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As a child, Mordred always felt like the heroic, “save the world” type. He would run around the house, wearing a cape, and save his dog from whatever evils were going to harm her. In school, he and his friends would play superheroes and cops and robbers, and Mordred was always certain that he was the good guy. In everything he did from birth, he was certain he was a hero, whether it was helping his grandmother carry groceries into the house, or nursing injured birds back to health. Which is why the memories completely shattered him.
Mordred was barely fourteen years old when he met Arthur for the second time. It was his high school orientation, and he was practically shaking with excitement until he met his orientation leader. Arthur Pendragon, or Arthur Presley in this life, was a regular Ferris Bueller. He was a soccer star with a 4.6 GPA and couldn’t go two minutes without running into someone he knew. Everyone knew and loved Arthur, Mordred’s best friend at the time, Kaleb, absolutely adored Arthur. And as much as it pained him, Mordred couldn’t help but look up to him.
If he thought Arthur Presley looked a little familiar, Mordred couldn’t quite place it at first. But then Arthur was shaking his hand, and Mordred was passed out on the floor, trembling and shaking as the memories came back to him, one by one. He was on the floor, unconscious for barely a minute, living an entire lifetime. When he regained consciousness, Arthur was holding his head and shouting at Kaleb to get the school nurse, while a group of thirty freshmen stared at Mordred intently. They were whispering furiously, and some had their phone cameras taken out.
That night, Mordred was torn from consciousness once again as an early childhood that wasn’t exactly his came back to him. His mother, asleep at the foot of his bed, dialed 911. The second seizure lasted around forty-five seconds, she estimated on the phone. His mother was an exhausted thirty-two year who had her son too young but loved him with such fervor that it didn’t matter. Mordred was her whole life, even after she married his adoptive father. The ambulance came quickly, along with the diagnosis.
He was put on medication before school even started. He found out that his grandmother had her first seizure at age fifteen, but didn’t take medication until she was in her late twenties. It wasn’t the diagnosis that upset him, really. His grandmother helped him come to terms with it, and made him feel so much less alone in it. No, what had upset him, was the absurdity of it all. He knew that seizures weren’t accompanied with visuals and sounds, and memories of a past life. Everything he thought about himself was brutally invalidated as he remembered pushing a sword through Arthur’s armor. He remembered killing scores of men and not once feeling mercy. For the next four years, Mordred couldn’t escape the memories. He felt unstable for the rest of his academic career. He curled in on himself, and cut out all of his friends. He closed himself off from his mother, his father, and eventually his grandmother.
His adolescence was lost to survivor’s guilt and PTSD that he couldn’t talk about, and that he shouldn’t remember. His grandmother believed in reincarnation, but Mordred couldn’t bring himself to talk about this with her. She was a pure presence. She didn’t belong to the Mordred that killed and lost everyone he loved, she belonged to him. She was entirely unique to Mordred Larkin, an American child born in 1999. He didn’t want to taint what few comforts of his childhood were left.
The videos of him falling to the floor and shaking in Arthur’s arms circulated around the school for a few months, but like everything, were eventually forgotten. Except Arthur never forgot. He felt so bad that for the entirety of his senior year, the only year he overlapped with Mordred, he made it his mission to make Mordred smile everyday. Whether it was a silly joke, a compliment, or a coffee before class, Arthur never stopped trying. Mordred desperately wished he would have, though. Being around Arthur was painful. All Mordred could think of was the feeling of sinking the blade into his gut, seeing his former friend’s face contort in pain. And the way the blade felt cold in his chest as Arthur twisted it.
This Arthur was different, he was polite, unburdened, and compassionate. But Mordred couldn’t look him in the eyes without feeling dizzy. So when Arthur graduated, Mordred didn’t say anything. He let Arthur go on to whatever university he chose without a word. Because it was obvious that he didn’t remember. If he remembered Mordred’s betrayal, he wouldn’t ask him how he was feeling every day before first hour. He wouldn’t smile so blinding and genuinely at Mordred from across the hall. He left quietly, with a U-Haul and a guarantee to do great things. He would get to live the life Mordred dreamt of. Arthur got to be innocent and ignorant, charming and happy. He wouldn’t have the guilt Mordred carried, or the pain.
High school went by slowly and achingly. Mordred was able to put everything he had into his studies, and into his growing affinity for drawing. He mostly drew cartoons, small doodles that made his mother smile. But sometimes, he couldn’t help it. Pages and pages of his sketchbook were filled with pastel portraits of Morgana, and Kara.
Kara was quite possibly the worst part of it all. He remembered loving her with such fierce devotion and loyalty. He spent years craving the love and validation of Kara. Kara, who was born ten years too early and married a man in California. She was a chef with a two year old son named Mordred. When he found her Facebook profile he couldn’t leave the house for a week. Despite his parents efforts and urges, Mordred couldn’t go to therapy. Not for this.
He graduated with a 4.0 and was going to attend college in Chicago fall semester. At the end of those four long years, he was almost six feet tall, with sunken eyes and hair that reached his shoulders. Kaleb had long abandoned him for friends with personalities brighter than Mordred’s. Their middle school plans of a senior road trip were forgotten along with each other’s phone numbers. Mordred was ready, fearlessly, for a lonely life.
His grandmother gave him ten thousand dollars as a graduation gift. Ten thousand dollars no one knew she had. Ten thousand dollars a fifty-four year old woman who lived with her daughter shouldn’t have. But she was determined for Mordred to spend his coming-of-age summer backpacking in Europe, like she and her daughter hadn’t been able to.

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Mordred arrived at the airport far too late than he should have, but he made it in time anyways. He looked like an ex-goth that had given up on personal hygiene years ago, not a fresh graduate on his way to experience the adult world. He desperately wished his life hadn’t become this. He wished that he could be the son his mother wanted him to be. He wished so desperately that he could provide the fulfillment his mother and grandmother craved.
But the plane ride to London was almost ten hours and his head was pounding with the pressure. The man in the middle seat next to him spoke with a slight hispanic accent and wore a woolen red beanie with a golden dragonfly pin on its side. He looked anywhere in between twenty and twenty-five, but spoke with the wisdom of a grandpa. When Mordred’s headache became too much, he fell asleep on the stranger’s shoulder.
Mordred woke with two hours left to go, and the kind man, Lance, let him talk more than Mordred had in the past four years. He told Lance about his sudden influx of cash to be spent on a European summer of soul-searching. He told Lance about how young his grandmother had been when she had his mom, and how young his mom was when Mordred was born, and how badly they both wanted to live vicariously through him. When he told Lance about what a disappointment he’d been, Lance just laughed and told him that he had the rest of his life to make it better.
As it turns out, Lance had grown up on the Texan side of the US border with Mexico. He was adopted by a Colombian immigrant who worked as an immigration rights lawyer. He told Mordred how upset she had been with him when he dropped out of high school to travel the world, searching for a girl he met a long time ago. He never found her in four years of searching, but he found himself on his way to England in search of an old friend. Lance was wistful and deeply hurting in the most comforting way to Mordred. Had the flight been longer, he might’ve told Lance about his own memories and lost feelings. But they got off the plane at Heathrow, and wished each other luck. Mordred couldn’t help but feel reminded of Arthur, walking off of the stage in his cap and gown, and flashing Mordred his brightest smile.
The memories of Arthur, both in this life and the past, burned a hole in Mordred’s heart. Everywhere he looked in his hometown, there were memories and pieces of two different lives that were irreconcilable. But London felt fresh, and strangely familiar in its cold and comforting in its subtle warmth. Mordred took a deep breath in, and prepared himself for what was yet to come.

Chapter Text

Arthur was an anxious wreck most of the time. In childhood, he couldn’t go more than a couple of days without suffering a new panic attack. He worried about everything under the sun. He begged his father not to drive to work, because he could get into an accident. He begged his mother not to take the bus, because she could get kidnapped. He started therapy at age five, and medication at age nine. He gradually got better at dealing with it, he developed coping mechanisms and learned not to waste his ativan on minor panic attacks. By the time he hit high school, he was a pro at calming himself down. He had minor relapses from time to time. When he was twelve he couldn’t sleep for two days after Morgana got her motorcycle. He was up all night, biting his nails and pacing until she finally got him stop. It was five AM on a Tuesday when she sat him down on the back of the bike with a helmet, wrapped his arms around her waist, and drove them along the interstate as the sun rose. She dropped him off at school with a peppermint mocha and a note that told him it was okay to try new things. She signed it with a heart, and tucked it neatly into his uniform blazer pocket. He kept the note folded in his wallet ever since.
Morgana was six years older than him, and drove him to school every morning until she left for college in Seattle. She was going to major in women’s studies and become a social justice lawyer. She was going to be far away from him for decades.
The biggest caveat to her leaving was that Arthur couldn’t drive. Everytime he got behind the wheel he started to hyperventilate and lose control of his thoughts. He had to walk two miles to school and back for six months until salvation came in the form of Elena. Elena was a sophomore in high school during Arthur’s freshman year. She was his nextdoor neighbor in their small suburban complex. They were close friends as children, but eventually grew apart. Elena was the first person in Arthur’s church to come out as gay, last year, and was the reason Arthur’s family stopped going. The church had regarded Elena with such bigotry that Arthur’s parents, Anne and Gareth, became agnostics after decades of believing. Since then, Elena grew closer to Arthur’s family, and started taking him to and from school everyday. She filled the hole Morgana had left slightly, but she didn’t have the same effect on Arthur’s anxiety that his sister did.
The following four years Arthur spent in high school were fantastic. He joined the soccer team on a whim, and discovered a natural talent. He took every AP class he could manage and did extremely well in most of them. On paper, Arthur was a perfect college applicant. He was poised for the Ivy League until he had to write his application essay.
The question was simple enough: “Write about an important turning point in your life.” The first thing that Arthur thought of was when he started taking medication for his anxiety. But he was so young when he started he couldn’t quite remember any of the details. He
wrote around ten drafts, all about different points in his life. Except the more Arthur tried to write about himself, the less he remembered. His life started to feel like a television show he watched when he was younger and could only remember the basic plot of. Arthur spent the first week of his summer after graduation in his room, writing furiously and scribbling out old drafts. His room was covered in wadded up pieces of paper. It was stifling and hot and claustrophobic. Arthur began to get rid of them in every way imaginable. He threw them out the window, he burned them, tore them up and vacuumed up the shreds, he even began to eat them at the end of it all. It was the most intense breakdown he had ever had, and as hard as he tried to hide it, his mother found him throwing up and sobbing one night, with ashes on the floor and his eyes red and angry.
College would have to wait, they decided. Arthur was supposed to be admitted to a mental health care facility, but he talked his parents out of something so extreme. Instead, he went to live with Morgana in Washington. He was to see a specialized therapist and work part time. The rest of his time was supposed to be spent doing relaxing activities, sleeping, and eating regularly.
Morgana took care of him for the next two years. Arthur broke his promise and worked part time as an assistant youth soccer coach, but volunteered at the homeless shelter twice as many hours as he worked. He tried to be relaxed at first, he really did, but that only seemed to stress him out more. He liked constantly having things to do, and most of all, he liked feeling helpful. Those two years with Morgana were incredible. He always felt like he was doing something good in the world and he finally got to feel closer to his sister. They spent every night watching movies or reading on their matching love seats. They started a book club at their local coffee shop together. His life was perfect, even when he started dating Lucia and spent less time with Morgana.
Their relationship was long and awkward. Arthur had flirted with girls high school, but as soon as they started to get physical, he started panicking. Arthur grew up to feel strangely about being touched. He couldn’t quite let anyone touch him, even his family, without flinching and getting anxious.
But Lucia tried so hard to break down his barriers. She was a psychology major in her last year of college, and she was always telling Arthur about his anxiety. Most of the time, Arthur felt like she studied him more than she dated him. He felt like her kisses and slow touches were experiments. He felt like the way she undressed him was analytical and removed. He felt like a patient, but he also felt like he should have experienced love by now. He was nineteen years old and infatuation never gripped quite like it did his friends. He wanted desperately to fall in love with Lucia. He wanted her to consume his thoughts and make his stomach uneasy for all the right reasons. But she only wanted him for a diagnosis.
When they broke up, it was messy and painful. They were both yelling in Arthur and Morgana’s tiny kitchen. He yelled at her for being a doctor when she should have been a girlfriend. And she yelled at him for not being honest. She kept asking him to tell her what happened, and then they would be able to make it work. She threw things at him, with tears in her eyes, and he started crying choked, angry sobs. They slid down the kitchen cabinets and sobbed together in the cruel solidarity of two people who wanted to but didn’t know how to love each other.
Lucia’s voice was small as she told Arthur that he had PTSD. She wanted him to tell her about whatever happened to him that made him so touch-averse and flighty. She thought she could heal him from the inside. Arthur looked at her with a mixture of contempt and confusion.
“Nothing ‘happened’ to me. I don’t need to be ‘fixed’ because there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m happy, Lucia. I’ve never been defined by mental illness and I don’t want to be. You should know that. You have to know that.” His breath was coming out in ragged gasps when he put his hands on her shoulders. “It’s been nine months and you have to know that I am so much more than anxiety.”
“Arthur you can’t be happy. You were accepted to Yale and you had to take a gap year because of your anxiety. If you don’t see the problem with that, then clearly there is something wrong with you. You’re throwing your life away, living off of your sister’s paycheck, and acting like your some righteous hero because you can afford to volunteer without pay. You’re a hypocrite. Arthur. Everything you do you do out of guilt. I don’t know what you did to feel so guilty, but you are unloveable in this state, Arthur Presley.” Lucia left without an apology and Arthur slammed the door behind her. He took two pills and collapsed into his bed, knowing that something was going to change.

Chapter Text

The English countryside was an out-of-body experience for Mordred. The hills and the skies were so achingly familiar to his mind that it felt like a blanket was being wrapped around him. This far away from the city, he could feel like he was still a druid with magic pulsing through his veins.
The absence of magic hurt a lot more than he thought it would. Sometimes he would move to act on instinct, but there was a distinct empty feeling when the magic wouldn’t come. It was like living without a sense. In his past life, he had relied so heavily on magic for stability, that he always felt off balance in this form.
The forests were comforting. They made him feel as though he was only one person, instead of two. He felt like Mordred the druid here, Mordred the knight. He didn’t have the weight of his living relatives pressed into his spine. He felt free and untethered to America. America became synonymous with his adolescence. America was where his mind was heavy and burdened and people looked at him with pity and with fear. England was only attached to his past. And while he grimaced at the memory of his betrayal, with Arthur so far away from him, it was easy to forget.
Mordred navigated the hills with a backpack without a GPS, without a phone, or any technology to guide him back to the city. He wanted to be gone for a long time, relying only on memories of a past life to guide him. He found himself heading towards Avalon, where the myths said Arthur was buried. Mordred figured that if he couldn't apologize to Arthur Presley, then the “final” resting place of Arthur Pendragon would be a good place to come to terms with his betrayal.
The lake was quiet, but surprisingly still there. The water wasn’t as blue as he remembered, rather, it was a dull greenish grey. Mordred absently wondered if life had sapped from it in order to reincarnate the king and himself.
Slowly, he knelt down. He pressed his forehead to the dirt and breathed in. This was going to take a lot out of him. The tight bottling-up of all of the mingling guilt and grief he felt was years in the making. Not only was he unsure of how to let it go, but how to live without it. He bit back a sob as the memories came back.
He remembered a young and golden Arthur guiding him through tunnels, helping him escape execution. He remembered the pride in Arthur’s eyes as Mordred was knighted. The wind blowing against his face as rode with the knights, feeling like he was on top of the world. He remembered the constant worry on Merlin’s face, the slight suspicion that was their undoing. He remembered finding and losing Kara in one fell swoop. He felt that grief in his gut, even now. He remembered wanting to kill Arthur more than actually killing him.
“Arthur. I’m sorry. I was young and in pain all of the time. I had to hide myself from everyone, and the only man who could understand hated me for a future I couldn’t see. If I had known that she was out there, I would’ve left you before either of you had to die. I know my loyalty to you should have come first. But I needed someone. I needed someone who knew what it was like to be born hunted and who had lost everything and everyone to genocide. I’m sorry I betrayed you, because I know that hurt you more than any weapon could. I haven’t been able to live with myself since. I can’t escape your face and your hurt. I know I failed you when it mattered most, and I would do anything to change it, if I could. I would die a hundred times over to make it up to you.”
All Mordred could taste was salt. He was crying and his nose was running and his chest was dull with pain. He was grieving someone who was born in the same hospital he was. He was grieving someone who was still alive, but it hurt all the same. Because for all intents and purposes, Arthur Presley was as dead as Arthur Pendragon.
Mordred laid there for a while, his knees tucked in and his head against the dirt. He felt small and wished for his grandmother, and her calm comfort. When he could finally bring himself to look up, Mordred saw a sycamore tree that looked older than lake itself. It was in full springtime bloom, despite the summer weather. The leaves were full and glittering green. The trunk was thick and worn, with hundreds of different carvings etched into it. It felt so warm and full of life that Mordred couldn’t help but move close enough to touch it.
But as he ran his fingers against the rough bark, Mordred jumped back, clamoring as far away as possible from the tree. When Mordred let his hand rest upon the trunk, he felt a pulse. He could feel a heartbeat pumping something through the tree, and he desperately hoped that that something wasn’t blood.
But then the tree was bending and twisting, of its accord, and curling itself around the thick trunk. And there, in a cocoon of green leaves and bark, Mordred could see a faint light shining, and the figure of a man. A tall, lanky man. Mordred’s heart seemed to beat so fast it would break his ribs, because he knew what was happening. And he was afraid.
Merlin stood up, and stretched as dozens of light popping noises came from his body. He yawned and ran a hand through his hair, surprised to see that it came down to his waist. He was wearing a dirt covered Dinosaur Jr. t-shirt with ripped jeans and thick black boots. Mordred wanted to keep feeling scared, because he had just seen the world’s most powerful sorcerer transform from a tree into a man and because he had killed said sorcerer’s best friend the last time they saw each other. But this Merlin looked like he stepped out of a music magazine from the 90’s. Merlin rubbed his eyes as he blinked down at Mordred. He opened his mouth, about to He looked like an Edward Gorey character even more so than Mordred. His eyes were sunken and rimmed with grey, lifeless skin. His clothes hung off of him and you could see the bones in his wrists and elbows strain against his skin. He looked like he hadn’t eaten or slept in a hundred years.
say something, but closed it again. They stared at each other for a couple of minutes before Merlin finally settled on reaching his hand out to help Mordred up. Their hands barely touched when Merlin let go and pulled his hand back to his chest.
“Good God, you’re cold!” Merlin exclaimed, rubbing his hands together. Mordred didn’t feel particularly cold in his denim jacket and jeans, especially in the summer heat. He was about to say so when the other man cut him off.
“Where the hell did it go? You’re so empty! The magic just...isn’t there.” He said slowly, looking Mordred up and down, finally realizing why Mordred shouldn’t be where he was.
“Can I, uh, explain over coffee?” Mordred thought he sounded wrong with his American midwestern accent, talking to someone who he’d never spoken English with before.
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Somehow, they ended up back in London, having coffee. Well, Mordred was having coffee, Merlin just sat across from him and stared. Mordred told Merlin about how meeting Arthur had forced him to remember, about the seizures, and how poorly he had dealt with everything. In turn, Merlin told him that he wasn’t going to kill him so he should stop avoiding eye contact.
Merlin told Mordred about the moment he realized he couldn’t die. It was two days after Arthur’s death and Merlin tried to drown himself. He said that he felt the air leave his lungs and felt dizzy, but never lost consciousness. He told Mordred that he had been living ever since. Mordred felt chills go down his spine at that, but he was so exhausted after his time at Avalon that he decided not to feel for Merlin as intensely as he wanted to. They decided to go back to Mordred’s hotel room, where they could speak a little more freely.
“So, Arthur is alive then?” Merlin said softly as they entered the room.
“He is. He’s probably in his last year of college.”
“When, um, when-” Merlin spoke slowly, as though trying to figure out what the words he was saying actually meant. “How old is he?”
Mordred thought about it, counting it out on his fingers. If Arthur was 18 when he was 14…”22, I think”
“Oh.” Merlin said under his breath. “1995, then. I was in America in ‘95. I was living in someone’s garage in Philly.” Suddenly, Merlin’s physical appearance began to make more sense.
“Was that the last decade you lived through? Before, you know...tree?” Mordred wasn’t entirely sure what to say regarding absurdly dated clothing.
“Yeah. I spent most of the twentieth century in America, save the wars. By the time the 1990’s came around I was too burnt out on keeping up with technology. So I lived in this guy’s garage for the better part of a decade, until he got married and I came back here.”
Mordred couldn’t begin to imagine how much pain had brought on Merlin’s indifference.
“I tried every drug out there in the nineties. My head was so foggy all the time that I decided I didn’t want to really be aware of the withdrawals when I stopped. So at the start of the millenium, I just wanted to be a tree again.”
They spent a couple of hours on Mordred’s hotel bed, sharing stories and regrets. Mordred found himself asking all the wrong questions about Merlin’s life. He kept pressing for my information on his immortality and how it manifested.
“It’s like every, everything that’s supposed to hurt me does, but nothing can kill me. I would’ve died of starvation back in the 1800’s until I realized that I didn’t actually have to eat anymore. Or sleep. And, um, I guess technically I don’t need to breathe, it just hurts too much not to.”
Merlin’s reality was depressing and grim. As he spoke, his voice lilted in strange places, he stumbled over certain syllables and paused frequently. He spoke with no rhythm and with no emotion. His voice, if Mordred had to pick just one, was closest to a modern day Welsh accent. Although, he mostly sounded like someone who spoke a dozen languages before learning English.
Everything about this modern version of Merlin made more sense as Mordred learned more about his past. Merlin had spent the first half of his too-long life going to universities all over the world, getting degrees in a plethora of subjects. Once the 1800s hit, he was done trying to make the most of his immortality. He told Mordred that he was sick of learning things because he knew everything would change in another hundred years. Merlin despised how much time he had spent learning things that were no longer valid or relevant in the world today.
Merlin wanted to hear about Arthur, mostly. Arthur Presley, who Mordred went to high school with.
“Last I heard, he was off to college in Washington.” Mordred said, recalling his last conversation with Arthur.
“We’ll be able to find him, right?” Merlin bit his lower lip, more animated than he’d been before. Merlin seemed to be gradually gaining human characteristics. When they first started talking, he was stoic and quiet, like a tree. But as the hours went on, he started to seem more lively.
“Of course we can find him. But he doesn’t remember who he used to be.” Mordred said, unsure how to explain to Merlin the strange ways memories came back. “And I’m not sure if he should, anyways.” He added, quietly. Mordred didn’t want Arthur to remember killing people and watching his loved ones die. Arthur Presley deserved the life that Arthur Pendragon didn’t get.
“Well I’m sure when he sees me, he’ll remember. Or I could use magic to bring his memories back.. Merlin looked at him, almost pleadingly, but his eyes were so lifeless it was hard to see any feeling there. “I’ve been waiting a millennium for him. I guess I should at least talk to him.”
Mordred wasn’t sure of what Arthur Presley would make of Merlin. Merlin, who spoke with awkward cadences, had over a hundred college degrees, and remembered Arthur as a king, with burdens and responsibilities that Arthur Presley couldn’t imagine. Mordred tried to imagine Arthur Presley, golden boy of Verdant Peak High, meeting Merlin. He decided that Merlin was too unstable to exist in any modern setting.
Merlin had a vague understanding of what phones and televisions were, but the internet made absolutely no sense to him. He told Mordred that his wildest dream is for humanity to stop advancing. He told Mordred how he wished everything could stop just for a moment, so he could catch up.
“Living like this is really just walking through a tar pit. I watch everyone else evolve and get good, no, get better and faster, but it takes me two hundred years to get to the point where they started. Time feels molten...and sticky. It goes by so quickly that the leaves fall off the trees before they've even grown. And I just sit there, watching, waiting for so much as a wrinkle to appear on my face.” Merlin’s voice remained emotionless through it all, his eyes still stared at Mordred blankly.
The longer they sat there, on the bed, the more it felt like a horror movie. Merlin was terrifying, borderline sociopathic, and being around him made Mordred feel so much worse than memories ever did. Merlin was a skeleton. He was nothing but bones and memories from long ago. The way he spoke, the words he spoke, felt stifling to Mordred. The way Merlin talked about life almost offended Mordred, who was only a bullet away from losing it. Merlin made permanence seem impermanent, he spoke of death as though it were akin to life, and his slow moving clocks, his viscous perception of everything gave Mordred goosebumps. Perhaps, if he didn’t owe Merlin his life, he would’ve left and never returned to Europe. Perhaps, if he didn’t feel the need to rectify his betrayal, he would’ve tried his best to forget everything about Merlin and run as fast as he could away from where Camelot once stood. But Mordred owed Arthur this. He owed it to Arthur to drag Merlin out of this hell he was forced into at birth, and re-store them both to their former glory.
“You can’t meet Arthur like this.” Mordred gave up on trying to phrase things delicately when Merlin said he didn’t want to kill him.
“Why the hell not?”
Mordred grimaced, unsure of how to explain the nuances of the 21st century to a thousand year old warlock. “Arthur is probably some fuckboy business major who’s going to call the cops when he sees you, greasy and skeletal, following him around. He’s not going to remember you like this. You’re gross and jaded and you make people uncomfortable. You’re not Merlin anymore, Emrys, you’re not even human.”

Chapter Text

Arthur started university at age 22, around the same time Morgana left Seattle to attend law school in San Francisco. The urge to go with her was strong, but Morgana insisted that Arthur stay in Seattle. She felt that he needed to live on his own by this age. So, Arthur stayed. His first two years were chaotic and busy, as he rapidly switched between majors, trying to find something that fit. His high school prodigy years were behind him, and he was completely directionless.
The few friends he’d managed to make, Elyan and Percy, were considerate of his plight, but didn’t understand how it felt to be lost like this. Elyan was in grad school for graphic design, and worked for one of the larger tech companies in the city. Percy was in undergrad training to be a veterinarian.
The three of them met at a pub beneath Ely’s apartment, and instantly felt like they had known each other for years. They met after Arthur had ended things with Lucia, and after Morgana had moved out. For that reason, Percy and Ely had grown synonymous with Arthur’s new life. They hadn’t known him when he was a child genius and sports star. They didn’t expect him to be better than he was. In truth, they were the first real friends Arthur had ever had. Since he met them, his anxiety started to lessen. He felt more relaxed whenever they were around, almost as if a part of him thought they were going to protect him from whatever imaginary danger his mind conjured up.
In the two years since Morgana had left (again), Arthur found a balance between anxiety and tranquility. The panic would come in short bursts, mostly at night, but occasionally during tests and phone calls back home. The time spent between panic attacks was calm. Arthur felt less like a river and more like a lake. He started learning how to live with things he couldn’t change, and accept the dangers that come with everyday life. The most disturbing part of reaching stability is the memory of instability, Arthur decided. He couldn’t think of his breakdown without shuddering. The vivid memories of pulling at his hair, the feeling of his nails breaking the skin on his arm, and the horrible, bitter taste of paper going down his throat. The worst part of stability is the ghosts of the way things used to be. Arthur found himself feeling haunted by his breakdown, in disbelief and disgust at his own madness.
The pressure to choose a major was starting to eat away at Arthur’s mind in a painfully familiar way. Arthur couldn’t stomach the thought of dictating his future so suddenly. The stakes were too high for rational thinking, which was never Arthur’s strong suit.
It was Ely’s sister, Gwen, who had been the one to choose Arthur’s major. “History!” She exclaimed loudly, through fits of laughter as she tried to steady herself. The four of them had taken to hanging out every free minute of the day. Gwen was kind and passionate, but far too intimidating for such a young woman. They all spent the night down at the pub, drinking too much and asking each other absurd questions about dreams.
“I dream of you, all the time, Arthur Pendragon” Gwen had drawled, too drunk to make sense, but still flattering nonetheless. Arthur had been nursing a crush on Gwen since the first night they met, at one of Ely’s work banquets. She was glittery and regal, her curly hair was cut into a bob that framed her face perfectly and she spoke with a jarringly unexpected authority. She was an English teacher and a natural born leader. It was so strange to Arthur that Gwen, who commanded rooms of people, was hanging on his shoulder and telling him how beautiful he looked in his denim jacket.
He drove her home, regretfully, and tucked her into bed without so much as a kiss. He thought about her non-stop for the next couple of weeks, before she finally asked him out. She was uncharacteristically shy then, afraid that Arthur would reject her. But that first date, Arthur thought, was perfect. As was the second, and the third, and the next million after that.
Arthur lived the next two years in bliss. He and Gwen had gotten engaged and moved in with each other. They made each other breakfast and took the other out for surprise dates to the movies. Gwen began teaching Arthur to drive in the rural parts of the state. She would drive them out of the city in her crimson convertible, and then let Arthur take the wheel. He was skittish and pressed the brakes too hard every time, but it was a start. He wasn’t comfortable driving at any speed higher than 15 miles per hour, but it was a start. Those first few lessons were the first time Gwen had ever witnessed Arthur’s panic attacks. His speech grew stuttery before they came on, and his hands trembled slightly before the hyperventilating. Gwen learned to recognize the signs, so she could be right next to him, with a steady voice and soothing hand. Sometimes, they sat in the middle of the road, surrounded by tall trees, shading them from the harsh afternoon light, and simply breathed. Arthur never got his license, but the way Gwen’s face would light up in pride every time he made some small inkling of progress made it all worth it.
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Their apartment burned down on Gwen’s birthday. They lost years of photos, assignments, and wedding plans. Gwen lost an entire trunk of her deceased parents photographs, clothing, and keepsakes. She cried for weeks after the fire, and begged Arthur to leave the city with her. It was too painful for her to live in the city where her parents had raised her, knowing she had nothing but faint memories to look back on. She could no longer remember what color her mother’s eyes were, or what her father’s car looked like. She decided that she had to leave Seattle for good, with or without Arthur.
They were long distance during Arthur’s final year of university. Gwen had found an apartment in Chicago, shared with two brothers in their last year of college who didn’t mind it when she was late on rent. She found a job at one of the local high schools and was only waiting for Arthur to come join her.
, e In that last year, Arthur realized exactly what he would be giving up if he followed Gwen to Chicago. He realized that he would have to start over again. He wouldn’t see Percy and Ely every morning over coffee. The only interactions he could have with his best friends would be through a screen. But Arthur thought of Gwen, the only person he had ever fallen in love with, alone in Chicago because her fiance abandoned her for her brother and his best friend. His heart broke at the thought of leaving Ely and Percy, but the thought of living without Gwen was far worse.
The night before Arthur left to visit Gwen for the first time, he found himself at the pub that had changed his life. Ely and Percy at side, drinking away the dread that came with Arthur’s departure, even if it was only for a weekend. The three of them were inseparable for the last four years. They had filled Morgana’s role as Arthur’s source of comfort. He didn’t want to leave them, even though he was choosing to do so anyways. They all drank too much and cried too hard on Arthur’s that night. Arthur told them that he was planning on moving once he graduated, to be with Gwen, and Ely swore that at some point, they were going to follow Arthur to Chicago, so they could be reunited eventually. But Arthur didn’t want false hope or half-hearted promises. For some reason, he wanted them to stand by him forever, and without question.

Chapter Text

The plan wasn’t simple at all. In fact, it was the most complex and round-about logic Mordred had ever seen, even when he was a knight. Mordred suggested a Clueless style makeover that would help get Merlin back into the swing of living normally. But the warlock refused. (He hadn’t even seen Clueless.)
Merlin, perhaps knowing himself better, decided that he would erase his own memories. He would then alter the memories of Mordred’s family to let them think he was Mordred’s brother, and that they raised him alongside Mordred. Merlin would wake up in a hospital, as a victim of head trauma, where they would discover he had no memories left. Mordred would come and claim him, take him home, where the family would fuss over him like they’d known him for years. Using magically forged application documents, Merlin would attend the University of Chicago alongside Mordred, as an 18 year old freshman. The four years they spent in college would serve to recreate Merlin, and mold him into someone Arthur could be friends with.
Despite all of the complex magic involved, the most difficult part of the plan was deciding Merlin’s major. Merlin would rather die a hundred times over than return to college, especially considering that the memory wipe couldn’t erase his knowledge, only his memories. As Mordred discovered, Merlin had an extremely outdated and inaccurate understanding of all maths and sciences, humanities, cultural studies, and he was way too close to the subject of history to let any professor explain it to him. They settled on music, as it was the one subject Merlin had never received a formal education on.
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They flew back to the US three weeks before Mordred was supposed to. Mordred couldn’t help but feel like he was disappointing his grandma. She had wanted him to have this amazing summer of cultural immersion, to grow, and reach his full potential before he went back to school. Instead, he found himself caught between two versions of himself. The things that were important to Mordred the druid were serious and grim. It was blood-oaths, betrayals, and honor to a fault. The only thing that mattered to Mordred Larkin was his family. Yet here he was, about to manipulate their minds and memories. He knew they would feel like he had chosen his past life over them and that they wouldn’t understand the debt he had to pay if they ever found out. Mordred hated contaminating his last refuges from his memories. He hated cutting the ties that attach him to he was before the memories came back. But, he also knew that Merlin couldn't go on like this. He knew that there was a reason behind whatever ancient force of life brought them back, and that Merlin would play an integral role in what was coming.

Chapter Text

Merlin had stopped feeling nostalgic hundreds of years ago. He hit a point where there were simply too many things to miss, so he stopped missing everything altogether. Truthfully, he forgot the sound of Arthur’s voice within the first fifty years of his death. By the 1700’s, Merlin couldn’t remember Arthur’s face, or his last name. Arthur became a legend in history’s eyes, and Merlin almost forgot what was fantasy and what he had actually lived through. He cursed Geoffrey almost four times a day, because he was forgetting his own story as the years went on. He knew he wasn’t the son of a demon, as the myths suggested. He knew he had nothing to do with Arthur’s birth, and that he wasn’t an old man when he met Arthur. But sometimes, he forgot who his mother was, who his father was, and what exactly happened when Arthur died. Sometimes, he thought it would just be easier to believe the stories. But that would be letting Geoffrey win, which he swore he would never do.

The plane ride was terrifyingly fast. Merlin could actually feel the atmosphere splitting against the grain of the giant metal wings outside. The magic heightened his senses, and technology made so many new, dissonant sounds that it was almost unbearable. He could hear the static of the pilot’s radio, and Mordred grinding his teeth next to him.

Seeing Mordred was the first time Merlin had felt genuinely shocked in a long time. He looked so different from when Merlin had last seen him, that he didn’t recognize him at first. But his memory told him that there should be magic there, there should be something connecting the two of them. But there wasn’t. Mordred felt cold and empty, like someone had drained the blood out of his veins and left him like that. The absence of magic in his body was terrifying to Merlin. He couldn’t fathom living so barren and drained. But then again, Mordred was just a drained sort of person. He was gripped by debilitating guilt and forced to reconcile two completely different identities, one of which was one of the most famous villains in literary history.Merlin knew what it was to be distorted in the lens of history, but to be villainized was something else entirely. He had no idea what Mordred actually remembered, or if he was using mythology to fill in the gaps.

“So, I don’t know exactly what you remember, but I feel like I should point out that you were not, in fact, Arthur’s son.” Merlin had long forgotten how to comfort people, let alone teenagers, but he felt the need to all the same. It wasn’t that he lacked compassion entirely, he was just unable to act on it.

“I didn’t think I was, but I have no idea how the truth could have been so skewed over time. I guess it’s kind of like telephone, right?” He paused. “Have you ever played telephone?” Mordred’s American accent was one of the strangest parts of this whole experience. It made the entire situation feel like a joke. Not that American accents were inherently funny, they were just so different from what Merlin was used to hearing. American accents were constantly changing, and it hurt Merlin’s head to keep up with it. In his memory, Americans still spoke with the transatlantic accent of the 1930’s. Modern American accents just sounded lackluster in comparison.

“Telephone is like this party game where a group of people have to whisper the same phrase into someone else’s ear until everyone’s heard the phrase. The last person says it out loud, and most of the time it sounds nothing like the original phrase.” Merlin nodded, not really understanding the premise, the point, or the reasoning behind the game, but not wanting Mordred to explain it any further.
“I mean, it’s kind of like that. Only Geoffrey’s version of the story was never accurate to begin with. After Arthur died, we sat down and wrote out the story of what really happened. We were detail-obsessed and by the end of it, there were over twenty volumes. Each book documented a different segment of mine and Arhur’s lives. But when Gaius died, Geoffrey and I got into an argument over his burial. I wanted to burn his body over Lake Avalon, as I had done with Arthur. But Geoffrey didn’t want Gaius’ body to touch fire. He said it was inconsiderate to burn the body of any sorcerer, regardless of magic’s legality. But I burned his body anyways. I was his ward and I wanted to give him a proper send off. But Geoffrey was his closest friend and felt that I betrayed him. So my story was destroyed. By the time the legends circled back to me, it was too late to set them right.”

That was perhaps the only thing Merlin was able to regret now. In the wake of Gaius’ death, only two and a half years after Arthur, Merlin couldn’t think straight. He felt that he owed it to Gaius to give him a send-off even better than the late king’s. And maybe a small part of him had hoped that the magic of the lake could bring him back, just as Arthur was prophesied to. He never stopped to think about the other people who lost Gaius. He never thought about how Geoffrey had lost his only remaining friend in Camelot. It was funny, that now he understood how the librarian must have felt--like a relic of a time that was only whispered about. He could understand now, how lonely Geoffrey had been, and that Gaius was his last lifeline. But Merlin was angry and mad with grief. He spent weeks shut up in Gaius’ chambers, crying, screaming, and hurting himself in every way possible. The only reason he stopped was Gwen.

Gwen, who slammed open the chamber doors, with the force of not merely a queen, but a natural-born ruler. She found him curled up on the floor, trembling and covered in his own blood. She knelt down and held him, stroking his hair and telling him how much she loved him. She never told him that it was okay, because she knew that Merlin had lost everything three times over. They laid on the floor of the empty chambers, since Gaius’ stuff had been stored elsewhere, where Merlin couldn’t see it. Her emerald dress was stained red with his blood, and her face was wet. For the next twenty years, Gwen was all that kept him sane. Each time he lost someone, Leon, then Percival, and finally his mother, Gwen held him and they cried together.

After Gaius’ death, they had both moved into Arthur’s former chambers. They set up two beds on either side of the room, like children, and told each other stories as they fell asleep. When they heard crying, or screaming coming from the other bed, they would be there for each other. When Gwen died, Merlin took a boat to Scandinavia, where everything was cold.
“I’m not sure you would’ve framed my story any better than he did,” Mordred sighed as leaned his head further back into the seat. It was strange to see Mordred in this context. He was a little older than he’d been when he was knighted. But now his hair was longer, curling against his collarbone, and he was healthier. His body no longer bore the marks of a child who’d gone winters without food. His posture was straighter, and he no longer clung to shadows, or the backs of crowd. His muscles didn’t remember having to hide, even if his mind did.

“I don’t remember, really. I hated you for so long.” Merlin said, drawing out the “so” as he stretched back into the seat. “After you and Arthur died, it was just too much energy to keep hating you. I think you would’ve turned out better if I was kinder, and I tried to reflect that in the biographies. But I don’t blame myself anymore. I don’t blame anyone, even Uther.” Mordred’s nose curled at this, disgusted by the statement. “When you’ve lived as long as I have, blame ceases to exist. You all waste so much of your time shirking and stealing blame in a loop. It’s pointless but you spend half of your life doing it anyways.”

Most feelings stopped existing, if Merlin was honest. Guilt stopped feeling real at all. It was probably the first emotion to go. Merlin spent so much time feeling guilty at first that it wasn’t humility anymore, it was just self-loathing. Jealousy was just as pointless, just another way to punish yourself for things you can’t control. The same went for grief, anger, happiness, and everything else. All the feelings started to blend into one, at some point a long, long time ago. Merlin found he couldn’t feel happy without feeling sad, or angry after Camlann. Happiness just really wasn’t worth everything else, especially with eternity stretched out tauntingly in front of him.

“I kind of hate being with you. You’re like my grandma when she gets drunk, all philosophical and spouting out wisdom left and right. It makes any attempt at a normal conversation moot.” In that instance, Mordred really did look like an 18 year old. His mouth shifted to the side, shoulders clenched up, and hands fidgeting the minute any sort of emotional connection was made. It was such a young thing to be uncomfortable with emotional confrontation. It was juvenile to feel uncomfortable at all, really.

Merlin wondered if he would be like this again, with the past centuries of grief and indifference erased. Would he actually feel young again? Or would the muscle memories weigh him down? There were, admittedly, a lot of holes in the plan. But Merlin didn’t really care whether or not this worked. He mostly just wanted to remember what Arthur looked like, and he wanted to hear his voice again, if only from afar. Merlin didn’t care if he remembered everything and the magic failed spectacularly. He didn’t care if he never remembered anything again. These days, things just happened to him. He let everything just choose a course and follow it, whether it went up in flames or not. He learned the hard way that trying to control the future only hurts more.
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They stood outside of Mordred’s house. It was predictably a trademark American suburban two-story, with a poorly maintained yard and a fifteen year-old truck parked out front.
The idea was, essentially, turn himself into a house fly, and magically insert false memories of a second child into the family’s minds. This would ensure that Merlin would be taken care of as a recovering amnesiac.

Merlin actually quite enjoyed changing into insects. It was seeing the world through an entirely different perspective, one that was equally disturbing and exhilarating every time.
Finding Mordred’s parents were easy, they were on the couch, discussing dinner options. Infiltrating their minds and giving them the false memories was also fairly easy, although incredibly tiring.
Drifting up the stairs, Merlin set out to find the grandmother, who he knew was only in her mid-fifties. The first two rooms he checked were empty, one of them being Mordred’s. It was surprisingly lively and colorful. There was a giant easel set up in the corner, and canvases and sketch paper covered the desk and the floor. There was a Wilco poster above his bed, alongside a framed map of Chicago. The bed’s frame looked like an abstract sculpture, full of red, blue, and yellow shapes of metal that twisted curled around one another. The duvet was simply white, but stained with paint in various locations. There was a dissonance between this bedroom and Mordred. The bedroom was that of someone creative and full of life, while Mordred was criminally quiet and withdrawn.

Sliding through the crack in the door of the last room, Merlin saw a figure reclining on the bed, a book open in her lap. Instantly, he knew this must be Mordred’s grandmother. But the closer he got to her, the heavier his wings felt. Sitting on the bed in Mordred’s American suburb was a woman with long brown hair, just barely starting to grey at the edges. Her glasses were perched on the bridge of her nose, and the laugh lines around her eyes were prominent. She looked healthier and happier than Merlin had ever seen her.

Hunith suddenly looked up at the fly, hovering right in front of her face and reached for a magazine on the nightstand. But Merlin was transforming back into himself before she’d even turned around. The bed creaked with his added weight, and their knees were touching. There was something snapping in Merlin’s chest, he could feel it. There was a tension that was tearing apart his insides as he looked at his mother for the first time in a thousand years. He felt tears stinging in eyes. He hadn’t cried since the 1940’s, but his face felt hot now, as tears slid down his cheeks. He lost his mother a couple years before Gwen, (deaths always seem to come in couplets), and it tore a piece of his chest out of him. There was an aching there since, dull and constant. It was there every time he helped someone give birth when he was a doctor. It was there every time he saw a mother holding her child’s hand, in every cemetery in all the stones that read “loving mother.” Friends and lovers came and went for Merlin, in his millennium of living, but he never found another parent, or another guardian. He was never taken care of in that way again.

“...Mom.” His voice was soft, and cracking with his tears. She raised a hand to his face, just slightly, and held it there, cupping his jaw.

“Merlin.” He knew there was more. She wiped at her eyes, but he knew that she could tell this wasn’t a dream. “I thought I’d lost you for good this time.”

It pained Merlin to know that he was not the son she remembered, that he was far older than her, and that he would forget who she was in the morning. But for now, he wanted to let her think he was unchanged. He wanted her first minute with him to be a return to form, to feel warm and right.

“I think we both know I’m not that easy to get rid of.” He cracked a smile, wide and genuine for the first time in a while. And then he was in her arms, breathing in and out, and pretending that they weren’t in Mordred’s house. When he closed his eyes, they were back in Ealdor, braving the cold winter, and huddling together as he made the fire warmer without meaning to.
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Leaving Mordred’s house hurt Merlin in a way he thought was no longer possible. He told his mother their plan and the reasons for it, but he tried to leave out things that would make her sad. He still wanted to protect her from the person he’d become. He gave her a brief summary of what he’d done with his too-long life, focusing on the positives, like his education, travel, and the few people he’d fallen in love with. She told him about her childhood, how she drifted between foster homes, and how the memories came to her just as they did to Mordred, and that she never told anyone until it got too serious. Hunith had sustained mild brain damage, and still worried about what that means for the future. She had Mordred’s mom when she was sixteen, and desperately hoped that somehow, Merlin would be her son again. But instead, Marilyn Larkin was born, and named after Merlin.

Marilyn’s father wasn’t Balinor, but Hunith loved him all the same. They met on their first day of high school and fell in love at first sight. They got married before either of them could think of going to college, and against all odds, stayed together for twenty years, until he died in a plane crash. After that, she moved in with Marilyn and helped raise Mordred. Marilyn had Mordred at eighteen, and still managed to put herself through college. With Hunith's help, she was able to go to law school as well, and now she worked tirelessly to make sure Mordred will never experience the kind of stress she did.

Merlin opted not to tell Mordred about Hunith for a number of reasons. Primarily, he couldn’t stand the look of pity Mordred gave him every time he spoke. But also, he knew how close Mordred was to her, and he didn’t want to take that away from him, especially when he had such little comfort left. Mordred, for all of the deaths he caused, and all of the darkness that surrounded him was still a child. Even when he killed Arthur, he was just a child. Merlin no longer felt pity for anyone, but his chest tightened when he thought about how Mordred had been denied his childhood twice.

Living as Merlin did was painful. There was loss at every turn, and it reached a point where he was so lonely he stopped feeling loneliness altogether. He'd loved too many people, and watched them die too many times. Life was long and painful, and he was excited to forget it. 

You say you got a heavy heart
You say you got a heavy heart
And its hard for you to start
Carrying your heavy old home

Chapter Text

There were way too many pieces of the plan. There was too much that could go wrong, and honestly, it felt like Merlin was punishing him. What was Mordred even supposed to do with an amnesiac warlock, anyways? Why did he suddenly have to have to bear two burdens? The more he thought about it, the more Mordred wished he’d never met Merlin again.
In another reality, he just went to Europe, without any weird guilt looming over him. He went to Europe, slept around and played tourist before going back home. And in that other world, he went home alone, not with a thousand year old warlock. He’d get to live out the rest of his life, a little sad and a little guilty, but alone. He’d never have to see Arthur again, and maybe the memories would have started to feel like dreams.
Instead, he found himself chasing after Merlin through his childhood neighborhood. After they left his house (after they’d robbed his family of their memories and lives as they knew it), Merlin muttered something about needing to go somewhere secluded. He was running before Mordred could even begin to ask why. Protesting, he ran after Merlin, heaving harder and harder as they got further away from the town.
They ended up in a yellowing field of grasses just outside of town. Mordred had slowed to a walk, his lungs searing with pain and bile working its way up his throat. They must have run at least two miles, maybe more. Merlin was still running, his pace constant, and Mordred knew that he couldn’t possibly have this much energy.
They way Merlin described it to Mordred when they met in the UK was that his body was still bound by all physical sensations, he just couldn’t die from them. That meant he still felt hunger, even if he no longer ate. He was still affected by his criminal lack of sleep. But what it really meant, to Mordred’s horror, is that he knew what it felt like to die. He had felt himself drowning, bleeding out, and burning every time he came close to death.
Mordred looked up from the ground, where he had collapsed after his chest decided he couldn’t go on. He watched,in slow motion, as Merlin’s ankle twisted underneath him, and sent the warlock tumbling down. He heard the snap of a bone, and watched Merlin fall, but heard no shout of pain. He forced himself to get up move towards Merlin, no matter how much body protested.
The ankle was limp, and swollen, but Merlin only smiled. Maddening, really, was the only description for this, as Merlin peered up at him, grinning from ear to ear.
“You wanna see something cool?” Merlin said, as though he were speaking to a child, then put his hands on either side of the ankle. Mordred’s stomach flipped with the realization of what was happening to him right now.
“No,don’t-“ Mordred was interrupted by the crack of the bones sliding back into place. He suddenly felt nauseous. But Merlin stood up, still beaming like a madman.
“What? I thought you’d find it cool.” Merlin said, brushing his hands off on his jeans, like he hadn’t just broken and realigned a bone. He then muttered an afterthought, “ Kids used to be impressed by that…”
“I’m really not a kid…” Mordred knew instantly that the was the most child-like response he could have to being called a “kid,” but that didn’t really matter anymore. Not now that Merlin’s eyes had gone gold, doing magic in front of Mordred for the first time in this life. It should’ve been comforting to Mordred, but it was more painful than anything. He was viciously reminded of how empty and disjointed he felt, without magic. He wondered if Merlin ever thought he was lucky, to have so much power and be so intrinsically connected to the Earth. The real reason behind Mordred’s emptiness wasn’t exactly the lack of magic. It was more the knowledge that his culture was long dead, and he had nothing to tie himself to it anymore. There were no druids in the twenty-first century, all of Mordred’s kin were dead. In fact, it was worse than that. The term “druid” was now a figment of fantasy, merely a Dungeons and Dragons character. The disconnect between his upbringings and cultures in the past and in this life hurt his head. It made his identity on both sides feel half-formed and invalid.
Merlin was the only real link to his culture anymore, despite not being a druid himself. Merlin was at least a pillar of the folklore he was raised on, and there was some comfort in that. But at the same time, Merlin had lost his sanity and frankly, terrified Mordred. He had just witnessed the man react to a broken bone like paper cut.
A massive suitcase, covered in stickers and with ancient buckles appeared in Merlin’s hand. Merlin looked at him expectantly as he set the suitcase down, crouching down beside it and motioning for Mordred to join him. He then popped open the suitcase to reveal a set of wrought-iron stairs. And as if this couldn’t get any weirder, they started to descend into the case.
“This is everything I own, everything I’ve collected in my life.” Merlin said as they reached the end of the long staircase. In the small room was a Victorian loveseat, surrounded by shelves full of books and knick-knacks. The wallpaper was simply hundreds, maybe thousands, of postcards pasted onto the walls. “ It’s got all of my clothes and journals,” Merlin motioned to a china cabinet, full of leather-bound notebooks, “The journals document everything that’s happened to me, so you can consult them when the magic starts manifesting when I forget. There’s only a couple more things to do before I do the spell, but that’s the most important one. I had a magician in Belgium upload the journals to a magical database in the cabinet. All you have to do is say ‘search, keyword,’ and whatever you’re looking for.” Mordred swallowed, gripped with fear at the thought of reading Merlin’s first-hand accounts of his life.
“Alright, next order of business-cut my hair.” Merlin sat down on a stool that Mordred could swear wasn’t there a minute ago and handed him a pair of shiny, metal scissors.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Cut my hair. It’s too long to deal with and I want you to cut it.” Merlin insisted. But Mordred was absolutely dumbfounded. Surely, the most powerful warlock of all time could cut his own hair, or simply use magic. It didn’t make sense, but he found himself doing it anyways. This is how everything concerning Merlin seemed to work.
He gathered the hair into one hand, and shakily raised the scissors towards it. He tried his best to cut it evenly, but when he made the cut, his hands were shaking too much for it. There was something terrifyingly intimate about someone’s hair. The hair now fell to Merlin’s shoulders, kind of lopsided. It looked terrible and Mordred felt guilty, even though he knew Merlin wouldn’t care about how it looked anyways.
“I wonder what it’s going to feel like, going into all of this blind again.” Merlin’s voice was soft as Mordred raised the scissors again, determined to do clean cut.
“What d’ya mean?”
“I don’t know how I’m going to make sense of all the physical sensations. The way time feels.” Mordred tentatively placed a hand on the side of Merlin’s face, to steady himself as he cut along Merlin’s jawline. “I can feel you aging, you know. Your hair getting longer, skin getting looser, vision getting worse. I can feel it. I don’t know what that’s going to feel like without context.”
Mordred felt small. He felt so incredibly insignificant standing in Merlin’s enchanted suitcase, cutting an old friend’s hair. The hair fell to the floor, dark against the beige carpeting. If he looked closely, he swore he could see the hair curling, almost writhing like a fish out of water. That was the thing about Merlin, Mordred decided. Even in Camelot, Merlin had a way of making him feel powerless against everything. Merlin had the power to stop, probably even to reverse time, but he didn’t. He let things happen, even when trying to change them, he never manipulated the natural order of things. Merlin was a force of nature, Mordred decided, watching the warlock tilt his head at his own reflection. Merlin was probably never human, even when he was born.
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When they resurfaced in the field, the air was thick with tension. It was time to see how well their plan could work. Within the next five minutes, his entire future would change. Merlin handed him a baseball bat. Mordred looked down at the bat, and then back up at Merlin, who was grinning again. Only, he looked a little more sane without the waist-length hair. He looked more polished now, a little bit less like a cryptid.
“Alright, so you’re gonna hit me on the head.”
“I’m sorry, I’m going to what?”
“Hit me in the head. When I get to the hospital, I’m gonna have head trauma. So hit me in the head.” Merlin looked slightly exasperated, as though they’d gone over this particular detail a hundred times. They most certainly hadn’t talked about it all.
“If it makes you feel better about it, think about how much I hated you when you were a knight. How hard I tried to get Arthur to hate you, how I told Arthur that there was no place for magic in Camelot with you in mind, how I-” Mordred hit him, and a deafening crack rang out across the empty field. He heard Merlin mutter a string of words, achingly familiar in the sound, and his eyes flashed gold. Merlin fell to the ground and Mordred took in a deep breath, bracing himself.

Chapter Text

They were one and a half months into the plan, and miraculously, it had not gone up in flames yet. Merlin seemed to have thought of everything. The little details in the false memories were what really made it work. Merlin’s story was believable, although deeply upsetting. He hated seeing his mother stressed all the time, fussing over a child who wasn’t hers, even in the false memories.
Merlin being Hunith’s son was an infuriatingly attentive detail. Mordred hadn’t thought that Merlin would create an age gap between the two of them, even though it made more sense.
And Mordred certainly hadn’t thought of how impossible it would’ve been for his mother to have had another child two years prior to his birth, when she was only sixteen. No, Merlin had thought of everything. He created a whole other personality for his amnesiac self.
Toby, their adoptive father, taught Merlin how to piano starting at age seven. Since then, Merlinhad developed a real passion for it, going as far as moving to California purely for the music scene. He fell into a bad crowd while he was there, got mixed up in drug abuse, and ended up flying back home on a whim. He decided he would study music at the University of Chicago, alongside Mordred who was starting as an art major in the fall.
The only issue with this, of course, was that Merlin was completely void of this musical passion now. Probably because it never existed in the first place, only he couldn’t very well tell Merlin that.
Merlin now sat on his bed, biting his nails and looking to Mordred to solve his identity crisis. He looked so small, so ordinary, sitting on Mordred’s bed like that. He really looked like he could just be a twenty year old kid, starting fresh.
“I’m just worried. I’ve been too afraid to even touch the piano downstairs. I can’t remember it. Oh God, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to play again.” Merlin covered his face with his hands, and fell back over the side of the bed. In the past month, Mordred was really starting to see a Merlin he recognized. The Merlin he knew a long time ago. He was shy and awkward, but constantly cracking jokes and witty comebacks. It felt oddly comfortable, and his presence seemed to make the house feel fuller and more lively.
“I mean, I can’t even think of a band I like. How could music have been my whole life if I don’t remember caring about it all?” Merlin, as Mordred was discovering, might be the most melodramatic bastard he’d ever met. He would do this around twice a day, storm into Mordred’s room while he was working or packing, and collapse onto the bed. He’d complain about everything from his memory to boredom.
“You really liked, um…” Mordred thought back to the day he met Merlin at Avalon. That was a band shirt, right? “Uh...Dinosaur Jr.” Yeah, that was a band. Merlin pondered this, before pulling the iPhone Toby bought him last week. A song started playing from the phone speaker, with sharp electric and raspy vocals. Mordred kind of hated it, but didn’t mind it as long as Merlin kept quiet. Because, Merlin could talk. Non-stop, for hours, regardless of whatever Mordred, or Hunith, or Toby was doing. Mordred’s mom was the only one who could get him to stop talking, if only because she could talk just as long and twice as fast.
Mordred turned back to his sketchpad, and started to clean up the lines on a half-hearted portrait of Lance, the man he’d met on the plane. Mordred thought about him as often as he could. There was something so...otherworldly about him. He reminded Mordred a lot of Merlin, not the one who was sprawled across his bed, but the one with the memories. Lance felt like an off-brand Merlin, with his off-hand wisdom, only unlike Merlin, Lance actually listened to what Mordred had to say. He often found himself wishing he’d gotten the stranger’s number, or social media, just to have someone he could talk to.
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They started university in the fall of 2017. The summer was a whirlwind, of Merlin and memories and kind strangers. It felt a little surreal for Mordred to be following through on the plans he made for his future before Merlin. But both of them started college anyways, feeling a little more like actual brothers than Mordred wanted to admit. Their dorm room was tiny, and Mordred had to hide Merlin’s suitcase underneath his bed, and did anything he could to keep Merlin away from it. He’d gotten out all of the twenty-first century appropriate attire, which was mostly moth-eaten band t-shirts and a few button downs from the 1950s.
The first year went remarkably smoothly. Somehow, Merlin taught himself to play the piano days before the memory wipe without Mordred's knowledge. Because Merlin’s muscles certainly remembered how to play. Merlin was a bit of a problem child, constantly getting into disagreements with his gen-ed professors of ridiculous facts that Merlin couldn’t explain why he knew. But Merlin was never too disrespectful, not like how Mordred remembered him being, and his professors seemed to enjoy his input.
The other big project of that school year was fixing Merlin’s eating habits, or rather, lack thereof. Merlin had told Mordred that he’d stopped eating after a famine in the 1800s, and that eventually he just stopped feeling hungry at all. This was a huge problem, especially when they went home for the holidays. Mordred’s family liked big, whole-family sit-down dinners where they all talked about their days and enjoyed each others’ company.
But Merlin had a really hard time eating. Marilyn was growing increasingly concerned about this, and it put Mordred on edge. So, he’d made it his mission to have Merlin eating at least semi-regularly before Thanksgiving. And he was kind of successful. By the time the holidays rolled around, Merlin was eating once a day, although he complained about it.
The finished their first year without any incidents or magical break-outs and spent the summer attempting to teaching Merlin how to drive. But Merlin was a little skittish around technology. He still jumped every time he got a text and did poorly on his classes that involved online participation. Driving was a whole other issue. Merlin behind the wheel was terrifying. He went too fast and couldn’t figure out how to use the brakes without slamming them. They gave up after Merlin ran over a flower bush and started crying. It was so weird to see Merlin cry, especially at such a mundane thing. He went from being entirely void of emotions to weeping over crushed roses.
That summer they celebrated Merlin’s “21st” birthday. The birthday thing was strange, because it seemed to be largely omitted from the memories Merlin had given their family. Except Hunith, who adamantly insisted that Merlin’s birthday was August 23rd, and that they celebrate it this year, since they’d missed the last two birthdays.
They started their second year in an apartment, which meant they both needed jobs. Merlin ended up working at a CVS, taking the first job he could find. Mordred ended up as a library clerk, much to Merlin’s disgust.
“You can’t be a librarian! I hate librarians!” A lot of Merlin’s opinions would manifest like this. Merlin would inexplicably have a strong reaction to something. Sometimes Mordred knew why, but other times he didn’t. Librarians, he understood, remembering Geoffrey. But one time, he offered Merlin a stick of gum, and Merlin slapped it out of his hand.
“Merlin I’m not quitting just because you don’t like libraries. It’s within walking distance and it pays well.” Merlin pouted, something he’d been doing quite a lot lately. Merlin’s behavior was so juvenile without his memories, it was hard to think of him as the same person he’d been when they met.
By the end of their second year, Merlin and Mordred had a group. They had finally found enough friends for trivia, movie, and game nights. The only problem with this, of course, was Gwaine. Gwaine was a grad student studying geology (which was completely confusing and unexpected). He definitely didn’t remember anything, but his presence put Mordred on edge.
Only, Merlin really, really loved Gwaine. He was almost always at their apartment, anywhere where Merlin was, really. The two of them were inseparable, and absolutely obnoxious. Mordred had to bail them out of holding cells not once, but twice in the past year. They would get belligerently drunk, which Mordred had no clue how Merlin was still affected by alcohol, after 1500 years, and get into bar fights. But Mordred didn’t really mind, because he’d never seen Merlin this happy ever.
Merlin was eating twice a day, he started kind of sleeping, and he was loud, joyous, and lively. Sometimes Mordred really did feel like they were brothers. Merlin trusted him like a brother. Sometimes, he’d come into Mordred’s room at night, and they would talk for hours. Most of the time, the conversations turned dark. Merlin would confide in Mordred all of his worst fears and guilt about what he knew about his past. He’d apologize to Mordred for leaving and getting into drugs. He told Mordred he was probably suicidal, because he was covered in scars he couldn’t explain or remember. Other nights, they would make dinner and it would fail spectacularly. They would fall on the kitchen floor, clutching each other and crying with laughter. They laughed a lot. Merlin would tease Mordred about all his portraits. He would see Kara’s face plastered all over Mordred’s desk and make light jokes, unknowing. Except that didn’t hurt as much as he thought it would. Merlin’s presence grew to be comforting, even though Mordred felt like the older brother in their situation. If Merlin found him crying and apologizing for things Merlin couldn’t remember, they would stay home and watch sitcoms until Mordred felt better.
Merlin, for all his darkness and inner turmoil, was always smiling. He was always teasing Mordred or Gwaine, constantly joking and laughing. They’d been living together for two years now, and it was hard to remember that most of it was fake. It was easy to forget that Merlin wasn’t family, and that his life wasn’t always this good.
When they went back home after their second year, to their family, Mordred realized that it really was their family. Merlin had become an integral part of the family, and Mordred found it hard to believe that they’d ever lived without him.

Chapter Text

He woke up alone in a hospital. He hated hospitals, but he couldn’t quite remember why. He felt his chest start to tighten in panic as he frantically searched the room for anything familiar. He didn’t remember who brought him here, and why. He didn’t remember anyone who was close enough to him to drive him to a hospital. There were vague ideas of nameless people swimming around in his mind, their blurry faces were smiling at him but he couldn’t place them at all. He was in a hospital. His head hurt like hell, and the incessant beeping of the heart monitor wasn’t doing anything to make it better.
He was in a hospital, and he couldn’t remember anything. A plastic band wrapped around his wrist told him that his name was Merlin Larkin. He was 20 years old. But that information didn’t feel right for some reason. Looking down at his body, he felt strange. He was very thin. The bones in his knees, elbows, and wrists were far too prominent. He reached his hands around his torso and felt the indentation of every single one of his ribs.
The door swung open and a nurse walked in. Merlin didn’t trust doctors, but he was pretty sure that nurses were okay. This nurse had long, blonde hair curled into ringlets, and her nametag read “Elena” spelled out in big, bubbly letters. She seemed okay, Merlin decided. She was nice, and familiar in a distant way, like maybe one of the blurry faces in his head belonged to her.
“Oh, Mr. Larkin, you’re awake! How are you feeling?” Elena asked, easing the bed into a sitting position.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. How did I get here? What happened to me?” Merlin bolted upright, desperate for answers.
“You seem to have suffered some severe head trauma. Your brother said he found you just outside of town, unconscious and bleeding. Would you like me to let him and the rest of your family know you’re awake?” Elena was being very gentle with him, Merlin noted. She was speaking softly, and avoiding eye contact, like one would behave towards a small animal. For some reason, Merlin didn’t mind the gentle treatment. He appreciated her careful tones and warm smiles.
But he found her words rather difficult to believe. Merlin was positive he didn’t have a brother. A family felt like a reasonable thing for him to have, maybe a mother and a father. But a brother felt foreign and inaccurate. Merlin hesitated before stuttering out a confirmation to Elena.
A few minutes later, four new bodies filled the room. Some of the faces felt warmer, achingly familiar, but the other two were completely new. There was a woman with graying hair in an orange cardigan. She smiled at Merlin, but he could tell that she was holding back tears. The way her eyes were shiny and her nose was red proved that she’d been crying earlier, along with the other woman. The other woman was younger, with dark brown in a loose braid. She wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with a university logo and had smudgey lines of black ringed around her eyes. The men were much more difficult to read. The older one had his arm around the younger woman’s waist, and he looked tired. He had sandy blonde hair and wore a wrinkled button-down shirt. The last one, who must’ve been his brother, was biting his bottom so hard Merlin could faintly smell the blood. He was nervous, playing with the drawstring on his black sweatshirt and not looking Merlin in the eyes. The five of them stared at one another in an uneasy silence for a couple of seconds, waiting for someone to make the first contact.
“How are you feeling, son?” The older man asked, and gently laid a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. He has kind eyes, Merlin thought. He must be his dad. The idea of his dad made Merlin giddy. Seeing the worry in all of these people’s eyes made him feel ridiculously happy, even if he didn’t recognize them. He must be well taken care of, for all these people to worry about him this much.
“I, uh, I don’t remember anything.” The younger woman, his mom, probably, took in a sharp breath, and wiped at her eyes.
“You mean, you don’t recognize us?” She asked. Her voice cracked and Merlin could feel the fear and anxiety radiating from her. He shook his head softly, and she started crying. He suddenly felt awful, watching this stranger break down in front of him. He felt terrible because he couldn’t remember his own mother.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to! Please, please don’t cry. I’ll remember! I promise I’ll remember soon!” Merlin didn’t even care what was coming out of his mouth anymore, he just wanted her to stop crying. But Merlin's promise only seemed to do more damage, as he heard the older woman began to sob. He looked over at his brother, who was gazing out the window, but with tears streaming down his face.
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Merlin went home two nights later, to a house that didn't feel like his, feeling even worse than he had when he’d woken up. The doctor said it was uncommon for an injury like his to cause such severe memory damage. No, unfortunately, it wasn’t Merlin’s mysterious head injury that cost him his mind. The CAT scans showed Merlin’s brain as a warzone. The doctor pointed out all the different kinds of drugs that damage a brain exactly in the ways that Merlin’s was. In front of Marilyn and Toby, his parents as he learned, the doctor talked about Merlin’s brain and all the ways it had been torn to shreds by an assortment of drugs and pills. Despite everything, he was sure he would never forget the crestfallen looks on their faces. They felt betrayed, and he knew it.
Merlin found out that he was the oldest child, two years older than Mordred, his brother, only not really. Merlin was technically Hunith, Mordred’s grandmother’s son, although he was raised equally by Marilyn. The whole ordeal felt complicated, but he needled the information out of them anyways.
His family told Merlin about how he moved to San Francisco immediately after graduating, and hadn’t even come to visit since. There’d been sparse communication between him and his family since he left, and for two years they’d worried about him constantly. Mordred had just gotten back from Europe, when he’d received a call from Merlin. Merlin told him that he’d gotten into an accident and needed help, along with his location. But when Mordred arrived, he was unconscious and bleeding on the back of his head. The general consensus was that Merlin had fallen into the wrong crowd in his two years away from home, and had developed a drug habit. No one knows why he returned, or why he was injured. The whole situation was nauseating and frustrating.
Merlin felt like a piece of shit for letting his family down, but a small part of him felt like he shouldn’t feel bad, because he didn’t remember them being his family. There was a part of Merlin that wanted to run away from this strange house that didn’t feel like his. He wanted to escape the looks of disappointment and pity, but he feared that his flight impulse was what got him into this situation in the first place. So, Merlin stayed put. He tried to force himself into optimism. He tried to let this feel less like a curse, and more like a new beginning.

Chapter Text

Gwen left Seattle with tears in her eyes and with her whole life falling apart. Her parents’ death three years ago still sat in her chest, heavy and painful. When she met Arthur, the man of her dreams, literally, things began to look up. Elyan still didn’t remember who he was, but that was perhaps better. She didn’t want him to know the pain of losing your parents twice.
The memories started coming back to Gwen, in her dreams every night, when she was fourteen. And while she knew her story ended in tragedy, part of her was thrilled to remember Arthur. She had grown up knowing her soulmate was out there, and that they were guaranteed to be happy together. When she and Arthur started dating, her world was finally starting to line up. She didn’t mind that he didn’t remember, because she knew the memories would come back eventually, and then she’d finally have someone to talk to.
They got engaged, and everything was perfect until the fire. She didn’t care about the apartment, really, but watching her life burn down felt like losing her parents all over again. And the memories that came back weren’t just from this life. She thought back to losing her mother when she was a child in Camelot. Her eyes stung when she thought of her father’s execution. All Gwen knew was that she had to leave. She had to get out, even if meant leaving Arthur in his last year of college.
She found herself in Chicago, purely because she stumbled upon two brothers’ Craigslist ad for a roommate. Normally that would spell out trouble, only their names were Merlin and Mordred. The chances were slim, but Gwen would do anything to see Merlin again. She thought of the last time she saw him, crying and holding her hand as her lungs gave out. He begged her not to leave him, to stay with him forever. They were inseparable after Arthur’s death, and Gwen knew that she would never have a better friend. She knew that he would always be her best friend, no matter where he was in the world. So she took a gamble and moved to Chicago, knowing Arthur would follow her wherever she went. Arthur would need to see Merlin too, maybe that was the final piece he needed to remember. But Gwen wasn’t really thinking about Arthur, she was thinking about Merlin and how her life was falling apart without her best friend.
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Mordred stared at her, a question in his eyes. She thought he remembered her, but his demeanor suggested otherwise. Maybe Gwen was just so desperate for someone else who remembered, she didn’t even care if it was Mordred, the man who killed her husband. She was angry at him, but the boy in front of her was barely 20 years old. He had dark circles under his eyes and shaggy, dark hair. He looked too small and young to hate. He said Merlin wasn’t home, and that he could only interview the roommates when he wasn’t there.
“My brother had an accident a couple years ago. He got into a bad crowd, developed some drug problems. So it’s really important that you don’t do drugs or bring any into the house.” Mordred’s eyes were glazed over, like he knew he didn’t have to say these things to her, but felt like he had to anyways. “He has some eating problems, and he can’t remember any part of his life before two years ago.”
Gwen was shocked, but tried her best to seem normal. SHe knew that if Mordred knew she remembered, he wouldn’t let her anywhere near their apartment. But goddamnit, she needed this. She needed Merlin.
“That certainly won’t be a problem. I have a job lined up at one of the local high schools, so I definitely have an income. I swear I won’t ever be late on rent, and I’m really, really good at keeping things tidy.” If Gwen was begging, she didn’t care. She was so scared that Mordred could see right through her, and that he’d send he out of here before she ever got to see his brother.
“Okay. You can stay, but I need you to help move my brother’s stuff into my room. He’s gonna be gone for a couple days…” Mordred mumbled, looking down at the floor, and sounding profoundly sad. Gwen had to try really hard not to hug him, because he was so young and she remembered sneaking him out of Camelot as a boy, looking just as sad and frightened as he did now.
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Gwen had been living with them for a month now. There had been some transitional awkwardness at first, but now they seemed to be in a routine. Only Mordred and Merlin were now sharing a room, which went about as well as expected.
“It’s not my fault you need like four hundred pillows and all the blankets!” Merlin shouted, shoving Mordred off of his precarious perch on the kitchen counter. The younger man fell right at Gwen’s feet as she made her way into the kitchen. The two brothers, although she wasn’t exactly sure if they were related at all, were constantly teasing and rough-housing with one another. They were very close, and while Gwen hated to admit it, she was jealous of Mordred. She hated that her best friend didn’t remember her, and that she had to start all over to get close to him. She wanted to pick up where they left off, and find out what he’d been doing for the last 1500 years. She wanted to why he was pretending to live like this, how Mordred was involved, and how on Earth did he lose all his memories.
She remembered Merlin telling her that he was immortal. He’d stormed into the throne room, two days after Arthur’s death, soaking wet. His skin face was a light shade of purple and he couldn’t stop coughing. God, she’d never forget it. Those deep, wet coughs that sounded like Merlin was wrenching up his lungs. He fell at her feet, whimpering, and in a raspy whisper, he told her he couldn’t die. He told her he was ready to take his own life, that he couldn’t live with the guilt. But fate couldn’t give him any release from his burdens. His face, discolored and sunken, haunted her dreams for weeks as a teenager in this life.
But Merlin was different now. His amnesia had changed him, made him feel lighter than she remembered. He was care-free now, laughing as Mordred pulled him down to the floor. She realized that she’d never seen either of them so happy, and it made her heart swell. She wanted Merlin to feel joy, to feel like this, for so long.
“Hi, Gwen.” Merlin peered up at her from the floor, his cheeks and the tips of his ears red. He got embarrassed around her really easily, she discovered. And she knew that that wouldn’t do at all, because an embarrassed Merlin wasn’t going to be her best friend.
“Mordred is an absolute nightmare to share a bed with. He’s dreadful. He takes all the pillows and blankets and leaves me to freeze to death! You have to help me Gwen!” Merlin pleaded with her, half joking.
Merlin looked too thin, she decided, investigating his jawline. She remembered Mordred mentioning his eating problems, but she definitely didn’t think it was this bad. He was skeletal and ghostly pale. Which kind of always described Merlin, but it was different now. Now he wasn’t a peasant struggling to get enough to eat. There weren’t reasons now.
In spite of this, though, Merlin still looked happy. His hair was longer than she’d ever seen it, sweeping against his jawline. Only it was all matted against the right side of his head right now, at eight AM on a Saturday.
“Alright. I know what to do.”
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“Gwen. No. No. Gwen.” Merlin repeated, looking absolutely horrified.
“Guinevere we are two grown men! We are not getting a bunk bed!” Mordred looked at her with such incredulity she wanted to laugh. Except she really couldn’t, because Mordred had just called her Guinevere and she never told him her full name.
“Well, I’m just saying it’s the only set up that’ll fit in that tiny room.” Gwen knew she would win this battle, not just because she was right, but because she knew she had the authority of a queen. It was that same memory of authority that made her students listen to her and stop texting in class.
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They got the bunk bed. They spent the day rearranging Merlin and Mordred’s room. They played disco songs on her bluetooth speaker and started cleaning with fervor. That fervor died out two hours later, and Mordred was now sulking in the corner, having failed at assembling the bunk bed.
“You’re just jealous,” Merlin said, halfway finished with the bed. “That I’m clearly more competent than you.” Mordred huffed at this, sullen and tired. They really did act like brothers, she thought.
“Please. Let’s not forget about what happens when you get behind the wheel.” And then Merlin was tackling his brother, and Gwen realized that she would actually be the competent one to finish putting the bed together.
She couldn’t wait for Arthur to see this. She was hoping he’d remember as soon as he saw Merlin, and then the two of them could laugh at the pair of brothers together. But Arthur had another year left, and no matter how much she missed him, she wasn’t going to be the one visiting. There was too much pain back there.
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The room was looking much better, but they had to move Mordred’s easel and desk out into the living room. Gwen insisted that she didn’t mind, but Mordred felt bad for taking up too much space.
The rest of their bedroom was covered in posters of Mordred’s favorite bands and movies, and flyers from Merlin’s recitals. The room was still very much Mordred’s, as there wasn’t much Merlin remembered to decorate the room with.
When Gwen was leaving her room after facetiming Arthur, she heard Merlin’s voice, sounding sad and too familiar.
“I just wish I had more things, you know? Like I wish I knew who I was and what I liked. Before we started sharing, the walls and shelves were just blank in my room. I don’t have anything.”
“I kept some of your old stuff before you moved out, I could get some of it out?” Gwen heard Mordred suggest in a soft, careful tone.
“Ah, I’m going out tonight. Maybe tomorrow we can?”
“Sure thing.”
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Gwen knew she shouldn’t feel so scared to talk to Mordred. They were friends now, and they both clearly cared for Merlin. But still, she could hear her heart racing as she knocked on his door, an hour after Merlin had left.
Mordred pulled open the door, and his eyes were puffy and red. He’d been crying, which made Gwen just want to pick him up and tell him it was okay, whatever it was. She really needed to stop feeling so maternal towards him, but every time she looked at him, she just saw that little boy she helped escape.
Merlin had told her the truth about Mordred later, about how he’d been lost and hidden, and how Kara was the last straw. It was difficult for Gwen to hate him, even then. Because she knew what it was like to lose your family and the one you loved. She knew very well how grief corrupted the mind.
Mordred motioned for her to come in. And they sat down on the bottom bunk as an uneasy silence settled over the room. Mordred sniffled and wiped his eyes.
“You know me.” He said softly, but his voice cracked and he sounded so broken that Gwen couldn’t help it. She hugged him. And she knew it was wrong. This was the man that killed her husband and destroyed her life, but he really wasn’t. This was just a 20 year old kid who had too much to deal with. He was sobbing into her shoulder and Gwen ran her hand through his hair.
“It’s okay, it’s okay. I know who you are, and I accept you.” She knew he needed to hear it. She knew he thought she wanted him dead and gone forever. He started shaking a little more and Gwen held onto him tighter. In this life, she had six years on him. It didn’t make sense for her to want to mother him and make him feel safe, but she did anyways.
“You’re okay, you’re safe.”

Chapter Text

“Holy shit! He’s Mary Poppins!” Gwen exclaimed as they descended into Merlin’s briefcase.
“He’s a pain is what he is. He’s so extra…” Mordred muttered, thinking of how extravagant Merlin had to be to learn this spell.
Mordred had told Gwen everything after breaking down in her arms. God knows this was building up. Seeing Merlin so blissfully ignorant and happier than ever made him feel so nervous for when he eventually figured out the truth. But today, after hearing Merlin talk about his lack of possessions made Mordred feel terrible. He felt horrible about that briefcase sitting under the bed. He felt guilty for keeping all of Merlin’s things hidden from him. He figured the least he could do was get some of Merlin’s things out from the briefcase, to make him more comfortable.
Telling Gwen lifted a weight off of him. He felt lighter and stronger now, knowing he had someone on his side.
“Wow. I can’t believe he has so much stuff.” Gwen whispered, running her hand along one of the bookcases.
“I just wanna find something that might make him feel more comfortable, you know?” Mordred searched around, desperate. Every knick-knack seemed to be magic or questionably old. Gwen found found a crate full of records and CDs, which they figured they could bring up.
“How about this?” Mordred said holding up a thick, deep blue, woolen blanket. Gwen brought her hand up to her face and Mordred saw her eyes well up with tears.
“Oh.” She said softly, and Mordred knew instantly that she had gotten it for Merlin.
“It was his 25th birthday present.” She said. “From Arthur.”
“Oh.” Mordred whispered, and the two silently made their way back upstairs.
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At midnight, Mordred and Gwen were still up talking and drinking tea. She was telling Mordred about how much she missed Merlin.
“I’m so jealous that you get to share a room with him.” She said, catching Mordred off guard.
“Why? He’s a terrible roommate! He doesn’t sleep and tries to spend the entire night keeping me awake!” Mordred exclaimed, knowing his sleeping schedule had taken a hit since Merlin moved into his room. Gwen looked even more upset at this.
“I shared a room with him for twenty years and I miss him! He’s my best friend in the whole world and I wanna be close to him again. I wanna be the one to catch him when he falls, talk him through break-ups, and stay up late talking about everything with. It’s not fair that I have to care about him so much and he barely even knows who I am.”
Mordred tried to offer her some comfort, telling her that eventually they’d be as close as before. But he also told her how much he wanted Merlin to stay ignorant as long as possible.
“Before the memory spell, he was so empty, Gwen. He didn’t care about anything. He didn’t eat or sleep. When he got hurt, he ignored the pain. He was barely hanging on to whatever thread of sanity he had left. He said things, horrible, terrifying things to me.” Mordred shuddered at the memory of who Merlin used to be. “He said he could feel me aging.”
The night went on as they talked until two AM, sharing regrets and memories like girls at a sleepover. They were talking about Arthur, Mordred was surprised to find that Gwen had found him so quickly, and that the Arthur Presley she was engaged to was nothing like how Mordred remembered him.
“He’s just got this terrible anxiety. Honestly, I think it’s PTSD from Camelot, even though he doesn’t remember.” Gwen fell back onto the bed, hands covering her face in a very Merlin-like way.
“God, I wish he remembered! It’s so hard being around him when he’s so different. He’s all polite and shy now. He lets me get whatever I want and waits on me hand and foot. It’s just upsetting, seeing him like this. I know I shouldn’t be complaining, and I still love him, I really do, but it’s so hard.”
Mordred was about to offer some advice when the bedroom door opened, creaking loudly. It sounded almost forlorn, Mordred thought, as Merlin pushed his way through the door frame, looking like he’d been crying.
“Gwen, would you mind leaving? I need to talk to Mordred…” He kept looking at the ground, avoiding all eye contact.
“Of course.” Gwen responded, and Mordred could see the sadness in her eyes. He knew how badly she missed Merlin and wanted to be the one she confided in.
“Hey, wait.” He said on an impulse, careful not to disrespect Merlin. “Maybe she’ll be able to help.” Merlin nodded, and God, he looked tired, before sitting between the two of them on the bottom bunk. He took a shaky breath.
“Am I gay?” He asked, and Mordred nearly spat out his tea. “Or like, was I gay? You know before…” Gwen and Mordred exchanged nervous looks, because frankly, they had no idea. Merlin could’ve been anything before and neither of them would know.
“I’m not...I’m not sure, Merls.” He said gently. “Why do you ask?” Merlin looked down at his lap, looking in equal parts sad and angry.
“Gwaine.” At that, Gwen’s head shot up, and Mordred realized that they hadn’t talked about Gwaine yet. He silently shook his head at Gwen, trying to tell her that Gwaine didn’t remember.
“I just. I really like him. And I thought he liked me too. But then tonight...” Merlin looked at Gwen uneasily, like he didn’t want her to hear what he was about to say. “We went out. On a date. And I kissed him and we went back to his apartment…” He trailed off, letting the implications hang in the air.
“But then he pushed me away. He said I probably didn’t even know if I was gay because of the memory thing. And then he just asked me to go home.” Merlin rubbed at his eyes and Mordred could see that he was crying again. Mordred really wanted to be the supportive brother here, but he was a little bit in shock. He was completely okay with Merlin being gay, it was the fact that he’d almost slept with Gwaine that threw Mordred off. Anyone else would’ve been fine, but Gwaine was always one of Merlin’s best friends. It felt wrong to imagine them in a relationship.
Thankfully, Gwen was not as speechless as Mordred, and tried her best to offer comfort to his brother.
“I’m sorry, Merlin. But you know how..mercurial Gwaine can be. He might’ve just had a rough week?” She suggested and Mordred watched her eyes go wide as soon as she heard herself. Because she was definitely not supposed to know who Gwaine was. “My fiance used to be close with him,” She hastily added, looking at Mordred for help. “And I remember him being the type to get into bar fights and flirt with anything that had a pulse.” Merlin only looked worse after hearing that.
“I know that’s what he’s like. But we’d flirting for the past year! I thought...I don’t know…” Merlin fell back onto the bed, hands covering his face. “I just wish he wasn’t so difficult! Like why does he have to be like this?” Mordred was reminded of Gwen, in the same position, lamenting about Arthur not even ten minutes ago. He then realized that between the two of them, he was in for a long year.
“Men just kind of suck, don’t they?” Gwen said, taking Merlin’s hand and helping him off the bed. “Wanna get drunk?” Merlin nodded blearily and they headed out the door, Gwen looking back at Mordred and mouthing ‘I got this.’

If Mordred woke up that night to hear Merlin drunkenly playing the piano while screamed along to “A Thousand Miles”, he wouldn’t complain.

Chapter Text

Merlin looked at himself with unforgiving eyes. His body was scarred and small and it made him afraid. He could see the outline of his ribs, not as bad as it used to be, but it was still there. He was thin and wiry and covered in scars. Good lord, there were so many scars. It was terrifying. There were big and small scars, fatal scars and burn marks. There was a large circular burn mark on his chest, and stab wounds littered his gut. His entire right leg was burned, like he’d been set aflame. There were long cuts on his arms, and Merlin shuddered at what that must’ve meant. Merlin’s body illustrated a history he wasn’t proud of. He was almost grateful for his memory loss, because he didn’t know if he could bear knowing how he came to look like this.
He thought he was dreadfully unattractive. He was sickly looking and his hair was shaggy, almost reaching his collar bones. Maybe that was it, he decided. Maybe Gwaine just stopped finding him attractive since his hair was growing out. He should get it cut soon.
Merlin had class today from 8:30 to 11:00 AM then had a three hour long break, when normally hung out with Gwaine. But rather than facing that, he decided to skip class that day.
He’d spent the previous day feigning sickness and being confined to his bed (top bunk). Gwen would sit and talk to him. She was grading essays and complaining about her students, but intermittently brought Merlin tea and soup.
Merlin had taken a real liking to soup. It was one of the few foods that didn’t make him feel nauseous after eating it, and it made Mordred happy to see him eating.
It wasn’t eating that Merlin had a problem with. It was really just that he was never hungry. He knew the entire family was convinced he’d lost all the weight and his appetite because of excessive drug use, but Merlin suspected it was more than that. Merlin was starting to have his doubts about the whole drug abuse subplot of his life. He knew he should’ve been experiencing withdrawals when they found him, but he wasn’t. He’d spent the last few years researching addiction recovery and couldn’t think of any symptoms he experienced, other than loss of appetite and memory loss. Every time he expressed these doubts to Mordred though , his brother would get this glassy-eyed forlorn expression. He’d tell Merlin to leave it, and that he should focus on his future instead (which was a total cop out and Mordred knew it).
Merlin spent his day home from class sleeping and practicing his piano pieces. He walked around the house wrapped in that blue blanket Mordred had dug up for him. That blanket had somehow become his most prized possession. Mordred told him it was really important to him, and that it was a gift from a good friend. That alone made it his most valued possession, even above his piano.
Mostly, Merlin was just waiting for a roommate to get home. He was lonely, and thoughts of Gwaine weighed heavy on his mind. It wasn’t just the rejection that hurt him, it was the way he had looked at Merlin that night. They’d just gotten back to his apartment, and Merlin had shoved him against the door frame.
They’d kissed before, when they were drunk and reckless. But his was different, because they had just gone out on a date. So maybe Merlin felt a little too confident when he pressed his lips against Gwaine’s, he certainly wasn’t expecting Gwaine to physically push him like kissing Merlin was the last thing he wanted to do. Gwaine looked at him, his face full of shock and horror. He was stumbling, tripping over his feet as he tried to get away from Merlin, as he choked out, in a raspy voice, that Merlin should go home. On the train home, Merlin cried and listened to the Smiths, leaning into the cliche. Gwaine sent him a poorly worded text explaining that he was worried Merlin wasn’t actually gay and that should just stay friends.
God, he felt like such an idiot. He should’ve known that when Gwaine agreed to go out with him, he was drunk and didn’t know what he was saying. He should have known that all those drunken kisses they’d shared didn’t mean anything.
To make matters worse, Gwaine wouldn’t stop texting him. He was apologizing, asking to make it up to Merlin, wondering where he was, if he was safe. Merlin was so angry, he turned on read receipts specifically just to leave Gwaine on “read.”
The only bright side of this whole ordeal was that he was getting closer to Gwen through it. Gwen was intimidating and energetic all the time. She was like this little ray of sunshine that came into his and Mordred’s lives to make sure they were cleaning up after themselves, eating regularly, and sleeping in a ridiculous bunk bed.
Gwen burst through the front door, holding bags of groceries and singing. Her cheerful demeanor made Merlin a little upset. He wanted everyone to be upset when he was, even if he knew it wasn’t fair. She found him, hunched over the piano, wrapped in the blanket, playing the same melody over and over.
“Oh come on, Merlin. You’re better than this. Plus I have good news!” She said, her voice lilting like a song, and pulling him over to the couch.
“Gwen, I’m sulking. Can’t a man sulk in peace?” Gwen looked at him with that strange authoritative look, normally reserved for her students and when he and Mordred were getting too physical with each other.
“Arthur’s coming to visit!” She chirped and Merlin felt terrible for forgetting who “Arthur” was. Her brother? No, that was El-something. Not her parents, not a family friend. Her boyfriend! No...fiance! Arthur was Gwen’s fiance, Merlin concluded.
“Yaaaaaaaaaay.” Merlin knew he was being a dick, but he just felt his phone vibrate with another text from Gwaine.
“Oh, be nice! You’re going to love him. Seriously, you’re going to get along so well.”
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Merlin did not like Arthur one bit. He was too tall and too muscular. He took up too much space at their tiny kitchen table. Also, he made Mordred nervous which made Merlin want to punch him.
“I had no idea you were Gwen’s roommate!” Arthur said, pulling Mordred into a hug that was definitely unwanted.
“Mordred and I went to high school together.” He explained to Gwen.
Merlin was introduced to Arthur as Mordred’s older brother. Only this confused him because he didn’t remember Mordred having a brother, or seeing Merlin at school. Mordred looked like he was ready to cry before Gwen gently steered the subject away.
“So what do you study, Merlin?” Arthur asked from across the dinner table.
“Music. And yourself?” Merlin replied, coldly, but not enough to upset Gwen.
“Music? That’s so cool! I’m almost through with my history degree.” Arthur explained, still trying to engage with Merlin. Except he was a history major and Merlin hated history majors. He thought back to his freshman year history teacher and the screaming arguments they’d had before he had to drop the class.
“History…” was all Merlin said before ignoring Arthur for the rest of the night. Arthur was staying with them for the weekend and Merlin hated it so much. He hated how quiet Mordred had been since he got here. Merlin very rarely felt like the older brother, but with Arthur around, he felt a vicious need to protect Mordred from whatever it was about Arthur that frightened him.
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He was reading in bed when he heard his brother’s voice coming from the hall. Another male voice responded and Merlin knew it was Arthur instantly.
“How are you? Like medically?” Arthur asked quietly, but with a thoughtfulness that sounded wrong in voice.
“Oh, you mean the seizures? I’m fine. Haven’t had one since high school.”
“Sorry about mothering you all year back then. I just felt so bad about those videos, I wanted to do something nice for you. Even though I probably should’ve realized sooner that you didn’t want me to…” Merlin heard his brother laugh.
“That’s okay. I was going through a rough time with the diagnosis and everything.”
“Well, I know it’s been a while, but if you or Merlin ever need anything, don’t hesitate to ask. You both have been so kind to Gwen and I appreciate it. She needs people on her side now more than ever.”
Merlin rolled over, wishing he hadn’t overheard. It was getting harder to hate Arthur, and Merlin didn’t want to like him for some reason. Arthur was an assault on his senses, but he couldn’t very well explain that to anyone. Arthur’s presence seemed to make everything louder, and brighter.

Chapter Text

Arthur woke up the next morning to Gwen hurrying out the door to work and Mordred already gone for school. Arthur didn’t mind spending the day in an unfamiliar city, but the thought of going out alone made him anxious. Arthur didn’t like public transport. He didn’t know how to navigate it and the crowded train and bus cars made him panic. But at the same time, he felt weird about staying in Gwen’s apartment without her home.
He sat at the kitchen table, which was unnecessarily small even for a house of three people, drinking the herbal tea Gwen had brewed him before she left. He could feel his leg shaking under the table and his chest getting heavier. Being awake in the house while the only other tenant present slept was unnerving. He felt like he was doing something wrong and intrusive by just being there.
Merlin emerged from his room, with his hair sticking up in all different directions, and dark circles under his eyes. He was still wearing the same clothes he was last night, torn up jeans and a shirt that said “Pavement.” He looked at Arthur, slightly annoyed, which only made Arthur’s heart beat faster. He wasn’t desperate for people to like him, but if someone didn’t like him, it made him worry about all the things he could’ve done wrong. And Merlin had definitely made it clear that he didn’t like him.
“Gwen wants me to take you to the touristy stuff today and Mordred wants to meet for lunch.” He said, sitting across the table and yawning. “But I really don’t want to do either of those things. So what do you want to do that doesn’t involve large crowds of people?”
Arthur felt a weight lift off his shoulders. Gwen was always trying to get Arthur out of his comfort zone, to have new experiences, but he was only able to do those things with her. The thought of going to a crowded museum or tourist attraction made Arthur feel sick.
“I like bookstores?” He suggested. Merlin looked deeply bothered by this for some reason, but agreed anyways.
“We could go somewhere else too, I don’t mind.” Arthur added hastily, because Merlin really looked like a bookstore was the last place he wanted to go.
“No it’s fine. I just don’t like libraries and bookstores. But maybe I can get past it.” Merlin’s expression was distant and Arthur remembered Gwen telling him about her roommate’s amnesia. Merlin’s life must be so stressful, Arthur thought. He couldn’t imagine losing the first twenty years of his life so suddenly, having nothing to look back on. Merlin’s demeanor made more sense, Arthur decided. He had a right to be sullen and cold towards Arthur, and Arthur could learn to get past it for Gwen’s sake.
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The bookstore absolutely gigantic. It had four stories and more books than Arthur had ever seen in his life. He was pouring over books on Elizabethan England when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Merlin was standing behind him, holding a small stack of books. His cheeks and the tips of his ears were bright red, and his hair was pulled into a small ponytail.
“Do you wanna know a secret?” Merlin was positively beaming from ear to ear, and Arthur realized it was the first time he’d ever seen him smile. He had a nice smile, it was ridiculously goofy, but Arthur liked it anyways. It was joyful and contagious.
Arthur hesitated to answer. He didn’t really like keeping secrets, it stressed him out. He was always worried about accidentally saying something or forgetting it was a secret. But at the same time, Merlin was offering him an olive branch. This could be his only opportunity to attempt a friendship with Gwen’s other roommate, and her new best friend.
“Yeah, okay.” He decided that he could deal with a little stress, for Gwen’s sake. Merlin opened one of the books in his stack. Arthur realized he couldn’t understand it, and that it must’ve been in Spanish.
“I can speak Spanish.” Merlin said, his smile lightening his tone. He opened the second book, and Arthur couldn’t recognize the letters at all. “And Russian.” Arthur looked at Merlin awe. Sure, plenty of Americans could speak Spanish, so it wasn’t too unlikely that Merlin had picked it up before he lost his memory. But Russian? That took time and patience very few teenagers would’ve had.

They spent the next two hours finding books in as many foreign languages as they could, trying to see if Merlin could understand them.
“Eight! I can speak Romanian!” Merlin shouted from the other side of the self. So far, Merlin was fluent or near-fluent in eight languages: Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, German, Portuguese, Arabic, and now Romanian. Arthur was in shock at how impressive Merlin was becoming. How could a 22 year old possibly speak so many languages, and almost all of them fluently?
They left the bookstore, after being told that they were being too loud and also making a mess. Arthur was surprised at his own calmness when they were being forced out. Normally, that would’ve sent him down a long spiral and into a panic. But instead, he just found himself laughing as he and Merlin were escorted out.
Next, they went to a record store and Arthur watched, with extreme second-hand embarrassment, as Merlin tried to charm his way into a job interview.
“I told you last time, we’re not hiring.” A man with dark hair who looked to be in his early twenties answered Merlin, looking exasperated.
“I know but I was hoping you’d change your mind for me.” Merlin was literally batting his eyelashes and leaning over the counter. Arthur wasn’t sure if he was actually trying to flirt his way into a job or if he knew he looked like a complete dork and was okay with it. The man at the desk was laughing and trying to shove Merlin, who’d begun to climb over the counter, away from him. Arthur honestly couldn’t believe he was watching this.
“C’mon, Will! You know how much better your life would be if I worked here! We could play horror movie soundtracks all day and scare away the customers!” Merlin had successfully crawled his way behind the desk and was now attempting to see how much of his weight he could put on the other man, Will, before getting pushed away. An old couple walked into the store, saw the two men behind the counter, and promptly walked out.
“No!” Will shouted, shoving Merlin to the ground. “That’s the third time that’s happened this week, Merlin!” Merlin, who Arthur could see grinning up at him from the floor behind the desk, didn’t seem to care. Will sighed, and Arthur could see his expression shift anger to exasperation.
“If I can get you hired, will you promise to never do that shit again?” Merlin nodded enthusiastically, and looked back at Arthur with the stupidest smile that made Arthur’s stomach turn, for whatever reason.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Merlin repeated, kissing the top of Will’s head over and over. Will looked at Arthur, who mouthed “I’m sorry” at him, because Will really did look like he was going to die of embarrassment.
“Who’s this guy, anyways? He’s not the one you usually come around with.” Will said, pushing Merlin off of him and motioning to Arthur. “What’s his name? Gary? Garth?”
“Gwaine.” Merlin’s face darkened into a scowl, and Arthur felt very sorry for whoever Gwaine was. “And we don’t speak of him anymore. He’s dead to us.”
Will rolled his eyes and took Merlin to the back room for an interview. When he returned, he asked Arthur about how he knew Merlin, and what music he liked.
“I’m not super into music. But I like folk. Like Simon and Garfunkel and stuff.” Will nodded, deciding that this was an acceptable answer.
“Merlin likes that shit, too. He’s got this copy of The Graduate soundtrack signed by them. He has no clue how he got it, but it’s worth a fortune.”
Arthur found out that Will went to school with Merlin as a fellow music major, only he played guitar. He told Arthur how they met on the first day of their second year, and Merlin sprinted across the courtyard to tackle him. He emphasized the fact that they had never met before this. Merlin had told Will that he just felt like it was the right thing to do, and they were going to be best friends, even if he couldn’t explain why.
“He’s a strange one, but I don’t mind. Him and Mordred have helped me out of quite a few financial binds this past year, so I’m grateful. The only thing I don’t get is how Gwen can put up with the two of them. They just bicker non-stop, and that ridiculous bunk bed only made it worse.”
When Arthur and Merlin left the record shop, Arthur was starting to get a good feeling about Chicago. Hanging out with Merlin, and Will, had helped him to feel like this place could eventually feel like home, even without Ely and Percy.
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“And the owner was Polish!” Merlin exclaimed animatedly at the dinner table. “So I was like, ‘I bet I can speak Polish.’ And what d’ya know? I could! Once we started talking in Polish, I knew I got the job!”
Arthur thought Mordred and Gwen looked uneasy at this, but then again, Mordred always looked on edge. But then Merlin was smiling, and the other two roommates started laughing. Merlin was positively brimming with happiness all day, and it was infectious.
“You know, you conveniently left out the part about you climbing on top of Will and scaring the elderly.” Arthur added, smirking at Merlin across the table. It was strange how comfortable he’d gotten with Merlin over the course of the day. Arthur was comfortable around very few people, and he teased almost none of them. But there was something about Merlin that mad Arthur want to tease and make fun of him.
“Hey, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do to get away from CVS.” Merlin said, leaning back in his chair and grabbing a slice of pizza. Now all of them were laughing, and Arthur called Merlin an idiot, which he normally never would’ve done, but that only made everyone laugh harder. Merlin seemed to give Arthur a confidence he’d never had before, that made him do things like get kicked out of bookstores and call Merlin an idiot. It felt good and refreshing, but also absurdly familiar. The more he thought about it, everything about Merlin felt absurdly familiar. He had a feeling that the two of them would be good friends.

Chapter Text

Arthur left too soon, Gwen thought. Having both Arthur and Merlin around for the past three days was a kind of happiness she never thought she’d feel again. Merlin seemed to bring out the old Arthur. In those short three days, she had recognized her fiance more than ever.

 She was still disappointed when he didn’t remember his past life upon seeing Merlin. Arthur was starting to act more like himself, but it still didn’t feel like enough. After taking him to the airport, Gwen went back home. She shut herself up in her room and cried all night.

 She wanted her husband back. She wanted Arthur to be brave, daring, and regal. She wanted him to have a rigid code of honor and a desire to protect others. But her Arthur was meek. He was shy and easily scared and he would do anything for her, but he wasn’t the man she fell in love with. She hated seeing him so broken and afraid in this life. She wanted so desperately for them to be on the same page. She wanted to grieve in his arms for losses they’d both suffered. She wanted to tell him how much she missed Merlin, her brother and both sets of parents she’d lost. She wanted a partner, really. Someone to hold her as she cried when the memories became too much to bear. 

When they started dating, Gwen thought Arthur was sure to remember at any given moment. She often found herself waiting for it, staring at him expectantly every time he acted strangely or particularly noble. But he never did. He remained blissfully ignorant of the pain she was feeling, the pain that that they should’ve shared. 

In the months following Arthur’s visit, Gwen had started venting about him at least twice a week to Mordred. Mordred was the only person on the planet who understood her at the moment. He was too young and too sad, but he was a good listener. He would sit at his desk and paint for hours, while she cried and complained about Arthur. Sometimes he would join in. He told her about Kara, and how she was stolen from him in this life, too. He told Gwen that Kara’s son, Mordred was in the second grade now and that he would never meet his namesake. But tonight, they were both crying. Merlin had reconciled with Gwaine, agreeing to be friends, and the two of them were out on a pub crawl tonight. Gwen and Mordred were invited, but rejected the offer. Lately, Gwaine was acting strange around them. He started snapping at Mordred and wouldn’t meet Gwen’s eyes. He was still acting normal around Merlin, though, which meant they were expecting a call from the police station at any minute. 

Mordred and Gwen were in the middle of Pride and Prejudice when she broke down sobbing.

“I love him so much.” She whispered, tears welling up in her eyes. “But sometimes I can’t look at him without wanting to throw up.” Mordred looked at her, sympathy in his eyes.

“I know.” And she knew he meant it. She knew Mordred couldn’t be in the same room as Arthur without being consumed with guilt. 

“It’s like I look at him sometimes and start crying. In my head I see him injured or dying, and he doesn’t know how to comfort me.” She whispered. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s even worth it.” 

“Gwen he’s moving here in like a week. You can’t have doubts now!” Mordred looked at her with incredulity and a little disappointment. It broke her heart. 

“I know. It’s not like I’m leaving him. Sometimes I just feel like it might be better for both of us if we weren’t together. I was already in love with him before we started dating, but I was in love with a different version of him. I know it isn’t fair to project that onto him, but it’s hard not to. I just want him back.”

When she went to sleep that night, she dreamed of meeting Arthur in a field. He wasn’t wearing armor, simply a white button down and jeans, but she was wearing her crown. He was holding out flowers to her, but she couldn’t reach them. She kept trying to move closer to him, but he kept stepping away from her. Beneath her feet, the grass was yellowing, turning brittle and rotten. She was sprinting after him, tripping over her gown, but he was walking too fast. 

She woke up with tears streaming down her face and his name on her lips. She called in sick. 

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Spring term ended in chaos. In the daytime, Merlin would frantically pace around the apartment, and flinch at the slightest noise. At night, he would practice for his end of year recital. It would hit four AM, and the apartment was filled with the sounds of his piano, too loud and too late. 

Mordred would share the nighttime insanity with his brother, painting nonstop. He stopped talking to them as soon as finals week began. He told them at dinner last week how thrilled he’d been to find out that his final project was a portrait. He told them about how excited he was, and that he already had so many ideas. But as the due date crept closer and closer, Mordred kept starting over, complaining that he was never good enough. But five half-finished paintings of Kara, with her defiant eyes preserved in memory, begged to differ.

The bags under Mordred’s eyes were getting larger and darker. He moved sluggishly and spoke in soft mumbles that were barely audible. None of them were sleeping, as it turned out. The boys because of stress, and Gwen because of her crackhead roommates. 

“You guys fucking suck.” She said over breakfast, downing her third cup of coffee. “I hate coffee. It gives me heartburn.” But she had to keep drinking it. She fell asleep in class the other day. Which didn’t sound terrible until she remembered that she was teaching the class. Neither Merlin nor Mordred looked up from their mugs. 

“You’re such pieces of shit.” She went on, “I make you guys dinner and clean the house. I make you mimosas, Mordred, even though you’re underage. I’m breaking laws for you! And Merlin, I make you mixed CDs! Mixed CDs! And how do you fuckers repay me? By keeping me up for half the night with all this-” She gestured broadly to the living room floor, which was covered in half finished portraits and sheet music. “-this shit!” 

They both looked at her now, like she was losing it. She’d only slept for two hours the night before and today was Wednesday, which meant she had to administer her students’ final exams. She’d have to be finished grading a hundred and twenty tests by tonight and she was in no state to work that much. Not to mention Arthur was arriving tomorrow, and she dreaded his arrival. Because then they’d be looking at houses, and job openings, and it would be too real. Tomorrow, she wouldn’t get to keep her life the way it was, living with college students and avoiding the adult world. Tomorrow, she’d have to face Arthur, with his anxious smiles and nervous laughter, and her life as she knew it would end. 

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Arthur arrived Thursday morning, and since Gwen was working, Merlin went to get him from the airport. Of course “get” meant accompanying Arthur on the train back home, since her fiance couldn’t navigate the city yet. 

Merlin’s recital was tonight, and they were all going to show their support. But Merlin was a nervous wreck and was undoubtedly taking it all out on Arthur in the time that they spent alone together. She smiled at the thought of the two of them bickering like they used to.

Mordred was turning in his final portrait tomorrow, which meant that the storm was almost over. This morning, he told her he knew what he was going to do for the project. He told her a couple nights ago that he kept trying and failing to capture Kara, but his grief kept getting in the way. They talked a lot about grief that night, which only made her dread Arthur’s arrival more. 

She sent Mordred a quick text, hoping all was going well with his project and the final he was taking today. He sent back a picture of himself, grinning, with his cheeks covered in red paint. He looked so happy she almost cried. The two of them had gotten close this past semester. Merlin spent all of his time working or with Gwaine, so she and Mordred established movie nights where she made them mimosas and white chocolate popcorn. Their friendship was in equal parts light-hearted and grief-stricken. But it was the only thing keeping her sane.

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Gwen went home after a long day of work to complete and utter chaos. The smoke alarm was going off and Merlin was screaming, running back in forth in a blur of beige and white. Mordred was struggling to lay a tarp over a gigantic canvas, and Arthur was shaking in the kitchen, holding a flaming hand towel. Seriously, how was this her life?

In the span of five minutes she managed to put out the fire, get Arthur to stop panicking, and get Merlin to sit down. 

“What the fuck, guys?” Then she realized that Merlin and Arthur only amplified each other’s stupidity, so she couldn’t really blame them. “Mordred?” 

Mordred shrugged and tried to smile at her, but she just glared at him. She was too tired for this and part of her was mad that Arthur was here at all, even though she knew it wasn’t fair to him. 

“I can’t tie a tie.” He was dressed in the suit that Mordred and Gwen had gotten out of his suitcase last week when Merlin mentioned that he needed one to perform in. It didn’t make sense that he couldn’t tie a tie, since he owned like fourteen.  She and Mordred found several suits, all from varying time periods in his ancient wardrobe. They settled on a tweed one from the 20s. Merlin looked rather dashing, she had to admit. Only his hair was tangly and his tie was tied into an actual knot. She could swear his IQ actually dropped when Arthur was around. 

“Arthur, help the poor kid with his tie. I have to deal with his hair.” She said, and Merlin pouted. She and Mordred had found that Merlin absolutely despised being called “kid” or “champ” or anything an American dad might call him. 

She ran to get hair gel and mousse from the bathroom. This recital was one of the most important parts of Merlin’s degree program, which is why it had to go well for him. This was going to be a long night, Gwen thought, but a good one.

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Gwen picked a bouquet of lavender for Merlin on the walk to campus. Flowers were tradition for them, even if he didn’t know it. On her and Arthur’s first wedding anniversary since his death, Merlin had brought her breakfast in bed and a bouquet of lavender. On the anniversary of Freya’s, the only girl Merlin had ever loved as he’d told Gwen, she brought him a bouquet of lavender. It became a tradition. On the anniversary of a death, coronation, or her wedding, they brought bouquets of lavender. 

 Merlin played so beautifully that she started crying in the middle of one of his pieces. She’d heard these songs a million times in practice, but seeing Merlin up there, looking twenty years old and with his hair hanging in his face, longer than it’s ever been, was different. He was playing for a crowd of people and he looked so vulnerable and untouchable. The melody was mournful and slow. The focused look on Merlin’s face reminded her of how he’d looked down at her dying body, desperate for a cure. She thought his sleepless eyes were full of stars then, as the lack of oxygen laid waste to her mind. 

They met Merlin outside after the recital was finished. He started crying when Gwen handed the bouquet to him, and told him what a good job he’d done. She and Mordred wrapped him in a group hug as he cried into their shoulders. The past three weeks were building up to a breakdown and now that his responsibilities were over, he could fall apart in their arms. Gwen motioned for Arthur to join in, and the four of them stood outside in the summer heat, embracing each other like they’d just won a battle. 

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A week later Merlin and Mordred had left to go back home for the summer, leaving Gwen and Arthur alone in the apartment. Arthur had found a job as a middle school history teacher, in the same neighborhood as Gwen. They were starting their domestic life, and Gwen felt nauseous. Arthur kept asking if she wanted to look at houses, or bigger apartments, but she kept putting it off. 

Arthur was patient as Gwen tried to make peace with her growing unhappiness. She could feel herself slipping into a depression, and her dreams were full of violence. She would fall asleep only to see Arthur, or her father, or Elyan dying. She would dream of Morgana torturing her, or of child Mordred tied to a pyre. Sometimes it was Merlin that she saw, grinning from ear to ear, and covered in his own blood. She woke up sobbing and screaming and Arthur would hold her until she stopped, but he didn’t understand. He never understood, not like this. 

They were drinking herbal tea on the couch, a list of possible houses on the coffee table in front of them. Gwen wouldn’t meet his eyes, she couldn’t. Not when she’d buried him the night before. 

“Guinevere…” Arthur’s voice was gentle and his hand was softly pressed against her’s, but she felt no comfort. Her full name didn’t belong to Arthur, not like this. 

“You don’t have to marry me.” He said, and she looked over at the man she loved. There were tears in his eyes and that was a sight she would never get used to. She fell back into his arms. Her own eyes were stinging now. He held her, and she desperately wished that things were different. She wished she lived as ignorant of the past as he did, or that he could remember who they were and share her trauma. She wished they could be happy together, like they used to be. She wished it was the two of them against the world, holding each other as everything fell apart.

“I’m so sorry.” She choked out and buried her face in his white button down. This was too familiar and too painful. She could already feel him slipping away. 

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Arthur left for a motel that night. They parted with a promise to see each other tomorrow, and Gwen went straight to her room. She put in one of the mixed CDs Merlin had made her last year and let it play loud enough that the boys would’ve heard it, had they been home. But they weren’t home and Gwen was alone in her self-destruction. A slow ballad played, and if Merlin were here, she was sure his magic would’ve felt her heartstrings tearing. 

 

If you feel discouraged that there's a lack of color here

Please don't worry lover, it's really bursting at the seams

 

It hurt more, losing Arthur like this, than to war. It hurt more, knowing that she had pushed him away with her madness. This pain was her fault. She had chosen an Arthur that wasn’t real anymore over the one who loved her. 

 

This is fact, not fiction, for the first time in years

But I know it's too late, I should have given you a reason to stay

 

Her chest felt heavy, heavier than it had felt when her lungs were filled with fluid. Gwen almost found herself wishing her lungs would give out, like they had hundreds of years ago. She didn’t want to be alone anymore. This life wasn’t worth it without her friends or her husband, or anyone who actually knew her. She wished she didn’t have to live like this, on the precipice of two lives. She wanted to feel whole again, to feel like herself again, even if she wasn’t sure what that meant anymore.

 

But I know it's too late, I should have given you a reason to stay

Given you a reason to stay

Given you a reason to stay

Given you a reason to stay

Chapter Text

Seeing Arthur without Gwen was weird. He felt like he was cheating on her, even though she’d asked him to look after Arthur while he was staying with his parents. 

The break-up was unexpected. Not even two weeks ago Arthur was texting him about wedding plans, but now he was passed out on Merlin’s floor, dozens of miles away from Gwen. 

“You’ve got to get up. You’re being boring and pathetic.” Merlin nudged the sleeping man with his foot. Well, he kicked him, but the effect was the same.

“Why are you so cruel to me? Can’t you see I am in the throes of heartache and turmoil?” Arthur buried his face into Merlin’s blanket.

“Oh fuck.” Mordred groaned from the other side of the room. “I don’t wanna be Benvolio in this weird pseudo-Shakespearean way you’re coping with this.” The more Merlin thought about it, this did all feel very Romeo and Juliet. Arthur was the weary-hearted Romeo, Mordred level-headed Benvolio, and Merlin did suppose he had the wit of Mercutio. 

“Mordred, can you take us to McDonald’s? Arthur needs ice cream.” After moving out of his Seattle apartment to move in with Gwen, Arthur was left homeless after the breakup. He’d already accepted a job in Chicago, and it was too late to go back. So until he found a place in the city, he was back home with his parents in their small suburban corner of Illinois. Of course, he was never actually at home. He spent all his time with the Larkins, like they were teenagers on summer break. 

“Only if you get something, too.” Mordred mumbled, but he was already grabbing his keys. 

“Not from there. I’ll eat when we get back, promise.” The food at McDonald’s made Merlin debilitatingly sick. Most restaurants did, much to Mordred’s concern. Merlin had spent a year eating nothing but soup and bread and carefully avoiding his family. But the summers were harder. They all ate together and Merlin could hardly stomach it. It was like his body didn’t need to eat anymore. He felt better without it. But Mordred forced him onto more solid food, insisting he get protein and vitamins, and other things Merlin’s body functioned perfectly fine without. 

They all piled in Mordred’s fifteen year old Toyota, with Merlin shouting shotgun and pushing Arthur behind him. Merlin plugged his phone in and began playing music he knew the rest of the car would hate. Mordred and Arthur had the exact same taste in music, which for some reason made Merlin wildly jealous. Mordred groaned, turned off the music, and glared at Merlin like a tired midwestern dad. 

They pulled onto the highway and the car shook from the speed. The fun part about Mordred’s car was that it was always an inch from falling apart. It shook when you drove too fast, the windows wouldn’t roll down, and the A/C smelled vaguely like tobacco. Merlin adored it. 

“I wish the windows rolled down.” Arthur sighed from the back seat. “Morgana used to take me up and down this highway on her bike all the time. I haven’t been on it since.” He looked pensive, and Merlin thought that Morgana must be a sister or an aunt. But Mordred stiffened behind the wheel, and Merlin could hear his brother’s heart beat speed up. 

“Morgana?” Mordred asked, his voice suspiciously strained.

“Oh yeah, she graduated before you got to school. She’s my older sister. We used to live together in Seattle, but now she’s in San Francisco.”

Merlin didn’t understand why this upset Mordred so much, but his brother looked like he was ready to pass out. His expression relaxed into something unreadable before he spoke. 

` “Okay, so. Some of us actually have work to do for summer classes, Merlin. So I’m going to drop you guys off at the park, and you are going to stay there until I’m done with my essay.”

Mordred was decidedly no fun. He was always working or too tired to do anything. He was too mercurial and hard to read. He’d be completely normal one minute, but then Merlin would say something and his brother would freeze up and go hide in his room. He never went out with Merlin and Gwaine anymore, he always wanted to stay in and hide. 

Merlin shuddered at the thought of Gwaine, their last interaction too fresh in his mind. It was the night before he’d left for the summer. Merlin stopped hating him a couple months prior, but only because he wanted to see him again. Gwaine was still at the forefront of Merlin’s mind at all times, laughing and looking at Merlin like they were the only people in the world. 

They went drinking, like always, but it was different. Gwaine downed alcohol like he was trying to forget something, getting too drunk to think coherently. Merlin ended up having to take him before 10:00 PM. 

When they got to his apartment, he grabbed Merlin by the shoulders in a painful grip and told him he was afraid. He was shaking and crying, and Merlin had never seen him so vulnerable. Merlin held him as he fell and they fell asleep like that, holding each other on the cold tile floor. It wasn’t fair how much Merlin loved him. He was the biggest idiot Merlin had ever met, besides Arthur, of course, and Merlin couldn’t live without him. It wasn’t fair that he spent hours pining after Gwaine, when he didn’t so much as text Merlin back. No, he only ever saw Merlin in person, and then he would look at Merlin like he didn’t know who he was anymore. 

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They were screaming at each other now, scaring away children and old folks. Arthur was the only person that Merlin ever raised his voice at, even though they barely knew each other. Arthur was infuriating and loud, even though he was quiet with everyone else. He was snarky and vindictive to Merlin, but passive around everyone else. It didn’t make sense how much they both wanted to argue with each other. It didn’t make sense why arguing with Arthur was so comfortable. 

They were currently fighting about cigarette ads in the 1930s.  Arthur had a degree in history, which of course meant he knew everything. But Merlin knew he was wrong. Arthur, or any history professor would say something and Merlin knew it was wrong. He knew that the historian’s gaze was was biased and wrong and corrupt. 

“They weren’t predatory! They just didn’t know any better!” Merlin shouted, arms flailing wildly. He didn’t know why this subject was so personal for him. It should’ve been objective, cigarette companies were evil and corrupt and preyed on ignorance. But for some reason he couldn’t remember, Merlin knew it was different in the past. He knew that they didn’t know the harm they were doing. All of his arguments were fueled with this need to be right, and somewhere deep and confusing, was guilt. He didn’t know why he felt guilty about this. Maybe he felt bad about fighting with Arthur after he’d just lost his fiance, but that didn’t feel quite right. There was something more there.

“It’s a predatory industry! They knew what chemicals they were letting people consume! They knew it wouldn’t make pregnancies easier or any of that marketing bullshit!” Arthur was equally impassioned, but Merlin knew it was just because he had to be right. Their wills clashed like this at least once a day, full of ire and steel. Nevertheless,  Arthur was rapidly becoming one of Merlin’s closest friends next to Will and Gwaine.

“Maybe the C.E.O’s were corrupt but the rest of the employees were just trying to make a living.  They didn’t know they were killing people!” Arthur’s eyebrow twitched, which meant he was losing steam. They’d been through this too much in the past week, and Mordred stopped hanging out with them because of it. 

“You say all of this shit like you were there! But you weren’t, Merlin. You constantly act you know all these things, when you have no clue how you know them! You could be making this shit up as you go, just to prove me wrong! Why do you have to disagree with every single thing I say?” That was too far and Arthur knew it. They’d never brought up Merlin’s memory before now, much less in an argument. 

Merlin wasn’t hurt, though, Arthur could say very few things that could actually hurt Merlin. He knew Arthur, and he knew that he didn’t mean to hurt him, even though they’d only known each other for a short couple of months. Most of their bonding was done through text, while Arthur finished his degree in Washington. They were more emotional in the texts. They talked about serious things, like Mordred’s growing depression and Gwen’s strange behavior. He told Arthur about Gwaine, and their complicated dynamic. Arthur told Merlin about his anxiety, and his fear of losing touch with Ely and Percy. But they only opened up with the protection of hundreds of miles between them. In person, they just argued and mocked each other to no end. 

“Because someone’s got to knock your ego down a couple of notches.” Merlin whispered and then they were laughing. Arthur’s arrogance only manifested with Merlin in these arguments, but it was infuriating and hilarious and familiar. There was an odd comfort in every interaction he had with Arthur. If they were texting, or fighting, or laughing so hard they couldn’t breathe, there was comfort and familiarity. 

“You’re such a dipshit.” Arthur offered Merlin a hand up, still breathing heavy from laughter. “Let’s go. I wanna go try to catch a duck.” 

“You know, you could catch as many ducks as you want and you still wouldn’t hold a candle to my lizard collection.” Merlin grinned, and pulled a small lizard from his shirt pocket. It was five-lined skink that Merlin had named Toby after his father.

 At the start of the summer, they had discovered that reptiles had an affinity for Merlin. Lizards seemed to really enjoy his company, going as far to follow him around. Since then, he’s made a point of waking Mordred up with a different reptile every morning. 

“What the fuck.” Arthur said softly, taking Toby from Merlin’s hand.

“Gwen would’ve loved this.” He added, quietly enough to where he thought Merlin couldn’t hear.

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Mordred’s 21st birthday came a week later and even though he couldn’t drink, he still wanted to go out to a bar with Merlin and Arthur. He said something about missing the camaraderie, whatever that meant. 

“Don’t worry, Ms. Larkin, we’ll take care of him.” Arthur promised their mother as they got into the car, on their way to the only bar in their tiny town, which was a forty minute drive away on the highway.

“I’m not a child, Arthur.” Mordred turned around, glaring at the backseat. God, driving really turned him into a dad, Merlin thought, kind of hoping it would do the same for him eventually. 

__________________________________________________________________

Merlin wasn’t really that drunk at all. Alcohol didn’t really affect him the way it did others, but he liked to pretend it did anyways. It made things more fun. He liked to see the mischievous glint in Gwen’s eyes after she had too much wine, to her laugh until she couldn’t breathe. He liked the way Gwaine looked at him when they were drinking, like Merlin was his only friend in the world, the only person that mattered. He liked how affectionate Arthur was when he thought Merlin was drunk, always patting Merlin’s back and tousling his hair. He liked seeing his friends care-free and blissful, and he liked to pretend that he could feel like that too, in spite of everything. The pretense of intoxication let Merlin do whatever silly things he wanted to, free from fear and free from judgement. 

He and Mordred were singing karaoke. They were dueting “Boys Don’t Cry” too loud and too off-key for a music major, but it didn’t matter. His brother was 21 and he was lucky to be alive with such good friends. Arthur was smiling at him from the back of the room with his phone out, undoubtedly filming. Life was good. Merlin threw his arms around his brother and sang louder into his ears. Life was long and good and he was grateful for it.

________________________________________________________________________________________

“You’re okay, Arthur, you’ve got this.” Merlin said gently, as the car jerkily moved forward. Mordred was so exhausted he could barely keep his eyes open. He suggested that they just sleep in the car and go home in the morning. But Merlin had insisted that Arthur could drive, illegally and without his license. This was starting to feel like a bad idea, but Mordred was passed out in the back and it was too late to go back now. They were alone,  only going ten miles per hour, on the dirt roads beside the highway.

“There’s no one else here, just us. You can go as slow as you need to.” He tried his best to sound comforting, but gentle tones didn’t come naturally when he was speaking to Arthur. He was used to texting reassurances and screaming in person. Arthur slammed on the brakes, sending Merlin into the dashboard. 

“I can’t do it. I can’t do it.” Arthur was hyperventilating now, shoulders shaking and breaths coming out in great gasps. Merlin shifted the car into park, and they sat there for a minute.

“You’re fine. Why don’t we step outside and get some air?” Arthur nodded and stepped out of the car. He was shaking, leaning against the trunk for support, as though his legs would give out. He reached into his pocket and pulled out an orange pill bottle.

“Don’t. You can’t drive on that.”

“I can’t-I can’t drive at all. We should call someone.” Arthur ran his trembling hands through his hair. He kept looking down, avoiding Merlin’s gaze. 

This was unprecedented for them. They’d never been this vulnerable around each other before. There was an intimacy in this. The only light for miles came from the headlights and the thousands of stars above them. They were alone, even if Mordred was only sleeping in the car. They were far enough from the rest of the world to be vulnerable and indulge in the strange, unspoken closeness  they felt with each other. 

“You are capable of this, Arthur. You’ve dealt with much worse than ninety minutes of driving.” Arthur held his gaze at the ground. Merlin grabbed his hand, and realized he was shaking slightly too. He was afraid of this vulnerability, of getting too close to Arthur, his best friend’s ex-fiance. But he was mostly afraid of how comfortable Arthur’s hand felt in his. Their grasp on each other didn’t feel like two mutual friends, or even two best friends. It was a grasp meant for running, and pulling the other behind them. The way their hands held onto each other felt like history. It was comforting and thrilling all at once. 

“I know you can do this. I wouldn’t make you do it if I knew you couldn’t handle it.” When Arthur looked back at him, his hair was messy and his eyes were glassy. He looked like a painting, beautiful and barely visible. 

“I don’t want to. I don’t-I don’t do these things, not without Guinevere.” It always came back to Gwen. Gwen, who ended her engagement in tears and self-destruction. He knew she loved Arthur, but he also knew that Arthur wasn’t helping her grow. He kept her waiting, and she kept him out of his comfort zone. Merlin was in the middle of it, because he cared about both of them. He wanted them both to be happy, but he knew that they wouldn’t find that in each other anymore. 

“Arthur, she’s not here right now. You can’t rely on her for strength anymore. You have to do it yourself.” He squeezed Arthur’s hand in what he hoped was reassurance. 

“Merlin, she was everything. I don't know how to live without her. My entire life was planned out for her. I can't believe I've lost her.” Merlin felt exposed, out in the open air. Now, they were whispering and standing less than an inch apart. Now, Merlin could Arthur’s heartbeat, and the blood rushing through his veins. Everything about Arthur was loud, his heart, his breathing, his feelings all screamed out at Merlin. 

It was dreadfully cliche, the way they leaned against the car, holding hands but not willing to acknowledge it. It was intimate and close in a way that made Merlin squirm, because this was Arthur. This was Gwen’s Arthur whose hand he was holding, whose shoulder was pressed against his. The denim of his jacket was rough against Merlin’s arm and the night air was warm and stiff.

“You'll be okay. You're stronger than you think.”

And somehow, they ended up in each other’s arms, in an awkward and stupidly warm embrace. Everything about this was stupid. The blood rushing in Merlin’s ears, the way he could feel Arthur’s panic subsiding, the weight of Arthur’s head on his shoulder. 

They were in the middle of nowhere, and the sky was bright. Looking up, Merlin could see stardust scattered across the sky like freckles. He felt too tall, with his hands against Arthur’s jacket, still and uncertain. It was deadly silent around them, except for the car’s stereo echoing Merlin’s CD. The song was faint and elegiac, and Merlin’s chest was warm and full.

You said we're not so tied together

What did you mean?

In a haze, they broke apart and got back in the car. They were driving home, slowly, but steadily. Merlin would tell Arthur to breathe when he started biting his bottom lip, but beyond that, there was only music and the static of the A/C. Arthur’s eyes stayed focused on the road, the headlights illuminating miles and miles of darkness in front of them.

Nobody else will be there then

Nobody else will be there

Chapter Text

Arthur woke up at two hours after they got home to Gwen calling him for the first time since he left her in Chicago. He wasn’t ready to deal with her calling him, drunk at four AM, but he desperately wanted to hear her voice again. He picked up. Arthur felt his chest tighten as he was greeted with the too-familiar sound of her crying. He couldn’t quite make out what she was saying, her words were rendered unintelligible with painful, gut-wrenching sobs. But then he was telling her to breathe, and it was achingly familiar to when she would wake him up sobbing after a nightmare. He wished he was there to hold her now, and mean it when he said he was there for her. She slowed down, breathing semi-regularly.

“Arthur, you guys have to come back now!” She was almost yelling. Her voice was strained and wracked with sobs. “Merlin isn’t answering me and you have to come back right now. Gwaine’s in an ambulance and I don’t know what to do they aren’t letting me see him and I don’t know what’s going on, Arthur!” 

“It’s okay, Guinevere, we’re on our way.”

Arthur felt his blood run cold as he slowly got out of his bed, and before he could process what Gwen was saying, he started running. The sky was still dark, and Arthur was running a mile and a half to the Larkins’.

His chest was burning as he raced through blocks of houses, too familiar. It felt hauntingly similar to when he was training for soccer try-outs as a teenager. It felt as though nine years had passed just for nothing to change. He was slower than he used to be. His breathing grew ragged sooner, and there were no more scholarships in front of him. 

He hated the reminders of how much promise he had before, how much of his life was ahead of him. Gwen helped him forget about his past, and the mistakes. She made everything softer. The memories of his mother’s face when she found him curled up on the floor were softened by Gwen’s assurance that he was better now. He felt tears stinging at his eyes at the thought of Gwen, and how awful she’d sounded on the phone. He pushed himself harder, sprinting the last half mile as fast as he could. He didn’t know what Merlin was going to do, but Arthur strongly suspected it had to do with taking Mordred’s car. 

Merlin was standing in the doorway when Arthur skidded to a stop in front of the house. He was shaking, clutching car keys in one hand. He seemed to stare right past Arthur, eyes empty. Arthur felt like he was ready to collapse, walking towards Merlin and attempting to ease the keys out of his trembling hand. 

“If you need to leave now, you can take the bus. But you know Mordred will take you.” Merlin simply shook his head, gripping the keys tight enough to where Arthur could see it digging into his palm. He looked at Arthur, his eyes characteristically sunken from lack of sleep. His lips were chapped, pressed into a thin line. He looked absolutely terrifying, and Arthur was tempted to let him go. This was a side of his friend that he’d never seen. Merlin was supposed to be the light-hearted one, constantly cracking jokes and teasing him. But the man in front of Arthur was pale and worn out, he looked weighed down and empty. 

Not even five hours ago, Merlin was singing karaoke and drunkenly beaming at Arthur from the other side of the room. Four hours ago, he was talking Arthur down from a panic attack, holding his hand in an unprecedented gesture of affection. Three hours ago, they were driving home, and Arthur felt the most at ease he’d ever been. Now, they were here, with Arthur prying stolen car keys out of his hands and calling out to Mordred, sleeping on the couch inside. Now, Merlin was resisting him with a strength he hadn’t had before. He was pushing against Arthur in the doorway, clutching the keys so tightly that Arthur could feel something wet and sticky against his hand. 

Mordred then appeared behind his brother, and the keys fell onto the concrete with a light sound, too light for the struggle they’d just had. Merlin’s hand was bleeding and Mordred was already grabbing the keys and locking the front door behind him. 

______________________________________________________________________

Merlin was slumped against the back seat window with the same empty expression he’d had before. They could hear the music coming from his headphones, but neither Arthur nor Mordred were going to acknowledge it. Mordred was on the highway by the time Arthur was able to explain the situation. 

“Why would you start driving before you knew why and where he was going?” Arthur asked him, knowing Merlin wasn’t able to hear them. Mordred looked sickly,  and Arthur knew he was starting to feel the effects of exhaustion. Mordred hadn’t been sleeping well for most of the summer. He stayed up until past six AM painting, or drawing, or whatever it was that he did to avoid Arthur and Merlin’s fighting. 

“It’s Merlin. I would do anything for him, no matter what. I owe a lot to him.” Mordred signed and kept his eyes on the road. Arthur didn’t know what anyone could possibly “owe” to a sibling, but decided not to push it, because Mordred was tired and too young to deal with this. 

Thirty minutes into their four hour journey, Mordred had to stop for gas. Arthur suspected Mordred also had to stop for an energy drink, because Arthur could see his eyes drifting closed for too long on the highway. It made him nervous.

 They were all wearing what they’d worn the night before. Arthur, in in a simple red shirt with what he liked to think was tasteful denim-on-denim. Mordred, in a faded Wilco shirt and overalls covered in paint. The cuff of Merlin’s white button down was stained with his blood because he wouldn’t let Arthur touch him. Arthur bought bandages and rubbing alcohol, and crawled into the back seat with Merlin, who literally swatted him away. 

“Merlin, for fuck’s sake you’re getting blood on the car.” Gentleness did not come easily between the two of them. But Arthur was trying, lightly grabbing Merlin’s hand to examine the cut. 

It was deeper than it should’ve been, since it was only car keys. But the gash on Merlin’s palm was at least a few millimeters deep. He must’ve had to grip them impossibly hard for that to happen, but there was no way Merlin was that strong, right?

He poured the alcohol on the gash, using his jacket as a tarp to avoid staining the upholstery. Merlin didn’t flinch when it went on, even though Arthur knew it must’ve stung. No, Merlin stayed stoic and unmoving. Arthur used his t-shirt to dry the cut, knowing it wasn’t sanitary, but it was all they had. It felt strange knowing Merlin’s blood was on his shirt, and he was hung up on it for some reason. He wrapped the gauze around Merlin’s hand and felt color rising into cheeks. There was a unique intimacy that came with treating wounds, even in the back seat of a fifteen year old car. There was too much vulnerability between them, Arthur thought, with last night fresh on his mind. 

“I’m sorry.” Merlin said, looking up at Arthur, pale faced and weary. Merlin was always a distinct kind of weary though, from lack of sleep and poor nutrition. But his expression was pained and Arthur knew what it felt like to worry about the one you loved like this. 

“It’s okay. I know you’re just worried about him.”

“It’s more than that.” Merlin bit his lower lip, and Arthur thought guilt was a strange expression on him. The crease in Merlin’s brow, the way his eyes cast down… Merlin’s face looked like it was made for guilt, and Arthur couldn’t fathom what someone so fundamentally good could do to feel that guilty. 

“I told him I could be friends, and that I wouldn’t hate him for rejecting me. But I’ve been punishing him for it anyways. I haven’t let him get close to me anymore, confide in me. Now he’s gone and drank himself to death. He could die, Arthur. He could die and he’ll die thinking I don’t care about him. That I didn’t think friendship was enough.”

Arthur had only “met” Gwaine once. It was during his last visit to Gwen (when they were meant to be looking at houses). It was past midnight, Gwen had just woken with a nightmare and he was making her tea. He could hear Merlin and another man, Gwaine, on the balcony speaking animatedly. Well, arguing. He’d felt so guilty for eavesdropping on such a private moment, he would never forget what they said. 

“God, why do you always do this to me?” Merlin’s voice had an edge Arthur hadn’t heard from him before. “You can’t just use me for emotional support when you feel like it and then ignore me until you want something. It’s not fair to me. You know how I feel about you.” His voice cracked in desperation. “So stop using it against me.”

“Merlin, please. You don’t understand-” Gwaine had started, his voice in equal measures pleading and raw, but Merlin wouldn’t let him finish.

“I don’t even recognize you anymore. You’ve changed so much-”

“Like you’re one to talk, Merlin! You’re not the same as you before in the slightest. You’re a completely different person.” There was anger in Gwaine’s voice, sure, but the wistfulness in his tone made Arthur think he was talking about something else. 

Then Gwaine was storming back into the apartment, as Arthur was stirring the sugar into Gwen’s tea. Gwaine was tall and muscular, with an attractive face. But he looked so haggard in the dim light, with shoulder length hair and ungroomed beard. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Arthur. His face paled, as though he’d seen a ghost.

“Are you even here? Or is this just another sick dream?” Gwaine had barely whispered to him, before Merlin came into the apartment, extinguishing a cigarette against his arm as he walked back inside. Arthur made a mental note to confront him about that later, but the timing never felt right. 

Everything about Merlin and Gwaine’s relationship was strange, even if Arthur couldn’t tell him that. Based on that interaction, as well as Merlin’s three AM texts to Arthur, he could tell that the two of them depended on the other far too much. He knew Merlin treated Gwaine like he was the only thing keeping him human, and Merlin was the only bit of sanity Gwaine had left. 

“Merlin, you have to let him go. He’s going to make it through this, but you won’t if you keep on like this.” Arthur realized he was still holding Merlin’s bandaged hand, and sickeningly felt the parallel to the night before. 

Mordred walked back to the car, pale and shaking, and miraculously started driving again. Arthur stayed in the back seat with Merlin, which let Mordred control the stereo. He suddenly realized how exhausted he was from the night before, and found himself drifting to sleep. 

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When they arrived at the hospital three hours later, Will and Gwen were in the waiting room. The former looking weary, in a very Merlin-like way, and the latter passed out on his shoulder. Gwen looked more worn out then Arthur had ever seen her before. Her hair was tangled and her make-up was smudged, but she did look at peace against Will’s shoulder. He hadn’t known that the two of them were close,  but then again, all of Merlin’s friends seemed to be close in one way or another.

Merlin was listed as Gwaine’s emergency contact, so he was permitted to visit him first. It was as serious as they thought, really. Gwaine had a rather painful brush with alcohol poisoning. Will had stopped by his apartment per Merlin’s request and found him unconscious. But he’d called the ambulance in enough time, and he was really the only reason Gwaine was still alive. 

Arthur sat down next to Will, and Mordred collapsed into the seat next to Gwen, eyes shut and breathing heavy. Gwen was still sleeping, thankfully, because Arthur wasn’t ready to face her. Several minutes passed like this, all of them silently waiting for Merlin to return, or for a nurse to tell them of Gwaine’s condition. Will looked over at him with pitying eyes. 

“You’re a good man, Arthur. I’m sorry I didn’t see that before.” He said, rather cryptically, but then again, everything was confusing right now. Everything from the break-up, to Merlin, to Mordred, it was all confusing and Arthur felt homesick for Seattle. He felt homesick for Morgana, who he hadn’t seen in two years, since she met Gwen when they started dating. 

Arthur was going to respond with something vaguely appreciative, maybe return the compliment? He wasn’t sure. But then Merlin walked back into the waiting room, tears silently streaming down his face. Will leapt from his seat and embraced Merlin, who shakily returned it. But the way Will held onto him, burying his face in Merlin's neck was entirely different from Merlin’s loose grip. Will hugged Merlin like he was seeing him for the first time in years, not just in three months. He saw him murmur something in Merlin’s ear before they both sat down next to Arthur. 

Gwen was awake now, looking right past Arthur and at Will. A knowing look passed between the two, and then they were both asking the nurse if they could visit Gwaine. Gwen tapped Mordred on the shoulder, undoubtedly to ask if he wanted to join them, but Mordred just waved an angry hand at her, and curled further into the seat.

“Is he alright?” Arthur asked, eyeing Merlin carefully. He wasn’t crying anymore, but he was rubbing at his puffy eyes and breathing heavily. 

“He’s fine. He just, um. He doesn’t want to see me right now.” Merlin hiccuped and ran an unsteady hand through his hair. 

“Just give it time. Maybe you should get some sleep? And when you wake up you can see him.” Arthur suggested lightly, almost as if he were speaking to a child. He knew what Merlin was going to say though. Merlin seemed to be completely fine with his two hours of sleep, maybe less,  per night. It was a secret Arthur was not allowed to tell Mordred, how little Merlin slept. It was probably one of the first and only things Merlin had ever trusted him with.

“Maybe.” was all Merlin said, but then he was resting his head against Arthur’s shoulder and closing his eyes. Arthur stilled at the unexpected contact. They were touching each other far too much lately for people in their situation. They were hardly friends, connected through Arthur’s ex-fiance and a hometown Merlin didn’t even remember. But still, he felt closer to Merlin in these past few months than he had with anyone except Gwen. 

Merlin brought out a different side of Arthur. A side of him that was brash, confident, and teasing. Arthur wasn’t like that with anyone, yet somehow it made him feel more like himself than ever. It felt like a victory when Merlin’s breathing slowed, and Arthur could tell he was sleeping. Something warm blossomed in his chest, knowing that he had actually gotten his friend to sleep. Of course, when Merlin woke up, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Arthur would make fun of him for sleeping on his shoulder like a girl and the moment would be over. They were having far too many moments lately. 

Chapter Text

Gwen was exhausted all the time. She was so emotionally worn out after the breakup that she didn’t leave the apartment for most of the summer. That is, until Will came pounding on her door at six AM one July morning. He told he was having strange dreams, and that she was in them. As were Merlin and Arthur. He said the funny thing was that they didn’t feel like dreams, that they felt more like flashbacks. 

She’d be lying if she said it wasn’t comforting to know that someone else remembered the same way that she had, through dreams. She hadn’t ever really spoken to Will, in this life or the last, but they were at least connected through Merlin. At different points in time, Merlin had been the most important thing in both of their lives. So they sat on the couch, drinking tea, and Gwen told Will everything that happened after his death. She tried to leave out the more gruesome bits regarding Merlin, and the different ways she’d found him dying after Arthur’s passing, but Will wanted to hear it all. However, she vowed to keep Mordred’s secret. She would let Will think that Merlin was reborn the same as the rest of them. In turn, he told Gwen about Merlin as a child. 

“He had absolutely no self-control whatsoever. He used magic any second when he could get away with it. He was sarcastic and witty and lit up whatever room he walked into.”

He told Gwen about how when they were twelve, he and Merlin vowed to run away together and adventure around the kingdom. He told her about how one day, their entire worlds shattered when Merlin almost killed a man with magic. How Hunith insisted he be sent to Camelot, and how Merlin had snuck into his house the night before he left, begging Will to run away with him right then and there. But Will’s family needed him, he couldn’t go. Without his help on the fields, they would starve to death, and he couldn’t abandon his parents. 

Since that morning, the two of them had started hanging out at least once a week. Will made sure Gwen was leaving the house, and that she was eating regularly. Their friendship came easily, in part because Will was so similar to Merlin. They were like mirrors of the other. Will and Merlin had a unique time of friendship, one that was strong and eternal. The kind of friend you couldn’t live without, that kept you grounded and made you feel understood. She was starting to understand how hard it must have for Merlin to let that go when he came to Camelot, and when Will died. 

Everything that happened the night of Gwaine’s accident was catastrophic. She and Will spent hours drinking and watching medieval period dramas just to point out historical inaccuracies. 

She was too drunk to think rationally when Arthur texted her. Arthur, the person she most and least wanted to hear from. He’d sent her a video of Merlin and Mordred clinging to each other at a bar, belting The Cure at the top of their lungs. It was silly, Gwen knew. But she wished she were there more than anything. She wished that she had her friends with her. She hated that Arthur had Merlin and Mordred to help him through the break-up. She hated that they shared the same best friend, and that it was taking so long for Merlin to get close to her again. 

Will had left her apartment to check in on Gwaine before she’d started crying. She was alone once more. In all honesty, Gwen was beginning to despise herself. In her mind, in her heart, she was still a ruler. She was a servant turned queen who had won and lost everything before she was even thirty years old. But in this world, in reality, she was depressed and delusional and depended too much on alcohol to feel better. She drained another bottle.

This had been two lifetimes where she’d lost Arthur. Two lifetimes and two long-suffering, dysfunctional relationships. The more she thought back on her marriage with Arthur, the worse she felt. They’d been married for less than five years, and barely saw each other. They were in love, but they were torn apart from each other over and over again. When they did find the time for each other, they were too exhausted and paranoid to be in love. She found herself wondering how much of Arthur’s love was attached to the seal he gave her on his deathbed, or if it was only the power he gave her? How much of their marriage was out of love? Is it even possible for love to exist between a king and his queen?

Gwen seemed doomed to a life of tragedy and heartache once more. Only this time around, she was the reason her life was falling apart. She was the one who couldn’t marry Arthur, because his face represented so much tragedy in her life. There hadn’t been joy in her life in a long time. Not since Elyan never remembered his past life, since her parents died in this world, since Merlin will never trust her the same way as before. She no longer had a home in Arthur, her solace was gone and she was empty. Just as Merlin was destined to save Arthur, Guinevere was destined to lose him every time.

Before Will called, Gwen was ready for it all to be over. She just couldn’t stand to live like this for another day. She wished her memories were wiped, or that she’d never been born into this life. She wanted it to stop and she didn’t care how it happened. But then Will was calling to tell her Gwaine was in an ambulance with alcohol poisoning. 

It was easy to forget about Gwaine. Because in this world, he only spoke to Merlin and acted the exact same as he had before. Gwen rarely had reason to speak to him. She assumed that if he suddenly remembered everything, he would call her, just as Will had. But she couldn’t bare to see Gwaine die again. His funeral was fresh in her mind, with golden flames dancing around his body and the word “Strength” engraved on his headstone. She remembered too much from that day. She remembered the way her voice broke when she gave the speech. She remembered washing Merlin’s blood out of his sheets the day after. 

The thought of Gwaine drinking himself to death was somehow worse than his death in a past life. Because that’s how they would all joke about it, back when Morgana was at bay and there was time to joke. They would mess around at the tavern and make jokes about how Gwaine’s life would be lost to his habits rather than an enemy’s sword. To face the reality of it, though, was much more gruesome. She found herself throwing up as soon Will ended the call. She threw up all the alcohol she’d carelessly drunk that night on an empty stomach. And with trembling hands, she called Arthur for the first time in months. 

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“Oh, Gwaine.” Gwen said softly, desperately, laying her hand gently against his. “You’re such a fucking idiot. I was right here, ready for you to remember. I was ready to tell you what happened and what’s going to happen. But you just had to do it on your own.”

He was too tired to be offended, but Gwen could see that he was trying. She felt awful, looking at him splayed out on the hospital bed. He was pale, with red-rimmed eyes, and Gwen could hear the slow, drawn-out beeping of his heart echoing through the room. She felt awful for not realizing what he was going through sooner. She understood how lonely he must have felt when the memories came back, how haunted he must’ve been by the recollection of his death. She should’ve been there for him. She was so obsessed with her own problems that she couldn’t see how Gwaine was struggling. 

“You were always hanging around with Mordred . Why should I have trusted you? Any of you? He betrayed us all.” Gwaine’s voice was raspy, but full of rage. His heart monitor began to quicken with his words.

“Mordred was a child. He was caught up in the wrong side of a war he lost so much to. But he’s trying so hard to make it better, Gwaine. You don’t know all that he’s done for Merlin. You couldn’t even begin to imagine what he’s been through for Merlin.” If Gwen found herself getting angry, it wasn’t her fault. Mordred was starting to feel like her responsibility. She felt an innate need to protect him, even if he had ruined her life before. She knew that the pain and the loss Mordred carried far outweighed her own and Gwaine’s.

  “You need to pull yourself together, Gwaine.” Will spoke now, for the first time since they entered the room. Will had never met Gwaine in the past. They were only mutual friends of Merlin’s in this life, even if they had hung out together once or twice. “I don’t know, obviously, about all the shit that happened, but I know that it’s going to kill Merlin once he remembers.” Gwen felt queasy at that, because Will would assume Merlin only had one lifetime of memories to destroy his sanity. He didn’t know the truth about Merlin’s mind, none of them did. “Do you know how hard it would be for him to remember you after you’ve already died in this life? It’s not fair to him. Nothing about the way you treat him is fair.”

Gwen remembered vaguely that Will was quick tempered and passionate from their brief meeting, but to hear him speak so vehemently in this life was comforting. She liked knowing that some of them hadn’t lost their personalities in the translation between two lives, as she had. 

“It’s not fair to me.” Gwaine whispered in a broken, beaten voice. It was foreign to Gwen’s ears, to hear Gwaine sound so passive and defeated. “It’s not fair to me that I have to fall in love with him twice , knowing, just knowing that he will never actually love me back.”

They fell silent. None of this was adding up. There was no way Gwaine could honestly be in love with Merlin. Gwaine didn’t fall in love, Gwen wasn’t sure he even knew what those words meant. Gwaine was a flirt, a womanizer. He made lewd and suggestive comments at everyone he met. There wasn’t any way he could possibly be in love, let alone with Merlin. 

“I can’t go through it again, Gwen. I can’t listen to him pretend to love me when I’ll always be second to Arthur. Everything and everyone is second to Arthur. I can’t do it again.” He didn’t sound defeated, Gwen realized. He was pleading. He was begging her to save him from his own horrible loop of heartache. 

It was a strange thought. Gwaine loving Merlin but feeling that Merlin could never love him as much as Arthur. Gwen, after learning of the prophecies and destiny they shared, understood the unique bond between Merlin and her husband. But she also couldn’t help but remember feeling alone, even after they married. She remembered wondering why Merlin was the one who learned all of Arthur’s secrets first. Why Merlin was the one who received Ygraine’s sigil. 

Gwen understood that friendship can be powerful. She knows that all the romance in the world pales in comparison to having your best friend by your side through everything. Merlin was her best friend, too. In her twenty years of ruling, she would’ve killed herself a hundred times over if Merlin hadn’t been there. It wasn’t until then that she understood why Arthur trusted him more than her. Merlin was trustworthy, sure. But it was mostly the fact that Merlin was a good friend. Merlin was loyal and loving to a fault. She knows that that kind of friendship matters more than any romance. 

But still. Gwaine and her shared something new now. They both were intimately acquainted with the nuances of love. They both had people they were in love with, people who should’ve loved them the same. But they both knew that they would always be second to a love reinforced by destiny and golden thread and a bond neither of them could hope to understand. 

She squeezed Gwaine’s hand in compassion. Maybe she could get him out of this. She could save him from the heartache she’s already been through twice. Gwen vowed to focus all of her energy into being a good friend. She was going to heal Gwaine, Mordred, Arthur, and eventually Merlin. Maybe, just maybe, she could be the kind of friend Merlin needs. 

Gwen knew that she needed to shape up. Because there were more friends out there. Percy and Elyan back home, Gaius and Leon somewhere, all of them were going to remember some day. She wanted to be there to help them through it. And if a part of Gwen is hoping that Lancelot is out there too, then maybe she’ll finally be able to repay him for saving her life all those years ago.

Chapter Text

They decided to move back in a month early. Merlin refused to leave Gwaine’s side since they arrived, leaving Mordred and Arthur alone in a car for three hours. They traded song recommendations, reminisced about high school, and tried to avoid the heavier subjects. It didn’t work.

“I’ve never seen Merlin look like that before. It was terrifying.” 

Mordred, unlike Arthur, knew just how terrifying Merlin could be. The worst part was that Merlin’s intimidation didn’t actually stem the power he had, even if he didn’t know about said power anymore. No, Merlin was terrifying because he was still very inhuman. Obviously, the memory wipe returned his empathy, but there were too many things that Merlin just doesn’t do. He doesn’t sleep, even if he tries to hide that fact from Mordred. He rarely ate, even if he was getting better about it. And he didn’t seem to feel pain, which was terrifying and made Mordred feel nauseous. 

Merlin’s physical strength was formidable, and Mordred was starting to worry about it. Everything that happened yesterday morning was returning Mordred to the anxious place he started this plan in. For one, Merlin had gripped a keychain with such intensity that he broke skin. Mordred had no clue how he was supposed to explain that, or how that even happened. Secondly, he was pretty sure Merlin almost used magic. Magic remained lost to Mordred in this life, but the feeling was etched into his core. He was fast asleep, no matter how loud Arthur was yelling for him to wake up, when he suddenly felt a familiar chill down his spine. He felt time suspend, almost. It felt like the air was still and clear and more breathable than it had been before. It was, quite literally, magic. Thirdly, and most concerning, was that Mordred had forgotten his place in those fleeting seconds. He ran behind Merlin, and started yelling for him to stop. Only, he wasn’t yelling, he was thinking , and Merlin responded anyways. 

“Merlin can be...intense when he needs to be.” Arthur seemed to ponder this for a minute, before deciding to drop the subject. 

“I hope this isn’t out of line. But what exactly is the deal with him and Gwaine?” Mordred was sure Arthur knew the answer to this, but they still had two hours ahead of them and nothing else to say. 

“Merlin’s in love with him or something, but Gwaine just wants to keep it casual.” He didn’t like talking about Gwaine. Not since the other man had remembered everything and started looking at Mordred with murderous eyes. They hadn’t spoken, but Mordred was pretty sure Gwaine would kill him if Merlin wasn’t around. 

They talked a little bit more about Gwaine, then Will, then about where Arthur was going to be staying. He was still looking at apartments, but hadn’t found any roommates yet. He also couldn’t stand to stay with his parents any longer, not if Mordred and Merlin weren’t there. So it was decided that Arthur would stay with them in their apartment. Would it be absolute hell? Yes. Would every single person involved hate it? Yes. Did they have a choice? No. Mordred didn’t want to force Gwen to live with Arthur again, but he also didn’t trust Arthur to be alone.

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They had a couple of days before they left for Chicago again, this time by plane, thankfully. Mordred was grateful for the time he got to be alone, really. With Arthur and Merlin constantly looking over his shoulder, it was difficult to paint. 

Mordred had begun a deeply personal, and deeply wrong artistic endeavor over the summer. It started out innocently, even out of concern for Merlin. 

He started reading Merlin’s journals. At first, just to find out if there was any chance of Merlin’s magic interfering with their plan. But eventually, the more he read, the more it became something else entirely. Merlin’s life became a muse of sorts. 

It was wrong and Mordred knew it, but the art that he was able to create after reading them was better than anything he’d done before. Partly, it was because he could picture the events so clearly, and partly it was because the emotions were so strong and raw in the writing that they were practically begging Mordred to paint them. He knew of course, that the writing was so powerful because it wasn’t writing. Merlin had used a spell to transcribe his memories. 

Mordred would paint scenes that Merlin described, only he avoided faces because he knew too many of them in real life. Instead, he painted blurry figures, he created charcoal silhouettes, and somehow they were more sensitive than simple portraits. It felt like looking at memories, instead of paintings. 

He was still at the beginning of the massive saga that was Merlin’s life. He hadn’t even become a character in Merlin’s life yet. Mordred had just finished reading through Merlin’s childhood, and it nearly broke him. Not just because of the familiar persecution and poverty, but because Mordred had unintentionally reunited Merlin with his mother. He figured it out easily, the name “Hunith” couldn’t have been a coincidence. It hurt a lot at first, to find out that one of the few comforts Mordred had in this life wasn’t actually his. Only, it was more comforting to see the parallels in the way Hunith cared for Merlin as a child, and the way she cared for Mordred now. It gave him a new understanding of his grandmother, whether she remembered or not. She was kind and caring, she was strong and compassionate. He liked to think that some of that lived in him, in spite of everything. 

Merlin’s life was a tragedy, in every sense of the word. He spent his early years in poverty, while Hunith adjusted to caring for a child. He was teased by the kids in his neighborhood, bullied for not having a father, and he felt deeply out of place in the world. His magic was uncontrollable and unpredictable. Merlin spent his entire childhood feeling like he was always doing something wrong. 

It was painful, because it was also Mordred’s childhood. They shared the experience of growing up an abomination. Being born into a world that didn’t want you. Even though they both had the comforts of family, Mordred for not nearly as long, they grew up lonely. Every time Merlin would write about a knight visiting Ealdor, with bloodlust on his breath and a sword at his side, Mordred would start crying. When Merlin wrote about how his mother would hide him in the cupboard, and scare him into not making a sound, Mordred saw his own childhood. He saw blood-red knights riding into camps and slaughtering his family, his friends, everyone close to him. 

And he painted it. The images were blurry, like it was a photo taken through tears, which in a way, it was. These were the best paintings. The ones that meshed Merlin’s memories with his own. They held a power, and Mordred knew it. He knew that these pieces were the highlight of his career, even if no one would ever see them. 

He was reading the end of the third journal, Merlin’s last night in Ealdor. After almost killing an old man by felling a tree with magic, Merlin was to be sent to Camelot. Obviously, Mordred knew that this was the real start to Merlin’s story, but it felt so much like the ending. It was starting to grow difficult to read, too painful and too real. But Mordred couldn’t stop. He read on. 

I have to get away. There’s no way I can survive in Camelot. They’ll find me out before I even reach Gaius. 

Will and I have to leave Ealdor tonight. I’m not allowed to tell him about Camelot, but he’ll leave with me anyways. I’ll write a note, maybe, and tell my mother that I’ll be safer living as a traveller, or a woodsman. It’ll hurt, but not as much as the alternative. 

 Sneaking out with supplies was easy enough. It hurts to leave my mother like this, with dishonesty and without clarity. I don’t know if I’ll see her again. I don’t know if I’ll see any of this again. Will never finished drawing up the plans when we were younger, running away was a half-baked dream that we never thought would come to fruition. But it’s different now. He has to be with me now. 

There was no glass on his window. He shattered it years ago when his sister died. It was too familiar, crawling through the wooden frame in the dead of night like this. We spent the brunt of our teenage years sneaking into each other’s houses and going out into the woods when we weren’t supposed to. We’re barely seventeen now, but everything’s different than it was before. 

Will’s awake, still staring at the holes in the ceiling. He sees me in the window and silently gets up, moving towards the door.

“Merlin, what are you doing? You know Hunith’s gonna go ballistic if she catches you out after today.” Will’s voice is soft, but he’s excited in the way he always is when we’re doing something we’re shouldn’t. It’s all in the way his shoulders set back, and leans on the balls of his feet. There’s no way he’ll say no. He’s too desperate for adventure to let me go alone. It’s too dark to see his face, but I know he’s grinning like a madman. He’s coming with me. 

“Go get whatever you can without being noticed. We’re going through woods, towards Mercia.” I don’t know what I was expecting. He’s laughing and I feel tears welling up. He needs to know that this isn’t a joke, that I don’t want to leave him. 

“I’m serious. We have to leave tonight, Will.” And then his face falls into something serious. Something I haven’t seen since we were fourteen and he punched the window out. It’s not driven by grief, it can’t be, even if that’s what he looks like. 

“Merlin, you can’t be serious. My parents still need me, Hunith still needs you. We’re not kids anymore, if we go missing there’s gonna be consequences. Our families could die without us.” 

For the second time today, I feel shattered. There is something very wrong in my chest, it’s tight and someone is squeezing it so hard I don’t want to breathe anymore. This can’t be it. This can’t be it for us. We were going to travel the world and cause trouble and spend the rest of our lives together. I can’t run away without him. Will is everything. He’s my best friend, he’s the only person I can ever trust, the only other person I feel at home with. 

 I can’t go to Camelot. I don’t want the next time he sees me to be when Gaius delivers my ashes. It would break him.

“Will, please. You don’t understand. We have to go, we have to go right now.” And I know he’s never seen me like this, frantic and begging. His hand feels warm against mine and I know he’s afraid of what I’ll do. We don’t touch each other like this, not with affection, not unless something is wrong. I wonder if he’s afraid of me, if he can see the magic moving behind my eyelids, crashing and pulling back with my heartbeat. 

“Go home, Merlin. Your light’s just gone on and you know Hunith doesn’t want to see you out this late.” And it was over. Tomorrow I will go to Camelot, and probably within the week I will be dead. I missed my only chance for him and he’s not even coming. I can feel the magic welling up with anger, like liquid flame and I have to go back before I hurt someone again. And I could never hurt him, not right now. Not when he’s going to bury me in a few weeks.

“Just stay safe, Will. Stay safe for me.”

 

Mordred had never had a friend, not like that. Kara was important to him, they had that same “tell each other anything” dynamic, only they were in love. It was too different and too painful with Kara. The knights he was bonded to with honor and duty, not childhood mischief and love. Love and camaraderie were different, and Mordred knew neither for long enough. 

In two days he would see Merlin again, and he would feel better. Something close to what Merlin had with Will. Because even if it was a sham, they were brothers in this life and Merlin loved him. Merlin loved him even if he didn’t deserve it. He hoped he could provide Merlin with the comfort and sense of belonging that Will once had. 

That night, Mordred painted a silhouette of two boys running in the woods, and if he stared at it long enough, he could hear laughter.

Chapter Text

Fuck Gwaine.Fuck Gwaine and stupid nobility and stiff upper lip. He wouldn’t let Merlin feel bad about it. He refused to let Merlin think it was his fault. He kept comforting him and it was infuriating. At least they were levelling out. It’s been three years orbiting around each other, hooking up and regretting it, thinking Gwaine’s changed his mind and regretting it.

Now they were friends. Merlin exhausted himself feeling every emotion possible over Gwaine and now they were just friends. They bothered Gwen at work, got weekly lunch, occasionally went out drinking, and hung out in groups. It was awful and painful, drifting apart, and even though it was wrong, it was easy to let Arthur stand in for Gwaine.

Arthur was living with them now, sharing a room with Mordred. Merlin was currently sharing Gwen’s room, which wasn’t as awkward as he thought it would be. She didn’t mind sleeping with the light, so Merlin could read. She didn’t mind staying up late with him, talking. They were getting closer, and it was comforting. She was gentle and familiar to him, like Will was. They stayed up late a lot, talking and crying. He could tell she was starting to get better, and it was good. He was afraid for her, the way her eyes glazed over most of the time, how empty she felt when he touched her. But he could feel her filling up, getting warmer with each day she spent with him and Gwaine, or Mordred, even with Arthur around.

Arthur was another matter entirely. He was teaching junior high world history, and trying to make sense of the way his life had turned. He thought he and Gwen would be married by now, settling down. Instead they were living with college students. Merlin couldn’t help but feel bad for him, even though there was a part of him that wanted Arthur to live with them forever.

Mordred was staying in his room with Arthur, because for some reason, he thought Gwen would be more comfortable staying with Merlin. Arthur and Mordred were getting closer too, in a strange way that made Merlin uncomfortable.

 In short, Arthur was a better brother than Merlin. He treated Mordred like a younger brother, while Merlin treated him more like a friend, and he felt awful for it. 

Tonight, the six of them, Merlin, Arthur, Gwaine, Gwen, Mordred, and Will went out drinking. Well, most of them were drinking. Arthur and Mordred didn’t drink, both for medical reasons, but they didn’t seem to mind. Gwen was starting to treat Arthur like a normal person, which was a step in the right direction. She still wouldn’t talk to him alone, though. She was currently trying to beat Gwaine in an arm wrestle, while Mordred and Will made bets on it. Arthur, as usual, hung towards the back, unsure if anyone actually wanted him there. Merlin always felt like it was his responsibility to make Arthur realize that he was a valued member of the group. 

“You know we all want you here, right?” Merlin whispered in his ear, suddenly realizing he was too close. He felt the back of his neck flush with heat, but he could just blame it on the alcohol of Arthur noticed. 

“You guys are still her friends…It’s not fair to her that I’m here.” Arthur was always mumbling when he was anxious. The shyness was foreign on him, but charming nonetheless. 

“She left you, mate. ‘S not your fault.” They went through this almost every day. 

“I wish I just...I wish it didn’t have to feel like this. I want to have fun with you guys, it’s just too hard. There’s too many people.” Merlin kind of hated it when Arthur was serious, because all he wanted was to hold Arhur and tell him that he was okay, but they weren’t at that point yet. They were still bickering and messing with each other. They hadn’t been serious since Gwaine was in the hospital, and they still don’t talk about that. 

“Alright, then let’s go home.” Merlin felt bad for leaving his friends, but the way Arthur’s face lit up was worth it. 

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“Your problem is that you don’t gallivant enough.” Merlin was laying in Arthur’s lap because he was supposedly drunk which meant there were no consequences. Of course, the consequence was realizing that being physically affectionate with Arthur beyond awkward bro hugs was impossible. Merlin was hyper aware of all the points of his body that were touching Arthur. He was too aware of all the points of his neck that were against Arthur’s leg, of Arthur’s hand absentmindedly in his hair. This was decidedly too much.This was close and affectionate and Arthur was only okay with it because he thought Merlin was drunk. Merlin was too aware of his own movements, his breathing, everything. 

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Arthur peered down at him, looking somewhere between offended and amused.

“You don’t go out enough. It’s why you get so nervous whenever we go to the bar. You don’t drink or smoke or do anything fun with us. You haven’t even tried to hook up with anyone since Gwen. You simply don’t gallivant and it’s a major oversight.”

“I just like being in control of actions. When I’m drunk I don’t get to be in control and it makes me anxious.” He was quiet now and Merlin regretted saying anything because it made him sad when Arthur shrunk like that. When his voice got softer and his shoulders shifted inward and he wouldn’t Merlin’s eyes. “And I don’t do hook-ups. I’ve only ever dated two people and I probably won’t find anyone else.”

“Oh, Arthur. There’s more out there than Gwen. She’s not the end all be all of fiances. You’ll find someone, I’m sure.” Only, Merlin wasn’t sure. It was hard to picture Arthur with anyone but Gwen. She and Arthur seemed to fit together, complementing one another perfectly. 

“I don’t know. I think she’s it for me.” Arthur’s voice was small and Merlin was really upset at the direction the night was heading towards. He wasn’t ready to be serious again, not after spending the night drinking with their friends. 

“Oh, fuck off, Arthur. You’ll get over it. Come on.” Merlin jumped off the couch and held a hand out to Arthur. They were going to have a good time, damnit, or Merlin was going back to the bar. 

__________________________________________________________________

“I don’t think I’m really cut out for this.” Arthur’s hands were shaky as he dragged them along the piano. He was always so unsure of everything he did. Uncertainty and anxiety was evident in everything Arthur did. From the way he sat at the edge of the bench next to Merlin, taking up as little space as possible, to how lightly he pressed the keys. 

“Don’t be stupid, Arthur. Just follow my hands.” And did Merlin just unintentionally shift them towards a new type of intimacy? When his hand ghosted over Arthur’s, guiding his fingers towards the melody. Arthur’s hand was warm and unsteady, but God was it familiar. It had been almost three months since Mordred’s birthday, when they last held hands. And it was so incredibly stupid for Merlin to keep thinking about it. He and Arthur were friends, right? They were just really close friends. They’d probably do anything for each other at this point, even if they still tried to avoid that fact. Even if touching Arthur’s hands made Merlin’s stomach unsettled and his face feel hot.

There was something tangible in their friendship. There was more depth to their interactions than with anyone else. Merlin loved Gwaine, but even they didn’t share this kind of bond. Mordred was his brother, but Merlin still didn’t feel as open with him as he did with Arthur. It’s like there was something between each and every person, an invisible wall that determines how close two people could get. Only, there was nothing between Merlin and Arthur. They could talk to each other for hours on end, they could wrestle, hold hands, and cry in front of the other and it wouldn’t make a difference. It was as exhilarating as it was frightening. 

“Okay, I think I’ve got it now. Do you want to play the bass part?” Arthur was a little more confident now, pressing down the melody with more force. Merlin slowly joined in and then they were playing “Ode to Joy” to an empty apartment. They weren’t really in time with one another, and Arthur kept accidentally pressing the wrong keys, but it was sweet and familiar. He could hear Arthur humming the melody under his breath, and then something broke.  

Merlin shut his eyes and listened for a minute. There was something tight in his chest. He was feeling a strange pain and he started worrying about heart problems. Only, he couldn’t end this moment with Arthur just as it began. They were finally having fun, Arthur laughing softly every time he messed up. God, this was painful. Something about the way they played this song together just ached. It was heart-breaking, even if Merlin couldn’t explain why. His face was wet with tears before he even realized he was crying. He stopped playing with a breath, a deep sob. Arthur’s hand was on his back and he was asking what was wrong. But Merlin had no idea what was wrong. His voice failed. His heart hurt and he was sobbing too loud, too painfully. 

He could distantly hear Arthur’s voice, vaguely feel himself being lifted, but the pain was almost too much to bear. He felt like there was a hole inside of him, something essential was missing from him. It hurt too much to feel anything else. 

He was on the couch now, still sobbing and trembling. Arthur had one arm around him, but the other was dialling a number on his phone. His throat was raw and his head was pounding, but Merlin couldn’t stop. He didn’t know what was happening to him, just that he was overcome with a debilitating sadness that felt eerily familiar. 

Merlin cried until he couldn’t anymore, collapsing back onto Arthur’s chest and breathing heavily. Merlin didn’t care that he was practically in Arthur’s lap or that he had just had a screaming meltdown. He didn’t care that Arthur was holding him and stroking his hair, or whispering softly to him. He didn’t care because caring hurt, too. 

Loss. Merlin was feeling loss and grief and pain, even if he couldn’t place why. He was feeling grief in Arthur’s arms, when Mordred and Gwen burst through the door and held him too. Merlin had lost something important before. And even though his memories were long gone, he could sense it. He could almost see it, if he focused. He shut his eyes, letting his friends’ words fade around him. He tried to focus on the memory. Slowly, images filtered through, one by one. 

There was a girl. She had long brown hair and bright blue eyes. She was important to him. She had deep dimples and covered her mouth when she laughed. She wore long dresses and kept her hair braided up. She liked it when he played piano for her, singing along softly under her breath. Her voice was sweet and melodic and kind. She was everything to him. 

He lost her. He couldn’t see it, but he felt it. She was gone, had been for a while. He lost her and it destroyed him. 

________________________________________________________________

When he went to bed that night, Merlin could tell that he was going to sleep tonight. He was actually going to fall asleep on his own. He hadn’t talked for the rest of the night, only let Gwen take him to their room and cover him with blankets. She made him tea and kissed his forehead. He fell asleep gradually, letting his eyes grow heavy and his body grow still.

In Merlin’s dreams, there was the girl. She was younger, almost five years old. Her hair was still long, only she wore it down instead of pinned up. Her dress was ruby red wool and he remembered when her mother sewed it.  She pulled on his coat sleeve and dragged him through the garden. There was fresh snow on the ground, covering the trees and burying the flowers he planted in the summer. She was laughing and shivering and Merlin was happy. There was a warmth in his heart, he felt whole and full for the first time in a very long while. 

The two of them were making snow angels as little flakes of white dusted their coats. She was covering him in snow when another harsher, feminine voice called them from inside. 

“Merlin! Don’t let her do that, you’re both going to fall ill and then I’ll be stuck caring for you!” Merlin waved a hand at the woman inside from underneath the snow, and the little girl only laughed. “Freya, stop that! You’ll ruin your dress!”

And despite the chill of the snow soaking through his clothes, Merlin felt warm.

When Merlin woke up, it was six AM and he felt cold underneath the blankets Gwen had piled on him. He felt empty once more.

Chapter Text

"It was the only woman you ever loved
That got burnt by the sun too often when she was young
And the cancer spread and it ran into her body and her blood
And there's nothing you can do about it now"

 

This was a Merlin Gwen knew well. One that was prone to bouts of debilitating grief. She knew how Merlin’s chest would cave in on him, how he would sob until he couldn’t speak. That was their life for twenty years after Arthur’s death. She knew Merlin wasn’t going to speak for the rest of the night because he had screamed his throat raw. She knew that the only thing to do was to make tea and hope he’ll get to sleep. She stayed up all night, watching him. 

Her mind was haunted by all the ways she saw Merlin hurt himself. And these fits of grief almost always led to pain. Gwen remembered too well walking on Merlin with a knife, sobbing and covered in his own blood, or drinking poison. She remembered the few times he had left in the middle of the night, and came back blue-faced and soaking wet. Gwen knows Merlin better than anyone, better than Arthur, better than Mordred. She knew him before and after Arthur’s death, at his most productive and most destructive. She couldn’t bare to see him fall apart again, not like before. If there was anyone who could help him, it was Gwen.

Merlin sat at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of tea and wrapped in his blue blanket. She sat down next to him, putting her arm around him and letting him relax into her. It was a silly thought, but part of Gwen wondered if his body remembered her. Did he sink into her arms by muscle memory or simple exhaustion? She wanted to know if she feels familiar to him in any way, even though it was selfish, she hopes she does.

“The worst part of being human is grief.” She says softly, hoping only Merlin can hear. But Arthur’s head turns to face her from behind the couch. He looks weary and tired, all of them do. Mordred went into work with his eyes half shut, ordering Gwen not to let Merlin do anything reckless. Arthur was worried. He wasn’t in the loop and it was making him anxious. Gwen hated that she could still read him so easily. But his fingernails were bitten bloody and his eyes were rubbed raw and red. She hated that she wasn’t able to stop him from doing that anymore. Some of his nervous ticks were destructive, but it wasn’t her place to stop him anymore. 

“I don’t even remember it. I don’t know who she was or how I lost her.” Merlin looked up at her, blue eyes glassy and welling up with tears. His voice was a hoarse whisper, too familiar and too broken. “But it hurts so much.”

Gwen decided that she would be spending today in the suitcase. Mordred had mentioned Merlin’s journals, and she was going to find out what sort of loss was deep enough to cut through a memory wipe. 

She let Arthur take care of Merlin in this state. They were getting close again, which was normal and comfortable. But it was strange to see them so affectionate, unburdened by the masculine standards of their original time. She felt a small surge of jealousy as she watched Merlin curl up against Arthur’s chest, as Arthur’s hand absently stroked his hair. She didn’t know if she was jealous of Merlin, for cuddling her husband, or of Arthur, for being so close to her best friend. It didn’t matter, she had work to do anyways. She didn’t have the time to feel ways about things right now.

She took out the suitcase from under Mordred’s bed and descended down into it. She was greeted with the familiar bright lights filtering through a crystal chandelier. The room was tall and long, lined with numerous bookshelves and wallpapered in postcards from all over the world. The journals were in an old china cabinet from the Victorian era. There was a small engraved plaque on the front of it, reading Emerson in neat calligraphy. 

There were hundreds of journals, numbered and ordered. Some of them had years on them, but a lot of the early ones didn’t. She knew the first ten or so would be Camelot, and she was tempted. She was tempted to know how Merlin saw them all back then, but that was too intrusive. Everything about this was intrusive, really, but it was still necessary. She wanted to do a search, but she wasn’t sure what exactly to search. She tried “grief”, only that brought up almost every journal. The first one listed though, number 72, seemed promising. It was simply dated 1847-1901 . She settled into the loveseat with a cup of tea, and started reading. 

 

23 July, 1847

I think I’ve finally found him this time. Or should I say her? It’s been at least a couple of centuries since I’ve been in England, but it’s only natural that it is where Arthur would resurface. Admittedly, the idea of reincarnation is still a bit foreign and leaves me feeling dizzy, but I suppose I’d better get used to it.

Her name is Emma. She’s quite beautiful, even if I’d never admit it to her face. Her features are soft and kind like Arthur’s. Her eyes are the most striking shade of blue I’ve ever seen, and her hair is slightly lighter than his was, but the overall appearance is the same. Of course, it’s not her appearance that makes me suspect her. She speaks with authority of a king, holds herself with the dignity of a noble. But I heard her with the other ladies after the party. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a lady swear so much, especially in this era. She jokes and teases her sisters exactly like he used to pick fights with Morgana. She’s right stuck-up and arrogant too, which I desperately wish didn’t draw me further towards her. 

Only, if Emma really is Arthur, as I suspect, she doesn’t remember a thing. She’s only twenty years old, bright and gorgeous. She hasn’t exactly noticed me yet, even though I’ve been ‘round to her parents estate numerous times for work. 

I really have tried to get her attention, but she really only seems to see me as the physician who treats her brother. There is another dinner tomorrow. I think I will try to speak to her then. In this identity, I’m only five years her senior. I’m using the name “M. Emerson” again, because If I’m going to be back at the heart of it all, I want it to feel familiar. 

 

24 July, 1847

Tonight was a disaster. I got to speak with Emma, alright. Only I don’t think I’ve ever met a ruder human being, not since Arthur at least. She told me I dressed far too below my status to be seen next to her, let alone speak to her. She told me that my ears were large enough for me to eavesdrop on everyone in the foyer. Not to mention how she spilled wine all over me, telling her father that I was “far too clumsy and disorderly to be the family physician.”

She’s horrible. There’s no way she’s Arthur. I would rather leave England than see her again. I could go back to Germany or France. I certainly did not have to deal with rich and privileged brats like her just because I’d mistaken her wit for nobility, that’s for sure.

The next few entries detailed Merlin’s treatment of Emma’s brother, who Gwen realized had polio before Merlin did. She skipped through it, because it broke her heart to read about Merlin’s frustration. He went through an entire spellbook trying to heal the young boy, Gillian, but all it seemed he could do was dull the pain. She skipped through all the medical stuff, the boring business talks Merlin had with the upper class. There were a couple of pages that just laid out treatment plans for influenza. One page was just full of comebacks he’d written down for the next time he saw Emma. Gwen grimaced at a few of Merlin’s descriptions of Victorian women, and realized that Merlin probably had to re-learn social etiquette and politics a thousand times. She kept flipping through the pages until she saw Emma’s name reappear at the top of the page. 

8 August, 1847

Emma is in my house. She did not only burst through the doors, soaking wet from the storm and shouting “Emerson!” from the top of her lungs, but she fainted as soon as I got to her. I was so ready, too. I had insults prepared. I was ready to show her that I will not be bullied by a girl. 

But then I saw how pale she was, shivering as she reached out to me. I saw her eyes roll back into her head and put my arms out to catch her. She was dreadfully light, although probably not too much lighter than me at this point. 

I still hadn’t eaten since the famine in the year when all was dark. I just seemed to have lost my appetite after watching so many starve to death. I think I’m done losing weight from it though, my body seems to have levelled out in acceptance that food just doesn’t really make sense anymore. 

I laid Emma out on the loveseat. She was conscious again before I let go, and I was honestly worried she was going to hit me. But instead, she held her arms around my neck and shivered violently. It was strange, seeing her so small and defeated like this. So quiet. Normally, she would have chastised me for walking around the house without an overcoat by now, saying something about my uncultured roots. 

“Doc-Doctor Emerson.” She choked out softly and I kneeled beside her on the floor. She was clearly sick and admittedly, I was beginning to grow worried. She would never refer to me with my title. She didn’t have that respect for me. 

“I’m so cold. Father didn’t want me to leave in the rain but it hurts so much. My head is splitting at the seams and there’s little black spots everywhere when I open my eyes. I’m so light-headed. Oh, and my chest , Emerson. It hurts so much.” There were tears in her eyes as she gasped the words out. She was vulnerable and beautiful, even like this. 

 

  Gwen had to take a minute to punch a pillow at Merlin’s flagrant sexism. It was so unlike her friend to be this superficial about a woman’s appearance. It was frustrating, but she also had to remember that this was the 1800s. She remembered how attitudes towards women were in Camelot, and how Merlin had been so progressive then, too. 

 

It was strange, seeing Emma this exposed. She was trembling from the cold and choking out deep coughs. Truthfully, I was worried in more ways than one. I was concerned for health, but also my own reputation. To be alone with a single woman as a man of my status was fairly damning, even if I am her physician. 

I was turning towards my bag for my tools when she reached out and grabbed ahold of my wrist. Her grip was stronger than it should have been, and her eyes were knowing. I can’t remember the last time anyone has looked at me like that, like they knew me better than anyone.

“I think we both know you don’t actually need the bag.” Her voice was hoarse and strained, but I caught the sarcasm. Gods, the way she interacts with me is so much like Arthur, it hurts. But she isn’t Arthur. She’s just a girl who’s about to ruin my life. 

How could she have found out about the magic so soon? I’d only been working as M. Emerson for a couple of months. Normally it takes people decades to see I don’t age like the rest of them, and then I can move on. Nobody’s ever found me out, not like this. 

“No, please. Em-Emerson. I swear I won’t tell a soul. But you have to fix me, I don’t care how, please. I can’t live like this.” There were tears in her eyes and I felt something inside of me snap. I didn’t really care if she’d found me out. She was brave enough to beg for help. Something no Pendragon could have ever done. I need to stop thinking of her like Arthur, because she’s only Emma. Sarcastic, brilliant, Emma. 

Emma, who suffers from heart disease. The minute I laid my hand against her chest I could feel it, something very wrong inside of her. Her heartbeat too irregularly. It would go too fast and then too slow. Her chest pain and dizziness made sense. There was something very wrong that science couldn’t fix yet, and magic wasn’t strong enough to. I can ease the pain though, I tell her. 

There was something intimate in the way she collapsed into me, how I wanted to hold her forever as she cried. My arms around her were tight, but the muscles were haunted with memories of holding Arthur like this, as he died. 

When she stopped crying, I got her a change of clothes. And I know how scandalous it is to lend her my own clothing, but the storm was too strong outside. I lit the fire, and we spent the night discussing everything. She asked me, she begged me to show her magic. And she was dying, albeit slowly, so I caved. I made her butterflies and strawberries and forced the flames to dance around the room. It was all of the romance that I couldn’t have given Freya, all those years ago. 

 

In the next entries, Gwen read as Merlin fell in love. It was intrusive, she knew, to read her best friend’s life like a novel. Only it was so Jane Austen-esque and so romantic that it was difficult for her to remember that Merlin actually lived through this. Merlin was the one courted Emma, asked her father permission to marry her. It was Gwen’s Merlin that proposed in the middle of the forest, surrounded by magical light. It was Merlin that moved the clouds on his wedding night, who cried when he saw Emma walk down the aisle. Emma was the only person had ever revealed himself to, telling her his true name, age, and identity. She was the first person Merlin was allowed to love, and give himself to entirely.  He had lived in this whole other life, where he was happy in spite of it all. 

 

03 December, 1850

Freya was born today. I expected to feel more prepared, honestly. But of all the places I’ve been, the things I’ve experienced, nothing could have prepared me for this. This is new, exhilaratingly frightening and new. I am a father. I have been many things in my time spent living, but never once a father. I hardly even had a father to remember. My mother is long dead, so she will never meet her only grandchild. Gwen is long dead. She won’t get to spoil my children like I was going to spoil her and Arthur’s. 

There were too many people I could have named her after. Hunith, was my first thought, Guinivere my next. Even Morgana crossed my mind. But I think it was Freya who deserved this honor the most. The only girl I had ever loved until now. Freya was a hope for me, back then. She symbolized hope and escape and a future for me then. I want my daughter to have that. To be full of hope, and to live the life I didn’t get to. 

Her eyes are the clearest shade of blue I’ve ever seen. I don’t know that I have ever loved anything this much. I’ve never had a child before. I’ve never known I could love anything this much. 

Emma has spent the whole day asleep. She locked the door to our chambers as soon as the doctors left. She locked the door and turned to face me, crying harder than ever. She couldn’t bear to be seen crying over this. But she held Freya so close to her chest, cradling her. Because this was the best thing that has ever happened to either of us. So we spent the day in our room, crying in joy, sleeping, and staring at our beautiful daughter. 

 

Gwen could feel knots twisting in her chest. Merlin had a family. He had a wife and a child, and Gwen knows that he lost them. She reads on, about Freya’s childhood, how he learned piano for her, so that she could sing along to it. Merlin taught his daughter how to play piano, which explained the surge of grief he felt last night, teaching Arthur. Emma never relaxed into the role of the housewife, but she loved her family more than anything. The Emersons were a happy family. Emma hosted garden parties and campaigned for women’s right to work. Freya began studying opera at age twelve, and Merlin let himself love them both with more passion than he thought he was capable of. 

Gwen felt her own heart shatter when Emma died, finally succumbing to a disease that was curable now. Her heart attack struck in the middle of the night, and Merlin did everything he could to save her. She was only thirty-five. Gwen was older than that when she’d died, centuries before Emma’s birth. The worst part of it, though, was Merlin never really let himself stop believing that Emma was Arthur reincarnate. Which she could have been, Gwen supposed, but it didn’t quite line-up with her own experience. In Merlin’s eyes, he had lost Arthur all over again. 

He and Freya spent the years following Emma’s death studying music together. Merlin attended her recitals, brought her bouquets of lavender (which only made Gwen cry harder), and dedicated everything to making sure she was happy. Freya never married even if Merlin had written about his suspicions that she and her best friend, Charlotte, were in love. No, Freya never married because she died a week before her twenty first birthday. She was murdered, and Merlin never forgave himself for letting her out of his sight. Gwen felt her chest grow tight with sobs as she read through Merlin’s numerous attempts to drown himself in the wake of her death.  He left England a few years after her death, and wrote that he would never return. On a blood-spattered page, Merlin wrote that the rest of the world was unkind, but England was cruel and violent.

Gwen closed the journal, returning it to the cabinet. She rubbed her face until it was dry, no longer tear-stained. When she walked back up the stairs, she found Mordred at home. He stood facing a colored canvas that was larger than him, paintbrush in hand. He turned around, to face Gwen, giving her full vantage of his latest piece. 

She felt the empty mug of tea hit the floor, shattering, before she even realized what was happening. But it was like the air had suddenly left her lungs and her heart forgot to beat. Staring back at her from the canvas, was Lancelot. Lancelot, looking as handsome and noble as ever, only wearing a red beanie with a dragonfly pin, and a denim jacket instead of armor. Gwen could feel her hear beatt pick back up again, racing with sorrow and hope and curiosity.

“Mordred...who is that?” Because Lancelot sacrificed himself before Mordred was knighted. There was no way Mordred would know him unless...unless he’d met Lancelot in this life. 

“Uh, Lance. He’s just somebody I met on the plane to England when Merlin and I met. Why?” But Gwen saw his expression change, slowly realizing something. 

“Is he-? Should I know him?”

Gwen explained who Lancelot was to them. She told Mordred how he was the most noble knight Arthur ever had, the bravest man any of them knew. She explained all that Lancelot had done for her, for Arthur, and Merlin. Mordred posted about him on a London missed connections website, hoping they could get him back.

Gwen felt slightly nauseous at the possibility of seeing Lancelot again. His death was too fresh in her mind. She never really forgave him for leaving her, after she fell in love with him. But, at the same time, she was desperate for someone that understood her again. She was desperate for someone that truly remembered what they had lost in Camelot, in Merlin. 

________________________________________________________

When Gwen went to bed that night, Arthur and Merlin were still on the couch, watching a spy movie and laughing. She couldn’t help but eavesdrop on them. She needed to know that Merlin was okay. Even though he never really would be okay, after all he’d lost. She watched Merlin curl up against Arthur’s side, throwing popcorn at him and letting Arthur tease him for being a bad shot. She watched as Arthur tousled Merlin’s hair, a painfully familiar gesture, and felt hope for him.