In the fading light of late afternoon, the ruins ahead were grey and forbidding. Merlin squinted up at the towers as the cabbie turned out onto a winding gravel road and rolled up toward the structure.
"You sure this is the place?" the cabbie asked dubiously, coming to a halt by a patch of purple wildflowers.
An errant bit of sunlight arced over the sloped walls of the crumbling castle, and for just a moment, the entire place seemed to be made of light. A trick of the eye, of course, but it set Merlin's pulse jumping. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the wrinkled bit of paper there. Below a stylized crest at the top, consisting of a small bird, a tree, and a lion, intertwined, a hand-written block of text was printed neatly on the vellum.
Thank you for your inquiry regarding a visit to Pendragon Estates. As you are aware, the Aureus Preservation Trust was established ten years ago to protect certain historical sites. These sites are closed to scholars, except by invitation. Under normal circumstances, we would not entertain unsolicited requests for short-term residency.
However, your vitae has been brought before us and studied carefully. The Trust administrators are confident you are precisely the sort of person they have been searching for. Accordingly, they would like to invite you to visit us, at your convenience. We would welcome additional assistance cataloguing various artefacts uncovered during our reconstruction.
Your room and board will be gratis, provided that you lend a hand to Trust staff. We are restoring selected portions of the buildings on site, and although the accommodations are not luxurious, we believe you will find them adequate for your needs.
Please see the enclosed map of the grounds.
The map drawn on the back appeared to have been scratched out by a child holding a faulty fountain pen, and only 'road', 'gate', and 'building' were marked. A tiny castle was drawn in to the side, and well above it, something which may have been a lake, or may have been an accidental inkblot. Even so, he had found the road easily enough. It was strange, how he seemed well able to read the thing. Now that they were on the unmarked road, he could see the tips of crumbling walls ahead, and scaffolding hiding the façade of what had once been a fortress.
"This is definitely it," he breathed, as he placed the letter back into his pocket.
"Seems an odd place for a holiday," the cabbie said, grunting his displeasure at having driven so far out into the countryside. Merlin couldn't disagree. Even so, when he'd received the Trust's response, and had made the spur of the moment choice to throw some things into a suitcase and take a few weeks off, he'd known there was nowhere he'd rather spend his time.
The cabbie creaked to a stop at the top of the hill, and before he could even turn and ask for his fare, Merlin pushed the door open and hopped out, dragging his kit bag behind him. He shoved a few notes through the open driver's window and said, "Cheers, mate."
"You sure you want me to leave you here?" The cabbie wasn't looking at Merlin; he was staring at the citadel, which really could not have been said to be inviting, or even hospitable-looking.
"Yes," Merlin said, slinging his satchel over his shoulder.
"Best, then," the cabbie said, giving him a brief salute before turning the car on the wide road and slowly descending the hill.
For a long moment, Merlin stood staring at the building. There were no workmen anywhere to be seen; no groundskeeper prowled about, and purple flowers grew wild and unchecked on the path, hiding it from sight here and there. Merlin bent and plucked one, then tucked it into his pocket beside the letter and began to make a circuit around the building.
In his mind's eye, he could easily see the grandeur that had once stood on the site. It must have been the biggest thing on the landscape, towering over the countryside below. A light breeze fluttered Merlin's hair, and from the corner of his eye, he imagined he could see pennants waving in the sky, joyful and welcoming.
A soft voice behind him; Merlin turned, and there stood a dark-skinned girl with loose curls flying about her face and her hands clasped in front of her. She was Merlin's age, or a bit younger. He smiled at her, and her eyes widened.
"Hello. I'm Merlin," he said, sticking his hand out. She stared at him for a moment, long enough to make him consider dropping his hand, before she wiped her hands quickly on her skirt and clasped his hand with her own.
"I'm Gwen," she said, returning his smile.
"You sent me the letter," Merlin said, finding it in his pocket, like a touchstone.
"Yes, yes I did." She was still staring at him, clutching his hand, and he hoped it wasn't because there was some leftover bit of his lunch stuck to his chin. After a moment, Gwen dropped his hand, her smile quirking up nervously. "We're so pleased that you could come to spend a bit of time with us. We've been terribly short of hands around here."
"So I gathered," Merlin said, nodding toward the empty scaffolding. "No builders?"
"Not really." Gwen smoothed her skirt. "There's someone who works on rebuilding the broken bits, from time to time. But rebuilding hasn't been our first priority. There were a few things we've been looking for in the ruins."
"I'd think they would have been picked clean by now."
"You'd think that, wouldn't you?" Gwen smiled again. "Come on to the kitchens. We'll get you a snack, and then I'll take you to your room."
"I don't mean to put you out," he said, kit bag in hand as he followed her into the waving grass. They'd rumbled through a small village on their way to the ruins. There had been a comfortable-looking bed and breakfast there, and he was certain he'd find suitable lodgings if needed. "I half-expected to be sleeping in the hallway."
"Oh, never," she said. There was a faint hint of disapproval in her tone, as if she were entirely scandalised by the suggestion. "To think we'd let you, of all people, go without a proper bed!"
Merlin really had no idea how to respond to that, considering that they'd only just met and he was a person of absolutely no importance or status, without many skills that would be useful at such an excavation. So he simply smiled at Gwen for lack of useful conversation, and her smile in return was slow, but seemed filled with infectious joy.
"Lead the way," Merlin said.
He followed Gwen around the edges of the wall, and toward a large wooden door that looked incredibly authentic. He touched the grain of the wood; it was weathered, as if it had seen the elements for a thousand years, but the door was in perfect condition.
Gwen pushed it open with no effort, and darkness enfolded them for a moment. It was an adjustment after the bright sunlight in the garden.
"Are you hungry?" Gwen said, as she turned toward an open hearth where a cheerful fire burned. "There's stew on, and I've a chicken roasting for supper, but you may want something to tide you over in the meantime."
"I'd be happy with a slice of bread, if you have it."
"Of course." Gwen turned to the table and cut a generous slice from a crusty loaf, then passed it to Merlin, who breathed in the warm, yeasty scent of it with pleasure. "Butter?"
"No, plain is fine, thanks." He dropped his kit bag and sat down at the wooden table. "Are all these things recovered from the site?"
"Some of them. Some were rebuilt or restored by the lads who help out here," she said, sitting opposite him. "You'll meet them, later. They've been eager to- er, to meet you."
"Looking forward to it." Merlin munched his bread and accepted the glass of water Gwen passed him with a nod of thanks.
"So," Gwen said. "How did you come to find us here?"
"I'm a student," Merlin said, thinking of the unfinished piles of research he'd left behind. "Began in maths, really. Got tired of all the equations - too clinical, the world doesn't work with such precision -- and moved on to fine arts. I do a bit of manuscript painting for a lark. History intrigues me. I've never been able to settle on one course of study. But I've been having a hard go of it lately. Some health issues." He paused, unsure of why he felt compelled to tell a total stranger his troubles.
Gwen leaned forward, her warm brown eyes inviting him to go on, so he smiled and said, "I read an article by Dr. Augustus, discussing why so much of science appeared to be magic in the middle ages, and his bio led me to learn something about the Trust. Just seemed like it'd be a good diversion. Something to focus on." He pulled the purple flower from his pocket and handed it to Gwen, whose eyes shone as she took it. "It seemed a pretty place, too."
"It's a lovely place. I think you'll find it's very peaceful." Gwen's hand darted forward, and hovered for a moment, before briefly touching his. "Your health problems are nothing too serious, I hope?"
"It comes and goes." There were some things he did want to hold in reserve. "I black out every now and then, and I forget things, sometimes. More often, lately. The doctors don't know why."
"That's terrible." Her fingers curled around his, and squeezed gently, before she pulled away. "But it's lovely that you decided to petition us for access. It's never been granted before, you know. The Trust's administrators are a bit particular."
"Really?" Merlin knew it was an honour. His faculty advisor had been frankly stunned at his easy acceptance, and had even threatened to come along with him on the trip. "Don't know why I dared to ask, really. It just...seemed right."
"Good." Gwen smiled and rose, smoothing her skirt. "I'll just go and make your bed for you. Won't be a moment." She gestured around her. "Make yourself at home. There's a fridge in the corner with beer and milk, if you like. You can feel free to have a look around, although if you'll wait a bit, I'll take you on a more extensive tour."
"I'm set, thank you," Merlin said, watching her as she gracefully made her way up the narrow stairs. When she was gone, the room seemed smaller somehow, but still cosy, with the fire crackling merrily in the ancient hearth.
He gulped down the rest of his water, and then set up the same stairs Gwen had just climbed. There didn't seem to be much point in holding back; he'd be staying, and it was possible he could do some good. They obviously needed the help.
The corridors beyond the warm kitchen were a mix of closed, cold stone and open, crumbling walls, with not much variance in between. He wandered down them, turning at will through the hallways, led mostly by the light streaming in between broken stones. Eventually he found himself at a dead end, marked by rotting wooden doors to his right and an intact wall just ahead - nowhere to go but back, or through the doors.
He pushed open the doors and stepped into a long, wide room, with tall slanting windows above. The room seemed mostly intact, and beneath his feet, he could see the remnants of a stone floor. Late afternoon sun streamed in the tall windows, which were absent their glass. Merlin stopped and stared up for a moment at the blue sky just beyond.
It was a grand room, fit for balls, or for parties. Fit for royalty. He closed his eyes, dizzy from looking up at the high windows. A dull ache throbbed in his temple, and he pressed two fingers to it, rubbing hard.
I know I'm just a servant, and my word doesn't count for anything, but I wouldn't lie to you.
The low, quiet voice behind him startled him, and Merlin whirled, stumbling a bit, to see its source. A man stood there, watching him, cast half in shadow; Merlin could see the edges of his red shirt, and a crown of golden hair.
His hands began to shake.
"That is your name, isn't it? Merlin?" The man drew nearer, and now Merlin could see his handsome features, and startling blue eyes which were fixed on Merlin's face, unwavering.
"Yes," Merlin said, the word coming out only as a whisper.
"I'm Arthur," the man said, watching Merlin intently. He reached out a hand, and Merlin took it, aware now that he was trembling all over. Arthur covered their joined hands with his own, and -
I swear, I will protect you or die at your side.
He was on his knees, and the stranger - Arthur - was crouching before him, his hands on Merlin's shoulders.
"I'm all right," Merlin said, in a shaky voice. "I'm sorry, it's just - I-"
"What can I do?" Arthur's hands stayed where they were, a comforting weight, anchoring Merlin in this strange place.
"I have episodes, sometimes," Merlin said. "There's...there's nothing to be done. It will pass. I'm sorry." He took a deep breath, then another, unsure why he was still trembling, and why Arthur's face was etched so deeply with concern.
"You've nothing to be sorry for. Here, let me help you." One hand under Merlin's elbow, Arthur pulled him to his feet, but didn't move away. "All right?"
"Yes, thank you." Merlin blinked a few times, and then looked up into Arthur's intense blue stare. "You can let go now."
"Oh, right, sorry." Arthur's hand slid from his elbow, and he smiled. "Not quite how I'd planned for us to meet. I'm Arthur Pendragon, the Trust's chief administrator."
"Oh!" Merlin stuck his hand out awkwardly; the one person he'd hoped to make a good impression on, and he'd ended up a sweaty mess on the ground. "Very pleased to meet you."
"Likewise." Arthur shook his hand. His grip was strong, and Merlin utterly failed to stop staring at the muscles outlined by his shirt. "We've all been greatly looking forward to your visit."
"Anything I can do to help," Merlin said. Arthur seemed to be studying him with a peculiarly keen expression, the kind Merlin had often seen on scientists with butterflies and frogs pinned down under their gaze. He swallowed. "Er, I hope I wasn't intruding."
"Not at all. In fact, if you think you're up to it, I'll show you around a bit."
"Yes, please." Merlin smiled. Already things were looking up.
Arthur took a step back and gestured the length of the room. "This is one of my favourite places, actually," he said. "I would have started your tour with this room. Sometimes I like to look at the carvings, and think about what must have happened here. Kingdoms rose and fell on what was decided in this place."
"The light in here is so gentle, for such a grand purpose," Merlin murmured. He and Arthur both turned their faces to the sky, to the flickering rays of sunlight filtering down on them. They stood quietly together for a moment, basking in the muted sunbeams, and peace washed over Merlin. It was a rare sensation, no cares at all in the back of his mind.
"Come on," Arthur said, holding out a hand.
Arthur took him back along the corridors he'd already walked, talking quietly about the renovation and the artefacts found here and there. Merlin was less taken with the inventory and more with the way Arthur's face lit with pleasure as he described them - bits of shields and weapons, books astonishingly well-preserved in a stone vault below the foundations, and so on.
"There's someone you really must meet," Arthur said, as he stopped at the bottom of a curving stone staircase. "Come on, this way." Merlin followed him up the stairs, decidedly not looking at the firmness of his host's arse, and was on his heels as he pushed open a wooden door without knocking.
The room inside was very large - including a loft crammed with bookshelves above - and full of all sorts of boxes and materials. "It's one of the first spaces we restored," Arthur said. "Sort of a gathering spot for everyone when we need things researched, or answers to our questions."
"Hello there," called a voice from above. A young man with jet-black hair peered down from the ladder to the right. "You must be our visitor." He began backing down the ladder, and jumped down the last few rungs. "Welcome!" he said, sticking his hand out toward Merlin.
"Dr. Augustus, this is Merlin," Arthur said. Augustus grasped Merlin's hand and grinned.
"About time we had some help here."
"It is such a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Augustus," Merlin said, grinning back. He couldn't help it; Augustus had a twinkle in his eye, and seemed ready to take on the world.
"Oh dear me, no - please, you must call me Gaius, I insist." When he clapped his hands together, dust flew up from his sleeves, and Merlin stifled a laugh. "This is where all the magic happens. So to speak. I've been collecting and cataloguing things discovered on the site, and conducting a bit of research here and there. The history of this place is quite fascinating, as I'm sure you know."
"I'm looking forward to assisting you," Merlin said. "I've done quite a bit of research. Have a good reputation for it, in fact."
"Do you indeed. Well, that will come in handy, yes. I'll set you to it straightaway." Behind Merlin's shoulder, Arthur cleared his throat, and Gaius's expression changed to one of contrition. "After you've settled in, that is. I'm sure you've had quite a long journey."
Arthur's chest pressed ever so slightly against Merlin's back. It was a comforting press, and Merlin resisted the urge to lean back into Arthur's warmth. "Not so long, but quite tiring, it's true." Merlin took a longer look about the cluttered room. Work tables were set to the edges, and every bit of them covered with books - some of them tattered refugees from behind the protection of glass cases, and others brand new, their bindings groaning at being spread open against the rough wood. At one of the near tables a small space had been cleared, rather like a nest - a workspace for Gaius, Merlin assumed - and a stack of papers with hand-scratched notes were piled in the centre next to a jar full of pens.
It seemed to be a disproportionate amount of work for one scientist at a relatively small archaeological site. "What type of research do you do?" Merlin asked.
"Oh, this and that," Gaius said vaguely, waving his hand at the bookshelves. "At the moment, I've been reading some fascinating articles on the origin of resurrection mythos. Scholars get so much of it wrong, of course, but I carry on in the hopes of finding corresponding patterns. And there's the research on recovered memory -"
"Yes, well, Gaius, thank you, I'm sure Merlin finds this fascinating but Gwen will be holding dinner for us downstairs," Arthur said pleasantly.
Gaius chuckled. "I do go on, don't I. Sorry about that. I'll see you downstairs, Merlin." He held out his hand again, and Merlin took it, already anticipating a glorious stretch of days consumed with nothing but the blissful silence of pages turning and pens scratching across notepads.
I'll have your favourite meal waiting for you.
A strong arm around his chest; Arthur's, Merlin realized, and Arthur's body was holding him up while he trembled and gasped, and white spots crowded his vision.
"I'm all right," he said softly. Arthur's arm only tightened its grip. Chair legs scraped across the floor until the seat of a chair pressed against the backs of Merlin's knees, and Arthur lowered him into it, then crouched beside him, one hand on his shoulder. "Thank you."
"These episodes," Gaius said. "How often do they come over you?"
"Once or twice a day," Merlin said. "More often, the last few weeks. I almost didn't come here - I didn't want to embarrass myself, or be a bother, but-"
"You're no bother," Arthur said sharply. He gripped Merlin's shoulder, then stood up. "All of us have our issues. You'll fit right in here."
"I completely agree," Gaius said. "But you should tell us, when the -- er, when your episodes begin to overwhelm you."
"I'll try," Merlin said. He gathered himself and pushed up from the chair, noting that Arthur was touching him lightly - fingertips on his arm, as if at the ready to anchor him again. It should have been awkward, but it was anything but, and Merlin favoured Arthur with a grateful smile. "So you said something about dinner?"
As it turned out, Gwen's roasted chicken was delicious, particularly when she didn't make Merlin or Arthur wait for the remainder of their dinner guests. "The lads are about," she said vaguely, with a pointed look at Arthur. "May as well tuck in then." She lifted a jug of water and poured Merlin a glass, then began to lift Arthur's. Merlin had the strangest sensation of wrongness, and jumped up from the table.
"Let me do that," he said, taking the jug. "Please, sit."
"No, really, I-" Gwen made a grab for it, but Merlin whisked the thing too high for her to reach as he retrieved Arthur's glass.
"Sit, I insist," Merlin said. "I'm the guest here." He filled the glass, ignoring the scolding frown Gwen was giving him in favour of making himself useful.
A moment later, the door burst open. "Something smells delicious in here, Gwen! I hope it's chicken or-"
Merlin turned, and raised his eyebrows at the two men standing in the doorway, who were both standing stock-still, eyes wide and fixed on Merlin.
The shorter of the two cleared his throat. "You're-- the new member of staff," he said, though something in his tone made Merlin think he'd amended what he'd originally planned to say.
"Merlin," he said. He set the jug down and reached out for the man's hand. A slow smile spread across his handsome features, and he clasped Merlin's hand warmly.
"I'm Lance," he said, "and this fellow here is Leon."
"Pleasure," Leon said, taking Merlin's hand in turn.
Merlin gasped --
The bells ring for a full day and night to commemorate the arrival of the Queen's firstborn son. Merlin visits Gwen, takes the child in his hand and whispers spells of protection over the boy while Gwen watches, her keen gaze missing nothing. Leon holds her hand, bursting with pride.
"He is beautiful and healthy," Merlin says, smoothing the fine hair - already curled over his forehead, much to his father's chagrin - back from Arthur's face. "He will thrive."
"Let us hope so," Gwen says, taking her son back.
For a long moment, the shadow of the child's namesake lingers in the room between them, an old ghost neither of them is fully prepared to deny.
Merlin waits one year, a year in which he layers all the protective spells, runes, and magic he knows into the walls and stones of Camelot. A part of him will always be here, but the time has almost come when he is no longer needed. Not here, in the kingdom yet to be built by this tiny boy's hands.
"You have many to advise you," Merlin whispers, standing over the child's cradle. Arthur laughs, reaching up to pat Merlin's face as he hovers close to kiss Arthur's forehead one last time. "Many who will lift you up. You are fortunate to have what my Arthur did not. Listen to your father and mother, and always do what is right and true." Arthur's eyes are bright and serious as he watches Merlin's face, his feet kicking into the air while Merlin tucks a blue blanket in around him. "Be well, my prince."
He conjures a room full of butterflies, blue and orange, red and gold, magic suffusing the air like sunlight, and walks away as Arthur laughs with delight. It is that sound he wants to carry with him as he goes, nothing but a rucksack on his back and the road ahead.
"Merlin?" Arthur pushed back from the table, and Merlin waved him off as he bent to pick up the jug he'd dropped. Water seeped from its cracked edges.
"Sorry, just clumsy," he said. It had been the most vivid hallucination yet, and it was filled with faces which seemed so familiar, but couldn't be. Merlin's hands were shaking, so he quickly retrieved a towel and set to mopping up the spilled water. Lance found a towel also and helped him sop up the remainder.
"I'm quite used to this," he said, taking all the sodden towels from Merlin. He wrapped a few broken shards in them. "I've long been a clumsy fellow in the kitchen, and I'm forever cleaning up a mess or two."
"He exaggerates," Gwen said. "Usually it's my messes he's cleaning."
"You're doing all the hard work." Lance deposited the towels in the sink, then moved around the table and bent down to bestow a kiss on Gwen's forehead. "I'm just endeavouring to earn my keep."
Merlin looked from one to the other of the group as Leon settled his large frame onto one of the benches, beside Arthur and opposite Lance. That sense of wrongness remained, and it made his skin crawl. It was ridiculous, and impossible. He didn't know these people; his mind was conjuring up baffling pictures from thin air. They'd been nothing but welcoming, even if they did have a peculiar habit of staring at him until he caught them, and then glancing away.
All except Arthur - Arthur never looked away, and he didn't seem to mind being caught in the act. Several times Merlin rubbed his neck, wishing away the flush he felt creeping hot across his skin at Arthur's attention. It had been so long since he'd been with anyone, and Arthur was - well, he was kind, and attractive. There was no harm in looking Arthur over a bit himself, or in the private smile Arthur gave him, when he realized.
The rest of the meal passed in a haze of polite conversation and chit-chat. Merlin tried to focus on it, but there was a drumbeat at the back of his mind, to escape this room and its warm hearth and pleasant company, and find a place to be alone before another of the hallucinations overtook him. He did not want their pity, and his unhelpful doctors had told him there was no cure for an ailment which had no apparent cause.
If he could find space to breathe, to work, he would be fine.
The feeling built, and built, until Merlin gauged he'd eaten enough of his meal to keep from seeming rude or ungrateful, and then he made his apologies. "If you will all excuse me," he said, "I...am a little tired. I should turn in."
"I'll show you to your chambers," Arthur said, and from his lips, the old-fashioned term sounded perfectly in tune.
"Thank you for an excellent meal," Merlin said to Gwen. She put her napkin aside and reached for him, grasping his shoulders for a brief hug.
"It was my pleasure. We're so glad you're here," she said, smiling brightly.
Merlin couldn't help but smile back, in the face of Gwen's honest happiness. He nodded to the others and picked up his kit bag from its place in the corner, then followed Arthur out into the dark, draughty corridor. Arthur clicked on a torch, which barely seemed to touch the deep shadows filling every corner.
"It can be dangerous at night," Arthur said, waiting until Merlin was close to begin picking his way through the dark. "We're hoping to install electricity, eventually, but that's going to be quite a project." Wherever the light flashed, Merlin could imagine flickering flames in sconces against the walls, smoke drifting toward the stone ceilings. Arthur moved as though he had traversed those corridors a thousand times; Merlin supposed he had, and yet every time Arthur turned, Merlin found he barely had to think to know which direction he was headed.
"I've put you in the room next to mine," Arthur said. He pushed open a door, and Merlin stepped into a small space, filled by a narrow bed and a small chest of drawers, writing desk, and two straight-backed chairs. A tiny fireplace took up one entire wall, and a good-sized window another. Merlin stepped to the window and looked out; the moon illuminated the grasses, and their shining tops waved in the night breeze.
"It's perfectly fine, thank you." Merlin carefully placed his kit bag in the corner, out of the way. "Is there something to make a fire?"
"Oh! Wait right here," Arthur said, and disappeared out the door, taking the light with him. Merlin stood and shivered for a moment, then turned back to the window and pulled it open. A low fog was creeping in from the edges of the woods, intent on obscuring the moon.
Arthur rattled and banged his way back into the room, carrying a bucket stuffed full of wood and a box of matches. Merlin hurried to take the torch and matches from him. "Meant to bring this over earlier, but forgot," Arthur said. He knelt down by the hearth, stuffed in some logs, and reached for the matches. Merlin laughed. "What?" Arthur said, pausing mid-strike with a match in his hand.
"It'll never burn like that." Merlin knelt beside him and rearranged the wood to his own satisfaction, turning it less from a giant lump and more to a triangle of wood over the smallest pieces. "Have you some newspaper, or...?"
"There's kindling," Arthur said, rummaging in the bucket. He emerged with some scraggly dried grasses, making a triumphant noise. Merlin took it from him with a grin and stuffed it beneath his glorious pile of wood.
"Do your worst," he said. Arthur struck the match and lit the tinder, and a minute later, the fire was well on its way.
"Much better," Arthur said. The firelight caught in his hair, turning it a rough golden colour, different to how it had seemed in the sunlight earlier. A deeper gold, full of shadows.
"Do you," Merlin began, and hesitated. It was just an impulse, but Arthur had been so kind, and it seemed wrong to keep secrets from him. "Would you like to stay and talk a while?"
"Sounds lovely," Arthur said. "Let me..." He rose from the floor, retrieving a lantern and two candles, and set about lighting them and placing them in the darkest corners of the room.
Merlin rearranged himself into a comfortable pile of limbs, right there on the floor. The fire settled down, crackling merrily, and Merlin put his back against the warm stones.
"These rooms are very cosy," Merlin said, watching Arthur's progress.
"They were servant's quarters when the citadel was in use." Arthur hesitated, and added, "We think. Of course, we can't be certain of anything. But they're sized correctly for that sort of thing." Arthur dropped back down on the floor beside Merlin, and sprawled out on the ground as though it were a featherbed. "More hospitable than the ruins of the main chambers, to be honest. We all prefer it here."
"I can see why." Merlin wrapped his arms around his knees. "So, the trust is your family trust?"
"Yes. The Pendragon estates have financed all of the archaeological and preservation work, and we pay the salaries of all those who work for the trust."
"Small group, I take it."
"Yes. We're...very particular about our staff."
"So Gwen said." Merlin took a deep breath. "I would hate for you to think you have a bad bargain, in me."
"Why ever would we?"
"Well, you know. The seizures. And so forth."
"You had another in the kitchen, didn't you?" Merlin nodded, and looked away from Arthur's frown. "Is there anything that can be done to make it easier?"
"The doctors don't seem to know," Merlin said. It was a painful admission. He'd spent the last two years chasing remedies, hoping for answers, only to be told again and again that he was as sane as the next fellow, and there was no organic cause for his miseries. "They advised rest, and a limited amount of stress, but there's only so much stress a bloke can avoid before he starts to go a bit daft in other ways."
"True enough." Arthur sat up, draping an arm over one knee. "Can you tell me what the seizures are like?"
Merlin sighed. There was no way to describe them that wouldn't make him sound like a complete nutter. "They're...hallucinations, in a way. I see things that aren't real. Or, never were. People I know, but not as I know them. Places I've never been that feel real to me. I can smell them, taste them...I know them. At first they were just flashes of insight - a bit of a poem might bring on the memory of a manuscript I've never seen. Or a program on the telly would make me remember a horse ride I never took. I've never even been on a horse." Merlin rubbed a hand through his hair. That horse ride vision had knocked him out; the memory of pain associated with it, in his chest and in his neck. He hadn't dared leave the house for an entire day.
"Sounds very difficult," Arthur said, his voice soft. "And you're sure these are things that aren't real?"
"How could they be? They're the wrong time, the wrong place - the wrong everything," Merlin said. "And now I'm starting to-"
"Starting to see people here, as if I knew them, but somewhere else. Gwen and Leon, it's...well, it's not important. I know it's not real." Merlin ducked his head down, because he was not going to cry, it was ridiculous. "I don't understand why it's happening."
"You're among friends here, Merlin," Arthur said. He didn't come closer, or attempt to touch Merlin, but there was determined steel beneath his words. "Whatever the cause, you've nothing to fear from it here, and we will all look out for you."
It was strange to place such faith in a near-stranger, but Merlin met Arthur's eyes and knew he was sincere. "I think I could be happy here," Merlin said softly, and smiled to see the pleased expression on Arthur's face.
"I hope so." Arthur got to his feet and stretched. "I'll let you get to sleep - Gaius will want to put you to work first thing in the morning."
"I welcome it." Merlin stood also. "Good night, Arthur."
"Good night," Arthur said. With a reassuring smile, he left Merlin alone in the small room, which smelled faintly of greenery. Merlin exchanged his jeans and jumper for a soft T-shirt and shorts, and crawled between the sheets of his bed. It seemed only a moment before his eyes drifted closed, compelled by the soft warmth.
Four hundred years he has avoided the lake; two hundred years of wandering. But now he has come, and he stands before the smooth, calm waters, seething with resentment and desperate need.
"War has come, Arthur," he whispers. In truth, war has ravaged Camelot - or the lands where Camelot once stood - for years, and Merlin has not intervened. But he is not above invoking the excuse, if it will bring forth fulfilment of the promise Kilgharrah hinted when last they met. "War, and death. The lands are torn apart. Surely it is time." Fiercely, he wipes the wetness from his face, and stretches his hand out toward the lake. "Ascian, Arthur Pendragon. Come forth." He closes his eyes, casting his magic out over the lake, toward the isle where Arthur waits.
The surface of the lake stirs, and fog slips in from the edges, winding sinuously around Merlin's legs. He grits his teeth and puts all his power into the command to rise, but he cannot feel Arthur beyond the veil; there is just darkness, and an impenetrable wall of magic - Sidhe magic, older than anything Merlin has ever felt, and darker.
"Merlin," says a soft voice. He opens his eyes, and stares as the surface of the lake shimmers, then parts. A glowing mist rises, amorphous at first, then coalescing into a familiar shape.
"Freya," he says, smiling through his tears. She returns his smile, but she comes no closer; she floats gently above the surface of the lake she has protected these many years.
"It is not yet time, Merlin. You must not try to wrench Arthur from his rest."
"How is it that the Sidhe get to decide such things?"
"They do not. But you would do well to remember that you brought Arthur to this place, and now he rests here in the embrace of their magic." Freya's eyes are filled with boundless sympathy. "I know you still grieve for your king, for all that once was, but you must trust that the Triple Goddess is watching, and has granted a boon. For all Arthur was, and for all he will be, she will strike down the veil and return your king to you - when it is time."
"But how will I know when this time comes to pass?"
"It is not your duty to know," Freya answers. "It is your duty to wait, and be ready." She stretches out her hand to him, as if they are not separated by more than just the waters between them. "Have faith in the very magic which sustains you, Merlin. I would not speak falsely to you. When the time comes, your king will return to you. Until then, be well."
"Wait," Merlin calls. He steps closer, the toe of his boot breaking the surface of the waters where they lap at the shore. He is still pulling at the Isle, the magic inside him straining desperately toward his king. He is so tired, but he must try, he must find Arthur. The lake darkens, bubbles; the waves rise, a wall of water infused with angry magic, swallowing him whole -
Merlin woke with a cry, heaving great breaths to recapture air in his lungs, and flung back the covers. He ran his hands down his chest, but he was dry, and there was no water - he was - he struggled to breathe -
The door crashed open and Arthur ran into the room. "Merlin!" A moment later he was perched on the edge of the too-small bed, his hands bracing Merlin as he gulped in air. "Merlin, it's all right, it must have been a dream," he said. Merlin pushed back the towering wave of fear which coursed through him, black as night and full of anger.
"I can't stand it," he choked out, and a moment later his head was cradled against Arthur's chest, and Arthur's arms were around him.
"You must," Arthur murmured. "There is no other choice but to bear it, and go on."
"The dream - it was -- I was looking for you, but you were lost to me," Merlin breathed. Arthur's hands, which had been rubbing comforting circles on Merlin's back, hesitated, and then the motion picked up as smoothly as if it had never stopped. "None of this makes any sense."
"Gaius would probably tell you some nonsense about how dreams are a reflection of our souls. I think perhaps you just need more rest," Arthur said. Merlin chuckled, horrified to realize he was soaking Arthur's shirt through with his tears. "All right now?"
"Yes," Merlin said, but he made no move to pull away, and Arthur did not let him go. They remained curled around each other for a moment more, and then Arthur pulled back slowly.
"You think you can sleep, now?"
"Of course," Merlin said, though he was certain nothing on earth could make him close his eyes again. "Sorry." He smoothed Arthur's shirt, and Arthur rolled his eyes.
"This shirt has seen far worse. I'll see you in the morning, then."
"Thank you," Merlin said, unable to help it; his fingers twined themselves into the shirt, tugging gently. "For - well. Just, thanks."
"I told you, you are among friends here." Arthur's fingertips ghosted through Merlin's hair, and then he left Merlin alone again, in the quiet dark. Merlin curled into his pillow, sorting through the fragments of his dream, and picked at the ashes until the first glimmer of dawn brought light back into the world.
He skipped breakfast in favour of climbing up to Gaius's workroom - his stomach was far too unsettled for the heaviness of porridge or bread - and found Gaius whistling tunelessly as he sorted objects into a large plastic tray. "Up early and ready to face the day?" Gaius asked, looking Merlin over with a faint frown.
"Not much sleep last night, I'm afraid." Merlin eyed a tub of apples on a nearby table. "May I?"
"Help yourself." Gaius set the tray down at a small clearing amongst all the detritus and book stacks. "I've made room for you over here, and I thought you might like to start by assigning each of these bits a number and cataloguing them in the main ledger."
"Certainly. Have you a pair of gloves I can borrow?" Merlin took a bite of the apple, crisp and sweet, and smiled at the taste.
"There's no need, really. Most of these items are fragments at best, and all will be staying on the site."
Merlin nodded. He finished up the apple with a few big bites and deposited the core in the waste bin, then settled on the wooden bench in front of his allotted space. The tray contained a variety of objects, some still harbouring dirt in their crevices. He pulled the ledger close, along with a ball point pen, and began numbering the items, placing them back in the tray in a grid pattern to correspond with their numbers.
Some of the items appeared to be bits of pottery, or the hafts of weapons strewn wherever they may have broken. Merlin scraped dirt off a piece of jewellery that might have been a woman's earring; a tiny scrap of garnet gleamed in the bent setting.
One small item caught Merlin's eye. It was a broken, stained piece of wood, curiously smooth, like the hump of a sea serpent. When Merlin picked it up he could see that it had once been a child's toy - a horse, perhaps, or a dragon. He smoothed his fingers over it.
Next to his ear, the fluttering of wings. Merlin startled and tipped his head to the side to see a titmouse perching on his shoulder, beak just inches from his ear. "Hello there," he said. "Where did you come from?"
"Don't mind the bird," Gaius said, giving the tiny thing what could only be described as a reproachful look. "He's become a bit of a mascot around here, bouncing about when he really should be out in the sunshine." That last bit, Gaius raised his voice, and Merlin supposed he shouldn't find it so amusing that Gaius was rebuking a bird, so he covered his smile with his hand.
"He seems fond of this scrap I'm holding," Merlin said, setting down the broken carving.
"He's fond of being a nuisance. In particular, he enjoys flitting about Arthur's head, just out of reach, and pecking at his hair." Gaius flipped several pages in the book he'd been reading and gestured to the bird. "Leave Merlin alone, Kilgharrah."
Merlin smiled as the bird did a peculiar dance in the air in front of his face, and then flitted off to loiter on the table near Gaius as he went about his work.
The morning passed peacefully, just the work and some small talk with Gaius about obscure Viking mythology circa 700 CE. Merlin lost himself in the routine, and in the smallness of the world contained in the history of the things he examined. People had once inhabited this place, and their stories were lost to time, save for the ragged items he touched. Those things carried the stories, but kept them close, like secrets locked away forever inside.
A distant clanging noise echoed around the room, and Merlin looked up. "Bells?"
"Swords, more likely," Gaius said. "Arthur is practicing in the courtyard."
"Practicing what, exactly?" Merlin scrambled up from his chair and hopped onto the stool beneath the tower window, the better to see down into the field below. He caught sight of Arthur, wearing a padded jacket and hauberk overtop, and -
"Is that a real sword?" Merlin asked, unsure why his heart was suddenly pounding a thousand beats a minute. "He could get hurt!"
"Not likely. They're very skilled." Gaius seemed completely unconcerned as he went back to work, but Merlin's palms were sweating, and he heaved himself up for a better look. Arthur lashed out at his opponent, a shirtless man whose long hair was flying into his face as he blocked and parried Arthur's quick strikes.
Merlin stared for a moment, then lost his balance and staggered down from the window. He braced one hand on the cool stone wall, and tried not to let the images come into his mind, tried to stop what he knew was inevitable, but --
They want Gwaine's body for a funeral of state, but Merlin has other ideas. He takes it in the night, down to the lake, where he can set it ablaze himself as it floats on toward Avalon. He knows the knights will be angry, especially Percival, who shouted at him on the banks the day he found Merlin there without Arthur, the body of their king gone on into the care of the Sidhe.
"How dare you set him adrift," Percival had shouted. "He belongs to Camelot, to his people. You're nothing but a servant. He was your fucking king."
"How dare you," Merlin had said, lifting his hand. The anger burst out of him, and Percival rose from the ground, twisting in the air like a bird caught between winds. "He was so much more than my king. More than you can ever understand."
"I understand," Percival choked out, and for the first time, Merlin saw the shadow of grief in his face - a bruised, recent grief, not just for Arthur.
When he dropped Percival to the ground, Percival wept, but Merlin had not a single tear left to shed. Even later, when they sat together in the grass, holding on to each other because the men anchoring them had cut them adrift, tears streaked Percival's face. Merlin smoothed them away and turned his face to the sky, wishing he had been smart enough, strong enough, to do what all had expected he might do.
Now, Merlin is past caring what others want - all except Gwen, whose face has turned to stone, and who couldn't look him in the eye when she thanked him for trying to save her husband. Trying to save him. Such a small word, for everything they did, everything Merlin feels, now.
The rulers of other kingdoms come to see Gwen sitting boldly on the throne. Princess Mithian comes, and sits with Gwen's hands clasped in her own, speaking softly to her of Arthur's love for her, and how it shaped a kingdom. Queen Annis comes to offer her support, and her allegiance, and spends her days discussing what it is to rule an army of men, when one must play politics and take care not to alienate potential allies.
Merlin stands by at Gwen's request, silent, nearly invisible, his role in this new kingless world not yet defined. When Queen Annis takes her leave, she turns to Merlin and places one hand on his shoulder. "You served him well," she says, squeezing once, her assessing gaze almost more than Merlin can bear. Merlin closes his eyes against the pity and understanding in her eyes.
Gwaine looks small and pale in the moonlight, sword clasped between his gloved hands. Merlin stares and stares until he feels a tiny kernel of grief spark within him, a banked flame to keep carefully concealed, lest he catch fire and burn.
"Goodbye, sir knight," Merlin whispers, his hand pressed over Gwaine's. There is no answering grin, no toss of his head, and Merlin's knees gave way. The muddy water seeps into his breeches as he whispers the words to launch the boat into deeper waters, and sets the pyre alight.
He watches until there are only ashes left, scattered on the wind.
The images flooding Merlin's mind faded away, leaving the smiling face of the shirtless man in the courtyard contrasting with the image of the dead man on the pyre. He shuddered.
"The man's name," Merlin said. "The one fighting with Arthur. Is it Gwaine?"
"Yes," Gaius said sharply. Behind Merlin, the scrape of a chair being pushed back, and Gaius's quiet footsteps. "How do you...have you met him before?"
Merlin turned his face to Gaius, wordless, and then fled the room, tripping over his own feet. He ignored Gaius's calls behind him, and followed his feet where they chose to go, toward a narrow crumbling staircase and through an open hole to the roof.
He huddled there in a corner sheltered from the wind by a rotted-out chimney, and stared out at the greying sky as he tried to understand. His mind had been playing the worst kind of tricks on him - taking the names and faces of the people he'd met, and tossing them into some kind of twisted memories, half-formed thoughts like something out of the pages of a novel. It was bizarre, and painful, but he had almost come to terms with it, the way his mind warped and changed everything into those hallucinated fantasies.
But he knew Gwaine's name. Knew it, the way he knew how to find his way to the battlements, and that the misshapen rotted toy in Gaius's workshop had once been a carved dragon.
His breath came too quickly, and he hid his face in his folded arms, and tried not to think of anything at all.
The sun was low on the horizon when Merlin finally felt calm. Exhaustion seemed to have replaced the blood in his veins, thick like ice and penetrating his bones like the deepest cold.
"I thought I might find you up here," came a voice from the access way. Arthur's head popped up over the edge, and he took in Merlin's condition with a slight frown.
"Really," Merlin said, smiling in spite of himself.
"I said to myself, Arthur, on an estate as large as this one, where would Merlin go? And obviously, the battlements was the answer. Of course, I tried several other places first, before I expended the effort to climb up here." Arthur hoisted himself up the last foot of open air and sat with his legs dangling down into the hole. "Actually, I like to come up here fairly often myself. Good place to look at the stars. Reminds me I'm just a small part of something much larger. Something I can barely understand."
The more Merlin listened to Arthur prattle on, the more certain he became that he did indeed know Arthur, the same as he had known Gwaine's name. It was insane and ridiculous, but that certainty kindled a spark of hope beneath his frustration.
"Are you coming down for our evening meal?" Arthur gestured toward the stairs. "Gwen's a bit concerned. Says you didn't show for breakfast or lunch, either."
"Not really hungry," Merlin said, though it wasn't precisely true. He felt too small for all the things churning around in his head, and they were moving aside all the other things he should attend to.
"Well, at least come down from the roof. It's not the most stable spot in the citadel, and it's chilly up here," Arthur said. "We could take a walk, if you like."
"I would like that very much," Merlin said. Anything was better than puzzling over unanswerable questions, and spending time with Arthur was its own reward. He got to his feet, only a little unsteady, and when Arthur disappeared down the staircase, he followed.
At the bottom, Arthur clicked on his torch and began to lead the way down to the kitchen, but Merlin caught his arm. "Could we," he began, but instead he pushed past Arthur and set off down a familiar corridor. Behind him, Arthur huffed a sigh and followed, shining the torch ahead. Merlin continued until he found the big doors from the night before, and pushed inside the large hall with the high, open windows.
The room seemed to glow sunset colours, pale yellow and orange, and as Arthur drew up beside him, he clicked off the torch. Then it was just the two of them, standing alone in the great hall.
"Are you feeling all right?" Arthur asked.
"Yes, but -- why do you care?" Merlin asked in return. When Arthur drew away, Merlin shook his head in exasperation. "No, don't, I mean, I appreciate your concern, but you barely know me, and...Arthur, I know it sounds completely bonkers, but...I feel as if I know you. Have known you, all my life."
"Is that so bad?" Arthur asked, and the naked hope on his face twisted something inside Merlin's chest in a painful, desperate way.
"No, just the opposite," Merlin said. His stomach was doing slow flip-flops, and the way Arthur was looking at him... "But it isn't true, I don't know why I should feel this way."
"We can't help what we feel," Arthur said. He took a deep breath. "I meant to ask you, before, if there was anyone we should call - anyone in particular who'd be worried about you, if you...if you were poorly."
"No," Merlin said. "There's no one." He couldn't stop his greedy eyes from seeking out Arthur's, and he couldn't fail to see the way Arthur was looking at him. As if he knew Merlin, too. As if he wanted to know him. "Is there someone for you?" he asked, thinking of the quick smile of the handsome man he'd put a name to without ever meeting him.
"There was someone, once," Arthur said. "A boy. He had rather ridiculous ears, and an infuriating smile. He didn't do much of anything well, really." Arthur paused, looking down at the ground. "His only real virtue was his devotion. But I didn't understand any of it until it was too late. He was never really mine." Arthur smiled at Merlin, swallowed hard; tears shone in his eyes. "It took me some time to realize I had loved him more than my own life - more than anyone I'd ever known."
"And you never told him?"
"Not in so many words."
"I'm sorry," Merlin said softly.
"It's in the past," Arthur said. He leaned closer, brushing his nose against Merlin's cheek. Merlin's breath caught, and he tilted his face toward Arthur, hoping. "All there is to do now is to go forward." Arthur's lips touched Merlin's then, and Merlin couldn't help the small sound of want in his throat, or the way he opened to Arthur's kiss as Arthur's warm fingers traced the line of Merlin's throat.
He wanders the world, for a time, learning and seeking, finding and moving on. Lifetimes of knowledge, accumulated beneath the veneer of bitter loss.
It is 1100 years before he returns to the citadel - or what is left of it. Parts of it are in use as a stable and farm, and parts have been stripped to build other structures in the nearby town.
There is nothing for him here. There is nothing for him anywhere, and he no longer wants to bear this burden.
He sinks down in the soft grass of the citadel, listening to the wind and the trees whispering to him, their language muted, their magic all but gone. His heart feels like it might crack in two when he sprawls in the grass, fingers sinking into the earth.
"Take it," he whispers to the earth, to the stone, to the remnants of the only lifetime he lived willingly. "Help me," he begs his magic, and it obliges, wrapping up each memory with care and infusing it into the stone, sparing him the pain of loneliness, of centuries without the people he loved, and who had loved him. Holding it for him, until the time had come, the time the Triple Goddess had promised. He creates a shell for himself, a simulacrum of life to move through the world, only a shadow of himself, because shadows cannot grieve, cannot die inside each day without love, cannot ache for what can never be.
He buries Emrys there, leaves his magic behind in the fading trees, in the stones, gives it all to the earth and the sky, and vows to return for it someday. When he is not so tired. When he has rested.
Merlin tore away from Arthur's searing kiss, away from the warmth of his body, and sank to his knees on the stone floor. He pressed his fingertips against the cold stone. Trembling, he whispered, "Edhwierft."
Beneath his hands, the stones rumbled, and then the tide of magic poured up from inside them, around them, pushing joyfully into Merlin's waiting body, an unstoppable ocean of secrets safely guarded until that moment. Small, bitter memories, held secure in the embrace of happy, comfortable memories, twined together, part and parcel of all he ever was and would become -
His mother's smile, and the feel of her strong arms around him -
Long live the king -
A soft kiss from a gentle girl -
The rush of the wind past his face as dragon wings beat beneath him -
A blue butterfly -
Arthur's hand in his hair -
A shining sword -
His father's pride -
Arthur's laughter, and Gwaine's smile --
A grief so terrible and dark, it swallowed the sun -
Tears streaked Merlin's face as he lifted one hand from the ground and choked, "Byldan."
Stones rushed to pick themselves up, to reform from dust and plaster, from the sand beneath his feet. The memories slammed into him fast, faster, driving into him with the joyous recognition of a separation long ended, and Merlin absorbed it all, let joy come into his heart again. Eyes closed, he divested himself of the false life he'd worn like new clothes, and took back all he had set aside for safekeeping.
The citadel lifted up stone by stone; wind roared through the empty hallways and corridors as dust reversed itself into structures and dwellings, and Merlin crouched at the centre of it all, still as a statue in the swelling chaos. Ready for whatever may come.
Ready to serve his king.
The wind died down, making way for quiet to descend on the room. Merlin took a deep breath and raised his head. Time had passed in the chaos of rebirth; moonlight slanted in the open windows, and Merlin's king stood in the middle of the room, as golden and as young as he had looked on the day he died in Merlin's arms.
"Arthur," Merlin said, his voice cracking.
In two strides, Arthur was there, and then on his knees before Merlin. "I had wondered if I'd ever hear you say my name again in that way," he said, taking Merlin's hands.
"Oh, Arthur." Merlin shuddered as Arthur enfolded him in his arms, no hesitation, no question that it was meant to be any other way.
"I never did say goodbye," Arthur whispered, his own voice none too steady. "I never did manage to say what was important at all. So much time wasted." His arms tightened around Merlin, and Merlin held on, half-afraid that some brittle corner of his mind had cracked entirely and none of this was real.
"All right?" Arthur asked, his lips pressed against Merlin's ear.
"For the first time in centuries," Merlin answered, with a half-sob that might also have been a laugh. He ignored the wetness on his own face, and pulled back to see a look of infinite tenderness in Arthur's eyes - Arthur, who was alive, and well, and whole. Merlin ran his hand down Arthur's side and pressed his palm to the place where the fatal wound had been.
"Healed," Arthur said. "I'm as strong as I ever was." He took Merlin's shaking hands in his own, and and then he kissed Merlin again, and again, until Merlin felt as if the heavy, dead muscle in his chest had finally lurched back to life.
Finally, Arthur pulled back, meeting Merlin's eyes. Even after so long, there was no need for Arthur to ask; Merlin could read everything in that longed-for face. "I'm all right," he said, and it was truer than words. He had magic again, and the world had regained its colour; he had Arthur, and his heart had regained its truth.
Arthur stood and gave Merlin his hand. "Everyone here has been waiting for you," he said, nodding toward the door. Merlin turned, and saw them all gathered there, standing back in the shadows. Gwen broke ranks to run forward, throwing herself into his arms.
"Oh, Merlin," she cried, hugging him so hard his ribs felt sure to crack, not that he would have minded at all.
"Gwen," he said, seeing a mirror of his own joy in her eyes.
Lancelot approached behind Gwen, and pulled Merlin into a hug. "You always were the centre point of every miracle I ever saw," he said, and Merlin smiled through his tears. Leon stepped forward and lifted Merlin in a great bear hug, laughing all the while.
Then Gaius, who said simply, "My boy," and held out his arms to embrace him. Merlin would have known him anywhere, even with his face unlined by time.
"Glad to see you finally found what you were looking for," came a voice from the shadows. Merlin turned, and watched Gwaine approach, that familiar, easy smile on his face.
"Glad to see you were here when I did," Merlin said, the happiness and sorrow of times easily remembered sharing space in his heart as Gwaine hugged him hard.
They were all chattering excitedly, to Merlin, to each other, and Merlin wanted to talk to them all for hours on end, to know how they had ended up here together, to know everything he had missed - what Arthur remembered, why he had been called back after all the bygone ages when it had seemed certain to Merlin that finally, it must be time. All around him, the rebuilt citadel shone softly, as beautiful as it must have been when it was first grown from the labour of men. Merlin swallowed hard against the swell of love in his heart.
As if he could read Merlin's mind, Arthur stepped to his side. "The local population might notice that a new citadel has appeared suddenly where only ruins were before." Arthur's mouth curved in a sly smile. "Not as subtle as you used to be, are you?"
The grin which spread across Merlin's face was unstoppable, because Arthur was inviting him back into their old dance, one he had missed desperately. Merlin had always known the underpinnings of those insults. Now he could see it shining in Arthur's eyes, even more clearly than he had seen it in their lives before.
"Let's hope the rest of the world is as oblivious to magic as you once were," Merlin answered tartly. "What with never seeing what was right under your nose, and all."
Arthur reached for him, and a moment later, Merlin's head was tucked under Arthur's arm, and he was trying unsuccessfully to push Arthur off. "True enough," Arthur admitted, even as he rubbed his knuckles into Merlin's head. "But those days are forever gone." Arthur paused, and released his laughing prisoner into the custody of Gwen's second fierce hug. "You haven't eaten at all today. Are you hungry?"
"Starving," Merlin said, beaming at Gwen, but unable to take his eyes off Arthur for long. Unable to stop wanting those kisses, now that they had been freely given. It was a sad and selfish thing, that he should find his friends again, find his king, and all he could think about was what those kisses might mean.
"I think perhaps there's much to tell, but it can wait until Merlin is rested, yes?" Arthur's quiet voice cut through the chatter with the quiet tone of command Merlin remembered so well. Even here, in this modern world, it was unmistakable.
"I completely agree," Gwen said, smoothing Merlin's hair back. "You take yourself off to bed, and I'll bring up some soup in a bit."
"Gwen," Merlin said, laughing, "I'm not sick, I don't need soup and a blanket."
"That's exactly what you need, in a manner of speaking," Gaius said. "You've not been yourself for a very long time. You need a moment to come to terms with everything as it is. We will all still be here in the morning."
Arthur leaned over to say something quietly to Gwen, who brightened and said, "Of course, Arthur." And then Arthur was steering Merlin down the corridor with one hand on his back, with such familiar and maddening protectiveness that Merlin repressed a laugh of pure joy.
"In you go," Arthur said, pushing open the door to his room. A four-poster bed filled one side of the small room, with a washstand at the side and a bureau shoved against the far wall. Vibrant red bedclothes and draperies added the only colour to the room - aside from various articles of clothing strewn about haphazardly. Merlin chuckled at the sight. It must have been quite an adjustment for Arthur, to have to pick up after himself on a regular basis. But his grin faded as he realized he had no idea how long Arthur had been risen from the lake, or what his life had been like in the time since.
Arthur closed the door, and they faced each other. Merlin was quite sure the amazement in Arthur's eyes was the twin of what was in his own.
"We've been looking for you for over a year," Arthur said. "All those books Gaius has collected - all the things we've done here on the site of the citadel - we tried to trace every lead which might help us pinpoint your location. Gaius has used all the magic he ever knew, but he said that magic in general has been gone from the world for some time now. Or dormant, perhaps, he wasn't certain, but he found it difficult to use the old spells."
It was strange to hear Arthur speaking of magic so casually, and stranger still to think of all they had done in this modern world without him. "You've been - you have been back for a year?" Merlin felt his breath leave him all in a rush. "And I wasn't there, I-" Nausea welled within him.
"Almost two," Arthur said, folding Merlin up tight in his arms again without any hesitation. "It took some time to locate everyone, and -"
"Two years," Merlin said. The enormity of his failure hit him all over again. "Two years in this world without me. I couldn't save you, and I couldn't bring you back."
"Bringing me back was hardly your job," Arthur said into his hair. "But finding you was mine. Ours. When you wrote to us, we could hardly believe our good fortune - Gwen scrambled to reply, and send you the map."
"You created that map, didn't you?" Merlin said, thinking fondly of the uneven lines and inkblots.
"I wanted to come for you as soon as we knew where you were, but Gaius said there was something wrong, that you didn't seem to know I had...well, that I was back, and we should wait to see what happened."
Merlin thought about the day he had knelt in the earth, weary of roaming, and had decided to forget. "I poured it all into the stones of this place," he said. "All my memories, and my magic. I gave it up, so I could stop-" He hesitated, but they had begun down the path of truth. "So I could stop grieving for you. So I could live without a broken heart."
"Merlin," Arthur murmured, and held him more tightly.
"My magic was resting here, and it must have known when the time had come - the visions began for me around the time you rose from the lake. It drew me back here by feeding me bits of my life, one at a time."
"So you do have your magic again?"
Merlin reached for it, and felt it thrumming comfortingly under his skin. "It seems so."
"Perhaps you should light us a fire, then," Arthur said, one eyebrow raised. They shared a look of perfect understanding. Merlin had barely turned his gaze to the cold hearth before flames burst forth. They jerked back from the heat in tandem.
"Out of practice," Merlin said, even as he felt the magic settle again, satisfied at being used.
"I said we had wasted time, and I meant it," Arthur said, drawing Merlin close. "Am I wrong, about how you feel?"
"No," Merlin said. All the years he had loved Arthur, but never dared to show it; he had shown his heart only when Arthur was dying, and now Arthur knew him for everything he was and would be. "And now there are no more secrets."
"We've all been correcting our mistakes," Arthur said. He gave Merlin a push toward the bed and ignored Merlin's glare in favour of clambering onto the bed with him. They settled down together, facing each other, Merlin drinking in the wonder shining from Arthur's eyes. "Gwen had a second chance with Lancelot here, and neither Leon nor I have minded. Those lives we led before, they are done and over with."
"The past is never completely done," Merlin said, feasting on the sight of Arthur alive and healthy, so close and warm.
"Maybe so. But I said it before: all we can do is move forward now." Arthur pressed a kiss to Merlin's forehead, then to the corner of his mouth. "Move forward with me, Merlin, if that is what you want."
In answer, Merlin dared to steal a gentle kiss, though Arthur didn't tolerate that for long; he took control, deepening the kiss until Merlin was gasping.
"Gaius has filled my days with his tales of all the ways you saved Camelot," Arthur said. "The scope of it is even greater than I imagined."
"It is so long ago, for me," Merlin answered, though he regretted it as soon as the words were spoken, because of the sadness it brought Arthur. "I'm not sure I remember things the way Gaius might."
"So many years you were alone," Arthur said. "I'm sorry you had to bear that burden."
"And I will again," Merlin said softly. He did not mention the sword still at the bottom of the lake. He had circled the lake too many times, dreaming of pulling it forth and using it to end his wandering.
Arthur pulled Merlin closer, as though he knew the direction of his thoughts. "Some days I can barely wrap my mind around being here, in these new times. Perhaps immortality does have an end, and only appears to be forever. Perhaps...now that we are all here, there is some purpose to it."
"Perhaps," Merlin said. He had no idea what to believe. It was all too new, and Arthur was looking at him again, and so he surrendered all his questions in favour of more kisses.
"All those times being close to you gave me comfort," Arthur said. He laced his fingers with Merlin's. "When I was dying. And every other moment where you refused to leave my side. There were times this was all I could have ever wanted, and it was the only thing I could never have."
"This world is different," Merlin said. "We are different, now."
"Are we?" Arthur sighed. "I'm no longer a king. I'm a simple man who practices with ancient weapons for a quest that may never come."
"Whether it comes, or not, I will be by your side," Merlin said quietly. It was an old promise, given new life now that there was a second chance to fulfil every aspect of their shared destiny.
A quiet knock sounded at the door, and Arthur eased himself off the bed, then gave Merlin his hand. Merlin rolled his eyes, but accepted the help. "Come in," Arthur called, and Gwen poked her head inside.
"I've soup, and three spoons," she said, easing around the door with a tray laden with tureen and bowls. "I thought we could have supper together."
"Yes, please," Merlin said. He grabbed the tray from her and set it on the hearth, and the three of them sat in front of the fire, glancing back and forth at each other over their bowls as they ate, and talked, and enjoyed being together again, long into the night.
Morning brought Merlin a crick in his neck from sleeping draped over Arthur's chest, and a truly spectacular case of bedhead, as well as a mark on his neck Arthur would not be dissuaded from making. (Not that Merlin had tried terribly hard.) They went down to the kitchen together and found it alive with the noise of their friends, setting out plates and bowls.
Gwaine took one look at Merlin and said, "You know, mate, now everything I was witness to between you two makes so much sense," and was only stopped from further comment by Leon firmly placing his hand over Gwaine's mouth. The others laughed, Arthur put on his best long-suffering look, and they got down to business, eating Gwen's delicious bread with butter and jam, happy to be together.
When the meal was over, and Merlin had helped Gwen rinse the glasses, Arthur set his kitchen towel aside. "There's one more thing you should know," Arthur said. "Something you need to see."
A light wind was blowing from the east, waving the grasses about as Merlin left the citadel and walked with Arthur to the top of the hill. Someone was coming up the drive, her long hair trailing in the breeze. Someone familiar, whose presence made Merlin's magic stir like an angry dragon taking flight.
"Morgana," he said. The wind stirred around them, cold and unforgiving. "Why is she here," he asked, low, as he stepped in front of Arthur. There were some things ingrained so deeply in Merlin's bones they could never be undone, and his distrust of Morgana was one of them.
"Because she is the one who set all this in motion," Arthur answered.
Morgana crested the hill, and stood waiting a fair distance away, out of reach of a sword, but not of Merlin's magic. His hand shot up automatically, and the words came snarling up as well - "I already killed you once, and I won't hesitate this time, either."
"There's no need for that," Arthur said, catching his hand. "Please, Merlin. Trust me."
"I mean neither of you harm," Morgana said. Her voice was thin, reedy on the wind. She lingered out of reach, and looked to Arthur, vulnerable in the same way Merlin could remember her looking to him in the good days, before all the lies and betrayals, all the injuries they inflicted on each other. But she had never really been an innocent, and the miseries she had caused had never truly healed. "Please, Merlin may I come closer?"
Merlin glanced at Arthur, who nodded, and Merlin lowered his arm. "Slowly," he said to Morgana, who nodded and trudged the last few steps. Once he could see her clearly, he saw she was beautiful; the darkness and anger were gone from her eyes. She looked sane again, and as she had been when she was young, when Merlin first knew her. He had failed her, as much as he had failed Arthur, but far earlier in his life. It was something he had tortured himself with from time to time, when he was examining his long list of failures.
"May I show you?" Morgana asked. Merlin could feel the magic pouring from her, a calm, deliberate magic, not chaotic any longer.
She extended her hand, and with some reservations, Merlin took it. When their skin touched --
Morgana made her way slowly down the hill, hiking boots crunching in gravel as she moved.
Two park rangers watched her approach. She pulled her warm green fleece closer about her, hood drawn down close over her eyes.
"Welcome to Vale National Park, Miss," the tallest of the two rangers said. "I'll be taking your ticket. You haven't much time to enjoy the lake," he added, with a pointed look at his watch, and then up at the roiling sky.
"I won't need much time," Morgana said, her eyes on the lake.
"I'll just be taking your ticket, then."
"I'm afraid I haven't one," she said, smiling at him. She touched his outstretched hand as lightning touched the surface of the water to her left.
The ranger glanced down at his empty palm. "Well," he said. "That's all right, then. Isn't it, Mike?"
"Just fine," Mike said, smiling agreeably.
"Thank you gentlemen." She nodded to them both. "Of course, you will also do me the courtesy of forgetting everything you see and hear today, won't you? I'll need your promise on that."
"Of course," they said in unison, stepping aside for her.
She picked her way down closer to the lake's edge and stood staring out at the tiny island at its centre. Under her breath, she began to whisper the words to set loose the magic and break the boundaries the Sidhe had woven so carefully around Avalon.
The wind whipped violently, shivering the trees, leaves dropping to the ground as if to take cover. Morgana raised her hands to the sky.
"Arthur," she called. "Ascian."
Thunder boomed, the echo of it reverberating through her body, and Morgana smiled with pleasure, alight with the joy of the Old Religion. As if churned by a hurricane, the surface of the lake began to bubble.
"Ascian!" she called again. "áræme."
As if the sun had suddenly decided to rise in the middle of the lake, a bright light burst forth from the isle. When the heat and brilliance faded, Arthur's head broke the surface of the water.
Slowly, as Morgana stood swaying on the shore, Arthur drew ever closer, struggling the last few steps as he trudged through the muddy shallows. He dropped to his knees and began crawling, and then finally, as if exhausted, stopped, panting and dripping wet.
Morgana dropped down on her knees beside him and began to weep. She petted his hair gently, running her fingers through matted blond strands again and again. "You're finally here," she sobbed. "It's finally over."
With what seemed to be great effort, Arthur rolled to his back, naked as the day he was born, and stared at Morgana with confused blue eyes. "Who are you?" he asked.
"Your sister," she said softly. She traced a gentle fingertip across his forehead, opening the floodgates of his distant memories. In an instant, his eyes widened, filling with fear and anger.
"Morgana," he hissed. "I saw you die. Merlin killed you."
"It has been a long time," she said. "So many years, Arthur. What you remember is in the past. I am not here to harm you."
Arthur frowned, and his head whipped back toward the island, and then his gaze fell on Morgana again. "Avalon," he said, hoarse. "We didn't make it all the way. Merlin could not save me." His expression was lost, confused. "Have I...have I been asleep?"
"No longer," she said. "You are the Once and Future King. It was time for you to return."
He sat up, leaning still on one arm, holding himself away from her. "If you are here," he said, "then where is Merlin?" Morgana was silent for a long moment, while Arthur's shoulders grew ever more tense. "Morgana, tell me what you've done, or so help me-"
"Arthur," she said, reaching out one hand, fingers curled; he flinched away, and she stopped just short of touching him. "I have done nothing. There is so much I have to tell you - about Merlin, and all that has come to pass. There's so much we must do."
They stared at one another. Behind them, the two park rangers huddled together in the roaring wind. Their slight movement caught Arthur's eye, and Morgana looked back over her shoulder.
"Good night, gentlemen," she said, lifting a hand toward them, and their world filled with a golden, peaceful light. "Remember your promise to me," she called, as they slipped into sleep.
"This is some sort of trick," Arthur said, as Morgana pulled a pair of sweatpants and a jacket from her pack.
"No," she said, turning her face away as he quickly dressed. "I am here to help you find Merlin again." Tears welled in her eyes, and she brushed them away, for there was no time for regrets. "I owe you that much. I owe Merlin even more."
Morgana fell to her knees, and Merlin tried to catch her, but instead knelt with her, her trembling hand still in his own. "I did my penance on the Isle of Avalon," she whispered. "I atoned for my many sins, truly I did. I was sent back to watch over Arthur as recompense and to wait for his return -- to bring him back to this world. I was told to find you, to help you, and to make you ready."
"Ready for what?" Merlin asked.
"We don't know," Arthur said, from behind him. "That's why Morgana set up the Trust - to preserve this place, to make it a home base, from which we can learn as much as we can."
"To make it a place you could come back to," Morgana said, on a shaky exhale. "Merlin, I'm sorry. I'm-"
"Don't," Merlin said sharply. "My list of sins is as great as yours, in many ways."
"My penance has taught me much. Whatever your sins may be, they cannot compare," Morgana said quietly. "I can only ask for your forgiveness, as I asked my brother."
Merlin could not say the words. His heart refused to trust that she had not come to trick or deceive; her agenda had always been self-serving. But Morgana seemed to understand, and she allowed him to help her up, and dusted off the knees of her trousers.
The three of them stood there in awkward silence.
"There is still much more to be done," Arthur said. "We haven't found Percival yet."
"Or Mordred," Morgana said, gazing steadily at Merlin. He narrowed his eyes, and she added, "We don't know who may yet represent a threat, or what that threat is."
"And we don't know why I have been called back, only that the prophecy is in motion, and this is Albion's time of need."
"I believe the two of us are the only two beings left in the world with magic," Morgana said. "The others have gone on into their realms, or have faded from the world. There must be some reason we two are here, and Arthur has been called back."
"You will remember, I said we've all been correcting our mistakes," Arthur said. Merlin looked sharply at him, in a way he would have concealed in those days when he was still playing the servant, but Arthur's expression gave nothing away.
Morgana looked from one, to the other, and to Merlin said, "I know it's a great deal to take in, but...Merlin, whatever you ask of me, I'll do. This is too important." She backed up a step, her body angled toward the citadel, and added, "I'll just go and help Gwen now. If you should want to ask me any questions, I'll be in the kitchen."
Merlin watched her go, and tried to see in her the force for good he'd once hoped she'd become. She had fooled them all once before. Merlin could never drop his guard again.
"All the secrets are exposed," Arthur said. "We all know each other for what we are, for better or worse. If this is Albion's time of trial, then we all need each other to find the reasons why." Arthur took hold of Merlin's shoulders. "I'm not your king anymore, and I can't command you. I can only ask you to try, for my sake."
You will always be my king, Merlin thought fiercely, though there was no need to say it out loud; he knew Arthur already knew - was counting on it, in ways both subtle and obvious.
"Then we go together," Merlin said. "To whatever awaits."
"You always belonged by my side," Arthur answered gravely. "If I had known that when I was king, nothing could have stopped me from making it happen."
"Except of course the law, and your marriage, and all the people trying to kill you, and your distrust of magic, and-"
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said, with an exquisitely familiar expression of annoyance. "You know what I mean."
Merlin nodded. His magic was flexing beneath his skin, testing, taking up the challenge. Yes, the time has come. Yes. At his side.
"You'll trust my judgment on Morgana if we allow her into the circle," Merlin said, making it not a question at all.
"Absolutely." Again, no question. The faith between them was solid, and the rush of affection Merlin felt needed an outlet, needed -
"Merlin," Arthur said, gazing up. A cloud of butterflies had appeared, sparkling blue in the morning sunlight. "Is this your way of agreeing?"
"You've always known my answer," Merlin said. He stepped closer, pulled Arthur to him, cradled Arthur's face in his hands and kissed him. It was the sealing of a bargain struck before he had been born.
The butterflies scattered, becoming golden sparks on the wind.