Jazz always reminded Merlin of the last time he’d claimed Lance.
He claimed them all, at some point. Some more than others.
The first time everyone’s Soul showed up, they got to live a new life. A life they could have had. Lance’s Soul found Gwen’s. Arthur’s hooked up with Mithian’s. Gwaine and Percival was a surprise, but Merlin learned that just because a Soul had been reincarnated, showing up a second, third, fourth time, becoming a Soul and not just a soul, didn’t mean the person was the same. Everyone was a product of the situation they grew up in and the world always shifted.
When he could, Merlin let them find new paths with each other. Other times, desperate for a connection to someone who might understand him, just a little, he would claim them for that life.
Love them, cherish them. Publicly or privately. But the entire time.
Merlin had claimed Arthur the most. Lance the second. Gwaine the third. A few time, he explored what could have been between him and Gwen. Back from the early days of Camelot.
Freya never became a Soul.
Merlin tapped his fingers on the table in time with the drum, enjoying the lead trumpet’s wild solo. Lance nudged his shoulder.
“You ever going to explain to me why you love jazz so much?”
Part was because, as Merlin thought anytime the strands of Duke Ellington filled his ear, he remembered the night outs with Lance. How they couldn’t touch, or give a hint of their relationship in public. How the music and atmosphere of the speakeasies built up the anticipation for when the band was over and they could slip off each other’s shirts. How Lance back then – a man going by the name Phillip Washington – would hum “The A Train” while he flipped eggs and Merlin would watch, naked on the bed.
The 20s had been the last time he claimed a Soul.
The other part, the mixed up reason why he kept pulling Lance to jazz bar after jazz bar with him was the flip of wanting Lance to remember any of the time they’d been together in the past near two thousand years.
Once, Lance had remembered. Merlin had found out two late, Lance’s Soul at that time half way across the continent and the book in a language he didn’t speak (Merlin’s own copy was a magical translation). Merlin always wondered after that if something could trigger a Soul into remembering a past life, Camelot or other. Because those times Merlin claimed them, those were precious too.
Was it too much to ask, now that his friends had returned in their bodies with their original memories, for their other memories to trickle through?
"I love jazz," Merlin answered, "because another you used to."
"Merlin." Lance turned in his seat, the pause between songs giving them time to talk. "You know I'm not all those other lives."
"Nor were all they you. I do know that. But, well." Merlin shrugged. "I used to see all of you in all of them, and now it’s the other way around."
"You'll never not see someone you lost."
Merlin played with the straw in his mint julep. "Probably not," he answered.
Lance gave him a look, part sorrow, part desperation to make things better any way he could. The high notes of a trumpet prevented any more conversation, but Merlin smiled back. Lance didn't buy it, if the way he took Merlin’s hand meant anything.
And wasn't this nice, holding hands in public with a man. Between magic and gay relationships, he'd always been hiding at one point or another. The 21st century was a turning point.
And maybe, an end point.
Merlin had yet to tell the knights why they came back, that Arthur was slated to return when Albion needed him. Merlin hadn't yet identified the danger. He'd wait until then to tell. And in the meantime, enjoy the company of friends he chased for centuries.
Between the next two songs, Merlin leaned over and whispered in Lance’s ear. "Come to mine, tonight?"
Merlin should probably tell Lance at some point he didn't consider their dalliances as casual as he did in Camelot.
It's hard, staying out of love when you've had a lifetime with someone. And Merlin had had at least seven with Lance.
They left the bar before the band finished playing. Maybe something in Lance’s Soul remembered jazz as an aphrodisiac.
When Gwaine stumbled back into the house, the only one up was Percival. They stared at each other, Gwaine frowning and Percival with a mouth full of bristles and toothpaste, before Percival spat into the sink.
“I thought you were going to find Merlin and Lance.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
Gwaine was pretty upset about that too. He’d gone to the bar Lance mentioned, but by the time the Gwaine arrived the last song was playing and Lance and Merlin were nowhere to be found. So Gwaine had sat at the bar for the next three hours. Not in a partying mood, he asked for wine glass after wine glass.
He probably drank two full bottles himself, lamenting the lost chance of connecting with Merlin the way he wanted to. Composing conversations about the adventures in that book. Wondering if he’d read the subtext right and if at that very moment Lance and Merlin were…
Gwaine shook his head, closing the door behind him. He’d wanted to think, not lose himself in booze, and the wine had done that. But all the thinking had led him nowhere since his fight with Arthur. Just a goal, no path to reach it. No understanding of how to reach out and connect with Merlin, let him know how available Gwaine was as a listening ear after how many times Merlin had listened to his drunken rambles.
The world wobbled. Gwaine stumbled into every piece of furniture on his way to the kitchen, where Percival handed him a glass of water.
“You alright?” Percival asked
“Fine,” Gwaine spat out. He downed the glass in one go, then sagged against the kitchen’s peninsula.
Wordlessly, Percival refilled the glass and handed it back. This time, Gwaine sipped it.
“Did you want to talk about Merlin?”
Gwaine’s head shot up at Percival’s question. “Why would I want to talk about Merlin?”
“Because you and Arthur were before, and it's obvious Merlin’s been at the center of your drinking this evening.”
“It’s nothing big,” Gwaine said, swirling the water in his cup. “I just, wished we’d been better to him.”
“Yeah, back then. You ever think about what Merlin had to put up with, from us? We used to tease him all the time.”
“Merlin didn’t seem to mind.”
“I think he just smiled, and he looked the other way. Not all of the time, but some.”
Percival watched him. “Did something happen, between you and Merlin today?”
“No,” Gwaine sighed, pushing away from the counter. “Thanks for the water.” He scanned the kitchen. “Where’s my book?”
“I think Arthur took it to bed. He was reading it tonight.”
Gwaine frowned. Sure, he wanted the world of that book. Hated himself for not grabbing it when he could have. And yeah, when he had left the house he had hoped Arthur would pick it up, read it, and Gwaine’s barbs would drive deeper. Yet at the same time, that book had made him feel shitty and he didn’t really want any of his friends to feel the same way.
Though, no guarantee Arthur would feel the same way he did.
“Prat. I wanted to return it to Merlin tomorrow.”
“He looked pretty into it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Arthur finished it before crashing.”
Gwaine grunted. Now that he was home and full of two glasses of water, his will power to counteract the wine was fading fast. His bed screamed for him, and Gwaine wanted nothing else but to wrap an arm around his pillow.
“Goin’ to bed. Night, Perce.”
Be it sleepiness or being drunk, it took him two tries to open the door to his bedroom. Then, he kicked it closed and fell on top of the covers.
Some things never changed. Lance’s Soul was a light sleeper. Combined that with Merlin’s natural inclination to wake with the sun (his Camelot tardiness more so an adopted habit due to stress and exhaustion, he learned after Camlann), the two of them typically woke up early and had a proper breakfast the morning after.
It was the little things like this, Lance cooking eggs shirtless, that sometimes had Merlin forgetting what year it was. He’d lived this scene so many times.
But only today would it be interrupted by the shrill sound of an electric kettle.
Merlin set about tea for himself, coffee for Lance, and then pulled out plates just in time for Lance to give each of them half an omelet.
“Plans for the day?” Lance asked.
“I…need to figure out if I want to rotate.”
“Oh, sorry, what I call it in my head. See,” Merlin waved a hand down his body. “I haven’t aged a day since Camelot.”
“Perks of being Emrys, yeah?”
It was a light joke; Lance knew all about Merlin’s complicated relationship with his prophesied self. But at this point, Merlin had accepted the mantle. It didn’t mean much anymore, aside from explaining what made his magic special from others.
“Oh yes, who doesn’t want to stay young and spry forever. Thing is though, eventually, people notice. That I don’t age, I mean.”
“So you rotate.”
Merlin nodded, too busy chewing to respond. Once he swallowed, he explained. “I told you guys, I own a lot of property. So I jump from house to house. Most of them are around college campuses, easier to blend in, and so every so often I get a new degree too.”
“Places of adult learning, you said.”
“So, you’re considering moving,” Lance frowned.
“Well, yeah. I’ve been here in Glastonbury for going on seven years now. I don’t want you guys to move; I feel like you’ve all gotten settled now. ‘Cept can’t-hold-a-job Arthur.” Merlin snickered.
“Do you want to move? I know getting us settled, as you called it, wasn’t easy. And things are strained between you and Arthur.”
Merlin punched holes in his omelet with his fork. He didn’t want to move. Not until he knew what had called Arthur and the knights from the Lake.
Merlin continued playing with his omelet. It couldn’t be Morgana. Sure, her Soul had been around a few times. Just like Gwen’s. But they hadn’t walked out of the Lake. Weren’t supposed to walk out of the Lake.
Neither had the knights, though. Just Arthur.
He looked up, startled at the feel of a hand on his. Lance leaned across the table, eyes concerned.
“You’re not telling me everything,” the knight said.
“What did we say? No lies and open secrets.”
Open secrets, because keeping them to himself had been slowly driving Merlin mad. Creating a layer between him and the world, causing Merlin to struggle every day with what he had done. What he was. Merlin had spilled all he was to Lance, just as Lance had done the same way back then, but there had always been a timing to it.
“I don’t know why you’re back,” Merlin admitted.
“Me, or the knights?”
Merlin frowned, because now that he thought about it, yeah, Lance had taken an unconventional path to the other world. Merlin hadn’t believed Lance’s soul made it to Avalon when he walked through the veil. Not until the brief moment of awareness the shade had.
Puzzle for another time.
“The knights. I mean, I expected Arthur, he’s the Once and Future King, but the prophesies said nothing about the rest of you.”
“Just lucky, I suppose,” Lance shrugged. “Is that what’s bothering you? Us returning when we shouldn’t have?”
“What, no!” Merlin turned his hand, mingling his fingers with Lance’s. “I’m thrilled you are all here. I missed you. A lot.” His voice trailed off, sad.
Lance squeezed his hand. “Then what about the knights being here has set you off?”
“Because I don’t know why. There should be a reason.”
“The prophesy didn’t say?”
“Nothing useful,” Merlin snorted.
“Tell me anyway.”
“Just that, the Once and Future King would rise again when Albion’s need was greatest.”
“And Albion is…England now, is that right?”
“Well, half of it cuz you see – yeah. Yeah, it’s England now.”
“You’re worried because you don’t see the threat. That Arthur’s in danger. Yet again, and you have to protect him.”
“Of course I’m worried,” Merlin pulled his hand away from Lance to start actually eating breakfast. “Lots of stuff has happened here, Lance. Things I thought would warrant Arthur coming back. But he didn’t. So for this to be worse…” he shook his head. “I don’t want to imagine what it might be. I want a sign of it. And there’s been none in the year since you all walked out of the Lake.”
Lance frowned at him. “Your trips, these last few months. They haven’t just been checking on your property. You’re searching for clues.”
Merlin nodded. “And I’ve found nothing.”
“Well,” Lance finally turned to his own breakfast. “You don’t have to hide your magic this time, so that’s good. You can help in the open, work freely.”
“True,” Merlin admitted. But things had felt so much simpler back then.
Gwaine woke with only a mild headache. He meandered down the hall to the kitchen for coffee, giving a nod while he yawned at Leon who was finishing a breakfast-dinner. Working the night shift, Leon’s schedule was always opposite most of the house. Gwaine typically wasn’t much better; being a talent scout often meant being out until after last call.
“Morning,” Percival called out from the sink, rinsing a plate.
Gwaine grumbled in response, pulling out a mug and pouring himself coffee. Only after he’d drunk half of it did he start making a bowl of cereal. As his brain kicked into gear, Gwaine listened to Percival and Leon chat.
“How was work last night? That old lady check out yet?” Percival asked.
“Mrs. Fey? Nope. In fact, the night manager told me she extended her stay here for another two weeks.” Leon shook his head. “I don’t know why she doesn’t just stay with her kids, she’d be better able to help out with the new baby that way.”
“Maybe she likes watching you do your rounds. Who else is she going to invite into her room for a nightcap at 3 am?”
Leon snorted. “I never remembered old people having such a hard time sleeping in Camelot.”
“Cuz we died sooner,” Gwaine said.
The other two turned to look at him.
“What? It’s true,” Gwaine said around a mouthful of Lucky Charms. “Better medicine. Back then getting past fifty was rare. Now, a lot of people go beyond 75.”
“It was quieter at night too, back then.” Leon said. “No cars, or people shouting in the streets. TV sets on loud. Just crickets, the wind. Maybe a mouse in the corner.”
Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs. Eventually, they turned into Arthur’s face rounding the corner.
He looked terrible, Gwaine thought. As if he’d been out partying all night and had only gotten an hour of sleep. Arthur looked bad enough that Gwaine shoved his mostly empty coffee mug at the blonde, who chugged it.
Arthur made a face at the bitterness. A true ancient warrior, the taste of coffee had yet to grow on Arthur. He stumbled towards the mug cabinet before filling one with water and sticking it in the microwave. It took a few seconds for him to remember to push the needed buttons.
“You alright, Arthur?” Leon asked. “You look awful.”
“Went to sleep late,” Arthur yawned. “Book.”
Gwaine couldn’t help it. He yawned. Leon yawned. Percival yawned, but managed to keep his mouth closed.
“I’m going to bed,” Leon stood. “I’ll see you guys this evening.”
A chorus of “night, Leon” followed him around the corner and up the stairs.
“You look really bad, Arthur,” Percival said again. “Maybe call off work? Sleep in?”
Arthur shook his head. “Staying up late reading is my own fault,” his eyes flicked to Gwaine, “and besides, I don’t want this job to give me a reason to fire me, too.”
Arthur ignored him in favor of dunking a tea bag into his nuked water. “Did Lance come home last night?” he asked Percival.
“Not that I know,” Percival said.
“Probably stayed with Merlin,” Gwaine said as he poured himself another mug of coffee.
Arthur grimaced. No doubt, he did indeed read Lance’s book last night. Maybe twice. Which meant he too probably made the correct guess that Lance and Merlin had shared a bed the previous night. After mussing it up pretty good.
The doorbell rang, a three tone bell that did not help Gwaine’s minor headache.
“I’ll get it,” Percival said.
Gwaine nursed his second cup of coffee. Arthur fished out his tea bag, before turning to look at Gwaine. He opened his mouth to speak, but Percival's greeting had both Arthur and Gwaine look towards the front door.
Had they been boys, Gwaine was sure he and Arthur would have scrambled for the door. As it was, Arthur immediately started to pull down an extra mug and Gwaine checked the fridge for eggs.
Eggs were Merlin’s favorite.
"Where's Lance?" Gwaine heard Percival ask.
"Headed to work already. They're announcing the grant winners today, so they're all hopeful at the shelter."
Merlin showing up without Lance. To hang with them in the morning. That never happened. Forget making Merlin’s favorite breakfast, this called for Gwaine to spoil him.
Waffles. Waffles with the strawberries in the back of the fridge. Gwaine was cracking eggs in a bowl by the time Merlin and Percival walked into the kitchen.
"Merlin!" Gwaine gave his friend a bright grin, which Merlin returned. "Have a nice night out with Lance?"
"Mmm hmm," Merlin said. "I always liked jazz."
"Is there a reason?"
They all paused to look at Arthur. Arthur might be a people person, able to charm a room, but he rarely asked questions about them. A hold over, Gwaine presumed, from Camelot affairs revolving around actions and shifting situations and Merlin whispering in his ear personal things of note about council members, visiting dignitaries, and the simple subjects asking for aid.
People delivered information to Arthur, and when he asked it was questions about the status of a patrol, what a scout found, inventory numbers.
Even when wooing Gwen, he'd told Merlin to discover her favorite flower, color, or meal.
Not just being interested in a personal question, but asking it, threw them all for a loop.
And Merlin...side-stepped it.
The slender man simply shrugged, tilted his head to give a goofy smile. "Simply like the rhythms."
Gwaine cracked the next egg super hard and noticed Arthur hiding a frown as he turned around to flick on the kettle. No doubt, Merlin had told the truth. But it wasn’t near the answer Gwaine, nor probably Arthur, had wanted.
“Tea?” Arthur asked.
“Yeah,” Merlin answered. He looked around the kitchen. “Where’s Elyan?”
“Went to a blacksmith conference.” Gwaine grabbed a whisk to start stirring the waffle mix. “’Cept his bus back broken down yesterday. Should be back later today. Why?”
He looked up at Merlin. Ever since the knights had gotten settled, Merlin never came by on his own to hang. Invitation only, and even then he never looked this serious.
“Something’s wrong,” Gwaine guessed.
Immediately, Percival and Arthur looked to Merlin too.
“Not wrong,” Merlin said, “But there is something we should talk about. Lance knows already –“
Of course he does, Gwaine thought.
“-but it’s something the rest of you should hear too. It’s not super important, it can wait for when Elyan’s back and Leon’s awake-“
A shrill ring cut through the kitchen before transitioning into a rock end. “Waiting for the End”, Merlin had told Gwaine it was called, months ago. He’d gotten a funny look on his face and now that Gwaine had read Lance’s book, Gwaine itched to look at the lyrics.
“Hold on,” Merlin said. He pulled his phone out of his back pocket and turned to into the living room. “Yes, this is Mark Earnest.”
Gwaine watched him go, frowning. It always felt weird, when people greeted Merlin as other names. But until the knights had walked out of the Lake, Gwaine didn’t think any had called Merlin by his birth name in years.
Sometimes I’m so lonely, Merlin had admitted to Lance in the book. It’s awful. I know you know, and Gaius. And I supposed the Druids. But I don’t think anyone will ever truly understand me.
I’m here to listen. Book Lance, Camelot Lance had responded.
And then Lance had walked into the Veil. And Merlin had lost one of his two support pillars. Wobbled. Had he crashed, after Camlann? Or before, and no one noticed?
Because Gwaine hadn’t looked too deep, those centuries ago in Camelot. And now that he knew he should have, knew what Merlin had gone through, the guilt ate at him.
He plugged the waffle iron in with more force than necessary.
“Gwaine?” Percival asked.
Gwaine sighed. “You ever wonder how long it had been since Merlin had been called his own name? Before we walked out of the Lake?”
The other two men were quiet for a moment.
“Since Camelot fell,” Arthur whispered, “I would guess.”
“It didn’t last long,” Percival said.
“No,” Arthur admitted, “But it did shine brightly.”
Gwaine snorted. “True that. There’s some fabulous tales about me and the ladies.”
“Any of them true?” Arthur asked, looking at him keenly.
Ah, if one book was true, were there chances more were? Gwaine winked at Percival before answering Arthur. “You’ll never know, sire.”
Gwaine hadn’t read all of Merlin’s Camelot Collection yet, but most of Gwaine’s own stories were a mish-mash. A sprinkle of truth, a mix with other stories. The old authors seemed to like to do that a lot – mix historic accounts with local myths and legends. Unless you were from that time, pulling it apart was hard.
After Gwaine made four waffles, Merlin was still on the phone. Leaning on the kitchen side of the peninsula, with Arthur on the dining side, the two men watched Merlin pace back and forth in the living room as he talked to someone on his cell.
It didn’t seem to be a good conversation, if the pinched look to Merlin’s face was anything to go by. Or the way he rubbed his forehead. Or the four times he’d said “oh bloody hell”. Between taking out the fifth waffle and pouring the batter in the iron for another, Merlin had stopped his pacing. Instead, he’d plopped down on the couch and was doing something on the laptop some had left on the cushions.
“What’s he doing?” Gwaine asked Arthur.
“The back of the laptop is to us. Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Who calls him Mark?”
Arthur opened his mouth to respond, but nothing came out. “I don’t know,” he eventually admitted. “I, you were right, Gwaine.”
“I was right?” Gwaine turned a surprised look at Arthur. But the blonde man still stared at Merlin.
“I have been an awful friend.”
“Yeah. Well, knowing it is the first step.”
Gwaine and Arthur both looked at Percival. He’d left to prep for the day, and now he stood in the doorway, blocking their view of Merlin, in workout clothes and a duffle bag ready for a day at the gym.
“I need to get going,” Percival said. “Did you still want to come with, Arthur? Merlin said his news can wait. We’ll talk over dinner.”
Arthur’s eyes flicked past Percival. Gwaine couldn’t see, but based on the mutterings from the living room Merlin was still on the phone with whoever had called.
The ex-king teetered, torn between wanting to talk to Merlin and the habit of a morning workout. Gwaine knew that Arthur would be grouchy if he didn’t get some cardio in. And besides, Gwaine still selfishly wanted Merlin time of his own to talk about Lance’s book.
“Go,” Gwaine said. “Practice your punches. I’ll look after Merlin, and we’ll see what he has to say at dinner.”
“Fine.” Arthur ripped a waffle in half, stuffing it in his mouth as he headed up to his room to change. Merlin was still on the phone when Arthur and Percival walked out the door, giving a half-hearted goodbye wave to them as they left.
The waffles were done and Gwaine was washing the bowls when Merlin stepped back into the kitchen.
“There is a dishwasher, you know.”
“I know,” Gwaine said. “But we’re all used to hand washing things.”
“I guess I should be happy you’re using the laundry machine.”
“Probably,” Gwaine chuckled. “Everything alright?”
“Not really. Thanks,” Merlin accepted the strawberry and whipped cream topped waffle Gwaine handed him. “One of my properties almost burnt down last night.”
“Is everyone okay?”
“Yeah, no one’s living in it. The new renters weren’t supposed to move in until Thursday. But now I have to tell them what happened, see if I have another property near campus open. Anita, my property manager up there, said they wanted to investigate for arson, and I’ll have to figure out what to do with the complex-“
“Hold up,” Gwaine placed his hands in the air. “Too much. Someone lit one of your apartments on fire?”
“Yes. And I’ll have to go up to Scotland to take care of things.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“This is a big problem, right?”
“Big-ish,” Merlin admitted.
“Right, well, I’d be a bad friend if I didn’t help you out when I could. I can play talent scout anywhere, and the others all have to work. Let me come with you.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Merlin, I want to.”
Merlin shot him a grin. “Okay. I’ll change my flight reservations so they’re for two.”