know the truth. Arthur. Merlin started to jog.
The flat above the chip shop was warm and smelled like roasting meat. Merlin’s mouth watered as he entered and flung off his wool coat and hat.
“There you are, Merlin.” Arthur entered the small living room from the kitchen, an apron around his waist. He smiled and greeted Merlin with a kiss on the cheek. “I was beginning to think you’d run off with the bloke upstairs, the one who always makes eyes at you.”
Merlin snorted. “You’re ridiculous. He doesn’t make eyes at me. And no one uses that phrase anymore.”
“He does, and I’ll use whatever phrase I like. I’m the king.”
“You were the king. Now you’re a cook.” Merlin turned and hung his coat on the already overburdened rack. It had been surprising at first, when Arthur had taken a fancy to the kitchen, but he quickly developed his skill. Now he had a job as a line cook at a pub, but Merlin knew it would only be a matter of time before Arthur worked his way up to head chef. He really was quite good, as the delicious aroma filling the flat attested.
“This is delicious,” Merlin said a half hour later as they sat across from each other at the small kitchen table, a bottle of red between them. Arthur had roasted a leg of lamb with root vegetables, and each bite melted in Merlin’s mouth. He washed it down with a swish of bracing, earthy wine.
“I’m glad you like it. Certainly better than rat stew.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me.” Merlin wrinkled his nose. At times like these, he really appreciated the wonder of modern food production.
“So, are you going to tell me why you were so late?”
Merlin fought a smile. “Oh, no reason.”
“Well, that seems a very poor excuse. It wouldn’t have anything to do with a gift, would it?” Arthur’s eyes gleamed.
Arthur ate a few more bites, and then cocked his head thoughtfully. “When do I get to see this gift?”
Merlin rolled his eyes. He had wanted to hold off until the morning, but he didn’t want Arthur nagging him all night. Maybe they should just dispense with tradition. It was fun to play with Arthur, though. He couldn’t give up without a fight. “Not yet. Don’t be a prat.”
“Here, why don’t you relax and have a little more wine.” Merlin gestured his hand and the bottle rose and filled Arthur’s glass. It still gave him a secret thrill, using magic in front of Arthur so casually, as though it was no different than eating or breathing.
Arthur did as he was told, but not without pouting his lower lip. Merlin was tempted to clear the food and plates from the table and have Arthur for dessert.
They made love on the sofa with the lights low, while outside snow flurries whipped through the frigid air. Surprisingly, Arthur didn’t ask about the gift again. He was too sated and satisfied. Merlin slid out from under Arthur’s arm and walked naked across the room. He supposed he could have used magic, but he liked the way Arthur’s eyes were drawn to him.
Arthur smiled as he returned with the box. “I was jesting, you know. I can wait until tomorrow.”
“No.” Merlin snuggled back against his side. “Here. I want you to open it now.”
Of course, Arthur didn’t object. He ripped open the package and stared, wide-eyed, at the gold pendant lying against the soft red velvet. “It’s the Pendragon coat of arms,” he said hoarsely.
Merlin flushed with happiness at Arthur’s pleased smile. The chain glinted as Arthur removed it and hung it around his neck. “I thought this would be a way for you to wear it without being too . . . obvious.” Arthur couldn’t exactly wear his sword in public, after all.
“It’s perfect.” He kissed Merlin and ran his fingers over the raised dragon symbol. “I’ll wear it always. Thank you.”
Merlin rested his head against Arthur’s chest and felt the rise and fall of his breathing. Arthur didn’t seem to be in a hurry to move to get Merlin’s present, and in fact he seemed suddenly shy. They were quiet for so long, Merlin almost thought Arthur had fallen asleep. Finally, though, he shifted and pressed a kiss to Merlin’s temple.
“It’s my turn.” He untangled himself from Merlin and strode across the room, regal in his nudity as he’d ever been.
He returned with another small box, and Merlin’s heart leapt into this throat. It seemed impossible that Arthur was about to do what he was about to do. Arthur’s hands trembled as he knelt in front of Merlin on the couch.
“A long time ago, I had a duty to fulfill, or at least I thought I did. I had to give you up. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do.” He swallowed, and Merlin saw his Adam’s apple dip. “But now, things are different. Men like us don’t have to pretend in this world. I don’t want to pretend anymore.” He opened the box. Inside were two thin golden rings. “I hope you didn’t think you’d be the only one giving jewellery this Christmas.”
Merlin realized he was probably crying. He didn’t care.
Arthur cleared his throat. “So . . . what do you say?”
“I say yes, of course, you daft arse.”
“Never change, Merlin. I want you to always be you.” Arthur grinned as he slipped the smaller of the two rings onto Merlin’s left hand.
Merlin nodded as they embraced, laughing. “I will.”