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Complementarity, Entanglement and the Uncertainty of Destiny —or— A Feminist Mage in King Arthur's Court

Chapter Text

Story by Jenrose

See Procoffeinating's amazing artwork here

Cover photo of Merlin dressed in fine clothing with his hand on an ornate staff. Title text is flowery, literally, with small animals and butterflies on some of the text.

Font credits:
Son of Time (most of the letters) by Pia Frauss
Arabia, Eglantine and Helen Queen K by Maelle Kaita: (Arabia has the flowers, Eglantine has the squirrels and butterflies and birds, and Helen Queen K has the peacock feather. And no, I don’t usually use this many different fonts in one title but it made sense visually and went ridiculously well with the story.)
Dingbats throughout the story are from Maelle Kaita and a variety of fonts from 1001freefonts.com unless otherwise credited. Dingbat design by Jenrose.

 

Complementarity:

The idea in quantum theory that items can be separately analyzed as having several contradictory, and apparently mutually exclusive, properties. For example, the wave-particle duality of light, where light can either behave as a particle or as wave, but not simultaneously as both.

Entanglement:

The phenomenon in quantum theory whereby particles that interact with each other become permanently dependent on each other’s quantum states and properties, to the extent that they lose their individuality and in many ways behave as a single entity. At some level, entangled particles appear to “know” each other’s states and properties.

 

 curly dingbat

 

 

 

 

I think we deserve

a soft epilogue, my love.

We are good people

and we’ve suffered enough.

– Seventy Years of Sleep # 4. nikka ursula (n.t)

 

 

Prologue: After the World Burns

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He had no trouble whatsoever pinpointing his first critical mistake. He’d done that while Arthur still lived. It was obvious. It took him a thousand years more to correct it. A thousand years that he then had to unwind from the spindle of time, thus cementing the lore he’d find the second time around, saying that the mage Merlin lived backwards. He stayed silent as he unwound the years from the spindle, watching mistake after bleeding mistake slip off in knots, untangle, and fluff back into the stuff of chaos it had been wound from.

He’d had to learn how to spin in order to work this magic, stealing lessons from the past.

And so he’d done it, unwinding the years, the world oblivious to his presence. He resisted the urge to stop when finally, finally, his people un-died and lived and breathed and fought and slept and his hands, such as they were, slowed so as to not overshoot.

He would not save the druid, Mordred’s father. He knew that, knew the hard cost of mistakes and that hadn’t been his to fix. But Mordred… Morgana… Arthur… the moment was there, one moment when all would be open, all unsullied by future twisting wrongs. When he might let the spindle go and the years wind onto it once again, let the years fall from his bent and twisted hands, step yet again into the youth he once was.

It was so tempting to go back further, prevent the warping of Uther, but that had happened before his birth, and he dared not unmake Arthur. This, this point and this alone could untangle forever the horrific knot the dragon’s half truths and Gaius’s fear had wrought.

ornate crown of waves

Chapter 1: Give Me One Moment In Time

Merlin opens his eyes, and looks at Morgana, standing in her quarters near the alcove that holds the young druid boy. She is young, clean, cared forconcerned but not yet brokenand his heart nearly stops at the beauty of her as she says, “What if magic isn’t something you choose? What if it chooses you?”

He remembers being staggered by it the first time. But this time, he simply smiles brightly, and says, “Well, I certainly didn’t choose it.” His voice sounds strange in his ears, so young. It has been a thousand years since he had a voice to use.

While her eyes widen and she steps back an involuntary half step, he looks down at the boy in her alcove, so frail, so sick. He puts out his hand, and speaks one of the many healing spells he’d spent centuries developing. She stares at his eyes, then down at the boy as his cheeks pink up, and then looks back at Merlin.

“His name is Mordred,” he says. “And we’re going to change destiny today, if you will help me.”

“What… how… Merlin?” Her voice trembles. He’d forgotten how innocent she’d been. Is now again. Oh goddess, it actually worked.

Merlin lets the years bleed through a little, maturity touching his face, and her expression moves from shock to fear as she sees the age in his eyes.

“I lived this once before,” he says. “I lived it, and a thousand years beyond it. My lies and Uther’s poison and everyone’s fear warped Arthur, destroyed you, twisted Mordred, and broke what could have been a glorious destiny.” He pauses, then lets his words fall. “I’ve spent another thousand years righting it.”

The sheer weight of that many years is incomprehensible to him, though he’s lived it, and he isn't surprised when she looks dazed.

“Why are you telling me this?” she whispers. “Why me?”

“You were my first mistake.” Merlin’s voice is full of regret. She looks confused, and he continues, intensity increasing. “You feel it. You fight it every night, the magic, in your dreams. You see horrible futures unwinding, but they are their own fault, your visions and the prophecies creating and reinforcing themselves until they hollow us all out in the end. Your magic is awakening and goddess help me, the first time around, I didn’t follow what I knew, knew in my bones to be the right path. You must know that Uther is wrong. Magic only corrupts if hate is allowed to win. Uther might be lost to us, but Arthur is not, and I will not see the pure heart that protects this boy, here, sullied. I will not see Arthur twisted, or that foul destiny come to pass. Not again.”

Morgana sags back against the wall, breathing heavily, and then sinks to the floor next to Mordred, who watches them both, his expression both knowing and awed.

“What now?” she asks. “What will you do with this knowledge? Can you really live it all over again?”

“Now?” Merlin says, “It will all be different. I won’t live the lie again.”

“But Uther?” He had nearly forgotten how everyone, even Morgana, had seen the king as a force of nature, unchangeable. His later memories were of the husk of a man who followed the betrayal. Morgana continues, shaking her head. “He will never bend.”

Merlin’s smile is cold, implacable. “Uther may not bend. And I will not curse him. I will not kill him. But he will break. He must be stopped now, before his evil warps Camelot beyond redemption. Mordred’s father must be the last to die under Uther’s axe.”

“As bad as Uther can be, Arthur is still his son, and loyal,” Morgana says. He knows she’s seen this dozens of times. “Arthur might kill you if you depose his father.”

At this Merlin lets the years drop away, and his laugh is boyish. “Arthur can try. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t work.” He sobers. “But if I’m right about this moment, it's the moment that will open him to accepting magic as the tool that it is. The first time we lived this, he defied his father. To get him to that point, we will have to pretend for the next few days, to help lead our prince to an open mind, but then the time for deception will be over, for good.”

Morgana looks at Merlin, and gathers herself. “I don’t know if I can, but I will try.”

He smiles, struck again by her innocence and her fledgling strength. “I have seen you be so strong. Tomorrow, Arthur will pound on that door, and you will shame him away from searching here with a mix of truth and mockery. You can do this. I saw it happen the first time. Never have I seen anyone so blind to the truth of a confession as Arthur. And tonight, Uther will push him. You will find words to explain to the prince why the king fears the druids. In a day or so we will sneak him out. Arthur will catch you both. Let all you feel now drive you, without worrying about my magic or yours, only your concern for this little boy.”

Merlin’s hand flicks and his eyes flash, and Morgana feels wrapped in warmth. “I’m making it easier,” he says, “for you to simply follow what has been done. You are under my protection. They cannot harm you.”

Her hand comes up to his cheek, and he gives a half smile. “We were never like that,” he says.

“My mistake,” Morgana murmurs, but doesn’t drop her hand. “You are… always seemed so young.”

“I was,” the ancient time traveller says. “I never will be again. The worst mistake I ever made was being young and easily pushed. Don’t let my appearance fool you.”

It is surreal for Merlin, walking through the rest of his day, letting time wind back on the spoolalmost as it had been before. He uses the same charm on himself that he used on Morgana, to make it easier to follow the steps. It would take an act of will to step outside of what-was-and-is, but as long as he doesn’t push, he can watch himself almost as if he were a passenger in the body. Which he isn’t. He’d wondered if he’d have to share with his younger self, but the boy he was is simply wound into who he is. He’d never quite gotten the hang of growing up anyway, and from what he can tell, most people don’t, they just age and get better at hiding.

He is an expert at hiding and disassociation. So he watches himself go through the motions with Arthur and manages to keep the part of him that is falling to pieces seeing Arthur so young and earnestso vibrant and alivequietly stuck inside his own head as he muddles his way through a typical evening on autopilot. Arthur is preoccupied, which helps.

With Gaius that night, he finds himself studying the man from an entirely new perspective. So much of his life in the Camelot court had been wrapped up in learning from and pleasing his mentor, so much of the time after was spent in dissecting every moment of their years together. He’d had decades of hating the man for the advice that sunk his destiny and Arthur’s, hating him for his cowardice and for his continued support of Uther, and he’d had centuries more of missing the man in his very marrow. Back in the thick of it, he sees the conflict, the responsibility pulling at Gaius from every direction, and is surprised that his dominant emotion is simply compassion. Gaius, who is pulled harder than anyone between love of King and everything that stood opposed to the man on the throne.

The next morning, he rushes through Arthur’s breakfast, and Arthur seems relieved at his speed and more than willing to dismiss him to “help Gaius” as he resumes his search for the boy.

Merlin makes a beeline to Morgana’s rooms, to find Mordred looking nearly completely well, buzzing with energy and clearly ready to be out of the space. Morgana looks a bit beset with the boy’s nervous bouncing.

Merlin looks at the boy and sends, Enough, Mordred. Settle. Into the alcove with you, Arthur will be here soon.

The effect is instantaneous and dramatic. The boy stops mid-bounce, and then walks over to the screen, and sits down in the corner.

Get your boots.

Mordred scampers across the floor and grabs the boots, then scoots back into the closet.

“How did you…” Morgana starts. “He wouldn’t stop moving!”

Like this, Merlin sends to her, and her eyes widen.

“To him, I am Emrys,” Merlin continues. “I’ll explain that later. But it means he'll do as I say, so that helps.” He looks down at the boy. “You do as she says, too.”

Mordred nods.

“Arthur will be here soon,” Merlin says. “You must stay very still. Morgana, you know how to handle Arthur.”

“How did I?” she asks. “I haven’t the foggiest what to do if he comes barging in…”

“Just be your sassy self,” Merlin says. “You teased him, until he left in a huff. Let it happen.”

“Could we not tell him now?”

“Catching the two of you trying to escape was one of the worst things he ever had to do, up to this point, and it pushed him over the edge to the point of being willing to defy his father,” Merlin says. “We must have him at that point before I reveal myself.”

A pounding began at the door, and Merlin ducked behind the screen, pulling it shut.

You risk much for me, Mordred sends to him.

Merlin gives the boy a small smile. I risk nothing. And you are worth the effort to save you. We will not abandon you to your fate this time.

You did not know who you were when we met, the boy sends. You are different now. You bubble with power.

I unmade the death of the world to save you, Merlin sends. All of you. I am much older now.

I hurt you. I wouldn’t ever want to hurt you, but I hurt you all the same. How could I hurt you?

Merlin looked at the boy for a long moment, only half hearing Arthur and Morgana in the background, going through the motions. We made a mistake, and you loved someone who was so full of pride that she could not bend. You were the brightest and best of us, and you deserved better. I don’t think that we’ll repeat our error.

You forgive me? Mordred’s mental voice is so, so young.

You’ve done nothing wrong, Merlin sends. Never forget that. What I’ve seen in another lifetime is simply that. Another lifetime. We will build a new world here, a new life for all of us. I’m sorry I couldn’t save your father.

That wasn’t my father, Mordred sends. I was apprenticed to him. My father… I never knew him, nor my mother.

You’ll have a choice, Merlin sends. You can return to the druids, though they may end up settling near here anyway, or you may stay with us once things calm down. Morgana adores you already. I am fond of you myself. Even Arthur loved you like a son once, and could easily do so again.

Mordred stares at him for a long moment, his eyes bright despite the deep shadows of the curtained alcove. I killed him? I… I know he is Uther’s son, and Uther is a bad man, but you love Arthur, and he is the Once and Future King. And you would forgive me that?

Merlin throws up protective barriers in his mind. I had forgotten how strong you are. Who you were when you did that… you were a product of many bad decisions on my part and Arthur’s part and even Morgana’s part, not to mention that the druids left you too much to your own devices. That is not who you will be. You cannot be that way now that I have changed time. We will not abandon you. You will not be hunted past the next few days. And the situation that caused you to turn from us… I think we will not betray you that way again. I cannot say it will be perfect, but if I succeed  in what I am trying to do, you will grow up close to here, surrounded by people who care about you.

The door slams behind Arthur as he stalks out, annoyed. Morgana pulls back the screen to find Mordred clinging to Merlin. She tips her head to one side, curious.

“I just told him that he will have a home here, if he likes,” Merlin says.

“Do you really think you can promise that? Do you think change can come so quickly?” Morgana asks.

“It must,” Merlin says.

He makes his way down to the cavern beneath the castle soon after. He doesn’t bother with a torch, just wills it and there is enough light to see by.  At the threshold, he deepens his voice and calls out, “Δράκε, έχουμε πολλά να συζητήσουμε. Καταλαβαίνω τώρα τι είμαι. Είσαι δεμένος με μένα και την οικογένειά μου, και καλώ τώρα τον δεσμό αυτό της συγγένειάς μας. Έλα να μου μιλήσεις”

Kilgharrah lands in front of him without bluster, eyes wide with shock.

Merlin smiles  and folds his arms across his chest.

“I still feel him,” Kilgharrah says. “How are you able…” The dragon falters.

Merlin has a bemused smile playing across his face. “Have I actually managed to surprise you, old friend?”

The dragon rolls his giant head to one side, as if listening, eyes half shut. “You ripped time apart. I cannot feel the future.”

“I was not so careless,” Merlin says. “And the only reason you were able to feel the future so strongly was that I spent so much time looking at you, in that future.”

“What can you possibly want from me? You are brimming with power. I do not know how you are not consumed,” Kilgharrah says.

“Does your fire burn you?” Merlin asks.

This earns a nod of understanding. “I am fire. You are magic.”

Merlin continues, “I want peace. I want to release you without you devastating the people here. I need you to make a sword for me, and I know the possible consequences better than you ever will. You are not to attack people without my express consent.”

“Is there anything else?” Kilgharrah says dryly. “Wars to win, monsters to slay?”

“Oh yes,” Merlin says. “But I think you’ll like it.”

After he explains, the dragon asks, “And what of the druid boy? You know he’s dangerous.”

“In the future you saw, he was dangerous only because we made him dangerous. And you only knew it because I knew it and you pulled it from me as I watched. That future will not happen. I have the druid boy well in hand. And you will never, ever refer to Morgana as “the witch” again.”

The dragon nods his assent. “I am bound to your will.”

“Only for a short time,” Merlin says. “I do not want you as a slave, though I would count you as a friend. I will, ultimately, require you to leave people in peace, and I may ask favors from time to time, but you are kin, not a servant. I would prefer your sense of obligation to be “family”, not “lord.”

“You have changed much,” Kilgharrah says.

“I’m older than you,” Merlin says. “I should hope so.”

 

Gwen, oh it is good to see Gwen still hopeful, proud of her position with Morgana, taking care of her father, before it all twisted for her. He remembers her growing harder, colder, calcified by the demands of the throne. She’d not been able to look at him, when he came back without Arthur, and his own guilt had pulled them apart for good, but here, she is still almost in love with Merlin and he’d forgotten that somehow. She flirts with him a little, and he has to fight not to lose the thread he’s pursuing. Part of him wants to just throw his arms around and hold her and tell her that she’s safe now, that the bad things won’t happen, but she doesn’t even know what he’s saving her from, and if he has his way, she never will.

She gives him her father’s best sword, curious, but not pushing, and he remembers that sense of knowing where the walls are, what you ask, and what you don’t. That willing blindness that let him hide in plain sight for so very long.

He takes it down to the dragon, and outlines his plan for it, then steps back into the pattern he’d walked so very long ago.