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The Heart You Call Home

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from The Engine Driver, The Decemberists

And I am a writer, writer of fictions
I am the heart that you call home
And I've written pages upon pages
Trying to rid you from my bones 

 ~ ⌘ ~ 

 

The lorry’s gearbox protests an imprecise shift leaning into a corner, and Merlin looks up from the tatty little book in his lap, blinking to clear his eyes of print. They dance with it still, autumn-clad countryside fuzzy around the edges.

He folds the book closed around his finger and sinks back into the leather seat, dry and cracked with age. It settles around him in crunchy protest. He winces at the pull of stiffened muscle across his shoulders, eyes suddenly awash with the colour of the world outside the book and taking a while to refocus on anything further away than his own knees.

“Alright there, mate?”

He turns, startled, eyes snagging on big hands he thinks might belong to a farmer, or a mechanic, maybe—though he won’t ask nor remember if he’s told—meaty fingers folded loosely around a worn steering wheel.

For a moment there, nose buried in the book and in his own head, he’d forgotten the man existed, just one more face in a kaleidoscope of countless others like him, all compounded like layers of sediment underfoot. The lorry might as well have been driving itself.

The driver’s thick thumbs tap-tap to some internal beat, fingernails stained with years of honest labour, and Merlin looks away. There will be kindness in the driver’s face if he looks up. He keeps his eyes on the countryside, curls his own dirty fingers up into fists in his lap.

“Where’s it yer headed, again?”

Merlin clears his throat. “Nowhere.” He can sense the raised eyebrows, but there’s no elaboration for it really, except, “Nowhere in particular.”

It's quiet for a while, but the driver’s obviously turning it over, and Merlin thinks he’s made him uncomfortable, given him too much of a glimpse; and isn’t that funny, what, with one word.

“Will Burnham on Sea do? We’ll be driving through there. I could drop yer off, ‘s on the way.”

Merlin nods, voice crackling around the clipped, “Fine, yes,” a sudden surge of nameless irritation racing through too fast to dwell on. He gazes studiously out of the window again, at the clouds and sun passing each other in their fascinating progress across the sky. Obligingly, the driver falls silent and Merlin opens his book again.

 

 

. . .of the Blessed, its eerie cliffs and crags ready to swallow them up.

Quietly sailed their boat, until they could moor it and walk in a file to the ruins, where they would face their ghostly foe.

With his men flanking his sides, and only the creak of their armour to disturb the silence of the unearthly place, the king led them into the gut of the. . .

 

They’ve driven most of the day.

It’s amazing how tired one can get while doing nothing. It seems to Merlin that he’s tired all the time these days.

Russet fields rocket past and he eases back onto the cracking headrest, lulled by the vibration of tyres on rough tarmac beneath the wheels, warbling its rattle through the car and all the way through his bones. He plucks at his glove, the cuff worn and frayed already from sustained abuse.

He has no idea where they are, can’t remember if he’s ever travelled this way before, but then, he has never made a point of remembering. It had always seemed quite inconsequential.

His thoughts wander while the lorry speeds past a slideshow of dirty sky, endless grey stretching over a land painted with wild and frenzied colour: the season’s last hurrah come around again. A flock of birds rises like an enormous shadow over the checkerboard of bright fields and Merlin watches it, almost rueful for the days when he would see signs in such things. They are only birds, now.

Autumn wanes and Merlin is tired. So very tired. He wishes he could sleep through it, cover himself in leaves and hibernate until the world crumbles to dust, and he with it, the point of anything long since gone.

He’s almost dozing against the window, pleasantly floaty inside his head, loose grip on the book and eyes feeling heavy when a throat’s cleared next to him. The itch of irritation returns, reminding him why he walks everywhere instead of thumbing lifts.

“Fine country, innit?”

Outside, the breeze stirs up eddies of brown leaves and for a moment it looks like the earth shaking its brittle fists at the sky. This is how it starts. Every interaction, or almost every, with a nicety, a cordial nothing, irrevocably ending up with some sort of variation on Any grandkids, then, followed by a stretch of awkward silence.

“You from around here, then,” Merlin says, unsettling the rust in his voice. If he can’t have silence, he’ll take white noise, but he’ll direct it, inviting the man to talk about himself. It’s easier after that.

Listening with half an ear, Merlin looks down at the little book in his lap, rubbing his finger back and forth inside the fold, wondering what the hell’s come over him lately. Beneath his hands, a pen and ink knight is forever frozen mid-gallop, riding his destrier across the cover, the plume of his helmet flowing behind him like the veil of a beautiful woman. Merlin’s nostrils flare. Perhaps he is still a masochist, after all.

The driver appears content to talk at Merlin with no reciprocation and Merlin lets him, managing to drop in a word or two now and again just to keep it going, nothing too complex.

Politics is always good. Sometimes he learns a few things about current affairs, though they hold little interest for him. He’s very good at it, has perfected the art of talking while saying nothing. Should have been a politician, someone had once told him. He can’t remember who now, exactly, only the chip of hurt in eyes entirely the wrong shade of blue as it was said. His hands had been shaking and it had taken entirely too long to button and tie his clothes back on by candlelight.

Supposedly he’s going to laugh about it one day, or so people say. One day you’ll look back and laugh, they say. He wonders who they are, exactly and how they know that. Wonders if it’s soon.

 

 

. . .and he did not know what he would do. Quite small, with tears flowing freely over her lovely face, his disgraced betrothed looked harmless.

And yet, as he looked upon her kneeling on the stone floor between his knights, he realised she had managed what no beast nor man could, for she had broken something inside him. . .

 

Eventually, Merlin closes his eyes, letting the driver’s voice slide in one ear and fall out the other, making no attempt to stay awake. He’ll blame it on age, if asked. He most likely won’t be.

The driver seems a good sort who’d not begrudge an old man his nap. Merlin untethers himself, casts himself adrift.

When he opens his eyes again, maybe minutes, maybe hours later, it’s silent in the cab of the lorry. They’ve left the orderly stretches of farm country behind and a long smudge of forest darkens the horizon beyond rambling fields of heather. Merlin rubs at his eyes, feeling the tug of something old at the sight of the woods. At the idea of walking in, disappearing among the trees.

Rain is coming.

The murmur of the land is like a tremble in his marrow; it has been strong lately. It jars his bones, makes them feel ancient and chalky, but he’s grateful for it; sometimes decades flash by without so much as a whisper from magic outside of himself.

There have been times when he’s felt dead as driftwood, without that strange scratch of magic which intrudes once in a while. It thrums inside him like an arrow that’s found its mark in a tree. There had been times he’d wished he’d truly died and Merlin thinks the earth’s magic knows this and doesn’t approve. It prods at him like this, from one week or decade or century to the next, reminding him not to be a coward. Reminding him to keep walking, headwind or no.

Sometimes he feels it like a yoke, uncomfortable and tight across his neck, but not today. Today it’s a warmth deep inside him, seeming to burble and pop under his skin, pulling at him like a playful pet, here, this way, come on, come on!

And he does, he comes on, the lorry apparently heading in the right direction to keep it content for reasons he doesn't care to explore, keep it ambling and pleased inside his gut. He sits back, slouching down in his seat, and for a while he simply is.

Merlin lets his eyes stroke the passing scenery without much thought. There’s a rightness to the thick, green ribbon of woodland stretching in the distance. By the time fields give way to parked automobiles and straight, wooden fences bookending the outskirts of a town, Merlin’s almost looking forward to it. When they roll to an idling stop at a fork between town and highway, he unfolds himself out of the lorry, taking a good moment to stretch and scratch at his beard, to bow his back and hear it pop.

The driver’s hand is loose on the bulb of the gearstick and he’s curled over the wheel, watching Merlin like he’s trying to work him out. He takes his cap off, scratches at his half-bald head, puts it back on, still studying.

Merlin can imagine it, the way he moves his body doesn’t quite fit with the way he looks. Sometimes he forgets to keep up an act. Sometimes he just couldn’t care less. He smooths the cover of the book, fingers skimming over knight and horse and lance before he slips it into the satchel slung across his chest.

“If you’ve a mind to stay, the pub’s run by a good sort.”

Merlin’s no stranger to sleeping rough. Prefers it, really, not so much to beds- he misses those when there isn’t one to be had and his back aches with the chill of sleeping outdoors- but to the rooms that house them.

It’s the little square, low-ceilinged, plastered cells he can’t stand, with their chipped and dirty facades, the residual stench of the human condition clinging to the duvets and curtains.

But, a bed is a bed, and the associated pleasures that come with the plastered boxes are good too: a hot bath, the scrub of a clean towel over his shoulders.

“Where will I find this pub, then?”

 

~ ⌘ ~

He finds the pub eventually, but first he finds the beach. Autumn makes everything glow like embers in the late afternoon, turning the water into orange chop where it breaks near the shore.

Merlin hooks a hand into the strap of his satchel, tucks his beard down like a scarf between his lapels and simply stares out over the ocean, letting the rough noise of it wash in his ears.

A small township hugs the coastline below, houses like red-shingled mushrooms sprouting through a pine-needle carpet after the rains.

As good a place as any.

Gravel crunches beneath his feet as he follows the winding road into town, lungs shocked by air that’s bracing and fresh, at odds with tight legs that tingle after hours of sitting in the cramped cab of the lorry.

When he walks into town proper it’s almost evening, the sea sucking at the coast in its dirty blue retreat. Merlin watches the shore, stirred by something coming, something in the air. Even the endless sea is restless.

By the time he finds himself strolling past shops, darkness has begun to creep past corners and lengthen from shadows, turning to thick swathes that make light seem like it’s the lurker.

It doesn’t take long to find the pub, its awning swinging in the breeze. The smells of food from the Crown & Anchor waft at him from within, surprising his stomach not into instant hunger but into a pleasant, expectant sort of stir.

In a seat by the window, he takes up his book again, managing a rusty smile crinkled up at the server.

"Have you any soup?"

The woman’s so young. So young, it takes Merlin’s breath away, to think he was ever that young, that good. He looks at her unlined hands and something twists inside him, used and put away soiled.

"Have you any money then, love?"

Merlin’s face hardens at the the throw-away endearment served by someone a thousand years his junior.

She looks him straight in the eyes, and that is something, at least. He respects that. He blinks and absently nods, lowering his head like he’s checking his pockets, mouthing a silent incantation and turning it golden under closed eyelids, creating the money from the lint in his pocket. It will be days before it disintegrates, in someone else’s billfold or a safe or a till, he doesn’t care. Never has.

Satisfied, she plucks the note from between his fingers and leaves him to his book. In the distance, thunder rumbles, the sea looking rough now, choppy and dark with intent, gathering grey over churning black of the water.

By the time the soup arrives, Merlin’s well and truly sunk back into the story and into the backrest of the booth. It’s a vital place, the foundations of this small village cleaving to the seaside, and he thinks he should have paid more attention to where he is, where this is, judging by the way his skin’s prickling, a weird sort of tingle weaving between his ribs. There are lines of power here, running beneath, out of sight. He can feel them singing along with the murmur of the land. He wonders if something happened here to cause such a flare. At one point, he’d have made it his business to find out.

Somewhere off the coast, the storm’s cracking the sky apart, a flash of lightning bright on the periphery.

Letting his brow settle into its familiar furrow, Merlin tucks runaway wisps of beard into his coat again and attacks the soup with spoon in one hand and bread in the other, intent on ignoring the rumble far over the sea, the night rolling in. He’ll be under a roof tonight like a proper citizen, sleeping through the worst of it. He nods, thinking himself the proper old man, too.

The soup is so good, he almost lets it warm him enough to believe it, to look forward to the good, no, the wonderful night’s sleep he’s going to have, best in ages. Best in forever. He’s going to wake up rested and knowing he’s really, really slept. He ignores the gathering storm, spooning up the soup, sopping it with bread torn to chunks.

Later, pleasantly warm and safe from weather turning truly foul, he stirs his hot tea, lumps of sugar stacked in a little bowl set off to the side. He’s got his book out again, spreading its spine, holding it open between the prongs of his fingers.

 

 

 . . .saw unwavering trust in his eyes and it speared the king through with doubts of his own worth, that he should command such allegiance by the fluke of his birth.

He felt the eyes of his best men and thought with despairing certainty that he’d condemned them all to death, even Merlin, who sat by the campfire like a mascot among the knights.

“We should all get some sleep,” he said, and turned from them that they might be spared his low spirits on the eve of battle. . .

 

Merlin blinks, slow and strange, like he’s been wound down, seconds taking minutes. An old mantel clock.

He reads the passage again. And again. Sudden heat catches him like a tidal wave and he can’t seem to inhale properly, lungs seizing and his whole body shuddering with a bite of air sucked in too fast.

He reads again and again until the words are nothing but lines and dashes and curves, no sense to be found in them at all.

Unnoticed, the spoon slips from his lax fingers and falls to the stone floor. He hears the clatter as though through a blanket, like he’s not really here, like he’s looking through a window. A surge of energy burps inside him and there’s a noise like a walnut splitting in a cracker but nothing could take his eyes from those words.

His hand shakes, fingers following lines of text like unsteady markers, skidding over the paper, touching the words to make them real, to make sure they’re real, make them be, and his stomach isn’t pleasantly warm and full, actually, not nice at all anymore, it’s uncomfortable and he thinks he might vomit and his hands shake and he can’t seem to swallow.

He flips the book closed as if seeing the outside might help him understand the inside but there’s nothing new there, just the knight on his horse with the plume and the—

Merlin stares at the etching, rubs his thumb over the laid fabric on the cover, traces down over the flank of the horse with a smile that’s bordering on a grimace stretched over his face. Up and down, and up and down go Merlin’s fingers, and the lines, they move, the little thing flexes, it shudders like a startled horse and Merlin has to shut his eyes tight and breathe, will it to stop its attempted gallop off the cover, force it to go back to sleep.

He reads the author’s name and it rings no bells: J. A. Wright.

Merlin doesn’t know which feeling is worse, the relief that it’s all a bizarre coincidence or the crushing ache of disappointment he can’t swallow for the lump of heart trying to claw up into his throat. He can’t seem to let go of the book.

“—All right, love?”

Merlin looks up, disoriented, into the concerned eyes of the server woman he’d given the fake money to, and a half dozen people besides. He’s too hot. He didn’t take his coat off and he’s too hot. He needs to take off his coat.

He’s half shrugged it off when he thinks, no, that’s not right, and pulls it back onto his shoulders needing fresh air, even with the rain in his face, needing to be out of the pub. He’s fine, he’s grand, just a "—bit clumsy, nothing to concern yourselves with, it's nothing, just—"

There’s a gasp and he follow's someone's line of sight to the table where he’s dripping, thick blood just dripping in globs from a gash in the meat of his palm, a shard of exploded sugar bowl still embedded in it. There are pieces of it all over the table. It looks like he brought his fist down on it.

They’re all looking at him, morbidly curious, and Merlin stops talking with a snap of his jaw. His hand trembles. He holds it to his chest and he’s not really thinking, bending over it with a scoop made of his other hand, stupidly trying to sweep the sugar into a pile even though it’s laced with broken china and blood and not fit for saving. His coat sleeve catches on it, spreading blood on the table.

He sees himself through their eyes, bumbling and confused. A crazy old man, worthy of contempt. He finds himself contemptible and doesn’t quite know how he got here, how it happened that he’s dressed in this skin, this life, and when did he forget to care and to wait? How and when were his convictions and hope replaced with nothing, and why did he never put up a fight about it?

“Leave it, for Pete’s sake,” the girl is saying, exasperated with him. Wanting him gone. He’s causing a scene. He needs to leave.

He lets her pull him away from the table, stands by the table cradling his hand and feeling completely disconnected to what’s actually happening.

The faces around him have a hungry edge.

They’re waiting for whatever strange behaviour he’s capable of, waiting to see him having his funny little turn, already storing it up for when they’re home with the missus, shaking their heads over the old man that’d gone soft in the head, smashed one of Nora’s sugar bowls he did, bled like a stuck pig and all. Waiting to embellish it until he’s remembered as some old nutter who’d ranted and raved like a crazy person at the punters all in for a quiet afternoon, just minding their business. He’ll become a villain, a pariah with eyes like a madman, never did see anything like it, and some people, honestly.

He makes a fist to staunch the blood loss.

Frantic now, desperate to get out of the pub and unused to so much attention, he stands taller than the old bones should allow. People gathered round fall back, suspicious now, seeing him for something different, not knowing what it is and fearing it. He lets them.

In strange silence they watch him as he stows the book in his satchel and simply walks out, followed by an exasperated, "—sugar bowl, who's going to pay for that,"  that's being shushed in case he comes back and does something worse. He feels their eyes trailing behind him until he’s out in the open and walking headlong into the rain.

Out of view, he picks up his pace and runs, runs until he’s breathing fire and his legs are heavier than lead. He finds a land boundary and stops to rest against a low dry stone wall.

His legs fold like he’s been kicked in the back of the knees and he’s shaking with exertion or maybe grief, he’s not sure, not even sure of anything at all anymore but the very real ache and congealed blood all over his hand.

He looks down at it like it’s not attached to his body, welcoming this pain, this real sensation. The chunk of sugar bowl has almost worked itself out of the wound. He plucks it out, throwing it aside with unsteady fingers.

Nursing his hand to his chest, he looks to where his legs have brought him. The forest looks right back.

An ancient ache worries at his insides and for a moment he’s overwhelmed with frustration at not understanding. There's something he’s missing, there’s something—

Looking up, he blinks water from his eyes, and when he opens his mouth to drink the rain, he tastes salt.

The forest seems to open for him with barely a whisper, calm as soon as he breaches the treeline, when the storm should be whipping the canopy to shreds. It’s always been this way, he knows it’s for him now. His magic reaches out to guide him, makes him sure of where he puts his feet and gives him the eyes to see paths nobody else can see.

He walks deep into the trees until there’s no glare from the township and barely a sliver of moonlight that reaches the ground. He finds a thick-trunked chestnut and sinks down against it, brushing lumpy conkers from under his hips, settling in.

Looking up, impatient, he incants, the glow of his eyes lighting the underside of leaves as branches creak and twine together in a rustling, living canopy, weaving an evergreen tent overhead until he’s sitting propped up against a tree in an iridescent cave.

Merlin doesn’t spare it a second glance, hands itching for paper, diving into his satchel to find it, breath coming faster when the book is in his hands.

His wound has stopped throbbing already and this is the way of things with him now, he knows. Before he’d had such command of himself, of magic, he took as long as any man to heal.

It’s different now. His blood adorns the pages of his book and settles into the grain of the cover but his body doesn’t miss it, already knitting itself together.

With shaking hands he opens the book, paper raspy under his wet fingers, reads and reads well into the night, half his face glowing with the light a small blue orb throws over his shoulder. There is only the endless sky above and the constant earth below, and Merlin in between, a mote of dust, swallowing down thick emotions he can’t name for fear of the power they hold over him, still.

 

~ ⌘ ~

It takes two days to finish the book thrice over. Such a little thing. A few hundred pages, almost small enough to fit in his pocket. Abandoned by one set of hands, dropped, kicked aside maybe, come into Merlin’s possession whether by fluke or design he doesn’t care to know. Such a small thing to pin himself on.

He puts it away in his satchel, heartsick and numb.

Walking through the town is nice, it’s a nice day. He keeps up a steady stride so as not to alarm anyone. It’s not too windy for a beachside town, and he’d been doing so well. He’d been so good, not thinking about anything. He’d schooled himself carefully, and now his peace is shattered. There’s a buzzing on the edge of his mind, an insistent insect he can’t slap between his hands. He pushes it down, but still it vibrates. He keeps walking, leaving the spread of population behind.

Finding an abandoned farmhouse come evening, he pushes aside rotten timber slats and crawls inside, finds a corner that doesn’t stink of piss, hand-rakes together a little mound of old straw and huddles down for the night. He takes the book from his satchel, wanting it closer, slides it into the pocket of his coat, fingers lingering over gilt lettering on the cover.

 

 

. . .remarkable craftsmanship. He hefted it in his hand, the smooth, cool ivory seeming to call to him.

He could not help but wonder how such great power over the realm of the dead could be held within it, and by extension, in the very palm of his hand. . .

 

He’d thought for a moment that putting a slab of concrete between himself and the earth would dull the pounding in his head, but it makes no difference. His bones ache with the pulse of it, omnipresent, wanting to pull him away from the coast and east. He will go. He will, but not tonight.

Closing his eyes, he leans back, thinking to rest a moment.

When he opens his eyes moments later, he thinks it might be a Monday. He keeps to the coast, then spends the rest of possibly-Monday sitting on the beach, swaddled tight and small in his coat, legs drawn up to his chin under a boardwalk, deaf to the footsteps of people going about their lives above him. Tasting copper, he realises he’s been chewing a peel of dry skin on his lip. Smoothing the blood off with his tongue makes it sting. He blinks, coming awake, then takes the little book from the pocket at his side and slides it into the one at his breast, fingertips tracing letters embossed into linen.

He looks out over the ocean, thinking to silence the insistent thrum with the roar of the sea but it won’t go away, makes it worse, amplifies it.

Of course it would, the land and the sea working together to overwhelm him. He catches the curl of skin between his teeth and pulls until his eyes tear up, then feels it crack open every time he forgets and flexes his mouth. The book sits lightly over his breast. His fingers stray there now and again.

When he can’t stand sitting anymore, he walks back into the stretch of woodland which edges the town. He runs in the woods, his shouts startling flocks of birds to rise up from the trees in noisy concert, yells at the buzzing, tells it to shut up, but it wears at him, harassing him like a nagging child until he’s raw, until he sinks to the forest floor in defeat.

The sky turns above and the earth hums below. For the first time in years, maybe centuries, Merlin listens to it. He lies among the conkers and the bracken until he’s calm again, and hollow, his shell brittle and sun shy on the mossy forest floor, blinking awake after ages of being swept aside like a speck of dust that’s built up into a burial mound.

Maybe he can face this. Whether it’s real or not, whether the increasingly unbearable tug on his consciousness has anything to do with the book, with Arth—

Well. He breathes in snatches until he’s all right again, the little book a reassuring weight over his heart. Mustn’t think. Just do.

All things being equal and Merlin being Merlin, this just gets him thinking more.

About books. Other books.

Which is how he comes to be in yet another little town—having made some headway inland—inside a public library.

Every wall is lined with shelves, floor to ceiling stacks of books all around. It’s been years since Merlin stepped into a place like this. He’s shoved back through time to vast libraries of scrolls and parchments which have long since perished to dust. It shakes him, the ache, leaves him stunned. He’d missed this. Used to know someone who’d have loved this, would have felt at home in a place just like this.

He skims the aisles of fiction and no, no, nothing, and then oh —Oh! He’s staring open-mouthed at four spines on the shelf, each declaring J. A. Wright above the publisher’s mark. A small, stylised icon of a crown graces them all. They’re a series, one of them being Merlin’s book and three which are new to him. He blinks, adrenalin washing in a hot spill right under his skin.

He tumbles the three new titles off the shelf and into his arms before he’s even thought about it, and when his legs feel rubbery, he folds to the floor right there in the middle of the aisle.

There’s no turning his back on these. He stares at them and wills himself to open one, but can’t. Not here with all these people.

Books of Albion, they’re called. Merlin stacks them in his lap, one, two, three— his own, the fourth, a hard rectangle over his breast. The weight of them is nice. He wants to read them all right now, throw them open and rip his way through.

Merlin’s thumbs smooth over the cover of the topmost book, rubbing at the author’s name, heart speeding to an exuberant trot, wondering what he will find inside. He touches the edge of the cover meaning to lift it and stops there, frozen, heart climbing into his throat. His hands are old, callused fingers pushed through a dirty, threadbare fingerless glove. His beard rustles across the linen cover.

Slowly, he releases his grip.

Nothing good can come of this. The little stack in his lap could lead to something he’s not ready to acknowledge out loud, not even in the comfort of his own head. He could slice himself open on these pages. He can’t do this here, no matter what’s inside. He can’t do this with people around.

He licks his lips, looks up to see if anyone’s watching, but nobody is.

Breathing hard through his nose, Merlin holds his folly to his chest and walks out of the library under cover of concealment woven with one quick flash of golden eyes.

Outside, the drizzle’s a light sheet, the water a cold surprise when it settles on him in a mist.

Later, as approaching night finds him in another stretch of woods with a blue orb light steady at his shoulder, he bends over the stack of books like a miser over his hoard, hands hovering, unsteady, unsure where to start, and then . . .

And then. The last of the books has a dust jacket. He hadn’t noticed before, overcome with having found them at all.

He turns the book in his hands, looking for the blurb, and sure enough, it’s on the back. Right beneath a monochromatic portrait of the author.

It’s artistic, not a posed photograph; his back is to the camera, sunlight settling over his shoulders in variants of grey as he walks outdoors. His hands are in his trouser pockets, a dog crowding at his feet.

His jacket has leather elbow patches. His hair is light, his body strong and young, shoulders wide beneath the genteel tweed.

Merlin puts his shaking hands to his chest as though he can rub away the confinement of his ribcage, press through to calm his wild heart.

He smiles until his face hurts and his eyes prickle, trying to talk himself out of thinking it, but it’s pointless. He already half believes it. For the sake of formalising the half, he shakes his head at himself. He’s an idiot. He has always been an idiot.

The blurb tells him the author lives in Glastonbury, which is—

Merlin looks up with a start. He has no idea where he is.

The trees seem to look down upon him, canopies alive with an indulgent rustling.

“Shut up,” he says through laughter. “Of course it’s not. Can’t be, I’ll just go and see anyway, and it won’t be, and I’ll— and everything will be—”

His teeth hurt with how hard he clenches his jaw.

 

 

. . .intent on conveying her message.

“One day, great king, you will recognise the true worth of those that surround you,” she said, and dismissed him with a wave of her gnarled hand, as though she were the queen and he the one clad in rags. . .

 

It’s but days later that—with the insistent pull of the earth’s magic tuning to a fine hum in his bones as he travels the way it likes—Merlin finds a roadside marker with Glastonbury carved in stone. And when he picks a newspaper out of a dustbin, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise to find mention of an upcoming book reading by a local novelist done good, but it is. Merlin’s heart hurts as he reads the words over and over.

“No fool like an old fool,” he says to nobody.

That night, he sleeps again under the stars, stealing his way into an allotment and stretching out under twin apple trees. Perhaps ‘sleeps’ is a generous way to put it.

“I’ll just see. I just have to see,” he whispers.

Above him, the trees sway and whisper with portents of a storm, but he ignores them.

 

~ ⌘ ~

The rain hasn’t let up for days, or at least that’s what it feels like, though the type of rain has changed, as Merlin notes while standing in the subtle kind of it on the pavement of a city street.

It’s the sort of rain that doesn’t make a nuisance of itself at first, so that when one ends up soaked, it’s a mystery as to how it happened, exactly.

People walk and streak and stroll past him in a constant flow of black umbrellas and Merlin wipes it from his face with the back of his hand, dragging frayed sleeve threads over his cheek.

Across the road, the lights come on inside a bookshop, twin windows lighting up on either side of the dome-shaped entrance. A bell jingles as the Thursday evening people begin to gather inside, the sound dying abruptly each time the door closes.

Merlin watches from the safety of an alley on the opposite side of the street, making himself small in a darkened recess. It’s not exactly a throng, but there is certainly a respectable group of people inside; he can see the movement of bodies through a stack of books in the narrow windows. It looks warm in there. Merlin’s body is wracked with a violent shiver in a queasy craving for it, seeking comfort. His stomach roils with nerves. He feels sick, absolutely ill down to his core, the weight of magic coiled in his gut hot and heavy as a boulder.

He should have been paying attention. He should have realised he was still susceptible to this level of wishful weakness. He needs to leave - wants to leave, but as he stares at the shop front, he can’t move. Can’t walk away though he wants to, and desperately, to return to the status quo where he can exist without this kind of confusion.

In its windows, the enterprising bookstore staff have stacked copies of Books of Albion and arranged them into a rough castle shape, complete with books standing on end at the very top, capping the little installation with turrets made of spines. For a moment, Merlin can’t think, staring at it, useless with the weight of foreboding crawling up his neck like fingers until even his ears burn hot with it, crowding for space inside him until there’s no room for air in his lungs.

At some point, he has come out of the dark to stand at the alley's edge. From here, he can see the name of the author on the spines. Merlin stumbles, has to reach out to a nearby lamp post to slump against it, his heart wedged tight in his throat, mind stuck in a loop of what if, how and WHAT IF.

“Are you alright?”

Merlin looks down into the round eyes of a child. “No,” he says, forgetting to lie.

The edge of a brown coat swishes in between them like a barrier, its owner taking the child’s hand with a protective curl, pulling her away with a look on her face that’s outrage at his very existence, and Merlin understands that, he does, feels the same most days.

There isn’t any point of explaining he’d never hurt the child. The woman inspects her charge like it’s possible that a three second encounter with him might have left lasting scars.

Merlin means to say something, means to placate or apologise, or something, surely he can still talk to people, can’t he? Surely he can find some kind of—

The moment stretches while he struggles for the correct sentiment and then laughter comes out, and that makes it so much worse because now she’s looking at him as though he’s stark raving, and hell, maybe he is.

It’s taken a thousand years but he’s finally lost his goddamned mind, laughing with his face hot and eyes wet, sounding more than a little desperate. He’s drowning inside his lungs, stuck inside of the mad laugh and has no idea where it came from and how to stop it.

The lady in the brown coat drags the child away. The little one doesn’t seem to want to go, lingering as she’s pulled along, halting steps in pretty shoes. Her eyes are big and blue and Merlin’s laugh subsides just as fast as it took him, the rain tasting of salt again. He stands rooted to the spot, watching the woman and child weave through the crowd.

He waits until she stops turning to seek him out before he takes the risk to hide himself with a whispered spell. He retreats, then crouches down to sit between the tyres of a parked Hillman and the naked alley wall and watches the little door across the street until night falls.

 

~ ⌘ ~

It takes two attempts and a near-miss with a speeding motorcar to finally make it across the street. He stands outside the bookstore but there’s no place to put himself out of the way so he’s like a tree that’s suddenly grown in the middle of the pavement. Men in hats guide ladies with neat seams up their stockinged calves to walk around him, odd looks thrown at him out the side of their faces as they pass, too polite to call an old man out directly.

Merlin takes a breath and wills himself to put his hand on the doorknob.

Inside, cigarette smoke swirls to the ceiling in elegant curlicues and voices fall quietly into tight, warmed spaces between bookshelves. Merlin can’t hope to get lost in the crowd in a place like this.

Shelving has been moved and there are chairs which look brought in specially for the occasion—certainly there would be no room for them normally—and it’s cramped and warm, very, very warm. Merlin fingers his collar, pulls it away from his throat. It’s constricting. The smoke makes his eyes itch.

There’s a stool, a simple wooden thing, standing alone at the back of the store. Merlin studiously avoids looking at it.

The whisper that’s been attacking him from the inside so relentlessly slaps its impatient hands against the inside of his ribs. Merlin squeezes his eyes shut, half of him already out the door, and across town to some cave he can crawl into and refuse to leave, somewhere he can quietly rot into the earth.

When people begin to find seats, Merlin stands well back, shoulder wedged into the wall. There are looks directed his way, a couple of murmured offers. People are solicitous of his aged stoop, too well bred to let their eyes drop to his filthy old coat. He does not make eye contact, reads the titles of the book on the nearest shelf over and over until they pretend they don’t see him anymore.

He’s actively trying to not think but he can’t help it, his imagination trips him up so he falls face first into a fuzzy vision of a blond head bent over parchment, and there’s not just a whisper now, there’s a smell, the crackle of ozone in the air like his magic’s taken the place of it. He can’t stand it, can’t, not for one more second, shrugs his shoulders inside his coat like he’s leaving, ambles sideways and people move, they move for him, and he’s going to go, he’ll—

A buzz of quiet draws everyone’s attention, faces turn in unison to the back of the store. Toward the wooden stool. Merlin freezes. Quiet talking from the people assembled in the bookshop turns to curious whispers, necks politely craned, coats rustling as people settle into attentiveness throughout the room, waiting for the reading to begin, and it’s too late, too late to leave without causing a scene; he’s at the front of the store near the doorway but there is still a throng of people between him and the exit. He eyes it desperately anyway.

He’s not ready. Merlin’s hands shake and he should put a stop to this, would do well to walk out and never look back because this cannot end well. He won’t recover from this. He’s been wrong so many times, had too many moments like this one and buried a piece of himself each time. He’s not ready to be wrong again. Merlin shoves his dirty hands deep in his pockets, turns his face into his collar and waits, poised on the balls of his feet like he can jump the crevice when the world opens up under him again.

From the back of the store, the buzz quietens and Merlin squeezes his eyes shut, his stomach churning unhappily. He registers people nearby murmuring, swapping impressions of so young, I didn’t realise, and out of his father’s company’s what I heard, could have been running it by now, and better than the last one, I hope, absolutely murdering accepted historical—

Blood rushes in Merlin’s ears. He lifts his face slowly, carefully, like he can stop himself dying if he does it by degrees, he’ll be alright if he’s proved wrong in increments: heeled feet, the folds of coats swathed over backs, overhead light caressing the rims of hats. He takes it in bit by bit until he’s facing forward even if his eyes are closed, a rueful smile for his own stupidity in thinking he could somehow avoid this, or that he could have decided not to come.

The voice, when he hears it, reaches inside him, grabs a fistful of spine and shakes.

He knows it. Knows that voice so well though he’d swear he’s never heard it before. His bones know it. His muscles remember it, his heart floods in a swell to hear it. His magic is singing, it’s singing high enough to break glass, and he will never forget this voice, its crisp diction, flavoured with good breeding. “—you all very much indeed. It is a pleasure and an honour to read to you all tonight.”

Merlin breathes in, out, and opens his eyes.

Eyeglasses. Arthur is wearing—oh god, and blue, a waistcoat in dark blue and his shirtsleeves rolled up. Merlin sucks in a desperate breath and it sounds like a sob forced up raw in his throat.

A man beside him makes some room, angles away, but Merlin has eyes only for the blue of Arthur’s waistcoat and the light glancing off his spectacles and hair, his hair! Waxed wheat in the dull light of the bookstore, falling over his face, longer than is the style now and so much more vivid than in Merlin’s memories, and he’s speaking, his voice, his voice, deep and clear, eyes downcast as he reads from the book spread open in his hands.

Merlin’s at the other end of the bookstore but his eyes are good as ever and they’re Arthur’s hands though smoother, fingers clenching the book more tightly than a stack of paper ought to warrant. He's nervous.

Merlin’s heart is beating so fast he thinks it might just stop. Arthur’s bloodless fingers make him want to weep. He has one foot braced on the rungs of the stool and the other extended to the floor. He’s slimmer and the way he’s holding himself, the slant of shoulders says he’s tired, but Merlin’s magic doesn’t care about any of it.

It ripples and boils and rises up in wild sprays of glee until it’s not just Merlin who’s aware but the bookstore patrons as well, all looking at each other with a bewildered sort of air like something’s changed but they can’t quite put their finger on it, and did you feel it too, then written all over faces. It eases its way through bookshelves and weaves through the gaps between chair legs until it arrives at Arthur’s feet, rising like a cape to slip around his shoulders, tracing his contours until it feels like Merlin's touching him, learning the way he occupies space again.

There’s a sound of distress and something breaks, a sharp sort of crack, and Merlin can’t tell if it was him crying out, but people are turning to look and there’s a shout, and the reader—Arthur, there’s no doubt now, none—pauses, lifting his head to see what’s causing the commotion. Raised voices break over his head and the patrons are up out of their chairs and backing away from a fissure that seems to have rent the floor in half, from end to end, the width of a fist.

Someone curses and Merlin looks up to find Arthur glancing up too, looking straight at him and it’s like a bucketful of water in his face, he reels with it, an echo of him punched out through his spine only to twang back like an elastic band.

He gasps with the force of it, his magic going absolutely haywire and he can’t hold it in, can’t be in this place a moment longer, can’t be trapped in here another second, he’ll not survive, he’ll—

Merlin lurches like a drunk and the crowd’s more than happy to move out of his way as he trips and stumbles his way outside, away, god help him, away.

And then he’s out, running across the road through the beams of headlights, indignant horns sounding out until he hits pavement and makes the alley, pressing himself small and flat into the same doorway as before, magic wailing at him in discontent.

He looks up to the sky, wiping the rain off his face with a trembling hand. He can feel it even now, feel him. His chest is heaving for breath and he’s laughing, he thinks, howling at himself with a desperate sort of sadness, knowing he’s pathetic but not knowing how else to ease the buildup sitting thick like hot tar in his lungs.

He lurks in the dark of the alley while the streetlamps come on, their sickly light slipping over the heads of people leaving the bookstore and those going in to inspect the freakish damage to the floor. Merlin barely notes them, eyes skidding over their shoulders, seeing through them. None of them are Arthur. He closes his eyes, turns his face into the brick and waits.

He’s concentrating on it so hard that when it finally happens, he jolts, scraping his temple against the rough brick. The ball in his gut turns into a pull and Merlin’s up before he knows what’s happening, scrambling to his feet and coming to the lip of the alley just as a car pulls away from the curb, just a few doors down from the bookstore. He can’t see inside it. Doesn’t need to.

As the car drives away, Merlin leaves the safety of darkness, breaking into a jog as its tail lights recede until he’s running full pelt, following as they disappear around a corner.

Merlin lets his magic follow the trail, allows himself to be led along. He has no thought for where he’s headed, but knows it’s right in the same way he’s always known the way. The tug inside his belly is firm and sure though the car has long since disappeared from view.

It’s full night now, the rain still drizzling, waxing his coat shiny-black and weighing it down over his shoulders. He doesn’t really feel it.

It’s late and there’s hardly anybody about, streetlights wearing yellow halos in the rain. The wet slap of Merlin’s boots resounds up the street, displacing puddles. Blood rushes past his ears, deadening the harsh scratch of his old lungs.

He lets himself be led through a common and vaults a stone wall, not even thinking to slow down. The beard which ought to be flying in his face isn’t there after a little while, but he doesn’t spare a thought for its lack.

He has not run like this in years, or is it decades, no, centuries, but his legs seem suddenly limber and long, the twisting of age undone, a miracle. So he runs and he runs and he runs to Arthur, magic bouncing around inside him like an untrained puppy trying to lick at his face. Suddenly he’s laughing, running and laughing like a lunatic in the rain, in the middle of the night between sleeping houses, with the sounds of his hysterical laughter bouncing from the brick in shallow barks of echo and his old skin sloughing off in his wake.

He comes finally to terraced houses all in a row, and there’s no outward sign, but there can be no doubt, not the way he’s drawn to them, to one in particular that pulses at him like a beating heart. He sobers, swallowing down crippling apprehension even as his feet scuff to an awkward halt in the street. He wipes rain from his face. Stumbling, he moves backwards until his back hits a wall on the opposite side of the street.

Such an ordinary door.

Merlin stares at it from a distance.

He thinks he might sink to the ground right here and just wait, just sit quietly and simply be close. Just be near the bright spark. Flap his wet wings around it.

For all the words he once had to say to Arthur, the hours and days and months worth of words he’s saved up to tell him, none of them come to him now. None of them can be said to a man to whom Merlin is a complete stranger. Merlin’s head buzzes with layers of unhad conversations, rain dripping from the tip of his nose.

He slides down with the wall at his back, making himself small under an eave, elbowing his satchel out of the way of his hip. He’s so cold. So very cold and feeling more alone than ever, closer to Arthur than he could have hoped because when Albion’s need is greatest, what a fucking farce. Centuries, he’d waited centuries before he could get his head around the enormity of the lie and his own gullible need. And now he’s here, so close, but why now, so close and so far away. He fists his hands in the lining of his coat pockets.

He’s there for what feels like hours, slowly atrophying into the house behind him when the brown door across the road creaks and opens. Merlin's heart crowds into his throat even as his back presses into the wall.

Silhouette backlit by a bulb in the hall, a man sets an empty milk bottle on the step, then hesitates. He seems to be looking out into the night. A shadow skirts around behind him, a dog coming to sniff at the night. It stands by his leg, ears pricked up. Merlin wants to keep this moment forever in the palm of his hand.

"Are you there?" the man, Arthur, says softly. Merlin's jaw drops, blood thundering in his ears.

Arthur waits, poised on the stoop while Merlin tries desperately to understand what's happening and what he should be doing about it.

"Come out where I can see you," Arthur says, so softly Merlin can barely hear it. He braces his shaking hands on the ground and pushes himself upright, glow cast by the streetlight yellowing the toes of his worn boots. The dog whines quietly and Arthur’s gentle fingers find the scruff at its ear, scratching.

Merlin can't speak. Doesn't know what he'd say if he could. There is nowhere else to go so he moves forward. When he stumbles on the lip of the kerb, Arthur's hands twitch.

"I saw you tonight. At the bookstore." Arthur's eyes glitter in the silent dark. They have Merlin pinned. "Who are you?"

Merlin shakes with the cold and something else that's rounding on him like a snake held by the tail. He steps into the yellow light and Arthur gasps, eyes roaming over Merlin’s face.

Arthur’s eyes are huge, like he’s the one seeing a ghost and when he touches his own jaw, Merlin echoes the movement, startled to feel wet skin where he expected coarse hair. He brings his hands into the light and they’re the same young hands which straightened a crimson cape over pierced and bloodstained maille.

Rain drips between Merlin’s fingers and there’s meaning somewhere in this but he can’t grasp it, can’t reach it for the chaos in his mind.

“. . . I know you,” Arthur whispers under a breath. Merlin sobs, just once, a broken thing that falls to the ground the moment it's out of his mouth. His open hands gather rain.

The dog is restless, weaving between Arthur’s legs, tail flicking low and quick, and it’s absurd, this, no passage from a book but a man of flesh and blood with rain glistening on his nose and sticking his hair down to his temples, but Merlin’s magic is a bonfire inside him, wild and unfettered, reaching out to settle like an aura around Arthur’s shoulders, close and happy. Arthur sucks in a breath as though he can feel it, tipping his chin, Adam’s apple dipping, brows knitted in concentration. “I know you,” he repeats, deliberate this time.

Slowly, he braces his arm to hold the door open and Merlin’s heart surges up with a terrified beat of wings. He follows inside in Arthur’s wake. As he always has.

A kettle shrieks and Arthur throws Merlin another disbelieving look as he disappears around a corner, presumably to quiet it. Merlin stands in the hallway as the front door of Arthur’s house swings softly closed behind him. Blood pounds in his temples. He looks around as the lock snicks home, shutting out the outside world, muting the sound of rain.

Something nudges at his hand and he turns to find the dog looking up at him. They stare at each other as rain drips to the floor from the tips of Merlin’s fingers, gathering in a little puddle around his shoes. He should do something about that, he thinks, but the dog beats him to it, lapping at his fingers, ears ticking back and forth, then at the floor, pink tongue scooping efficiently.

It’s Arthur’s home, he suddenly realises. He is inside Arthur’s home. Arthur’s dog pads away with a scratch of claws on wood and Merlin reaches a hand out to touch the wall, snags rough fingertips on the white plaster. They leave wet marks behind. He watches the moisture darken the surface while the sound of water running somewhere close by turns into the clatter of a spoon against crockery.

In the kitchen, Arthur is making tea.

Merlin shuffles forward toward an open doorway, stands in the shadow of it, tilts his face to see in. There are pictures on the walls, in small, discrete frames. Photographs of people who mean something to Arthur. People whom he’s trusted, spoken to, maybe loved. People who have listened to his voice and seen him grow into a man and who have shaken his hand and known his touch in this lifetime. He grapples with a sharp spike of anxiety, mind awash with all the parts of Arthur’s life that he’s not privy to, that he’s missed out on by his obdurate denial.

He nearly missed this. Nearly missed Arthur’s life. He draws a shaky breath that hurts all the way down like swallowing something sharp.

Merlin blinks, taking in the mess of a busy but solitary life, clothing drying on the ribs of an oil radiator, cigarettes butted out in a saucer. Papers, some stacked in sheafs, some loose over a table, Arthur’s spectacles neatly folded overtop. A typewriter, its round black keys gleaming.

Merlin’s satchel slides from his shoulder and drops to the floor in the empty hallway. He doesn’t know what he is doing. His hands are shaking. He looks at them, turns them over, watching his fingers tremble. He can’t seem to will them to stillness. He is in Arthur’s home and his hands are shaking and he wants that to stop but there are sounds now, sounds like choked off, strangled sobs and they’re his, he’s making those sounds, shivering down to his bones with cold and exhaustion while Arthur makes tea in the kitchen.

Except that a muffled, “Christ,” makes his eyes travel up to see Arthur in the doorway with his shirtsleeves rolled up and a tea towel slung over his shoulder, hair messed like he’s worried it, pulled at it a little. He looks shocked.

Merlin looks down at his hands again and remembers the texture of that hair, hands still sticky with gore and blood and dirt, that hair between his fingers, remembers it so clearly it’s like a punch to his stomach.

He folds himself around it, sucking air like it’s his last, arms woven tight around himself, holding his chest together.

His knees don’t want to hold him, and he doesn’t feel like standing up anymore, so he doesn’t; he folds to the floor in a relatively painless sort of slide. His damn hands won’t stop shaking but at least he can splay them to the wood now and hold on to something. Make them hold on to something. He feels weak and useless and he can’t seem to breathe properly, can’t seem to draw air no matter how hard his lungs work.

There are hands on his shoulders and murmured, pained sounds, and then those hands are raising him up, pulling him up off the floor and more low, quiet words in his ear that barely make it in past the ringing.

He walks under the direction of those hands into a little bathroom with steam rising from the water in a bathtub with enamelled claw feet, rusty where the coating has chipped over the years. He keeps his eyes on those lion paws while his body tries to shake itself to pieces as those hands move him this way and that, peeling off his clothes and tossing them to slap wetly to the floor wherever they land.

He feels the gentle pressure of hands, and then he’s being pushed toward the bathtub. His legs know what they’re supposed to be doing at least so he steps in, water scalding hot on his frozen feet, making them tingle like pain, like burning all the way up his shins. Merlin hisses, squeezing his eyes shut. There’s a gentle, “There now, it’s only that you’re . . . my god, you’re frozen stiff. Here now, just—”

And he does as he’s told, lowers himself into the bath, old body in its strange young skin, hair coarse at his groin where it rubs against his thigh and dirty nails and fingers purple with cold, still tingling with the phantom of dirty-wheat hair that had darkened with age into something less dazzling but no less dear, no less beloved.

His body shakes uncontrollably and Merlin’s so very tired, too tired to understand how he might stop it, so he stops trying, lets the shivering have him, teeth chattering in his jaw. There’s no sound apart from the water dripping from a sponge that’s being dragged over his back and his own breath scraping out rough into the space of his shaking hands cupped against his face. He’s spoken at, the quiet comfort of that voice falling at the back of his neck making him squeeze his eyes shut in a careful sidestep around what is really happening, unable to think or feel anything except, please, please god. Please.

He’s washed like a child, made to stand in the bath, the sponge rounding at his neck and behind his ears and water dripping cold over the knobs of spine and red knees. He’s cleaned with efficiency, with not a thought for modesty or shame, hardly registering the scuff of the sponge over his buttocks and between his legs. A hand at his shoulder urges him to sit again and so he does, the water’s overwhelming warmth registering for the first time. He shudders at the comforting heat of it, feels it spread through his bones in a tentative ache.

Leaning forward at the press of those hands—and he can’t think the name, he can’t think it for the hot lump of burning coal that’s in his throat and pushing at his eyeballs from the inside—Merlin tucks himself around his folded legs while competent fingers scrub at his scalp, at his short, short hair. His knees are scraped and the hair on his legs is young and black and strange. Merlin stares at it, feeling the insistent push of conscious thought beating at the back of his mind. He closes up against it, pressing his face into his knees while water sluices over his head.

Manhandled out of the tub, he stands on the linoleum with toes drawn up and back hunched while a towel rubs blood to the surface of his skin and he’s trying not to breathe so much, trying to stave off having to think about anything.

He finds himself sitting on a settee with no real idea how he got there exactly, and there’s a robe around his shoulders. He’s shaking again, though strangely, he’s not really cold anymore, just tired. Weary to the bone, sick and weary and old. Directly in his field of vision, the hands pluck at a wet shirt, pulling at it and the voice says, “Just change my clothes,” and then Merlin is alone, and there’s the ticking of a mantel clock and pictures on the wall and Merlin can’t look at them. Won’t.

Curling his knees into his chest, he folds himself into the back of the settee and breathes, listening to the metronome of the clock and pulling his trembling fingers into fists under his chin.

The dog sighs and closes its eyes. Merlin closes his, too.

He sinks like a stone.

 

~ ⌘ ~

Something is wheezing. Merlin’s fingers twitch to hold on to sleep, but something is making a noise and he can almost grasp it, it’s on the tip of his tongue, right there, it’s—

—the kettle boiling again. Its whistle reaches a crescendo and then subsides, gives way to a scuff of soft footsteps, the clink of crockery; domestic sounds, alien and comforting.

Merlin dozes, not ready to open his eyes and let go of his peaceful dream. It clings to him like a sheen of sweat; he can still feel it in his fingertips where it’s not quite a tingle, and on his temple where it’s not quite a kiss. He won’t move. Not now, maybe not ever again, if it means preserving this impossible insanity. It’s the most wonderful dream he has ever had.

Rhythmic and precise, drops of water splat at a window ledge, tapping quietly away at Merlin’s soft oblivion until his eyes drift open of their own accord, eased into awareness.

The rain has stopped.

The room has the feel of afternoon about it, bathed in the kind of hazy glow that comes after a storm dressing everything in dirty yellow and pink.

Merlin watches the daylight disappear, sliding away, a veil of dark clouds trailing in its wake. His eyes are slits which he can close whenever he wants to. It’s comforting. He tests this out a few times, floating in a pleasant state of dusky haze in between his eyelids, swirling motes of dust drift in beams of filtered light stirred on his breath.

He’d not noticed them before, overwrought and exhausted as he was, but there are bookshelves in the room, several of them lining the walls. They’re neatly arranged for the most part, books kept all in rows and some in vertical stacks that have the look of much-handled favourites about them.

The remains of daylight illuminate their spines in narrow beams, showing up fingerprints in the dust. Merlin recognises several familiar titles of Arthuriana among them.

On the wall hangs a simply framed drawing. He stares at it for many heartbeats, the shifting evening light revealing a Rossetti working study for The Daydream. He watches the light play and move until all there is of Beatrice’s face is her beautiful mouth and a twist of black hair at her nape, the scrutiny of her knowing eyes taken by the glare. Merlin looks at her until light recedes completely, sending her into shadow.

He blinks slowly.

There’s a scratch of pencil on paper and a warm rush spreads through his body at the sight of a man bent over the desk, the pencil in his hand flying, scratching, writing. There is little light. Merlin licks his dry lips, gingerly tracing the cracks, making them sting. He watches in silence.

Arthur’s dog lifts its head from its place by his socked feet and stares back. Cigarette smoke curls lazily to the ceiling from an ashtray by Arthur’s hand. Lamplight touches him at the shoulder, settling over the curve, lighting the fuzzy pill of his worn-in jumper.

Merlin’s heart swells until it’s in his throat.

He watches while he can, committing it all to memory in the most precise way he knows how, drawing it in his mind, going over the contours of Arthur’s body, the table, the curl of fingers on the cigarette. He traces Arthur’s profile with a careful eye. He blinks hard, pressing his eyelids together to make the picture stick under them, be burned into them. It comes to him that he could make time disappear for a while, just as long as he wanted, just to look. To get close and to look his fill, but he knows he won’t.

Instead, he watches Arthur write and breathe, chest rising and falling. It might be the low light but there are dark shadows under his eyes, a set to his mouth that exposes the weight on his mind.

A draft from the window makes the curtain billow with a sudden gust of chill autumn air, and he doesn’t know whether it’s that which rouses the dog or if it just wants to stretch its legs, but it pads to him on soft feet and noses up into the folds of the blanket to lick at his hand. He stretches his fingers to pet the ghost of Arthur’s fingers behind its ear.

When he looks up, Arthur is watching him. He lays aside his pencil.

“You’re lucky. Drake doesn’t take to people so easily.”

“Drake?” He says, voice thick with sleep, scratching at the tufts of fur at its neck just hard enough for the dog’s hind leg to twitch.

“Mm. Named after the one and only, seeing as he goes after every ball.”

Merlin huffs a laugh. He has absolutely no idea what Arthur means, but it seems right to be amused. The dog yawns, pushes its muzzle into Merlin’s palm. He concentrates on petting it for the need of something to do, something to still his hands against, until it pads away to nose at Arthur’s knees.

Several beats pass in loaded silence, until Arthur clears his throat.

“I’ve had dreams,” he says, quietly rueful. “All my life. You’re exactly like I—”

Merlin’s heart thuds fast and hard, making his ears ring. It’s impossible. This is completely and utterly impossible. Something trips at his tongue and it’s out before he can think. “What’s your name? I mean. Your name on the books, it’s—”

Arthur snorts. “My sister’s fault, that. Jesus, Arthur, just bloody write! she would say, so there’s the J. A. Wr—well, you get the drift. Write it out of your head and onto paper so you can close the book on it.”

Arthur stops, slides his hands into his trouser pockets and retreats to stand at the window. “She was the one who encouraged all this, you see. I never meant to burden her with my predicament, but sisters. You know.”

Merlin doesn’t. He remembers, though. Remembers the way Arthur’s eyes would flash with fond exasperation at Morgana wearing her emotions on her sleeve, years before he had watched Merlin murder her in front of his very eyes, the fondness replaced with relief as she bled out beside him on the grass. He draws a shattered breath and meets Arthur’s eyes.

“She was very convincing. Said if I just wrote it all down . . .” Arthur says, then stops, clears his throat. Spreads his hands with an awkward gesture at a mess of books lying on the floor, spilled out of Merlin’s satchel when he’d dropped it. “Well.”

“Does it work? The writing. Does it help?”

Arthur stares out of the window with a crease between his brows that Merlin notices in the window’s reflection and says nothing at all.

Merlin sits up, bracing on shaky arms. He hurts all down one side. Everything aches.

“None of this makes any sense,” Arthur says, looking past his own reflection to the night falling outside. “None of it. But I saw you at the bookstore and you were. Old. You were old, and now you are not. And I’ve watched you sleep, all these strange memories - I know you. You’re Merlin, aren’t you? I know you. How is that possible?”

“I don’t know,” he says, numb. It’s the simple truth. He wraps his arms around himself; under the blanket, he’s wearing only pants and a cotton vest. Arthur dressed him. He took him in and cared for him and dressed him in clean things that don’t fit and none of this is possible. Merlin’s eyes sting. “I don’t know, but it’s real.”

“I dream of a dragon, sometimes,” Arthur says, voice quiet in the darkening room. “That can’t be real.”

“It is. He was.” Merlin’s eyes mist, remembering Kilgharrah’s cryptic meddling with much more fondness than it deserves.

“Is it like you? Still . . .”

“No. He died long ago.”

“Ah.” Then a quiet exhale and halted words like he’s not sure he wants to say them. When he finally speaks, it’s like he expects to be laughed at. “I dream of riding on its back. Flying.”

“You did, once.” Merlin says, holding his ribs tight to staunch the leak of anguish at the thought of that one time, Arthur’s first and last. When Arthur turns to sit back in his chair, his fingers are passing over his sternum, absently rubbing at a scar that isn’t there and Merlin is off the settee and on his knees before he knows what he’s doing, shuffling forward to kneel at Arthur’s feet.

Arthur’s startled face is the picture of confused apprehension but Merlin does not care, not about his fingers’ desperate scrabbling or the dog’s surprised yelp or how hard it is to draw a full breath. He needs only to touch Arthur. Only to touch his skin and bones and muscle and to feel his breath, warm and bitter with cigarettes.

He nudges right between Arthur’s feet and winds his arms about his body, chair and all, blanket slipping from his shoulders. He mashes his face into Arthur’s thigh, breathing him in.

A few beats of his heart pass before Arthur's hands settle on his shoulders like they're not sure where else to go, tentative fingers skating over Merlin's back, almost tickling.

He gasps a sob into Arthur's leg, presses his forehead into the muscle to feel, to feel something, and the hesitant touches at his back turn to gentle strokes, making Merlin's body shudder like he’s a flag come untethered in a storm.

The sensory memory of touching that vital body, easing chainmail over the broad back is so strong, though it’s not this body and Merlin is so confused and hurting inside but still he clings, scenting Arthur so hard it makes him lightheaded.

He won't think about how long it has been since anyone laid hands on him, and he knows this isn't affection, it isn’t love. It can’t be, surely; they’ve just met. The thought makes his gut curl up in despair, makes him close his eyes tight to stop them leaking, but Arthur’s hands are kind, and soon he quiets, focused on their weight on the nape of his neck. He lays his face gently on Arthur's thigh, and for long moments it's just this, quiet breathing and acceptance, both of them misplaced in time.

“To think you’ve seen centuries of history unfold.”

“Much less amazing than it sounds,” Merlin says, easily laying a hand on the feeling of being sick to bloody death of his own skin, sick of the trap he’d made for himself.

“Still,” Arthur says wistfully. “Trafalgar, Merlin. No wait, Agincourt! Christ, just imagine it.”

Merlin huffs a rueful laugh. Of course Arthur would think with his sword arm. “I don’t have to imagine.”

Arthur’s hands pause. “Were you there?”

Merlin thinks of blood flowing in a millennium of rivers, let loose by lances, or arrows, or musket balls or bayonets. He thinks of being unable to stay away because if Arthur were back, he’d be there, he’d be right in the fray, surely.

He thinks of seeing so much pointless death that the inside of his own skin felt hot and dark and dank, and not once, never once seeing the one life he wanted to cling to.

Perhaps his silence is enough by way of reply. Arthur's hand is warm and heavy at his neck, reassuring. 

“The life you must have had,” Arthur murmurs, and it breaks Merlin to hear it. He doesn’t deserve the fascinated, envious inflection in that, nor the admiration.

“I am not a good person,” he says, stomach lined with self-loathing, “I should have been more patient, he said you’d come back and I couldn’t even—I couldn’t,” he bites out, turning his face away.

Arthur touches Merlin's arm where it winds about his hips, pressing his thumb over an old scar that bisects it jaggedly from wrist to elbow, and of course he’d seen it. He’d bathed Merlin and all his scars.

“You mean this.”

Merlin draws a breath that’s uneven and wet, remembering that day so very long ago, decades after the last of Camelot had faded to two-dimensional tales, his friends and enemies alike so thoroughly stripped of their true character that Merlin didn’t even think of them as the same people he’d once walked beside and broken bread and traded laughter or blows with.

He’d been walking a forest path and a bramble had caught his arm, tearing through his sleeve and drawing a perfect tear of blood from his arm. He had stared at it, realising nobody would know.

Nobody would ever know he was gone or miss him or know he’d been there at all, ever. Not one soul.

They were all gone, every last one of them, all of them had done the proper thing and shuffled off the mortal coil, even ...him. Especially him, and it had all seemed so stupid and pointless and small; he was nothing.

He was nothing to nobody and prolonging his existence had seemed stupid and selfish when there were people who deserved it so much more, who wanted to live and couldn’t, didn’t have a say in it. And all the while Merlin was still there like some perverse thing that wouldn’t, that couldn’t die.

All the pent up grief had become overwhelming. He had wished he could fly once again with his hands outstretched, rise up into the airless blue and look down upon the red and gold beauty of the land beneath. He had yearned to unbutton his ribs one by one and let the scream inside him free, let it go, let it all go—

And so he’d opened his arms and bled into the ground until there had been nothing left, giving the magic back to the land, he’d thought. He’d felt it puddle beneath him until the rustle of trees above and sunlight coming in spikes through the branches got too bright, and he’d closed his eyes, numb and tired. He had been so tired.

And that had been all. Until he had woken exhausted and filthy, covered in blood and dirt and shit from lying on the forest floor for days on end while his body had knitted itself back together, his magic, his very self meddling even in this.

It had been the first and last time he had tried it.

“I lost faith,” he says, stupidly blinking back tears again, shocked there are any left.

Arthur's fingers find their way into his hair, petting with the awkward pace of the unsure, like he's the one taking the liberty. Merlin doesn't let him second guess it, wants the closeness so much it hurts like a pressed bruise.

He leans into the touch, nuzzles Arthur's hands like a lamb nosing at it's mother. Tightening his arms around Arthur's hips, he presses himself as close as he can, so close he can feel every crease of Arthur's trousers, the shift of muscle against his arms igniting that lump of coal at his throat, magic gathering like a tide. This is what it's been trying to tell him, this is what it's been shouting at him for years now and he'd been too stupid to listen.

He butts his head against Arthur’s hard stomach and turns into Arthur's hand, nosing at the wrist. He needs to be close to the blood that pumps through it, needing to feel the vital thrust of Arthur’s precious life in his veins because he's here, he's here and Merlin has him. He has him and he's not letting go this time, not for the end of the world or for turning to dust. Never letting go again. He swallows around a sound that's both need and grief pushing his bones apart from the inside.

The press of his mouth to Arthur's wrist is unintentional and fleeting at first, just a drag of his face with eyes tightly closed to feel it more, but the moment it happens, Merlin’s skin breaks out into goosebumps.

He slows it down to feel that delightful thrill again, chasing it all the way up the inside of Arthur’s arm with the gentle slip of his lips.

He tries it there without really thinking, just following the smooth muscle to the crook of Arthur’s arm, kisses deliberate and open, pressing his mouth to warm skin, to the delicate web of veins. Wanting to taste Arthur’s life, he licks with a soft tongue, laps at the salt in the crease of his elbow.

The effect is immediate. Arthur stills, a hand twisted in Merlin's hair, the other cupping his face. Merlin's eyes flutter open at the gentle sweep of Arthur’s thumb over his cheek.

His eyes are dark and hot, watching Merlin’s lips where they drag over his forearm, Merlin pushing up to reach the bicep, rub his face against it. Arthur’s mouth is slack and Merlin is burning under his skin for that look on Arthur’s face, wrecked and not quite himself. It’s a sudden realisation that he’s hard, blood pumping so fast he’s lightheaded.

He turns into the hand cupping his cheek and touches the very tip of his tongue to the thin skin at Arthur’s wrist, tastes it, curling his tongue, watching him, calling to him wordlessly.

He loses track of how it happens exactly but there are hands that lift him and he’s jerky and ungainly like a newborn thing, sprawled in Arthur’s lap with a faceful of woolen jumper and his knees tingly-red from the floor, climbing up until he’s mouthing madly at the warmth between collar and jaw where a vein jumps with Arthur's pulse, pushing in with his eyes squeezed shut so the rest of the world doesn't exist.

Arthur makes a startled sound when he licks there, flattening his tongue on Arthur's throat. His erection finds the ridge of hip to press against, bucking at the splay of Arthur’s big hand at the small of his back, gathering him in like he needs it too. 

Merlin finds his parted lips with a rough slide over his stubbled jaw that has his face tingling, then parts his thighs around Arthur’s to straddle him, bringing them closer together. The shock of having found himself hard is nothing to that of finding Arthur in a similar state as their erections catch on each other with a mad, absolutely crazy surge of desire, demanding that they press against each other, that layers of clothing be rubbed between them. Merlin can’t think past the need to find Arthur’s mouth, to scuff his against it while his insides fizzle and catch fire.

Reckless and high, absolutely flying, Merlin gives himself over to the momentum set by Arthur’s hands as he’s pulled in again and again, the friction between them, even with layers of clothing, sweeter and more desperate than anything he’s had. He’s soaring, outside of himself with the need to keep moving, to keep dragging his erection over Arthur’s willing resistance, to be pulled and pushed where Arthur needs him, be held in his hands.

He can’t kiss anymore, loses all semblance of coordination, bracing hands wide on Arthur’s shoulders to put his whole body into the motion, frantic, absolutely shaking with need to feel alive, rambling presses of barely pursed lips on the tendon in Arthur’s neck, mouthing at the kick of his heartbeat beneath.

Arthur pulls him into a crushing embrace and Merlin’s above him looking down, feeling like he’s growing wings, like he’s invincible. Arthur looks at him with soft, pained eyes, a flush playing between his clavicles, rising over his throat, sitting high on the apples of his cheeks with a drawn-on precision that has Merlin gasping at how beautiful he is, how precious.

There are words crowding up his throat that want saying but having them so near to pouring out has Merlin’s heart feeling clammy and presumptuous, so he stoppers them by latching on to Arthur's neck.

Arthur grips him in a breathless downward tug as his hips begin to jerk uncontrollably, breath bitten off and swallowed raw, and it’s that, the look of helpless abandon on Arthur's face that has Merlin thrust up quick until he’s wet and hot and wet against the crease of Arthur’s thigh and the world tilts just so he’s falling, melting straight through the bottom of his stomach and into release so intense it leaves him gasping.

It takes him a moment to realise what he has done.

Brittle and shaking, he lifts himself away from the mess he’s made of Arthur’s lap, making a valiant attempt at quiet avoidance as he tries to get his legs under him, trembling like a newborn foal. They’d never. He had never, before, not with Arthur, and now it’s done and he went too far and Arthur’s eyes are closed. Maybe if he just moves quietly, they can pretend it’s okay, it’s fine, he can clean up and move on and sorry, he’s—

“—sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," He knows he's babbling but his mouth runs away from him, words pouring out as he dabs and wipes at Arthur's trousers, so ashamed now, cold where he's wet and sticky and horribly mortified. Arthur's hands keep getting in the way and why won't he move them, why won't he let—

"Merlin." Arthur's hoarse voice hardly penetrates.

—can't believe it, and he's going to have to wash this out of their clothes straight away, he's going to—

Arthur encircles his wrist with one hand while the other wipes at Merlin's face, coming away wet. He bites down on a sob, needing desperately to get away and find some private place for his embarrassment so Arthur doesn't have to witness it, but instead of letting him go, Arthur holds tighter, takes his other wrist too, crushing both against his chest. "Please, stop, just—"

Hot, hot shame crawls all over him and up the back of his throat and he can't struggle against Arthur's big hands anymore, so he stops, hiccups on a broken breath, squeezing his eyes shut and letting the tight grip on his wrists hold him.

He doesn't put up resistance when Arthur gathers him close, gentles him like a spooked animal, letting him soak his collar and neck, only holding him closer as he heaves big ugly sobs into his neck, and Merlin doesn't know what to do with that, is long past knowing how he's supposed to feel about any of it, knowing only that Arthur has him now. He has always had him.

Arthur makes no bones about it, lifts Merlin to his feet and with complete lack of ceremony about it takes them both up the hallway and into his bedroom, puts Merlin in the bed and tucks the blanket around his shivering body, pushing the hair from his face in a gesture so caring it has Merlin swallowing tears for as long as it takes before the undertow of exhaustion pulls him down into a deep, dreamless sleep.

 

~ ⌘ ~

"All this time," Arthur says, warm breath gusting over Merlin's neck. "I still can’t believe you've been here all this time."

Merlin holds very still, carefully cataloguing Arthur's reactions. They're not touching; Arthur's nearness and body heat like a warm lick up Merlin's back. He'd woken like this in the small hours, with Arthur's comforting presence behind him in the bed, soft rain rolling down the windowpane. Merlin doesn't remember the last time he'd slept so much. Perhaps the strangest thing is that he could sleep yet more, but maybe that's just his mind's attempt at evasion.

"I never said I did it well." His voice is scratchy, but clearing his throat only hurts more.

Arthur huffs a breath that travels up Merlin's neck to slip around his ear. "I feel as though I should say that's hardly a surprise," he deadpans.

Merlin's mouth tugs into the relic of a smile.

They lie in the darkness while night creeps on, Merlin watching the shadows crawl across the walls, too tired to think properly but unable to go back to sleep, the enormity of it all beginning to sink in.

Arthur is real. He was real then and is real now, and he’s within hand’s reach, though there seems no reason for it. Merlin turns to lie on his back and watches the way Arthur’s eyes reflect the moon.

“Merlin,” he says, his hand splayed over Merlin’s neck where it turns into shoulder, dragging him into the now  with that warm and solid touch. “Merlin,” he whispers into his mouth alongside a kiss that feels like a breathless running dive off a pier, magic knocking around inside his ribcage, elated.

Arthur’s hand drags down from his neck to flatten at his ribs, awakening an urge to stretch up like a wanton and push up into Arthur’s palm.

“I don’t remember . . . this.”

“If you did, it’d be an exciting creative embellishment,” Merlin says, vaguely surprised at stringing a sentence together with Arthur’s spread fingers inching up his chest.

“It was never like this between us, then?”

“Was too busy saving you to bed you, Sire” Merlin says, a little proud of himself for biting down on not for lack of wanting and the stories of a decade of longing that go along with it, the centuries of numbness that followed after.

Arthur’s too-bright laugh rumbles through his chest and Merlin presses himself closer, relishing the rasp of stubble against his cheek and the safe, dark place between Arthur’s shoulder and neck to hide his face in.

He’s kissed, then, on his cheek and on his temple, and a scuff of lips over his ear, until Arthur’s hand tilts him up so lips can find lips, soft and sweet while their grand destiny sits like an elephant in the corner, ignored for as long as they choose.

“I’m not him,” Arthur says, “You don’t owe me that kind of deference.”

“I know,” Merlin says and checks himself for it, thinking I was never going to lie to you again, and on an impulse he’d like to blame on something but really can’t as it’s just him and Arthur naked in a bed, mumbles, “I miss you so much,” into a chest that’s solid and rough on his face, his mind supplying the ghost of hard earned sweat and leather and horse.

“I mean it,” Arthur says, his face so close that Merlin can only see slivers of him.

Arthur takes his hand, guides it to his hip. Merlin’s fingers tremble their way over a lump of congealed tissue, the size of a coin.

“When I was nine, I fell off my bicycle. Gouged this open on a rock. Seven stitches. ”

Merlin swallows, gently rubbing his finger over this new discovery on Arthur’s body, making circles over it, across and around it, fingers tentative over the ridge of Arthur’s naked hip at being given a reason to touch him.

“I wear glasses. Not all the time, but you get my meaning.” Merlin does, and he thinks he knows where this is going, the bittersweet tang of forgiveness almost on the tip of his tongue.

“My life, the one that’s me right here with you, that’s real, Merlin. I’m not him, I’m—we can start again, don’t you see.” The last of it whispered hotly into his neck has Merlin’s stomach tightening.

His body responds and demands in turn, wanting to go after the spark of pleasure fizzing up his spine when Arthur mouths at the hard ridge of his ear.

“I think I’ve always wanted to do this,” Arthur says in wonder around the lobe catching on his lips and Merlin doesn’t recognise his own laughter for the delight in it, until Arthur finds his mouth and makes it stop trying to smile.

They slow kiss for a while, turning it languid and soft just to stay connected, Merlin’s body tingling everywhere they touch, drunk on nearness and the boil of long forgotten physical desire clinging to his belly. He’d never thought to feel it again. Never thought about it at all, anymore. Its awakening shocks him with its unapologetic, single-minded want.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Merlin blurts, the net of his filter snagged between the thrill of Arthur’s lazy kisses and the sprawl of hands over the small of his back.

“Want to show you something,” Arthur says against his mouth, creating a sliver of space between them and searching Merlin’s eyes. Whatever he finds there must satisfy him because he turns away to switch on his bedside lamp and fumble in a drawer beneath it, bringing out a parcel two fingers thick, wrapped in brown paper and girdled with string.

Arthur sits up against the headboard, holding the parcel out for Merlin to take. There are swipes on the paper’s covering where Arthur’s fingers have unsettled the dust.

“I thought I could write you out of my head.”

Merlin stares at it, unable to speak for the need to touch all of Arthur’s memories and see how he’s remembered. How Arthur’s memories fit with his own.

“Can I read it?”

Arthur looks at him askance, probably, eventually, written on his face.

“You’re not going to publish it?”

“Not this one.” Arthur’s smile is small and intimate and Merlin feels ten feet tall for being given it.

“For a couple of years now I’ve had this feeling that something was coming. At these odd times, I’d get a . . . a premonition of. Something. When it really hits me, I sit and write and forget to eat. The dreams are so vivid then. It’s what I was doing when you came. It’s been very strong lately and the minute I saw you at the bookstore, I knew.”

Arthur sucks in a rueful little breath like he’s wishing he’d held on to some of that. He turns his face to the window, an earnest crease between his brows. Merlin chokes on the cut of his profile, thinking back to all the times when he had ignored or misunderstood the pull inside, the insistent tug of magic, feeling foolish for it but also wanting to whitewash everything that came between I use it for you, Arthur, only for you, and this moment right here, right now where all their secrets have already boiled down to acceptance of the impossible.

“I have something to show you too,” he says, voice hoarse with emotion. Arthur may not remember; Merlin doesn’t know the extent of the memories which masquerade as dreams. He’s not seen a hint of this in any of Arthur’s books. It may mean nothing to him, but it feels a ripe time for confessions, and Merlin’s been waiting. Bound and promised and long past due.

He slips from the bed and pads out to find his satchel, returning with it hugged to his chest, shivery with the chill of night, stepping over Drake who's snuffling in his sleep on a blanket at the foot of the bed.

He doesn’t miss Arthur’s eyes on his body, enjoying it with a flush of pleasure and a widening of his eyes that has Arthur grinning knowingly.

It had seemed like the right thing, but now that he’s back and still cold from the quick foray out of the blankets, with Arthur’s expectant face right there, Merlin falters.

“Come along, Merlin, what is it?”

Holding Arthur’s gaze, Merlin reaches into the satchel, mouthing a spell to materialise the object he’d pressed out of time with the will of his magic, keeping it safe from harm for a thousand years.

When he brings it into the light, Arthur gasps, taking it gently from Merlin’s hands in the reversal of that night by the campfire when each thought themselves lost. Arthur’s mother’s sigil gleams silver just as it always did when the darkness became so opaque that only its weight and the impression of the bird in his palm could anchor Merlin to the world.

“Fathomed you out,” Arthur says absently like he’s not really here in the room, making the hair on the back of Merlin’s neck stand on end.

“I kept it safe. For you.”

Arthur’s eyes are pained and perfectly clear with their implied yes, you kept it safer and better than you kept your own self, idiot.

“With your magic.”

Merlin nods, ducking his head under Arthur’s scrutiny.

“I want you to show me,” Arthur whispers, and the bands around Merlin’s chest ease.

Smiling, Merlin pushes him down on his back, watching Arthur's face as he draws the incantation with a mouthful of bespelled words, thrilled to the bone at Arthur’s wondrous gasp when his eyes limn in gold.

He noses his way down Arthur’s chest, scrabbling with blunt fingers at the trail of hair on his belly, watching the golden dragon flying beneath the ceiling reflect in Arthur’s wide eyes like a scatter of stars, a miniature Arthur riding on its back, Excalibur raised in triumph above his head.

His heart swells at the unabridged, joyful astonishment on Arthur’s face at Merlin bringing his dream to life, the way his eyelashes flutter when he takes him in his mouth, the glow of Merlin's magic sparking over them in a shower from above.

Arthur looks down at him with hooded, desperate eyes and when he cups Merlin’s cheek with his palm, it’s as though this is a form of obeisance he can accept, from one man to another, and no more secrets between them.

The future is an open book with blank pages waiting to be filled, the story nowhere near done.

~ Fin ~