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in this present day

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Merlin stepped off the bus with three dollars in his pocket and all his earthly belongings in a duffle over his shoulder. He saw Gwen waiting for him on the curb, waving with both hands and hopping up and down.
“You look demented,” he told her as he got closer.
“And you look homeless!” she replied, beaming. She had a blue bandana tied over her hair, dark curls escaping from beneath it, and she wore a too-large flannel and ripped jeans cuffed over scuffed combat boots.
She looked everything and nothing like the Gwen with whom he’d gone to school, something about her a little happier, a little freer, unbound. She wrapped her arms around his middle, face squashed in his chest, squeezing tightly.
“I missed you, you gangly loser,” she said, voice muffled in his shirt.
“I missed you too,” he said. “It’s good to be here. With you, at least.”
“Yeah, no doubt. I’m sorry about the whole thing at home. That sucks.”
He shrugged one shoulder, squinting off at the skyline. “It was bound to happen eventually. Honestly, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. And now, you know, here I am. In a city I’ve never been to in my life. Homeless. Jobless. Broke as fuck.”
“But not friendless,” Gwen pointed out, her tone a comforting, familiar mix of sardonic cheer.
“I could never be friendless. I am charming as all get out,” he said blithely, tossing an arm over her shoulder and scanning the parking lot of the bus station. “Now how are we getting back to your place? Hitchhiking, I presume.
She elbowed him. “No. Don’t you remember? I texted you.”
“Phone died,” he said.
“Well. You remember that girl I told you about?”
“The one who threw up in your car?”
Gwen rolled her eyes. “She didn’t throw up in my car, she opened the door and threw up in the gutter. But yeah. That girl. So, funny story…”
“She fixed your car.”
“No, it’s still in the shop. Let me finish.”
They started walking toward the parking lot, arm and arm, Merlin forced to stoop a little to maintain the comradery.
“Anyway, so, the girl left her phone in my backseat. I actually found it the day after that when I went to take the car in. Crazy coincidence, because if it hadn’t broken down then, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the phone for a while. It was really jammed in the seam between the seats? Weird, right? There were a bunch of calls from her brother on the home screen, so I just called him back and told him I had it, and long story short, we’re dating now.”
“Wait,” Merlin said, trying to keep up, “You and the brother or you and that girl?”
She made a face. “Me and the girl, dummy. Trust me if you’d met her brother you wouldn’t be asking that question.”
“What, is he a giant douche or what?” Merlin asked. “And I’m confused. What does this have to do with how we’re going to get back to your place?”
“Be-cause,” Gwen singsonged, breaking away from him to do a little dramatic spin, “Morgana has a car! And also, you might not have to be homeless for much longer!”
She sashayed up to a black BMW, pattering out a drumbeat on its hood. The window rolled down, revealing a pretty White girl with dark hair and the most vivid green eyes Merlin had ever seen. Music full of bass and witchy vocals poured out of the vehicle, staining the cool fall air.
“Hi,” the girl said. “I’m Morgana. You must be the infamous Merlin.”
“I am he,” Merlin said, holding out an arm and cutting a curtsey. “Thank you very much for the ride. Much appreciated.”
“No problem,” Morgana said, hitting the unlock button. “Welcome to the BMW. It runs on lesbian magic and daddy’s tears. Hop in.”
Not sure whether to be encouraged or slightly frightened by this introduction, Merlin slid into the backseat. Gwen hopped in the passenger side, and Morgana pulled out of the lot and headed toward the city proper.
The traffic was light, it being a weekday at one pm, the freeway almost empty and the sky clear and blue. Morgana hummed to the music, tapping her nails against the wheel. They were acrylic, painted a matte black to match her lipstick, her hair a similar shade. Her clothes, also black, were an assortment of consignment leather and fishnets, and looked as if they had been ripped with kitchen shears, her eyeliner brutal and the notch in her nocked eyebrow acidic.
She looked like an agglomeration of all the people with whom Merlin had ever wanted to be friends. He desperately wanted her to like him, which was not a good vibe to give off if he ever wanted success in that department. To keep from giving himself away, he turned to Gwen.
“What was this about my not being homeless?” Merlin asked her.
“You would never be homeless,” Gwen reassured him, twisting in her seat so she could look at him. “If it comes down to it, you can always sleep on my couch until you or I die. But you won’t have to do that, if you don’t want to, because an opportunity has arisen…”
“What sort of opportunity?”
She raised her voice and talked over him. “AN OPPROTUNITY HAs arisen which could be beneficial for all parties. I really think you should give him a chance.”
“You coddle him,” Morgana said from the driver’s seat. “It’s revolting honestly.”
“How long have the two of you been going out?” Merlin asked. “My sense of time is absolutely wrecked right now.”
“Two months,” Morgana said.
“Two months and six days,” Gwen corrected.
This made Morgana smile and look at Gwen fondly, which reassured Merlin. If she loved Gwen’s precocious exactness as much as she should, their long-term compatibility was all but guaranteed, which was a relief. Gwen deserved to be happy more than anyone he knew.
“Who am I giving a chance?” Merlin asked.
“Oh,” Gwen said. “Arthur.”
“My brother,” Morgana said dryly, pulling off their exit with a squeal of brakes and rubber on asphalt.
“Wait. The guy you called a…?”
“I didn’t call him that, you did,” Gwen interrupted. “And he’s a very nice, decent guy. He’s not a douchebag he’s just not…my type.” Morgana snorted and Gwen delicately chose to ignore her. “He just moved into a flat, and he’s been looking for a roommate for a while. Then you texted me, and I thought, what a perfect coincidence.”
“Two things,” Merlin said, “One: no offense, Morgana, but I feel like you only have to qualify someone as a very nice, decent person if they’re decidedly not that.”
“No offense taken, you’re completely correct, he’s a prick.”
“See?” Merlin said pointedly. “Thank you. Two: this guy doesn’t know me from Adam, and all I know about him is that he’s apparently a prick. How’s this supposed to work? I just waltz in with my duffle bag full of dirty clothes and sign a lease? I can’t afford to pay rent right now. You’ll recall me saying that I am distinctly, decidedly, overwhelmingly unemployed at the moment.”
“You’re both being ridiculous,” Gwen said, “And mean. You would meet him and talk it over, obviously, and if you both get along and agree to it, then you’d finalize it and sign a lease. Honestly. Also, you didn’t let me get to the coolest part, which is that he’s okay with covering the rent until you’re able to get a job. For the first few months at least.”
Merlin slumped in his seat, feeling the tips of his ears burn red.
“Gwen!”
She seemed totally taken aback. “What? What is it? What’ve I done?”
“You’ve played the mum card,” Merlin said, wrapping his arms around his head. “I know it’s been a while since we’ve been together like this, but…seriously. You’ve talked this man, this grown man, into covering my rent? Don’t you…don’t you hear how this sounds? This is Darren at the bar all over again.”
Morgana smirked. “That sounds like a good story.”
“It isn’t,” Merlin said weakly. “Trust me.”
“But Arthur isn’t a stranger, Merlin,” Gwen said, still not understanding. “And it’s not like he can’t afford it.”
This was so obtuse a thing to say that Merlin had to sit up straight again. Morgana spotted the look on his face in the rearview mirror.
“Oh, it’s not like that,” she said, “He really can afford it. Our dad is like, the king of the castle. Uther Pendragon? Very medieval? With the, uh, magic propaganda and the seat on the legislature and the very profitable company and all that shit?”
“You’re kidding me,” Merlin said.
“I am not,” Morgana said darkly. “He’s the worst.”
“Yeah, I’m not going to disagree with you on that.”
He glowered at Gwen and she squirmed in her seat.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Morgana said, picking up on the tension, “I’m not with him. In fact.” She snapped her fingers, and blue sparks flew up. “You could say I am diametrically opposed from him. We don’t speak anymore.”
“What about Arthur?”
“Oh, he’s the brainwashed heir apparent,” Morgana said in a would-be blithe voice. “The only reason we still talk is because he’s too spineless to pick a side and I love him. Sadly.”
“And you want me to live with him?” Merlin asked Gwen.
“I’d like you to give him a chance,” Gwen said. “You have to trust me, Merlin, it’s not as bad as all that. He’s a really laidback guy, and he’s a bit…repressed when it comes to all that political stuff, but he doesn’t really believe in it.”
“Yeah? Does he know you’ve got magic?” he asked Morgana.
“Hell no. Daddy lied to him when he kicked me out, he’s got no clue. And I don’t intend to tell him anytime soon.”
Merlin gestured in the direction of this answer. “There you go. Proof enough. I cannot live with someone like that, because I am also…you know…” he snapped his fingers, sending up green sparks.
“Ooh, cool,” Morgana said, deadpan.
“I’ll just find another place to live, it’s not a big deal,” he muttered. “I’m sure there are plenty of places that will take someone with no credit and a history of evictions. This’ll be great.”
“Okay, fine,” Gwen said. “I was only trying to help.”
“I know. I appreciate it, really I do. I’m just, you know…” he sighed and pulled a hand over his face, exhaustion settling in every part of his body. “It’s been a long week.”
“I’m sorry, Merlin,” Gwen said softly, the empathy in her voice painful. “It’ll be hard, but you’ll get through this. I promise.”
The car jerked to an abrupt stop and Morgana announced with a ring of fanfare, “Look at that, we’re here.”
They were in a quiet, slightly rundown neighborhood full of old trees and privacy fences. The air was mellow and gray, yellow leaves dripping into the street and clogging up the gutters. Morgana parallel parked on the curb with terrifying skill. They all got out, and Merlin followed the two of them up a cobbled front walk, through a side-gate, and into a courtyard that connected two small houses.
There were plots of dirt presumably used for gardening in-season, pots stacked and scattered about. Ivy climbed up one side of the fence, threatening to collapse it, and the roots of an overgrown plum tree broke through the stone in the far corner.
Merlin scarcely had time to observe this, Gwen and Morgana already moving down a short set of stairs that led along the side of one house to a basement door with a window inset, a lacy curtain blocking the interior from view.
“Welcome to my humble abode,” Gwen announced, fiddling the key into the lock. She swung the door open and Morgana preceded her inside. Merlin hurried to catch up, entering the flat ahead of Gwen, who closed and locked the door behind him.
It was small but surprisingly full of light, a set of narrow windows along the top part of one wall letting in enough to keep all the plants alive. The plants, for their part, hung from the ceiling and crowded the floor and crammed shelves made for their express purpose. They spilled, green, almost through the entirety of the flat.
The rest of it was mostly a couch and a little kitchen, a tiny hall leading back to what Merlin guessed was a bedroom and a bath. The space was impeccably decorated, cheery and neat.
“So, what do you think?” Gwen asked, shucking off her coat. “It’s nice, isn’t it?”
“If she does say so herself,” Morgana inserted, flopping down on the couch.
“It is nice,” Merlin said. “I feel right at home.”
“Good, because this is where you’ll be sleeping,” Morgana said, patting the cushion next to her and tossing her feet up on the glass coffee table.
“M,” Gwen said, “Shoes, please.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry, love.”
She bent over to unlace her platform boots at the exact same second the sound of a toilet flushing came from the other end of the flat.
“Is someone else in here?” Merlin asked, alarmed.
He prepared a spell, ducking it behind his back. Morgana paused, a glow seeping from her cupped hands, too. A door in the dark hallway opened and a hulking figure stepped out.
“My alarms didn’t go off,” Morgana murmured.
“Who is it!” Gwen called, stepping in front of Merlin, gesturing at him to lower his guard. She flicked the light on, revealing a disheveled blond figure wiping his hands on the front of his hoodie. He looked up, and Gwen relaxed. “Oh, it’s you.”
“What the fuck, Arthur!” Morgana exclaimed from the couch, the glow in between her fingers fading abruptly away.
“I thought I heard you come back in,” he said. “About time. I’ve been waiting around for almost an hour.”
“Okay, first of all you do not get to act like this is your space, because it’s not and that’s fucking rude,” Morgana said, irritated, “And second, I ‘told’ you what we’d be doing today. Three times.”
Arthur – apparently – scrunched up his fair brow and then shook his head. “No, I don’t think you did, because if you had, I’d remember.”
Morgana let out a menacing growl that encouraged Merlin to take a step away from her. “How are you my brother? How?”
“You’re adopted,” Arthur said with biting ease. “And I’ve no clue what you’re talking about, I’m a delight.” He finally looked to Merlin, taking in his presence with put-upon bafflement. “And who are you?”
Morgana stifled a groan and proceeded to yank her boots all the way off. “If you’d listened to me the three times I’d told you, you’d remember that Gwen and I were going to go pick up an old friend of hers from the bus station today. Arthur, Merlin. Merlin, my complete fucking idiot of a brother.”
“Merlin’s my friend from university,” Gwen piped up, eager to diffuse the tension.
“Oh, you’re the one Gwen’s been talking up,” Arthur said, realization spilling over his face. “Nice to meet you.”
He held out a hand to shake and Merlin took it, doing his best not to wince at the strength of the grip. “Likewise.”
“How’d you get in here?” Morgana asked Arthur, interrupting with no qualms. “Did you give him a spare key?” This last part was directed at Gwen, who refused to look sheepish, planting her hands on her hips.
“It’s my place, I can give keys to who I like.”
“But why would you give one to him?” Morgana demanded. “He has a place to live. He does not need to be here constantly just because all his friends have jobs like real adults, and he has nothing to do.”
“I have a job,” Arthur protested. “I’m the…”
“If you say the communication and messaging corporate diplomat, I swear to God I will kill you. I will literally murder you.” In a move which seemed to cement the idiocy of which she’d accused him, he began to talk anyway, but she steamrolled over him. “You realize that’s a made-up title, right? Everyone knows you don’t do anything but look pretty and go on tv.”
“That’s harder than it looks,” Arthur said, faux-modestly.
“It is not. You wash your face with dish soap.”
He put a hand to his heart, offended. “I do not, take that back. My skincare routine is pristine, and the fact that you would insinuate…”
“Girls, girls,” Gwen broke in. “You’re both super gorgeous, okay? Stand down. Now I’m starving, so should we order food? And I’m sure Merlin would like to shower after hours on a Greyhound bus.”
“You would be correct on that front,” Merlin said. “Point me in the direction, thank you for loaning me your hot water, etcetera.”
“You took the bus here?” Arthur asked, wrinkling his nose. “Why?”
Gwen, within elbowing range, planted her elbow in his ribs. “Rude, Arthur.”
“Sorry.” He grinned and held the place where she’d hit him but didn’t look the least bit ashamed.
“Because I could afford it,” Merlin told him, “And that was a stretch. Oh, do you have a washer/dryer unit anywhere in the vicinity that I could borrow? Or I can just find a laundromat tomorrow, I guess.”
“No need. There’s one in the hall. Morgana, could you show him? I’m going to order Thai, I think. Does that sound good to everyone?”
Smoothly, as she always did, Gwen had soothed the tension with an artistry that Merlin had always envied. When he wanted people to stop yelling, he got them to laugh at him. When she wanted people to stop yelling, she got them to love her.
“I like Thai,” Arthur said. “Here, you can use my card.”
“Stop flirting with my girlfriend,” Morgana said, getting up off the couch and shouldering past him, though he was by no means in her way. “It’s gross. Merlin, follow me. You have to kick the unit in a certain spot so that it finishes its cycle.”
Merlin slid past Arthur just as he said, defensively, “I’m not flirting, I’m just being nice. Which you wouldn’t know about if it walked up to you on the street.”
Gwen heaved a gusty sigh.
Morgana showed him the unit tucked back in a narrow utility closet, grabbed him a towel, and practically shoved him in the bathroom so she could rush back to the kitchen and keep an eye on her brother.
She didn’t seem at all worried about Gwen, but the eagerness with which she slammed the door behind him made Merlin suspect that something had happened in the past to make her so apprehensive.
He didn’t know why. If he had the capacity to be attracted to women and had his choice of the Pendragon siblings, he would have picked Morgana every time, no question.

Chapter Text

The shower itself was rickety, the water pressure sporadic, and the hot water ran out after approximately five minutes. Merlin had never had a better shower in his life. He was clean, and his teeth were brushed, he’d shaved, and he’d saved one clean change of underwear for exactly this moment.
He emerged from the bathroom still toweling off his hair, which had grown scruffier than he liked to keep it. He padded down the hall, wondering if Gwen would be willing to trim it for him, the way she’d done at school.
It was quieter than it had been, and when he reached the end of the hall, he figured out why. Both Gwen and Morgana had vanished, leaving Arthur sprawled on the couch, his stocking feet up on the armrest. He lifted his head as Merlin came out, languid and idle as only rich boys could be.
“They went to pick up food,” Arthur said before Merlin could ask.
“Oh,” Merlin said, briefly irritated. Gwen could have at least texted him to give him a head’s up about this state of affairs. He would’ve hidden in the bathroom until they got back. But then he remembered that his phone was dead and forgave her.
Arthur sat up a little more to watch as Merlin rifled through his now mostly empty duffle for a charger. “Gwen was telling me you might be looking for a roommate?”
“I am indeed in the market for a roommate.” Merlin went to the kitchen to hunt down an outlet, found an unused one near the coffee pot and plugged his phone in. It beeped in relief and he left it to recover, turning to face Arthur with his arms crossed.
“Funny coincidence, she might’ve mentioned, I am also in the market for a roommate,” Arthur said in the sort of hearty, jovial voice that meant he was intimidated, insecure, or both.
Good. Merlin didn’t need any straight man feeling any level of confidence in his near vicinity right now. The last few months had been grueling, and he wasn’t feeling an overabundance of grace for either heteronormative or magic-hating society right now.
“Why do you need a roommate? Aren’t you rich?”
This was meant to make Arthur feel uncomfortable about his socioeconomic status, which it did.
“Um. Well.” Arthur coughed a little and rubbed at the back of his head. “Not many people know about this, so if you could keep it under the radar…”
“I, a complete stranger to you, am completely trustworthy.”
This made Arthur pause. “You’re a friend of Gwen’s and I trust her judgement, so by extension that means I also trust you, even if you’re…”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Even if I’m what?”
“Abrasive and unpleasant,” he shot back bravely.
Merlin grinned. “I’d describe myself as obnoxious but charming, but to each their own, I suppose. So, what was this thing I’m supposed to keep under the radar?”
“My father and I made an agreement when I moved out,” Arthur said. “I’m meant to find someone to live with me. It’s meant to enhance my people skills.”
“Which I’m gathering are not that great.”
“My people skills are more than adequate,” Arthur said, insulted.
“No, no, I get it. You’re king of the castle, and so everybody, even the people who like you, have to remain constantly aware of that every second they’re around you. And your father thinks your getting a roommate will do what?” Merlin asked, “Miraculously instill you with those skills? And don’t you have friends who’d take this bullet for you?”
“I have friends,” Arthur said. “I have lots of friends, for your information.”
“Cool,” he said, in a way meant to imply that Arthur paid these friends to stick around him.
“And that…that situation you just described is not what it’s like in the slightest. I don’t appreciate your tone at all.”
“You don’t appreciate my tone?” Merlin chuckled. “What are you? My mother? You don’t have to appreciate my tone because you’re not paying me to police it. So tough luck.”
This made Arthur fume, and if he’d been parked behind a huge mahogany desk or leering out the window of a Ferrari, it would’ve probably been terrifying, but he was doing it from a secondhand couch in sweatpants, so it just amused Merlin even more.
“You know, I could ruin your life if I liked.”
“Shaking in my boots, mate,” Merlin said, studying his nails. “That power trip only works if my life isn’t already in shambles. It is. So, I’d workshop another bourgeoisie threat if I were you. How long have Gwen and Morgana been gone, by the way?”
“Twenty minutes. They said they’d be back soon.”
“Hm.” Merlin reached over to check his phone just as it buzzed. “Oh, look, they’ve just got back, and they brought you those extra sauce packets like you asked.”
Arthur’s hurt feelings hadn’t evaporated fully when Morgana and Gwen came through the door, each carrying a takeout bag which wafted the smell of warm spices and pho through the entirety of the flat almost instantly.
“You boys play nice?” Morgana asked, kicking the door shut behind her.
“No,” Merlin replied.
Morgana flashed a wicked, megawatt smile. “Good.”
“Don’t pick on Arthur, please,” Gwen said, unloading her bag onto the counter. She rifled for paper plates while Merlin began to unbox the food.
“Yes, don’t pick on Arthur, please,” Arthur echoed from the couch. “Thank you very much Gwendolyn. It’s nice to know I’ve got people on my side.”
Merlin glanced at Gwen, but she didn’t correct Arthur on his failure to use her correct full name.
“I’d like to float the idea that he potentially deserved it,” Morgana said.
“Two on two is perfectly fair in my book,” Merlin said. They high fived.
“My whole life I’ve been ganged up on, and I’ve received very little sympathy,” Arthur said plaintively, “Which, from people who claim to be empathetic as a rule, is hypocritical.”
Morgana scoffed. “Do not mess up the aura with that bullshit, I will kick you out whether or not I’ve got the authority.”
“You’ve led a very privileged life,” Gwen agreed.
“I’m not arguing that. I’d just like everyone to stop being mean to me for no reason other than the fact that I am privileged,” Arthur said, speaking over Morgana’s loud protests, “Is it my fault that I’ve been born handsome and moneyed?”
“If anyone’s been born handsome and moneyed, it’s me,” Morgana said.
“Nice.”
She and Merlin high fived again.
“If you’re going to be the token straight white rich-person in this flat, you’ve got to be prepared to take a little shit,” Gwen told him kindly. “That’s just the way it is.”
Arthur sighed. “I will not take this lying down.”
“You are literally lying down right now,” Merlin pointed out.
“It’s a figure of speech,” he shot back, not moving.
“And if you want people to mindlessly hype you up, go back home,” Morgana said. “You have literally eight people to do that for you.”
“I thought you lived alone?” Merlin asked.
“I do,” Arthur said morosely. “She’s talking about my friends, which I do have.”
“‘Friends’ is an extremely loose term,” Morgana muttered.
“Have you heard the phrase ‘Saturdays are for the Boys’?” Gwen asked pensively, pulling chopsticks from a cutlery drawer. “That would most correctly describe the vibe.”
“So, friends would be less accurate than ‘homies’ or ‘bros’?” Merlin suggested.
Arthur languished. “I am begging you all to stop. Are all your old school friends like this, Gwen?”
“Literally every single one of them,” Gwen replied happily. “Come make yourself a plate, your highness, I am not your maid.”
Arthur got up with a minimum of protest. Merlin handed him a Styrofoam plate.
“Do you want to know what they call themselves?” Gwen asked conspiratorially.
“Please don’t.”
“Please do,” Merlin countered.
“The knights of the round table,” Gwen told him. “Who was it, Percy who found that table? At the side of the road, didn’t he? They found a literal round dining table, in shit shape, and refurbished it.”
“For what purpose?” Merlin asked.
“It’s a hierarchy thing,” Arthur said, “It’s actually quite nice if you’d listen instead of judging me for just one second. No, no…” he straightened in the sea of laughter, looking as regal and dignified as he could manage with the blond cowlick sticking straight up at the back of his head, “There’s no head to a round table, right? So, we’re all equal to each other. I don’t know why you two insist on embarrassing me in front of new people.”
“You do that yourself,” Morgana said, squeezing out of the kitchen and retreating to the couch, propping her food on the coffee table.
“Where does the knights part come from then?” Merlin asked, curious.
“That was the mascot of our university,” Arthur said. “They thought it was funny. Plus, you know, chivalry and nobility and all that stuff.”
“You’re so corny,” Morgana said from her spot.
“It’s a good kind of corny,” Gwen said fondly. “Tell him all the other stuff you did at university, Arthur?”
“Which part?” Morgana asked ominously.
Arthur glared at her. “Shut it, you. Enough.”
“Tell me to shut it one more time and I’ll stick this chopstick up your ass,” Morgana said with juvenile vehemence, making a stabbing motion with said chopstick.
Arthur tsked. “So violent.”
“Wait, I want to hear about this other stuff,” Merlin said.
Arthur rolled his eyes, shoving a forkful of food in his mouth. “It isn’t that interesting, actually.”
Gwen took her plate and went to sit next to Morgana, tucking her feet up underneath her. “He’s being humble.”
“No, must be something else, he’s not capable of being humble,” Morgana said, mostly joking.
“I am outrageously humble,” Arthur protested. “There is no one in this entire country, nay, the world, who is humbler than I am. I’d bet all my money and good looks on that.”
This made Morgana laugh, which made Arthur grin, looking boyishly pleased with himself.
“They raised money for a lot of charities,” Gwen inserted. “And they advocated for gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. And…”
“So, you were like a formal group?” Merlin asked, since Arthur looked increasingly embarrassed as Gwen continued to speak.
“I suppose so,” Arthur said, relieved, “But mostly we were just a group of friends messing around. Like I said, not that interesting.”
They finished eating and Merlin helped Morgana wash up the silverware and cups they’d used, washing while she dried. It would’ve been far simpler if he could’ve just snapped his fingers and used magic, but with Arthur in the vicinity, it wasn’t safe.
Gwen and Arthur chatted on the couch, and when he and Morgana finished, she went over and wedged herself theatrically between the two of them, half-stretching out on Gwen’s lap. Merlin sat on the floor near the tv, accepting the throw pillow Gwen lobbed at him and wedging it between himself and the wall.
He stayed quiet while they talked and joked, content to hang back, still worn out from the day full of travel. Eventually, Arthur got a call and excused himself, kissing his sister on the cheek and waving good-bye to Gwen. He paused at Merlin, obstinate and embarrassed, and settled on not saying anything before he ducked out the door.
“What was that about?” Gwen asked as the door closed behind Arthur.
“You got under his skin. Congratulations,” Morgana said. “To be fair, it isn’t that hard, he is super sensitive.”
Merlin sighed. “He brought up the roommate thing and I didn’t take him seriously. I was pretty mean, actually, but he caught me at a bad time.”
He got up and reclaimed the spot where Arthur had been sitting, shifting so he could curl up and lay his head on Gwen’s shoulder. Morgana, who still sat in her lap, tossed her legs over his knees, and leaned back into the corner of the couch, Gwen’s hand resting casually on her hip.
They sat like that for a minute.
“Why doesn’t anyone want to live with him?” Merlin asked suddenly. “All these guys he’s friends with who live in the city, and him being who he is, he can’t find a roommate?”
“Weird, right?” Morgana asked, tipping her beer into her mouth. “He’s asked them all a couple times now, but every single person he’s asked has refused, because he’s notoriously a nightmare to live with. As someone who was forced to coexist on the same premises as him growing up, trust me, he is ‘such’ a priss about his living space. One dirty fork left in the sink and he loses his damn mind.”
“And you didn’t mention this why, Gwen?”
“I didn’t think you’d be feeling especially picky,” Gwen said. “A place to live is a place to live.”
“Fair enough, but I would rather live under a bridge than in what sounds like a literal circle of hell,” he replied.
“Not to mention the girls,” Morgana continued, still on-topic. “Bloody hell. It’s embarrassing to watch honestly. You run into them in the kitchen in one of his shirts, can’t keep them straight, they all look the same, and they steal your yogurt out of the fridge.”
“Oh, well that’d be fine,” Merlin said.
Morgana sat up a little, confused, and Gwen elaborated for him, “Merlin is also a little bit of slut, is what he’s saying.”
“Good for you.” She raised her bottle in mock toast. “Yeah, that’s probably the one thing he’d be chill about. Unless, of course, your overnight buddy decided to eat his yogurt, and then it’d be quite the domestic.”
“Could do without that drama,” Merlin said.
“Couldn’t we all,” Morgana murmured.
The conversation must’ve petered out after this because Merlin woke up a little later in the dark living room, a pillow under his head and a blanket draped over his body. A nightlight glowed from down the hall, the shadows dense and crowded with all the plants, a clock ticking quietly somewhere.
He sighed, contented, and fell immediately back to sleep.

Chapter Text

Emrys…
Merlin woke up in a cold sweat, the voice like a sigh still lingering in the still air. His heart pounded hard against his ribs, fear a knot in his throat he couldn’t swallow.
The flat was silent. He could hear the cranky whir of the radiator.
He thought maybe moving across the country would stop the dreams, but he had known deep down it was a long shot.
Bad things followed him.
And the dreams wouldn’t even be so bad, if it wasn’t for this feeling this terrible feeling like rage and horror, darker than anything he’d known he could feel, like he had just lost something. Like he was about to start crying or screaming. Like if he started to do either of those things, he’d never be able to stop.
He got up and got a glass of lukewarm tap water, sipped it barefoot in the kitchen until his pulse settled. It would be different here, he told himself. It would. It would.
By sheer force of will, he managed to fall back asleep.

Chapter Text

He woke up the next morning to Gwen rattling around the kitchen, the coffee pot bubbling and eggs sizzling on the stove.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” she said, shuffling the eggs in the pan with a spatula.
“Morning,” he mumbled, squinting over at her. It was still dim in the flat, not fully morning, the abundance of plants absorbing most of the still-brightening light. “Is Morgana still here?”
“No, she went home last night after you fell asleep,” Gwen said.
Her brow puckered, and she looked over at him the way you’d look down at a baby chick cupped in your hands when you didn’t know where its mother had gone. Merlin was familiar with this expression, though he hadn’t been on the receiving end of it since they’d been together at school.
“I’m sorry about last night.”
Merlin sat there trying and failing to come up with a reason he might be upset. “What do you mean? Last night was fine. I remember you fed me and let me sleep on your couch and introduced me to your friends.”
“No, that’s what I’m talking about,” Gwen said, turning back to the stove to tend the eggs. “I know having people around can distract you and cheer you up, so that’s why I arranged for Morgana to be here. I figured you two would hit it off, and I needed a ride to go and get you anyway, so…”
“I really like Morgana,” Merlin assured her. “She’s my favorite so far of the people you’ve dated. Which isn’t a long or esteemed list, but still.”
She rolled her eyes at his teasing. “I didn’t consider how tired and worn out you’d be, you know, physically and emotionally, after all the shit that happened. I should’ve thought about that. You probably didn’t want to be around a bunch of strangers last night, is all.”
“Is that why Morgana’s not here?” Merlin asked. “Did you kick your girlfriend out, so I’d feel more comfortable?”
“I love her, but friends first,” Gwen said, shifting the pan off the burner.
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “You love her, do you?”
She blushed furiously and he grinned.
“Have you told her that?”
“For your information, yes, I have. I like her very much, and she likes me, and I know it hasn’t been that long, but you get this feeling when something’s true, you know? Like a certainty in your gut,” Gwen said. “That’s what I feel when I’m with her.”
“Aww,” Merlin said with sincere affection. “I’m so happy for you. Moving a bit fast, though, aren’t you?”
She shrugged a shoulder at this, casual. “Why wait?”
“Good point. But you didn’t have to worry about Morgana being here,” Merlin said. “You’ve got me pretty well figured out. It was a good distraction, last night. Actually, it was the first time in a minute I wasn’t obsessing over…everything. So.”
She sensed the distance creeping into his voice and glanced over.
“Speaking of,” she said quietly, “I know we talked on the phone, but if you ever want to talk about what happened, process, or whatever. I’m here. I’ll always be here.”
“You angel,” he told her. “You’re the one constant in my life, you know that? If I ever start to take you for granted, you have permission to slap the sense back into me.”
“Noted,” she said, shaking her head with dry amusement. “The eggs are ready, if you want some.”
“Coming, coming.”
He pushed himself upright, running fingers through his hair in an attempt to neaten it. Gwen dished the eggs while he poured the coffee. A little cream in hers, lots of cream and a disgusting amount of sugar for him.
She made a face as she traded a plate for her mug. “That looks like toxic sludge.”
He took a sip and smacked his lips theatrically, which elicited an equally theatrical gagging sound from her. They ate the way they used to at school, him propped up against the counter, plate in one hand, fork in the other, and coffee at his elbow, while she sat on the edge of the plant-crowded kitchen table, ignoring the perfectly serviceable chairs.
She wore a pale pink blazer over a pussy-bow white blouse this morning, kitten heels peeking out the bottom of her pleated dress pants. Roughly two months ago, she’d landed a job as a wedding planner, which occasionally meant odd hours but also meant a decent, steady paycheck. Better, more consistent money than she’d been making as an Uber driver, at least.
“You headed to work?” he asked.
She checked her watch while she chewed. “I’ve got a few more minutes. I take the train, normally.”
“How does it feel to have a big girl job?”
She made a face. “Weird. I’ll get used to it, right?”
“Don’t ask me,” he said.
“You’ll get there,” she assured him, “If that’s where you want to be. I can’t picture you in an office at all. Well, I can, but only in the midst of you-caused chaos.”
“I thrive in a hectic environment,” he agreed.
“What’re your plans for the day? Recovery? Lay about and watch the soaps?”
“As much as I enjoy daytime television, there is no rest for the terminally unemployed,” he said darkly, shoveling his eggs onto his fork. “I was going to go to an internet café, tidy up my resume. You know, fun totally not-boring stuff. Oh, that reminds me, have you heard of an Albion Rx? It’s a pharmacy, supposed to be on the eastside?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m not familiar. You’d have to google it. Why?”
He sighed. “My mum gave me a sort of letter of introduction for the man who runs it. We’re supposed to be distantly related.”
“That was nice of her,” Gwen said, raising a tentative eyebrow.
He sniffed, rubbing at his nose. “Yeah. It is nice. Would’ve been nicer if I’d never needed it, but what can you do?”
She pushed herself off the edge of the table abruptly, going to wash her dishes in the sink, recognizing the bleak mood looming on the horizon like a stormfront and doing her best to dissipate it before it had the chance to arrive.
“If you’re going to go out, I suppose I should get you a spare key so you can let yourself in when you get back,” she said.
“You haven’t already given all your spare keys away?” he asked, pretending to be surprised. “And don’t do that, Gwen, I can wash up.”
She set the dish soap back down. “Thank you. Also, for your information, I had a spare key made like a responsible adult, and it wasn’t that much more money to get a few extra, just in case.”
“Always thinking ahead,” he said fondly. “But why did you give a spare to Arthur?”
“Merlin…”
“No, I’m serious,” he said, setting his fork down. “You and Morgana have been dating for a little over two months. Fine. I like Morgana, and I’m not about to question your judgment…”
“Good, because that’d be a douchey move.”
He persisted. “I’m just saying, you haven’t known this guy that long and he has a spare key to your place? I mean, he seems nice, but you never know.”
“You think I haven’t thought about all that?” Gwen asked, eyes flashing. “Trust me, as a woman existing in the world, I am constantly aware of the danger I’m in just casually, on a regular basis. I don’t need any man, even a very well-meaning, good one, to remind me, all right?”
“Noted,” Merlin murmured, aware he’d been chastened and for good reason.
She relaxed a little. “Why did he tell you he needed a roommate?”
“He said his dad was making him,” Merlin answered. “Which, as an adult person, is a super interesting answer.”
“That’s part of the reason. He also can’t sleep at night if he’s by himself.”
“Is that what he told you?”
“Watch your tone,” Gwen warned him, checking her watch again. “And no, he didn’t tell me, Morgana mentioned it offhand one time. He used to go over to her place, but she stopped letting him do that after their dad cut her off and Arthur didn’t take a side.”
“Sounds reasonable.”
“It was, but you know me. I’ve got a soft spot for fragile things.”
“I’m not fragile.”
She smiled a little. “You can be the strongest, bravest person in the whole world and still be ‘incredibly’ breakable, Merlin. It’s not a bad thing.”
An ache opened up in him unexpectedly, and his eyes got hot. He picked at the handmade bracelet threaded around his wrist, looking away from her.
“Feels like it.”
She came over and patted his cheek. “I know. I’ve got to go, though. You’ll be all right?”
He nodded, clearing his throat. “Yeah, I’ll see you. Key?”
“I didn’t forget. Here.” She slipped the key from the key ring attached to her bag, which sat on the counter, and then tucked it in his hand, folding his fingers over it.
“Bye.” She kissed him on the cheek and waltzed out, the window rattling in the door as she closed it behind her, leaving Merlin by himself.
He sighed again, sad for a reason he couldn’t really name. Thinking about Arthur being lonely at night elicited a sympathy he preferred not to feel. Disliking a pretty, magic-hating rich boy was supposed to be uncomplicated and therapeutic. He knew other people, even the morally gray ones, were complex and human. He just preferred not to be reminded of it, especially not now.
“Well,” he said to himself, tucking the key in his pocket and swallowing the last silty remains of his coffee, “Time to go get a job.”

Chapter Text

He discovered Albion Rx in a busy part of downtown, tucked in a courtyard with a money exchange place and a smoothie shop. The door dinged as he entered, the inside washed out with fluorescent light, the counter way at the back, a few people loitering in the aisles and in line. It looked like any other pharmacy Merlin had ever been in, tile flooring and shelves of Pepto-Bismol, but as soon as he walked in, he felt a familiar buzz at the back of his neck. This place was magic.
Behind the counter was presumably the person to whom his mother had addressed her letter, an older man with his shoulder-length white hair tied back, wearing a button-up shirt and an eccentric tie decorated with tiny beakers and test tubes. A nametag pinned to his lapel read, ‘Gaius’.
Merlin hung back in an aisle, pretending to read the back of a bottle of cough syrup, until Gaius finished serving the two people at the counter. Then, cautiously, he approached, pulling the letter out of the inside of his coat.
“Hello, young man, how can I help you?” Gaius asked, peering over the top of his bifocals.
“Hi,” Merlin said, in as confident and cheery a tone he could muster, even though his palms had gone sweaty all of a sudden. “Gaius? Um. I’m Merlin. Or people call me Merlin. My given name is Myrddin. Myrddin Wyllt. My mother’s Hunith? She sent me.”
The old man gave him a once over. “Hunith? Yes, you do look like her. I haven’t seen that girl in quite some time. How is she?”
“Doing as well as she can be, sir,” Merlin hedged. “She said she would be giving you a call. I don’t know if she has or not, but she also gave me this letter to give to you. She was hoping you could give me…well, she was hoping you could give me a job.”
Gaius took the letter from Merlin’s outstretched hand, a reedy eyebrow raised, and Merlin stuffed his hands in his pockets as he waited for him to finish reading.
“Well.” He folded the letter and tucked it away. “I’m assuming you’re informed as to the contents of the letter.”
“I am,” Merlin confirmed. “She said you were to be trusted.”
“Yes. Hunith and I are old friends, long acquainted,” Gaius replied. “Why don’t you come in the back so we can talk further in private?”
Merlin hesitated for only a second. He could stand his ground if he needed to do so. “All right.”
Gaius came around the counter to lock the door and flip the exit sign to closed, and then Merlin proceeded to follow him into a back room. The buzzing sensation of magic grew stronger. One side of the room was dedicated to traditional medicine, shelves of pill bottles and prescriptions, and the other side was stacked with ancient books and ingredients Merlin instantly recognized for what they were. Magic.
“There are wards on this place,” Merlin noted immediately. “My mother told me you don’t have magic. Who did this?”
“A local warlock,” Gaius informed him, poking a spoon into a bubbling pot. “And I do have magic, I am simply out of practice, for reasons you might guess. Don’t trouble yourself about it, such practices are common among those of us who still ascribe to the old ways. I’m meant to understand from your mother that you do have magic?”
Again, Merlin hesitated, this time only because he was so used to never speaking this fact aloud. “Yes. I do.”
“Show me.”
Merlin flicked his fingers at Gaius’s workbench, which rose from the ground about half a meter, books and materials and all. He lowered it gently to the floor. Gaius’s face remained inscrutable.
“Who, besides your mother, knows of your ability?”
“My best friend,” Merlin said. “That’s it. And my father, I suppose, but I haven’t spoken or heard from him in years.”
Gaius seemed to sense that he wasn’t telling the entire truth but didn’t push it.
“The circumstances that brought you to the city are most unfortunate. Do you have any friends here, a place to stay?”
“I’m with an old schoolfriend at the moment,” Merlin told him, seeing no reason to safeguard this information. Gaius already knew about his magic and was more than neck-deep in magical affairs himself. “The one who knows about me.”
“And you arrived in the city yesterday.”
“Yes,” Merlin agreed. “Not to press the matter, but my mother was hopeful you could give me a job, but she also hoped you could teach me.”
“You’ve just demonstrated that you have more power in your little finger than most people have in their whole bodies,” Gaius said, “All I can offer to teach you would be a refinement of your skills, a way to channel and convert that raw power. A measure of control.”
“So, you will teach me?” Merlin asked, perking up.
“Don’t be so eager, boy,” Gaius said sternly, but softened the slightest bit as he added, “Yes, I will teach you. How could I not? Hunith did me a great favor once upon a time, I would be remiss if I didn’t return it for the sake of her son. Now, as for a job, what experience do you have in pharmaceuticals?”
“I know the difference between poisonous and nonpoisonous mushrooms,” Merlin said. “I’m an excellent forager, er, forest-wise. I’m sorry sir, but I’m not well experienced in that department. I’m an artist, by trade. Could make you a nice sculpture if you like.”
“Mm,” Gaius said, unfazed. “A bit of training up, and you’ll do for at least minding the counter. And the other, more behind-the-scenes aspects of my business.”
“Do you deal in the black market?” Merlin asked, excited.
“Heavens no,” Gaius said, checking on the pot again. “Don’t be ridiculous. What an idea. The black market. No one calls it that.”
Merlin absorbed this information and then remembered his manners. “Thank you. Thank you very much. I can’t tell you how I appreciate this. When can I start?”
“A bit of paperwork, and you can start today,” Gaius told him. He plucked a white coat from the rack on the back of the door, tossing it to Merlin.
Merlin caught it, a wave of relief crashing through him. This was a better set of circumstances than he could have ever hoped for. Within hours of him being in the city, he had secured a job and a teacher, the most pressing matters with which he’d been concerned. Now he didn’t have to worry as much about income or about magic. Well, not any more than he had before.
After the mess he had left behind, it was a good first step. Despite the cautious, cynical part of his mind that remained always on alert, he allowed himself to be glad, maybe even optimistic, for the first time since he’d left home. Maybe this whole situation wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Chapter Text

He got back around six o’clock that evening, using the key Gwen had given him to enter the flat. Inside, it was chilly, dark, and quiet. She had told him she wouldn’t arrive back until seven, since she had to stop at the store on the way home, and Merlin flipped on the light assuming that the flat was empty, and he was alone.
Arthur was on the couch.
Merlin nearly leapt out of his skin, clutching a hand to his chest. “Jesus!”
“You didn’t scream,” Arthur observed. He wore nearly the same uniform as yesterday, a different colored hoodie completing the ensemble.
“Why are you here?” Merlin demanded. “Wait, let me rephrase that: Why are you here and sitting in the dark?”
“No ‘Hello, Arthur. Nice to see you again?’ Right to the jump with the criticism,” Arthur grumbled. “I have a standing agreement with Gwen to come over and nap on her couch.”
“You don’t live here,” Merlin told him.
“Neither do you.”
“Yeah, but I’m an invited, hopefully short-term guest.”
“So am I.”
Merlin scoffed, kicking off his shoes. “There’s a fundamental difference between the two of us, mate. And it’s called I don’t have a place to live and you do. In fact, if I were a betting man, I would wager that you’ve got multiple places available for you to go if you wanted. I’d also bet they’re all horrifically opulent.”
“You’d be correct,” Arthur said comfortably, tossing his arm back over his eyes. “But I like it here. Turn off the light, would you?”
“Magic word,” Merlin said acidly.
This made Arthur sit up and narrow his eyes. “What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Magic word’. As in say the magic word. As in ask nicely and say please, you…” Merlin stopped short of calling one of Gwen’s friends a dipshit, but just barely.
Arthur filled in the blank by himself. “Geez. Relax. No need to be so uptight.”
“I don’t like being startled,” Merlin muttered, flipping off the light and retreating to the kitchen. “You’ve done it twice in two days, which is as also as long as I’ve known you. So, you do the math.”
“You are the only person I’ve ever met who’s ever dared talk to me that way,” Arthur informed him, unperturbed.
Merlin began texting Gwen, doing his best to tune him out. “What about Morgana?”
“She doesn’t count, she’s my sister,” Arthur said, “And she talks like that to everybody. She’d talk to the queen like that if she met her.”
Merlin didn’t respond, pulling up his hood and staring intently at his phone screen as if this would force a response from Gwen to materialize.
“Hey, are you all right?”
“None of your business, and I’m fine.”
“Okay,” Arthur said, irritation coloring his voice for the first time. “You have been rude and insolent since we first met. What makes you think you have the right to behave in such an uncivilized way toward me?” He paused, glowering. “Are you even listening to me?”
Merlin glanced up. “To be honest, no.”
Arthur sat up on the couch and looked over its back at Merlin. “I don’t understand why Gwen likes you.”
“Likewise,” Merlin replied, in uncivilized a tone as he could muster. “I also don’t understand why she lets people she barely knows nap on her couch, but to be fair, it is her house, and I am just a guest.”
“I get it,” Arthur said, “You’re jealous I’ve got wealth and success and you don’t. But that doesn’t…”
He said it in such a casual, nonchalant way that it took Merlin a second to process his audacity.
“Excuse me?”
Arthur blinked, oblivious. “I understand. You’re not the first person who’s hated me simply because of who I am. And I get that you think it’s not fair, but it is the way the world works, and I’m still a human being, you know?”
Merlin had a death grip on his phone. He could feel the magic inside of him, ready to be summoned, and it helped calm him down to know that if he had the urge, he could smite this privileged asshole where he sat, leaving nothing but a blackened crater and bits of couch fluff behind.
“First of all,” he said through his teeth. “I wouldn’t envy your wealth and success even if I thought you deserved it. Second, you have no idea about what it means to be judged for who you are. None. You, with your pasty complexion and your generational wealth and your straight-boy haircut, have no right to sit and talk to me about fairness.”
Arthur stared at him. “I can’t believe you just said that to me,” he managed.
“What are you going to do? Put me in the stocks?” Merlin asked scathingly. “We plebians have rights now. So, you can keep being astonished that someone finally called you out on your bullshit. Or you can lay down, take your nap, and leave me alone.”
Gwen walked into the tense silence ten minutes later. She didn’t flip on the light because Merlin had told her Arthur was here. Merlin left the kitchen and took a bag from her.
“I thought we’d do spaghetti tonight?” she said.
His tone was cool and distant. “Sounds good to me.”
She turned to the couch, where Arthur pretended to be asleep. “You.”
He cracked open an eye. “Yes?”
“I told you to text me before you came over. Yeah? Do you recall that conversation?” Gwen said.
“I thought it was more of a suggestion.”
Merlin snorted.
“It wasn’t,” Gwen said, ignoring him. “The spare key is a privilege, not a right, so if you’re going to show up at all hours and accost my other guests, I’ll have to revoke the privilege and take my key back. This…” she gestured at the flat at large “…is my kingdom. You can prance around the entire city acting like the heir apparent if you like, but I pay a pretty penny per month for this measly amount of square footage. It is mine. And if you’re going to show up here, you’re going to have to respect that. Or…”
“You don’t need to go on,” Arthur protested. “I get it.”
“Or I will tattle on you to your sister,” Gwen finished.
“Gwendolyn,” Arthur whined.
“It is Guinevere, you numpty,” she told him icily. “Now, I think it’d be wise to scrap this day and start fresh again tomorrow. All right?”
“Are you kicking me out?”
“You are so popular, Arthur. You have so many friends. Go find them, have a pint, and spend a night in your own bed. Or someone else’s bed, whichever you’d like,” Gwen said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Or the day after that,” Merlin suggested from his corner, “Or never.”
“Merlin, shut it,” she told him.
He did so, but smugly.
Arthur left, tail between his legs, looking morose and pathetic as a sad puppy.
“I almost feel bad,” Merlin said as the door shut behind him.
“Don’t,” Gwen said briskly. “You’re new here, but first lesson: when dealing with the rich nobility types, in order to set effective boundaries, you need to be twice as harsh as you think is necessary.”
“And boundaries involve giving these nobility types spare keys and letting them drive you around in their BMWs?” he asked slyly.
“Morgana is my girlfriend, that’s different,” Gwen said, “And anyway, she doesn’t count. She isn’t rich anymore, remember?”
“And she’s cooler.”
“Merlin.”
“What?” he said. “She is.”
“I know you’re not exactly Arthur’s biggest fan, but it hasn’t even been a day,” Gwen said. “Please. For me.”
“Fine. I’ll be civilized to him if he’s civilized to me,” Merlin said begrudgingly, unloading a head of lettuce from one of the grocery bags. “But I wouldn’t hold your breath on that if I were you.”
They continued to unload the groceries, talking and laughing about their days. Gwen squealed and hugged him when he told her the news about his new job, and he caught up on all the gossip going on at her new workplace. They made and ate dinner, washed up, and watched television, Gwen texting Morgana on and off the whole time. It felt so normal, reaffirming the good feeling that had come upon him at Albion Rx and washing away the disagreement with Gwen’s friend.
He would be nicer to Arthur. He was a nice person. He was an utter delight. Everyone that met him loved him, that was part and parcel of who he was. He would just let the rich boy entitlement roll off of him, water off a duck’s back. No problem.

Chapter Text

The next few weeks proved uneventful. The black-market work to which Gaius alluded turned out to be rather run of the mill and boring, handing off brown-paper wrapped packages out the back door to strangers who paid him in cash and disappeared back into the foggy city without a word.
Gaius was fair with his pay, and soon Merlin felt comfortable enough to begin trawling for places to live. It became apparent quickly that rent would be atrocious, and that if he wanted to live anywhere and have money leftover for food, he’d have to bunk with roommates.
This problem could’ve easily been solved if Gwen had the space to accommodate another person. They’d lived together before, were used to each other, and Gwen made a fair amount at her new job but would be more than happy to split the cost of rent.
Unfortunately, she did not have space, and as the days went by her tiny flat began to feel more and more cramped and Merlin began to feel guilty.
He knew Gwen would never admit that he’d worn through his welcome. She’d stick by her word of letting him sleep on the couch until one of them died.
Still. Though he contributed to grocery costs and a portion of this month’s rent, despite Gwen’s protests, he felt like a burden. He’d never enjoyed that feeling and he enjoyed it even less now, considering it was Gwen and she’d done so much for him already.
As for Arthur, he came by less with Merlin around, an arrangement with which Merlin was perfectly fine. Despite that, they still butted heads from time to time.
The culmination of this occurred when Gwen invited Merlin out for drinks after work, with Morgana and a few of her friends.
Upon receiving this missive, Merlin had immediately texted back: Will Arthur be there?
To which Gwen replied: You’ve been a hermit long enough, M. You don’t have to talk to him if you don’t like. Come for drinks. For me?
And, like a complete pushover, Merlin folded at those two last words. After work at the pharmacy, he followed Gwen’s directions, and ended up at a tiny hole in the wall with sticky floors and sepia lighting. He found Gwen and Morgana and a man he didn’t know sitting at a booth.
“Merlin!” Gwen exclaimed, waving at him. “I’ve ordered you a drink. Whiskey sour, right? Four cherries?”
“That is correct,” Merlin said, sliding into the seat next to Morgana.
“You must be Merlin,” the man said, reaching out a hand. Merlin shook, doing his best not to wince at the over-firm grip. “I’m Lancelot. Call me Lance.”
“Pleasure,” he said. “How do you all know each other?”
Morgana took a sip of her drink, smirking a little.
Gwen caught this expression and elbowed her playfully. “We work together. Lance is a project manager. He went to the same university as Arthur. A member of the knights, weren’t you?”
“Yes, but after Arthur’s time. I was a little bit of a late bloomer in terms of my education,” Lance said. “Had to knock about the world a bit first, get in trouble, have fun. I always say it’s important to be wild while you can before responsibility catches up to you.”
“Charming,” Merlin said, and meant it. Gwen had neglected to tell him she had male friends of this caliber, probably for the safety of the friends.
Lance grinned at him, the expression boyish and brilliant. “I think so. Glad to know others have taken note.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Gwen said. “He’s full of himself. And a terrible flirt. Hey.” She brandished a stern, good-natured finger at Lancelot. “Remember what we talked about, all right?”
“Right, right,” Lancelot said, winking at Merlin.
“I mean it,” Gwen said, settling back in the booth and taking a sip of her drink. “I don’t need you seducing any of my friends. That’s a mix of my private and professional life I am not prepared to handle.”
Merlin rolled his eyes, a little embarrassed that Gwen decided it was necessary to give detailed directions to her coworkers regarding him.
“I don’t think you need to worry about that,” he told her, under his breath.
“Don’t be modest, Merlin,” Gwen told him. “You always underestimate people’s attraction to you.”
Merlin felt the tips of his ears heat up. “Gwen. Remember Darren?”
Gwen sobered abruptly. “Right, sorry.”
“You still need to tell me that story,” Morgana said.
Before Merlin could melt into the vinyl seat cushions with mortification, the bell above the bar dinged, and two more people entered. The man in front spotted their table and hurried over, a smile spreading over his face.
“Gwen! Good to see you. Morgana, you as well.”
“Gwaine, you were able to come!” Gwen exclaimed, beaming. “This is my friend from university, Merlin, who’s staying with me. And this is a friend from work. Lance, Gwaine. Gwaine, Lancelot.”
Right behind Gwaine was Arthur, whose expression settled into its usual surly discomfort when he spotted Merlin.
“Arthur you haven’t met Lance, have you? He was head of the round table year after you left,” Gwen piped up, immediately sensing the tension and defusing it before it had a chance to build. “Gwaine, why don’t you sit here by Lance? Arthur, you want to go get drinks?”
“I’d love too,” Arthur said flatly. He stalked off toward the bar.
The rest of them watched him go.
“What’s with him? He’s pissy,” Gwen asked.
Gwaine frowned. “He was perfectly fine earlier. Downright cheerful, actually.”
“Sorry, it’s probably my fault,” Merlin said. “He and I don’t exactly get along. Don’t worry Gwen, I’ll try my best to be good.”
“It’s not you she needs to worry about,” Morgana said darkly.
“Come on, you two, be kind,” Gwen said. “This is supposed to be fun.”
“It is fun. I’m having fun. Are you having fun?” Merlin asked, lifting his glass in a mock toast.
Lance met him across the table to clink their glasses.
“I’m sure he’ll cheer up once he’s got drink in him,” he said sagely. “In my experience, that always helps. That’s your brother then, Morgana?”
“The one and only,” Morgana said.
Lance looked after Arthur, who they could see standing at the bar, one foot tucked behind his ankle, tapping his fingers against the counter. He looked very tall and blonde and clean cut, opposite to Morgana’s grungy witch aesthetic in every way.
“Don’t let appearances fool you,” Gwaine said, “They’re infuriatingly alike.”
Morgana narrowed her eyes at him, equal parts mocking and amused. “You take that back right now, Gwaine, or you’ll regret it.”
“What’ll you do, turn me into a newt?” Gwaine retorted. “And you know it’s true. Stubborn. Self-righteous. Arrogant. Headstrong. Reckless. Did I mention stubborn? You are absolute mirror images of each other, and I’ll hear nothing different.”
“Fine,” Morgana said, “But it looks better on me, you’ve got to admit.”
“Everything looks better on you, Morgana. You’re a vision,” Gwaine said, playful.
“I am also a huge Lesbian and shall be a huge Lesbian until the end of time,” Morgana declared. “As I continue to tell you to little avail.”
“Also, I’m sitting right here,” Gwen chimed in. “That’s rude.”
“Yes, yes. Sorry. I’ll do better,” Gwaine said, eyes twinkling.
Arthur returned to the table, handing off a pint to Gwaine, who took it with a nod of thanks. He sat down next to his friend, and as the night commenced, Lancelot’s prediction proved true. Arthur’s temperament improved, and Merlin showed remarkable self-restraint, passing on every opportunity to rib Arthur.
For the most part, he sat quietly and drank another whiskey sour, more than happy to be around people in a noisy, crowded bar. Gwen had been right. Being out did him good and chased away the dark thoughts that had been hounding him for the last fortnight.
He whispered the occasional inside joke to Gwen and was rewarded by her jubilant laughter. It was a good night, all around. Merlin almost felt bad about being so uptight about Arthur’s presence when Gwen had asked him to go out.
Then, as the night began to wind down, Merlin exited the lavatory and ran straight into the person he’d been doing his best to avoid.
“Watch it,” he snapped on instinct, ricocheting off Arthur and into the wood-paneled wall. “Jesus.”
He’d been drinking water alongside his two whiskey sours, so though he was a pretty pathetic lightweight, he felt fine, just pleasantly buzzy.
“Oh,” Arthur said, deadpan. “It’s you.”
“It’s me. Would you mind? I’m trying to exit this hallway.”
Arthur didn’t move. “Why don’t you like me?” he demanded.
Merlin squinted up at him, baffled and annoyed. “Excuse me?”
“I said, why don’t you like me? I’m not going to move until you tell me.”
It was only then that Merlin realized Arthur must be drunk. “Where’s Gwaine? He should be with you.”
“I can get to the bathroom by myself. I don’t need a chaperone.”
“I’d argue that this encounter proves otherwise. Please move. I’m sure other people are going to want to come down this way sooner rather than later.”
“No. I meant what I said. I’m not going to move until you answer my question.”
Merlin did his best to get a look around him, searching fruitlessly for Gwaine. Or he’d take anybody really. The hallway was far too narrow to manage to duck under Arthur’s arm and make an undignified escape, either.
“This is not my fucking responsibility,” he muttered.
“Just answer my question, man.”
“Hey, you mind?” The voice came from over Arthur’s shoulder.
“Oh, sorry,” Arthur said, shunting Merlin aside. Merlin’s back hit the wall and he found himself pinned between it and Arthur, staring at the buttons of Arthur’s shirt, and feeling the heat radiating off him as he let another bar patron through. Merlin heard the bathroom door open and shut before Arthur stepped back, and he shoved Arthur’s arm away, stepping hastily backward, his heart beating hard.
“You don’t get to do that,” he said, his mouth dry. “You don’t get to put hands on me, all right?”
Arthur opened his mouth and Merlin spoke over him, his voice rising.
“If the next words out of your mouth are going to be some half-assed passive aggressive apology, I don’t want to hear it. Now let me by.”
“Or what?”
“Or you’re going to be forced to hit me, and that’s not going to look very good to anyone, is it? Hitting a man smaller than you? Not to mention I am very gay, and you are very heterosexual, so that’s not going to look very good either, is it?”
Merlin barely recognized the voice coming out of his mouth – low, and calm, and venomous. He spoke from a tranquil place deep inside of himself, the reserves of which he had only ever pulled on in dire situations.
He had no idea why he was reacting like this. Though he knew he appeared level-headed and in control, an ugly, wild feeling reared up in him. He could feel his magic, just within his reach, and buzzed as he was, he didn’t know if he could keep it under wraps if Arthur touched him again.
“Fine,” Arthur said, his fair brows twitching with something like awareness. He stepped aside. “Go on then. I don’t care that much anyway.”
Merlin made to walk by, and then he stopped in front of Arthur. The low rumble of conversation and laughter drifted down the hall from the crowded bar.
“You know what,” he said, “You want to know why I don’t like you? This. This is why. You are exactly like every entitled rich white boy I have ever met, and you don’t get it because you’re you, but you’re the worst sort of person. You take what you want when you want it. You do what you want when you want to do it. You’re dangerous. And I want nothing to do with you. Men like you have made things shitty for me more times than I can count, and I know better now.” He paused, patted Arthur’s shoulder with faux comradery. “Now, you touch me ever again, and we’re going to have a big fucking problem, got it?”
He didn’t wait for the reply, heading back to the table, where he collected his coat, made his excuses to the others, called an Uber, and got the fuck out before Arthur could return.

Chapter Text

Arthur didn’t want to get out of bed. There were a lot of mornings, less now, that he had to struggle through the increased gravity of pointlessness, the list of steps hitting him before he even opened his eyes. Throw the blankets back. Sit up. Feet on the floor. Stand. Walk to the door. Reach for the knob. Open the door. Step through it.
The constant, low-grade fog had gotten a little better since the psychiatrist had adjusted his meds. Today, the reluctance to wake up had less to do with his depression and more to do with dread.
He had to see his father this morning.
If he didn’t get up, Uther would come up and get him. The prospect of that humiliation motivated him through the first list of steps. He made it to the bathroom, even made it to the shower, but ended up staring at the shampoo bottle for five minutes while the steam rose around him, unable to muster the energy to wash his hair.
The rest he dragged himself through automatically, not even really present for his fingers fumbling through the buttons of the dress-shirt or expertly, mindlessly tying his tie. The cufflinks were selected with equal lack of attention, and he found himself in the hall outside his apartment with no real concept of how he had gotten there.
The time on his phone at least let him know it hadn’t taken him long.
He went downstairs. The slick black SUV was already idling on the curb, visible through the front door of the building. He braced himself, the numbness in his chest almost comforting in its familiarity. He pushed out into a cold wind. It gusted through his wool overcoat and chapped at his ungloved hands, calling him immediately back into reality, too concrete to ignore.
The sky was a blustery October blue, most of the leaves blown off the trees, skittering glossy and brown over the sidewalk. The rest of the street was empty, serene, the wind the only real movement or noise that existed, other than himself and the quiet rumble of his father’s car.
He didn’t let himself hesitate. Shoring up his expression, he reached forward and opened the passenger door of the SUV, sliding in next to Uther.
“Good morning, Father.”
Uther's glance skittered over Arthur's neatly knotted tie and buffed shoes. “That tie is far too garish. What did I tell you about patterns?”
“I like it,” Arthur mumbled, dropping his own gaze to the light pink pattern. Leon had given it to him as a birthday present.
“I have extras in my office. We can deal with it then.” He looked back to his phone. “Also, your hair is unkempt. Did you even look in the mirror this morning?”
“Yes.”
“And you thought that appearing in public like this was acceptable?”
I’m wearing a suit, what more do you want? Arthur thought but did not say. If Uther found out he spent most of his time ‘in public’ in variation of sweats and distressed jeans, the lecture would be ungodly.
Uther once threatened to cut him off for a haircut he had gotten while at school. To be fair, the haircut had ended up in a tabloid, but everyone else seemed to like it. His friends, the press, random strangers on the internet. Why not Uther?
He knew the answer, forced himself to acknowledge it. Because nothing Arthur ever did was good enough.
“Answer me.”
Arthur snapped back into awareness. “No, sir. I don’t.”
“Sit up. I’m not paying for a chiropractor.”
Arthur did as he was told, quietly and without protest. Uther didn’t look at him. But Uther never really looked at him. Arthur had never learned the trick of holding his father’s attention. There was always something more worthy that caught and kept his interest– an email, a phone call, a file, the cuffs of his sleeves, a piece of lint caught on his shoulder, a client, an underling, Morgana. Always, constantly Morgana. Since they were both little kids, Uther’s priorities had gone like this: Morgana, everything else, and then his son.
There was always a more pressing problem that deserved to be solved. A person who could be fixed, who could provide or submit to the prescribed solution Uther doled out. But Arthur couldn’t even be banished.
“You’re quieter than usual.”
“I’m fine. Just tired.”
Uther tsked, tapping at his phone screen, one gray eyebrow raised. “From what I understand, you spend most of your day in bed, so I don’t see how that can be the case.”
Arthur didn’t say anything.
“Out with it. What’s wrong? I don’t need you to bring your brooding with you today, it’s far too important.”
Arthur didn’t even remember what today was. An email probably existed somewhere with the details. He was too worn-out for the consequence of not knowing to matter much to him.
Going to a bar had probably been a bad idea, for several reasons.
What was he, a masochist? He knew Merlin was going to be there, and that he would have to see Uther the next day. A glutton for punishment. The headmaster had said sadly when Arthur had once again ended up in his office in primary school.
“Arthur!”
Arthur jumped, startled. “Sorry! I’m sorry.”
Uther slipped his phone in his pocket and adjusted his cufflinks, glancing vaguely out the window.
“Are you going to be like this the whole time?”
Arthur tried to find the easy lie and failed. “I’m trying.”
“You know I hate that word.”
“I…I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…it’s just…”
It was only around Uther his childhood stutter came back. Around Uther, or anyone who made him feel like Uther did. Powerless.
Uther waited for him to stop, not out of any kindness or patience, but because he knew interruption just prolonged the ordeal. When Arthur finally stopped speaking, face burning, he looked only at his knees.
“Something has clearly got you tied up in knots. So, tell me what happened, or you’re going to be useless the rest of the day.”
“Father…”
“How do you think you’ll do this alone if you can’t even get through a routine board meeting with any dignity? You used to be so good at this.”
A board meeting. Fine. He could sit silently on speakerphone with the board for an hour and a half easily enough.
“It’s not that.”
“Then what is it? Your mother and Morgana were such excellent communicators. You used to be. I don’t understand what happened.”
Your mother and Morgana used in the same sentence, with no distinguishment made between the one who was still alive and the one who was dead. To Uther, it was all the same. He had put his wife and his adopted daughter in a lockbox in the back of his mind, and only bothered remembering the combination when he could use the idea of them to prod Arthur into productivity.
Arthur felt miserable and guilty. He tried not to look it.
He couldn’t tell his father that he had been battling a slow, relentless misery almost his whole life. That his misery had no real source, that he knew there was no good reason for it. After all, wasn’t he himself? He was self-aware enough to realize that on paper, he had everything.
He didn’t have to worry about money, or a place to live, or having enough to eat, probably ever in his life. He didn’t have to sit and question who he was or how he fit into the world because those questions had been answered and giftwrapped and handed to him almost the second that he had been born.
And yet.
Most days, he felt so hopeless and pointless and sad he could barely make himself move. It had only gotten worse the last five years. It was as if…he told his last therapist, it was as if he had fallen down a great, black well. He could only see a speck of daylight. It was cold, he was soaked through, he had to stand on tiptoe to keep his face out of the water.
He could hear the voices, echoing far above his head. He knew help was up there. He just had to get someone to realize he was down there, and he couldn’t. He couldn’t. He shouted himself hoarse, and no one ever heard.
It was like he had had this destiny, once, this idea of himself, and now he didn't anymore. Without that vision, he had no idea who he was supposed to be.
“Gwaine dragged me out for drinks last night,” he said at last. “I guess I wasn’t really in the mood.”
Uther raised only an eyebrow at this. “He did? You're able to do that now?"
"Yes, Father."
"Good for him. You could do with going out more.”
Arthur resisted a sigh. No use explaining that hiding the symptoms of his mental illness did not mean that mental illness had gone away.
“Well, what happened? Did someone step on your toes again?”
Uther sounded mostly amused, like he hadn’t been furious when that story came out – accompanied by Arthur smashing a paparazzo’s camera after the man refused to back up and leave him and Morgana alone. This had been before the inner-family blowup, obviously. Later the man would say Arthur did it because he had accidentally trod on Arthur’s foot. Bullshit.
That’d been a particularly slow news period. The story had been in the papers for weeks as a result. Usually no one gave that much of a fuck about him. But his father had helped bankroll a particularly unpopular bill around the same time, which meant Arthur's timing couldn't have been worse.
“Only metaphorically,” Arthur said.
“Tell me – who is left in the world that can get a rise out of you?”
Another joke. Arthur’s sensitivity as the punchline. “No one in particular. Just a friend of a friend.”
“What is it about this person that bothers you?”
Arthur shifted, uncomfortable, squinting out the window as the city blocks rolled past. He couldn’t ask why Uther had suddenly bothered to take an interest in his inner life. He had to play along. Keep the peace. Make this encounter as painless as possible.
“Er, well…he doesn’t like me, I guess. And I like people to like me. They normally do.”
“Of course, they do, you’re a born pleaser,” Uther said dismissively, tapping at his phone. “Another trait you got from your mother. She was always smiling and stopping for any Joe Blow on the street, treating every person she met like the Queen herself.”
“Is it such a bad thing?” Arthur asked, encouraged by the fond nostalgia in his father’s voice. It was the most he had mentioned Arthur’s mother in months.
“Only when you substitute other people’s opinions of you for your opinion of yourself,” Uther said. “Your mother knew how to establish personal boundaries, maintain space for herself. You never learned to do that. Thus, your need to go absurd lengths to inspire the adoration of strangers.”
This was rote criticism. Arthur already knew it by heart, didn’t really hear it.
“I asked him why he didn’t like me,” he said, continuing to stare out the window, hands clenched tight between his knees. “He told me that people like me, people who get everything they want, are dangerous, and he wanted nothing to do with me.”
“Did he now?” Uther asked, amused.
Arthur shrugged, not sure why he shared this, embarrassed. “He’s the only person who has ever dared talk to me that way. With that tone.” Like I was a real person, worthy of good-faith criticism, he didn’t say. Like I’m worthy of being told the fucking truth.
Merlin probably hadn’t intended his little speech as an act of goodwill. In fact, Arthur would hazard that his intentions had been the exact opposite of good. The venom in his voice had been real, startling, no effort to mask from Arthur what the other man really thought of him.
It was a consideration so rarely extended to Arthur that he couldn’t stop thinking about it, obsessing over it. Last night, when he finally managed to fall asleep, he’d dreamed of it, a welcome respite from his usual dreams. This probably indicated another screw loose somewhere in his skull, but that in itself wasn’t new.
Merlin was.
“Hm,” Uther murmured, thoughtful. “What was this person’s name?”
“Father…”
“No, out with it. You brought him up, I want to know.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said. “I don’t know his last name, so don’t ask.”
“Unique,” Uther said, “That’s not really a name you hear in these parts. Do you know where he is from?”
And once again, Arthur was shunted from the spotlight of his father’s focus in exchange for a stranger. He let it happen. Struggle would not change this course of action, just make it more difficult.
“No. I don’t know anything about him, really. Just his name and that he’s new to the city.” He almost mentioned that Merlin needed a place to live, a roommate, but didn’t. No good giving Uther bad ideas.
“Interesting,” Uther said. “A good lesson for you, no doubt. I hope you took note. There are people who do not think well of you, who will never think well of you. Being who we are, there will always be those that consider us their enemies.”
Arthur did not say that he knew this, and suspected that at some level, he had always known this. Instead, he said, “Yes, sir.”
Uther’s response was succinct, clipped, a line disconnected at the end of a call. “Good.”
The SUV pulled behind the glittering skyscraper that was the Pendragon building, shunting the namesakes to a private entrance in the back, where they wouldn’t be spotted or bothered or forced to mingle with underlings whose job it was to type reports or answer phones or make coffee.
Arthur took a second to breathe in the smell of leather and his father’s particular cologne, sharp as sea spray, not so much comforting as it was familiar. He braced himself. Later, he could go lay on the floor of the guys’ flat, which neighbored his own, close his eyes and lose all his borders, seep into the sound of laughter and television and the dull impact of Percy sparring with his punching bag, the clink of soapy water as Leon complained about doing the dishes.
An hour and a half on a phone call, he told himself. All he had to do was get through it. He stared at the winking, iridescent eyes of all the windows of the Pendragon building. He just had to get through it. He could do that.
He could.
By the time the driver opened his door, it was almost the truth.

Chapter Text

Two days after the run-in with Arthur at the bar, Uther Pendragon showed up at Merlin’s work. Merlin recognized him immediately, in his impeccably tailored gray suit and wool overcoat, his weathered, scarred face and severe expression plastered over adverts all over the country.
He froze, a billion curses, actual and benign, ricocheting around his head. Arthur had fucking told on him, tattled to his father like a petulant child. He remembered the threat Arthur had made to him from Gwen’s couch, weeks ago now. I could ruin your life if I like, he had said. And now, Merlin actually had a life to ruin.
He seethed silently. Fuck that bastard.
Gaius was out at the moment on an errand, and excluding the girl standing at the counter in front of him with a bottle of ibuprofen and a box of tampons, the shop was empty. Merlin handed back her change and her receipt and waited until she exited the shop with a ring of the bell.
Then he pasted on a smile and looked to Uther, waiting by the rack of greeting cards. He stepped forward, square shoulders impassive, and Merlin did his best to remain cheerful and professional from his place behind the register.
“Hi, sir. Is there anything I can help you with today?”
Uther turned his steely gaze on Merlin, expression stern and unreadable. “Let’s skip the preliminaries. I’ve got a meeting I need to get to. You know my son, correct?”
“Arthur?” Merlin said, trying to sound vaguely curious and not scared shitless. “Yes, we’re acquainted.”
“Don’t be cute,” Uther said coldly.
Merlin resisted taking a step backward. “I’m not sure what you mean, sir.”
“I am well aware that Arthur behaves like the coddled, conceited son of privilege that he is, and that despite my instruction, he insists on milling about amongst working folks such as yourself, desperate for even the lowest peasant to love and adore him.”
It took Merlin a second to process that this man had used the term ‘peasant’ completely seriously in casual conversation.
“Most people he meets cater to his whim and will,” Uther continued in a half-bored tone, inspecting his cuffs with a neat tug, as if this tiny pharmacy with its flickering fluorescent lights and water-stained ceiling had already ceased to hold his interest. “He will one day inherit the legacy I have built up for him, and at this point in time, he is not ready to receive it. He is too dependent on others’ opinions of him and is not yet the leader he needs to be.”
“All due respect,” Merlin managed meekly, “But I’m not sure what this has to do with me.”
Uther raised an icy eyebrow. “You’re aware that Arthur has been seeking a roommate?”
“Yes. He talked with me about it when I first got into town.”
“And you refused him?”
Merlin shifted, uneasy. “I did.”
“Why?”
The way Uther said it indicated that Merlin had no choice but to answer his question. He rankled, gathering his hands into fists in the sleeves of his lab coat, the magic turning in his stomach threatening to bottom out.
These entitled motherfuckers. He regretted coming to this city at all.
Uther smirked a little, as if he picked up on this malcontent, daring Merlin to talk back to him. Merlin took a deep breath, repeating again in his head what Arthur had said to him: I can ruin your life if I like.He might not be scared of Arthur, but Uther could carry a threat like that to completion with a single phone call.
He also had to remember Gaius, who’s shop he stood in, and Gwen, who was inextricably linked with him. If he ran his mouth right now, he’d likely get them both in trouble. So instead of retorting the way he wanted, Merlin took a deep breath and met Uther’s gaze with polite firmness.
“Why did I refuse his offer?”
Uther’s smirk widened into a quiet smile, victorious. “That’s what I asked.”
“To be frank, because I’ve met people like your son before, sir, and I had no interest in living with him, or binding myself to him in any sort of legal agreement,” Merlin said. “I learn my lesson the first time it’s taught to me.”
Uther chuckled, amused. “I see he didn’t exaggerate, for once. You do have a mouth on you. Let me see if I can convince you where my son failed to do so.”
“Excuse me?”
“Did he inform you about the requirements I had given him?”
Merlin side-stepped the question. Arthur had alluded to it, but Gwen and Morgana had given him the details. It probably wouldn’t do to bring up this man’s exiled daughter, or her girlfriend. “I’m aware of the broader details.”
“Articulate,” Uther commented. “At least you’ve got that going for you. I’ll be straightforward. I want you to be my son’s roommate.”
Merlin froze, taken aback, internally scrambling for a response. Uther waited, as if Merlin were a vaguely diverting stage play put on for his amusement.
“I’ve just given you the reasoning behind my initial no,” Merlin managed. “What makes you think you can change my mind?”
“Money,” Uther told him. “I’m told it can be a very convincing bargaining chip.”
“Thank you, but I’m afraid I’ll have to decline,” Merlin said vaguely, glancing toward the back of the shop in hopes Gaius would appear. Or that a customer would walk through the front door. Or a robber. Or anybody really.
“I haven’t even made an offer yet. You’re new to the city, and in need of housing and funds, are you not?” Uther said, his tone making it clear this wasn’t really a question. “I’m sure I can make an offer that will offset the anticipated pain and suffering of sharing a flat with my son.”
“I’m sure you could,” Merlin said, “But I need to restate that I will not be persuaded, no matter how much you try and make it worth my while. I am not interested.”
“You are the only person Arthur has ever come across who has failed to be impressed by him. More than that, who has failed to like him or be charmed by him or been swayed by his power or his influence,” Uther said.
Merlin heard the door in the back open and close, Gaius’s familiar shuffle audible from up here. He almost melted into the floor with relief. But Uther remained unfazed and continued talking.
“You have made your position clear. Now let me make myposition clear. You know who I am to this city. You know the kind of power I wield, and how ineffectual a person like you might be in the face of it. You’re an honest enough individual, so I’m sure you’re willing to admit to yourself that this fact is the only reason you’re humoring me.” Uther released a small sigh, the stoic press of his mouth and the glint in his gray eyes unwavering, as if these next words pained him. “Let me put it this way. You don’t want anyone digging into your past, do you? Your secrets are best left back there, in your little hometown, dead and forgotten. I can make sure it stays that way. Or I can unbury them. Do you understand me?”
“Perfectly well, sir,” Merlin said stiffly.
Uther smiled humorlessly. “Good. Now that you’ve forced me to be unpleasant, let me ask you again: Will you accept my son’s offer?”
Merlin stared at Uther, half aware of Gaius standing in the doorway behind him. He was distantly conscious of the realization that he’d been backed into a corner, and he knew that the lights were buzzing, that the vent was puffing dry heat above him, that he stood with his feet on the floor, that the world existed around him and time continued to flow onward, that he was a real person with a real body occupying time and space.
But the only thing he could feel was his heart hitting his ribs and his pulse rushing in his ears and the high, heady feeling that told him if he didn’t get a grip, he would lose control. Problem was, when he got like this, losing control wasn’t really a concern of his.
How dare this preening, pompous man come into this place and threaten him? Did he have any idea – even the remotest – of the person who stood in front of him? No, of course he didn’t, because men like him thought they were untouchable. And weren’t they? Weren’t they? Because Merlin stood there, rooted in place. Because even though he had all this power, he could do nothing, let alone prove Uther wrong.
This downward spiral would’ve continued unabated, but Gaius stepped up next to him and put a hand on his elbow, the gentle touch bringing Merlin firmly back to earth.
“Deep breath boy,” Gaius murmured under his breath. “Get a hold of yourself.”
Merlin found himself back in his body, his balance wobbly, and a chill slicking the back of his neck. He managed a nod, sucking in an unsteady breath, able to breathe again.
“Excuse me,” Gaius said pleasantly to Uther. “I’m the shop owner. Is there any way I can help you, sir?”
“No, no way. I was just having a conversation with your employee.”
“Hm,” Gaius said, unimpressed.
“It’s none of your concern. Young man, are we in agreement?”
Merlin put a hand to his swimming head. “You know that we are,” he said sullenly.
“Very good,” Uther said crisply, pulling on his leather gloves and putting his back to them, “My man will be by your current place of residence by this evening to finalize the paperwork. I trust I won’t have to bother you again.”
“I can only hope,” Merlin muttered as Uther stepped out into the street, holding the door for a regular customer who did a double take after she thanked him.
“I was gone for ten minutes,” Gaius said with a touch of exasperation. “What was the head of the war on magic committee doing in my store?”
“Blackmailing me,” Merlin said. “I can tell you about it later if you like, but long story short – I’ve got a place to live now.” He jerked his chin in the direction Uther had gone. “With his son. And I haven’t got much choice about it.”
They were forced to pause their conversation as the customer made her way to the counter and Gaius went to fetch her prescription. Merlin wasn’t allowed to handle these sorts of transactions anyway, so he let Gaius know he was taking his break and retreated to the back, out into the alley, where he collapsed on an overturned crate and sunk his head into his hands. The panic, pushed down for a second back in the pharmacy, returned in an all-consuming wave, shuddering through his body.
Without even processing it, he had his phone to his ear, the line ringing. He didn’t remember dialing. Gwen picked up, immediately.
“Merlin. Hi. What is it?”
He couldn’t reply, a sob hitching his chest.
“Oh,” she said softly, her voice crackly over the line. “Oh, sweetheart. It’s all right. Go ahead and breathe with me.”
Merlin could feel the tears running hot down his face, a twin of the hot shame he felt compressing his chest. He felt stupid and awful and helpless. Why did this always happen to him? Why couldn’t things go right for once in his fucking life?
“Gwen,” he managed, “Gwen. I’m sorry, I know you’re at work, I just...”
“It’s all right, I don’t mind, really,” Gwen said.
“I’m a fucking wreck, Gwen. I thought I could do this, hold myself together, but maybe I can’t. What is it about me? What is it about me that just…brings awful people into my life? I can’t…” the words broke off in his mouth. He crouched over on the crate, pressing his forehead to his knees.
It was cold out here, and damp, and it reeked of the dumpster nearby.
“Why can’t anything be easy?” he murmured. “Or stay easy? I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have called. You’ve already done so much for me, and…”
“That’s enough,” Gwen interrupted firmly. “I am your friend, and you are my friend, and I will always be here for you just the way you’ve always been there for me. Now listen. You’re at work?”
“I am.” He sat up and wiped his leaking nose with his coat sleeve.
“You want me to bail you out? I can have an emergency.”
“No, that’s all right. I’ve still got a few hours left on my shift.”
“All right, then let’s patch you up so you can get through your shift. Ready?”
“I don’t deserve you,” he mumbled.
“You don’t need to be so self-effacing,” Gwen reminded him gently. “You are a good person, Merlin. You are a kind person. And you are the most determined son of a bitch I’ve ever met in my life. When you get home, we can talk this through if you like, but for now, whatever happened, I know you can get through it. One step at a time, yeah?”
Merlin nodded to himself. “Yeah. I guess.”
“Deep breaths. Drink some water. I’m guessing you’re on your break?”
“You’ve guessed correctly.”
“All right. Then watch the livestream of those pandas at the zoo for the rest of it and send up a flare if you need me. I’ll be there instantaneously.”
“Thank you, Gwen. I love you.”
“I love you too, dummy. You good?”
“No,” he said. “But I’ll make it. And I’m sorry I bothered you at work again. See you later?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you later. You’ve got this.”
Merlin hung up first and then sat there for a minute, phone clutched between his knees, staring sightlessly at the crumbling brick wall of the other building next to this one. Somehow, Gwen was always able to get him to believe in himself in a way no one else could, not even his mother.
Again, he felt an overwhelming wave of gratitude for her, his best friend, with an unwavering fortitude and resilience he didn’t deserve. Gwen had been through shit in her life too, and they understood each other at that most basic level, the sort of people who let others cling to them when they also were drowning. But she’d been able to sort through her trauma, work on it, in a way he never had, building a life for herself out of practically nothing.
Calling her felt like taking advantage of that willingness, but he hadn’t known what else to do. The reasonable part of him knew that he would take a call from her anytime anywhere at the drop of a hat, no matter what he himself was going through.
He would wade through anything, go through anyone, to get to her.
And she would do the same for him.
She was right. He could do this. He needed to stop wallowing and deal with the situation at hand. He would figure it out. He always did.
It wasn’t hard to figure out how Uther found out what happened in Ealdor. It hadn’t exactly been under the radar. If he thought about it too much, Merlin could easily put himself back there.
Back where the strong wind gusted at his back, so strong he staggered, so strong it ripped shingles from roofs and gates from their paddocks and made strong old trees creak at their roots.
Back with the terrible relief in his chest, the restraint he had been exercising for so long finally torn open. He could feel it, how the wind surged in sync with his magic, billowing like his power did, blowing straight through him. It had taken over. And he hadn’t admitted it to anyone since then, not even to his mother, not even to Gwen, but it had felt good not to be in control for once.
And then there was Will, of course. Looking back at Merlin, his eyes wide with awe and fear and revulsion. But he couldn’t think about Will right now, either.
The rumors had been ugly, the incident merely the crowning glory for the town’s resident problem child. That’s why Merlin had fled. But according to Merlin’s mother, Will refused to give a statement when the police came knocking, even if he wouldn’t talk to Merlin anymore, and no one could prove it was magic rather than a natural disaster. So, he was safe. At least in the legal sense.
So, yeah, Uther might know about the incident at Ealdor. Likely he couldn’t prove anything, but that didn’t mean much. Merlin had a long, storied record of being in places he shouldn’t, and Uther had been very clever about cornering him. If he acted against the elder Pendragon’s wishes, he risked harming Will and his mother now, too, and if Uther knew as much as he hinted, he knew Merlin wouldn’t risk it.
The real question might be why Uther was going through all this trouble. To mold a bratty princeling into a proper heir, maybe? This seemed a poor plan for a strategist of Uther’s caliber. But Merlin could think about this later.
He took another deep breath and got to his feet. He could be reasonable about this, levelheaded. Or he could do what he could to take control of this situation and make Arthur’s life a fucking living hell. He hadn’t decided which option he liked better yet, but he would, by the time he finished his shift.

Chapter Text

“How bad can it be?” Merlin asked from his place on the couch.
Gwen banged a pan angrily in the kitchen. “Don’t talk me down, Merlin, I am furious right now. How dare he come in and talk to you like that? What an absolute fuckingprick. If I come face to face with him, I promise…” She balled her hand into a menacing fist. “He’d be sorry. Left hook right to the chin.”
“This is the outcome you wanted, isn’t it? The method isn’t fabulous, but I mean, you seem pretty angry about a situation that went your way,” Merlin pointed out, flopping back on the couch, going back to playing a game on his phone.
“He made you cry, Merlin,” Gwen said darkly. “I’ll never forgive him for that. And I don’t understand how you can be so chill after everything that happened. I mean, I’ve seen you threaten to fight someone to the death after they spilled their drink on you.”
Merlin frowned at the ceiling, recalling that particularly eventful night out.
“To be fair, I was high out of my mind.”
“I’ve seen you pick a fight with three people twice your size dead sober,” Gwen said, banging her pan again with reemphasized rage.
Merlin sighed. Gwen knew too much about him for him to win this point. He let it go. “Look…Arthur’s an ass, but he’s relatively harmless. I can handle living with him. You’re the one who’s always coming to his defense, right? So yeah, his dad is a gigantic dickhead, but like, best case scenario his only fault in this situation is running his stupid mouth.”
“That sounds like a suspiciously generous take, coming from you,” Gwen commented, skeptical.
“Oh, no, this is all his fault,” Merlin said, his light tone edged with malice, “But I don’t think he’d bring me up to his dad on purpose. It is kind of embarrassing, being pushed around by…well, I’m not exactly a prime specimen.”
“You’re an adorable specimen,” Gwen declared fiercely. “And that’s a very mature perspective, I’m proud of you.”
“Don’t be too proud, I haven’t fully committed to it yet.”
Before she could respond, a knock came at the door. Merlin pushed himself to his feet. “…And that’d be Uther’s man with the papers.”
“What a pretentious sack of shit,” Gwen muttered, yanking a jar of sauce open with an angry grunt.
Merlin snickered, pulling back the door’s lace curtain before he opened it.
It wasn’t a suited corporate lawyer type. Just the opposite.
Gwen sensed the abrupt change in mood and glanced over. She opened her mouth to speak, but Merlin yanked the door open before she could.
“Knocking now? I thought you had a key.”
Arthur stood meekly in the doorway, head ducked, shuffling his feet. He looked like a schoolkid, coming home cowed after grades were delivered. Another hoody underneath his coat, this one blue, and sweatpants, the hood drawn over his face.
“Hey,” he said, not even reacting to Merlin’s taunt. “Can we talk for a second?”
Merlin wrinkled his nose, a cold breeze sweeping into the apartment from the courtyard. “I’m not sure what we have to talk about. What is this? Are you your father’s man, then? Come to do his bidding, go where he sends you?”
“No,” Arthur said shortly. “Look, can I just have a second? It won’t take long.”
Merlin considered his stooped posture, the pathetic press of his mouth, as if he needed to hold it that way to keep his lips from trembling. He let Arthur wait out in the cold for a few seconds more. Then he stepped back, holding the door open. “Fine.”
Arthur came in and saw Gwen. He flushed red to the tips of his ears.
“Alone,” he muttered.
“I can go to my room. You can talk out here,” Gwen said, retreating.
Merlin observed this exit, eyes narrowed. She only acted this way when she started meddling. “Did she summon you?” he demanded, and then added loudly, “GUENIVERE! The nerve.”
“She texted me to ask what happened,” Arthur said. “She didn’t ask me to come over or anything. In fact, she said it was probably better if I stayed away.”
Only mildly appeased, Merlin retreated back to the couch. Arthur lingered in front of the door, and the silence stretched, excruciating.
“I didn’t know he was going to do that,” Arthur said finally. “You’ve got to believe me. Like, I’m not sure what all he did, but going to your job, digging around in your past, I…I wouldn’t…”
“All right.”
Arthur frowned, taken aback that his rambling had been cut short. “What?”
“I said: All right. Fine. Whatever. I don’t need your explanation,” Merlin said. Then, slyly, “What’s done is done. Unless you wanted to talk him out of it?”
Arthur’s flinch was pure gut reaction.
“Oh. I see. No one talks down your father.”
Arthur flushed again. “You don’t know him, or me.”
“I know enough,” Merlin retorted drily. “How’re you supposed to be the leader he so desperately wants you to be if he won’t let you stand up to him? Or maybe he’s daring you, and you just don’t have the guts.”
“I didn’t come here to argue with you,” Arthur said, strain in his voice.
“Why did you come here then?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know, because there was clearly no point, you’re just going to sit there, acting like you’re better than me…”
Merlin laughed, interrupting him. “I don’t need to act. I am better than you.”
“You pretentious…” Arthur started, fuming, before he cut himself off.
“Oh, no,” Merlin said in a dangerous, mild voice. “Finish. I’m pretentious? Have you had a run in with a mirror at any point in your life? Because that…is rich.”
“You’re deliberately trying to antagonize me,” Arthur said, a humorless smile pulling at his lips, his eyes flashing.
Merlin raised an eyebrow, propping his elbow on the back of the couch. “And what if I am?” He let the dare linger.
Arthur seethed for a second, furious, and then turned on his heel to face the wall.
“I can’t believe my fucking luck,” he muttered. “This is an absolute nightmare.”
“Now you get it. This is your fault, boy king, and I am going to do my best to make your life a living hell, unless you’re willing to stop me.” He paused. “But that requires fortitude you obviously don’t possess, so…here we are.”
“Like I said,” Arthur repeated, “You don’t know me.”
There was a laughing edge to his voice Merlin hadn’t heard before.
“Then prove me wrong,” Merlin retorted. “Get us out of this.”
“I told you. It’s not as easy as that.”
Merlin slouched back in the couch, looking at Arthur indolently as he could manage. “Then I guess you’re going to be stuck in a hell of your own making, buddy.”
“Don’t call me buddy.”
Merlin smirked. “Why not? House rules? And where is your father’s man with those papers? If I can’t get out of this, I’d rather get it over with.”
Arthur turned back, his face red again, and Merlin’s smirk bloomed into a full-blown grin.
“What was that about not being your daddy’s errand boy?”
“Shut up,” Arthur mumbled. “I was heading in this direction anyway. It was just easier for everybody.”
“Sure, the megacorporation doesn’t balk at human rights violations but does balk at wasting gas,” Merlin said.
He waited, but Arthur didn’t move.
“Well? Are you going to produce these papers? Or am I going to have to spend my last few seconds in not-hell looking at your terrible haircut?”
“My haircut is not terrible.”
“It is. It’s atrocious. Expense doesn’t equal quality, which is a thing we impoverished folk know very well. Now.” He held out a hand and wiggled his fingers. “Papers. I’ve got a pen on me, or do you want it signed in blood?”
Still, Arthur didn’t move.
Merlin heaved his second gusty sigh of the evening. “What?”
“I never did tell you why I was here.”
“So? I thought I made it clear I don’t care. I was just trying to get under your skin, and it worked. Now hurry, or I’m going to have to get really mean.”
“Damn, you’re bitchy,” Arthur murmured, producing the papers, slightly crumpled from inside his coat. Merlin let this comment slide, intending to bring it up later when necessity arose.
He looked the contract over to make sure he wasn’t literally signing over his soul, inspected the lease agreement, and then stopped. “Is this an NDA?”
“Yeah, probably.”
“Who puts a fucking NDA in a…? Never mind, don’t answer that. I intend to put this all behind me in a year anyway.” He signed. “What’s your dad going to do to make sure I hold up my end of the bargain? Home visits?”
“He owns the building. The landlord’s his spy.”
Arthur didn’t have the sense of humor for deadpan delivery, and so Merlin concluded that he was serious.
“Jesus. This family. Here.” He got up and shoved the contract into Arthur’s chest. “Next time, don’t slip up and tell you dad about the asshole who made you feel insecure, yeah?”
“Sure,” Arthur said. “I’m…I really feel bad about this.”
“Good for you,” Merlin replied, unsympathetic. “Your actions have consequences. What a revelation. I’m assuming you didn’t look at that shit, but the move in date was tomorrow. Your dad wants this to move quick, I guess. I’ve got work, but after, I can swing by with my stuff. It isn’t much.”
“Yeah, that’s fine. If I’m not around, buzz 3D. Someone should know to let you in.”
“Sounds good. Are we done here?”
Despite everything, Arthur seemed surprised that the conversation was ending so abruptly. He really assumed that Merlin was warming up to him, or relaxing, or letting his guard down, or whatever it was people did when he started acting civil.
If he hadn’t had enough experiences with warm-eyed playboys, he might’ve fallen for it, but Merlin knew better now, and he was excellent at holding grudges.
“Yeah, that was a polite way of saying get out, please,” Merlin said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He walked Arthur to the door and held it open, waiting until Arthur reluctantly shuffled through to close it behind him.
“God that was exhausting,” he said to himself.
Down the hall, Gwen’s bedroom door opened. “Is he gone? What happened?”
“You told him? Why would you tell him?” Merlin demanded.
“I only texted him to ask if he knew his dad had gone to see you at work,” Gwen said, raising up her hands as she exited the bedroom. “I wanted to know how much he knew.”
This seemed plausible enough that Merlin chose to believe her.
“Did you tell Morgana yet?”
Gwen shook her head. “No, and I won’t unless you say it’s okay.”
He waved a vague hand in dismissal. “Go ahead. She’s going to find out eventually anyway.”
God, he didn’t want to talk about this anymore.
“Can I just stay with you forever?” he asked, throwing himself down on the couch. “We can weather the fallout from in here. Watch bad soaps, eat Takis.”
“I’d let you stay. You know I would, but you’ve got too much respect for consequences,” Gwen said, returning to the kitchen and dumping her abandoned sauce in a pot. “It’s a fatal flaw of yours.”
“Don’t I know it,” Merlin said, tossing an elbow over his eyes. “I wish I could just once say fuck the consequences and do what I see fit, but even when I’m acting like a fucking lunatic, the consequences are always there.” He made a buzzy sound for effect, popping his fingers next to his temple like sparks. “Just…lurking. You think people like that ever think about consequences? You know, just for fun?”
Gwen hesitated. “You mean like Arthur? I think he’s resigned himself to the consequences. It’s paralyzed him.”
“I’m not in an empathetic enough place for that insight,” Merlin informed her.
She chuckled. “Fair enough. Hey, you want to come and pick out a pasta shape before the water boils?”
He sat up. “Do you have tiny shells?”
“Maybe. Check the cupboard.”
He got up and went to the kitchen, and for the rest of the evening, he didn’t think about Arthur or his father or Will or magic or anything. He just ate dinner with Gwen, and watched a bad made for tv movie, curled up with her head on his shoulder.
He tried to bask in the feeling of safety, of contentment, in the dark apartment with only the blue light of the tv catching in all the nooks and crannies, the shadowy tendrils of Gwen’s beloved plants.
Why did things always have to change? And why could things never just stay good? He didn’t fall asleep for hours that night, and when he did, he had nightmares again, for the first time in weeks.

Chapter Text

Emrys…
That voice filled his head, drowned everything else, and he woke up and stumbled to the bathroom before he was fully conscious, only the cold run of the tap water over his hands waking him up.
He found himself, hair on end, eyes desperate and bright in the mirror, a sob in his chest. When he looked down into the basin of the sink, his hands were clean. The water pooling down the drain was clear.
The sticky feeling of gore still coated his skin. He had no reason to recognize the sensation for what it was. He had had his share of scraped knees and encounters with careless kitchen knives in his past, nothing on that sort of scale.
He clenched his damp hands into fists. Tried to orient himself.
“It isn’t real,” he told himself. “It’s just a bad dream.”
As if to refute him, the voice whispered in his ear…Emrys.
He squeezed his eyes shut, biting the inside of his cheek until the pain blurred the voice to nothing. He did not make it back to sleep that night.

Chapter Text

Arthur went out.
He didn’t need to go out. He had nowhere to go. In theory, he could stay up in the flat all day long, staring out the windows at the fawn brick of the building across the way, the bare trees in their little woodchip plots down below, scrawny with youth, portioned out in painstaking symmetry along the sidewalk.
But he had a carefully allocated routine to which he stuck, like it kept him functioning and alive, because it did a little bit. It was this routine, in part, that pushed him to go out.
In the morning, he got up. Well, sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he stayed in bed until one, not really sleeping, the blackout curtains making his room soothing and dim as a cave. Those days came with less frequency now, and so most mornings, he got up.
Like this morning, he got up at 10. Well, maybe 11. He got up at eleven and he sat at the counter and drank instant coffee, maybe ate a bagel if the idea of food in his stomach didn’t make him nauseous. This morning, it did make him nauseous, so he just stuck with the coffee, even though he knew it would make him irritated and light-headed later.
He scrolled through his phone on the couch after this. If he could summon the motivation, he would workout. Just in the apartment. He used to go to a gym, but that had gotten to be too much – for a lot of reasons. People tended to recognize him at the gym the most of all places. It was a phenomenon about which he didn’t care much, just another item on the long list of reasons why his life would never be normal.
After this, he would shower. Five minutes, maybe, it took to shower.
Then he scrolled through his phone some more. He paced. He thought about texting his friends, and then didn’t, because they had jobs and school and real lives and staring at the unread messages for an hour and a half until they took their lunches would just remind him of that.
So, he composed messages and then he erased them and then he thought about lunch but didn’t eat it, standing by the kitchen trash as he unwrapped a granola bar, ate it dry, drank a grainy protein shake. This even though his father had a woman drop off groceries for him every week. He was confronted with the abundance of supplies every time he opened the fridge.
He hated to watch it spoil in there, slowly, until he was forced to bin it, but he couldn’t make himself eat it. He didn’t know why. He thought about maybe donating it to a food bank or something, but he couldn’t drive it there himself. Gwaine or Leon would be more than happy to do it with him, or even for him, but he couldn’t ask because then they would know he wasn’t eating again.
And he didn’t need them worrying about him.
They worried about him too much, anyway.
So, he would stand and watch the food rot for a little while. A few minutes. Sometimes upwards of half an hour, just standing there, cold air and the energy bill seeping out around him.
He used to go to Morgana’s, but then he hurt her by not standing up for her the one time she needed that from him, so he couldn’t go to her place anymore. Distract himself with her witchy crystals or pester her into doing a tarot reading or lay on her musty antique rug and watch the sunlight move across the ceiling.
He used to go to Gwen’s, but Merlin was there now. He supposed he could go back after Merlin moved in here –
Merlin was moving in here.
The space had been his for so long it was strange to consider another human being moving about the premises, breathing, using the microwave, flushing the toilet, footsteps echoing from some other place, down the hall, clearly other.
And the fact that it was Merlin.
Arthur balked.
Merlin would be here. He had signed the lease. He would be here, moving in his stuff, occupying space. His shampoo would sit in the shower, his razor in a cup by the sink. Walking down the hall, the door to the other bedroom might be left cracked open, giving Arthur a glimpse of an unmade bed, a sliver of a poster or an art print hung on the wall.
Merlin's crumbs would be in the toaster, his dishes in the sink, the food he liked crowding the fridge.
This reality propelled Arthur into motion. Propelled him out.
Usually, if he didn’t go over to Gwen’s in the afternoon, he went out for a run. He told his friends he was going out for a run. And he did jog for some of it, but the majority of the time he spent just wandering as long as he could get away with.
It was around three when he left, earlier than he intended. Merlin wouldn’t get here until after work, as he had said back at Gwen’s, and Arthur had planned to be out on his run when this happened. Now he just had to extend the length of his wander.
That was fine with him.
He left in the sweats he had worn all day, taking only his keys, his phone, and his earbuds. Taking the stairs, he exited the building into a cool fall day, the sky overcast. It was still, windless, and not quite cold. He set off in a random direction, putting in his earbuds as he went.
He put on the sound of a train car, meant to be a track to lull you to sleep, and put it on loop. It was the only thing to which he could listen currently, that or the eerie monotone of Gregorian chants. Anything with lyrics in a language or meaning in it he was meant to understand just didn’t make any fucking sense right now, and he knew they should make sense, and that stressed him out.
Hence the sound of the train car.
He didn’t really take in his surroundings, the sidewalk passing under his feet on autopilot, the sharp air against his face a clever detail almost too real – as if someone had looked down and noticed he was growing wise to the make believe of the real world, the cold a quick-thinking ploy to try and lull him back into a false sense of security.
His mind skirted the fact of Merlin. Stumbled over him like a rude word in a text read aloud in class, a friend’s breakup you weren’t supposed to know about yet, almost spoken of in a casual, conciliatory tone, a joke that wasn’t a joke and would make the other person gape at you – shocked and horrified.
Merlin.
Like the cold, he seemed almost too real. Solid, in the way so few people appeared to Arthur lately. Even the people he liked – Gwen, Morgana, Leon, Gwaine, Percy – they all seemed a little blurred at the edges. He couldn’t quite force them into focus.
But Merlin he could see with perfect clarity.
Now, Arthur pictured Merlin in the striped jumper he’d been wearing the first day Arthur met him. The wariness that had relaxed into skepticism as Gwen told him to lower his guard, his gaze flicking over Arthur in a second, foot to head, a peculiar, keen sharpness in his blue eyes that had sent a brief flash of fear through Arthur. That sharpness pierced him like a scalpel, made him feel dissected, frightfully seen.
Whatever he saw, Merlin had decided he didn’t like, although he took care not to show it until pressed.
Was his own neediness that obvious, Arthur mused? He thought he had gotten better at keeping that well out of view, only taking it out when he was alone, or when he couldn’t help it. Still, maybe Merlin clocked it.
No matter how he didn’t want to admit it, Arthur wanted Merlin to like him, in the way he wanted all strangers to like him. Like the approval of this person that he didn’t know would be some sort of magical balm that would assure him that he wasn’t exactly who he’d always dreaded himself to be. Out of touch. Arrogant. Self-obsessed, self-pitying.
And now, after that confrontation at the bar, he no longer wanted to see Merlin ever again, because seeing him only reminded Arthur of the ass he had made himself into, of the asinine approval of a haughty store clerk he would never win.
He frowned up at a billboard pasted to the side of a building, advertising services for an optometrist office that had closed sixth months ago.
All therapy had done for him, he reflected, was make him self aware. Arthur hated being self-aware. It was hell. He liked it much better when he was stupid and self-destructive. At least then he sometimes enjoyed himself.
He’d have been content to carry on that way if it hadn’t distressed his friends and Morgana so much. And his father hadn’t noticed, anyway.
Half the point of his behavior, therapy pointed out, was trying to get his father to notice him. Uther only noticed him long enough to be embarrassed, and to give Arthur a brief lecture on decorum.
If he was going to have a mental breakdown, don’t do it in public. Don’t do it on the street. As if the publicity of it wasn’t the point.
“What was the meaning of this stunt?” Uther had asked once, after a particularly ugly incident, slapping the tabloid down in front of him at the table of the restaurant, a place that was meant to be neutral ground and as a result satisfied neither of them.
He hadn’t grasped the irony of his statement. The meaning was the stunt.
Look at me, Arthur had been trying to say. Just look at me.
Obviously, he wouldn’t be pulling that shit again. It’d gotten him nowhere. And now he didn’t have a car.
When the light started to fade out of the sky above him, and the streetlights flicked on, he looked up, oriented himself, and then walked home.
Merlin would be there.
For the last few months, Arthur had been existing in his own bubble, unobserved. Unperceived. It had been brutally lonely, but also a relief, and now that solitude was broken.
He told himself this was what he wanted – Uther would stop bothering him about finding a roommate now. But Uther always found something new to criticize in his only son, and Arthur was sage enough to know this wasn’t what he really wanted. Even if it had been, if he had any choice, this wasn’t the method he would’ve chosen.
Then again, Arthur so rarely got a choice.
Where he went to school. Who he lived with. Who he was meant to be.
He sighed, slowing as he finally approached the apartment building. For a second, staring up at it, he considered walking away again, just not coming back.
But leaving wasn’t that simple, and anyway, he wanted to lay on his own bed and stare at the ceiling, even if the usual peace of that activity had been permanently interrupted.
He sighed again, swore quietly to himself, and went upstairs.

Chapter Text

Merlin found himself in front of apartment building later than intended. Gaius’s latest lesson had gone over, and as a result he had missed his train by two minutes, forcing him to wait for the next one. Darkness had begun to fall by the time Merlin got there, and as instructed by Arthur yesterday, he hit the buzzer for 3C.
Through the glass door, he could see the lobby, small and dimly lit by evening shadows. The post boxes appeared as if they had been crowded into the only available stretch of wall. A Ficus, surprisingly large and verdant, peeked its head over the front desk, which was empty.
No response came from 3C. After hitting the button again with the same result, he pushed the button for 3D instead. A few seconds later, the line crackled.
“Hello?” It was a man’s voice, cheery, pleasant.
Merlin pressed the intercom and spoke. “Hi, it’s Merlin. I’m Arthur’s new roommate in 3C? He said you’d let me in.”
“Oh, yeah. He did mention that didn’t he? Head on up.”
The door disengaged and Merlin pulled it open, passing through the lobby and past the out-of-order elevator, taking the stairs toward the back.
He stepped out onto the third floor. A banister bordered the landing, which ran straight along the wall. Looking over the railing, he could see straight down into the lobby. Directly in front of him was the bank of windows which stretched the entire height of the building, giving a narrow view of the street outside.
The elevator, if it had worked, would open up right beside the stairs. The four apartments were separated two to a side, 3A and 3B on one side, 3C and 3D on the other. 3A and 3D both faced him, inset in the wall that jutted out a bit, cutting into the scene offered by the large window.
Merlin skirted the landing and spared a cursory glance at 3C, the space for which he would now be paying – reduced, he suspected – rent. He wasn’t going to argue the point. Frankly, he should be paid to be here.
He barely had time to knock on the door to 3D before it flew open, revealing a familiar face.
“Gwaine,” Merlin said, startled. “You live here? That wasn’t your voice on the intercom.”
“No, that was mine.” A second man appeared over Gwaine’s shoulder, wearing one of those overlarge comfort hoodies that fell past his knees, his curls squashed flat by the hood framing his round face. He raised a hand in greeting. “Hi, I’m Leon.”
“Merlin,” Merlin replied, still a little taken aback.
“Percy lives here, too,” Gwaine added, “But he works a double on Fridays, so he isn’t in right now.” He took a second to inspect Merlin. “Is that all your stuff, or do you have more?”
Merlin looked down at the reusable grocery bag he had in one hand, having half-forgotten he was holding it. “No, this is it. I travel light.”
It was this, and his duffle, only the stuff he had brought with him when he left Ealdor, and the essentials he had picked up in the time he’d been in the city.
“Yeah, I get it. Bit of a nomad myself. Well, less stuff to haul up the stairs,” Gwaine commented, flashing a brilliant, dauntless grin that Merlin was quickly identifying as a hallmark of his personality. “Hey, it’s good to see you, man. Do you want to come inside while I grab you your key? Arthur left it with me, although he should be back soon – you’re later than we expected.”
“Missed my train,” Merlin said.
Gwaine opened the door to let him inside, going into the kitchen off to the right. Leon had already retreated to the L-shaped couch that took up most of the main room’s floor space, feet up on an ottoman/coffee table, pulling a laptop back onto his lap as Merlin watched.
The rest of the furnishing was eclectic. A punching bag hung from the far corner of the room, weights and other equipment stacked in the same area, along with – Merlin noticed – a rack which held what appeared to be fencing swords. An enormous beanbag sat next to two gaming chairs in the other corner and were positioned in front of an gigantic flatscreen television propped on a table just big enough to hold it, a tangle of wires hooked up to three different gaming systems. An IKEA bookshelf sat next to this, crammed full, overflow stacked on top and alongside it. A record player also sat atop the bookshelf and was bordered by a set of speakers. A boombox sat next to a box of records and a rotating stand which looked as if it were supposed to hold CDs, which were instead scattered most densely around the boombox but also appeared randomly throughout the apartment.
Posters were hung up on the wall, framed. Merlin saw a poster for an old cult horror flick, and Legally Blonde, and a production of Cats put on six years ago for a local theater.
The art that dominated, however, was a large canvas stretched over the exposed brick of the wall to Merlin’s left, depicting an arm breaking the surface of still black water, holding a sword.
“You like that?” Leon asked, looking up from his laptop and noticing the direction of Merlin’s gaze. “Percy painted it.”
“He’s an artist?”
“Struggling,” Leon said, turning his attention back to his computer. “But who isn’t? Hey – how can I say, ‘fuck you’ but politely?”
“Er… ‘with respect’, maybe?” Merlin suggested.
“Maybe,” Leon muttered, unsatisfied.
“He’s in a feud with his coworker, Daryl,” Gwaine filled in, appearing from the kitchen back at Merlin’s elbow, key in hand.
“With respect, Daryl is a cunt,” Leon declared. “I specifically mentioned in the meeting on Wednesday that I had found a way to make it work for the Petersons, but it was complicated, and don’t touch the fucking paperwork. But what did he do?”
“…he touched the paperwork,” Gwaine answered, clearly well-versed on this particular melodrama.
“Yes!” Leon exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air. “He touched the paperwork, and now, instead of having my Friday to myself, I have to make sure that a family keeps their housing because some dipshit doesn’t know how to keep their hands to themselves. Honestly, a nonprofit is not the place to bring your fucking ego. Go to Wall Street with that shit, ‘Daryl’.”
“Better leave him to it,” Gwaine said quietly as Leon continued to mumble and bang at his computer. “Arthur should be back in a few minutes, anyway, and I’m guessing you’ll want a minute to get situated before he shows up.”
This was an insightful guess, and Merlin shot him a look but didn’t comment. He didn’t know Gwaine well enough on his own terms to be making astute observations– at this point, Merlin was just the guy who really didn’t like his friend.
“Sure,” Merlin said instead.
“You got a mattress to sleep on tonight?” Gwaine asked as they exited 3D, leaving the door open behind him.
“Yeah, I got an air mattress on Craigslist,” Merlin said, hefting the reusable grocery bag, “Twelve bucks. Not bad, right?”
“Nice,” Gwaine said, with genuine approval in his voice. He stopped in front of 3C, held the key out to Merlin, who took it. “There you are, then. Home sweet home. And if you need anything, or have any questions, we’re just down the hall. I should probably give you my number too, huh? Just in case.”
They exchanged numbers while standing out in the hall. Gwaine continued to speak. “If you ever have any maintenance issues, feel free to call me. I’m pretty handy, and I can take care of most minor issues. Otherwise, you usually have to badger the property manager for a few weeks before she condescends to show up.”
“Cool, all right, thanks,” Merlin said, again noticing but not commenting on all this information that Arthur – his roommate – would normally be expected to give him.
“I’d stick around, but I’ve got a paper to write,” Gwaine said. “Due at midnight, and I’ve got half a thesis and a prayer, so. I’ll see you?”
“Sure. Thanks again,” Merlin said. “I appreciate it.”
“No problem.” Gwaine hesitated then, a ghost of a frown appearing between his brows, as if he were about to say something and then decided better of it.
Merlin waited until the door to 3D closed again before he hefted the key in his palm and fit it in the lock.
What had Gwaine almost said?
Good luck?
Hey, sorry about him, he’s a mess?
Give him time, he grows on you?
None of those statements held much comfort or inspired much hope in Merlin.
“Time to make the best of it, I guess,” he muttered, and turned the handle.
Just as he did, the door to the stairway swung open.
Merlin looked up to find Arthur staring at him, expression flat and unreadable. He hovered on the landing, as if undecided on whether he actually wanted to go through with this or disappear back out into the chilly October night.
Merlin raised an eyebrow, dragged his own gaze slowly up from Arthur’s scuffed, expensive sneakers to his cowlicked hair. Arthur looked down at his own feet, his ears flushing bright red.
“Hey, roomie,” Merlin said drolly. “You look like shit.”
“Fuck you,” Arthur replied quietly.
Merlin shrugged a shoulder, turned back to the door, which he pushed open. “Fuck me?” he repeated. “You wouldn’t have the guts.”
He didn’t wait for a response, stepping into the apartment. Its interior was more cohesive than 3D, though it had the same layout. The main floorspace was open-concept, kitchen off to the right, with stainless steel appliances and the blue-green granite of the island counter sedate as a sea, the living room tucked kitty corner to it, couch facing a big flatscreen tv, surprisingly adult additions of a floor rug and a coffee table making an appearance. Also of note: the bookshelf to one side, mostly full, and the spider plant hung in one of the high, arched windows.
There was a dining area under a chandelier that looked as if it had never been touched, the layer of dust visible from where Merlin stood in the doorway. To his left, just before the entrance to the interior hallway, was a coatrack and a small table that held a bowl home to various receipts, sauce packets, and, as Arthur came in behind him and dropped them in with a clatter, keys.
“Your room is this way,” he said gruffly, and Merlin hurried after him, pausing just long enough to leave his shoes by the door.
Arthur led him down the hallway. There were two doors, the one on the left, shut tight, was Arthur’s. Arthur passed it and nudged the other door open, flicking on a light to reveal a completely empty room, the closet door left open.
“Bathroom is down the hall, linen closet just inside if you need towels or anything like that,” Arthur said. “Everything in the main living area is shared, communal, whatever, except for anything on the bookshelf and anything in the cupboard directly above the sink. I run the dishwasher every night, take the trash out every other day. If you track mud or dirt in, just sweep it up. Don’t leave hair in the shower or the sink. No alcohol in the flat. Other than that, I don’t give a shit what you do.”
“Okay, Dad,” Merlin said, stepping past him into the empty room. “Any other rules for the space I actually pay to live in, unlike you?”
Arthur remained stoic. “Does this cavalier attitude usually endear you to other people?”
“Oh, yes. I’m very charming. Then again, I wouldn’t expect you to appreciate it, as you’ve got all the charm of a brick wall.”
This, finally, elicited a response from Arthur who rolled his eyes, his smirk cool and unamused. “I can tell this is going to go swimmingly. Anything I should know about you before you go about permanently disturbing my peace?”
“What’s your policy on visitors?” Merlin asked.
Arthur sighed heavily. “Visitors?”
“Yes. Other people. Friends that you invite in your space to hang out and have fun,” Merlin said, enunciating carefully.
“I know what a visitor is,” Arthur snapped. “I don’t care. Just let me know.”
“Kay. And if…say, theoretically, this were an overnight visitor…? Your policy on that? Would you prefer not to be on the premises or just made aware?”
The tips of Arthur’s ears were vivid vermillion. Merlin felt a warm well of satisfaction as he became suddenly unable to meet Merlin’s eyes.
“I…don’t…just let me know, I guess.”
“All right. And same for me – just make me prepared so I’m not surprised when I run into a stranger on my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.”
The indecipherable mutter told Merlin that this was unlikely to happen. He wondered indifferently if Arthur were a virgin. It seemed unlikely, based on past comments made by Morgana, but the inability to look Merlin in the face felt very much like the response of the awkward and sexually inexperienced.
“Oh, and I guess one more thing,” Merlin added, not so much to throw Arthur a line than to push him further out to sea, “I get pretty frequent night terrors. They haven’t been as bad recently, but if you hear screaming or anything like that, don’t worry about it. I usually wake myself up. But I’d maybe invest in some earplugs.”
Instead of becoming more uncomfortable, Arthur ducked his head a little, taking this in stride. “Don’t worry about it. I’m pretty heavy sleeper.” He paused, rubbing at his nose. “Anyway, if you need anything, figure it out. I’m going to bed.”
“Going to bed? It’s not even…”
But Arthur had already retreated to his room. The door slammed. Silence rushed through the apartment, immediate and intense. Merlin stood there for a second in the middle of his new room, staring after his new roommate.
Then he let his grocery bag fall to the floor with a thump, mainly to make any sort of noise. It didn’t make a dent in the silence. “Whatever,” he muttered.
He took out his phone and texted Gwen.
Get me out.
She sent him back a series of amused emojis, unsympathetic.
He sighed and went about digging out his air mattress, inwardly trying to figure out how he was meant to survive this.

Chapter Text

Merlin left early in the morning for work. Arthur laid in bed, watching the ceiling fan rotate in lazy circles, hands folded atop his chest while he listened to the mundane noises emanating from the kitchen. The clink and hiss of the coffee pot, the fridge opening and closing, tuneless humming.
When the front door closed, he got up and went directly out into the main room, stood in the middle of the floor for a minute, trying to detect the evidence that another person had been existing in this space only a few minutes before.
It felt different. Not as empty, or maybe not as full – like Merlin had used up a little of the essential something that always lingered heavy in the air like a smog, making it just a bit easier to breathe.
Arthur resented this realization. He went into the kitchen, banged open the dishwasher. Merlin had placed his breakfast dishes inside but had put his coffee mug on the bottom rack.
Arthur made a noise of unsurprised disapproval and moved the mug to its proper place.
Further inspection found the counter free of crumbs and the sink clean. The coffee pot was still half-full and hot, a scrawled note atop the maker declaring freshly brewed!!! punctuated by a passive aggressive smiley face.
He plucked the note and studied it with narrowed eyes. The coffee machine had not made an appearance since Arthur had lived here, stored in exactly the same cupboard that Gwaine had placed it in when his friends had helped Arthur unpack.
“Try hard,” Arthur muttered, balling up the note and lobbing it at the trashcan. He did, however, grab a mug and pour a cup of coffee for himself. Not because he wanted it. Just because it was less effort than getting out and making the instant coffee.
He was stationed at a stool at the island counter, engaged in a staring contest with the toaster while he went through his morning deliberations over whether he would eat a bagel, when a knock came at the door.
“It’s me!” a booming, gregarious voice declared.
Arthur didn’t bother to move, or answer. A second later, the door creaked open and Percy came around the corner, his presence immediate and very large.
“Morning, bro!” he beamed, approaching Arthur from behind and throwing a beefy arm around his neck, squeezing. Arthur let him rub his stubbled cheek against his head, no doubt making his bedhead worse, submitting to being half-strangled without complaint.
“Morning,” he replied when Percy let go. “How was work?”
“Fine. Hey, is that coffee?”
“Yeah, Merlin made it. Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”
Percy pretended he hadn’t heard this question, grabbing a mug, and going about emptying the coffee pot. “Merlin made this?” he asked as he poured.
“I guess.”
“Leon said he’s cute. Is he cute?”
Arthur frowned at him, irritated. “How am I supposed to know that? Why do you ask me these questions?”
Percy shrugged, unruffled. “I don’t know. What does he look like? I couldn’t find him on social media.” Arthur continued to frown at him while he poured cream in his cup, unbothered.
“Hey, why are you in my apartment?” he asked conversationally.
“You’re the one who gave me a key. Your mistake.”
Arthur rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands, mostly pretending to be exhausted. “I regret it more and more every day.”
“No, you don’t,” Percy declared cheerfully, coming around and boosting himself up on the stool next to Arthur. The stool creaked ominously at his weight. “So, what does he look like? When do I get to meet him?”
Arthur, unable to cope with the first question, answered the second. “You have the sleep schedule of a racoon, Percival. When other people are at work, you’re asleep. When they’re out and about, you’re at work. You tell me.”
“I’ll figure it out,” Percy said, after considering this statement for a moment. “Hey, do you think he’ll want to come to my show?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t you invite him?”
I can’t invite him. I don’t know him. Why don’t you invite him?”
“I feel like we’ve been over this. He doesn’t like me. He’s an ass. Why are you so intrigued by this person?”
“Because he doesn’t like you and he’s an ass.”
“Lots of people don’t like me. He’s not unique.”
“Mm. This feels different.”
Arthur heaved a gusty sigh, giving up.
“No, I mean it. Most people don’t like you because of what you represent. This person doesn’t seem to like you because of who you are. Objectively, it’s fascinating.”
“It’s not objective, it’s my life!” Arthur protested.
“And you’re sitting in your tower, wasting away, while Uther Pendragon blows fire and smoke down below and frightens everyone away,” Percy recited, blowing on his coffee theatrically to cool it. “Same old, same old. Finally, there’s some variety. Even if it ends up being a complete disaster, at the very least, it’ll be entertaining.”
“I can’t believe you’re saying this to my face,” Arthur said, without any real disbelief or really any outrage at all.
Percy was blunt not because he was mean or bad-intentioned. In fact, despite being terrifyingly observant and perceptive in other areas, when it came to reading social cues, he was oblivious.
Unlike lots of people in Arthur’s life, Percy’s intentions were always good, and always obvious. He didn’t have any real understanding of dishonesty or deception. The concepts would likely baffle and appall him.
When Arthur first met Percival their first year of university, the other man had been quiet, stoic, and apparently self-serious. However, after Arthur invited Percy to join the knights, he had opened up, displaying an earnest personality still ruled by honor but open to levity, especially with Gwaine.
In recent months though, Percival had grown far more scattered, his attention apparently fractured. He couldn’t keep his focus on his projects. He complained to Gwaine frequently about headaches and bad dreams. A doctor couldn’t diagnose what was wrong, and just gave him medicine for migraines.
Gwaine had expressed these concerns to Arthur when pressed, and it troubled Arthur deeply, but you couldn’t talk to Percival about any of it. He brushed it off, determined to suffer without complaint.
“I’m avoiding the hag,” Percy went on. “Do you want to go to the arcade?”
The hag was a painting he had been trying and failing to work on for months. He referred to it the way men from the sixties referred to their wives. The hag. The old ball and chain. My old lady. That mean bitch.
“She’s going to smell the sweat and stale carpet on your collar and know you’ve been cheating on her,” Arthur pointed out.
“Let her!” Percy declared, swinging himself off the stool and flinging his arms wide. Arthur ducked to avoid being accidentally clobbered. “I’ve got to live my life for myself, you know. Do what I want to do for once!”
“Fine,” Arthur said. “I’ll go to the arcade with you. But only for an hour.”
“Yes!” Percy did a dramatic fist pump, knowing full well an hour meant two or maybe three hours, depending how engrossed Arthur got in trying to beat a twelve-year-old’s record at Ms. Pacman.
It’d been a month, and she was still in the number one spot. The little punk was infuriating, and Arthur would insist, a cheat. He just couldn’t prove it.
Percy waited for Arthur to change into street clothes. He wasn’t usually recognized at the arcade. Most of the people there didn’t know or didn’t care who he was, and it was busy enough on a Saturday they would get lost in the shuffle.
“Can we stop at the food truck on 5th?” Percy asked.
“You going to pay?”
He snorted. “Funny.”
And, as he and Arthur emerged out on the street, Arthur found that he was smiling. Almost content.

Chapter Text

Gaius had an errand to run today. He would not tell Merlin what it was, and he refused Merlin’s offer of help, a sharp edge to his usually mild gruffness. So, Merlin took the dismissal on the chin, not sullenly, not like a child.
The magic lessons were a favor, and Gaius had his own life, one that did not include Merlin. And why would it? Merlin was only an employee, the child of an old friend. He never offered to be Merlin’s mentor, his teacher. He only accepted the role when Merlin asked. Or rather when his mother asked.
Not for the first time, Merlin wondered what it was that bound Gaius to his mother. What favor his mother granted the old man. That secret was more well-hidden than most and reeked of fear and shame that Merlin had long since learned to associate with himself. With magic.
He stood on the subway platform, face turned to the constellation of the ceiling, the paint flecked away from the dark navy blue and gold of the fresco, begrimed with city dirt and time. A damp, chilly draft of air washed out from the tunnel, pushed the hair back from Merlin’s forehead.
Emrys.
He shook his head, dislodging the insistent hiss of the whisper. He had started to hear it during the day, now too. His heart throbbed painfully in his chest, and he recognized the hot pulse as a mix of fear and longing and something quieter, gentler. Hope, maybe.
EMRYS.
The voice was louder now, and the hiss in it, the low gravel of it, should have made it something scary and monstrous. Draconic. But it was too familiar to Merlin, now. He had heard that call from the time he was a child, and he used to be afraid of it. But the voice didn’t do anything except call him, coax him, and as he grew older, he started to hear a sadness, a loneliness, in the voice. Maybe just his own. But maybe not.
It was ancient, he knew. He could feel that fact in his bones. And he dared not bring this up to Gaius, for fear that it would be a little too strange and a little too other and a little too soon. Merlin had grown used to being rejected for who and what he was. Because of his magic. Because of a thousand other more mundane and awful things.
So, he ignored the voice. He had learned his lesson. He didn’t seek out trouble anymore.
When the train came, Merlin boarded a car empty except for an old woman reading a newspaper. A tiny dog stuck its head out of her handbag, its bug eyes tracking Merlin as he took a seat at the opposite end of the car, pulling out his phone and uncoiling his earbuds.
He had planned on going to Gwen’s after this, decompressing. Maybe make dinner, complain about Arthur, flirt harmlessly with Morgana, watch tv with Gwen until his eyes grew heavy and he had to stumble back to the flat where Arthur waited, his presence stifling as cloud cover on a humid summer day.
But Gwen had kindly and gently told him no. Morgana had invited her over to her place. There were plans involved – what sort of plans Gwen didn’t elaborate upon, but Merlin didn’t need her help to fill in the blanks.
Thinking of his brilliant friend and her sweet, devoted partner made Merlin sulkier than he had been before. The attempt to reason himself out of a bad mood earlier had soured into a headache. He realized that he recognized the black feeling bubbling in his gut like crude oil and found himself mortified on top of everything else.
Jealous. He was jealous. Of what? That Morgana got Gwen’s time and he didn’t? That Gwen had a person who was both ridiculously hot and crazy about her? That she had a stable job and a nice apartment?
Or…upon further examination, he had to consciously keep from sinking lower in his seat, paranoid the old lady across the car would sense the shame on him.
He was jealous. Not of Gwen or her life but this particular situation.
Merlin was upset Gwen got to get laid tonight and he did not. He had to go back to a frigid flat and a baffling, exhausting man who was arrogant and demanding and reproachful and so fucking entitled. A man who had the gall to be miserable on top of all of that. One of those miserable people who thought everyone else around them should be miserable too.
He was just horny, Merlin reflected, rubbing at the aching spot between his eyebrows. Horny and sexually frustrated.
Lance’s boyish smile cracked through his head like a lightning strike for no particular reason at all. He hadn’t seen or spoken to the man since Gwen introduced them that night at the bar. The night Arthur ruined by being demanding and weirdly clingy. Merlin sighed through his nose. Given a few minutes and a goofy grin, he could convince nearly anyone to sleep with him. But not Lance. Because Gwen asked him to refrain.
Why was he such a good friend? Such an artful respecter of boundaries?
As if sensing this treasonous thought, the train shuddered, and Merlin glanced up. The lights flickered, sending them for a millisecond into total darkness. When they turned back on, Merlin glanced over at the old lady. Her chin had sunk down into the folds of her neck, the hat she wore bobbing in place, securely pinned to her hair.
She was, Merlin realized, standing up, asleep.
He approached, using the poles to keep his balance as the train swayed, not wanting to startle her. As he got closer, he noticed the dog, its little chin perched on the corner of the handbag, its ears pressed against its knobbed skull, bulged eyes closed. It whimpered, also asleep.
Emrys.
He started, clutching at the nearest pole, glancing around wildly. His heart pounded, blood rush hot and dizzying in his head. It was in his head. It had always been in his head…
You know that it’s not.
Merlin squeezed his eyes shut, holding onto the pole with both his hands. He pressed his forehead to the cool, germy metal, as if that would get rid of his headache, his fear, make it all go away.
The train car jerked again, the lights shuddering out for longer this time. The old lady did not stir. The dog snored peacefully.
“What is happening,” he muttered to himself, his voice frayed, as if the sound of it would make any of this more or less real, as if it would do anything to calm him, as if it wouldn’t make all this worse. “What is happening what is happening why is this happening what did I do…”
His mind seized hold of the acute, visceral fear ripping apart his chest and projected him back into an old, terrified memory full of that exact same feeling. It was a memory that should have long since faded, been softened by time. It hadn’t been. No matter how Merlin shoved it away, tried not to remember, it refused to go away. To die quietly.
His body remembered how afraid he had been, even if he did not.
He swore that he felt cold brick pressed against his back, the hands twisted into his shirt front, smelled the metallic, sweet smell lingering in the humid air, heart pounding beneath the orange streetlight flickering overhead, all he could see the white gleam of the boy’s teeth in the shadows, a stranger.
“What’re you doing out here?” he had asked, in a voice that would’ve been affable, charming, a drawl hanging at its edges.
And in that moment, Merlin felt the magic gutter out inside him like candleflame in wind. When he reached for it, he found nothing.
“Let me go,” he had said, his voice coming from some other planet, eerie, steady. The boy had laughed. And that’s really what he had been, a child, grown in every way that didn’t matter.
Let me go.
The train slowed and shuddered to a stop, groaning, and creaking as its brakes ground against the tracks. Merlin pried his eyes open in time to see all the lights go out, for good this time.
Emrys…
“Fuck,” Merlin murmured, voice hoarse.
There were no sounds from the other cars. He had seen other people board when he did, and he did his best not to picture the cars full of drooping, sleeping people.
Why did this always happen to him?
“Hello?” Upon no audible response, he cautiously let a glow creep into his hand. The light suffused the train car, deepening the shadows. His knees almost buckled with the relief of finding the magic there, waiting for him, and he kept hold of the pole for a second more to steady himself.
Emrys. The twinge between his eyebrows was exact, intense. He winced and adjusted his bag on his shoulder, approached the door.
Instinct told him the answer before he checked, but when he pulled his phone out of his pocket, it wouldn’t even turn on.
“Silly,” he muttered. Who would he call anyway to come and help him? Everyone else was busy, preoccupied.
On his own, as always. The self-pity was disgusting in its strength, and he shoved it away, slipping his phone back in his pocket. The subway door, which should have been vacuum sealed shut or something, opened at just a slight, small expansion of effort, the spell prying them open.
Cold tunnel wind rushed by. He poked his head out, looking and listening for oncoming trains. Nothing. Just the roar of the wind. He clambered down onto the tracks, careful to avoid the live rails.
“All right,” he said, a little surer now, his voice echoing off all the stone. “I’m here. You got me. Where are you? Whoever you are…”
Emrys…
The word was definitely louder, the headache worse.
“Marco,” Merlin called, mostly joking. “Give me something here, mate. C’mon.”
Emrys…
He felt a strange tugging sensation just below his naval, like the spark of a flint. His magic flared in response to it, buzzing through all his extremities, making him feel dizzy and a little high.
“All right,” he said to himself. “Not helpful. Left…?”
He took a hesitant step to his left, the glow of his handheld light flickering off the stone wall of the tunnel. The sensation in his gut got stronger.
“Left it is.”
Emrys…
“All right, all right. I’m coming. No need to be pushy about it.”
He followed the voice, trying to stay steady, his head swimming, his insides electrified with fear and the growing sensation of power. His sense of that…presence…behind the voice grew, too, and he was aware that it was large and ancient and more than he could consider without being sick with fear and awe.
Why was he doing this? Why?
He didn’t even really process when he found the opening that branched off the side of the tunnel, craggy and more ancient than anything under a modern city had any right to be. He passed through a warm wash of magic, an illusion charm, he thought distantly, and his footsteps echoed closer to his head now, the ceiling lower, his own breath hissing in his ears.
The new – or rather old – tunnel dipped down and twisted. Merlin followed it through several branches and offshoots, distantly aware that he would never be able to find his way back on his own.
“Stupid,” he told himself. “You’re an idiot, you always do this, go poking around in things you know will get you in trouble…
Emrys…
“And what the fuck does that word mean?”
“Don’t you know?”
He stopped. The voice was familiar, close, disturbingly human. He whirled around, but no one was behind him. The tunnel was empty. He pressed his free hand to his rioting heart, swallowed hard, and continued onward.
Not even a minute later he was forced to stop short. The tunnel opened up, the floor dropping away. The soft glow of his light was absorbed into a much more expansive darkness, glinting off stalagmites and stalactites, gray in the dimness.
On instinct, he snuffed the light. That was when he heard the sound, quieter and growing louder, a propulsive rush that vibrated in Merlin’s chest, accompanied by a distinct, ominous rattle. Wings, he thought, and chains. A sudden understanding crashed through him.
“Fuck,” he said aloud. “Oh, fuck. Shit. Shit.”
A great shadow dropped from above him, alighting on a huge pillar of stone a stone’s throw away from Merlin, settling there like a great bat.
“Aren’t you going to turn the light back on?” It was the same voice from before.
Unable to really stop himself, Merlin summoned back the light and threw it, ten times brighter now, to hover in the air above both their heads. And then he saw who sat before him. Who had been calling him. Who had just spoken.
A dragon. Huge, it’s gray-green skin like leather, yellow eyes made opaque by the gleam of Merlin’s light. He saw teeth, notched into the lip. A furrow in the brow that frightened Merlin because his magic warmed with hesitant recognition.
Somehow, somewhere, he had seen that frown before. In a memory, a dream – he didn’t know. But he had seen it, and he knew it, and the yearning he had felt before at the train station when he first heard that voice, bottomed out into an awful ache.
“Hello, Emrys,” the dragon said. “I thought it was high time I introduced myself.”
There was a long, expectant pause.
“No,” Merlin finally said, backing up a step, his voice cracking. “I am not doing this.”
“Doing what?” The dragon's voice was mild, a little sly, wizened as an old man’s.
“Whatever this is, I’m not doing it. I don’t know who you are or what…”
“My name is Kilgharrah. Uther imprisoned me here.”
“Uther? No. Dragons have been long extinct, there haven’t been any around since…”
“Since he had us hunted to extinction, yes. Exterminated, like so many vermin. Except for me,” Kilgharrah said.
He cocked his great serpentine head, the dark pools of his eyes inquisitive and reptilian. Cold.
“We’re allies, Emrys. Though you don’t seem to know it. Don’t seem to remember at all…”
“Remember what?” Merlin demanded. “Why are you calling me? What did you do to all those people up on the train?”
“You should recognize it. It’s a simple enough spell.”
Merlin lost his breath. “You can do magic.”
“I have…a certain amount of power, even constrained as I am. But no. I have other allies who help me. Who would help you, if you gave them half a chance…You could be great, Emrys…and yet, here you are, withering away your talents as…what?”
The narrowed eyes conveyed a scornful scrutiny. It took all Merlin’s willpower not to shrink beneath that gaze. He forced himself to stand his ground, square his shoulders, look the dragon in the face.
“I don’t have any talents,” he said. “And what do you care, anyway?”
“Merlin.” Disappointment, now.
Disappointment had long since lost its power to shame Merlin into anything. He only bristled at it anymore, defiant and pissed off.
“What exactly would you have me do with my talents?” Merlin demanded. “There isn’t exactly a market for what I can do, is there? Parlor tricks. That’s all I’m good for. And not even that, in this city, unless I want to get strung up in the square.”
“Glibness does not suit you,” the dragon said, a hint of amusement in his voice.
“Yes, I forgot. You know me so well. Why don’t you hurry up and tell me what it is you want from me, so I can go home?”
“Home to Arthur,” the dragon said.
Merlin’s stomach froze to a solid block of ice. “You know about Arthur? I suppose you’re all-seeing or something.” He tried hard to remain nonchalant, but his reaction disconcerted him. He didn’t understand why a mention of Arthur evoked such a response. He didn’t even know Arthur. Couldn’t even like him.
“That unnerves you,” the dragon noted shrewdly. “Don’t you wonder why?”
“Not really, no. I’ve got enough to worry about without expending mental energy on a pretentious asshole who does not give a shit about me,” Merlin said.
If it were possible for a dragon to raise an eyebrow, this one did. “Pretending you don’t care isn’t as immutable an armor as you think it is.”
Merlin did not recoil. “Are you going to do anything other than sit there and speak in eerie riddles, or can I go?”
“You are meant to be more, Merlin. More than you are right now.”
“You sound like my primary school teacher.”
The dragon huffed, showing the preliminary signs of exasperation. “I see. You haven’t just grown jaded. You’ve grown selfish. I should’ve realized – the two often go hand in hand.”
“What are you on about? I don’t know you.”
“But I know you, Emrys. I’ve known you. Just as you and Arthur are bound together, so are you and I – the lives of all your loved ones and friends twines about your own. They continue to live on as you do, drawn back to life by the sheer force of your power, your need…your will. You did this, you understand.”
Merlin took a step back, unnerved by the Dragon’s uncanny eyes, which seemed depthless and strong as yellow full moons, staring straight through him.
“What are you talking about?”
“Grief is strong on its own. Combined with a power such as yours, it is no wonder we all keep returning to the same story.”
“You’re crazy,” Merlin said. “I’m not grieving anyone.”
The dragon heaved a deep sigh, smoke coiling up from his nostrils. “There are people here within the city who help me, and who would welcome you. You should seek them out. They could help you reach the answers you seek.”
“I’m not seeking answers! You’ve just lured me into a great cavern and started lobbing spooky nonsense at me! You’re a bloody dragon! Anybody would have questions!” Merlin said, voice rising with incredulity. “And anyway, if there are questions, you’re sitting right there! You seem to think you know a fucking lot about me, for someone trapped in a cave. Why don’t you just answer my questions yourself? Make this whole process easier?”
The dragon shook his head. “I could tell you everything, Emrys. And you would refuse to believe me. Your stubbornness, at least, has not changed.”
“You know fuck all about me,” Merlin managed lowly. “You’re just a decent guesser, and have enough magic to aim your guesses in the right direction. That’s all.” He hesitated. “How am I supposed to find these people you mention, anyway?”
“The same way you found me,” the dragon said sagely. “Time enough, and you’ll start hearing them, too.”
No! I don’t need anyone else’s voice in my head but my own, thanks.”
Again, the dragon appeared amused by his defiance.
“You lack trust in your own abilities. You fear you will fail, and that your failure will result in the hurt of those you hold most dear. You fear your own inclination toward self-destruction, that when you inevitably implode, you will ruin not only your own life but the lives of everyone around you. Your friend, Will. Your mother. The lovely Guinevere,” the dragon recited coldly. “Is that clear enough for you? How about this: you’re right to fear failure. But it’s too late. You’ve already failed, completely, totally, in the only mission that ever mattered.”
The dragon inclined his great head forward, so Merlin felt the hot, humid huff of his breath. “Have you ever wondered why you can’t let anyone in? Not even Gwen? Not even your so-called best friend from childhood? Anyone?”
Merlin had spent his whole life wondering, but he backed up, shaking his head, unaware of his surroundings, the cold of the cave, the uneven rock under his feet, anything but the great luminous glow of the dragon’s eyes.
“I said I’m not doing this. I’m not, I’m not. I’m leaving.”
“Leaving won’t change what has to happen,” the dragon called as Merlin retreated, his great voice booming off all the bare stone. “Come back to me when you decide you want to change the narrative.”
Merlin broke into a run, unseeing through the dark, light abandoned behind him. He didn’t know where he was going but he ran anyway, sightless, stumbling, until a hot wash of magic spilled over him, and he staggered to a stop in the underground’s tunnel.
His heart beat so hard he couldn’t hear anything else, the sense of déjà vu so overwhelming he couldn’t force his sensory perceptions beyond the cage of his own body, his knees gluey and loose, his mouth numb, his head stuffed full of fog.
“You’ll be back,” the dragon’s keen, familiar voice murmured in his ear. “…Emrys…”
A bright light sliced through the chaos roiling through him. He snapped his head up, air sucked out of his lungs by the sudden roar, the all-consuming barrel of an oncoming train.
He stood there, white light cut around him, frozen. A horn blared, louder than any other sound he had ever heard. He tried to breathe. He couldn’t move.
And all he could think of, frozen there, senseless, was something the dragon had said. Ringing in his ears. The least important thing, really.
Home to Arthur.
For some reason, that broke through when nothing else did, catapulted him into the stationary train car he had vacated what seemed like eons ago.
Home to Arthur.
And he lay on the grody floor of the train car, panting, as the other train roared by. The lights flickered on overhead. Next to him, the old lady blinked to life just as the train rumbled into motion.
“Young man,” she said, her wrinkled face concaving as she frowned down at him, “Why are you on the floor?”
“I’ve got no idea,” Merlin breathed, laughing. He covered his face with both his hands, as giggles seized his chest. “God, I’ve gone mad.”
“Are you on drugs?” the woman inquired. “My niece is on drugs.”
“No, I’m not,” Merlin said, finally managing to sit up. Hot tears of hilarity leaked from the corners of his eyes. He wiped them away with his sleeve. “Although I probably should be.”
“If anybody should be on drugs, it’s Martin,” the woman said. “That’s my dog. He gets nervous. Look, he’s trembling now.”
She stroked the tiny handbag dog’s tiny head. The dog, shaking and wild-eyed, was not soothed, its tongue sticking sideways out of its mouth.
“He does look as if he could relax,” Merlin agreed. He got to his feet and moved toward the lady a step, reaching out his hand, palm out. “Can I pet him?”
“You can try. He doesn’t like most men.”
“I’m not really a man,” Merlin murmured, mostly to himself. The dog sniffed tentatively at his fingers, and Merlin palmed its knobby skull, releasing just a smidgen of his magic.
The brief flare of power charged the air in the subway car, bringing with it a sharp smell of ozone. The lady didn’t seem to notice, and the dog blinked sleepily, licking Merlin’s fingers.
Merlin couldn’t really tell if he’d helped or not.
“Strange,” the lady said. “He only gives kisses to me.”
“Lots of strange things about today,” Merlin commented.
“Indeed,” the lady said, eyeing him with cautious suspicion. “Indeed.”
Home to Arthur, Merlin thought, and he felt as if a thousand winged things had taken flight in his gut, moths hovering and beating around an ugly flame.
Why, suddenly, did he want to cry?
He didn’t know. He didn’t know anything. And for all that Kilgharrah and Gaius and his mother and his professors had all thought he held enormous potential Merlin knew deep down that he wasn’t worth his power. That the best thing he could do was squander it. That he wasn’t meant to save anyone.
Not even himself. He couldn’t be expected to be responsible for a pretty, rich blonde boy who treated him like a welcome mat. He didn’t know anything, but he did most certainly know that.

Chapter Text

By the time he arrived back at the loft, Merlin had mostly convinced himself that what had happened in the subway had been a weird lucid dream. He had nodded off in the subway car, as he did from time to time, worn from being on his feet all day and lulled by the rock of the train. He didn’t ascribe much thought to it beyond that, aware that he wouldn’t have to think very hard to find gaps in his logic. For example, ending up on the subway floor.
Maybe he had fainted. It didn’t matter.
It was dark, the streetlights on, the city itself crowded with fog. Merlin paused in front of the building only long enough to glance behind him, at the quiet sidewalk. The trees were forlorn black shapes, the gutters clogged with soggy leaves, the concrete still damp from the earlier rain, and the metallic smell of wet cement hung in the chilly air.
He steeled himself, as he always did now, and let himself in, making his way through the empty lobby and past the broken elevator, up the stairs. Emerging on the third floor he paused again on the landing, frowning at the brassy letters on the four sets of doors. He could smell something savory being cooked in one of the flats.
Then, as he was wont to do when he didn’t want to sit with his thoughts, operating on gut instinct and something a little darker, he made a reckless decision.
He went up to the door of 3D and knocked.
“Just a second!” called a voice from inside.
The door opened to reveal Leon standing on the other side. He was not wearing his blanket hoodie today, still dressed for work in a pair of straight-legged jeans and a white button-up shirt, the sleeves rolled up around the elbow, a sauce stain on the left cuff.
“Oh, hi Merlin.”
“Hi,” Merlin said evenly. “Are Percy or Gawaine here?”
“No. Gawaine’s out for the night, and Percy’s still with Arthur, heaven knows where. They likely won’t be back until late. Why? Did you need one of them?”
“No. Not necessarily. Are you having a bit of trouble with the pasta?”
Obviously a little confused as to why Merlin was there, Leon nodded, pale brow furrowed. “I am, actually. How did you know that?”
“Good guesser. I can sniff out homemade noodles from a kilometer away.”
“It’s my first time trying them. I thought I’d do it with no one around to make commentary while I did so, anticipating it would be a disaster.”
“Well, I can leave you and your disaster noodles in peace, or…if you’d like a little help,” Merlin let the sentence trail off, shrugging one shoulder. “It is one of my six skills.”
Leon rocked back on his heels, pondering. He and Merlin had only been around each other a handful of times, all with other people around.
“Hey, listen. I’ll trade you. Pasta pointers from me, and you can…I don’t know. Teach me how to fence or practice family law or something.”
Leon allowed himself to smile at this and opened the door a little wider. “All right, you can come in. But you have to promise not to make fun of me.”
“Never,” Merlin said, faux soberly.
Leon rolled his eyes, but let him inside.
“I had a pasta machine back home,” Merlin commented upon entering the kitchen. “Could’ve made quick work of all this. Alas.”
“A pasta machine?” Leon asked, arms crossed as he watched Merlin survey the light coat of flour which dusted everything, and the sticky mound of dough sitting forlornly on a cutting board in the middle of the island counter.
“I have a lot of hobbies,” Merlin murmured, approaching the would-be pasta and rolling up his sleeves. He glanced up at Leon. “Are you just going to watch me, or do you want to learn?”
“Oh! Right.” Leon approached.
“I expect you know you’ve got to roll it out in a disc shape. Ah, yes, here’s the rolling pin.” Merlin sprinkled the dough with the flour from the bin sitting by the cutting board, and went about rolling out the dough in brisk, efficient movements, pretending he did not notice the warmth at his elbow as Leon drew closer to watch over his shoulder.
“You do this a lot, then?” he asked.
“A bit,” Merlin said. Leon wore a very tasteful cologne, and it mingled not unpleasantly with the dusty smell of the flour. “Do you have a pizza cutter? That’d be easier.”
“In this flat?” Leon scoffed. “A pizza cutter! Perce’s principal diet is frozen pizza. If I open the freezer now, I’d expect I’d see five whole ones jammed in there.”
He got the cutter as Merlin lifted the rolled-out dough to the light.
“Thin enough you can see your hand through it. Right?” Leon asked.
“You’ve got it,” Merlin said. “Do you want to cut it?”
“Sure, I can give it a try,” Leon said, and Merlin stepped aside to let him do it.
The process from there was simple enough. Boiling the pasta and making a basic sauce, which Leon did without needing any pointers or referring to any sort of recipe. Merlin withheld his skepticism until he started to smell the resulting concoction.
“Hey, that doesn’t smell half bad. Can I try it?”
Leon laughed. “Go for it. And try not to sound so surprised if you don’t mind. Do I seem like the sort of bloke who doesn’t know his way around the kitchen?”
“You seem like a beginner,” Merlin admitted, taking the wooden spoon Leon offered him. The sauce bubbled on the stove. The pasta water boiled merrily. “And you do keep the company of bachelors who sustain themselves on frozen pizza, Brita water, and protein shakes, so please excuse my surprise.”
“Fair enough,” Leon said. “Don’t tell them, but I half took up the practice just to see if I could get real nutrition into their diet. Gawaine is all right, he’s a bit of a fitness freak, so he’s all about unseasoned chicken and spinach and that sort of thing, but I don’t think Perce was familiar with the concept of a vegetable until I sliced a tomato in front of him.”
Merlin tasted the sauce. “This isn’t half bad.” He went a little quiet and stepped away, handing the spoon back to Leon.
“What is it? Are you lying to spare my feelings? You needn’t bother, I’m really tough,” Leon told him, the corners of his eyes crinkled with good humor.
“No, I’d let you know if it was shit,” Merlin informed him. “You deserve the truth.” He hesitated a little longer and then decided to be out with it. “Well, I was just thinking…I used to host dinner parties back when I was in school.”
“Really?”
“Yeah, had themes and proper linen tablecloths and everything. I’ve wanted to do one here, now I’m settled, but I obviously can’t host one.”
Leon added a little more salt to the sauce. “Why not?”
“Arthur,” Merlin said. “Or do you think he’d tolerate that sort of genial messiness in his living space? He likes to keep it dour.”
Leon’s fair brow creased. “I knew that was a bad idea, your moving in.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. I know you all are close."
“No. It’s all right. Did he say anything about…” Leon hesitated, clearly not wanting to disclose anything if Merlin didn’t already know.
“About it having to be a stranger, rather than someone he actually knew?”
“Yes, that.”
“No. He didn’t. Just kind of flushed when I brought it up. But I can put two and two together,” Merlin said. “If I were his mate, I wouldn’t want to live with him either. It’s like living in a crypt. Always cold. Always bleak. And his moods switch so abruptly I get whiplash. It’s easier for me to confront him because he already hates me…”
“Arthur doesn’t hate you.”
Merlin scoffed.
“He doesn’t hate you,” Leon insisted. “Trust me, you would know if he didn’t like you.”
“Truly a terrifying notion.”
“You want to know the truth?” Leon asked.
Merlin leaned against the counter, crossing his arms. “What?”
“I think he’s frightened of you.”
“Really?”
“He’s got all of us wrapped around his little finger,” Leon said. “We can’t say no to him. Especially Gawaine, he’s hopeless. I mean, we’ll take keys from him if we need to, or pull him out of a fight, but really stand up to him?” He shook his head. “We love him too much. We know him too well. And so, he walks all over us and we can’t bear to stop him. All we can do is try and encourage him to eat a sandwich, please, you haven’t had a bite in two days, and then he refuses and insists he’s fine, and so the cycle goes.”
“It’s not like he listens any better to me,” Merlin said. “Except he’s not nice about it with me. He yells. Do you know…one time, he threw a throw pillow at my head one night when I came back and found the door unlocked? Told him intruders could just waltz right in and he lobbed that pillow at me without looking up from the tv, said what did I think I was.”
Leon smothered a laugh. “No, that isn’t funny. I’m sorry. What did you do?”
“Oh, it’s fine. I chucked it right back.”
Leon gaped at him. “You did not.”
Merlin smiled, a little bewildered at this response. “Yes, I did. I threw it at his head. He caught it, of course, and I told him he was an arse and if someone wanted to come in and steal all his shit, they could do it, I’d help them carry it out. He yelled something after me, but I was so mad I didn’t hear. Went to my room and slammed the door.
“Jesus.”
“I know. It’s right toxic. But both of us are stuck, I guess. Until the lease is up at least, or maybe even longer, depending on what His Mightiness decides is good for the crown prince.”
Leon chuckled. “I knew I liked you. It’s good someone stands up to him. He needs it. Tell you what, he ever gets like that, and you need back up, let us know. Well, let me know. I can talk Gawaine into falling line.”
“All right. If you don’t mind, I’ll save that Get Out of Jail Free card for when I really need it.”
“Will do. Hey, take a look, do you think the pasta’s ready?”
Merlin went about the effort of finagling a noodle. “By Jove, I think so. You’ve done it!”
“You want to stick around for a plate?”
Merlin considered this. His original, vague scheme had come under a little harsher scrutiny as he chatted with Leon. He’d made a vow to himself that he wouldn’t use other people anymore to escape his own head.
Then his thoughts skated too close to the edge which hung over the dragon, and that terrible voice, and the even more terrible promise, and a ghost of the cold that had crept into his gut came back, making him shiver.
He did not want to go back to the dim, frigid flat across the way. Better to stay here, in the warmth and the light. His stomach gurgled, reminding him he hadn’t eaten since that half a panini Gaius had split with him on their lunch.
“All right,” he said. “Won’t say no to a homecooked meal.”

Chapter Text

So, they ate at the island counter, stocking feet propped on the bottom rungs of their respective stools. Merlin stayed a little longer to help Leon wash up, a process that was lengthier than usual due to the liberal amount of flour Leon had managed to free from the jar. By then, darkness had fallen securely outside, the shadows tucked close as a child’s bedclothes.
Neither Gwaine nor Percy had yet returned, and the building itself was quiet with Friday night, everyone out, the only noise the hum of the ancient generators and the creak as the building settled around them.
Leon mentioned a show he had been watching, and Merlin asked him if he’d seen the latest episode. He had not, but it was on the DVR.
Thus, Merlin found himself on the sectional couch, feet tucked up underneath him. Leon sat at a cushion’s distance, the last of the wine from dinner in a glass in his right hand. He sipped it thoughtfully as he watched the screen, blue light washed over his face.
He had good taste in wine, too, Merlin mused. He himself was not a snob when it came to alcohol. Gwen and his old school friends could attest that he was capable of stomaching even the cheapest and most atrocious undergrad party selections. However, he did know a good red when he tasted it.
Nice, but not expensive, with a warmth in it which Merlin still felt buzzing in his mouth, that had also settled quite comfortably at the center of his chest.
He had had a glass of water to balance out the glass and a half that he had had, so it was mostly placebo effect as he looked at Leon without trying to appear to look at Leon, half his attention lazily focused on what was happening on screen.
It was a bad idea, he told himself. A terrible idea.
And, in a feat of personal growth, he convinced himself of this. He would be good. He would let this evening end pleasantly. He would go back to what served as home and he would not have to approach Gwen at their next brunch with shameful and scandalous news.
“Meet a stranger in a bar, Merlin,” Gwen had told him once. “So long as you’re being safe, take him home. Take home someone you’ve had a nice chat and a beer with.”
But Merlin never found himself attracted to strangers. He only ever found himself attracted to objectively bad decisions. This one just happened to have curly hair and kind eyes and be one of Arthur’s best mates.
Bad idea, he repeated to himself. Bad idea.
And he would’ve made it out, too, if Leon hadn’t kissed him first. He was almost out the door. In fact, the door had been open at his back, Merlin’s hand resting on the jamb, when Leon’s expression resolved into something hesitant and new.
Before Merlin could register the meaning of that look, Leon touched his jaw lightly, and kissed him.
All Merlin knew how to do was kiss him back. He tasted of wine and after dinner mints, and when Merlin’s hand went to rest against his ribcage, God, Leon nearly melted at the touch.
Sometimes Merlin forgot his own power.
It was stupid, and it was reckless, but if calm, steady Leon wanted to lead him down this path, who was Merlin not to follow. He closed the door behind him again with his free hand, the latch clicking softly.
“My room?” Leon suggested.
The smile Merlin felt spreading over his face was ragged, wanton. “All right,” he said. It was Arthur’s own fault he had such handsome friends.
And Merlin proceeded to have such a brilliant time he really did not feel guilty about it at all.

Chapter Text

“You really are incorrigible,” Gwen told him.
They were at brunch at the usual place, the one with the Danishes and the orange juice guaranteed to banish even the most malevolent hangover. They sat under the awning on the porch, the last warm day of autumn clear and golden in the sunlight dappling the sidewalk.
“Like you’re a pillar of virtue,” Merlin retorted.
Gwen sighed. “I’m not going to lecture you, Merlin.”
“Really? Because this sounds like the classic lead-up to a lecture.”
“God are you grumpy this morning. What bee is in your bonnet?”
“Just the usual one,” Merlin grumbled, poking his stirrer at the tea steaming in his cup. “He had a hissy fit this morning because I’d moved his yogurt to a different shelf. I think that man is made of yogurt at this point, I haven’t seen him consume anything else except for those bloody awful protein shakes.” He paused, and sighed. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have snapped at you.”
“I forgive you,” Gwen said primly, and did her level best to make it a joke, but her sunny smile spread over her face anyway.
“I didn’t mean to do it. I swear to you, Gwen, on my mother’s life, that I was almost out the door. I would’ve made it, too, if he hadn’t kissed me first.”
Gwen raised an incredulous eyebrow, cutting into her omelet as she did. “You know, I really don’t think you can help it.”
Thank you. Wait, are you being facetious?”
“Like you’ll get that information out of me. Eat your food, would you, it’s getting cold,” Gwen said.
“Whatever.” But Merlin stuck a forkful of hashbrown casserole in his mouth and chewed, not really tasting it.
“But the other guys must have seen you leave in the morning,” Gwen said.
Merlin’s ears went hot at the memory and Gwen cackled. He chucked a grape at her, which she dodged. The only other party was across the porch and were so engrossed it what looked to be an intense break-up conversation that they didn’t notice.
“Don’t you dare laugh at me. Percy was still dead to the world, I could hear him snoring when I woke up, and Gwaine’s door was closed, so I thought my coast was clear, but then I found him in the kitchen making a fucking green smoothie. When I tell you I almost leapt into the air when he started that blender…”
Gwen clutched at her side, nearly slipping out of her chair as she gasped for air.
“I didn’t even mean to spend the night, I just fell asleep,” Merlin groused. “I mean, the flat’s just one over it isn’t even a walk. Stupid. Anyway, I might’ve been able to sneak out without his seeing me, but I bumped into the end table and…have you seen that atrocious lamp Perce made?”
“Yes, at that class he got a Groupon for,” Gwen supplied, gathering herself enough to wipe the tears from the corners of her eyes. “Please tell me you didn’t break Perce’s lamp.”
“God no. But I did nearly knock it over, and in catching it sent the coasters clattering over the floor, which made Gwaine whip around. I don’t know where his head was at, but he kept his finger on the blender but took his hand off the lid, and green smoothie goes everywhere. Ceiling, floor, counter, Gwaine – who was shirtless, I almost forgot that part – absolutely goddamn everywhere…”
Gwen muffled her guffaw with her cardigan sleeve.
Merlin continued, heartened by her response. “He sees me right, standing there holding Perce’s absolute monstrosity of a lamp in both hands, like a deer in headlights. I mean, obviously I’m not there for a cup of sugar, I hadn’t even buttoned my shirt, and you know how my hair gets…”
“Ew, yuck, do not say post-coitus I will vomit,” Gwen interjected.
“Fine, you’re no fun…so, Gwaine sees me, the smoothie is everywhere, he whirls around to turn off the blender, the noise is terrific, behind me, I hear Percy’s snores cease, and I don’t hesitate. I just chuck the lamp on the couch, and I book it out of there.”
“You left Leon to fend for himself?”
“Leon is an adult man, he could handle it,” Merlin said comfortably, stabbing another forkful of hashbrown. “Anyway, none of it would have happened if he hadn’t gotten handsy.”
“You talk like you had no free will in the matter.”
“I was seduced, Gwen. What did you expect me to do? Not make out with the very attractive man who had just let me show him how to make handmade pasta?”
Gwen snorted. “Jesus, Merlin. Arthur’s best mate. You know he’s going to find out, don’t you?”
“No, he’s not,” Merlin replied comfortably.
He waited until the waiter came back to refill their water glasses to elaborate.
“Except in the notable matter of his yogurt, I have never met a more oblivious person in my life. The man might as well be a block of wood, for all he notices,” Merlin said. “Will he notice the bit of mud I tracked in? Yes. Will he notice that I watered his plant…which was dry, by the way…and unloose holy rage upon me? Yes. Will he passive aggressively leave me a note next to my toast crumbs from that morning, or the spot of shaving cream flecked on the mirror? Oh, yes, he will. But interpersonally?” Merlin scoffed and leaned back in his chair, blowing on his tea before he risked sipping it. “Did Gwaine ever tell you about the time he dated someone for seven months, and at a dinner Arthur called her by the name of the ex Gwaine dated in undergrad? Just because they were both blonde? He didn’t even notice that they were completely different woman. Percy has changed his hair color twice since I’ve known him. Not a word. Leon once went to visit his sister in Bristol for a week and a half and he told me Arthur didn’t even notice he was gone.”
Gwen listened to this with muted amusement. “All right, you’ve made your point.”
“If I shagged all his best mates, he wouldn’t know it, unless either I or said mates told him so,” Merlin informed her. “And trust me, Leon’s not going to tell. Why they are friends with someone who can’t even bother to take notice of them, I’ve got no clue.”
“I told you,” Gwen said, “He might not notice things like that, but he is loyal, and he is fierce. Won’t even bat an eye getting in a fistfight over some chick he barely knows.”
Merlin narrowed his eyes at the lightness in her tone. “You never told me this.”
“It was a bar, just after I started seeing Morgana. When things were less…tense between them. Some guy was being rude to us while Arthur was in the restroom, and Morgana I could tell was getting really upset. You know.” She held up her hand in an imitation of the way Merlin would when trying to smother his power, fingers nearly curled into her palm, not quite a fist. “So, I got us out of there, and texted Arthur from Morgana’s phone that we were outside. He met us on the street, took one look at us, and said, ‘Who?’ If I’d told him to leave it, he would’ve, but I was pissed seeing Morgana like that, so I told him. He went back inside, and I watched through the front window as he walked right up to the guy, pulled him away from the bar, and punched him straight in his face.”
“Jesus,” Merlin murmured, trying not to be impressed. “What happened then?”
“He walked out, raised his hands and said he was done, left before the bouncer could toss him.”
“Should’ve tossed the guy who was being an ass. What kind of shit bar was this?”
“We didn’t go back.”
Merlin was quiet for a second. “I’m sorry that happened to you, Gwennie.”
She managed a weak smile. “Yeah, it was bad. But I’m okay now. Talked it out with my therapist like a well-adjusted adult.”
“An example to us all,” Merlin said, raising his cup in a half toast.
“Thank you, thank you. Anyway, it’s not all for no reason, how dedicated those guys are to him. At one point or another, he has pulled them out of some deep shit they would never have survived otherwise. That’s what he does. He saves other people’s lives.”
“How…noble,” Merlin said, not serious, a little nonplussed by the solemnity in Gwen’s voice, almost like she’d bought into the inexplicable myth built around Arthur, too.
He remembered finding Arthur asleep on her couch, with her spare key in his pocket. Maybe she already had.
The dragon’s words came back to him then, the lives of all your loved ones and friends’ twines about your own.
“What’s wrong?” Gwen asked. “You look like you’re going to be sick.”
Before he could answer her, a cool October breeze gusted down the street, sending bronze leaves skittering and their napkins fluttering against the constraint of their cutlery.
The hiss could’ve been the leaves. Just the leaves.
Emrys…
His fork clattered against his plate as he lost his grip.
“Merlin. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” He had to say it again, his voice guttural and almost gone. He cleared his throat. “I’m fine. Just…a bad feeling. Deja vu.”
Gwen rubbed at her arms, warm concern in her dark eyes. “You scare me sometimes.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to apologize. I just want you to be okay.”
He smiled weakly at her. “Likewise.”
“I’m going to come over and hug you. Okay?”
“Okay.”
He submitted to the embrace, and Gwen got the check. The remnants of that voice lingered in Merlin’s head as he started sightlessly across the street.
Emrys…
He needed to get a grip. All his bad luck couldn’t follow him here. He wouldn’t let it.
“You ready?” Gwen asked. “I’ll give you a lift home.”
“Yeah, that’d be great, thanks.” Merlin gathered his coat and trailed her out to her now-repaired car. He tried not to think of the dragon. He tried to ignore the icy blade that sliced through him as he recalled the rumble of the beast’s words resonating in his chest.
They continue to live on as you do, drawn back to life by the sheer force of your power…What did that even mean?
He didn’t care. He didn’t want to know.
He didn’t want to know.
He didn’t.
Want.
To.
Know.

Chapter Text

The conversation happened on Gwen’s couch. Gwen is in the kitchen, pouring over the operating manual for the air fryer, an early Christmas gift from Morgana.
Morgana, who sat on the side of the couch opposite Merlin, a cup of hot cider cradled in both her hands, spoke in a low voice so Gwen wouldn’t hear.
“She says I shouldn’t invite you, but I think you’d want to come.”
“Why doesn’t she want me to come? She has to have a good reason.”
Morgana rolled her eyes, the merry wickedness in them emphasized by the new eyeliner style she had just started to test out, the dark ink curved and wicked as a scythe. “It’s not that she said I shouldn’t invite you, it’s that she said you’d probably say no, and she didn’t want you to hurt my feelings.”
“Hurt your feelings?”
Morgana snorted.
Over in the kitchen, Gwen stopped and looked over. “What are you two conspiring about over there? Should I be worried?”
“No!” they chorused loudly in unison.
Merlin scooted closer across the couch, so his ankles intertwined with Morgana’s. They both wore the ill-fitting socks Gwen knitted them, just another of her intrepid cold-weather hobbies.
“Anyway,” Morgana said, voice hoarse and hushed, “It’s a Halloween party. My friend is putting it on at her house. Technically, I only have a plus one, but I’m a rebel at heart, as you know. Say you’ll come, it’ll be fun, and I’d like to have you there.”
“Naturally, I’m very fun at parties.”
“So, I’ve heard,” Morgana said, settling back against her pillows. “You’ll come, then?”
“I guess. What sort of costume do I need to wear?”
“A sexy one. I don’t know. Theme is macabre. Think like catacombs and gothic romanticism and stuff. If you wear a bunch of dark eye makeup and some fishnets, you’ll be fine.”
“I’ll come if you serve this cider,” Merlin told her. “What is in this? You have to give me the recipe.”
“Guys,” Gwen interrupted excitedly from the kitchen. “I think I know how it works. What should I make first? I have potatoes, so I could make potato chips, or I heard if you throw baby carrots in...”
“Baby carrots,” Morgana said, at the same time Merlin blurted, “Potato chips!”
“All right, baby carrots, but…” Gwen said raising her voice over Merlin’s protest, “Merlin gets to pick the movie.”
Morgana groaned.
“Yes!” Merlin fist pumped. “Ha-ha. Time for Norwegian cult shit.”
“Kill me now,” Morgana muttered. “Gwen, why can’t you have normal friends who want to watch like A Nightmare on Elm Street or whatever?”
Merlin cupped his hands around his mouth and crowed, “Boooring.”
“A Nightmare on Elm Street is a classic you heathen.”
“Girls, girls,” Gwen said mildly, rummaging in her fridge for the carrots.
Later that night, after Ubering home, Merlin sighed outside the door to 3D, pressing his forehead to the doorjamb for a second before he turned the key in the lock.
It was quiet and dark inside the flat, in total contrast to the warmth and comfortable closeness of Gwen’s little basement place. Arthur sat in the armchair, his laptop on his knees, headphones over his ears.
“You’ll strain your eyes sitting in the dark like that,” Merlin said, mostly to himself, flicking on the light.
Arthur glanced up, noticing him. “Turn that off.”
“Hello to you too.” Merlin left the light on, got a glass of water from the kitchen, and went to his room. “Weirdo.”
“Heard that,” Arthur muttered.
Merlin slammed his door. The flat returned to silence.
He hated it here.

Chapter Text

That weekend, Gwen wasn’t working any events, and Merlin cajoled her into hunting for Halloween outfits.
Only slight tipsy off brunch Mimosas, they set off on foot downtown, the traffic mild and the crowds minimal, put off by the chill.
“I’ve had like six people recommend this place to me since I got here,” Gwen told him. “I’ve just been too busy to check it out.”
“See? I am good for something,” Merlin said.
She elbowed him, smirking. They walked arm and arm past the crowded front window of an antique store, Gwen pausing to admire the patterns on the pretty glassware currently on display. This strip was all quirky second-hand shops, grungy and eclectic enough to be suitably authentic. They passed another shop selling vintage hats, the false eyelashes of one of the mannequins dropping jauntily to one side. It was the perfect day for window-shopping, Merlin’s wool jacket buttoned up to his chin and insulated with his favorite scarf, the cool October morning blowsy and golden, Gwen’s nose pink with cold.
It was pleasant enough Merlin wouldn’t have minded a bit longer of a wander, but Gwen tugged at him, pointing with her mittened hand. “There it is! Ooh, it looks promising.”
Promising for Gwen meant a tiny, hostile storefront, with no front window and a tattered awning overarching the blue-painted door, what little brick there was dinghy with grime. The name – Alvarr’s Thrift Shoppe. “How twee,” Merlin murmured.
“Oh, shush. Don’t be pretentious.”
“It looks like a front for drugs,” Merlin said.
“In this city, almost everything is,” Gwen said practically. “But eleven to one is pick-a-tag extravaganza, according to the Facebook page.”
“We mustn’t miss pick-a-tag extravaganza,” Merlin relented, holding the door open for Gwen. “After you milady.”
She swept her coat in a curtsey and sashayed inside, the ring of the bell announcing her entrance. Merlin followed her. The inside of the store was much larger than the outside suggested it would be, densely crowded with racks and shelves, the walls themselves crammed with merchandise. A glass display case ran along the front of the store, displaying jewelry and other more valuable goods. It smelled as most thrift stores did – of mothballs and stale carpet and some long deceased old lady’s floral perfume.
As soon as Merlin passed the threshold, he felt a distinctive prickle over his skin and his attention instantly sharpened. Magic.
It didn’t mean anything, necessarily. Gaius had told him that lots of places around here were magic masquerading as mundane. Still, he resolved not to let his guard down while they were here. He’d learned the hard way to be careful.
“Pick a tag, pick a tag!” announced a bright voice from behind the counter.
Gwen already had her hand stuck in a fishbowl full of colored tags when Merlin turned around, the bowl held out by a dark-haired teenage boy who smirked at Merlin when he met his eyes.
“Purple!” announced Gwen, brandishing her tag with triumph. “Merlin, come here, you’ve got to pick a different color than me.”
“The bowl gives what it will give,” the boy said, faux-gravely. Merlin stepped forward, disconcerted by the sudden guardedness that snapped through his body. Pinned to the boy’s ratty black band tee was a nametag.
Mordred.
“Something wrong?” the boy asked cheerily.
Merlin lifted his eyes from the nametag to the boy’s face. He had unsettlingly blue eyes, clear and open, in total contrast to the jaded twist of his mouth. Merlin was suddenly colder than he had been out on the sidewalk.
“Have we met before?” Merlin asked.
“In another life, maybe,” the boy said. “Are you going to take a tag or not? Your friend is waiting for you.”
Merlin stuck his hand in the bowl and fished out a yellow tag.
“The bowl has been merciful!” declared Mordred, shaking it gleefully and setting it back on the counter. Behind Merlin, Gwen giggled, delighted. “Happy shopping. Holler if you need anything. Changing rooms are locked and I have the key.”
He fished said key out from under his shirt to show them.
Gwen had already turned toward the racks.
“Aren’t you a little young to be manning a store by yourself?” Merlin asked.
“I’m very responsible,” Mordred replied, “And older than I look.”
Those blue eyes were steady on Merlin’s.
Emrys…
Merlin shoved the whisper of the voice away. Not here.
“You seem very familiar,” he muttered finally, turning away.
“Was your mom a drug addict? Maybe we’re long-lost brothers.”
Merlin whipped around again, but Mordred had vanished almost supernaturally, and the stretch behind the counter was empty.
“Are you done bothering the teenage shop clerk?” Gwen demanded from the women’s section, two pastel blouses already tossed over her arm. “Because look what I just found.”
She brandished a dress as he approached. It was forest green, velvet, with a deep neckline and an incredible slit, instead of straps there were two delicate gold chains.
“Guess what color the tag is!”
The tag was purple. Which, per the rules of pick-a-tag extravaganza, would be 50% off.
“It is elegant yet sexy, a little camp,” Merlin observed. “I think you’d pull it off beautifully, but it doesn’t really seem your style.”
“Not for me, dummy, I wouldn’t fit in this. Can you believe it?” she marveled, inspecting the dress for any damage. “It has to be vintage.”
“Oh.” Merlin frowned. “But what’s the costume? Like, who would I be?”
“I don’t know. Say you are gender-bent Babar, get a paper crown,” Gwen said. “Or mother earth, or something. It doesn’t matter you can make something up. I feel like you’re not really looking at this dress.”
“I’m looking at it. You’re correct, it’s gorgeous, and I’m getting it. Here, give it to me,” Merlin said, taking the dress from her. He didn’t even bother suggesting trying it on. Gwen had an eye for these things, it was her own particular mundane magic.
He trailed after Gwen as she perused the rest of the store. She managed to find the last remaining pieces she needed for her costume, discovering a truly stupendous pair of silk gloves abandoned in one of the dollar bins.
Mordred reappeared when they came back to the counter to check out, chatting genially with Gwen while he bagged their items and put their money in the till. He didn’t look or speak to Merlin until they turned to go.
“Hey Emrys,” he called just as Merlin was about to exit, Gwen already out on the sunny sidewalk. Merlin stopped, his hand on the doorhandle, the hair at the back of his neck rising.
Mordred leaned against the counter, hands shoved in the pockets of his derelict jeans, smirking and teenage and smug. “Tag’s sticking out of your coat, buddy.”
“Why’d you call me that?” Merlin demanded. The low, deadly tone of his own voice scared him.
Mordred shrugged, unruffled. “That’s your name, isn’t it?”
“It isn’t.”
“Maybe I just know a guy who looks like you. Don’t sweat it. You look like you’re about to pass out.”
Merlin white-knuckled the door handle. He didn’t need to have a confrontation with a child today. He was actively trying not to manifest that specific brand of crazy.
Relax, he told himself. He’s just trying to get a rise out of you.
“Have a nice day,” he said instead, stiffly.
The grin was infuriating. “Your tag!” Mordred called after him.
“What was that about?” Gwen asked when he reached her.
“Hell, if I know,” Merlin muttered, stuffing his coat tag back down his collar.
“All right. Well, let’s put this stuff in my car so we don’t have to carry it around. There’s two more shops I wanted to get to, and I needed to stop by the grocery for a couple things too if you didn’t mind.”
“So long as I get an iced coffee out of it, I’ll be pacified.”
Gwen’s laughter dissipated the last of Merlin’s apprehension. The rest of the day went pleasantly. They finished their errands, picked up a pizza on the way back to Gwen’s place, where Morgana met them.
She swept the pizza box gracefully from Gwen’s hands.
“I heard you two went shopping,” she said, flopping back on the couch and flipping open the lid. “Are there mushrooms on this?”
“No, it’s just bacon and pepperoni,” Gwen told her.
“Huh.” Morgana frowned daintily, plucking a piece of pizza from the box with an air that stated she still suspected it of concealing secrets. “Are you going to show me what you got, or am I going to have to wait around all day?”
Gwen rolled her eyes, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. “Impatient. Merlin can show you what he got first. I’m going to put the groceries away.”
She took the grocery bags that Merlin had been carrying, leaving him with the stuff they had purchased at the thrift shop.
“Well, I’m sure this will be much less exciting, since it’s me…”
“Boo!” Morgana interrupted, midchew. “I’m excited. Don’t put words in my mouth. Show me the shit!”
Merlin dumped the bags on top of her feet, eliciting a wide, spoilt grin from her.
“Brat,” Merlin said, with as straight a face as he could muster.
“Oh, I’m so hurt. Wounded!” she clutched at her chest and fell backward against the pillows.
“You’re in a good mood today,” Gwen called from the kitchen.
Morgana shrugged. “It’s a good day, what can I say?”
Merlin, having dug through the bags in search of his solitary purchase, now pulled it out. Despite having been sloppily folded and shoved in a plastic bag, the dark green fabric appeared to have retained no wrinkles. He held it up.
“Behold.”
Morgana sat up. “You’re fucking kidding me. What’s the back look like?”
He turned it so she could see.
“‘You’re’ wearing this?” she asked, incredulous.
Merlin scoffed. “Yes, I am, thank you.”
“That might be dangerous,” Morgana said, her tone changing so quickly Merlin couldn’t quite get a read on it. “Can I see it?”
“Er…sure. As long as you’re not going to steal it. Is something wrong?”
He handed the dress over.
“You don’t feel it?”
In the mundane coziness of Gwen’s flat, he focused, and he did feel what she was talking about. It hung, just slightly in the air, a breathless charge where there hadn’t been one before.
“I can’t believe I missed that,” he said. “That thrift shop was buzzing with magic, I didn’t even notice it. You’ve got a good nose.”
“I know,” Morgana murmured. She had wiped her fingers off on one of the napkins supplied by the pizzeria, now holding the dress as close to her face as she could without pressing her cheek to it.
“What is it, do you think?” Gwen asked. She ceased putting away groceries and came to stand behind the couch.
“It’s mild,” Morgana said. “No wonder you didn’t clock it. And harmless…relatively. Depending.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Merlin demanded.
“It means it depends,” Morgana said staunchly. “It amplifies the attractiveness of the person who wears it. I’ve seen spells similar to this before. This one is particularly well-done, I think. Probably just heightens what’s already appealing about you. If it’s particularly subtle, it’ll also feed on the natural attraction of whoever is looking at you, emphasizing what about you they think is hot, or whatever. Nice find.” She handed the dress back. “What’d you get it for?”
Merlin took it, a little stunned. “Eight dollars.”
“It was pick-a-tag extravaganza,” Gwen supplied.
“I guess I’d better come up with an idea to suit the gown,” Merlin murmured. “What’s the theme again?”
Morgana shrugged. “Pretentious gothic bullshit. Hey, Gwen, did you pick up any beer?”
“I did not, there’s still two left off that six-pack you brought last night.”
From there, the evening culminated in a viewing of one of Morgana’s slasher flicks, Merlin comfortably third wheeling from one end of the couch. After the credits rolled, Morgana volunteered to take Merlin home. The evening went downhill from there.

Chapter Text

When they went outside, there was a damp, chilled quality in the air that suggested rain, the cloud cover dark and low, the haze orange of the streetlights glinting over the hood of Morgana’s car.
No sooner had she turned the key in the ignition than raindrops started speckling the windshield. By the time she hit the end of the street, it had turned into a flat-out downpour, the deluge drumming against the roof so loudly Morgana’s usual screaming, witchy music was effectively drowned out.
She leaned forward, practically hugging the steering wheel, struggling to see. “Jesus.”
Thankfully, the roads were mostly empty, and it only took a few extra minutes to get back to Merlin’s place. Well, Arthur’s place, where Merlin also had to live.
He stuffed the bag with the dress in it under his shirt as she pulled up to the curb.
“Run, Forrest,” she told him, raising her voice to be heard.
“Funny,” Merlin muttered. “I’ll see you later, okay? Drive safe.”
“Whatever, loser. See you.”
He leapt out of the car and sprinted, head and shoulders soaked by the time he made it under the awning. The key jammed in the lock, but he made it inside, the lobby silent and sterile, the overbright yellow glow of the ceiling light glinting off the floor wax.
Still, no landlord in sight. He was starting to wonder about that.
He stood for a second, dripping, trying to catch his breath, the sound of it echoing in the vacant space. The building itself was still, only the distant hum of the radiators hinting at human habitation.
He could smell the familiar, warm spice of someone making curry, and, as he mounted the steps, a distant murmur of voices from the second floor.
He had broken a clammy sweat by the time he reached the third floor, overheating in his now redundant coat. From 3D, there was silence, the guys no doubt out on the town. Maybe they had dragged Arthur out with him.
Merlin could only hope.
He made his way to 3C, fiddling to get his key out and pulling off his scarf at the same time, leftover rain dripping down his collar.
The door flew open before Merlin could reach the lock. He managed to jump out of the way just in time to avoid being bowled over by Arthur. Merlin’s heart hadn’t slowed down by the time he processed Arthur’s exit, the stairwell door slamming in his wake.
He leaned over the railing, waiting, and a minute later Arthur reappeared, his blonde head sweeping toward the front door down below.
“ARTHUR!” Merlin called. “What are you…?”
But Arthur didn’t even give a flicker of a response. The building’s door banged shut behind him.
Merlin blinked. The rain was still pounding against the roof. Arthur hadn’t been wearing a raincoat, or any sort of protective wear, just his usual hoody and sweatpants.
Taking a deep breath, Merlin turned back to the flat. The door had drifted partly shut again, and he nudged it the rest of the way open, flicking on the light when he went inside. Arthur’s keys were still in the bowl on the side table.
Still too stunned to be truly alarmed, Merlin swept his gaze carefully over the rest of the flat from his place on the welcome mat. He spotted Arthur’s phone immediately, sitting on the kitchen counter.
Not quite knowing why, he went over and picked it up. The screen was completely shattered. It wouldn’t even turn on. It had been whole the last time Merlin had seen it. It didn't mean anything, necessarily.
“Shit,” he murmured.
Thunder cracked the sky and he flinched.
“Shit,” he said again, and he could hear the panic in his voice. He set Arthur’s phone back down and pulled out his own.
Morgana picked up on the first ring.
“What is it?”
“Arthur just left here like someone was chasing him,” Merlin told her. “He left his phone, his keys, he wasn’t wearing a coat…I…didn’t see what direction he was going in. How far away are you?”
There was a beat of silence and breath on the other end of the line. He heard her swear softly. “I’m nearly home. I’ll circle back, see if I can spot him. But he’ll be gone.” She swore again, and this time she sounded close to tears. “I’ll kill him.”
“He’s done this sort of thing before?” Merlin asked.
“Only once. I’m turning around now,” she said. “Can you grab something of his and meet me out front?”
“You want to do a tracking spell?”
“I want you to do a tracking spell. I'm not going to be able to do it, shit, I'm already freaking out.”
Merlin didn’t have time to argue this point. He said, “How far away are you?”
“A minute.”
“All right. I’ll be down.”
He didn’t even debate about which object to bring, Arthur’s phone slipped into his pocket without thought. Merlin couldn’t prove it, but it was the crux of whatever emotion had propelled Arthur out in the first place.
As he exited the loft only a few minutes after he had entered it, he had Morgana’s voice playing on loop in his head – shaky, furious. Normally stoic, her show of emotion shook Merlin. Maybe Arthur wasn’t just like this. Maybe this was serious.
Not that he had doubted it before, but he hadn’t wanted to believe it. Believing it made all of this – made Arthur – Merlin’s problem, and how desperately Merlin did not want or need another problem. But when someone ran out into the rain at nearly one in the morning on a cold October night and Merlin witnessed it happen, it became his problem.
I’m going to kill him, Morgana had said.
Merlin closed the door and hesitated before locking it. Arthur wouldn’t be able to get back in the building anyway and there was no one here to buzz him up.
I’m going to kill him.
“You asshole,” Merlin murmured. He wasn’t sure whether he meant Arthur or himself.

Chapter Text

Arthur had been the golden child. That was the sick part.
He thought about it sometimes, most times, all the time, and it made him want to fucking scream. On a fateful day only a little while ago in the grand scheme of things, he had decided he would scream.
He remembered sitting behind the wheel of his car, white knuckling it at ten and two, the world whipping by at eighty miles an hour, then ninety, on either side of him. He didn’t see any of it. Sound filled the cab like it had substance, like air but more vital, the bass pounding and the vocals swirling so his chest thumped, and he was a part of it, less himself than the words engraved in volume and neon at the forefront of his brain.
No one was there to hear him. The road was completely empty, a rural stretch of lush summer green that led to the Pendragon Estate. Camelot. He had been heading home after his college graduation, for a party arranged in his honor.
He had been wearing a blue suit. He remembered that, too, the feel of the fabric acute against his skin, gentle, as if even his clothes wanted to make it easy for him. (His mother had loved the color blue.)
He was perfect.
A star, really. One of those bright, burning creatures you fixed your eye on through a telescope. He had grown up golden, giving off light, born into a constellation everybody and their damn mother could point out in the sky at night, trace with an outstretched finger.
Perfect child. Perfect marks. Perfect athlete, perfect student body president, perfect captain, perfect friend, perfect son.
Even as a little kid, when Arthur would get into fights that would leave him bruise-knuckled and bloodied, his father had taken his chin and looked him straight in the face, his own expression stern and calculating.
Looking at him. Taking in the swollen lip and the dirt-smeared uniform shirt and the torn collar.
“Undisciplined,” Uther had told him. “Pendragons don’t behave this way. You channel your aggression into something useful. Right now, you’re wasting it.”
And he had had Arthur signed up for lacrosse.
Arthur had excelled at that, of course. He had his father’s form, inherited that athleticism. He excelled at debate. He excelled at maths. He wrote a killer essay on Gatsby. And people wanted to follow him, respected him for some reason, hushed when he walked into a room, waited for him to speak.
Onward, upward into university. Awards, accolades, beaming faces, screaming crowds, friends so good it shamed him, girls, girls, black tie events wandering at his father’s elbow smiling vaguely, good booze, bad booze. People, laughing, would follow him anywhere. On the field, on campus, at parties, toward causes.
Golden. Everything he touched turned to the stuff.
Why, then, had he always felt as if he were standing at the center of a silent, dark room? Why, even with faces looking up at him or to him, did he even then feel so incredibly and irrevocably alone?
Driving in his bright red graduation gift, why did he still feel it? Spoiled, shifting up through the gears, tears burning in his eyes, why did he feel like he was dead? Alive, the sound in his chest and his head, but dead, nonetheless?
He thought it would get better if he just powered through, if he coped, but it didn’t.
It was like flipping a switch. He had screamed, the sound of it lost in all that other sound, mingling with it, and becoming it. It had torn up his lungs, scraped his throat, as if once he released it, it had to claw its way out of him, feral, all teeth, not enough, just ragged, and wretched, and nothing. Absolutely nothing at all.
In the wake of it, even with all that sound still pulsing and the wind still bellowing all around him, there had been a complete silence and a darkness. Back in that room once again, with no one to hear him. He couldn’t let anyone hear him, that was the worst part, he had to protect the illusion of the self that everyone loved, because if it failed, he wouldn’t be loved at all, even falsely.
He didn’t remember crashing his car.
It happened. The next thing he remembered was the ambulance, paramedics shining lights in his eyes and asking him questions. Later, Morgana told him his answers had been shit, incoherent, total nonsense.
The first question had been the obvious one and they hadn’t asked him they just had him breathe into a little tube which told them he was stone cold sober, for once. Finally.
Morgana held his hand on the way to the hospital. In and out of consciousness, high on the medication, he swore at one point that she was an angel. At another, that she was his mother.
The worst part of all of that had been that he couldn’t say for sure whether the crash had been on purpose or not. Part of him wished it had been. Part of him was horrified at the prospect of such an ugly wish.
Either way, his car was ruined, and the party was ruined, and the papers knew, and that was the start of the public downward spiral of the golden child. Burning through ozone. Crashing to earth.
Arthur didn’t know what any of it meant. It was too confusing to sort through, and he couldn’t stand it. All he had ever wanted since he was a little kid was for the world to make sense. To be simple. He had been promised that, and it never did make sense.
Sitting face down in his nightstand drawer at home was a picture of his mother, taken at some charity event or another, wearing a gauzy blue dress the color of Cinderella. She’d been holding her clutch in both hands, looking down, an embarrassed, proud smile pulling at her mouth. He couldn’t decide if she looked happy or not. He couldn’t decide what that meant, if she were happy, if it would mean anything at all.
“I miss her,” he had told Morgana once, Morgana, who never knew his mother.
“I know,” she had told him. “I miss my parents too. Every day.”
She had lost them early, like Arthur had lost his mother. Morgana made sense. Not just in that way, but in every way. It made sense that she became his sister, it was meant to be. The second she came into his life something clicked into place.
For many years, she had been the only bearable thing.
And now, she was the one who had found him when he was at his worst. In every way, she was the one who knew. About the bad dreams, and the despair, and the empty bottles she had pried out of his lax, whiskey-sticky fingers. Arthur had a very particular way of ruining everything. No matter how hard he tried to keep it contained, there were always ruins, and rubble, and acres of collateral damage.
Cars and reputations and sisters.

The rain was cold now, and he was thinking about all of this as he wandered. He could still feel the force of the throw when he flung the phone across the room.
With the little bit of distance afforded him by the night air and his soaking clothes, he could admit to himself that he wouldn’t have reacted so poorly to the phone call if it hadn’t woken him from a bad dream. The worst dream, really.
The one he has had since he was small enough to remember. Arthur dreamed about dying.
He hadn't had the dream in a while, since maybe his senior year of college. Long enough that he had mostly forgotten the terror of it, the visceral acuteness that made it a nightmare. It used to be, he woke up with a gasp, his lungs shuddering, and swore that the pain of it was still in his body, that he could still feel it. Sometimes he woke with tears drying on his face, and he swore he was grieving something, or someone although he never remembered what, or who. His therapist said it probably had to do with his mother, and how she died.
Arthur knew what it felt like to grieve his mother. He was acutely familiar with the lack in it, how empty he felt. The sadness had more substance than his body, then. It was so heavy it pressed him down, held him there, so he couldn’t move for the gravity of it.
No, this felt different. It was different.
And the dreams were so fractured, so fragmented, Arthur could never explain them adequately, or at all. He couldn’t communicate how terrifying it was, to feel the life leave your body, to know irrevocably that you were going to die.
There was a voice in his dreams. Maybe not a voice. He didn’t hear the voice so much as feel it, a reverberation in his chest. The way the water rippled after a stone was tossed in it, that’s how this felt.
It told him that he would rise again.
And that sent a cold-bodied shiver of terror straight through Arthur. It was both a promise and a curse.
Sometimes in the dreams he died right. At peace.
Sometimes in the dreams he died angry.
Sometimes he died in despair.
But always, always he was dying.
Today, he had fallen asleep on the couch watching a thoroughly boring daytime television program about the history of Beowulf translations. A typical Saturday afternoon, after a morning spent going over the itinerary for his press appearance on Monday, trying to fucking relax, trying not to spiral, Uther’s voice playing on loop in his head even though Uther hadn’t even been in the meeting. When the guys asked him if he wanted to go out, he had to say no because he knew he’d be a mess.
So, all of that had been in the background, and then he’d dropped off, which he never did, usually. And he had dreamed that dream, which he never did anymore either. The phone call had woken him out of a dead sleep.
He’d answered on autopilot, before he’d gotten the breath back in his lungs, before he recognized the heart thundering in his chest as his own, before he’d seen the caller ID.
It had been his father. His father never called him.
What had it been? What had Uther said?
Arthur couldn’t recall now. Something. The usual. You aren’t good enough. You aren’t good enough. The way you wear your clothes is wrong. I’m not even really paying attention to you, even though I’m the one who called. If you were good enough, maybe you could hold my attention. You used to be good enough. I used to love you. I don’t look at you because I don’t know you anymore, and the crippling disappointment of not knowing my own son is not an emotion worth my time.
Yeah, something like that.
He thought maybe Morgana had been mentioned. Maybe that had done it, made it worse. Probably. But a lot like his father, he couldn’t look at that overwhelming emotion head on.
He wasn’t sure where he was. He didn’t care. His clothes were soaking, but the chill in them was far away.
“ARTHUR!”
He looked up, frowning. He was leaning against a rough brick wall. It was almost pitch black. The only thing he could see was the solid shape outlined against the mouth of the alley, hazed at the edges by the confluence of rain and streetlight.
“ARTHUR. Jesus. It is you.”
He felt hands on his face, touching him as if to make sure he was real, pushing his dripping hair out of his eyes, pressing his cold fingers as if to warm them.
“Morgana?”
“She’s in the car. Come on.”
Arthur pulled away, but the hands kept a steady, firm hold on him, pulling him gently onward. “Merlin.”
“The one and only.”
“No.”
Merlin paused, his figure still indistinct in the near complete dark. He seemed about to say something else, but all he said was, “Come on, Arthur. You’re going to freeze to death.”
Arthur’s throat was tight. “You’re not my mother.”
Merlin’s voice was almost indecipherable, his face turned away from Arthur.
“Neither is she.”
They stepped out onto the street and Arthur blinked in the sudden brightness of the streetlights. The BMW idled on the curb, the familiar shine of the headlights almost like home.
Merlin opened the rear passenger door for Arthur. Arthur hesitated, and then meekly, numbly, got inside. The door slammed in his wake and Merlin climbed into the front passenger seat, shivering.
“Take off your hoody,” Morgana snapped from the driver’s seat. “You’re going to catch hypothermia.” She stared straight ahead. Arthur obeyed.
“There’s a blanket at your feet. It’ll still have hay stuck to it, but it’s fucking better than nothing.”
Arthur lay down wordlessly, pulling the blanket over him, closing his eyes as the BMW bumped over a pothole and rounded a corner, the movement soothing as a lullaby.
Morgana’s music was an antidote, too, chanting, and haunting in the background, like waves crashing against a cliff face. He felt better. He should’ve just called her.
“You’re shaking,” he heard Morgana say.
“I’ll be fine. I was only out there for a few minutes.” Merlin.
A troubled silence. “That alley was dark.” There was something unsaid in these words, something equally unsaid in the silence that followed.
“I know,” Merlin said finally.
“What was he doing down there?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re lying to me.”
“I’m not. I don’t know. I just have suspicions, and that’s not the same.” He paused, and Arthur could visualize the worry indented between his brows. “What do we do now?”
“This isn’t supposed to be my shit. I told him this wasn’t my shit.”
“I can hear you,” Arthur mumbled.
A particular, poignant attention flashed over him briefly.
“I can take him upstairs when we get back,” Merlin said.
Morgana sighed. “This isn’t your shit either.”
“I know. But who’s is it if not ours?”
His” Morgana growled, slamming a hand once against the wheel in frustration. “His! God, how does he make me so goddamn helpless.”
“Maybe the guys will be back,” Merlin suggested doubtfully.
“They won’t be of any help right now. Best thing is just to put him to bed, and if he wakes up sick it’s his own damn fault.”
For a minute, it was just the sound of the road, and the rain, and some lady wailing in Welsh through the speakers.
“We should talk,” Morgana said finally, “When baby is in bed, the two of us. There’s a couple things you should know.”
“Morgana…” Arthur managed hoarsely.
“You can’t promise me this isn’t going to happen again,” Morgana said, and it wasn’t an accusation. It wasn’t even angry. It was just true.
The BMW drew to a stop, and she put it in park.
“We’re here.”

Chapter Text

Morgana strode into the flat ahead of Merlin, Arthur trailing a few steps behind him, still wrapped in the blanket. Merlin watched her enter the kitchen and begin flinging open cupboard doors with errant bangs.
“Morgana,” Arthur said tiredly.
She proceeded to pull shit out of the cupboards, getting down on her hands and knees to stick her head in and check back crannies.
Merlin closed and locked the front door behind them, quiet, unsure what his place was as Morgana continued to search the flat, for what, Merlin didn’t know but could begin to guess. Her platform boots clomped against the wood floor, her expression fixed, the press of her mouth sharp and stoic as a blade.
“Morgana,” Merlin finally said as she pulled the coffee table aside with an awful screech, “The neighbors.”
She shot him an expressionless glance. “They’ll get over it.”
“Morgana.”
The corners of her mouth softened a little. “Fine. I’ll be a little quieter.”
“You,” Merlin said, turning to Arthur, “Should go take a hot shower. Right now. Go on. I trust you can still bathe yourself?”
The look on Arthur’s face had been vacant, exhausted. Now the look soured into a familiar shape, his pale brows drawn inward, his mouth screwing up into a scowl.
“That’s better,” Merlin said. “There he is.”
Arthur dropped the blanket from his shoulders and sulked down the hall to the bathroom. A moment later, the pipes groaned in confirmation of running water.
“Thanks,” said Morgana, who had finished pulling out the couch cushions. “That gives me a few minutes to search his room.”
“Morgana.”
“You keep saying my name.”
Merlin trailed after her down the hall. She entered Arthur’s room without preamble and Merlin didn’t know how to stop her, or if he should. He hovered in the doorway, holding Arthur’s broken phone in both his hands.
“I feel like I should text Gwen,” he said.
“Then text her.”
He frowned. “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
“Tearing Arthur’s room and the flat at large apart. Are you looking for something?” He hesitated as she began pulling open Arthur’s desk drawers. “He didn’t want alcohol in the flat. That’s what he told me when I moved in.”
“Then I guess you know what I’m looking for, then.”
“There’s nothing here, Morgana. He was sober.”
Morgana scoffed. “Maybe there isn’t, but I’m going to make sure.”
“Slow down, please.” Merlin hazarded a step into Arthur’s sanctuary, laying a hand on Morgana’s arm. He did it with no real force. It was just a touch. But she stopped rummaging through Arthur’s drawers and lifted her chin.
There was something remote and awful in her eyes, as if she were reliving a moment in time Merlin couldn’t see. She didn’t look at him, but down at her hands, twisting one of her many silver rings.
“He scares the shit out of me. I’m so worried that…” she sucked in a shaky laugh, unable to speak her fear aloud.
“You’re not going to believe me,” Merlin said softly, “But I would know if there was anything here. I’d know.”
“What, you got a supernatural sense for whiskey?”
Merlin released a breath that was almost a laugh. “No.”
She shook her head, something tragic in the way she pressed her dark-painted lips, a sword sheathed after a battle, wiped clean on the grass. It was the sort of look you wore when you finally caught your breath and looked around you, realized numbly that all your friends were dead, and you’d been left behind.
She didn’t move at all, but Merlin sensed the boundaries of a silence spell rise up around them, trapping the following conversation in an isolated bubble.
“You cast a very good tracking spell, Merlin.”
His heart caught in his chest for a reason he couldn’t name. “I guess so.”
She looked at him then, her green eyes unreadable, searching his own. “It was stronger than I thought it would be. There’s something you’re not telling me. That darkness down the alley, too…”
“You know everything there is to know.” Merlin flicked his fingers at the desk, and a fountain pen floated up from its holder to hover and spin between them. “Everything important, anyway. You asked me to cast that tracking spell, so I did. That darkness was strange, but there is so much strangeness in this city. I don’t know what else you want me to tell you.”
“I don’t know either,” Morgana contemplated the pen, her arms crossed tightly over her chest. “You ever think it’s strange, how much you know about him, and how little he knows about you?”
“Not really.”
Out in the hall, the bathroom door opened. Merlin started, the pen falling and clattering across the desk. Morgana quenched the silence spell quickly in her fist.
“Are you done ransacking my personal belongings?” Arthur demanded, entering the room. His hair was damp and on end, the towel still looped around his neck. He spared a glance for Merlin, a quick, derisive glance that flicked from toe to head and looked him squarely in the eye for a guarded split second before he turned away.
“Get out,” he said.
“We’ll talk about this later,” Morgana said.
“We won’t talk about shit.”
“Not in that tone, we won’t. Watch what you say to me, Arthur Pendragon, and remember exactly how many times I’ve rescued you.” He glared at her. “Oh,” she said, voice lowering dangerously, “You don’t like me saying that in front of your shiny new friend? Then don’t be an ass.”
“He’s not my friend,” Arthur muttered.
“No,” Merlin said, “I’m not.”
They both remembered his hands on Arthur’s face. Arthur whipped back his bed covers without looking at either Morgana or Merlin.
“Well, I’m going to bed whether or not you stand there and watch me.”
“Come on,” Morgana said to Merlin.
They exited, Merlin closing the door softly.
Back in the deconstructed living room, Merlin looked around. It all seemed too well-lit and mundane, even with the strewn couch cushions and the displaced coffee table. He kept thinking about the blackness in that alley.
“You were going to tell me something,” he said.
“You did the right thing tonight, calling me,” Morgana told him. “If anything like this happens again, I want you to do the same thing.”
Merlin frowned, disconcerted for a reason he couldn’t name. “What exactly is it you want me to do?”
She hesitated. Then, “He’s an addict,” she finally said. “He has his issues. I’m sure you noticed from the moment you stepped foot in this flat that the vibes were not simpatico.” She tried so hard to sound glib. It made it all of this that much more surreal, that much more oddly tragic. Merlin's heart squeezed in his chest. “I refrained from saying anything, because that’s his shit to share or not and I promised myself I wasn’t going to be involved in his life like that anymore, but clearly you need to be informed and he’s not going to do it.”
Morgana stood behind the couch, in stark contrast to the neutral tones and strong, warm light of the flat. Her shoulders were drawn up, the black shawl she’d worn tonight pulled closely around herself.
“You thought he was getting better,” Merlin guessed.
“I didn’t think he was doing worse.” She sounded like she was about to laugh or cry. “And Uther, he makes everything worse, I’d bet money he made tonight worse, somehow, but you don’t need to hear about any of that. It’s just another long terrible fucking tedious story. Point is, I guess, is that certain things trigger Arthur. And sometimes he has meltdowns like that, although he hasn’t…”
“In a while,” Merlin finished. “What do you think it was?”
“Who knows,” she said quietly, sighing. “I can’t think of what it could be.”
“He’s fine now,” Merlin told her. “He’s safe.”
“Sure.”
“Do the guys know? Does Gwen?”
She shook her head. “How do you do that?”
“Do what?”
“Just know shit.”
“Call it intuition.”
“Yeah,” Morgana said, pressing her tongue thoughtfully against the inside of her cheek, eyes narrowed. “Sure. No, Gwen doesn’t know. He didn’t want to tell her, and like I said, I wasn’t going to push it. The guys do know. Gwaine, well…doesn’t matter. He knows the most.”
“That’s not a part of recovery? Being honest with the people in your life? He has a key to Gwen’s house. She’s your girlfriend. You don’t think that’s important?”
It wasn’t his business, and yet it was because this was his living room, wasn’t it? And Gwen was his best friend. What sort of secret was he being asked to keep from her?
Morgana shrugged. “He’s never invited me to the meetings. And I can’t tell him how to live his life, be better. It’s not 'effective’. Anyways, he knows I have my limits. I’ve told him the bullshit I won’t tolerate. That’s all I can do, really.”
Merlin thought about all of this, nudging the couch cushion with his toe. “I’m going to be honest. If it were up to be, I’d be gone right now.”
“Yeah, because you’re smart.”
“This is really, very messy.”
“I know.”
Merlin sighed. “I’ve got enough secrets. I don’t need to be keeping his. And I’m not his babysitter. I’m not evil, I’m not going to let someone not in their right mind run out into the rain and not do something about it, but he’s not my ward, or whatever. I’m not in charge of him.”
“I’m not asking you to be.”
“But I live with him, and if I leave, your dad makes my life hell.”
“He’s not my dad,” Morgana said icily, “But go on.”
“See?” Merlin said, flipping a hand in her direction and taking a few steps toward the dining room, “This is what I’m talking about. Interpersonal drama. It only ever gets me in trouble. But…I guess this isn’t about me.” After a long pause he said, “I can’t make any promises. But I have your number. And I’m not going to stand by if he does shit to compromise his own safety. Good enough?”
“That’s all I needed to hear,” Morgana said. She glanced around. “I can help you clean this up.”
“No, it’s been a long night, go home,” Merlin said.
“All right. I’m…” she gestured at the flat at large, at the concept of Arthur, at the whole dark turn of the night “…sorry. About this.”
“It’s okay.”
It wasn’t, but it wasn’t her fault, either. He walked her to the door. When she was gone, he turned and surveyed the mess of the flat, and then he went about putting it in order. In the other room, the heavy sound of Arthur’s snoring emanated from under his bedroom door. His phone was a heavy weight in Merlin's pocket. He straightened the rug and picked up throw pillows, procrastinating on stopping and acknowledging the truth:
That he had no idea what was supposed to happen next.
And, perhaps more importantly, he had no idea how he felt about any of it. The mix of emotion buzzed like static in his chest, all white noise, confusing and nebulous and definitely something, but what exactly remained frustratingly illusive. Discordant images and the ghost of impressions flashed through him, Arthur's face, mostly, that moment when Merlin had called his name, and he looked up, caught in a wash of orange streetlight and shadow. The moment when Merlin had reached him, why was that so clear?
He had never touched Arthur before, maybe that was it, their only moments of contact that first handshake when they met and Arthur's mistake back at the bar.
**
Upon finishing cleaning up, Merlin sunk down onto the couch, leaning against his knees. The blank slick of the tv screen cast his reflection back at him, and he considered it, listening to Arthur’s snores vibrating from under the door down the hall.
Letting out a shaky breath, he held his hands out in front of him. They were relatively steady, only the slightest tremor in his fingers. He felt a little tired from casting that tracking spell, but it had been a small spell. Easy.
The strength of that spell had surprised him, too, as much as it had Morgana. He remembered what the dragon had said. Home to Arthur. And now that kid, earlier today at the thrift shop, what seemed a million years ago now, saying that name. Emrys
Arthur meant something to him. He couldn’t ignore it now. Whether he understood it or not, the strength of the emotion was there, reflected in the strange strength of that spell. He remembered the way Arthur had seemed to collect himself, when Merlin touched him, as if drawing a thousand scattered pieces back to himself.
Merlin couldn’t go on this way, without answers. And he couldn’t stand the way Arthur had looked when Merlin had found him, so unlike himself.
Like Merlin knew what that looked like. Like Merlin knew anything about Arthur at all.
“Should I go back to the shop?” he asked, not quite sure who he was asking.
The hair at the back of his neck prickled. The air buzzed. Overhead, the lights flickered, and then blinked out. He sat there in the dark, breathless, half-sure the darkness would go on forever.
It was familiar, utterly complete, something of sentience in it.
“You were there tonight, weren’t you?” Merlin murmured.
The lights flicked back on. It could be anything, a power surge, the storm, the building’s faulty wiring.
And yet, “This is stupid.” He was going to go back to that shop. He knew it already.
I have allies Kilgharrah had said. It seemed as good a lead as any.
Because for everything he had said tonight, including the words he had spoken very clearly to Arthur’s face, the weirdness that had been trailing Merlin through the city since he arrived here was tangled up in the man now sleeping very loudly in the other room.
Whether he liked it or not, he had to care about Arthur. And maybe he did, a little bit, already, but he wasn’t yet ready to admit that to himself.
Once again, Merlin pulled out Arthur’s busted phone, considered the white shatter of the screen. There were three separate focal points, cracks radiating outward from all three points. Arthur had killed his phone very deliberately. Angrily, nonsensically, but deliberately.
Merlin tapped the phone against his knee. He didn’t know what had sent Arthur out into the night tonight, but he could maybe, maybe figure this one other thing out. This one mystery.
It was easy enough. Go back to the thrift store, question the mouthy teenager. Likelihood was he would find nothing at all.
But that was a lie. And being well-versed in lies, Merlin knew it.
**
Merlin didn’t end up going to bed that night. He knew he would have nightmares.

Chapter Text

Merlin took Monday off. He was still exhausted physically and mentally from the incident Saturday night, and though he wouldn’t admit to it if asked, the brief minutes in the cold rain had done more of a number on him then he thought that they would.
Plus, he hadn’t taken a day off since he started working for Gaius. If he went in, the old man would see the exhaustion on Merlin, inquire about it, and then Merlin would have to either explain what had happened or lie, and lying to Gaius just did not seem like a viable option. He wouldn’t be as open to accepting the brush-off as Morgana had been last night, and Merlin simply could not explain all the strangeness that had taken place, never mind that he thought it was connected to a real, breathing dragon he had met in the Albion underground.
He just could not.
Plus, there was that kid at the thrift shop, and Merlin was not up to sounding as paranoid and crazy as he felt out loud in real life right now. He didn’t have the stamina.
So, he went about his morning routine without rush, making coffee and an omelet, scrolling through the local news on his phone, and then instead of rushing out to catch his train, he settled on the couch with his feet up and considered what to do with the rest of his day.
Arthur emerged a few minutes later in a suit, adjusting his tie.
“You look boring,” Merlin commented. “Where are you going?”
“Tv appearance,” Arthur grunted. “Channel 4. Tune in.”
Merlin watched him wander into the kitchen and pour a cup of coffee. Finally, he gave in and asked, “Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“What, after my little breakdown? I have an emergency appointment with my therapist scheduled later this afternoon, not that it’s any of your business. Don’t worry about it.”
He sounded way glibber than Merlin thought was healthy. But it didn’t matter what Merlin thought. He sunk back into the couch. “There’s an extra omelet.”
Merlin heard the lid lift as Arthur considered said omelet.
“Did you make this for me?”
“No. But the eggs were old, and I think they were about to go bad, so I used all of them,” Merlin said.
A minute later, he heard the scrape of the spatula in the pan as Arthur dished the omelet for himself, apparently finding this explanation acceptable.
“Are you going to be around today?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Why?”
“They’re delivering my new phone and apparently someone has to be here to sign for it,” Arthur said.
“Oh. Well, if I’m here, I’ll sign for it I guess.”
He had never seen anyone working the front desk, so he didn’t suggest this alternative.
Arthur sighed. “Whatever. I’d probably be better off without it anyway.” This was said in a private tone, as if talking to himself.
Then, at precisely eleven, he stood up and exited without saying good-bye. Merlin sat up again to watch the door swing closed.
“This feels very weird to me,” he said quietly to no one.
Weirder even than dragons or magic or mouthy teenagers in thrift shops was the dynamic of the Pendragon family. It felt poisonous to even be near it, let alone be drawn into it, but it was like Merlin had told Morgana three nights ago. He didn’t really have much of a choice.
Eventually he decided he might walk around the corner for another coffee, get out of the flat for a minute, so he got up and retreated to his room, which in the last few weeks had become substantially less barren. The mattress lay directly on the floor, and Merlin would be paying it off in monthly installments for half a year, but it was worlds better than his Craigslist air mattress.
His closet had slowly started to fill, as well, the room populating with other piecemeal finds like a nightstand and a set of dresser drawers and a vintage fainting couch he had discovered for forty dollars at an estate sale and begged Gwaine to help him move back here in his terrible, rusted, ancient entity of a pick-up truck.
He was in the process of selecting a top when he heard the front door open.
“Arthur?” a familiar booming voice called.
Merlin straightened, grinning to himself before he shouted, “Who’s there?”
He emerged from his room, shirt still clutched in one hand, to find Percival standing in the foyer, as large as usual, wearing a band-shirt with the sleeves hacked off and a derelict pair of jeans. Of note in particular was his hair, buzzed closed to his head and dyed pale, baby pink. Last time Merlin had seen it, it had been lavender.
“You’re not Arthur,” Percy said.
Merlin, currently wearing his robe untied over his pajama pants, did his best to project confidence.
“I am not. Nice hair.”
“Thanks.” He flashed a somber grin. “Long time no see. Almost break any lamps recently?”
“I did not almost break your lamp,” Merlin said immediately, flushing. “And anyway, that was an accident.” He paused. “Arthur’s out right now for a tv appearance or whatever, and it sounded like he would be out all day.”
“Really?” Percy said, raising an eyebrow. “Okay.” He considered Merlin for a second. “You’re not working? I thought you worked weekdays.”
“I do, mostly. I took today off.”
“Would you…this is going to sound very weird, probably, but would you be interested in coming to my studio with me?”
“Your studio?” Merlin studied him. “Why?”
“Because I don’t want to go by myself. I was going to ask Arthur, but obviously he’s not here, and Gwaine and Leon are at work, too. You don’t have to say yes, obviously, but I thought I’d ask. Unless you have plans.”
“I…don’t have plans. Sure, why not?”
Merlin had used to be spontaneous. He could stand to get back into the practice.
Percy brightened immediately. “Great! It’s only a few blocks away from here, so I was just going to walk over whenever.”
“That would be perfect, actually, because I was going to stop on the corner for coffee. I think it’ll be on the way, if we’re heading east.”
“Yeah, we will be. That’d be great, I could use the pick-me-up.”
Merlin then took note of the blue exhaustion pressed under Percy’s eyes like bruises. He didn’t mention it. “All right, cool. I can be ready in about twenty minutes. You can hang here if you want, or we can just meet in the lobby.”
“I think I’ll meet you in the lobby,” Percival said. “See you in a few.”
“See you,” Merlin murmured, but Percival was already gone.
He seemed nice enough, but Merlin still really didn’t know what to make of him. He remembered the painting he had seen in 3D the first time he’d been in the guys’ flat. That sword emerging from dark water, held by a strong, feminine hand.
Strange, he thought.
But Arthur’s whole life seemed strange. Why not his friends, too?
He finished dressing and texted Gwen where he was going just in case. Then he went down and met Percy in the lobby.
**
Percy’s studio was on the top floor of a derelict brick building in the warehouse district, up several flights of stairs, the caged elevator in the lobby projecting a sense of open-hearted malice that did not require an out-of-order sign.
The rest of the building was relatively quiet on this Monday afternoon, soft new-age jazz music emerging from behind one door as they passed it, voices echoing through the vents from some other floor.
The studio itself was large, with big, drafty windows letting in the full expanse of golden autumnal light, which fell over the scarred wood floor in shafts. There were various canvases leaned up against the wall, covered with paint-splattered sheets, and a dusty fireplace that looked as if it hadn't been functional since before Merlin was born.
One canvas sat on an easel at the front of the room, turned so that the light could fall on it, but Merlin could see only the back of it as he entered behind Percival.
“I’m a bit of an artist,” Merlin said, sipping at his still-searing cup of coffee.
“Really?” Percy asked absently, wandering over to a chest in one of the shaded corners. He squatted down and opened it, shuffling through its contents.
“Yeah. I got my degree in it. Sculpture specifically.”
Percy glanced over, intrigued. “Were you any good?”
“I never wanted to pursue it as a career. It was always a hobby, something I was drawn to, I guess. I wanted to learn it better, get better at it.”
The broad expanse of Percival’s shoulders under his worn gray band tee communicated a response Merlin couldn’t quite read.
“What?”
Percy shrugged. “Nothing. Just…that sounds familiar.” He stood up, tubes of paint and a bundle of brushes in hand. “Thinking you’re not going to be around long enough for the way you make a living to matter. Not me. I have this sense like I’m going to be the last one left, out of everyone, that I’m going to survive them all.”
Merlin’s chest tightened. “I guess I didn’t really think about it like that. It isn’t that I don’t think I’ll be around, it’s like…I feel like I’ve got this other thing waiting for me, and I don’t know what it is, but it’s going to subsume everything else, and I can’t pretend otherwise. My art…that was a diversion into make-believe. It was never really mine to keep.”
After a period of silence where Percival went about setting up, he looked to Merlin, who leaned up against one of the brick-exposed walls, Styrofoam coffee cup still cupped in both hands.
“Do you want to see it?”
Merlin pushed himself upright and came over. Percival had a very distinct style that had been evident in the sword painting at 3D as well. It was clear that this painting held two figures, two men, one man holding the other in his lap.
Except the faces were not there. Or they were there, but they weren’t exactly what you expected from faces in terms of a nose, a mouth, eyes, those typical features. Conveyed instead was all the emotion those faces should hold.
It was strange. The bodies themselves, though rendered proportionally, very purposefully held none of that emotion. There was nothing in the clutching fingers of the one man holding the other, nothing in the relenting of the other man’s body. Only the would-be faces conveyed that one of these figures was dying, and the other was in acute despair.
In the same way, the painting at the flat had held all its emotion in the sword, not in the breaking of the water or the grip of the hand which held the hilt. It seemed impossible, for the inanimate weapon to hold what the rest of the image could not, but it did.
Merlin studied this painting, clearly unfinished, and wasn’t sure if it was any good.
“Most artists I knew wouldn’t let me look at their work until it was completed,” Merlin commented.
“I don’t care. I feel like my inability to finish it is part of the painting by now.”
There was a vacantness in the way Percival looked at his own painting, a slackness in the hands that held the palette and the brush, a slump in the shoulders.
“Who are the figures?”
Percival shook his head. “I saw them in a dream.”
“A dream?”
“I’ve been having terrible dreams since…well. You’re friends with Gwen, right?”
“I am.”
“You know about her brother.”
Merlin sobered. “Yes, I do.”
Gwen’s brother had died a year and a half ago in an auto accident. Gwen had been driving. The accident hadn’t been her fault, not even a little bit, a drunk driver running a red light had plowed into the passenger side of the car, killing Elyan instantly.
She didn’t really talk about Elyan, and this was how Merlin knew that she still hadn’t fully processed his death. She could talk about her parents, bring up old memories with bittersweet fondness, but Elyan she still did not talk about. And Merlin didn’t press, knowing from experience that when she was ready, she would let him know.
“It seemed so random, so…wrong. I know all early deaths feel like that, but it was so strange. It felt like I’d known him, even though I’d never met him in my life. He died before I even knew of Gwen, before I met her, but I…I don’t know. When I found out, it was as if it had just happened. Like I had lost someone, like…I don’t know,” he said again, fingers tightening around the brush. “Like I had failed him in some way. Which is crazy. You can’t tell that to someone, it’s pathological. How was I supposed to stop that accident from happening? It was a sick mistake by the universe.”
Merlin listened to him talk. “What sort of dreams did you have?”
Percy glanced up at Merlin, the lines of his face somehow even more haggard. “I saw a forest. And a tall, black tower. And I saw Gwen, holding her brother’s body. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, you know like she normally does, but he was wearing armor. And I…I had a sword in my hand. Arthur was with me. And Leon, and Gwaine.”
“It sounds like a nightmare.”
“It felt real. Lucid. Like I knew I was dreaming, like I’d dreamt it before, and it just played on cycle in my head for weeks, until I asked Morgana to help me. She sleeps poorly, too, I’m sure she’s told you, and she has the connections. The draught worked for a little bit, but I started dreaming again.” He jerked his chin toward the canvas. “But it was this.”
“And what is this?”
Percy shrugged a shoulder. “Me,” he said quietly, “And Gwaine.”
There was a clouded emotion in his voice that Merlin knew too well himself.
“It isn’t right, is it? Dreaming of your best friend dying like that, over and over?” Percy pulled a hand wearily over his face. “And I know it isn’t logical, but I’ve got this feeling that it’s going to happen again, and I can’t stop it.”
“What do you mean, ‘happen again’?” Merlin asked.
Sensing the alarm in Merlin’s voice, Percival frowned. “I don’t know. I don’t know, because Gwaine is fine, and alive, and bitching about his stupid master’s thesis, so alive that it seems impossible to imagine him dead. And yet every time I fall asleep, I see this. I just don’t know what my subconscious is trying to tell me. It’s like it’s torturing me on purpose, toying with me.”
Merlin hesitated to tell him. “I have bad dreams too.”
“You do?”
“Yes, I’ve had them since I was a child. They’re always the same. They never change. And they’re like this." He jerked his chin toward the canvas. "Full of death and dying. It’s like I’ve spent my whole life grieving someone, and I don’t even know who it is.”
“What do you do with them?” Percy asked. “The dreams?”
Merlin sipped his coffee. “Nothing. Well, I guess I behave in ways I shouldn’t, to try and forget about it. Otherwise, I suspect I’d be thinking about it all the time.”
“It feels like if I finish the painting, that makes it real,” Percy said.
“I think if it were real, it would be real no matter what,” Merlin replied. “Maybe that’s stupid.”
Percy thought about this. “No, it isn’t.” He settled into start working, glancing over at Merlin once again. “If you want, you can put on some music. There’s a Bluetooth speaker on the mantle, and a folding chair next to my supplies, if you want to sit.”
“You feeling any particular vibe?”
“What are your thoughts on Robyn?”
Merlin grinned. “My thoughts are: awesome. Revolutionary. Transcendent.”
“Put that shit on, then.”
So, Merlin did. The pulsing dance music filled the studio space, somehow perfectly suited to the environment. He sat and sipped his coffee, read a dusty coffee-table book he found on Dadaism abandoned next to one of the stacks of canvas.
With Percy’s permission, he paged through the various paintings he stored here, none of them, notably, of that scene he described with Gwen and her brother. Although how do you paint someone else’s grief, when it doesn’t belong to you? It would’ve been a sort of violation, and Merlin understood why it wasn’t there, and didn’t ask about it.
He chatted with Percy a little but for the most part they existed without conversation.
As the sunlight moved across the floor and Merlin grew hungry, he approached Percy again from behind, propping his chin on Percy’s head to survey his progress. Percy let him, and Merlin studied how the bodies of the men had come into clearer focus, rendering the confusion of the faces even more stark.
“Why do you feel like you have to paint what you see?” he asked, as Robyn crooned over an impeccable beat in the background.
Percy applied the brush to canvas. “I just do.”
Merlin considered this. “Are you hungry? I was thinking about ordering a pizza.”
“Oh.” Percy blinked and glanced around, forcing Merlin to lift his head and move backward a step. “What time is it?”
“Four.”
“Jesus,” he rubbed at his eyes. “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. There’s a place around the corner…just a second, I have the menu somewhere.”
Before he could get up, Merlin proffered the menu. “This one? It was left on one of the windowsills.”
“Yes, perfect. They deliver. Just no pineapple, okay?”
“You got it chief.” Merlin ordered the pizza and went down to the lobby to meet the delivery guy, coming back upstairs to find Percy standing by one of the windows, watching as the sun sunk lower over the horizon.
“There’s an arcade around the corner,” he said as Merlin came back inside.
“Yeah?”
“You can say no if you want, but I’m going to go over there after this, I think.”
Merlin considered the silent, dim flat that waited for him, the remnants of what had happened Saturday night still hanging in the air like dust motes.
“I’ll go with you,” he said, popping open the pizza box. “No pineapple,” he said.
Percy offered him a sad, faraway smile. “You’re not bad, Merlin.”
“You’re not bad yourself,” Merlin said comfortably.
They ate in companionable silence, the tension that Percival’s shoulders held since he’d arrived in the flat this morning almost completely dissipated.
Merlin sat in the chair and Percival on the floor, his long legs tucked into a crisscross position which was apparently comfortable. Merlin studied the top of Percy’s head, a dire terribleness in his chest.
Arthur wasn’t the only one. He had always suspected Percy’s joviality concealed something deeper. And after seeing Percival’s unfinished painting, he was sure in a way he couldn’t voice that Percy’s bad dreams were wrapped up in this confusion too. The dragon in the underground. Merlin’s nightmares, the voice in his head. Arthur’s breakdown. The shop boy.
Even, it seemed, Gwen’s brother, and Gwaine at least, too.
Was there any part of Merlin’s life here that would remain untouched by this strangeness? And why, surveying the exhaustion present in Percy’s drawn face, did Merlin feel like it was all his fault?

Chapter Text

Something woke Arthur up. He laid in bed for a second, staring at the dark ceiling, feeling his heart batter against his ribs, trying to listen past the sound of his pulse crashing like waves in his own ears.
He heard it then. A creak. The distinct squeal that accompanied a foot pressing into a floorboard.
Just Merlin going to the bathroom, he thought, but that wasn’t right. This came from the wrong direction, the kitchen.
He remembered a few weeks ago when Merlin had warned him about intruders. Had he locked the door tonight? Had Merlin?
Heart still pounding, trying to stifle the sound of his own breath, he threw the bed covers back and slipped to the floor as slowly as possible in an attempt to muffle the squeal of his bedframe.
Silence from the hall outside.
He crept toward the door and picked up the aluminum baseball bat he left propped under his light switch, just in case, holding his breath and listening hard. Aside from that initial creak, there was nothing but his own intuition going haywire to indicate that something was wrong.
A very long time ago, Uther had taken Arthur by the shoulders and looked him dead in the eye. Always trust your gut, he had said.
It was perhaps the only sound advice Arthur had ever received from his father.
He laid his hand on the knob and, with excruciating leisure, turned it, opening the door only the slightest crack so he could peek out. The night light plugged in the hall threw pale shadows, the stretch of rug empty.
Pulling the door fully open, he adjusted his hold on the baseball bat. Merlin’s door was cracked open. The bathroom door at the other end of the hall was also not shut.
A little mollified but still not relaxed, Arthur padded toward the main room, already ready to whisper Merlin’s name.
He found Merlin standing in what he had lovingly termed the foyer, the empty stretch of floor that bordered the living room, the kitchen, and the entryway to the hall, its only real purpose the coat rack and the shoe mat by the door.
Moonlight washed in from the high, arched windows, Merlin standing in a shaft of it, his head bowed. His name died in Arthur’s mouth, and Arthur stopped, flexing his fingers against the tape grip of the bat.
It was only after a second of standing there that Arthur recognized what was echoing cold in the pit of his stomach.
Merlin was totally motionless. He didn’t move. He didn’t twitch. It was only as Arthur came around him that he caught the rise and fall of his chest.
Finally, he uttered hoarsely, “Merlin?”
But Merlin was asleep. He was also, Arthur realized, horrified, crying. His eyes were open, staring sightlessly down at his bare feet, the tears glinting like quicksilver in the light. Tears weren’t supposed to shine that way, Arthur thought, panic gathering in his chest. It was all so surreal and awful he had no clue what to do.
An intruder he could just wallop in the head with his bat, call his dad.
This?
He thought he remembered that you weren’t supposed to wake up someone who was sleepwalking. What was he supposed to do, then? Just leave Merlin here? What if he did something dangerous? Or should he stand guard until Merlin maybe decided to meander back to bed?
Arthur didn’t like that option either. After what felt like endless minutes of standing there watching Merlin not move, Arthur poked him gently with the bat.
“Hey, er, mate, you alright?” he whispered.
Merlin’s brow contracted, and he lifted his face to Arthur, expression still dazed, unfocused. His mouth was pursed in the way of someone trying not to cry.
“Arthur?” he said distantly.
Relief washed through Arthur in a cold wave. “Yes, yes. That’s me. Now, let’s please go back to bed, you’re starting to freak me…”
But Merlin shuddered and turned away, causing Arthur to trail off, his mouth dry.
“Merlin?”
“I’m sorry,” Merlin said, and Arthur couldn’t tell who, if anyone, he was speaking to. “I’m sorry. All I ever wanted was to keep you safe. I knew…I knew that there was a greater destiny for you. For us. But I never cared about that. I couldn’t tell them that, but it was true. It was only you. In the end, that was it, that was all…it was you.”
“Merlin.” Arthur poked him a bit more sharply this time, thoroughly disconcerted. “Come on, stop that, snap out of it.”
“And I failed,” he continued softly, unheeding. “I failed. I may as well have killed you myself.”
Arthur froze, his palms suddenly clammy against the neck of the bat. A thousand dreams of dying flashed all at once through his head. He had the feeling of it in his chest, a ghost of a thing.
“What did you say?”
“No matter what I do,” Merlin murmured.
Arthur stepped forward, grabbed him by the sleeve of his t-shirt, and shook him. “What did you say? Repeat what you just said. What did you say? Tell me!”
When Arthur laid a hand on him, Merlin’s expression cleared. He blinked, frowning down at where Arthur’s fingers gripped his sleeve.
“Why are you touching me?” he asked groggily, then looked around. “What am I doing in the foyer?”
Arthur could hardly hear him for the sound of his heart, louder than ever now.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Sleepwalking.”
“Oh. Guess I should go back to bed.”
Without preamble, Merlin wandered back to his room, Arthur too stunned to stop him and demand an answer.
***
That morning, Arthur surfaced cautiously, still shaken by the events of the night previous. It had had more effect on him than his little foray in the rain, though that had resulted in more physical symptoms, such as the persistent chest cold which insisted on making his life miserable and refused to be tamed by foul-tasting cough medicine.
Out in the kitchen, Merlin sat at the island counter as he often did, coffee at his elbow, scrolling through his phone. The little sky-blue radio he had purchased hummed some cheery, mid-morning jazz from beside the coffee pot.
“You’re up early,” Merlin told him without looking up. It was noon.
“Yeah,” Arthur said gruffly, assessing Merlin’s back. “Erhm…how did you sleep?”
Merlin turned and looked at him as if he had grown three heads. “Excuse me?”
“Never mind,” Arthur muttered, going over to retrieve a cup of coffee for himself. “Forget I asked.”
“Are you…inquiring about my state of being? Are you…implying that you care? About me?”
“Yes, very funny,” Arthur said. “We get it. I’m an oblivious narcissist who doesn’t care to notice anything, very original observation.”
Merlin sobered and ceased his teasing. “I slept fine. Thank you for asking.”
Arthur grunted. “No…bad dreams or anything?”
“Why? Did you hear me last night? I thought you were a heavy sleeper?”
Arthur poured his coffee. That had been a lie. Arthur was an extremely light sleeper. The slightest noise woke him. Hyper-vigilance his therapist said. As if he had any right to his skittishness.
“No,” Merlin continued. “No bad dreams. Not that I remember anyway. How about you? How was your night?”
Arthur turned and leaned against the counter, cupping his mug in both hands. Merlin looked completely himself sitting there in the early morning sunlight, tousle-haired and warm-cheeked, the creases from his pillow still pressed into his face, eyes still half-lidded and sleepy.
Nothing of the disconcerting specter Arthur had encountered last night evident on his person. Second-guessing himself, Arthur wondered if maybe he’d dreamt the whole thing.
“Uneventful,” he said in answer to Merlin’s question.
Merlin looked back at him thoughtfully, head tipped to one side, and for a second Arthur thought he had been caught in a lie.
“Good,” he replied, and went to scrolling back through his phone.

Chapter Text

The day of the Halloween party arrived. The plan was this: Merlin would go over to Gwen’s to get ready, and then Morgana would pick them up and drive them to the party. He had the dress in a makeshift garment bag, and the rest of his supplies in an overnight bag since he would be spending the night at Gwen’s.

On his way out, he passed Arthur laying on the couch, playing animal crossing. He lifted his head as Merlin gathered his keys.

“Where are you going?”

“To a party. Well, to Gwen’s and then to a party, not that it’s any of your business,” Merlin said vaguely, searching for his tennis shoes amongst the heap that sat on the mat by the door.

“What’s in the bag?”

Merlin glanced over. “My costume. It’s a Halloween party.”

“Oh.” Arthur’s brow furrowed, but Merlin was not about to elaborate on his outfit choice or his plans.

“Anyway, I’m not going to be back tonight, so feel free to freak out if you hear someone break in,” Merlin said. “I’ll see you later.”

“Bye,” Arthur muttered uneasily, sinking back into the couch.

Merlin shrugged and left.

Arthur’s weird moods, he reminded himself, were not his problem.
**
Merlin arrived at Gwen’s and let himself in, in possession now of his very own spare key. He heard Gwen rustling around her room in the back as he entered.

“Merlin?” she called. “Is that you?”

“It is,” Merlin replied. “Are you getting ready?”

“Yes, and I already feel ridiculous. I suppose that’s the point, isn’t it?”

Merlin wandered toward the sound of her voice and found her sitting in front of her vanity in her bedroom, in the midst of trying to look spookier. She wore a blue dress and corset, already having laid the blonde wig which corresponded with the character from the Guillermo del Torro movie she was dressed as.

“What’s nice about this,” she said as Merlin entered, “Is that the more ridiculous you look the better.” She spotted him in the mirror and turned to look at him. “You haven’t done anything at all!”

“It’s nothing elaborate,” Merlin said, “Plus I wasn’t about to leave the house in body glitter, I didn’t want to answer to Father about that.”

“Oh, stop. He wouldn’t care,” Gwen said, waving his statement off with an eyeshadow brush.

“Hm. He stopped me on my way out anyway, and I was just wearing sweatpants,” Merlin commented, setting the garment bag down on the bed.

Morgana had told Gwen about Arthur’s incident, although she hadn’t told Gwen everything. This made Merlin equal parts relieved and uneasy. He didn’t have to hide something that big from his best friend, but he was still, in a way, privy to other people’s secrets, even if they weren’t necessarily his to tell.

“I think I’m going to get dressed and then do the rest,” Merlin decided. He and Gwen had already collaborated on several Pinterest boards for tonight, much to the baffled amusement of Morgana.

“Sounds good,” Gwen murmured, still engrossed in what she was doing.

Merlin went, changed, and came back.

“Oh my god, you look so hot,” Gwen commented greenly. “That’s grossly unfair.” She sighed and returned to the mirror. “I should’ve been Mrs. Dalloway, or Anna Karina or something, I don’t know what I was thinking. Although that maybe would've been hard to do as a couple's costume.”

“I think you look like a lovely Victorian heroine tricked into a marriage with a dapper fellow who has a very weird sister,” Merlin said, faux-graciously.

“If I had something to throw at you, I would,” Gwen told him.

He grinned. “Hey, it’s boring in here. I’m putting on music.”

“Not too loud,” Gwen said, “My upstairs neighbors have been on the warpath.”

Merlin obeyed, playing Lorde softly through the speakers.

A half an hour or so later, a distant honking sound came from outside. Merlin lifted his head from doing the finishing touches on his eyeliner.

“Is that the BMW?”

“Shit,” Gwen murmured. “What time is it?” She fumbled for her phone. “Jesus, we were supposed to meet her out front five minutes ago.”

“Really? I’m not finished yet.”

Before Gwen could reply, the front door banged open. “You divas take too long,” Morgana announced loudly, kicking the door shut with another bang.

Gwen sighed, screwing the cap back onto her mascara. “Back here!” she called.

Morgana appeared in the doorway, hands in her pockets. Her costume tonight was a version of Tom Hiddleston from the same gothic Guillermo movie, the strange but charming husband to Gwen’s naïve but charmed wife, and she looked appropriately spooky and dapper in a suit and overcoat, a bloody wound marring her white shirt, her hair glorious as usual.

“What are you supposed to be?” Morgana asked Merlin.

“The green light,” Merlin informed her. “From Gatsby.”

“You two are insufferable nerds,” Morgana said fondly. “Are you almost ready, though? We’re going to be late. I’ve got to get Morgause my fog machine.”

“I still don’t understand why you have a fog machine,” Merlin said, dropping his eyeliner pen. “Fine, I’m ready. I’ll finish in the car.”

Chapter Text

Merlin did not finish in the car. Or rather, he told Gwen and Morgana to go on without him, under the guise of fixing his hair. But after they disappeared up the well-lit front walk into the house, Merlin bent over his knees in the passenger seat, eyes closed, and tried to focus on breathing.

His head hurt like a motherfucker.

Emrys…

“I told you I’d go to that stupid shop,” Merlin muttered, “What do you want?”

But Kilgharrah’s ability to communicate was limited by distance, and so far from the city’s center, Merlin wasn’t going to get much more than the breathy whisper and the pulse-pounding headache.

“You are so annoying,” Merlin said, rattling around in Morgana’s center console for the ibuprofen she kept there. He swallowed the pills dry, observing the house as he did so. The crisp evening air filtered into the cab from outside, the engine ticking as it cooled.

They were out in the ambiguous middle ground where the city began to sprawl into the suburbs. The rest of the neighborhood was neat and well-manicured, and since it wasn’t actually Halloween night, the streets were empty of children trick-or-treating.

The house itself was large but not opulent, with a wide front porch and an expansive front yard, the windows facing the street filled with flickering candles and lacy curtains and cobwebs. So far, they were the only car here besides a white Cadillac parked in the driveway.

As Merlin sat there waiting for the headache to dissolve, more cars arrived. He finished applying his lipstick and then went about touching up the body glitter, which was, as Morgana had groused it would be, already all over the car. He’d brought a clutch to hold his phone and wallet, as the dress did not have pockets.

Plus, the shoes, which may have been ambitious. He eyed the front walk, bordered on either side by dense, waist-high hedges and comprised of two steep sets of stairs. The alternative was the driveway, also on an incline, which had access to a much gentler walkway. However, it had since filled up with cars, making it inaccessible. He would have to be brave.

Once his headache had abated enough and he was satisfied that he would indeed have one of the best costumes, he exited and made his way toward the front walk, arranging the dress as he did so. The slit up the left side was fortuitously perfect, cut just high enough it revealed the large tattoo on his thigh he had gotten his junior year of college, a snake twisted sinuously around a stone, done in dark grayscale. It was a great tattoo, though his mother had been appalled.

“Couldn’t you have gotten something nice, like flowers?” she had asked him.

“This feels more honest” Merlin had told her, which made Hunith roll her eyes.

But Merlin had been right, and tonight, the effect was quite good. He was very pleased with himself.

He had made it only a couple steps up the middle-walk when he heard the distinctive, terrible engine of Gwaine’s truck.

“You’re fucking kidding me,” he muttered. Headlights hit his back and the honk, though anticipated, startled him enough he put a hand to his chest. “Cretin!” he shouted, mostly good-naturedly.

Gwaine parallel parked along the road, the engine cutting off and the lights going out as he climbed out of the truck, grinning. He was followed by Percival, and clambering out of the backseat, Arthur. They all wore a group costume, comprised of fairly realistic looking armor.

Merlin’s heart dropped into his stomach when he saw Arthur.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded. “And where’s Leon? You abandon him?”

Other partygoers filtered in around him as the other three approached, Arthur toward the back, his focus deliberately on his shoes.

“I was invited,” Gwaine said, cheery. “Morgause is in the same grad program as me. And Leon had a work event tonight, he couldn’t come. Why are you here?”

“Morgana,” Merlin supplied. He surveyed their costume. “That’s very clever, I suppose that’s left over from your school days.”

“Easy to pull together at the last minute,” Gwaine said. “And what’re you supposed to be, then?”

“I’m the green light,” Merlin informed him, “From Gatsby.”

Gwaine’s dark eyes crinkled, and he rubbed a thumb against his bottom lip. “All right.”

“You want to say something, spit it out please, Gwaine,” Merlin said.

Behind Gwaine, Arthur muttered, “Jesus.”

Gwaine ignored him. “Just seems like the concept might’ve been reverse-engineered so you could wear that dress.”

“It was. And what of it?”

Arthur coughed.

“If you’ve got something to say, Your Majesty,” Merlin snapped.

“You know I don’t like when you call me that,” Arthur said.

“Then don’t be a prick!”

“Here we go,” Gwaine murmured. He took Percival by the elbow. “Let’s go. Mommy and daddy are going to fight.”

Merlin felt his cheeks get hot.

“We’ll let you have it out,” Gwaine said confidentially to him, winking, before he led Percival up the walkway.

“Which one of them is the mom, then?” Merlin heard Percival ask as they retreated.

“If you don’t know Perce, I can’t tell you,” Gwaine replied.

Merlin turned back to Arthur. “That’s really what your friends think of us? Isn’t that embarrassing to you?”

Arthur looked him over, indifferent. “First of all, there is no ‘us’, so don’t say that again. Second, you’re the one who started it. And that’s a lot of nerve. My friends.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Merlin demanded.

“Like you don’t know,” Arthur hissed taking a step closer to Merlin as other partygoers squeezed around them.

“I’m not a fucking mind reader,” Merlin said.

“Percy told me he took you to his studio.”

“He invited me. Wait,” Merlin said as it dawned on him. “You’re jealous.”

“I am not jealous, don’t use such an asinine word.”

“Don’t pull your ivy league vocabulary out on me,” Merlin retorted. “And you are. You are! I am not stealing your friends. It’s your problem you don’t want to come around Gwen’s anymore…”

“You hardly make me feel welcome,” Arthur interrupted.

Merlin laughed, which made Arthur’s ears go pink. “It is not my job to roll out the fucking red carpet for you. And it is not my fault that all your friends like me. If you’re worried that they’ll like me better than they like you…”

“God, you’re full of yourself.” Arthur’s anger had evolved into a harsh, humorless smile.

“Yeah, and you hate that, don’t you?” Merlin retorted, pressing closer to him. His own smile felt sharp and playful as a trickster juggling knives. He could feel his magic in his stomach, crackling like a live wire.

Arthur was too stubborn to retreat, though Merlin caught the flicker of insecurity behind the glitter in his offensively blue eyes.

“I am not going to make myself small for you,” Merlin continued lowly. “You can’t make me. Just because I make you uncomfortable…”

“Listen to you. You don’t do anything to me. Even if everyone and their father seems to have bought into your gimmick doesn’t mean I have.”

“My gimmick?” Merlin repeated, raising an eyebrow. The magic was dangerously close to the surface now, the murmur of the party behind them a sort of undertow.

“It’s a little shameless, don’t you think?” Arthur asked. “Coming dressed like that? It’s like you’re just begging for everyone to look at you.”

“And you know all about shame, don’t you, Arthur Pendragon?”

To his credit, Arthur didn’t flinch, but whatever was behind his eyes faded, distanced itself. Merlin wasn’t sorry.

“I have just as much right to be here as you do,” Merlin told him, “No one has to cater to your sensibilities just because you haven’t seen a man wear a dress unironically.”

He opened his clutch in search of his phone, over this conversation, unsure why he let himself be dragged into it in the first place.

“You think that’s my problem?” Arthur asked.

Merlin looked up from texting Gwen. “If the dress isn’t the problem, then I’m the problem. So, which is it? I’m going to warn you: neither answer is right, but one is worse.”

“I didn’t know you had a tattoo.”

Gwen and Morgana were in the kitchen with the hostess. He tucked his phone back in his bag. “Now you do. I’m going to go find Gwen. See you later. Try not to stick your foot in your mouth too badly when you meet new strangers.”

Before Arthur could retort, a group of people pressed between them, and Merlin lost himself in a swirl of white robes and elaborate fake-flower headdresses.

“Ass,” he muttered, continuing up the steps.

“You quite finished with your domestic?”

Merlin nearly leaped out of his skin, whirling to find Percy leaned up against a pillar, cup in hand, caramel apple in the other.

“God, you’re quiet,” Merlin told him. “And yes, I’m finished. Jesus, what are the chances we end up at the same party. It is as if the universe is determined to ruin my vibe.”

Percival shrugged. “The caramel apples are quite good. They might help restore it.”

Merlin laughed. “I’ll have to find one. And I didn’t mean you were ruining the vibe, Perce, sorry if I insinuated that.”

“No, I got your meaning,” Percy said. “He’s not so bad, when you know him, Arthur.”

Merlin refrained from telling Percy that his friend wasn’t draft beer, or coffee. You didn’t get used to Arthur, one day develop a refined palate which appreciated his snideness and his fickle moods and his little jibes.

Arthur was like a storm. You weathered him. You didn’t let the eye at the center lull you into relaxing. You buckled down, and you survived.

Storms could be beautiful, Merlin reflected. You could appreciate their strength, their destructive quality, their cool, amoral violence. But you did not get used to a storm, because storms blew over. Storms ended.

“I told Gwen I would find her,” Merlin told Percy. “Talk to you later?”

Percival nodded, mostly absorbed with the complexity of trying to eat the caramel apple neatly. Merlin, unsettled, moved through the front door into the dim, shadowy interior of the party.

Chapter Text

Arthur stood for a few minutes on the front walk, fuming.

You know all about shame, don’t you Arthur Pendragon?

What a pretentious prick. As if Merlin knew anything about him. And that stupid dress. Show a little leg and put on some body glitter and all of a sudden even sensible people like Gwaine lost their damn minds.

It was enough Arthur had to cope with the knowing smirk and the relentless cheeriness and the pointed insults in his own home. But Merlin seemed to be everywhere. Find him everywhere.

“Are you alright?”

Arthur snapped out of his thoughts and blinked at the woman standing beside him, wearing a white robe and an elaborate floral headdress. She had dark hair braided beneath the headdress, and vivid, bright blue eyes.

“Yes, I’m fine, thank you,” he said gruffly.

“You were standing there just staring into space,” the woman said. “You looked sad.”

“Sad?” Arthur said. “I wasn’t sad. Annoyed, yes. Sad, no. Can I help you?”

She remained unfazed by his rudeness, tipping her head to one side. “I’m Addison. The people I’ve come with have abandoned me, so I was looking for a party buddy, and you were standing by yourself. Seemed like a good candidate.”

“I’m Arthur,” Arthur muttered, not completely won over. “And I’m afraid you’re mistaken. I don’t drink, and I’ve been told I’m a stick in the mud, so I’m sorry to say that I won’t be any fun.”

“That’s all right. I just need someone to stand next to, so I don’t look awkward. Can you pretend to listen to me attentively and laugh at my jokes?"

Arthur narrowed his eyes at her. “Am I doing this for free?”

“Out of the goodness of your heart,” Addison said with a pearlescent smile, clasping both her hands over her own heart. “Plus, you won’t look silly either, standing in a corner by yourself.”

He considered this, and then decided in a split second to play along. Why not? Addison was quite pretty, he hadn’t been to a party in ages, and he needed a distraction tonight, for various reasons.

“I just have to stand next to you?” Arthur said suspiciously.

“What am I going to do?” Addison asked. “I should be more afraid of you than you should be of me.” She lowered her voice teasingly. “We can stand somewhere well-lit with lots of people around if you’re scared that I might kidnap you.”

“You’ve made your point,” Arthur said, allowing himself a sheepish half-smile. He gestured up the front walk. “After you. You don’t happen to know if there are non-alcoholic refreshments about, do you?”

“I think there’s cider somewhere,” Addison said. “We can check the kitchen.”

**

They found a bench near the main entryway, tucked next to an antique umbrella stand coated with fake cobwebs. It was an ideal place from which to people-watch. Addison suggested giving narratives to the people who passed through the foyer, either coming in the front door or drifting from one room to another.

“My sisters and I would do it when we were waiting for our mother to pick us up from dance class,” she told him. “We made it a game. It’s much more fun with reoccurring characters, but this will do, I suppose.”

He learned that she was part of the same sorority as the hostess, had majored in occupational therapy, and was currently working to get certified. He learned that her favorite game was checkers, she loved sea turtles, and that she had a lot of thoughts about Taylor Swift.

It wasn’t unpleasant, listening to her ramble about some other much more famous person’s dating life, and he sat there and drank his cider and found himself surprised to be having a Not Bad Time.

And then.

Addison got up, gesturing for him to hand her his cup. “I’m going to go get a refill. Do you want one?”

“Sure,” Arthur said, relinquishing it to her. “You want any company?”

“No, that’s all right. I’ll just be a second?”

He watched her go. Then, realizing that the cider had gone straight to his bladder, he stood and attempted to find the bathroom. He had wandered through a couple crowded, dimly lit rooms when someone seized him abruptly by the elbow and hauled him bodily from the living room in which he had found himself.

“What is wrong with you?” Arthur demanded, shoving his assailant off of him.

“I could ask you the same question,” Merlin retorted.

“What in hell are you talking about? You’re insane.”

Merlin had pulled him into a back hallway, near the staircase leading to the second floor. The noise of the party was muffled here, only the bathroom and a door labeled with a laminated sign as ‘Off Limits’ down this way.

Arthur was reminded of the hole-in-the-wall bar where Merlin had first told Arthur he didn’t like him.

“You are the son of perhaps the most disliked person in the city,” Merlin informed him. “It is a miracle that you are alive.”

“Are you going to keep telling me facts I already know, or are you going to shed a light on why you are acting like a crazy person right now?” Arthur asked. “Where did you even come from? Have you been watching me?”

Merlin did not answer his question. “Do you know who you’ve been chumming it up with all night? Do you know whose house we’re in right now?”

There was a slight slur in his words and a high flush in his cheeks that Arthur did not like.

“Obviously not,” Arthur said. “Why would I? It’s Gwaine’s acquaintance.”

“Like I said, a miracle. Are you familiar with the Bendrui?” When Arthur gave him a blank look Merlin rolled his eyes. “They have been campaigning against your father for years. They hate him. Two years ago, that attempt on your father’s life, it was linked to a radicalized member of the group, though the group claimed she had been expelled from their ranks prior to the attempt.”

“You sound like a news article right now,” Arthur informed him. He remembered the day Merlin mentioned, the terror of it. He hadn’t been with Uther at the time, so he just had to wait at home, his phone in his hands, watching the news with everybody else and waiting for Uther’s head of security to call him back.

“This is the headquarters of the Albion chapter,” Merlin told him. “Gwaine’s acquaintance? She’s the sitting president of this chapter.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I asked,” Merlin said, exasperated. “I’m not an asshat like you, so people share things with me conversationally from time to time. Morgana told me.”

“Oh.” He hadn’t seen his sister all night. Hadn’t spoken to her since what happened last week. Had watched two calls come through from her and sent them straight to voicemail while he sat on the couch, then proceeded to delete the voicemails without listening to them.

Left three or four text messages on read.

“Anyway, that cute girl you’re talking to out in the foyer? Slipped something in your drink.”

“You have been keeping tabs on me, I knew it,” Arthur said smugly. “Did Morgana put you up to this? I told her I don’t need a babysitter.”

“Nobody put me up to anything, thank you very much. Also, I happened to be walking past the kitchen and noticed,” Merlin countered, so smoothly you wouldn’t read it as utter bullshit if you didn’t know better. “And you seem to not be processing the ‘something in your drink’ bit, which was the most important part of what I said.”

“Hey!”

They both whirled toward the entrance of the hallway to find Addison standing there, a cup in either hand, looking bemused and normal and not at all like a political mastermind.

“You weren’t at the bench,” she said, approaching. “I decided to wander around and try and find you. Who’s this?”

She tipped her head to one side as she looked at Merlin, something sweet and poisonous as arsenic in the pleasant tilt of her brow, the slight bafflement of her smile. Arthur had witnessed girls make this face before to other girls, and he knew what that meant. He had a harder time reading it in this context.

“His boyfriend,” Merlin said coolly. “Well, ex-boyfriend.”

Arthur might as well have been physically struck, for the shock this statement elicited. He opened his mouth to say something but Merlin, standing beside him now, elbowed him firmly in the ribs.

“Really?” Addison said, unconvinced.

“It’s very recent,” Merlin continued. “Not that it’s any of your business, he certainly would be happy if I didn’t tell you…”

“What are you doing?” Arthur interrupted. He turned to Addison. “I’m very sorry, I don’t know what he’s talking about...”

“See?” Merlin said, not looking at Arthur, his eyes locked on Addison. “We’re supposed to be friends now, which is a joke. Frankly, I’d save yourself the emotional turmoil and pick some other sandy-haired playboy, then again, you probably wouldn’t be a secret.”

“Merlin,” Arthur said, utterly appalled.

But Addison was absorbing this with a calculating look in her luminescent eyes. Like she actually believed him.

“You certainly enjoy melodrama,” she said. “I can see why he dumped you.”

Merlin took a step toward her. “Cute. I’m not as sheltered as he is. I have eyes. I know what you’re about. I know what you want to do.”

She let her gaze flick over him, assessing. “Do you?”

“I am not sheltered,” Arthur said.

“Shut up, please, darling,” Merlin told him, not even sparing him a glance. “Do you really want to hurt him? Spoiled brat that he is? What did you put in his drink?”

“You think you’re very clever,” Addison said.

“Because I am.”

She considered him, something behind her blank expression shifting as she made a choice. “He’s the heir.”

“Fair enough. But all you want to do is hurt him? That’s so...vanilla.”

“You’re judging our methods?” Addison asked.

They were standing between Arthur and escape. The armor was so damn loud that if he tried to reach for his new phone, if he moved at all, it would alert both of them.

He considered the back of Merlin’s head, the seed pearls from the hairnet he wore reflecting tiny glints of the golden hall light. What are you playing at? he thought. Surely Merlin wasn’t seditious. Openly hostile? Yes. Obnoxious? Yes. But a traitor?

His father wouldn’t have missed that on the background check.

“Do you really want to hurt him?” Merlin asked. “Or do you want to make him suffer?”

She raised a coifed eyebrow, none of the bubbly, open-faced person Arthur had been talking to for the last hour left in her face. “What do you suggest?” she sounded amused, as if Merlin were simply a diverting opening act before a main event.

“Whatever you were going to do to him,” Merlin said, “Do to me.”

If Arthur had been stunned and horrified before, it was nothing compared to whatever was crashing through him now.

Addison laughed, throwing her head back, the flowers in her crown shivering as she regarded Merlin, still grinning. “So that’s what this is?”

“Think about it,” Merlin pressed on. “You know his type. You hurt him and he’ll bear it in silence. You try and do worse, and he’ll resist, but in the end, he’ll be your martyr. But hurt someone he loves? Punish him that way? Then he will truly suffer.”

“I don’t love you.” Arthur’s mouth was dry as paste. “I don’t know you.”

“See?” Merlin said to Addison. “So very chivalrous.”

“And what do you get out of being the sacrificial lamb?”

“Who says I don’t want to see him suffer, too?”

“Oh, you’re demented,” Addison said approvingly. “But I think I’ve got a better idea.” She set the two cups on a side table already populated with black roses and a realistic looking skull, then held out her hands, which filled with warm, pink light. Though it wasn’t bright, it hurt to look at, and Arthur had to avert his gaze.

“Go on,” she said, “Take them.”

Merlin went to step closer to her but Arthur, stupefied up to this point, reached out to grab his arm. His fingers stopped a breath from Merlin’s bicep, an unseen force seizing him and freezing him in place. He recognized the distinct prickle against his skin. Magic. Addison’s mouth curled.

“Take my hands,” she repeated, with eyes only for Merlin.

And Merlin did as she said. Addison then spoke in a low, indistinct voice, words Arthur couldn’t make out but that buzzed in his ears and pulsed in his brain.

Then just as quickly, it was over. Addison stepped back. She pulled something out of the folds of her robes and held it up for Merlin to see.

“It was a sugar packet, Emrys. Thank you very much for playing along.” She patted his cheek. “You aren’t nearly the adversary Morgause said you would be.”

Then she disappeared back into the party in a swirl of robes, and Arthur, released from whatever had been binding him, was forced to choose between going after her and catching Merlin, whose knees buckled almost as soon as Addison was out of sight.

“Are you completely daft?” Arthur demanded.

“Jury’s out,” Merlin managed weakly.

“What do you think you were doing? Even if she had put something nasty in my drink, how is your getting cursed going to help either of us? And if she wanted to hurt me, don’t you think she’d try and lure me into a dark basement or something? My being here at all was totally random, she – they – had no way of knowing I’d be here.”

“I don’t know, I panicked,” Merlin mumbled. “I figured…buying time…”

“For what?” Arthur was surprised at how angry he sounded.

“I don’t know!” Merlin protested. He tried to push himself off Arthur’s arm but failed. “God, what a bitch.”

“You make it sound like that’s a good thing,” Arthur said. “What did she do to you? Do you know? You were playing it like you’re very…well-versed…in the dark arts.”

“I was playing it like I’ve read a singular Wikipedia page about party elixirs in my life,” Merlin snapped. “Most people don’t live under a fucking rock. Jesus, I need air.”

He tried once again to get upright, and this time succeeded. Before Arthur could stop him, he launched himself back into the party, a group of costumed nuns deciding to make a communal trip to the bathroom at precisely that second and blocking Arthur from going after him. Now they showed up.

Arthur swore and grabbed the habit of the nearest nun. “Do you know if there’s a way to get outside?” he asked.

“Yeah, backyard’s that way,” the nun said, pointing. “Jesus Christ has got weed if you want some. He’s out by the bonfire.”

“Thank you,” Arthur told her, and went in the direction she indicated, searching for a hint of green amidst the crowd. Or Gwaine, or Percival, or anyone, really, although he had no idea how to explain what had just happened.

There was a back sliding door in the dining room that led out onto a deck. The deck overlooked the backyard which ran into a dark expanse of woods, the moon hanging like a scythe over the smudged tops of the trees.

Laughter floated up from down below, flickering red light from the bonfire cast against the dark grass. Music played in the background. UV lights had been strung over the deck, white pumpkins positioned here and there to glow eerily. People dressed as pirates crowded one of the picnic tables, playing cards and generally carousing.

It was easy to spot Merlin pressed up against the railing, facing away from the activities, his shoulders hunched.

He turned as Arthur approached, eyeliner smudged and dark green lipstick honing his smile. The UV light caught in the glitter he had applied to every centimeter of exposed skin, turning him into something otherworldly and luminescent, exactly Gatsby’s green light, if it weren’t for that smile.

That smile seemed made of something sharp and tragic as broken glass. Maybe that thing Addison had said back in the hall when Merlin had volunteered himself. So that’s what this is.

“I suppose I had it coming,” Arthur said. “Please don’t run away again.”

“I do not need you near me right now,” Merlin replied, tipping his face toward the clear sky and closing his eyes, “Kindly, take a step back.”

“You can barely stand on your own, Merlin,” Arthur said. “I don’t understand how you could be so stupid. For all your negative qualities, I thought you were smart, at least.”

Merlin snorted, otherwise remaining motionless. “I had too much to drink tonight. It messes with my sense of judgement, and a lot else besides.”

“What did she do to you?”

Merlin relinquished his hold on the railing and turned, pushing past Arthur. Or he tried to. This time, Arthur succeeded in catching his arm and Merlin swayed a little.

“I’m going down into the yard,” he told Arthur.

“The hell you’re not. That’s two flights of stairs. As I just pointed out, you can barely remain upright.”

“Yes, dad,” his smile was loose, brilliant, caught in the UV light with everything else, but that terrible quality was still in it. If only Arthur could pinpoint what it was. “Didn’t I warn you not to touch me?” he asked.

The murmur from the party seeped out onto the dark back deck, up from the bonfire below. The air smelled like woodsmoke with a sweet hint of marijuana at its edges, the cold making everything clear and close.

Arthur kept his grip. “Then don’t be an idiot in my line of sight.”

“I’m doing my best, trust me,” Merlin murmured. He swallowed, forehead creasing with something like pain. “Please…let me go. You’re not going to want to be in my vicinity, soon enough.”

“What are you talking about?” Arthur demanded. “Do you know what she did to you?”

Merlin winced. “Ow, don’t shake me.”

“Sorry.” Arthur released him and Merlin recovered with barely a stagger, clutching at his arm where Arthur had held it. “Come on, Merlin,” Arthur murmured urgently, “I know I’m not your favorite person, but this is important.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Merlin said acidly, something strange in his voice. He was still very pointedly not looking at Arthur, staring vaguely out at the yellow hook of the moon. “I can’t do this right now. I really can’t do this…”

“Merlin,” Arthur said.

Merlin whirled toward him, his eyes feverish and colorless in the strange light. “Fine. You want to know? You really want to know? It’s a love spell. And that’s putting it nicely. A powerful one. The object, that’s you, is theoretically the only one who can make it stop.”

“Stop what?” Arthur asked dumbly.

“Guess,” he hissed, the curl of his lip almost cruel. His fingers were still wrapped around the place where Arthur had touched him.

Oh, Arthur thought, as it dawned on him. Oh.

His stomach bottomed out. “You’re kidding me,” he said. “That’s awful. You mean the…pressure won’t go away unless I…?”

Merlin shook his head reflexively, as if warding off the end of Arthur’s sentence. Then, gazing out into the dark yard, he said, “Unless you touch me, yes. There are loopholes, but it’s all very tricky. Very technical. Point is, it’s dark magic. Very dark magic. And she…” he stumbled a little but steadied himself, his tone sardonic, apocalyptic. “She is very powerful. And sadistic, evidently. Jesus.

Arthur considered this. Merlin’s distress seemed very real, sweat beading his brow and an almost imperceptible tremor in the loose hand at his side. He had the peaked complexion and clenched jaw of someone determined not to pass out.

And for all Merlin read him as sheltered and clueless, he did know what magic looked and felt like. At a more fundamental level, he knew malice on sight. The way that girl had looked at Merlin had been full of it.

Why, Arthur couldn’t begin to guess. Preferred not to consider.

“I don’t understand,” he said finally. “I thought you didn’t like me. Why did you put yourself at risk like that? You didn’t know what she would do to you.”

“I thought it was me or you,” Merlin said.

“But you don’t like me,” Arthur repeated slowly. Going out in the rain was different than this. This smacked much more clearly of choice.

Merlin rolled his eyes, still keeping his face turned from Arthur’s, body angled slightly toward the yard. Arthur had only a view of his bare left shoulder and the tattoo of the snake strangling the stone. It didn’t tell him anything he needed to know.

“That’s what I do,” he said, so quietly Arthur strained to hear him.

“But why?”

Merlin laughed helplessly. “You’re interrogating me now?”

“Well, yeah, you never let me have a conversation, you always get mad at me and storm off before I’ve got a chance to explain myself,” Arthur said. “You act like you hate me and then you pull shit like this and I’m just…at a loss, that’s all.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”

“That can’t be true. Look at you. Someone doesn’t just do this shit for no reason.”

Merlin looked at him then, frown pensive. “You would know, wouldn’t you.”

“Yeah, I guess I would.”

“I don’t know what you want me to say, Arthur.” His hand spasmed compulsively against his bicep and he turned away again, voice strained. “You scare me. You really fucking scare me, and I don’t know why.”

“Oh.”

“I’m sorry I’m so mean.”

“It’s all right.”

“It isn’t, really. It’s reflex. Like everything else.”

Arthur studied the shaky rise and fall in Merlin’s shoulders, in tandem with his breath, the silence cold and full of the slap of the pirates’ cards against the picnic table behind them.

A terrible suspicion had been percolating in his head since Merlin had told him the truth about what Addison had done to him, and Arthur summoned the courage to say it aloud.

“Merlin,” he said, “How do you know what kind of spell this is?”

Merlin’s guard snapped back up, shoulders stiffening. He faced Arthur fully, the flash in his eyes familiar now, bright and quick as lightning. Arthur braced himself, but before Merlin could say anything, the blood drained abruptly from his face. He swayed a little, groping for the guardrail behind him without finding it, and then collapsed, crumpling like a card house.

Arthur’s hand snapped out before he could think. He grabbed Merlin’s arm in the same place as before and hauled him upward, rough enough to bruise.

Merlin ripped himself out of his grip, color returned, livid. “I told you not to fucking touch me."

Arthur flinched. “You were going to fall.”

“I don’t care, I said don’t touch me. I don’t want you to touch me. That is the last…” his voice gave way to a strangled breath. “I need air, I can’t handle this…”

“Hey, is he all right?”

Both Merlin and Arthur looked up, startled. The pirates at the next table were all turned toward them, expressions ranging from glowers to vague amusement to furrows of concern. Arthur realized belatedly that the clink of cans and slap of cards had ceased.

“You all right, mate?” the same pirate asked again, this time in Merlin’s direction.

It occurred to Arthur then how all this all might look, and how it all might sound, and he remembered clearly what Merlin had alluded to only a few minutes before. He was one of the most recognizable faces in the city. If it got around that...well he didn’t even know what this was, let alone what it might appear to be.

Not good. A drunk person in a party dress, a lout in a suit of armor getting rough. Didn’t need much more than that.

“It’s all right,” Arthur hastened, putting on the warm competent voice he only ever pulled out for tv appearances anymore. “I know him. He’s my…”

But his voice snagged on that word, calluses caught in cashmere. In the same way, his gaze somehow snagged Merlin’s at that exact second. He had managed to gather himself all at once, a trick Arthur knew well himself. The corners of his eyes creased in an almost imperceptible dare, though the rest of his face remained taut with the agony of the spell.

“...friend,” Arthur finished. “He’s my friend.”

Merlin’s smile this time dropped a little of its strain, looser and sharper somehow, a blade freshly unfurled. It had edges. Dangerous to whom it was hard to say.

“You sure?” asked the same pirate, sounding skeptical.

“Leave it alone, Alice,” one of her friends whispered, tugging at a billowy sleeve.

“I’m fine,” Merlin assured her over Arthur’s shoulder. “Thank you for checking on me. Just a bit...inebriated.”

“Inebriated,” repeated the pirate, snickering, and returned to her game and her cup of, presumably, rum. “Nice dress by the way.”

“Nice tat,” piped up her friend.

“Thanks,” Merlin managed weakly. Then to Arthur, “So we’re friends now?”

“I mean you’ve saved my ass once already, it seems you deserve the upgrade if you want it.”

“That's a weird qualification for friendship,” Merlin murmured, releasing whatever composure he had just managed to summon. He took a step backward and latched onto the guardrail. "God, I need air.”

“We're already outside. You're not going to find more air than this. And anyway, I can’t let you go down into the yard, you’re not thinking straight. You haven’t been even before that girl cursed you.”

His knuckles were bone white where he squeezed the guardrail. “Not thinking straight? I have never been more lucid. Stop. You need to stop looking at me like that.”

“Like what?” Arthur was truly at a loss. Nothing he did was right.

“Like that, like you want to save me. That’s my job. That’s my job. And anyway, you don’t mean it, that's just the spell messing with my head and this damn dress, I should never have worn it…”

He was breathing too fast, chest heaving, and Arthur could hear the tears flooding the ragged edges of his voice.

“What are you talking about? You’re not making any sense. Slow down please. Slow down.” This was quickly getting too big for him to handle. The obvious answer was so clearly the wrong one. He couldn’t touch Merlin like this; the very idea made him sick at himself. The emphatic 'no' rang in his head.

He had to call someone.

“I need air,” Merlin repeated, “I need to get away from you. God I’m so warm…”

“Please, please just stay put. I’ll fix this,” Arthur begged, digging in his armor for his phone. “I promise. Merlin, please.”

“You keep saying my name,” Merlin said. The look on his face reminded Arthur of when he had caught him sleepwalking. “You really want to know how I know what this is? I had a lot of shitty boyfriends in college, your majesty. A lot of shitty boyfriends. And I did stupid shit constantly. Do stupid shit constantly. All the fucking time. You can ask Gwen.” He laughed that same naked blade of a laugh, and Arthur still couldn’t tell toward whom the sharp blade of it was turned. “I don't even know why I do it. It's like I'm watching myself from the outside and I just can't stop myself. Merlin, why are you being such a bitch? Merlin, why are you acting literally insane? Merlin, you don't need to convince yourself you're fucking invincible please just stop. But I can't. I can't, I swear. It feels just like that now. God, I was so stupid. I am so stupid. Why do I always do this to myself?” he turned vaguely. “I’ve got to get air. I can’t do this…”

“No, please, just give me a second…, if you’re right and the people hosting this party are…I don’t know. Enemies of the state, or whatever, we shouldn’t split up. In fact, we should find Gwen. And then I think we should call the police. Or the paramedics or something…”

It was the wrong thing to say.

“The police? The fucking police? Are you serious?” Less anger, more blind panic, whites of his eyes flaring.

“I don’t…Merlin.”

When he finally managed to extract his phone out of its special compartment in his armor, Merlin was gone.

“Shit.” Arthur supposed he deserved it. Turnabout was fair play.

He dialed Gwen’s number. She answered, sounding surprised. “Arthur? What is it?” Arthur had ghosted her, too.

“Your friend has done something very stupid,” he said.

“Where is he?”

“That’s the thing, he disappeared, and he’s…let’s just say he’s incapacitated. I’m on the deck, I think he went back into the house.”

“Damn it, Merlin,” she growled, and hung up.

Arthur considered that he wasn’t the only one prone to reckless, thoughtless behavior. He had almost bought the ruse, too, that he was the messy one.

“It takes two,” he muttered, and dove back into the party.

Chapter Text

“Gwaine!” Merlin announced, finding Gwaine enmeshed with a group of Anne-Rice style vampires and pulling him away.

Gwaine staggered a little at the force of Merlin’s grip before he steadied himself. “Whoa! What is it? Is everything okay? Where’s Arthur?” He glanced around. This corner of the party was dark and rose-lit, lots of black lace and flickering faux-candles.

It was relatively empty, in comparison to the rest of the house, the music a distant drumbeat under their feet.

“He went to find Gwen,” Merlin said. It felt as if his heart had grown two sizes in his chest, his entire body hot and flushed, his vision a fish-eye lens, the only thing in focus Gwaine’s sweat-dampened profile.

Gwaine was frowning at him, Merlin realized. Maybe he had spoken, and Merlin hadn’t heard, but when he fished backward for any sort of memory to support this suspicion, he couldn’t find it.

“You’ve been trying not to look at me the wrong way since you met me,” Merlin told him. “It’s all right, you were trying to be subtle, and you’re bad at it. Most men are. Hey, are you listening?”

Gwaine’s gaze had wandered over Merlin’s shoulder, scanning the room, vague and worried. “I’m going to repeat: you don’t seem like you’re doing too well, are you okay?”

“Okay?” Merlin mouthed to himself, turning. Jesus. “Maybe I should just find Percival.”

This time, Gwaine was the one to seize his elbow. “Whoa, there. What do you think you’re doing, champ?”

“Trying to keep myself from doing something incredibly stupid!” Merlin almost shouted. His heart was a hummingbird, wings beating too hard and too fast, light-headed on no fuel. His hands were knotted in his hair as he turned in a vague circle.

The air against his skin was dry and warm as a crypt.

One hand stayed in his hair as he faced Gwaine again, aware he looked exactly like the damsel he swore he would never be, the dress too pretty and the glitter too tragic and hopelessly perfect for a moment like this.

“Please, Gwaine, if it’s not you, it’ll be Arthur, and I don’t think I can survive the humiliation,” Merlin murmured, almost in tears. “I’m not ready for him to know yet. He doesn’t know me, Gwaine, why am I doing this for him?”

Gwaine held himself as if he wanted to reach out and touch Merlin but didn’t trust himself to do so.

“It’s magic,” Merlin continued. “It’s chemistry. It doesn’t have to mean anything if you don’t let it. Physical contact will diffuse the potency of the spell, even if it doesn’t come from the chosen object of the spell. Please, please Gwaine you have got to help me.”

“Magic? Spell? What are you talking about?” Gwaine demanded. “Merlin, you look like you’re going to pass out. Maybe you should sit down.”

He steeled himself, reached out and took Merlin’s wrist. His grip was callused, gentle, and the relief of it washed like a hot wave of light through Merlin’s head.

“I’m not going to sit down,” Merlin managed, strangled, trying to focus on Gwaine’s words.

“All right, fine,” Gwaine said, his normally easy, cheerful tone tight with worry. He dropped Merlin’s wrist, and his gaze dropped, too, to Merlin’s hands, now at his sides. Merlin watched the shock bloom across Gwaine’s face like a sunrise and realized he had fucked up.

Without looking down himself, Merlin put out the glow he felt seeping from between his fingers, and it took an enormous effort of will. The magic was expanding inside of him, threatening to spread beyond the edges of its mortal container.

It was less Addison’s spell and more the emotion, a thing he could not calm if he tried, a panic born of helplessness and desire and pride, and something bigger and darker than all those things, something that whispered a name in his ear that did not belong to him, that he did not want to claim.

Emrys.

“Are you going to tell on me?” Merlin asked.

Gwaine jerked his eyes back up to Merlin’s face. “Who would I tell?” he asked. Merlin could not read the forced steadiness in his voice. “What is it you need from me?”

“Will you let me kiss you?” he asked. “Is that a sacrifice you think you can make?”

Gwaine frowned into the dregs of the liquid still in his red solo cup.

“Are you drunk?” he asked quietly.

“Very unfortunately, not anymore,” Merlin said. He winced, the effects of the spell swimming through his skull. “And even if I was, this is still the thing I’d need from you. I know what I’m asking. Please. Can you do it?”

It was cruel, really. Merlin knew what his please would do to Gwaine, and he used it anyway, watched the last of Gwaine’s defenses crumble.

“That’ll fix…whatever is going on with you right now?”

“Yes. I’ll explain it all after, if…”

But in one resolved motion, Gwaine set his cup on the nearby side table, took Merlin’s chin firmly in his hand, and kissed him. Hard. With a force that was unwarranted and tasted a bit like resentment and a bit like the whiskey and cola Gwaine had been drinking when Merlin walked up to him.

Still, Merlin knew want when he felt it, even if it was reluctant, even if was gilded with the shame of a man who thought he was good finally giving in.

And Merlin had that spell lit up like Christmas lights through his nervous system. There was nothing in his head but the touch at his waist and the flare of warm relief it brought, the pressure lightening as Merlin deepened the kiss and Gwaine let him, fingers flirting with the curls at the nape of Merlin’s neck.

The touch at Merlin’s waist slid to his hip, and he had the silk of Gwaine’s shirt in both his fists.

“Better yet?” Gwaine managed, his voice hoarse.

Merlin pressed his forehead to Gwaine’s shoulder, eyes closed, breath ragged. “Almost,” he said, and meant it.

“If I’d known it would go this far, I would’ve suggested we get a room,” Gwaine said, trying to sound gallant or jovial, and instead just sounding ridiculous.

“Shut up,” Merlin mumbled. “Kindly. And don’t be a gentleman, restraint won’t help you now.”

“Jesus, you’re a piece of work,” Gwaine replied, letting out a hiss as Merlin tugged Gwaine’s shirt free of his pants, pressing his fingers to his stomach. “You sound better. Clearer.”

“This isn’t working,” Merlin insisted, distracted. “What was she trying to do, sedate a horse?”

“Who?”

“I need you to touch me some more. I think there’s a guest bedroom upstairs. Is that all right with you?”

Gwaine removed his hand, the brace of his dark brows worried and grim. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Spoilsport,” Merlin muttered, distracted, not meaning it.

“Hey, don’t go anywhere,” Gwaine said, catching his wrist. “There’s an empty couch over here, I really do think you should sit down.”

“Fuck you.” It slipped out, the blandness of the words increasing their impact.

Gwaine winced. “Ouch. Okay, you really are out of it. Where’s Gwen? Shouldn’t she be with you?”

“I don’t need a babysitter,” Merlin said, unconsciously repeating Arthur’s words from earlier that night. Without really realizing it, Gwaine had led him to a couch and sat him down.

“Here,” Gwaine said, intertwining his fingers through Merlin, “If this spell is based on touch, this’ll have to be good enough. Focus on this, okay? Put your whole awareness on this point.”

Gwaine tapped the back of Merlin’s hand and a full-body shudder wracked through him, forcing him to close his eyes. His whole body hurt, somehow, Addison’s magic and his own equal and opposite energies playing like electricity and water over his skin. He felt like crying, as he often did when he got overwhelmed, and he squashed the impulse, trying to do what Gwaine said.

He squeezed Gwaine’s hand, determined not to embarrass himself further tonight.

Seated next to him, he heard the clank of armor as Gwaine wrestled his phone from somewhere on his person one-handed and made a call.

“What do you mean where am I, where are you?” Gwaine asked, wincing a little at Merlin’s grip. “Never mind. Is Gwen with you? She is? Okay, I know where they’re parked, let’s just meet at Morgana’s car.” A pause. “No, they should definitely take him home. To Gwen’s, whatever. He is not in good shape. God, Arthur, how could you lose him?”

Another pause.

Color bloomed in Gwaine’s voice, his own grip convulsing just a bit in Merlin’s. “I just happened to run into him, that’s all, don’t sound so suspicious. I’ll meet you outside, okay? Okay. Okay.” He huffed and hung up the phone, tugging Merlin upright with him. “Come on, let’s get you out of here.”

“So we’re lying,” Merlin told him flatly.

Gwaine glanced around distractedly, searching for an exit. “What?”

“That was Arthur on the phone, wasn’t it? And you lied to him.”

Gwaine turned to him, expression stony. “And you’ve been telling him the truth?”

“It’s not the same,” Merlin said, a hysterical laugh edging his voice. “And you know it.”

It was really very dark in this part of the house, aside from the flickering faux-candlelight, and the shadows shading Gwaine’s face were stark.

“It was my fault, not yours,” Gwaine told him, and though his voice was cold, there was something so sorry in it that it made Merlin’s chest ache. “We can talk about it later when you’re in your right mind. Now let’s go.”

Merlin refused to move. “It was just as much my fault,” he said. “You shouldn’t blame yourself.”

Gwaine’s smile was humorless, wane.

“I could smell the alcohol on your breath, Gwaine. I knew. I’m sorry.” He sounded so plaintive, even to his own ears, and he could hear the tears rendering his voice soggy.

God, he was pathetic. He always fucked things up. It was his special talent, above anything else, really.

“I’m sorry too,” Gwaine told him, “Now let’s go, please, before this night gets anymore disastrous.”

This time, Merlin allowed Gwaine to tug him out of the living room and out of the house, the cold night air bracing and real, bringing everything almost into focus. Down by the BMW, Morgana and Gwen stood. Gwen wore Morgana’s coat over her dress, and Morgana had her hands tucked under her armpits.

Gwen, Merlin could tell, was worried, the familiar lines of her face soft with fear and concern. Morgana turned and unlocked the car, her stiff movements unreadable.

“Where’s Arthur?” Merlin asked.

“He’s a mess,” Gwen murmured, coming to support Merlin’s other elbow.

“I still have ears,” he managed. Gwaine and Gwen together managed to bundle him into the back of the car, despite Merlin’s weak attempt at resistance. “Where is he?”

“I told him to stay away,” Gwen informed him, “Which was a good idea, I think, considering what he told me about what happened tonight. Thank you, Gwaine,” she said, hand resting on the car door as she turned to face him. “We’ve got it from here.”

“All right,” Gwaine said, hesitating before he turned back toward the party, “Call me if you need anything.”

“Will do.”

Morgana, now in the driver’s seat, rolled down the passenger window. “Hey, Gwaine,” she called, leaning against the center console as he began to walk away. He stopped.

Merlin couldn’t see Morgana’s face from this angle, but he could hear the poisonous smile spreading over her face, lovely as she knew how to make it.

“You missed some lipstick there, pal.”

Gwaine went red. She rolled the window back up. Gwen slammed the rear door closed. And Merlin, exhausted from battling the spell, reclined in the back seat, and let the rest of the world retreat into a dull fog. Whatever Gwaine’s response, if he had one, Merlin did not see it.

Chapter Text

He slumped in the back seat, barely processing as the car started and pulled away from the curb. The curse had dissipated, mostly, thanks to Gwaine, leaving only the barren absence of it in its wake, like the black spots that lit up your vision after looking directly at the sun. Exhaustion pulled his eyelids shut. He didn't think he could move if he tried, the rock of the car lulling him into a pseudo sleep.

He had no idea how much time had passed when he heard, as if from very far away, Morgana’s voice:

“You have to believe me, I am so sorry.”

“You invited him.” Gwen’s voice. “I told you it wasn’t a good idea.”

“I didn’t know she would do this. I had no idea…”

“Why would Morgause target Merlin anyway? It doesn’t make any sense…”

“Like I said, I don’t know. I have no clue.”

A dangerous pause. “Do you think you could find out?”

“She played me tonight, Gwen, whose to say she wouldn’t just do it again? Use my trust against me? She knew I would believe her. I feel so stupid.”

Gwen did not comfort her. Merlin felt awful, nauseous, his consciousness rocking on a tumultuous sea that threatened to pull him under.

Emrys… That voice again.

He really did want to cry. He really needed to cry. Maybe when he woke up, he could.

Chapter Text

Percival did not believe in minding his own business. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. He tried his best, recognizing the wisdom in letting people handle their own problems. After all, the problems belonged to them. They probably knew best how to handle them.

So, his rule, the primary tenet his chivalrous code, was this: be nosy, but with permission.

“Could you use help with that?” were his six favorite words, in specific order.

Old ladies carrying groceries up the stairs. Delivery drivers wrestling dollies up onto the curb. Drunk girls downtown trying and failing to flag down taxis. Little kids in overalls trailing their untied shoelaces behind them.

All sorts.

A few choice situations didn’t allow for permission. Papers flying everywhere down a windy street. A person with their arms full almost at the crucial door.

Breaking up fights.

“Would you stop it?”

Gwaine and Arthur glared at each other over Percy’s fists wrapped in their shirts. Gwaine’s shirt, at least. Percy had a hard grip on the front of Arthur’s breastplate. They were both breathing hard, Gwaine’s face pink and indignant. Arthur, meanwhile, wore the type of rage Percy very rarely saw in person. He didn’t fight Percy’s grip, but he didn’t relax in it either. He kept his eyes locked on Gwaine, muscle in his jaw knotted, pulse ticking furiously in his throat. Percy knew better than to let go.

Arthur never really got angry. They had all seen the show, the flash-bang of his petulant tantrums, his grousing, his occasional whininess, his black moods. That was all smoke though, all brief, bright light, without real substance. More for the drama and his own amusement than anything else, though he would never admit it.

When he was angry, really angry…Percy was the only one who could get in his way when he got like that. Make him listen, get through to him, make him stop. Just stop. Or maybe Percy was the only one stupid enough to get in between Arthur and whatever had made him angry. Most people were smart enough not to jump in front of an oncoming train, after all.

All Percy really knew was that if he let go of Arthur or Gwaine right now someone would end up hurt. He knew both his friends well enough to know they didn’t have the self-control to fight fair, not right now.

He didn’t know why but he could read the flare of Gwaine’s nostrils, the painful press of Arthur’s faux armor against his palm without having answers.

When he was certain they had both calmed he shook them, hard.

“What is wrong with you two? You’re acting like school kids right now.”

“Ask him,” Arthur spat, with the kind of low, monotone venom Percy rarely heard from him.

They were all in 3D, the flat empty and dark, the low setting of the microwave light the only illumination. The punching bag was a solid specter in the corner. Leon hadn’t gotten back yet from his work event, saying it wouldn’t be finished until late.

They weren’t supposed to be back until late, either. But only a couple hours after they had arrived at the party, Gwaine had appeared at Percy’s elbow. “We need to go. You got the keys?”

“I mean, yeah, but I was going to join the next round of Mario Kart.”

“Now,” Gwaine had said, vanishing before Percy could protest.

Percy had abandoned his spot in the queue and trailed after him. They had run into Arthur on the front porch, waiting for them.

“Hey!” but Gwaine has brushed past him, stalking out down the middle walk.

The night had been cold, a snap in it that promised frost, the sky so clear and deep it hurt to look at. Arthur had rushed after Gwaine, catching up to him at the road. Before Percy could process, Arthur had grabbed Gwaine’s shoulder and yanked Gwaine around to face him. Gwaine knocked Arthur’s hand aside. Their breath was visible, warm gray clouds.

“You say good-bye to the hostess?” Arthur asked acidly.

“Don’t be like that, man.”

“Like what, exactly?”

Gwaine’s dark eyes had been cool. “Don’t be coy. Go ahead, say it.”

“That’s how you’re going to play it?”

“Use your words, Arthur.”

“You did it, didn’t you?”

Gwaine’s mouth quirked humorlessly. “There it is. Mr. Nice Guy.”

“Excuse me?”

Percy finally made it down to the road, his presence fracturing the tension. “I think we should go home,” he said.

“Yeah,” said Arthur, yanking open the passenger side door, “Wouldn’t want your friend cursing anyone else tonight, would we?”

“She’s my acquaintance,” Gwaine said calmly. “And you already know we aren’t going to call the authorities.”

“Why fucking not?”

“Because you want me to call them, and the reason you want me to call them is because you know how it will be perceived if you do it, which means that you know it’s a bad idea, you know why it’s a bad idea, you just don’t want to admit it.”

Arthur had not replied, which just meant Gwaine was right.

Percy had not asked what happened. He waited for Arthur to clamber into the back seat, Gwaine after him, and then he got into the car. Percy drove because Gwaine had asked him to be the designated driver, as Arthur, though sober, Did Not Drive. And Percy was a notoriously cautious driver, slow and overly anxious, hovering at turns and practically hugging the wheel as they crept at least five under the speed limit the entire time. The drive home had been excruciating. Gwaine’s radio had not worked in months, and there was only a scratched-up Hank Williams cd stuck in the cd player, left by the truck’s previous owner.

Never before had Percy so fervently wanted to crawl out of his own skin.

And now, here they all were. The front door had barely slammed shut behind them. Arthur said, “So much for the code, then.” Gwaine said, “Say that to me again.” Arthur said, “Was it even worth it?” And that was it. Percy didn’t even have the chance to take off his coat.

“Whatever you’re going to say to each other you’re going to say right now,” Percy told them now, having succeeded in separating them.

“You going to make us shake hands after?” Gwaine asked, sneering.

“Don’t be cute,” Percy warned. “I mean it.”

An awkward silence fell, then, as both men contemplated each other over the nearly two meters of space Percy had created between them.

“I thought you were better than this,” Arthur said finally, voice quiet.

“It wasn’t as black and white as you’re making it,” Gwaine said. “What did you expect me to do?”

“He was clearly out of his head, Gwaine,” Arthur said, his tone almost pleading.

“He needed my help.”

Arthur scoffed. “And chivalry was your only motivator?”

Gwaine didn’t reply. In the pause, Percy said, “This is about Merlin, then?”

“Obviously,” they snapped in unison.

“You’re fighting over a boy?” Percy demanded.

The tips of Arthur’s ears went red. “No. We are not fighting over a boy. Don’t be simplistic, Percy.”

“We are a little bit fighting about a boy,” Gwaine interjected, the glint in his eyes dangerous. “Might be more straight forward if you’d just admitted that’s what this is.”

“I thought this wasn’t black and white.”

“Some of it is.”

Arthur’s lip curled and Percy jerked him firmly back in place.

“Nobody’s going to make you come out to your father or put you on the cover of a tabloid to spill your guts to the public, but c’mon Arthur, it’s us.” Gwaine’s voice dropped an octave and Percy had to hold him back as he leaned forward. “We already know, okay?”

“Know what exactly?” Arthur said tightly.

Gwaine’s eyes narrowed as he studied Arthur’s face. “You’re kidding me, right?”

“Gwaine,” Percy said in a warning tone.

Percy didn’t recognize the way Gwaine was behaving. None of them even got close to crossing this sort of line. Everyone knew Arthur was a little repressed, but the unspoken agreement was to let him come to terms with whatever his identity was at his own pace, in his own time. Percy wasn’t friends with assholes, only people who sometimes appeared to be. None of them would ever actually pull this shit, which made Percy even more mystified as to what the hell was going on.

“Go on,” Arthur urged Gwaine. “Say it.”

Gwaine backed down. “Whatever.”

“This can’t all possibly be about Merlin,” Percy said. “We’re talking about the same Merlin, aren’t we? Dark hair, nice eyes, cool enough guy but he’s just a guy. What about him is inspiring you two to act like absolute Neanderthals?”

“I don’t know,” Gwaine said, a little dazedly.

At the same time, Arthur said, “There was a curse. But it shouldn’t have affected him. The object was me, and I managed to keep my self-control with little difficulty.”

Gwaine scoffed, “Oh, that’s rich.”

“What are you talking about, a curse?” Percy interrupted. “You mentioned that earlier, too. Does this have something to do with Morgause?”

“Only tangentially,” Gwaine said.

Arthur explained what had happened in the hallway earlier that evening. “Merlin was incapacitated,” he finished, “And Gwaine knew it, he as good as admitted to it.”

“You two are besties now then, is that it?” Gwaine asked. “One little heart to heart and you’re suddenly up in arms for him? Did it occur to you that anything he said to you, admitted to you, was also under duress? That intimacy you’re operating on is a fucking illusion, and just because you had your ego fucking stroked with something as artificial as a curse doesn’t mean jack shit.”

“You don’t have room to talk,” Arthur retorted coolly.

“You’re just upset because he didn’t want you, did he? According to him at least, sounded like he wanted anyone but you,” Gwaine continued.

“Shut up,” Arthur growled.

“He told you no, Arthur, get over it! Even with a curse where the only way to break it was to let you touch him, he said no and he found another way. He found me, and he did not say no to me, I promise you that.”

“Fuck you,” Arthur said.

All Percy could think was that when they inevitably had to apologize to each other it was going to be painful.

“I thought you knew me better than this,” Gwaine said, “I will never, ever be that guy. If he comes to you and wants to say something about what happened between him and me tonight, fine, listen to him. I mean it. But he hasn’t. And I’d bet money on it that he won’t. Even if he did, he wouldn’t come to you.”

Arthur deflated.

“Are we done fighting?” Percy asked.

“We’re done,” Gwaine said quietly. Percy released him and he stepped back, brushing the wrinkles out of his shirt.

“We good?” Percy asked Arthur. Arthur nodded wordlessly and Percy let him go, too.

“I’m going to shower and go to bed,” Gwaine said. “See you tomorrow, Perce.”

“Good night,” Percy said.

“Good night.”

Gwaine disappeared into the dark bowels of the flat without preamble, leaving just Arthur and Percy standing there, shadows cast over the shape of the couch.

“You’re taking all this pretty well,” Arthur said when they heard the bathroom door close.

“Taking what pretty well?” Percy asked. “My ruined evening?”

“Gwaine kissed him.”

“I saw the glitter on his collar, Arthur, I’m not blind.”

“You’re not upset?”

“Why would I be upset?”

Arthur’s next words were careful. “Well, you know. Considering.”

Arthur had been to his studio, seen the early stages of that painting.

“Considering what? Gwaine’s my friend, and an adult man besides. He can kiss who he likes.” Percy meant it too. He’d gotten good at meaning exactly what he said, no more and no less. It wasn’t technically lying.

“Sure.” Arthur paused. “I guess I should go home.”

“Probably, yeah.”

“How do we fix this, Perce?”

“Your fight? I think you sit down and talk about it after you’ve had a full night’s sleep. And maybe talk to Merlin, too. I think that would help.”

“It was probably the spell, right? Like residual magic? Making Gwaine act like that? Making…I don’t know.” Arthur gestured in the general direction of his own head.

“You’d know more about it than I would.”

“We should’ve called someone,” Arthur said finally, turning as if to go. “What that girl did tonight wasn’t just illegal, it was wrong. And she shouldn’t just get to get away with it. None of them should.”

“It sounded like Merlin didn’t want that.”

“Yeah,” Arthur murmured, brow furrowed, keys gathered in his hand.

“We’ll talk about it later, okay? You should get some rest.”

“Yeah,” Arthur agreed, “You’re right.”

“I don’t like to brag, but I usually am.”

Chapter Text

All the partygoers had finally trickled out. The final car had pulled out of the driveway. Once again, the house was quiet and still and dark, the artificial candles still flickering in the halls and in the windows, the fake cobwebs catching and dissecting the dim light.

Morgause stood in the kitchen. The other girls congregated around her, some still in costume and some not, the last smudges of make-up still smeared dark around their eyes, looking oddly surreal in pajama pants or sweats, as if the normal, everyday attire was in fact the costume.

Addison was one of the ones still in costume, the white robe still luminously draped around her person, though the flower crown had been discarded to sit on the counter next to the last remaining dregs in the punch bowl.

“What were you thinking?” Morgause demanded, her voice hushed so as not to disturb the deep silence.

Addison, whose real name was obviously not Addison, lifted her chin, uncowed. “You left it to my discretion what to do with him.”

“Perhaps I trusted in your discretion more than was warranted,” Morgause told her, voice steely. “You had both of them there before you, and that is what you chose. A love spell.”

“We didn’t even know Arthur was going to be here tonight,” one of the other girls inserted. “That was pure chance.”

“You’re correct,” Morgause conceded, arms crossed, casting her gaze out the dark kitchen window. “I only hoped the once and future king would show his face…” she scoffed, shaking her head. “We will never have another opportunity like we had tonight. Explain yourself. And I expect something a hell of a lot better than your discretion.”

“I improvised,” Addison shrugged. “I realized Arthur was here, and so I decided to use him. And it worked. Emrys was the one who gave me the idea, what with the story he decided to fabricate, as if that would dissuade us…”

“Merlin,” Morgause interrupted. “Get in the practice of referring to him by that name. It is best to leave everyone guessing as to what we know and how we know it.”

Addison sighed, pursing her rosy lips. “Whatever. But think about it…what better than a love spell to rouse him? That’s the heart of this whole thing, isn’t it?”

“Not a bad thought, but this particular operation required a scalpel, and the spell you chose operated more as a bludgeon. He’s fragile already. If he loses it…” Morgause shook her head. “We’ve already spent years going through the motions, waiting for him to deign to show up. I refuse to be dragged through this farce once again. This time, the cycle must be broken. Do you understand?”

“I understand. I’ve lived these lives too, ‘with’ you…I wouldn’t have you think me thoughtless. I chose the curse purposefully. Subtle machinations have been proven not to work… he is too stubborn, floundering in his own ill-feeling. It is clear, to me at least, that we need to force the matter.”

Morgause regarded her, shoving aside the irritation that spiked through her chest. It used to be, if an initiate displayed this sort of orneriness, she could be expelled from the ranks. Punished. But the ranks of the Bendrui were closed now, permanently, thanks to Emrys. He had fucked up almost everything and left her with powerful idiots like Addison who now lacked the prescience of obedience.

But that didn’t mean that Addison was wrong. It was true. Merlin needed to be woken, that was trick of this whole thing, but how did you wake up a man to a truth he did not want to see? They were all here because Merlin did not want to live with the truth. Wanted to change it.

Morgause didn’t care whether Arthur lived or died. She just wanted out. She wanted out for her initiates, for herself, and for her sister. That was it. That was all. And it started with getting Merlin to understand – to see – what it was he had done.

“Did Arthur show any sign of awareness? The others, that you observed?” Morgause turned to the rest of the girls circling the counter and they all exchanged glances, murmurs, shaking their heads.

“None that I could tell,” voiced the same girl from before. “The two knights and Arthur, they left pretty quickly after Merlin was bundled out.”

“Clueless,” agreed someone else, to more murmurs.

“They wouldn’t have shown up here if they knew,” Addison pointed out.

“Who knows,” Morgause said. “I put nothing past them. This lesson, at least, I have learned. What happened here tonight was not a misstep necessarily, and thus is not completely irredeemable. We’ll meet at the agreed upon rendezvous point in three days. Until then, lay low and stick to your cover stories. I don’t expect anyone to come snooping around, but it is best to be prepared.”

“Wait,” said one of the girls. “We’re abandoning the house?”

You’re abandoning the house.” Morgause turned to her, dark eyes glittering like gemstones. “Did you miss the part about Arthur being here? Your good friend and fellow acolyte did magic in plain sight of the son of the man determined to banish magic from this city. He has no doubt passed this intelligence onto his father, whose goons will surround this place before sunset tomorrow, mark my words.”

Addison bristled. “We prepared for this eventuality, don’t make it like it is all my fault.”

“I said, if necessary,” Morgause snapped. “You chose theater. And you have very little room to speak, as your improvisation did not work.”

“We don’t know that” Addison mumbled.

Before Morgause could decide whether to restrain herself or smack the petulant girl, her phone began to vibrate against the counter. She turned it over, expressionless as she read the caller ID.

“It’s Morgana,” she said tightly. “Now I must concoct an explanation for her as well. I have injured the trust of my sister, which was the one thing I wanted to keep no matter what happened tonight. Her allyship is crucial, and all she knows now is that someone claiming to act in my name has hurt her friend.”

“She still doesn’t know the truth,” Addison pointed out.

Morgause’s eyes snapped to her face and this time Addison had the wherewithal to flinch under her gaze. “She knows enough,” Morgause said. “Vengeance can be a powerful motivator, but we are no longer allowing men to make us into the monsters they fear us to be. I will not ruin the happiness my sister has found simply for the satisfaction of tearing Uther down in this life. It is enough that she knows him for the liar and the hypocrite he is. For now.” She paused. The phone, still vibrating on the counter, went to voicemail. “Anyway. We are running out of time. You all have your bags packed?”

The girls nodded in unison.

“Then go. I do not want to hear hide nor hair from you for seventy-two hours. Not a word not a breath. Yes?”

Each one of them lowered their gaze, even Addison. Their answer was like wind. “Yes.”

“Good.”

A few minutes later, the house had fallen into an even more profound silence, its population scattered. They all had their own places to live, but for months this had been a sort of second home. Morgause had grown to see its little beauties. In the back yard, just before the start of the woods, there was a small crabapple tree that had bloomed in the spring, lovely and flumey with sweet-smelling flowers.

Still, it was growing difficult to tolerate even little beauties when they were thus frustrated at every turn.

How was it an oblivious, traumatized wizard could do so much damage?

She had done poorly in underestimating Merlin the first time. She knew it now. But hindsight was useless. The only way out of this labyrinth he had created for them was forward.

Moving slowly through the silence, she made her way back to the heart of the house, what they had termed the headquarters. On her way past the end table by the bathroom, she picked up the plastic skull sitting there. The knob turned easily under her hand. The room on the other side was empty, and dark. Some acolyte had run a vacuum over the rug. The shelves were empty. The central table had been wiped clean. The only hint as to what this room had been was the skull sitting on the mantle, more a joke than anything else. It was not made of plastic.

The room was buzzing with magic. Spells woven into the door frame, the window, laced into the very walls. Morgause never knew how to explain how much more alive she felt in the presence of magic, how much more energized. The way other people felt after a morning cup of coffee or a great kiss, that's how Morgause felt in the presence of magic.

It was undetectable to those who weren't sensitive to it, and so with the memorabilia and macabre evidence whisked away by the now absent girls, it was the only thing that remained.

She went over to the mantle and replaced the real skull with the plastic one. The curvature of it was smooth and dry, fit perfectly in her palm. She leaned against the mantle and crossed her ankles, gazing out the window at the red light seeping over the spill.

“You cast me as the villain once,” Morgause murmured to the warm hush of the sunrise, unsure who she would cast these words to, if she could. “How ironic that your own feeling has become your worst enemy.”

The sun rose slowly and then all at once. Morgana, watching a sunrise with her once, had explained that was how a lot of people fell in love. A revelation of light. Personally, Morgause couldn't imagine anything more beautiful than the sun rising, a repetition that was never promised but somehow, every morning, still occurred.

After she stood for a moment, eyes closed to the sunbeam washing over her face, she got up and left the room, leaving it unlocked behind her, a first in the time she had lived here.

She shrugged on her coat, dropped the keys for the front door in her pocket, and left the house behind for now, like she had so much else.

To keep up the ruse, she would continue to stay here, leave at her normal time, conduct her usual business, carry in her groceries. If Arthur did report them – and Morgause knew him too well by now to doubt that he would – it was better she, as the leader, did not appear concerned nor arouse any cause for suspicion.

She would return in a few hours, before day broke, as she hoped she would return to so much else. Morgause had never really desired a normal life. She still didn’t. But she did desire a life with an expiration date, a life with limits, a life which would one day end. Not now. Perhaps not for a while. But eventually. Otherwise, what was the point?

For now, though, it was time to visit an old friend.

She would think of how to pacify Morgana later.

Chapter Text

Merlin emerged from Gwen’s back bedroom at approximately noon the next morning, the impetus green dress bundled in both his fists. His entire body ached. Despite having showered last night, glitter still filled Gwen’s lavender-scented bedsheets.

Thankfully, regrettably, inevitably, he remembered everything.

The flat smelled like nutmeg, and when he reached the kitchen, he found Gwen making French toast on the griddle, her back to him. Morgana sat at the plant-crowded table with her phone cupped in both her hands. Merlin watched them for a moment, allowing the queasiness of his empty stomach and the pounding in his head to combine with his guilt.

Morgana had a pale, blank look on her face as she watched Gwen, oddly vulnerable without the armor of her typical dark make-up. Gwen, who he knew so well, gave herself away with the way she shoveled a piece of French toast from the griddle onto a dish, movements jerky as a pull-string toy, tense and out of focus.

Blankets and an extra pillow were still messy on the couch, where they both must’ve slept.

“Morning,” he said finally.

Gwen dropped the spatula with a clatter, pressing her hand to her chest as she turned. “Oh, thank God, you scared me. I mean, thank God, you’re awake. I mean, thank God, you’re awake, and also separately you scared me. Jesus Merlin.”

She pressed the back of her wrist to her mouth as if to keep from rambling further. Merlin just stood there, awkward, tired, sorry. Finally, she strode over and hugged him tight, the particular, perfect Gwen hug that only she could give.

“We’re not eighteen,” she told him, face pressed into his sweatshirt. “You aren’t allowed to scare me like that anymore.”

He squeezed her back lightly, cursing the prickle in his eyes. “Sorry.”

Gwen pounded her fist lightly against his chest and pushed off of him, shaking her head. “You’re safe now, that’s the most important thing. At least you didn’t disappear for almost twenty-four hours this time only to appear with a bag of tacos and an ice-coffee just as I was about to call your mother.”

Merlin winced. “Yeah, that one was bad. I’ve put you through a lot, haven’t I?”

“A fair amount, yeah,” Gwen said. She had returned to the griddle, dipping another piece of bread in the egg mixture at her elbow. “I’m…sorry. I don’t mean to sound callous, but I’m still reeling a little bit from…well, I guess I still don’t know the full story of what happened. How do you feel?”

She glanced over her shoulder.

“Hungover,” Merlin admitted. “Tired. Killer headache. Really, the side-effects are milder for me since...you know. I’ve built up an immunity.”

Gwen sighed, and the heavy silence that dropped immediately over the flat like a thick blanket indicated she was going to be taking this as seriously as he probably needed to be doing.

But he didn’t really want to talk about how his poor choices in college and his poor choices last night might be evidence of a long pattern of self-destructive behavior. He knew that already. Had lived it, unfortunately.

“Please don’t lecture me,” Merlin said meekly.

“I’m not going to lecture you before I feed you breakfast,” Gwen said stiffly. “I’m not a monster. Take some painkillers and drink some water. This’ll be ready soon.”

Merlin did as she told him.

Once he had the painkillers sitting in his stomach with a cupful of water and a nicked piece of French toast, he dumped the dress on the island counter.

“I’m going to burn this fucking thing,” he announced bitterly.

Gwen raised an eyebrow at him from the griddle. Morgana did not speak, her dark brows knotted, mouth pressed thin, still staring vaguely into space.

“I think it is a little more powerful and a little more malicious than we first gave it credit for,” he continued. “I think…well, I’d have to speak with other parties, but…” he desperately did not want to talk to other parties “…it messes properly with people’s heads. Reallyreally fucked up.”

“You won’t know until you’re able to talk to him,” Gwen said.

“If he wants to talk to me,” Merlin said miserably.

Gwen slid a piece of French toast onto the platter, measured and reasonable. “You won’t know that until you try and talk to him.”

At the kitchen table, Morgana still had not spoken, her grip white-knuckled around her phone. Merlin had heard them talking quietly when he had first woken up, although their voices hadn’t carried enough for him to make out what they were saying.

Gwen finished making the French toast and dished it, sitting at the table across from Morgana, rearranging her succulents to make space for her plate. Merlin lifted himself onto the counter across from them. The first several bites were eaten in silence, the only sounds cutlery scraping plates and the jangle of Morgana’s bracelets as she reached for her coffee cup.

Finally, she set down her knife at a precise angle to her plate, the just of her chin deliberate, and turned in her seat, hands folded. When she spoke, her sincerity was as discomfiting as cold fingers pressed to the back of your neck.

“Merlin,” she said, “I am so sorry.”

Merlin focused on crumpling up his napkin, unable to meet the earnestness shining in her eyes. “What do you have to be sorry for?” he asked.

“Morgause is my sister. That’s how I know her. She asked me to invite you to the party. But I didn’t think…”

“Wait,” Merlin interrupted, his ability to process dulled by the lingering vestiges of his hangover, “I don’t understand. Morgause is your sister?”

“Half-sister,” Morgana said soberly. “She found me online. We’ve been communicating for a year or so. I haven’t really mentioned her because, well…she’s new. And I still don’t quite know what to make of it.”

“You don’t have to justify not telling me,” Merlin assured her, rubbing at the ache coalescing between his brows. “It’s your news to share or not. But…when you said Uther wasn’t your dad…?”

“Oh, no. He’s my biological father. I mean, I had to find that out on my own. But Morgause and I are related on my mother’s side,” Morgana said. “I knew she was involved in some shady political shit, clearly, but I didn’t think…”

She heaved a gusty sigh, picking up her phone again from where it lay face down on the tabletop. It sat meek and quiet as a kitten in her hands.

“There’s no reason not to tell you”, she said at last. “Uther had an affair with my mother, an affair in which I was conceived. My father, to my knowledge, did not know, and raised me as his own until he died. I don’t know if Uther loved my mother. I don’t know if she loved him, if he meant anything to her. I guess it doesn’t matter.”

She shook her head, a sardonic smile twitching in the corner of her mouth.

“I know because Morgause reached out to me, told me that we might be sisters. She’d taken one of those genetic tests that tells you your ancestry and lets you know people to whom you might be related. I’d gotten a kit myself for Christmas when I was eighteen, a mentor gave it to me as a joke, and…years later…” she slapped her phone against her palm and laughed, the sound watery. “Morgause. It was just such a gift, such a blessing, just this unexpected bounty. I love Arthur, but I’d always wanted a sister. And here she was. But for some reason it sent me down this rabbit hole, and I started to think, really think, about my family for the first time in forever.

“Long story short, I guess, I found out the truth. That Uther had been lying to me for years, had strung me along for years…” her voice grew in pitch, a snarl snaking through it. “We had always butted heads. I was the rebellious one, the one most like him, and I think that scared him. I think I scared him because he saw himself in me. I wasn’t as pliable as Arthur. I wasn’t in awe of him. But then…then I knew he was a hypocrite, and I really didn’t care anymore. It wasn’t just fighting, it was ugly. Borderline bloody. The magic thing was honestly just an excuse to cut me off.” She shrugged. “I found out why he had such a hard time looking at me, why he swung so violently between being proud of me to acting like he hated me, why he took out so much on me…because I reminded him of who he was, just by my existence. No wonder I couldn’t make him happy. It wasn’t in me to do. It’s an impossible task.”

“Anyway,” she continued. “Maybe that’s why I clung to Morgause. Which isn’t an excuse. I should’ve seen it coming, and I didn’t. She put herself in my blind spot, and you got hurt because of it, and I’m sorry.”

Everything she said expanded to fill the small flat, mingling with the leftover smell of nutmeg and maple syrup. Gwen leaned up against the stove, her arms crossed, wearing a look of open-faced concern that Merlin knew well.

“I got hurt because I was stupid,” he said finally. “That isn’t on you. And I get it, wanting someone to be what you need so badly you miss who they actually are.”

“We don’t know that Morgause was behind the acolyte last night,” Gwen put in. “That girl could’ve acted on her own.”

“Under Morgause’s roof?” Morgana scoffed. “No way.” Her brows tensed in a set way, as if to forestall the potential welling of tears. “She hasn’t called me or replied to any of my texts, either. When I talked to her last night…the way she looked at me…she knew.”

“Whether Morgause directed the girl or not,” Gwen said to Merlin, “One thing, I think, is clear. Someone targeted you. And knew exactly how to do it, too. Arthur said the girl that attacked you knew you. He said she referred to you by name, though it wasn’t a name he recognized, that he had been a lure of sorts to draw you in.”

Merlin snorted. “You and Arthur comparing notes, then?”

“Merlin, please.”

“I appreciate the concern,” Merlin said flatly, “But I do not want to talk about this right now. Or maybe ever.”

He knew exactly how caustic and wounded he sounded but was unable to mask it. Gwen knew him too well. He felt too seen, too understood, and the empathy was as abrasive as peroxide in a fresh cut.
Gwen studied him wordlessly, her expression inscrutable. “Morgana,” she said at last, “Can I talk to Merlin alone?”

“Yeah, of course,” Morgana said, standing up and gathering her keys. “Talk later?”

“Call me when you get off work,” Gwen said.

Morgana came over and pecked her on the cheek, messed up Merlin’s hair on her way past him without saying anything, and then exited with prompt grace, leaving Gwen and Merlin by themselves.

That heavy silence fell again. He leaned his head back against the cupboard door, shut his eyes. His coffee mug seared his fingers as he held it, the heat bracing. He focused on that. Not on last night.

What were you thinking?’ Arthur had asked.

He didn’t know. He never knew. What an idiotic question.

“Merlin,” Gwen said.

“What.” He did not open his eyes. He did not look at her.

“I’m not doing this anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m not playing this game with you anymore. I want to be gentle and empathetic with you, considering what I know happened last night, and how I imagine that must make you feel, but I will not coddle you. Do you understand?”

He sat up and looked at her then. “No, I don’t, actually.”

“I mean...what the fuck were you thinking?” Her voice was even keeled, without inflection, and that was exactly how he knew how badly he had scared her.

“Excuse me?”

“I say this with so much love in my heart, Merlin. You are my very best friend,” she continued, “But I am so sick of being worried about you. Do you know how often I’ve known something is going to end catastrophically but have been unable to do anything to stop it because I know you won’t hear reason? And neither of us say it aloud, but we both know that you know too. You know exactly what you’re doing, and you do it anyway, and I don’t think you pause to consider for even a second how it is going to affect those who care about you, because you’re too busy punishing yourself. For what, I don’t know. I don’t think you do, either.”

Merlin sat there, stunned.

The awful part was she was right. He hadn’t thought about Gwen last night. Hadn’t thought about her in the midst of any of his shitty decisions, mostly because he knew if he paused to do so the guilt would overwhelm him. He still would’ve done what he did last night. He still would’ve gone home with that guy in undergrad.

“You’re right,” he said finally. “I don’t know why I…” He shook his head. His voice dropped low, to barely a breath, to a marvel. “It was for Arthur too. Can you explain that to me? Why would I do that for him?”

“You want me to be honest?” Gwen asked.

“Always.”

A tired smile caught in the corner of her mouth. “You’re reflexively mean to Arthur. I mean, you’re always a little bitchy, that’s just you, and he’s a little bitchy too, whether he’ll admit it or not, and that heightens the dynamic. But it’s just a knee-jerk reaction. Like you’re protecting yourself.”

“Protecting myself from what?”

She shrugged a shoulder. “From letting yourself trust somebody like him. You’re scared he’ll let you down.”

Merlin considered this. “You think that girl really targeted me?”

“What’s the chance she would use that spell, Merlin?”

A hollow pain rung through his chest, an old echo of anxiety. Merlin clutched absently at his t-shirt, staring out the narrow, deep-set rectangle of Gwen’s window above the plant-crowded shelf.

“She couldn’t know,” he said quietly. “Morgause couldn’t know either. That, at least, I’m sure was pure coincidence. Or a lucky guess. I’m a nobody. Just a shop clerk. I mean, what happened in Ealdor may have made the local paper, but it wasn’t news. The only interesting thing about me is the people adjacent to me. Why me? What do these people know about me that I don’t know?”

The morning light was soothing and gray. Gwen had been talking about maybe getting a kitten, and Merlin could picture a cat tucked there up on the sill, warm and asleep and purring, tail dangling over the edge.

He was so sick of secrets.

Maybe it was stupid. Maybe it was the part of his brain still convinced that all of this was some sort of hilarious, horrific misunderstanding, that there was no way he could be the target of malicious magic from a radical pro-magic group. After all, Arthur Pendragon had been standing right behind him.

The perfect sacrificial lamb, wandered right into the lion’s den, and they used him as bait. For Merlin? Shop boy? Semi-professional hot mess? Actual magic user? It didn’t make sense.

Maybe, in the end, saying what he said next was a way to deflect from the heart of what had happened last night. What had been done to him. What he had done in turn. Why.

It could be that he had known the risk in sharing this secret from the second he had begun to keep it, and until now, this – what had come to exist in this room, tentatively, between himself and Gwen, himself and Morgana even, Gwen and Morgana maybe most especially – he had not wanted to take the risk of destabilizing.

It was precious. He knew it. And when his life began to slip from his control, his instinct was to take the precious, fragile thing and break it.

It could be that this, here, plants with the early morning sun through their leaves, leftover syrup pooled sticky and golden on plates, Gwen looking at him from her place beside the stove, familiar with her wrap around skirt and her hair knotted in bun with one of her ridiculously fancy pens, worried about him, was maybe the only thing he had left to protect, and he didn’t know any other way to do it other than finally, finally telling the truth.

“Listen,” he said, “What I’m about to tell you is going to sound crazy, but I need you to believe me, all right?”

So, he told her about the dragon in the underground. About the voice he had been hearing since he was a little kid, whispering that name he didn’t know. Gwen already knew about his night terrors. He told her about the boy from the thrift store, too, how he had seemed to know that name. About Addison, who had known it too. About how the dragon said he had allies on the surface.

The voice was oddly quiet now, as if Kilgharrah had made his point.

“It tracks,” he said finally. “Maybe these people were the ones he was talking about.”

“What do you want to do about this, Merlin?” she asked.

“I want to tell Morgana, too,” he said. “I don’t want to do this by myself anymore. But I don’t want to pull you into my bullshit…”

She actually laughed, a little aghast. “Hey,” she said, “There’s a dragon in the freaking underground. And the whole world has been turned upside down, it feels like. Best we can do is stick together. I mean…if I told you I’d found a dragon in the underground, you’d be there for me, right?”

“Yeah, I mean, I might say it’s a pretty unbelievable coincidence that we both found dragons under Albion, but I’d support you.”

“There you go.” She sobered. “I know this is all super crazy. And I know you don’t want to talk about it. But eventually you’re going to have to think about Gwaine.”

Merlin sighed. “I just told you about a dragon, and we’re back to this?”

“Don’t be flippant, please, Merlin. The focal point of that spell was Arthur.”

“You think I don’t know that? I felt it, trust me.”

“I know you don’t want to think about it…”

But Merlin knew how to finagle his way out of that spell from past experience. She was right. He did not want to think about it.

“Trust me,” Merlin said, “Gwaine and I used each other mutually. I’ll talk to him. I’ll try to talk to him. If he even wants to talk to me.”

“What happened when you were under the influence of that curse is not your fault,” Gwen said. She thought this because she had studied a lot of magical theory. But Gwen was good. She stayed away from party elixirs and risky black-market magic.

For all that she thought that she knew, she hadn’t felt it. She didn’t understand.

“I was lucid,” Merlin said finally. “I knew what I was doing.”

Magic was like any other force in the universe. It didn’t come from nothing. Last time that curse had been put on Merlin, it had been on purpose. He knew what would happen, and the object of the spell was nobody, in the grand scheme of things. A person designed for Merlin not to remember.

Last night, it had been worse. Way worse. Because it had been Arthur.

Because it had been Arthur, and Merlin’s feelings toward Arthur were way more complicated than he had allowed himself to believe. Gwen was right. Acting like he despised Arthur was the easy option. The curse had forced him to confront the truth all at once, and the thing was…

Well, the thing was…

Merlin couldn’t cope with the truth. He was a coward. That was it. And it was like Arthur had said last night. You don’t know me. You don’t know me. And Merlin didn’t know Arthur, so why, why did he feel this way?

Why, with the curse lit up so bright inside him, when he couldn’t see or think or contemplate anything else, did he not just want the obvious thing? Why, with Arthur as the object of the curse, did he feel not just the overwhelming need to touch Arthur but also an ache so profound it subsumed him, a sadness heavier than his body?

Why, standing on that deck with Arthur, did Merlin feel an echo of what he had felt when he had looked at Percy’s painting? An eerie déjà vu, like the person before him was somehow both incredibly, viscerally, miraculously alive but also already dead?

It was like he knew Arthur, in that moment, when all Merlin had tried these past two months was to keep him a stranger. You didn’t know strangers, by definition. You definitely didn’t love them. And you didn’t grieve them.

“I think I want to go home,” he said.

“All right.” She didn’t fight him on it. “You want me to drive you?”

“No, I think I want to walk. Clear my head.”

“You sure?”

“I’ll be safe, Gwen. I promise.”

And he meant it this time. He swore that he did.

Chapter Text

Walking the final blocks between his building and the train station, Merlin finally opened up his phone. Gwen, benevolent being that she was, had plugged it in last night when she put Merlin to bed, and upon picking it up this morning on his way out her front door, Merlin had discovered to two text messages and two missed calls, accompanied by voicemails.

One of the voicemails was from Gaius, delivered to Merlin’s inbox at an obscenely early hour this morning, asking him if he wanted to pick up a shift today. He did not.

The other messages, all of them, were from one person. Merlin scowled.

Will.

As he ambled up the sidewalk in the general direction of home, Merlin discovered upon further investigation that he had instigated contact. Will had not, as Merlin assumed, blocked him after what had happened in Ealdor. The message had gone through.

Apparently, he didn’t remember everything from last night.

He did not remember sending Will a voice memo, for example, which Merlin did himself the service of not playing back.

In reply to the voice memo: What? Are you okay? and then, Where are you?

Merlin almost held out, but in the end, he lifted the phone to his ear and listened to Will’s voicemail. It was simple, curt, his voice brusque with worry.

“I swear to God Merlin,” was all he said.

Fresh guilt turned the French toast in Merlin's stomach. He stopped in the middle of the empty Sunday street, frowned down at his phone screen. Played the message again, mostly just to hear Will’s voice.

He considered calling back, but found that he did not possess the fortitude to endure whatever lay on the other side of that potential phone call.

Instead, he just texted:

hey, sorry I scared you. I’m fine. Just a little stupid, as usual.

He watched the message go out, nauseous, and before he could second guess it, followed it up with, I said I was sorry, right?

Then anxiety cut clean through his chest and he powered down his phone before it managed to slice him fully in two, shoving the phone back in his duffle before continuing on his way.

He’d ridden the train back, though Gwen had offered to drive him. The lights had flickered once in the train car, but Kilgharrah had not volunteered to explain himself.

Nor would he, Merlin suspected, until Merlin came contritely and asked for the full story which Merlin wasn’t yet ready to give him the satisfaction of doing.

Loaded down with his duffle and the makeshift garment bag, old eye make-up not quite rubbed away, he sighed and stopped in front of his building, trying to figure out how to best get at his keys.

A car pulled up to the curb behind him, a black SUV. The same shiny monstrosity that came to pick up Arthur.

Merlin’s sixth sense tapped him sedately on the shoulder. He concluded that nonchalance was the best way forward, so he paid the SUV only the slightest peripheral attention, deciding he would need to shuffle the duffle from its position at his hip to his back, so he could access his coat pockets and thus his keys. He really should have thought this through, before he had a damp, cold wind blowing his hair into his eyes, but he really did do his best planning on the fly.

Sighing, he began the process, his gloved hands making the procedure even more clumsy. Finally, keys in hand, the car doors decided to open in unison behind him. Merlin turned to see two large individuals in sunglasses and big black coats step out. Bodyguards. They looked like a matched set, both blonde and neatly groomed, with the same vacant non-expressions, only the slightest and most civilized hint of violence in the twin upturned corners of their mouths.

Merlin had already braced himself before the car doors had a chance to open, and in the two long strides it took the first guard to reach him, he had a spell on his tongue, ready before he could think.

“Don’t touch me,” he warned.

That flicker in the corner of the first guard’s mouth spread evenly across her face. She grabbed his upper arm, pulling up just enough that it hurt, and Merlin couldn’t manage to stand straight.

“Okay,” he said, keeping his voice pleasant. “Remember I warned you.”

The bodyguard kept her smirk. “I’ll keep that in mind. Mr. Pendragon would like to have a chat. In private. I trust you’re going to humor him.”

The other guard, standing just at her elbow, took this opportunity to fold his hands in front of him, stance relaxed, and languidly looked each way down the empty residential street.

Merlin did not say fuck you, but he couldn’t keep the sentiment off his face. The guard holding him made a sound that probably could’ve passed for laughter, had she not been a psychopathic android.

“Let’s go,” she said.

**
'In private' ended up being the building’s alley, bordering another residential building on its other side. This alley, Merlin noted, was much nicer than the one in which he had found Uther Pendragon’s only son. Less refuse, the dumpster self-contained, the sour smell of garbage lessened by the fresh air gusting through.

The guard had him immediately pinned to the rough brick wall, knocking the breath from his lungs in a single huff. She pressed her forearm against his sternum, hold disinterested. The pressure kept him from getting his breath back. The catlike tip of her head as she studied him suggested she wanted this experience to hurt, just a little.

The rough brick scraped through the layers of his coat, the duffle digging into his hip. He kept his focus for some reason on the hanger in his left hand, on keeping his grip despite his clammy palms. The dress couldn’t hit the grime of the alleyway asphalt, he wouldn’t let them have that.

Focus on the hook of the hanger digging into the crook of your thumb, he told himself. Focus on not looking away from the guard’s impassive face. Focus on keeping the spell right there, hot and angry, ready to spill through your teeth. Let her see it. Let them both see it, even if they don’t understand what it is.

He tried not to let himself near the old fear blooming in his chest, but it was very hard. He could not breathe. Even as he struggled to keep his mind here, in this eternal second, his body was catapulted back to that long ago night.

The boy stranger pinning him to the wall, teeth flashing in the dark. The way the magic had left him. The harm he could feel, terrible potential energy, latent in the boy’s warm drawl. The hysterical, giddy feeling rising up in the absence of his magic that this boy had absolutely no fucking clue how much danger he was in.

Back then, Merlin had possessed no control. He had little more of it now. That was the real fear, pulsating through him, whiting out the corners of his vision, throbbing in his head. Not that he would be hurt, but that he would do the hurting. That he wouldn’t be able to stop it.

There was no way Uther could know exactly what chaotic ill-feeling he was summoning when he ordered his guard to pin Merlin like that. But Merlin felt the resentment all the same.

It was an ugly fusion of emotion burning through his resolve like acid.

He focused on the hanger, on the guard’s face. That’s it, he ordered himself, That’s all. It had to be.

Uther appeared, sweeping down the alleyway in his dark coat, gloved hands behind his back. Just as when Merlin had first seen him in person, the paradox struck him, the broad shoulders pulling against the expertly tailored black wool, the whiff of expensive, woody cologne contrasting briefly with the reek of the dumpster.

“Hello, sir,” Merlin told him from above the guard’s muscled forearm. “Funny running into you here. Oof.

The guard increased the pressure of her hold.

“Enough, Yvonne,” Uther said, twitching a hand in her direction. She relented only marginally. To Merlin, he said, “Very cute. I suppose you think you’re funny, don’t you? Charming, in a rapscallion, ruffian sort of way?”

“I would go with ragamuffin, perhaps, but yes, I think that’s a pretty fair assessment of my self-image,” Merlin replied.

He heard his own voice as if from a distant shore. Panic was going off in his head like a lighthouse beacon, making it almost impossible to process anything outside his head, Yvonne’s fist gripped in his coat.

“Yes, that’s how you do it, isn’t it? If I didn’t know you, I’d hazard I’d be fooled. A classic magic act, really.” Uther rifled in his pockets, pulled out a box of cigarettes.

“Bad habit,” he said, tipping one out of the carton. “My children were always on a mission to get me to quit when they were small. That was before they picked up vices of their own, of course.”

Merlin watched warily as he approached, holding the cigarette up to eye level so Merlin could see it clearly.

“With magic,” he continued, sticking the cigarette in his mouth and pulling out a lighter, cupping his hands as the flame licked and then caught the end of the cigarette, “The performance is separate from the trick itself. Look at me, listen to me, subtle cues directing the audience’s eyes, their attention to the focal point on the stage where the trick is not. The trick, the act, the thing that will make them ooh and ahh, is in the stage magician’s other hand.”

He tucked the lighter away, a wisp of smoke curling from the end of the cigarette, dissipating in the cold air. He took a drag and exhaled, holding it between two of his fingers.

For the contents of his little speech, Merlin wasn’t expecting it when Uther reached up and pulled another cigarette from behind Merlin’s ear while taking another drag.

Merlin jerked away, and a small satisfaction quirked between Uther’s stoic brows.

“I’ve spent years learning your kind, Merlin. After many attempts, and many failures, I’ve figured out the magician’s trick all on my own. The cleverest, the most dangerous magician, will convince you that they’re not a real threat at all.” Uther’s voice dropped into a low, intimate octave that made Merlin’s skin crawl. “That they’re only a shop boy. Only a broke, bright-eyed young person. Look at me, they say, I’m new and handsome and brash. Look at me, I’m not really all that, but aren’t I funny? Aren’t I endearing? Don’t you want to trust me?”

Merlin kept his expression impassive, meeting Uther’s frigid stare.

He had already known that Uther suspected him of having magic, of abusing it even. The question had always been how Uther would use this suspicion, or if he would use it at all. As for his motives in forcing Merlin to move in with Arthur in the first place, Merlin couldn’t begin to fathom. The only thing he saw as he looked at Uther was pure, unmitigated hate. He had no idea why Uther would let Merlin close to his only son.

“What do you want?” Merlin asked flatly.

Uther chuckled, shaking his head. “What do I want?” he repeated softly. “I can’t say you aren’t committed. But the village idiot bit is getting old.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Yvonne increased the pressure and Merlin let out an involuntary wheeze. The brick was freezing at his back.

“You think I would forget,” Uther said, stepping closer, “The one time you were honest with me? The one time you could get away with telling the truth to my face and live after the fact? You think you could bring me back without that memory intact?”

Uther took a long pull on the cigarette and blew the smoke in Merlin’s face. Merlin held his breath until it dissipated but still breathed a portion of it in, coughing until his eyes watered. Still, Yvonne held him there, and it took his entire willpower to keep from struggling, the urge to flee a warm adrenaline poured through his entire body, energy building with no place to go.

“A weak constitution,” Uther commented, lip curling. “All that, the deception, the cowardice – all that, perhaps, I could forgive, as your motive presumably remains the same as my own. To keep my son alive. To see him take my place and keep it. But it seems you are doomed as ever to repeat your worst failure ad nauseum and that I cannot allow.”

“I don’t,” Merlin said through his teeth, allowing his own animosity to shine through, finally, “Know what. You’re. Talking about.”

“What were you doing at the heart of a Bendrui stronghold? What was my son doing at the heart of a Bendrui stronghold?” Uther demanded.

Merlin pushed back when Yvonne pressed down this time, and he was satisfied to find she struggled to hold him. “Jesus,” he snarled, “You think I brought him there? I was trying to keep him safe. Seems like it’s you who could do a little self-reflection. How is it he walked into that place having no clue what it was? It isn’t my job to keep your son educated on the sociopolitical landscape, is it?”

Yvonne pulled him up and slammed him more firmly against the wall. Merlin’s head hit brick with a smack, and he winced. “Fuck you,” he told her, and she smiled for real this time. Merlin smiled back, loathsome, all edges.

“Time has certainly not taught you tact,” Uther said blandly. He considered his cigarette, half burned out, and tapped off the ash at the end. “The point of allowing you close to him in the first place was to maintain a modicum of control. Better it to happen on my terms. It certainly didn’t work trying to keep you at bay. Like I said: above all, you are committed. And I will not make the mistake of underestimating you again. Emrys.

Merlin felt the blood drain from his face, almost lost his grip on the hanger still digging into his palm.

“Let him go, Yvonne,” Uther said.

Yvonne stepped back, brushed the wrinkles from her coat, and Merlin’s heels hit the ground again. Uther stepped up even closer now. Merlin was not a short man, but Uther still stood nearly a head taller than him, blocking out his view of the slate-gray sky.

His voice was low, pitched so only Merlin would hear. “Do not consider me above pushing the restart button on this whole thing.”

He put the cigarette out on Merlin’s shoulder.

Merlin wore enough layers that he didn’t feel it, but he smelled the singed wool and felt the sick lurch of surprise. “Do not doubt that I have the will to do it.”

For a second, Merlin simply could not respond. Not out of fear, but more out of awe. The stern lines of Uther’s face were like those of one of the statues Merlin once created with nothing but stone and a chisel, and looking at the face before him now, he had the vision of that strict, unrelenting canvas in his head.

You had to really understand a subject to render them in stone. And in that moment of sudden clarity, Merlin understood Uther.

“Are you threatening me?” he asked.

“A novice question,” Uther replied, bored.

Merlin laughed, incredulous. “If you really had respect for my capacity, you would consider me a worthy adversary, at least. An opponent. An equal player. But I don’t think you do.” He stood a little straighter, frowning. “No, because then you would have to set down your superiority complex and admit that you’re not any better than me. But you won’t do that. You won’t because you can’t.”

Uther’s eyes glittered. For a second, Merlin didn’t think he would deign to retort.

“I have always had the power to ruin you,” Uther said finally. “Your little life. It has always been mine to let it be or to burn it. Every little corner, every keepsake. Ash. I only need to say a word, and it is over. You knew it, and have known it, since the very beginning. This has been perhaps your only redeeming virtue. I would not abandon it now, as it may very well be what saves you, this time around. Do not make an enemy of me, Merlin. It would not be wise. But then, you know that.”

He considered Merlin.

“Yes,” he repeated decisively, “You know that.” Then he glanced at his watch, dismissing Merlin in one smooth, efficient gesture. “A minute to spare. Richard, go meet my son. I don’t want him to be greeted by an empty, cold car when he comes out.”

“Yes, sir, quite brisk,” the other bodyguard said, and retreated swiftly.

Uther tugged at his coat front, glancing at the sky. “Looks like rain again. This damned fall weather.” To Merlin, without concern: “Not a word of this to him.”

“Why would I say anything,” Merlin said, mouth dry, “He’d only repeat it back to you.”

Uther laughed wryly. “No more incidences like last night. Yes?”

“Oh, I’ll do my very best.”

Uther nodded and retreated back up the alleyway. Yvonne covered his rear, glancing back at Merlin before she went. The look they exchanged was mutually venomous. If Merlin met her without Uther at her elbow ever again, he would let the spell now fading from his tongue loose.

Let her try and touch him when he could say no.

And then they were gone.

Out on the street, Merlin heard the familiar cadence of Arthur’s voice. It carried in the clear air.

“What were you doing back there?” he asked.

“None of your concern,” Uther said.

“You smell like cigarette smoke.”

Car doors slammed. Wheels creaked against asphalt as the SUV pulled away. It was several minutes before Merlin regained his faculties.

It didn’t feel like any of that had actually just happened.

He folded the garment bag up and shoved it between his body and the duffle and sank down slowly on his haunches, staring sightlessly at the wall opposite him.

The new November air was sharp against his face, snuck down his collar. He stirred after what might have been a handful of seconds, or an hour, and inspected the hole burned into his coat. His new coat. He had saved money to buy this, he thought, frowning.

You’re panicking a tiny inner voice informed him. Go inside. Get up and go inside.

Get up, go inside.

Get up. Go inside.

Get up.

Go inside.

He got up. He went inside.

Chapter Text

Merlin dug his keys out again, but he didn’t really remember walking back up the alley. Unlocking the building’s front door, letting himself in.

All he had to do was make it up the stairs, but he came around halfway up the second flight and the remaining leg of the trip might as well have been a mountainside. He had a tightness in his chest, a helplessness gathering tension just behind his eyes, the taste of cigarette smoke still seeped into the roof of his mouth.

The duffle and the garment bag hit the stale carpet. He wrestled out of his coat with such hurry the sleeves got stuck on the gloves and by the time he managed to free himself of both he could not breathe.

He sat down, hard, head in his hands, eyes squeezed shut. The magic was right there, white hot, burning and alive, but he couldn’t release it.

What was the point if he couldn’t release it? What was the point if he couldn’t smite the smug look off of Uther’s face? He could threaten Merlin all he liked. He knew that wouldn’t be effective.

So, he took aim at everything else instead.

And he knew that name. Uther knew that name. It changed everything, completely altered a landscape Merlin didn’t even fully understand yet.

Emrys.

Merlin wanted to scream. He wanted to tear this whole building down to its studs until his hands were ripped up and his nails were bloody, and he wanted to fucking scream.

What would it take to get a little control? What would it be like to have even the tiniest say in his own destiny? Even seemingly simple things were yanked from his grasp. Things like where he lived, where he slept, whether he could go home.

Things like whether he was considered a real, breathing person or a threat.

How could he look at himself as anything else, when this was the world that he lived in? And what had Uther been on about, ‘this time around’? It felt like he was missing the biggest, most necessary piece of this puzzle, that it was so obvious it had to be right in front of him, close as his own breath.

“Merlin?”

He whipped his head up. Percival stood up on the landing, staring at him. Merlin hadn’t even heard the third-floor door open.

“Are you alright?”

Merlin’s laugh was soggy. How was it Arthur’s friends so often found him close to tears? “No.”

“Oh. Okay.” Percy stood there for a second, frowning down at Merlin, his hands flexing at his sides.

Then he came down the five or so steps and sat next to Merlin. The narrow, closed in stairway made him seem even larger in comparison, and the hulking warmth radiating off of him contrasted with the musty chill in the air, the glob of the ancient light fixture buzzing yellow over their heads.

“You ever done a grounding exercise?” Percy asked softly.

Merlin gulped a breath, staring straight ahead. “Yes.”

“You want me to walk you through it?”

Merlin smiled damply. He wondered how much Percy knew about what had happened last night. The thought occurred to him like a barbed fishhook catching in flesh. He couldn’t figure out whether or not he was actually breathing.

“Sure,” he said to Percy. “Couldn’t hurt, right?”

“Five things you can see.”

“The ugly-ass carpet,” Merlin said. Flat navy-beige between his shoes. “My nail polish.” Suede like black, the right pinky nail chipped. He twisted his fingers until it hurt. “My sweats.” Gray, with pinky splotches of bleach near the pocket. “The wall.” Pale shell white plaster cracked upwards like a lightning bolt in the lower corner of the second-story stairwell, which they faced. “Your hair.” The pale pink was still there, the blonde of his roots beginning to show, the bristles of the buzzcut looked soft as a paint brush.

“Good,” Percy said, waiting a second for the observations to settle. “Four things you can touch.”

His coat, crumpled on the floor next to him, rough wool against his fingers. The vinyl of his duffle. The smooth wood of the banister. Percy’s hair, soft as he guessed it would be. The corner of Percy’s mouth flickered indulgently as Merlin reached up to pet him.

“Three things you can hear,” he said.

Merlin listened. “The buzz of the light. The people downstairs. My own voice.”

“Two things you can smell.”

“Mildew, probably. That’s the damp, musty smell, right? And your deodorant, must be, that sort of low, musky smell.”

“One you can taste,” Percy finished.

And Merlin shook his head, the tears welling up all at once. “No,” he said simply. He could taste cigarette smoke, it was the only thing he could taste, and it had to be a phantom perception, the gray, dry edge of tobacco. But still, it was there.

“Here.” Percy reached in his pocket, pulled out a pack of cinnamon gum, offered a stick to Merlin. “Try this.”

Merlin took what he was offered, unwrapping the gum, and folded it under his tongue. He focused on the sensation of chewing, the heat of the cinnamon, until even the memory of the cigarette smoke faded.

“Better?”

Merlin balled up the gum wrapper in his hand, the paper waxy. He still felt wiry, on edge. But he was no longer actively breaking down. Small victories.

“Yeah, a little bit. I’m not freaking out anymore. That’s good. Thank you.”

“No problem.” Percy would not quite look at him, hands folded between his knees, as if Merlin would fall apart under even that slight pressure.

“I’m sorry you had to deal with that,” Merlin said.

“It’s okay,” Percy replied, and he seemed to mean it. “I’m glad I could help. Do…if you want to talk about it, I’m good at listening. Excellent, actually, it’s one of my best skills.”

Merlin considered this offer, studying the matte finish of his nails. Finally, he asked, “Have you ever met Uther?”

“Only once,” Percy said. “One spring break we stopped by Arthur’s family estate to pick him up. Uther was on his way out as one of the housekeeping staff let us in. Gwaine introduced me and Leon. We exchanged maybe two words.”

“What was your impression?”

“I didn’t like him. I was glad when he left.”

Merlin nodded. And then, finally, so quietly he barely heard himself, he said, “He hates me.”

“Uther? What did he do?”

Merlin reached for his coat and lifted it toward Percy, who took it, a careful furrow wrinkling his forehead. “What am I looking at?”

Wordlessly, Merlin stuck his hand under the lapel, groped until he found the hole in the silk lining, pressed his fingers against the ragged edges. “Cigarette,” he added when Percy’s expression did not change.

“He did this?” There was a stillness in his voice that Merlin hadn’t heard before. “Just now? Outside the building here?”

“Put it out there, yeah. It didn’t hurt me or anything.”

Percy observed the damaged fabric for a second longer and then yielded the coat back to Merlin. His expression remained closed, or covered, like curtains muting midday light.

“It wasn’t what he did, really. It was what he said. Do you…” Merlin didn’t know how to voice that question and so he skirted carefully around it. “I tried to do the right thing last night. It might not seem like it, but I did.”

“No one has really told me everything that happened last night,” Percy said carefully, that restraint still rendering her voice tight. “Not all of it, at least. And you don’t have to tell me, either. Sounds like I might not really want to know, but that seems like it’s the most important part. That you tried to do the right thing.”

“Do you believe me?”

Percy looked at him then, really looked at him, with sober sincerity. And Merlin felt seen, not in a way that made him feel exposed, but in a clean way. Like pulling back those curtains and lifting up the window, letting in fresh air and light.

“I believe you,” he said.

“Thank you.”

Percy pretended to study the wall while Merlin wiped at his eyes with his sweatshirt sleeve. He still felt shaky and out of sorts, annoyed that an encounter with Uther had managed to rattle him so badly. Although it wasn’t just that, was it? He was fragile from the headache and the hangover and the strain of the spell and from his conversation with Gwen and Morgana this morning and then Will and also the embarrassment of last night.

“He wants to ruin my life, Uther,” Merlin said. “I don’t know why, exactly, but he does. And I’m scared he could do it.”

“He can’t ruin your life,” Percy said. “You’re just a normal bloke, what’s he got on you? It’s not like you’re like him, where a secret love child would ruin his career. Or like Arthur, where the mistakes that you’ve made are some big judgements of your character. They’re not going to slap your mug on the front of tabloids, are they?”

“Maybe not. But he could make it so that my mother loses her job. That my friend’s family would never speak to him again, that he would never have a career. He could make it so no landlord will ever rent to Gwen, no matter how perfect her credit score is. All just because they know me.”

Percy did not say that he thought Merlin was being melodramatic, but the sentiment was scrunched politely between his brows.

Merlin and Percy looked at each other then, for a second, that mild doubt crunched finely as rice paper in Percy’s rough brow, and Merlin’s resolve settled in his chest, equal and opposite, like a latch falling into place. The decision was easier than he thought it would be, looking into Percy’s face, and he wasn’t sure why. He just knew that it would be okay, whatever happened

There was none of the uncertainty as when he had told Will, or Gaius, or even Gwen. There wasn’t even hesitation, really. Just that resolve, firm as a final line of defense, stout and resolute as a lock on door.

He held out his hands.

“Here,” he said, scooting a little closer, “I’ll show you. Let me see your hands. It’s okay.” Percy surrendered his hands to Merlin without protest, palm up, flat against his knees. Merlin angled his body toward Percy’s, set his own hands atop Percy’s own, so Percy’s fingers brushed the base of Merlin’s wrists and vice versa.

Percy’s hands were large, and finely callused, with a delicateness in even the smallest movement that belayed the precision of an artist. Merlin could feel his pulse against his own fingertips. He focused on that flutter of feeling and the dizziness swimming in his own head and took a deep, even breath.

The magic flared, like a lighter sparking and yielding a flame.

Percy jerked a little, no doubt at the glow in Merlin’s eyes but managed to keep his composure. Then he felt it. “What…?”

Merlin drew his hands away. Crawling over Percy’s palm was a tiny insect, a beetle with black and orange feather-soft wings.

“What is it?” he asked.

“A lightning bug,” Merlin told him.

“In November?”

Merlin watched the firefly crawl over the ridge of Percy’s knuckles as Percy watched its progress, fascinated.

“I have magic, Perce,” Merlin said, when Percy failed to otherwise react. “And Uther knows. Or he as good as knows.”

Percy looked up at him, expression complicated and distant, pale brows drawn to a point. The bug took flight and attached to his Metallica t-shirt.

Merlin couldn’t stand his own neediness. “Do you hate me?” he asked.

For a second, Merlin didn’t know what Percy was going to do. And then without warning he reached out and snatched Merlin’s head to his chest, careful of the firefly now clinging to his shoulder, squeezing. “Of course I don’t hate you. That’s Arthur’s shit, not mine.”

He released Merlin gruffly, and Merlin sat back, his hair emphatically mussed, feeling suddenly buoyant, giddy even. “Thank god. Thank god. I didn’t…I didn’t expect that to be such a relief. You don’t hate me?”

Percy shook his head, laughing. “Promise.”

“Fuck, now I am going to cry.”

The stairwell door opened again above them, and they both turned. It was Leon.

“Jesus,” he said, “What’s going on here?”

“I had a big night last night,” Merlin managed. “And a big morning, come to think of it.”

Leon was dressed casually, jeans and a t-shirt, wallet and keys in hand, backpack over his shoulder. He and Merlin were still friendly after that casual encounter a couple weeks ago, and he considered the scene before him.

“You alright?”

“Yeah, sorry, we’re blocking your way,” Merlin said, standing. It took a minute to gather his stuff which he had dropped so unceremoniously only a little while before.

Then he straightened and looked up at Leon.

“I have magic,” he blurted.

Leon blinked. “Okay.”

“No, really.”

“I believe you,” Leon said. “Is there a reason you’re telling me this now, or…?”

“Yeah. Well…. yeah,” Merlin said lamely.

“He made this firefly appear,” Percy informed Leon.

“I just wanted to say it now, on my terms, just in case it comes out in less ideal circumstances later,” Merlin said. “So, if you’re going to have a reaction, please have it now. I prefer to have my feelings hurt all in one go.”

Leon snorted. “My reaction is…I’ve washed dishes with you by hand and you could’ve saved us both the time and labor, but you didn’t. I’m a little put out, honestly.”

“Jeez, Leon, you’re going to make him cry again,” Percy complained.

And indeed, tears were once again leaking out of Merlin’s eyes. “You don’t care?”

“Why would I care?” Leon asked.

“I don’t know. I could like zap you or something when you least suspect.”

Are you going to do that?”

“No, I’m not planning on it. But aren’t you worried? That some day I might lose it and that I’ll be dangerous?”

“Percy’s almost two meters tall and made mostly of muscle,” Leon said practically, “I perfected the art of knife throwing in middle school. We’re all dangerous. You aren’t special.”

“Sounds like a comic,” Percy said.

Leon turned back around and opened the door to the hall. “Listen, why don’t we go back upstairs? Gwaine’s out at the library at the moment, and you look like you could use a cup of tea. I know we’re all breathing in black mold spores standing around like this. C’mon.”

Merlin, unable to keep the grin from breaking over his face, obeyed. Percy trailed after him, hands cupped around the firefly.

“Do you have a jar or something?” he asked. “For the bug?”

Chapter Text

“You’re kidding me,” Leon said, sounding dazed. “A dragon in the underground. How is that even achieved, logistically? How do you get a bloody dragon trapped in the tube? And isn’t that a safety hazard? How close is this dragon to the tunnel?”

“I don’t know. A ways? Half a kilometer, maybe? I wasn’t paying much attention to distance if I’m honest.”

“That’s fair,” Leon muttered, taking a fortifying sip of his tea.

Percy sat next to him on the couch, a mason jar containing the lightning bug sitting on the ottoman in front of him. He was only half paying attention to the conversation, absorbed mostly in looking up what lightning bugs ate on his phone.

It was a day for ridding himself of secrets. The stress of keeping them had done him more harm than good, Merlin concluded. He had been raised to treat his power as a danger, the spark that could set his whole world alight, send everything up in smoke.

But keeping secrets was just as dangerous as letting them free. Merlin’s secret had been eating him alive from the inside his whole life and he could testify to the fact that he couldn’t survive going on like he had been.

Maybe there wasn’t a reason that he told Percival and Leon the truth. Maybe he just couldn’t stand constantly living with the suspense of knowing that one day, they might turn their backs on him, that one day, Uther might take away the warmth in their faces as they looked at him as easy as snuffing out a light.

Maybe this was the only way he could truly maintain control.

Anyway, they were both taking it loads better than he’d been expected to believe they would.

“Did you know,” Leon said, “That nearly sixty percent of Albion citizens support a lessening of the anti-magic regulations? An anonymous poll conducted by the Albion Gazette found that 86% of its readers would not report a loved one or friend if the person revealed that they had magic.”

“How do you know this?” Merlin asked.

“Part of my job, isn’t it? Magic is just one of many intersecting factors impacting the unhoused community in this city.”

“Nerd,” Percy said affectionately, leaning forward to study his bug, which was crawling up the side of the jar.

“Still a lot of leeway in those numbers,” Merlin said. “And you’d be surprised – people you think would be supportive…just aren’t. They get weird. Like they don’t know you anymore. It ruins things, that revelation.”

“I’m sorry,” Leon told him. “I can’t imagine.”

“Bit like coming out to my dad,” Percy hazarded. “‘What does bisexual even mean?’ he says. And then mum suggests maybe it’d be best if you didn’t come home for Christmas this year, except this year turns into next year too, and so on. Anyway.” He paused. “I suppose magic is a bit different, as bisexual people can’t start fires with our minds or turn people to newts or stuff like that. I imagine that might be helpful, though.”

“I’m sure statistically some bisexual people can turn people to newts,” Leon said comfortingly, patting Percy on the shoulder. He turned to Merlin. “Can you turn people to newts? Does it work like that?”

“First of all, I’m not bisexual, so I don’t think it would clear up that aspect of your question,” Merlin said. “Second of all, yes, maybe. I haven’t done it before, I’d need a recipe, and likely a few more ingredients than you’ve got stocked around here. Also, the moral implications are dubious. But it could probably be done.”

“Cool,” Percy said.

“Anyway, you were saying that you think this dragon on the underground was connected to the people that put that spell on you last night?” Leon said.

“I mean, they used that same name. And it’s a bit unusual. I’ve never heard it before except in my own head, until I got to the city.”

“Why would you let that person put a spell on you anyway? Why not just…” Percy waved a hand vaguely. “Turn her into a newt? Just temporarily?”

“Ingredients, Perce,” Merlin said. “Also, Arthur was standing right there.”

“That was clever, isolating you like that in front of someone she knew you wouldn’t risk revealing yourself to,” Leon mused.

“Really,” Merlin said. “What I can’t figure out is why. Why, if I was right there, and they were going to go to all the trouble of cornering me, revealing their hand, why a love spell?”

“Maybe they’re just romantic types,” Percy suggested. “Or the one who got you just has a really cruel sense of humor.”

Merlin had shared the very basic facts of what had happened. No details. Percy and Leon were insightful people, they could fill in the blanks if they liked. And he still hadn’t mustered the ability to say the rest of it out loud.

“What are you going to do now?” Leon asked.

“I don’t know. I was going to sleep for the rest of the day. Maybe go and visit the shop tomorrow. I’ve been putting it off, but clearly that’s not an option anymore. Do you think Uther’s been trying to keep tabs on me?”

“If he has, I doubt he’s been successful,” Leon said. He rifled in his jacket pocket, pulled out a little burlap bag tied with string, just small enough to fit in his palm. Merlin recognized it at once as a charm bag.

“Morgana gave them to us,” Leon said, noting the recognition rising in Merlin’s face. “Lord knows how she managed to get her hands on them. They’re anti-surveillance charms. Just in case, she said. There’s others in the building, and generally just around.”

Merlin dug out his own charm bag from his coat pocket. “So thoughtful, Morgana,” he said. “Gaius gave me this one after my first encounter with Uther. Very useful.”

Leon laughed. “Nice.”

“Guess it doesn’t help if he catches me coming home again, but what to do,” Merlin shrugged. “And if he suspects there isn’t much he can do about these little guys. They’re very hard to detect, even for adept magic users.”

“So, you think you’re going to go back by that shop, then?” Percy asked.

“Yeah. Probably. Too wired to try and sleep, now.”

Percy and Leon exchanged a glance, and then Leon said hesitantly, “Would you like some company?”

Tears welled up suddenly in Merlin’s chest. “Are you sure…? You don’t…?”

“You shouldn’t have to go alone,” Leon said.

Merlin considered this. “You can come. But if I tell you to do something, you’ve got to do it, all right? No questions.”

“What, do you expect it to be dangerous?” Percy asked. “I was thinking of this more in terms of moral support.”

“I don’t know. It might be. And I don’t want you guys caught in the middle of my shit if you don’t have to be.”

“Yes, yes, very heroic,” Leon said. “But no offense, mate, it seems like we might already be caught in the middle of your shit anyway. Best to go in with both eyes open, right?”

“I guess so,” Merlin murmured.

“Then let’s get going,” Percy said, standing. “If it doesn’t take too long, maybe we can get dinner on the way back. Hey, you know, there’s a Mexican place near here with killer tacos.”

“One thing at a time, Perce,” Leon suggested mildly, standing as well. He looked down at Merlin, corners of his eyes crinkling, and held out a hand. “You ready to go?”

Merlin took it and pulled himself upward, a buzz in his chest. Upon examination, he couldn’t identify whether it was giddiness, or fear, or a little of both.

“I’m ready,” he said.

Chapter Text

Whenever Gwaine needed to think, he went to the library. Whenever he needed not to think, he went to the gym. Faced with the binary choice the morning after the party, he chose the library.

“Later,” he told Leon on his way out the door.

It was eight thirty AM and being the other resident early riser in the flat, Leon sat by himself on the couch, sipping tea and reading a book selected purposefully to help better himself. He glanced up as Gwaine swept through, toast halfway to his mouth.

“Bye,” he said. “Where are you going?”

“Library.” Gwaine shoved on a pair of slides over his socks.

“Do you know when you’ll be back?”

“I don’t know. Later.”

“All right. Well. Text me.” Leon’s brow remained furrowed as Gwaine slammed out the door. But he was moving quickly on purpose.

He could feel the full weight of what he needed to think about hovering over his head like an overburdened rain cloud, threatening to burst any second. If he stopped for too long, if he took himself off the autopilot of exiting his building and considering the pros and cons of his truck versus the tube this particular morning and shivering as the bitter wind swept through his too-thin autumn jacket, then all those thoughts would dump onto him right there, on the sidewalk.

Gwaine took great pains not to process any of his shit where anybody – the general public most especially – could see.

Thankfully, he made it to the university library in time, swiping into the large building and making his way through the marbled lobby. This corner of the city campus was relatively barren this Sunday, his footsteps echoing against the lofty ceiling as he took the stairs up toward the study floor.

This too was deserted, and he spotted only a lone student worker shelving in the 900s section, too absorbed in the music piping through their headphones to notice his arrival.

Down the middle of the two sets of aisles were tables, four seats per, with charging stations and reading lamps. Gwaine bypassed these in favor of one of the nooks, lone one or two person corners with comfier, more dilapidated chairs and smaller, wobblier tables, still preferable for their isolation and their location next to the windows, which gave a view of the city street below.

However, only one of these nooks had outlets within reach of a laptop cord. Gwaine of course knew where this was, and still operating on autopilot, made his way to it, cutting through the 200s section and a de-stress table covered in a half-formed jigsaw puzzle for the undergrads.

It was taken.

He recognized the back of the blonde head.

“Hey!” He rounded the table. After pretending for a second that she didn’t see him, Morgause lowered her headphones around her neck and looked placidly up at him.

“Hi,” she said. “Can I help you?”

“That’s what you open with? ‘Can I bloody well help you?’ Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Gwaine,” she said, as if speaking to a four-year-old child, “We’re in the library.”

“What in the hell are you doing here?” he demanded.

She glanced around at the quiet shelves and the empty street outside. “I go to school here,” she said with that serene snark in her voice that absolutely drove him up a wall.

The first few weeks of the program, no one could understand why he despised Morgause so immediately and intensely. His advisor actually expressed concern regarding the topic, reading Gwaine’s dislike as petty and unscholarly.

He toned it down after that, but it had taken him a long while to warm up to Morgause, and he often found himself waffling between begrudging admiration and incandescent, helpless fury depending on the moment.

The fact that she had seemingly convinced everyone but Gwaine that she was good, decent, and noble, even, riled his highly attuned sense of justice more than was reasonable. He knew it didn’t matter in the least to him what others thought of Morgause. But deception rankled at him, especially when carried out right under his nose, and even more especially when that deception seemed obvious.

At most, Morgause was an amoral creature. Morally gray.

She approached her studies with the appropriate rigor, but possessed little in the way of ethics, and she had such an air of privilege that he found it difficult to keep a straight face when others praised her humility, and her perseverance.

And now.

Well, now Gwaine had pretty much rid himself of any of the admiration he had left for Morgause’s quick wit, or her cunning, or her quickness to strike which bordered on bloodthirstiness in casual conversation and academic argument.

He even rid himself of the gratitude he had mustered when she agreed to help proof a paper for his.

She had the gall to look up at him as if he were the out of pocket one, pen tapping against the side of her laptop.

“I’m sorry about what happened to your friend,” she said.

“What happened to my friend,” Gwaine repeated. “One of your initiates cursed him. You know what she did was assault, right?”

“I do. And she wasn’t my initiate.”

“She used your name.”

“Is that what he told you?” Morgause asked, tipping her head to one side.

Gwaine flushed. “Are you insinuating my friend is a liar?”

“No,” she said quietly, smiling a little to herself. “But I might be insinuating that you’re naïve. Take a gander.”

“You’re saying that girl wasn’t affiliated with you.”

“I am,” Morgause said. “Our organization doesn’t condone that sort of behavior. I certainly don’t. Which is why I offered to call the police as soon as Morgana told me what happened, file the proper reports. It was your friend who said no.”

Gwaine just barely stopped himself from saying, He did? He wouldn’t give Morgause the satisfaction of knowing she knew more than he did.

“And anyway,” Morgause continued loftily, turning her face to the window, “If I were involved in some capacity, why would I be here? In the library of the university that it is public record that I attend? Where anyone, including you, could find and accost me? What allegedly went down that night was very serious business.”

“I’m going to need you to stop implying that my friend is untruthful,” Gwaine said icily.

She shrugged, unconcerned. “As you wish, Sir Gwaine.” Her dark eyes glittered like deep still water. “Are you done accusing me and my organization of criminal behavior? Can I get back to researching the intricacies of Welsh folktales, please?”

Gwaine glowered at her, sure she was hiding something, sure that she knew he knew it, sure that this gave her some sort of puckish satisfaction, and sure he could do nothing about it. At least not here, and at least not now.

“Why did you invite me to that party?” he asked finally.

“Out of pity,” Morgause said. “And also, I needed to even out my ratio of hot people. Don’t let it go to your head, it’s an objective assessment.”

“You expect me to buy that?”

“I did think you intelligent enough to consider that I don’t care enough about you or your friends to lure them to my annual Halloween party, yes,” Morgause said. She sighed, tipping her head to one side. “Now really, are we done here? Because I do have work I need to finish. As enlightening as this conversation was. You can imagine how much party-planning put me behind. Anyway,” she went on, tapping at her keyboard to wake her sleeping computer, “I don’t know why you’re interrogating me. It seems like your friends would have a much better idea of what happened last night.” She put on big, theatrical doe eyes when she turned to him again. “Firsthand witnesses and all. In fact, you probably know more than I do, don’t you Gwaine?”

She had said something very similar to him in a Socratic circle earlier this year, in that same saccharine tone.

He took a deep breath. Last time she had used that voice on him, he deserved it. He wasn’t so sure this time. But he wouldn’t be made an idiot by his own actions. Thought first he schooled himself.

“Fair enough,” he said quietly.

She beamed up at him, sweet as arsenic. “Should’ve shown up earlier, might have beaten me to the outlet.”

Normally, he would have flipped her off as he walked away, but this time he knew it would read as too sincere, so he just scoffed and left her there, choosing a nook on the opposite side of the library.

Autopilot again took him through unloading his bag and opening his laptop, cuing up his sad emo study time playlist, but then he found himself sitting there, Death Cab for Cutie playing in his ears, staring blankly at the dark screen. His thoughts finally unloosed, he had on loop the desperate look on Merlin’s face when he found Gwaine last night.

Pretty, needing his help.

His type of person, essentially. He gravitated toward people he knew could ruin his life. And he had sworn himself out of that pattern. Vowed himself out of it. After the last messy breakup, where he had lost custody of his cat and most of his record collection, he had told himself. No more, no more.

Maybe worse had been the look on Percy’s face when Gwaine had found him, still rubbing the ghost of green lipstick off his face.

“Is Merlin all right?” Percy had asked.

“Yeah,” Gwaine had replied, realizing after he said it that he didn’t actually know, “He’ll be fine.”

Percy didn’t say anything more, but Gwaine could read the flared nostrils and the compressed lips and the disappointed dart of his eyes as he looked away from Gwaine and over the laughing sprawl of the party.

Not again that look said. Not himthat look said.

It was a sort of betrayal, Gwaine knew. Kissing Merlin. A betrayal of his own determination, and of his friendship with Merlin, and in a way, of Percy, too. How often had Percy steadfastly seen him through the ruins of another one of Gwaine’s well-meaning forays into romance?

As many as you needed me to Percy would say.

Too many, Gwaine would say.

“Really,” Percy had said softly. “Him.”

Merlin wasn’t a stranger Gwaine had met out in the wild. He wasn’t a person who could grin and give him a night, or a few hours. Gwaine knew Merlin. Liked him. And maybe that was why he couldn’t quite puzzle through the way he wanted Merlin.

Gwaine found himself attracted to Merlin because he knew him. Because some part of him frustrated Gwaine, made itself elusive, refused to be seen or known. And thus, it wasn’t Merlin that Gwaine liked, exactly, but the negative space encompassing Merlin. He wanted the intangible, unattainable thing which made Merlin unknowable. He wanted this idea of Merlin that wasn’t even really an idea at all, but the absence of one.

Which wasn’t fair. And wasn’t right.

It could’ve been harmless, if Gwaine had just kept his hands to himself. But he couldn’t even manage that level of restraint.

It wasn’t your fault Merlin had said.

Did he believe it? Could he believe it? Or would believing it be an excuse to relieve himself of his own guilt?

You think too much Arthur had told him once, laughing, back when he had laughed more often.

That was a lark. Gwaine, the thoughtful one.

He considered himself more a man of deed. But look where that had gotten him.

Maybe he should just blame the witch, and that damned spell. But his own feelings had betrayed him long before last night.

“Stupid,” he muttered to himself. And what good would wallowing do him anyway? He should talk to Merlin. But maybe Merlin didn’t want to talk to him. And who would blame him?

Gwaine sighed and sunk lower in his chair before he sat up again resolutely and powered on his computer. He couldn’t do anything about Morgause or Merlin or his own lack of fortitude. May as well get lost in research.

And that’s what he did. For the morning and into the afternoon, he got lost down a rabbit hole of academic articles and bibliographies, periodically getting up to hunt down the physical copy of a text amongst the shelves, returning to add it to his steadily growing stack.

It surprised people who didn’t know them, but Gwaine was actually the most scholarly out of his friends. Arthur was good at it, but in the spoilt, unfair way where he didn’t actually care, he just didn’t need to try. And Leon remained mildly uninterested by the culture of academia, preferring helpful statistics and real-world solutions to the more abstract academic theories Gwaine favored.

I understand why it’s important, he would say, I’d just rather give other things my thought.

Things like social programs and food insecurity and this one Sponge Bob meme sticker he’d found that this fourteen-year-old kid he worked with would go wild over pasting to his skateboard.

Gwaine let himself get lost in this, in his research, in gentle peripheral affection for his friends, his thoughts churning like a background program all the while. He’d almost forgotten about what had brought him here in the first place when his phone buzzed.

He pulled it out. A text from Leon.

You should come home.

A text from Percy, soon after.

Did you know? Another, Never mind there’s no way

What are you talking about? Gwaine replied to Percy.

Everything, Percy said.

Concerned, Gwaine hunched over his knees, staring at the glowing text on his screen. You’re messing with me, right? What is this? I’m studying

No reply.

His stomach twisted into a knot, his chest a mess. He texted Leon back. What’s going on? Percy’s being weird.

You should really come home, Leon said.

Why? Is something wrong?

Just come home

A second later

It’ll be easier to explain then

Gwaine sat there, unsure how to react, how to move, really. All of a sudden, he had a black, awful feeling flooding his chest. He had had this feeling only once before, back in undergrad. Then, it had sent him to Arthur’s dorm room, which he had found destroyed, and empty.

He had thought Arthur had been kidnapped. Turned out his friend was just suffering, and Gwaine hadn’t even seen it.

Now, that feeling persuaded him to pack his things in the darkening library, the glow of the fluorescent lights becoming tangible on the floor and returned back to the nook with the outlet.

Morgause was still there, eating a granola bar over a fat text with crumbling, yellow pages.

“There’s no food allowed in the library,” he said.

She popped one side of her headphones off. “What? Are you bothering me again?”

“I said there’s no food in the library.”

“Are you going to snitch on me?” Morgause asked. “Try it. All the librarians are madly in love with me, you won’t get anywhere.”

“Tell me you had nothing to do with what happened last night,” Gwaine said.

She blinked up at him. “I had nothing to do with what happened last night.”

Gwaine couldn’t tell if she was lying. Every word that came out of her mouth sounded like a falsehood.

“Heading home?” she asked.

“None of your business.”

“Fine. Fuck you too. I hope a bus hits you on your way to campus parking.”

He left her there, his head full of colorless noise. He could see in his mind’s eye with perfect clarity the particular grade of the glitter Merlin had worn the night before. It was burned there with his friends’ texts.

That black feeling in his chest churned.

Something is wrong it said, Something is wrong.

As he crossed the street, the streetlights and the stoplights and the crosswalk lights all flickered in unison with a gust of November breeze. He stopped for a split second in the middle of the crosswalk. It was a clear night, the moon already visible overhead, a wedge of yellow-brown light, the sky pale and dirty with light pollution.

The lights all flickered again, on the street, in the buildings lining it, in the headlights of the cars stopped at the red light.

He knew what would happen, a split second before it did.

The entire city, for as far as he could see, went black. Horns yelped, startled voices cried out, and the darkness in his chest had somehow broken free, swept the entire world up into it. Or at least, that was what it felt like standing there. The setting sun was crimson in the glass of the buildings to the east, the buildings themselves oddly lifeless, deserted, strange.

He pulled out his phone, but it was dead.

On either side of the intersection, people climbed out of their cars, the vehicles dead, too. More people emerged from buildings, murmurs rising up to fill the buzz and hum and noise that just a second ago had carried the pulse of the city. Someone found a torch in their glove compartment, turned it on, the single beam of light slicing through the gathering gloom.

“What the fuck is going on?” a voice demanded loudly.

This for some reason stirred Gwaine to action. He hurried back in the direction from which he had come, the library door unlocked without the electronic swipe. Taking the stairs two at a time, he almost barreled into Morgause just arriving at the top of the stairs, backpack tossed over her shoulder.

“Jesus,” she said, startled, nearly shoving him. “Didn’t you leave?”

“I did. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

She stared at him as if he were an inferior lifeform that had somehow gained the capacity for speech. “Are you ‘stupid’?” When he just stared at her, she really did shove him, nearly sending him backwards down the stairs. “Go home, Gwaine.”

And so he did.

Chapter Text

They took the train.

None of them had cars, so this was really the only feasible option. Still, it made Merlin skittish. A gust rounded the corner and hit them in the face as they descended into the tunnel a few blocks from their building, blowing Merlin’s hair back from his forehead. The familiar grimy, mineral scent it carried sluiced down his spine like ice water.

The station was relatively empty for this time on a Sunday. Leon and Percy had to lengthen their strides to keep up with him as Merlin headed to the far end of the platform.

Nothing but the ticking sign rattling off the train schedule, the click of a lady’s heels as she passed by them, shucking an ornate purple church hat.

The absence of the dragon’s presence was somehow worse. Merlin could practically feel its eye locked on him.

“I’m doing what you want,” he muttered.

“You say something?”

“Huh?” Merlin blinked at Leon. “No. Just talking to myself.”

The train arrived at the station in a whoosh a few minutes later, and Merlin entered the last car, Leon and Percy after him. The rest of the car was empty, except for the little old lady sitting in the corner.

She squinted at him through her coke-bottle spectacles as he approached.

“Merlin? That you?”

“Hi, Dolores,” he said. “Good morning.”

“Terrible morning. Can feel the damn damp in my joints. And Martin hates the cold. I’ve had to knit him another sweater, he ate the last one.”

Martin, parked in her handbag as he always was, did indeed wear a tiny turtleneck in a monstrously bright orange yarn. His tongue stuck out with his underbite, and the whites of his bulgy eyes were visible. Per usual, he wore the bemused, terrified expression of someone who had shown up at the wrong address and found themselves in the midst of an event they had not planned to attend.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin said, “Would he like a treat?”

“Well, Martin.” She jostled the handbag, rousing the dog. “You want a treat?”

Martin sniffed vaguely at the air. Merlin grabbed at a railing as the train pulled from the station, rifling in his pocket, and pulled out the Ziploc baggie he now always carried with him, soft treats he had purchased at a pet store near the pharmacy suitable for Martin’s nearly toothless palette.

Martin gummed the treat with glum doggedness, staring at the opposite wall of the subway car, gaze vacant.

“You brought friends,” Dolores said.

Merlin turned to Leon and Percy hovering behind him, watching this exchange with varying degrees of open delight.

“Oh, yes. This is Percy and Leon. Guys, this is Dolores. We often find ourselves on the train at the same time.”

“The rocking soothes Martin,” Dolores said. “I didn’t know you had friends. Handsome friends.”

Percy beamed, pleased with himself. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

Leon muttered something, incoherent and shy.

“Handsome? I’m handsome,” Merlin said, faux offended.

“You’re all right,” Dolores said dismissively.

“Fair enough,” he laughed. “How’s your…?”

But the train rocked, and the car lights flickered.

Merlin’s heart lurched, adrenaline singing in his head. He clutched at the railing, white knuckled and waiting. Nothing. Just silence. Blinking, he found the other three occupants of the car staring at him and tried to force his heartrate to calm.

“You all right?” Percy asked, concerned.

“He gets them,” Dolores said airily. “Dizzy spells.”

Merlin steadied himself, using both hands to hold onto the nearby pole. “I’m fine.” No voice in his head had accompanied the brief lapse in power. Coincidence his head tried to tell him. His heart thundered onward, skeptical.

“Do you think its…?” Leon started, glancing up at the light running along the ceiling.

Merlin shook his head. “Its nothing. I’m just skittish.”

“Like Martin,” Dolores said. Martin licked his nose in glum agreement.

Without saying anything else, Percy reached out and put a steadying hand at Merlin’s elbow, the touch subtle enough not to be noticed by Dolores.

The lights stayed on for the duration of the trip. Kilgharrah stayed silent. As they arrived at their stop, relief loosened Merlin’s joints, his hands shaky enough he had to stuff them in his coat pockets to keep them from view.

A part of him, a rebellious, childish part of him, was disappointed.

Wasn’t this all part of the quest Kilgharrah had set him on? Why did he choose now to go silent?

As they stepped up into daylight, Merlin paused on the stairs and glanced back down the tunnel. A puff of air, like a breath, brushed his hair once again from his face.

You told them?

The voice was more a sigh, saddened.

Short-sighted fool.

Merlin’s heart was a clamor in his chest. He felt made of the thunder of it, the sound and shudder of it, nothing else. Fear and some other sticky, sullen emotion ached cold in his joints.

Open your eyes.

And then it was over. The presence retreated as suddenly as it had arrived, a weight vanished from where it had pressed down on his chest.

“Merlin!” Percy called, from up in the daylight. Leon had paused almost at the top of the stairs to look back at Merlin, the light Sunday foot traffic moving easily around him.

“I heard it,” he tried to say, but the words would not make it past his numb lips. He tried to will himself to move but he remained frozen there a second more before he tore himself free.

Emrys… hissed the voice, and as Merlin jogged up to join his friends in the daylight, he heard something like the dry, scaley settling of a great body coiling up, a cold, serpentine gaze locked like two great coins on his back, watching him go.

Chapter Text

“No one was home,” Uther said, tapping at his phone.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

They were in the ubiquitous SUV, being swept off to the Pendragon building. Uther had fresh air and cigarette smoke gathered in the folds of his coat. Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor played lowly through the SUV’s pristine speakers, which meant either that Uther had one of his headaches, or that he was irritated, and annoyed that he was irritated. Possibly both.

Arthur fought the urge to fidget in his seat. He hadn’t paid much attention to his clothes, or his hair, or the suitability of his tie, his mind cast entirely back to last night, turning it over in his mind until the rough edges went smooth with examination.

“I am not a king,” Uther said icily, in response to Arthur’s question. “I cannot order other people’s homes violated neither because I wish it, nor because my son wishes it.”

“Aren’t these people on a watchlist or something? There has to be something you can do,” Arthur said.

Uther raised a thorny brow at him but did not look up from his emails.

“You mean they’re just going to get away with it,” Arthur said flatly.

“My, this situation certainly has roused your passion for justice and rule of law,” Uther said. “I wonder what inspired that.”

Arthur flushed. He should never have mentioned the nature of the spell. But that, to him, was the grossest violation. The kind of spell Addison had put on Merlin. You didn’t just do that to someone. Force their body to want someone against their will. It was obscene.

“I told you, it wasn’t cast on me.”

“No, but you did feel the effects of magic on your person. You admitted as much.”

“I know what an immobility spell feels like, Father.”

“Mm,” Uther said.

“You’re not taking this seriously,” Arthur said. “These people tried to kill you once upon a time. Aren’t you concerned?”

“Concerned about what? About your roommate? Trust me, your little friend has the wherewithal to protect himself. As for you…” Uther paused, and the euphoric strain of the orchestra as it built to the second movement held all the latent danger Arthur had not allowed himself to feel in his burst of bravery. “…If I concerned myself about the danger you choose to put yourself in, I would not have the time to worry about anything else. You are a grown adult. If you cannot be trusted to exercise judgement about the situations in which you do or do not find yourself, there is little I or the government that backs me can do for you, at least in the ways of bureaucracy.”

Arthur, braced, found himself surprisingly unscathed at the end of this monologue. More surprising still, an ember of defiance still burned in his chest, startling and warm. He had not gone against Merlin’s wishes or Gwaine’s sound advice for this to be the response.

“You told me getting a roommate was so that I could learn to live with people. Part of living with them is protecting them.”

“Where did you get that idea?”

Arthur thought about Morgana answering a forlorn three in the morning call after she had told him she needed space, picking him up from some deserted high ground in the city and taking him to an all-night diner with sticky floors and strawberry milkshakes. Came back for him, again, after he had abandoned her to Uther’s unyielding consequences to save himself.

He thought of Merlin, coming for him in the rain. He thought of Gwaine throwing his arms around him like Arthur was a rock in the midst of kilometers of a sea, like Arthur was the thing saving Gwaine, rather than the other way around. He thought of Leon quietly sliding him a plate of food and putting a fork in his hand after he hadn’t eaten for two days. He thought of Percy’s light touch on his shoulder after hours at the arcade, and how Arthur would rouse himself, blinking, to find it was still day.

He thought of Gwen’s spare key that he still carried in his pocket. And he thought of Merlin again, last night, dressed like a beacon, saying, That’s what I do. I save you.

But he couldn’t communicate any of this to his father. At least not in a way that would get him taken seriously.

“I just think,” he said stubbornly, “That a crime has been committed. Against one of your citizens. The person you forced me to room with. If you’re not going to lift a finger to help someone who it is your sworn duty to protect, at the very least I don’t think you should be surprised that I have grown attached to this person.” He paused, hoped the pause would carry with it some sort of counterweight, the equivalent of a neat parry. “Surely you have not looked away from me long enough that you’ve forgotten the kind of person I really am, the person you shaped me to be. That my mother shaped me to be. I care about people. That’s what I do. And I don’t think you should be taken aback by how much that means.”

The second movement hit just as Arthur finished speaking, the relief of it washing through the car like dopamine.

Uther let his phone fall onto his leg with a heavy sigh.

“Why put me in the same sphere as this person,” Arthur asked, “If you did not suspect this outcome?”

“Your mother,” Uther repeated drolly, his voice dry and quiet.

“Excuse me?”

“Your mother possessed the same weakness. She called it her burden of care. In proportional quantity, it is an invaluable asset.” He frowned, tapping his phone against his leg, and looked at Arthur. “I had hoped something concrete would rouse you from this bout of navel gazing. But it is someone concrete. It is him.”

A thrill went through Arthur when Uther said this, a buzz akin to what he had felt against his skin last night when Addison had cast that immobility spell. Like electricity, but worse. Like magic.

Friends he himself had said.

“You put him in my orbit,” Arthur said.

“When the others encountered trouble, you went through the proper channels,” Uther said, “Gwaine’s scholarship. Leon’s civil dispute. Percival’s art…explorations. But for this stranger you have known perhaps two months you would avoid those channels and come directly to me.”

Not even for your sister, he did not say, but Arthur saw that musing quiet in his face, turned like a key in the corner of his stern mouth. The final shouting match had shaken the house. Literally, when the vase got thrown. Arthur had felt the voices muffled through the floorboards under his feet. Had heard the door slam, winced as the BMW peeled away with the sickly crunch of rubber on gravel.

Winced only partly in sympathy, gut twinging only partly with guilt. Mostly, he had been worried about himself. He had given Morgana the passcode to the front gate after Uther changed it, when she had first left. He’d felt like a traitor, but not for the reason he should have.

I was wrong then, he wanted to reply, but he couldn’t answer words Uther never said aloud.

And so, instead, he said, “I know I’ve disappointed you. But surely there is something, something you can do.”

Uther’s stony brow creased, pensive, his gaze cutting through Arthur to something beyond him, and Arthur felt as he often did. Like a beach sandy beyond the place where ships wrecked. Even standing on him, people looked to the lighthouse, the tall cliffs, the great spikes of rock, the slate gray sea, the endless horizon.

Look down, he often wanted to say to his father. Look down at me. Your footsteps are disappearing behind you as you walk away. I also carry something ephemeral, and infinite. I also am worth your admiration.

But Arthur had failed once and for all to hold his father’s attention.

So, even, as Uther murmured, “I’ll see what I can do,” and Arthur replied, “Thank you,” Uther’s attention cut beyond him, to something else.

What was it Uther was looking at? What had caught his gaze so thoroughly that Arthur was somehow never able to see?

**
Business today lasted longer than Arthur expected. By the time he finally exited the Pendragon building into the sterile back alley, most of the day had disappeared, the sky slate gray with cloud cover and lack of light.

Without Uther in the car, Arthur allowed himself to slouch in the backseat, head tipped back, frowning as he scrolled through his phone. At his request, Yvonne put on the top 40 pop hits radio that always made Uther roll his eyes and he had her take him through a McDonald’s drive thru.

She didn’t even have to ask his order, just tossed the McDouble and the medium fry plus an apple pie back into his lap without looking. The chocolate milkshake was handed back with only marginally more care, and Arthur freed his straw and took a long sip of chalky processed chocolate garbage and released a long sigh.

“You’ve got an appetite,” Yvonne hazarded, glancing at him in the rearview mirror. “That’s new.”

“No snarky comments about my eating habits please, Yvonne, I’m trying to enjoy myself in peace, for once,” Arthur said, dipping a fry into the processed garbage. The fries were oversalted, and less than fresh, but you couldn’t win every time.

And then the car stopped. Or rather, it flickered. Arthur didn’t have words for it. One second, the vehicle was coasting along, engine running, heater blasting, Ed Sheeran’s latest very catchy attempt to be a pop star pulsing through the speakers, and then…nothing. Silence.

Arthur sat up straight, but before he could muster a reaction, it was all back again. Ed on the next verse, heater blowing dry air in his face. His stomach had bottomed out, processed sugar making him suddenly queasy.

They were a few blocks from home, the road relatively empty. The car in front of them pulled to the curb, and as Arthur craned around to look out the back window, he saw another car do the same.

“We’re almost there,” Yvonne said.

“Should we park?” asked Arthur.

Then the car flickered again. No. The entire city flickered. The streetlights, which had just turned on maybe twenty minutes previous, went out. The bright windows in the buildings lining the street, went out. The traffic light up ahead, went out. Everything, including the SUV, just…stopped.

And this time, it didn’t come back, that blink of silence stretching and stretching so Arthur was left only with shadows and the fried smell of fast food and his own furiously pounding heart.

Yvonne applied the brakes, let the SUV coast to a stop.

They sat there for a second, Yvonne’s hands white knuckled around the steering wheel. “What now?” Arthur asked.

“Get out.”

He obeyed, drilled on how to respond to potentially dangerous situations since childhood. Yvonne hustled him from the car, abandoned in the middle of the street, to the sidewalk, her grip tight on his elbow.

As they reached the curb, the ground shifted. Arthur staggered but maintained his balance, Yvonne releasing him to keep her own. Shouts rose from somewhere down the block, a shrill horn pierced the air, his heart undergirded it all with an unrelenting bass.

“You’re shitting me,” he muttered, “An earthquake? Here??”

“Phones aren’t working,” Yvonne said.

He looked at her in time to see her shoving her cellphone back in her coat pocket, her face pinched and serious.

“Let’s get you home,” she said.

“On the third story of a building? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“I’m the professional, champ, you listen to me.”

“Okay.”

A thought stopped Arthur in his tracks before he made it two steps. Yvonne prodded at his shoulder, on edge and annoyed.

“What is it?”

“My friends,” he said. “My friends. I don’t know where they are, or if they’re…” he swallowed hard, a knot in his throat. “I don’t know what’s happening. What if…?”

“What ifs are for secure locations,” Yvonne said grimly, grabbing his elbow and frog-marching him forward. “Your building is safe. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

The sky was preternaturally blue, the earlier drizzle and glum gray overhang dissolved to nothing, to a cathedral of sun and red midtown brick and November air. Leon and Percy trailed Merlin down the sidewalk, taking in the aggressive mildness of their surroundings:

The ageing Ford Fiestas parked along the curb, gathering long-dead leaves in the creases of their windshield wipers. The spindly trees in their little concrete plots, already sparse with the promise of winter. The shabby storefronts stiff-upper-lipping themselves through the area’s economic decline, antique stores mingling with tattoo parlors and seedy tobacco shops.

It did not seem the sort of area that would hold any great revelations. It seemed like any other place, really. The exact opposite of extraordinary.

Merlin arrived at the door for Alvarr’s Thrift Shoppe, the interior dark behind the windows, the hours stenciled on the glass informing that this establishment was closed on Sundays. He yanked on the door for good measure. It was locked.

“Guess we should’ve checked the hours online before we came,” Percy said.

Leon scrolled through his phone with one hand scrunched in his curly mop of hair. “Yeah, it says they’re closed. Bummer, mate.”

Merlin lifted his fist and knocked on the door. Knocked was the wrong word. He banged on the glass with a fist and then an open palm, hard enough to rattle it in its frame. Inside the shadowy, dim interior nothing moved.

“Seems like no one’s home,” Percy suggested.

But Merlin felt the buzz of the wards guarding the shop against his skin. The storefront was two stories, with the same construction as most of the buildings along this block. Business on the bottom story, living space on the top story. Someone was home. He knew it because, alongside the typical hum of magic, he felt the pressure of attention, light as the brush of a feather, of the person who had erected the wards coming from inside.

Pressing his own senses against the boundary that flanked the shop, he found that though the person who had put up the wards was powerful, he was more powerful. This fact settled with grim satisfaction in the center of his gut. He grabbed hold of the front door’s handle and yanked, expelling a burst of magic at the same time. It did the double work of breaking the lock and the spells reinforcing it.

The door flew open with a brittle snap, bell ricocheting on its hook inside, the sound echoing down the empty street.

“Geez,” Percy said, sounding equal parts alarmed and impressed.

“Er,” Leon said as Merlin stepped inside the shop, “Is this a good idea?”

“It is against the law if you care about that sort of thing. Breaking and entering,” Percy added, standing at Leon’s elbow.

“You don’t have to come,” Merlin said.

The inside of the shop was as dusty as he remembered it, reeking of mothballs and old carpet. The corners of the shop were dark, shadows thrown long by the light through the front window cast over the vast stretch of clothing racks. Even more than before, the place seemed larger than should’ve been possible, and even more than before, Merlin felt the prickle of animosity at the back of his neck, the sudden and oppressing sensation that he was not wanted.

He felt more than saw Percy and Leon exchange a frown behind him.

They had thought they were coming to ask a shopkeeper a few questions, encounter a frustrating but benign dead end, be on their way.

But Merlin had ceased to believe in the rules of the real world. He had magic. He could tear apart a town with the sheer force of his will, with his lack of will. Dragons lurked beneath the skin of the city. Witches took his understanding of the so-called real world in their hands and pulled it apart like cotton candy centimeters from his face.

Emrys

Whatever this was, whatever this city wanted from him, it had long since ceased to be about the real world and its consequences. He had tried to tell Leon and Percy this when they volunteered to come with him, but it had been his own fault for assuming they knew what that would mean.

He moved deeper into the shop. Behind him, Percy and Leon hesitated, and then followed.

“Mordred,” Merlin called into the thick silence. “You remember me?”

He moved behind the counter, to the door labeled ‘Employees Only’ through which Mordred had vanished not that long ago.

That attention he had felt earlier sharpened, like a blade held against his neck. He laid his hand flat against the ‘Employees Only’ door, magic so densely packed into its surface that it numbed Merlin’s fingers instantly, like a rush of freezing water.

He could break through the barrier presented, but not without some effort, and not without making a mess. Before he could decide his next step, the door swung open.
He dropped his hand.

On the other side stood a dark-haired teenager in Batman pajama pants and a pinched, sleep swollen glare. Behind him lay a narrow, fluorescent-lit hallway leading to a storeroom and a cramped set of stairs, down which he had come.

“What do you want?” he demanded.

Merlin met Mordred’s spiteful blue gaze. “You know what I want.”

Mordred yawned, pressing the back of his hand to his mouth. “I’m afraid that I don’t. Nice job not tripping the silent alarm, now I’ve got to decide whether to let Alvarr call the cops manually or not. I hate calling the cops.”

“Then don’t,” Merlin said.

Mordred’s gaze roved over Merlin’s shoulder, to Percy and Leon hovering behind him. “It almost feels like you’re forcing my hand – really. You brought your goons?”

“They volunteered to come,” Merlin said. “And they aren’t my anything.”

“Sure.”

“Have I made my point? Are you going to invite me up, or are you going to leave me standing here?” Merlin asked.

Mordred assessed him. “You broke into my house.”

“Your house is upstairs. I broke into your place of business.”

“You broke into my house, and you’re wearing your own face,” Mordred said. “That is brave of you. And uncharacteristically forthright. How do I know you’re not tricking me?”

“Because I need your help and it wouldn’t serve me to trick you,” Merlin said.

“Fair enough.” Mordred lapsed into silence, frowning down at his bare feet, toes scrunched against the cold concrete floor of the hallway. “Why are you here, Emrys?”

Merlin decided to tell the truth, or at least a portion of it. “The dragon told me to come.”

Mordred’s dark eyebrows rose with the first genuine flicker of surprise Merlin had seen from him. “Really? And why would that self-important lizard send you to me?”

“He thought I would believe you,” Merlin said.

Mordred laughed. “I have always been honest with you. At least in the ways that mattered, I suppose.” He stepped back, held open the door. “Come up, then. Alvarr’s making coffee.”

Merlin stepped past him, and Leon and Percy made awkwardly to follow. Mordred blocked their path. “Not you, good fellows. You stay down here with the other secondhand goods, where my spells can keep a proper eye on you.”

Over Mordred’s shoulder, Merlin made eye contact with Leon, a silent agreement exchanged wherein Merlin insisted he would be fine, and that Leon did not like it, but would comply, so long as Merlin understood they would come after him at the first sign of trouble.

There was little an almost-lawyer and an aspiring artist slash parttime bouncer could do in the event Mordred meant him harm anyway, and this reassured Merlin. It meant if danger did appear, Leon and Percy were less likely to be able to get in his way, which meant he could protect them unhindered.

Mordred shut the door and retreated toward the stairs, his shoulders narrow and thin under his navy zip-up hoodie.

“C’mon,” he said, “Follow me.”

Chapter Text

It had rained all day. Morgana watched the droplets weep down the windowpanes, tea cupped in both hands. The air was bled through with gray.

Gwen had a wedding today, and so standing alone in the kitchen, Morgana thought of the newlywed couple standing under the hollow arch of the church ceiling, vows lost in the echoing drum of the rain. Gwen would be standing off to the side, checking the neat little gold watch Morgana had gifted her on one of their first anniversaries, back when she still had no idea how to like someone that much.

Sipping her tea, the milky taste seeped warm into her mouth, Morgana pictured Gwen in that church, tucking her clipboard back in front of her as she returned her gaze politely to the ceremony: her curly hair half pulled back, a stray loop tugged forward to frame her pretty face. The plain slacks and lilac sweater she wore in an effort to appear unobtrusive, yet competent. The breath of rose perfume that lingered on her person, amidst the baby’s breath and the bouquets of the chapel, the clouds of hairspray in the bridal party’s changing room.

It struck Morgana most when Gwen was gone, ironically enough. The absence of her ached. I’m in love with her Morgana thought absently, and it was only a fact, as part of the earth as the rain turning her backyard green despite the cold, as simple and necessary as the quiet body heat gathered in the folds of her cardigan.

The simplicity of missing Gwen almost allowed Morgana to forget about everything else. Her sister. Her father. Hapless, ridiculous Merlin.

A knock came at the front door. Strange, that anyone should come by. Even stranger that they would knock, rather than ring the perfectly functioning doorbell. And all Morgana’s friends and acquaintances knew to text.

Morgana stirred, setting her tea on the counter to go and check, senses already stretching to test the boundary of her house, the little spells woven into the brick. They were all intact, humming as if electrified, as if something had charged them. She pulled out her phone to see if maybe she had missed a text, but it wouldn’t turn on. Apprehension prickled up the back of her neck.

She put the phone away, edged along the perimeter of the foyer, craning her head to try and see out one of the windows that bordered either side of the door. A blonde head. A familiar brown coat.

Morgana’s stomach dropped to her toes, mouth compressing.

She flung the door open.

“What do you want?”

Morgause stood on the front porch, windblown and out of breath, her ponytail tangled and her cheeks pink with cold and exertion. She didn’t even seem to register Morgana’s words, her dark eyes landing immediately on Morgana’s face.

“You’re safe,” she said, which was such a weird thing to say it made Morgana reassess the situation.

Behind Morgana, the radiator kicked on, rattling the old bones of the house, and Morgana realized with a prickle at the back of her neck that it had diverted from its usual lifecycle, a too-long pause between its last breath and this one.

“What happened?” Morgana asked Morgause, debating whether to step back and let her come inside. “Why are you here?”

“Did you not feel it?” Morgause asked.

“Feel what?”

Morgause laughed. Morgause never laughed. Smothering her better instincts, Morgana reached forward and drew her sister inside by the elbow, shutting the door behind them.

“What’s going on with you?” Morgana demanded. “It takes guts to just show up here like this, considering what happened last night.”

“Uther’s at my house,” Morgause said.

Morgana shouldn’t have been surprised. Still, she gaped. “What?”

“He’s at my house,” Morgause repeated, drifting deeper into the foyer. “You really didn’t feel it? Maybe you’re too far out from the city proper.”

“Feel what?” Morgana demanded, properly irritated now.

“Something knocked out…well…everything, just now. Something magic,” Morgause said. “I was at the library when it happened.”

Morgana glanced around her foyer. She didn’t have any of the lights on, nor had she been engaged with any sort of electronics.

“That’s weird. But do you want to know what’s also weird? The fact that you’re at my house after one of your girls cursed my friend.”

Morgause did not respond to this, fingers drifting over the edge of the oak console table Morgana kept in the entryway. Her reflection was ephemeral and hazy in the silver-backed mirror, the gray light combining with her frizzy hair and her still-pink cheeks to craft almost a celestial portrait.

“Morgause,” Morgana said. She half turned, still not looking at Morgana. “What is going on? Please, talk to me.”

“I don’t know what’s going on, exactly. I know what I hope…but I have never put my faith in anything as unreliable as hope. Something big is happening, I think. Something…” she lapsed, turned fully to face Morgana, her eyes burning in her face. “Is Gwen here?”

“No, not right now,” Morgana said slowly, a brief flicker of self-preservation wondering if she should lie.

Lie. To her sister. To the person she had trusted instinctively almost as soon as Morgana met her. Something was wrong.

Or something was…

Her gut twisted.

She didn't know. Something was...Something was.

“Good,” said Morgause. “No, don’t look at me that way, I don’t mean it like that. I only mean…” she sucked in a breath, visibly trying to gather herself. “I need to tell you something. And I don’t know if you’re ready to hear it. I debated whether I should ever tell you, even though I knew it might be inevitable that you find out, but…”

She shook her head, a Morgause-like smirk finally flickering at the corner of her mouth before it spread to encompass the entirety of her face, an ironic arch in her brows muting the effect.

“There is an inquiry out for me,” Morgause said. “Not for my arrest, don’t freak out. Just to speak with me. Allegedly. But I’ve been through this before. I know what it means.”

Morgana remembered what she had said earlier. “Uther.”

“Somebody squealed,” Morgause said grimly, and Morgana’s chest tightened with a familiar blend of hurt and worry.

Arthur

“That blockhead,” she muttered. Merlin had told him not to call the police. And Gwaine would have repeated it. So he found a loophole, and did something worse, because he thought he knew better. Fucking typical.

Morgause didn’t disagree. She had never held any affection for Arthur, not even tangentially through Morgana's care for him.

“You know they put an inquiry out for you,” Morgana said, gesturing at her home in general, “And you’re here? What if Gwen were still home? What then?”

“I’m glad she’s not,” Morgause said. “I know you care for her. I wouldn’t want to put her in any potential danger because of my presence. But I had to talk to you.”

“Yes, you’re on the edge of a great confession,” Morgana said, gathering her cardigan around her body, uneasy. “I’ve never seen you this antsy before. What is it?”

Morgause bit her lip, fingers tapping against the end table, staring at her feet. Her soft, fawn-colored boots were dark and ruined with rainwater.

“C’mon,” Morgana said. “It’s me. Spit it out.”

Morgause’s eyes darted up to her face. “We’ve done this before,” she said. “I need you to trust me.”

Morgana checked her phone, which refused to turn back on. She hit the light switch behind her for good measure. The light above their heads flickered on and she hit it again, returning them to muted dimness.

Maybe nothing had ever been wrong. It was just Morgause’s word. Morgana ignored the queasy worry in her stomach, tried not to picture Gwen in her lilac sweater.

“I need to get a hold of Gwen first,” she said. “Make sure she’s okay.”

“She is, and you won’t be able to. Phone lines are down. Best you’re going to be able to do is a smoke signal,” Morgause said.

“How do you know that?” Morgana asked.

“I didn’t do this if that’s what you’re wondering. It’s just…like I said. We’ve done this before. All of this.” She sighed gustily, relented. “Gwen is more than capable of handling herself. She’s with other people, safe people.”

Morgana’s thoughts flickered nonsensically to Lance, who was working the wedding with Gwen tonight. This in turn sent a stab of equally nonsensical reassurance and irritation through her already crowded chest.

“Fine,” she said caustically. “We can sit in the living room.”

“Good,” Morgause said. “Thank you.”

Morgana let Morgause go first, unable to let go of the apprehension creeping at her shoulder like a ghost.

Fine, she repeated to herself, It’ll be fine.

Chapter Text

The stairway opened into a small, creaky kitchen, linoleum peeling off the corners of the floor, clear autumn sunlight pouring through the window over the backsplash. The kitchen opened up into a cramped living room taken up mostly by a large, overstuffed velvet couch and a large, less overstuffed dog, a great gray wolfhound, lean and athletically built. The dog lifted its head as Merlin entered but did not move from the couch, tail knocking twice against the cushions.

A sports broadcast of some sort played quietly on the giant television. In the kitchen, a man in gray sweatpants and holey Manchester United t-shirt shuffled eggs on the stove, crunching a piece of toast.

He looked up at the sound of the door closing behind Mordred, and his eyes widened when he laid them on Merlin.

The toast dropped to the counter in a cascade of crumbs.

“What is he doing in my fucking house?”

“He invited himself in, what did you expect me to do?” Mordred asked grouchily, sliding between the kitchen table and the man to avail himself of the burbling coffee pot. He picked up a mug and gestured between Merlin and the man. “Emrys, my guardian, Alvarr. Alvarr, the source of this unending nightmare.”

Alvarr didn’t say anything, seemingly rooted in place as he stared at Merlin, his face paper white. Merlin regarded him with mild curiosity. He was a middle-aged man of average stature, the loose-fitting sweats disguising the well-built proportions of someone who purposefully kept himself in shape. His blonde hair was tied in a knot at the nape of his neck, and there was something of defiance in the set of his eyes, despite his obvious fear.

“Hello,” Merlin said. “I’d say it’s nice to meet you, but…”

“You engage in pleasantries?” Alvarr demanded. “I should call the police.”

“What would the police do?” Mordred asked, pouring coffee in his mug, ignoring the hiss as the still-brewing liquid hit the burner behind him.

Alvarr did not reply, eyes glittering as he kept his gaze on Merlin.

“He really doesn’t know?”

Mordred shrugged, slipping back past Alvarr to flop on the couch next to the dog, which put its head immediately in his lap. “Apparently not.”

“He came here unprovoked,” Alvarr continued, disbelief still coloring his voice. “Without warning. With knights of Camelot in tow. Typical.”

Mordred sipped his coffee. “Someone provoked him.”

“The great dragon,” Alvarr guessed.

Mordred held the mug out to him as if to toast. “Bingo.”

“Why send him to us?” Alvarr muttered. Without taking his eyes off of Merlin, he reached behind himself and moved the eggs off the lit burner.

“You know very well why, Alvarr, don’t be cute.”

Alvarr looked the very opposite of cute. Hostile, potentially within seconds of picking up the skillet he’d used to cook the eggs and using it as a weapon.

“Well,” Merlin said, “I’m at a loss myself, if you wouldn’t mind sharing.”

Alvarr laughed, incredulous. Over on the couch, Mordred smirked. The dog wagged its tail.

“You referred to my friends as knights. You know us, or of us,” Merlin pressed on, determined. “That name you keep using for me, you know that too.”

“What I find curious,” Mordred said, curling up more definitively on the couch, relaxed and at ease as a cat, “Is that you brought me back. I’ve been asking myself the question for centuries…why me? I am quite literally a physical embodiment of your impotence, your guilt, your failure. I am the crux of the destiny which laid waste to your plans.” He paused, tipping his head to one side as he regarded Merlin. “Perhaps the better question though…why him?”

He gestured at Alvarr. “Every new time around, he and I manage to find each other. At first, I thought: coincidence. Then I thought: destiny. Now I think: purpose. We are all here at your behest, Emrys. Why don’t you tell me why I’m here? Why he’s here? Why any of us are here? I've got a clue, but it would behoove you to clarify.”

Merlin frowned at him, his chest tight and painful. Mordred looked steadily back at him, petting the dog with one hand, completely at ease.

He did not speak like a child.

Merlin had thought this the last time he met him, too. Now, the words he said did not even compute in Merlin’s head as English. He didn’t know how much to give away. Clearly, this kid thought he knew something that he very much did not.

“What do you mean,” he said tightly, “Centuries?”

Mordred’s eyebrows shot up in an echo of his earlier surprise.

“He’s playing dumb,” said Alvarr.

“Perhaps,” Mordred murmured. “He did come to us. On the surface, that is a very stupid thing to do. Then again, we thought he might've made me the key.”

“He is duplicitous,” Alvarr said. “We know this.”

“Then where is Arthur?” Mordred suggested. “Where is Morgana? Better yet, where is Uther? If he wanted to play this game with us, what is the good in showing us his face when he can instead move his pawns? He’s done it before.”

“That’s true,” Alvarr murmured.

“Why Sir Percival?” Mordred asked. “Why Sir Leon? Why show up here unannounced, on a perfectly ordinary Sunday?”

“You think he’s being honest.”

Mordred regarded Merlin standing austere in the middle of his kitchen floor, hands empty, wearing a coat with a cigarette burn still singed in its shoulder.

“I don't know," he said finally. "Honest, no. Clueless, maybe. Sit down, Merlin,” he instructed, gesturing at one of the dining chairs. “Relax. I’ve decided to humor you.”

“Clueless,” snorted Alvarr, turning back to his eggs.

“So,” Mordred said, settling deeper into the couch. “Tell me why you’re here. Breakfast is almost ready, and I’m sure your friends are getting antsy downstairs.”

**

“Last night, a witch cursed me,” Merlin said.

Mordred sipped his coffee. “Unsurprising. You’re incredibly irritating.”

“She knew that name,” Merlin continued. “The one you used for me.”

Mordred and Alvarr exchanged a look. “What? You mean your name?”

“Emrys,” Merlin elaborated. “That name.”

“You…” Mordred paused, and then sat up straight, an odd light in his pale eyes. “Who do you think you are, Merlin?”

“A magician,” Merlin said finally. “A powerful one.” He flexed his fingers, considering the lack of fatigue after blasting a door and a blockage of wards open. “But nobody of real importance. Until that dragon dragged me off a car in the underground, a dragon whose voice I’ve heard since I was a very small child, using a word I’ve heard nowhere else. Using, it turns out, a name – but not one I recognize. And then I hear you use it. And that witch last night, the one who cursed me…”

Alvarr scoffed and Mordred said, amused, “What spellcaster got one over on you, then? Morgause, perhaps? I haven’t heard from her recently.”

“Whoever it was, I should shake their hand,” Alvarr muttered mutinously, sticking two new pieces of bread in the toaster.

“She didn’t get one over on me. I let it happen,” Merlin said, folding his hands on the kitchen table in front of him. “But that’s beside the point. Both of you are treating me as an enemy, and to be frank, I’ve got no idea why. You seem to know me or know of me, though I haven’t heard of you before this past week.”

Mordred looked at him sedately. “You’re serious.”

“As can be.”

“Showing me your belly,” Mordred said, smile slipping into his voice. “That’s dangerous.”

Merlin met his gaze.

“You broke into my home with force,” Mordred continued, stretching out his legs and then nudging the dog’s head from his lap, standing. “You clearly have some idea who we are to each other, even if you don’t know it consciously. Why I might consider you, if not an enemy, certainly an adversary.”

Anticipation sung over Merlin’s skin, magic flooding warm and ready through the entirety of his frame. He felt made of it, the expectation and excitement he had once associated with the power that yielded itself to him.

Mordred wandered over and stopped in front of Merlin, the dog rousing itself to pad after him.

“You really don’t know who you are?” he asked.

“I swear, I don’t.” It felt dangerous to say as much. He ignored the sly ache of apprehension in his joints, the quiet precursor to adrenaline.

“I sincerely hope you’re telling me the truth, because I am about to do you a favor.” Mordred set the coffee mug down on the table. “You’ve come this far. Will you trust me?”

“I shouldn’t,” Merlin said, more inquiry than statement.

“Maybe not. But if you're here, you're here for a reason, whether it is yours or someone else's. The great dragon will not give you the answers you seek, but instead sends you to me. Who else will help you, Emrys? If you leave here, truly, who will provide you what you need? Not him, certainly. He can't. You've made sure of it. And not any of the other players in this little game either, whether they are aware of the game or not. So…” he bit the inside of his cheek, contemplative. “You are left with one option. Ironically. Me.”

At the stove, Alvarr buttered the toast, the scraping of knife against bread the only sound for an endless handful of seconds, that, and the steady tick of a clock from somewhere in the flat.

“All right,” Merlin said. “What have I got to lose?”

At this, Mordred laughed, the first unselfconscious sound Merlin had heard him utter, head thrown back before he returned his gaze to Merlin, grinning. He looked almost like the kid he was supposed to be.

Centuries he had said earlier.

Merlin’s stomach churned. It felt a lot like guilt.

“What have you got to lose,” Mordred repeated happily, as if retelling a good joke. “Did you hear that, Alvarr?”

“I did indeed.”

“What have you got to lose,” he said again, scratching the dog’s ears, the animal having been excited by Mordred’s laughter. He sobered, a hint of his delight still twinkling in his eyes. “That’s an excellent question. This will hurt, I’m going to warn you. That just means it’s working. Don’t squirm, and don’t scream. I don’t need your compatriots breaking down a second door today.”

“I’ll be billing you for that, by the way,” Alvarr told him, shoveling eggs onto a plate. “Landlord’s going to have my ass.”

“Hold still,” Mordred told Merlin, “And face me.”

Merlin turned in his seat, sucking in a breath as, without prelude, he lay his hands on either side of Merlin’s head, fingers gripping his temple, and pressed both his thumbs to the middle of Merlin’s forehead, just above the space between his brows.

Mordred’s face was still, unreadable.

And then Merlin’s vision flickered to black.

Chapter Text

Lance stood in the chapel, next to Guinevere. Gwen. She watched the ceremony with an intent, almost ravenous expression, fingers locked around the edges of her clipboard, like her attention alone could keep the proceedings on track, ease the groom through his stutter, smooth out the slight slur in the priest’s voice no doubt inspired by the silver flask Lance had watched him slip back into his robes seconds before the bride was set to walk down the aisle.

For his part, Lance kept an eye on the crowd. The fidgets in the hands of those in the front row, the children paging, bored, through the provided hymnals. The mutinous crumple in the mouth of those in attendance who wished they could stop this whole thing, somehow.

And yet.

For all the weddings Lance had worked, there had only been one ceremony where someone had stood when the priest bid. Does anyone object and the adjoining glance of the couple, searching through the assembled crowd, as if waiting for a sign from heaven. But only once had that sign ever appeared.

All it had done was ruin the wedding.

The sign had not been heeded.

It so rarely was.

So, Lance stood, keeping an eye out for disturbances, fighting the yawn gathering in his throat. He tried not to think of his phone, put on airplane mode in his back pocket. Tried not to think of Gwen, the breath of her perfume hovering in the peripheral of his awareness, an always-there omen.

Then, at once, the lights flickered out in their sconces. The priest halted in his tracks, frowning, hands uplifted in a half-given blessing. A murmur gathered like fluttering birds in the arch of the cathedral above their heads.

Lance turned to Gwen, who was in charge.

She was already in motion.

“Light the candles,” she told him, making a beeline for the stage. When he failed to move, she wheeled around and snapped her fingers at him. “Move, Lance. You have a lighter, don’t you?”

Lance flushed. He’d lied when he told her he quit smoking two months ago. But she was unfazed. “The ceremony isn’t stopping, people,” she announced, waving a reassuring hand, the attention of the crowd refocusing on her. “We’re going to light some candles, and Lance is going to check the breaker for us. But Father Tim has an excellent stage voice and is going to project beautifully for us. Right, Father Tim?”

“Right,” boomed the father, his voice somehow imbibed with more resonance than it had had before, carrying right to the very back row of the chapel. The rain tapped cheerfully against the roof.

“The show must go on,” Gwen said, beaming as if this were a good thing, actually. “Just makes it one to remember, right, lovebirds?”

The groom looked too terrified or too sick to protest this pronouncement. The bride looked at Gwen as if she had hung the sun.

Lance made his way unobtrusively around the chapel, lighting the candles positioned along the various tables as he went. They were all white and waxy, the tapered candles you rarely ever saw lit, positioned in ornate gold-finished candelabras. Still, they flung light like any other candle would, the the light rasp of the flickering flames joining with the sound of the rain and the priest’s booming voice to create something eerie, and almost lovely.

The baby’s breath cast lacy shadows on the flagstone floor.

Lancelot

He almost leapt out of his skin, fumbling and then catching the lighter before it clattered across bare stone. At the back of the church now, no one saw him spook. Except for Gwen, who made a face at him from the front. Like, You okay? and also What’s wrong with you?.

Tucking the lighter back in his pocket he offered her a shaky grin and a thumb’s up, which made her roll her eyes and flap her hand in a shooing motion, slightly behind her back so the wedding party wouldn’t catch it.

Ah, yes. The breaker box.

Because Gwen was an exacting task master, Lance knew exactly where the breaker box was located: in the bowels of the church basement.

He made his way through the rest of the cold, silent church by the light of his phone. The white glare shone in the polish of his shoes. When he reached it, the basement door creaked open and he clattered down the rickety steps without preamble.

The dark had never scared Lance, never even given him pause.

He’d be the first to die in a horror movie, Gwen had told him without reproach. You’d sacrifice yourself nobly, she said, To save someone else.

Who? he had asked.

This was before Gwen had met Morgana.

Not me, she had replied. I would have left already. Unlike the truly demented white people in my life, I’m not sticking my nose in anything remotelyspooky.

Lance squeezed his way past a clutter of Christmas decorations, the rough wood of a life-sized manger snagging the back of his suit jacket before he made it to the breaker box, which he swung open, grasping at the back of his jacket with his other hand, irritated now.

“Shit. I’m not going to be able to return this," he muttered to himself.

The attached tag still itched at his collar. The only light down here was his phone light, plus the diffused gray light from the little half window jammed close to the ceiling. He examined the switches before him, labeled no doubt by some helpful volunteer church lady armed with the zeal of the Lord and a label maker.

Chapel he read. And Foyer, for good measure.

He flipped them off, waited for a second, and flipped them back on, knowing nothing would happen. The power was well and truly out.

Lancelot

This time he felt it, like a breath at the back of his neck. He whirled around, wide eyed, heart pounding. The rest of the basement was abstract shapes, racks of robes and stacks of offering plates, dusty craft supplies stacked in plastic totes, the protective cover of white cloth glowing like ghosts.

“Who’s there?” he asked, feeling less silly alone in the cold damp of the basement.

Nothing. No answer but the solid bass of his heart. He swallowed hard.

He swore he knew that voice. Had heard it before.

But where…?

Abruptly, without reason, a tousled figure leapt into his head, grinning cheekily over the rim of a whiskey sour. That moment seemed a million years ago and a million kilometers away from where he stood now, the bright lit bar hazy and golden with old memory, Gwen leaning toward him over scarred oak, Morgana’s generous, wicked laugh, and all their friends, gathered close as a coat around him, holding warmth.

For a few seconds there, he felt like he actually belonged to something.

“Merlin?” he hazarded, voice hoarse, even though it was crazy, and he wasn’t crazy. Had spent the last decade of his life doing his level best to convince everyone that he was not crazy.

That he was stable.

That he was well.

That he wasn’t teetering on the edge of mania.

No answer.

“I’m all right,” he told himself. This had never happened before. He didn’t hear voices. That wasn’t his particular brand of mentally unwell.

LANCELOT

He jumped, dizziness fluttering around his head like moths around a flame, the floor swaying a little underfoot. He pressed the heel of his hand to his temple.

At least he wasn’t about to deliver a solo in a seventh-grade choir performance, he reasoned. He hadn’t had a fainting fit since he was an adult.

That voice again.

Lance…

“What do you want from me?” he demanded in a strangled voice. He needed to get back upstairs. That was what he needed to do. Reality would set him straight.

Plaintive, the voice murmured, I don’t know.

I don’t know

He fainted.

Typical that after dozens of jobs, it was him who finally ruined a wedding.

Chapter Text

Merlin saw a field.

No, he stood in a field. Or at the edge of one at least. It stretched before him in quiet, land-locked waves, silver with the moonlight and undulating with the light summer breeze. The quiet rustle calmed something agitated at the center of his chest, soothed it.

He ignored the pain in his side.

At his back, he felt the forest, and the small fire, the presence of the people gathered around it like flames themselves, hot and bright.

He had been here before. He knew this place.

“There you are!”

Merlin didn’t turn as Arthur came up beside him. Armor clanked, the moonlight catching in the contours of Arthur’s breastplate, forcing Merlin to squint. It wasn’t fresh armor, either, stained with dirt and dried black patches of blood, the right side of his face streaked with filth, his normally impeccably styled hair on end, with bits of leaves stuck in it. Merlin didn’t have to look at Arthur to know this.

“You smell atrocious,” he said.

“Really?” Arthur couldn’t maneuver properly to check this fact and shrugged with a clank, unconcerned. “Part and parcel, I suppose. I forget you aren’t used to this.”

“I’m used to it,” Merlin said. “I’ve been with you long enough.”

Arthur considered this, squinting out at the moon-dark field. “Not the fighting, though. We’ve tried to keep you away from the fighting.”

Merlin snorted, arms crossed tight over his chest. Arthur didn’t know just how unsuccessful this endeavor had been.

“What are you doing moping all the way out here?” Arthur asked. “Today was a good day.”

Merlin’s stomach turned and he shook his head. “It’s death you smell like. Like old blood and sweat.”

Arthur paused then, considering Merlin. Merlin ignored the weight of his gaze on the side of his face. He waited through Merlin’s gathered breath for him to continue speaking.

“You knew it was a trap,” he said lowly.

Arthur sighed, shifting with exasperation. “This again.”

“Someone could’ve gotten hurt. Worse.”

“There were no casualties,” Arthur said. “And that’s always the risk. All these men know it. It’s only you who still has the softness left in him to be put off by it.” He didn’t say it cruelly. Just the way he said everything. Plainly. As if it were already fact. “It is the nature of conflict, Merlin. Sometimes it is unavoidable that people die.”

“I know that,” Merlin said testily.

“You didn’t do wrong by not killing him.”

Merlin’s eyes leapt to Arthur’s face then, and Arthur took his turn steadfastly pretending he didn’t feel the cut of Merlin’s gaze like a blade slicing down the line of his cheek.

“I was never going to kill him,” Merlin said lowly. “I don’t do things because I think they will please you. I do not fail to do things for lack of will. I make choices. Same as you.”

Arthur shrugged. “I know.”

“Do you?”

Again, that volley of glances. Merlin squinted out at the gentle swell of the field. The stars were clear as crystal in the dark blue glass of the sky, so far away it hurt to look at them and know it.

“How are you not cold, standing out here?” Arthur asked, changing the subject with gruff abruptness.

“Warm blooded,” Merlin murmured.

“I suppose. You lost your cloak…back there.”

A bandit had ripped it from his back, only Merlin’s reflexes saving him from the blade that had torn through the dense fabric. Reflexes, quick wit. The cloth twisting around the blade and the man’s hand.

A solid kick in the bandit's chest had given Merlin enough time to draw his own dagger, the blade Arthur had pressed into his hands previous to their entering the mouth of the gorge. In the tussle that ensued, Merlin ended up on the ground with the air knocked from his lungs, the blade skittered away into loose forest debris.

The bandit had pulled another knife from his boot because bandits always carried a redundant number of knives on their person, not so redundant in this instance.

The man had grinned down at Merlin, the rest of the knights engaged in hard, dirty fights of their own, outnumbered two to one, unable to notice or help.

You’ll have to fend for yourself Arthur had told him flatly prior to walking into the ambush, against Merlin’s advice.

His sound advice, he would still hold.

I can handle myself, he had retorted.

Panting, boots without foothold in the folds of craggy dirt and loose rock, Merlin made a split-second choice. Watched the choice register in his opponent’s face, shock like a snuffed candle.

Reflexes, quick wit, and magic.

A loose rock sent hurtling by a blunt-object of a spell hit the man in the head from behind. He fell like his strings had been cut, blood pooling dark red from the headwound and spilling over the stone, his complexion turning paper white.

For a single, heart-choking moment, Merlin was sure he was dead. The mix of relief and nausea twisted with the need to cry, and he tore his gaze from the unconscious man and hurled his stomach contents into the dirt.

The fight had been over by then.

They had won.

To call it victory seemed hyperbole. Merlin’s bandit was the only one left alive, and he was trussed up by the fire now, sullen, gag stuffed in his mouth, feverish eyes tracking Merlin whenever Merlin stepped into his line of sight.

Percy had bound up the head wound with adequate skill, the bandit not allowing Merlin to touch him. They had all treated the man kindly, as if the rest of his comrades weren’t dead and buried in shallow graves, stones piled over where they lay to keep the animals from getting to the bodies.

Merlin wasn’t sure if this mercy really counted as mercy at all.

And anyway, Merlin couldn’t read the vicious stretch of the man’s mouth around the makeshift gag, the flex of his stubby fingers against the tight knots Leon had used to lash his hands behind his back.

Arthur cleared his throat, squinting out into the middle-distance. “I…did want to ask you about Mordred.”

The tightness in Merlin’s chest returned. “Mordred,” he said lowly.

“Yes. He’s doing well, isn’t he?”

“You want to know what I think?” A genuine question.

“I always want to know what you think.”

Merlin resisted the urge to snort, but barely. “You definitely wanted to know what I thought today.”

“Merlin, please.”

“You didn’t even consider me. You didn’t listen.”

“I always listen,” Arthur said. Dismissively.

Merlin allowed himself a smile this time, sure the incredulity would be hidden in the dark.

“I listened to what you had to say. I considered it. And I made a different choice. Just because I didn’t choose your plan doesn’t mean I rejected it outright,” Arthur said. “I evaluated its merits, took into account the word of other trusted advisors, and then moved forward with what I thought was best. That’s my duty, and this is a fractional example of this. I rule a kingdom, Merlin. I can’t go off of one man’s word.”

“I’m not asking you to, and you know it.”

Again, his name, more an exasperated sigh now. “Merlin.”

“I think he’s doing well. He’s proven himself. He’s a good person. A fine knight.” Merlin winced a little, tugging at his shirt. “I just…you trust easily.”

“And you’re too skeptical.”

My skepticism has kept you alive more times than I can count, Merlin wanted to say, but couldn’t. Because Arthur didn’t know about those times.

Never would.

“I understand,” he said quietly. “Better than you think, I understand. I just…” the streak of dirt along Arthur’s jaw was dark against his pale skin, won not in the fight but in the digging, afterward.

A king, digging graves.

How many kings paused to take account in this way? It was measured, deliberate. Arthur had grown in this regard. He always stopped to look the thing he was doing in the face. Didn’t shy away from it. Spilled dirt over its chest with the blade of his own shovel.

Merlin did not know whether this was wholly a good thing.

It was just Arthur.

It just was.

“You’re favoring your right side,” Arthur announced.

“No, I’m not.”

“Let me see.”

“Don’t manhandle me…Arthur!” this last bit came out as a sort of yelp, Arthur’s fingers knocking the tender spot in Merlin’s side.

“Is that how you address your sovereign?” Arthur demanded. “It’s an order. Let me see it.”

Merlin shied away, out of Arthur’s immediate reach. “It’s just a couple broken ribs, Your Majesty. It can wait until I get back to the castle tomorrow. I’ll have Gaius look at it.”

But Arthur held up his hand for Merlin to see, fingertips stained dark as ink. “You’re bleeding,” he said. “You’re still bleeding.”

The makeshift bandage had not held, then. Merlin considered this evidence, refusing to move, holding his wounded side away from Arthur.

“It isn’t bad,” he insisted.

“Merlin,” Arthur said. “Why on earth would you keep this hidden from me?”

Merlin thought of the realization spreading across the bandit’s face and shook his head resolutely. “I’m fine.”

“Merlin.”

“Stop saying my name like that,” he said testily. “I’m fine.”

“Refusing to receive adequate care does not make you brave. It just makes you stupid.”

Merlin flushed.

“What’s going on over here? I heard a commotion.”

Both Merlin and Arthur nearly leapt out of their skins. Percy had approached near silently, appearing out of the dark forest like a large, dense specter.

“Merlin’s been hurt,” Arthur said, with something too akin to grim smugness in his voice.

“He has? Where?” Percy turned on Merlin. “Why didn’t you say?”

Merlin narrowed his eyes at Arthur over the loom of Percy’s shoulders, as if to say, You are a child. Arthur only smirked, triumphant.

“I’ll handle it, Percy,” Arthur said. “It’s not serious.”

Percy’s great brow furrowed. He looked a fretful second away from reaching forward and shaking wellness out of Merlin by both shoulders. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Merlin said. “It isn’t bad. I would’ve told you otherwise. Please don’t make a fuss.”

Percy still hovered, not wholly convinced. “Gwaine said he’d stand first watch,” he said finally. “That’s what I came over to tell you.”

“Good,” Arthur said. “Thank you. Bring me the rest of that poultice Merlin made for the bandit’s headwound, and the rest of the bandages.”

It was a dismissal. Percy hesitated a second more and then ducked his head, returning silently back toward the crackle of the fire. Merlin felt more than saw his final glance backward.

“I thought you liked fuss and general mayhem,” Arthur said. This time Merlin let him get close, but begrudgingly.

“I like tactical fuss and mayhem,” Merlin said, terse. He lifted his right arm at Arthur’s gesture to do so, frowning out at the field. “I don’t like it centered on my person.”

Arthur freed Merlin’s shirt from the waistband of his pants with a sharp tug, and before Merlin could protest, took the flimsy fabric in both hands and ripped. The sudden flow of cool summer air ached against the inflamed flesh of the wound.

“This is my only shirt,” he said tightly, to mute his reaction. “I don’t suppose you can supply me with a replacement.”

“You’ll make do,” Arthur told him, focused. “The moon’s quite bright tonight. Turn a little bit. No, to your left, so I can see.”

His touch was gentle, but still, Merlin flinched.

“You’ll live,” was his assessment.

“I knew that already.”

“You could at least sound grateful.”

“I am always grateful for His Majesty’s benevolent meddling.”

“He got you good though, didn’t he?” Arthur mused, refusing to react to Merlin’s needling.

Percy’s presence was announced with the thump of the bag holding their meager medical supplies hitting the ground.

“Let me know if you need anything else,” Percival said.

“I will. Thank you.”

Gone again.

“See?” Merlin said as Arthur rooted around in the bag now at his feet. “I’ll have to wait for Gaius anyway. It’s a poultice, and a clean bandage, which I’m capable of handling myself. Plus, you ruined my shirt.”

“Gwen will fix it if you ask nicely,” Arthur said, inspecting the shallow bowl gunky with the remaining poultice. It smelled almost as foul as he did. Merlin gagged and shied away as he scooped it onto his fingers.

“Are your hands clean?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“I don’t want you touching me with dirty hands. Please. Your Majesty.”

“You are truly strange. My hands are clean. I washed in the creek earlier when you and Leon fetched the water. Now, hold still.”

I don’t want to hold still Merlin thought mutinously but held himself rigid as Arthur stepped closer. He only flinched a little as Arthur smeared the poultice over his exposed skin.

“It stings.”

“You’re such a baby.”

Merlin strangled a laugh. Arthur applied the bandage with some competency. It was straightforward, and tactile, and practical.

“Done,” Arthur said, stepping back. “You can stop quivering like a stuck rabbit, now.”

“I wasn’t…” but Merlin lapsed. He didn’t have the energy to argue. The day had been a long one, and the moonlight was silver in Arthur’s hair.

Sometimes it was hard to ignore the obvious thing.

“Why didn’t you say something?” Arthur asked again, after a handful of seconds of silence.

Merlin was back to not looking at him. The dark made everything feel too close, and he still had the ghost of Arthur’s touch pressed into his bruised skin.

“Hurt is a small thing,” Merlin said finally. The words felt dangerous, with a weight and a taste as they left his tongue, sweet as honey and bitter as something darker. “I guess I’ve grown so used to bearing it in silence that I forgot I could speak it aloud.”

“What…?” Arthur started to ask, but he didn’t know how to vocalize the question, because of course he didn’t.

Merlin spent the entire time he knew Arthur trying to keep him from seeing the truth. From knowing. From even glimpsing.

“My apologies,” he interrupted. “I’m so tired…it’s made me a little punchy, I think.”

“What do you mean?” Arthur asked lowly, as if Merlin hadn’t spoken. “Hurt?”

Merlin looked at him then, really looked at him. And he felt the intimate emptiness hollowed out at his center, deep as a sword buried in stone, just as cold, even if the most distant, bewildered part of his mind did not understand it.

Did not understand why he was seeing this.

Did not understand why he could feel the wind stirring his hair, hear the dry rasp of the grass like a storyteller’s voice, smell the damp, musky scent of a forest in the lush grip of night. Did not understand why he was standing here with Arthur, or what this was, at all.

Over Arthur’s shoulder, the fire was bright, the red of the knights’ cloaks warm in the golden light. Gwaine’s guffaw carried over to them through the quiet hush of leaves.

Arthur was only looking at him.

With that look he wore sometimes, that look Merlin knew well enough it hurt. Hurt. Back at the castle, Gwen waited, lovely, and Merlin had seen the way Arthur looked at her, too. It was an entirely different sort of look.

As it should be Merlin schooled himself.

“Merlin,” Arthur said. “You know that I…” He reached out again, and Merlin caught his wrist in a firm grip before his blood-stained fingers had a chance to brush his cheek.

He felt still, and cold, and empty.

Arthur froze in place, brow creasing at Merlin’s audacity, or maybe his own.

Merlin asked, “What are you doing?”

Arthur gathered himself, met Merlin’s gaze, a sort of parry. “You know you can tell me anything, right? You have been my confidante, all these years, and…the truest friend I’ve known. I do value your advice. I hope you know that. I would be remiss…if I didn’t offer that service in return.”

Merlin released Arthur with more flourish than necessary, let him take the step backward. “‘Offer that service?’” Merlin repeated quietly. “You sound like your father.”

Arthur blinked. “My father was a good king.”

Merlin could not say, You are not my king, you are my friend because that would be treasonous. It would also, despite everything he has fought for in his years in Camelot, be true.

“I’m here,” Arthur said. “That’s all I want you to know.”

And he was. Standing in front of Merlin, true and whole, in filthy armor and stinking of gore, he was here. Merlin studied the softness in his friend’s mouth, the earnestness shining in his face even in the dark, the gentleness of his touch earlier braced now in the slight hitch of his brow.

He didn’t look at Gwen that way, Merlin thought. Safely. From an arm’s length away. He didn’t look at anyone that way. He only ever looked at Merlin that way.

He dared to think it. For the first time, the only time, Merlin let himself think it:

Is it true? His only way near the possibility was to skirt it, the possibility alone a chasm of impossible depth, that tight place in his chest. Is it true?

From a much more different, desolate place, a place rooted in a flimsy dining chair where a child held his mind in both hands, another thought followed, then another:

You always love me first, somehow

You always beat me to it.

He came to with a gasp. There was linoleum under his feet, synthetic fabric against his skin, the lucid blue of Mordred’s eyes the first thing he saw.

Mordred's voice dripped with caustic amusement. “You’re crying,” he said, hands dropping away.

Merlin reached up to touch his own face, fingers shaky. They came away wet. The tears were clear and pearlescent as old moonlight.

Chapter Text

Merlin came to with a gasp, as if breaking the surface of deep water. In front of him, Mordred stepped back, holding his hands slightly away from himself at his sides, as if in surrender.

Alvarr watched from beside the counter, plate at his elbow, sandwich in his hands.

“What was that?” Merlin demanded. “What was that?”

But he knew. All of a sudden, and all at once, he knew.

Outside the flat’s windows, night had begun to fall. It felt as if it had only been minutes. “How long was I…?” he asked.

“It was a trance,” Alvarr supplied. “It was what…one ish when it started? And it’s about four thirty now. Almost five.”

Merlin looked to Mordred, all possible protest gone.

“You’re welcome,” Mordred said quietly.

“How did you do that?” Merlin asked, voice gone, guttural. The question he didn’t ask hung in the air anyway: How do I know that it’s true?

Mordred shrugged. The movement was unexpectedly languorous, apathetic.

“You know when a thing is true or not,” Alvarr said.

Mordred smirked. “And you would know, wouldn’t you?”

“I am a treacherous son of a bitch,” Alvarr said, taking a bite of his sandwich. “I never claimed to be anything else.”

“Just a bastard who would like the freedom to be a bastard in peace,” Mordred said, in the tone of something oft repeated.

The dog came up and laid its chin on Merlin’s knee.

“Hecate likes you,” Mordred commented softly and then met Merlin’s eyes. “It hurts, doesn’t it?”

Merlin realized he was clutching at his chest with one hand, t-shirt clenched in his fist. He felt the empty space there, a deep and foreboding ache, as he had always felt it. He just hadn’t known what it was. Now, sitting here dazed in the failing light, he still didn’t. Had lived with it so long he hadn’t even registered the hurt at all.

It did hurt, but Merlin was helpless to know why. The knowledge ached in his chest, that terrible wound, older now, unhealed and absent the cure of understanding.

“You’re not saying that I did this,” he said.

He did not say, I didn’t do this. He did not say, I couldn’t have done this. He knew himself better in that moment, knew exactly of what he was capable.

Once, a very, very long time ago, a time he didn’t quite remember, he had had Arthur dying in his arms. Having betrayed himself, helpless, he sat there and wept, wept because he had killed his friends, killed people he couldn’t help but understand, people that he had not known, all for the sake of the person now passing beyond Merlin’s ability to save him.

All of it, all of it, for a person who had worn exactly the expression of pain and dismay Merlin feared he would wear should he ever find out the truth.

“You,” that helpless awful realization gasped with something that was not quite a smile.

Later, seconds or years later, when it was over, Merlin had sat by himself, Arthur’s blood still in his clothes. The clearing had been quiet with the hum of insects and wildlife. He felt hollowed. He had cried, and raged, and there was nothing left at the end. Just him and the inevitability of death.

“He didn’t have the courage to say it to you,” said a voice, and a presence settled down next to him, familiar. A hand rested lightly on his shoulder. Freya.

“He loved her,” Merlin said tightly, “Not me. Not that it matters anymore.”

“You know that it does. And who says just because he loved her, he could not also love you? Both things can be true.”

“I would’ve told him the truth,” Merlin said, staring sightlessly out at the undisturbed surface of the lake. “I swear, I would’ve. I didn’t want to lie to him, to any of them, except I was afraid…I was afraid their prejudice would get in the way of our shared endeavor. How stupid of me really.” He laughed, let the new tears overflow without trying to blink them away. “It had already gotten in the way. No matter whether they knew me truly or not, it was always going to…” he ripped up a tuft of grass with halfhearted venom “…ruin everything.”

“It’s not your fault,” Freya said.

“But I think it is,” Merlin said hollowly. “I think it really, really is. It’s all over.”

“The prophecy says it isn’t.”

“The prophecy is horseshit,” Merlin declared, his voice ragged. “You want to know what I think? I think we were idiots for every letting that nonsensical drivel dictate our lives. I am the most powerful warlock to ever live, and what? I thought I was bound by destiny?” He shook his head. “I bound myself.”

In this present day, all of it, all of it that came before and all that came after up to this moment, swam in Merlin’s head.

Mordred looked at him without compunction. “You did this,” he said. “Why, only you can say…although it appears that maybe you can’t. Not right now, apparently.”

“How did you find out?” Merlin asked.

“I’m made of something different than you,” and then he added, “A combination of bad dreams and sheer force of will. I’m not here for the same reason you are. Maybe that helps.”

“He never sought the answer before,” said Alvarr, as if Merlin couldn’t hear.

“That’s true,” Mordred mused.

“Before?” Merlin said. “How many times has this happened?” Although, on some level, he knew. Too many.

“Either you knew truth then from the jump, those other times, or you refused to know,” Mordred said. “All I can do is speculate. But I think…I think you should go home.”

“In that state? He looks like he’ll puke if he tries to stand,” Alvarr said, unsympathetic.

“He’ll be fine,” said Mordred, and then he stepped forward and knelt in front of Merlin looking quizzically up into his face. “I half thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, make you remember. But maybe it’s not me. Maybe that was a key you left behind…it would make sense. After all, why else would the dragon send you to me? Why else would you bring him back?” he meant Alvarr. “But you did. Every time, you did, and I’m forced to conclude that it was…well. That you did not want me to be alone. Even after Arthur betrayed me as he did, I always suspected that you were not able to dismiss me so easily. For all that you failed me, our destinies had been intertwined since my birth…before then, even…”

“Destiny,” Merlin said, “Is bullshit.”

They were the only words he could muster. Mordred sat back on his haunches, considering. The light in the kitchen had gone gray, bright with a day quickly fading.

“Bullshit,” Mordred murmured. “Maybe so. At first, I thought the hell you dragged me through was your version of purgatory, punishing me. I wouldn’t blame you. After all, what did I do after Arthur killed the girl I loved? Except for Alvarr. A person you had no love for, no real connection to, an enemy more troublesome than anything else. Why bring him back with me, Emrys?”

“Because you are still a child,” Merlin said, not really knowing what he was saying as he said it. “And I knew he would care for you.”

Mordred’s eyes glinted with some confirmed conviction. He did not speak.

“Are you going to continue to wax eloquent?” Alvarr asked. “Or should I go get our two friends from downstairs? They’ve been making a right mess of my shop.”

“No, go get them,” Mordred said, standing. “I’m quite finished with my monologue.”

Alvarr grunted and retreated.

Mordred offered Merlin a hand, and Merlin took it, allowing Mordred to pull him upright. “Go home,” he said, “Sleep on it. I’ve found that the whole thing settles better that way. Resolves itself.”

“What about…?” Merlin asked. The others? he almost added, but he would’ve had to add also, Him? and he couldn’t face that truth in daylight yet. The past and the present had not yet aligned.

“The others you brought along? I don’t know,” Mordred said. “You’re the one who made a mess of their psyches. Put a soul through the wringer enough times, well…there’s not precedent, is there? No telling what that will do. That’s all you.”

“Couldn’t you…? The same way you did me?”

Mordred shrugged. “Maybe. Probably not. It’s different with you – and anyway, would you really want me to?”

The answer was too complicated.

“Go home,” Mordred said softly, shoving Merlin toward the front door. “And do me a favor. This time around, don’t let him kill me, would you? I haven’t had my life recycled this many times just to fall to him again. Tell him...tell him I was only ever the enemy he made me. That grace was always within his reach. We do not have to do any of this again, Merlin."

He used Merlin's name, not the other name which Merlin still could not understand as his own, even as he held all the disparate pieces of truth in his hands. He still wore a child's body, a child's face, carried that child's plantiveness in his voice, always more earnest than he could help.

We don't have to do any of this again.

Merlin could not think straight enough to figure out whether that was true.

Chapter Text

When Merlin emerged from the back of the shop, Percival and Leon had pretty much given up on ever seeing him again, or ever getting out themselves, either. After an hour passed, they tried texting Merlin. The texts didn’t go through. Then calling him. The calls didn’t go through, either.

It was a mystery as to whether the poor service was coincidental or malicious, but Leon knew what he felt it was. The busy signal sounding in his ear when he tried calling Merlin for a third time was akin to the time he’d gone on holiday with his mum as a kid, and she’d taken him on a tour of a cave.

At that point in time, he had wanted to be a geologist, so at first the prospect of looking at rocks had quite excited him. It was not going down below the surface of the earth that had turned him off, or the utterly complete darkness cut only by the headlamps attached to their hard hats, nor the terrifying stories of trapped miners the guide rattled off cheerfully from up front.

No, what had gotten him was when they came to the end. It did not feel right to call it a hole, or cliff, or even a gorge. The earth simply…stopped. Like reaching the last page of a book, or the final level in a video game. Leon, chubby and thirteen, had stood at the edge of that great emptiness and stared down into the plunging darkness and felt with a certainty he had never experienced before that this was it.

That was everything. The book had closed. The Xbox had powered down. The end credits had rolled. The universe had discarded its controller and gotten up from the couch to go see if there were ingredients for a sandwich in the kitchen.

Then, with the same nonchalance with which she had described miners slowly starving to death under tons of indifferent rock, the guide had pulled a flare out from somewhere on her person and winked at Leon.

“You’re going to love this, kid,” she said in a conspiratorial stage whisper.

Then, with the rest of the group huddled as close to the edge as safety protocols would allow, she dropped the lit flare into the great mouth of nothing.

Leon, hyperaware of his white socks slouching into his hiking boots and the Mammoth Cave national park cap stuck backwards on his head, watched the pinpoint of light fall into the darkness. He had never felt so small.

“You’re supposed to count the seconds as it falls,” the guide said. “That way, you can tell how deep it is.”

The light was swallowed up. They did not see the point at which the flare expended itself. Leon listened hard but did not hear it hit the bottom. Perhaps, at this distance, the sound was too small to carry back up to them.

But in his head, the flare kept on falling forever. No one to see when, if ever, it finally stopped.

That was how it felt now, staring at his phone, at full battery but useful as a brick. He chucked it, and it skittered across the carpet-covered concrete, disappearing under a rack of children’s winter gear.

Percy, leaning against the glass display case, did not say anything, his quiet glance up at the noise expression enough.

“What do we do?” Leon asked.

Percy had already tried the front door, then searched and found the rear exit. Neither would work. The back door had actually zapped him when he rattled the handle, sending a shock up his arm that made him hiss.

“You all right?” Leon had called from the front of the shop.

Percy had come back shaking out his hand with a beleaguered frown. “I can’t feel my arm,” he said.

And of course, the Employees Only door wouldn’t open to them, either. They were trapped.

Another hour passed. Percy had laid down on the floor, using his hoodie as a pillow. Leon paced up and down in front of the display case, gnawing at his hangnails. Calls out didn’t work either.

The shop was dark and quiet, the shadows holding a sedate silence so complete it filled Leon with the illogical urge to break it.

Eventually, maybe to stop his pacing, Percy sat up and suggested brute force.

Leon did not often find himself amenable to the majority of Percy’s suggestions. Most of the time, they ended in indigestion, outright food poisoning, or the risk of mild to moderate bodily harm.

He had chewed at his hangnails enough to draw blood.

What could possibly be going on upstairs?

“All right,” he said.

As they worked together to clear a rack of its hanging clothes, piling them up against a crate of ladies’ dress hats, Leon said, “This is crazy. I mean, that guy was just a kid, right?”

Percy ruminated on this, hauling a metric ton of women’s blazers atop the crate with a grunt. “I don’t know. You felt it, didn’t you?”

Yes, the prickle of foreboding.

Looking at Leon, most people wouldn’t guess he was the superstitious type. And he’d hold that he wasn’t, really. But people believed in stars, and crystals, and little acts of routine for a reason. It helped arm you, helped you to keep the bad stuff away.

Why not, in a world made of magic? Why not?

He paused for a second, folding his hands over the end of the rack and propping his chin on top of his hands. The Employees Only door glared at him from across the shop.

“Something doesn’t like that we’re here,” he said grimly. He glanced over at Percy. “Do you think that it’s him?”

“The kid? Yeah, maybe.”

“But why?”

“Dunno. Maybe he just doesn’t like grownups in his space. More narcs around.”

Leon considered this. “I’m not a narc.”

Percy snorted, hauling another load of blazers onto the floor. “Sorry, mate, but your entire vibe screams narc.”

“It does not, you’re lying.”

Leon kicked at him, and Percy avoided the half-hearted violence with ease.

“These clothes smell like my nan,” he grunted. “Almost done.”

“This isn’t going to work,” Leon said.

“So?” Percy brushed off his hands and straightened fully. “How long has it been, now?”

The quality of light flowing through the windows had shifted. Leon’s stomach had begun to growl – he hadn’t eaten anything since his homemade breakfast sandwich this morning.

“Hours,” he replied. “Too long.”

“Think of it this way – maybe the kid needs help, too. Maybe it’s like a situation of child endangerment or something. We can’t just let that happen.”

Leon, who’s professional life involved a tad more of the specifics when it came to child endangerment and what to do about it, allowed the ambiguity of this statement to slide.

He really did not know what else to do.

“So…what? We use this as a battering ram or something?”

“In a manner of speaking, yeah,” Percy said, rubbing his hands together.

“This is mental,” Leon muttered.

“You got any better ideas, pal? Any other ammo? A box of puzzle pieces or a kid’s sneaker is not going to break glass, I’m sorry.”

“You can’t do it just with…” Leon gestured at Percy generally “…all that?”

Percy just levelled a dry look at him. “Don’t be silly, Leon. There’s spell work in that doorframe. I don’t want it anywhere near me if we trigger something.”

Leon sighed. “God, I wish we could call someone.”

“But we can’t, so here goes nothing.”

Leon had moved over as Percy approached, and together they angled the wheeled rack far enough away from the front door and at an angle where a running start might do some damage.

“One,” Percy said, bracing himself. “Two. Three

They launched the rack headlong at the door.

It bounced off without making a dent, ricocheting into the edge of the glass display case. Leon found himself tossed back onto the floor and Percy staggered but remained standing.

“Oh shit,” Percy said, and Leon heard a sort of fizzing sound, like Altoids dropped in Diet Coke. He looked up to see a handful of lilac sparks and wisps of smoke emanating from the left top corner of the doorframe.

Then a beeping sound started and a second later the sprinkler system quietly went off. No alarm.

“That can’t be up to code,” Percy said, looking up.

Leon groaned and pushed himself to his feet. “My tailbone is definitely bruised.” And now they were both wet, to boot. The water soaked into Leon’s hair and ran down the back of his neck, shoulders of his sweatshirt quickly dampened.

The water smelled a little too clean, and a tad medicinal, like the pulpy Aloe water Gwaine sometimes purchased and insisted was good for you.

“Well, this sucks,” Percy declared.

“I feel like the useless comic relief character in a film,” Leon said, laughing. Even to him, the laugh sounded hysterical.

The sprinkler system eventually turned off. The door stopped sparking, whatever spell or loose wiring that had caused it soothed. The light moved across the floor and Leon’s now soggy clothes clung claustrophobically to his skin.

It had been a decade. It had been a million years.

And then the Employees Only door opened. Percy leapt to his feet, and Leon pushed himself up from where he had leaned against the display case.

Merlin stood in the doorway, hands loose at his sides, staring at some unknown point, a frown just barely creasing the blank map of his expression.

The kid from before stood slightly behind him, holding the door, still wearing the same Batman pajama pants from before.

“Don’t let him watch 2001: A Space Odyssey,” he said, prodding Merlin in the shoulder so he cleared the doorway. “It makes for a bad trip. You can leave, now. Door is open. Don’t worry, I’ll bill him for the damage. He owes me anyway.”

And then with this nonsensical announcement, he slammed the Employees Only door shut with an emphatic bang.

“Merlin!” Percy rushed forward, taking Merlin by the shoulders, and giving him a mother’s worried onceover, searching for any obvious damage.

“I’m fine, Perce,” Merlin said, knocking Percy’s hands gently away. “Just let’s please go home.”

“But what happened?” Percy asked. “Are you alright?”

Merlin’s laugh sounded it had been dropped down the end of the world. Hollow, swallowed by darkness, bouncing off stone. It did not belong to the small, cramped confines of the shop.

“No,” he said. “But I can’t really explain it here. Or maybe at all.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry I brought you. I shouldn’t have let you come.”

“It’s okay,” Percy murmured, eyes narrowed with concern.

Merlin didn’t reply, the wry shake of his head proclaiming that it wasn’t, it really wasn’t.

“You’re right,” Percy said. “Let’s just go home.”

He looked up and found Leon’s eyes, but Leon didn’t know what to give to him. Didn’t know what to make of the subdued light in Merlin’s normally bright eyes, the smile usually ready to escape across his face nowhere in evidence.

They left.

The walk back to the train station was strained, quiet, all loose leaves underfoot and the carried conversations of strangers as they passed them on the street.

Leon exchanged another glance with Percy just before they descended into the underground. Leon read the desire to say something, anything pressed in the thin line of Percy’s mouth. But there was really nothing either of them could do or say.

They were just plus ones on this particular existential journey, whatever the fuck sort of journey it was.

The platform was a little more crowded now as weekend workers headed home, and Percy shouldered to the front of their little group to open up a path forward toward the front of the platform. They only had a little while to wait before the train buzzed into the station.

Merlin pushed his way onto the train car, Leon and Percy after him, flanking him like guards. Only about a dozen people ended up in the car, plus them, and without speaking Leon took up position one side of Merlin and Percy on the other so that they both faced outward, like any of the ordinary Albion folk now gathered in the train car posed any sort of real threat.

Like Leon and Percy, ordinary Albion folk themselves, at least in theory, could do anything if they did.

Around them, earbuds went in and knitting came out and Kindles powered on, the occupants of the train car braced briefly in unison as the train pulled out of the station.

It went quiet as a sigh, the only sound the rumble of the wheels on the tracks, the darkness of the tunnel flashing by on either side of the windows.

Merlin stood between them, fingers pressed lightly to the spot just above the space between his brows. He didn’t appear dazed or out of it or in anyway distressed. Just…thoughtful. Leon had never seen this kind of stillness from him before, and seeing it now didn’t make him wary, necessarily. It made him feel like he had all those years ago, standing with his mother and the rest of the tour group in that cave.

Very small. Very human. Very aware of the edges of the world, edges that held nothing beyond them that he could see or understand.

The train pulled into the next station. People got off, people got on. Everything settled again. Percy glanced up as the speakers crackled the next stop, keeping track of where they would get off.
Neither of them really came this way often, so they were both relatively unfamiliar with the stops. Merlin would know, but he wasn’t paying attention.

The train rolled on under their feet and Leon swore he could feel the close human warmth of Merlin and Percy beside him, the warmth of the others spread out across the train car, tangible and distinct from the dry, wonky heat supplied by the car itself, felt it in contrast to the relentless cold dark through which they were traveling.

Time seemed to stretch and solidify, the minutes in which they stood together in that car crystallized as if in amber, seconds ticking on before them and trailing away behind them in meaningless sequence. He had the strange, surreal sense he got sometimes that this moment was, in fact, forever, no matter if the moved on from it or not.

It was the three of them here in the grimy, sterile light of the train car, Merlin’s gaze sightlessly on his feet, Percy frowning off into the middle distance, and only Leon, looking at both of them, aware of any of it.

Then, above them, the lights flickered.

Only Merlin glanced up, alarmed, everyone else unfazed by the city’s typically poor public transportation system. His hand dropped to his side.

“No,” he said tightly.

“What is it?” asked Leon.

Percy turned his attention inward again.

“It’s…” Merlin said, but the next word seemed to get stuck in his throat and he shook his head, swallowing it. The lights flickered again, longer this time. The train groaned and shivered, screeched slowly to a stop.

“No,” Merlin said again, that tightness still in his voice. “I’m trying to contain it, please don’t…”

“Merlin?” Percy asked.

Merlin’s hand found Leon’s in the dark, squeezed hard. Leon felt his pulse fluttering against the sweat-damp skin of his own inner wrist.

“It’s all right,” Leon whispered.

The lights came back on. The train restarted, shuddered onward.

Merlin’s hand was no longer in his.

Chapter Text

The lights went out. Merlin didn’t remember the flicker so much as he remembered the interlocking of Leon’s fingers with his. The tight, nervy sing of adrenaline in his head, high as a gasp, the pressure of his grip squeezing the only real thing.

He tried not to breathe.

Like that would help.

The revelation Mordred had gifted him with a few hours previous had made the real world impossible. He couldn’t see or really feel beyond the reality of his own body. Couldn’t think beyond it.

His past seemed like a dream, blown huge, the minutiae of his little life rendered suddenly in context. The truth was too big for his body.

Trying to sort through any of it revealed no sense, no order, just the rub of his coat collar against his neck and wrists, the clammy sweat sticking his sweatshirt to his skin, in nauseating contrast to the body heat gathered suffocating in the folds of his clothes. His brain was electric, he swore he could hear it buzzing in his skull or maybe that was just the subway lights.

His heart was palpable as a living thing in his chest. Gorgeous, difficult muscle with a heft like a fist. He became aware of his ribs because of how his heart pounded against them, a madman beating his head against his own white walls.

And he couldn’t orient himself.

He was Merlin, standing here, Leon’s hand locked in his. He was Merlin, shop boy, with friends and a life and a cellphone in his back pocket and a weakness for beautiful, light-haired boys none of whom had ever really seen him.

And he was also a wholly different Merlin, standing in a field. Aching.

He was Merlin with a hand in his, here, and a hand on his shoulder at that long ago lake, incapable of registering either touch. He was Merlin sitting in that shabby linoleum kitchen with a kid looking at him with awed resignation, as if he were god, or something worse.

He was Merlin trapped in a 15th century jail cell and standing in a 19th century gallows, grime a second coat against his skin and apathy sharp and clear as the frigid air he breathed in both those places. Trying to resolve himself to the fact. The truth, which even now threatened to swallow him whole. Centuries, Mordred had said. Merlin felt the truth of it now.

Then the lights went out.

He stood between the past and the present, both hands clutching at the subway car’s pole, his face paper white, his pupils blown huge, entire body trembling. The rest of the people in the car did not so much as move or twitch, give any indication of the brief power outage, knitting and reading and disassociating onward, unaware.

The train creaked and groaned and ground to a stop. His heart was frightfully alive in his chest, pumping blood with the panicked vigor of a man bailing out a sinking ship.

The lights did not come back on.

Leon’s hand was still in his, a vice grip, familiar and grounding in the midst of everything else. Merlin drew in a quiet breath and held it, his eyes adjusting in the complete dark. The subway car was filled with the quiet hush of deep, even breathing.

Leon’s pulse against his own frantic one was relaxed. Sleepy. His grip loosened when Merlin let go, fell away. Merlin felt himself suddenly alone in the dark.

Emrys, the dragon’s voice had said. Get a hold of yourself.

That same shadowy disappointment from before lurked at the edges of the voice. And then a crushing weight of magic had dropped from above in a single sheet, like a giant weighted blanket, smothering everything.

Merlin could not find his own power amidst the overwhelming surge. The first time his mother had taken him to the seaside, he had almost drowned, a wave covering him up in a shock of cold and salt, stealing his orientation so sky and ground were abstract concepts, and he was just a mind trapped in a tiny five-year-old body, tumbled like a pair of shoes in the dryer.

It was like that now. With one hand, he kept a hold of the pole, and when he managed to summon the flicker of light, it was like finally finding the surface, that first gasp of air. His own magic greeted him like a gift.

“What do you want?” Merlin murmured, still nervy, all sharp edges. “We couldn’t do this before?”

The dry chuckle swept through the train, causing it to rock slightly on its wheels. Just as before, Merlin found the exit, muscled it open. His light bobbed behind him, just behind his head, turning all surfaces flat with their shadow.

“Fine,” Merlin said. “We’ll play your game. I suppose I deserve it.”

He walked along the center of the empty train tracks, directed half by memory and half by the overwhelming pull of Kilgarrah’s presence. This time, he made note of the entrance to the cave, the dripping red graffiti kitty-corner to the entrance, which appeared nothing more than smooth tunnel wall in a great, seemingly endless stretch of smooth tunnel wall.

It was somehow more agonizing this time around, completely aware of the uneven stone under his feet and the turns as he made them. The change in the quality of the air, shifting from a grungy, metallic city smell to something much earthier that clung a little to the skin, the mineral dampness carrying something wilder, something old.

He paused before he reached his final destination, the tunnel opening up into the vast cavern in which he would find Kilgharrah. Before he stepped through, Merlin cast his own light out before him. It flared like a star and rose, only the light itself left behind as the globe drifted toward the ceiling.

“Cute,” said the craggy, serpentine voice. “Very cute.”

“You’re pretty adorable yourself,” Merlin said, stepping forward now, wary. “What is it you think that you’re pulling?”

The dragon laughed. At first Merlin didn’t register the sound as a laugh. It had the off-putting rasp of sandpaper, of stone scraping stone.

“Where are you?” Merlin asked. “I’m here. Least you could do is show your face since you summoned me.”

The thrum and beat of great wings, reverberating in Merlin’s chest. The sheer size of the shape dropping as if from nowhere, despite the sterile scrub of the light.

“It has the quality of sunshine,” Kilgharrah said, lighting on a pillar of stone, wings settling around his great body. “You did always have an eye for cruel detail.”

“You haven’t seen the sun for a long time,” Merlin said.

Kilgarrah’s eyes were great and golden, with a light of their own. “And whose fault is that?”

Merlin winced, despite himself.

“I do not want to play this game with you, Emrys,” the dragon said. “Why is it you think I called you here in the first place?”

“Surely not for the thrill of my conversation,” Merlin murmured.

“Even as allies, the relationship between us was contentious. Despite everything, you are human. And I am not. It is the whole reason Uther saw fit to cull my kind, all those years ago.”

“Uther didn’t put you here,” Merlin said, the knowledge coming to him as he said it.

“Not this time,” Kilgharrah said.

Merlin looked up at him. “A long time ago, I freed you.”

“Don’t act like it was a favor. You kept your word.”

“I freed you,” Merlin continued, “And you turned on the city. People got hurt. He got hurt.”

“Ah, yes, the once and future king. But he survived, didn’t he? That night. He survived until he didn’t. He survived until you couldn’t save him.”

Something tore itself free in Merlin’s chest, like a curtain ripped in two. He felt the tactile rend of cloth as if he had done it with his own hands. He stood on side of the metaphorical curtain, and he could see through to the other side.

“I am not here because I put him in danger, young warlock. You know it better than I – after all, the child killed him, and he is still on the surface walking free. You saw fit to make him your key, even after everything. Hurting Arthur is not my sin.”

Merlin’s eyes burned with a particular heat, and his hands clenched in fists at his side. Even here, in the midst of everything he understood of himself coming apart, he was not going to cry.

“You told me it was destiny,” he said lowly. “Even when he was dying, and there was nothing left, you looked me in the face, and YOU TOLD ME IT WAS DESTINY.”

The last part came out a ragged shout. Above them there was a rumble like rock shifting and pebbles fall from some unseen place, skittering over the rock overhang and bouncing off Kilgarrah’s leathery hide. Motes of rock dust clouded the shafts of Merlin’s provided light.

“The once and future king,” Merlin repeated with disgust. “You fed me that drivel for years, Gaius fed me that drivel for years, and I fucking believed you. I believed you. And you were wrong.”

“Were we?” Kilgharrah asked. “Here we all are, after all. Living, still. Even him. Breathing, alive, doing stints on live television as a talking head. A happy ending, surely.”

The slime of condescension in his voice was palpable. The cave was very dark, without Merlin’s light to illuminate it. Dark and cold and isolated.

Merlin could not bring himself to feel sorry.

“That has fuck all to do with destiny,” Merlin said lowly. “Look at you, you know it. The reason you’re here is because of me. I put you here, somehow, by the force of my will. Destiny didn’t do that. I brought him back. I brought you back. I did this. It was me. You may not be human, but you hitched your cart to the most human thing. Destiny. Destiny only exists because we allowed it to exist. Because I allowed it to exist.”

“And that’s my sin,” Kilgharrah said. “You listened to me.”

“Mindlessly,” Merlin said hollowly, turning away from the great dragon. “There were times where…when I almost questioned it. But then I didn’t. I let the tide of what was supposed to happen carry me along, and those were the consequences.”

Arthur dead in his arms. In the mix of past and present, Merlin recalled his cheek pressed to Arthur’s hair, arms wrapped around armor and wound.

It was the closest he ever got to holding him.

“I didn’t even need him to want me back,” Merlin said, laughing a little. “I just wanted him to be safe. Alive. That’s all. That’s so little to ask, and destiny could not accommodate the task. So, I took it into my own hands.”

“Even with such power, you have so little control.”

“I’m done with this conversation,” Merlin said, tracing his fingers over rough stone. “I can’t do this right now.”

“Then leave. Go. Come when it’s convenient, it is what you did before.”

“Even with everything you preached, you were not a slave to destiny,” Merlin said. “Why encourage me to be? Of the two of us, I do not think I’m the only fool.”

“I called you this time because you are about to come apart,” Kilgharrah said. “Rip yourself apart at the seams. You can feel it now, the truth and all that time making a wreck of your very human insides. Get a hold of yourself, Emrys. If this is what you choose to do with your power, then do not allow your own ability spiral beyond your control. You brought your friends with you. You went to Mordred.”

“You pushed me in that direction!”

“Maybe I did.”

“Why? Did you think remembering would soften me? Make me consider letting you go?” Merlin raged. “You’ll just burn downtown and refuse to fly away until I bid you.”

“Until you bid me, yes. It seems destiny has not so much gone away as changed its shape,” Kilgharrah said.

Merlin felt the blood swim cold to his head at this pronouncement.

“I’m going,” he said.

“Then go. I could not stop you if I tried, you have made that clear enough. But if you have even the smallest inclination left to listen to me, I would advise you to take a few deep breaths. At least if I laid waste to the city, I would do it on purpose.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It was not just the train that stopped this time, Merlin. My reach does not go much beyond that, and even that I cannot manage without help. Draw your own conclusions.”

Merlin trembled with the weight of revelations. I did this. He brought them back. Leon, and Percy, and Arthur, and Gwen, and his own mother, and the great dragon, and everyone.

Since he was a child, he had always struggled to keep his own power within the firm grip of his control. It seemed to escape his grasp, like a dog pulling at its lead, yanking the leash from its master’s grip to run wild.

“Go home, Emrys,” the Great Dragon said, as the light above them faded and dimed, drifting downward to spark feebly between them. “I will be here.”

Merlin felt those words planted between his shoulder blades like a knife as he returned to the surface, fully in his mind this time, conscious of the turns it took to get him back out to the tunnel.

No oncoming train was there this time, and he didn’t need it to shock himself out of his own stupor. Deep breaths. He was still not quite whole. He did not fully understand it all, even if he knew.

When he climbed back on the train car, it was a deep breath that drew the great wave of magic still seething around him back into himself. In, and the train car lights flickered. Out, and they came back on. The train rumbled forward.

The occupants, including Leon and Percy, were still nodded off. Tinny music leaked from someone’s headphones.

“It’s all right,” he said lowly. For now, he did not add. “You can wake them up.”

Chapter Text

“That was weird,” Percy said.

“Merlin,” Leon said, reaching out to grip Merlin’s upper arm. Merlin jerked away as if on reflex, eyes darting as if he were seeing something they could not.

Percy only had a view of the back of Merlin’s head, but Leon could see his face.

“It’s okay,” Leon said. “You’re safe. Deep breaths.”

A laugh leaked out of Merlin, incredulous. “I’m safe,” he repeated, loose and almost inaudible. “I’m safe. I saw him, Leon. I saw him.”

“Who?”

“The dragon.” Merlin made eye contact with Leon, eyes shiny, face flushed. “That’s what happened just now. Same as it happened before. Everyone fell asleep, except for me, and he called me to him. Finally.”

Leon glanced around at the other people, but they weren’t listening. Didn’t seem to care. Drugs made for weird and more disruptive public rants than this one. Leon tried to grasp that he had been unconscious, unaware, caught in the throes of enchantment.

He couldn’t. It didn’t seem real. None of this did.

“What did he say?” Percy asked.

“That’s the thing. I fucked us. I really fucked all of us. I am so sorry.”

“What’re you talking about?” Leon asked, confused. “What do you mean? It’s fine. We’re all fine. You haven’t done…”

“Yes, I have,” Merlin interrupted. “Yes, I fucking have. Jason Bourne bullshit…” he laughed again.

Before Leon could say anything else to this disturbing pronouncement, the train pulled into the next station.

“This is our stop,” Percy announced amidst the subdued tumult of people prepping to exit the car. “Think you can hold it together long enough to make it to the flat?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

The doors slid open and the outflux carried them onto the platform and up into the open evening air. Except, when they surfaced, everything was pandemonium.

It was raining, hard, water drumming the sidewalks and swirling down the gutters in a hard, dark current. All the lights in the city seemed to be on as night gathered itself more quickly with the help of the cloud cover, and the rain. Windows shown like jewels, streetlights hummed like insects under the sound of the rush of water. Cars had been abandoned in the streets, headlights beaming out to glance off of buildings and moving people and trees and benches, throwing erratic shadow.

Percy grabbed someone by the shoulder as they rushed by.

"What happened?" he demanded in a low, stern voice.

The person gaped up at him, rain dripping from the edges of his umbrella. "What did you do? Sleep through it?"

"Sleep through what?"

"Hell if I know," the stranger said, yanking himself from Percy's grip and rushing onward into the night. "Whatever it is, it's over now. God willing."

Standing there speechless, Leon realized they had already passed beyond the great edge into whatever lay beyond it.

He hadn’t known it before.

Everything had changed.

And despite what the stranger had said, with Merlin standing dark-haired and prescient beside him, Leon thought that whatever had happened just now, in the city, at the thrift shop, in the subway, to Merlin, it had very little to do with god.

Chapter Text

Gwen had to keep maneuvering around cars parked in the middle of the road. At one point, white knuckled, she edged her little mint green Vauxhall Corsa around a minivan abandoned in the middle of a 4-way stop. Thankfully, the roads from the hospital back to Lance’s flat were relatively deserted.

The power had come back on just as Gwen was talking herself out of an anxiety attack over how to get Lance to a hospital without a functional motor vehicle or a way to call 999. Not only that, but how to get an entire wedding party plus everyone in attendance from the church to the venue for the reception while in the care of Lauren, Gwen’s sweet but hopeless third-in-command.

Because of course Gwen would be escorting Lance to the hospital. She wasn’t about to leave the task to a stranger, or – God forbid - Lauren . Somehow, even Gwen’s worst Lauren-based idea was better than Lance’s only idea, which was that he was fine and didn’t need to go anywhere with anyone.

When the groomsman, a med-student, refuted this claim with clear and present fact, Lance’s next idea was only marginally less bad.

“I’ll go by myself,” he had said.

Thankfully, before Gwen had had a chance to speak, the power had come back on. It had been out for just under half an hour.

Prying herself from the bride’s vice grip, Gwen had left the remainder of the event in what she insisted were Lauren’s “very capable hands”. Neither Lauren nor the bride seemed convinced of this fact, both varying levels of teary as Gwen frog-marched Lance with the med-student groomsman’s help back to her car.

“You heard him,” Lance had said as the groomsman slammed the passenger door on him. He somehow managed to look taller and more incongruous in the tiny confines of Gwen’s car than he did in real life. His suit was terrible. “It’s probably just a mild concussion.”

“How long were you unconscious?” Gwen demanded.

He had his hands pinned between his knees. “I don’t know.”

“We were looking for you for almost ten minutes, Lance. And you were gone even longer than that. Aren’t you worried about yourself?”

“Not especially, no.”

She had muscled her car into drive and pulled out of the parking lot with enough speed and force that Lance flinched.

“Of course,” she muttered. “I make a habit of befriending people who don’t place nearly enough value on their own well-being.”

“I meditate!”

She snorted and in her peripheral, he slouched, sheepish, picking at a loose thread at the cuff of his dress shirt. “We’re friends?” he asked.

Yes, we’re friends!” Gwen nearly shouted. “You’ve met my girlfriend! We’ve hung out multiple times, socially. You send me TikToks!”

“Oh.” Lance frowned. “I guess I didn’t realize…that was friendship?”

“Do you send TikToks to Lauren?”

His own recoil made him wince, touching light fingers to his forehead. “God, no.”

“Then a little more than coworkers, yes? Like I would let anybody go to the hospital by themselves. Or not at all!”

She swung around a curve and had to swerve to avoid a silver Aston Martin abandoned half-on, half-off the shoulder. They had so far seen only one other active car on the road.

“You’re being very angry for someone who claims to care as much as you do.”

Gwen relaxed her hold on the steering wheel and tried to ease back into her seat. She hadn’t realized until this second how much tension she had been holding in her shoulders.

“Sorry. I just…like to help people if I can. And most of the people I care about are so bad at letting me help them.”

She thought of Merlin, standing sheepish in her kitchen. Merlin, who couldn’t be honest with himself even when she held a mirror in front of his stupid, handsome face. She thought of Arthur, too, who still had one of her spare keys but couldn’t be bothered to pick up a phone unless it was literally an emergency.

Part of Gwen was certain he had called even then only because last night’s particular emergency had involved Merlin.

The men Merlin had following him around like puppy dogs…and not only was he stubbornly oblivious to it, but he was also mean to boot.

Merlin was not mean. Well, that wasn't quite true. He was mean to light-haired blue-eyed ex-Lacross players and callous toward any other member of the male species who happened to get caught in his wake.

Then there was Morgana.

But thinking about Morgana made Gwen want to cry, and she couldn’t see the road if her eyes were full of tears. Morgana tried so hard to come across as tough, and cold, and bitchy, and she was all those things. But she was also the most wonderfully warm, mercilessly open-hearted person Gwen had ever met.

To her own detriment, most of the time. How easily she trusted. Morgana deserved people in her inner circle who would not waste the clear-eyed miracle of her trust. And all she got were shitty would-be fathers and hapless adopted brothers and manipulative sisters who showed up out of nowhere and upended her life just to ghost her.

Now Gwen was crying.

She wiped at her eyes with the sleeve of her sweater, blinking to clear them.

“Er, Gwen,” Lance said. “I don’t want to be that guy…but you’re going ten over.”

“Jesus!” she slammed on her brakes, seatbelts catching both of them hard in the chest. “Sorry, I’m sorry.” She scrubbed at her eyes furiously. “Your concussion.”

“We don’t know it’s a concussion for sure yet,” Lance said diplomatically. “Are you…are you okay?”

Gwen laughed. “No, but it’s too much to get into right now. And your brain is already bruised.”

Lance wasn’t allowed to protest this as they pulled into the hospital. The place was well-lit. Serene, even, by hospital standards. Top Gear played silently on the emergency room’s television. The nurse working the front desk looked up at they entered, taking in the ginger way Lance held his head and Gwen’s still blotchy complexion.

“Did you guys not experience the outage?” Gwen asked her.

“What outage?” asked the nurse.

It turned out the hospital had not endured so much as a flicker. A doctor was able to see Lance after only about a ten-minute wait and confirmed for him that what he had suffered had indeed been a minor concussion. They were back out in the quickly failing daylight not twenty minutes after that. All in all, the whole ordeal took less than an hour, not counting the original drive.

Gwen was not privy to the examination room discussion of his medical history, but on the drive back, with an icepack and a stern order to be gentle with himself, Lance told her anyway.

“I’ve been prone to fainting spells since I was a kid,” he said. “The doctors were never able to diagnose it, said it was most likely some sort of balance disorder, but they never found anything definitive. I couldn’t play sports because of it or do much of anything, really. My mum treated me like I was her heart outside her chest, barely let me out of her sight until I was seventeen.”

“It sounds like she really loves you.”

Lance cleared his throat. “She did. She died a few years back.”

“Oh, Lance. I’m sorry.”

Lance didn’t really share things about himself. Well, he did. Adventure stories about hostels in Spain and spontaneous cross-country backpacking trips. Drinking with strangers in pubs in Germany. Kissing strangers in the dark in Amsterdam. Never anything beyond the illusion of a kaleidoscope life, filled with color and people and Lance, pulling all things to himself.

He had always peddled so earnestly the story of his own gravitational pull. You didn’t have to be a star to compel planets and moons and other artifacts of the universe to rotate you. You could be a black hole, too, and simply devour those things. Eat light. Break your teeth on asteroid belts. Never be full.

Next to her, Lance held the icepack to his skull, condensation dripping down his knuckles. Her view of his face was obstructed, but the fingers of his free hand had pulled the shiny material of his suit pants into his fists.

“It’s all right,” he said softly. “I only wish I’d sent her more than postcards. I don’t think she knew…that I would want to be there for her. I think she thought I was glad to be free of her, in the end. That I was tired of her holding me down. And she did hold me down. But in a good way. She anchored me.”

His voice was unexpectedly earnest.

“I get it,” Gwen said. She allowed him the grace of keeping her attention solely on the road. They had passed a few more cars, picking as cautiously as they were through the silent, cluttered streets. “When I lost my parents, my brother told me that part of the ache I felt was the love leftover, with nowhere to go. He told me if I could feel it so strongly, when it was left to me, then they must’ve felt it too. That it was a force strong enough to be understood, even if I didn’t have exactly the chance to explain it the way I wanted. If that makes sense.”

The car was quiet. Gwen had turned down the radio, for the sake of Lance’s head.

“It makes perfect sense,” Lance said.

“But…?”

He adjusted the icepack so that she caught the corner of his smile. “But you were angry at me because I tried to resist your decency. I get the sense that your love is impossible not to feel.”

“I hope so,” Gwen said.

He hesitated. “Gwen.”

“Yes, Lance?”

“What if…what if I told you I heard a voice right before I passed out?”

“Did you hear a voice?”

“Maybe.” Resting against his leg, his fingers released and then regathered the shiny fabric of his suit pants. “If I had, would you think I was crazy?”

“Crazy is mostly subjective. Did it say something, this metaphorical voice?”

Another lapse of silence. The GPS pinged as it urged Gwen to turn right on their quest to Lance’s house.

“Yes. My name.”

“Just…your name?”

Lance squirmed, knees hitting the glovebox. “Yes. Er, well. I might’ve also asked it what it wanted, and it might’ve said it didn’t know.”

“Okay.” She paused. “Has this happened before?”

“This? Specifically? No. I’ve never…heard anything before.” He laughed. “My breaks with reality have never been so concrete.”

“I don’t know if I would classify most breaks with reality as concrete,” Gwen said, a bit stiffly.

He sobered. “Fair enough.”

“Did the voice…sound like anything?”

He fidgeted some more, but there wasn’t much room for it in Gwen’s matchbox of a car. “You’re taking this remarkably in stride.”

“You’re the one who’s confiding in me. Would you like me to be more skeptical? I assumed that wouldn’t be helpful.” In her peripheral, Lance’s fingers scrunched up his suit pants again. “Also, I tend to take people at their word. As a rule. So…did the voice sound like anyone? Anyone you know?”

More hesitation. Gwen waited for him to gather his nerve.

“You really have to promise you won’t think I’m crazy.”

“I think crazy is a categorically unhelpful word, Lance.”

“Just promise. Please.”

Gwen put on her turn signal. “All right. I promise.” She crossed her heart for effect.

He took a deep breath and released it noisily. “It sounded like your friend. Merlin.”

“Merlin?” she frowned at him. “Haven’t you met Merlin a grand total of once?”

Yes.” Lance sat forward in his seat. “Which was why it was so weird. I mean, aside from the whole ‘hearing a voice’ thing. I swear it sounded just like him. It said maybe four words, including my name, but I would swear it on the only suit I own, it was him.”

“You don’t own any suits.”

Lance plucked half-heartedly at his suit pants. “I own this one now. Snagged the jacket on a manger. They definitely won’t let me return it.”

Gwen sighed.

“I can’t afford a good suit, Gwen, even if I knew what one looked like.”

No, it’s not that. It’s just…”

How could she explain without sounding either like a petty friend or a skeptic that this was all very typical? Not the voice part, of course, although the fact that Merlin had just been telling her about his own disembodied voice problems this morning was weird. No, the part where here sat yet another man plaintively explaining how Merlin had pulled him into his wake.

For all his excellent qualities, Merlin was an absolute riptide of a person when it came to his romantic and sexual ventures. Gwen was generally a sex-positive person, and as all of Merlin’s forays involved consenting adults, she tended to have no issue with them.

Except.

Except, somehow, his past entanglements had a worrying tendency of ending up in the passenger seat of her Cosa, spilling their woes.

Including, somehow, Lance, who had only been in Merlin’s vicinity for maybe a hundred consecutive minutes.

“Are you sure it was Merlin?” she asked instead.

“You promised!”

“I know. It’s just…why would you be hearing his voice?”

“I don’t know. That’s sort of why I’m telling you.”

“Well, I don’t know.”

The GPS announced their destination, and Gwen pulled neatly between a Mercedes left with its driver’s side door open in the road and a green Ford Fiesta that looked like it had been parked in the same spot for approximately a decade.

“Will you come up?” Lance asked, in the voice of a person who still wasn’t sure he was allowed this familiarity.

“I should call Morgana,” Gwen said. “If the phones are working again. I wouldn’t know, I guess. Mine is dead.”

Gwen was notorious for her phone dying during events. It was like the thing could sense when she most needed it and just refused to hold power.

“Is there a pay phone near here, or…?” she started, just as Lance said, “Mine’s nearly full battery. You can use it.” He fished it out from inside his jacket and held it out to her. “Looks like there’s service. Meet me inside?”

“I should call Merlin, too, actually,” she said.

He nodded, facing her fully for the first time since the groomsman had extricated him from the basement. As ever, he wore an almost-tenseness in his brow, as if he were prepared to frown or flinch as the situation warranted. The first time Gwen had met him, she had to resist the urge to reach forward and test that place with her thumb, to see if it could be smoothed.

“I’ll come inside,” she said finally. “But Lance…?”

“Yeah?” his voice held that same quality. Not quite tentative. Braced.

“You can’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

Gwen laughed, and wondered what it must be like, to be a heart wandering around outside a chest. It must be easy to get cold. It must be hard to be so vulnerable. Vigilance had to be an exhausting balancing act when the other thing came so much more naturally.

“Don’t be coy,” she said, even though she knew Lance wasn’t trying to be a coy, not even a little. For all his insistence he was fine, he did carry a sort of dazed look on his person and struggled briefly with the car door before he was able to release himself onto the street.

He leaned down into the car with the cold night air and the beginning drizzle of rain. “But you’ll come in?” he said.

“No. I’ll steal your phone and drive away.”

“I’m 18E,” he said.

“I know. You told me.”

“Doorman will buzz you in.”

“You told me that too. Give me ten? Well, no. Maybe actually fifteen.”

He nodded again and wandered inside. The rain started in earnest a few seconds after the door closed behind him, golden light spilling out through the glass of the sliding door. Gwen glanced up to take in the full height of the complex. It was a utilitarian building, made to house aspiring young professionals who did not yet have the income to live as they might like. One of those slick places where the flats came pre-furnished, the carpets always a little stiff and the air always a little musty.

She found it did not surprise her. Not even a little bit. Not even at all.

Because she was herself, she had her loved ones’ numbers memorized in case of emergency or her phone’s own fickleness. She called Morgana first.

Chapter Text

Morgana sat in her BMW outside a pay-by-the-hour motel, fingers latched around the steering wheel. She had her forehead pressed against the wheel too, eyes wide open, staring down at the scuffed toes of her platform boots.

She couldn’t believe this was happening.

Or maybe she could.

She wasn’t sure what to believe, actually. Or how.

Morgause had gotten out of the car as soon as Morgana had parked, plucked the keycard out of Morgana’s lax fingers, and went inside their room. Morgana thought she was probably showering. Was this how normal people acted in the wake of disclosing this sort of would-be revelation?

She was almost certain this wasn’t how normal people acted after immobilizing a cop in their sister’s driveway. Or after dragging said cop partly behind said sister’s recycling bins.

“It’s fine,” Morgause had said. “I didn’t hurt him.”

Like that was the issue at hand. Telling, that Morgause thought the man’s well-being would be Morgana’s primary concern. Or whether Morgause had or had not inflicted harm on him. Telling of what, Morgana didn’t know. She couldn’t get her thoughts in order.

Her phone buzzed in the cupholder. She picked it up without lifting her head, surprised to even find it working. The number wasn’t one she recognized. She answered.

“Gwen?”

“Hi, Love,” Gwen said. “My phone died. I’m calling from Lance’s. I wanted to check in with you…after whatever that was. Did you feel it?”

“No,” Morgana said. “Didn’t even notice it hardly, until…”

Until Morgause pointed it out

Morgana glanced around the darkening, decrepit motel parking lot and not finish her sentence.

“Where are you?” she asked instead.

“I’m sitting outside Lance’s apartment building. He fell and hit his head at the event, I had to take him to the hospital and then drive him home.” Gwen paused. “Are you alright? You sound kind of spacey. And not high-spacey, like spacey-spacey.”

Morgana couldn’t lie to her. She knew what reaction the truth would evoke. Sighing, she sat up and scrubbed at her face, her chest tight and painful.

“I’m fine,” she said.

The silence on the other end of the line was a knife balanced on its point. “Are you at home?”

“No, I’m not.”

It got like this sometimes. Gwen driven to the conversational equivalent of pulling teeth to get Morgana to communicate. Morgana could feel it happening, but didn’t know how to stop it, and this made her shut down even further, somehow both the runaway train rattling down the tracks and her brain, trapped onboard with no emergency brake.

“Where are you?” Gwen asked, patient. Always patient.

“I’m…at a motel.” It would be easier to do it all at once. “With Morgause.”

The knife teetered. “Why are you with Morgause?”

“She showed up at my house.”

“Morgana…”

“I really can’t do a lecture right now, Gwen. I really, really can’t.”

“Okay. Then tell me what she said to convince you to go with her. Tell me why you’re at a motel. Did she show up before or after the blackout?”

Morgana considered these requests and chose the one she could best sneak up on from behind. “Morgause suggested the motel. I don’t really know at what point she showed up. It had been a couple minutes, I think. The heater hadn’t come on for a while by the time she knocked.”

“What did she say?”

There was no way to curl up in a ball in the close, cold confines of her car. Her legs were too long. She couldn’t think for the for the tightness behind her eyes. She swore she could feel the rattle of that hopeless train in her bones.

“Gwen,” she said. She heard her own voice as if it belonged to someone else, someone small, someone who could manage a name but couldn’t manage to voice anything else that they wanted, or needed, or hoped. Someone who sounded as if they were about to break down and cry.

Morgana hadn’t cried, really cried, since she was twelve years old.

Uther had inspired ugly tears, but those had only burned her eyes, filled her voice, and were never actually spilled.

She didn’t cry.

“Darling,” Gwen said. “What is it?”

The static on the line only reminded Morgana how not here she was.

“I love you,” Morgana said. “You know that right?”

Her voice was congested with mucus and emotion. She sniffled, rummaged in her middle console for the crumpled packet of travel Kleenexes she’d stuffed there.

Gwen’s silence spun, delicately balanced, on its point. Morgana could visualize her rolling her bottom lip between her teeth, free hand clamped in her armpit, entire body tense with the effort of not letting on how worried she was.

“Of course, I know,” she said finally. “I love you too. Now please, please tell me what is going on."

"I don’t want to. I feel like you’re going to think I’m so stupid for just following her again after what happened last night, but it isn’t like that…”

“I get it, M. I really, really do. More than you might think. So please, tell me what it is like.”

“It’s like…” Morgana lapsed, picking at her steering wheel cover. “I don’t want it to ruin how you see him. I think somebody should still see him that way.”

“See who?”

She pressed a fist to her forehead. “My idiot brother.”

Morgana could practically hear Gwen thinking at the end of the line.

“Merlin asked him not to call,” Gwen said. “I texted Gwaine, after. He said he told Arthur not to call. I didn’t think…”

“He felt strongly enough about anything for a ‘no’ to be necessary?” Morgana suggested.

“Yeah, that.” So much silence. “He didn’t tell.”

“He did, Gwen. He really did. And it’s not Morgause’s word. I looked it up on this motel’s shitty Wi-Fi, sitting out here, saw the bulletin they put out for her. Her, specifically. And the girl that cast the fricking spell. Plus, there was the cop.”

“The cop?”

So, Morgana explained the knock on her front door. The patrol car out front. Morgause’s jump scare. The totally not permanently damaging immobilization spell. She did not explain why Morgause had shown up in the first place, what they had been talking about when the knock came.

She couldn’t…

She was in love with Gwen, and maybe a little bit finally with life. She had just started to relax, thinking maybe maybe this time the ground would stay stable. But then it had literally trembled under her feet.

And what would she say to Gwen? She could feel the truth of Morgause’s story at her back like a dark shadow. It would be Gwen she couldn’t face if it were true. If she let herself believe that it was true.

“I don’t have to tell you that you’re in deep shit right now,” Gwen was saying.

“No, you don’t.”

“I don’t have to tell you that it was incredibly dumb to help a person who at worst lied to you and at best manipulated you.”

“You’ve never liked Morgause.”

The silence was double-edged, with a jewel in its pommel. Morgana pictured the subtle clench of Gwen’s jaw as she set it spinning with twice the speed as before.

“You know how I feel about Morgause. I like her even less now that she’s made you an accomplice.”

“She hasn’t made me anything, Gwen. I made this choice myself.”

Silence, spinning. “I have to tell Merlin.”

“Do you?”

“Of course I do," Gwen said, as if the answer was obvious. "Arthur reported the incident last night to the chief anti-magic authority in this city, maybe in this country. It hardly matters it’s his father. Or maybe it does. Maybe it does matter, and if it does matter, it matters worse. Merlin was already skirting disaster living with Arthur, being what he is. I don’t like him being this close to the bloodhounds. I don’t like you being this close to the bloodhounds.”

“I’ll be fine, Gwen.”

“You always tell me that. It doesn’t make me feel better.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

Gwen sighed. The knife had been snatched up, sheathed. “Be safe,” she said.

“I will.”

“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me where you are?”

Morgana laughed. It sounded like glass shattering. “Absolutely not. I don’t need you showing up here and murdering my sister.”

“I could find you, if I wanted.”

“Please don’t.”

“Why not?” Gwen asked fiercely. “This is stupid. I shouldn’t be here, I should be with you.”

“You were literally just lecturing me about how I’ve gotten myself into some incredibly deep shit.”

“It sounds like maybe you wandered into it. Like quicksand.”

“Whatever. My point stands. You’re better off not being here. It’s safer.”

“Goddamn, Morgana, I keep telling you I am not a fucking damsel. I don’t need to be protected. You don’t need to shield me.”

“I know.”

Morgana spoke so quietly she didn’t know if Gwen had heard her.

“Anyway,” Gwen continued sourly, “I don’t care what sort of shit you’re in, or how deep it is. I would do more good with you. Wouldn’t it be better if I were there right now, in the passenger seat of the BMW?”

The tightness in Morgana’s chest squeezed. The idea of Gwen’s softness, her warmth, in the midst of this cold and this gathering dark, was unbearable.

It was not something she had ever deserved.

“You want to know something stupid?” she asked softly.

Gwen’s voice hushed in response. “What?”

“You remember how you’ve been looking for your bandanna? The blue one? You know the one you use to tie up your hair?”

“Yes, I’ve been looking all over for it.”

Morgana crushed her nails into her palm, squeezed her eyes shut. If she pretended hard enough, she could almost convince herself it was just this – her voice, and Gwen’s voice in the gathering darkness. Twining together.

“I have it,” Morgana said. “I stole it.”

“You rapscallion,” said with such tender affection it cracked Morgana open.

touch me softly she had told Gwen once. It hurt to think about right now. The street light Morgana had parked by did not work. She was spotlighted in shadow.

“I keep it in my glovebox,” she said, “And at first, I was going to give it back the next time I saw you, but…I didn’t. It smells like your hair. And the laundry detergent you use. And your perfume. And you. Is that creepy?”

“I don’t know. Do you sit in your car alone and sniff my bandanna when I’m not there?” Gwen asked. An almost playful pause. “It’s okay if you do.”

“No,” Morgana said. She did wrap it around her wrist and sit quietly, seat tilted back, staring at whatever the sky looked like that day. She had other things she could’ve been doing. Other places she could’ve been. But she twisted that bandanna around her wrist and looked up at the sky, wondering if burning that small square of fabric to ashes would make anything easier. “I only get it out when I miss you. Like when you went to that conference last month for work. I just sat there and missed you. Isn’t that pathetic?”

“A little,” Gwen said, and it was somehow gentle. “But not in a bad way. I don’t mind you missing me. You could just text me, you know.”

The knife was sheathed. Gwen had put it away, and the quiet was just quiet now.

“If you miss me so much, why won’t you let me come to you? I feel like I could help you so much better if I was there, with you.”

“I don’t think you’re a damsel,” Morgana said. “But I don’t think I could stand it if you got pulled into…whatever this is with Morgause because of me. It’s your friend she cursed. It’s me who brought her into my life, and by consequence, yours, and Merlin’s, and Arthur’s, and everybody’s. Morgause is my sister. I’m the one who cares about her. I can do this best. This is on me.”

Gwen had so much she could’ve argued. About how Morgana wasn’t exactly the most objective party when it came to Morgause. About how Morgause didn’t deserve second chances.

But she didn’t say any of that.

“Okay,” she said. “I still wish I could be there.”

“I know. Promise you won’t try and find me. I’m safe. I’ll text you.”

“I promise,” Gwen said. “And you better.”

Chapter Text

It took longer to get back to the flat, foot traffic and general commotion heavier than usual. Sirens wailed in the thin air. Music played, loudly, through someone’s open window. A block away from their building, Percy stopped dead in his tracks, forcing them both to slow for him.

Well, Leon slowed. Merlin didn’t notice until he reached forward and snagged the sleeve of his sweatshirt to stop him.

“You hear that?” Percy said.

Under the general din and murmur, a laugh carried like a child’s toy boat spinning on the current. High and loose. Hysteric. Merlin couldn’t identify the direction from which it came. It ricocheted off the buildings on either side of them and was carried away.

Percy and Leon stood shoulder to shoulder, Percy’s hand shoved deep in his pockets and Leon shifting from foot to foot. Someone slammed into Merlin, the bruising force sending him back a step, the stranger already gone before he recovered, like she hadn’t even noticed she’d hit him.

Merlin rubbed and his shoulder, made defiant eye-contact with Leon, and then Percy. “Well, go on,” he said. “Ask me.”

They exchanged a well-worn glance.

“Was this you?” Leon asked. His face was open, wary, reflecting none of Merlin’s skittishness. He had his body deliberately angled toward Merlin, as if to demonstrate the sameness of his trust, his lack of fear. “Did you…do this somehow?”

Merlin had promised himself honesty. He had no idea how to be honest anymore. How could he be honest with something this size? How could he be honest when he had only a nebulous idea what the truth was?

Leon was just looking at him, earnest.

“I don’t know. Probably.” He ignored the cold ache in his chest. He had always been a fighter. He never knew when to just save himself. Quietly, he added, “I think so.”

“Christ,” Percy said softly.

“How is that possible?” Leon asked, but Merlin heard the real question lurking in the fringes of his voice. How are youpossible?

He watched their understanding of him reform, tried to stay still under the weight of that new comprehension. He felt like the person they saw and the person he knew himself to be were still not aligned. Past and present rang dissonant in his ears. He did not know which vision of himself was true.

“We should keep going,” he said.

“Yeah,” Leon murmured. “Right.”

Thankfully, Merlin’s phone buzzed in his pocket before he had to endure the strange hypertension of their focus for another second. He snatched it up, barely glancing at the caller ID before he answered.

“Hello?”

“Merlin? It’s Gwen.”

“Whose number are you calling from?” Merlin asked. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Gwen’s phone was always either dead or dying.

“Lance’s. It’s a long story. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. I’m with Leon and Percy. We were on the tube when it happened,” Merlin said, choosing to give her the short version until they were in person. “How about you? You all good?”

“Yeah. I’m fine. I’m…it’s noisy on your end, are you not back home yet?”

“No, we’re about a block away. The city’s a mess, at least near us. I mean, not the city, generally. Just…the general vibe, I guess.”

Merlin stepped to the edge of the street to avoid a group of drunk pedestrians, all clinging to each other like driftwood in a shipwreck. A couple of them were crying, and he watched them go by, irritation souring his stomach.

What had been so awful about the last few hours that they felt the need to get sloshed? According to the time on his phone, the blackout – or whatever it had been – hadn’t even lasted a half hour. If that. Worse disaster threatened all the time. Why weren’t they getting drunk and sad about climate change, for god’s sakes?

Gwen was saying something in his ear.

“I’m sorry, I missed that,” he said. “Repeat it?”

“I just spoke to Morgana. She’s with her sister. She won’t tell me where, for my own safety she says, but I think it’s because she suspects I’ll find her and give Morgause a lecture. And maybe her too, while I’m at it.”

“What? What’s she doing with…?” he glanced back at Leon and Percy, still lagging a couple steps behind him, and cut off the end of his sentence. “What’s she doing?” he amended. “What’s she thinking?”

“That’s the thing. I could kill Uther. Metaphorically of course in case he’s tapped my damn phone. Although Morgana always checks for me. God, I thought I was paranoid…”

“Gwen,” Merlin interrupted. “What are you talking about? Why is Morgause with Morgana? I assumed they were just having a chat where Morgause tried to manipulate her into believing she had no idea what happened last night.”

“No, she admitted to that. Flat out to Morgana’s face, apparently.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“I am not. Anyway, I’m glad I caught you before you got home. I sort of thought you’d be laying about all day. But you have got to promise not to go off.”

“Go off about what? What’s going on? What aren’t you saying?”

“Merlin…”

“The whole day has been extremely screwy, Gwen! I can’t promise anything.”

She sighed. “There’s a warrant out for Morgause. A legitimate warrant, now, for resisting arrest and using magic against a police officer.”

“Jesus.”

“It was just an immobilization spell. Nothing violent.”

Merlin rubbed at his eyes. “And Morgana?”

“She wasn’t there when that happened. Morgause made sure of that. Only redeeming thing she’s managed thus far. God, why she would drag her own sister into this bullshit…”

So, Morgana was now on the lam with her delinquent sister. “For what?”

“Merlin.”

“I hate it when you say my name like it’s a passcode. I’m not going to shut down, Gwen. Please just spit it out, we’re almost back. What do they want her for?”

Their building had appeared up ahead.

“What else?” Gwen asked. “For what happened last night.”

For a second, these words simply did not compute.

“But the only way anyone would know what happened last night is if it was reported. And the only people who could have reported it were you, Morgana, Arthur, Percy, and Gwaine. I guess maybe that Addison girl could’ve reported anonymously…but why would she do that?”

“Merlin.”

“I said stop saying my name like that!” Merlin snapped. “I know I sure as hell didn’t tell anyone. And Perce wouldn’t. Gwaine hates cops…”

He stopped. Leon ran into him. He didn’t notice.

Gwen had specifically mentioned Uther by name.

No. He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t, right?

“I asked him not to report it,” Merlin said numbly. “He said he wouldn’t report it.”

Or had he said that? Merlin couldn’t remember ever actually extracting that promise. That portion of the night was a spell-induced haze.

He swore, the word more its own weight than any real sound.

“We don’t know for sure it was him,” Gwen said.

He swore again. Uther’s goon shoving him against that cold brick wall. The taste of cigarette smoke. Arthur’s careful expression last night as he let Merlin go. As he did what Merlin asked.

A thousand other things; starry tangled thread. Long ago gallows. A jail cell. Mordred’s wary blue eyes meeting his from across a stretch of linoleum. Leon squeezing his hand back in the dark sway of the subway. The rumble of a dragon’s voice resonating in the stone beneath his feet. Blood in his clothes. An ache in chest. The still surface of a lake. Arthur, always Arthur, a few centimeters from touching him, looking at him like…

Well, Merlin didn’t know, did he? Because Merlin hadn’t let Arthur touch him. Hadn’t let him see, or know, or even guess. Any of it.

Merlin had been this close to relenting. He had been wrong about so much. Maybe he was wrong about this. Maybe letting Arthur in was the secret to keeping him alive, which Merlin knew now had been the reason for all of this.

The reason for everything. Everything.

But now, now

Friends, Arthur had said.

Liar. Not in this life. Definitely not right now.

“Merlin,” Gwen said. Had maybe been saying for a minute.

“God, I hope he’s home,” Merlin said.

“Don’t do anything stupid. That’s why I told you, especially after all this craziness, you need to keep yourself safe.”

“He doesn’t know about me, Gwen.”

There was silence on the other line.

“Are you going to tell me I’m too hard on him? That I should be nicer?”

She sighed. “I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know what to believe. I can’t believe he…”

“You gave him a spare key, Gwen. I gave him…”

Merlin’s mind rolled back over centuries.

Not enough. Everything.

“I won’t burn anything down,” he said. It was about all the assurance he could manage. “Love you.” He hung up and stuffed his phone back in his pocket.

They were standing in front of the building now, Leon and Percy waiting for him to finish the call.

“Who was that?” Leon asked as Merlin stomped past him.

“Gwen,” Merlin said. “Oh, by the way – your friend is a fucking snitch.”

Another of those dense glances exchanged between Percy and Leon. Disbelief and then resignation and then something quieter Merlin couldn’t quite read.

“Merlin,” Leon said reaching for him. Merlin, nearly to the door, avoided his touch. Avoided Percy’s too.

“People keep saying my name this evening,” he said, jostling his key into the lock. “It’s getting old.”

“Do you think now is maybe the best time…?”

“I think it’s a great time,” Merlin said, yanking the door open. He looked back at the two of them, still standing side by side. “It’s a little different now that you know, isn’t it? Can you taste the ozone?” He paused. “Don’t look at me like that. It’s not you who needs to be frightened.”

The magic was a burning hole inside him. Waves washing at all his edges, salty and warm and a grit in his teeth. It sloshed in his stomach, buzzed in every one of his nerve endings. He had a catalogue in his head of every time Arthur had ever smiled. A footnote on who the smile had been for. A quiet, secret glossary of all the smiles that ever been for him, and him alone.

Merlin tried to tell himself it was a small thing. Arthur telling his father. It was not a small thing. As much as he wanted to do it, he could not make it small.

He still had the ghost of that brick pressed into his back, the taste of cigarette smoke. He still had, along with all those impossible smiles, an equal and opposite catalogue of all the times he had almost told the truth to Arthur but hadn’t.

He had told himself it was because of their shared destiny. And maybe it was that, partly.

But maybe, mostly, all along, it had been this.

The quiet, nagging heart of his fear.

Not a single expression Arthur had ever cast his way, had ever truly been for Merlin alone. Not the small, serious frown or the open exasperation pulling open his body language into wide gestures and inarticulate shouts. Not the little glances upward through the pale fringe of his eyelashes, or the quiet, imperceptible twitch at the corner of his mouth when Merlin had said something impertinent, but he had to be impartial. Not the wild catch of his eyes on Merlin’s face when he searched a crowd, or a fight, and found him.

Not even all those smiles, cast in a thousand varying phases of eclipse, had ever been Merlin’s. Nothing they shared had ever been his.

How could it be?

Arthur’s sense of duty was too strong. He belonged to everyone, even now. Even last night, standing on that back porch with Merlin, the world and all its needs had been tugging on his leg, urging him to come away, to come back.

Did Arthur even really see Merlin when he looked at him? Did he see an equal, or did he just see someone to save?

Of course, of course he would tell. The world was spinning off his axis. It was such a small thing, really, in context. He didn't need to hurt this much. He couldn't fucking see.

“Merlin, stop!” He wasn’t sure if it was Leon or Percy who shouted, but it hardly mattered. He strode across the lobby, past the elevator, already gone.

Chapter Text

The door to the flat slammed open, the ricochet of sound like the screeching application of brakes. Everything and everyone in the room came to an instant, heart-pounding halt. On the couch, Gwaine froze, eyes wide, the hands that had been loosely clasped in his lap now white-knuckled.

Over in the dining area, Arthur stopped dead on the antique rug, pulling his phone slightly away from his ear. His father’s voice was now a tinny insect buzz, and his focus reset on Merlin, striding across the room at him.

His face was a livid, animate thing, holding the sort of controlled potential energy one saw in snakes about to strike. The glint in his eyes was electricity dancing a live wire, wicked, visibly deadly.

He didn’t stop coming, barging into Arthur’s personal space with the same audacity with which he did everything.

Arthur found he couldn’t move, couldn’t back up a step. His subconscious checked for the prickle of an immobilization spell and didn’t find it, just his heart, still pounding, and his gut twisting with an almost animal fear.

Merlin was so close their chests nearly touched, his breath brushing Arthur’s face. Arthur could feel the particular radiating heat Merlin gave off, intense as a furnace. His eyes locked on Arthur’s, dark and tumultuous as a storm front, with weight like a wind. It took all the focus Arthur had not to waver under it.

The standoff couldn’t have lasted longer than a second. A half-second.

A smile cut into the corner of Merlin’s mouth, eyes flickering over Arthur’s face. Arthur’s own breath was ragged. Without pausing, he reached forward and plucked the phone from Arthur’s hand, then stepped cleanly back.

Arthur felt the relief like a sudden, frigid breeze. Merlin said something he didn’t hear. It was the shape of his voice absent of words, a reverberation in Arthur’s chest.

“What?” he asked.

“Is this your dad?” Merlin said again, enunciation a blade. His gaze had still not left Arthur alone, locking him in place. He held the phone to his ear. Repeated himself once more. “Hi. Is this Arthur’s dad? It is?” A pause, eyes lidded now. “No, sorry. He can’t talk right now. He’ll call you back.”

He hung up. Arthur made a strangled sound of protest, arm lifting in delayed response. “Gwaine,” Merlin said, and Gwaine stirred just enough for his reflexes to kick in, catching Arthur’s phone as Merlin tossed it to him. “Hold this for me, would you?”

“You hung up on my father,” Arthur said numbly, feeling starting to creep back into his chest. He wasn’t sure what sort it was – anger, perhaps. Awe, maybe.

The phone started buzzing in Gwaine’s hand, screen lit up.

“Don’t answer it,” Merlin said without looking at him.

Gwaine didn’t need to be told. He made eye contact with Arthur as he powered the device down.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Arthur said, not sure to who.

“How fucking could you?” Merlin asked. He was shaking, Arthur saw it in his hands. “I asked you not to report. You knew I didn’t want you to tell anyone. And you told him.”

“You reported what happened last night,” Gwaine said from his corner, “To your father?”

Arthur’s gaze darted over to the doorway, where Leon and Percy had entered. He wasn’t sure how long ago they had gotten here; long enough that Leon had had time to shut the door, and Percy at least had caught his breath, their faces both red with exertion, like they had sprinted up the stairs.

It wasn’t that Arthur had been ignorant to future consequence when he decided to tell Uther what had happened last night. Arthur couldn’t stop the domino effect simulator always rattling in his head. He always understood what the cause and effect might be. So, he had known when he told Uther that Merlin would find out eventually. He knew that Merlin’s response would likely be apocalyptic. That it would make him feel like something. Resolute, maybe. Appropriately somber after doing what had to be done, perhaps. He had not expected the look on Merlin’s face to feel like a Bowie knife buried in his own chest.

He had not expected the crack in Merlin’s voice to make him feel like maybe he had made a misstep. Maybe he had done something wrong.

Upon examination, he wasn’t sure he would’ve done anything differently, even armed with this knowledge.

He had known his friends would likely not be pleased, either. Gwaine had told him straight to his face that going to any authority would be a bad idea, and Arthur had turned around and went to the foremost authority he knew.

But all of their frowns carried various depths. Neither Leon nor Percy moved past the foyer, Percy’s arms crossed, Leon’s hands deep in his pockets. Gwaine frowned down at his stocking feet, tapping Arthur’s phone against his knee.

Arthur looked between all of them, dismayed.

“You’re kidding me, right? Of course I told – because a fucking crime was committed and no one except me seemed to care. You were ready to let her get away with it! With what she did to you.” He looked back to Merlin, unsure where the pleading in his voice came from. “I couldn’t let that happen, I just couldn’t. It wouldn’t be right. How’d you find out, anyway?”

“You’re not hearing me,” Merlin replied through tight teeth. “That’s not the point! It’s not about what you could or couldn’t allow, it was about me. I know I come across as a narcissistic asshole most of the time, I try hard to make that impression, but she cast that spell on me. It was my decision, not yours, and I asked you not to report it. I trusted you wouldn’t report it, and you did. This was literally the first thing I’ve trusted you with, Arthur, and you couldn’t handle it. You had to run to daddy, play the hero…”

“That’s not what that was!” Arthur interrupted, furious. “Guys…” he turned to Leon and Percy. “I went to bat with my father for you, for all of you at one point or another. Why are you looking at me like that? I did it for you,” he said, anger rising despite his best effort to quell it.

Merlin was shaking his head now, eyes so bright it took Arthur to realize it was the light from the dusty chandelier catching in tears. Was he really about to cry? “You don’t know me,” he said, voice hoarse. “How could you know what is good for me?”

“I was just on the phone with my father about this outage,” Arthur said, aware that the situation was spinning out of control and attempting to bring it back into a familiar realm. “Apparently, it was caused but a massive magical surge from an unknown source. It knocked out practically the entire city. Do you know how powerful something has to be to do that? And that’s only one of several seriously weird events that has happened over the past few months – entire shipments of liquor have been getting spiked with potions at the clubs, there’s been an outbreak of a respiratory illness caused by breathing in a certain species of magical fungi that’s supposed to be extinct…”

“Are you talking to me about fucking mushrooms right now?” Merlin demanded. “This isn’t about that! This is bigger than that! This isn’t even about what just happened…”

“Maybe it should be! Everyone’s nerves are clearly a little rattled!”

Merlin glowered at him. “But not yours, right? You’re clear-headed and objective?”

He said it like he wanted Arthur to remember when he found Arthur nearly out of his head in the pouring rain. Arthur did. Arthur flushed.

“I had this little voice in my head,” Merlin said lowly, “Telling me, ‘Merlin, why don’t you relax? This bloke hasn’t done anything to you except be rich and mildly condescending in your presence. That isn’t a mortal sin.’ And despite this seemingly good internal piece of advice, I couldn’t manage it. My guard was up. I had to keep you at arm’s length. I had to. Why, I didn’t know. Maybe the thousand and one other blonde-haired, blue-eyed savior types I couldn’t manage to put off. Maybe something else. Now I know. I know. It was because on some basic instinctual level I understood that I couldn’t fucking trust you.”

His voice rose as he spoke until it was not quite a shout, last words ringing through the flat.

“Merlin,” Arthur said, that bowie knife twisting. “I’m sorry. I didn’t…”

Merlin cut him off. “But you did know. I told you. You had…” he shook his head. “In that moment, I couldn’t have hidden how much the idea of reporting scared me if I tried. If you missed it…I understand if you don’t like me. I’ve certainly done nothing to endear myself to you. But I wouldn’t do this to someone I hated.” He sucked in a ragged breath; one hand caught in his hair. “What do you want to hear? That I’m sorry? That I’m sorry I can’t manage to be nice to you, that I assume the worst of you even when you’re harmless, even when you mean well? Then I’m sorry! I’m sorry, but you don’t need to go proving me right!”

He put his back to Arthur, pulling up the collar of his sweatshirt in an apparent effort to mop up his tears and hide his face. Percy stepped forward and put an arm around Merlin’s shoulder. The technique was beautiful.

Even with Merlin’s face hidden, he waited a second so Merlin could sense the heat and breadth of his presence, and then dropped his arm over Merlin’s shoulder, tugging Merlin gently to his side. Merlin looked almost diminutive in comparison.

“Let’s go back to 3D for a minute and calm down,” he said softly.

He and Leon exchanged one of their myriads of meaningful looks and Leon stayed behind, leaning against the door as Percy guided Merlin out.

“Bad timing,” Leon said. “Couldn’t have chosen a worse moment to be a prick.”

“I didn’t mean…” Arthur started.

“It doesn’t matter what you meant. What you meant isn’t the point,” Gwaine said from the couch, drawing a tired hand over his face.

“Like you can talk,” Arthur said bitterly.

“I can’t,” Gwaine muttered. “That’s why I said it.”

“He has been a dick to me like so much! So much! That’s his primary mode of being where I’m concerned, and I get shit for this one thing?” Arthur asked.

There was the heavy, uncomfortable silence experienced when no one was on your side. Arthur did what he did whenever he suspected he was wrong. He dug in his heels.

“He’s always hysterical, he gets snippy about nothing,” he said doggedly. “He acts like I’m the literal antichrist. I haven’t done anything to him…”

“So, you’re mad he doesn’t like you?” Gwaine asked. He looked so weary when he was right, tapping his phone against his thigh, looking out the dark window.

Arthur thought about the lividness of green lipstick against a white collar.

“No, that isn’t it,” he snapped.

“You’re mad that last night, he softened a little, you thought you were making progress, and now that progress is gone,” Leon suggested. “What did you expect would happen, Arthur? Honestly?”

He said it like Leon said everything. Without malice or judgement. Just plain sense. Arthur threw out his hands, helpless, and began pacing again. The antique rug in the dining room was something that had originally been in Camelot but had ended up in storage and had eventually migrated to the flat when Arthur moved out. It was probably priceless. Arthur’s pacing habit had already worn a track along the left side, just another thing he’d ruined.

“How do you know what happened last night?” Arthur asked lowly. “Did he tell you?”

“Not exactly,” Leon said, glancing at Gwaine, arms crossed. “But enough.”

Gwaine sighed. “You tried to do a good thing, and it backfired. It’s not going to kill you to admit it.”

“And you would know?” Arthur regretted saying it. It felt like kicking a man after knocking him down.

“I would know.”

“I just don’t get why he wouldn’t want to report…” Arthur said helplessly. “It seems like he’d be happy if the people who hurt him were unable to hurt anyone else. That seems like the right thing. Right?”

“Maybe under normal circumstances,” Leon said gently, “But it doesn’t really matter why he didn’t want to report it. It doesn’t matter that maybe you would want to report it if that had been you.”

“It almost was me,” Arthur said. “Who’s to say that witch wouldn’t have cursed me, if she couldn’t get to him?”

“But she didn’t,” Leon continued. “She cursed Merlin. And he gets to decide. All right? It’s like when you went to rehab. Morgana drove you there, but you made the choice to get better.”

On the couch, Gwaine winced. Only Leon seemed able to bring up delicate topics with the appropriate balance of straight-forwardness and grace. Arthur went over to Gwaine and held out his hand for his phone. “I’m not going to call anyone with it,” he said quietly. Gwaine only hesitated for a second before he set it in Arthur’s palm.

The missed calls displayed on the lock screen would only make him spiral, so Arthur tucked the phone in his back pocket without even powering it on.

He wished he could step backward in time, to before he knew what it was like for Merlin to be so close. As he scrubbed through that memory, and those moments last night, he realized that Merlin had never touched him. Not once. It had always Arthur reaching out and Merlin stepping back.

It didn’t mean anything.

“Where were you guys anyway?” he asked.

Leon’s answer was uncharacteristically short. “Out. Have you two made up?”

Gwaine and Arthur exchanged a glance, Gwaine’s brows bolted in a pensive frown. “In a manner of speaking,” Gwaine said.

Leon sighed and came over to flop on the couch next to Gwaine, sliding past Arthur to do so. His curly hair was frizzy with rain, shoulders of his hoody damp.

“How was the library?” he asked Gwaine.

Gwaine’s answer, also short. “Enlightening. What was with those texts you guys sent me? You were really freaking me out.”

Leon frowned and sat up. “What texts?”

Gwaine dug in his pocket for his own phone, opened it up and tilted the screen toward Leon. “See?” Leon pulled out his phone and reciprocated. “I didn’t send those. And Perce didn’t either. We were together the whole time. I would’ve seen him do it. Phantom texts.”

He sounded amused.

“Weird,” Gwaine grunted.

It was more than that, though, Arthur thought. It was the loss of another script. First, it had been the script of the family. It had been smoke, billowing black on a tv screen and dirty in his father’s coat, Uther’s hands shaky as they pressed Arthur’s child soft cheek, shaking his head as Arthur attempted to ask, and then ask again. Where’s mom? Dad, where’s mom? Simple enough to see how that one had broken down. It had altered further with the addition of Morgana, wild and grinning. She made him believe he was powerful, truly capable of fulfilling the purpose his father foresaw for him.

It had been that purpose that had flaked away next, gold leaf chipping to reveal the fraud of an ordinary face. He wasn’t as good as everyone to believed him to be. He wasn’t as brave. He wasn’t as untouchable. He was lonely, and helpless, and so scared to boot. Ruined for the weight of the crown, with no clue what had ruined him.

And no one really knew. Morgana got the closest, slurping strawberry milkshakes with him in decrepit diners, letting him be not okay.

But he couldn’t fully articulate it to anyone else. That he wasn’t what they understood him to be. This was what he had been so terrified of – the disappoint of failing to live up to expectations he had never chosen for himself.

He had thought maybe he had figured out how to be a version of that golden person, again. Be what somebody needed, even if they didn’t necessarily know it. But he had screwed that up, too.

“What do I do?” he asked.

Leon glanced up. Arthur thought maybe he had been standing in the middle of the floor, thinking hard, for some time. “Just my opinion, but I think apologizing might make a good start.”

“How do I apologize?” Arthur asked.

Gwaine snorted.

Arthur sighed. “No, I mean I already tried to say I’m sorry, and he didn’t want to hear that. So…what am I supposed to say?”

“Maybe ask what you can do to fix it. Whatever that is. And that you get it if he maybe doesn’t want to…you know…” Leon gestured inarticulately. “Be in your vicinity for a while.”

“But he…” Arthur started.

“Mate,” Gwaine interrupted. “That’s a whole other thing. One thing at a time. This first. Then that.”

“I just don’t get why he doesn’t like me,” Arthur said sulkily.

“Maybe that’s not about you either,” Leon suggested.

“And still,” Gwaine added. “Not the point here.”

They were right. Arthur knew it. He thought about calling Uther back and decided that was damage control that could wait until tomorrow.

“I’m starving,” Leon announced, pushing himself upward. “I think I’m going to make dinner. Either of you in the mood for anything in particular?”

“Er…stir fry?” Gwaine suggested. Arthur stayed silent. He was rarely in the mood to eat anything. The McDonald’s he had managed to stomach earlier had given him indigestion. Or maybe that was just the anxiety.

It had grown almost impossible to tell.

“That’s easy enough,” Leon said, ambling over to the kitchen and beginning to bang through Arthur’s cupboards as if he weren’t the one who had organized them.

“I’ll go tell Perce and Merlin that we’ll be eating soon,” Gwaine said, standing too. “I’ll be back in a few. They’ve probably cancelled that match tonight, huh?”

And just like that, the oddness of the day dissolved into a semblance of normality. Arthur sat down on the couch and flipped on the tv, shuffling through channels until he stumbled onto something unoffensive. The match had been postponed, as Gwaine had predicted.

If he focused on Leon humming and clanking in the kitchen and the give of the couch at his back, he could almost relax. Could almost pretend they weren’t moving toward something with shape and size too gigantic and strange for Arthur to really understand.

Chapter Text

Percy sat Merlin down on the couch in the guys’ dark flat, then went promptly to the jar he had left on the side table, lifting it to his face before he reached to turn on the lamp. Merlin used the time to gather himself, wiping off his damp cheeks.

He hated that he cried when he was angry. It was miserable and humiliating, and it reminded him that his anger was the other thing. The reaction. There was always a why to his anger and it was the why he couldn’t stand, couldn’t face. The anger was easier.

If he could just be angry, that would be easier.

But he couldn’t. His body betrayed him, and there were always tears.

Percy clicked on the hideous Groupon lamp and ambled back over to the couch, sinking down next to Merlin. He didn’t say anything, holding the jar in both his hands, turning it a little. Merlin stifled a teary hiccup, the sound disproportionately large in the quiet warmth of the flat. Somewhere in the building, the heater rumbled, and if he listened, he could hear the rain still lashing against the windows.

He hiccupped again. “I’m going to get a glass of water,” he said finally.

Percy reached over and grabbed his arm before he could stand. “Merlin,” he said, “Look.”

Merlin hiccupped again, weary beyond all belief. Magic usually didn’t take much out of him. But he had never exerted magic of this size before. He still wasn’t sure how exactly he had done it, or what exactly he had done. Caused the blackout, almost certainly, though according to Gwen it hadn’t affected places like hospitals. That sounded like control, and it was most likely a good thing.

Except Merlin knew he hadn’t been in a headspace where control was even an option. It had been like that day in Ealdor, that feeling of finally letting go, except he hadn’t been conscious of that release until Kilgharrah pointed it out to him.

The whole thing had probably been triggered by what Mordred had shown him.

No, it had definitely been triggered by what Mordred had shown him. It felt like his self – his soul or his being or however the fuck you wanted to define it – was a house, and he had only been living in one room. Mordred’s revelation had knocked down all the walls, and now all Merlin was aware of was space. Infinite space. Rooms and ruins and wings of which he had not realized were there…less a house, and more a castle, so vast a wave of dizziness swept through Merlin when he contemplated venturing into it. The idea of moving beyond the safe, comfortable room in which he had been living into whatever lay beyond it…

Merlin had never before considered the room of his own mind a safe or comfortable or even comprehensible space. His perception had changed.

Everything had changed.

And Percy wanted him to look at a bug.

Merlin didn’t voice any of this. “What is it?” he asked.

“There’s two bugs now,” Percy said, voice soft with awe. “Wait, no, look...look. Three.” He turned the jar so Merlin could better see, the little bits of twig and leaf he had gathered from the houseplants he had deemed safe shifting to reveal he was right.

Merlin counted the beetles crawling and fluttering against the glass. “No look,” he said, pointing with his pinkie. “Four. And they’re glowing.”

Lightning bugs glowed. That was their whole thing.

But these bugs were luminescent, brighter than any real-life bugs Merlin had ever seen. “Open the jar,” he said.

Anyone else might have protested. Percy just unscrewed the lid. The lightning bugs immediately took flight, bobbing toward the ceiling, glowing gently, tiny flickers of yellow-green light. Both Percy and Merlin tilted their chins back to keep sight of them. As they watched, the four glows became six, and then eight.

“Holy shit,” Percy said, in that same still, soft voice. “Are they just going to keep multiplying until they coat the ceiling?”

“Probably not,” Merlin said. He could feel the tug of his magic in them. Their possibility, and their limit. Percy looked to him, and he explained. “My magic allowed that first bug to exist, right? The spell I used had parameters. Limits. Its size, for example. The fact that it’s a lightning bug, not a ladybug. Things like that. But magic is a wild thing. It expands to fit the size of its container; it defies your expectations for it. Even when it’s yours, or it comes from you, there are limits to your control.”

He felt like Gaius, explaining with sober wonder the mystery of this force that had dictated the course of his life. His existence, really, in more ways than he had initially understood.

“Does that make sense?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Percy said. “It’s like parents and kids. Your magic comes from you, but it exists separate from you.”

“Sort of,” Merlin said, settling back into the couch.

“Oh! You were going to get a glass of water.” Percy set down the jar and leapt up before Merlin could protest. He lifted his head to watch Percy go into the kitchen.

“I don’t have the hiccups anymore, it’s okay,” Merlin called.

The rattle of glassware and running water answered him.

Percy returned, handing the cup to Merlin. Unlike the dishware in Arthur’s flat, this cup was plastic and pink and looked as if it had originally come with apple slices and a toy. Merlin took a sip, let the slightly warm water settle his stomach.

“I’m sorry I lost it like that,” he said finally. “That must’ve been scary.”

“Why?” Percy asked.

Merlin frowned at him. The question was genuine, Percy’s pale brows hitching with patient inquiry as he grabbed one of the crocheted blankets sitting on the couch end and draped it over Merlin’s shoulders.

“Why?” Merlin repeated dumbly. Percy nodded, tugging the blanket more firmly around Merlin’s shoulders. Above their heads, the eight lightning bugs had become twelve.

“Well, because you just found out I had magic,” Merlin started slowly.

“Yes, I know. You made the bug for me.”

“Which was fine, and you know, small. Not mind-boggling. And then you came with me to the thrift shop, and whatever happened, happened, and then I…and then I…well, I guess I turned off the whole city for a second. Not like the people, but…everything else,” he finished. “That’s a big thing. You know? And I started acting crazy…” Gwen hated when he used that word, he corrected himself, “I started acting all erratic, and twitchy, and…I’d understand if you were afraid that I’d go off. I’d understand if…”

you were afraid ofme. He couldn’t finish that thought. If you didn’t want to be around me anymore. If you needed space, or time, or just me gone. Like Will had needed. The magic hadn’t been the problem. The loss of control had been. And Merlin couldn’t blame Will, still. He hadn’t texted Merlin back, since this morning. So, it was still silence.

“I’m not afraid,” Percy said.

“You’re not?”

“Promise.”

Merlin stared down into his empty water cup. “Maybe you should be.”

Percy cocked his head, expression neutral, and waited.

Merlin thought of the painting Percy had shown him, Percy holding tight to the person he loved most, dying. He thought of Percy’s bad dreams, his premonitions. It all made a little more sense now that Merlin had the context. Percy, out of all of the others, seemed to be closest to the edge of what this was. Of what Merlin had done.

Intentionally or unintentionally. He couldn’t decide which it was, or if that mattered.

“Percy…” he said slowly. “What if I told you that hundreds of years ago, you had a life you can’t remember? That Arthur was a prince, and then a king, and you were one of his knights?”

“I’d say the universe is full of infinite possibilities,” Percy said comfortably. “What were you, in this other life?”

“I don’t know. A warlock. Arthur’s servant, then maybe his closest advisor. His closest…friend,” Merlin said. He couldn’t look at Percy.

“Servant?” Percy asked, raising an eyebrow, almost smiling.

Merlin’s head jerked up. “Yes, nobility had servants back then! It was a paid position. Not paid enough. Grueling, at times, taxing, almost always, exasperating constantly.” It came back little by little as Merlin spoke it aloud. If he crept through the house, broke it down room by room, it started to seem less daunting. Still huge, but not overwhelming.

“And Gwaine and Leon? They were there? They were both knights too?” Percy sat a little straighter, eyes lighting up. “And Elyan, as well! Gwen’s brother. Which means she must’ve been there too, right?”

Merlin wasn’t sure if Percy was just playing along or if he actually believed him, but there was no real path out but forward now that he’d started.

“That doesn’t make sense though,” Percy continued thoughtfully. “We never knew Elyan here, in this life. He didn’t go to school with us. He never sat at the round table with us. We never really met him. He died before any of us knew Gwen.”

“You’re looking at it like destiny,” Merlin said. “Like what happened then has to repeat itself note for note, step for step. But it’s magic, all the same, like what I talked about. Expanding to fit its container. Magic, plus people, plus plain stupid chance. All unpredictable elements never wholly within anyone’s control.”

“Even yours?”

Percy’s eyes were careful on Merlin’s face. The table lamp shown in the soft bristles of his hair from behind, like a sort of halo. The lightning bugs had multiplied enough that they cast a light of their own, shining on his face, the light they made soft, the shadows spawned richer.

“You think I did this, Percy? Brought us all back?”

Merlin could read nothing in his voice, the set of his shoulders. “Did you?”

“Yeah,” Merlin said quietly, his throat closing and tears pricking in his eyes. “Yeah, I did. I think I…I think it was like what happened earlier, maybe. And I’ve had it happen before, you know, in this life…” he laughed; it sounded untethered. “Jesus. In this life. Anyway, I’ve had it happen obviously to a lesser extent, when I just…” he held out his hand, closed tight in a fist, and then flung his fist open, as if releasing something “…I just lose it. Gaius has helped me gain better control of my magic, and he did then, too. He was my teacher. It’s just…when I feel something too strongly, the emotion cracks me open. And I’m not like him, or you. That sort of control doesn’t come naturally to me.”

“What could’ve caused an outburst like that?” Percy asked, “Made you want to reset everything?”

The way he said this made Merlin look up at him. He had a hollow, haunted, expression tamped in the corner of his mouth, the same tenseness at his temples that Merlin had seen back at his studio before he had started to paint.

“Something terrible,” Merlin said. “Or the aftermath of something terrible.”

“The end,” Percy said.

Merlin stared straight ahead. Blood in his clothes. Armor and wound. The flat surface of the lake. “Yeah, that.”

“He did die then, like I saw.” Gwaine.

“I wasn’t there when it happened,” Merlin said. “But yes, he did.”

“I was there, though, with him. And Arthur? He died too?”

“In my arms,” Merlin said, words sinking like stones in water.

“Really?”

Merlin had the emptiness in his chest and not much else. He laughed again. “Seems impossible now, doesn’t it? It was impossible then, too. He had to be dying for me to…” but he cut himself off, too close to the why, tears dripping silently down his face. He wiped at them with his sleeve.

“So Gwaine was dying then,” Percy said slowly. “And Arthur too.”

“And Morgana. And Mordred. And too many others, really. God, it was so stupid…the sort of stupid where if it was a film, you’d be screaming at the screen that it didn’t have to be that way. But we all thought we were being so noble, and self-sacrificing, that the ends justified the means, that destiny would save us all…”

“I never believed that” Percy said, frown cut deep in his face, mouth pensive. “I don’t think I ever believed that.”

“Maybe not.”

“And you…remember all this?” Percy asked, turning to him on the couch. “That’s what Mordred revealed to you? How’d he do that? He’s just, like, a little kid.”

Merlin laughed. “I guess he is little, isn’t he? I think he was a key. A sort of backdoor I put in the spell, to unlock…” he gestured at his own forehead “…all of this. But I don’t remember doing any of that, I wouldn’t have had the control, it’s like…it’s like…” he set the cup down and held out both his hands “My magic is one thing, and I am another. But they’re both me. Does that make sense? So, most of the time, the two parts act together in tangent. Except when they don’t. And even when they don’t, they sort of do. Does that make sense?”

“No,” said Percy flatly.

“Well, anyway, that’s what I think happened,” Merlin said, flopping backward. “You’re taking this remarkably well, by the way.”

“Thank you,” Percy said sincerely. He tapped his fingers against his knee. “It all feels true, you know? And maybe that’s stupid. But I’ve had this feeling for a long time, since I was a kid, that there was something to my bad dreams. I’ve spent most of my life trying to convince myself that of course not, that’s impossible. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t.” He nodded his head resolutely, as if deciding something. “And this is better, isn’t it? A second chance? If it isn’t destiny that binds us, then maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s just us, and maybe…it doesn’t have to end the way it did before.” His face was hopeful. “Maybe it doesn’t have to be the way it was before. Right?”

“Yeah,” Merlin said. “That was sort of the point of it. But it might be a little harder than that…this isn’t the second chance. More like the fourth chance.”

Percy’s dreamy expression snapped into sharper focus. “Fourth chance?”

Merlin winced. Thinking about that made the castle loom over him, more than he could cope with in this moment. “Something like that. We’re creatures of habit, I guess. Destiny or no.”

“Or destiny is a little more stubborn than we gave her credit for,” Percy suggested. “Do you…?”

“No,” Merlin snapped, strained. “Well, I mean, yes I do know what happened in those…other lives, obviously…god, that sounds crazy…urgh.” He was crying again, for no reason, and his head had started pounding to boot. “I just…it’s a lot of data. My brain is struggling to catch up.”

“Oh. Okay.” Percy hesitated. “Do you think…Mordred was your lock. Would there maybe be a lock for me, too? Or any of the others? Like Mordred, or something else? Someone else?”

Merlin rested his forehead against his fist, trying to think around his headache. He didn’t have to remember. He didn’t really think he could remember that part, anyway, the intricacies of that portion of the spell something that his subconscious had created from a high ground that existed above the overwhelming tidal wave of his own feeling.

“Probably,” he said finally. “Mordred said it wasn’t him, but…he seemed to have weaseled his way almost entirely out of the forgetting portion of the spell…even I didn’t do that, and I cast it. Would that even be something you’d want to know, Perce?” He twisted his head to look at Percy. “Something you’d want to remember?”

Percy shrugged one gigantic shoulder. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”

He bit his lip, thinking. The lightning bugs glowed overhead.

“I think you should tell Arthur,” he said.

Merlin’s heart nearly stopped for shock. “Are you kidding me? Right now? All of it? I think he’d have a conniption.”

“No,” Percy said, frustrated. “I just mean…I think you should tell him what Uther did to you this morning. You don’t have to explain why his going to Uther made you so upset, like you don’t owe it to him, but I think it might help if you did.”

“Perce,” Merlin said. “If I tell Arthur why Uther confronted me this morning, I’d have to tell him why. I’d have to tell him I’ve got magic.”

“Then tell him you’ve got magic.”

The idea felt larger than anything else he had contemplated this evening. Larger than what Mordred had shown him. Larger than anything Merlin had done.

“This,” Percy gestured generally, at the lightning bugs and Merlin and the last few hours and the truth that was now out in the open between them, “Is not the sort of secret that just stays kept. It’s bigger than that. But you know that right?”

Merlin didn’t answer, and that was an answer in itself.

“I wouldn’t tell him all of it. I think maybe I’m one of the only people in the world who wouldn’t react poorly to being told they were a knight in a past life, and that the person telling me was the person who had allowed me to come back…well, a fourth time,” Percy tipped his head from side to side, ruminating. “Second, third, and fourth time, I guess. But you can tell him about the magic, at least. That’s a start. Right?”

Merlin considered this. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t have to do anything. It’s your…stuff.”

“It isn’t, though. It belongs to all of us. I just…made that choice for us.”

I would’ve voted yes,” Percy said, “If we’d gotten a vote. But that’s all past, now. It can’t be undone.”

“It sure as fuck cannot.” Merlin thought some more, narrowed his eyes at Percy. “How about this – I’ll make a deal with you.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“I’ll tell Arthur about this morning, about my magic…” just saying it aloud caused an involuntary full-body shudder “…You show Gwaine that painting.”

Percy contemplated this for a handful of seconds. Then he looked Merlin in the face, unwavering. “All right, I will. Magic for painting." He paused, as if something had occurred to him suddenly. "Have I invited you to my show yet?”

“You have not.”

“Damn. I meant to. I kept forgetting. Anyway, it’s beginning of December. You should come.”

Before Merlin could respond, the flat’s front door creaked open, and Gwaine stuck his head inside. “Leon’s going to make stir fry,” he said. “If you all want to eat. Or I can bring over a plate.” His eyes skirted over Merlin.

“I love Leon’s stir fry!” Percy announced, standing up. “That’s the best thing he makes. Merlin?” He turned to Merlin, still prostate on the couch. “You good?”

Not really, Merlin thought.

“I will be,” he said instead. “Give me a second. I should probably text Gwen and let her know that I didn’t kill Arthur.”

“What the hell.”

Gwaine had seen the lighting bugs. There were about a hundred now. They seemed to have stopped multiplying.

Percy’s attention snapped to Gwaine, alarmed, and Merlin laughed. “He knows, Perce, it’s okay. I slipped last night.”

“Oh. You know?” Percy asked Gwaine.

Gwaine tore his eyes from the ceiling. “Yeah. I know. He told you?”

“He told me. And Leon.”

“Gwen knows too, obviously,” Merlin added. “And Morgana.”

They all sat in the knowledge that everyone knew this secret except for Arthur. About why everyone knew this secret except for Arthur. Only Merlin could say that they were being ungenerous about Arthur’s potential response.

I thought I knew you.

Merlin wasn’t sure that he was being ungenerous. He didn’t say it. The deal had already been struck.

“I’ll be over in a minute,” he said instead.

“Okay,” Percy said, going over and herding Gwaine back into the hall. The lightning bugs seemed content on the ceiling, not attempting any escape. “We’ll see you in a few minutes.”

“Okay.”

He dug out his phone. Pressed it briefly to his aching forehead. Tried to resolve himself to...all of it. Any of it. He thought of Kilgarrah, trapped beneath the city's surface. He thought of Gaius, and his own mother, and his father, and Will, and everyone.

"What was I thinking?" he murmured to himself. His magic was quiet, a sedate hum, like a cat nudging his arm. He hadn't been thinking. That was the whole thing. That was why this was such an impossible mess. He hadn't been thinking at all. He had been feeling. And his feeling had always been too much for him. How did he fix this? Was this a thing that could be fixed?

Chapter Text

It had been about an hour. Merlin hadn’t appeared. Gwaine sat at Arthur’s island counter, frowning at the front door.

“Hey, you good?”

Gwaine realized he had been tapping his fork rapid fire against the side of his plate for a minute, maybe longer, and stopped. “Sorry.”

Percy took the fork from him and set it on his empty plate. Leon and Arthur were both over on the couch. Arthur had gotten out an antique chess set so Leon could use the pieces to demonstrate the inner-family political drama of the show currently playing in the background on Arthur’s tv.

“I want to go talk to him,” Gwaine said. “Is that a good idea?”

Percy sighed, rubbing a hand over his head. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea. Necessarily.”

“Perce.”

Percy had that constipated look on his face he only got when he had an opinion with which he knew Gwaine wouldn’t agree. Gwaine nudged him with his elbow. “Go ahead, spit it out. I’m a big kid.”

“Why do you want to talk to him?”

“Because I hate all this weirdness,” Gwaine said, trying to catch Percy’s gaze and failing. Instead, his attention skirted over Gwaine’s shoulder, catching on the coffee maker and the dirty dishes piled in the sink and the open cupboard still neatly half-stacked with plates, unable to quite settle. “I hate that I fucked up…I just want things to get back to normal. What’s that look on your face?”

“I don’t have a look on my face.”

“Yes, you do. It’s the one where your chin gets messy and your forehead gets painful,” Gwaine said, flicking his fingers in reference to his own face. Percy finally looked at him, and the look deepened. “Yeah, that one.”

“I don’t want to make it weirder,” he said.

“Weirdness is already here, mate. Might be weirder if you don’t say whatever it is you’re thinking,” Gwaine said, scooting his stool closer. “C’mon. It’s me. I’m not going to be fazed, promise.”

Percy sighed down at his lap, picking at one of the many threadbare holes in his jeans. The jeans had not been light wash when Percy bought them but had been worn so many times that they had lost their color and their shape and were pretty much held together by sheer force of will.

Leon had once tactfully suggested that if Percy didn’t want to throw out the pants, maybe he should not wear them in public anymore. Percy had asked what was wrong with the pants, why shouldn’t he wear them out, there weren’t any holes in the important places, and Leon had said with only a hint of exasperation, It’s a lot of thigh, Percival. That’s all. Percy’s response had been, with almost naïve confusion,So?.

At that point, Leon had given up and taken Percy to the formal lunch with Leon’s sister in what he called, with the note of quiet loathing you reserved for a friend’s terrible significant other whom they refused to cut loose, Percy’s zombie pants.

Leon had more loathing in his body for these pants than he had for any person. Funny, because Percy loved them so much. At first go around, Percy didn’t seem to be the sort of person who would invest so much meaning into any inanimate object, but once you got to know him, it all started to line up.

The pastel-colored hair. The tortured artist vibes. His almost pathological concern for the bugs he encountered either in his living space or out in the wild. Gwaine had once spent an afternoon trailing after him under an umbrella while Percy toured the block around their building, rescuing worms from the sidewalk by depositing them back into the dirt.

He had named the decrepit washer and dryer units in the basement. He had named Gwaine’s truck and had been borderline appalled when he discovered Gwaine had not named it and didn’t plan to do so. He knew the names of the workers at every food truck he frequented in the city (and he seemed to frequent them all).

So, of course he wouldn’t throw out this one decrepit pair of jeans. It was obvious once you knew.

Gwaine turned on his stool, nudged Percy’s knees with his. “Go on then,” he said, lowering his voice. “Out with it.”

“Why’d you kiss him?”

It was the one question Gwaine wasn’t prepared to answer and hadn’t expected Percy to ask. He sucked in a sharp breath.

“I mean, I get it, I guess,” Percy continued, over any potential reply. “Or I’m trying to get it, and I just don’t. Why him, Gwaine?”

His brow was furrowed with genuine question.

Gwaine resisted the urge to reach out and start tapping with his fork again. He didn’t know what to do with his hands, consumed with the same nervous energy that had followed him around since this morning.

Percy had always side-stepped the why of Gwaine’s entanglements. Gwaine had always thought the topic itself was just not one Percy knew how to broach or cared to bring up. He would drive hours to pick up Gwaine and the stuff he had managed to salvage from a fresh ex. He would sit on the floor and eat pizza with Gwaine while he watched every movie Meg Ryan had ever been in, even though Percy did not like romcoms or most movies in general. But he always left that issue of why, the real thing, untouched, never pushing it, waiting for Gwaine to bring it up or talk it through if he wanted. But Gwaine never did. And so, Percy never asked. Or he hadn’t asked, until now.

“He’s not really your type, traditionally speaking. You usually go for blondes. And women. Although maybe it was all that magic flying about…” he cut a glance back at Arthur, who was still entirely absorbed by Leon’s infodump. “…but I don’t think it was. Was it?”

Gwaine could feel the heat creeping up the back of his neck. “Why are you asking this now?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I should’ve asked it before now. I didn’t want to, in case, you know, you weren’t ready. But maybe you aren’t ever going to want to talk about it, and maybe whether you should talk and whether you want to talk are two different things.”

“It doesn’t really matter, does it?” Gwaine asked. “The why? Those are intentions, not actions.”

“Intentions drive actions,” Percy said matter-of-factly. They’d had this debate before. Both of them had been a little more inebriated at that point in time. Gwaine’s heel started jittering against the bottom rung of his stool. He wasn’t sure he could handle this conversation sober, or at all.

“I guess I was drunk,” he said finally. “And…I don’t know. What are the usual reasons someone decides to kiss someone else? Because they’re there? Because…” He trailed off, frowning.

“I don’t know how you expected to talk to Merlin about this if you can’t even articulate it to me,” Percy said.4

Gwaine flinched on reflex. “Ouch, Percy.”

“Sorry.” He did not sound particularly sorry.

“It was the wrong decision, and I regret it. That’s what matters,” Gwaine said, trying to sound like he believed this even a little bit, even at all.

“Sure,” Percy said.

“What’s with the third degree?” Gwaine asked. “Why do you care so much now?”

Percy gave him an unamused look. “You’re deflecting.”

“I am not

“You are, though. You’re doing it now. It’s like your patented move.”

“You’ve studied my conversation tactics?” Gwaine asked.

“I noticed them,” Percy said. “That’s what you do with friends. You find out their blind spots, and then you guard them.” He shrugged.

“Feels more like you’re exploiting them to me,” Gwaine grumbled.

Percy shrugged again, unbothered by his lack of mercy.

“I like it when people need me,” Gwaine said at last. “It makes me feel…necessary. Useful.”

Useful?” Percy said.

“When you say it like that, it sounds bad.”

“You’re kissing people because it makes you feel useful,” Percy repeated.

“That isn’t what I said.”

“Hm.”

“I didn’t claim it was healthy.”

“I know you didn’t, because if you had, I would’ve told you that you were delusional,” Percy said plainly.

Gwaine scrubbed at his face. “I fucked up, I know I fucked up, and even if it wasn’t entirely my fault - don’t look at me like I’m a kicked puppy, Percival, you know I hate that - I just want to fix it.”

“That makes sense,” Percy said, still looking at Gwaine with the particular stoic empathy that drove Gwaine up a wall.

That’s for old people crossing the street, or kids selling fundraiser chocolate, or actual kicked puppies Gwaine had informed him once. Don’tpoint that at me.

“You don’t have this problem,” Gwaine said. “How do you manage?”

Percy had only ever had one real break up. It had been so mutual and amicable that Gwaine was almost sure that he’d missed it. The girl still sent Percy Christmas cards.

“It’s pretty easy,” Percy said. “I don’t snog strangers. Or friends. Keeps me pretty well clear of the drama.”

He was picking at his jeans again. They really would dissolve to nothing if he kept that up. “Is that better?” Gwaine asked.

Percy’s eyes snapped suddenly back to Gwaine’s face. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve found that it’s a sight better than the other thing.”

“But I should go talk to him?” Gwaine asked.

Percy’s shoulders caved a little. Maybe with resignation. “Sure. As long as you’re not going to do…” he gestured at Gwaine generally. “…your whole savior thing about it. Drop the swagger.”

“I do not swagger, how dare you say that to me.”

This elicited an almost smile. “Just…be normal. Most people don’t need to be saved, Gwaine. Even if they do…we aren’t the ones who are going to save them. That’s not in us to do.”

Gwaine had heard this line too. Percy kept repeating it to him like if he said it enough, maybe Gwaine would finally absorb the truth of it. It hadn’t yet worked. Gwaine kept hoping it would.

“All right, captain. Thanks for the advice.” He hopped down from the stool.

Percy rolled his eyes. “Don’t be an asshole, asshole.”

“Sure thing. I’m going to take a plate over, too.”

Gwaine felt Arthur’s eyes on his back as he went to leave and ignored it. Arthur could think what he wanted to think. He worried his own misconceptions like a dog with a bone. No one could persuade him to drop it until he was good and ready.

Besides, Arthur wasn’t the only one who needed to do an apology tour tonight.

Chapter Text

Merlin had not moved from his position on the couch, slouched down now so he could watch the ceiling, face upturned. He had his phone in his hand, still, and had tugged the blanket Percy had tucked around his shoulders around himself more securely.

Gwen had just been leaving Lance’s when he had called her phone, half-planning on just leaving her a message for her to listen to once she got to a charger, but she had picked up.

“Oh, thank god,” she said. “Tell me staying the night at Lance’s is a bad idea.”

His silence following that remark had been monumental.

“Get your mind out of the gutter, please, I meant like on his couch,” Gwen snapped. She sounded out of breath, her voice resounding as if she were outside. “He has a concussion, and I’m worried about him. He doesn’t have any roommates or anything, it’s just him in that little flat, and you should see this building, Merlin, it is creepy. It’s the type of place where if he died, they wouldn’t find his body for weeks. You know that happened to some woman, and they only found her because the automatic payments for her rent stopped when her bank account was emptied? She was just rotting in that place for years

A car door slammed.

Merlin let this statement sit. “Cheerful thought,” he said.

“Oh, well, this whole day has been a trip and a half. Sue me if I’m stuck on morbid bullshit,” Gwen said. He heard a seatbelt click. “I am worried about him. I said I was going to call him every hour and half just to make sure he hadn’t died in his sleep.”

“If it’s any comfort, I think your involvement eliminates any risk of Lance becoming a lonely apartment corpse,” Merlin told her.

“Thanks,” Gwen muttered. “How’re you, then? Have you killed Arthur? I assume that’s why you’re calling. I’m no good with blood, we won’t be able to hide it, might as well go on the run now.”

“I have not killed him. I did yell at him, though,” Merlin said, flopping his elbow over his eyes.

“All right, so the usual.”

Merlin ignored this jab. “And I cried. It was absolutely humiliating. Could barely get a word out before I started blubbering like I was auditioning for a soap opera.” He put on an affected posh accent. “Oh, Stuart, how could you? I’ve given my life for this family, your family, and you throw it all away -- by sleeping with my brother? Cut scene, the brother’s my identical twin, I play both actors, obviously. And it’s a big thing about whether or not Stuart knew he was cheating, roll credits, that’s the season finale wrapped.”

Gwen giggled. “That isn’t half bad.”

“Thank you. I do know my daytime television. Speaking of being on the run – have you heard anything more from Morgana?”

Gwen made a little worried humming noise and didn’t answer. “No. This is idiotic, Merlin. It’s all just…bonkers. I don’t know. She doesn’t need to be hiding out like some criminal. It scares me. Like, Morgause should definitely face consequences. Interpersonal, communications-driven consequences. And that girl, well…if she did it because Morgause told her to do it…or if she did it on her own…”

“I don’t care. I’m not getting anyone punished for a magic related crime. I’m certainly not going to let that asshole decide to get justice for me,” Merlin said.

“You mean Uther? Or his son?”

“Arthur isn’t an asshole. Might be able to see past his own shoes if he was.”

“That’s a nearly ringing endorsement, coming from you. Especially considering…”

“I don’t really want to talk right now about what happened last night,” Merlin interrupted. “I get it. No more hog-tying myself to railroad tracks just because I can. It’s like you said. It’s been a day and a half.”

“I’ve got this really bad feeling it’s not going to be ending anytime soon,” Gwen said. “Sun will rise tomorrow, and this day will just keep on going. It’s about to be the longest day of our lives.”

“You’re not wrong about that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s really something I should tell you in person,” Merlin said. “I went back to that thrift store today, like I said I was going to do.”

“I thought you weren’t going until tomorrow? I was going to come with you!”

“Hey, I didn’t think I’d invited you.”

“Hurtful,” she pouted. “I’d invited myself.”

“Yeah, well, anyway, my plans changed. And I found some things out. About…everything, I guess.”

“That’s exciting,” Gwen said, sounding tired but chipper.

Now wasn’t the time to get into it. He would just worry her, and she was already worried about Morgana, and Lance. She didn’t need to be worried about him, too.

He had never thought himself wholly worthy of her worry. Considering what he knew now that sentiment applied doubly. He felt the castle looming.

“Speaking of things that we need to talk about in person,” Gwen said into the silence. “Lance.”

“What about him?”

“Before he fainted today, he said he heard a voice. Your voice, saying his name.” She paused.

Merlin’s chest squeezed tight. The shadow cast by the castle threatened to swallow him whole. “That sounds familiar.”

“You don’t know anything about this?”

“Have I been projecting my voice into your coworker’s head for shits and giggles?” Merlin asked, rubbing at the bridge of his nose tiredly. “No. Not consciously at least.”

“I think you should talk to him. Like in person. If it’s okay with you, I want to give him your number,” Gwen said. “I mean, we can talk about it more when I next see you, but I think it would be a good idea.”

Merlin did not like the feeling that he was playing a chess match with his own mind. He especially did not like feeling as if he were being outmaneuvered. He had the sneaking suspicion that he did know why Lance had experienced his episode but trying to access that knowledge was like trying to read a story problem for a maths test. Just straight-up incomprehensible. Merlin had always been shit at maths.

“Sure,” he said. Because what else could he say? It was like he’d realized when talking to Percy earlier. At this point, the only way out of this mess was through. “Night, Gwen. Be safe. Text me when you get home.”

“Night. Love you. You’re very brave.”

He laughed at her earnestness. “Thanks, mate. Love you too.”

They’d hung up and now he sat there, mind drifting, staring up at the lightning bugs glowing on the ceiling. He half-thought about calling Morgana, or maybe texting her, but he wasn’t sure what to say, or if he had any right to say it. If he wanted to say it at all.

hey, good luck with your sister?

you know, the one who sicced one of her initiates to cast a truly demented curse on me?

I think I might have an idea whyshe did it…

but hey, actually, if she’s there, can you ask her why she thought a love spell was going to do the fucking trick? and why did she want me to snap out of it anyway? while you’re at it, ask her how she’s walking around with her memory (apparently) intact. does she happen to know why I would bring her back if she was only going to be a pain in my ass?

Too much to get into, really. He actually thought he knew the answer to that last one, too. Morgause was here for the same reason as Alvarr was. To give Morgana a person that would care about her, always, and make her a priority. He should’ve predicted that Morgause would make whatever this was even more hellish and complicated. Maybe he had known.

He felt so out of his depth.

This would all be a hell of a lot easier if Arthur had just kept his mouth shut. It was all going to be complicated anyway. That was inevitable. But a warrant out on one of the active participants in this little mess was only going to make things harder.

And what was Uther doing, anyway? What was he playing at? Because he knew, too. He knew Merlin’s other name. He knew about Merlin’s magic. He remembered at least enough about his past lives to remember that, trust Uther to retain the most inconvenient detail.

So, Merlin’s thoughts had spiraled, taking him nowhere, helping nothing.

Then a knock had come softly at the door. He lifted his head as Gwaine entered, plate in hand. “Hungry?” he asked.

Merlin didn’t reply, just reached out his hand for the plate. “Thanks.”

Gwaine hovered for a second, looking awkward. “Can I sit?”

“Yeah, sure. Go for it.” Merlin unwrapped the plate Gwaine had brought and began stuffing pieces of chicken and broccoli in his mouth with his fingers.

“Sorry, I forgot utensils,” Gwaine said.

“It’s okay,” Merlin said with his mouth full. “I’m sorry for being feral right now. God, I was hungry.” He paused, chewing. “On second thought, could I maybe get a fork?”

Gwaine laughed and went into the kitchen, returning with a fork and a couple pieces of paper towel. Merlin wiped off his sticky fingers and continued eating. Gwaine sat down. It was silent for a couple minutes.

“I’m going to lose it if I have to sit here and listen to myself chew any longer,” Merlin said. “Please say something.”

Gwaine said, “I thought we should talk about what happened last night. You know, when neither of us were…” he trailed off.

“Fully with it? A little drunk, wasted on a love spell respectively?” Merlin asked.

Gwaine winced at his bluntness. “Yeah, that.”

“Okay. I figured you’d probably want to talk through it,” Merlin said, scooping some of the veggies up with his fried rice on his fork. He seemed more absorbed with his food than the conversation at hand. “How do you usually process things? Let’s start there.”

“I…” Gwaine blanked. “I guess I usually don’t.”

Merlin snorted. “All right. I fully mean no offense when I say this, but you strike me as an external processer. Like, to the max.”

“Really?”

Merlin finally set his fork down and turned more fully to face Gwaine. “Fine – how about this. When you come home to the end of the day, what do you do?”

“I…shower. I’ll make myself dinner or heat up leftovers. I really don’t understand…”

“No,” Merlin interrupted, waving a hand. “I mean: what do you do first? You come in through the front door. Leon is on the couch.”

“I take off my shoes.”

“Gwaine,” Merlin said exasperatedly. “You’re getting off on being difficult, aren’t you?”

“I swear I’m not. This time.”

Merlin smacked him and Gwaine pretended to flinch.

“Leon says: ‘Hi, Gwaine. How was your day?’” Merlin continued doggedly, smothering a smile.

“This is a really weird role play.”

“You’re making it weird, you asshole. Here, if you’re not going to cooperate: You immediately park yourself on the couch, and you proceed to go over every little detail of what happened that day. You’ve already been thinking about it for most of the commute home. Guess who texted you? Should you set up that meeting with your advisor? You think secretly the girl at the post office girl might have a massive crush on you, but you’re not sure, she probably does, what does Leon think?” Merlin paused for effect, picking up his plate again. “Am I right? Also, spoiler alert, yes the post office girl does have a crush on you. She brings you up every time I go to pick up my packages. It’s bloody annoying.”

Gwaine sat there, stunned. “That’s externally processing?”

“Yes, I’m glad I could help bolster this revelation.”

“Everybody isn’t that way?”

I’m not,” Merlin said. “Neither is Percy. You and Arthur, both external processors to a t.”

“What about Leon?” Gwaine asked.

Merlin shrugged. “I don’t know. Leon is a mystery to us all. He makes a mean stir fry, for whatever that’s worth.”

“How do you know all this?”

Merlin shrugged. “Psychology minor. Plus, learning to read other people is like…” he gestured at himself. “Major coping mechanism.”

“Oh.”

Merlin stabbed at a baby corn, not looking up at Gwaine. “Anyway. You wanted to talk about last night. Go for it.”

“I just…” Gwaine paused. “Geez, mate, what a transition. I’ve got whiplash.”

“Take your time,” Merlin said sedately.

Gwaine frowned up at the lightning bugs bobbing on the ceiling. “You same way too relaxed about this.”

“I’m not,” Merlin said. “This is the ‘acting normal’ portion of my one-man show. Last night was the ‘act out’ portion.”

Gwaine thought of what he said last night to Merlin, in the dark of that living room. You’re a piece of work. Unsurprising to find that in the light, it was still true.

“That’s what it was, then?” Gwaine asked lowly. “What you did? All of it? You were acting out?”

“You know how toddlers throw tantrums when they get really stressed out, because no one ever taught them how to manage their big feelings?” Merlin asked. “That’s sort of what I do. I don’t know how to articulate what I’m feeling, so I…I don’t know. I self-destruct.” He laughed a little, teary. “Psychology minor. I swear to God if I cry again tonight…” he frowned up at the ceiling, blinking rapidly. “Your turn to talk.”

“Why’d you kiss me, then?” Gwaine asked. “Was it really just because I was there?”

“You really don’t pull any punches,” Merlin murmured, facing him. “Yes, partly. And I don't mean that as a jab, or anything, it just..." He sighed. "It’s not that I don’t like you, Gwaine, or that I’m not attracted to you…I’d be surprised to find someone attracted to men who wasn’t attracted to you…it’s just that you were attractive and you where there and I knew that you would help me.”

Gwaine looked back at him, searching his face. “I’m that obvious, am I?”

Merlin’s expression was tragic. “A little bit, yeah.” He really did have an incredibly expressive face, the twist in his dark brows and the terrible empathetic knowing in his eyes all a sort of knife in the chest, the sad press of his mouth letting Gwaine know without looking down that it would be Merlin's fingers he'd find wrapped around the hilt.

Gwaine sighed. “God, that’s embarrassing.”

“It is a little sad, yeah.”

“You’re not helping me, here."

“I thought you’d prefer it if I were honest.”

“You could at least be gentle!” Gwaine exclaimed.

Merlin tipped his head, “I’m not the one who’s going to be gentle with you, Gwaine. You don’t need that from me.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. It means I’m not going to baby you. And it means you don't get to be gentle with me either, anymore. That's what we're going to do. Honesty, not baby-proofed. Okay?"

"You think that'll help?" Gwaine asked, skeptical.

"I think that's just what we are to each other, Gwaine. And it isn't a bad thing. In fact, I'd argue it could be quite the opposite. Congratulations,” Merlin said with faux aplomb. “All and all, I think you made it out pretty unscathed for a run in with me. I’ve finally figured out how to get that lipstick out of clothes, though, if you need help – rubbing alcohol. My mum put me onto it.”

“Do you have a tip for mollifying Arthur?” Gwaine asked. “Because he is still right pissed at me.”

“He can stay mad as far as I’m concerned,” Merlin said archly. “He hasn’t any right to be angry on my behalf. I can manage to hold a grudge quite well by myself if I want to do it. Sorry,” he added to Gwaine. “I’m not going to be helpful with that. I can tell him to leave it alone, but I’m not sure that would do much good.”

Gwaine sighed. “That’s only part of the issue. I am so sick of taking the high ground with him, I can’t…” he stopped himself, shot a guilty look at Merlin.

Merlin shot a finger gun back. “External processor,” he said. “Might try another sounding board for that one, mate. One that’s a little more objective.”

“Yeah, I know,” Gwaine muttered.

“Well, I’d better head back to the place I actually live,” Merlin said, standing. “The others should probably be appearing any second now, anyway.”

He picked up his plate and Gwaine stood to walk him to the door.

Chapter Text

Percy and Leon stood in the kitchen, side by side, finishing cleaning up. Percival emptied the dishwasher while Leon scrubbed at the skillet he had used, his shirtsleeves pushed up over his elbows. Arthur sat at the counter, arms crossed, petulant frown fastened between his brows.

“You could at least let me help,” he said. “It’s my kitchen.”

“You don’t help,” Leon said, shifting the skillet so he could get a better angle to scrub more aggressively. “You engage in a hostile takeover.”

“I do not. Percival, the drinking glasses don’t go there,” Arthur said, reflex pushing him halfway up from his stool before he consciously fastened himself back down again.

“Other glasses are in here,” Percy said, looking over his shoulder at Arthur.

“Yes, but the coffee mugs go on the middle shelf and my mug goes in the front, not the back. Drinking glasses are on the bottom shelf, short ones on the left and tall ones on the right, and wine glasses go on the top shelf,” Arthur recited, interlocking his fingers in front of him so he didn’t bite at his nails.

“Oh.” Percy pulled out the coffee mugs to rearrange them. He knew without asking that Arthur’s was the green mug. “Why do you even have wine glasses?”

“It came with the set,” Arthur muttered. “Merlin uses them to drink sparkling water, he thinks they’re fancy.”

Percy paused for a second, delighted by this fact. “He does? Adorable.”

“It’s asinine,” Arthur muttered. He had a theory that Merlin had only started using the wine glasses because he knew Arthur couldn’t reach the top shelf without standing on his tip toes or getting a stool. So, when Arthur emptied the dishwasher, usually in the morning after Merlin left for work, he had to engage in an almost daily debate with himself about how he would sacrifice his own dignity.

He wasn’t even short; the cupboards were just built without human proportions in mind. It was an embarrassing design flaw, really.

“Adorable,” Percy reiterated. He moved onto the bottom rack of the dishwasher. “Do you stack your plates in a specific order or can I just put them away?”

“The dessert plates go on top of the dinner plates,” Arthur said. “Everyone knows this.”

“Are the dessert plates the little ones?”

Arthur sighed.

At the sink, Leon finished with the pan, toweling it dry. “You almost done, Perce? We should probably head back soon. It’s getting late.”

“Oh, shit, yeah, I forgot I was working a shift tonight.”

“Percival! You didn’t tell me anything about this – you should’ve been sleeping today.”

“Then I would’ve missed all the excitement,” Percy told him. “Anyway, I took a nap.”

“A nap!” Leon exclaimed, distressed.

“And I’ve got an extra Redbull, it was twofer at the shop when I went last,” Percy said, as if this not only amended the situation, but in fact made it ideal.

Arthur watched this exchange without comment. He suspected that Percy’s obtuseness was at least in part an act, put on so he could provoke Leon into getting worked up on his behalf (most likely he found it “adorable”, as he had put it so eloquently earlier), but he was too sneaky about it for Arthur to actually call him out without himself being labeled paranoid.

Also part of Percy’s plan, no doubt.

(Arthur would argue that he was a very trusting person. Too trusting, even. It wasn’t his fault he had eyes).

“All right, evidently I need to put Percy to bed,” Leon said, yanking Percy away from the dishwasher and shoving him toward the door.

“I haven’t done the silverware yet!” But the fact that he was letting Leon herd him toward the door with a giant grin on his face belied this protest.

“You’re ridiculous. Are you aware that you’re an adult?”

“Are you aware you’re not my mum?”

“Clearly someone needs to be!”

“I’ve got a mum, Leon.”

“She doesn’t let you come home for Christmas, she doesn’t count.”

This exchange took place while Percy watched Leon tie his shoes, arms crossed and mouth still wry with barely suppressed amusement.

The door opened as Leon shoved on his left sneaker, and Merlin came inside.

“Oh, there you are,” Percy said. “We were just leaving.”

“Percy has not slept for thirty-two hours!” Leon exclaimed.

Merlin, who still looked worse for wear, face drawn and eyes still puffy from crying, took this information in. “Percival,” he said. “Go to bed.”

“I have two mums,” Percy said. “No wonder I’m so well-adjusted.”

Merlin laughed and Percy looked properly pleased with himself.

“You’re impossible,” Leon muttered. “Come on, let’s go. Good night, Merlin.”

“Night.

Merlin shut and locked the door behind them. The resulting silence felt loud, and large, too big for the flat. Merlin rubbed a tired hand over his face then sat down on the floor to take off his shoes, unknotting the laces with deft fingers.

“You know there’s a whole bench you can sit on, right?” Arthur said. “That’s the reason I put it there.”

“You put it there? Not the interior decorator?” Merlin asked.

“I wouldn’t let anyone else have a say in how I arrange my living space.”

“Right,” Merlin said, grunting as he tugged off his shoe. “You’re a control freak.”

“We’re back to this again then?” Arthur asked quietly.

More silence. The rain had stopped. Merlin got his other shoe off and then just sat there for a minute in the middle of the floor, long legs sprawled out in front of him. Arthur watched as he lobbed one shoe and then the other at the mat by the door, a particular frown rooted between his dark brows. The first shoe bounced off one of his ridiculous platform boots and onto the floor. The other landed in the pile.

“Last night you said we were friends,” he said lowly.

“You remember that do you?”

Merlin looked up at him, expression tired and plain. “Yeah, I do. With some clarity, actually. That and me saying no cops. You never said you wouldn’t call them.”

“To be fair, you ran away before I could say anything.”

Merlin heaved a sigh and pushed himself to his feet, retrieving his wayward sneaker. He frowned moodily down at the pile of shoes, and dropped his on top of it.

“If that’s all you have to say to me, I don’t really see the necessity in continuing this conversation,” he told the pile.

More silence. The heater rattled.

“I shouldn’t have gone to my father,” Arthur said finally. “I know it now. I’m sorry.”

Merlin didn’t look up from the pile, nudging one of Arthur’s galoshes with his toe. He raised an eyebrow, waiting for Arthur to go on.

“It doesn’t matter why you didn’t want to involve the police,” Arthur continued. “It was your choice. I should have listened to you. I was…I was wrong.”

Merlin shot him a crooked smile, half grin and half smirk. “See? That wasn’t so painful, was it? I don’t think I need to sage the flat anymore, the energy is pristine

“You could just say you accept my apology,” Arthur groused. His stomach flipped and his chest hummed. He wiped sweaty palms on his sweatpants. The apology had made him more nervous than he’d anticipated.

“I didn’t say I did, though,” Merlin said, coming over. “Accept your apology.”

He parked himself on the other end of the counter from Arthur.

“Do you?” Arthur asked. Bravely.

Merlin held his gaze, one elbow propped on the counter. He had that same particular frown on his face, studying Arthur as if he weren’t looking at Arthur but searching for something a little beyond him.

“Yeah,” he said. “I think I do, honestly. Didn’t realize it until exactly this moment, sitting here, saying it. But I do.” His expression shifted a little, and he tilted his head. “You look a little weirded out. What, does conflict make you more comfortable?”

No!” Arthur exclaimed, a little too strongly. He cleared his throat. “I mean, no. I just…it’s…it’s the first time you’ve looked at me like I’m not a dog who has shat on the rug, is all.”

“Right, noted, I’ll return to form, then, if you think that’ll help.”

He was teasing him, Arthur thought. He wasn’t sure how to play this game, or if it were a game at all. Felt more like picking across a field of landmines.

“That’s all right, I don’t mind it,” he said slowly.

Merlin nodded, tapping his fingers against the countertop, his peculiar, electric eyes still focused on Arthur’s face. Arthur shifted, suppressing a shiver at the cold flicker of anxiety the scrutiny provoked. He wasn’t sure what he should hide or if he actually wanted to hide it. Wasn’t sure what, if anything, he was giving away.

“What?” he asked, mostly to try and get Merlin to stop looking at him like that.

Merlin turned his hand palm up against the counter, slid his open hand toward Arthur. “I didn’t want to go to the police for a reason,” he said.

Arthur eyed his hand, his pale palm, the slight curl in his fingers, looked back up at Merlin. He appeared totally relaxed, head tipped almost inquisitively to one side.

“Obviously,” Arthur said. “Or it should’ve been obvious. You…don’t have to tell me. Your reasons, I mean.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “I knowthat

Arthur flushed. “I just mean I don’t expect an explanation or anything. Like, you don’t owe that to me. I know you don’t owe that to me. Or anyone.”

“What do you think I owe you?”

Arthur narrowed his eyes at him. “What sort of question is that?”

Merlin’s outstretched hand was far enough from Arthur that he couldn’t be expected to do anything with the gesture, but close enough that if Arthur wanted, if he reached out his hand from his end of the counter, their fingertips would brush.

His fingers convulsed where he had parked them in his lap.

“Theoretically,” Merlin said, “I don’t owe you anything. Right?”

“Right.”

Merlin let this agreement sit, between them, in the palm of his outstretched hand. Arthur’s heart pounded hard in his chest. He wasn’t sure what he was reacting to – the look on Merlin’s face was innocuous, his body language composed, non-threatening.

And yet.

“I think that is right,” Merlin said. “I think…I think maybe I don’t owe you anything at all. Which means that anything I tell you is free.”

“No offense,” Arthur told him, “But you’re being really weird.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot you probably never hung out with the weird kids,” Merlin said thoughtfully, with only the hint of a barb. “You’re not used to how we behave. I think I’ve got a bit of a license to be weird, considering. Might want to give me a pass.”

Arthur let out an involuntary huff of laughter.

“What?” Merlin asked.

“It’s just,” he said, crossing his arms and forcing himself to sober. “I was the weird kid. So, it’s a little bit funny.”

“You were the weird kid?”

“Until Secondary School, yeah,” Arthur said. “Got into fights. Couldn’t make friends. Had night terrors in the dormitories. Dead mom. Textbook weird kid, until my father made me try out for lacrosse.”

“Then you should really be more empathetic to eccentricity,” Merlin said. Arthur just could not read him. What was that look on his face?

“Whatever,” Arthur muttered. “Are you going to tell me what you’re being weird for? Or am I just going to have to live in suspense?”

“I’m gearing myself up to it.” Merlin sucked in a deep breath, his frown resurfacing. It was so, so quiet. “Arthur,” Merlin said. What was that hitch in his voice? “Arthur. I have magic.”

He did not know what he had expected Merlin to say. Probably not this.

Arthur had not really heard him anyway. Hadn’t understood. He just stared at Merlin.

“You…what?”

Merlin closed his hand into a fist, and when he opened it, there was a white rose. Arthur did not know how to conceptualize it. There was no way for the rose to be there, when a second before it had not been. At the very least, there had to be a point of transition, a point between not here and here, but there wasn’t.

The rose was plain fact. It was. As if it had existed, always, permanent as gravity.

Merlin held the flower out to Arthur, haltingly, an artist’s bashful dissatisfaction scrunched into his face. “Sorry,” he said. “It wasn’t supposed to be a rose.”

Arthur, just as haltingly, reached out and took it. It was a perfect long-stemmed rose, the bud just slightly opened, white and earnest as a clean handkerchief, dark green leaves untrimmed, dark thorns dangerous. Still wild. He turned it between his fingers, still in shock. He wasn’t even processing this as real, he didn’t think. The stem was smooth, the petals soft. It didn’t explode in his hand, or turn into a bouquet of poison ivy, or do much of anything, really, besides be what it was.

Without thinking, because he wasn’t thinking, Arthur brought the rose to his nose. And then stopped, whatever functionality his brain still had glitching out.

“My shampoo,” he said.

Merlin, who had been still as stone in his seat, started. “What?”

“It doesn’t smell like a flower, it smells like my shampoo.”

Merlin flushed up to his ears. “It wasn’t supposed to do that either.”

“Don’t you have any control of it?”

“Of course I do,” Merlin snapped. “Just not…” but he stopped, eyes wide as if he had caught himself at the edge of an unexpected precipice. “…I’m nervous,” he amended lamely. “Sue me.”

“Why would you tell me this?”

“So you know,” Merlin said. “And now you do.”

About a million thoughts were running through Arthur’s head concurrently. He had the rose stem turning in his fingers and was not aware of much else besides.

“Earlier,” he said slowly, “You told me that believing I wouldn’t report what happened was the first thing you ever trusted me with.”

Merlin nodded.

“I botched it.”

“Yeah, you really did. But I've done my fair share of fucking up, too.”

The rose was beautiful, perfect in Arthur’s hands. On par with the roses that bloomed in Camelot’s garden, the bushes his mother had planted there, long ago, when Uther had first brought her to the estate. It was probably the loveliest thing anyone had ever let Arthur touch.

“Why would you give me this?” he asked softly.

“I don’t want you to feel guilty,” Merlin replied. “For not telling. Isn’t that the stupidest thing? You could end my life, and that’s what I’m thinking about.”

“Guilty,” Arthur repeated.

He thought about his purpose, that elusive, gilded thing. He thought about crowds with his name on their lips. He thought about shining faces, loving him, just wanting to touch his cloak. He thought about his desperate need to give them something, anything in return that would match the caliber of that devotion.

So far, he’d found nothing to match that substance for its purity, its strength. There was just nothing like it. Except maybe this, which was also given freely, without expectation. Without Arthur having done a thing to deserve it.

He looked back at Merlin finally, met the search in his gaze as best he could, let Merlin discover what he would.

“You talked about debt,” Arthur said. “You gave this to me, right?”

“I did,” said Merlin warily.

“Then I don’t owe it to anyone,” he said. “It’s mine.” He stood up. “I’m going to go get a vase.”

Chapter Text

Arthur didn’t have a vase. He hadn’t needed one, before. People weren’t really in the practice of giving him flowers. Merlin watched him rummage, and then settle on one of the drinking glasses Percy had just put away.

He filled it half up with water at the tap.

“You won’t need to do that,” Merlin said. “It doesn’t need water.”

Arthur turned to him. “What?”

“It doesn’t need water,” Merlin repeated. “It won’t wilt. Or die, really.”

“Oh.” Arthur held up the rose before his eyes again, studying it for any sign of immortality. It just looked like a rose, albeit a perfect one. The thorns were flushed red at the tips. He hadn’t yet managed to prick himself.

He set it in the cup and then placed it in the middle of the counter. “I’ll need to get a vase,” he said. There was a glassworker he followed on Instagram – maybe he could commission a vase and have it delivered.

“I think it looks nice in the glass,” Merlin said.

“Flowers go in vases,” Arthur said, irritated. “Not in drinking glasses.”

“All right, fine,” Merlin said, raising his hands in mock surrender. “It’s your flower.”

Arthur leaned against the sink, arms crossed, looking at the flower, thinking about Merlin.

“What is it?” Merlin asked softly.

Arthur didn’t stir. “I’m just thinking.”

“Always dangerous. Let me know if you have a change of heart, so I can go ahead and get a head start,” Merlin said.

Arthur didn’t find this joke funny. He rolled his bottom lip between his teeth pensively.

“I’m kidding,” Merlin said. “Mostly.”

“You really do talk to fill a silence, don’t you?” Arthur asked.

“I can try and be quiet. It doesn’t usually work.”

“Yeah, I can tell.”

Merlin hushed, although he couldn’t really manage to sit still, his fidgeting almost as distracting as his constant running commentary.

“What do you need me to do?” Arthur asked at last.

“I’m not following.”

Arthur looked at him. “How do I fix what happened last night? What do you need me to do so you know that I’m serious, that I’m sincere?”

He had just given Merlin words, really. He knew from experience how empty words could be. People made promises all the time. Promises to stop smoking, to stop drinking, to try a little harder, to come home.

Merlin considered this, tugging at the drawstring of his hoodie. “You mean it?”

“I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t mean it.”

“Okay.” He hesitated for only a split second, and then looked Arthur in the face, a sort of challenge. “It’s not going to make sense at first, but I want you to call your sister. Don’t ask me why, just call her, before you go to bed tonight. Tell her what I told you.”

“About…” Arthur jerked his chin at the rose. “Does she know?”

“She knows,” Merlin said.

Arthur’s mouth was wry. “Of course she does. She was always better at this sort of thing than I was.” He didn’t have to ask about Gwen. Gwen and Merlin had a bond that was simple and familiar as coming home. They loved each other so obviously and easily it made Arthur jealous, watching them. Of course Gwen knew.

He’d never been able to let himself have anything like that.

“Call her,” Merlin repeated. “And then I want you both to go to Uther together and get the charges against Morgause and Addison dropped. If it comes from both of you, he won’t be able to say no.”

Arthur did not balk, tried to remain cool. “You’re sure of that, are you?”

“I am.”

“Why…” he shook his head. “I guess it doesn’t matter why you want them dropped.”

“I want them dropped because I want this to go away, Arthur. I need this to go away. I’m not going to sit by and watch someone get prosecuted for anything related to magic,” Merlin said. “No matter who they are. I refuse.” He watched Arthur squirm under these words, unsympathetic. “And it doesn’t matter how you feel about that political sentiment, you’ve committed yourself. If you mean it, you’ll do it.”

“I already said that I would.”

Merlin considered him.

“This morning, as I was coming back from Gwen’s, your father’s security guards stopped be outside the building,” he said finally, almost coolly. Only the tension in his shoulders gave him away. He traced the whorl of the granite with his thumb, eyes cast downward.

“They pulled me into the side alley, where the dumpster is, and Uther followed. He wanted to know if I…well. What I had to do with last night.”

“Why would he think you have anything to do with what happened last night? What happened last night happened to you.”

“Because he’s inherently skeptical of me, Arthur. He…” Merlin’s voice almost broke in defiance of his own resolve, and Arthur watched his eyes widen and mouth tighten as he tried to suffocate his own response. “…He hates me. He knew something had happened already. He knew what that house was, and who lived there. He knew you were there,” Merlin said. “He already suspected me of being what I am. I…well, you’ve met me. I tend to leave a wake. No real damage, except to a few roof tiles in my hometown, but a wake nonetheless. You can look it up, if you want to. I’ve got witness testimonials.” He laughed hollowly, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I don’t really care, one way or the other, what he knows or how he knows it. I’m not ashamed of who I am. Or I try not to be, at least. But he…my mum, Arthur. And Gwen. And Gaius, my boss. I couldn’t…I can’t risk anything happening to them. He knows it.”

A thought had occurred to Arthur slowly, as Merlin spoke. “Is that how he got you to room with me?” he asked, his stomach turning. “I was…I wondered how he managed to strong arm you.” He paused. “Did he lay hands on you?”

That was always how Uther put it. I would never lay hands on my own children, he would say. And he never had, not even in spirit. But there were other ways to be hurt.

“He didn’t, no.” Merlin paused, his mouth pursed with some internal debate. Maybe deciding that it helped prove his point, he tugged his sweatshirt up over his head and tossed it on the stool next to him. Then he tugged down the collar of the V-neck t-shirt he wore underneath. “I think maybe Yvonne underestimated how easily I bruise, though.”

Arthur observed Merlin’s fingers snagged in the collar of his shirt, the contrast of the white shirt with his skin, and his skin with the bruise, the contour of his collarbone, the slight tip of his head so that Arthur could see, the line of his jaw, the deep blue of the bruise, particular and intimate. Arthur knew the way you had to handle someone to give them a bruise like that – he’d seen Yvonne do it before. He’d never been sorry for it.

He whipped around on his heel before he allowed himself to think too hard.

“Fuck. I was always going to follow through.” He put his face in his hands, like that would relieve the guilt or, worse than the guilt, the anger, burning hot and brutal and quiet somewhere in his chest. He pulled his hands up through his hair and then went over to the dining room and started to pace, letting out a helpless laugh. “You didn’t need to give me a push.”

Merlin pulled his hoodie back on. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“I’m not upset.” He was upset.

The bruising had been obvious, livid, against Merlin’s sternum. Purple blue. Arthur couldn’t think past it. He was trying to stay calm.

The fear he felt for his father wrestled with the clean fury he felt when he saw what his father had done. He knew Uther’s platform, his agenda. He knew that there were lives ruined over it. He suspected, though he had always disliked, the idea of physical force as a dissuasion tactic. People disappeared in the night without a trace. Car accidents. Trips and falls. Near misses. There had always been rumors.

It had never been this close. It had never felt this real.

The rose sat in the middle of the counter.

He had never disagreed with his father’s beliefs, per say, only ever with his method. Now he was starting to think that maybe those two things were irrevocably intertwined.

It had never felt this real because Arthur had never allowed it to feel this real. Never let himself close to that edge because he had always known, if he got close, he would go over, and he wouldn’t stop falling.

Before, he couldn’t afford to question his father. He hadn’t had the wherewithal to weather the consequences of doing so. It was why he had let Morgana go without much of a fight. It was why he had let Uther coerce him into getting a roommate. It was why he had crashed his damn car.

He had always felt trapped.

And here was Merlin, trapped with him. Arthur knew the frustrated helplessness he had heard in Merlin’s voice as well as he knew his own.

“He shouldn’t have done it,” Arthur said. “He shouldn’t’ve…” but he couldn’t finish the thought aloud. Once upon a time, he might’ve wondered why Uther had seen fit to accost Merlin, wondered if maybe Merlin did, in some round about way, have something to do with what had happened at the witch’s house last night…

The idea of following that line of questioning now repulsed him. The realization that he had been the person who would have ever followed that line of questioning repulsed him. The knowledge that there wasn’t really a way to make up for having been that person, the damage he had no doubt done, distressed him enough that he couldn’t do anything to ease the pressure it created. He couldn’t go back in time and not be that guy. He couldn’t go back and take back that stupid takes he had repeated, the people he had cornered at parties, the shit he had said on fucking live television.

His own guilt was not enough. His own remorse was not enough. It just didn’t do anything except make him feel miserable, and he had enough practice being miserable to know his misery helped no one.

“Why would he make you live here with me if he knows what you are?” Arthur asked. “Why would he allow you so close to me?”

“I don’t know,” said Merlin honestly. “Maybe he hoped you would find out? It’s…complicated.”

“No kidding.”

Arthur kept pacing.

“There’s more to the story, isn’t there?” he asked.

Merlin just looked at him.

“I’m not stupid,” Arthur continued. “I know there’s something you’re not saying.”

“I’ll tell you eventually, Arthur. I promise. One step at a time,” Merlin said.

Of all the promises Arthur had ever given or received in his life, Merlin’s was the only one he had ever believed. Heaven knew why.

Blue eyes, and a white rose, heaven knew why.

It only marginally made him feel better.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Merlin followed the line he paced on the floor. “You’ve said that already.”

“I am.”

“I didn’t tell you so you’d feel sorry.”

It was Arthur’s turn to roll his eyes. “I know that.”

“Then call Morgana,” Merlin said.

“I will,” Arthur replied. He meant it. He couldn’t see how that would carry them through any of this, but that didn’t matter. He would do it anyway.

“Arthur.”

Arthur stopped, looked at him. Merlin leaned slightly forward on his stool, his face open and earnest as Arthur had ever seen it. “What?” Arthur asked.

“Thank you.” And he meant it, too.

What was it in his voice? Something like relief, and gratitude, and regret, and guilt. Something like a haunting, in his voice. Arthur felt it. He understood it, even. But he couldn’t identify it. He just didn’t know how.

Standing there, looking at Merlin, he wanted to.

Chapter Text

Percy was supposed to be asleep. Instead, he cracked open Gwaine’s bedroom door. Gwaine was still awake, his bedside lamp on, reading. He looked up as Percy poked his head inside.

“Don’t you only have less than an hour before you have to leave for your shift?” Gwaine asked.

“I noticed the light under the door,” Percy said, which wasn’t an answer.

“Mm.” Gwaine tucked his bookmark in between the pages. Percy sat down at the end of the bed, the bedframe groaning at his weight, and Gwaine moved his feet to make room for him.

“What’re you reading?”

“Something for school,” Gwaine said. “It isn’t really reading. It’s deciphering with a headache, essentially.”

“Did you talk to Merlin?”

Gwaine looked off in the middle-distance, tapping his book against his leg.

Some flaw in the heating had made it so Gwaine’s was the coldest room in the flat. Around September, he had pulled out what he called ‘ye olde space heater’, an ancient, sturdy heating implement that rumbled in the corner like a grim secretary. Despite its efforts, the room still held a dry, indoor chill, a slight draft issuing from the direction of the poorly sealed windows.

In defiance of this confluence of events, Gwaine still slept shirtless, wearing the same red flannel pajama pants he’d worn since university. If Percy asked, he would say he wasn’t cold, but Percy saw the goosebumps prickling his arms.

This should be Percy’s room. Percy had said as much. He had the internal temperature of a radiator. Gwaine actually started calling ‘ye olde space heater’ ‘ye olde space heater’ because he had called Percy that, first. It was one of the first nicknames Gwaine had coined for Percy, after, of course, Perce.

But Gwaine had gallantly said he didn’t want to switch rooms, Percival, he liked this closet, stop fretting over him please, it was making him anxious.

“I talked to Merlin,” Gwaine said.

“Did he accept your apology?”

“He didn’t really give me a chance to apologize,” Gwaine frowned, looking confused. “I think he didn’t want me to. Like he didn’t want me to feel bad or something? I don’t know.”

“What did he say?”

Gwaine sighed. “Well, he said essentially that it wasn’t my fault. And that my savior complex is obvious, and a little sad.”

“Jesus,” Percy said. “He could’ve been a little gentler.”

“That’s what I said!” Gwaine exclaimed. “And then he said he wasn’t the one who was going to be gentle with me. He said I didn’t need that from him.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know,” Gwaine said, frowning. “I think just that…that isn’t who he is, to me. And that I don’t need to be that person for him.”

Percy was quiet. Maybe Gwaine’s compulsion to be the white knight had started the night he found Arthur. Maybe it had always been in him, and it’d just been less obvious before. But the next morning, when they all woke up in that house they’d shared on campus, Arthur had been gone and Gwaine had been sitting at what passed for their kitchen table. He’d made coffee, but it had burnt. The sun had been on his shoulders, and the kitchen had been bright. Gwaine had worn a wide, struck look on his face, as if he had seen the end of the world.

“What happened?” Percy had asked.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Gwaine had said.

A look on his face like he had seen the end of the world and failed to stop it. They’d find out later Morgana had arrived just before dawn to take Arthur to rehab.

Now – Gwaine just looked thoughtful. Pensive.

He had always taken too much on himself. Always made the safety and happiness of others his main priority. Often forgot about his own. The result of this was inevitable, and obvious, a Shakespearean tragedy Percy had seen play out a thousand times. Probably more than a thousand times, if Gwaine had been this way through all the lifetimes they had lived.

Percy thought he probably had been. Gwaine was consistent.

Percy had grown to understand that you couldn’t make other people’s well-being your responsibility. Inevitably, you would fail. Like that night Gwaine wouldn’t talk about. The night he had found Arthur’s room wrecked and empty, and they had split up to scour the campus for him. Gwaine had been the one to find him. Percy had only asked that one time, that one morning, and never again, what had happened. Gwaine had never said.

When Arthur had gotten this place, he’d given the spare key to Percy. Folded it into Percy’s hand, not Gwaine’s. It always would’ve been Gwaine’s responsibility, before.

“Just in case,” Arthur had said.

The reason had been as unspoken as that night had been, as obvious as Gwaine’s need to save the people he loved.

And now…

“You know you don’t need to be that person to me, either right?” Percy asked.

“I know, Perce. Feels like you’re the one who swoops in and rescues me, more often than not,” Gwaine said.

“You don’t need to feel bad about that,” Percy said, “For asking for help. You help me, too. You always help me. It’s only balance – it’s what friends do.”

“Right,” Gwaine said distantly, not sounding convinced.

“Gwaine,” Percy said. Gwaine looked at him, dark eyes refocusing. “Don’t do that. You’re still you when you need help, you know. You’re still you if you’re not constantly helping other people.”

“That’s not who I am to you then,” Gwaine said, “The guy who makes it okay.”

“Well, you are sometimes. But not always. And that’s okay.”

Gwaine smiled a little. “Right philosopher, aren’t you? Maybe you should’ve been the one to go to grad school.”

Percy didn’t respond to that, just sat, and waited.

“Right,” Gwaine said, frowning and tossing his book on the nightstand. “I’m deflecting. I should just get your reassurance tattooed across my forehead, maybe then I could finally get it into my brain. I’m sorry – it must be draining to listen to me moan constantly about the same thing over and over.”

“I’d tell you if I couldn’t handle it. Also, I think tattooing anything on your forehead is maybe not a great idea.”

Gwaine nodded. “Not the worst idea I’ve ever heard though.”

Again, Percy let the silence convey his gentle reproof.

“What am I to you, then, Percy?” Gwaine asked, almost plaintive.

Percy looked down at his stocking feet. His heart was solid in his chest. He had an almost memory of Gwaine’s face in his hands, and he could not think of it too closely, or it might solidify in his head, and he would come apart.

“You know that painting I won’t let you see?”

“Yes, your notorious mistress, I recall.”

Percy flexed his fingers and said softly, “That painting is what you are to me.”

“Okay,” Gwaine said. “That doesn’t really mean much if I can’t see it.”

“It’s almost done. It’ll be done in time for my showing. You can see it then.”

“With everyone else? I’m honored.”

Percy cast him a flat look and Gwaine grinned at him, charming and boyish. Clasped a hand over his heart. “So honored.”

“Shut up.”

“Shouldn’t you be heading to work?” Gwaine asked.

Percy pulled out his phone to check the time. “Trying to get rid of me,” he said. “Oh shit. I’m going to be late.”

Gwaine was still grinning. Percy was always late to work.

Shut it,” Percy warned again, pushing himself to his feet. “Ask me what I am to you.”

“What? Do you have time for this?”

“No. That’s the other side of the coin, isn’t it? And I can give you that answer right now.”

“All right,” Gwaine said, settling back into his pillow, hands folded, smug and expectant. “School me.”

“I’m the one who’s going to be gentle with you,” Percy told him. “Always have been. That’s what you need from me.”

It was the bravest thing he’d ever said in life. His heart was pounding. Gwaine did not say anything, struggling past the smugness toward some other emotion. The space heater grumbled in the corner. For the first time, Percy felt cold.

Thankfully, before Percy could figure out how to unglue his feet from the floor and flee, his phone rang in his hand. He jumped, nearly dropping it.

“Shit, it’s my boss. My shift doesn’t start for another half hour…Hello?” he flung a half wave at Gwaine and made his escape.

He was stupid. He was perhaps the greatest idiot to ever live, in any lifetime. What was he thinking? Why had he ever said a single word ever? Those two men in his painting were so obviously himself and Gwaine – he needed to burn that painting. No, it was one of the central pieces. He had to repaint the faces. Did he have time to do that?

The other bouncer had gotten his nose broken by a drunk lady wielding a stiletto. His boss needed him early. Was he almost there? Percy looked around his dark hallway. He wasn’t even sure his work shirt was clean.

“I’m a block away,” he said.

He would have to deal with this later.

Chapter Text

Morgause had fallen asleep on one of the motel room’s queen beds, wearing a white nightgown two times too big for her. She slept curled away from the bedside light Morgana had on, her blonde hair spread out behind her on the pillowcase.

Morgana sat at the table next to the window, staring sightlessly at Morgause’s back. Her sister slept painfully, knees pulled tight to her chest, chin tucked almost to her knees, breathing even and slow but not deep. She would wake, Morgana knew, at the slightest sound. Neither of them had any idea how not to be vigilant.

Her phone, charging on the tabletop, vibrated and Morgana started, fumbling to pick it up. She sensed the shift in Morgause’s breathing, knew the noise had indeed woken her. It was Arthur.

She got up and left the room, pulling a silence spell around her with a closed fist. Morgause’s attention was a gun in the small of her back as the door swung shut behind her. The night was bitter cold.

“Why are you calling me?”

“Hi,” Arthur said. “I’m sorry. Merlin told me to do it.”

“Why would he do that?”

“I don’t know, he said I would know when I called you.”

Morgana was quiet. Of course. “Gwen told him.”

“Gwen told him what? Oh.” He went quiet, too. “So that’s how he knew. I hadn’t thought about how he’d found out…”

“Found out what?”

“That I told Uther. What happened last night.”

Morgana’s jaw tightened. “You know, sometimes I hate that I love you.”

“I know you do.”

“I hope Merlin really ripped into you,” Morgana said. “Meat hook in the gut ripped into you. I really do. God, Arthur, it’s baffling to me how blissfully you fail to realize when you are completely out of your depth.”

“You are mad at me.”

“Not at you,” Morgana said, pinching the bridge of her nose between her fingers and beginning to pace the sidewalk in front of the motel. A habit they shared. She didn’t have to worry about anyone hearing her, so she didn’t bother to check her volume. “Well, yes, at you. But I’m madder at…Jesus, Arthur, how could you tell him? How could I…” but she stopped herself.

“How could you what?”

“Nothing. Nothing,” Morgana muttered. “I don’t know how to tell you things, Arthur. I don’t know what I can trust you with, anymore.”

“You weren’t even this mad at me when you drove me to rehab,” Arthur said. “Either time. You weren’t even this mad at me at the hospital. You weren’t even this mad at me the day Uther kicked you out…”

He would keep going like this, not even really talking to her, just talking, babbling really. “Why did Merlin tell you to call me?”

Arthur stopped. “He wants me to convince you to come with me to meet with Uther. To convince him to drop the charges against Morgause, and Addison. Or whatever her name is. The girl who actually cast the curse on him.”

Morgana’s blood went frigid. Her gloveless fingers were already stiff with the November cold, which had seeped down her collar and into the denim of her jeans.

Merlin, she thought. You wily bastard. What are you doing?

“Okay,” Morgana said slowly.

“Okay like you’ll come with me or okay like you’re processing?”

“Okay like I’m processing, dipshit. Hang on a second, let me think.” Morgana frowned down at the steel toes of her boots as she walked. It felt cold enough to snow. He wanted her to tell Arthur something, didn’t he? It could be a thousand things. She had so many secrets, especially from Arthur.

It was only on nights like this on a phone call in a strange dark and an unfriendly cold that Morgana thought about how one of the people who understood her best in the world really didn’t know her at all.

“Morgana,” Arthur said. “I know about Merlin. He told me. He has magic. I know that you know.”

Morgana stopped dead. “What?”

“He told me.”

“Why would he…?”

I don’t know.” He sounded baffled, a little awed.

Surely that wasn’t the thing. No. Merlin knew better than to nudge her toward anything that potent and unstable.

“Where’s your head at?” Morgana asked, testing.

“I don’t know,” Arthur said again. “I think…he impresses me. I could never do anything that brazen.”

Me either, Morgana thought.

“I think you’re underestimating yourself,” Morgana said.

“Maybe,” Arthur said. “Why do you suppose he asked me to ask you?”

He said it in the particular frank way he had. Like he already suspected the answer, and he’d like you to know he suspected, and he wanted to see if you would be straight with him. Wanted you to know he was testing your integrity.

He had never leveled it at Morgana before. She kind of hated it.

She thought she saw where this was going, anyway. Fine. Point to Merlin.

“Morgause is my sister,” Morgana said. “My half-sister. I’m at a motel right now, with her, no I won’t tell you where. Gwen knows about it, but not where I am. Merlin knows the same thing. And I’m not sure who exactly I should be angry with, whether it’s you or her or myself or your fucking father.”

Arthur was quiet for a long second. “Jesus, Morgana.”

He didn’t ask why she hadn’t told him sooner. He didn’t ask if Uther knew. Her expectation he would ask and the relief that he didn’t threw her off balance. She kept pacing. The parking lot was dark, the streetlights dim. As she watched the light, she caught shapes in it and realized with a dull start that it was snowing. Tiny, little flakes. Not really snow. Not quite snow.

“I’ll come with you,” she said. “Merlin might be right. He’s probably right. Us together is probably the only thing that could fix this. And probably the last thing he’ll see coming.”

“You’re talking like this is war strategy,” Arthur said, sounding a little appalled.

“Isn’t it?” Morgana asked. But Arthur hadn’t learned to think about Uther that way yet. It was Morgana Uther had taught to play chess.

You have the mind of a strategist, he had told her, the first time she had almost beaten him. You have the makings of a general, if you’d learn to school your emotions..

And Morgana had, schooling her emotions until she wasn’t even sure how to feel them anymore. They went somewhere, they didn’t go away, they just piled up behind some dam in her chest, until the dam inevitably cracked and then she had to feel everything at once. It was fucking hell.

“Uther is doing this for me,” Arthur said. “Because I asked him to do it. He’d…I’d think he’d listen to me if it weren’t for the warrant.”

“You think you could make him listen?”

“I think maybe I could get him to loosen his fist,” Arthur said. “Maybe.”

He’d always been softer toward Arthur. Arthur didn’t see it, because even Uther’s care was a callous, unkind thing. A love that tossed you in cold water to learn to swim. A love that refused to let you look away when you cried, squeezed your chin until you bruised, forcing you to look at it with wet eyes.

But Morgana had been the stone on which Uther sharpened the blade he had then gifted to Arthur. She had always found it so confusing as a child, so grossly unfair. Uther had raised her in his own image, but he had not raised her as a ruler. How could such equal and opposite things be true? It accounted at least for his loathing.

“I can hear you thinking,” Arthur said.

“I wish you still had your car,” she said. “We can take mine.”

“When? Tomorrow?”

“Yeah, the sooner the better. This isn’t sustainable.”

“No kidding,” Arthur muttered. He hated hotels, even 5-star ones. This grimy fleabag would probably send him to a fainting couch. “Has Morgause talked to that Addison girl at all? Does she know to keep her head down? Because the last thing is her showing up or getting arrested to ruin everything.”

“Morgause has it under control,” Morgana said. “I’ll pick you up at six.”

Six?”

“I’ll bring you coffee,” Morgana said. “He gets to the office at seven, most days. I want to be waiting for him.”

She had a sort of plan. A sort of foolhardy, reckless plan that Gwen would definitely not approve of. A non-plan. The sort of plan that Merlin might’ve thought of himself.

“Get some sleep,” she told Arthur. “You’re going to need it.”

She could practically hear him rankle at this bout of bossing around. But he sounded subdued, if sullen, when he muttered, “Great. This’ll be so fun.”

And she knew as she hung up that neither of them was going to close their eyes for a second. This was a night for dark ceilings and staring at your reflection in window glass. A night for dwelling on things that had been past for a long time, but still stayed.

Chapter Text

Morgause watched her from the bed, eyes tracking Morgana’s movements as she shrugged on her jacket, laced up her boots, did her eyeliner in the spotty motel mirror.

“You don’t have to do this.”

“I know that” Morgana said, snapping the eyeliner cap back on. Her reflection looked back at her with eyes lidded as a cat’s. She saw herself then as she knew strangers must see her, as something dangerous and scary, a good knife just recently unsheathed.

“Uther and I have been playing this game for a long time,” Morgause continued. “I’ve gotten by without your help several lifetimes over.”

Morgana’s stomach turned. “Mm.”

“It should’ve worked,” Morgause said. She was not talking about Merlin’s plan anymore. “It’s worked every time before.”

“Okay.”

“I’m not lying to you,” Morgause said, voice rising with indignation.

Morgana turned to her. “I know you wouldn’t lie to me, Mo.”

Morgause watched Morgana rifle through her bag. Something about the way she held her ankles in a criss-cross position made her seem very young. “Then what?” She sounded sullen. “Do you just think I’m crazy, then?”

“Would you blame me if I did?” Morgana found her lipstick. She tapped the home button on her phone. She’d have to leave in a few minutes if she wanted to meet Arthur when she intended.

“No.”

Morgana glanced up. “But you’d blame somebody.”

“Don’t say it like that, Morgana.”

“At some point,” Morgana told her, crossing back to the mirror, “It’s just me. Having my own thoughts. Making my own decisions. Absent anyone else’s manipulations, including yours.”

“I would never manipulate you.”

Morgana focused on the lipstick slicking her bottom lip, dark as ink. “When would you consider my thoughts my thoughts, then? You only ever seem to think I’m clear-headed when they match yours.”

“You’re being unfair.”

“I don’t think that I am,” Morgana said. “Have you ever considered that maybe your own preconceptions color your judgement? Maybe it isn’t that I don’t believe you, or I think you’re crazy, or it’s someone else’s fault. Maybe there’s another answer.”

Morgause tipped her head. “And what is that?”

Morgana let her sit in suspense a second longer, finishing her lipstick. “Maybe you aren’t the key this time around.”

“I’ve always been your key, Morgana. Always. Who else could it be?”

She hadn’t meant the question to be rhetorical, but it was. The answer hung thick in the air. Morgause frowned at her in the mirror, already hurt.

Morgana spoke the answer aloud anyway, quiet. “Gwen.”

“The little queen,” Morgause said softly. “You know once she was your enemy.”

Morgana tried to imagine this and couldn’t. “Not in this life,” she said instead.

“What sort of bond must you have formed with her, for her to take precedence over me? It used to be I was the one who loved you most in the world.”

“Maybe it’s not about that,” Morgana said. “Maybe it’s not about how much you care for me.”

“Then what?”

Morgana felt Morgause’s gaze drilling into her back. This answer, too, turned out to be rhetorical.

“You really care for her so much?” Morgause asked. “We’re sisters. I didn’t ever think I’d see the time when romantic love superseded the bond of blood.”

“Maybe it doesn’t,” Morgana said. She returned to her bag, pulled out her wallet, grabbed her phone from its charger. “Maybe,” she continued, stuffing these items in assorted pockets on her person, pulling out one, then two knives, from another pocket and her waistband respectively. She tossed the knives in the bag. “Maybe different sorts of love can coexist. Maybe one doesn’t have to take precedence over the other. Maybe that’s healthy. Maybe it’s even a good thing.”

“You have certainly been well therapized,” Morgause commented flatly.

“I’ve needed it,” Morgana muttered.

“How do you account for the question of your key, if your theory of equality is true?” Morgause asked. She sounded cool, intellectual, studying the shine in her manicure. Morgana regarded her warily.

“Maybe Gwen will better provide what I need in that moment,” she suggested. “A gentle hand. A kind one. You know that’s not your strong suit.”

“I am kind to you.”

Morgana’s heart broke a little. “I know,” she said, voice almost a whisper. “And I love you so, Morgause. I do. I count myself blessed everyday that I found you.”

“Even trapped in a roach-infested motel with a warrant out for me?”

Morgana sighed. “Yes, even then. That’s what I’m trying to rectify now, even if you don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Uther is not a man to whom you appeal. He is a man whom you strike with a blunt instrument, before he has the chance to start thinking of how to outmaneuver you. Men capable of such brutality should not also be so clever,” Morgause said bitterly. “That is my general assessment of human history, and our history, come to think of it.”

“He likes the game,” Morgana said. “I think Merlin’s got it. I think the only way to come out of this in one piece is to appeal to him. Take the game away.”

“Fly the white flag,” Morgause added. “Surrender.”

“You’ve made your point.”

“I don’t think I have, as you’re still going.”

“Please stay put,” Morgana told her. “I mean it. I know you don’t like being out of the action, but at this point, we can’t risk you falling into his hands. Our advantage now is that he doesn’t know where you or Addison are.”

Morgana had concluded that Arthur’s request to Uther to do something about the night of the Halloween party had only encouraged Uther down a path he had intended to pursue all along. The only reason Uther would ever back down from a plan was if it threatened to harm Arthur or Arthur’s allegiance to him. Otherwise, it didn’t matter what or who was in his way.

At one point, she had been the thing in his way, so she knew this to be true.

As for Morgause. Maybe the reason for his strike against her was as simple as the fact that she opposed Uther politically. Maybe it was that Arthur had been that close to seriously dangerous magic. Maybe it was that Uther couldn’t figure out why Morgause would squander her chance on a spell that to Uther would seem silly, inconsequential.

Morgana could spin out on this line of questioning for the rest of her life. She had spent her childhood trying to get into Uther’s head, see the world through his eyes, thinking that if she managed the feat then maybe he would finally look at her with anything other than apprehension, wary pride.

Uther was no kingmaker. He didn’t know how to prepare a throne for another. He considered hungry eyes on his back a kind of threat. He considered I want to be like you a six-word horror story.

There was no use trying to figure him out anymore. She already had everything she needed to know.

“I should go,” she said. “We can talk after we get to the other side of this.”

“If we get to the other side of this,” Morgause said.

“A little optimism would be appreciated,” Morgana told her.

Morgause tugged at the cuff of her fuzzy sock. “Optimism is naivety.”

“I love you too,” Morgana said. “And I meant it when I said please don’t move. Trust me, for once. Let me see this through.”

“I trust you,” Morgause said. Her dark eyes were steady. “I always have.”

**
Arthur stood on the curb, bouncing on his toes to stay warm. It was still dark, the streetlights glinting in the frost-coated windshields of the cars lining the street. Morgana had responded to exactly zero of his texts and sent his call to voicemail after one ring. He was more than cold and extremely irritated when he finally caught the familiar rumble of the BMW’s motor rumbling down the street.

Morgana pulled up, the windows tinted too dark to see inside. Her acknowledgement of his presence was the disengagement of the locks.

“Took you long enough,” Arthur snapped, yanking open the door. “I’ve been waiting outside for half an hour!”

“You could’ve waited in the lobby,” Morgana said.

“Six, you said,” Arthur told her, slamming the passenger side door closed. “I was ready at exactly six o’clock. It’s almost six thirty. We’re not getting there before seven, even if you break every traffic law from here to the office, I hope you know that.”

The heat was turned up to full blast, the music too loud, all screechy violins and breathy soprano ones. He punched the music off. She cast him a side-eye and punched it back on.

“Don’t touch my stuff,” she said, turning it down a couple clicks. It helped only incrementally. “I do intend to break every traffic law, but not because it’ll get me there any faster. Uther doesn’t usually arrive in the office until seven thirty.”

“You told me seven!”

She was thoroughly unremorseful. “I know.”

“You told me be ready at six!” He glared at her. “Oh my god, if this is one of your little time-saving tricks again, I swear…Morgana, I am an adult! My brain is basically fully developed.”

“Uh-huh,” Morgana said. “In my defense, this is the first time in your life you’ve ever been on time.”

“Psychopath,” Arthur told her, crossing his arms. He slumped down in his seat. “You know how easily I catch head colds.”

“You’ll be fine. It worked, didn’t it?” Morgana asked. She took the corner at a speed well over the limit. Arthur groped for the handle.

“If this is revenge for not answering your calls, you can desist, I’m sorry.”

“You said that last time, which lets me know that your apology does not result in a change of behavior,” Morgana said. “I don’t care. I’m over it. If you want to ignore me until it’s convenient for you, that’s your prerogative.”

“Mo, please.”

“I’m helping you with your harebrained scheme,” Morgana informed him. “Obviously, I’ve already forgiven you.”

“It’s Merlin’s harebrained scheme, actually,” Arthur said. He caught himself on the dash as she whipped into a drive thru. “Wait, what’re we doing?”

“Getting you coffee. Idiot. I see you and wizard boy have kissed and made up.”

Arthur did not like the way she smirked.

“Your ears are red, Romeo.”

“Shut up. And don’t call me that, you know I hate it when you joke about that sort of thing.” Arthur said. His ears were red. He flipped up his coat collar, knowing it would do nothing to hide the evidence. “I don’t even know what you’re trying to imply anyway.”

Morgana sighed, rolling down her window. The drive thru line was empty, the only cars in the carpark a tired Nissan Centra and a Kia Soul covered in Greenpeace and Lesbian pride bumper stickers, no doubt belonging to the lone employees working this time of morning.

“One large coffee, black, and one extra-large iced lavender latte, with oat-milk and an extra shot of espresso.” Somehow, her tone was smug and in response to Arthur’s statement. She wiggled her fingers under his nose as they pulled around. “Pay up, buttercup. I’m not the one with daddy’s money, anymore.”

“You have your trust fund, don’t act like you’re poor,” Arthur said, slapping his Amex into her palm. “It isn’t as cute or precocious as you think it is.”

“You got cash? We’ll need to tip.”

Arthur sighed and dug out a bill from his wallet. Morgana plucked it from his fingers, raising an eyebrow at him. “Seriously?”

He shrugged. “It’s the smallest bill I’ve got.”

“God, you are such a rich kid.”

“All right, Oliver Twist.”

They reached the window. Morgana paid with his card, dropped the fifty in the tip jar, and handed Arthur the latte. He took it, and she peeled out of the carpark.

“I miss doing coffee runs with you,” Arthur said, sipping at his drink. The caffeine hit his brain between the eyes instantly. He rolled his head back with relief. “God, that’s good.”

“That’d be a sweet sentiment if I didn’t know you only like coming with me because you think the baristas will assume the beverage with the oat-milk is for me,” Morgana said dryly.

“Lavender has a superior flavor profile, I can’t help it if the general public doesn’t understand anyone can enjoy it,” Arthur said diplomatically. “I may as well get out a shovel and start digging my own grave, if the press found out about this.”

“Could be worse,” Morgana said. “You could be caught snogging girls. Oh, wait.”

They’d both had grainy pictures leak. Morgana had been caught making out with her lab partner behind the science building of her all-girl’s university. Arthur had been caught kissing a dark-haired cheerleader outside the cheerleader’s dorm. One had been taken better by the public than the other. Lucky guess which that was.

“That paparazzo is lucky I didn’t break more than his camera,” Arthur muttered. “How stupid do you have to be, to show your face to me after an incident like that? Who exactly did he think I was? That he could pull that shit on my sister and I would let it slide?”

“I told you not to do that.”

“I know you did.”

“I had it handled.”

“I know you did. It’s three years ago, anyway. I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.”

Morgana parked the car a block away from the Pendragon building. Arthur frowned at the slowly lightening street. “We’re not even going to park in the parking garage?”

“Parking garage has a camera. Get out of the car lazy bones, let’s go.”

“I don’t care about walking, it’s just so damn cold,” Arthur muttered, pushing himself out of the car.

“Your own fault you wanted an iced drink,” Morgana informed him.

“Whatever.”

They started walking, shoulder to shoulder. Their breath came out in clouds, sky pinky gray in between the lean of the skyscrapers.

“What’s the plan then?” Morgana asked.

He glanced at her, alarmed. “I thought you’d have a plan.”

“I thought we’d use your card to swipe in the executive’s side door, to get me inside. But I hadn’t thought beyond that. You’re the one that called me, remember?”

She had a particularly malevolent gleam in her eyes. They were dark as well water in this light.

“You’re better at making plans,” Arthur said. “You always have been.”

“You’re an excellent strategist. Don’t sell yourself short. I mean, they didn’t make you captain of your little lacrosse team because they thought you were a dunce at planning on the fly, did they?”

“That’s more a leadership role, Morgana.”

“Yeah. You were always a better leader than I was.”

Arthur scoffed. “Remember that Christmas you showed up two hours after dinner was over, clearly high, and Uther accused you of being a maverick?”

“And I said, ‘Isn’t that what they used to call you, when you started at the Gazette? Why’d you say it now like it’s a bad thing?’” She sipped her steaming coffee. “Mm. Fond memories.”

Uther had retorted that having an independent streak was fine for news publications and not for family Christmases and maybe exercise that judgement I know you possess, Morgana. Arthur had just been cringing on the couch waiting for a chance to sneak off and play his new PS4.

He hated holidays.

The Pendragon Building had appeared up ahead, looming before them, the sunrise glinting against chrome and glass and their name, etched in huge, shiny letters, at the very top. They both came to a stop.

“Well, champ,” Morgana murmured. “What’ve you got?”

Arthur frowned. “Can you follow my lead?”

She glanced over at him, swirling her coffee. “What do you need me to do?”
**
The building was practically empty. They passed cleaning crew who greeted Arthur and avoided Morgana’s gaze as if she intended to smite them. She’d never smote a service worker in her life and said as much in the service elevator as Arthur punched in the appropriate code to take them up.

“You look mean,” Arthur told her. “You’re a knife that’s all blade, no handle.”

“Wow, thanks.”

They reached the top floor, Morgana following Arthur toward Uther’s corner office. It was strange being in this building now. She remembered the shiny wax of the floor, the view of the city spread out below, the empty echo of footsteps in a building that was only now starting to wake for the day. All of it familiar, almost hers.

“He doesn’t know I can access his office,” Arthur said, swiping his card. The keypad beeped green, let them in. “I haven’t ever done it before.”

“How did you manage to get access?” Morgana asked.

Arthur frowned over his shoulder as he pushed the door open, and she rolled her eyes. “I’m not planning an act of corporate espionage, please relax.”

“I never know with you. And I just asked someone in IT.”

“Was that someone a very nice lady?”

“Shut up,” Arthur told her reflexively, reaching for the light switch. Morgana held up her own hand to stop him and he left it off. The shades were down. It was almost pitch black in the suite. “For your information, it was a very nice man. We went to school together. Took the same Intro to Business course first year or something.”

“Mm,” Morgana said.

“Not everyone has ulterior motives,” Arthur said. “Some people are just kind.”

“At least I’m the kind of hot person who knows that people like to help me because I’m hot, and not from their own selfless natures,” Morgana said.

“It’s not selflessness, necessarily,” Arthur said, hands on his hips, regarding the dark office. “Most of the time, it’s just loyalty. Give people a reason to be loyal to you, and most of the time they will be. What time is it?”

Morgana checked her watch. “Seven twelve.”

“Sit there,” Arthur said, pointing to one of two leather chairs positioned in front of Uther’s huge mahogany desk. “Take this.”

He came over and put something into her hand. It buzzed on contact with her skin and only his grip kept her from flying backward and dropping it on the floor. “What is that?” she demanded, voice a notch higher than usual. “I swear to God, if you just put an insect in my hand, Arthur…”

“I thought you didn’t believe in God.”

“Not funny.” With a second to process, the thing was cold and insect-shaped only on first contact. He took back his hand and she looked down at what he’d left in her palm – a gold locket shaped like a spider, finely wrought, delicate gold chain spilling through her fingers. “Where’d you get this?” she asked. “It’s far too pretty to belong to you.”

“A girl gave it to me,” Arthur said. “She wouldn’t let me give it back.”

“Why would she give this to you?” Morgana said. The necklace wasn’t just expensive, or pretty, it was clearly well loved. She could feel the sentiment seeped into the gold, making it heavy.

“It doesn’t matter,” Arthur said brusquely. “We’re short on time. Merlin charmed that. He said if you hold it like this --” Here, he reached forward again, folding Morgana’s pinkie and ring fingers over the spider, and demonstrated a slight crook with his index and middle fingers.

It was an invisibility spell. Morgana recognized it. Charmed into an object so anyone, even a non-magician, could trigger it with the right set of movements.

“It worked,” Arthur said, stepping back. He blinked and looked away from her. “Shit, that makes my head hurt.”

“You’ve rapidly become okay with this sort of thing,” Morgana said quietly. He shook his head. Her voice would sound garbled, distorted, the spell creating a kind of pressure in the listener’s head.

“I’m not okay with it, per say,” Arthur murmured. “I’m not sure how I am about it, honestly.”

Morgana did not reply, unable to muster the feigned objectivity which would keep her from giving herself away.

“Are you sitting in the chair?”

Morgana sat down. Crossed her legs. Kept her fingers carefully positioned around the locket. “What’s your plan?”

“Just…like we said. You’ll know when.”

Morgana settled back in the chair. It was just as hostile and uncomfortable as she remembered it, designed to remind you subconsciously that you were not in charge. Arthur propped his hands against the back of the other chair, waiting.
**
Uther, at least, had the punctuality his son lacked. The keypad beeped at precisely seven twenty-eight. The door swung open. Uther flipped on the light. Tapped the button to raise the blinds. Sunlight seeped slowly across the floor.

“Security told me your keycard had been used to access my office,” he said, unbothered. “Where is your sister? They caught her on camera coming up with you.”

Arthur did not move or speak as Uther made his way through his office with practiced ease, unlooping his scarf and hanging it with his coat and hat on the coatrack in the corner. He picked up his briefcase and came around his desk.

“What did she tell you?” he asked. He looked at the screen of his desktop, at the brass fittings of his briefcase, at his watch.

Morgana glanced sidelong at Arthur. Her poor brother. He carried his need in his white knuckles, in the bob of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed, in the slight lean forward, as if their father had a gravitational pull he was always trying to resist.

“She didn’t tell me anything,” Arthur said tightly. “I came here of my own volition.”

“I’d have an easier time believing that if I hadn’t seen Morgana on the security footage with my own eyes. There’s a lot she hasn’t told you, Arthur.”

“There’s a lot you haven’t told me,” Arthur replied.

Uther finally glanced up at him, a cold smile in his mouth. “This attitude is new,” he said, almost curious.

“Do you even love me?” Arthur demanded.

It took all of Morgana’s self-control to remain still. What was he doing? The raw emotion in his voice counteracted any evidence of a plan.

Steady she thought.

“What sort of question is that?” Uther replied, apparently unaffected by this outburst.

“You don’t act like you do,” Arthur continued. “You act like I’m a blade in your hand. A tool. Is that true?”

“Are these your words?” Uther asked. “Why have you shown up in my office this early unannounced, Arthur?”

“I need to schedule a meeting to see you, then?”

“Please,” Uther said. “Defiance does not suit you.”

“Tell me this, then,” Arthur said. “Why did you listen to me when I asked you to do something about those witches?”

Morgana flinched. He said it without even hesitating.

“Because you presented your argument to me with strength of reason,” Uther said. He sat down in his chair, folded his hands on his desk. Arthur stayed standing. “And frankly, because it was the first time that I’ve seen you show initiative since that incident three years ago.”

Morgana watched the heat flare up the back of Arthur’s collar. “Incident?” he asked quietly. “Why can’t you call it what it was?”

“Because it is shameful, Arthur. Would you like me to speak it all aloud plainly? I refrained for your sake. I thought you would only be hurt by hearing those kinds of words from me.”

“What does it matter if I hear them or not, if I can feel the sentiment all the same?” Arthur asked. “Was it shameful? The fights when I was a kid, the stints in rehab, the car crash, the scandals? Did it shame you? Or did I?”

Uther only looked at him, hands folded ever so calmly on his desk. “Are you sober right now, Arthur?”

Arthur’s eyes sparked. Morgana knew Arthur, knew the restraint locked in the downturned corners of his mouth, the paperwhite cast of his face, the fingers clutching the seatback. Saw the fuck you he held back. If it had been any other man, he would’ve spat those words on the floor between them already.

“Your mother was a gentle woman,” Uther said. “She learned the art. You inherited her temper, and little of her grace. Say what you want to say. Do not hold back for my sake.”

“I am dead sober,” Arthur said quietly. The fuck you was still in his voice. “Don’t deflect. Why did you do it? If I’m such a mess, if I can barely make it on tv with my hair combed, if I doze off during board meetings, if you won’t let me near anything of substance that happens with this company, why did you listen to me?”

“I already told you,” Uther said. “The reason you don’t have any more say in how this company is run is because that has depended entirely upon the amount of responsibility you chose to take on, Arthur.”

“Remember after Mum died,” Arthur said.

Uther sighed. “Don’t do this please.”

“Remember after Mum died,” Arthur continued doggedly. “After the funeral, I couldn’t string a complete sentence together for a week? The nanny had to drag me out of bed, couldn’t get Mum’s scarf out of my grubby hands no matter how hard she tried? You thought she was the problem, fired her, hired another lady, I cried for hours, and you asked me what was wrong with me, crying for some person you paid to care about me, when I couldn’t even manage to cry for my own mother? Do you remember that?” His voice was deadly, low. “Maybe it’s not me you should be ashamed of.”

“Thin ice, Arthur.”

“Tell me what I want to know,” Arthur said, “Or I’m going to keep saying things you don’t want to hear. You get to talk about her. Why can’t I?”

“The Bendrui have been a thorn in my side for almost a decade now,” Uther said, gray eyes glinting. He had his fingers steepled in front of him on his desk. “They were always too smart, too clever for me to do anything substantial about them. Even after the attempt on my life, there was no hard evidence I could present, and they had done enough rescuing kittens from trees and feeding hungry orphans that it would reflect badly on me if I wanted to go after them with no reasoning to back myself up. PR campaigns did nothing. They excelled at keeping public support, at least enough of it that it would be an ugly fight if we made a move. And then they slipped. Or so it seemed.”

“That night,” Arthur said.

“That night,” Uther confirmed. “I had nothing I could use. Your friend would never report. No one at that party would ever report, no matter what they saw, and the Bendrui would make sure that they would see very little. Until you gave me what I needed, freely.”

The pallor in Arthur’s face had taken on the cast of skim milk. Morgana’s fingers twitched around the little golden spider.

“It was less than nothing,” Arthur said.

“It was enough.”

Arthur stared at him.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Uther said dismissively, sitting back in his chair. “Due process was followed. I ensured as much.”

“The letter of the law,” Arthur murmured, “Not the spirit.”

“Of course the spirit,” Uther said. “This is the spirit of the law. It is not always a pretty thing. Not always glamorous. It is as I always warned you – the concept of a moral high ground is a selfish, subjective thing. It does not guarantee justice. There – have I performed as expected?” He shuffled several folders across his desk, unfolded his reading glasses. “The little wind-up monkey clashed his tiny tambourines. Is that what you were hoping for?” He glanced over the top of the glasses. “Or are you disappointed?”

“I want you to drop all charges,” Arthur said. “Make it go away. Do what you do. Let Morgause and her acolyte go free.”

“Why would I do that? Better yet – why would you ask that of me?”

“Because I was wrong.”

Uther almost smiled. “And who convinced you of this? Let me guess – a certain dark-haired ingénue. You always did have a weakness for the earnest ones.”

Arthur did not take the bait. Morgana had watched Uther string this line a thousand times before and could never do anything about it. Morgana’s queerness had always been an inconvenience more than anything else, an inevitability Uther never bothered to fight. He had treated any hint of the equal and opposite proclivities in Arthur with a ruthlessness that made Morgana squirm.

Don’t listen to him Morgana had told Arthur once when they were teenagers. It’s all right to like who you like.

It’s all right foryou Arthur had said, with enough veiled judgment that she’d never brought it up again. It’d taken her a long time to acknowledge how much that had hurt. She’d only really let it go the night Arthur had spotted the paparazzo who had taken the picture of her snogging her lab partner.

Is that him? he had asked, but he had seen the look on her face. He didn’t wait for an answer. She didn’t stop him. The camera had been in a thousand pieces, and the pictures from the other paparazzi swarming the restaurant where they’d been that night had been all over the internet within hours.

Uther hadn’t really trained them to apologize normally.

“No one had to convince me of anything,” Arthur said evenly. “I was wrong. That’s it. And I want you to call this off. I don’t care how. I just want you to do it.”

“By whose authority?” Uther asked. “Yours?”

“I wouldn’t say authority,” Arthur replied. “Appeal, maybe. And no, it wouldn’t be my own. At least, not my own only.”

Morgana let the spider fall from her fingers, caught it by the chain. The spell vanished around her with a crackle like weight put on thawing ice. Uther looked at her levelly. If he was fazed by this display, he didn’t show it.

“Hello, Morgana,” Uther said. “I didn’t realize the two of you had forgiven and forgotten. It seems the only grudge you hold is against me.”

“Imagine that” Morgana said icily.

Green eyes met gray. She looked more like him than Arthur did, so much so she had spent hours staring in the mirror after she had found out the truth, wondering how she had not known. She had not wanted to know, that was why. That was always why.

He would be assessing how much she had told Arthur. How much leverage he had; how much leverage she had. It was not an easy thing to lie to Arthur Pendragon. He prized honesty above all else, and his understanding of truth was simple, unconvoluted. He and she were similar in that way. Their perceptions of who was being honest with them and why had been spaces on a gameboard to Uther, perhaps as long as they had both been alive.

Morgana had only discovered this a few years ago, with old letters tied in ribbon amongst her mother’s things. Things Morgause had brought to her in a cardboard box for her to go through. Things that had smelled of her mother’s perfume and made Morgana ache in memory of a love she did not quite remember.

She was not so deluded to think that she saw the gameboard clearly now. She knew better than to think she understood anything at all.

Uther narrowed his eyes at her. She smiled at him.

“Relax,” she said, “I’ve given up on wanting anything you could give to me. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all contaminated goods. The money, the stock shares, the influence, the approval. I don’t want any of it.”

He did not believe her. She didn’t care. His opinion had ceased to matter to her the second she found out he was a liar, and a coward, and her father.

“I suppose he knows then,” Uther said quietly, as if Arthur was not in the room. “For you to come to me like this so confidently. I ask again - what authority do you propose to wield?”

“You know what authority I wield,” she replied.

I could tell him, she did not say. I could tell him everything.

Uther needed Arthur. Cared for him in a way he had never cared for Morgana. If he saw himself when he looked at her, he saw his dead wife when he looked at Arthur. His son represented all the parts of himself he knew to be a farce – his valor, and his bravery, and his decency, and his honesty. He represented all the things Uther had never been – his kindness, his grace, the shattering weight of his empathy.

Arthur was good. Morgana had always been in Uther’s head. Arthur had always been Uther’s heart.

“You would break any law and disregard your strongest held belief to protect Arthur,” Morgana told him. “I know that, and if I know that, it means your enemies know it too.”

“Not least because you’ve taken it upon yourself to share it with them.”

“I’ve never needed to share it. You’re as obvious as you accuse him of being,” Morgana said. “If you would do anything to protect him, I suggest you consider doing anything to keep him by your side. Because I guarantee that if you fail to do this, he will not stand by you anymore. By sheer force, you may be able to keep him with you physically. But that is never what you wanted. That is never what mattered.”

“Is this so, Arthur?”

“I’ve asked you so little, Father,” Arthur replied.

“And this is what you would ask of me? Releasing these strangers from the consequences of the law, after you were the one who brought them to my attention?”

“It is. Those consequences were never mine to bring down in the first place.”

“How…sanctimonious,” Uther said. His eyes were lidded. “Very well. You have my word. It’ll be done before the end of the day today, and those two witches can crawl out from whatever rock you’ve seen fit to hide them under."

“No offense,” Morgana said, “But your word means very little.”

“It’s not you to whom I’m offering it.”

Uther looked at Arthur and Morgana smiled grimly. Arthur considered. He’d worn his good suit today, knotted the tie Leon had given him for his birthday. He looked cast in exactly the mold Uther had always wished for him, his hair burnished in the fresh daylight.

“I mean it,” he said to Uther. “Like I used to mean it.”

“Look at me,” Uther said. “I know.”

And that was it. It was done.

Morgana collected the spider back up into her hand. They stood and left, took the elevator back down. The street had crowded with corporate types migrating to their respective offices, all silk ties and pantsuits and wool coats.

She waited until she started the car to say it.

“How do you know he’s sincere?” she said.

“He’s never broken his word to me.”

Morgana only nodded. “I hope you understand how valuable it is,” she said, as she pulled away from the curb.

“How valuable what is?”

“Your heart, Arthur. Everyone you’ve ever met has wanted a piece of it.”

Arthur squinted out the window at the passing skyscrapers. “Even you?"

“You gave it to me. I never had to ask for it. And anyway, it was an even trade. We’re in it for the long haul, you and me.”

“Even after all the shit I’ve pulled?” Arthur asked.

Morgana laughed, and it pulled a weak smile from him, the relief of their success showing in his relaxed shoulders, the dropping of his guard. “Please,” she said. “You’re my brother. I don’t care what you do. That’ll always be true.”

“Thank you for trusting me today,” he said. “I know I haven’t earned it.”

“Thank you for going to him,” she replied. “I know it wasn’t easy.”

It was all that could be said, really, in this moment. They drove the rest of the way back to his flat in companionable silence.

Chapter Text

Merlin knew he had to go to work. He still had bills, after all, and he knew if all he did was sit around all day and wait for Arthur to get back, he would go stir crazy. Plus, he had let Gwen give Lance his number. They were supposed to meet up today.

And he still needed to talk to Gwen. Plus, Morgana, probably. Lord knew what Morgause had told her. The fact that she’d agreed to go with Arthur at all was something, but Merlin had no clue whether he should be reassured or worried.

Yeah, he definitely should not be alone with his thoughts.

That morning he had asked Arthur to bring him an object to spell, something small that could fit easily in the hand and with which he wouldn’t be tempted to fiddle. Arthur had brought him a woman’s locket.

“Where’d you get this?” Merlin had asked, holding it up to the kitchen light. The little spider twirled and glinted as it would if suspended by silk rather than gold. “It’s far too pretty for you.”

“A girl gave it to me,” Arthur had said, straddling the stool next to Merlin. He looked earnest and scrub-faced in a very nice suit. He had even combed his hair. “She said she wanted me to have it and wouldn’t let me give it back. It was her aunt’s, she told me.”

“Why’d she give it to you?” Merlin asked, to distract himself from Arthur’s attention. He watched with intense focus as Merlin cupped his hands around the pooled necklace, took a deep breath, and focused.

As always when Arthur was around, the magic was right there. It practically leapt into the piece of jewelry, eager for once to do as Merlin bid it. He handed it to Arthur.

“Be careful,” he said.

“I will,” Arthur said, dangling the necklace in front of his own face, fascinated. “She gave it to me because she said I helped her. I don’t know. I’d never met her before – I think she read an interview of mine or something. Why’d your eyes turn colors like that when you do magic?”

“Because they do,” Merlin said. “I don’t know the reason. It happens to most people when they cast.”

“Mm,” Arthur had said softly, still regarding the necklace. “Most people.”

Merlin had shown him how to trigger the invisibility spell, and he had left a few minutes later. After finishing his coffee and reading the news, Merlin left too. Since he had gotten up early to meet with Arthur, he had a little more time and nothing really to do with it.

To distract himself, he stopped at a shop and picked up a sandwich for lunch, spotted a hole-in-the-wall used bookstore he hadn’t been in before, and got stuck perusing. When he looked at his phone a few minutes later, he was running late.

“Damn it!” This always happened to him.

And of fucking course the train was running late today, too. He ended up walking into the pharmacy twenty minutes after his shift was supposed to start, already apologizing.

“I know this is the third time this month I’ve been late, I am so sorry, I will stay late and scrub the bathroom with a toothbrush, I promise it won’t happen again,” he rambled breathlessly.

“Little chance of that,” Gaius, who had come into the back to fill a prescription, said, casting an unimpressed look from the bottom of Merlin’s filthy sneakers to the top of his windblown hair. “Go and flip the open sign over please and lock the door after Mrs. Cuthbert. I’m almost done checking her out.”

“Why, are we working on another,” he lowered his voice, “Black market thing?”

“Hush, Merlin,” Gaius said, like there wasn’t a silence spell cast over the whole back room. “And yes, something like that. Now hurry and get your coat off.”

“Yes, yes, of course, sorry!”

Merlin did as he was bid, turning the sign, and locking the door behind the latest customer. He flipped off the lights in the front for good measure as well.

When he returned to the back, Gaius was waiting for him, arms crossed, weedy brow troubled. “Sit down,” he said.

“What is it? Did I do something wrong? I double-checked the last order –”

“Sit,” Gaius interrupted. Merlin sat, plopping himself down on the bench in front of Gaius’s workstation. He had to push aside a stack of scrolls and a potted plant to do so. They looked at each other for an increasingly long series of seconds, Merlin doing his best not to squirm under Gaius’s gaze.

The cuckoo clock Gaius kept on one of the higher shelves ticked. The rheumatism elixir he’d been brewing for his neighbor in the flower shop next door bubbled in the corner.

“How,” Gaius said finally, “Are you still standing? You should by all rights be dead.”

Merlin just stared at him, unsure how to respond next. He was only now realizing in this moment that he should have accounted for Gaius.

“I’ve been in close proximity to your magic for months now,” Gaius told him. “I know how it feels, especially when its strong enough to knock out the entire city’s power grid. You’re lucky it was so overwhelming – it’ll be difficult for anyone to pinpoint where it originated from.”

“It was an accident,” Merlin said weakly.

“An accident? What triggered you?”

Merlin shrugged a shoulder helplessly. “It was…I…it was a confluence of things. I did get control of it eventually. I’m sorry. I know I should have a better handle on this…”

“I’m simply grateful you’re alive,” Gaius told him brusquely, “And if you managed to reign in that much power on your own, then that says a lot about how far you’ve come regarding your control. How’re you feeling? All right?”

“Yeah, fine. I mean, a little tired, and I had a bit of a headache the last couple nights, but other than that…”

Gaius was taking this a lot better than he had anticipated. “I’d like to check your vitals if you’d let me. The last thing we need is for your heartrate to bottom out unexpectedly. Often, the effects don’t catch up to people for a little while after they cast something large. Although, there’s not really scholarship on anything this large…”

“Oh, good,” Merlin muttered. “Something to look forward to.”

Gaius, who was also a licensed physician, proceeded to poke and prod at Merlin, checking his heartrate and the dilation of his pupils and basically treating him as if he were a victim of blunt force trauma.

Merlin let him. He didn’t know what else he could do. Honestly, he was mostly mad at himself that he hadn’t even thought about the fact that Gaius would recognize his magic.

“You’re not freaking out about this,” Merlin said cautiously, submitting to the blood pressure cuff Gaius wrapped around his upper arm. “I could’ve been discovered, or like…I don’t know. If I mess up and get found out, that could mean a lot of trouble for you.”

“You think I don’t know that? I can take care of myself,” Gaius said gruffly. “You and your mother both told me you were powerful. I suppose this is a wake-up call as to exactly how powerful. You’re capable of great things, Merlin.”

“Yeah, like knocking out the entire city whenever I have a panic attack,” Merlin groused. He knew he was capable of great things. Being capable wasn’t really the question.

“You showed signs of control, even if it was unconscious. I saw on the news this morning how the hospital wasn’t touched. 999 lines remained in operation, somehow. People were reporting that essential life-saving medical equipment and other crucial apparatus did not go down, either” Gaius said. “Remarkable, really. You’ve been hiding an in-depth knowledge of city infrastructure.”

“I feel like I really haven’t,” Merlin muttered.

“You’re fine,” Gaius informed him, ripping off the velcroed cuff. “All your vitals are reading as normal, and aside from a slight fever, which is standard after exerting magic like that, you are not exhibiting any signs of fatigue or distress. Remarkable, really.”

“I’m a real medical marvel,” Merlin said sardonically. He watched Gaius pack up his bag again, still wary. “Are you sure you’re not mad?”

“Why would I be mad?”

Merlin almost said, Because you’ve been upset before, but stopped himself, because of course Gaius had no memory of this. Gaius didn’t know.

“You’re wearing a particularly guilt-stricken look, which strikes me as a bit of an ill-omen,” Gaius informed him dryly.

Merlin immediately tried to wipe said look off his face. Gaius turned back to him, hands on his hips. He still wore his white lab coat, and the back room had a sharp, almost minty smell that came from the various salves, brews, potions, and plants, Gaius concocted back here.

The shelves were jammed with books and an assortment of instruments, the workbench crowded, the cubbyholes Gaius utilized to organize the products for his less legal clientele located by the back door, wrapped and bound securely in brown paper.

He had his shop. He had his flat upstairs. He had his neighbor, with whom he played parcheesi and shared most of his meals. The granddaughter of the neighbor often came by and gave him baked goods. There was even the pharmacy cat, who showed up precisely at open knowing Gaius would feed it, and whom Gaius pretended not to like, making a show of shooing away if anyone else was around.

Gaius had a life. It hit Merlin then.

He had this life. And in this life, Merlin was the not the same person to him. He was not so wrapped up in the cause of magic, or the promise of destiny. He didn’t need to be. He had his shop, and his friends, and his business, and supported the movement for the legalization of magic like any other old-time community organizer. Merlin was not as vital to the vision as he had once been, because Gauis’s understanding of change was much more holistic. Also, Merlin did not have a prophecy over his head.

Arthur was just the son of a vile politician and businessman, not the once and future king.

The realization of this swept through Merlin all at once, in a cold wave, utter relief. A pressure he had not even known he felt lifted from his shoulders, and it took all the self-control he had not to burst into tears again for the umpteenth time in as many days.

“The delivery came in on time for once, so you can do inventory,” Gaius was telling him. “I suspect that infernal delivery man has neglected to give me my full order of cough drops, just as he did last time. I order twice as many, I tell him, it’s flu season, and he blinks at me as if it is I who am senile…”

Merlin nodded along.

He realized then, as Gaius talked, that he should not tell Gaius the truth. Gaius didn’t have anything missing in his life, any gaps that this sort of insight would fill. In fact, Merlin thought, it would likely do more harm than good if Merlin told his old mentor about the dragon in the underground and the lifetimes that they all had lived, and the hand Merlin had in it. Did Merlin have it in him to harbor any more resentment, any more anger? Had he brought Gaius back to confront the old man, make him see what his own reliance on destiny and prophecy had caused?

Gaius had been instrumental on putting him on this path. And Merlin was angry. He thought about Kilgarrah, alone in the cold dark, absent any company but that which Merlin could give him. What good would Merlin's anger, however righteous, do any of them now?

Maybe, maybe that was the point of this go around for Gaius.

Maybe what he got this time around was peace, and quiet, and a pharmacy cat.

And maybe Merlin could make himself all right with that. Maybe he could find a way to forgive Gaius his mistakes. Maybe he already had.

Chapter Text

Percy called in the middle of Merlin’s shift.

He sat at the front counter with Gaius, and the neighbor’s granddaughter, who had stopped by on her way to see her grandmother, still in her school uniform. Gaius was blatantly cheating at Go Fish and denying it with the straightest face Merlin had ever seen, inspiring the intended response from the granddaughter – Lydia, Merlin thought her name was – who reached over the counter and plucked a three of spades out of Gaius’s hand with theatrical aggrievement.

Only half-paying attention to the would-be game, Merlin pulled his phone out of his pocket when it started buzzing, setting his cards face down on the counter as he did so. He stood, the Caller ID giving him pause. Percy didn’t really call him. Or text him, really. His main form of communication was Dadaist memes sent to the round table group chat to which the guys had added Merlin a little while ago.

Merlin stepped into the back room, nudging the door shut behind him, and swiped to answer the call.

“Hey, Perce, what’s up?”

He hadn’t had a chance to speak with Percy one-on-one since their conversation the night before, and his initial thought was that Percy must’ve held up his end of the bargain. Shown Gwaine the painting. Or explained it since he really hadn’t had time since last night to do the former.

“I’m at the studio,” Percy told him. His voice was abrupt, distracted.

Merlin could hear in his breath the pacing, the distinct squeak of the studio’s floor under his feet. “How long have you been there?”

“Since I got off of work.”

“You never went home?”

“No.”

“Okay. What’s up? Are you freaking out?”

Silence. Creaking footsteps. The distinct, tight breaths of someone trying not to hyperventilate.

“Percy,” Merlin said. “Did you tell him? Is that what this is?”

“No, I didn’t tell him. I almost told him, which is worse.”

Merlin rubbed a hand up through his hair, frowning. He waited for Percy to elaborate.

His voice was pleading. “Last night, before I left for work, we were talking, and I told him I was the one who was going to be gentle with him.” He groaned and Merlin heard the thunk of something being kicked. Possibly the wall. “I don’t know what came over me; he can’t see it. He can’t…I just…I can’t redo the faces. I can’t do something else, it’s the central piece, nothing else makes sense, I don’t have time…”

“Percy,” Merlin interrupted him. “Back up. What did he say when you said that bit about…being gentle?”

They’d been talking about him. Merlin recognized the rephrasing of the words but didn’t have the time or space to dwell on it.

“Nothing! I ran away before he could say anything.” He paused worriedly. “You make it sound bad.”

“It isn’t bad…” Merlin narrowed his eyes at the time. He was in the middle of his shift, and he’d gotten here late, but… “Have you slept at all?”

“I don’t understand what that has to do with this.”

“Nothing, necessarily. You’ve got a cot in the studio, don’t you? I’m going to leave work early. I’ll be there in about half an hour, depending on the trains. Lay down and take a nap.”

“I can’t sleep, I’m too wired.”

“Percy. Lay down. Go. To. Sleep,” Merlin ordered. “I mean it. Lay down, close your eyes, and stay that way until I get there. Have you eaten?”

Percy took too long to answer, the line crackling with silence. “I think so.”

“Since Leon’s stir fry?”

More silence. “I’m not hungry, Merlin, what’s the point of eating?”

“Okay, not a good sentence. Water? Have you had water?” He went over and pulled his coat from the coatrack, shrugging it on and switching his phone from one ear to the other to stay on the line.

More ominous silence on Percy’s end.

“A can of Red Bull and a Mountain Dew from the breakroom vending machine,” Merlin filled in for himself. “You are consistent, I’ll give you that. I’m bringing water, and food.” He looped his scarf over his neck. “I mean it, go to sleep.”

“I don’t…”

“Percy! I’m not arguing with you! Lay down! I’ll be there in a few minutes, and if you’re not snoring, I will turn you into a newt. How’s that? A bisexual newt. And I am not joking, you just try me.”

He hung up. “Gaius,” he called into the front, “My friend is having a crisis, I’m leaving early.”

“Don’t overexert yourself,” Gaius responded, his voice without apparent source from Merlin’s place in the backroom, “No magic if you can help it.”

“You do have an ace, you liar! Merlin, he’s still cheating!” Lydia shouted.

I can’t stop him,” Merlin said, ducking his head back out briefly. “You’ll have to talk to your Grandma. I’ll stay late another day this week, okay? I’m sorry,” he directed this at Gaius, who was in the midst of calmly surrendering an ace of spades to Lydia’s grasping fingers.

“That’s fine,” Gaius said, “Do what you need to do. I’m sure I can find some extra projects to preoccupy you.”

“Which friend is this?” Lydia asked, laying down her aces, not really looking at Merlin. “The handsome one that brought you lunch?” Her hair was mostly barrettes and chunks of spray-in pink hair dye, which had not gone over well with her grandmother.

“Percy,” Merlin said. “The tall one. He gave you that matchbook?”

Lydia nodded thoughtfully. She collected matchbooks. Percy had given her one from the place where he worked. “Oh, yeah, the one without sleeves! Tell him I hope he’s all right.”

“I will. Bye, guys. See you later.”

They bid him farewell, and he left out the back into the stiff November wind, mind already flung forward to the drafty midtown studio.
**
Merlin arrived at the building with a sack of burritos and two large water bottles. The building was as apparently deserted as it had been last time, the elevator still decrepit, afternoon shadows thick in the lightless lobby.

As soon as he walked through the front doors, he heard the muffled cacophony of someone’s music, turned up loud. It was the obnoxious, screamy stuff that sounded like being in a car crash felt, all frenetic guitars and shredded voices and coming apart.

“All right,” he said to himself, voice echoing in the lobby, “Good sign. Excellent sign. Off to a great start.”

He took the stairs, following the crunchy snarl of guitars all the way to Percy’s studio. The door was ajar. Nudging it open with his foot, he went inside, wincing as Metallica at full volume slammed into his head like a punch.

It was much emptier in here this time around, most of what had previously been stored in the space having been transported to the gallery where Percy’s show would be put on in a few weeks. All except for his infamous mistress, which he would not let anyone touch or see until the day of the show, much to his agent’s and the gallery owner’s displeasure.

“You aren’t entitled to be a diva yet,” his agent had informed him. “You’ve actually got to make money off of this shit before you can start pulling stunts.”

But it wasn’t a stunt. Percy truly did have the nature of a genuine, neurotic artist in the old mode. Hence, the heavy metal blaring at three in the afternoon. Hence, Percy, his gigantic form sprawled over the two-small cot, a fuzzy blanket pulled half over one shoulder, mouth agape, drooling a little, sound asleep.

Merlin observed him for a second and then went over to turn down the Bluetooth speaker. The lack of sound roused Percy from deep REM and Merlin pulled out the folding chair, dragging it out across from where Percy had stationed his cot in front of the mantle, waiting for Percy to regain full consciousness.

He watched as Percy blinked blearily and pushed himself upright, not really seeming to register Merlin’s presence as more than subjective fact until Merlin unscrewed one of the water bottles and placed it in Percy’s hand.

“Drink that,” he said. Percy regarded the bottle as if it were a philosophical question, and then did as he was told. “Burrito,” Merlin added, unwrapping a burrito, and depositing it in Percy’s other hand.

He then waited some more as Percy finished the water and then a second burrito. Percy let him take the empty bottle and crumpled wrappers from him.

“Thanks,” he said quietly. He was awake, clear-eyed and a little haggard, lack of sleep still pale in his face and dark under his eyes.

“No problem,” Merlin said. “Now – what’s going on?”

“Did you tell Arthur?” Percy asked.

Merlin placed the wrappers and bottle carefully in the grease-stained bag at his feet. Unscrewed the second water bottle and took a pull before handing it to Percy, who accepted it without seeming to realize he was doing so. The question lingered.

The studio felt larger without all the paintings to crowd it. Like an open field, all ceiling and window and a view of the dreary early winter sky.

“I did,” Merlin said.

“How did he take it?” Percy’s voice was remote, almost bitter, but not at Merlin, not at anything really, or anyone, except maybe himself. He took a drink of the water, handed the bottle back to Merlin.

“I’m not sure,” Merlin answered, taking it. “Better than I thought he would. But I guess we’ll see.” He paused. “I made a rose for him. A white rose. I didn’t mean for it to be a rose – I meant for a carnation or something safe like that. And it smelled like his shampoo, apparently, so I think I definitely succeeded in being subtle.”

The corner of Percy’s mouth twitched, his gaze still trained at the floor.

“You get it,” Merlin said softly, willing him to look up. “Right?”

He could feel the painting’s presence like a heat at his back, intense as a hearth fire. Like a hearth fire, it projected safety and comfort, but the closer you got to it, the closer you got to learning it burned like any other flame.

“When he sees it,” Percy said, “He’s going to know. I can’t explain that to him. I don’t know how. Even without the…” he gestured inarticulately between himself and Merlin “…lifetimes, all of that, how do you say that? I can’t say that.”

Merlin didn’t say anything, just watched with an ache in his chest as Percy rubbed his hand over his pastel pink hair.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Percy continued. “I don’t know why I thought I could do this.”

“Were you just going to put it in a closet somewhere and pretend it didn’t exist for the rest of your life?” Merlin asked, studying him. “Do you really think you could live like that?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.” He sighed. “How’re we going to do this, Merlin? There are entire lifetimes at play here, for all of us, and you’re the only one who remembers it all now. Except for Mordred, I guess, but he’s probably not going to be any help.”

“Not if he has any say in the matter, no,” Merlin said, allowing Percy to redirect the conversation away from the most painful part. He thought of Morgause, who had gone to see Morgana before shit hit the fan, why she had gone to her sister in the first place, what she might have said. “I don’t think he’s the only one. And like I said before, there could be a way for you to remember. If you wanted to remember.”

Percy worried his knuckles, frown vacant over Merlin’s shoulder. “I almost do, already,” he murmured. “Not just the dreams. I…I don’t know. It’s a thing I feel if that makes even a little sense. Maybe I’m my own key.”

“Maybe,” Merlin said. After all, what did he know?

He turned with Percy to look again at the painting. It stood in the middle of the room, so at one with the muted afternoon light it seemed like maybe the drab lack of shadows came from it, as if it were projecting that melancholy.

It had taken a more complete form since Merlin had last seen it, apparently finished. You could tell the dark color and shape around the two figures were forest, stone, something about the way the paint sat on the canvas conveying forest and stone without physically resembling either.

The faces still did not look like faces, but rather the great feeling faces were made to hold, without utilizing the medium of twisted brow or mouth to carry that emotion. And yet, Merlin could tell. He looked between Percy and the painting of the live man holding the dead one, and recognized Percy in the living shape.

Maybe it was because he knew the truth of the subjects already, but it seemed obvious to him, and he understood why Percy thought Gwaine would recognize himself in the dead man’s face.

How did you explain a thing like that?

It was quiet as church. The air was dry and chilly, a shiver built in it. Metallica played underneath the chill, a sort of defiant dirge.

“I’m in love with him,” Percy said.

A confession.

He said it like he’d been holding the truth to himself for a while. Like he’d maybe needed to say it for a long time, and known he’d needed to say it, but had had no idea what words to use to give the truth shape until revelation had suddenly supplied it form just now, right here, and it had spilled from his lips as soon as it had had a vessel to occupy. The truth was breathing and warm and physical as any living thing, green as the forest that surrounded the two men in the painting.

Merlin absorbed this truth, which he had sort of understood already, and he looked at Percy, with the familiar crease between his pale eyebrows, and didn’t say anything. He sort of sensed that there was nothing to say, and that to speak would be to take away from the careful turn of thought happening behind Percy’s creased brow, cogs fit into each other, rotating smoothly, finally working after a long time of being jammed in place. For a long time, a minute, then two, he kept not saying anything. Merlin held his peace. Waited.

Percy spoke slowly, as if into the silence one felt when sitting around a fire. “It’s been easy, loving him. I’ve been doing it practically since I met him, without even realizing that was what I was doing at first. I could’ve gone on forever like that. I would’ve been okay like that. I would’ve been fine. Happy, even. I don’t care?” He heard the question in his own voice and straightened a little, swallowing it. “I didn’t…need him to know, I guess. If he looked up, he would see it. If he woke up, I think that it’d be obvious. But he hasn’t, and he doesn’t, and he won’t, so why should I make him? Why should I ask him to?”

His jeans were ripped all the way up to the thigh. He took the white thread fraying at the edges of a hole and wrapped it round his fingers.

“I’m in love with him,” he said again, lowly, his eyes trained once again on his shoes. “That’s not the secret. That’s not what that is about.” That. The painting. He had named it failure. “It isn’t even about whether he’d love me back or not – I don’t know if he would, not like that, I’ve always sort of suspected he doesn’t have it in him to see me that way. And that’s okay. It really is okay. What that is about is losing him. That’s what I’m afraid of. What if I lose him? What if I lose him all over again?”

The two faces, painted and real, matched. Merlin held them both in his peripheral.

“You think if he sees the painting, and he understands how you feel, that might push him away?” he asked.

Percy’s frown had turned brooding, intense. A full scale glower. “It’ll cause distance. That’s the same thing. It won’t be the same…and it’s not that I mind if it’s different, necessarily. I just…I don’t want him to become a different person towards me.”

Merlin considered this. “Do you think there’s another way forward?”

Percy opened his mouth, answer ready, and Merlin headed it. “A way that’s not standing still,” he added. “Honestly – can you stay in this spot? Keep staying? Because you don’t have to keep going down this path, wherever that leads. You don’t. I know it seems inevitable right now, but we can figure a way out if you want. But a ‘way out’ is most likely just going to be a return to the status quo, what you’ve already been doing. Some people are all right, staying where they are. But think about it. Really think about it. This was all right for a while, living with him not knowing, caring for him that way, but will it keep being all right? Is it still all right, right now?” Merlin paused, looking at the painting. “Or do you want to move forward?”

“I don’t have to,” Percy said, as if asking permission.

Merlin hesitated, and then shook his head. “You don’t have to do anything, Perce. It’s all up to you.”

“You really believe that?”

“It’s the truth,” Merlin said, shifting back in the chair. “My personal modus operandum is forward momentum at all costs. Never stop long enough to let yourself think. But it isn’t a one-size-fits all sort of method.”

Percy snorted but did not comment. He still had his eyes on the floor. “What would we do? About the painting?”

“I don’t know. Burn it?” Merlin tipped his head back and surveyed the lack of fire safety in the studio. “Place isn’t up to code. It’d go up like kindling.”

“You’re not going to try and coax me to do what’s best for me? You’re the one who came up with my end of the deal.” He sounded almost suspicious.

Merlin remembered Percy guiding him through a panic attack in a cold stairwell, the soft bristles of his pale pink hair. Percy was usually the steady one. The rock. How strange it was, to be someone else’s anchor.

“How do I know what’s best for you?” Merlin said rhetorically. “How does anyone know? As far as I can tell, it’s either staying here, where he doesn’t know, or going forward, where he does know. And only you know what you can do. What you can stand. You’re halfway there already, though.”

Percy considered this. “When you want to be, you’re very level-headed.”

Merlin grinned at him, taking this as the cue to move into levity. “You’ve only seen me as a hot mess. I can be very wise.”

“Is that so?”

“It is.”

A smile flickered in his mouth. “If you say so yourself.”

“I do say so,” Merlin said. He pushed himself to his feet. “I think I know what this calls for, anyway. I saw a bar around the corner.”

“It’s Monday,” Percy said. “It’s 4pm.”

“And you don’t work Tuesdays. You’ve had something to eat. Finish your water,” Merlin said, pointing at the half full bottle in Percy’s hand, “And let’s get a drink. Then we’re going home and you’re going to get some sleep if I have to stand over you and watch you do it.”

“I don’t think that’ll help,” Percy said, standing.

“Whatever. I think maybe you can decide what to do about…” Merlin gestured generally, at the painting, at Percy, at life, at their absurd circumstances, “…on a full night’s – or day’s? – sleep.”

Merlin pulled out his phone. He would have to reschedule with Lance, which was fine, he hadn’t really been looking forward to trying to explain himself to a stranger anyway. Not that Lance was a stranger. But Merlin was a stranger to Lance, and that might be abjectly more humiliating.

For now, he and Percy walked down to the corner bar, which would be empty and dim in comparison to the day. The sun had almost come out, the air a little warmer. Merlin left his coat unbuttoned. As they walked, Percy gently reached over and pressed his finger to the cigarette hole still burnt in Merlin’s wool shoulder.

“I love you too, you know,” he said to Merlin, and Merlin understood exactly what he meant. This was why Arthur had chosen Percy to sit at the round table, both times around. He was so matter-of-factly good, and he had so much care in him. Apparently limitless depths. That was why it was so easy to rely on him, and maybe forget that he needed care, too.

“I know,” Merlin replied.

Percy smiled, drew his hand away. The sunshine was warm on their shoulders. “You don’t love me back?”

“Don’t be silly. Of course, I do. Now come on, I could do with some whiskey.”

Chapter Text

Merlin put Percy to bed. It was a surprisingly easy affair, or it probably was at least surprising to Percy that all Merlin had to do was pull down his blinds and toss a blanket over his shoulders and put the white noise machine on at full volume to finally get him to doze off. The little bit of alcohol served as a sleep tonic, the warmth of the blanket and the few minutes of sleep he’d caught earlier reminding him just how tired he was.

He really was a conniving schemer when he put his mind to it, Merlin reflected. With machinations thought thirty steps out in advance. If that was what it took for Percy to finally sleep, then he wasn’t sorry. He didn’t feel bad about the small spell to ward off nightmares, either, pressed to Percy’s brow with two fingers and a breath of magic.

It wouldn’t be as effective as a charm bag, but for a few hours, it’d do.

If only there were such simple remedies to cure his own sleep of nightmares.

It took a minute, at most, for the low lull of Percy’s breathing to mingle with the hush of static, deep and even, the daylight dark drawn dreamy and close as curtains. A few fireflies had slipped into Percy’s room to bob softly near the ceiling, golden.

Merlin waited, his hand resting on the knob, until he was confident Percy had drifted off. Then he left Percy there in the quiet flat, Leon at work and Gwaine at school. The fireflies gave off diffuse light in the main room, too, content and apparently immortal as Arthur’s rose, drifting like living constellations above Merlin’s head.

Percy had named them as a whole, something fanciful that Merlin couldn’t quite remember. He had breathed the name to Merlin as they first came in, as if the collection of glowing insects were something holy. Merlin looked up at them, letting himself just breathe, trying to ground himself in his body.

The taste of whiskey was still woody in his teeth. His head was a mess of fireflies, and bad dreams, and lost lives, and kings. They floated together through his head like a lullaby.

What was it exactly that he had done? Where was it exactly that all of them had ended up, and why? He could not convince himself that this was all for the sake of Arthur, fine-faced and noble and frustrating as he was. If all of this were only for Arthur, then there was no real point in rousing the rest of them, too. After all, if Merlin possessed the power to bring them all back like this, then it would be simple enough for him to bring Arthur back alone, fashion him a life simple and satisfying and long, which is what Merlin had wanted.

But human beings did not so easily submit to gifts or boons, or general good.

What did it take to make a good life? And why had Merlin ever supposed he had the power to grant it? Maybe – and here he felt the dark castle of memory looming – maybe he didn’t. Maybe he’d known it. Maybe this – all of this Arthur and all – was just about hope. His hope. For himself, and those he loved.

He thought of villains convinced of their own kindness. He thought of meddling and machinations. He thought of pirate ships and town squares and blue skies and a thousand like and unlike things, sown through centuries, of the faces woven like a pattern through those years, appearing over and over again, and wondered if he were any better than fate. If his control was any less make believe.
He thought of forests, painted faces. He thought of jewelry cupped in his hands, of roses, of golden hair, of princes who were no longer princes, about people with prophecy threaded in their veins who no longer had prophecy to guide them.

What did you do when you had no light to follow? How did you stay the path when the path had run out long ago? Could you really go astray if you didn’t know which direction you were meant to be going? Was there really any light to fall for at all, or just stars? Stars or the idea of stars? Was there really anything except for your own magic, to guide you home?

Merlin left 3D, checking his phone. He texted Lance back, rescheduling their meeting for tomorrow. He ignored a text from Will, the thrill he felt in his stomach upon seeing the notification fair enough warning that he wasn’t well enough to open it. A message from Arthur was there, too, sitting in the group chat, informing them all that it was done. Uther had acquiesced. That particular disaster at least, was over. Merlin stood in the hallway as he took in this news and let out a breath, and then a laugh.

It didn’t feel like a victory, really. It felt like the plugging of a dam.

He let Gwaine and Leon respond to this news, put his phone away.

Then he walked past his flat, down the hall, and clattered down the stairs, heading back in the opposite direction for Gwen’s place, taking the train.

Kilgarrah was behaving himself or ignoring Merlin, both scenarios with which Merlin was perfectly fine. The mundane rattle of wheels on tracks did not soothe him. He didn’t know what to do about Kilgarrah yet. He didn’t know if there was anything to do, or if the gravelly scrape of guilt he felt in his joints was just another one of his masochistic misplaced feelings.

When he got to Gwen’s place, a few blocks from the station, her car was parked on the curb. Merlin made his way up the front walk and through the back gate, passing through the courtyard and tapping his knuckles against the window before he used his key to let himself inside.

He entered to find Gwen sitting on the couch untangling and rewinding spare bundles of yarn. Morgana stood in the kitchen tending something on the stove.

Merlin froze in place, his brain diving frantically backward, back out the door and to the curb, where the BMW had not been parked. Internally, he paced the sidewalk outside again while externally he stood rooted to the welcome mat. His brain returned to his skull, out of breath, and affirmed it for him. No, he hadn’t missed the BMW. It had very conspicuously not been there, enough so that Merlin had made unconscious note of this and let his guard down.

He narrowed his eyes at Morgana’s back, her dark hair sloppily skewered in place with a chopstick. It smelled like tofu and soy cooking. It felt like an ambush.

“Hey, Merlin,” Gwen said brightly. “Morgana’s making dinner.”

Morgana glanced over her shoulder, shuffling the contents of the skillet with a spatula. The kitchen fan groaned. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Merlin said slowly, still suspicious. He took off his boots and outerwear and joined Gwen on the couch. “What’re you doing?”

“I don’t have room to store all my yarn, so I’m going to use up the leftovers from my other projects to make a sort of Frankenstein’s baby blanket,” Gwen told him, preoccupied. “But I’ve got to rewind all of this first, it’s just been sitting in a bag in the back of my closet gaining sentience for like a year now.”

She continued winding a baby blue ball of yarn.

“Can I help?” Merlin asked.

She yanked her chin toward the bag at her feet. “Go for it,” she said.

Merlin pulled a knot of forest green yarn into his lap and began to pick at it. A black-and-white sitcom played on mute on the television while an old folk record spun on the record player, the twang of a banjo mingling with the smell of cooking food.

It was the exact sort of evening Merlin had experienced a thousand times over, and his instinct was to relax into it. But he had to keep ignoring the prickle of unease that he felt that came from putting his back to Morgana. His mind returned to Morgause, blonde and malevolent, his secret name in her acolyte’s mouth, and to the prescience of a love spell, as if Morgause had seen into the ancient ruins in Merlin’s head before even Merlin himself was made aware of them.

He thought of how vindictive and ruthless and clever one had to be to shape suspicion and fact into a blade like that. That spell had been a knife between Merlin’s shoulder blades, guesswork aimed truly, meant to wake him up or ruin him, and he wasn’t sure it hadn’t done both.

The wild card was Morgana.

It depended on what Morgause had told her, how she had told her, and how this afternoon with Arthur had gone. The fact that she had agreed to accompany Arthur at all –
Merlin wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was it Morgana choosing to trust Arthur? Or did she see Merlin’s intention behind it? He was having a hard time staying in the present, kept falling back into shadows and secrecies and the ghosts of old selves, his and hers.

He didn’t know. He gave himself a headache from trying to figure it out. He wound yarn and listened to Gwen chat idly about nothing.

“What is it you wanted to tell me?” she asked suddenly, as Merlin deposited the green yarn into the finished bag and pulled a snarl of burnt orange yarn from the unfinished bag.

“Er…” Merlin’s brain glitched. “I sort of wanted to talk to you privately about…”

Morgana banged a piece of cookware. “Dinner’s ready.”

“Oh, good,” Gwen got to her feet. “Work felt twice as long today, without Lance. I am starving.”

Merlin exchanged a wary look with Morgana as he approached the kitchen. She handed him a plate, her expression tense and fixed. Did you tell her where you were today? he tried to ask. She shook her head, just slightly. Merlin struggled to read the meaning in it.

His heart was a jackrabbit in his chest.

“Do you know what,” Gwen continued, apparently oblivious to this silent exchange, “I’m glad this whole thing is over. Maybe everything can finally go back to normal now.”

He tossed a cautious glance at Morgana before sitting across from Gwen at the plant-crowded table. “You heard about where they went today then?” he asked.

“Morgana told me Arthur called her, and they went to see Uther together. She told me you convinced Arthur to do it, to try and call it all off,” Gwen said. “I’m glad that it worked. I’m glad Uther listened. Or stood down. Or however you want to say it.”

“Strategic retreat is how I would put it,” Morgana said ominously. She had boosted herself onto the counter across from them, artfully scooping up noodles with her chopsticks.

Gwen took a sip of her water, thoughtful. “Well at least you’re not hiding out in a motel anymore. I chalk that up as a win.”

“He does shit like this and manages to make me feel ridiculous,” Morgana muttered. “Like I’m the unreasonable one. Like I’m overreacting. Fucking family dinners all over again.”

Gwen was quiet. The record had fuzzed out on the shelf behind her, and Merlin got up to turn it over.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Gwen asked Morgana.

“Sorry, I swore I wasn’t going to let my mood ruin the evening. No, I’m fine. We can talk later.”

Later, Merlin thought, dropping the needle, his sweatered back to this little exchange. Later, when it was just Gwen and Morgana, in that quiet space made for two people and communication and lying in bed next to one another. Later, like your toothbrush at my place and the smell of the wind in the jumper you borrowed from me.

Merlin did not get the luxury of that sort of Later with Gwen. He thought maybe he could get a moment alone with her tonight, not wanting to put off what he saw as inevitable, not wanting to keep this new secret from her any longer than he had to. But it seemed that that would have to wait.

They finished dinner, he and Morgana washing up silently, Gwen returned to the couch to turn the volume up on the tv. Canned laughter spilled through the flat.

“It’s late,” Morgana said, as they finished. “Let me drive you home.” Magic made the dish-washing procedure quicker, as Merlin had perfected minimal effort to an artform.

He hung up the dishtowel and glanced over at Gwen, the back of her head visible over the back of the couch, tv light a pale blue glow cast around her, in contrast to the yellow light in the kitchen. It made the two spaces feel like different worlds. The tv cackled and guffawed. Gwen hummed to herself. The kitchen fan still ran, a high drone.

“You knew I wouldn’t come inside if I knew you were here,” Merlin said, turning back to Morgana, voice harsh and hushed, no silence spell necessary.

Her eyes were heavy-lidded, cross. “So?”

“I don’t want to talk to you right now.”

“Too bad,” Morgana said. “I want to talk to you. And avoiding me is not going to make me go away. I don’t just disappear, when what I might know and how I might know it is inconvenient for you.”

Merlin winced. “I can’t handle this right now.”

“You can’t handle me right now. Or is it that you don’t want to handle me? You wanted to talk to her first.”

Merlin’s glower was sour as milk. “And you don’t want me to get to her first.”

“I want to know what you’re going to say to her. I want you to give me some context before you start mincing around Albion spilling your guts to everyone and sundry to keep yourself from feeling bad.”

He narrowed his eyes. She tipped her head.

“You think being bitchy to me is going to work?” he asked, almost smiling, voice dropping even lower, a burr snagged in cashmere. “I’m immune.”

“Reflex,” Morgana returned, her own smile a hook like the moon.

He realized he had been leaning toward her and pulled himself back. “Fine,” he said. “You know what? I’ll take that ride home. Thanks for offering.”

“No problem,” Morgana said. She snatched her keys from the counter and raised her voice. “Gwen, I’ll be back in a few minutes. I’m driving Merlin home.”

“You’re leaving already?” she asked, stirring on the couch to crane her neck at him.

“Yeah,” Merlin said. “I’m still really beat. Think I’ll turn in early.”

“Oh. All right.” She got up and hugged him. “We’ll talk later, okay?”

“For sure. I’ll text you.” He hugged her back, and released her, the smell of her perfume clinging to his sweater, and followed Morgana out the door.
**
The BMW smelled like Arthur. His cologne lingered in the seat leather, and the sharp balsam smell of his hair products hung in the thin, stale air. Merlin pulled the passenger side door closed on himself, waiting for Morgana to drop in on the driver’s side. She had parked around the corner, and the short walk had put the damp early winter back in Merlin’s face, in the joints of his gloved fingers.

He flexed them quietly while she got in and turned the car on, engine rumbling. The heaters blasted cold air, and she reached over to turn down the fans, punch off the music. They pulled away from the curb in silence.

“What do you want me to tell you?” Merlin asked. When she didn’t answer, he added, “Are you upset with me?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so,” Morgana said. “But give me time. I haven’t made up my mind on that one, yet.”

Driving was a good excuse to keep her eyes trained straight ahead, and a clever way for Merlin to study her profile undetected, trying to read the compression in her lips, the inward turn of her eyes as they flickered over the road.

“It was only a little while ago you were apologizing to me,” Merlin commented, settling back in his seat. “Then she had a chance to explain herself, it seems. What did she say to you?”

“I don’t like the way you’re talking,” Morgana told him. “Like you’re getting ready to twist the truth.”

“I don’t want to twist anything. But I’m not sure there’s a way to be objective about this. If we’re talking about the same thing, that is.”

Morgana pressed on the brakes, frowning at the taillights of the car stopped at the red light in front of them.

“Are you that strong of a magician?” she asked. “Was the outage yesterday really you?”

He was already looking at her, so that when she turned to look at him, their eyes met. She read the answer there. He saw her understand it. “Yes,” he said.

“And everything else?” she asked. The light turned green. They pulled forward.

He let the silence linger. He really didn’t know how to account for himself. He could barely face his own questions, his own sense of betrayal, the confusing mix of anger and hurt and vindication and the terrifying thrill of his own ability he felt all churning in his own chest, all at once.

“Everything else,” he said. “You mean…?”

“Don’t make me say it. I can’t take hearing myself say anything batshit right now.”

“You went to see Uther,” Merlin said.

“What does that have to do with this?”

“You know it was me. My idea. And if she – if Morgause – told you…I guess I’ve no idea what she told you. Whatever it was, I’d think the context she provided might make you leery of following any plan of mine.”

“It was a good plan,” she said, tightening her hands against the steering wheel, restless. “I couldn’t think of anything better. Anything that would work. It was our best shot, and you got him on our side.” Arthur, she meant. “That has to count for something. I had to let it count for something.”

Yes, Merlin knew the ache of having Arthur out of step with him. The ache of keeping that particular kind of secret from him, the secret of his magic, and the relief of having him know, and having it be all right.

It seemed that Morgana hadn’t told Arthur that part yet, and Merlin understood. The fact that he had taken that rose from Merlin at all was a step forward, but it was only one step. They were not yet all in sync.

“Okay,” Merlin said. “So…you don’t hate me yet?”

She snorted. “I’m not going to hate you. Don’t be melodramatic. I just…I’ve heard Morgause’s story. I don’t know what to make of it. It’s all so…big, but it does make a sort of sense. Almost? It feels insane to even say that. I just need you to clarify for me. If you were behind the blackout last night, and if I let myself dwell on it, I can admit that it did sort of feel like your magic…then what were you doing? Why did it happen?”

It was a cautious testing, weight put on thin ice. Merlin recognized the tactic. He understood from experience just how unnerving being in that place could be, the truth a thing you had to try and reach instead of just a thing you knew. Not sure what or who to trust when before, it hadn’t even been a question. Like the truth, you had just known.

He never thought he would be the one putting someone in that place.

And he hated it. He hated it, but he didn’t think he had the ability to make it better.

“The night of the party,” he said. “Your sister’s acolyte called me by name. A name I’d heard before. A name I thought might be a…clue to this mystery that I’ve been chasing. You know that part, I think. I couldn’t go back to Morgause, obviously, so I went to someone else who’d used that supposedly secret name with me. He…acted like a key, I guess is the best way to put it, and unlocked this larger secret I must’ve been holding in my head this entire time. A secret I locked away from myself, and from a lot of people involved with it, including you.”

“Entire past lifetimes?” Morgana asked.

He choked out a laugh. “I didn’t just want to come out and say that.”

She almost smiled. “Obviously. It’s batshit. You did this?”

“Yes. I’m not sure how, exactly…I…well, it all sounds like an excuse when I try and say it aloud, when the fact is I just don’t know.” Merlin leaned his head back against the headrest, sighing. “And I can’t let myself make excuses.”

“Morgause said you killed me.”

He glanced over at her. “Did she tell you that you tried to kill me first?”

“You used the word key. She said that for all the people involved, there is a counterpart whose touch acts as a key, to unlock these…. other lives. Is that true?”

His attention sharpened. “Possibly. I haven’t worked through that part yet. That kid, Mordred, he was the key for me. I have no clue why I would make him the key, considering…or maybe I do. I do and I don’t know, most things, everything, and it just…” he pressed the heel of his hand to his temple, closing his eyes. He’d given himself a headache again. The castle loomed, dark and foreboding and full of ruined corridors.

“I can’t really say it out loud, I guess. Morgause mentioned this, though?” He opened his eyes as the BMW drew to a stop. They were in front of his building. “She thought she was your key, didn’t she? It makes sense.”

“No,” Morgana said slowly, putting the BMW into park. “She knew she was my key. Except she wasn’t. This time around.” She laughed a little, breathlessly, at the ridiculousness of this statement. “I think Gwen’s my key.”

Merlin felt the twinge of that in his chest. Couldn’t stand to meet the beseeching color in her gaze as she turned it once again on him.

He should’ve gone noseblind to the sigh of Arthur’s cologne still lingering in the car, but he hadn’t. He was still breathing it in. Still thinking of Arthur’s collar, the hem of his coat, cloth as close as he could let himself get to thinking about the other thing. Because cloth didn’t really hold scent that way, did it? Or warmth? It was skin that did that.

He could let himself imagine fingers brushing the starched ridge of a collar, the rough tug of a wool coat. The smooth contour of a button under his fingers, the silk of a tie in his fist, the sharp rebuke of cufflinks nestled like trinkets in his palm.

But it was the other thing that did him in, the other thing he could not let himself touch, even within the supposed safety of his own head.

“Merlin.”

Merlin snapped to, inhaling sharply. “Yeah,” he said. “I think she’s your key. I think it’s…connection that makes it so.”

“Morgause said she was her own key.”

Merlin frowned, the ache in his head in sync with his heartbeat. He remembered Percy, this afternoon, and said, “That could be. Sometimes what you’ve got is yourself. Sometimes that’s all you let yourself have.”

“And I’m supposed to be the morbid one,” Morgana said after a second of dour silence.

“You’re just goth, people don’t know how to tell the difference.”

She laughed at that, or almost laughed, the tension easing between them with this comment. “Do you want to come up?” he asked her.

“No. I should go back.”

“Okay.” He paused, kept himself from asking what exactly she was going to say to Gwen. He didn’t need to sound like a control freak. He didn’t need to freak himself out.

“Don’t worry,” she said, reading it on him anyway, “I think it’d be better coming from you, anyway.”

“And you think I should tell her?”

He already knew the answer, but she did him the favor of saying it aloud. “I think it’s the only way forward. If this is what we’re working with. I don’t think I could take existing in this limbo for very long.” She frowned at him. “Could you?”

“No,” he said finally, “I’ve cured myself of keeping secrets, I think.”

“I hope that’s a good thing.”

He shouldered the car door open. “Yeah, me too.”

Chapter Text

After Morgana had dropped him off, Arthur hadn’t quite known what to do with himself. He texted the group chat to let them know how the meeting had gone and didn’t really look when his phone dinged in response, no doubt all congratulation and delight.

He didn’t know how he should feel.

He had wanted this outcome. So why did he have this…ambivalence in his chest that seemed to match the gray day gathering outside? His weather app had forecasted a sliver of sun, but so far, the light had stayed hazy. Indistinct.

Sighing, he tried to distract himself. He made a sandwich, noticed the smoked deli ham usually in the refrigerator drawer had been traded for honey ham, which wasn’t bad, just sweeter. The sandwich turned gluey in his mouth as he chewed. He threw it out, having only taken a bite. His stomach was a mess. He couldn’t sit still.

Suddenly, standing there in the would-be foyer, the chafe of his starched shirt collar against the back of his neck made him want to crawl out of his skin, and he retreated to his room, shucking off his suit jacket, his breath shallow.

His periphery disappeared, and it was only the difficulty of the shirt buttons under his fingers. He had to force himself to stop, to count to ten, to breathe deeper, get more oxygen to his panicking brain. Why was he freaking out?

It’d all worked, hadn’t it? He’d done it. He’d fixed something. Morgana was speaking to him. His father had seemingly heard him, looked at him, realized he was there, did as he asked. Did as he asked. And Merlin would be pleased, to hear it’d gone according to plan.

Arthur’s cufflinks clattered across his desktop. He pulled on a sweatshirt, and sweatpants, traded his loafers for his worn-out Nikes. Qued up the sound of train tracks on his phone, swiping past the notifications there without seeing them. Pulled on the puffy orange winter coat Morgana had gotten for him because she fussed that no one would see him, and he’d be hit by traffic.

Then he went for a walk.

A long walk.

Long enough that night started to fall in earnest before he made it back. Long enough that he was bone tired, and almost cheery, made more of the ache in his muscles and the warmth in his coat, and less of his thoughts.

He’d gotten used to the cold by then, and the dry heat of the building’s lobby was a shock, his nose and cheeks icy in comparison, his breath raw as it passed his own lips.

The walk had calmed him down. He felt settled enough to pause the endless loop of train noise and tug his earbuds out of his ears, folding up his hat to do so. It’d been hours, now, since they’d come in, but he checked his notifications anyway. Just as he had known it would be – jubilee and GIFs, as if he hadn’t been the one to cause the problem he’d just solved.

Scoffing a little at himself, he made his way up the stairs, unzipping his coat. Nothing from Merlin in the midst of all those messages. He had sort of expected there to be something. He didn’t know what to make of the fact that there was nothing.

He stood for a second on the landing of the second floor, gnawing at the inside of his cheek, staring at the phone screen.

Nothing. That was fine. They were just pixels. Arthur would talk to him in person. Maybe he’d be home by now.

Home by now. That thought made him scoff, too, and shake his head.

He shoved his hat in his pocket and went the rest of the way up the stairs, let himself into 3C. The flat was dark, and empty. Arthur switched on a light. Toed off his shoes. Went to take a hot shower, came back into the living area in a clean set of sweats and flopped himself in front of the tv.

When the key finally turned in the lock again, Arthur was half asleep to a rerun of Skins, arms crossed over his chest. The sound alerted him, and he forced himself to stay still, listening to the quiet sounds of keys clattering in the bowl by the door, shoes dumped on the mat, scarf unwound and hung on a hook. The soft pad of stocking feet as Merlin came closer to peer over the couch.

“Arthur,” he said softly. “You asleep?”

“Not yet,” Arthur replied, hitting the mute button on the remote. “You’re in late. I thought you only worked until four?”

“I went over to Gwen’s,” he said, perching himself on the sofa arm.

Arthur pushed himself up farther against the pillows, studying him. “Yeah? Was Morgana there? She said she might stop to see her.”

“She was.”

Arthur tried to figure out whether or not to say what he wanted to say. He finally just went for it. “What did Gwen think, then?” he asked. “Could you get a read on her?”

Merlin shot him a shrewd, knowing look. “She was relieved mostly. To have everything back to normal.” He scoffed and shook his head, much as Arthur had done earlier. “Whatever that means.”

“I don’t want it to go back to normal.”

Merlin’s eyebrows disappeared briefly into his fringe. He normally styled his hair to make it appear artfully messy, but he hadn’t today. It still looked messy, just softer, less spiky. He slid down off the sofa arm and onto the couch, forcing Arthur to pull his feet back to make room.

“Normal like what?” he asked.

Arthur flipped the remote in his hand, casual. “Normal like us fighting all the time. You not liking me.” He paused. “Feeling useless.”

Merlin considered this. Arthur had expected the empathy in his face to be excruciating, but instead there was only something careful, introspective.

“I like you, Arthur.”

“Have I grown on you, then?” Merlin laughed, and the uninhibited sound made Arthur smile, unsure how exactly he had been funny. “What?”

“You’ve grown on me,” he admitted, and leaned forward a little, over Arthur’s feet, his voice pitched lower, conspiratorial. “But I always liked you. That’s why I was so mean.”

Arthur frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Yes, it does, if you think about it,” Merlin said, straightening, briefly examining the tv. “You wouldn’t know this yet, I suppose, but I get my feelings hurt quite easily if I’m not careful. I’ve learned to be cautious of the friends I make. Anyway,” he said briskly, flopping back in the throw pillows and facing Arthur more securely. “Enough about me. How’re you doing?”

“How am I doing?” Arthur repeated, as if this would help clarify the question.

Merlin tapped his fingers against his knees. His eyes glinted, unreadable in the near dark as he looked at Arthur. “You went out on a wander, didn’t you?”

“Just to clear my head,” Arthur said. “Sort through some things.”

“Did it help?”

“It always helps. And how’d you know I was out, anyway?”

“You aren’t nearly as discreet as you’d like to believe. Your sneakers are damp, and so is your hair,” Merlin said. “You always wash it after you’ve been walking.”

Arthur studied him, unaware up to this point that Merlin had been bothering to notice anything about him. “What’s it to you?” he asked. Almost wary. Unsure what to make of this new seemingly abrupt familiarity.

“I don’t know. I just wanted to check in. Seeing as we’re friends now,” Merlin said, studying him back. Most people backed down from Arthur’s full attention. Merlin did not. Never had. Seemed to take it as a challenge, actually.

Arthur thought he understood. “I’m not going to tell anybody.”

Again, that surprised quirk of his dark brows. “About my magic? Good. I’m glad. But that’s not why I’m asking. Is it okay? If I ask? Or would you prefer I not? Leave it to someone gentler?”

Arthur really had no clue what that was supposed to mean. Feeling lost, and irritated that he felt lost, Arthur said, “I’m fine. Peachy, really. Everything went to plan. Morgause is free again, which is brilliant, apparently, and your little spell worked perfectly.” He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out the spider necklace, which he had transferred there, held it up to dangle from his fingers. “A neat trick.”

“Thank you.” Merlin reached forward to repossess the necklace, and Arthur let him take it. He studied it, eyes narrowed slightly, and didn’t press Arthur any further on questions of how he was doing.

Really. Arthur never had any idea how to answer those sorts of questions without lying or deflecting. He tapped the tv remote against his thigh, waffling.

“I think I’m okay,” he said finally, quietly. Merlin glanced up at him, expression neutral. “Thank you for asking.”

“Of course,” Merlin said. “You don’t need to thank me. And there’s no need for things to go back to normal, not with you and me, at least. We’ve turned a page now – no use in pretending we haven’t.”

Arthur wondered if he was supposed to feel a warm wave of relief following this statement. He did, muscles he hadn’t realized he’d been holding tensely relaxing in his shoulders and neck.

Merlin smiled a little at him. Handed the necklace back. His fingers briefly brushed Arthur’s palm as he laid the spider in it.

Merlin wasn’t the only one allowed to notice things. Arthur, for example, noticed the way Merlin kept his feet tucked securely on the couch cushion, ensuring no part of his body would touch Arthur’s, even by accident. He noticed that when Merlin gave him back the necklace, the brief contact was so matter of fact, so utilitarian, that it was easy to pretend there hadn’t been touch involved at all.

But Arthur had felt the slight buzz of contact, similar to the feeling trapped in the little spider now in his hand. Magic, he guessed. And he felt the centimeters of distance between Merlin’s denim calf and Arthur’s stocking foot.

He thought about the rose sitting on the countertop, still. He thought of Merlin making him food on the pretense of expiration dates, leaving it artlessly on the stove as if he really didn’t care. He thought about the time, back Arthur was still pretty sure Merlin hated him, when he had been dozing on the couch and Merlin had passed by, paused, thrown the throw blanket over him before moving on as if nothing had happened. Like Arthur wouldn’t notice, like he wouldn’t put two and two together, as if there were a ghost leaving him eggs under a lid or tossing blankets over him when it thought he was sleeping.

Maybe it did make sense, the way Merlin could only be nice to him in secret, and so prickly the rest of the time.

What Arthur really wanted to ask was why Merlin refused to touch him. He was so touchy with everyone else, tousling hair and kissing cheeks and taking arms and holding hands and dumping himself into the nearest available lap. Arthur had noticed it. He couldn’t not notice it.

He had chalked it up to whatever reason Merlin didn’t like him. That made enough sense, too, even if Arthur was unsure as to the reason. But if he had liked Arthur all along? If being mean had been a sort of defense, walls built up and kept, then what did this mean? The deliberate lack of touch?

It wasn’t that Arthur minded. He just wondered.

But he wasn’t sure that was the sort of question he was allowed to ask.

So, he kept it to himself.
**
Later that night, Arthur woke up out of a dead sleep, heart pounding. His room was pitch black, and he sat up slowly, hand pressed to his chest, listening. Last time this had happened he had found Merlin standing motionless in moonlight.

This time, he had a dream still sticky in his subconscious, clinging like cobwebs.

Touch, he thought, the first coherent thought that came to him, accompanied by the almost memory of fingers wrapped around his wrist, the pressure not quite real.

It was nighttime quiet, the dark hushed and close as breath.

He got to his feet, fingers brushing the bat as he went to his bedroom door and cracked it open, peering into the empty hall. Just the shadows created by the nightlight, the open door of the bathroom. He picked up the bat, an automatic just-in-case, and swung it lazily at his side as he made his way out to the living area.

On some level, he knew he would find no one there. The square of moonlight empty. The fridge crouched, gleaming. The chandelier clinging like a great crystal spider to the ceiling. The whole place was hushed, still, the radiator rattling in the corner, floor cold against his bare feet.

He retreated, and then stopped at Merlin’s closed door.

For some inexplicable reason, his heartrate sped up as he looked at it. Something had woken him. Cautiously, unsure why he was really doing it, he leaned the bat against the hallway wall. Put his hand on the knob of Merlin’s door, as if he meant to turn it, and then stood there for what may as well have been a millennium, palms damp, the chill of sweat sticking his t-shirt to his back and chest, sensation clammy and unbearable.

He was suddenly overheating in his cotton pajama pants. When he knocked his knuckles against the shield of that door, it was the bravest thing he’d ever done in his life.

There was no answer.

This could be a violation. This was a risk. He didn’t know whether it was the right thing or not. The knob turned under his hand and the door fell open, enough so that Arthur saw Merlin’s room as it was in moonlight and in shadow.

He slept without the blinds drawn. The room was messy, of course, clothes strewn over the floor and heaped on the loveseat he kept in the corner. The art prints he had hung on the walls shown as if with light, alien and unworldly, making shapes Arthur couldn’t comprehend without the sense of daylight to interpret them.

Books lay in heaps, piled atop his dresser drawers, and stacked on the floor. A bookshelf still in its cardboard box, deconstructed, was propped against the baseboard of the bed. Little sentimental tokens were scattered everywhere, stones and ribbons and movie tickets and takeout menus and matchbooks, seemingly meaningless scraps that, without this context, Arthur would have mistaken for garbage, paper litter.

But everything had meaning.

Including Merlin, who sat in the middle of his bed, sheets pooled around him in a shallow sea, knees to his chest and hand knotted vaguely in his fuzzed, sleep-mussed hair. The moonlight held him in apparent spotlight, suspended, his gaze cocked like a gun, sightless, aimed at nothing. He looked as if he had been crying.

“What do you want?”

“Nothing. I…” Arthur hesitated, unsure what or how much to say, certain he held something in his hands right now, uncertain how to be careful with it. “I woke up, and I had a bad feeling. Are you…okay? Bad dreams?”

Merlin laughed hollowly. “Something like that.”

Arthur hovered. He wanted to ask what Merlin needed, but he understood instinctively that this wasn’t the sort of situation where that question was helpful. This was the sort of situation where the only way Arthur could help was to already know, and he just didn’t. He never did.

“Do you…can I get you a glass of water, or…?”

Merlin mopped at his eyes with both wrists, shirt sleeves bunched up in his fists. “I’m fine, Arthur.” When Arthur didn’t move, he added, “I’m sorry I woke you.”

“I can stay, if you want.”

Merlin didn’t look at Arthur. Propped his cheek on his knees, head turned away from him. When a minute passed and there was no reply, just the sharp blades of Merlin’s shoulders and the barren silence of his room, Arthur ducked his head. His hand was still on the knob.

“All right,” he said, and began to back out.

The door had almost clicked shut.

“Wait.”

Arthur paused.

“Can you just…stand there?” Merlin shifted so it was his chin propped on his knees, eyes luminescent in the near dark, staring straight through Arthur.

Arthur stepped inside. He closed the door. He was half-standing on what he thought to be a pair of jeans, belt still strung through the loops.

“Or sit,” Merlin added. “If you want. Just there.” He jerked his chin at the foot of the bed and Arthur moved slowly, sunk down on the floor next to the spot Merlin had indicated. Tucked his feet beneath him. Just sat.

They were both quiet. Arthur could hear Merlin’s breath, still ragged. He looked at the patch of floor near his ankles and tried to stay so still, tried to just listen. He wasn’t sure what this was. No one really let him close like this, even his friends, mostly concerned with easing his burden, turning him off when he asked what they needed.

I’m fine they always said, as if Arthur were meant to believe them. I’m fine, as if he didn’t see it in their faces, their fear that his help would be the gentle nudge which sent dominos clattering over in rows. Their half-belief that his help wouldn’t really be help at all.

Arthur was good for parking tickets and permits and oiling the creaky hinges of bureaucracy. He was good at a big smile, at opening doors, at convincing wealthy old people in evening dress that he could be trusted with their money. He was not good with feelings.

Most days, he could barely handle his own.

He remembered the night he had found Merlin standing in the foyer, not very long ago. He had been crying. Merlin cried a lot. He wasn’t crying now.

“Merlin,” Arthur said, into the silence. “What are your bad dreams about?”

More silence. Merlin sighed, his voice dull and tired. “You.”

Oh. Oh.

“Why?”

“I don’t really want to talk right now. Please.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay. I just…need someone.”

Arthur nodded, though Merlin couldn’t see it. He sat up a little, propped his forearms on Merlin’s bedspread. Merlin looked down at him. He seemed both close and far away from this angle, clouds from a mountain top.

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” he said. “I thought you were a heavy sleeper.”

“I lied. And it’s all right. Lots of things wake me up. The radiator coming on wakes me up,” he said. Merlin nodded.

The tension was almost intolerable. Arthur was so afraid he would do the wrong thing. So uncertain.

And then Merlin held out his hand, much like he had done last night, except now, he wasn’t looking at Arthur, and his open palm was close enough that Arthur recognized what he was supposed to do with this gesture.

He pitched himself a little higher on his knees. Slowly, he reached out. Merlin’s fingers twined through his. Nothing was easy. Arthur could feel his heart in his chest, the size and shape of that muscle. His mouth was dry.

Merlin’s palm was narrower than his, fingers slender, the knobs of his knuckles fine as abalone under the ridge of Arthur’s fingertips. He thought about how much less difficult this would be if he were Percy, or Leon, or Gwen. How much simpler. How much more effortlessly his friends could’ve been what Merlin needed in this moment. How much more easily they could’ve been what Arthur needed, even.

Gwen would have probably just crawled up in the bed with Merlin, wrapped the sheets around them both, held him tight and close.

Arthur’s chest hurt with the awareness of all that he wasn’t.

He didn’t know what else to do.

He held on.

He wanted to ask Why don’t you ever let me touch you? He wanted to ask Why is this okay? He wanted to ask What do you need?

He didn’t. He held on.

He held on until Merlin gently unspooled his fingers, tugged them free.

Arthur looked at him, dark hair in the moonlight, undone, and wanted so desperately to ask What bad dreams do you have about me? He wanted to ask What secret do you hold closer than magic and a white rose?.

But he didn’t. He settled his hand back in its original place, waited for instruction.

“It’s so odd to see you patient,” Merlin said.

What’s that supposed to mean? he wanted to ask. Instead, he said, “I’m not patient. Just careful.”

Merlin had a thousand words painted in his face, compressed in his mouth, fine cut as the crystal chandelier out in the dining room, so much softer.

Arthur had visions about what he was allowed to touch.

“In the morning, pretend this didn’t happen,” Merlin said.

Arthur wanted to ask Why?. He said, “Whatever you want.”

“I don’t want to be so fragile,” Merlin said softly.

Arthur said, “I understand.”

“I know you do. Explain to me why I’m allowed to come apart, just not with you.”

He hesitated. “I don’t know, exactly. But maybe it has to do with your bad dreams, and why you have them.” The silent addition, that he willed Merlin to understand, You don’t have to tell me. I don’t expect you to tell me. You don’t need to say anything except what you can to me. I’ll take what you are able to give, and that’ll be more than enough. So much more than enough.

Merlin smiled, and it was the sort of light Arthur might glimpse through a telescope. Eons away. Impossible to reach. It was so odd to think that just a second ago, it’d been Merlin’s touch, wrapped in his. So odd, with this view of blue eyes and tousled hair and messy silk pajamas, that seconds separated Arthur from skin against skin.

He thought about the rough brush of a starched collar against his neck. He thought about how he could never be sick of the slow intertwine he’d felt just now, soft and deliberate and right.

Is this what friends are? he thought. Is this what friends are to each other when they aren’t scared I’ll fall apart?

“You can stay a little longer,” Merlin said. “I’m going to go back to sleep.”

“You can do that?” Arthur asked.

Merlin only looked at him. “I can do whatever I want.”

“Then why don’t you?”

More silence. The question lingered, maybe something Arthur shouldn’t have said out loud. Then, finally, “I don’t usually entertain failure. It only occurs to me when I know I won’t be able to bear it.”

There was more he did not say. He settled down into his pillows, sheets a tangle around his waist, arm tossed over his head, other hand a fist in the front of his shirt. Arthur did not go away. Maybe this was his sign to leave, but Merlin had said he could stay. Maybe it was stupid. Maybe he should know better.

But trying to figure out what was expected of him was what had ruined him in the first place, and he allowed himself this. He allowed himself this view of Merlin turning his head, cheek nestling into his pillow, eyes lidded and dark. He allowed himself the glisten of moonlight in silk, and things like silk, he allowed himself the heart-catch hook sound of breath dropping and deepening and bottoming out, and he allowed himself to commit to memory the view of a chest rising and falling from his place on the floor.

He tried to pretend he knew what it was like to obey. In the morning, pretend this didn’t happen. But that had never been Arthur’s strength. He remembered, even when it would be better to forget.

He remembered almost summer days on a field, crowds screaming his name. He remembered his father in his work coat meeting him on the pitch, the smell of fresh air and grass churned to black earth lingering with the distinct woody smell of Uther’s cologne. He remembered Gwaine’s grin, split wide as an open road, and Leon, earnest and fresh-faced, the stoic great goodness in Percival’s frown.

He remembered how Morgana looked behind the wheel with all the windows rolled down, her laugh louder than the music she’d let him play, and he remembered Gwen, sweet Gwen, her hair a tumble, her sweater pink and gray and soft as a promise, folding her housekey into his palm. He remembered her fingers wrapping around his, like she wanted him to remember what it felt like to be held, even when she let go.

He thought of alcohol buzzing in his veins, how it used to make him feel all right, and other, and altered, like gold glinting under firelight, like he didn’t have to pretend, like the hum of whiskey mixed in soda would do it for him.

He remembered his mother, too, and the second when he understood that she was dead. He remembered sitting in her closest, florescent lights buzzing like the alcohol would one day, trying to figure out whether he should cry now or later. Whether he could make himself cry at all. What it meant, not being able to cry when you knew it was the only thing you needed.

And he thought of Merlin.

He thought about how he would remember that feeling, Merlin’s fingers twined with his own, and the press of his cheek to a satin knee as he did not look at Arthur, and how, if Arthur let it, that memory would mean everything in the world when logically it really shouldn’t. When, logically, Arthur should be able to separate himself from this scene, leave it be. A lit candle, gleaming and burning without his help. He was not the lighter. He was not the wick. He was not the glass reflecting the light and casting it onward. He was not the wax. He was not the flame.

He was nothing, really, in this little story. He didn’t belong. It would burn on without his help.

But he couldn’t help himself the disobedience of remembering, even if it wasn’t really his to remember.

“Let this mean whatever it is meant to mean,” a girl had told him once. She had had dark hair, and blue eyes. Arthur did not remember her name, but he remembered the way her hair, bound in a tight braid, lay twined against his pillowcase. He thought if he ever caught a whiff of the body spray she had worn, he would remember it.

There was wisdom in what she said. He let himself consider it.

He let himself consider that maybe he was too in his head, and Merlin was asleep now, and he’d been sitting here, getting stiff on the hard floor, for longer than was right, or necessary.

He pushed himself to his feet. He pretended he was waiting for the cool jolt of blood flow in his sleepy limbs while he stood there listening to the hum of the radiator and the deep evenness of breath that was not his own.

And then he went back to bed. Took the bat he’d left in the hall with him. Laid down and did not fall back asleep. Laid down with his elbow pressed over his eyes in the complete dark and did not think about how he noticed the smell in his room now, like pine needles and shoe leather and sleep, because it was different than the cool almost floral scent he’d been breathing in for – he checked his phone charging on his nightstand – the last forty minutes. Had it been forty minutes?

He pretended that this wasn’t aching and pathetic, the odd tender feeling in his chest. He pretended that he knew better, and that knowing better meant something.

Floral, and dark, like libraries when you got deep enough in them the outdoors became an idea, while yellowy paper and old dark wood became the only reality. Like forests where your feet sank deep into peat and the branches overhead twined so thickly you forgot about the sky. Like hollows and blooming fungi and peppery, ancient, texts. Like something forbidden you weren’t allowed to know, that you’d found anyway. Like that hitch of a breath when you realized the truth, and then, almost at the same time, realized you could never speak it aloud. You would have to lock it in your chest, pretend that everything was normal, even when it wasn’t.

He didn’t really know where his thoughts had gone. The dark distorted everything. He found that night was the only time where he felt like he had space, where his thoughts had room to expand, where they didn’t have to have a shape or a form that he could explain. Where everything made sense without him having to say it.

He must’ve fallen asleep.

His alarm woke him up, buzzing against his nightstand. He heard the coffee pot burbling out in the kitchen. Merlin’s footsteps in the floor. Daylight was warm on his bedspread, gleaming in his mirror.

And of course.

Of course he remembered.

Fingers slipped so carefully between his own. The floral scent was still in the collar of his t-shirt. He caught a hint of it as he pulled the collar up over his nose, breathed it in, and disobeyed.

Chapter Text

Mordred had been alive for over a century. He did not need to attend secondary school. He especially did not need to attend the shitty public secondary school the city dictated he must attend by some arbitrary assigning of district lines.

But he had promised not to get Alvarr in trouble. Public school was just another institutionalized system to brainwash the greater population, and Mordred stood by this sentiment, but getting labeled a truant would not help his cause. If Mordred wanted to stay where he was, Alvarr needed to prove to the state that he could ensure Mordred was fed, clothed, and properly educated. Whatever that meant.

Plus, it was just good business. Most of Mordred’s customers were at school. Alvarr didn’t know this, of course. Alvarr thought Mordred had stopped peddling his wears the last time the school safety officer had caught him.

The bumbling imbecile had been unable to prove anything. He just hated Mordred. Most of the school staff hated Mordred. He preferred it that way. Supportive adults made him itchy.

Mordred considered all this as he walked back home, empty bookbag over his shoulder, ambling down the empty street. He had missed the bus for some business under the bleachers, the smell of which was still in his clothes.

He hoped the winter air would scrub it out before he got to the shop.

The bus, as his peers would say, fucking sucked. He would rather have his head shoved down a toilet and then have the toilet flushed then ride the bus.

It was loud. The kids threw things. It smelled of adolescent sweat and sour milk and was always a little too warm even with the window cracked open.

It was too cold for anybody to be out, so Mordred counted the money he had made as he walked, smoothing and ordering the bills into a wad he folded in half and rubber-banded shut. This would go in some little hidey hole or other in the flat above the shop. Mordred hoarded his money like a magpie hoarded baubles.

He did this for a few reasons – animal instinct, first off. And after that, the incident where Alvarr had found a less well-hidden bundle and blown it on whiskey and lotto tickets. He’d won ten dollars back and had returned it to Mordred, telling him, “There. I won’t ask where you got the cash, and we’re even.”

If it came down to it, Mordred knew from experience that Alvarr would step between him and the blade of a sword, but he didn’t really need that.

He needed people not to touch his fucking money.

He shoved the new bundle of bills deep in his jeans pocket and turned the corner that led to the shop. There were a few shoppers, but not many, plus a cop parked across the street. Mordred tried his best to look like a schoolkid and not a hoodlum.

The bell rang as he let himself inside the shop, ignoring the teenage girls idling in the hat section. Alvarr leaned against the counter, paging through a vintage magazine.

“You’re late,” he said, glancing up.

Mordred could look down on him from this angle. “You smell like cigarette smoke.”

“And you smell like weed,” Alvarr grunted.

Mordred tsked and rolled his eyes.

“I heard the bus stop by fifteen minutes ago. Why weren’t you on it?”

“Stayed late to ask the maths teacher about the assignment,” Mordred said. He leaned over Alvarr’s shoulder as he brushed past, “Or did you want me to tell you the truth?”

Alvarr waved a hand. “Plausible deniability.”

Mordred snorted. It was a long-established deal between the two of them. Lots to plausibly deny on both sides. He moved to make his way up to the flat.

“Anyway,” Mordred said. “I do have homework.”

This was true. He did have homework, but he was going to watch television.

“Before you go upstairs,” Alvarr added, causing Mordred to stop with his hand on the door leading to the back, “Head’s up – you’ve got a visitor.” He flipped a page, not looking at Mordred.

Mordred frowned, hand still pressed to the door. “Really? You left her up there by herself?” He thought about his bundles of cash, squirreled away, plus a good crystal and a few other magical knickknacks.

“I couldn’t leave the store unattended,” Alvarr said, unbothered. He jerked his chin toward the two girls giggling amongst the hats. “That’s a genuine Edwardian knock-off she’s got in her hands, there. As if.”

Mordred sighed. “Whatever.”

“You start paying the rent, and then you can pass judgement,” Alvarr told him as Mordred disappeared through the door, letting it swing shut in answer behind him.

The dog threw himself at the door when she heard him on the stairs.

“Hecate,” he said loudly, “Back. Wait.”

The dog whined. He heard the skittering of claws against linoleum as she settled. He cracked the door open, stuck his head inside. She looked at him with big, doleful eyes.

“I didn’t bring anything for you, stop making that face. Wait, I said,” he told her sternly as he came inside. She watched him go to the counter and pull up the jar with her treats, trembling in place. “Well, then. Break.”

He tossed a peanut butter biscuit at her, and she caught it midair, front paws landing with a thud and a scatter of biscuit crumbs as she crunched it messily over the tile. “Jesus,” he muttered as she ignored him, “That’s unseemly.”

Then he turned to the woman sitting at his kitchen table, holding up the biscuit jar with a raised eyebrow. “You want one?”

Morgause gave him a thin-lipped smile. “No, thank you.”

“Your loss,” he shrugged, putting the lid back on and sliding the jar back beside the flour. “I’m going to put the kettle on. You want tea?”

“That sounds lovely.”

The dog finished her biscuit and returned to the couch, settling on the end cushion with a long-legged sigh, one eye kept slyly on Morgause.

“That animal is remarkably well-trained,” Morgause said, eyeing her back.

“Thank you,” Mordred said, sloshing water into the kettle at the sink. “I forgot. You don’t like dogs much, do you?”

“One doesn’t especially love dogs when one has nearly been ripped limb from limb by their ancestors,” Morgause said primly. “But I expect you knew that when you obtained the beast.”

Mordred laughed, not altogether kindly. “We didn’t get a dog because we knew you wouldn’t like it. A little narcissistic of you, darling.”

Morgause narrowed her eyes at this faux familiarity. Mordred liked to remind her that although, in this life, he was years her junior, in their shared lifetimes he was more than her equal.

And that was what this was about.

“I saw you on the news,” Mordred said. “When was that mugshot from that they used? College? You look a little peakier now.”

Morgause’s glower was flat reflex. “Very amusing. You’re quite a clever little comedian.”

“I know how to use concealer, I’m just saying. It would help with the under eyes,” he gestured at his own face, helpfully, and went about getting the rest of the stuff for tea. She watched him bang cupboard doors, her arms crossed.

“Merlin came to see you,” she said.

He tossed a glance over his shoulder, “Because you prodded him my way.”

“It worked.”

“In a round about way, yes, I suppose that it did,” Mordred said. The kettle had begun to hiss on the stove top. He grabbed a potholder to go retrieve it. “You got what you wanted, at least. We’ll see what consequences it has now that he’s awake.”

Morgause frowned at him. “I know you do not like my methods…”

“Because they’re not your methods,” he interrupted her, turning. “How’re we to get out of this mess by following the plans of the person who put us here in the first place? He brought us back here, he locked away our past lifetimes in our own heads, he orchestrated the system of the keys, without rhyme or reason it seems sometimes to me. And you would follow him merrily down the same path we have tread long before. What am I to do? Tell him no? You know him.”

He banged a cupboard door for emphasis and scowled down at the brewing tea. The familiar, aromatic smell of the leaves did not soothe him, having rather the opposite effect. He blinked away the stinging in his eyes, loosened his white-knuckle grip on the edge of the counter.

“I know it has not been easy for you,” Morgause said softly.

“Careful,” Mordred muttered, “Or you’re going to start sounding like your sister.”

He felt more than saw her bare smile of assent at his back.

“Who am I to blame for my circumstances?” he asked. “The stars? Or him? Either way, here I am. A trail of street urchinery and juvenile delinquency behind me. It seems I’m never well received, whenever and wherever I go.”

“Must be a side-effect of your sparkling personality,” Morgause said dryly.

“I used to be quite pleasant. You would’ve hated me – wide-eyed, altruistic, noble,” He flicked his finger against the teapot. “Naïve.”

“Time cured you of that.”

“Time cured me of a lot of things. Being in a boys home will do that for you, and quickly,” Mordred said. He moved the teapot over to the table, and then the two mismatched cups. The sugar dish already sat out, and he fetched the cream, which he hated but knew Morgause preferred.

“I think maybe,” Morgause said as he sat down and poured the tea, “This time we have a chance to end this.”

“What makes you say that?”

He glanced up at the pensive frown knit between her pale brows. She was staring a fixed point on the plastic tablecloth, thoughtful as he’d ever seen her.

Her scheming usually had a lot more forward momentum.

“Do you want to know how I was able to walk past the police officer parked on your block on my way here?” Morgause asked.

“An invisibility spell,” Mordred said, “Or a bafflement charm.”

She waved away his cheek, reaching for her cup as he pushed it toward her. “No magic necessary. I walked right past him because they stopped looking for me. They dropped the charges, they did away with the warrant. Because Arthur and Morgana went to Uther together and asked him to have it done.”

Mordred only looked at her, scooping sugar into his cup.

“They went because Merlin asked them to do so,” she added.

He still just looked at her.

“A few hours ago, I was holed up in a filthy motel, and now I’m free. I was not anticipating such an apparent resolution,” she said, “But here we are.”

“He’ll have something else up his sleeve.”

She blew gently on her tea. “Who? Uther? Of course. That’s not the point of this little anecdote. But you knew that.”

“Arthur did this for you.”

“Not for me,” Morgause said. “For Morgana, perhaps. For Merlin, who cajoled him or coerced him or managed some pretty mundane feat I have yet to consider.”

“He has to have an ulterior motive.”

“Everyone has an ulterior motive,” Morgause said dismissively. “But what would that be? I can only think of one reason why Arthur would acquiesce.”

Mordred was silent. He drank his scalding tea. Finally, “You think Arthur knows, then. You think Merlin told him.” There was a flat note of disbelief in his voice.

“I think Merlin told him something. I’m not sure what, but it was convincing enough he went to Uther to reverse a judgment meant to be conducted against me.

“This is not the only reason I’m here,” Morgause continued. “There is more than one break in pattern. I spoke with Morgana.”

Mordred groaned and flopped back in the hard-backed dining chair. On the couch, Hecate’s ears perked. “She is well and truly red-pilled Morgause, I don’t know why you always insist on doing this.”

“You know I don’t understand your little pop culture references,” she told him haughtily. “And I’m hardly going to lie to her, even by omission. She’s my…”

“‘She’s my sister’” Mordred interrupted in a purposefully poor imitation of her, shoving back from the table. “Yeah, I know.”

He knew he was mostly pissed because he didn’t have anyone for whom he could carry such an uncomplicated torch. No one he could love so easily, without question or consideration, just…whatever was shining open on Morgause’s face right now.

She had died for her sister.

Mordred had died for his own vengeance. Originally, at least.

Morgause was looking at him with an infuriatingly patient look, more smug than benevolent, waiting for him to get over himself.

He tapped his fingers against the tabletop.

“Well, you told her,” he said sullenly, “And what?”

“And I don’t know. Maybe she believed me, maybe she didn’t. It hardly matters, I’m not her key this time around,” she said.

He stared blankly at her.

She filled in, “She thinks that Gwen is.”

Mordred bit his lip, eyes narrowed, considering the implications of this. “We know the timelines don’t always match up to the original. What happened then versus what’s happening now.”

“Yes, I’m very aware of that,” Morgause said dryly. “What was it that ended it the last go around? The imitable Emrys got himself hung for piracy?”

“Well, that’s what they charged him with. That’s not why he was hung.”

Mordred would know. He had watched the sentence be carried out with the rest of the crowd in the town square, had made satisfying eye contact with the accused just before the sack was pulled over his head.

He watched the hanging the day before, too, which had been a tad more notable.

It wasn’t everyday the governor’s best friend came back from the dead as a notorious pirate to plead the case for his even more notorious captain, only to be hung for his trouble. Not that the sacrifice had ended up meaning much, as said captain stormed in before the sun even rose to avenge his mate, only to be captured and killed himself.

All these noble idiots running around sacrificing themselves for no purpose. Mordred didn’t understand it – but it had at least been entertaining.

“Our lives used to be full of so much drama and panache,” he said morosely. “Now I’m stuck avoiding the school resource officer less he catches me with mediocre marijuana on my person.” He pulled a box out of his jacket pocket and tossed it on the table. “And menthol cigarettes.”

“Those are disgusting,” Morgause said, reaching forward and filching the box. He didn’t protest, watching her tap one out and light it with the lighter from her pocket. “Aren’t all the kids smoking electronic cigarettes now?”

“Not me,” Mordred said with a faint smile. “I’m no phony.”

She rolled her eyes. “All right, Dally.”

“That’s Holden, you plebian. Aren’t you in school for this?”

“I’m in school for ancient Welsh, for your information.”

Mordred sighed, sobering abruptly. “You really think it could be different this time around?”

Morgause shrugged. “I think it’s a definite possibility.”

“Will it even make any difference? Will our lives really be changed that substantially?” He gestured at the flat. “I’ll still be living in a tiny flat, living off of scrambled eggs and takeout, pretending I don’t know what calculus is.”

Morgause was looking over his shoulder, at Hecate. He turned with her. The dog was gazing at him lovingly, such affection in her warm brown eyes it forced him to smother a smile.

“You’re so obvious,” he informed her. “You think you’re playing hard to get?”

Her tail thumped against the couch.

“A normal life isn’t a bad thing,” Morgause suggested. “After all, all these other idiots are out here trying to make the best out of chance or fate. Maybe we could manage to do the same.”

“Maybe,” Mordred murmured. “I guess we’ll see. Have been to see our mutual friend recently?”

Morgause poured herself more tea. “As scaly as ever.”

“That’ll be the true litmus test. That, and…”

“Well, I can go and see a dragon,” Morgause said, reaching for the cream. “I cannot and do not want to know what is or is not going on in that fate’s blasted flat.”

“Guess we’ll know how he’s coping if the power goes out.”

She stirred, spoon clinking. “Fair point. Let’s hope he keeps it together. I don’t know if the shitty city power grid can take another surge.”
**
Later, after close, Alvarr came upstairs to find Mordred not doing his homework. “I heated up soup, it’s on the stove,” Mordred told him from the couch. Hecate was lying mostly on top of him. His chin was propped on his chest as he watched some time traveler period drama on the tv.

“Thanks,” Alvarr grunted. “How was your little tea party? Insightful?”

“You could say that, I suppose.” Mordred paused. “You forgive me for being your key, right?”

There was a clunk as Alvarr slopped the remaining soup into a bowl. “Didn’t really change much, did it? I’m still me. And you’re still a punk who doesn’t know how to stay out of trouble.”

A ghost of a smile pulled at Mordred’s mouth. “I love you, too, Pops.”

“You know I hate when you call me that, I’m not old enough to be your father.”

“You’re also a habitual liar, so…”

He heard the scrape of a chair as Alvarr deposited himself at the table. “Not to you, though, kid. Never to you.”

Kid. This was an in-joke of theirs, too. They were more equals than anything now, and yet Alvarr always reminded him, sometimes as a joke, sometimes to rib him, sometimes with a hint of seriousness Mordred couldn’t bear to look full in the face, that it was his job to be the protector. At least for a little while. At least for now.

In his head, Mordred may no longer have been the child that he looked. But sometimes he felt it. Sometimes he really, really felt it. He buried his face in Hecate’s fur and remembered what Morgause had said.

A normal life isn’t a bad thing.

He wondered if normal could ever be a word in his fucking vocabulary.

Chapter Text

Lancelot met Merlin at the coffee shop around the corner from his flat. The shop was familiar ground to Lance, as he came by almost every day, partly for the coffee, partly because the baristas all knew his name and his order and looked happy to see him whenever he came through the door.

He said it was for the coffee, though. Not that anyone asked. If anyone asked, Lance would say it was just for the coffee.

The shop was small, and usually quiet, the interior dim, lit only by golden-yellow string lights hung around its perimeter. The sitting area was comprised of overstuffed chairs and scuffed coffee tables, thick rugs bunched under the legs. Dark mahogany bookcases lined the walls, full of worn paperbacks in all genres, along with knickknacks and other oddities which populated the rest of the shop, as well. An old, outdated globe sat on one end table, off-kilter. Maps and vintage posters and truly odd art hung on the walls, which were painted a dark maroon precisely the color of blood.

It was empty when Lance arrived, checking his phone. The bell dinged on his entry, obscure minimalist piano music playing softly through the speakers. He heard the hush of a door swinging as an employee came in from the back, tying his apron at the same time.

“Hi, Ty,” Lance said. “How’s it going?”

“Not bad. We haven’t seen you for a while – we were starting to get worried,” Ty said, starting Lance’s drink without asking him what he wanted.

Lance checked his phone again. Merlin had rescheduled from the time they were originally supposed to meet on Monday to today, which made Lance nervous. He knew the change was most likely because Merlin had a busy life, because unexpected circumstances surprised everyone. But Lance had barely let Gwen put him in touch with Merlin in the first place.

He would’ve preferred to just forget this whole thing, let the incident at the church pass into obscurity.

Too late now. Maybe Merlin would cancel again.

Lance still had his phone out as he pulled out his credit card and paid, thanking Ty as he stuffed a bill in the tip jar. He had been relieved when Merlin had cancelled initially, but that relief had faded quickly, to be replaced by a looming sense of dread. Lance’s constant companion.

He ignored the ever-present sense of foreboding and chose a sitting area with two chairs facing each other over a table, then sat in the chair facing the door. Another glance at his phone. He was ten minutes early. He tried to relax.

The coffee table book sitting in front of him was a large, hard-backed edition detailing notorious shipwrecks, the cover comprised of a clear photo of blue water and an algae-covered figurehead of a screaming woman, her expression twisted in rotting wood.

Lance frowned at the cover for a handful of seconds, brooding, then set his coffee down and moved the book to a nearby shelf, trying not to look at it as he did so. He had always hated boats, hated being on the water, so much so he had once gotten sick on a ferry ride during his football team’s trip in secondary school, which had somehow not made a dent in his popularity.

Everyone had always loved Lance. He’d never had trouble with that. In fact, that had always been his trouble. It had always unnerved him how all he had to do was glance over his shoulder and he would see people trooping after him, ready to walk off a cliff with him if he led the way. They just liked him. Heaven knew why.

His phone buzzed against the table and he nearly leapt out of his skin, heart pounding. A message from Merlin. I’m here.

Lance glanced toward the shop window, frowning, expecting to see Merlin looking lost out on the sidewalk, but he found Merlin standing behind the chair opposite, his own phone in his hands, smiling hesitantly at Lance.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” Lance tried to stand up, banged his shins on the table and then sat promptly back down. “Hey,” he repeated, glancing around as if his surroundings would give him a clue what to do. “Sorry, I…how long were you standing there? Not too long, I hope.”

Merlin shrugged a shoulder. “Just a minute. Or three. Don’t worry about it, I’m zoned out about eighty percent of the time too…” he glanced up toward the counter, squinting at the chalkboard menu. “You come here often, right? What would you recommend?”

“I’m going to be honest, the first time I came here, the guy in front of me ordered a caramel macchiato and I copied him because I didn’t know what to do with the menu,” Lance winced a little, sipping his drink. “I’ve been getting it ever since because I’m in too deep to ask now. I guess it’s pretty good.”

“Not really a caramel person, but I think I’ll ask about their cold brews…maybe I can find another drink for you to add to your rotation.”

He smiled at Lance winningly, all affable grace. Lance resisted the urge to sink down into his chair in embarrassment. He was usually the one doing the rescuing in social situations, not the other way around, but it’d been clear since the moment Gwen had introduced him to Merlin those months ago at the bar that Merlin didn’t need his help, or anyone’s really, at least not in this department.

Merlin went up to order, and Lance cast what he hoped was a subtle glance over his shoulder, listening with one ear as Merlin laughed at something the barista had said, causing the young man to go a little pink. Ty was clearly flirting for all he was worth, with a puppy dog eagerness that made Lance smother a grin.

Ty had never done that with him. Maybe Lance was just intimidating, but he doubted so. Merlin paid, fetched his drink, and came back over to sit across from Lance, tossing his coat and scarf over the back of the chair in one easy motion.

Lance watched as he folded into the chair, coffee cupped in both hands. The winter wind was still a little pink in his face, his hair tousled and damp from the light sleet spotting the front window. He wore a dark green sweater over a pair of dark wash jeans, argyle socks peeking out from beneath the folded cuffs. The brown boots he wore were not unstylish, the leather shiny and well-cared for, a little scuffed. When paired with the rest of the apparently simple outfit, they lent him an unpretentious air, the whole thing somehow more of a statement than if he’d worn something flashier or more expensive.

“I know,” Merlin said, sensing Lance’s attention. He set his coffee down and reached behind him, picking up his red scarf. “It makes me look like Christmas, but Gwen made it for me. I like it too much to wear anything else.”

“I didn’t even notice,” Lance said. “I wouldn’t have ever guessed that was handmade.”

Merlin beamed as if Lance had complimented him. “Right? She’s gotten good, hasn’t she? The other day, she gave me a pair of socks that almost fit. And she knows it’s my favorite color.” He frowned down at the scarf and deposited it back behind him. “I keep telling her not to buy more yarn for my sake, but you know how she is. Anyway,” he turned back to Lance, “Speaking of Gwen. She told me you were hearing voices. Well, my voice.”

“You certainly get straight to the point,” Lance commented, trying to sound casual.

Behind him at the counter, Ty was speaking to a supplier on the phone, his own voice carrying as he argued about vanilla syrup. Merlin didn’t seem concerned about his presence, his volume normal. He’d asked if Lance knew a place that was quiet, presumably for the sake of Lance’s still-concussed head, but also, Lance had assumed, to avoid the possibility of being heard.

“It’s all right,” Merlin told him, intercepting his hesitation with an ease that flipped Lance’s stomach. He didn’t know how he felt, being so effortlessly read.

“How’d you know?”

“This place is magic,” Merlin said, as if this were obvious. “It makes sense you didn’t notice – it’s difficult to pick up on unless you know what to look for. But I don’t think we need to be worried about being overheard– they’re used to the weird, here, if I had to bet.” He jerked his chin toward the poster on the wall next to him as if to reference an example. It was an old advertisement for a carnival fortune teller, a woman depicted with four arms, three eyes, and sharp teeth, the crystal ball before her filled with seething black smoke which hurt Lance’s eyes if he looked at it for too long. “We can always go somewhere else, though, if you’re worried.”

“No, that’s all right.” Lance looked over his shoulder at Ty again, but the barista had gone into the back, taking the landline with him. The conversation regarding shipments and missing syrup continued, muffled by the door.

Lance had picked the café because it was familiar. He didn’t know if he could manage the conversation that was about to happen anywhere else.

“So,” Merlin settled back in his chair, crossing one ankle over his knee. “You’ve been hearing my voice. How long has this been going on?”

“Only the one time,” Lance said, still guarded. He frowned at Merlin. “You’re very relaxed about this. Do you get this a lot?”

“No, not this exactly, but I’ve encountered my share of the strange. Been my share of the strange,” he admitted. When Lance didn’t respond, he sighed, leaning forward. “I understand you don’t trust me.”

“It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just that I don’t know you,” Lance said. He was surprised, upon hearing these words aloud, to find that they didn’t seem true, despite being objective fact.

He didn’t know the man sitting opposite him.

And yet…

There was a strange tug just beneath his sternum, a half-awake longing, that disturbed Lance more than hearing Merlin’s disembodied voice had done. He’d felt it at the bar, too, but it had been cushioned by Gwen and the noise and the beer and his own need to be seen and known. He should have been paying more attention.

“Fair enough,” Merlin was saying. Lance struggled to pay attention. “I don’t know how to remedy that quickly enough for us to get where we need to go – because for the explanation I’m about to give you to make even a lick of sense, you do need to trust me.”

Lance laughed. “That’s reassuring, thank you.” He resisted shifting in his seat, not wanting to appear as twitchy and off-kilter as he felt. “It’s not you, exactly. I don’t…do this. I don’t…” he struggled and finished lamely, “…tell people about myself.”

“Sure.” Merlin nodded, the empathy in his face somehow managing to soothe Lance rather than make him feel pathetic. “How about this…we just talk until you’re comfortable enough to share what happened at the church. Sound good?”

“Yeah,” Lance said, worrying the cardboard sleeve around his coffee cup. He tried not to feel like a secondary schooler forced to see the school counselor. “Why not?”

“Cool.” Merlin sipped his drink, settling back in his chair again. “How long has it been since you’ve been to France?”

Lance laughed, a little shocked at the change of subject and the question. “That’s impressive, people usually don’t pick up on my accent.”

“You do a good job covering it, but you can still hear it a little,” Merlin said, pleased with himself. “It’s in the vowels.”

“Really? Did you notice that, or did Gwen tell you?”

“Gwen hasn’t told me anything about you, I picked that up all on my own,” Merlin said. “Well, mostly.”

“Mostly how? Do you have a secret Frenchmen radar?”

“I do, but it only works on very select Frenchmen,” Merlin said. “One, so far, that I’ve found.”

“Oh? Is that so?”

“I didn’t say it was good, just selective,” Merlin told him delicately, eyes warm as he arranged himself a little more securely in his seat.

He sat in the chair with an easy elegance Lance had not yet mastered, a grace that allowed him to assimilate here as easily as he had into that noisy, sleazy bar.

“What is it?” Merlin asked.

“Pardon me?”

He popped the lid off the coffee, inspecting the ice cubes bobbing near the surface. “You’re studying me.” He glanced up at Lance’s silence. “It’s all right, I don’t mind. What’s caught your attention?”

“People study you often, then?”

It had an echo of Lance’s earlier question. Do you get this a lot? Merlin’s mouth quirked a little.

“I’ve gotten used to it,” he said. An answer that managed to convey both humility and plain fact. Lance could understand this. Merlin drew the eye, something magnetic and fluid in the way he moved. The way he listened to you was like gravity, a force to him that made you want to explain yourself.

Did this happen to everyone who met Merlin? Was Lance freaking himself out by attaching his own individuality complex to a person whose magnetism and perceived familiarity was simply a force of nature?

But no, he reminded himself. He hadn’t made it all up. That voice had been something, hadn’t it? He felt the echo of it even now. The last few nights, the memory of it had kept him from falling asleep.

Across from him, Merlin poked at his drink with a straw, apparently satisfied, and stuck the lid back on.

“You deflected,” he continued. “Do you want to tell me what’s behind that look you’re giving me, or would you like to keep it to yourself?”

Lance considered this question, considered the way the string lights reflected in the dull surface of the table. Out with it he decided, meeting the guarded warmth in Merlin's gaze. No use in keeping it to himself – after all, there was so little for him now to lose, except maybe Merlin’s opinion of him.

That might matter to him more than he wanted to admit, and Merlin’s raised eyebrow seemed a dare to test why this might be.

“You seem familiar to me,” he said boldly, “If I can be frank. I know that is something people say, to get inside the guard, but I don’t say it often, or at all. I’ve only ever experienced it with one other person in my life, your friend – Gwen.”

“I believe you,” Merlin said mildly. “Not anyone else?”

“No.” Lance frowned at him. “Just the two of you. Did you have anyone else in mind?”

Merlin did not answer, an odd look on his face, as if he were both seeing through Lance and seeing him truly for the first time. Lance glanced down at himself, half-expecting to see a stain down his front, and back to Merlin.

“Sorry,” Merlin muttered, an edge suddenly in his voice, “It’s just that I…” his gaze sharpened, flicking over Lance. He felt it pressed to his skin like a blade. “Are you sure, no one else?”

“It’s only a feeling,” Lance said slowly. “It isn’t exact.”

He resisted the urge to put a hand to his chest, as if his own beating heart were visible there beneath his shirt and then his ribs, and he wished to shield it.

“It may not be exact, but I’ve found feeling to be the most reliable indicator of fact,” Merlin said. “What is it about me, that’s familiar, exactly?”

“I don’t know. I couldn’t say…”

Merlin’s eyes were dark blue in this light, exact, the weight of his attention something Lance could feel physically, a prickle over his skin, a buzz in his chest, a blade, cold, against his skin. All of it familiar, in its way.

“Like that,” he said, pointing to the divot carved between Merlin’s dark brows, “That look, I know it. And the way you sit, as if you trust the chair to hold you, and back in the bar…” Lance’s voice trailed to almost nothing as he realized it himself “…the way you laughed and threw back the last of your drink, I swore I had seen that before, though I had only met you that night.”

I was paying more attention to Gwen, he thought. If I’d been paying attention to him, too, I might’ve realized this sooner.

He would never dare say this to a stranger. But Merlin did not feel like a stranger. The paradox of that sensation, of knowing without knowing, made Lance dizzy. Sense told him that this was probably the concussion, but Lance knew better. He’d always known better than to rely on sense.

“I say again,” Merlin said, something strange and guarded in his face that had not been there before, “No one else? Ever in your life? Just me and Gwen?”

“Just you and Gwen,” Lance assured him. “Why?”

“Well,” Merlin said. “That brings us back to the church.”

Lance’s fingers tapped unconsciously against his sternum. “Ask me.”

“You heard my voice there, speaking to you. What did I say?”

“You don’t know?”

“I don’t,” Merlin said.

Lance cast his own attention back over the table, watched Merlin meet it effortlessly, tipping his drink in his hand, ice cubes clinking. “I just heard my name,” Lance said. “I asked what you wanted, and you – or it – said I don’t know. That’s it. My name, twice, and I don’t know.” He hesitated, sure only that he needed to tell the truth, and then added, “I have had strange things happen to me since I was a child, Merlin, both inside and outside my own head. I would not ascribe too much meaning to the oddities I perceive.”

“And I have had bad dreams,” Merlin responded. “Night terrors without apparent source. My mind saw fit to torture me since I was very young, much like you, and no one has ever been able to tell me why. Not doctors, not magicians, not priests, not my own mother. No one. I had to figure it out on my own.”

“And did you? Figure it out?”

“I’m not sure,” Merlin said. He still had that strange look on his face. “Not all the way. Not yet. I think you already trust me, Lance. It freaks you out, but you do. And I…well.”

He took a deep breath and snapped the fingers of his free hand. Overhead, the piano music changed to hard metal, the guitars screaming, another snap, and a sailor’s song mournful and made only of men’s voices, seeped through the speakers.

“You have magic,” Lance said.

It was not a surprise. He did lay his hand flat against his chest then, felt the lack of change there, his heartrate the same as it had been before, his breath steady. Like he had already known. Like he had always known.

“I do,” Merlin affirmed. “I trust you, too. Gwen asked me here to help you, and I don’t know if I can do that, but I think I can make it all clearer. I think I can give you the reason why you’ve always felt so at odds with the world, why you feel like you’re always at arm’s length, like there’s something essential you’re missing that keeps you apart from everything and everyone around you.” He brought himself to the edge of his chair, his knees banging the little table. There was something wild and vital in his eyes that pinned Lance in place. “You feel like the world is spinning around you, like people are moving and time is passing and you’re just standing still. Right?”

Lance’s voice was remote in his own ears. “How do you know that?”

Merlin’s smile was cracked, fractured. “I just do. I just…I don’t know. I can’t explain it, I don’t think I have the words, if the words even exist…” he shook his head, laughed a little. “Listen to me. If I keep talking, I’m going to sound crazy.”

“You won’t; not to me.”

That caught Merlin in the chest, with an exhale of breath as if the words had been a blow. “I was going to say that I wasn’t expecting my Thursday to go like this, but I think maybe I did expect this, and that’s why I’ve been avoiding it.”

“Sorry,” Lance said.

“Trust me,” Merlin said. “It isn’t your fault.”

“All right.” Lance frowned. “If you can’t explain it, what do you suggest then?”

“I think I can show you,” Merlin said. He looked Lance in the face, a careful frown in his own as he searched Lance’s expression. “Will you let me?”

Lance felt a strange sense of displacement, as if he were both sitting there looking at Merlin and standing outside himself, somehow, watching himself sit there and look at Merlin.

His head still ached, the lights were bright, the sea shanties were still humming dark and low through the speakers. The gloomy day made the interior of the café seem an island amidst a sea of cold and sleet.

“How would you do it?” Lance asked.

Merlin hesitated. “How familiar are you with magic?”

“Not very,” Lance said, “Aside from the usual – you know, party scene trappings from my wilder days. Elixirs, drugs, tonics, that sort of thing. Would this…explanation involve your using magic on me?”

“Yes, and no,” Merlin said. “I wouldn’t cast anything directly on you. I try not to do that, as a rule. I’m not even sure it is magic, exactly, maybe only magic adjacent. But my touch would unlock knowledge and memory that has been hidden from you.”

Lance’s chest tightened. It was almost fear. “Your touch?”

Merlin nodded. His forearms rested against his knees, his hands folded between them. “I would put my hands to your head,” he said, “And press my thumbs to your third eye.”

Lance frowned at the poster of the fortune teller. “What sort of knowledge?” he asked. “What sort of memory?”

“I don’t know,” Merlin said, his voice cracking a little. He continued, eyes cast downward, “I’m not quite sure. That part is foggy to me. I suspect…it won’t be clear until you see clearly. If you…want to. I think maybe that's what I've been missing. I’m sorry, I’m sure this must all seem strange…”

“I wasn’t expecting a mundane explanation,” Lance assured him. “It’s all right. It’s fine. Would you want to do it here, or…?”

Merlin glanced up at him, as if he had truly expected Lance to say no. To be fair, Lance thought if he had been anyone else, the answer would have been no.

Maybe it was the concussion. Maybe it was the bait of something extraordinary and exciting, absent from Lance’s life for a while now, abandoned as he built a tolerance for adventure, found himself less thrilled by risk, by mountaintops and thin air and illicit substances and strangers.

Maybe it was the whole odd, lonely turn of his life.

“I don’t think that there’s a better place,” Merlin said. The barista was still on the phone in the back, the discussion carrying in a lowered pitch. No other customers had entered, nor did it look as if they would. Outside, the wind and sleet had picked up.

“Are you sure?” Merlin asked, as if he were not the one who had offered.

“Tell me,” Lance said. “What have I got to lose?” He set down his coffee, switched to the chair that was closer to Merlin. “What do you need me to do?”

Merlin nudged the table away from them with his knee so he could scooch closer, positioned at the edge of his seat cushion. He studied Lance, as if searching for hesitation or apprehension in his face, but he would not find it.

“So?” Lance asked.

Merlin seemed unnerved. He took a deep breath, his brows knit in that familiar furrow, and reached forward.

“Hold still,” he said.

Lance closed his eyes on instinct. Merlin’s fingers slid into his hair. His thumbs pressed to the place just above the space between his brows.

And then, his voice a whisper, “Hold on. I’m not sure this will work.”

Chapter Text

Lancelot saw the sea.

No, he stood on the deck of a ship looking out at the sea. A steady, light wind blew the loose hair from his face, full of salt and the taste of open water. Down below, the waves lapped at the hull, bright and dark as quicksilver.

The sound of the sea and the ship soothed the ever-present sense of dread worrying a hole in Lance’s chest, calmed it. A trustworthy sailor kept watch in the crow’s nest and eyes other than his were scanning the dark line of the horizon, watchful and alert. A day out from port, in friendly waters (or as friendly as waters would ever be to their sort), it was almost possible to let his guard down.

Almost.

Quiet footsteps padded up behind him, stopped at his shoulder.

“Hello, Mordred,” he said, still facing the water, “What ill tidings does our cabin boy bring me this evening?”

“I carry the same rank as any other fighting man on this crew,” Mordred replied, “Aside from perhaps the captain, the quartermaster, and you. I’ve proven my worth many times over. And yet, you still don’t trust me.”

“It is my job to be wary.”

“The captain trusts me.”

Lancelot cast a glance over his shoulder at him. The boy was a shape in the dark, the bits of shell and bone braided into strands of his hair the only things that caught the full moon’s light.

Lancelot was not sure that the captain did trust Mordred. He certainly wanted Mordred to think this was the case, but Merlin was a difficult man to read even when he was being honest with you.

“In that case,” Lance said, turning back to lean against the railing, “My wariness is even more essential. I guard against all eventualities, for the sake of the captain and the crew. Did you come to debate this point with me, or do you carry a message?”

He had come from the direction of the captain’s cabin. Lance hoped he had been the only one to notice, as rumors were quick to spread in close quarters like this, and the majority of the crew already distrusted Mordred, as well as the boy’s guardian.

“The captain wants to see you,” Mordred said, tone obscure. “Promptly.”

“Thank you,” Lance said. Mordred did not move as Lance made to pass by him. “I’d advise getting some sleep. It will be a long, grueling day tomorrow. I doubt Alvarr would like to see you out so late.”

“As always,” Mordred replied, that same empty politeness in his voice, “Your advice is wise, and I’d do well to take it.”

Lance patted his shoulder as he walked by. “I was being kind, Mordred. That was an order. Go below decks, find Alvarr, and go to sleep.”

“Yes, sir.”

A grim smile flittered over Lance’s face, though Mordred would not see it. Mordred would make himself trouble, Lance knew. He recognized the sort. It was not so much a matter of if he would create turmoil, but a matter of when, and what sort.

Merlin thought he had the issue well in hand.

This was likely so. But Lance kept his attention. Trouble could always use an extra set of eyes on it, just in case.

He made his way to the captain’s cabin and knocked.

A longer than usual pause.

“Come in.”

Lance pushed the door open and entered. This ship had been a prize, a Spanish galleon, and so it still carried the opulence of its original captain, although Merlin had ordered the most ridiculous items carted out to the hold, to be sold upon their arrival into port.

Still, most of the books remained, joined by Merlin’s own collection which he had brought on board. There were these, plus the stately desk, a large, teakwood piece carved handsomely, two chairs set opposite it, not as grand as the one behind the desk, in which Merlin sat. ‘Sat’ might’ve been the wrong word. He lounged, as he often did, one leg tossed over the arm of the chair, lithe and irreverent as a cat. Lance took careful stock of the remaining details in the scene.

The whiskey in a fine crystal decanter, sitting at Merlin’s elbow. The matching crystal tumbler, with a finger and a half of amber liquid remaining inside it, held artlessly in Merlin’s fingers. The preoccupied stitch in Merlin’s dark brow.

Lance stepped forward. Glass crunching underfoot more fully announced his presence. Merlin glanced over at him as Lance glanced down.

“What was this?” he asked.

“The last captain’s paperweights,” Merlin muttered.

Lance’s question was a silent one.

“I did smash them,” Merlin said, throwing back the rest of the whiskey. “Don’t cast your disapproval at me, I won’t feel it. I’m too far through this whiskey.” He frowned at the empty tumbler. “It’s excellent. Its previous owner was probably waiting for a special occasion. It would serve the folk that sail these seas well to figure out that nowadays, a special occasion is most likely just going to be me. What is that saying? Drink now, for tomorrow you will die. Or have all your goods and property seized. Something like that.”

Lance swept the broken glass aside with his foot, made his way to one of the chairs facing the great desk. Merlin had a low tolerance for alcohol, though he had built it up somewhat through sheer willpower over the years. Still, the whiskey, fine and potent, had already begun to color his voice.

“Mordred said you wanted to see me.”

“I do.” Merlin reached forward and plucked up the decanter, slopping more whiskey into his glass. “You worry me like a mother hen, du Loc. I had this crew before you joined it, you know. I’ve been at this since I was his age.”

“What did he say to you?”

“It wasn’t what he said,” Merlin told him, leaning his head back against the chair. The shadows from the candlelight caught in the hollows of his throat. “It was what he showed me.” He did not look at Lance, swirling the whiskey in one hand, voice liquid and thoughtful. “Do you remember back in that cave, when you promised to believe me, no matter how unlikely or bizarre the truth I spoke?”

“I am unlikely to ever forget,” he said, “Nor the circumstances which led up to your feeling you had to extract that promise.”

Merlin snorted, corner of his mouth flickering, as if he too were lost in the memory.

It had been Lancelot’s first shipwreck. The crew had elected him quartermaster only three days earlier, his plans – or rather, Arthur’s plans – proceeding at a speed for which Lance had not been prepared.

All that effort he had expended, all that charm employed, to get into a position of power if not Emrys’s good graces, just to end up on a deserted beach with only one other man apparently alive – this captain, whom at that point Lancelot had known only from the stories told about him, as the villain Lance had been tasked to betray.

He had woken up in pain, lungs still sore from inhaling salt water, sure he was dying or already dead, hemmed in on all sides by darkness and cold rock. The darkness had been cut by a click, and then a flicker of flame, which sprung up red at Lance’s right side. He had managed to turn his head to see his new captain illuminated, eyes reflecting back the fire as it punched and devoured, springing along the gathered kindling and lapping at dry wood, leaping ever higher as it ate and ate, grasping at the darkness.

It was a feral sort of fire. Not the tame sitting room species with which Lancelot had formally been familiar, nor even the heartier hearth fire or village bonfire which had also been his friend. It was something wild, ugly, alive, fresh born as he felt.

Merlin had looked up from it, flint still in hand, and Lancelot felt a cold spike of fear in contrast to the dry heat then filling up the small cave. He was positive he had been found out, that Merlin knew, but the captain was a patient man, and didn’t let on.

Instead, he said, “Good. You’re awake. I’ve paced the island – it is tiny, and uninhabited. Thankfully, there is a source of freshwater and enough to serve as food until my crew finds us. Until then, all you’ve got to do is manage to stay alive.”

The promise had been coerced from Lancelot later, weeks later, when Merlin’s allusion to rescue had begun to seem less hope and more delusion, when infection had begun to creep into Lance’s wound and fever lace its way under his skin.

They had been watching a storm approach for most of that day. It was then, when it fell in the full dark of night, the only sound the scream of the sea, thunder crackling like bone in god’s teeth, when Lancelot had been sure that morning would never come, that Merlin gathered Lance’s hand in both of his and pressed his knuckles to his forehead in a sort of prayer.

His skin had been grimy with sweat and salt, hot to Lancelot’s touch. “They will come,” he had murmured. “They must come. Have faith in me, Lancelot, they will come.”

Then, the promise, which Lancelot had given.

Say that you believe me. Swear it. Swear you will always believe me.

I do, uttered in fervent half-delirium, I will. I swear it.

As if to reward his faith, the storm had broken and the sea had calmed a few minutes later, the sun stretching delicate fingers through the mouth of the cave. Then, a few hours after that, Lance’s fever had broken, too, and the infection began to recede.

Rescue came two days later. In the eternity spent waiting on that island, Lancelot had never asked how Merlin could be so sure, if it were loyalty or something more concrete which provided the cornerstone of his confidence that the crew would come for them, that there remained anyone out there to come for them at all.

But standing on the beach using Merlin’s shoulder for support, watching together as the rowboat lunged across the waves toward them, Merlin had tapped at the front of his ragged shirt, beneath the bleached cloth the compass Lance had seen tattooed there, dark ink simple in his skin.

“This is how I knew,” Merlin said without looking at him, squinting out at the bright water. “The tattoo is a sort of homing beacon. As long as I have it, and someone has the compass which matches it, they will always be able to find me.”

Magic, Lancelot had thought, dazzled. He had already known, but it was only then that he began to understand.

“How do you keep it from falling into the wrong hands?” he asked.

Merlin had looked at him then, gaze inscrutable as it had been the first night by the fire, and Lancelot had felt that same giddy gash of fear, sure that Merlin knew. But the captain was determined to let Lancelot come to him and looked back out at the sea.

“I don’t,” he said.

Then the men had leapt from the rowboat and were running through the waves and the rowboat was scraping the shore and Merlin was letting what remained of his crew embrace him and kiss his face and weep, his grin benevolent and aloof even as he allowed them to touch him, make sure he was real.

Lance had watched this display, allowed himself to feel a nameless emotion bloom strange and dry in his chest, equal and opposite to fear, set to devour. He didn’t usually feel fear. He felt this.

In retrospect, he suspected he had felt it from the first, since the day he had first seen Merlin amidst the busy pull of Albion’s port, easy to spot in his dark green coat among the mull of rough and ready sailors, looking the legend. A hush seemed to carry his clear voice as he directed his men with an almost lackadaisical lack of attention, as if he needed no assurance his word would be carried out.

Maybe it had even started before then, for Lance, when he first heard Merlin’s name uttered with a hush of frustrated awe around the round table, before Arthur had ever agreed to let him try his hand at ending Merlin’s would-be folk hero campaign.

“I am not a leader,” Merlin had told Lance once, “They have just made me one.”

That green coat was hung up now on a hook next to the bookshelf, as vital a part of Merlin as the ship or the sword or the stories, a motif easily spotted through a spyglass, fit to inspire that heady seed pearl of dread.

Lance thought of all this as Merlin stared out the dark window at the darker sea and asked, “What do you think? Can I rely on the strength of your oath a little longer?”

“I require no oath to hold me anymore,” Lancelot said quietly. “But you know that. You’ve seen me through the impossible enough times that I could never doubt you.”

Merlin tsked, still staring sightlessly out the window. “Doubt,” he repeated. “What a funny word. Strange that I ever once suspected you of it, when you have gone on to prove yourself the quintessential man of faith.”

Lancelot frowned at him. He did not believe in God.

“I didn’t specify a deity,” Merlin told his frown. “Godless men find other things to worship.” He threw back the rest of the whisky. Poured more.

Lancelot watched Merlin swallow, silent. His hair was longer here. Usually braided back, it had fallen around his face in loose curls. He readjusted in his chair so his booted foot pressed against its arm, elbow propped against his knee.

All at once, Lancelot was concretely aware of the warmth here, the thickness of the air, the sway beneath him so familiar he didn’t even feel it. It was realer than real, the man across from him drawn in vivid lines, technicolor, leather and silver and sheer presence, a sort of reckless déjà vu. The sour reek of brine washed away everything else, so it was only this, only this and nothing else.

“That is a dangerous thing to say, Captain.”

“It is good then that I am a dangerous man and fit to meet the consequences.” Merlin set the crystal glass on the desk and turned it, watching as it caught the sparse candlelight. Lance, for his part, watched Merlin’s eyes, the way the light flickered there, a reminder of that old fire.

“The truth,” Merlin mused, his voice distant. “My truest and best companion, what does the truth even mean?”

“Try me,” Lancelot said. “If it is truth, I can make sense of it.”

And so, Merlin told him.

Told him what Mordred had shown to him, lifetimes and deeds unlocked and laid before him, a sort of awful treasure. Lance sat and listened to it all.

He suspected, as Merlin finished speaking, that he had taken a different point from this little tale than the one Merlin had intended. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed point. A brother’s point. A governor’s point.

“Him again,” Lance said into the new silence.

“What?” Merlin still seemed to be in a sort of shock, glass pressed to his temple as if the whiskey could soothe by osmosis.

“It seems that in this life and every other Arthur Pendragon is the problem that plagues us. We knew him, in these former lives, you and I.”

“Yes,” Merlin’s voice was quiet. “We did.”

Lance could not get to that quietness. Merlin held it to himself, apart from Lance. A desperation opened up in Lance’s chest, a terrible ache. Familiar, its own sort of doom.

“So, these different characters have come together again in this lifetime, to spin another version of this tale you’ve told me, which has been told now already twice over,” Lancelot said. “And this the third time.”

“It seems this is why you came to me, Lance. We are bound to each other, as surely as to this story.”

“You think so?” Lance asked. “You think there is not something here that runs deeper than a spell could ever touch, or bind?”

Merlin said nothing.

That ache, that ever-present ache. Lance understood suddenly the glass shattered over the floor.

“If Mordred was your key, and we all have in one of the others a key, who is mine? Do you know?”

“Lancelot,” Merlin said. “Be wise.”

“You would deny this to me?”

Merlin studied the whiskey in his glass. “When have I ever denied you anything? You have proven to me and the crew besides that it is not within my power.”

“I was right then,” Lancelot said. “Am I wrong now?”

“You are brave, and often reckless,” Merlin said, banging the glass down against the desk with half-felt frustration, “But as long as I have known you, you have never been wrong.”

“Then tell me. Who is my key? Is it you?”

Merlin winced. “No. It is your lady. Guinevere.” He said her name as if it had edges, voice bitter and remote. He had never liked Lance’s attachment to Gwen, resented it, Lancelot had always thought. “Well, you believe me enough that you would seek her out. You know they’ve moved her to the governor’s manor now. I can see the mulish determination in your face. You don’t have to do it.”

“Don’t I?” Lance asked.

Outside, a raucous call carried as the watches switched. It was very late, the witching hour. They would be to port by late morning if the wind kept up. Merlin stood up and came around the desk, his face pressed and pensive, his steps idling.

“This is another lifetime,” he said, “And we are different people in it. I am different, what I want is different. This spell…I feel it is a force that has grown beyond me. It is borne of something darker than you know, and I would disavow it. I would. Let me disavow it. Let me.”

He pushed himself up onto the desk, so he faced Lance, boots propped on either arm of Lance’s chair, penning him in. As he spoke, he leaned forward, voice going guttural with its intensity.

“Let me,” he repeated, softer now, and when he took Lance’s hand in his own, Lance did let him.

“Why would you tell me all of this, if you would have me leave it alone?” Lance asked, meeting his searching gaze. “Maybe you are the source of this, but there are memories locked away in my head, too.”

“I said once I wouldn’t lie to you,” Merlin said. “And I meant it.”

“But you’re asking me not to go.”

A pause. Merlin turned Lance’s hand in his own, thumb stroking the calluses there. “Yes. It is not wise to seek her out, especially now, after Pendragon has gone to seek aid from the mainland. The last raid is present in his mind, the minds of his men, and perhaps most importantly, the lieutenant governor. They will expect a move from me and will be on alert with the governor gone. Plus,” he added softly, “They still don’t know you’re alive. It’s an ace we still hold, for now.”

Lance considered this.

“You have lifetimes in your head now,” he said at last. “Can you reassure me that I won’t find those lifetimes looking back at me, as they are now, for the rest of our lives? That they won’t haunt us both? Can you tell me a way to draw you back here,” he squeezed Merlin’s hand, “from wherever you are now, if I remain ignorant?”

Merlin held still as Lance reached up to press the back his fingers to his cheek. He did not move, his pulse fluttering and warm under that touch.

“You know I cannot stop you,” he said, putting his feet on the floor. Lance tugged him forward, and he conceded, coming to stand between Lance’s knees. Lance’s hand slipped to knot in his shirtfront, and Merlin let his forehead drop to press to Lance’s, already giving in before Lance could draw him down.

Their breath mingled, and Merlin’s gaze shuttered, as if he had to keep some distance even as he slid his hand up into Lance’s hair, touch light and hot as sparks leaping from the fire. “Be careful,” he said, and it was a sort of plea.

“I will.”

There were hours still until the morning.
**
Lance had given up the position of quartermaster for two reasons. The first: he had become for all intents and purposes a ghost, and dead men could not lead the living. The second: he had lost forever his objectivity. The quartermaster was supposed to represent the crew, stand in for their interests, stand against the captain on their behalf, if necessary, and Lance could not trust himself to do that any longer.

Quartermasters did not spend the night in the captain’s cabin.

The new sunlight washed through the captain’s quarters, shafts of it poured over the floor and the bed, sparkling in the near-empty decanter still perched on the desk and shining in the sheets. The thick velvet curtain which had been drawn to separate the sleeping area from the rest of the quarters was now open.

The bed itself was installed in an alcove positioned at the very back of the ship. Through the great bay windows that overlooked it, Lancelot had a view of the bay and the skyline of Albion beyond it, low and humble, peeking out from the expanse of tropical green and mountain blue, only the white loom of the fort perched on the westernmost peak making any dent in the landscape.

The bustle of the port was visible even this early in the morning, all the dark snake of the docks and low-slung tent tops and the minuscule scurry of people. Mist hung over the water. A humid, almost-coolness lingered in the still air of the cabin.

Merlin was still asleep, lost in the mess of pillows and fine linen sheets, arm tossed over his eyes to block out the strengthening light. This particular opulence he had not begrudged himself. Lancelot took his eyes from Albion and allowed himself a private smile, pausing the ritual of getting dressed, shirt still open.

The sound of the crew stamping above deck and the rough voice of the quartermaster carried through the ceiling, but here it was still.

It was such a quiet, perfect moment.

For a second, Lancelot felt the sway of the ship beneath him anew, a different, distant self tasting coffee on his tongue rather than salt, and an ache opened up in him as he straddled the space between those two people. That lonely other self felt distant and unreal as a dream. He could pick out every detail here, vivid and hyperreal, from the rough planks of the floorboards under his bare feet, to the cry of men’s voices and the creak of the ropes up above.

The dissonance cracked him open. He was both here, holding his breath as Merlin shifted and sighed, releasing it as he settled, and there, where cold edged even the indoor air and Merlin’s touch was a strange, hesitant circlet pressed to his brow.

It was as good as it would ever be, and it was, even now, already over.

“Are you watching me sleep?”

Lancelot jumped and ducked his head, busy himself with his buttons as Merlin peeked out from under his elbow. “Well?” he demanded, moving his hand behind his head and wincing at the brightness, “You look guilty.”

“I’m standing guard,” Lance said.

“I stand guard over myself,” Merlin declared, and then whipped a dagger out from under the confluence of pillows with practiced reflex. Lancelot, used to this trick, did not react. The dagger glinted in the light as Merlin flipped it and gripped the hilt at a better angle to stab, before rifling under the pillows once more to dig out the sheathe.

Lancelot finished buttoning his shirt, watching as he flipped the dagger once more and sheathed it. “I pity the man who thinks you can’t fight.”

“He’s in for a nasty surprise,” Merlin agreed. He was not the strongest swordsman and would never win a fight on brute strength or skill alone, but you’d never know it. He fought like a feral cat, scrappy and ruthless.

A fair fight isn’t fair until I’ve put my finger on the scale, Lancelot had heard him say once. It’s called equity. My daddy didn’t pay my way through the officer’s academy, I’ve got to use what leverage I can get.

Merlin sat up more fully, tracking the progress of Lance’s fingers as he did up his open shirt. “You’re still intent on going tonight.”

“You could order me to stay.”

Merlin frowned at this statement and did not dignify it with a response. “You cannot wait? You have to do this now?”

Lancelot went and picked up his vest from where it had been dropped on the floor, shrugged it on. “Could you wait?” He sighed at the shape of Merlin’s worried mouth. “If you leave it to my will, I will go, but you don’t have to leave it to my will.”

“You’d abide by such a command?”

Lancelot grinned at him, “And happily. But would you like that? Leaving me to wonder? Letting my imagination fill in