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.”
This, ah, got steamier than I expected.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I still feel bad for leaving without actually telling anyone,” Merlin admitted at the airport. Yes, he’d left a note on the knights’ fridge. And table. Called and left Lance a message too. But he wanted to personally apologize for dropping by unannounced, saying “I have something to tell you” and then leaving the country hours later without actually telling the knights what he had wanted to tell them.
“They’ll be fine,” Gwaine said. “You had a work thing. It’s more important.”
“Mmmm.” Merlin wasn’t actually sure if it was. This was more pressing though. A year, and nothing had happened to indicate why Arthur had risen. A day, or five, won’t make a difference.
“Where we going again?” Gwaine asked as they inched through the security line.
“Inverness,” Merlin responded, pulling up their flight information on his phone.
“And how long will the flight be?”
“’Bout an hour and a half.”
“And how fast will we be going?”
“Faster than a horse, that’s for sure. You can have the window seat, look at the clouds below-“ Merlin caught himself, switching attention from his phone to Gwaine’s face. It had paled beneath his scruff, and Gwaine was rubbing his left thumb on his thigh. A gesture, Merlin guessed, that would in Camelot be Gwaine rubbing the top of his sword. A nervous twitch.
“Gwaine,” Merlin reached out to flatten the other’s man hand on Gwaine’s thigh. “There’s nothing to worry about. Planes are safe. I’ve flown in them a million times. Yes, we’ll be going fast. And yes, we’ll be really high. But they’re safe means of travel.”
“I looked online. The crashes are horrible.”
“You’re more likely to die crossing the street in Glastonbury than in a plane crash. Besides,” Merlin let magic creep to the surface of his skin, sparks of gold in his eyes. “I’ll keep us safe.”
Merlin stepped back, giving Gwaine his space. The ex-knight swallowed a few time before he could answer.
“Still getting used to the idea.”
“No. That you’re more than capable of taking care of yourself. Back in Camelot, we all thought you brave, but not very useful in a fight. It’s the opposite, isn’t it? You’d be the most useful.”
Merlin shrugged. “I couldn’t exactly announce myself as a renowned magical warrior. Arthur would have had my head.”
“I wouldn’t have let him.”
Merlin’s head snapped up. He had hoped, way back then, that someone other than Gaius would have been on his side. Softened whatever punishment Arthur wished to dish out. “Thanks, Gwaine.”
They stood in line in silence for a moment, before Gwaine asked. “I get it, why you didn’t tell Arthur. But, is there a reason you didn’t tell me?”
Merlin pressed his lips together. Telling people he had magic had gotten easier through the years, he’d done it several times to the women he’d been with, to the point that despite the emotional turmoil in his gut, he’d had no problem announcing it to all the knights shortly after they’d risen. Just stood there in the living room, answering the questions they asked about why there were they, how they were there, and why Merlin was so assured that it had been because of good magic they were alive.
Because I’m good magic, Merlin had hissed, cutting a hand through the air to leave a wake of fireworks.
He’d left the house after that, not able to stomach the shock and disgust on their faces. Arthur’s crushing disappointment, as if he had hoped Merlin’s confession to a dying Arthur had been a joke. Lancelot had to serve as an intermediary between the knights and Merlin for a week, and Merlin was convinced half the reason the knights put up with Merlin those first few months was because no one else could teach them about the modern world.
But back then? Pre-Golden Age Camelot, when they were all alive and kicking? There had been so many reason to not tell them, the law being the least of it. It had been the way they talked about Morgana, such a pity she developed magic powers that turned her evil. How Leon would justify the Druids were decent, because they hated violence, cured those who needed it, and removed themselves from society. The idea that, for those willing to admit magic was okay is was only okay if it wasn’t in Camelot. The worry, that Merlin would tell them, any of them, and their relationship would shatter. That by coming clean, Merlin would be dirty in their eyes, and instead of being forced to hide would want to hide.
Sorta like now, he supposed. But now he didn’t care about their opinions as much.
“The same reason I didn’t tell Arthur, I suppose. I was scared.” Merlin turned away. Because while things were different now, while he didn’t hide his magic from his friends, while he knew it didn’t shatter things, his relationship with them all had shifted away from what he wanted.
Even more so, since over the centuries, since claiming them all at one point or another, he’d fallen in love with their Souls.
Planes, Gwaine decided, sucked. They made his ears hurt, Merlin’s gum barely helping, and he would never admit it to the other knights but he just discovered a fear of heights. Staring out the window and looking down onto the clouds was terrifying. He gripped the armrests the entire time, pulled down the shade and stared resolutely at the chair in front of him.
Merlin tried to distract him, chatting about Inverness and the Scottish Highlands. About the University of the Highlands and Islands, who provided most of his renters, it’s older institutions. Some of which Merlin had degrees with, though he had yet to study at UHI. Gwaine tuned the words out, but focused on Merlin’s voice the whole time they were in the air.
Walking out of the plane, Gwaine’s knees wobbled. “I’m not flying again, ever.”
“We have to fly to get back home.” Merlin, the devil, failed to hide a smirk.
“Can you do, something,” Gwaine waved his hands, “to make it easier for me?”
Merlin tilted his head, thinking. “I could put you to sleep.”
“Yes. Yes, please. And since you didn’t do that on the way here, you owe me a drink.”
“A drink? Gwaine, Anita is waiting to pick us up.”
Gwaine looked longingly at the bar. “Fine. Later.”
“Come on.” Merlin led the way through the airport, reading the images on signs leading them to a road filled with waiting cars.
Gwaine zipped his coat up, glad Merlin told him to bring it. Inverness was cooler than Glastonbury, further north and on the water. Still summer though. “What’s the plan again?”
“Anita’s going to take us to the property so I can see how much damage happened. There’s a few hours of daylight left, and the fire department declared the structure sound. Then, well, talks with the police and firefighters. Construction too. I’ve been meaning to update this building anyway, I’ve owned it since ninety-two though that last time it had major work was the eighties, I think. Inverness is growing, the Princess Royal is Chancellor now, I bet I could turn it into luxury apartments. Raise rent.”
“Uh-huh,” Gwaine said, feeling a little out of his depth. He might have a year of modern experience under his belt, but Merlin lived it since, well since it had developed, Gwaine reasoned. Though if Merlin had always thought business-y, talking to people to get information, balancing options and costs, Gwaine didn’t know.
Actually, scratch that. Merlin use to haggle with people in the market all the time, buying supplies for Gaius when needed them and collecting fees from those needing medical services. He’d also had his hands on all of Arthur’s papers and reports. This wasn’t a learned skill; it was a developed one.
No wonder Merlin had a lot of money. Enough to make Arthur unconformable, though the ex-king hid it well. Then again, Arthur had gone from the ruler of all riches in the kingdom to a man with difficulties holding down a minimal wage job. Merlin had gone from a pauper to a multi-millionaire.
Just another thing that had strained their re-established relationships. In this world, Merlin held more status. And with magic, probably more prowess at any task life threw at him than the knights would have.
Good on Merlin, for moving up in the world on his own.
“Oh, there’s Anita. Anita! Anita!” Merlin stood on tip-toes to wave.
“Mark!” A tall brunette woman waved back from where she leaned against a small red car.
Merlin took Gwaine’s hand and pulled him towards the woman. Gwaine stumbled forward, catching himself on Merlin’s shirt and pulling it down his back just a bit. He stumbled again, when there on the base of Merlin’s neck, just below the shirt’s collar, was a very obvious hickey.
Lance’s no doubt. Fuck, if Gwaine didn’t want to suck on it and make it his.
Gwaine widened his steps as he followed Merlin to Anita. Merlin dropped Gwaine’s hand to give Anita a hug.
“Mark Ernest, you haven’t aged a day since the meeting in Edinburgh three years ago.”
Merlin laughed. “What can I say? Good genes. Anita, this is Gwaine. Gwaine, Anita. Gwaine’s a personal friend. Anita is my property manager up here for all three complexes.”
“Charmed.” Gwaine lifted Anita’s hand to kiss it. Between the flight and his sudden want of Merlin, Gwaine didn’t feel very smooth. But Anita still blushed, pushing a few strands of hair behind her ear.
“Charmer,” Antia chastised. But Gwaine could tell she liked it.
“No luggage?” she asked, looking between the two of them.
“Nope,” Merlin shook his head. “Hopefully this will be short, three, four days.” He hefted the duffel bag over his shoulder. “We should be set. And if we stay longer, I have the override codes for the laundry.”
Anita laughed. “You don’t want to use renter machines. You’d have to be down there in the basement while they ran to make sure someone didn’t dump your wet clothes on the floor. I’d let you use mine.”
“Brilliant.” Merlin flashed his pearly whites, and Gwaine wondered if he’d marked Lance in return.
Gwaine shook his head. Yes, he’d been a little jealous of the relationship Merlin and Lance had, even before he read the book and learned it might have been carnal in addition to emotional the supportive. Gwaine had wanted the openness the two had, he hadn’t expected to want to tumble Merlin.
No, that was a lie. He always had, even back in Camelot, but they’d never had more they drunken kisses or heavy petting. But it had been fleeting thoughts, something fun to do for a night, not anything as serious as claiming Merlin.
When he told Arthur he wanted the same relationship with Merlin as Lance had, he hadn’t been thinking sex. But well, now he was. And he hated himself for it, because Gwaine felt he hadn’t earned the right to that yet.
He had to prove himself a good friend first, and then he could -
Oh bloody hell, he wanted to woo Merlin.
Gwaine nearly swallowed his tongue. Choked.
Merlin slapped him on the back. “Alright there?”
“Yeah,” Gwaine said, not meeting Merlin’s eyes. “Just a dry throat.”
“Planes always dehydrate me,” Anita said. “I’ve got water in the car, if you want some.”
“Might as well get in then. We should see the site before it starts getting dark.”
“Right.” Merlin took Anita’s hint and slid into the back seat, duffle bag in his lap.
Gwaine got in next to him, thanking Anita when she passed back bottled water from the passenger seat. He leaned back, drinking and watching the world pass by out the window, while Anita and Merlin talked about the arson.
Before he knew it, Anita pulled up to the apartment complex. It wasn’t much, just three floors. The windows were shattered, from heat or flames or exploded gas pipes. It had been a stone building, and Gwaine could see the black marks from the fire on the exterior. Most were on the third floor.
“Takes something really hot to burn stone,” he commented.
Anita and Merlin looked up at the third story windows.
“Yeah,” Merlin muttered. He turned to Anita. “We can go in, yeah? It’s safe.”
She nodded. “The first floor is fine for the most part, but the third will need major work and the second is a mess too.”
“Let’s go see.”
Merlin led the way into the building, Anita behind him and Gwaine pulling up the rear. Something felt, off, about the building as soon as they stepped into it. Gwaine watched Merlin, wondering if he’d frown like he used to when he got “funny feelings”, but Merlin’s expression hadn’t changed from what it was outside. Practice, or there really was nothing wrong here.
Gwaine changed his mind when they reached the second story.
The building had obviously been modernized over the years, the plumbing and wires were proof of that, but the floors had been divided by stone. And Gwaine knew that because there were chunks of it scattered on the floor of the second apartment. Looking up, he could see a grey sky.
Merlin shuffled through papers Anita had handed him in the car. “You said the fire department said it was a roof fire?”
“That seems to be where it started, yes. Someone used it for fireworks or a party, the heat was too much for the stones, and they cracked and fell.”
Cracked and fell two stories, the roof and then through the floor of the top apartment to ruin the second.
“Hmm,” Merlin crouched down and ran a hand over a piece of stone. Parts of it shined like glass.
Gwaine crouched next to him. “This isn’t normal, is it?”
“No,” Merlin shook his head. “I want to run tests, but later. Tomorrow morning, probably, when Anita isn’t with us.”
Merlin stood, Gwaine pushing up too.
“How bad’s the third floor?” Merlin asked Anita. “Safe enough to visit?”
The third floor wasn’t much of a floor. Not only had the roof caved in and took out almost all of the inner walls, but the exterior back wall had caved too. Gwaine looked over the edge to see large blocks of stone in the small yard and small parking lot behind the complex.
“We’re lucky no one had moved in yet,” Anita said, standing at the edge of the whole.
“Lucky,” Merlin agreed, half-listening.
Gwaine watched him move around the space, looking at the marks of the destroyed stone, walls, and infrastructure, then up at the edges of the holes in the ceiling and floor. Each was surrounded by cracks extending from the openings.
“I’m not sure the best way to replace that wall will be,” Anita went on. “No matter what, the stone won’t match the exterior.”
“Ah, I’ll find something. I’m more concerned with how we’ll clean out the top two floors. I want to leave the external walls alone as much as possible.”
Gwaine tuned out their conversation about renovations, content to explore the rest of the third floor. The fire had been last night, so he had expected a lingering smell of smoke. Maybe a layer of ash. But he found none of that. Just small gravel bits, pipes warped from heat, molten clumps of fabric. All the effects of a fire, but no sign of a cause. He wanted to get on the roof, but didn’t know if there was a way.
“Ouch,” Gwaine said, stubbing his foot on a piece of wall.
Until then, he hadn’t noticed the sky getting darker and the slow reduction of light in the ruin of an apartment.
“Alright, Gwaine?” Merlin called out.
“Just a stubbed toe.”
“It’s getting dark. We could go check-in.”
“I’ll drive you to the hotel,” Anita said.
Merlin let Gwaine handle the room keys, directing him into an elevator and then into the hotel suite. He was too busy thinking, trying to understand what had happened at the apartment building that morning.
A fire, yes. But a magical one.
Accidental? Or a message? It did seem like a coincidence, Merlin’s building while it sat empty, but that didn’t mean it was. This was the Scottish Highlands, but more importantly the farthest northern city on the island. Things got wild, the further north you went. Druid culture still had a hold in Scotland and Ireland, and those a part of it often came to Inverness as the closest big city. Plus, university students were wild, away from home and parental punishments of flashy magics.
It could just be kids.
He blinked, staring at Gwaine, mouth going dry when he realized just how undressed Gwaine was. While Merlin had been thinking, Gwaine showered and now stood in front Merlin in a towel and dripping wet.
God, when had been the last time he’d claimed Gwaine? 30s? 40s? He remembered being so shocked seeing the Soul of a friend so soon after another, after Lance in the Jazz Age. They were usually decades apart.
“Merlin?” Gwaine asked again, a touch of concern creeping into his voice.
The 40s, Merlin decided, seeing Gwaine – Arron McAdams – in the slums of NYC, and then again remembering him in a United States World War II Army uniform. Merlin hadn’t claimed him, hadn’t built a life with him, but they’d had a fumbled encounter after a physical evaluation for recruits and a few more overseas whenever Arron as an infantryman and Merlin as a physician were stationed in the same city.
Merlin would have signed up for the war anyway, but he did his best to follow Gwaine through it. Gwaine had died during D-Day, and well, technically so had Merlin. He’d faked his death several times at this point.
Percival had been in the war too, in the French army. Merlin had been hoping Gwaine and Percival found each other, they often did when reborn at the same time. Sadly, they’d done nothing but no at each other.
Gwaine’s hand on his shoulder in the present jerked Merlin back to the present. He promptly turned his eyes away from the faint trace of hair above the towel.
“I’m gonna shower.” Merlin brushed off Gwaine’s hand and headed into the bathroom.
Gwaine licked his lips, staring at the bathroom door.
Merlin had been staring at him. Sure, he’d been staring into space first, but then his eyes had zeroed in on Gwaine and Gwaine had been very tempted to do something.
But that would be rude, seeing as Merlin was with Lance and they were both Gwaine friends.
I will not steal my friend’s boyfriend. I will not steal my friend’s boyfriend. Cuz that would be shitty, Gwaine determined. And drama the knights would not be too happy about.
But were Lance and Merlin really together? Back in Camelot, Lance had had eyes for Gwen, but still dallied around with Merlin. Gwen hadn’t walked out of the Lake, but maybe she would. Gwaine hoped that what Lance and Merlin had was simply there to burn off energy.
He shook his head, digging through the duffle bag for clean clothes. He wasn’t sure what, exactly, had shifted his perceptions of Merlin from friend to wanted potential permeant bed partner. He hoped it wasn’t just a strange desire to one-up Lancelot, the old jealousy of Merlin’s and Lance’s easy comradery from Camelot, the idea that Gwaine’s best friend didn’t share the sentiment, flaring up again.
Gwaine was a competitive bastard.
I’m not someone to fight over, Gwaine could see Merlin saying, I’m just me. And you and Lance fighting would be awful.
Beside, Gwaine told himself. Like with Gwen, Lance might get all noble and stop trying.
And that’s the last thing Gwaine wanted to do – get between Lance and Merlin. Lance had been on of the few, and now the only, truly supportive relationship Merlin had both in Camelot and now. Gwaine didn’t want to take that away from Merlin. Quite the opposite, he wanted to show Merlin he could have another.
Support pillar, that was. Though if Merlin wanted two lovers, Gwaine could be okay with that too.
Gwaine jumped when a few articles of clothing zipped out of the bag and into Merlin’s hand sticking out from the bathroom door. “Merlin!”
Merlin stuck his head out of the bathroom, sheepish. “Sorry, I do it at home all the time. I’ll cut down on the magic-“
“No, don’t do that,” Gwaine said. “I just didn’t expect to see your boxers to zoom by my nose. Don’t feel like you have to reign in your magic because of me, yeah? In fact, think you can dry my hair?” He pointed to his locks, no longer dripping but still damp.
Merlin smiled at him. “Comb it first. Once I’m dressed I’ll dry it.”
The bathroom door shut and Gwaine quickly finished dressing before finding the small bag of toiletries at the bottom of the bag. He’d just finish taking out the tangles when Merlin emerged from the bathroom, dressed and completely dry.
“Still want me to dry your hair?” he asked, walking over to Gwaine.
“Course,” Gwaine leaned towards Merlin, hoping the spell required Merlin to place his hands on Gwaine’s scalp.
“Bedrúge,” Merlin said.
Instantly, Gwaine’s hair dried up, as well as any lingering droplets on his skin. “Aces. Dinner, Merlin?”
“Course. What do you want?”
“A pub, of course.”
Pubs were common. Gwaine insisted the first three didn’t meet his requirements however, and so Merlin gave up on selecting a place for dinner. Instead, he walked alongside Gwaine until he found a place that suited him.
It lacked the rowdiness of the previous places, uni students living it up before classes started in two weeks, nor did the Wounded Minnow have an exhaustive drink menu. Even further, to Merlin’s surprise, Gwaine forewent his usual order of ale with a burger and ordered, of all things, wine.
Merlin’s senses when on alert.
“Got a problem with that?”
“Just unexpected. Got something on your mind? The fire?”
“Should I be concerned with the fire?”
Merlin pursed his lips and didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure.
“It’s not the fire,” Gwaine admitted, leaning back in the booth they shared.
Merlin picked up his beer and matched Gwaine pose.
“It’s you,” Gwaine said.
“What about me?”
Merlin curled into himself. Sure, Gwaine had said he didn’t mind Merlin having magic. But his summoning of clothes in the hotel had startled Gwaine. No doubt, he hadn’t like the touch of the drying spell either.
“What about it?”
“Ah, Merlin, don’t pout. I told you, I don’t mind it. I think it’s rather useful. It’s just, you’re wary of it. I don’t want you to be.”
“I’m not wary of magic,” Merlin scoffed.
“Wary of using it around us, then.”
Merlin scowled into his pint. He had been watching his spells, especially at the knights’ house. At home, he used them constantly. Living by himself, there was no reason not to use magic to make the simple things, well, simple. Why buy a vacuum when you could vanish the dust? Granted, sometimes he still folded his own clothes in front of the TV to give his hands something to do, but he did use magic frequently to preserve things, make a task faster, or summon clothes to his hand so he didn’t have to leave a bathroom all steamy from a shower.
Lance didn’t mind it, but Merlin had not missed the way Arthur recoiled from his small firework demonstration a year ago when he explained them all walking out of the Lake. Leon’s grip on the couch cushion, Elyan’s fear filled eyes. Prejudice took time to shake off, especially for adults. Merlin considered it a success that they hadn’t barred him from the house, that they still would share a meal with him.
Gwaine and Percival, Merlin knew, could very well be eased into comfort around magic, but it hadn’t been worth it to push Arthur’s buttons. Or Leon’s and Elyan’s.
“Not everyone,” Merlin said. “I’m only worried about half of you.”
“I’m not in that half, am I?”
Merlin smiled at Gwaine. “Nah.”
“Good. And, I also have a small confession to make.”
The arrival of the server disrupted them, placing down a double cheeseburger in front of Gwaine, a veggie burger in front of Merlin, and an overflowing basket of fries. Merlin leaned back so it could all be placed on the table. He hadn’t realized he’d been leaning in towards Gwaine.
Get a grip, he told himself. Despite this being the real Gwaine before him, despite the memories of lives together, this time around Gwaine was not Merlin’s to claim. Merlin had seen him take other paths when sharing a time period with other Souls. The same would happen now, surely.
He took a gulp of his beer as Gwaine smiled at the server before he left.
They dug into their food, conversation turning to Merlin’s previous trips to Inverness and talk of different burgers had heard of Gwaine seemed determined to try.
“You’re missing out, Merlin, being vegetarian.”
“I’m really not,” he insisted.
Gwaine didn’t look to believe him, but a mouth full of food kept him from talking.
They ordered another round, beer and wine, before Gwaine brought up his confession again.
“So, what I wanted to tell you.”
“I knew,” Gwaine looked up from his wine glass to stare directly at Merlin. “Back then, I knew you had magic.”
Merlin stopped breathing.
“You, you knew?”
“Yeah. Weren’t exactly subtle, in that bar fight. Plate flinging at people with no one through them, but you flicking your head in the direction they flew. Then, that dwarf called you Magic. And once I was settled in Camelot, and I saw things more than twice, I put it together.”
“Why didn’t-“ Merlin’s throat closed and he had to try again, “why didn’t you say anything?”
“Wasn’t sure I should. Your secret and all. Plus, it being a crime back then. I didn’t want to scare you away. Merlin? Merlin, look at me.”
Merlin had hidden his face in his hands while Gwaine explained, and even now refused to separate his palms from his cheekbones. Gwaine had known. Gwaine had known!
All those years after Lancelot’s death, Gwaine could have helped Merlin. He could have had someone to talk to, a friend to listen and brainstorm with, to help protect Arthur. And instead, Merlin had had to do things alone, scared of discovery by anyone, getting more and more desperate as Mordred grew closer to Arthur, as Morgana’s use of magic poisoned Arthur’s heart against it. He could have, he could have –
The small sob that escaped Merlin surprised both of them. In a flash, Gwaine switched seats so that instead of sitting across from Merlin, he sat next to him.
“Merlin, mate?” he asked, arm hovering over Merlin’s shoulder.
Merlin didn’t know if he should brush off the limb or sag into Gwaine’s side, but his body made the choice for him. How often had Merlin curled up into Gwaine’s chest? Drew comfort from the feel of his arms around him? Merlin couldn’t help it; he turned, burying his face into Gwaine’s chest, and clutched at the fabric over Gwaine’s back.
“Merlin?” Gwaine said, sounding very much out of his depth.
“Shut up,” he said around a mouthful of leather jacket.
Gwaine complied, slowly lowering his arms to encircle Merlin. Merlin melted into the hug, burrowing further into Gwaine’s chest. It was only once Merlin started following a familiar pattern, a nuzzle along Gwaine’s sternum, moving up to Gwaine’s Adam’s apple to lick it, did Merlin remember he shouldn’t.
They were in public.
And this was not a lifetime to claim Gwaine.
Though, he couldn’t help but smirk when he noticed how wide blown Gwaine’s eyes were from Merlin’s nose running along the knight’s neck.
“Sorry.” Merlin pulled away, averting his gaze. “I know you have a thing for Perce.”
Gwaine didn’t let Merlin completely go, his arms loose around Merlin’s back. “I have a thing for Perce?”
Merlin blushed. “Well, over the years, everyone’s Soul interacted. Your and Percival’s usually shacked up.”
“Did you not, in Camelot?”
Gwaine shook his head. “We got to be good mates, but I never wanted to do this to him.” His hand moved from Merlin’s shoulder to the base of his neck.
“Do what?” Merlin whispered, but even as he said it Gwaine fingers traced a circle roughly in the area where Lance had left a spectacular hickey.
“You can,” Merlin said, scooting closer.
Gwaine stopped his finger tracing. “But you and Lance.”
Merlin shook his head. “It’s nothing serious,” he lied. Because while Merlin was head over heels in love with Lance, with Gwaine and Arthur and Leon and them all, he knew the knights would never feel the same. It had never come up in Camelot, they didn’t have the memories and knowledge of lifetimes.
It would always be horribly unbalanced, but Merlin didn’t mind. He’d take what he could get, when he could. Lance wouldn’t mind. And if Gwaine hopefully won’t mind either.
“Let’s go back to the hotel, yeah?” Merlin said, mouth inches from Gwaine’s own.
I wonder if I should make my tumblr tags Ao3 tags too....
#I have no idea how this tangled mess of relationships will work#why did you have to be in love with ALL the knights Merlin?#Can't you pick one?#No?#God damit#here's hoping they're okay with open relationships then#cuz Lance and Gwaine might have to start a hickey war
Gwaine woke up sleepy. He stretched an arm out, seeking Merlin’s warm body, and hit air.
He woke up fully.
“Merlin?” he called, propping himself up in bed to look around the hotel room. The other bed was empty, save for a spread of toiletries, clothes, and papers. The bathroom door stood open and empty. Merlin’s shoes were gone, but his duffle still sat on top of the dresser next to the TV.
Fuck. Gwaine had moved too fast, never mind that Merlin had moved first. They’d jumped into, Gwaine jumped into it, this tangled mess of something between Merlin and Lance, from both before and now. With the sunrise, maybe Merlin thought Lance would mind. Or Merlin felt guilty. Or any number of things.
Did Gwaine feel guilty?
He mulled over his thoughts. Not as much as he should have, he decided, having slept with a man who was not only a friend but also sharing a bed with a mutual friend. He’d taken Merlin’s word for it that Lance wouldn’t mind. If they had been in Glastonbury, Gwaine would have checked for himself.
He would check for himself, when they got back, before another round. Because Gwaine really wanted another around.
In Camelot, he’d prided himself on not only wooing a maid to hitch up her skirt but in ruining them for other men. He liked giving pleasure as much as taking it, bringing his bedmates to world-shifting completions they’d never get with someone else. It made the women love and hate him, eager for his touch again and upset their husbands or other clients couldn’t perform as well. And hell, twice he’d had men admit to trying something with another knight only walk away disappointed.
I’m made of sex magic, he used to joke, by which he meant he simply had a lot of experience and knew how to read a person. Knowing if a smile would lead to a free drink or a punch was an essential skill, and he used the same observation skills to find a partner’s pleasure points.
But Merlin, last night.
Merlin was quite literally sex magic. He had to be, to have navigated Gwaine’s body so well their first time together. Never mind the quick flash of his eyes that made their clothes disappear, Merlin had done so much more with his hands, lips, and tongue.
Ug, just thinking about it had Gwaine hard and desperate for another round.
Except, he reminded himself, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes, Merlin had left.
Limp between the legs, Gwaine shuffled into the shower.
When he came out, towel drying his hair, it was to find Merlin placing two full plates of breakfast on the room’s small table. He looked happy, not at all regretting what they had done the night before. Or at least, he hadn’t done anything to cover the hickey Gwaine had left.
Gwaine had, as planned, renewed and expanded the one Lance had caused, the top third very visible over the collar of Merlin’s shirt. And then, because he wanted his own marks, had nipped every single one of Merlin’s vertebra. Gwaine hadn’t been able to leave a trail of hickeys along Merlin’s spine. Instead, he left red bite marks.
He didn’t remember doing it, but the back of Merlin’s neck had small scabs. Gwaine had drawn blood.
A desperate need to touch Merlin rose. To trace proof of what they had done, to do it again, to simply shower Merlin with a level of affection he’d never bestowed on the other man.
Gwaine reached out a hand but pulled it back as Merlin turned to send him a beaming smile. Merlin had left, Gwaine wasn’t sure where his mate’s head was at.
“I’m surprised you’re up,” Merlin grabbed Gwaine’s wrist, lifted his hand, and placed a paper cup of tomato juice in Gwaine’s grasp. “You usually sleep in pretty late.”
“I work till three or four in the morning. Why are you up so early?”
Merlin shrugged, taking a piece of jammed toast from one of the plates and sticking it in Gwaine’s other hand. “Magic thing. I always rise at dawn.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Well, now you do.”
Juice in one hand, toast in the other, Gwaine was struck with a sudden sense of domesticity. He rarely saw Merlin in the mornings. Especially right after Gwaine woke up. Merlin didn’t live in the house; he wouldn’t be there. Wouldn’t know what time Gwaine usually woke up. Wouldn’t know Gwaine’s favorite jam or that he liked tomato juice on lazy mornings because neither item had existed in Camelot.
Lance could have told, but there was no reason for it.
Besides, the way Merlin had simply handed them over, no doubt at all that Gwaine would like them, spoke of an ingrained familiarity.
He stared at Merlin on the other side of the table, making himself a sandwich with a bagel and eggs. Stirring honey into tea. Chatting about what he’d already done that morning – went for a walk near the water, business stuff, texted Lance, read the news, had an earlier breakfast.
And parts of that, strangely, were familiar too. How Merlin left whatever he stirred with in the coffee cup. How Merlin reading the early morning news was expected.
Gwaine wanted to hold Merlin’s hand and sip his juice with the other. He would have done it if the fact that his comfortableness with such a new action didn’t seem wrong when it should have.
Merlin sensed something off.
“Gwaine? Is everything okay?”
Merlin curled. “You don’t-“
“Let me finish! Last night was amazing. We’re doing it again. But I want to confirm for real, yeah, Lance won’t have a problem? What are we doing? An open relationship, between the three of us?”
“Did you want to have sex with Lance?”
“If he offers, I won’t say no. He’s a good-looking bloke. But I’m not gonna ask him to hop into mine. But if you ask him, either just with you, or with both of us,” Gwaine shrugged. “I don’t mind. I can share you.”
Because, Gwaine knew, Merlin needed both of them in their own ways. And Gwaine had never meant to replace Lance, just sample what he’d had, currently had, with Merlin. Merlin could go to loyal Lancelot with his secrets, get support and aid and understanding. Gwaine would give Merlin strength a different way, telling him he was cared for and valued, that magic didn’t matter, and Merlin was the most amazing man alive.
To make up for lost time, of course. To make amends for Camelot, and Arthur, and Leon, and Elyan. To, simply, enjoy Merlin.
“You really don’t mind?” Merlin asked.
Comfortably, familiarly, as if he’d done it every morning, Gwaine pulled Merlin in for a kiss on his forehead. “Anything for you.”
He let Merlin go and the other man leaned back in his chair to gift Gwaine with a small smile. Happy, yet sad for some reason Gwaine couldn’t figure out.
“Thank you, Gwaine. Now, eat. I want to be at the apartment before eleven, if possible.”
Merlin had wanted to visit the apartment earlier, cast a spell on the damage to learn more about its magical origins at a time where few would notice. Merlin didn’t worry about hiding his magic, it wouldn’t get him killed anymore, not that he was capable of dying. Still, he didn’t want to advertise it.
In most places, people would brush off the sight. Here? He might draw some sort of attention.
It had been startling, to wake up and see the man beside him. Gwaine slept the same way, every time. On his back, hands folded on his stomach. It’d been practical when in Camelot, sleeping against a tree and not wanting your hands trapped by your own body in case you needed to pull a sword free to defend against a sudden nighttime bandit attack. It had been creepy as a WWII soldier, sleeping like the dead.
Merlin lost himself in the past until his phone lit up with an e-mail alert. Cell phones. Modern times. That was actually Gwaine next to him, not Adam or Jeffery or Leslie or Girma.
Getting his memories mixed up. Thinking he was in the past. Gods, Merlin really was old.
Anita was busy today, showing those with leases at the burned property Merlin’s other offerings in town. Four of the six apartments were full, he had no doubts about Anita filling the other two. Especially with the discount he told her to offer the now apartmentless students.
Merlin also hadn’t scheduled a builder to stop by the burned complex until early afternoon. It meant, once they arrived a half hour later than Merlin had wanted, they were the only ones there and had a few hours to do things.
“So, what are we looking for?” Gwaine asked as they climbed the stairs to the roof.
“You’re not looking for anything unless you’ve become an expert in magical damage in the past year?” Merlin looked over his shoulder at Gwaine and lifted an eyebrow.
It had taken time, but he’d eventually learned how to do it the same way as Gaius. Just, not as intimidating. Merlin blamed it on the fact his eyebrows were thinner than Gaius’s had been.
“Fine, what are you looking for?”
“I’m pretty sure this is magical, so I’ll do a few spells to see what type of magic caused it.”
Whether it was an accident or malicious, for example. Kids having fun, trying to meet a dare, only for the spell to go awry. Or some generational druid scoffing at the legends and stories trying to prove he’s the bigger man.
Druid college kids were the worst.
And yet, the best too, sometimes. Merlin had wonderful conversations with a few. And knowing that, in some capacity, believers and sorcerers were still out there in the world, had soothed Merlin’s loneliness.
When he didn’t claim the Soul of a friend, he’d sometimes lived with a druid woman. He never kept close track on his decedents and stopped trying about the 1800s, but every so often, when a druid stronger than usual showed up, Merlin tried to match parts of their faces with his own.
This wouldn’t be the first time a druid, hearing rumor of Emrys’s blood in their veins, tried to get Merlin’s attention.
Merlin pushed past the tape blocking off the door to the roof, Gwaine at his heels.
“So how does this work?”
“How does what work?” Merlin asked, pushing his way outside. Ahh, the grey skies of Scotland.
“A big spell like this? I’ve only seen you do little things, you know. Vanish clothes, float stuff to you. You never do anything flashy. Will this be flashy?”
Gwaine sounded so hopeful, Merlin had to laugh. “Magic isn’t illegal now Gwaine because most people don’t believe it exists. I can’t go around doing flashy things.”
Even though Gwaine was behind him, Merlin could feel the pout directed at Merlin’s back.
Merlin sighed. “Fine. Depending on how long this takes, and since the place is already burnt, maybe I’ll conjure a fireball and toss it at something.”
Smiling, Merlin bent down to peer at the edge of the hole. It looked glassy, but more telling was the even border. This hadn’t been a fire that flared out of control, this had been a deliberate arson attack on the building.
“Áfind bealucræft,” Merlin whispered. Faint traces of magic lifted up to him, and his experience and knowledge allowed him to pick things apart. It had been a fire spell, a large, concentrated one, similar to the small fireballs he knew Morgause and Nimueh had used to toss. Just bigger. Because this damage had been done by a single summoning of fire.
As for the magical signature of who had done it…that was harder to pick out. Similar spells left similar traces, based on how the spell shaped energy, and often times a trace of the sorcerer or sorceress could be sensed too. More so if the caster fueled the spell, instead of pulling in energy from the earth.
But not everyone could pull from the earth. Those who did were well trained, knowing and needing to do complex spellwork they couldn’t fuel on their own, or casters past their natural limit but in dire need to pull energy from somewhere. Like an adrenaline burst in a do-or-die situation.
This spell would not have been a do-or-die situation. It had been planned, plain and simple. Add that with the faint trace of an individual and the stronger sense of the earth, Merlin knew the perpetrator had to be someone with training.
Power level was harder to sense. Identify too, unless Merlin was familiar with someone.
“Merlin?” Gwaine asked.
Merlin looked up at the knight standing on near the rooftop door. Without realizing it, Merlin had circled the hole while he pondered and tested the traces left behind.
“You…get anything useful out of that spell?”
With a sigh, Merlin straightened from his hunch. “A druid, and one who has clung to the old ways a lot. And knowing my luck, a decedent.”
Gwaine choked. “You have kids? Why didn’t you tell any of us?”
Merlin shrugged. “I’ve been alive for a while. I’m bound to have produced kids, Gwaine. Not lately, I try to only have kids when I settled down with someone so I could take care of them, but once they grew up I never kept up with the families. I tended to 'die',” Merlin made quotes in the air with his fingers, “around the time of my wives. Though, if it is a decedent they're a grandkid at least. I think. Maybe great-grandkid.”
“The way I round, I’m two thousand years old. You didn’t expect me to be alone the whole time, did you?”
“No,” Gwaine said slowly, “No, I didn’t.” He cleared his throat. “So, your kid. Are they just being a kid or…?”
“Let’s find out. There’s an extra spell here. Áwecce.”
From below, in the third-floor apartment, something glowed gold.
“Down we go.” Merlin gestured towards the door behind Gwaine.
The knight led the way, quizzing Merlin on who all he’d been with, but Merlin simply smiled. The women had never mattered too much. He’d loved them, but they’d mainly been a way to not be alone when he hadn’t found the Soul of a friend. And the children he’d had with Gwen the two times he’d claimed her, well, those families didn’t last long.
The first life, Gwen had suffered first a miscarriage and then the second birth had been rough. The child had lived five blessed years, but the birth had left Gwen infertile.
The second life, he and Gwen had had three beautiful children in Greece. The eldest son had grown up to be a calibrate orthodox priest, their daughter had married a farmer and had five children though none lived long enough to give Merlin great-grandchildren, and the youngest son had been lost on a fishing voyage at age twenty-two. Merlin had seen his children grow up, and for two, grow old. That had been enough.
But none of it – all his past relationships, be they with druid women or the Souls of his friends or others – were Gwaine’s business.
They walked into the ruined apartment, following the golden glow. There, in shimmering letters on the ceiling in a corner, were the words Hello again, Emrys.
Hello again, Emrys.
The words echoed in Gwaine’s head, getting louder and louder even as Merlin got quieter and quieter as the day progressed. Gwaine remembered the look from Camelot, Merlin in corners or against the wall thinking hard enough someone would have to shake him to get his attention. Then, Merlin never explained what dark thought had trapped him. Gwaine doubted now would be different.
So, while a construction and interior design crew came over and a halfway-present Merlin made decisions on how the new units should look, Gwaine called Lancelot.
“Gwaine! How’s Scotland?”
“Grey and chilly.”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” Gwaine had several Merlin topics he wanted to broach, but knew now was not the time for all of it.
“Is this about that apartment complex?”
“Sorta.” Gwaine looked over at Merlin and the small huddle of people looking at photos, before stepping further away. Still keeping Merlin insight though. “I know Merlin goes to you first, with things that crop up. But you’re not here and I want to help him. I’ve never seen someone pull him out of his own head as quick as you.”
Gwaine could feel Lance’s frown through the phone.
“Maybe start from the beginning,” Lance suggested.
So Gwaine summed things up – how destroyed the apartments were, how it had been a malicious magic attack by someone with extensive magical knowledge (power unknown), the chance it was one of Merlin’s offspring many times removed (Lance choked at that revelation), and the message left behind.
“And now he’s got this brooding face on,” Gwaine wrapped up. “He used to look like that a lot after you had…had died, and every time I brought him out of it he’d smile but I’m sure they were mostly fake. He responded best to you, back then. What did you do?”
“Just be me?” Lance suggested, not sure himself. “I’d call his name, gently, place my hand on him somewhere. It works now too when he’s lost in time.”
“Lost in time?”
“You never noticed? Sometimes he forgets the year. Forgets who we are. I think,” Lancelot said slowly, picking his words carefully to the point Gwaine knew Lance skirted a secret, “that when we had been reincarnated over the years we still looked the same. Merlin would insert himself into our lives.”
Gwaine’s mind flashed back to last night. Breakfast this morning. The odd way new things felt familiar. How well Merlin knew his body.
“Yeah,” Gwaine said, mouth dry, “That. So, just move slowly and gentle? You sound like he’s a skittish horse.”
“He was, most of Camelot. Anticipating danger from everywhere, always on hyper alert. A good start will break him from his thoughts, but it’ll bring a bit of panic with it.”
Gwaine nodded, but because Lance couldn’t see that Gwaine said, “I’ll do that.”
“Has he,” Lance made a frustrated sound, “has he said anything about who might have left the message?”
“No, and that’s another thing I wanted to ask you about. You and he had your own set of adventures, a different awareness of history than the rest of us. I hoped you’d have a clue.”
“You didn’t give me a lot to go on – likes fire and knows Merlin as Emrys. Depending on what he’s told the…women…he’s been with not many people know that.”
“No ideas at all?” Gwaine pressed.
“It’s probably someone from Camelot or a druid. Merlin’s probably mulling the same question.”
“Yeah. It’s just, I don’t like this, Lance.”
“Why?” Lancelot asked.
“This is someone getting Merlin’s attention. They’re confident, powerful, and have some awareness of his modern life and Camelot. And due to this, they don’t like him.”
“You think someone’s after Merlin.”
Gwaine huffed out a breath. Because now that Lance had said it-
“Yes, that’s exactly what I think.”
There was silence on the other line for a moment. The Lance spoke again, “Should we go to Inverness?”
“No. If we stick to the schedule, Merlin should be done with what he needs to be by tomorrow afternoon and we’ll take an evening flight back. And in the meantime, I’ll keep a close eye on Merlin.”
“More than a close eye,” Lance said. “Don’t let him out of your sight at all. He has a tendency to do things by himself in secret, which isn’t good for him. Don’t let him sneak away from you because he might try it.”
Looking up, Gwaine saw Merlin approaching. His furrowed brow spoke of a headache, and all Gwaine wanted to do was smooth it away with kisses.
“I’ll keep him close,” Gwaine promised Lancelot, hoping the hoarseness of his voice didn’t carry through the line.
“Call me with updates,” Lance said.
Gwaine hung up and gave his attention to Merlin. “All set?”
“For the most part,” Merlin look towards the small group of people still talking. “Figured out the style of apartments, budget for the refurbishing, when the crew can start working. They’ll send layout options to me and Anita once all this is cleared away and they have a better understanding of what they can do. Give it eighteen months, and this should be ready to rent again.”
They stood there silently, Merlin looking at nothing while Gwaine watched the wrinkles on his face deepen.
“Merlin?” Gwaine asked, taking Merlin’s hand in his.
A few moments later, Merlin’s fingers tightened around Gwaine’s and he gave the knight a smile. “I’m fine, just planning. I have to meet with Anita tomorrow, tell the police I’m not pressing charges, get the paperwork from the fire department I need for the insurance, and then we can fly out. I’ll book a plane tonight.”
“Back to Glastonbury?”
Merlin shook his head. “I need more information. We’ll go to Wales to see a friend. I told you about Aithusa, yeah? You can call her the one child I’ve kept in contact with this entire time.”
“Do you mean the dragon you hatched?”
“Yes. She’s old now, refuses to leave her home, so we’ll have to visit her. And hopefully, she’ll have an understanding of what’s going on.”
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
Gwaine gets to meet the dragon-daughter. Also, magic cauldron!
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
They flew into Manchester, and then Merlin rented a car to take them the rest of the way. An hour and a half drive through first city and then isolated countryside scenery, they finally crossed into the Snowdonia National Park and followed signs for Llyn Tegid.
“It’s pretty isolated out here,” Gwaine said as Merlin drove down the narrow road. “No taverns.”
“We’re camping,” Merlin said, eyes searching for something off of the road.
“Camping,” Gwaine said. He hoped his tone would convey his skeptical nature because they still only had their duffle bags. No tents, no bedrolls, no cookware. Though they had bought food in Bala.
“Camping,” Merlin confirmed, still distracted.
Gwaine left him to his thoughts and decided to not mention the sign for a campground they just passed.
The day had been frantic, Merlin’s morning packed with meetings with Anita and local companies and insurance agents. Even with his dawn-rising habit, Gwaine didn’t think Merlin ate breakfast. The only thing he knew for certain Merlin ate was the snacks on the plane and a smoothie Gwaine stuffed into his hands at the airport before they left.
Gwaine had done his best to stay out of the way. Like Lance had advised, he stayed visible and helped in the simple ways, drew Merlin away from his thoughts to the present. But since the flight, it had been harder to pull Merlin from his head. Gwaine stuck to him like glue, recognizing the brooding look from Camelot and reliving the ache of not being able to help Merlin. At least now, he could make sure Merlin ate and didn’t go running off into danger by himself.
Merlin pulled the car off the road and pulled out the keys. When he pushed the button to unclick the belt, Gwaine stopped him with a hand on his. Merlin jumped, eyes darting up to look at Gwaine as if he’d forgotten for a moment the other man was there.
“Talk to me,” Gwaine said. “You’ve been thinking and planning and I know nothing. At least tell me what to expect about your kid and where we’re sleeping. We have no tents.”
“I’m a warlock,” Merlin rolled his eyes. “I can summon things.”
Gwaine let go of Merlin’s hand, despite his desire to link fingers. “That includes a tent?”
“Yes, Gwaine.” Merlin shook his head, a fond look on his face. “I’ll show you lots more magic tonight. Practical magic.” Merlin said, shooting down Gwaine’s lecherous look.
Gwaine pouted but got out of the car. He gathered the food they’d picked up in Bala and Merlin cast a spell on the car to make it invisible. Taking half the bags, Merlin then started leading the way into the woods.
“So, your kid?” Gwaine asked, following Merlin. From behind, Gwaine could still see the hickey on the back of the other man’s neck.
“Actually, I think it’s gotta be at least a great-grandchild, and most likely –“
“I meant the dragon, Merlin. Not whoever destroyed your building.”
Merlin paused to blink over his shoulder at Gwaine. “Right.”
“But if you have a lead on someone who has it out for you-“
“Just circling thoughts. Nothing concrete.” Merlin sighed, shoulders slumping. “Hopefully, Aithusa will have an idea.”
“Aithusa’s your dragon-daughter.”
Merlin laughed, the first Gwaine had heard since yesterday afternoon. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
“How’d you hatch her in Camelot?”
“Hatching dragons is easy, you just give them a name in the dragon tongue and they punch out of the shell. I took an egg to the field, gave her a name, and there she was.”
“And raising her?”
Merlin shook his head. “You don’t raise dragons. They’re smart and independent from the beginning. Well, maybe not smart. But they can handle themselves. She struck out on her own quickly.”
Sad. Gwaine had thousands of images of Merlin trying to hide a white dragon from the knights, having his fingers bitten, putting out his pillow. A dragon in Camelot would have been great fun, even if Gwaine hadn’t been involved in it.
“Are dragon-daughters as difficult as human-daughters?”
“Hard to tell,” Merlin answered. “Human-daughters require more parenting, but they also stay in touch. Dragon-daughters like to prove they’re better than you anytime they can, but annoy you less.”
“You’ve had both.”
“Well, yes. I said that.”
“Yeah, guess you did.”
Merlin had had families. Wives and lovers, kids and grandkids. He threw boys into the air, cuddled with a girlfriend, danced with a seven-year-old, and nursed someone with soup and kisses. Gwaine had never seen Merlin make eyes at anyone in Camelot, and thus had no reason to imagine him as a family man. But now that the images were in his head…
Gwaine wanted to actually see such scenes. A domestic Merlin. A family Merlin. Preferable, a domestic, family Merlin with him.
Gods, was he imaging a settled life with Merlin?
He really needed to talk to Lance. Because if Gwaine and Merlin had a little friends-with-benefits thing going on, that was fine, but Gwaine had a strong suspicion he was actually falling for Merlin.
What a mess.
A mess for later.
“So Aithusa,” Gwaine began, “lives in the woods here?”
“Lake, actually,” Merlin said, pausing a moment to scan ahead before continuing the trek through the woods. “There’s an old magic ruin under the water she said she likes the feel of.”
“Not that big of a deal, there’s a lot of them in Britain.”
“Uther might have banned magic, but it had been around for centuries before that and Gwen brought it back. In fact, it’s still here, mainly in Wales and Ireland. Druid sites are still worshiped at, areas of magical importance still attract visitors. And like any culture, we have our historic sites too.”
“We should go on a tour. You, me, and Lance.”
Merlin smiled at Gwaine over his shoulder. “That sounds nice actually.”
They broke through the woods a little while later to find themselves at the shore of the lake. It looked pretty big to Gwaine, but he wasn’t sure if it was dragon big.
“Is this really big enough for a dragon?” he asked.
“Well, Aithusa hunts in the water and the surrounding forest. Plus, the lake has a false bottom.” Merlin shrugged.
Intrigued, Gwaine set his bags of groceries on a nearby boulder and peered into the water. Murky, he couldn’t see four inches down. Probably intentional, that, if this was a magic lake.
“How big’s the false bottom?”
“You know, I’m not sure.” Merlin looked towards the lake, his eyes flashing gold. “You might have heard of Taliesin?”
Gwaine wiggled his hand in the air. The name rang a bell, but that’s it.
“Powerful warlock before my time, whose lingering spirit helped me a bit in Camelot. Anyway, his mom used to live here. Ceridwen. She had the power over rebirth and inspiration and owned a black cauldron whose potion granted wisdom and foresight. Or bardic skill. And if you took the wrong amount, it killed you. It was fickle.
“Anyway,” Merlin went on, “it gathered a lot of attention because of the wisdom it could give. Three drops of a potion, and you could know all the knowledge of a High Priest or Priestess. After one too many attempts to steal it, Taliesin and Ceridwen hid it in the city, warded it, and drowned the valley. And voilà, Llyn Tegid. The water can’t get into the city, but apparently dragons can so Aithusa likes to curl up in the castle’s empty great hall. There’s air and such down there.”
“A cauldron that grants wisdom?” Gwaine mussed. “We should get it for Arthur, he’s a bit thick.”
Merlin laughed. “Yeah, but magic’s not the answer to that problem.”
“Have you been down there?”
Merlin looked out towards the lake. “No. I have no desire to see the ruin of a magic kingdom or gain more knowledge. I know and have seen too much already.”
Gwaine took a good look at Merlin gazing into the distance. He looked as young as ever, appearance-wise, but something about his stance and the distance in his eyes made him old and fragile and sad. What had he said, he was two thousand years old?
No one had seen all that he had. No one could relate to the world like him.
Gwaine was struck with the idea that Merlin had probably been nothing but lonely, his random children simply a byproduct of trying to make that feeling disappear.
He walked the two steps to Merlin’s side and pulled him into a hug, pressing a kiss to Merlin’s temple. Gwaine felt sad and guilty and angry, all towards himself.
“You’re wise in your old age,” Gwaine said, teasing.
“Still got more endurance than you.” Merlin waggled an eyebrow and Gwaine shoved him away.
“Magic gives you an unfair advantage,” Gwaine sniffed.
Merlin laughed. “History and my knowledge of you gives me that.”
Right. What had Lance hinted at? Merlin having relationships with their previously reincarnated selves. Did that count as history and knowledge? How much of past relationships actually carried over?
Depending on Merlin’s memory, all of it probably did.
“I just have to learn you fast then,” Gwaine said.
“We can go now. Aithusa won’t surface till night.”
“On a bed of roots and rocks?”
Merlin waved a hand and said a spell. A domed tent appeared and through the open flap Gwaine could see pillows and furs and blankets.
It was a very tempting sight and Gwaine was thrilled Merlin wanted another go. But he held himself back. Talk with Lance first.
Well, he’d allow himself kisses at least.
Merlin had felt Aithusa's sleeping presence the moment they pulled into the park but resigned not to wake her until after dinner. A brief magical nudge, just enough to say hi and that he wanted to talk. She sent up a grumble at being disturbed that quickly turned into an eagerness to see him.
Once midnight came and went, the last light at the campground along the lake's shore put out, Merlin shook Gwaine awake from his nap. "Come meet the family."
Gwaine scrambled to his feet, following Merlin to the shore's edge. A slow, dark shape approached them from the middle of the lake. Aithusa emerged quickly, walking along the bottom of the lake as she approached. Water rushed off her head and back and she spread her white wings wide. They were mostly healed, but Merlin had never been able to get the kinks out of her joints. Nor had Aithusa ever grew to her full size, too stunted from her early years in the dark. She lacked Kilgharrah's height or width, but she was easily capable of taking out small towns.
Merlin turned to Gwaine to make proper introductions and found the knight gaping. Laughing, Merlin shook his head and made his way into the water to greet his daughter.
"Aithusa! How are you?" Calf deep in the water, Merlin reached up to pat Aithusa's shoulder. She lowered her head to nudge Merlin's upper back, hard enough Merlin went down with a splash. Laughing, he called up a wave of water and pushed it in her face.
Aithusa snorted, shaking her head and knocked Merlin down again with her wing. After he'd just stood up too.
"You should be nice to your father. I'm old."
Merlin laughed, "That you are." He turned toward shore. "Gwaine, I -"
He cut himself off, taking in how Gwaine looked at him. Awe and wonder, and a look he knew from all the times he'd claimed Gwaine's Soul for a life. Love.
Despite all the times he’d been loved by Gwaine and the others, through the centuries, he had never expected anyone with memories of Camelot to look at him that way. He’d done too much back then. Never mind the killings or death he’d been indirectly responsible for. Merlin had lied, for years, to all of them. Kept up the illusion of a bumbling servant needing protection.
He’d never been desirable in Camelot, aside from Freya. Sure, he and Lancelot had helped each other out, but Lance had never found their nights to be part of something deeper.
To see that more wholesome sort of want, the unfathomable look of love on Gwaine’s face…
Merlin couldn’t help it. He started crying.
Instantly, Aithusa and Gwaine were alarmed.
“Merlin!” Gwaine strode forward, shocked.
Father? Aithusa sent, uncertain and concerned, as she licked the side of Merlin’s face.
“I’m fine,” Merlin muttered, pushing the dragon’s snot away. I’m not used to being desired by someone familiar with my ghosts.
Gwaine splashed up. “Merlin, what’s wrong?”
Merlin leaned in to kiss him. “Nothing’s wrong,” he whispered against Gwaine’s lips. “Don’t worry about.”
Gwaine’s frown told Merlin the knight didn’t believe him.
Have you not been in love with him before? And him with you? Aithusa sent.
Yes. But it’s different when you start from scratch, when they don’t know about the magic, and when they know it all.
No doubt, a large part of his tears had come from the group’s reactions to magic. Arthur’s distaste and crushed hope that what he remembered from his dying days wasn’t a hallucination, Leon’s cautiousness and Elyan’s avoidance. Merlin had been happy for the acceptance he got from Lance, Perce, and Gwaine. To get more than that Merlin had never dreamed of.
You always think you deserve less than you do, Aithusa chastised.
Isn’t it my job to give advice and poignant observations?
I think we’re both old enough to do it for each other, Fa~ther.
Merlin rolled his eyes at his daughter and dried his face with the back of his palm. “Sorry, sorry.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Gwaine asked.
Merlin pushed the other man away with a short laugh. “Yes, Gwaine. I’m absolutely fine.” To prove it, he gave the knight a second kiss. They only broke apart when Aithusa had enough and splashed them with her wing.
Already wet, Merlin simply glared at her behind wet bangs. Gwaine sputtered and shook his head like a dog.
Aithusa looked smug. “I presume you came for a reason, father.”
Gwaine choked, but Merlin ignored him to look up at Aithusa. She must have picked up his somber mood, for she lost her playful smirk and settled down on the ground.
“One of the properties up north was ruined. Destroyed by someone with advanced training. They drew power almost completely from the Earth and left no magic trace. They… left a message.”
“Hello again, Emrys,” Gwaine said.
Merlin looked over at him. Gwaine stood with his arms crossed, defensive. On behalf of Merlin. He couldn’t help but smile.
“Again?” Aithusa said.
Merlin nodded. “Have you heard, or felt anything, about someone else coming back? They obviously know me, whoever they are.”
“And they’re not friendly,” Gwaine growled.
He’s a good one, Aithusa sent to Merlin.
He scowled at the dragon. Shut-up, busy-body.
“I figure,” Merlin continued aloud, “that they have more planned. So if you’ve heard of anything?”
Aithusa snuffed and cocked her large head, contemplative. “Maybe. I’ve been meaning to tell you, someone disturbed the city.”
“How long ago?” Merlin asked, though he didn’t expect Aithusa to accurately know. Her circadian rhythm didn’t match the sun and moon, sleeping for days, and she never got a good grasp on human timekeeping.
Not that Merlin blamed her – calendars had shifted and after the bit of time he spent as a tree he’d run into the same problem.
“Not long,” Aithusa admitted, “this season.”
“No more than three months ago,” Merlin translated for Gwaine.
The knight huffed. “You couldn’t have told us the moment you knew.”
Aithusa flared out a wing and cuffed Gwaine. “Druids always seek the city or me. While it’s rare for one to get in through the wards.”
Merlin pursed his lips. The city in the water lay under a strong protection, but over the centuries Merlin knew it weakened. Not near enough to fall and flood the city, but enough where someone could slip through the barrier with the right spell and patience.
“Do you know if they took anything?” Merlin asked, looking up at the white dragon.
Aithusa shook her head. “Nothing was missing that I could tell. Maybe a few gold coins. The cauldron sits here still, and to my eyes didn’t look lower.”
Which, Merlin admitted, meant nothing. Three drops – that’s all the legends said were needed for a lifetime of wisdom. It would give anyone who slipped in through the barrier the knowledge of a High Priest or Priestess at the height of the Old Religion.
But they had to have a good amount of power, anyway, to get in. Was this someone greedy? Searching out the past?
Hello again, Emrys.
“Aithusa,” Merlin said slowly, staring out towards the submerged city, “Do you know if Ceridwen’s cauldron could restore memories?”
Gwaine perked up in the edge of Merlin’s sight, but he ignored that.
“I’ve never heard,” Aithusa admitted, “but the stories were old before I was born. You know this. Parts could be lost.”
“What are you thinking, Merlin?” Gwaine asked.
“I knew,” Merin said, turning towards Gwaine, “the moment all of you were resurrected and walked out of the Lake. But I never knew when you were reincarnated. I stumbled upon you mostly by accident every time.
“What if,” Merlin licked his lips, “what if I missed others being reincarnated? And with the cauldron, their past memories came back?”
Merlin shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know why you guys kept being reincarnated in the first place, maybe because you were coming back now? But no one else has.”
“Some Souls,” Aithusa said, “are touched by destiny and will always be a part of the world. Not in the same way, they get their peace and rest as well as pain and struggle. But those connected to Albion’s history will always have a bond with the land, walking it again and again.”
Merlin mulled that over in his mind. It fit.
What it didn’t do was provide a guess at who was trying to get his attention. But if it was someone who had been pivotal in Albion's history, and magical, well, they had to have been an old opponent.
Someone with power, and a grudge, and while he knew that before now names started creeping into his thoughts.
Nimueh. Morgause. Morgana. The Dochraid. Mordred.
Several more, he was sure, would have a similar mindset – property damage and passive-aggressive threats – but few had learned he was Emrys. And after that had been revealed post-Cammlan, none who had issues with him were important enough to be reincarnated. In Merlin’s opinion.
Would Freya know? Merlin asked Aithusa. If someone was reincarnated? Got old memories?
Yes. She stands between the Albion and Avalon. All that pass she knows.
“Go see the Lady,” Athiusa said out loud. “She is near your home and knows about what passes through the veils.”
“The Lady?” Gwaine asked and Merlin couldn’t help but flinch.
“More of a hag then?” Gwaine asked.
“Opposite, actually.” Merlin didn’t offer anymore. This idea of Gwaine loving him, him him, was still so new and exciting and Merlin wanted to explore it. Take advantage of it.
Exes could come into play later.
Exes. Trees, Billie. She had wanted an August wedding.
Merlin pushed both Billie and Freya out of his mind. He’d had lots of exes over the years, something Gwaine already knew. But these two were still around. Heck, Lance worked for Billie.
He’d chosen Arthur over Billie, roughly a year ago. And now? Now, well, he’d probably make the choice to break off their engagement still. But for a different man now.
With a sigh, Merlin leaned into Gwaine’s side. The other man caught him, wrapping an arm around his waist. In Merlin’s head, Aithusa made kissing noises.
He retaliated by sucking one of her hind legs into a sudden mud pit.
Aithusa’s squawk and splash started a second small water fight, which Merlin let his daughter and new lover win.
Tomorrow, they’d go back to Glastonbury. But tonight he’d revel in the feeling of family and how much better this one felt than the dozens he’d had over the years.
To learn more about the lake, cauldron, and Ceridwen, may I suggest this?
Lance knocked on Billie’s door late in the afternoon.
“Hmm?” she said, not looking up from her desk.
“I need tomorrow off,” Lance announced.
At that, Billie’s head snapped up. Lance stepped into her office and shut the door behind him.
“Is this a knight thing?” she asked.
As Merlin’s ex-fiance, Merlin had told her the truth about who he was. And then broke off the wedding when the knights had walked out of the lake. Lance was glad Billie had told him because Merlin certainly wouldn’t have, but he hadn’t shared the secret with the rest of the knights.
Like magic had been, that secret was Merlin’s. And if Merlin didn’t want to tell, he didn’t have to.
It was nice though, to sometimes talk about Merlin to someone who also understood and loved him completely.
Billie and Lance were a right pair. At least Lance got to act on his feelings. Billie and Merlin rarely interacted now.
“It might be a knight thing,” Lance answered. “Someone set fire to one of Mer – Mark’s – properties up north. We thought it was simple, kids playing, but now we think it’s a warning of future attacks.”
“Against Albion?” Billie asked.
“Against Merlin,” Lance corrected.
Billie straightened her shoulders. “Does he need help?”
Lance shook his head. “I don’t think so, he’s very powerful, but his plane returns tomorrow and I’d rather get the story from him myself. Make sure he’s okay. If someone is after him, I need to see that he’s safe.”
Billie smiled at him, sad with an old flair of jealousy behind it. “You can have tomorrow off on the condition you update me on everything that happens. I need to know that he’s safe too.”
Lance held out his hand and they shook. “Of course I will.”
When Gwaine and Merlin walked out of the Glastonbury’s airport, Merlin with a duffle over his shoulder and Gwaine’s arm around Merlin’s waist, Lance had to struggle to keep his face straight.
Yes, Merlin and Lance had a relationship. Yes, they slept together regularly and went on dates and shared secrets and emotions that existed in the space between the two of them. But in Camelot, it had been a way for Merlin to connect with someone who knew him, and for Lance to support a friend and get his mind off Guinevere. It had been mutual help, nothing more.
But along the way, Lance had grown to love Merlin. More than Guinevere. But since he had never voiced that, never asked Merlin to step into a relationship, never asked for exclusivity, he had no right to react to Gwaine’s proprietary hold.
He probably did anyway though, because when Gwaine saw him he removed his hand from Merlin’s body.
Lance quickly took up the space, pulling Merlin into a tight hug. He wanted to kiss the daylight out of Merlin, strip him to check his skin, ask for all the details of Merlin’s thoughts.
But while Gwaine knew Merlin and Lance had a deep friendship, Lance didn’t think the other knight knew anything else. Besides, Lance and Merlin had never been public about their affair, either in Camelot or among the knights in this modern world.
Merlin hugged Lance back, not as tightly, but just as warmly.
“Hey,” he whispered into the side of Lance’s face.
“After Gwaine’s call, I was worried.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“This a difference between being able to take down a threat and taking care of yourself,” Lance answered.
Sighing, Merlin gave Lance a squeeze and then pulled back. Gwaine had already entered the car, sitting in the back seat.
Lance walked towards the driver’s seat, Merlin going around to sit in the passenger.
“We going to the house?” Gwaine asked as they all buckled their belts.
“No,” Lance answered. “Only one home is Perce and a sleeping Leon. We’ll go to Merlin’s. You can drop your stuff off then,” Lance nodded at Merlin, “And then sleep before you fill everyone in.”
“Sleep!” Merlin squawked.
“Yes. Sleep. You may be brimming with magic, but the shadows under your eyes tell me you had very little sleep.”
Sighing, Merlin slumped down in his seat like a sulky child. “We went to see Aithusa. It was a long drive there, then a night of conversation, and then a long drive to the airport.”
“And you didn’t let me drive any of it,” Gwaine tossed in.
“You barely passed your driver’s test and are horrible with braking. Of course not,” Merlin shot back.
Lance chuckled, reaching out a hand to pat Merlin’s thigh. “And now you’re snippy. Nap time.”
“I’m not a child, Lance. And I have things to do.”
Lance frowned at him. “I know you’re not a child. And I know you want to figure out all you can about this mess. But it’s nothing that can’t keep for a few hours and you’ll think better after you’ve rested.”
“You did direct us to the wrong gate twice,” Gwaine said from the back seat.
Merlin threw up his hands in defeat. “Okay, maybe I am a little tired. One hour nap. That’s it.”
Lance double patted Merlin’s thigh again and pulled back his hand. “Two hours, and a meal.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You’ve barely eaten the last two days,” Gwaine said.
“I’ll make eggs,” Lance said softly. “And put on the jazz station in your room.”
Merlin shot him a look that said he knew he was being manipulated but allowed it because Lance was a friend. “Fine.”
“How do you do that?” Gwaine asked as Lance softly closed the door to Merlin’s bedroom.
“Make him… give in like that. Get him to eat. Sleep. I had to thrust a smoothie in his hand to get him to have anything.”
Lance laughed softly. “Practice. He used to be the same running around in Camelot. Arthur gave him a lot of chores that started early or ran late. He often missed meals. Gaius and I used to tag team him, but I learned early on to make my requests small.”
“This was small?”
“I want him to get a full eight hours of sleep and eat a three-course meal.”
Gwaine hummed thoughtfully. “Small wins.”
Gwaine followed Lance into Merlin’s kitchen, where the other knight started tidying up the counters and digging around for tea supplies.
“Lance?” Gwaine asked.
“Yeah?” The other knight looked up, stilling his hands.
“Can we talk? About Merlin?”
Slowly, Lance turned. His face was blank and reminded Gwaine of how Lance had looked at the airport. Like then, it struck Gwaine because he’d never seen Lance look like that. Even when he mooned after Gwen, you could tell what he was feeling. This careful guard of emotions was new, and because of that a bit worrying and terrifying.
“What about Merlin?”
Gwaine looked towards the bedroom door. “He’ll sleep for a bit, yeah?”
“Let’s go take a walk. We can say we went to buy eggs.”
“Something you don’t want Merlin to accidentally overhear?” Lance asked.
“Something I just want to discuss with you first.”
Gwaine stuffed his fists in his coat pocket and kept going through conversation openers in his head. They all didn’t work, but he knew he’d have to pick one soon because Lance kept shooting him questioning looks.
He just opened his mouth and spit out the first thing that popped into mind. “I want to tag-team Merlin.”
Lance choked on air.
“I mean, you said you and Gaius used to do that, right? To make sure he took care of himself?”
"Yes," Lance admitted.
"I want to help take care of Merlin."
Lance couldn’t actually raise an eyebrow, but Gwaine could hear it in his voice. The disbelief. The knowing that there was more.
Gwaine sighed and tried to backtrack. "You know Merlin's Camelot Collection? Stories of Camelot that have been written of us through the ages?"
Lance nodded. "A lot of it is fiction. And I hope Arthur never reads it because all the tales say the same about myself and Gwen. It's all fake, but I -"
Gwaine snapped out a hand to catch Lance's elbow, bringing the pair of them to a stop on the sidewalk. "Not all of the tales are fake."
"I found one," Gwaine continued, "that doesn't match the stories of the others. With details that are true, but filled with tales I've never heard before."
Lance turned his gaze away.
"You know exactly what book I'm talking about," Gwaine whispered.
"I don't remember writing it," Lance admitted. "It's a different me, but not me. Merlin explained it a bit once."
"The others who look like us you mentioned on the phone."
Lance nodded. "Our souls were reborn, again and again, and Merlin spent time with them. One of my times, I wrote that book. But I don't remember that time. I don't remember writing the book."
Gwaine nodded. Aithusa had said something similar. Souls with connections to a land's history coming again and again. He'd known it before, of course. Suspected the same thing. But this wasn't what he wanted to talk about.
"You remember your actions back then though? Camelot?"
"Yes," Lance slowly said.
Gwaine kicked at the ground. "You were a better friend to him back then than I was. I read that book and realized it was full of what I wanted."
"Which is?" Lance asked, voice guarded.
Gwaine sighed before looking up. "Merlin's a good guy. The best I know. The most kind. The most selfish. The most... he's made me a better man. And so he deserved better from me than what he got. You were an amazing friend, supporting him, making him not feel alone. I want to do the same, give him strength. Hold up him. You're, you're better than it than me. So," Gwaine shrugged, "I figure we could tag team him. Get him to sleep, get him to not bottle things up."
"That's very noble of you."
Gwaine let off a bark of laughter. "I'm far from noble. But Merlin needed you, back then. We all realized how moody he got, how he felt removed from the rest of us after you left. You were so much better than us and now I want to make amends. Among other things."
"Other things?" Lance asked.
Gwaine winced. He still wasn't sure how to bring up this part of the conversation. The heart of the issue. And because he knew, he'd follow Lance's wishes whatever they would be.
"You didn't just have a close friendship in Camelot. And that relationship continued here, didn't it?"
Lance didn't answer.
"I have to confess. In Scotland, Merlin and I slept together."
Lance went stiff. Gwaine barreled on, voice rushed.
"It was once. And I won't do it again without your permission."
"Without my permission?" Lance sputtered.
"You got there first."
"Merlin's not a-"
Gwaine held up a hand. "Let me try again."
Lance frowned at him and Gwaine turned his eyes to the house across the street.
"I can tell you love him. It's written in that book, though the author never said it. And in how you look at him when the two of you go off and do things without the rest of us. How you got him to eat not an hour ago. How you side with him, argue for him, when Arthur and Elyan go all anti-magic and hostile."
"Not done," Gwaine snapped, though he softened when he saw Lance's blushing cheeks. "I also think he loves you back. Merlin doesn't hang with us all anymore, doesn't come to visit the house unless you're there. He only goes out with you. That book is the most worn out book in his house, and he gives in when you push for him to eat or sleep. He doesn't do that to the rest of us. You love him, he loves you. I refuse to get between that because you've done more for him than I ever would."
Lance stared at him, face turning sadder by the minute. "Merlin didn't love me in Camelot," he whispered. "But while he was alive he had a life with other mes. With other Arthurs, other yous. With all of us. He loved them, and because of that he loves us all. But from Camelot, his heart always belonged to Arthur."
Lance shook his head. "You refuse to get between Merlin and me, I refuse to get between Merlin and Arthur. I'm just... enjoying the time I have."
Gwaine frowned. Because, looking back, yeah, Gwaine could see that. Merlin had had such devotion to Arthur. But he'd never seen it returned. And he hadn't seen that type of dedication, that intense look Merlin used to give Arthur, since they rose from the Lake.
"If that happens," Gwaine said, "I'd fight Arthur for Merlin. And I think if you'd do the same, you'd win."
"Don't look so startled," Gwaine said, throwing an arm around Lance's shoulder. "But I don't want to talk about Princess. I want to know if I can help you take care of Merlin, if you'll let me do that, I mean. And I want to know if it's okay for me to take Merlin to bed even as he does the same to you. Merlin is yours first."
Lance gave Gwaine a long look. "You're a better man than you give yourself credit for, Gwaine. But yes, you can help me tag-team Merlin. It would make me feel better knowing someone else is looking after him."
"And having sex with him?"
Lance pressed his lips together.
"It's okay to be jealous," Gwaine said. "If you say no, I'll never hop into bed, no matter how many times he invites me."
Lance pulled out of Gwaine's hold to look at him. Lance looked wounded, and Gwaine knew that Lance was more than a little jealous. But that quick blank look came down over his face, a unique thing to his dealing with Merlin, and Gwaine didn't push for more.
"Merlin invited you to bed?"
"Yes, but to be honest, I'm not entirely sure he thought I was me the whole time."
Let Lance take that as he would - that Merlin might have thought Gwaine Lance, or might have believed Gwaine to be one of his reincarnations as Gwaine suspected. Or a blurred mix of the two. All Gwaine really remembered was the amazing sex from that night, but hindsight showed Merlin had slipped into memories of a different man.
And if that "slipping" as Lance had called it earlier was something Lance helped Merlin with, well, Gwaine would be honest about that.
"In that case," Lance said in a bland tone, "we have to ask Merlin. I won't say no if this is what he wants."
Gwaine thought about asking Lance for what he wanted, but he was too selfish for that. He wouldn't steal Merlin from Lance. That didn't mean he would let an opportunity for a "yes" to more sex with Merlin pass by.
Lance stayed quite the walk back to Merlin's apartment. His conversation with Gwaine had sent his mind spiraling in all sorts of different directions and he couldn’t follow one thought before another crossed it. Ideas, possibilities, future scenarios. They went by half-formed and rushed, so he was glad when they got back to Merlin's place and he found a distraction from his thoughts.
Mainly, checking on Merlin.
Lance opened the bedroom door to peek in on the warlock. He slept soundly, sprawled out on the left side of the bed while his hand reached toward the right. Lance's side.
Was that a sign Gwaine was right? Merlin did love him? Or had Merlin had taken so many lovers he could be reaching towards any one of them? Another Arthur? Another Gwaine? One of the faceless women he'd married over the years?
Tip-toeing into the space, Lance leaned over to press his lips to Merlin's temple. I love you, he said in his mind. But like the countless times before, he couldn't say it out loud.
Standing up, Lance took a quick look around the room. His eyes caught on the small signs of his own claim to the apartment. A drawer of Lance's clothes. His book on his side of the bed. Having a side of the bed.
But then, the hickies Gwaine had left on Merlin's skin peeked out from his t-shirt. Red love bites on his spine.
Lance and Merlin had been sleeping together for a year, but he'd still asked Gwaine to bed.
He would never compare to Arthur, Lance knew that. And now he was comparing himself to Gwaine.
Lance shook his head and left the bedroom, closing the door softly behind him.
"He still sleeping?" Gwaine asked from the living room. "We're approaching that two hours he wanted to limit himself too."
"Yes, and no, we're not waking him."
Lance stood in the doorway, while Gwaine sat on the couch. The silence stretched between them, a sudden awkwardness, a sense of judgment, Lance never experienced with the other man.
Gwaine broke it by commenting on the records on Merlin's shelf. "Don't you have this one? Duke Ellington?"
"Apparently, the last me had a thing for Jazz. Merlin got those back then. And I have a more modern CD, yes."
Gwaine's face didn't change and Lance found himself disappointed. Lance had done a lot for Merlin, and here was evidence of their relationship through the years. He wanted Gwaine to acknowledge that and hated that the other knight hadn't.
Immediately, Lance felt ashamed for being so petty.
Especially because Gwaine had proved himself during their walk to be putting Merlin first just as much as Lance did. He had no right to deny Merlin a lover he wanted. Had no right to even consider Gwaine a disruptive threat. Lance and Merlin had never discussed their relationship – never declared it a relationship to begin with. There was no commitment to each other, no promise of monogamy.
Lance couldn’t deny the fact that he loved Merlin. And apparently, Gwaine did too. Merlin needed that type of support. Maybe getting it from two people, instead of one, would be in the warlock’s best interest.
But Lance would never presume to know that for sure. He’d let Merlin decide.
And in the meantime, he took note of the small bits of evidence of his relationship with Merlin throughout the apartment and made himself believe that Gwaine had been right. Merlin did love him.
Omg. They finally say "I love you".
This ended up being hard to write, I'm not used to writing romance. Or dramatic "I love you scenes". Or heck, balancing one with three invested parties. But here you go.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Merlin woke groggy and plodded to the bathroom. He winced at the bright light, quickly turned it off, and brushed his teeth in the dark. Looking toward the bedroom, he noticed the light coming through the window was golden. Sunset. So much for Lance planning on waking him after two hours. It also explained the lack of fried egg smell.
Spitting, Merlin vowed to gripe about it but he knew his body had needed the sleep. Changing into a new set of clothes, Merlin couldn’t help but smile. Lance took such care of him. It was part of why he loved him so much.
Merlin found Gwaine and Lancelot cleaning up in the kitchen. Instead of his promised eggs, it looked like they had cooked up a proper dinner. Nothing major, just a few filets of fish and a side of broccoli, but Merlin was starving. His growling stomach announced his presence before Merlin could say hi.
Gwaine turned to look at him and laughed. “Good thing Lance made dinner then.”
“Very.” Merlin stepped up next to Lance, who was washing pans, and leaned into him. “Thanks for cooking.”
He was tempted to kiss him on the cheek and would have if Gwaine wasn’t there. They’d never hid their relationship, but they’d never been open about it either.
Lance took the decision out of his hands and kissed his temple. Immediately, Merlin looked down. Shy, ashamed, a little guilty.
“I slept with Gwaine,” he whispered.
“I know,” Lance whispered back. “He told me.”
“You’re not mad?”
Lance sighed. “No, and I don’t think we’re ready for this conversation quite yet. Food first.” He kissed Merlin’s temple again.
Merlin wrinkled his nose, not sure what to make of that conversation, but pulled out plates and glasses. Within five minutes, the three of them sat on Merlin’s couch, plates on laps while the ate. Merlin found himself sandwiched in the middle and didn’t mind at all.
“Already told Lance what we got up to in Scotland,” Gwaine said.
Merlin looked at him and blushed.
“About the fires,” Gwaine clarified, looking down at his plate.
Merlin nodded. He’s slept a chunk of the day, he wasn’t surprised that Gwaine had caught Lance up on, well, everything and everything. But as Lance said, they could table the relationship discussion for now. There was a more pressing matter.
There was a high likelihood someone had stolen knowledge from Ceridwen’s cauldron. Whether it was an enemy who had walked out of the Lake like Arthur and the knights, or a returned Soul who remembered their past life remained to be seen. He hoped it wasn’t Morgana. Merlin didn’t know if he could stand killing her a second time.
“No idea who they might be, Merlin?” Lance pressed.
Merlin stabbed a broccoli bit. He hadn’t shared the names with Gwaine, namely because he didn’t think they would mean anything to him. But Lance would recognize a few. “The standards. Morgana, Morgause, Nimueh. Mordred maybe. Probably not the Dochraid. Maybe a Druid I pissed off, or a member of the Catha.”
Merlin shook his head. “I’m not that worried about it, because I know someone who probably has the answer.”
“The Lady Aithusa mentioned,” Gwaine said.
Merlin nodded. “You might know her, Lance. She went by Freya in Camelot.”
Lance sucked in his breath, then gave Merlin a sad look. He knew exactly who Freya was. “I’m glad you had her to talk to all these years.”
Merlin gave a small smile back. “We didn’t talk much. She’s bound to the Lake, and it wasn’t always easy to see her.”
Lance extended his arm and pulled Merlin close. Again, it was an obvious sign of physical contact in front of someone they’d normally avoid announcing their relationship to. Merlin thought about pointing that out but held off. Instead, he sunk into the embrace. It felt nice, not hiding something. Being open.
“Who’s Freya?” Gwaine asked, eyeing Lance’s arm around Merlin’s shoulder.
“My first ex, I suppose,” Merlin said. “And someone I was once willing to fight Destiny for.”
Gwaine still looked confused, so Merlin explained. “I meet her in Camelot, saved her actually from a bounty hunter and hid her. She was a Druid. We connected pretty fast, and the night we were supposed to leave Camelot... the knights found her. She was wounded badly when we left, but we made it to the shores of Avalon before she died.”
“Where you tried to take Arthur?” Gwaine asked.
Merlin nodded. “She died, there on the shore, but Avalon liked her. Or she insisted to stay connected to the mortal world for me. I’ve never asked. But the Lake turned her into, I suppose you could say it’s avatar? She’s the link between Albion and Avalon, the land and the underworld. She’s guarded Excalibur for a while before I gave it to Arthur. She also would have looked after you all while you were, um, dead.”
“She must love you a lot, to do all of that.”
Merlin blushed scarlet. “Freya and I aren’t, we’re not…”
“You don’t have to say anything, Merlin,” Lance broke in. He glared at Gwaine over Merlin’s head.
“It’s true though. Freya does love me, and I love her. But it’s shifted over the centuries.” Merlin shrugged. “It’s hard to let go of your first love, especially when you’re both immortal. But we’re only good friends right now. Have been since before Camelot fell.”
“Speaking of loves,” Gwaine narrowed his eyes at Lance.
Merlin couldn’t see Lance’s face, but imagined his friend, his lover, giving Gwaine a look of his own. Before Merlin could tilt his head up to see, Gwaine’s shoulder’s slumped.
“I’m giving you five minutes.” Gwaine stood up, gathering plates to take to the kitchen.
Merlin knew that he’d still be able to hear any conversation in the living room, but it felt like Gwaine already knew what would be said.
Merlin pulled away from Lance, sitting on the couch so he could face the knight. “Is this about me sleeping with Gwaine?”
“No. Sorta.” Lance sighed. “If you wanted to do it, I’m not one to tell you no. You can make your own choices, and if sleeping with Gwaine makes you happy I’m not going to tell you don’t do it. But Merlin,” he reached out to take Merlin’s hands gently. Swallowed thickly. “I need to tell you something.”
“I love you.”
Merlin went still. Lance bowled ahead.
“I know in Camelot it wasn’t serious, but since we’ve come back, it has been. For me. I want to move out of the knights’ house and stay here. I want to wake up to you every morning. To kiss you and tell you you’re amazing, every day. I know… I know you might not feel the same… “
Merlin couldn’t help it. He sobbed.
“Merlin!” Lance leaned into the space between them, brushing his thumb under Merlin’s eyes to rub away tears. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have-“
Merlin shut him up by kissing him.
First Gwaine, now Lance. Two men, two, who knew about his magic and went beyond just accepting it. Here, body pressed against him, was a man who knew all of his secrets, the good and the bad, and still saw someone worth loving. This wasn’t just Lance’s Soul, that of a good, kindhearted man. This was Lance, Soul and Mind and –
Lance pushed him away. “What? Are you?”
Merlin brushed the tears away, but they still kept coming. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I just, I didn’t think, I never imagined-“
“That someone would love you,” Lance guessed.
“All of me, yeah,” Merlin hiccupped.
Lance and Merlin looked towards the kitchen, where Gwaine stood in the doorway, arms crossed and frowning at them both.
“Why wouldn’t someone love you, Merlin?” Gwaine threw his hands in the air. “You’re amazing! Brave, and powerful, and honest-“
Merlin flinched at that because he hadn’t been honest for most of their time in Camelot.
Lance gently took Merlin’s hands. “You’re selfless. Noble. Always looking after those you can. You give your all into everything. Of course I, we,” he nodded towards Gwaine, “love you.”
“What about Gwen?” Merlin asked. Gwen, like Arthur, had sat between Merlin and Lance for years. His own feelings for Arthur might have shifted, but he’d never gotten any indication of Lance’s current feelings for Gwen.
“Gwen’s not here,” Lance said, “And, well, even if she were, I’d still love you.”
Merlin gave another sob.
“Happy tears, Lance. Happy tears.”
“I know we haven’t talked about this,” Lance rubbed small circles on the back of Merlin’s hands with his thumbs, “but I want a real relationship. I want to move in. And I want to go on public dates. To hold your hand when we’re with the knights. Everything.”
Merlin beamed at him. He knew Lance cared, always had, but to know that depth was just as deep as Merlin’s shifted the world. Merlin had been in love with Lance, or a version of him anyway, for the majority of his life. And other versions of Lance had said those words before - ‘I love you’ - but none of those had made Merlin nearly this happy.
“You’re still crying, Merlin,” Lance said softly. “And I would very much like an answer.”
“I don’t think you asked a question.”
“Can we make this real? Can I move in?”
“Of course you can.”
He propelled himself forward, hands on either side of Lance’s face as he kissed the other man deeply. And because Lance could be so uncertain somethings, needing to hear yes multiple times in confirmation, Merlin opened up his magic just a bit to Lance. Let Lancelot touch the surface of his mind to pick up the intensity of the joy Merlin felt sweeping through his body.
As soon as he felt it, Lance clamped his hands down fiercely on Merlin’s hips. Lance pulled him closer, Merlin toyed with the collar of Lance’s shirt.
A loud “AH-HEM” pulled them both out of it.
Lance twisted to look at Gwaine, who had moved from the kitchen door to staring at them over the back of the couch. Lance flushed scarlet, and Merlin laughed.
“I would love the show,” Gwaine said, raking his eyes over both Merlin and Lance, “but I wasn’t sure you wanted to give it.”
“I don’t mind,” Merlin immediately said.
“I do.” Lance tightened his hold on Merlin’s shirt which made Merlin grin.
Lance would probably never admit it, but Merlin recognized that jealously tell. And yet, he had as good as given Merlin permission to sleep with Gwaine five minutes before.
“Thing is, Merlin,” Gwaine flicked his glance towards Lance, “I don’t want to move in with you, but I do also…you know…love you. Maybe. I could, anyway, if you let me.”
“I know you love me, Gwaine,” Merlin said.
“Ah.” Gwaine’s cheeks went rosy.
“But I want to get this straight.” Merlin gently pulled his shirt out of Lance’s hands, rocking backward to sit on the couch and not Lance’s thighs.
“If you are planning on saying something about you just being a servant and not worth-”
“Not what I’m saying at all, Lance.” Merlin closed his eyes and took a big breath. He stuffed his hands between his thighs and pinched both of them to confirm that yes, he wasn’t dreaming.
He already loved both of these men. Had physically loved them separately but kept the pair of them in his heart for more than a thousand years. And not just Lance and Gwaine, but everyone in Camelot. There was a spot in his heart for each of the knights, as well as Morgana and Gwen.
Once, it’d all been Arthur’s.
But that wasn’t the case anymore. The relationships Merlin had with Arthur’s Soul had been incredible, but they paled in comparison to what hovered in front of him. Being together with men he loved, who loved him in return, without the secrets. They knew his magic. They knew his true age. They knew him as a servant. They knew him as a rich man in this time.
And they loved him through the changes and reveals; they loved all facets of his self.
Trees, he never imagined a future as incredible as this.
Eyes still closed, Merlin tried to put the image of this relationship into words. “You both want a relationship with me. And each of you are okay with me having a relationship with the other.”
“Yes,” Lance said.
Merlin opened his eyes to look at him. “A really, out in the open relationship. Telling everyone.”
“And you want, what?” Merlin turned to look at Gwaine. “A chance to try one?”
“Want one period,” Gwaine responded. “But not sure we’re ‘move-in’ ready after one night.”
“This is only if you’re okay with it all,” Lance broke in. He reached over to place a hand on Merlin’s knee. “Your choice comes first. One, both, none. Whatever makes you happy.”
“Then yes,” Merlin said.
“Move in with me, Lance. We can grab your stuff when we’re at the house later to fill everyone in. Let them all know that, that we’re dating. All three of us?”
Gwaine waggled eyebrows at Lance, who looked away.
“Not a triangle then,” Gwaine guess. “Just the two of us with you, and not with each other.”
“If you’re okay with that-“
“Yes,” both men said.
Merlin laughed. Gwaine leaned down over the back of the couch to kiss him, and when it became too heated Lance interrupted them with a cough.
Merlin couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so happy.
That's for reading guys! There's a sequel... eventually... where we learn who set the fire and all that jazz. But it's not even started, fyi.
I occasionally share writing progress on my Tumblr (Uniasus), but honestly it's usually a lot of fic recommendations and more fandom stuff. Lots of Merlin and She-Ra at the moment.