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there are no stars in the city

Chapter Text

During the week, at this time of night, The Tavern was always quiet. Most customers left before ten thirty, and by eleven it was just Merlin and the quiet hiss of distant traffic as he wiped down the counters and stacked the stools. The lights were dimmed, their ancient bulbs flickering against the bare concrete of the ceiling. He found it peaceful. Somewhere in the flat upstairs, Gaius was likely asleep, or trawling through another ancient text.

Merlin suppressed a yawn. If no one else came in tonight (and surely no one would), he could get home before twelve-thirty and maybe get a goodnight's sleep for the first time this year.

He moved across the narrow room to pull down the blinds and turn off the OPEN sign, shoes catching slightly on the rough floorboards. Months ago, he had offered to polish them down for Gaius but the stubborn old man had insisted it wasn't worth the work. Besides, apparently the majority of their clientele liked the atmosphere.

Rolling his eyes, he reached for the blind cord and methodically pulled, hand over hand, as the blind fell. What did he have to do in the morning? Return those books to the library, do his laundry, collect the mail for Mrs Dubose next door, buy-

The bell above the door rang brightly as someone opened it. Still pulling the blind cord, Merlin said, “We're closed.”

“The sign says open until midnight,” came the reply.

Merlin decided the guy was a prat without looking and shot back, “It is midnight.”

“It's eleven fifty-five.”

With great reluctance, Merlin turned around. “Fine, have a...” His breath caught. The man was young, not much older than him, and rather disheveled – his golden hair mussed, standing up at odd ends, his tie loosened, shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows. Circles were painted under his eyes, dark enough that it may have been days since his last decent sleep.Tall, broad shouldered, with a defined jawline and smooth skin, he surveyed Merlin with a blue gaze that was sixty percent arrogance, fourty percent weary annoyance.

“Have a seat,” Merlin finished, several moments too late. He could feel the blush across his cheekbones and quickly turned back to the blind to hide it.

Behind him, there was a loud scoff, followed by the scraping of a stool against the floor.

Merlin took his time with the blinds, not wanting to face the man again.

“Are you ever going to take my order?”

So much for that idea.

“Yes, yes,” Merlin said, fingers still toying with the blind, tugging it forwards in a pretense of checking that the window was locked. “What can I get you?”

“A beer.”

Was this guy new in town? An incredulous laugh threatening to topple out of Merlin's mouth, he said, “We don't serve alcohol.”

The man groaned. “Fine, a coffee. Black. No sugar.”

As you wish , Merlin thought, and moved behind the safety of the counter to fire up the coffee machine. As he waited, making a fuss of grabbing a clean cup, he snuck a few careful glances at his late-night customer. He really did look exhausted, slumped against the far end of the counter, fingers loosely wrapped around his phone like he wanted to use it but just couldn't be bothered. Under Merlin's surreptitious gaze, he kept running his fingers through his hair, compulsively, like that was all he could channel his energy into.

Rough night? Merlin had heard baristas and bartenders say that in movies before. It sounded like a good way to strike up conversation without being too pushy. He was just gathering the courage to say it when the man spoke first.

“What's with the name of this place, then?” he demanded. “Can't even get a beer.”

His personality was beginning to clash with his looks, and Merlin found himself prickling with annoyance. “How should I know?” he asked. “Ask Gaius.”

The man sat up at that. “Gaius?” he spat. “What kind of a name is that?”

Admittedly, it was an unusual name. “Does it matter?” Merlin asked, shoving the cup towards the man with more aggression than necessary. “I'm Merlin, so I can't talk.”

Blue eyes met his, the man's lips twisting upwards. “Christ, that's even worse.”

All right, what's your name, then?”

The man shot him an amused glance as he took a long sip of his coffee. “Arthur.” He chuckled. “I'd like to see you make fun of me with that, Merlin.”

Merlin wanted to be irritated, but something about the way Arthur had said his name was almost... familiar? Surely it was nothing more than déjà vu, though he could have sworn he had heard that voice say his name in that tone before. He reached blindly into his mind and came up with nothing.

Arthur was watching him quizzically, waiting for a response, and Merlin fumbled for something to say.

“You know, in the legends-” he cut himself off before he could say more. Stupid, stupid, stupid. No one knew anything – no one was supposed to know anything – about the legends of King Arthur and his sorcerer Merlin. When magic was banned again in the 17th Century, the instigators had done everything in their power to wipe those tales off the face of the Earth. Merlin only knew because Gaius was descended from a line of ancient scholars, running back to the time of Camelot, and still had the remnants of some old texts, some basic oral history. He had spoken without thinking.

And, fortunately, he had spoken quietly.

Arthur was apparently bored of his mocking, and was staring into his coffee, eyes glazed over. If he heard what Merlin had said, he gave no indication of it. Merlin turned his focus to wiping the counter for the second time that night.

When he next looked up, Arthur had finished his coffee and was back in his original position, phone loose in his hand, fingers running through his hair over and over. Merlin swallowed tightly and spoke up. “Rough night?”

“Merlin, what about me looks like I'm interested in telling you?”

That wasn't how it went in the movies. “I just thought you might want to... talk... about it?” Merlin watched Arthur intently for his response but the other man didn't even look up.

“Well, I don't.”

So be it, then. Merlin didn't bother responding.

The room fell quiet, nothing more than the soft sounds of breathing, the distant cars, and the quiet ticking of the clock in the back room. If Merlin couldn't feel sweat trickling between his shoulder blades, or the heat in his ears, it might have been relaxing.

“My father died,” Arthur said. His eyes settled on Merlin's. “Don't give me that pity look, it was months ago. I never liked him anyway.” The crack in his voice betrayed him.

Wordlessly – because what could one say to that? - Merlin poured him another coffee. Pretending that he couldn't see Arthur watching him out of the corner of his eye, he dropped to a crouch and opened the tiny cupboard underneath the counter. Hand over the latch, he said a word under his breath, and felt the door crack open beneath his fingers. Inside were rows of tiny glass bottles, each corked and labelled carefully, their contents shimmering every colour imaginable in the dim light. Merlin reached for one near him, labelled Happiness in Gaius' spidery handwriting. Once, the concoction would have had a true name of its own, but that name, that language, had been lost centuries ago.

With steady hands, Merlin measured out half a teaspoon of the liquid and mixed it into the coffee.

He returned the bottle to its place and locked the cupboard with a wave of his hand, knowing that the counter obscured much of what he was doing from Arthur's sight. He slid the coffee in front of Arthur without ceremony. “On the house,” he said.

Arthur raised the cup to his lips and sniffed suspiciously. “What is this?”

“Coffee.”

“Yes, I can see that but what did you put in it?”

“Just drink it.”

“Are you trying to poison me?”

“No! No. Just- Trust me, you'll feel better.”

Arthur's eyes narrowed. “I don't need to feel better,” he said, but he took a tentative sip anyway. “Hm.”

Arthur finished the drink and, as Merlin watched, the tension in his jaw softened, his shoulders relaxed, the wrinkles on his brow smoothed out. Blinking, the man returned the cup to the table.

“Well?” Merlin asked.

Eyebrows up, Arthur nodded. “Admittedly I do feel better.”

“Great!”

“...You're not going to tell me what you put in there, are you?”

“No!”

To Merlin's surprise, Arthur actually laughed, and Merlin found himself laughing along.

“Right,” said Arthur after some time, getting to his feet. “I should go.” He dumped money on the counter for his coffee, offered Merlin a half-wave, and left without saying thank you.

Prat? Certainly.

But Merlin found himself hoping they would meet again.

~*~

There are no stars in the city. The people drive them away.

Merlin felt, some nights, that he could remember seeing them in all their glory, spread out across the heavens. He dreamt of watching them from a tower window, of tipping his head back to bathe in their glory as he rode on the back of a dragon. He had had such dreams since childhood, and always, always, they came to him with heart-breaking clarity that left him shaken throughout the following day.

Nights like this, as he trudged the long walk back to his apartment after work, the cool night air filling his lungs, he turned his eyes skyward and longed to see something beyond the empty sky, dulled by the glow of the city. Humans think they are above this, think that they can create their own nightlights, that they never needed anything else. They forget that the clear night sky was once crucial for navigation, once mapped out the universe for their exploration.

They forget, too, that magic once saved lives, won battles, protected kingdoms.

Merlin's magic was part of him, as much as his hands or his personality or his voice, but if he showed it to the world, he would be killed. Things were quieter now than they were when magic was first banned, quieter still than when it was banned a second time, and so he wouldn't be burned at the stake or chased with pitchforks. The government had ways of making sorcerers disappear these days without causing so much as a ripple. What Merlin and Gaius did was more than risky, more than stupid – but they did it anyway. Serving Arthur his special coffee that night was a very dangerous move, and Merlin couldn't bring himself to regret it. As he walked, he saw Arthur's face again and again, tension falling away, a confused smile lighting his eyes. In times like this, small acts of kindness were more important than ever.

Magic was illegal in this modern world, and so, it seemed sometimes, were the stars.

Chapter Text

The floor of Merlin's cramped living room was covered in books, some open, some stacked, all spread in haphazard circle. In the centre of the circle was Merlin, cross-legged, neck complaining as he bent over a volume with pages delicate as a moth's wing. Beside him was a battered exercise book, a floating pen filling the pages with words he dictated. It dropped to the floor as he fell silent, bending to examine a faded illustration. The Knights of the Round Table.

Half the page was burned, leaving a chunk of text missing, and the image itself seemed ready to fade away, but it was another puzzle piece, another thread to add to the growing tapestry that was Merlin's research into Camelot – more importantly, how the royal family banned magic only to reinstate it a generation later. As yet, nothing had yielded any real answers.

Outside, the sun was dipping beneath the horizon.

Not for the first time, Merlin wished he could take the easy road, use the internet to find a better path to what he wanted, but they had ways of monitoring that. Even if Merlin could afford the best security precautions, there were departments actively working to find those who dug too far, who read anything beyond what was government-approved.

He couldn't afford even a fibre of suspicion cast in his direction; for the sake of his safety, for Gaius, for their customers.

With a wave of his hand and a muttered word, the curtains swung shut and the lights flicked on, one book shut only to be replaced by the next. Most of these belonged to Gaius, and to his grandfather before him. The rest had been 'borrowed' from sealed library archives in the dead of night.

Many had been rescued from the pyres, centuries ago, plucked out by clever fingers and hidden away. Everything else Merlin knew came from Gaius, knowledge passed down through generations.

The texts were inconsistent.

Writers disagreed on the most basic of facts. One text, Merlin had found, argued that the Round Table had really been hexagonal. Merlin knew that to be false, since everything else argued to the contrary, but some things no books could agree on.

None were complete.

Even the books that had escaped the burnings had names scratched out, entire paragraphs ripped from their pages, new paper glued on top of old. The only names Merlin had found through them all were his namesake's and Arthur – the main characters of the tale, he supposed. The knights, though, were named in some texts but not in others, the spellings and pronunciations varying so greatly that Merlin couldn't tell which was right. He wondered sometimes if he would recognise their names in his life, like he had recognised Arthur's, or his own. Maybe. Maybe it was fate's way of telling him that the time of magic would soon come again.

He turned the page, squinting to read the tiny print.

Knowledge doesn't just disappear. You can burn the great libraries and murder the scholars, but the truth is carried in the minds of our ancestors and one day, someone will put the pieces together. One day, it will be found again.

Merlin knew, deep in his heart, that it was his destiny to make that happen.

~*~

He woke with an aching back and a foggy mind, cheek pressed to the hard leather of a closed book, hands curled possessively around his notes. Daylight was snaking in through the gap in the curtains, turning dust motes to stars as they twirled to the floor.

How could it be morning?

Merlin struggled upright, gingerly prodding the indent in his face. It wasn't too sore but he was sure it would be red for most of the day. What time was it?

He tugged his phone out of his shirt pocket and unlocked it.

8AM. 15 missed calls.

Shit.

He had slept through his shift.

Shit .

Fully awake now, he tapped on the notification to find that all 15 calls had been from Adrian – one of Gaius' two other employees, the second being Lucinda, Adrian's sister. They were descendants from Druids, not powerful in their magic but clever and fast, valuable allies. Lucinda usually worked the morning shift, from midday until four, and Adrian worked in the evening.

Lead in his stomach, Merlin listened t o his voicemail.

8:30PM: “Yo, Merls, I don't know what you're doing but get down here. I'll cover you for an hour but after that I want to get home, man.”

9:28PM: “Merlin, you'd better be unconscious or some shit because if I have to work double my hours today I'm going to be pissed.”

9:43PM: “What the fuck, Merlin? Where are you?”

10:05PM: “Are you actually dead this time? Answer your goddamn phone!”

After that, Adrian gave up leaving messages and just called. And called. And called.

Oops.

Merlin made a mental note to never leave his phone on silent again and quickly called Adrian back.

He picked up immediately. “So you're not dead.”

Merlin laughed, uncomfortable, the phone pressed to his ear. “No.”

“Okay, that's great!” Adrian replied. “In that case, let me ask you something: Where. The fuck. Were you?”

The window was open, summer breeze ruffling Merlin's hair as he paced in front of it.

“Uhhh...”

There wasn't a good excuse. He couldn't exactly tell Adrian he had fallen asleep studying Camelot – Adrian had already questioned Merlin's sanity when he first learned the extent of his obsession.

“I... fell asleep,” he said at length. “During dinner. I was exhausted.”

There was a moment of silence on the other end of the phone, then a staccato burst of laughter. “You what?”

“Fell asleep, halfway through eating. I'm really sorry Adrian, I'll take your shift and mine to make up for it.”

Adrian was still laughing. “Cool, cool, that's fine,” he gasped. “You fell asleep in your dinner?”

“During dinner. I'm not an idiot.” Merlin shut the window with a sharp jerk of his arm and contemplated hanging up. “Right, I have to get going...”

“Yeah, yeah, one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“You don't happen to know a blonde guy, do you? Tall, suit-and-tie, bit of a prat?”

Arthur?

Merlin leaned against the wall. Who else could it be? “Uhm, maybe, why?”

“Oh, he came in last night and asked where you were.”

He what?

Arthur – if it was Arthur – had asked about him? That was... flattering. Merlin could feel his ears turning red. “Did he tell you his name?”

Adrian paused. “No,” he said. “Just had a black coffee – bloody odd order for midnight, I have to say – and left.”

“Okay, thanks, see you later. I'll do both shifts.” At that, Merlin hung up before Adrian could start on anything else.

Black coffee, midnight, bit of a prat – it had to be Arthur. It was fair enough of him to come back to the shop, if he liked it, but what Merlin couldn't understand was why Arthur would ask about him. They hadn't exactly shared a connection. Merlin, certainly, wanted to see him again, though he would prefer not to think about that. Arthur had been minimally friendly and overall rather indifferent. Merlin fought off any hopeful thoughts that maybe Arthur was interested, maybe Arthur had liked him, because that was a clear path to disappointment and Merlin had two shifts to worry about today.

~*~

Merlin reached The Tavern at 4 o'clock sharp, not daring to be even a minute late after last night.

There was hardly room to breathe between the customers, leaning against the counter, sitting with their laptops and headphones, smoking in clusters outside by the door. Walking into the cafe meant walking into a wall of noise. It was a sharp contrast to the majority of Merlin's shifts – shifts like the one where he had met Arthur. The only time he faced this kind of crowd was on Friday and Saturday, or when he covered for the others on their days off.

Behind the counter, a perfect customer-service smile fixed to her face, was a short girl, rushing back and forth between the coffee machine, the end of the counter, the back room. Her red hair was pulled back into a tiny ponytail with the aid of many clips, her white sleeves rolled to the elbows, her mother's silver bracelet glittering on her wrist. When she saw Merlin, her shoulders dropped in relief and she waved.

Merlin hurried to join her behind the counter, pulling an apron over his head. “How've you been?” he asked, close to her ear.

“Not too bad!” she called back. “Good to see you alive – Adrian was panicking last night.” She laughed brightly as she hung up her apron. “I'll see you tomorrow?”

Tomorrow. Lucinda's day off. They had agreed to meet up before lunch so he could help her study.

“Of course!” he waved to her as she left, then turned to face the line of customers at the cash register.

Taking payments and delivering drinks in a hurried blur, he silently wished Gaius would hire more employees so that it wouldn't be one person per shift all the time. He understood why he didn't – safety, mainly. The less people who knew the inner workings of the business, the less who could report them. Gaius was constantly occupied, reviewing the enchantments, managing the business, keeping the magic-users in the back room happy and hidden.

“Pardon me.”

The woman was in a business suit, hair and makeup sleek and professional, but there was a tell-tale doubt in her eyes, a youthful smoothness to her features. New job, Merlin guessed. “How can I help you?”

“I have a job interview today,” she said, voice dropping. Close enough. “I- I really need to do well. What do you recommend?”

This was their code. Magic-users could see the enchanted back entrance, and rarely came to the front, but there was a wealth of ordinary men and women who wanted the benefit of Gaius' brews.

To the standard customer, these requests sounded like someone asking for the barista's recommendation of a drink. To Merlin, it was clear that this woman needed an energy boost, some confidence, some charisma. All were readily available in the cupboard beneath the counter, and no one would notice a thing.

There was a lull in customers around six o'clock, as almost everyone went home for dinner. It was then, just as Merlin was catching his breath, that the door to the back room opened and Gaius stepped out.

Gaius had been old as long as Merlin had known him, with white hair that fell to his shoulders and a seemingly endless wardrobe of grandpa clothes. Today he wore plaid slacks and a brown, knitted jumper.

“Merlin,” he said, holding out a piece of notepaper. “Could you take this order? I just have to pop upstairs, we're out of...” He gestured vaguely, eyeing the remaining three customers warily.

“Sure thing, Gaius.” Merlin took the notepaper and scanned the words.

Table 3 - Blueberry bagel, vanilla latte (skim milk, relief from anxiety - mild)

As Gaius made his way slowly upstairs, Merlin scanned the room for any sign that a customer wanted something. All three were totally absorbed in their own little corners, still with full cups and plates.

Working quickly, Merlin put the requested bagel onto a plate and bent down to retrieve a tiny green bottle labelled Anxiety Relief. Two drops were a mild dosage, tasteless when stirred into coffee. Within five minutes, the job was done, and after scanning the room a second time, Merlin pushed open the door and ducked past a curtain into the back room.

Inside, it was dim, lit by candelabras on the ceiling, tapestries and thick carpet muffling the chatter and clinking of spoons to nothing but a dull murmur. The Tavern's magical patrons sat comfortably in red velvet armchairs around the room, or at desks against the far wall. The tang of magic was almost tangible in the air, raising the hairs on Merlin's arms, even though there were only five people in the room.

Had he been any ordinary young man, he would have seen a poorly-lit room, undecorated, with a screen against the far wall and a long meeting table in the centre. A function room, perhaps, to be rented out and set up for parties or conferences. Rarely used.

Merlin's best work had gone into disguising this place for Gaius.

Carrying the tray, he weaved between the tables to number 3, where a middle-aged man was sitting opposite a woman with platinum-blonde dyed hair. She was reading a large book, studiously ignoring everything he was saying.

Merlin recognised him as Thomas Mulligan, one of their regulars, and possibly his wife, though he hadn't come in with a woman before.

“There's no way of telling what that means for us,” Thomas was saying. “No one knows if his stance on magic parallels that of his father...” he trailed off as Merlin set his order on the table. “Thank you, Merrick.”

Merlin smiled, resisting the urge to correct the man. He took a few steps away, pretending to adjust an emtpy table nearby, wondering what Thomas was on about.

“Anna, are you listening?”

Thomas' possibly-wife looked up from her book. “Of course, of course, darling. Just repeat that last bit, will you?”

With a sigh of the long-suffering, Thomas said, “I said, Arthur is taking over the company from his father..."

Arthur?

Merlin frowned, pushing the door open and stepping back into the cafe. Surely it wouldn't be the same Arthur. It wasn't an uncommon name – it was more than likely this was a coincidence, though he couldn't help but wonder. If only Thomas had mentioned the surname; then Merlin would at least know what company he had been referring to. Some magic-hating corporation, certainly.

Merlin returned to work, but he was preoccupied for the rest of the day with hopes that he would see Arthur again that night.

Chapter Text

Merlin didn't see Arthur that night. Or any night following.

By the end of the second week, Merlin was resigned to never seeing the man again and did his best to put him out of his mind, throwing himself into the routine of his life. Get up, do housework, get groceries, research Camelot, go to work, sleep. Rinse and repeat.

Sundays were his day off. On Sundays, he put away his books, went out, tried to act like he was a normal young man.

There was a pub downtown that he had frequented every week since he started work with Gaius and he was the only magic-user he knew of that went anywhere near it. On the average night, it was packed with university students trying desperately to forget their due-dates and a handful of middle-aged men drinking away a day's work. On Sundays, it was quieter, still crowded, but with people who wanted a quick drink and a decent night's sleep before the working week began. Merlin found that, in a strange way, he could fit right in – something he didn't feel almost anywhere else.

The interior was much the same as any other pub; tall stools at the bar, tables scattered by the windows, a television in the corner showing football matches and a perpetually sticky wooden floor.

When Merlin walked inside at eight o'clock he was greeted by a shout from behind the bar.

“Merlin!”

Merlin couldn't help the grin that spread across his face. “Hello, Gwaine.”

Gwaine was leaning his forearms on the bar, shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows; mussed hair and a too-bright smile hinting at a couple of drinks of his own. There was a strange kind of beauty about Gwaine, Merlin thought as the man ushered him to a stool and handed him a beer without him so much as blinking. He was self-contained. Happy with what the world had given him, it seemed. Since they had been teenagers, he had befriended everyone but never seemed to lean on them. Merlin supposed he didn't need the support. Gwaine had always known his limits and stuck to them.

“How are you doing this week, Merlin?”

This was the only time they really saw each other now. If anyone asked Merlin what Gwaine did outside of this tiny window, he couldn't answer. He had gone on to work for Gaius, dedicated time to putting together his puzzle pieces, and Gwaine had landed a job at this bar, and... Well, that was all Merlin knew.

“The usual,” he said.

Gwaine leaned across the bar towards him. “What a shame,” he said. “No interesting customers?”

Merlin was about to mention Arthur but Gwaine kept talking.

“I get some real gems here. Just yesterday, some guy came in...”
Merlin frowned. He felt strange, like he had forgotten something important.

“...and he ordered twelve beers...”

It felt almost the same as the feeling he had gotten when talking to Arthur, that peculiar familiarity that didn't belong.

“...he drank them all in one sitting, then came back and...”
But of course it belonged. He and Gwaine had known each other for years, why wouldn't it feel familiar? Merlin was just being an idiot, as usual. Too many evenings alone with Camelot.

“...Merlin?”

Merlin jolted back to focus. “Gwaine, do you ever feel like we've known each other longer than we have?”

Gwaine snorted, running a hand through his hair. “Merlin, that is a pathetic pick-up line,” he said.

“What?”

Gwaine winked. “If you want me that badly, all you have to do is ask.” He was grinning, broad, jovial, and Merlin forced himself to laugh because, well, what else could he do?

“Okay, Gwaine, whatever you say.”

Trying to return to normality, Merlin reached for his beer and stopped midway, suddenly overwhelmed. “I'll be right back,” he said, standing.

“Sure, Merlin. I'll look after your beer.”

 

In the tiny pub bathroom, Merlin splashed water onto his face. What was that?

Alone, with only the flickering lights and the muted noises of the pub somewhere to his left, he felt fine. There was no peculiar sense of deja vu, no strange twisting in his gut, no nagging at his brain.

He could almost convince himself he hadn't felt anything at all.

Water dripped into the sink even after he turned the tap off as hard as he could. He ignored it.

His eyes were comically wide in the mirror, pupils swallowing almost every hint of blue. Merlin looked at Merlin, assessing. Was he going mad? Had Arthur really screwed him over just in the brief time they had shared? Was he falling in love with Gwaine now? Was that what this was?

No... No. Love felt different, crushes felt different, and this feeling had never appeared before Arthur. Feeling it with Gwaine... either he was just preoccupied with it still, or it meant something.

Merlin sighed, considering splashing more water onto his face. Not that it would help.

It took a few quiet minutes to compose himself completely, convince himself that he was back to normal, before he felt comfortable leaving the safety of the bathroom and returning to Gwaine.

 

Back in the pub, there was a man leaning against the bar, blocking Merlin's seat. The man was deep in conversation with Gwaine, who was frowning, his arms folded, a tea-towel slung over his shoulder.

Merlin squinted. From the distance, between the poor lighting and the dark shapes of the other patrons, stumbling all over the place, he couldn't make out many details. The man was wearing a leather jacket and dark jeans, one ankle crossed over the other, facing away from Merlin. He had fair hair, possibly, though the light made it hard to tell. Tall, broad-shouldered, and increasingly familiar the closer Merlin got.

“On the bright side,” the man was saying, voice fading in and out of focus as people passed. “I finally sorted out dad's affairs.”

Merlin took another few steps, edging around a very large, very drunk man who grabbed at his shoulder and slurred something derogatory in his ear. He strained to hear Gwaine's reply, even as he knew he shouldn't. It wasn't his business.

Gwaine laughed, bright and loud. “Only taken you six months.”

“Funny, Gwaine,” he said. “It's been a lot of-”

Merlin stopped walking, the noise alerted the man and he cut off, turning his head. Blue eyes widened, golden eyebrows headed skyward. “Merlin?”

“Arthur.” Oh, god, why tonight? Maybe he had wanted to see Arthur again almost every night for the past two weeks but now that the man was actually in front of him he was realising that he hadn't thought this through, at all. He could feel heat creeping into his face already.

“You two know each other?” Gwaine piped up.

Merlin looked over. Gwaine. Right. Gwaine was there. Gwaine knew Arthur, Gwaine knew Merlin, that meant Merlin could lean on him, couldn't he?

“He served me a coffee one night, that's all,” Arthur answered, shifting his weight. He glanced at Merlin, gaze flicking down, then up. Merlin's teeth sank unconsciously into his bottom lip, his skin prickling. Arthur looked good. Really good. If he had been attractive at midnight, weary and disheveled, he was absolutely gorgeous now, not a hair out of place, exuding confidence.

“Right,” Merlin said, faintly breathless. “About two weeks ago.”

Gwaine shot him a meaningful look, a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Really? Well, I have other customers to serve so... I'll leave you to it.” With a wink in Merlin's direction he left, picking up conversation with a brunette girl at the other end of the bar. Well.

For a long moment they looked at each other, the silence oppressive as the pub bustled around them.

Merlin tested out a variety of things he could say, feeling them in his mouth, trying in vain to predict reactions. If this went well, if he could somehow say the right things, maybe Arthur would want to see him again.

“You're looking brighter,” he said at last, and regretted it immediately. What a god-awful way to start a conversation.

But Arthur's lips quirked upwards. “Must be because of whatever you gave me,” he said, reaching for his drink, the movement smooth. Merlin couldn't help his smile. “How do you know Gwaine?”

“We're old friends. I knew him in highschool.”

Arthur nodded, like this was what he had guessed already. “Did you ever...?” he made a vague gesture with his glass and his free hand.

Merlin frowned. “Ever what?”

“You know.” He repeated the gesture.

Oh. Ohh. Merlin flushed. “N-no! No, we're just friends. Always have been.” He cleared his throat, uncomfortable. He and Gwaine had come close, once or twice towards the end of school, but it had never happened and really he had never wanted it to. “How do you know him?”

Arthur looked away. “His father used to work for mine.”

Gwaine's father had been dead for years, and Arthur's for months, if what he had first told Merlin was true. That meant that either Gwaine and Arthur had known each other since childhood, a thought that triggered a strange surge of jealousy in Merlin, or they had become acquainted more recently, using their fathers as a building block. Merlin didn't know how to respond to that. Dead fathers was not an ideal conversation topic with someone he barely knew – though it was something they all seemed to have in common. Amid his struggle to think of something to say, he noticed that the distant look on Arthur's face had morphed into a crooked grin.

“You look better when you're not in that dreadful apron, Merlin,” Arthur said, and Merlin let himself laugh.

 

They talked for only a few minutes, mainly about their combined knowledge of Gwaine, but it was more than Merlin could have hoped for. Despite the constant heat in his ears and the anxious pounding of his pulse, he found that Arthur was... well, less of a prat than he had first thought, and still just as attractive. He came to the pub every week, it turned out, just like Merlin did, only he usually stopped by on Saturday nights. Tonight was an exception – how fortunate.

Merlin was more than a little disappointed when Arthur's phone rang and he excused himself to answer it outside. He had a feeling that even once the call was over, however long it took, Arthur wouldn't be coming back. It wasn't that their conversation had been bad, at least Merlin didn't think so, but Arthur seemed to be the kind of man with better things to do than make idle chit-chat with a near stranger in a bar.

He waited anyway.

Finished his beer.

Ordered a second.

Gwaine, mercifully, was too busy with the brunette to tease Merlin.

Some time after nine, Merlin finished his second beer and weaved between tables and people to get to the door. It was an early start the next day and there was no point wearing himself out waiting for someone who clearly wasn't going to return. May as well head home.

He stepped outside, trading warmth and pub chatter for cool night air and the smell of the city, the whisper of traffic in the distance. There was a man standing a few metres away from the pub, phone to his ear. Arthur, Merlin realised with a jolt. As he watched, Arthur hung up the phone and returned it to his jacket pocket. So all this time, he had still been out here.

Merlin's cheeks heated. Maybe he should have waited after all.

Regardless, he did need to get home, which meant passing Arthur. It felt too awkward to say anything – they didn't know each other well enough to warrant a casual 'see you later' – so Merlin put his head down and walked fast, hoping he could make it past before Arthur turned and saw him.

He almost held his breath as he passed, too close, his sleeve brushing the back of Arthur's jacket.

Warm fingers wrapped around his forearm and he was tugged to a halt.

“You're leaving already?” Arthur's eyes were bright in the shadows, eyebrows raised.

“Uh, yes! It's an early start tomo-”

“What, thought I'd given up on you?”

Merlin's eyes widened. Oh, christ he was so close. If Merlin just tilted his head slightly to the right, lifted up a bit – god. “No! No, not at all. I just have to-” he stuttered out, but Arthur was already talking again.

“I was going to come back, you know.” There was a kind tilt to his lips, laughter in his eyes.

Really? That... changed things. “I really have to head home, but if you wanted to keep talking, maybe we could exchange numbers,” was what Merlin wanted to say, intended to say, but all that came out was, “Why?”

At first, Arthur looked at him like he was a complete imbecile, but then his gaze softened unexpectedly. “There's something about you, Merlin,” he said, voice hushed. His fingers loosened, falling away, and Merlin's skin tingled with the warm ghost of contact. “I can't quite put my finger on it.” He backed away, towards the door of the pub, and Merlin forgot how to breathe.

The light of the nearby streetlamp turned Arthur's hair into a silver halo, giving his skin a surreal glow, and lighting the sharp blue of his eyes with the pin-pricks of stars. They held each other's gaze for a long moment, then Arthur turned, pushing the door open, and Merlin started his walk home.

Maybe there were no stars in the city, he thought, but as long as he kept those eyes in his life, who needed any?

Chapter Text

Wings.

Night air.

The stars, wheeling above him, glittering in their eternal dance, close enough to taste, too distant to touch.

Duty after duty after duty.

Exhaustion.

The stocks.

Rotten fruit.

His magic, hidden in plain sight,

A blonde head tipped back in laughter.

The sun lighting his hair.

Quick footwork, a sword twirling.

Optimism, bravery, honour; far beyond that of the king – but then he became king, and everything was golden and bright and finally there was hope and then-

Battle.

Screams.

The lake.

Arthur.

Arthur.

Arthur.

 

“Stay with me.”

Merlin shot upright.

Already the images were fading, slipping through his fingers like sand in an hourglass, laughing, teasing, just out of reach.

“Stay with me,” he repeated, under his breath, tears stinging his eyes. “Stay with me, stay with me, come on. Come on, please!”

All he was left with were the ashes – golden hair in the sun, the clink of chainmail, and that vision that haunted him, of the night sky.

There was cold sweat trickling between his shoulder blades and he shivered all over, wrapping his arms around his bare shoulders, pulling tight. The apartment, so safe, so comfortable, so him suddenly didn't feel like home anymore. His heart pounded.

Delicately, almost fearing that he would shatter, he covered his face with his hands and leaned forwards, breathing long and slow. It wasn't unusual for him to wake from dreams like this, filled with yearning, shaking, sometimes sobbing. But this dream –

Merlin swallowed thickly and ran his hands through his hair, piecing himself together. His magic flared without his jurisdiction and the covers pulled away, folding themselves at the foot of the bed. He got up. Dragged himself to the window.

It was only early still, the sun barely above the horizon, but he knew that there was no way he was going back to sleep. This dream had been too vivid, too detailed, and maybe he could no longer remember those details but he knew they had been there. That feeling from Arthur, from Gwaine, and now this dream... He had to see Gaius.

~*~

Gaius did not appreciate being roused from bed before six in the morning by a highly agitated Merlin and it took him a full cup of coffee and a good twenty minutes to actually understand what Merlin was babbling at him.

“Merlin, calm down and tell me again, slowly.”

Merlin took a shaky breath. “I had another dream.”

“And?”

And?! It was hard not to be outraged. Merlin's heart hadn't stopped its pounding escape attempt since he woke up, his hair was sticking up at odd ends and it felt like his soul itself was shuddering. Meanwhile, Gaius' expression had hardly changed since Merlin had roused him, his mouth curved into a half-smile, his white eyebrows balanced calmly above his eyes. Was the old man still asleep? “And it was much more vivid than the others.” Merlin fought to keep his voice steady. “It felt real Gaius, you don't understand. It was more like- like a memory.” He gasped for air. “And- And Arthur-”

Now Gaius raised a brow. “Arthur?”

Right. Gaius didn't know, couldn't know... It was something of a struggle to remember just how he had met Arthur, his brain addled, the charred fragments of the dream clogging his thoughts “He- He was a customer here, not long ago. A friend of Gwaine's...” His ears warmed as he saw, in his mind's eye, the man standing under the lamppost, eyes glittering.

“I see.” There was something wry in his tone, an almost sly twist to his lips, and Merlin ducked his head. Bloody Gaius. It was enough to distract him from the issue at hand, just for a few moments, but then his blush fell away and his mind focused.

“The dream, Gaius?” he prompted, knee bouncing. His magic, his energy, was a coiled spring.

“The dream.” Gaius sighed deeply, staring into his empty mug. “Correct me if I'm wrong,” he said, his eyes flicking back to Merlin, “But you're concerned because you felt something when you met this man.” He waited for Merlin to nod, then continued. “And now you've dreamed more vividly than usual and feel that he was in it. Then there's the matter of the name.”

The name certainly didn't help. Arthur and Merlin; The Once and Future King and his Sorceror.

Gaius leaned forward, elbows on his knees, fingers linking. “Well, Merlin, all I can say is that destiny works in strange ways. Maybe this is a sign, maybe not.”

Yes, maybe, maybe, maybe, but - “What do I do, then?”

“Get to know him better. You obviously want to–” Gaius gave him an amused look–“See if this continues, and tell me if anything changes.”

Merlin felt suddenly that he was at a doctor's appointment. “I'm afraid we can't do anything but manage the symptoms at this point. Take two of these daily and call me if anything gets worse.”

It wasn't that he resented Gaius for being unable to help, just that he resented the situation for being helpless. What was there to do?

“Thanks, Gaius. I'll let you get to your breakfast.” Merlin dragged himself upright. “See you later.”

Carpet, hallway, stairs, landing, left turn, street, noise.

Get to know him better.

He had to. He had to find out more. There was a sneaking suspicion gathering in Merlin's gut and he had to get some kind of evidence.

That would be easy enough if Merlin wasn't already head-over-heels, if he had managed to get Arthur's number, if he had any idea about how he could -

Gwaine.

Perfect.

~*~

“How do you feel about a late breakfast?”

Gwaine laughed on the other end of the phone, voice foggy with sleep. “Excellent. Where?”

It was almost eleven o'clock, Merlin had been pacing his apartment for an hour, and Gwaine was definitely nursing a hangover. Knowing him, he had stayed at the pub even after his shift ended and likely hadn't returned home until early that morning.

Merlin forced himself to stop walking and sat down heavily on a stool in his kitchen. “There's that cafe on George Street that Lucinda likes?”

“Fine with me,” Gwaine said. “I'm gonna take a shower. Won't be long.”

“I'll see you there, then.”

 

The cafe was barely-there, less than half the size of The Tavern, but Lucinda swore the food was better than anywhere else that part of town. Merlin wasn't sure if he should trust her – she was always so enthusiastic about everything that it made it hard to tell when it really was that good.

The building was tucked between a multi-storey office building and a greasy hamburger joint, sticking out like a sore thumb with its almost garish pink paint and windowboxes overflowing with a seemingly random selection of flowers. A sign above the door announced live music on Thursdays and, peaking through the window, Merlin was absolutely baffled at how they could possibly fit anything more than a five-year-old with a recorder in the one free corner.

The smell of coffee and some strange herbal tea hit Merlin in the face as he opened the door and ducked inside, a wind chime jingling above his head. Circular tables, painted in a variety of pastel shades, filled most of the tiny room, already crowded with the morning's customers. Scanning the room, Merlin spotted Gwaine immediately, slumped over a baby blue table against the far wall, staring blankly at his phone.

Gwaine always looked somewhat surreal during the daytime. It had been so long since Merlin had seen him anywhere but the pub that to see him with the sunlight highlighting the hints of gold in his hair seemed almost wrong.

Merlin felt a pang of guilt. He wouldn't feel that way if he had made the effort to see Gwaine more often. He wove his way through the tables, barely avoiding tripping over handbags leaning against chairs, forcing any bad thoughts out of his mind. He could deal with that later. Another day, when his head was clearer and his didn't feel so peculiarly detached from reality.

“Morning, Gwaine.” Merlin slid into the seat opposite as Gwaine groggily raised his head, purple smeared under his eyes.

“Is it?” he asked, a wry laugh escaping his mouth. He reached up and ran a hand through his hair, sitting back. The loose t-shirt he was wearing stretched across his chest as he threaded his fingers together at the back of his neck. “You're looking well.”

There was a heavy dosage of good-natured sarcasm in the tone, Merlin was sure, and he was struck with the sudden revelation that he hadn't looked at himself all morning. The five odd minutes he had spent in the bathroom had been with the shower on full blast, the steam fogging up the only mirror in his apartment. “Am I?”

Gwaine laughed heartily. “You look like you spent the night by the side of the road.”

Fair enough. Sleep had taken its time coming to him, and then those dreams, the frantic early-morning rush to Gaius... He probably looked a mess. “Maybe I did,” he joked. “Who knows?”

Gwaine opened his mouth then closed it as a waitress materialised to take their orders.

Merlin ordered a club sandwich; Gwaine ordered half the menu. By the time the man had flirted his way through requesting almost every possible side dish, the waitress was too busy staring at his hair and his eyes and the good part of his chest that was made visible by his low collar to actually write everything down. Merlin flicked his fingers underneath the table, pretending to adjust his shirt, and watched as the missing items appeared on the distracted woman's list.

Never had Merlin met someone so able to charm everyone. He had noticed that waitress on his way in and she was a model of efficiency... until Gwaine happened. God damn.

They talked, while they waited, about everything but Arthur; their respective jobs, Merlin's non-existent lovelife, Gwaine's highly active lovelife, Gaius...

“I gather you didn't take that brunette home with you last night?”

Gwaine laughed, mouth curving to the side. He scrubbed at his beard. “She wasn't really my type.”

Merlin quirked an eyebrow at that. “I thought everyone was your type.”

A head shake tossed locks of Gwaine's hair in all directions. “She was drunk. I don't bring home people who are drunk.” With an exaggerated wink, he added, “Well, not anyone who's more than a little tipsy.”

“What if you're drunk?”

The waitress returned, delaying Gwaine's answer yet again, and delivered their food. Once she was gone, Gwaine shrugged. “Even then. I don't want to sleep with someone who I think is a willing partner only to wake up and realise they weren't.”

 

For a while they ate in silence, Gwaine trawling through his many plates of food with the stamina only one exhausted and rather hungover can manage. Or maybe it was only Gwaine; Merlin wasn't sure.

The food was quite good. Perhaps not worthy of the praise Lucinda had bestowed upon it, but good nonetheless. While he ate, he tried to figure out the best way to broach the Arthur issue without seeming like it was the sole reason he had called Gwaine. He was grateful, at least, that in the light of day with the cafe bustling around them, the strange, dream-like sense of memory was gone. Maybe it was something that only happened after dark; when Merlin was closer to his dreams of Camelot and dragons and- Arthur, right. He had to ask.

“What's Arthur's last name?”

Gwaine glanced up at him sharply, a teasing grin already shining in his eyes. “Pendragon, why?” His mouth was full, one eyebrow raised.

Merlin ignored the question. “Pendragon?” he repeated, wiping his hands on a napkin. Only a few crumbs remained on his plate.

“Yeah,” Gwaine swallowed. “Bloody old family, very magic-hating.” Well shit. Merlin couldn't help but remember the drink he had given Arthur that first night... Risky, certainly, he had thought, but this was a lot worse than he had imagined.

Gwaine was still talking, shovelling more food into his mouth. “Apparently they date back to royalty.” He laughed. “Explains the stick up Arthur's ass, am I right?”

Merlin forced a laugh, but his mind was racing. Pendragon, Pendragon. Where did he know that name? He was sure that once he heard the surname it would click with some subconscious memory, something he had read, and that it would all fall together, but all he felt was panic. He had served a magical drink to one of an old, magic-hating family. He had served a... No, that didn't matter, not if this niggling theory was correct. Pendragon. Pendragon.

“Lemme guess, you want his full name so you can Facebook stalk him.” Gwaine had his eyes narrowed in mock suspicion, a teasing lilt to his voice. Merlin opened his mouth to deny it, but Gwaine kept talking. “Sorry but he doesn't have it. Only a very boring, very private Instagram that I don't think he's used since... 2015?” He smirked, and was halfway through a dramatic eyeroll when a thought struck him. “Do you want to see?”

Merlin was caught between saying yes and saying no but Gwaine made the choice for him, whipping out his phone and tapping lazily at a few buttons before sliding it across the table to Merlin. The temptation was suddenly too great, and Merlin knew he snatched the phone up far too quickly from Gwaine's quiet chuckle. As he stared unseeing at the profile picture (a large, Victorian-style manor house with a slash of blue water in the background) and the statistics alongside (3 posts, 23 followers, 0 following), the man laughed, “This crush is quite something, Merlin. I've never seen you like this before.”

There was something almost bitter in Gwaine's tone, which Merlin carefully ignored, and a hearty degree of teasing. “It's not a crush,” he protested, half-hearted, as he scanned Arthur's three posts.

The first was a picture of a younger Arthur in a tailored suit - dark blue with a red tie - standing stiffly beside a stern, much older man with a thin-lipped smile that closely resembled a grimace. His father, Merlin guessed. They had similar noses. Behind them were the glittering lights of a chandelier, dark wood of tables, silhouettes of other people in suits and formal dresses.

The second was a yacht, the photograph taken at an angle with the bright sun positioned behind it, green, misty hills to the left.

The third, and final post, featured a pissed-off Arthur at maybe 18 or 19 years old, in jeans and a loose t-shirt, with Gwaine – scruffy, teenage Gwaine - standing beside him, making bunny ears behind his head.

None of the pictures besides the last (“The things I put up with”) were captioned, and all were far apart in timeframe, the third dating back to 2012.

Merlin ignored the prickling jealousy in the back of his throat. So what if Arthur and Gwaine had known each other for a long time? It didn't change anything.

“I didn't know you'd known each other that long,” he said, passing the phone back.

Gwaine shrugged. “We were introduced at the end of high school,” he explained. “He's a prick but he's not all bad.”

~*~

Merlin excused himself from their outing not long afterwards, called into work sick, shut all the blinds in his apartment and sat down in his circle of books in search of proof. Of what, exactly, he wasn't quite sure yet. Primarily he was looking for any reference to the name Pendragon. Just one mention in one text would be enough.

He didn't eat, even after the first few hours – forgot that hunger was something that should bother him. At first his knees hurt, the carpet rough against them, but then they went numb and the discomfort was forgotten. He stumbled to the bathroom only once.

When the dim daylight seeping through the cracks faded away as evening approached, a whispered command conjured a glowing orb to light the pages.

It was nearing six o'clock when he found it, with numerous paper cuts and bloodshot eyes and aching neck. A half-burned text. A page nearly torn from the binding.

Arthur Pendragon, Once and Future King .

Yes. Merlin read the line again, felt the weight of the words, the rightness of it.

Arthur Pendragon.

Yes. Merlin became a spark, nothing but twisting energy; fingers splaying, sending the searched books flying away, gathering the unread closer to him. Pages flapped in the dimness, dust stung his nose, and his magic finished the work for him.

In total, fifteen texts included the name Pendragon as the surname of the Once and Future King.

Exhausted, elated, Merlin barely managed to set an alarm on his phone before collapsing in the centre of his circle, cheek pillowed on his hand.

Arthur Pendragon.

Bloody old family all right.

Chapter Text

The hot water wasn't running.

It was seven in the morning, Merlin could barely hold himself upright, and the hot water wasn't running.

Normally he would have used his magic to heat it to just the right temperature but after the previous day's efforts, however satisfying they had been, he'd had barely enough energy to drag himself off the floor and into the bathroom. Today felt like it was going to be a no-magic day.

Carefully rinsing his hair under the frosty stream, he found that it didn't bother him at all. None of it mattered. Not the cold, not the exhaustion, not his hunger nor his aching muscles. He had been right. Arthur was part of the same family as the Once and Future King – shared his first name. Combined with the dreams, that strange feeling, it had to mean something, had to be fate's way of telling him that things were stirring, that he was getting closer to the truth.

He turned the shower off. Dried himself.

Uther Pendragon had made magic illegal; his son, Arthur – or Arthur's wife, perhaps, the stories were vague – had brought it back, and Merlin was willing to bet serious money that the Pendragons had also been responsible for its second abolition. As such, it stood to reason that the Pendragons would be the ones destined to reinstate it yet again. What power did this Arthur have, Merlin wondered, tugging on his clothes. In the modern world, with modern politics, with a population millions of times larger, how could a young man have that kind of ability?

He could be wrong about all this, he knew. It was a shot in the dark, a guess based only on the limited information he had. But it was hope.

And god, when he could be snuffed out like a candle just for being who he was, hope was the most precious thing he could have.

 

He ached to return to his books, to review last nights' notes, to find some more information before he had to leave for his double shift, but he forced himself to wait until after breakfast. With his energy so drained, it was foolish to hope that he could achieve anything without fuel.

It took him two eggs, several servings of cereal and a large banana to feel even vaguely energised, and even then his vision still blurred when he stood up too quickly to dump his bowl in the sink.

He took a moment to steady himself against the counter.

One, two, three.

This had happened before, a handful of times, mostly when he had been in high school.

Pushing himself too far for too long, working without breaks, magical and mental exertion combined... Gaius, back when he had lived with the man, had been on his back about it constantly. Don't use magic for your school work, Merlin. You've been in there for three hours, take a break, Merlin. It's after midnight, go to bed, Merlin.

His mother had done the same, though with her it had been somehow more tolerable. He had been younger then, softer, better suited to the quiet life of their village. Not as hungry for answers, for solutions to this monstrous problem that was his world. Not as obsessive. Speaking of his mother, he ought to call her. It had been a while.

 

His book circle was the same as he had left it, slightly dissheveled, some books knocked askew by restless feet during his sleep. His notebook lay beside where his head had been, pen resting in the middle of a full page of notes- Wait. Full page of notes?

Merlin hurried over and crouched down, lifting the book to see better. The pen fell to the floor.

He had left the book on a blank page, he was sure. Not looking at the words, he turned the book over and sure enough, there were his notes from the night before, same as ever. At the bottom he had called for his pen to write Arthur Pendragon, Once and Future King and circle it several times, just as he remembered.

So, then?

His fingers quivered with anticipation for something as he turned back to what should have been a blank page, and read the first line.

No, don't touch the cabbages. I'm fucking serious, Gwaine.

He did not write this. Laughter bubbled up in his throat and he stifled it against his wrist.

I'm fucking serious, Gwaine .

He did not write this, and yet it was in his book, in writing that matched everything else his magical pen wrote-

His pen.

Realisation was a crashing wave; his laughter no longer containable. The book slipped from his fingers. Sleep-talking. That had to be it. He snorted at the ridiculousness of it. He had been sleep-talking and his pen had diligently written down every word, because he had been too euphoric, too drained to remember to make it stop before he slept.

His eyes darted over the rest of the writing: neatly written nonsense in crisp black ink, some of it nothing more than sounds. No more about cabbages. Lots of apologising to Gaius or to Adrian for missing a shift, and at one point, a heated argument with his old highschool English teacher.

Merlin laughed his way through the page, enjoying seeing the contents of his dreaming mind splayed out on paper. Then he stopped.

The last line, without even reading the words, was noticeably different from the rest of the writing.

The lines were thicker, darker, pen pressing into the paper. Letters slanted sideways, messily, lending a sense of urgency to the scrawl.

King Arthur will return when Albion's need is greatest .

Everything froze.

Merlin could feel his pulse shuddering in his ears, in the tips of his fingers, in his legs, curled beneath him.

This was no nonsensical muttering of a dreamer.

Return.

What did that mean? Rise from the dead, reincarnate, suddenly pop up in the middle of London traffic?

Merlin's thoughts jumped to Arthur. Arthur Pendragon. Arthur of the strange familiarity, Arthur of the vivid dream. Surely that was no coincidence.

And surely, what greater peril would Albion face than this quiet genocide of magicians. Surely that went against everything King Arthur's carefully sculpted nation stood for.

Merlin swallowed. Coughed. His vision was blurry, his throat dry.

If this was true, if he was right, then how... why?

Should he even believe it? In a world of magic and destiny, how was he to decide what to believe and what to brush off as mere fancy? It hadn't been mentioned in any of his texts, hadn't come up in any conversation with Gaius. And yet, now that he had read it, it felt as if it had been in his mind all along, like a formula memorised for a school exam and banished to unconscious memory until the subject came up years later and there it was. It felt right. Too right to ignore.

Maybe, he thought, sitting back on his heels, this was the sign he had been looking for all this time. Maybe, maybe, his name marked him as the one destined to guide the new, returned Arthur through this modern world. Maybe he was meant to replace his namesake. Maybe these words were meant to guide him closer and closer to Arthur, as destiny had once guided Merlin of old.

His heart raced at the possibility.

~*~

Destiny deals in balance. When fates are intertwined, when young men are born two sides of the same coin, destiny tugs on one as it tugs on the other. There is no other way.

~*~

At 11:59 that night, Merlin was at The Tavern, weary after two shifts, twitchy after his discoveries, aching to ask Gaius for advice – except he had taken a trip to the country to pick up fresh supplies. The counters were clean, the stools stacked up by the walls, the floor freshly mopped. Normally, he would have turned off the sign and locked up by now, but since that first meeting with Arthur he had taken to heading home later and later. Now, more than ever, he was hesitant to leave.

Leaning against the wall, apron still on and machines still ready for work, he listened to the traffic in the distance and closed his eyes. When Albion's need is greatest.

If Arthur was Arthur, did he know? What would Merlin do if he didn't? These, again, were questions best posed to Gaius, and Gaius wasn't there. Merlin scuffed his shoe against the floor.

That old man sure had impeccable timing.

His phone buzzed.

Gwaine: Sent Princess Prat ur way, thank me later.

He reread the message. Blinked. Princess... Prat...?

The shop bell rang.

Merlin startled, shoving his phone back into his pocket and brushing his hands down the front of his apron. He was on the verge of delivering his “we're absolutely and totally closed, go away” speech when the customer came into focus and he made the connection.

Princess Prat.

Arthur looked nothing like his first visit to The Tavern, his eyes clear and bright, no dark circles smudged underneath. His hair was tousled, but artfully, swept across his forehead, shadows and highlights emphasised by the uneven, flickering light of the cafe. There was confidence in the set of his shoulders, in the arch of one raised brow, in the quirk of his lips as he watched Merlin registering his presence. At the pub, he had looked better, tonight, he was overwhelming.

“Arthur.” Merlin tucked away his pride that his tone had come out even, that he hadn't sounded shocked -- which he was. He had expected it to be different, seeing Arthur after the morning's revelations, and it was, in a small way, but he chalked most of that up to Arthur being Arthur, not Arthur potentially being some reincarnation of the King. Descended from royalty. God.

“I suppose you're going to tell me you're closed,” Arthur said by way of greeting.

That was enough to snap Merlin out of it, because they most definitely were. The weary employee in him was stronger than the Camelot-obsessed sorcerer/love-sick nerd, particularly at this time of night. He wanted to see Arthur, yes. He also wanted to get home before one in the morning.

At least last time they hadn't technically been closed. A glance at the clock on the far wall told Merlin it was 12:03. Attractive or not, King Arthur or not, they were closed and Merlin was too tired to deal with this rush of... of whatever it was he was feeling.

“We are, actually.” Merlin gestured to the clock.

Arthur ignored him, walking further into the shop. “That apron really is dreadful,” he said, lip curling. Merlin was halfway to a defensive response when he continued, “You should take it off.”

Merlin laughed, disbelieving. He really was a prat, wasn't he? “You just can't help yourself, can you?”

There was a flicker in Arthur's eyes. It looked almost as if his pupils had dilated, just a fraction.

Merlin ignored it. “You know, people are more likely to let you in after closing hours if you don't insult them on sight.” When Arthur breathed in, preparing to reply, he talked over the budding words. “It's not happening, by the way. We're closed. I'm going home.” He moved pointedly across the room, brushing by Arthur, to pull down the blinds and turn off the sign.

For a few moments, the rattle of the cord was the only sound in the room, and when Merlin turned, the man's eyebrows disappeared up beyond the smooth sweep of hair above his eyes. He folded his arms. They held eye contact, each as stubborn as the other.

Finally, Arthur spoke. “I want a coffee. Black. No sugar.” The quoting of his original order should have raised Merlin's hackles, were it not delivered with a slow-curled smile and amused eyes.

It was infectious. “We're closed,” Merlin repeated, but his tone had lost all strength. Deep down, he knew that Arthur would win – had already won - that Merlin would walk back across the room and make his drink like an obedient servant. He tried to justify it to himself, thinking that, after all, this was an excellent opportunity to get to know Arthur better, something advantageous for both his romantic and his magical pursuits. Mostly magical. Arthur was probably straight, probably not into guys like Merlin even if he wasn't.

Arthur laughed, low in his throat, and the sound of it ran right through Merlin's body. He hid a shiver. “Coffee,” Arthur said again. “Black. No-”

“No sugar, yes, right, I get it.” Merlin sighed, ran a hand through his hair. “As you wish, sire.” It was joke with himself, his tone laden with sarcasm, and yet Merlin didn't miss the strange, almost hungry look that crossed Arthur's face.

 

By the time Merlin had prepared Arthur's order, it was 12:15, and Arthur had taken a seat at the same spot as before, at the end of the counter. This time, he sat upright, alert, and rather than staring emptily at his phone, Merlin felt those eyes on him the entire time. Did he know? There were so many possible reasons behind the staring; attraction (he hoped), suspicion (he hoped not), vague interest (“I've never seen an insect like that before”) or, perhaps, he really was King Arthur.

“There's nothing strange in this one, is there?” Arthur asked when Merlin pushed the cup towards him.

Merlin laughed. “No, it's just coffee.” He hovered, uncertain, on the staff side of the counter.

Arthur raised the cup to his lips, stopped, and lowered it. “What was that, last time?” There was no real suspicion in his tone or on his face, just curiosity. It made him look younger, eyes softened and wide and breathtakingly blue.

Merlin hesitated, danced the line between telling the truth and deflecting.

“It was drugs, wasn't it?” Eyes flat, tone flat, one brow cocked in challenge.

“No!” Merlin's hands curled in his apron. (You should take it off. He flushed.) “No, it's just herbs. Regular herbs. Like- like lavender.”

“Herbs.” Arthur took a sip. “Then why couldn't I taste it?”

“Gaius just has a way of mixing the flavours so they all cancel out. I don't know how he does it.” This wasn't technically untrue. Gaius did, indeed, combine herbs and make it essentially flavourless but that had more to do with magic and less to do with culinary talent.

“...Right.”

Arthur didn't believe him. Merlin's gut clenched. It was fine, he told himself. As long as he didn't suspect magic, it was fine. He twisted the strap of his apron around his finger, anxious. It was fine. On impulse, hoping to at least temporarily distract Arthur for thoughts of the drink, he walked to the other end of the counter and tugged the apron up over his head, feeling his t-shirt ride up with the movement.

“And Gaius is your...”

Merlin turned to look at him over his shoulder, still reaching to hang the apron on a hook.

Arthur was staring. “...Your uncle, I'm guessing?” he finished, then swallowed hard. “You took it off.”

Arthur's attention was too sharp, his gaze to heavy, and Merlin could feel his skin tingling. He let go of the apron and turned around, shrugging. “Well, it's after hours so I'm not really at work, am I?” he answered. “And yeah, something like that.” In truth, he wasn't entirely sure how they were related. His mother had been vague on the matter and it had never seemed significant, so he hadn't asked again. “I used to live with him, back when I started high school.”

There was that curious look again. “Why?”

Merlin shrugged again, dismissive, and leaned against the counter not far from where Arthur was sitting. “The village where I grew up didn't have a secondary school and Mum couldn't drive me to the nearest one every day, so I moved.”

“Hm.”

The following silence was so complete that Merlin could hear a drunk man yelling from several blocks away. He shifted uncomfortably, pushing his hands into his pockets and staring beyond Arthur, watching the lights flicker. Had he said something wrong? Was Arthur such a snob that he found the mere notion of someone from a provincial background disgusting?

“You do have that country look about you.”

Merlin jumped, shifting his gaze to focus back on Arthur. The man was smiling in a way that was not quite jovial, and Merlin had the prickling feeling that he was about to fall into a trap. “I do?” his tone was slow, suspicious, eyes narrowing as he prepared to defend his background or... whatever he was going to have to do.

Arthur regarded him appraisingly for a long moment, straight-faced, then nodded. “You do.” That smile reappeared. “It's almost endearing, Merlin.”

“Oh, sod off.” Merlin crossed him arms over his chest, turned his head away.

“Come on,” Arthur laughed, “Your ears are going red. You like it.”

There was a fine line between flirting and standard 'no homo' banter. Merlin had never been sure where that line was. His immediate reaction was to insist the negative, get irrationally defensive and only increase the blush that he knew was spreading down to his neck. In a moment of recklessness, he shrugged in a manner he hoped was careless and drawled, “Maybe I do.”

Arthur scoffed, rolling his eyes. “Is that why you let me in after closing?”

Not exactly the reaction he'd wanted. Merlin ignored the sinking disappointment. “No,” he said, forcing his tone into something casual, weary. “I'm just too polite to throw you out.”

Arthur laughed, drained the last of his coffee, and checked his watch. “I should head out.” He stood, tugging his wallet out of his back pocket and dumping a note on the counter. Merlin looked at it, looked back at Arthur, and hesitated. Gwaine wouldn't help him out forever; if he wanted to keep seeing Arthur, for whatever reason, he had to do something now, while Arthur was standing, expectant, not taking off into the night like before.

He licked his dry lips, pretended he couldn't notice Arthur tracking the movement with his eyes. “Why don't I give you my number?” he suggested. His breath came and went too quickly. “So you can warn me next time you plan to come in after closing.” In the slight pause that followed, Merlin wiped his palms on his pants under the shadow of the counter. He could feel his pulse in his bloody knees.

“What, haven't you got any decent friends, Merlin?” Arthur shook his head, face full of mock disappointment. “Sure.”

Suddenly Merlin could breathe normally again. He took the phone offered and typed his number in with shaky fingers. “Right,” he said, passing it back.

“Right.” It was probably just the bad light, but Merlin thought there might have been a dusting of pink across Arthur's cheeks. “I'll see you round.” Arthur took two steps backwards, waved, and turned to leave. Merlin waited until he was out of sight then slumped against the counter.

If he was right, that was his king.

~*~

When Merlin finally reached home at almost 1:30, the first thing he did was text Gwaine.

Is Arthur straight??

Just as he hit send, his phone buzzed with a text from an unknown number.

Expect me late tomorrow, have my coffee ready.

I'm joking, in case you couldn't tell.

Merlin typed Prat and moved to hit send, then hesitated. Would he take that badly? After a moment's thought he added a grinning emoji and hoped that would be enough. A rolling-eyes emoji was his only reply.

Gwaine texted him moments afterwards.

Lol no .

Merlin typed frantically. WHAT. IS HE SERIOUSLY NOT.

If he wasn't straight then- Merlin ran over their entire conversation, all the little statements and glances and... Okay, he had thought there was a possibility, certainly, but he deep down he hadn't really thought Arthur would be anything but straight. Had King Arthur been straight? He had a wife, but that didn't mean...

Gwaine responded with a long series of crying-laughing emojis. Merlin, mate, no.

Merlin: BECAUSE I THINK HE WAS ACTUALLY FLIRTING WITH ME THEN

More laughing. And I bet u ignored it cos you thought he was straight jfc merls

Merlin: HOW WAS I MEANT TO KNOW

           YOU DIDN'T TELL ME

Gwaine: u didn't ask! Sorry not sorry mate.

Merlin dropped the phone and buried his face in his hands. He could have done so much better had he known. His flirting was mediocre, but when he actually put effort in it wasn't so bad.

He allowed himself a few minutes to recover, then fired up his battered laptop and searched 'Pendragon'. The first page of search results was all headlines, a combination of click-bait magazine articles and actual news sites.

Breaking Away From The Pendragon Legacy

PENDRAGON'S SON TO TAKE OVER COMPANY

You Won't Believe These Conspiracy Theories About Pendragon's Death

Arthur Pendragon Refuses Interview Regarding Father's Death

CEO OF WP INDUSTRIES FOUND DEAD IN HIS LONDON HOME

Pendragon's Net Worth Said To Be Over $10 Billion

William Pendragon: The Government Isn't Doing Enough to Fight Magic

A scan of the article previews gave Merlin enough information to put together a rough idea of what had happened.

William Pendragon, Arthur's father, owned WP Industries, a company that, in addition to producing high-tech computers for the government and defence force, made weapons to use against sorcerors. Merlin knew the company name, remembered seeing a handful of news broadcasts where it was mentioned, but he had never paid much attention. They didn't sell to the general public and Merlin was so caught up in Camelot he usually relied on Gaius to give him important updates on the political situation with magic. Pendragon was outspoken in his hatred for magic and acted as spokesperson for a tentatively-called 'radical' group (in the magic community, they were terrorists, plain and simple), United Against Sorcery. The man, in his late fifties, had died of a heart attack (likely due to stress worsening a pre-existing heart condition, though the conspiracy theory article claimed it was an assassination from a magic-supporter) just over six months ago. His son, Arthur, after months of resfusing interviews, had announced that he was taking over the company. Merlin checked the photo provided by the website to make sure it was the same person. Sure enough, the image was the same one that had been on Arthur's instagram; he and his father standing together. Merlin felt his stomach sinking. Arthur's sexuality, Arthur's interest, if there was any, didn't matter at all if he shared his late father's views. Merlin couldn't even pursue someone he couldn't be himself with.

With a sigh, he scrolled back up and was about to close the window when a line of text caught his eye, under the first headline. In an interview conducted by Ronald Davidson today, the new WP Industries CEO, Arthur Pendragon, announced plans to cease production of weapons against...

Merlin clicked to read more.

The article was mostly a transcript of an interview from roughly two weeks ago. Merlin counted back days. It had been a Thursday when he first- Yes. If his tired brain was doing the maths right, the interview had occurred the morning of the day Arthur had first come into The Tavern.

Breaking Away From The Pendragon Legacy

In an interview conducted by Ronald Davidson today, Arthur Pendragon, the new CEO of WP Industries, announced plans to cease production of weapons against magic. WP Industries has been the defence force's primary supplier of anti-magic arms for almost three decades, since the company was founded.

Merlin glanced over the words, scrolling down to the transcript, skimming the introduction and searching for Arthur's reasons for the decision.

RONALD DAVIDSON: Some would say this is a decision founded from support of magic. What would your response to such claims be?

ARTHUR PENDRAGON: It has nothing to do with that. Though I am grateful for the government's continued support of my company, even in the aftermath of my father's death, our weapon technology is outdated. We are still using designs from thirty years ago. Around us, the technology is advancing rapidly. It's time to let other companies take the lead.

RONALD DAVIDSON: Why not simply upgrade?

ARTHUR PENDRAGON: Upgrading is not 'simple', as you put it. To change the technology we've been using for decades is expensive. For much of it, we would have to replace the machinery, rebuild the factories – to be blunt, we don't have the money. It's in the company's best interests to focus on our other products .

RONALD DAVIDSON: So you intend to continue producing computers for the government?

ARTHUR PENDRAGON: We do. Computer technology is not as fast-growing as anti-magic technology and as such, we have a better chance of maintaining a profit.

RONALD DAVIDSON: What about outside of the company? Will you take over from your father in all aspects, such as speaking for UAS?

ARTHUR PENDRAGON: No, I will not.

RONALD DAVIDSON: Why not?

ARTHUR PENDRAGON: I am a CEO, not a terrorist.

RONALD DAVIDSON: Mr Pendragon, thank you for your time.

ARTHUR PENDRAGON: Thank you.

Merlin bookmarked the page, then closed his browser. He wasn't sure whether to be hopeful or not. If Arthur was going to stop producing weapons, that was a good sign, though his reasoning didn't indicate that he was doing it because he disagreed with the weapons themselves. An eage r , optimistic part of Merlin wanted to believe that he had only said all that to cover himself but there was no way to be certain. The only thing that really spoke in his favour was that last answer; I am a CEO, not a terrorist . If he was bold enough to imply that the UAS were terrorists in public, he likely wasn't as against magic as his father had been. That gave Merlin hope.

It was after 2AM when he finally closed his eyes, a mixture of Arthur's conversation with him and quotes from the articles chasing each other around his mind.

Chapter Text

Arthur did come back to The Tavern the next day, fashionably, obnoxiously late, and Merlin didn't mind nearly as much as he should have. He minded even less with every successive visit over the following weeks, every peculiar meme shared, every quietly affectionate text-rant after a drunk Gwaine had called one or both of them late at night. There was still discomfort, still awkward lapses in conversation, especially at The Tavern when Merlin was too tired and worn down after a long day of work to hide his flushed ears. He couldn't ignore his new knowledge of Arthur's father, just as he couldn't stop searching for any sign that Arthur was Arthur.

Merlin wouldn't yet call them friends, but they were friendly. They talked. It wasn't unpleasant.

He could almost convince himself it was enough, because it felt like a puzzle piece had been filled; something had returned that the deja vu sense had told him he was missing.

But it wasn't enough.

Love-sick young man Merlin needed more. Researcher, sorceror Merlin needed to know.

And so, one Monday morning, as Merlin sat eating breakfast with the television babbling in the background, he decided to take a risk and ask Arthur out on a date. If he accepted, they would spend more time together and everything would be easier. If he refused, hopefully Merlin would have made it casual enough that their current relationship would not change. The pay off would be worth it, he hoped, despite the dangers.

He dumped his plate in the sink. Maybe he should text Gwaine, see what he thought.

“Anyone using London public transport should be wary...” The newscaster's voice grew louder as Merlin moved through the lounge room to sit on the couch, phone ready in hand. He tapped out a message and half-listened to the reporter.

“...people within these areas are asked to be cautious and remain in their homes...”

I'm thinking , Merlin typed-

“...riots have broken out near...”

-of asking Arthur out.

Merlin glanced at the screen, unseeing; noticed that the woman speaking looked stressed and felt a pang of sympathy, then looked down again.

What do you think?

“The UAS claims they are sending a message to all magic-supporters-” Merlin's head snapped up.

The green-screen behind the reporter showed a violent scene from one of the poorer areas of the city, fires and broken glass and masses of people holding signs and weapons. His phone fell onto his lap and he leaned forwards to read the headline scrolling at the bottom of the screen as the woman continued to provide details of the riots. ...government cracking down on magic; UAS claims not enough is being done.

“One man is in critical condition in the Royal London Hospital after rioters mistook a religious symbol on his door for a magical sigil and attacked him. The man's wife and elderly neighbour were also injured in the attack when they stepped in to protect him.”

There was no air in Merlin's lungs. The floor seemed to sway beneath him. “Jesus christ...” he breathed. As if there could be a worse time to be researching Camelot, to be running an illegal magic cafe, to be- to be praying that the son of a magic-hating terrorist would turn out to be his king.

“And now, the weather.” There was a light-hearted lilt to the woman's voice now, a soft edge of laughter, but beneath that it was strained. Even she was worried.

The phone made its way into his hand without him moving his fingers, Gaius' number tapping itself onto the screen. Merlin could have slapped himself. He couldn't keep doing this when he was stressed or tired or spaced out, couldn't keep gambling on his ability to cover it. He wasn't a teenager any more, he should know better, this could get him killed-

“Merlin?”

“Hi Gaius,” Merlin croaked. “Have you heard the news?”

Gaius was silent for a beat too long. “About the riots? I have.” Another too-long pause. “It's a problem, I hope it doesn't make it difficult for you to get to class.”

Class ? The room was suddenly darker than it should have been. Gaius knew he wasn't at school any more, Gaius knew-

“Do you mind coming in to the cafe? I know it's not your shift,” Gaius said. “There's some renovations that need doing.”

Merlin was already moving, turning the TV off, swinging his bag off the hook by the door. “I'll be there in a few minutes.” If Gaius was in trouble, if he was censoring himself because someone was listening-

Merlin locked the door. There was work to do.

~*~

The Tavern looked sad and lonely in the grey morning light, seeming to hunch over in its dull alleyway, the brown bricks misted with droplets of rain. The tables that usually stood outside had been taken away, along with the menu board; the blinds were drawn on all the windows and a laminated poster taped to the front door: CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS. Merlin swallowed his anxiety. Perhaps it really was just renovations.

He tried the front door only to find it locked. For possibly the first time in his life, he chose to err on the side of caution and pulled the key out of his pocket, rather than use magic. Inside, the lights were on, flickering like always against the ceiling, but the room was empty. Merlin re-locked the door. After a moment of uncertainty, scuffing his shoe against the floorboards, he realised that he could hear voices – Lucinda's bright laughter and the dry edge of Adrian's sarcasm and Gaius' exasperation – coming from the back room. The door was open and the curtain pulled aside, movement just visible within. Relief flooded through him. They were fine.

He immediately felt stupid for his earlier panic. It wasn't like him to worry like that - taking risks with his magic had become routine and the situation had been bad before – and yet it had nearly overcome him. Had it been because this time he feared that someone he cared about was in danger?

But that had happened before too- No, it hadn't. Why had he thought that? Throughout his adolescence, he had been the only one directly at risk; that had to be why he had panicked this time. Right?

Shaking his head, he walked quickly through to the back room and was almost knocked off his feet by an ornate armchair swinging towards his head. He ducked.

“Christ, Lucinda, steady there!” Adrian shouted.

Lucinda flushed and ducked her head, lowering the armchair to the ground. “Sorry, sorry, I didn't see you coming!” she gasped. “Are you okay?” Her bright hair was escaping from its clips, clinging to the moisture on her forehead. There were smudges of dust on her rolled sleeves, on the knees of her jeans.

Merlin smiled broadly at her. “I'm fine. You want help with that?” He gestured to the chair, leaning haphazardly against the wall. It was almost as big as she was.

Lucinda shook her head, hands coming to rest on her hips. “Thanks, but I'm fine. 'Scuse me.” Determined, she lifted the chair again and edged past him, barely fitting it through the doorway.

Merlin looked around.

The room was dim as ever, the candelabras unlit. Dust spiralled in what little light seeped in through the doorway. It looked much bigger than usual now that much of the furniture had been removed: tables were stacked by the door, tapestries rolled into wobbly piles, chairs mostly gone. The desks against the far wall had already been moved. To the right was a long conference table, a flat-screen TV and its associated cables heaped on top, along with a box of ordinary lightbulbs and three curved fittings. Gaius was leaning on the table, looking just slightly younger, wearing faded jeans and a flannel shirt with his hair pulled back into a bun. His hands were busy in a bright red toolbox, sorting through screws, raising them to the light and squinting; matching them against the holes in the light fittings. Adrian, who had been leaning against the far wall, stepped forward then, revealing a slim folded ladder behind him. He gripped the side of it with one hand and nodded a greeting to Merlin. “Morning.”

Merlin offered a half-wave in return. “G'morning. What's all this?”

Adrian looked exactly as one would expect a male version of Lucinda to look but also not at all. They shared their red hair, greenish eyes and turned-up noses, and they were both shorter than average, but where Lucinda's freckles were scattered over all visible skin, his were sparse, restricted to his cheeks and the backs of his hands. Where Lucinda tried to take up as little space as possible, Adrian tried to make himself far bigger than he was. Even relaxed, standing by the wall, his head was high, shoulders back, feet apart. The way he folded his arms as he shifted his weight away from the ladder made his already-large biceps seem twice as big. His hair was cropped close to his head and his chin jutted out, somewhere in the grey zone between arrogant and insolent. Merlin was glad they weren't enemies.

“We're renovating,” Adrian answered.

Yes, I can see that . Merlin was about to shoot back an irritated comment when Gaius turned away from the tool box. “We're closing down everything that isn't normal about this cafe until things calm down,” he said, voice weary. “I've already cleared out the potitons cupboard and now we're changing this room to match the cover you made. I'll need you to make sure everything lines up once we're finished.”

“Sure thing, Gaius.” Fair enough. It was the first time they had needed to do this, though, and the thought stirred a prickle of his previous fear. “What was with the phone call? I thought there was trouble, I was really worried.”

Gaius frowned for a moment, then tipped his head back, mouth forming a silent 'oh'. “I don't know how much of the report you saw,” he said, “But the government, at least locally, is very serious about it this time and it's possible they're listening in to phone calls. I wanted to be cautious.”

Right. Of course. Merlin hadn't even thought-

“It's not like you to worry,” Gaius added, a wry smile growing.

“Thanks, Gaius,” Merlin said, tone flat.

Gaius chuckled and turned back to his tools, saying over his shoulder, “Help Lucinda with the furniture, would you? It's going into the attic. If anyone asks, I'm a secret horder.”

Merlin laughed. “Will do.” He pivoted and lifted the nearest chair, then ducked back through the doorway and towards the stairs that led to Gaius' apartment.

~* ~

The clouds had cleared, giving way to the darkening blue of the evening sky by the time they finished with everything. The back room looked like the conference room it was supposed to be, the lines between real furniture and Merlin's enchantment now so blurred that the two were one and the same. Merlin dreaded the idea of undoing it once things settled back to normal.

As he emerged from Gaius' apartment, where the four of them had been having a celebratory cup of tea, his phone buzzed, and he glanced at the screen to see that Gwaine had (finally) responded to his text.

Go for it

Helpful.

“Merls, we're going to the pub, wanna come?” Lucinda appeared at his shoulder, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

“Yeah, of course.” Merlin smiled at her and started to tuck his phone away, then stopped. After a moment of hesitation, he reopened his messages and tapped out a text to Arthur.

Shop's closed, I'm going to the pub with two friends.

Want to come?

He didn't let himself think before hitting send and watching the screen as the read receipt appeared, then typing, then

Ok cool.

Yes!

Gaius caught his arm before he could start down the stairs.

“Merlin.”
“Gaius?”

“Hide those books. All your notes. Don't do any more until things quieten down, understand?”

Merlin nodded. “Sure, Gaius.” He had already thought of that, but trust the old man to think he was still as foolish as he had been as a teenager. Gaius, proving Merlin's point, was fixing him with a very stern, slightly doubtful look.

“Seriously, Merlin.”
Merlin resisted rolling his eyes. “Yes, Gaius! I won't do anything stupid.”

~*~

On the way to the pub, their attempts at jovial conversation were constantly interrupted by the wailing of sirens in the distance; mostly police, occasionally ambulances, and, on two occasions, fire. The people they passed seemed anxious, more intent than usual on getting to where they were going. Every other block, they passed someone overdressed for the weather in a long coat and scarf, pockets bulging, bags clutched with white-knuckled hands. They stood hunched in corners, pressed flat against walls, huddled in bus shelters, their eyes flickering golden as they maintained the enchantment hiding them from ordinary view.

The sixth they passed was a woman sitting on a suitcase beside a tube station entrance, two small boys sleeping inside her coat. She stared as they passed, lips bitten and chapped, red-rimmed eyes shadowed by purplish black. Adrian swallowed tightly and separated from Lucinda and Merlin, marching purposefully towards the woman. He blinked, and then his shoelace was untied, and he was bending at the knee to retie it. When he moved away the woman was smiling, weary, sad, thankful, moving shaking fingers to pick up the wad of bills he had left on the concrete before her. Her lips moved in silent gratitude as she tucked the money into her coat. One boy stirred, reaching up to grab a lock of her hair with tiny fingers. Her eyes filled with tears. Adrian turned away, throat tight.

He rejoined the others, his mouth set. “I don't like this,” he said, voice low, as they resumed their pace. Lucinda agreed.

For a moment, Merlin toyed with the idea of suggesting they all go and stay with his mother, escape the city like all these others, until this all stopped. Lucinda and Adrian had school, though, and Gaius wouldn't abandon the shop, and Merlin wouldn't abandon Arthur.

Speak of the devil, the man came walking towards them just as they reached the pub entrance, shirt rolled to the elbows, eyes tired. He looked much like he had on that first day, strung out and worried, only now he smiled as he approached, raising a hand in greeting.

Once he was close enough, Merlin stepped to the side and gestured awkwardly to the other two. “These are my friends, Lucinda and Adrian,” he said, “Guys, this is Arthur.”

Arthur shook both their hands, businesslike. Adrian, his chin barely above Arthur's shoulder, looked faintly indimidated and did his utmost to cover it, while Lucinda blushed visibly and glanced away. Arthur noticed, brows raising slightly. Merlin noticed him noticing, and tried to ignore his budding jealousy. There was an uncomfortable pause, where no one said a thing, then Arthur swung a muscular arm around Merlin's shoulders and tugged him into a sideways hug.

“How's it going, Merlin?”

Merlin was close enough to feel his warmth. “I'm all right,” he said, trying in vain to keep his breathing steady. Arthur smelled of expensive aftershave and beneath that, something that was distinctly him, something that had that strange feeling rising again, that sense of I've been here before.

Arthur let go of him after a time slightly too long to be considered merely friendly. “Great,” he said.

Adrian gave them a measuring look and murmured something to his sister that had her eyes widening and a quiet 'oh' escaping her mouth. She nodded, straightening her posture, suddenly looking less bashful and less interested. “Shall we?” she said, leading the way into the pub.

“I'm disappointed I can't order you around tonight, Merlin,” Arthur said as they walked through. His tone was mocking, and Merlin matched it perfectly as he replied, “I'm sure you'll order me around regardless.” Ahead of them, Adrian snorted.

Inside, the drunken chatter and bawdy laughter, backed by the too-loud yabbering of the TV in the corner felt the same as always. This pub, it seemed, was an island of normality in an anxious city.

That was until Merlin saw a small cluster of London's new magic refugees, in their dark coats, heads close together at a far table, suitcases by their feet, beers held like liferafts. He looked away and, as Lucinda and Adrian headed for the bar, scanned the room for Gwaine. Arthur, pausing beside him, seemed to do the same.

They found him with his back towards them, hands in his pockets, talking to a group of laughing young men by the pool table. They looked, Merlin thought, like nicer versions of the boys who had picked on him in early high school (he used this to explain away that now-familiar sense of deja vu as he looked at them). A tall, broad-shouldered man with a blonde crewcut saw Arthur after a moment and his face split into a grin. “Eh, Pendragon!” The others startled and turned their heads at his voice, waving and shouting similar greetings across the bar.

Arthur smiled back and raised a hand in friendly greeting but made no move to go closer.

Gwaine, who had turned with the others, said something over his shoulder to the group and came walking towards Merlin and Arthur.

“Merlin, I wasn't expecting to see you here tonight!” he announced, smiling broadly as he ruffled Merlin's hair. “Hey, Arthur. This a date?” Here he wiggled his eyebrows dramatically.

Merlin stared, cheeks turning red, but Arthur ignored the question completely. “How are you, Gwaine?”

“Good, good!”

“You're not working tonight?” Merlin asked. Best keep the conversation going, and hope that the poor lighting would hide the colour in his cheeks.

“Nah,” Gwaine laughed. “I only came in to see the guys. We used to play football together, good times, eh Arthur?” At this Arthur looked somewhat gratified but mostly annoyed. “I'd introduce them to you, Merlin, but they're just about to head out. Another time, yeah? They're not bad, you'd like them.”

“Gwaine!”
Merlin turned to find Lucinda bouncing on the balls of her feet, drink in one hand, broad smile on her lips.

“Hey, Lucy.” Gwaine shifted his weight away from Merlin and Arthur as he turned to greet her.

Lucinda blushed visibly at the nickname. “It's been a while, how are you?”

Merlin glanced at Arthur, who shrugged and nodded back towards the bar. Together they weaved towards a space clear of people. Once they were clear of the rabble and could speak at a normal volume, Merlin took a breath and said, “I'll buy you a drink. What do you want?”

Arthur glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. “That sounds like something you'd say to a pretty girl,” he said. “Are you saying I look like a girl, Merlin?”

Merlin laughed. “It's not always pretty girls I'm interested in,” he said, shrugging off the burning sensation that the admission caused.

But arthur only raised his eyebrows. “Is that so.” He said each word like it was a sentence unto itself. “Well, then, I'll have a beer.”

“What type?”

“Whatever you can afford.”

Merlin shot him a glare. “Prat.”
Arthur shrugged.

~*~

Merlin took the long way home that night.

They had left the pub as a group; Arthur, Gwaine, Lucinda, Adrian and Merlin, after much laughter and several drinks, then gone their separate ways.

It was a cloudy night, light pollution reflecting back off the grey fluff. Sirens split the silence periodically, just the same as earlier. Merlin couldn't even see the moon.

He wished, with a sudden, precise longing, that he was back home, in his tiny, boring village, in their small, quiet house.

No moon, no stars.

He still didn't know where he stood with Arthur. He was hoping, desperately, for a moment of clarity, where everything would fall into place and he would just know.

No moon, no stars.

The magical side of the city was in ruins with everything that was happening, he could feel it. It was so hard to find the path when there was no light to be guided by.

He approached another dark alleyway, his footsteps sharp in the silence; smelled the gasoline and cat-piss stench and wrinkled his nose, quickening his pace. His head turned, glancing into darkness that seemed too inky to be real, watching as he passed, just in case some creep decided to jump him. There was nothing, no movement, no noise, but then – there! Lights, floating in the darkness.

All senses on edge, every hair standing to attention, he stopped. Turned. Squinted.

There were stars in the alleyway, beautiful, glittering stars, each a perfect replica of the real thing. As he watched, they turned to flames, orange and red and gold, flickering, then butterflies with sparkling wings, purple and green and blue. There was a song, too, beneath it all, a barely-there crooning, wordless, nothing but melody. He adjusted his balance, his foot scuffing on the ground, and the lights flickered out, the song's last note hanging empty in the air.

Merlin had seen this before. There were sorcerors like this all over the country, always on the move, living on adrelin, dancing on the edge of a blade. They filled their nights with music and lights in empty parks, on rooftops, in alleyways, almost daring the authorities to come after them. Those who stayed too long flickered out, one by one, like the lights they created.

Merlin tossed a handful of coins into the dark, whispered, “Good luck,” and hurried on.

 

Back at his apartment that night, he hid his books under the floorboards, enchanted the locks, and sat alone in his bedroom, stars glittering behind his eyelids.

Chapter Text

So Merlin was banned from magic. More or less.

Mostly less, because he still found himself using it accidentally for mundane tasks, but he was trying, okay. And it was hard.

Magic was such an integral part of his being that even the threat of discovery and death, it was nearly impossible to cut it out of his life. Even more so when he saw more sorcerers leaving the city in the late evenings or early mornings, slipping unseen onto trains or trudging through the streets in their heavy coats. He wanted to help them, the only way he knew how, but that was magic, and that was bad. Everything was bad. Merlin hadn't realised the gravity of it that first day at the shop.

The familiar sight of stars and flames in the dead of night was becoming rarer and rarer. Once, Merlin had seen it almost every time he walked home that way. Now, since that last one in the alleyway, he had taken the long way every night and only seen one or two. He hoped they had run, not been taken.

He missed his research. He missed the late nights in the backroom of The Tavern, chatting with magical regulars. He missed the days when he didn't have to monitor himself to make sure he wasn't using magic – days when a little slip-up was something to flush and laugh at, a shot of adrenaline, not a potential death sentence.

The dreams came almost every night lately, but rather than spending his nights riding dragons, his mind was filled with scenes of battle and horror and executions. The niggling sense that something was missing had also returned, gnawing a hole in his gut that no food could fill.

Sundays, which had been his day of rest and normality for so long, were now spent slumped over the bar, interchanging his normal smalltalk with Gwaine with questions about the situation; what the news wasn't covering. Gwaine knew things – he saw and heard almost everything from his place behind the bar – and it was easy enough to disguise it as casual chitchat. The bar remained mostly unchanged, as did Gwaine. He was concerned, sure, but in the way only Gwaine could be – which, for anyone else, was not concerned at all. Arthur, meanwhile, had become harder to reach. The time between replies had gotten longer, visits to the Tavern rarer. When he did show up, it was with mussed hair and 5 o'clock shadow and bloodshot eyes. His insults, though, were sharp as ever, and he still carried himself with that god-forsaken royal attitude. If anything, that had gotten worse.

Merlin was a little disconcerted that he found it attractive.

All that aside, if there was ever a time he needed to find King Arthur it was now, and since he still hadn't had any solid sign that Arthur was him, maybe he ought to start looking elsewhere. Albion wasn't going to wait for him to get his shit together.

 

Sprawled out on his battered couch, Merlin stared up at the ceiling. The news was on in the background; nothing relevant yet. It was almost eleven o'clock in the morning, and he hadn't moved since eight. Get his shit together. He really did have to do something, but that involved more research, and he had promised Gaius... But there was no way anyone could find out if it was behind closed doors, was there? As long as he didn't go looking for new texts or use his magic in public, surely it would be okay. He swung a leg off the couch, eased himself upright, joints protesting from too long spent in one position.

“In other news, hundreds of people across the city have been reported missing, including entire families,” the reporter said.

Merlin stopped dead. “Matthew Parker, neighbour of one such family, the Ryans, told police last night, 'It was the weirdest thing. I went round to drop off a hammer I borrowed and the front door was wide open. The whole place had been cleared out, furniture and everything. No sign that they'd ever been there at all.' This morning, it was discovered that the family had no record of having ever existed in the country. The children are not listed as having been enrolled at their school, and the parents are not on the electoral roll. This has been the case for many of these disappearances, and though friends and coworkers swear they exist, no written evidence can be found.”

“There is speculation that these people are sorcerers fearing persecution from the government, while others claim they were 'taken'. Security footage is being analysed as we speak to determine whether the distortion you see here-” the reporter's image was replaced by a black-and-white security video, clearly taken by a camera outside a store, showing a strange blurred section moving across the footpath- “Is actually a sorcerer using magic to conceal themselves as they leave the ci--.”

Merlin turned the TV off.

It made sense that the media would pick up on it now that the vanishings were building up, now that it had been a week or more of people leaving town. He hoped that's all it was. Sorcerers fleeing was bad enough, but if people were being taken...

He wondered how many sorcerers remained in London. Would there be a day when it was just Gaius, Lucinda, Adrian and himself? Would there be a day when they too had to leave?

It was then that his phone rang, vibrating against the coffee table. He snatched it up.

Mum.

Shit , he had meant to call her ages ago and since everything went crazy he had completely forgotten about it. Oh, god, he was such a bad son.

“Hi Mum.”

“Merlin! Darling, how are you?” the relief in her voice was palpable.

Merlin stood up, stretching up onto his toes . He had been on that couch far too long. “I'm fine, Mum, sorry I haven't called, I've been so busy and-”“It's fi

ne, I know Gaius would call me if there was a problem. Have you seen the news?”

And there it was.

Yeah, Mum.” Merlin cleared his throat. “It's a real mess, all these people just vanishing. But it's been no one I know and business hasn't been affected – we're all okay.” Better to make it sound like this was just an inconvenience, a mild concern, not a life-or-death matter. Just in case Gaius was right.

His mother caught on quickly – or maybe she had already been thinking along those lines. “ That's good, just make sure you keep away from the riots.”

M erlin braced an arm against the wall, arched his back – god, was this how Gaius felt? “Sure thing, Mum,” he said. “Anyway, how are you?”

“I'm fine, love .” There was a pause. “Why don't you come visit? Stay for a week – no, two -- bring Gaius and Lucy and Adrian?” There was an edge to her voice, stress or annoyance, Merlin wasn't sure.

He chewed the idea over in his mind for a few seconds. As much as he missed his village, missed his mum, he couldn't just up and leave town. They couldn't close the shop for a whole fortnight, he couldn't forget about Arthur for a whole fortnight, couldn't leave this city teetering on the edge of disaster. “I'd love to Mum but we're so busy with the shop...” he left space for her to fill in, not wanting to spell out details over a potentially-bugged line.

She sighed. “All right, Merlin, but you'll come up for Christmas, won't you?”

Christmas. God, it was so far away – by Christmas this all might be over, or it might be ten times worse. By Christmas he might be dead. “Of course, Mum, I wouldn't miss it.”

“All right, then I'll let you go. I love you.”

“Love you too, Mum. I'll try to call more, okay? See you.”

He hung up the phone, put it back on the coffee table, and went to dig out his books.

~*~

After three hours of nothing , the books went away again. Merlin shifted the loose floorboards to cover them and whispered a spell to seal it with a heavy stomach and slumped shoulders. Nothing. What a waste! All that anxiety, all that time, going against Gaius' instructions, taking another fucking risk and he had found nothing new.

He ran a weary hand over his face, cherishing the brief darkness.

After a moment, he straightened, let out a long, slow breath, and re-focused his mind. He had other things to get done today – normal other things, things that didn't wasting spending two hours on the couch and three hours on research-he-wasn't-meant-to-be-doing. Things like grocery shopping.

When had he last gone grocery shopping?

A quick search of the kitchen cupboards yielded the answer: too long ago. God, he really was a successful adult, he thought, not even noticing when he'd gone a week or more living off takeaway and cereal. With a heavy sigh, he scooped his wallet and keys off the counter and headed for the door.

 

It hit him in the cereal aisle. Suddenly the world seemed to dim and his vision narrowed to the garish yellow of the box in his hand and god, he was so tired. He could feel it in his bones. When would this end? When could he just- stop?

When he was younger, when research had been more of a hobby, less of an obsession, he had dreamed of times like now, when things were stirring.

And yet, now that he was here, with everything happening while he got nowhere at all, he wished it was over. It was a foreign thought that there was a life beyond this, a life he had lived before and would likely live again, where he lived without constantly turning his mind over Camelot, Camelot, Camelot. His magic, he could never be rid of, but he didn't feel the need to shed it like he sometimes did this obsession. Either give me my answers, he begged the universe, give me King Arthur, give me a solution, or let me rest.

“Well, well, well! If it isn't Merlin!”

Merlin startled, the cereal box falling to the ground. It took an effort of will to lift his head.

Who else but Gwaine?

The man looked washed out under the artificial lighting but his eyes were clear and his grin stretched wide, only faltering when he got a proper look at Merlin. “You're looking rough.”
Merlin laughed, the sound too harsh in the space between them. “Yeah I'm-” he scratched at his chin and almost drew his hand back in shock when he felt the prickle of stubble. Goddamn he was a mess. “I'm having a bit of a week, y'know.”

Gwaine clapped him on the shoulder, something like sympathy in his eyes, then dropped to a crouch to pick up the fallen cereal. “You don't want this, mate,” he said as he straightened. He replaced it on the shelf and pointed to a suspiciously neon-coloured box. “You want this. Get your sugar level up.”

There were pictures of dancing marshmallows on the back, lots of cartoon stars, and a very peculiar colour pallet. Merlin didn't even want to think about the sugar count.

When he made no move to take it, Gwaine huffed a sigh, pulled it off the shelf, and dumped in into Merlin's shopping basket. “Trust me,” he said, winking.

“Sure, Gwaine.” Merlin took a step to the side, intending to pass Gwaine. “Nice to see you buying vegetables but I should get going.”

“I am an adult, Merlin,” Gwaine retorted. When Merlin only laughed and kept walking, he reached out to grab his shoulder. “One sec.”

Merlin raised his eyebrows. “Yeah?”

“I'm having a party on Sunday and we both know you're not working then so you have to come.”

A party? In the middle of all this? Merlin dug for an excuse, then settled on honesty. “Not really in a party mood this week, sorry.”

Gwaine looked suspiciously unperturbed. “There'll be free grog.”

“Ehhh, I dunn

o Gwaine-”“And Arthur.”

Arthur.

Merlin's heart jolted. Not wanting to give Gwaine the satisfaction of an eager answer, he shrugged, adjusting the weight of his shopping basket. “Fine. I could use a distraction, I guess.”

Gwaine clapped him on the shoulder. “Good man. See you then.”

 

When the cashier asked Merlin how his day was going he was surprised to find good answers. Maybe the week was looking up.

 

Chapter Text

“You here for the party?”

There was a pair of women leaning against the wall of Gwaine's ancient apartment building. One of them was holding a cigarette, green-glossed lips almost glowing. The other was a sorcerer, not even bothering to hide the gold in her irises as she conjured a flame for her friend. The light painted her dark skin in orange and red.

Merlin swallowed his shock, tried to avoid staring. It was nearly ten o'clock, they were in the middle of the city, and beneath the pulse of music he could still hear the echo of sirens. “It's not safe for you here.”

The sorcerer slung an arm over the shoulders of the smoker, rolling her eyes. “Babe, we're not safe anywhere.” She smiled, but it was bitter, her golden eyes burning into his. Finally she sighed, “You gonna answer me or what?”

How many more were there like this woman? Merlin had, somewhere along the line, fallen under the impression that every sorcerer was leaving. In hindsight, the assumption didn't make sense; there were so many within the city, surely some were like him, with a good enough cover or a strong enough obligation. His head filled with images of families unable to evacuate due to lack of money, women like this who refused to leave on, what, principle? He swallowed his thoughts. He was here to have fun, to forget, just for a night. Right? “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah I'm here for the party.”

“So you know what buzzer it is? We don't know Gwaine's last name,” the sorcerer said.

Without answering, Merlin walked to the door and pressed Gwaine's buzzer with familiar ease. The door unlocked a moment later and the two women followed him into the foyer.

“Thanks,” said the sorcerer. “Maybe we'll see you up there?”

There was no elevator, only stairs, and Merlin waited until they were two flights ahead of him to avoid awkward smalltalk on the way up. He hoped, absently, that they'd been invited. Not that Gwaine would mind, of course, especially if he was already drunk.

 

Gwaine was – not drunk, exactly, but not far off.

When he opened the door, he greeted Merlin with a smug grin before announcing his presence to the room. “Merlin's here!”

Though Merlin was sure that less than five percent of the guests knew him from Adam, the crowd cheered, adding another layer to the wall of sound assaulting his ears. His heartrate doubled, tripled. The lights flashed even through his eyelids as he blinked. Gwaine wound an arm around his shoulders and guided him into the room, pressing a can of beer into his hand. “Glad you could make it, mate!”

Merlin was glad too. The realisation slipped into his body like the warmth of alcohol and he felt himself begin to smile as Gwaine patted his back and headed towards the crowd, mumbling something about getting another drink. Merlin clutched his drink and let his eyes wander.

He had been in the apartment once before, delivering painkillers and a cornerstore sandwich to a deathly hungover Gwaine, but it looked entirely different now with the floor packed with moving bodies, the lights dancing with the crowd. The music was heavy enough in the bass that it bordered on unrecognisable, and there was something about the flickering colours and silhouettes of people that reminded Merlin of his magic, in the dreams where he let it roam free.

That thought dimmed his mood – dreams meant Camelot meant all the ways he wasn't doing enough to help his people. He chugged the beer, savouring the burn of bubbles down his throat, the bitterness on his tongue.

Gwaine returned shortly after with the promised second drink, and Merlin downed in it seconds. A devious look appeared in Gwaine's narrowed eyes, danger in the line of his smile, and he leaned close to Merlin's ear. “Arthur's over by the kitchen.”

Merlin, despite himself, offered a wry grin in return, passed Gwaine the empty can and started walking. He could already feel the buzz of adrenalin, his magic sending sparks prickling through his veins, begging to be let free. Surely this was a now-or-never situation. When would he next allow himself the vulnerability of intoxication?

 

The kitchen was off by the far wall, through a crush of dancers. A cluster of girls blocked the doorway, all laughing with tossed heads and arms clutching each other. Among them were the smoker and the sorcerer, the latter of which winked at Merlin and moved aside to let him pass.

By the mercy of the universe, there were only two people in the kitchen itself: a man with his head buried in the fridge, and Arthur, leaning against the counter with a bottle to his lips.

Merlin reminded himself to breathe.

Arthur was clearly drunk – more than Gwaine and certainly more than Merlin, judging by the cans beside him. He must have come from a function or work, still wearing a button-up and slacks, tie loosened and sleeves rolled. Merlin followed the movement of Arthur's throat as he swallowed, the tightening coil in his gut becoming almost unbearable.

Their eyes met. Merlin smiled.

“Didn't think this was your scene, Merlin,” said Arthur, only just slurring.

The fridge-man left the kitchen with two bottles of wine and some celery in plastic wrap.

Merlin and Arthur watched him leave with matching perplexed expressions before Merlin crossed the room to lean against the counter, a safe distance from Arthur.

“It's not,” he laughed, wishing he had brought another drink with him. Was there more wine in the fridge or had that man taken the last of it? Before he even opened his mouth, Arthur passed him his drink.

Merlin tried not to think about the peculiar intimacy of drinking from the same bottle, took a swig, and passed it back. With renewed confidence, he said, “I only came 'cause Gwaine said you'd be here.” His mind caught up to his mouth a moment too late with an internal oh shit but Arthur only smiled with faintly glazed eyes, his tongue darting out to wet his lower lip.

“I was hoping you'd say that,” he said.

Merlin swallowed tightly, trying in vain to read the expression in Arthur's eyes. Arthur watched him, still smiling, and took another sip without breaking eye contact.

“Ah-” Merlin tried swallowing again but his throat just felt tighter. “How've you been?” He didn't mention the sparse replies, the irregular visits to the Tavern and he didn't have to – judging by Arthur's serious glance, they were both thinking it.

“Absolute shit,” Arthur said. He drained his bottle in three gulps, swiping a hand across his mouth as he finished, and reached for an unopened can of beer beside him. “See–” he pushed off the counter and swayed forwards, stumbling as he righted himself. “You must've Googled me by now, Merlin, you'd know.”

It wasn't a question, but Merlin inclined his head in acknowledgement – and immediately regretted it when he overbalanced slightly and found his head spinning.

“Do you know,” Arthur said, enunciating with careful concentration, “How hard it is to run a bloody company? Got the press on my back, and now with all this magic shit the UAS-” he frowned- “What was I saying?” With a shake of his head, he stumbled towards the fridge and tugged it open. “Y'should have another drink.”

Merlin sighed. “Why not.”

 

Some time later they ended up falling into a dim spare room, Merlin keeping Arthur balanced with an arm looped around his shoulders. The proximity was intoxicating.

Their path from the kitchen was not clear; Merlin had only the foggy recollection of Arthur complaining about the noise; of a slow weaving passage through wasted dancers who tried to drag one or both of them into the fray; of Gwaine with his hands halfway into some guy's pants, over in the lounge room corner. He wasn't sure how much he'd had to drink. He knew he was still walking a straight line – mostly – and he was managing words. Surely he wasn't that drunk.

It took him several seconds to work out how to close the door, though, so there was a definite chance that his perception of “that drunk” was a little skewed.

When he turned around again, Arthur was slumped on the couch, the two unopened bottles he had brought with him lying on the floor. He watched Merlin with half-lidded eyes.

For a few breaths, Merlin only looked back at him, his heart pounding in his ears. Then Arthur smiled, sleepy and almost childlike, the softness stirring that sense of deja vu all over again, and Merlin stumbled over and sat down against the other arm. Shuffling into a comfortable position, he saw that the cushions were – in typical Gwaine style – all decorated with pride flags. He smiled, pulling a fluffy pink-purple-blue cushion onto his lap and toying with the fur.

Arthur cast him a curious glance, then shuffled closer to lean heavily against Merlin.

This was not in the plan.

Sure, he had intended on ~making a move~ and sure, that would have likely involved physical contact at some point but honestly at this point he was so tired and Arthur's hair was so soft and what if Gwaine was wrong and Arthur was just a straight guy who was also a really cuddly drunk?

“I don't miss him,” Arthur slurred then, his lips moving against skin bared as Merlin's too-loose shirt slipped down his shoulder. With the party nothing but muffled sound outside the room, Arthur's voice sounded strangely loud. “Was a bastard.”

“Mm?” The faint light from the window caught in Arthur's hair, turning gold to silver, and Merlin was captivated.

“Awful. Stupid expectations.” Arthur groaned, pillowing his cheek on one hand against Merlin's shoulder as his other hand hung limp. “And god, he hated magic.”

Magic. Okay. Yep, Arthur had brought up magic. That was fine. Merlin ignored the surge of it beneath his skin, closed his eyes tight against the gold he knew would appear if he couldn't keep it down. Magic and alcohol had never been a good mix. Why had he let himself drink so much?

“Did he?” he said. His body felt too hot. Could he get away with a sobering spell? Just something quick – Arthur had to be too drunk to notice. If he could just say the words quietly enough-

But before he could even curl his heavy tongue around the first syllable, Arthur pulled away, turning his head towards the ceiling, and muttered, “I always thought it was beautiful.”

Merlin froze.

“Don't tell me you're against it, Merlin.” He spoke lightly but when there was no response, he stilled. “Merlin.” His tone was almost pleading and his eyes were guileless and wide when he looked at Merlin and god, he was actually serious.

“I-” Merlin couldn't remember how to talk. Tears pricked his eyes.

Arthur was clearly still operating under the wrong assumption, shaking his head, lips parted. He started to get up. Merlin grabbed his wrist.

One breath.

Two.

“Arthur, Ihavemagic.”

He dropped his head into his hands, shaking, as Arthur settled back into the couch, and all he could think was this went so badly last time, but when had there been a last time?

“You-”

“Yep.”

“Magic.”

“Yep.”

A tentative hand touched his shoulder. “Hey.”

Merlin lifted his head and just managed not to jump back at how close Arthur was. He could see his own reflection in the man's dilated pupils, the tiny flecks of silver in his irises.

“You're serious?”

The adrenalin was starting to counteract the haze of alcohol and Merlin shoved back a wave of anxiety. What was he doing? “I'm serious.”

Arthur's eyes flickered shut. “Christ, Merlin.” He pressed his lips to Merlin's cheekbone, not quite a kiss, and Merlin sighed, leaning closer. The softness of Arthur's breath against his skin felt like possibility, like standing with a fist raised to knock on a door, like the humid tension of the air on a summer night. He couldn't help the tiny noise he made as Arthur's thumb brushed over his lower lip.

There was a moment of hesitation, Arthur's nose tucked in beside Merlin's, then a murmured, “Okay?”

Merlin nodded. “Okay.”

He reached out to curl his fingers in Arthur's shirt, pulling him closer as their lips – finally, finally – slid together. The kiss was tentative, uncertain – so much so that Merlin wondered if it was Arthur's first kiss. With that thought in mind, Merlin forced himself to be patient – at first.

When moments ticked by and nothing changed, he groaned against Arthur's mouth, fingers tightening in his shirt. Arthur's only response was to tangle his fingers in Merlin's hair, still painfully gentle – teasing, his lips quirking into a smile against Merlin's. Remarkable control for a drunk man, Merlin thought, pushing Arthur further into the couch and straddling him in one clumsy movement.

Their foreheads knocked together.

Arthur swore, the word barely more than a breath in the space between them, and then his hands were gripping Merlin's hips, dragging him flush against him as his lips swallowed Merlin's needy gasp.

It wasn't clear who opened their mouth first; Merlin wasn't sure that it mattered. What mattered was that Arthur tasted of beer and warmth and hope, and his lips stayed soft against Merlin's even as his fingers gripped tight enough to bruise. With Arthur's face cupped in his hands and that golden hair tickling his fingers, he felt, for the first time in so long, that he wasn't missing anything at all, that he was whole.

 

They might have continued forever, had Arthur's fingers not strayed to Merlin's belt. As he began to struggle with the buckle, Merlin grabbed his wrists and pulled back. “Arthur,” he gasped, lips swollen. “We shouldn't.”

Arthur all but glared at him. His pupils had swallowed his irises, a flush danced high on his cheekbones. “And why not?” The slur in his voice was all Merlin needed to know that he was making the right choice. “Don't you want me?”

Merlin released Arthur's wrists and sagged forwards to rest his head at the junction of Arthur's neck and shoulder. “Of course I want you, Arthur,” he sighed, ignoring the burning adrenalin of the admission. Arthur's hands snaked up the back of his shirt and he quivered. “But we're – I'm – you know. Alcohol.” Why were words so hard?

“Are you saying I'm drunk, Merlin?” He sounded so insulted that Merlin almost laughed. Instead, he raised his head and slid off Arthur's lap, curling into the corner of the couch. “Just – how much have you had to drink?” He ignored the awkward shape of his own words as they left his mouth. “God, how much have I had to drink?” When Arthur didn't reply, he added, “I mean – this was great, okay, really great but I just don't think we should go any further you know just in case you wake up tomorrow and decide this was a terrible decision-” Arthur pressed a finger to his lips.

“Shut up Merlin.”

“Okay.”

Arthur curled against him again, leaning his head against his shoulder and grabbing his hand to lace their fingers together.

For a few minutes, all was still, and then-

“M'sleepy.”

Merlin, who had been drifting in the quiet comfort of Arthur's presence, took a few seconds to comprehend the words. “What?” But Arthur was already asleep.

Laughing under his breath, Merlin eased the man down until he was lying on the couch. Thankful when he didn't stir, Merlin hunted around for a blanket. He found one in a mostly-empty cupboard by the window, a tartan woolly thing, and crept back to the couch to gingerly lay it over Arthur.

W hat a night.

Chapter Text

Merlin closed his eyes against the sparks he had set dancing up by his ceiling, safe in the warmth of his bed, and opened them cold, under grey daylight, the lapping of water somewhere near.

He squinted, his eyes refusing to focus. Blinking made no difference; it seemed as though he could still “see” even with his eyes shut – though what he saw was only a blur of greys and greens, like he was looking through smudged lenses, or warped glass.

Twisting his head changed nothing, didn’t even shift his field of view. Experimentally he wiggled his fingers, twitched his nose, kicked a leg into the air. While he could feel the movement, it was like his body existed separately from what he was seeing. Was he dreaming?

There was a heaviness to his head, his thoughts sluggish.

He was probably still drunk, passed out in a gutter somewhere – he felt himself laugh but no sound emerged.

 

Moments passed.

 

He was just started to panic - reaching for his magic – when the scene changed.

The greys and greens and blues separated, smoothing out and bringing the images they formed into focus, and Merlin saw that he was looking at a lake. Or rather, an area by a lake. Slightly too far from the lake. Dread curdled his gut.

He knew, in that uncanny way that only a dreamer knows, that he had been there before.

In fact, as he watched the scene from somewhere above, the blades of grass rippling in the breeze, he saw two figures not far off, and knew instinctively that one was him. He could feel the familiar roughness of the cloth on his back, that red neckerchief he wore always. The other, his golden hair catching the dull light, was walking beside him – no, he was slumped on a horse – no, he was leaning heavily on him. The weight nearly crushed him.

He blinked and was staring at a campfire, at himself, shaking. At the golden-haired figure, down on the ground, injured, blue eyes hazy – brows drawn together, confused, his gloved hand digging into Merlin's shoulder. He felt it. Recognition squeezed his windpipe, oxygen became a foreign concept – the man was Arthur, Arthur his king his love his-

“Merlin you are not a sorcerer, I would know.”

Oh god, not this again.

Not this.

Another blink and the scene shifted away, replaced again by the grassy space still too far from where they needed to go. Arthur stumbled, fell back. A collapse. Weight in his arms, on his body, the ground hard against his back even as he watched from above.

Words.

“It's too late.”

Oh, god.

“It's too late.”

And there were tears, Merlin could feel them both on the face he watched and the face he possessed, dream and reality merging. But which was which? This moment – he knew this moment. Had he never left? What had- he struggled to remember what he had been doing before this, where he had been. Memory was hazy, he could only find images of battle, of a long ride through trees, of magic, of aching.

“Just, just... just hold me.”

No.

Merlin fought to move, kicking out, stretching arms he couldn't see into empty air, reaching desperately for the spark of energy under his skin – anything to stop this. If he could just-

A hand clasped the back of his head.

Thank you.”

.

.

.

Merlin startled awake to find the sun on his face.

Gingerly, he reached for the remnants of the dream… and found it complete. The lake – too far away, too late too late too late – the tickle of grass – the smell of blood and metal - the indents of chainmail against his skin even after it was all over.

Wait.

Wait.

Where… where was he? What…

He forced himself to breathe, stared unseeing about the room.

He was-

What had happened yesterday? Or rather, what had happened before?

The memories came with effort: music, a crowd, the burn of alcohol, lips against his own-

A party. He was-

He was not in Camelot.

A slow exhale. The shivering faded. He started to inhale, and stopped. A jolt like electricity shuddered across his body and he choked.

He was not in Camelot.

The window shattered.

Lights flared in the corners of his eyes.

Darkness.

~*~

He woke, again, lying on the floor beside his bed, the sheets tangled around him.

For a moment, all was still, then he turned his head - saw sunlight catching on broken glass, and he was on his feet.

What. The. Fuck.

He took a shaky breath, concentrating on calming himself, calming his magic.

He was-

His eyes darted around the room. “Okay,” he told himself. “Okay, yes, this is my apartment.”

Everything was normal. He knew this room. Two steps took him to the now-glassless window, and he looked outside. Same view as always, the sun bright, buildings stretching out around him: a picture of modern civilisation.

And yet.

He shut his eyes for a moment, and against the darkness of his eyelids he saw a different room, with a different window – a view above markets and smoke.

A car horn honked somewhere in the distance.

In his head, the sound was echoed by horses.

He sat down.

This felt right, and somehow – not.

Another breath.

What was his last memory?

When he searched, it was like two of him searched together. One showed him a hazy stumble home in the dark, and before that, a couch with colourful cushions, a golden head against his shoulder. The other offered stone walls and aching bones, bent over a work table covered in tiny bottles, a candle burning beside him.

Caught in between, hands over his face, he struggled to put the pieces together. Something had fallen into place – what had been that dream again?

A long journey, falling down, a lake too far away – and Arthur, dying.

Arthur.

Arthur who he had kissed last night, Arthur who had fallen asleep against him – Arthur who had threatened to take him apart with one blow, the first time they had met. Or had he?

These two images of Arthur, one in a suit, one in armour, like the differing views from a bedroom window, seemed inextricable. They were one and the same, but they couldn't be.

He frowned.

There had to be a common thread, something that joined them besides the familiarity of both. He waited, and like magic, it clicked into place.

There's something about you, Merlin. I can't quite put my finger on it.”

At once, he saw both times those words had been uttered, saw the identical expressions on identical faces, the only things that differed were the surroundings and the clothes. Maybe in the first, the older memory, he had been a little younger, a little softer around the edges. Beyond that – identical.

And in a rush, he knew.

He climbed to his feet, opened his eyes, and with sheer force of will alone, made his way gingerly to the kitchen.

~*~

Ten minutes and one cup of coffee later saw him pacing back and forth in front of the kitchen window.

He had read this so, so wrong.

How had he not realised sooner?

The name, the magic, the dreams, god, all those times things seemed too familiar-

Why had he been so willing to believe that Arthur could reincarnate, but not himself?

There were gaps everywhere – large chunks entirely missing – but as past and present merged, he felt better than he had in years. This was progress. At least now he knew who he was, who Arthur was. At least now there was something of a game plan.

Old Merlin certainly had more confidence, more knowledge, more wisdom than New Merlin had – there were decades between them in age and he gradually realised that the anxiety he had so often ignored sounded an awful lot like how he now remembered speaking as an old man.

He had been there all along, inside himself, waiting.

And what of the others – people he couldn't fully picture, people whose names were as absent in his mind as they were in the old texts. How many had returned, how many had never died?

He leaned heavily against the counter.

Why couldn't he remember everything? Why could he remember “I could take you apart with less than that” and “You are not a sorcerer” but not all of what came between. He couldn't even remember how he had done magic back then - not really.

He took himself back to his bedroom, intending to lie down, and stopped dead when he saw the window.

Old Merlin was confused. His magic was much more volatile, much more natural in this life – there were words he used but they weren't in the old language, and they weren't necessary, but back then...

He had to fix that window.

Half of him wanted to flick out a hand, feel for the energy and bend it to his will, or use modern words that weren't quite right, and the other half, the older half, struggled for ancient phrases.

In the end, both happened together, and the glass wound up twice as thick. He laughed, helpless.

How had this happened?

Distantly, he became away of his phone vibrating and took a strange moment to both recognise the normality of the sound and marvel at how far technology had come.

Christ, he was so old .

He answered the phone without noticing the caller, pressed it to his ear and tried to remember how to sound normal. His mind was so tangled in Camelot, in past lives, in how could this be possible that he wasn't sure he remembered how to talk in modern society.

“Hey.”

“Good morning, Merlin.”

The bottom fell out of his stomach.

“Arthur.” It was a choke, a gasp – he couldn't think. On the one hand, he knew he had seen Arthur last night. On the other, he had just jumped out of a life where Arthur had been dead for decades .

“Sounds like we both drank too much last night.” Indeed, Arthur was almost slurring, voice weary through the speaker. Merlin, in contrast, was not feeling at all hungover. Maybe reincarnation had its perks. “Gwaine says you tucked me in so, cheers for that I guess. Next time stop me before I get that drunk, please . My head is killing me.”

Words were impossible. His body was a tightening coil. Arthur was alive alive alive and- shit , did he remember the kiss? Did he remember the confession ? His father in this life couldn't be Uther, could he- no, no the name was different, and he was already dead this time, and-

“Merlin?”

The world snapped back into focus. “Yes. Um. Sorry, me too – I'm a mess.”

Arthur laughed, a short, tired sound. “Too bad for us both, then. Look, I really only called to say that last night was... fun, and I thought perhaps you'd like to-”

Merlin was drowning. He managed to say, “I'm- I'm really sorry Arthur I have to go I'll call you later okay,” then hung up.

~*~

With a shirt on inside-out and what were quite possible his worst pair of pants, Merlin left his apartment at a run. He had to see Gaius.

Gaius .

Oh, for fuck's sake .

Whatever. He didn't have time to unpack all of that, so it was better to focus on getting to Gaius as quickly as possible.

Focusing, though, was nearly impossible – his mind constantly alternating between recent memories of this life and memories of Camelot, trying to force-feed him names and dates and events that slipped through his fingers the moment he reached for them.

 

Gaius was sitting at his kitchen bench, carefully counting drops of a greenish liquid into his cup of coffee when Merlin burst into the room. He glanced up as Merlin slammed the door behind him/

“Good morning, Merlin,” he said, then carefully turned back to his work and resumed counting.

Merlin flicked the lock on the door. “Gaius I have to talk to you,” he said, taking two steps forward.

“One second – fifteen, sixteen...”

Gaius, this is an emergency – I don't even know where to start, I-”

“Just a moment.” Very deliberately, Gaius put one final droplet into the glass - “Ah, seventeen, there were go-” and returned the dropper to its vial. He turned to face Merlin. “I suppose this means you've finally realised.” Gesturing to the seat beside him, he added, “Sit down.”

Merlin did not sit down. “Finally realised,” he echoed. “Just what do you think I've finally realised?

Gaius did not look phased. He raised a white eyebrow and peered over his reading glasses. “There has only ever been one Merlin.”

Gaius.”

“Sit down.”

He sat. “How did you know?”

Gaius laughed and Merlin could have hit him. Beside him, the coffee was starting to form orange bubbles. “I've known since the day you were born, Merlin. But these things take time, I wasn't sure when the fates would let you realise.”

Merlin watched the bubbles rise over the rim of the cup. “Does- Does Mum know? Is she- the same?”

More laughter. “Oh, Lord no. No. This –” he waved his hands between the two of them – “Only seems to have happened to major players. Yourself, myself, your king. Maybe more, I don't know for certain. All I know is that I was always destined to guide you, in Camelot, in this life, and all the others.” Gaius took a long draught of his coffee – now overflowing with bright foam.

Merlin nodded, accepting the words as he ran them over once more in his head, and then- “Wait wait wait. All the others?”

Gaius opened his mouth, and stopped. “Ah,” he said.

Gaius.”

“You weren't aware of that part?”

Merlin didn't answer, just watched more foam overflowing and tried to remember how to breathe.

After half an eternity, Gaius said, “This isn't your second life, Merlin. There have been others, for both of us – different names, different eras. You likely don't remember them because they didn't matter. Not like this one does.”

“Okay,” Merlin breathed. “Okay.” Without thinking, he snatched up Gaius' mug and drained the rest. Disappointingly, it tasted like ordinary coffee, and Gaius didn't make a single noise of complaint. “What about Arthur?” he asked, thumping the mug back onto the table.

“What about Arthur indeed.”

Oh god damn it. “For fuck's sake, Gaius – why are you always like this? Two lives – more, apparently – and you still do this. Why can't you just tell me things?

For a moment there was silence, then Gaius smiled a tiny, satisfied old-man smile at Merlin and said mildly, “Language.”

“Ugh!” Merlin felt like a teenager again, told to stop his research. Like a child, told he could have no more cookies. “Gaius. Has Arthur had other lives, too? Does he know? What do I do?”

Gaius sighed, leaning back in his chair. “Merlin,” he mimicked Merlin's tone perfectly. “I can't 'just tell you things' because fate has to decide when you come to learn them. You can't force these things, you know that. To answer you, I don't know. I don't know if Arthur knows. I would think that now he would be starting to realise, but I don't know what you should do about it.” He smiled, weary, benevolent. “Just be patient.”

Chapter Text

As Merlin headed downstairs, magic and caffeine dancing a dangerous duet in his veins, The Tavern was just waking up – Adrian fussing around behind the counter, red-faced, sipping periodically at a tumbler with frighteningly luminescent contents. The blinds weren't open yet, grim daylight filtering in the gaps. It was another two hours before they would open.

Merlin stilled in the doorway, and there was a precarious moment where he was sure he would recognise Adrian from Camelot. He waited, heart thundering, as Adrian hummed tunelessly, unaware – turned the name over in his mind, searched for the image of bright hair – but no.

No.

Adrian was from this life, and this life only. Merlin sagged in relief.

“Oh!” Adrian, noticing him for the first time, nearly upended his drink. “Merls! Hey mate, you look like you've seen a ghost.”

Merlin laughed, the sound hollow, shaken. “Rough night. Where's Lucy?”

“Got the flu.”

“Oh, right. She okay?” Merlin started to edge his way across the room, ducking around the tables Adrian had set up.

“Yeah, yeah, she's good – did you know she keeps chicken soup in the freezer for when she gets sick?”

“Can't say I'm surprised. I've gotta run – see you later?”

Adrian offered a wry grin, pausing in wiping over the counter. “Make sure you don't fall asleep in your dinner again,” he needled, “I don't wanna cover for you too.”

Merlin forced another laugh. “I'll be careful.” With a wave over his shoulder, he ducked outside.

The brick was warm behind him as he sagged against the wall, passing a hand over his face.

Just be patient.”

Jesus Christ, what was he going to do?

~*~

Gwaine's apartment block looked strange in the morning light, a hangover manifesting as a building – grey bricks turned brittle and dull by the sun, a couple sad streamers still taped to the front door. Glancing up, Gwaine’s lounge room window was open, two beer bottles fighting for space on the sill.

Merlin’s head throbbed, just once. He was probably going to regret this.

Heart in his throat, he made his way upstairs. Gwaine would certainly be there, nursing a hangover, tidying up, and that alone was bad enough. Just thinking of Gwaine made him queasy, all the time they had shared, in taverns and forests and marketplaces, clashing against the memories of now.

But Arthur-

Given the hour, he might still be there. That’s what he was hoping for – and dreading.

Seeing Arthur, and Arthur seeing him, might reveal something, he thought. Might force Arthur to remember. Might set them on the right path.

And then there was the small matter of the kiss, of words said and unsaid… He owed Arthur an apology for hanging up so abruptly earlier, at the very least.

But the idea of seeing Arthur – his king, Arthur – in this time, in this life, was terrifying. He wasn’t sure if he could handle it.

 

Gwaine was almost comically hungover when he opened the door.

He leaned heavily against the doorway, red-eyed, still in last night's shirt with a packet of painkillers clutched in one fist. With his free hand, he scrubbed at the hair falling across his eyes as he greeted Merlin with a wry smile.

Time blurred for an instant, an image of the same man waking in a stone-walled room (you saved his life” if I'd known who he was, I probably wouldn't have. He's a noble.”) superimposed over the top, and then Merlin's eyes refocused, on Arthur, in the background, slumped over the table with his head in his hands. The world shifted. He couldn’t breathe.

Gwaine cocked an eyebrow, squinting in the light from the stairway. “C'mon in,” he grunted.

Merlin stepped inside.

He couldn’t breathe.

Gwaine reached around him to close the door, his shirt fell open, and was Merlin imagining things or was that the same necklace he had worn in Camelot? Surely not. Surely, surely not. Had he always had that?

“Merlin.” Gwaine was at his shoulder again. “That way.”

A hand on his back directed him towards Arthur, now looking his way. Because of course Gwaine knew. Because hadn’t Gwaine always known? Gwaine, Gwaine, Gwaine - seeing so much and saying so little, drinking himself stupid and still swinging a sword with devastating accuracy, falling into bed with half the kingdom and yet always there when Merlin needed him. Had he known about his magic? Did he know, now, in this life? They’d already shared so many years together this time around, more than they got to have in Camelot, so...

Arthur was frowning. Behind him, Gwaine was saying his name, again.

Merlin coughed to cover himself then raised a hand in greeting to Arthur and edged forwards.

“Hi Arthur.”

Arthur blinked at him, eyes heavy. “Merlin.”

He couldn’t breathe.

God, it was the same the same the same, it was like there was no time between them at all, like he had never left, never died, and yet-

“Did you come here to stare at me or was there something you wanted?” Arthur drawled, barely managing to prop his head up. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m dreadfully hungover.”

“I-” Words were elusive. What had he come here for? “I wanted to apologise for hanging up on you – there was something wrong with my phone...”

“It’s fine.” Arthur didn’t look like it was fine. In the background, Gwaine thumped his way across the apartment to his bedroom. The door clicked shut.

Merlin stood, uncomfortable. Were they going to talk or not? Did Arthur even really remember?

“Anything else?” There was a bite to Arthur’s tone now, something sharp and bitter. The lines between his eyebrows could have meant anything from pain to concentration to anger.

“I-” Had Merlin upset him? “Do you want a coffee? I’ll make you one.”

That got him a smile, if a faint one. “A cure-all like the first one?”

“Sure.”

Without waiting for further response, Merlin turned to the kitchenette and flicked the kettle on. He didn’t have any of Gaius’ concoctions but surely he could work something out. He had two lifetimes of knowledge now, there had to be something he could use to fix Arthur’s hangover, at least a little.

Merlin went through the motions, mechanical, struggling to shut out his overlapping doubts and fears and questions, life blurring with life, and all the while, Arthur, behind him, was silent.

When the coffee was made, he had to pause.

The first time he had used happiness. This time… what did Arthur need most? A hangover cure, a pick-me-up, both at once? If Arthur was mad at him, using magic to change his mood felt dishonest, manipulative. Corrupt. (And wasn’t that how Arthur had once seen magic?)

There were sirens in the distance again, the whirring of helicopters somewhere further still.

He swallowed – fast, tight - whispered the words that felt the most right and crossed his fingers.

Arthur had not moved. The lines between his brows were deeper, his lips pressed thin.

Merlin put the coffee down in front of him, his bones vibrating, then slid into the seat opposite.

“Thanks,” said Arthur. He took a sip.

A long moment passed.

The room filled with the sound of Merlin’s heartbeat, a staccato rhythm against the distant wailing.

Arthur glanced up. Smiled a tight smile. “Merlin,” he said, and stopped. His eyes looked clearer, less bloodshot, but Merlin wanted to take the coffee back. Wanted to take himself back, back to when he had only one life and only one version of Arthur to know and to love. This was – god, this was too much.

“Merlin,” Arthur said again, and swallowed. “I need to ask you something.” Merlin looked right at him but he looked away, his gaze skittering past Merlin and up the wall before fixing on the window. “Two… two somethings, really.”

Merlin kept his eyes on Arthur’s face, though the ache in his ribcage begged him to look anywhere else. “Two somethings,” he repeated, mouth dry. “Okay.”

He wasn’t sure if he should be reassured by how nervous Arthur seemed. He watched in silence as his king took another long sip of coffee, as those blue eyes cleared a little more – but the lines between his brows did not soften. “First,” Arthur said, abruptly, leaning forwards and clasping his hands together. It seemed habitual, a way of presenting confidence. A muscle twitched in his jaw. “Last night. I thought I dreamt it but you -”

Merlin fought the urge to shut his eyes. “Yeah?”

“You-” Arthur surveyed the room in a glance, then leaned even closer and dropped his voice. “You told me you had magic.”

This time Merlin did shut his eyes. There was no use hiding his reaction.

“Merlin.” When he looked up, Arthur was watching him carefully, eyes guileless and almost awed. “Thank you,” he said.

Merlin frowned. Somewhere in the back of his mind he thought he might be about to cry.

“For the coffee.” A strange smile flickered over Arthur’s lips. “And for trusting me, even if we were drunk. I won’t tell anyone.”

Shit, he really was going to cry. The edges of it were already there, a teasing ache somewhere by his retinas but Christ, hadn’t he cried enough? “Arthur-”

Arthur waved off the rest of his response. “It’s all right, Merlin,” he said, low and soft and kind – like he could see the tears forming. “It’s all right.”

Had Arthur ever spoken to him like that in Camelot? Had he- yes. Yes. “It’s too late. It’s too late.”

His lip trembled.

Arthur stayed quiet for the long moment it took Merlin to compose himself and Merlin wondered if he was just that perceptive by nature or if somehow their shared threads had lent him intuition into what Merlin needed. Finally, he said, “And the second something?”

Arthur’s lips parted and Merlin was struck by the sudden memory of how they had felt against his own – sweet and safe and why on earth did this have to be complicated?

“We -” Arthur seemed at a loss. Pink blossomed on his cheekbones, tickled the edges of his hair. “I -” He sighed. “I owe you an apology.”

“What for?”

“The kiss – I, god – I shouldn’t have taken advantage of you like that.” Merlin opened his mouth to protest but Arthur powered on. “I was so drunk, I barely knew what I was doing – I didn’t mean to -”

And he looked so horrified at himself that Merlin started talking without thought. “Arthur, no, no, it was fine – I don’t mind, we were both drunk, it’s okay-” and for some reason Arthur was frowning again, frowning deeper, and Merlin couldn’t help but feel he had said something very wrong.

“Right.” Arthur nodded briskly, his jaw tight. “We were both drunk.”

“Well, yes?” Merlin said, even though Arthur hadn’t said it as a question. He was so pale now. “Are you-” Merlin started but Arthur spoke over him.

“So it didn’t mean anything.”

“It-” Oh, no. “It doesn’t have to, but-”

Arthur stood. “Of course. Thanks for understanding, Merlin.” He didn’t look thankful. Eyes shining, he jerked his head toward the door. “I should go, have to get some rest before the afternoon meeting.” He didn’t falter on his way to the door, even when Merlin offered no response.

He left.

Merlin’s watchface splintered.