Chapter 1: A New Beginning
Merlin sealed his fate the moment Excalibur pierced Morgana’s skin. The fated blade had already killed many that week in the battle, so it was only fitting that its final moments were used to kill her. It was the only thing that could. He sealed it further by casting the blade out into the lake, seeing Freya’s hand catch it before sinking below the surface and letting it become lost in the lake’s sandy depths. It was the only thing that could kill him.
He spent centuries alone after that. Waiting. He watched empires rise and fall. He watched the years fade together, blurring like the landscape outside of a moving vehicle. Conflicts would arise and escalate, and he would wonder if this was the time Arthur was destined to come back. The British Empire rising and breaking apart when America revolted. Not one, but two world wars. Countless other wars before, in between, and after that he couldn’t even remember the names of. The people were dying. What could be worse than a world war, killing hundreds of thousands? What would it take for Arthur to come back?
With each and every war that passed, Merlin lost a little more hope. He watched as magic disappeared from the world, surviving in only small, hidden sanctuaries and thus becoming mere fables. Even his own story, the story of King Arthur and his knights, was lost to time. A forgotten piece of history, just like him. When it was re-discovered and rendered a mere myth, Merlin started to seclude himself. He found a cottage not far from where he left Arthur and claimed it as his own.
Merlin made a sanctuary of magic behind the closed iron gate and stone walls surrounding his property. A small colony of fairies lived among the trees, flitting back and forth between the branches and flashing like fireflies as they did. The water spirits that once saved his life lived in the bubbling brook running through his garden, splashing water up onto the gray rocks and letting it seep into the soil to water the nearby plants. Bright red rose bushes proudly boasted their soft petals and prickly thorns. Yellow chrysanthemums dotted the ground, sprouting up like miniature suns. There were even a few berry bushes to feed the wildlife or other magical creatures that visited or stayed, vibrant blue blueberries, iridescent blackberries, and even a few plump pink raspberries all intermingling with one another.
Anything he could want for was stated by magic. He had not forgotten the old ways, afterall, and often felt the magic flowing just under the surface of his skin, his heart pumping it throughout his body as it ached to be released, to be used. He could make food, drinks, and clothes for himself with just a thought, or, occasionally, with a look through a spellbook to remember the proper words. He entertained himself with his magic as well, when he wasn’t talking to the others that dwelled on his property or tending to the garden. He wanted for nothing.
And yet, there was nothing that could replace human interaction. While he did chat up the spirits or the fairies when he wished, he was always the one who had to initiate the conversation and to keep it going. They didn’t always quite understand what he was trying to say, either, as they were usually too young to remember what he was talking about, or too different of a species to know what he meant. So, even in his seclusion, he still made monthly trips into the outside world. He could catch up on recent events, talk to a few people, and visit Arthur on the way back. For a while, he was at peace.
He of all people should have known that peace does not last. There might still be no sign of Arthur’s return, but there was the return of other things. Other magical things, to be exact. No one knew they were magical except for Merlin, of course, but if misused or in the wrong hands, the effects could be catastrophic.
He found a new calling then, one that brought him back into modern society. As himself, it would be extremely difficult to get a hold of these items and artifacts. It would require magic like he hadn’t used in a very long time, so it wasn’t quite reliable anymore in a delicate situation. Besides, he didn’t really want to try and fight these people for them. So he took on a new name: Marcus Hermite. Dr. Marcus Hermite, to be exact. With his fake doctorate, even his rather unfortunate choice of a surname made it past interviews, and before he knew it, the nearby university welcomed him as their newers anthropology professor.
His entire world flipped upside-down then. No longer was he the old hermit who only saw a human once a month. No, he was an immortal, ageless sorcerer who could change his appearance at will. The older appearance had reflected his feelings of hopelessness and despair, but if he was going to try and get these artifacts, he needed to play the part and be younger once again.
With a fresh face and a touch of persuasion magic, he was able to collect the artifacts he wanted. People even began to ask him to join them on archeological dig sites when they thought there could be something he would be interested in, which he gladly accepted. The only issue? Everyone knew he had these artifacts, but didn’t know where he was keeping them. With the university’s help, he opened a small curated exhibit on campus, putting a lot of his collection on display, but keeping the more dangerous artifacts in the backroom, his office, or in his own home.
He quickly became one of the most popular—and highly contested—professors. Most people believed the Arthurian Era to be nothing more than a legend afterall, but he challenged this thought regularly, laying claims with proof about how it did exist. His class solely built on the Arthurian Era was always full ever since he was given the first opportunity to begin it, proving he wasn’t the only one interested in this era. He was happy to see so many people interested in the subject, and he was quite the expert.
Looking at his watch, Merlin noted the start of class and spotted no empty seats. He cleared his throat as he dropped his arm to gain everyone’s attention, and quickly, the class’s conversations ended and silence fell around the room.
“I’m glad to see you all here,” he started with a smile, booting up the projector. “As a reminder, there will be no class next week as I will not be in town, and will instead be on a dig.” A chorus of disappointed sighs rang out around the room, and he chuckled. “I know, I know. That’s why, for this week, I have prepared what I believe to be a rather interesting presentation.”
The projector finally turned on and he dimmed the lights, listening to the excited murmurs around the room as they saw the topic—himself. Not that they knew that fact, of course, but he knew the subject of Merlin was always the class favorite.
“Merlin is perhaps the most contested figure of the Arthurian Era,” he began, suppressing the twinkle in his eye. “Anthropologists and historians alike all have varying opinions on who he was, his relationship to Arthur, and what happened to him. Some say that Merlin was Arthur’s advisor, some say he was a bard and a prophet, but all accounts we have discovered mention his extensive magical prowess. Of course, the anthropologists and historians hotly debate about whether he had any form of magic at all as well, since many believe magic does not exist, leading to the belief that these are no more than grand tales. Yes, Jack?” he said, acknowledging the hand that was raised.
“What do you believe, professor?”
He drummed his fingers against the desk in front of him. “I believe that magic is not out of the question. We see all the time that certain human traits can grow and decline, so what’s to say it just died out? We discuss this more later when we focus more on Arthur’s father, Uther. As for the role Merlin played…” he clicked to the next slide. “I believe Merlin to have been something much more humble. A silent protector, always by Arthur’s side. A servant.”
The lecture went well, he thought. The students listened raptly as he talked about himself and his position in court, but from the perspective of an outsider. Personally, it was his least favorite part of the class. Gloating about himself was more of an Arthur thing, really. But it needed to be said, and the students always loved it. He put it together for today so that he had something to look forward to after class finished—hopefully, he’d be coming back with a new artifact.
“Alright class,” he said as the sound of bags shuffling around and opening started in the room, signaling the end of class, “Before you go, I need to tell you about your homework, which is due the next time we meet. The reading is online. Other than that, I want you to act like historians and anthropologists. Use the readings to develop your own hypothesis and questions. As long as you have factual proof to back up your claim, everything and anything is on the table. We will have a full open discussion on these at our next meeting. Please email me if talking is an issue for you and we can work it out so you can still participate.”
The class filed out the door as they collected their things, a handful of them stopping to wish him luck at the dig or to thank him for the interesting lecture. He merely smiled at them and told them their next one would be even more exciting. He loved hearing what the students had to say about what might have happened in Camelot from the readings he assigned, trying to see who could get the closest to what actually happened.
Once the room had emptied, he shuffled the papers that were out on the desk into a semi-organized pile and stowed them in a folder. Taking his things, he stopped by his office to deposit what he didn’t need and locked it up, ensuring his protective spell would be in place while he was away. He was already packed, his suitcase waiting in the car, so he told the department secretary, Anne, that he was leaving before walking out. With the keys in the ignition, he set out to Scotland.
After a late stop overnight to sleep, he reached his destination the next day. Though the drive over had been uneventful, he couldn’t shake the feeling that budded inside him as he approached. Something about the area seemed familiar and mysterious at the same time, and it sent chills down his spine. Overall, this bad feeling permeated the air and didn’t seem to be going anywhere as he parked his car.
“This area is off limits,” someone said to him as he shut his car door, but that didn’t deter him. He pulled his staff ID from the pocket inside his jacket as he made his way over, handing it to them once he was close enough. “Oh, you’re Dr. Hermite! Apologies. David is expecting you; he’s over there. The short one, can’t miss him. Er, you might want this hat.”
“Thank you,” he said, donning the white hard hat. He took a badge from them too, which he clipped to his jacket, the laminated plastic gleaming in what little sunlight filtered through the clouds. With the proper identification and safety wear he set off onto the dig site, looking around for David and anything that could explain why he had called.
“Ah, Dr. Hermite!” David exclaimed, hurrying over to him. Merlin looked down at him with a smile.
“Please, just call me Marcus.”
“It truly is a pleasure,” he said, shaking his hand. “I’m David. Thank you for coming so quickly.”
“Well, your call did interest me. Most things we find that may be related to Arthur and that era are in England, not out here in what feels like the middle of nowhere.”
“Ah, yes. That is the main reason I called. The land he allegedly ruled was parts of England. But, as a king, he surely had allies and enemies, right? And they would trade or war with one another?”
“Yes, of course. But I doubt you’re asking because you want me to list them.”
He giggled, his excitement clear by the way his eyes wrinkled when he smiled. “No, you don’t have to. A recent discovery has led us to believe these ruins might have been one of the many hiding places the sorceress Morgana lived in.”
They had begun walking together, but at the mention of her name, Merlin stopped in his tracks. Yes, that would explain the feeling he’s had since he arrived. If Morgana really did live here…he smoothed his worried look over quickly, replacing it with a thin smile. “I’d love to see what you’ve found so far.”
While they didn’t have much, and what they had unearthed wasn’t dangerous, there was no denying it belonged to Morgana. If not her, then her sister, Morgause. He said as much to David after stepping into the tent set up and examining the objects, finding their house seal amidst some of the documents.
“Have you found any traps or anything sealed that you can’t open?”
“We actually haven’t managed to get inside yet. All of this has come from digging around in collapsed sections. The one place still intact has a solid stone door that won’t budge. We’re working on digging through it without ruining some of the more intricate architecture. Hopefully we’ll breach it in a day or two.”
Merlin hummed lightly. A basement that hadn’t collapsed, an immovable door—sounded like magic to him. He should definitely stick around, for fear of the consequences. “Any way I can help?”
Subtly, Merlin spent his time on the site searching for signs of magic. If they thought opening King Tut’s tomb was a curse, they would never be prepared for what enchantments Morgana might have placed. He tried detection spells and found nothing in the immediate area. As a precaution for if the magic was somehow undetectable, he started placing protection spells instead. Anti-jinxes, anti-harm, anything he could think of to counteract anything she could.
It was a couple of days before the door was finally opened wide enough for a person to fit, and Merlin found a reason to be even more thankful he was invited over.
“You simply must come in with me,” David said. “I want your help identifying anything we might find right away.”
“Just hand me a torch and I’ll be right behind you.”
Not only was he handed his own torch, but Merlin was handed a pair of gloves as well. The last thing they wanted was for fingerprints to sully any possible new finds.
The corridor was dark, but their light revealed puddles of wax lining the walls, possibly the work of burnt out candles, as well as several braziers. It indicated that this section of the building had been used previously, and from the amount of wax, quite frequently. He suppressed a shudder at the thought of what it might have been used for. It was eerily quiet, the kind of quiet that made everyone reluctant to speak—only doing so when necessary and with hurried whispers. Merlin found himself holding his breath as they walked on, waiting for something to happen.
When they came to a crossroads they paused, looking down both passageways back and forth to determine which one to explore first. Merlin eventually gestured to the right on instinct, leading the way down the hall.
A door stood open just outside of the light’s reach, so when they had taken those first few steps and it was discovered, excited murmurs spread around the small group. They fanned out after entering to the left and right, examining the walls and corners—all except Merlin. His light had landed on something shining across the room, drawing him in.
“It can’t be…” he muttered, reaching out and running his fingers lightly over the hilt of the sword sticking out of a rough, dark hewn stone. The touch was electrifying, sending chills up his arm and down his spine. He jumped back and rubbed his hand in shock, but his thoughts were confirmed. Excalibur, the sword he sent out into the lake when Arthur died, had somehow teleported to the other side of the island, into a new country. There was a well of magic connected to it, buried in the earth far below them, and Merlin was concerned he just activated something he didn’t understand.
The noise of him jumping back alerted David, who turned and gasped when his light landed on the sword.
“Is that Excalibur?” he asked, hurrying over. “Why, this could be the best—”
“Look for bodies,” Merlin said, taking a step back to search the immediate area.
“King Arthur wouldn’t have been buried without Excalibur,” he lied. “Knight tradition.”
Even though Merlin knew it was indeed Excalibur, he wanted to throw the scent off of it. A blade forged in the breath of a dragon… the sword would be extremely dangerous in anyone’s hands, whether they had magic or not. If there was no Arthur nearby he could pass it off as an imitation. While it was still certain to make a lot of noise as news spread of its discovery, it would still hide under the radar. He put a quick spell on it to ensure no one could pull it out, the subtle gold glow of his eyes missed as the others continued to search.
Secretly, there was another motive to the search. The sword was with Arthur until the end, even buried in the same spot. If they couldn’t find his body...was it finally time for him to come back?
Chapter 2: Burning Questions
The next few days passed by in a blur. There was no body found in the room or anywhere else in that part of the ruin. In fact, nothing else they found was quite as monumental as the sword. Word spread quickly of their findings and journalists started appearing around the site. By the time they had made the hole large enough so they could move the sword and the stone from its place underground, it was like the paparazzi. The image of Merlin carrying the sword out spread around the world, gaining popularity as everyone shared what could be proof that maybe Arthur wasn’t just a legend.
Merlin was glad when David offered to let him keep the sword and the stone. His reasoning was that Merlin found it first, so it was rightfully his discovery. It saved Merlin a use of his magic to take it back with him. He made arrangements for it to be shipped to the university before he left, since it wouldn’t exactly fit in his car. When it arrived, he planned to not let Excalibur out of his sight.
When he made it back to the school, his classes were buzzing. They barely managed to get through any of the content he had prepared to teach. He couldn’t help but smile at the thought of how his next Arthurian Era class was going to go.
The class was chatting more than usual as he walked in, excitement near visible in the air as he adjusted the sleeve of his jacket and hoped they could still somewhat manage to get through their discussions for the day. He pretended not to notice the quiet that filled the room as he started setting up, even before he asked for everyone to settle down. Instead, he kept his head down as he pretended to busy himself with organizing the papers on his desk and filled the silence himself. “I plan on recording the audio for today’s class so you can refer to our discussion later if necessary. I’ll upload it as soon as I can, which hopefully means no later than tomorrow.” He turned the recorder on and looked up to find most everyone with their hands raised. With a smile, he scanned the room for a student who didn’t talk as often. “Carol, would you like to start us off?”
“Did you really find Excalibur while you were away?”
“Have you not read any of my numerous interviews since the incident in question?” He continued to smile, knowing that they just wanted to hear him say it in person. “There was no evidence of a body or a grave, so chances are it is not the real Excalibur. A weapon like that would have been buried with the king himself. Still, the sword in the stone is a wonderful breakthrough for my pursuits to prove Arthur is no mere legend.”
“The sword existing in the stone in a ruin that was previously sealed off proves that the knowledge of a sword in a stone has existed longer than we have known about the myth connecting it to Arthur.”
“Did you try to pull the sword out?” someone else asked unprompted.
“Who do you think I am? Of course we did. Unfortunately, there were no secret King Arthur’s among us.” The chorus of muted groans was to be expected. He was sure he would have known if Arthur was there, however. “James?”
“Why would there have been a replica sword?”
“I’m not entirely sure. We believe the building belonged to Morgana or Morgause, so there’s a chance they were trying to figure something out relating to the sword. There are claims that it was magical, afterall.”
“I have something based on the homework you assigned,” Toni said, raising their hand.
“Thank you for getting us on topic. Yes, go ahead.” He leaned against the chalkboard, crossing his arms.
“In the Great Purge, many of those who used or at the very least had magic died. What if the magic was released back into the world, without an anchor, and the reason Merlin was so powerful was because it all flooded to him when he was born? In the reading, it said there weren’t many magic users left besides the druids, and energy like that doesn’t seem likely to just disappear.”
He hummed thoughtfully. “An interesting theory. It’s possible, yes. But I think we would have to take other people into consideration as well. Morgana must have been born around the same time, right? Several records say they were of a similar age. Perhaps that’s why her magic came through when she was unconscious before she developed it. Mordred too was born much later—he and Morgana first met when he was young.”
“Maybe that’s why Merlin and Morgana were so evenly matched,” they continued, jotting down a few notes. “Since it did take so long for him to finally kill her.”
“Ah, but you forget, they supposedly lived together in the castle for many years before she turned on Camelot, no matter what you believe Merlin’s position there was. They were what many would consider friends. If your friend suddenly turned evil, would you want to kill them? Or would you try to appeal to them and maybe bring them back to the good side first?”
“Yes, Henry?” he said as Henry’s hand shot up.
“Is it possible that magic never existed? If Merlin was a simple servant and had no formal training that we know of and he was still able to outperform the trained knights, wouldn’t they exaggerate and say he was different to excuse their own inadequacy compared to him? I bring this up based on the portion of the reading mentioning that there are several accounts of Merlin saving the knights during different fights between both magical and non-magical entities.”
He chuckled. “I suppose. There is another possibility, though. All kingdoms had servants who also acted as the entertainment during feasts.” He paused and moved to stand in front of his desk, holding out his hand to the class. Closing his eyes, he muttered under his breath and reached into his sleeve. He pulled a bouquet of flowers out as he opened his eyes, earning a chorus of applause. “Thank you. Since most reports say Merlin supposedly did nothing to physically oppose those fighting, or nearly died mid-battle, some people wonder if magic really meant sleight of hand tricks that seemed magical to the untrained eye. He would have used this to entertain, and reports of his inept abilities would still ring true. Don’t forget that, earlier in the reading, it’s established that most people in Camelot didn’t know he had magic at all, especially because it was against the law.”
“But you believe magic did exist.”
“Why not?” Merlin spread his hands out and shrugged his shoulders. “There are many things that used to exist in the past that are now extinct. We don’t live in fear of a T-rex stepping on our homes and crushing them, do we? We don’t think of a saber tooth tiger every time it snows. And no one alive has ever seen one, but yet we still all believe they exist with the proof we have. Like I said last class, these sorcerers might have had a special gene that died out or at the very least went dormant. And who knows? Just like we still have chickens, the miniature dinosaurs, maybe there are a few secret sorcerers still out there. I could be one of them, and you would never know.” He earned a few chuckles from the class.
“I have something new,” a student said, raising her hand.
“Go ahead, Jessica.”
Her hand dropped and she leaned back in her chair, her elbow thrown over the back of it. A sly smile formed on her face before she said, “What’s the chance that Arthur and Merlin were in a romantic relationship?”
Merlin sputtered, quickly losing his cool composure and growing flustered. More chuckles rang out in the hall.
“Well—bonus for being the first to bring that possibility to the table,” he began with a chuckle of his own, running a hand through his hair. “Uh—why?”
“You mean my reasoning? Well, Arthur seemed to trust Merlin way too much for a normal servant—if he was a servant at all, of course, but this is just based on the reading. He was upset whenever Merlin was in danger, and he took Merlin’s advice plenty of times, not even asking the court before following it.”
“But Arthur had Guinevere. Sure, there were a few moments where that relationship was tested, which we will get into more soon, but I do believe they really cared for each other.”
She pushed the eraser end of her pencil into her chin in thought. “But don’t most kings and queens and other royal title holders around the globe have other people? Mistresses, concubines, people like that. Some of them were of the same sex, too. So, what’s to say Merlin wasn’t secretly one of these? Two sides of the same coin, as you say?”
He saw no way around the question and had to give in. Scratching his head, he said, “I guess it is a possibility, but I’m afraid you would have to have more solid proof of this relationship for anyone to even start thinking it could be true, such as documents that reference or infer a—different relationship between the two. Kudos for being unique and really thinking, though. Now, is there anyone else who would like to share?”
The rest of the class went well, Merlin believed. He pulled off a few other magic tricks when the conversation turned that way, using his real magic to help accomplish them. He had perfected this a while ago after doing it for other semesters—it was why he closed his eyes right before each trick.
“Before you leave,” he said at the end, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the shuffling of bags and students, “I want to offer an extra credit opportunity. I will be planning an exhibit reveal event for when the sword arrives. Keep an eye out for the date and time online, and if you show up and give me proof you were there, you’ll get points. The next reading is online; don’t forget to finish that before next week.”
Back in his office after class, Merlin sat down and sighed, looking over the paperwork he needed to fill out and the many computer files of work he needed to grade and he shook his head. Instead of starting either of those and getting them done at a reasonable time, he opened his computer and found himself staring at the red, yellow, blue, and green of Google’s logo.
With a sigh, he clicked on the search bar and slowly began to type, trying to find the proper wording to help find what he was looking for.
King Arthur’s return
Too direct of an approach. All he managed to find were theories as to when he might return and a few conspiracy theories on how he may have returned already, which he knew weren't true. He cleared the search bar.
Arthur Pendragon address
He didn’t have any luck there, either, though he wasn’t really sure why he thought it was a good idea to begin with. Most of what popped up were clear phishing websites trying to get him to buy the information and then steal his credit card numbers. Others tried to tell him where they thought Camelot resided. He wasn’t surprised that this search was a dead end.
This one was a mistake on his end. He was hoping to see if there were any unusual sightings near the lake that he had missed, but he forgot it wasn’t known as Avalon anymore. Instead, he found articles on what the fabled land might have been and where its entrance was.
What would bring Arthur back? If finding Excalibur so far away wasn’t a sign of his return, what did it mean? He groaned in frustration and let his head fall to his desk. There was paperwork to be done, tests and essays and other homework to grade. The piles hadn’t moved since he came in. He didn’t have time to speculate. Whenever Arthur returns, destiny would surely lead them on the right path.
Regretfully, he lifted his head and closed his search tabs. His focus was needed elsewhere.
Chapter 3: A Chance Encounter
When the sword finally arrived, it caused quite the spectacle. Merlin had spent time rearranging his exhibit to find the perfect spot, which drew in some of his coworkers with questions they wanted to ask him. When the truck came, it seemed like everyone and anyone wanted to help him move the sword. He had to actually pick a handful of people out of the crowd to be sure it made it in one piece, forcing the others to get out of the way and get on with everything else they had to do. If he used magic to help this along, well, everyone else was too distracted to notice anything strange.
The next night was the exhibit reveal for the sword and a few other small items sent with it. The exhibit was packed, full of faculty members, some of his students both current and old, as well as all sorts of reporters and journalists. In short, the night was bustling with activity. Cameras flashed when he pulled the sheet off from it, and between mingling with some of those who came for the reveal and sparsely eating from the snacks he provided, he was bombarded with questions left and right.
Of course, he had expected this. With how many cameras were flashing throughout the night, it wasn’t a surprise. Merlin had prepared for this, however. He thought it important to answer what he could quickly for the student journalists, providing them with his email if they wanted to know anything else they may have forgotten about. The other reporters he tried to be brief with, knowing there were many people there and they all wanted to talk with him. It was one thing to write for an assignment or the university newspaper, learning the ropes on what questions to ask and how to put them together in an interesting format. It was another entirely for these professionals that could talk his ear off for the rest of the night if given the chance. To show he still respected them though, they also received his contact information, especially if they wanted a more lengthy discussion.
Overall it was a pleasant night. He was so tired after it that he practically crashed into his bed once home, completely unaware that something new had happened. It wasn’t until later the next morning that he noticed. He had breakfast, he got ready for work, he collected his things, and then, on the way to the car, he saw it for the first time.
Sniffing at his car’s bonnet was a unicorn white as snow. Shocked, he carefully sat his briefcase down and slowly approached the creature. It had been ages since he had seen a unicorn, believing they had gone extinct with most of the other magical creatures, like the dragons. As he gently stroked its face it whinnied, taking a step closer to him.
“You’re welcome to stay here,” he said, though he was unsure if it understood him. “I know the outside world is dangerous and confusing, but you’ll be safe here.”
The unicorn neighed in response. After being thoroughly distracted as he pet the unicorn, he realized he was going to be late for work. He quickly turned his attention away, picked up his briefcase, and climbed into the car.
Nothing else strange happened to him while at school, luckily, but considering that he was now up to two strange things happening in only a matter of weeks, he felt that something was up that he was unaware of. If teaching stayed normal, however, he definitely wouldn’t mind. One normal place was good in a life like his. A few students visited his office hours, but they all wanted to talk about normal things, like parts of their recent class, or something troubling them with the homework. They were nice breaks while he was working on grading and it let the strangeness of the unicorn’s appearance disappear from his mind for a while.
He made a stop on his drive home later that afternoon. It had been a while since he last visited the lake, rarely finding the time to between everything else he had to do in his busy life. He forced the time now, though, rearranging his schedule so he could visit while there was still light out. The parking wasn’t great nearby so he parked at home and walked over, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his jacket.
Though his shoes weren’t waterproof, Merlin still stood at the edge of the water where small, windblown waves lapped at his feet. He dug around in the ground near him in search of a couple of smooth, flat stones he could skip, standing up once more when he had gathered a decent handful. Pulling his arm back, he let the first one go flying, skipping a few times before its momentum ran out and it sank into the water. That was about as far as Merlin had ever managed the rocks to skip, but he was satisfied enough.
“Can you hear me?” he asked, throwing another stone and watching it bounce, up and down. He knew that Avalon was off-limits to him, but that didn’t stop him from trying to contact them. The stones were his way of knocking on their door, and even if no one answered, he liked to think they were watching and listening through the peephole. “When are you going to tell me, huh? When are you going to let him come back?”
Another stone bounced across the lake, and then another. It was the only sound that could be heard apart from the chattering birds nearby and the occasional car driving past the road behind him.
“Can’t you give me a sign? A...a hint, maybe? Some twisted, almost nonsense prophecy for me to figure out so that I know when to expect him?” Another stone bounced across the surface of the lake. “You said he would come back when Camelot—when Albion needed him most. Is it because he died before Albion really existed? Is that why you insist on being quiet?”
A loud, sudden car horn blared on the road adjacent to the lake, startling him and making him fall over into the water. Instead of getting up right away he sat in it, feeling water quickly seep in through his clothes and chill his skin. He had lost his handful of rocks to the lake bottom again, and even though his hands were wet, he still tried to use them to wipe the tears from his face as they started racing silently.
He was tired of being alone. Sure, he wasn’t lonely anymore—some of his students still kept in contact with him after they left, sending update emails every now and then, he had a few faculty friends that he sometimes talked to, and of course, he always had a fresh batch of students to interact with each semester. But he was still alone. He wasn’t Merlin to them, to anyone. Everything he had been through, everything he was—no one knew him. And the one person who could still be here and did know him, even if he only saw every facet of Merlin for a handful of days before his end, was gone. And he had no idea when he was going to come back.
The walk home was colder than the walk over thanks to his now wet trousers that he didn’t bother drying properly. His mind started straying to what might happen if Arthur didn’t return anytime soon, especially with his job. Sure, he could let himself slowly age back up again so that no one would question that aspect… but what if it continued? Could he keep coming up with fake names and pass his job off to the ‘new hire’ so the exhibit could stay and he wouldn’t have to find anything all over again? Would that grow tiring too quickly?
...Would his patience even last that long?
The unicorn had decided to stay, greeting Merlin when he returned. For a brief second he thought about a world where Arthur’s return was never quite specified, and he took on a new form when he came back. He laughed at the idea and himself, though, finding it silly to think Arthur could be destined to be a unicorn when he was supposed to help Albion. Still, if the unicorn was going to stay, he thought it might need a name. With a quick mutter an apple appeared in his hand as his fingers brushed through the unicorn’s soft mane, which it eagerly ate whole once the apple was offered. He decided Gwaine was a fitting name.
There were a number of other things he needed to do so he retired inside, content to let the fireplace in the corner crackle and spread its warmth as he graded more homework and made more lesson plans. As he did this, he found one particular email in his inbox that made him groan, staring up into the exposed ceiling beams. It was his week to restock the faculty lounge for the department, and unfortunately, they always expected receipts. They always took turns so that no one person was spending all of their free time buying snacks and drinks, but it meant he had to actually go out and be a normal person. He couldn’t just conjure the food. Whatever, he’ll go between classes tomorrow to get it done and over with. He had enough time.
He muttered to himself as he pushed the cart through the shop, determined to just go up and down every aisle to find what he was looking for. He had the flimsy paper he was reading off of in hand, but he knew there were things on the list that weren't touched very often, and other things not on the list that some people did enjoy, so he had to remember to swap those out. Really, as long as he bought the proper tea and the coffee for the few who chose to drink that, no one would mind what else he bought.
He pulled things off of the shelves as he walked by and tossed them into the cart, determined to get this done as quickly as possible. At least he could just drop the bags off in the lounge and say he had to get to class, leaving the others to unpack it. He looked back down at the list as he turned the corner into the next aisle, determined to remember the proper biscuits to buy and not the ones that Greg always bought; no one besides Greg ever liked them. When the sound of another cart coming up the aisle reached his ears he looked up to make sure they had room to pass when he suddenly found himself frozen to the spot, only able to stare at them with wide eyes.
There were two men with the cart, one pushing as the other trailed behind and talked with him. Merlin was more interested in the one trailing behind. Blonde hair not unlike the color of hay, bright cornflower blue eyes like the flowers that once grew near Ealdor, and when he smiled at a joke the other man said that Merlin didn’t seem to hear—well, Merlin’s mind sent him on a trip to the past, bringing up images of all the times Arthur had laughed at something he said, finding every last detail down to the tone of the laugh to be the exact same. The men had passed before Merlin came to his senses again, but it was as if destiny was pulling strings right there to make them meet, for the man had dropped his keys.
Quickly, Merlin scooped them up and turned to the retreating men. “You’ve dropped your keys, my friend.”
Their conversation halted abruptly as the Arthur look-alike turned around, confused, but a small thankful smile appeared on his face as he walked back to get them. “I’m sorry, do I know you?”
A stabbing feeling bloomed in Merlin’s chest as his heart twisted and fell, hopes shattered, but he made sure it couldn’t be seen on his face. He wouldn’t want a stranger to think a simple phrase like that had hurt him like he had speared him with a sword. But it seemed that this wasn’t Arthur afterall, no matter how identical they looked. “Er, I’m Mer-Marcus.”
“So I don’t know you, then.”
“And yet you called me friend?”
“My mistake,” he said, bowing his head before straightening up, remembering that the man before him wasn’t a prince. “I believe I mistook you for someone else.”
He scratched his chin. “First time I’ve heard that I have a look-alike. Thank you for returning my keys to me.”
Merlin nodded silently and watched him turn back around, about to walk back to his cart where his friend was patiently waiting for him. “Wait!” he said before the Arthur look-alike could leave, not quite ready to let him go. He turned around again with a raised, questioning eyebrow, and for a second, Merlin froze again. Panicking, he managed, “Would you be willing to exchange numbers?”
Internally, Merlin screamed at himself. What a strange, awkward thing to say to a stranger. And yet, with a small chuckle, he pulled his mobile out, opened it, and passed it to Merlin. Quickly he typed out his name, having to fix the misspelling when he started typing Merlin and again when he spelled Marcus with a k. He then added his mobile number in the contact information and saved it. He returned not-Arthur’s mobile to him with a slightly embarrassed smile, which the man returned in kind.
“I’ll text you sometime,” he said, finally going back to his friend and their cart.
Merlin turned back to his own and gripped the handle until his knuckles turned white before finally remembering to breathe. Of all the times he could have happened across an Arthur look-alike, it had to be after the strange event with Excalibur. His first and foremost thought was that it seemed awfully coincidental, and the second that he definitely made a fool of himself. The third thought in his mind was that not-Arthur did not recognize him at all. Arthur was never really good at lying—not to Merlin, anyway—but he seemed to be telling the truth. It really couldn’t be Arthur then, could it? The fourth thought, way at the back of his mind, was that not-Arthur never gave Merlin his number, so Merlin would have to rely on him actually texting later and not just making an empty conversation with a stranger. This might have been the first and last time he would ever talk to not-Arthur.
He looked back down at the list crumpling in his hand and forced his breathing to even out, focusing on the shelves to find the biscuits and resolutely not hoping they might run into each other again at the checkout.
Chapter 4: A Blooming Friendship
Just a heads up, from here on out there are going to be some text conversations in a good majority of the remaining chapters. To make it easier to write and read, and because the conversation is only ever between two people, I have the texts left and right justified. In case it isn't clear, anything on the right is Merlin, and anything on the left is whoever else he is texting.
It was a few days later when Merlin felt his mobile buzz on the couch next to him. He was invested in reading some of the latest essays turned in for one of his classes, so it startled him. No one he knew was expected to call or contact him, so he was curious as he picked it up.
An unknown number, and all it said was hey. He was tempted to just ignore it like he did any spam calls that managed to find his number, but the meeting in the grocery store flooded back to him, and he found himself eager to respond.
Grocery store man?
Not a clear or direct answer, but since he didn’t deny it nor did he not understand, it must be him. Merlin sat his laptop aside to talk with him.
Bored at work, got nothing to do. Remembered you and decided to see if you could chat
I know the feeling. I was reading over work stuff too
Oh, bad time?
No, I could use the break
Man, me too
New job, thought it’d be interesting
Sometimes it takes a while for anything interesting to happen
You know, I don't think I ever got your name
Hmm, I think you’re right
Is that all?
Alright, I’ll save your number as clotpole then
What does that mean?
Hey, not cool
Merlin added it to his contacts and took a screenshot, sending the image over to not-Arthur.
Could’ve avoided this by telling me your name
You don’t look like an Austin
And you don’t look like a Marcus
I’m still gonna keep your contact info under clotpole
What’s something dumb I can change your name to
That’s the best you can come up with
Merlin chuckled to himself, shaking his head. Though Austin wasn’t Arthur, he still felt familiar. If Arthur had had any kids, he would have thought Austin was a direct descendant. Then again, if Arthur had kids, then Merlin would have followed that bloodline closely through the ages. Either way, their banter felt familiar and comforting, and although he barely knew the man, it was nice to have that around again. He didn't feel close enough to his coworkers to banter with them, and if he did, it always felt forced.
He sat there and wasted a few hours away talking to Austin, lots of random small topics coming up like football and how terrible traffic has been lately. Austin had some pretty intense feelings about Americans calling football soccer, and though Merlin was indifferent on the topic, he purposely egged Austin on to rile him up.
Finally, Austin said his shift was over and it was time for him to head home. He also said that he had fun talking, though, and Merlin agreed. Merlin was also surprised to find it was almost dark when he looked up at the end of their conversation and realized he was getting hungry.
The next morning, Merlin found himself in his exhibit, as he was wont to do after new arrivals. He had a lot to study after the last shipment, and since he had put them on display already, he had to do it in the exhibit. He did this on purpose though, hoping that a person passing by might see him studying the documents, grow curious, and decide to stop in and learn more about his history. While the sword was obviously the most intriguing, it seemed the least obvious to hold any important details. He had helped carry the stone out after all, so he had an up close and personal look with it. Plus, he was the one who helped make Excalibur the magical sword it is now, so he didn’t need to study the blade. Instead, he wanted to look at the papers from the dig site. They might hold important information, ranging anywhere from what the hell happened with the sword to when the hell Arthur was going to return.
He didn’t make much progress. Since the sword was still so new and was such an important icon to Arthurian Legend, there were actually a lot of people trying to see it, and about half of those people recognized him as the owner and were asking him questions. He was happy to answer, though, for he hadn’t seen this many people interested in his history in a long time.
After a while he retired to his office to get some work done before class, upset over not having any answers to his questions. Was this what normal historians felt like? He clicked his pen open and closed over and over again impatiently as he read over homework. There was no dragon he could turn to for wisdom, even if he never gave a straight answer. The creatures that could talk that lived in his yard didn’t know anything. He had tried that long ago. There were books, though… maybe he should look through some of the books he had salvaged from Gaius’s library and see if they had any answers. The useful ones were back at his home, though, so he couldn’t do anything about it now.
It seemed that, for the most part, his classes had fallen back into a normal schedule. No one was quite as pushy to learn about what he discovered anymore, especially now that most of them had seen it for themselves. There were still a few straggler questions that came up, but they were usually at the end of class or when a student approached him after. “Can I try to pull the sword from the stone?” “No.” “Would you let the Queen try to pull the sword from the stone?” “If she wore protective gear, maybe.” At least his students always kept him on his toes.
Perhaps the most interesting one came in his next Camelot class. “What would happen if Arthur did return?” was the question asked as they talked about the prophecy.
It hit a little close to home so it took Merlin a few seconds to answer. “I’m not sure,” he said honestly. “Arthur is supposed to return when Albion needs him the most, but as far as we’re aware, there’s very little mention of Albion, so it might not have even existed. Arthur may have died before he could unite the lands.”
“Then there’s some kind of loophole, isn’t there? Maybe Albion wasn’t the land itself, but something they all had in common. Like, I don’t know, certain animals. Then, when those animals need him most, Arthur would return.”
He chuckled. “It’s plausible, and isn’t something I had thought of. But, unfortunately, as prophecies are wont to do, no one can make perfect sense out of it. As supposed records say about Merlin, he once saw the future and tried everything he could to prevent it from happening. Unfortunately, almost everything he did to try and stop it ended up making that future come true, until Uther nearly met his untimely end.”
“And Morgana knew Emrys was going to be her demise but didn’t know Emrys was Merlin,” came a voice from the back.
He pointed at them and nodded. “Correct. Think of a prophecy as a modern day theory. It is possible that it could happen, but until you have definite proof, there is no guarantee.”
After class, Merlin thought about what the student had suggested. About Arthur returning for something that united the lands… but what could it be? Sure, he was Arthur’s servant the entire time he was in Camelot, but he couldn’t remember anything that stood out. Besides, he had a feeling it wouldn’t be an obvious thing. He left as soon as his last class was over that day to look over his bookshelf and start pulling out books. He spread them out across the house as he flitted between books, flipping pages and reading a few paragraphs before moving to a different one.
Only when his mobile buzzed in his pocket did he find himself drawn away from them, pulling it out to check what it was.
It was from Austin—the same exact message that began their last conversation. Merlin typed out a quick response and hit send.
Hay is for horses
It was also for unicorns, he noted, as Gwaine snorted outside and shook his mane, eating out of the feeder Merlin bought.
Nah, something personal
Ew, who reads for fun?
Merlin sighed and sunk into the couch, now fully distracted from his previous research. Maybe it was a good thing Austin was distracting him now, so he didn’t completely obsess over everything. Breaks were always good.
Only smart people, duh
Are you saying I’m not smart?
You said it, not me
😮 I will have you know I know things
What, like you shouldn’t eat grass?
I know how to put out a fire
Congrats, you know a basic human skill
Hey, not everyone knows how to put out every fire. How do you put out a grease fire?
You smother it, duh
You’re just testing me now
Actually I’m still waiting on something you know
If you’re so smart, why don’t you tell me something you know?
Are you deflecting the question?
I know everything and anything there is to know about the Arthurian Era
Like, Lancelot and Gunievere?
I’m surprised you spelled that correctly
Fine, I’ll leave you to your “things”
Of course, that didn’t end their conversation. Though Austin never did properly answer the question, they naturally moved onto other conversation topics. When their conversation finally ended, Merlin looked around the room with a sigh at all of the open books. It was a lot to go through, and even more he would have to clean up again later. As he pulled the nearest one into his lap to focus solely on that one, he smiled when he sat his mobile aside, thinking he was starting to grow quite fond of Austin.
Chapter 5: Occupational Hazard
The semester proceeded as normal for Merlin. Teaching classes, grading homework, answering questions if someone called to interview him—pretty standard stuff. He had fallen into a rhythm after his first few semesters and knew the routine by now. He would almost say it had gotten too repetitive if there weren’t always surprises. He never knew what to expect each semester—over the top students, a new archaeology dig—it was things like that that he missed when he had thought living out the years as a hermit would suit him better. This semester, however, seemed to be the strangest, throwing curve after curve at him. That last dig, where Excalibur appeared for example. His Arthurian Era class, where their questions were turning rather personal and making him feel embarrassed. And, to top it all off, Austin.
Austin was, without a doubt, the strangest thing yet this semester. Merlin found it all too easy to drop whatever he was doing to talk with him whenever he texted. Recently, they had even branched out to occasionally calling each other. There was a moment when Austin accidentally butt-dialed him, and Merlin found it all too easy to give him an earful of playful insults for it later. Though he enjoyed it, feeling a real human connection with someone for the first time in a while, it somehow made him feel guilty. This man had been either blessed or cursed to look exactly like Arthur. Merlin knew if it wasn’t for his looks, they wouldn’t have made that connection in the grocery store. He also had a hard time separating the two people in his mind. When they talked it sounded like Arthur coming out of the other end of the phone. He didn’t think it was fair to Austin to keep mixing them up. He tried his hardest to separate them, though, hating the thought that he could lose a friend over it.
Merlin found himself sitting in his office once again, which was nothing new. He was trying not to fall asleep reading through some of the boring essays from one of his university-mandated classes, which, again, was nothing new. What was new, however, was when the fire alarm interrupted him, startling him awake. As he shrugged his jacket on and grabbed his ID badge, he briefly filed through what he could remember of his recent emails. Usually, if it was a drill, he would have had an email about it. If they didn’t know the specific time, they would have at least made a date range where it might go off, as they usually checked the academic buildings once a semester. He couldn’t recall anything mentioning a drill, so as he exited the building amidst flashing lights and the ever ringing, near deafening alarm, he had to assume something had set them off. Luckily, he had invested in fireproof glass cases for the exhibit, so he had nothing to worry about there. He had even cast a few of his own enchantments over them to be sure nothing would harm any of his artifacts.
As he instructed students outside to move further away from the building he heard the wail of the fire engines starting up across town. At least they were quick about it. A couple of students asked him if he knew what happened, but he was just as clueless as they were. They would all have to wait and see what the firefighters had to say. The engine pulled to a stop not far from where Merlin stood, unloading firefighters in full head to toe gear as they jumped out as fast as they could. Some of them ran into the building but a few stayed behind, probably to prepare the pump and hose if it was required. There was no plume of smoke rising into the sky though, so whatever it was, it couldn’t be that bad.
After about five minutes with no movement from the firefighters whatsoever, Merlin had grown impatient. Though he didn’t want to go back to the essays, he did need to do more of them today. Plus, he had a class soon, and still needed to put the last minute materials together for it. And, really, anything would be better than standing on the pavement across the street, staring up at the building. He stepped off of it and onto the road, pulling out his ID as he walked over to the engine and the men standing around outside of it.
“Excuse me,” he said, flashing his ID. “I’m one of the professors here, and I have a class coming up. Any idea what happened or how much longer you will be? If I need to cancel class I can send an email from my phone, but I’d rather inform them before they start making their way over here.”
The man closest to him looked at him curiously, tilting his head. Just as Merlin was about to ask again, in case he hadn’t heard him through the mask, he said, “Someone burned their food in a microwave. We’re trying to air the room out now so the alarms stop.”
His voice sounded awfully familiar, even distorted by his mask. Had they met before? Maybe there was a different fire he had shown up to? Merlin didn’t have to wonder long though as the man took off his mask, revealing his face for Merlin to finally recognize him. Images flashed in his mind of metal helmets glinting in the sunlight, of Arthur pulling the helmet off and shaking out his hair as he rested it in the crook between his arm and hip. Images of a very different time, with a very different person, and yet...
“Austin?” He took a step back, almost afraid. “You’re a firefighter?”
“I’m the fire chief,” he corrected, an amused smirk on his face.
He rolled his eyes. “Sorry, sir.” The other firefighter nearby chuckled.
“So you’re a professor?” he said, ignoring what Merlin had called him. “Is that how you know so much about the Arthurian Era, as you said? Wait, let me guess—archeology.”
“...What is that?”
Merlin pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t have time to explain that right now. I have a class, remember?”
“Yes, yes, it will only be a few more minutes.” He waved it off. “Anthropology. Are you sure that isn’t a made up word?”
“If it was, I wouldn’t be teaching it. To dumb it down for you, it’s the study of humans. Cultures, societies, things like that.”
“Sooo, it’s basically—”
“If you say archeology again I swear—”
“What’s the difference?”
“Archeologists focus on the physical aspects of history,” he said, hitting his hands together when he wanted to emphasize a word, “and they do that by digging and studying old artifacts and remains they find. Anthropologists focus more on the culture or social aspects of different places and time periods, exploring things like how a language evolved over the years. Sometimes we can be at sites too, but most of what we learn can’t be found by digging up a random skeleton. Especially not dinosaur skeletons.”
Austin held his hands up in front of him. “Alright. I’ll say it’s clear you know way more than I do, so I won’t try to understand it. It seems a little too over my head.”
“I’m not surprised by that,” he muttered to himself.
“Good news,” came some chatter over Austin’s radio, the grainy voice sounding genuine and cheerful as Austin kept a hand in the air to pause their conversation. “The microwave will survive.”
Austin and the other firefighter chuckled as Austin pulled the radio off of his vest and up to his mouth. “Glad to hear there won’t be any casualties. I’d hate to fill out that paperwork later.” He glanced at Merlin before saying, “Do you have an estimate on when we can let people back in the building?”
“The window’s probably going to have to stay open for another hour at least to get the smell out, but the smoke is thinning, so we should be able to shut the alarms off within five minutes. I’ll let you know when you can give the faculty the all clear.”
“You hear that?” Austin asked Merlin, and he nodded in response. “Good. Should be able to get back to your nerd stuff before you have to worry about class.”
He put his hands on his hips and huffed, but didn’t know what else to say. He was barely managing to hold it together at the moment, still reeling from the moment Austin took the helmet and mask off.
The other firefighter gently nudged Austin to get his attention. When he looked over, the man made a gesture with his head that Merlin couldn’t understand, and Austin shook his head in response. The man was insistent, however, and Austin seemed to give in with a sigh.
“I’m, uh, new to the area,” he said, turning back around to talk to Merlin. “The guys have been giving me tips on the best restaurants and other food places around here, but I haven’t really enjoyed any of the ones I’ve tried yet. Do you know of anywhere good near here? Maybe we could, ah, meet up and have a chat over a meal instead of on the phone?”
Merlin blinked at him a few times, his brain trying to process what he had said. “Yes,” he said automatically, without thinking. “I mean, uh. I’d love to meet up. And eat something. With you. At a restaurant. And I definitely know of a good restaurant around here.”
“Good,” Austin said, nodding his head up and down multiple times. “Do you, uh, remember the name of the place? I could look it up?”
“No, I don’t, actually,” he said, scratching the back of his neck. “It uh, changed the name since the last time I was there, I think. I can’t entirely remember. I’ll get back to you on that?”
“Sure, sure. No rush. How does this weekend sound?”
“This weekend sounds great,” he said breathlessly, at a loss for words.
Austin looked around suddenly before pointing his thumb over his shoulder. “I should clean up the truck so we can get out of your hair when they give the all clear.”
“Right. You—do that.”
“I’ll text you later?”
As Austin hurried away, Merlin shuffled nervously in place as he felt the eyes of the other firefighter on him. He decided it would be better to wait back with the rest of those wanting to be let back in and quickly crossed the road again. Once he did, however, he immediately pulled his mobile out and began typing furiously, desperately searching for what restaurants were nearby and trying to read through as many reviews as he could. This might become a problem for him, but, then again, running his mouth without thinking often did bring him more problems than it did solutions.
Instead of staying after school that day to study the artifacts, or even trying to study his books more at home, Merlin settled himself onto the bench he had built by the brook in his garden. With his mobile in one hand and a steaming mug of tea in the other, he continued his search for the right place to take Austin to. He hoped he could find one fast, for Austin was bound to text him soon to solidify their hastily made plans.
Luck was on his side, so it would seem, as he found a recently opened restaurant that popped up after an old one shut down. It would be almost too easy to claim he had no idea it shut down, and then they could discover the new place together. When Austin did finally text him they finalized their plans, intending to meet each other for dinner on Saturday at the place Merlin had found. When their conversation ended, Merlin had to set his things down on the bench next to him, his hands trembling on their own accord. What was this, nervousness? Why had it appeared all of a sudden?
Gwaine trotted over, seemingly sensing Merlin’s mood change, and leaned over him, nearly placing his head into Merlin’s lap. This brought him back to his senses, as he had to move his head out of the way rather quickly to avoid being speared by Gwaine’s horn. He instinctively conjured up another apple to feed to him while his other hand reached out to begin stroking his mane, slowly calming back down and regaining control over his emotions.
Still, he couldn’t keep his thoughts from straying to Austin. Their whole interaction today seemed rather strange, thinking back on it. Austin didn’t even bring up the topic of the restaurant until his coworker supposedly mentioned it—or, rather, insisted upon it. And the fact that he said he was new to the area… no. He stopped that thought before it could continue. He was not going to entertain the thought of Austin being Arthur again. He was working on separating the two in his mind, and he planned to keep it that way. He turned his focus instead on Saturday and what he would need to do to prepare, including figuring out what he would wear. Maybe he should look into what kind of restaurant the one he found was—he’d hate to over or under dress.
Chapter 6: Diner Conversations
Merlin sat at the table nervously, playing with the hem of his sleeve. After entirely too long standing at his closet he had decided to play it safe and choose a more casual look, but still something that looked nice. So, really, he chose something he might wear to work, going through his clothes in droves only to reach this simple conclusion.
He’ll admit, he did get there a little early. Like—fifteen minutes early, at least, if he remembered the time it was on his watch when he got there. But he had never been to this side of the town before, so he didn’t know what traffic would be like. He would rather be early than late anyway, but now, as he waited, his thoughts wandered off in all sorts of different directions, pieces of thoughts darting out here and there and never getting to fully finish before another one interrupted it.
He pulled back his sleeve to check his watch once more—six thirty, on the dot. Austin would be here any minute now. While the thought was a welcoming distraction, knowing he wouldn’t be alone for much longer, it brought a new wave of thoughts racing through his mind. In an attempt to focus his thoughts, he picked up and opened his menu, briefly glancing at what they had to offer while trying to subtly watch the door for his arrival.
When the door opened next Merlin quickly ducked his head, pretending to be immersed in reading what he should choose to eat. He even brought a hand up to stroke his chin, as if he was deep in thought. As soon as motion caught his eye above the menu, however, he looked up, a smile crossing his face as he sat the menu down and waved Austin over. He watched a similar smile cross Austin’s face when he noticed him, and quickly, he slid into the other side of the booth.
“Fancy meeting you here,” he said, glancing over the table and its contents. “I hope you weren’t waiting for too long?”
“No, no. I practically just got here myself,” he lied. “I was just looking over the menu to see if anything caught my eye. I often find that it can be hard to find something good when eating out, especially with the strange names they give their dishes.”
Austin arched his eyebrow and picked up his menu, opening it to a random page. “Seems normal here, at least. But I get what you mean. Sometimes, you have to really dig through the ingredients to know what you’re ordering at all.”
Merlin chuckled. “That’s if they show you the ingredients at all. I went to a really fancy restaurant for a work thing, and it really was just a guessing game. You had to hope that what they brought out was something you’d like.”
“And then they bring out like this ridiculously small amount of food for the price, right? I will never understand how those places stay in business.” He shook his head. “At least we get to try this out together, right? Then we can see if the place is worth remembering or not.”
There was a moment of silence as they both looked over the menu, their faces drawing in from polite, friendly smiles to a similar confused frown.
“I think this is an American restaurant,” Merlin said at last.
“What is chicken and waffles? Why would you put those two together?”
“Your best guess is mine. I think I’ll steer clear of that one, but… maybe I’ll start off with an appetizer. Would you like to share one with me? I think those nachos look rather intriguing.”
Once the server came over and they placed their orders there were no more menus separating them, meaning they had to fill the silence of their own accord. Merlin was at a loss for how to begin a conversation—he had no idea what would be appropriate to ask, or even what he would ask—and was thankful when Austin decided to start it.
“So, how long have you worked at the university?”
He shrugged. “A few years now. I don’t really keep track, time always finds a way of… losing itself on me. I’ll look at the calendar and it’s Monday, and next thing I know, it’s Thursday.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, I know what you mean. You’d think the slow days at work would be a good thing, as that means there aren’t as many fires or other emergencies. But, it still can drain you. Passing the time can be difficult when there’s only a few others around, but we make do. When I was first hired, we would just chat to get to know each other. We, of course, being me and the other firefighters. We’ve branched out a bit, sometimes watching a game on the telly, sometimes pulling a pack of cards out for a few low-stakes games.”
“At least you get time to get to know each other. The best we’ve got is the staff lounge and our staff meetings. Other than that, it’s rare to see one another at work unless our offices are nearby.”
“That is true. And, as the chief, I feel it’s even more important that I know everyone. If I have to boss them around, I should at least know what they’re like.”
“You said you were new around here, right? When did you move in?”
He shrugged, pulling his drink across the table to take a sip. “Like you said earlier, I don’t really keep track of time. As long as I’m leaving the office when I’m supposed to, and arriving on time, I don’t really need to know much else. If I had to guess, though, probably not more than a month or two. I moved into my flat pretty quickly too; I barely remember having to unpack.”
“Seems you got lucky.”
“I’ll agree with that,” he said, tipping the glass in Merlin’s direction. “I mean, no one will tell me directly what happened to the old chief, but I’ve heard some wild rumors.”
“Yeah. I mean, it seems most people agree he moved onto something better: maybe something offered him better hours, or better pay, or both. But some people talk about him like he just up and left, or nearly vanished from existence. If it wasn’t for the fact that they still get messages from him every once in a while, they might’ve believed that one too. A superstitious bunch, let me tell you.”
“Well, I’m sure everyone has something they believe in that might sound outlandish to others.”
“Really? What’s yours, then?”
He grimaced slightly, knowing there were several facts he could say about his own life that many would take as fiction. That many have already done, really. But he couldn’t very well just say, ‘which would you like to know first?’ So, instead, he took a drink to buy himself some time before answering. “Well—I believe the Arthurian Era really happened. That once, King Arthur did rule the lands.”
“And had a sorcerer by his side?” he said incredulously. Still, he leaned in closer with a look of interest in his eyes. “Why do you believe so?”
He waved the question off. “I don’t want to bore you with the details. This is a subject I can and have talked about for hours: afterall, I do teach a class on the subject.”
“Just give me the rundown, then. The shortened version. You can’t just leave me hanging here; I want to know why.”
With a little more convincing, and the arrival of their appetizer, Merlin relented. Between bites of food, he slowly spun his tale. Not the real one, of course, for anyone would think he was mad if he claimed to be Merlin. But he told a shortened version of what he would tell the students, or the other anthropologists and historians, or even the few reporters who asked. He couldn’t tell if he was boring Austin as he went on about Arthur and his knights, but he couldn’t find a way to stop, either. It seemed it would be all or nothing, and his brain had already chosen all for him.
When he finally finished and took a drink to quench his thirst, Austin took a few more bites of his food before saying, “I don’t know that I understand some of that—maybe most of it—but I can definitely see you’re passionate about it. I bet there are loads of people who don’t believe you, though.”
“Yeah, there aren’t many who do, unfortunately. I’m afraid they won’t accept my claims or even the bit of proof I’ve managed to dig up. I need something more solid to back my claims, and at this rate, unless we have the second coming of Arthur…” he trailed off, his throat closing on itself as he suddenly found himself unable to look Austin in the eye.
He didn’t notice, however, giving a hearty chuckle. “Now, that would be a spectacle for sure. I wonder how that would go over with the Queen? Would Arthur try and take over England again, and would she give it over willingly? How would he even prove he was the real Arthur?” His brow furrowed suddenly. “Wait, do you think people have tried to claim that before?”
Merlin pinched the bridge of his nose. “Please don’t ask how I know this but… yes. The answer to the last question is yes.”
“Okay,” he drawled after a moment’s pause. “I’ll pretend that’s not an extremely obscure fact to know about.”
He held his hands out in a shrug. “I know. I don’t know how I know half the things I do sometimes.”
“It certainly makes for an interesting conversation.”
“What about you?” he said, crossing his arms. “Anything outlandish you believe in?”
He hummed in thought, looking up at the ceiling as he took another bite of his food. “Aliens, probably. I mean, there’s been enough strange sightings in the world to warrant something is probably out there, right? Not everyone can be lying, especially the events with multiple witnesses.”
Merlin tilted his head in agreement. He had definitely seen stranger—he never wanted to face another questing beast or dragon again. “I suppose the only way you’d prove that is if one of those UFOs landed down here.”
“Yeah, and I’m sure even then people would try to disagree with it or find a way to call it a hoax.”
“If there’s anything people hate being, it’s wrong.”
The rest of the night went rather well, Merlin thought. They found it easy to talk back and forth about different topics, easily continuing their conversation around bites of food as the main courses and desserts arrived, as well as the few times their server came to check on them. By the time they had exhausted all topics of conversation Merlin could think of to talk about for now, they had finished their food a while ago, and even paid the check already. At this point, they were simply taking up space in the restaurant as they talked, which they could do anywhere.
Merlin snuck a look at his watch before saying, “I think I should get going soon. I have an early class in the morning, so I should try and head home to finish up my work and get some rest.”
“Right,” Austin said, shifting to pick his jacket up from the seat next to him. As he shrugged it on, he said, “I’ve had a blast, Marcus. Thank you for finding this place and letting me give it a try with you.”
“I thought the food could have been a little better,” he shrugged as he stood, “but maybe I’m just used to what I make for myself.”
“Oh, we’ve got a real chef here, huh? I guess I wouldn’t know how your food is, as I’ve never tried it. So, to me, this was pretty good.”
“I guess I’ll just have to show you some time.”
“Is that a promise?”
Merlin turned pale, only just realizing what he had said as he had fallen into the banter. But did he have a chance to back down from it now? “Uh. I suppose it is. Wouldn’t want you getting fat on only American foods anyway.”
“Getting fat? What gives you that idea?”
He looked down and back up with a sigh, shaking his head. “I might check your uniform pants before you put them on tomorrow. You did eat a lot of those nachos.”
“I can’t believe you. And here I was, going to offer to walk you out to your car.”
“I believe we’re both going that way anyway,” he said over Austin’s shoulder as they began to walk towards the door.
“Oh, shut it.”
Merlin couldn’t help the smirk that formed on his face as the banter ended as they passed the front, interrupted by the staff telling them to enjoy their night. After politely telling them to do the same, they walked side-by-side to the car park, where they both stopped together, searching for their cars.
“I guess this is where we part ways,” Austin said, taking another step forward. “I’m parked over there.”
“And I’m over here,” Merlin said, gesturing to the other side of the car park. “I had fun tonight. Thank you.”
He shrugged. “Just—being you, I guess.”
“Ah, yes. A clotpole.”
“Or a cabbage head,” he added with a laugh.
Austin merely rolled his eyes. “Goodnight, Marcus.”
“Goodnight. I’ll talk to you soon.”
“You better. Just the thought of a homemade meal is making me hungry again.”
“Be careful, or you may need to replace that belt of yours too.”
“Goodnight,” he repeated, more insistently, and this time, he began to walk away towards his car.
“Goodnight,” Merlin said quietly, watching his silhouette slowly shrink as he walked off into the darkness.
Chapter 7: Dinner Chaos
Merlin had arrived to class early that day—well, as early as he could, waiting for the previous class to filter out until the next person to have the room was him. He cleaned off the chalkboard, not only erasing what was left on it but wiping it down to remove all the residue left over and allowing him to start over on a fresh slate. It would make it easier to read, for what he was going to write on the chalkboard was going to be rather convoluted and confusing. But, that was why he had printout versions of it as well to hand out. Putting it on the chalkboard just made the lesson more fun.
He filled the entire board, left to right, top to bottom, with the names of every knight he could think of, especially the ones that were discovered. By the time his class started to arrive his hands were covered in chalk and he had gotten some on his clothes as well. He cleaned his hands off on the rag he cleaned the chalkboard with before dusting himself off, noticing that everyone who came in scanned over the board as they made their way to their seats and continued to read it over once they sat down. There was no doubt they knew it was a somewhat scattered list of all of the knights, as he had quizzed them on their previous knowledge at the beginning of the semester—everyone knew the name Lancelot when they came in, so to see him up on the board left little room for questions.
Because of his large chalk diagram, the chatter that usually started up in the handful of minutes before class started was minimal, meaning that once the clock did strike the hour, he was merely able to hold up his hands and the whole class went as silent as a mouse. After hefting a pile of papers into his arms, he walked over to the front row and pulled the first stack off of the top, passing it to the student sitting there. “Take two, pass them back.”
He repeated that phrase as he continued across the front until the rest of the stack was out of his hands. He approached his desk and stood behind it before facing the class, watching as the last of the papers were passed into the back of the room. “Does everyone have two?” he asked, hearing the general murmur of consensus around the room. “And are there any extras?” Asking this was only a formality—as long as everyone was there, which they were, he had already counted and separated the paper stacks so that they would be exact for each row. When no one said anything answering either question, he smiled and splayed his hands against his desk as he leaned on it.
“Alright then. As you will see, the names on the board match those of which are on your sheet. There’s a small list of items at the top; I want you to take a few minutes to determine what name you believe fits with what category. There are no right or wrong answers, this is just a fun activity, but please only use one sheet. The other is for you to write the correct answers down when we go over them together. Give it your best guess.”
He had found himself missing his friends a little more than usual lately, so he thought it was the proper time to introduce the knights and begin talking about them more often. It was like little reminders of the people they had once been, and he could almost imagine them standing there with him and chuckling along at the crazy theories the students could come up with. He let the class quietly work for a few minutes as he organized his things, bringing them back to the moment when he deemed enough time had passed. “Alright, class, let's get started.” He picked up a piece of chalk with one hand and a damp rag with the other. “Who would like to start us off in the ‘noble’ category?”
It was a fun class, seeing what everyone believed the knights to be and how he was able to change their minds with all of the facts and proof he had at his disposal. No one believed him at first that so many of the knights didn’t come of noble origin, much less some of them had once been banished from Camelot. But he had seen it with his own eyes, had heard the words ringing in his ears when knights like Gwaine and Lancelot were once banished, and then later knighted. Of course, that was hardly proof enough. He was lucky to have different books that proved his point—though, a few of them were ones he had written himself.
When he finally deposited his files onto the desk in his office after class, he sat down, put his feet up on his desk, and pulled his mobile out of his pocket to scroll through the notifications he had missed. He was surprised to find a missed call from Austin, shortly followed by a short series of texts. Opting to read the texts first and hoping they had an answer to why he had called.
Oh, shit, you’re teaching aren’t you?
Do you need me to bring anything tonight?
Merlin nearly fell out of his chair as he sat up, eyes wide. He had forgotten that Austin was supposed to come over tonight. He ran a hand through his hair as he bit his lip, trying to think of how to respond.
I think I have everything we need
If there’s something you want though, feel free to bring it
He pushed away from the desk and turned his chair to his computer, quickly writing out an email and copying in the emails of all of his current students. It told them he was sorry, but something came up and he would have to cancel his office hours for the day. He hurriedly packed his briefcase before locking his office behind him and rushing out of the building, only briefly stopping to tell Anne he had to leave for the day.
His fingers drummed on the steering wheel of his car as traffic seemed to back up only around him, delaying his return to his house even longer. He had a lot to do to prepare if Austin was going to come over, especially making sure any evidence of magic was hidden.
Gwaine wasn’t anywhere to be seen when he parked, so he opened the cottage door and dropped off his things, stripping off his jacket before heading back out. An apple appeared in his hand with a simple thought and he tossed it up and down as he walked towards the brook, hoping it would entice Gwaine over even as he searched for him.
The fairies and spirits were easy to find and talk to—they understood why he wouldn’t want Austin to know about them, and promised to keep quiet and out of sight for the night. However, he had a feeling Gwaine would live up to his namesake. As much as Merlin wanted to talk to him he could, but there was no way to know if Gwaine could understand what he was saying. So, there was a chance he would be more trouble than he was worth tonight.
“Over here,” he crooned when he finally spotted Gwaine, leading the unicorn over to the far corner of his property with the apple. As he fed it to him, he said, “Look, I need you to stay out of sight, alright? Do not come up to the cottage, especially not in the front.” To try and keep him away, he decided that just this once, he would spoil Gwaine. A whole bushel of apples appeared on the ground next to them and Gwaine neighed loudly before burying his face in them.
Chuckling, Merlin made his way back inside, putting his hands on his hips to survey the area. He had luckily already cleaned up his books, though the shelf did look a little haphazard because he had no organization for them. And maybe it could use a dusting too… He lifted his arm to let his sleeve fall down it and uncover his watch, checking the time. Yeah, it seemed under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have the time to clean and cook, unless he didn’t want to start their food until Austin arrived. However, with a quick thought and a glow of his eyes, a rag started to move on its own accord to wipe the shelf down. A broom started up in the kitchen as well, chased by a mop, and the sponge in the sink started washing the dishes leftover from yesterday.
Satisfied that the cleaning would be finished without his need to pay attention, Merlin focused his sole attention onto dinner. He started at the fridge and freezer, opening both up respectively to see what he had on hand. Really he was lucky it was stocked at all, but that was only because of the enchantment he placed on it. He made a mental note to try and not let Austin into either, for the sudden reappearance of anything he took out might cause him to second guess himself and question it.
Eventually he settled on chicken. It was easy enough to season and just toss in the oven for a while and would give him time to focus on the sides, and whether he wanted to attempt to make a treat for after as well. With a flick of his fingers, a peeler sprang from one of the drawers and started to peel potatoes, collecting the scraps in a bin so he could throw it out into the compost pile later. While that worked he seasoned the chicken, taking the peeled potatoes and dicing them up with his own hands once the chicken was in the oven. He sat two pans on the stove—one to fry the potatoes, and the other to cook some asparagus. Hopefully Austin wasn't allergic to anything…
Merlin hummed quietly to himself as he worked, dancing around the broom and mop when they came his way, and adding dishes he needed washing to the pile for the sponge. He even let a towel dry the dishes on its own accord, which would then put them away for him. He kept a close eye on the food as he prepared it, but when it was time to simply put it in the pan and occasionally stir, the tongs floated above the pans in preparation. It was at this moment when he decided he could try a simple brownie recipe, pulling the flour down from the cabinet and pulling as many eggs as he needed out of the fridge.
Because of this he wasn’t paying attention to the time, content to let his magic help him out and do the job of several people at once. When there was a loud knock on the front door, however, Merlin jumped, eyes wide. Everything that was in the air suddenly fell with a loud clatter—one of the last plates that was drying tumbled to the counter, the mop and broom tripped over each other in their hurry to crash to the floor, and the tongs hovering above the food fell into the pans.
He could almost hear the hesitation through the door before Austin called out, “Is everything okay in there?”
“Perfectly fine!” Merlin yelled as he frantically pulled the tongs from the pans, trying not to burn himself in the process. “I’ll, uh—be right with you! Just a moment!” He turned his gaze towards the cleaning supplies scattered around the place and opened the closet, muttering under his breath and watching as it all flew across the room and fell neatly back inside.
Wiping his hands on a towel, Merlin hurried to the front, tugging on the latch before opening the door with a nervous smile. “Austin! Glad you made it.”
Austin had an eyebrow raised as he looked over Merlin, clearly unsure that he was really alright. “You, uh, have a bit of…” he trailed off and pointed towards the bottom of Merlin’s shirt.
He looked down himself and saw quite a bit of flour had stuck to him. He hurriedly brushed it off before looking back up at Austin with an embarrassed chuckle. “Well, don’t just stand here. Come on in.”
The oven began to beep as Austin took his jacket off, so Merlin hurried away and back into the kitchen.
“Smells delicious,” Austin said as he followed him in, setting a bottle down on the counter. Merlin looked up at it from where he was bent over looking into the stove, and raised an eyebrow. “I know, you said I didn’t need to bring anything. But I thought it would be rude to let you provide everything for the meal, so I stopped and bought wine before I got here.”
“Thank you,” he said, and the phrase was genuine. He didn’t remember that they would need drinks before now.
“Nice place you’ve got here,” he said, looking around the room as Merlin carefully pulled the chicken out of the oven. “It seems a little… overgrown outside though, don’t you think?”
“To today’s standards, yes. But this piece of property is older than you are. I like to preserve its original state as much as I can.”
“Is that the anthropologist in you coming out? Or are you just too lazy to take care of your own garden?”
He rolled his eyes. “It's more of a sentimental thing, really. This piece of land hasn’t changed much in several hundred years, just updating the interior of the cottage to keep up with the times. It’s been in my, uh, family’s possession for a long time.”
Austin nodded in understanding. “I can’t imagine how much a place like this would cost today, or how much work the property would need before it could go on the market. But if I inherited a piece of land that was functional for my needs, I wouldn’t consider selling it either. I suppose you’re busy enough with school that you can’t do much to the garden anyway.”
“Well I do at least keep it fertilized. Don’t want anything dying on me because I don’t have a green thumb.” He gestured to the bin of potato peels. “The stench is terrible though when making your own, so I try to keep the pile far away from the walls.” Swiftly, he filled the oven once more, sliding his brownies in and mentally hoping it would come out alright. Once the oven door was closed and he had a timer set again, he clasped his hands together. “Right. Are you ready to eat?”
A smile spread across his face. “I’m starving.”
Merlin cut the chicken up and filled their plates, forcing Austin to go sit at the table and wait because there really wasn’t much he could do to help anyway. He at least tossed a corkscrew over, and by the time Merlin brought the two plates over, Arthur had already filled their wine glasses.
“A toast,” Austin said as Merlin sat down, lifting his wine glass. With a curious smile, Merlin lifted his as well. “To delicious smelling food, home cooked meals, and, hopefully, no food poisoning.”
He couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Cheers,” he chuckled, and their glasses clinked together.
They had a delightful conversation as they ate, only interrupted by the oven timer again, making Merlin hurry over to turn it off. After eating both their meal and the brownies, they leaned back in their chairs and nursed the rest of their wine as they chatted about anything and everything—how terrible traffic has been recently, how work is going for each of them, how the autumn season was beginning to grow colder, and how that would affect things.
When Merlin finished his wine, and when the last conversation dried up, he stood and started collecting dishes. Austin followed suit, rather insistent on helping him at least carry everything over.
“You know,” Merlin said as he dumped the dishes in the sink, pushing his sleeves up and grabbing the sponge, “You’re a lot different than I expected.”
“And what did you expect?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Memories of Arthur purposefully making messes flooded to his mind, or ordering him around to clean up after him, or the constant serving of food and pouring of wine while at feasts or just at a small family dinner. Merlin’s smile faltered, but he turned away before Austin could question it. “I might have to change my definition of clotpole is all.”
He chuckled. “You know, I still don’t know what that means.”
“It means a few things. Arrogant. Oblivious. An ass.”
“And what does it mean now?”
Merlin turned to him with a twinkle in his eye. “Less of an ass, but I think everything else is still there.”
Austin cuffed the back of his head, and wow, even as Merlin laughed and pushed him away, did that bring back more memories to suppress. Luckily, he didn’t have to think about it for long. As Austin turned away and started talking about something, his words were lost on Merlin as he stared in horror at the sight of Gwaine on the other side of the window. He hissed and started waving his arms, trying to gesture for Gwaine to move, but he didn’t seem to notice, content on chewing whatever was in his mouth directly in front of the window.
“Marcus, did you hear me?” Panicked, Merlin grabbed a dish towel from next to him and held it up as high as he could, blocking the window. It was then that Austin turned back around to repeat his question, stopping with his mouth open as his head tilted. “What on earth are you doing?”
“I, er, keep forgetting to check these towels,” he said, making something up that he hoped was believable. “Some of them are getting thin, so I want to know how many I need to replace.”
He moved to come behind Merlin and look at the towel as well, humming in thought. “I think you’re right.” His hand moved to point at a spot near the middle of the towel. “There’s a lot of light coming through right there.”
“Do you mind checking the others for me? Before I forget? The light over there is much better too, so I think it’d be best to do it away from the window.”
“Alright. Where are your towels?” He asked as he turned around.
“In the drawer over there,” Merlin said distractedly, pulling the towel down and silently begging Gwaine to leave.
“Next to the stove.” He had to think of something and quickly, since all Gwaine did was duck down and come back up with another mouthful of grass. He heard the sound of cabinet drawers opening and closing before one finally stayed open. There were surely only a few more seconds before Austin would turn around once more. With a quick mutter, his eyes flashed gold and the window shifted, a perfect reflection of himself staring back at him.
“What did you say?” Austin asked, and Merlin turned around and leaned against the sink.
“Oh, uh. Nothing, I said nothing.”
Austin turned to look at him. “Are you sure?” He then looked behind Merlin, eyes growing wide. “Wow, is it really that dark out now? The window looks like a mirror!”
“Yeah, funny how that looks,” Merlin answered tersely.
“It must be late, then. Sorry, I should get out of your hair.”
“No!” Merlin said, reaching out for him. After realizing what he had done, Merlin moved his hand and started rubbing the back of his neck, looking away. “What I mean is, you don’t have to leave for my sake. I’ve finished everything I needed to do today.”
With a raised eyebrow, Austin nodded. “Either way, I have an early shift tomorrow. So I should head home. For my own sake.”
“It’s not far, is it?” Merlin asked. “You’ve had a bit to drink tonight. I have the room if you… if you wanted to stay?”
He shook his head. “It’s just a small flat on the outskirts of town, nothing special. Certainly nothing as grand as this, but I have things I need at home anyway for tomorrow’s shift.” After a pause he added, “I appreciate the offer, though.”
“Of course,” Merlin said with a quick nod. “You remember the way out?”
“I think I can find my way to your front door, if that’s what you mean,” he said with a chuckle. “Thanks for dinner; I enjoyed it. I hope we can do it again sometime?”
“Yeah. I’d like that.” Merlin watched Austin leave with a sigh, feeling his stomach twisting into knots.
He was screwed.
Chapter 8: Taking A Break
The buzz surrounding Excalibur’s finding had simmered a little bit, but there were still plenty of people interested in it. Some pulled Merlin away from his work to talk to him about it, whether over the phone, in an email, or even with a visit to the exhibit. It was to be expected, really—it was proof that the supposed myth surrounding Arthur existed far longer than anyone had previously imagined. Many say it’s a replica, some say it could be the real deal, and none know how much Merlin would rather everyone move on with their lives. The sword was literally the least important thing anyone could have remembered about Arthur. Merlin himself had shoved the sword into the stone using magic, and had used it once more to help Arthur free the sword. He had even made up the prophecy around it, but, considering how many witnesses there were, and how the people liked to eat up things like that…
Either way, Merlin was growing tired of getting pulled away from his work to talk about the sword. He had no new information for any of them—nothing that had proof, at least. Sure, he could say the sword was made by Guinevere’s father, and that it was then enchanted with the great dragon’s breath, that it could even kill the dead—he had been there for all of it after all, and had his hand in most of it. But without proof, anyone would dismiss him as mad, and even try to discredit all of his hard work if he admitted to being there. So, instead, he repeated the same old information over and over again, all while slowly falling behind on his work.
I hate to do this, but I’m going to have to cancel our plans for tonight.
Merlin sent the text off to Austin and let his mobile drop onto the desk, pushing away and checking his email once more. His office hours were almost over, so if he could just get through them without another visitor, then he could shut the door and double down on his grading. He refused to go to another Arthurian Era class without their latest assignment, a paper on the knight of their choosing, graded. When his mobile vibrated against the wood, he rolled back across the floor and picked it up to read it.
Getting cold feet already?
I really am sorry
Need to catch up on work
I understand completely. Just don’t overwork yourself.
I’d hate to come to campus cause you had a heart attack
I’d hate for you to be the one that comes
You’re not a medic after all
Do you know anything about medicine?
I can keep someone stabilized until medics arrive
Oh, that makes me feel so much better 🙄
After canceling his plans and finally reaching the end of his office hours, Merlin stood and crossed the room to his office door, where he pushed it closed. With a moment’s pause he decided to lock it too for good measure: anyone who might come by would simply think he forgot to turn his lights off.
Back at his computer, he closed his email so he wouldn’t even hear the notification ring out if he got another. He then opened his class folder and began pulling up essays, keeping track of what knight they were on as they opened.
Lancelot. Lancelot. Gwaine. Lancelot. Leon. Lancelot. Gwaine. Percival. Lancelot. Elyan. Lancelot.
He rubbed at his eyes as he sighed, knowing he brought this upon himself. Without specifically assigning people to the knights, there was bound to be an imbalance. For most people, they would pick the easiest knight to write, the one that had the most information, or at least the easiest information to find. For most people, that would be Lancelot.
It wasn’t like the essays were long, and he was sure they wouldn’t be bad to read, either. He just silently wished he could give everyone marks at random—not all perfects, to make it seem fair, but still high enough to keep everyone satisfied. Instead, he had to read each one and carefully decide his thoughts on it, all painful reminders of those friends he had failed, of the friends he had lost. Lancelot especially hurt, seeing how he sacrificed himself to save both Merlin and Arthur and then was later used by Morgana, and with so many of them to read through…
He took a few minutes to organize his files to procrastinate a little longer, putting them in an order that would let him not read about the same knight too many times in a row to stave off boredom. With another click, he put on a soft background track to fill the silence before finally beginning to read the first one.
After a few hours, and as the sky darkened outside his office windows, he was interrupted by his mobile vibrating again. It was more insistent this time, however, not going off once for a message but continuing to buzz as a call came through. He moved his mouse over the essay to mark his place before picking his mobile up, sliding his thumb over the green accept call button without bothering to look at who it was.
“Hello, this is Marcus Hermite, is there something I can help you with?”
There was silence on the other end, long enough that Merlin thought they already hung up or had otherwise butt-dialed him. Right before he moved the device from his face, however, someone finally answered.
“Do you always answer your phone calls with a customer service voice like that?”
He pinched the bridge of his nose as he held in a sigh. “Sorry, Austin, I was distracted and didn’t look at who was calling. I’m so used to answering interview calls when I’m in my office that I just went on autopilot.”
“Right. Do you have a moment?”
He glanced back towards the essay he was working on before saying, “I suppose I do. Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine. Just—suppose someone was looking for your office. Where would you tell them it is?”
He blinked several times, trying to process what he just said.
“Are you on campus right now?”
“What the hell are you doing here?” Finally pushing away from his desk, his joints creaked as he stood up and walked back to the door, unlocking it and throwing it open. He looked up and down the hall but found no one else was there—not even any of his coworkers in their offices, all shut and locked. What time was it?
“Hey, I asked you a question first.”
Merlin couldn’t hold back the sigh this time, sagging against the doorframe. “I’m on the second floor, take the first set of stairs you run into when you enter the front door and take your second left.”
“Wonderful. Now, what would you say to someone who has already entered the building and doesn’t remember where the front door is?”
Merlin opened his mouth to respond but no words came out. He closed it to stop gaping like a fish, took a moment to collect his thoughts, and began, “Okay, cabbage head. How about you describe to me where you are and we’ll go from there?”
After several harrowing minutes complete with vague descriptions from Austin and overly complicated directions from Merlin, Austin finally turned into the end of the hall. A smile lit up his face when he spotted an exasperated Merlin standing in the doorway of his office.
“I found you!” he said with his mobile still up to his face, words echoing as Merlin’s mobile also picked them up.
Merlin hung up quickly and muttered, “It’s a miracle you can find anything.”
Once he put his mobile away and reached Merlin, Austin held up a plastic bag. “I know you canceled our plans for the night, but… I wanted to make sure you were still taking care of yourself and eating. So, I grabbed some takeaway for the both of us.”
“And then proceeded to get lost in the building. I don’t even know that you’re supposed to be here, really.”
He waved it aside and pushed past Merlin into the office. “Come on, no one’s going to care. It’s not like we’re students sneaking in; you are an employee here. And if anyone does ask, you could always say you invited me in.”
“So now you want me to lie for you?”
He shrugged before nodding. “Yeah, pretty much.” He put the bag down on Merlin’s desk and started pulling styrofoam boxes out of it, quickly making himself at home.
Merlin sighed and closed the door behind him once more, knowing that no one would care and that the building was open anyways until rather late into the night. As long as they were out before it was locked, there was no harm done.
“So,” Austin began with a mouthful of food, already digging into his meal, “What are you working on?”
“Grading essays on the knights of Camelot,” Merlin said, pulling the box labeled with his name towards him.
“Oh, right. People like Lancelot and…” his face contorted as he thought. “And… yeah, I’ve got nothing.”
Merlin snorted. “Do you know anything about the Arthurian Era?”
“Sure I do!” he said, but the panicked look in his eyes said otherwise. “I know the basics; it’s all any of us regular folk need to know anyway. King Arthur and… Guinevere and Lancelot, and that weird sword somehow trapped in a stone.”
“Oh yes, a perfect summary,” he said before digging into his food.
“Cut me a break! That’s not a normal school lesson afterall, so it’s not like I learned it in class. Everything I know is from… is from…” he furrowed his brow. “You know, I can’t actually remember where I know it from.”
There was a moment of silence as his words settled into the room, the only other sound the fans of Merlin’s computer running and the occasional scrape of their plastic utensils against the styrofoam.
Austin swallowed and asked, “Was Gwaine one of the knights?”
Merlin nodded, polite enough not to talk with his mouth full.
“Would you say he was annoying?”
“Yes, many of the others would have described him as such.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know how I know that name.”
Merlin brushed it off with a chuckle. “I mean, you might have just read it around here, most of what I have open and out at the moment has to do with the knights. That, or... well there’s this stray—dog that I see often in my garden. I give him food when I see him, and he just keeps coming back for more. I named him Gwaine.”
Austin nodded, seemingly satisfied with the explanation. “Yeah, you’re a total nerd aren’t you.”
He squawked indignantly before coughing, his food lodging in his throat for a second. After he regained his breath, his hand held up so that Austin didn’t try to jump the desk and give him CPR, he said, “You know, I really hate you.”
“No you don’t. I brought you food! You can’t hate someone who brings you food.”
“Oh I can still try.”
“Well, I stand by my word. You’re a nerd, and just about everything in this office proves it.”
He snorted. “What, the replica shield and the objects that literally no one knows what they were used for? The biggest theory just being for decoration? If you really wanted to see a nerd room, you’d visit the exhibit downstairs.”
“Last I checked, that place is still yours. Which means, not only are you still a major nerd, but you said so yourself.” There was a pause as Austin took another bite of his food and Merlin rolled his eyes. “Besides, last time I checked, I’m not a student here, or faculty, and it is after hours…”
“You are never going to let that go, are you?”
He shrugged. “Maybe eventually, but right now? No. No I am not.”
“You're a pain in my ass. Fine. The exhibit is mine, and I’m allowed to access it whenever I want, and with whomever I want. Security doesn’t pay attention to the cameras anyway unless they have reason to.”
He chewed methodically, seemingly in thought. After swallowing he said, “Well, why the hell not. When we’re finished here, you can take me down to your nerd room and give me the tour. You get a break from grading papers and staring at the computer while also getting to stretch your legs, while I get—” he made a vague gesture around the room “—to understand all of this a little more.”
Merlin smirked. “Are you sure your brain would be able to handle that? I know they often say brains are like sponges, always absorbing knowledge and information, but I think yours is almost out of room for that.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m saying you’re thick headed, Austin—and you asking me that only proves my point.”
“I can at least appreciate what things look like,” he said, exasperated. “Besides, I know this is something you are very interested in, and I do want to learn more so I can try to start understanding you when you talk about this stuff.”
Merlin looked back at his computer screen once more, a bright colorful logo now bouncing around the screen. He had already been away long enough that the screensaver activated—but, maybe Austin was right. Cooping himself up in his office all day like this wasn’t good. “Fine. I’ll give you the shortened, easier to understand tour of downstairs. But only once you’re finished eating. I don’t trust that sauce near some of the display pieces.”
“Fair enough. I wouldn’t want to eat this while walking around anyway.”
Once they were done eating and their rubbish was disposed of, Merlin quietly led Austin back downstairs, the jingle of his keys the only noise in the hall as he searched for the right one.
“We’re going in through the backroom,” he said as they approached the glass walls of the exhibit, the interior dark. “The front doors are locked after a certain time of day, and if we open them again now, there’s always a chance someone else will just waltz right on in with us.”
“So they have to stick to the exhibit’s hours. Am I the only exception to this?”
“No, there are some nights I’ll do special tours, or we have small gatherings when I reveal something new. It definitely pays to know the owner though,” he said with a wink.
Merlin led Austin through the backroom once he had the door opened, passing various pieces either partially or fully covered by sheets to protect them from dust. The more dangerous artifacts were kept back here, things he knew had magical properties and could cause serious damage in the wrong hands. It was best that only a few people knew he even had them there to begin with. Once they made it into the main exhibit, Merlin turned one of the light switches back on. With only a quick tour planned there was no need for all of them to be on as long as the exhibits could be seen.
“Wow,” Austin said, stopping in front of the closest thing to the door—a large, shining suit of armor on a stand. “People really used to wear this much metal around?”
“Well, not really.”
“Right, because most of the common folk couldn’t even be knights back then.”
“That’s not the reason I was thinking of, actually,” he chuckled. “This is a suit of armor, and something like this was only ever worn in extreme circumstances, like war. Under the suit of armor there’s even more things—chainmail, and under that, a kind of leather padding to keep the metal from touching the skin. The chainmail and leather were worn by the knights more often in a typical day to day scenario.”
“Right. I suppose that’s why this armor is still in such a good condition?”
“It could be. But honestly, you don’t know how much work was put into this to restore it.”
“More work than the shield, it seems,” he said, gesturing to the shield hanging on the wall next to it. It was battered and worn, but the gold dragon sitting on top of the dark black background was still very prominent.
“That one was done on purpose, actually. We removed dirt and rust to clean it up, but chances are unless there was a reason for everyone to be all decorated, you wouldn’t find a perfect shield. They were used so often and would get banged up rather quickly in a fight, so I thought if we restored it completely, removing all of the dents instead of some and then repainting it, it would just look fake.”
“What’s up with the dragon on it? You can’t expect me to believe dragons actually existed back then.”
“There are rumors that they did exist, actually,” Merlin said, crossing his arms, “but that’s a topic that’s better left alone for now. The dragon on this shield is actually the crest of the Pendragons, meaning this was likely to be used by a knight of Camelot.”
He whistled loudly. “It’s amazing what a hunk of hammered and painted metal can tell us, huh?”
They continued around the exhibit, Austin all but ignoring some of the documents on display, not finding them interesting in the slightest. He focused on the larger displays, asking questions and listening raptly for Merlin’s answer. This, of course, led them over to the recent addition of Excalibur, proudly labeled as ‘the sword in the stone ancient replica.’
“Is that really Excalibur?”
“Can’t you read?” Merlin answered, gesturing to the sign.
“I know what the sign says, I just want to hear it from you.”
“What, you think I’m lying in my own exhibit?”
He rolled his eyes. “Come on, I just want to hear what you think, not what all the— historians, anthropologists, archeologists, whatever—agree on.”
“Alright. I still say that no, it’s not. The records say that Arthur pulled the sword from the stone afterall. Why would it be back in the stone, and why could none of us pull it out? If it was already pulled out once, it shouldn’t really be stuck again.”
There was a moment of silence as Austin pursed his lips, clearly in thought. “Well, what if the legends are wrong? What if Arthur never pulled the sword out, so they hid it from everyone?”
“Now you’re thinking like a true historian.”
He smiled. “So you like my theory?”
“No, it’s absolute rubbish. Not only does it contradict everything we currently know, but it directly contradicts all of my contributions to the field.”
“I take it you’re not really friendly with any other historians or—you know. Cause if this is how you react to someone opposing your theories…”
Merlin kept his cool, taking a deep breath to keep himself from completely info-dumping onto Austin. There were several reasons he wouldn’t and couldn’t, the biggest being he wasn’t sure he could keep himself from remembering to phrase it like he wasn’t there. He diverted the sudden attention on him to his watch, pushing his sleeve up to uncover it. Luckily, it gave him the perfect opportunity to change the subject.
“We should head back up. I want to at least finish this paper before I have to leave for the night.”
He nodded. “Of course.” Turning around and searching the room he said, “It’s this way, yes?” and started walking before Merlin could answer.
Merlin sighed and followed behind him, slowing down as something in one of the cases caught his eye. In the dim light, the document there didn’t look the same. Something seemed… off about it. He tried to remember what it usually looked like, but even he had to admit there was nothing really remarkable or memorable about how it usually looked, so he came up short.
“You know, there was something else I wanted to ask you,” Austin said, turning to look at Merlin only to find him still back by the sword. “Is everything alright?”
“Yeah,” he said, moving away from the document and making a mental note to look at it closer when he was alone and had more time. After hurrying to catch up and continuing their walk to the door, he said, “What did you want to talk about?”
Austin rubbed the back of his neck as they walked side by side. “Well, the station has a birthday coming up, so we’ve been planning a barbeque. A bunch of the guys are inviting their families to come along too, and… well, as chief, it might seem strange if I’m the only one there alone.”
“Are you asking me if I want to come?”
“Er… yes? Only if you want to, of course. There is no pressure whatsoever, and I understand if you have other priorities, especially because I can imagine all of this grading takes ages to do—”
Merlin cut him off with a gentle touch on his arm, drawing Austin’s attention towards his bright smile that marked the teetering edge of a laugh. “I’d be happy to come. Just send me the date and time, and I’ll be sure I mark it on my calendar.”
He beamed. “Yes, er, I can do that. In fact, if you don’t hear that information from me at some point tonight, feel free to badger me for it until I give it to you. It probably means I got sidetracked or just simply… forgot I was supposed to send it to you. Oh, and you don’t have to, but I know a lot of people like to bring some kind of food along for these kinds of gatherings.”
“I could make those brownies again?”
“If you want! I mean, those were delicious, but if you don’t have the time, we’re not picky. Store-bought works perfectly fine too.”
“I’ll see what I can manage. Now, think you know your way upstairs this time?”
Chapter 9: A New Discovery
Merlin let himself in the building early the next morning. It was early enough that the doors weren’t even unlocked yet for the students—he had to use his ID badge to get in. But he couldn’t get that document off of his mind since he had seen it. And, with all of his classes to teach and grading that still needed to be done, there really wasn’t another time he’d have a chance to look at it for a while.
When he entered the exhibit he opened the front door so that people could begin to filter in once the building was open. After that he turned all the lights back on and then made his way over to the corner where the display case was. The document was still just a piece of bright paper on a dark background under a thick sheet of glass.
It was strange. Last night, he could have sworn something was different about it. Now it looked normal—whatever had caused him to stop and look closer seemed to disappear. He unlocked the case anyway and then pulled on a pair of gloves, picking the paper out and carrying it with him into the back. There was always the chance that the paper was enchanted with something, so it was best to give it another once over.
The lights were still off in the back when Merlin entered, so he flipped one of the switches on, something drawing his attention before he could finish. In this new lighting, the document seemed to have changed again, looking similar to what drew his eye the night before. He held it in front of him and tried to study it from different angles, watching as a barely visible pattern seemed to glitter across the surface.
All at once, a sudden lightbulb went off in Merlin’s head. He left only one light on and hurried to a table, dropping the paper off before turning around again and flipping the light off once more. He realized it was a mistake as the room was quickly bathed in darkness, the only light the blazing red of the exit sign in the far corner. One wrong step now and he could end up tripping on something and toppling everything over.
He pulled one of his gloves off and whispered into his palm, a harmless flame quickly flickering to life and dancing across his fingers. If he was right, this was what he needed as his light source anyway. He willed the flames to lick higher until he could see the shapes of the objects around him and carefully picked his way back to the table.
“Well, shit!” he said with a laugh as the flickering firelight lit up the paper. A hidden image twinkled on the page, the fire hitting the ink at the right angle to not only make it visible but to let it stand out above the writing that was seen in any other light, clearly a ruse to throw people off. After the initial shock wore off he looked closer to try and figure out what the image was and quickly realized it was a map. He knocked his stool over in his hurry to find a blank piece of paper he could transpose the map onto, briefly wondering what it was and what his next steps were to deciphering it.
He was distracted during his next class, but if any of the students could tell they didn’t mention it. It was a good thing, too, because he wasn’t sure how he could explain it to them properly. Even though the class was only an hour long, as it always was, he couldn’t help but keep glancing over at the clock, waiting for the moment he could run back to his office for his office hours and get some more time to study the map. There was clearly something marked on it, something Morgana or Morgause must have wanted. It could be a dud, and there isn’t anything there anymore. Or, they may not have ever found what they were looking for, leading to a huge discovery for Merlin.
When the hour was up he didn’t waste any time in packing up and heading out of the room, for once leaving while there were still some lingering students. If they needed to talk to him, though, he figured they could send him an email or come visit him during his office hours. Right now, his top priority was studying the map and trying to contact someone who could help.
After a few minutes in his office his desk phone began to ring. It startled him but he hurried to drop what he was doing and answer it.
“Hello, this is Marcus Hermite, is there something I can help you with?”
“Marcus!” the other person greeted, his voice tinny through the phone but unmistakably David’s. “It was so good to get that message from you. You said you had something you wanted to talk about?”
“Yes,” he said, shifting in his chair as he suddenly found it rather hard to sit still. “I was studying one of those documents you sent over with the sword, and I think I just found something.”
“Oh? Like what?”
“It’s—so hard to describe. I took a video and I’ll see if I can send it to you in an email. Whatever was written on it for us to see in plain light was a ruse. If anyone other than the person the paper was intended for were to find it, they would completely disregard it. But at night, they would have used fire to light their rooms—braziers, candles, that sort of thing—and the paper just danced under the light of the flames. When the only light I had was a fire, there was a hidden image hiding under the message, one I’ve managed to transcribe instead of trying to study the original as it seemed to move across the page.”
“A hidden image! Who would have thought? Maybe this was their kind of magic? I’d love to hear more on how you discovered that, but I think there are more important matters on hand. What is the image?”
“Well, I can’t say for certain. That’s why I was hoping you would look at it if I send the images over. However… I think it’s a map of sorts.”
“Do you know where it might lead?”
“Er, no. There’s no words on it, at least nothing I recognize as words. But whatever it is, if we could find it—”
“It could be the greatest discovery of this century! We could have the next King Tut on our hands! Please, Marcus, send everything over as soon as you can. I’ll start referencing the map with anything I have, and we can see about finding a place to start digging and getting the proper permits to do so.”
“I was hoping you’d say that,” he smiled, resting the phone between his cheek and shoulder as his hands found their way to the computer keyboard. “Keep an eye out and they should be over in the next few minutes. And keep me updated on your findings!”
“Of course! You’re essential to this find, Marcus; I wouldn’t dream of keeping you out of the loop!”
After the phone call, a smile fell across Merlin’s face. He made sure every file he had was attached to the email before sending it off to David, glad to have another pair of eyes on it. Sooner or later, one or both of them would be able to decode it, and from there… his smile faltered slightly as he remembered there could be anything waiting for them there. He knew first hand that many great treasures lay behind layers and layers of traps, and if this one was truly never found before, they wouldn’t be activated.
Oh well. Counterspells was just another thing to add to the list of preparations.
Chapter 10: Fighting Off Nerves
Merlin stood just outside of his car, balancing a tray of brownies in one hand while fumbling his keys around in the other, trying to lock the door. He found himself glancing up the street every few seconds, staring at the various red vehicles that were pulled out of the garage to make room for extra chairs and tables. Laughter joined the scent of cooking food as the breeze drifted it down the street.
He doesn’t remember being this nervous before.
Sure, he was an all-powerful sorcerer who could do practically anything he wanted with a thought, but he also tripped and fell that morning making the brownies and splattered eggs all over the kitchen. He fended off assination attempts and saved Arthur’s life countless times back in the days of Camelot, and yet his hands trembled at the thought of a simple lunch gathering. He was human after all, even if he was immortal, and no human was ever perfect.
Maybe he really had spent too much time alone if the thought of sitting and socializing with all of those people made him think about turning back around and leaving. He had never felt that way in Camelot, even when he was still learning the names of all of the knights. Or, maybe, he just never had many friends to begin with and never really understood how to socialize. Either way, the only thing that let him take that first step forward instead of back is that he didn’t want to disappoint Austin.
He took a deep breath before turning the corner into the garage, trying to ignore the nearby eyes that all turned towards him. At least he had brought the tray of food—it looked more reasonable for him to be there among all of these strangers with it. Tightly gripping the tray, he scanned the room as quickly as he could, looking for anything to do other than awkwardly stand around. Though he found a table of food, he wasn’t quite sure if the brownies would go there or if there was a special spot reserved for everything that would be more of a snack than a part of the main meal. Finally he managed to spot Austin, who seemed deep in conversation with someone else on the other side of the room.
After only a few more steps Austin caught sight of him too, turning to look at him with a smile. It was rather infectious too, as Merlin found himself smiling shortly after despite all of his nerves.
“Marcus!” Austin greeted as they approached one another; the other person Austin was talking to had moved on to someone else. “I’m glad to see you made it.”
“It’s good to get out and do something other than grading at this point in the semester. All of these end of term exams are exhausting on both the students and the faculty.”
“I can imagine.” He looked down at the tray of brownies in Merlin’s hands. “Oh, those look delicious. Want me to take them for you?”
“What, and let you eat them all right now, without anyone else getting to try them?” he teased, even going as far as to move the tray out of his reach. “Why don’t we walk over together?”
“Alright. Come on then.”
They turned together and started towards the rest of the food.
“Oh, Marcus, do those have nuts in them?”
“Er…” he said, looking down at them and trying to think if there was any possibility he used them.
“Only asking because one of the kids has an allergy is all. Want to make sure they’re properly marked if they need to be.”
“I don’t recall using anything with nuts, I’ll put it that way,” he said, frowning. “I really don’t think any of the ingredients I used would be contaminated.”
“Wonderful. Glad to see I don’t have to try and make a sign that will last when everyone comes to raid the tables.” He pointed to a cooler at the other end of the table. “Drinks are in there for you to help yourself—well, non-alcoholic drinks anyway, can’t keep alcohol in reach of the children. We do have a few… adult beverages in the fridge in the kitchen, so if you want one, just ask one of us to help you out there.”
He nodded, unsure of how to answer. It was all so much more than he had expected—children running around the tables and weaving in and out of people and finding ways to amuse themselves, different tables with varying occupants all talking as if they were the best of friends—he felt like an outsider, and the only person here he knew was Austin. A bubbling fear crept up on him—maybe coming wasn’t such a good idea after all.
When he turned back to Austin to say something, his words died on his tongue, forgotten, as he saw someone had approached them without Merlin noticing and had taken Austin’s attention away. He nodded once to himself and pulled a drink out of the cooler before finding a gratefully empty table to sulk at. While alone, he surveyed the gathering once more, suddenly finding it difficult to not compare it to the many feasts he had been to at Arthur’s side. He had never once been in the middle of one, allowed to sit down and enjoy the festivities, because he was always a servant, only there to get more food and refill cups when they had run dry. Here, however, there wasn’t one person stuck with that job—he watched as some of the firefighters traded spots off over the grill, almost like taking turns cooking. Everyone else milled about doing what they wanted—talking, looking at the food, eating the crisps sitting in a different plastic bowl at each table—no one was above or below anyone else here.
For the second time that day, he realized just how alone he had been for all of those centuries in the cottage.
“Alone, are we?”
Merlin jumped, startled by the sudden voice behind him as he was lost in his thoughts. Austin chuckled as he sat down next to him.
He nodded, glancing over at Austin. “Not really sure how to… mingle.”
“I know what you mean. That’s why I’m glad you’re here, really—so I’m not the only person who’s out of the loop.”
“I’d argue I’m worse off than you. At least you have your coworkers.”
“Yeah, but I’ve still only known them for a few months now. This is the first time I’m meeting most of their families, too. It’s all a little overwhelming. But at least I have you here to keep me from drowning.”
He frowned, his brow furrowing. “Austin, we’ve only known each other for a few months too.”
There was a pause as his words sunk in, their meaning taking a while to take any effect.
“Huh. You’re right, Marcus, of course, but… I don’t know. It seems like we’ve known each other for much longer than that. To me, at least. Don’t want to put words in your mouth.”
“No, I think I agree. Almost like it’s been…” he trailed off and whispered quietly, “centuries.” He turned his attention to a crying kid and consoling mother to try and keep his thoughts from wandering any farther down that road to Arthur again, the road he thought he had walled off but apparently forgot the mortar for.
Austin seemed unaware of his inner turmoil, giving a hearty chuckle at Merlin’s words and even slapping him on the back for it. “No matter how long we have known each other, or feel like we’ve known each other, I’d still consider you my closest friend. Maybe my only friend. I’d be willing to bet that you know more about me than most if not all of the other guys here.”
“Sounds pretty lame. Especially coming from a guy like you.”
“A guy like me? What’s that supposed to mean?”
He looked over at Austin, unamused. “Isn’t it obvious? Your only friend is a university professor with no social life to speak of. Plus, it seems like you’re a pretty popular guy. I don’t see how someone like you doesn’t have more friends. Surely someone else from your childhood is still around. Or your family? Why did you invite me over them?”
“Well…” he trailed off, looking down into his drink. “No. There isn’t anyone else. Coming here was a fresh start for me, but… alright. I’ll admit, I have this condition the doctors diagnosed me with not long before I took the job here, before we met. Amnesia. They suppose I had too many concussions in my childhood, and it’s left me with very little of my past other than vague feelings. As for my family… well, when I woke up in the hospital, no one was there to see me, and no one ever did. And the doctors never did find anyone to contact. So, if they are out there, I don’t think they care.”
Merlin was quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry to hear that, Austin. I really don’t know what else to say.”
He waved it off. “I’m learning to deal with it. It’s probably why I’ve found it hard to really connect with any of the guys here, because I’m afraid something could happen and suddenly I forget everything again. But with you… it’s hard to explain. There’s just something about you that feels different, like you’re someone I met before, or just someone I could never forget no matter the circumstances.”
A long moment of silence followed as Merlin struggled to find any way to answer that. He felt the same way—it was impossibly easy to talk to Austin, and this really was his first genuine connection in centuries. But he had no idea how to voice that, or if voicing it would only show how much of a problem it was. Merlin was harboring a few secrets after all, and they weren’t the kind of thing someone could hide for forever: especially not from friends.
When he opened his mouth to try and manage some kind of response, he was immediately cut off by a loud, piercing alarm cutting through the air. Children hurried to cover their ears, and mothers covered the ears of those who were too young. As they did that, the firefighters all immediately stood up and rushed to the far wall, where equipment was hanging from large, sturdy metal hooks.
Everyone rushed out of their way and watched as they quickly pulled on thick, fire-resistant trousers and jackets, along with their masked helmets and a few oxygen tanks. They all did it systematically, each individual putting it on in the same fashion before rushing over to the vehicles. Merlin watched them do it, mesmerized, amazed at how much it reminded him of the knights strapping on their armor right before a battle, or when they were unprepared and an alarm bell just started going off.
The alarm ended before the men had left, which meant there was a brief pause before the vehicle sirens started up along with the bright, flashing emergency lights. They pulled out at top speeds, and it wasn’t long before the sound faded off into the distance. Without the firefighters there, the place seemed strangely quiet. Sure, some of the kids had recovered and were running around again, yelling and shrieking in harmony with one another, but the constant murmur of multiple conversations happening around the room had all but ceased. The cooking of the food had been passed off so that it wouldn’t burn, and several people still talked to one another, but the ones that really knew each other, the firefighters, were all gone. It made a chill travel down Merlin’s spine as he suddenly missed the presence of the sound.
Merlin sat at the table until he finished his drink, which was only a few minutes into their absence. He picked up the empty bottle and disposed of it as he searched for another drink, wondering what his phone battery charge was at and if it could entertain him until Austin returned.
“So, how do you know the Chief?”
He turned around, startled, finding one of the nearby groups of people all turned towards him expectantly. It wasn’t clear who had asked him, but it was certainly one of them. He gulped and shut the cooler before walking a little closer to them and awkwardly standing by. “We, uh, met at the grocery store a few months ago. It was an accidental run in; he dropped his keys and I returned them along with my phone number. I’d say we’ve been close friends ever since.”
“You two do seem pretty close,” one of the women chuckled. “I don’t know much about Austin, but you seem like the perfect fit for each other.”
“We were all surprised when the last chief left,” another woman began, “but, between all of us, I think Austin has them working together a lot better than they ever had before.” She patted the chair next to her. “Come, have a seat. Anyone who’s a close friend or family member of any of the guys are friends of ours. Sometimes we just need that extra support, you know?”
Silence fell as he crossed the circle and gingerly sat on the offered chair, practically hanging off the end of it. After settling down he tilted his head, frowning at what she had said. “I’m afraid I don’t know. Not really.”
“I guess you are new to this, so it makes sense. Being a firefighter isn’t always an easy job. These guys, most of them our husbands, are out there risking their lives to save others. It’s a risk every time they put on that uniform, one that could mean we won’t ever see them again. A fire could grow out of control and engulf them, an explosion could happen, a building could collapse… I imagine it’s easier than being a wife to people in some other, more dangerous professions, but sometimes it can still be tough.”
“I… never thought about that, really.” He thought back to all the times he watched Arthur suit up in his armor, afraid that something bad may happen that he couldn’t do anything about. “But now that you’ve said it, I think I know what you mean. Sometimes, you have to let someone go without ever knowing if they’ll return, and sometimes, the prospect of that is just… terrifying.”
The other woman sitting next to him, this one holding and comforting a toddler, nodded sympathetically. “This one gets that feeling all the time. If he knows his daddy is out on the trucks, if he hears the sirens and daddy isn’t home, he gets like this until I get a text saying he’s alright. He worries about his daddy every time he goes out there, and I feel terrible because I don’t know what else to do other than sit and hold him.”
Merlin looked at the young boy, who had turned his head to look back at Merlin though he was still pressed against his mother’s chest. He hardly gave it thought before he said, “Do you mind if I give it a try?”
She smiled. “If you can think of something, go for it.”
“What’s your name?” he said, leaning over to try and be more level with the boy.
“Timmy,” he said quietly.
“Well, Timmy… Do you like heroes? Would you like to hear a story?”
He nodded, pulling himself away from his mother a bit so he could properly listen to the story.
Merlin pushed himself further into the chair, properly sitting on it and using his repositioning as a short break to wrack his brain for something to tell him, finally settling on one of Arthur’s many monster fights. “There once was a knight who was confident in his skills as a fighter. He could dispatch any opponent with a flash of his sword, and fell any beast with the throw of a spear. The people of the land loved him, always asking for his help when something bad happened. And yet, he would never have managed as many feats as he did without his friends, other knights—and servants—that were always by his side.”
Timmy seemed engaged in the story, pulling further away from his mother and no longer needing her hands to rub soothing circles into his back as he watched and listened with impossibly wide eyes.
“One day, a fierce dragon started to destroy the city the knight lived in. He and his men tried everything they could to fight this dragon off and protect the people, but it seemed that nothing they tried worked…”
Chapter 11: Summer Holiday
Lily asked me to tell you that you should write children’s books
That’s Timmy’s mom. What did you do while we were gone at the barbeque?
She’s bought a ton of stories to read to him when his dad’s at work
She said you’ve changed her life
I think she’s being a little dramatic.
Honestly, all I did was tell him a story to distract him
She didn’t believe me when I said you were a college professor
Said you should be working in child care
I had to pull up an article with you in it to convince her
I am honestly terrible with kids. If I had held him he would’ve cried
I’m just… good at my job, I guess
Good at your job?
I told him a story with King Arthur. In terms he could understand, of course.
Right. Because why would I think you’re anything other than a huge nerd?
Speaking of nerd things
I’m about to head out
Try not to let the town burn while I’m gone?
Haha. That is my job
Merlin tucked his mobile into his pocket and locked the cottage door behind him, only then remembering he wanted to double check that he had everything he needed. He opened his suitcase on the bonnet of the car and looked through its contents—several days worth of clothes all folded neatly, as well as the copies of both the document and its hidden map that David had requested. Hopefully they would be in and out of this one—he had maybe a month to go before the next semester of classes began, and he still had things to prepare. At least this had happened over the summer months. If they had deciphered that map any later, they might not have gotten the proper paperwork verified to begin the dig until the next semester started, and the ground would be far too hard to dig into in the winter.
It was a shorter drive than last time, as this one was still in England. Still, the traffic he encountered could have almost made up for that, his fingers impatiently drumming on the steering wheel more often than he would like to admit. Once he broke free of the cities, however, it was smooth sailing out in the countryside, passing by farms and through small towns before finally pulling his car alongside the others already parked at the site, their occupants waiting for him off to the side.
Marcus!” David greeted when Merlin stepped out of his car, hurrying over to meet him. “I’m glad to see you arrived, and just in time, too. I didn’t want to start explaining things to the others without you. Did you bring the copies of everything?”
“They’re all right here,” he said as he pulled out his bag. “How does the site look?”
“Very promising. There’s multiple places that have an increased vegetation growth compared to the rest of the land, indicating that something below is trapping water. And they aren’t shaped irregularly either; they’re near perfect circles and squares.”
“Definitely sounds like there used to be a building of some kind around here.”
“Do you think it could be Camelot?”
Merlin took a moment to look around at the nearby landscape. Though it had changed a lot in the centuries that have passed, Merlin would never forget the look or feel of the spot where Camelot once stood. He shook his head. “It’s unlikely there was a need to hide a message only for the location to be the city.”
“Ah, you’re right. I just wish it would be something we could use to prove the existence of the city. I hate that most people still insist on calling it a myth, even after all of the proof you’ve collected.”
“You and me both,” he muttered. “Let’s get started, shall we? I’d like to try and have a plan before the sun goes down today.”
Together they walked back over to the group of other professionals with papers in hand. Merlin handed the papers out amongst the others as he and David took turns explaining what they had found, what had led them here, and what they were hoping to discover.
“Thanks to Dr. Hermite’s ingenuity, we found that, when looking at the original document in the light of fire, a hidden map appeared underneath the text. That image you see on the papers before you is proof of his ingenuity. He copied the image he saw onto a regular piece of paper so that we could read it easier.”
“Please, just call me Marcus. I would have never guessed this was the place we needed to go to if it wasn’t for David. Since these were found at the last site we visited together, I sent him files of the map and the original document. We were trying to decipher it together, to figure out how we could reach the end of it without the same landmarks as there would have been when this was written. We wouldn’t have managed it if David hadn’t had a breakthrough and realized the text wasn’t merely a decoy as I first believed, but was actually encoded directions.”
“The landmarks shown on the map were merely to mark the way and be sure the recipient knew they were on the right track. The text was all we needed at that point, and lucky for us, they began at the last dig site. So, with the help of our computers, Marcus and I used several maps and mapping programs to approximate the end location, which led us here. It took several days to reach a decent consensus and overlap on our maps, but that was the easy part. The hard part was convincing the right people of our evidence so we could get permission to dig here,” he chuckled.
Merlin looked around once more past the edges of their little gathering, towards the overgrown grass and the increasing presence of varying trees. He had to admit something looked familiar about the place, but he couldn’t tell if that was good or bad. If he had been here before, maybe there wouldn’t be an issue with any possible traps. But because he couldn’t remember what the place was originally meant he couldn’t prepare for anything. It could range from a harmless village he had passed through or temporarily stopped in to something like the Fisher King’s castle in the Perilous Lands. “Let’s take a look around to see what we can find.”
There was, unsurprisingly, no digging started that day as they laid out their plans together and marked off the areas of interest. By the time they finished the sun was beginning to set and there was no point in beginning the dig when they were about to run out of light. So, they all returned to their cars and drove back to the nearest town where they had all booked rooms at a small hotel.
In the morning, Merlin was given the opportunity to break first ground, burying his shovel into the soft dirt and emptying its contents just outside of the marked border. They worked tirelessly day after day to remove layer upon layer of dirt, rocks, and bugs, each shovel there buried cautiously into the earth and, upon not hitting anything hard and solid, emptied into an ever-growing pile next to them. A few days later, the university students appeared.
Merlin was glad the university had approved this on such a late notice. He had invited a few of his students that were interested in pursuing archeology or anthropology to have the opportunity for hands-on field experience. He had heard it would look great on a CV and thought he’d help out some of his favorites with their futures. Instead of picking up a shovel that day, he took the kids under his wing, explaining in full detail how they found the place again, how they had determined where to begin digging, and everything else they would need to know but might not fully understand without an actual example in front of them. They were also full of questions, all ready and eager to learn anything and everything they possibly could.
“Do you think we’ll find any dead bodies?”
“They’d all be skeletons by this point, Colin, but it’s always possible to find skeletons when digging. Unfortunately, without knowing what the place is, I can’t say for sure.”
“How do you know the building that was here isn’t completely gone? Like, how would something still be intact under all of this dirt? Won’t the digging just scoop it up too?”
“We’re being careful and cautious as we dig so we don’t damage whatever is left under there. And we can expect most of the building to have broken down by now, gone into ruin, but the fact that there were perfect shapes in the overgrowth up here indicates that there is something down there still intact to hold the extra water needed for it to grow.”
“If we find something big down here, will our names be attached to the find too?”
He chuckled. “That’s only if we find something worth talking about, Daisy. I suggest you get to work and put the effort in if you want your name on the find.”
Merlin watched as the kids eventually picked up their own shovels and helped guide them, making sure they didn’t go too fast or too hard. He continued to stand by their side and watch them, gently correcting them when they forgot to be soft again, and continued to answer their questions, no matter how ridiculous they could be.
With a larger group now, it wasn’t much longer before the first shovel hit something solid. The digging slowed down as they began to pull less and less dirt from the ground, even more careful than they had been. Soon, all they used were small hand-held shovels and trowels so they could dig around the bricks they had uncovered, unearthing the building on the outside and hopefully reaching the bottom of it on the inside.
Though the discovery was exciting at first, and many of the others were still excited, including David, Merlin quickly grew disappointed. There was seemingly nothing special about the building they uncovered, and the material was nothing he recognized. Maybe they had just picked the wrong hole to dig and should have started somewhere else, but as they uncovered more and more of the building, stretching further and further around the dig site, that feeling only grew.
“You don’t seem happy,” David said to him while they were apart from the rest, looking over the map again. “We’ve found something, haven’t we?”
“Have you gotten a good look at the material of the building?
“Why, is there something special about the walls?”
He nodded. “I’m no geologist, so I could be mistaken, but it looks man-made. I mean, obviously nature didn’t arrange them this way, but—I don’t think the people of Camelot would have had the technology to make their own bricks. Most of what we know about that time period involves a lot of wooden houses and structures too, the stone carved from mines and adhered together to make the larger castles and defensive walls and such. They believed stone was the strongest material at their disposal, so it should be all natural. That’s part of why we still see so many of those structures standing today.”
A frown crossed his face as he stared back over towards where everyone was digging. “But we’ve still made a great archeological find here.”
“I understand that, and I don’t mean to take away from your excitement. As an archeologist, anything you can discover while digging is wonderful. But it’s not the right one. I don’t think this has anything to do with our map at all and that it was coincidentally built much later on the same site. I think… we need to go deeper.”
“Marcus, we can’t dig on for forever. Eventually we’re going to dig into the foundation of this building. And that might be soon, for the dirt is growing muddy in some places.”
“I’m not saying to dig through the foundation, I just think—” he let out a frustrated sigh and ran his hand down his face. “Let me look around again and I’ll try and find a new spot to just go down as far as I can. We can’t narrow the map down to specifically, so maybe it’s just outside of this building. If I have to dig it myself so the rest of the dig can go on, I will.”
“No, there’s no need for you to do it alone. You’d never get anywhere in any reasonable amount of time. We can divert a few people to your project tomorrow; spend the rest of today searching for a spot to do it in.”
“Thank you. I’ll see what I can find.”
Merlin set his tools to the side after that, once again scoping out the area they were allowed to dig in for something they had missed. The sun beat down on his back, a day surprisingly devoid of clouds, and he wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand as he panted softly. It was going to be nigh impossible to do this alone, or even to discover something other than that building. Determined, he crouched down among the grass, placed his palm against the ground with his fingers outstretched, and closed his eyes. He reached out into the earth with his magic, sending a probe out and waiting for it to bounce back from something else in the ground.
It took a few tries before he had any success, and luckily everyone else was too invested in the dig to notice what he was doing. Once he felt the tingle of his magic return to his hand, he knew he had found a good spot to begin digging. The only issue was trying to explain his reasoning for picking it.
He was lucky: either he was a really good liar or David simply trusted his judgement. The next day, with a new hole begun, Merlin felt a new determination rush through his veins. He hardly noticed the dirt and grime build up on him until he returned to the hotel each night to wash off. Somehow, though, he knew they were now digging in the right spot, that when they hit whatever his magic had found, it would be the place the map had pointed to. There was a rotation between his helpers, always part college students and part professionals, but everyone took turns on his project and the actual dig. It meant he was the only one that stayed on his project full time. It also meant he happened to be the one to push his shovel through the next layer of dirt only for it to fall off of his shovel, a dark opening now spreading open below him.
Everyone rushed over at this discovery, a few people jumping down into the hole they dug with him as others helped secure ropes and other gear along the surface in case a wrong move made the ground under them fall from under their feet. With the ropes secured to their waists and everyone’s interest now fully focused on this, it didn’t take much longer for them to secure the ground around the opening while also widening it so that a person could fit through it. With the help of several strong individuals up above, Merlin was the first one slowly lowered down into the darkness at his request, armed with a torch and his shovel.
The light of his torch illuminated a large tunnel as its beam spun around the area in the direction Merlin pointed it to. Nothing seemed special about the rocky walls, but it was better to exercise a bit of caution anyway, especially after coming to the conclusion that they unearthed some kind of cave system. Merlin shuddered as he remembered some of the cave systems he remembered from back then—the worst of them being the wilddeoren.
His feet finally planted on solid ground, every loose rock and pebble rolling underneath the sole of his shoes. He had narrowly missed being lowered down directly onto a stalagmite and now pointed his light at it, studying the glistening condensation dripping down it.
“Marcus?” someone called in. “Anything down there?”
He took a moment to flash the light all around him, finding open air to two sides and the other two solid rocky walls. “Looks like a cave system,” he yelled back, cupping his hands around his mouth to be sure they heard him. His voice echoed off of the walls, making him realize the tunnel was far larger than it first had seemed.
“Hang on, let me give you some slack!”
The rope that had been near taut as Merlin spun around to look at the cave suddenly loosened, his full weight now on the cave floor. It continued to drop as well until a small pile sat next to his feet while the rest of the rope was still attached up top so that he could be pulled out. Perhaps it wasn’t the safest move, but Merlin was beyond caring about his own safety. It wasn’t like he was easy to kill anyway.
A nagging feeling creeped into the back of his skull as he took a step away from the beam of sunlight and into the darkness, almost like he was being watched. He looked around once more and found nothing but himself, stalagmites, and stalactites in the cave. The feeling was quickly brushed to the side and ignored even as it persisted, blamed on the fact that the cave was pitch black and could be hiding anything.
Merlin swept his light back and forth along the cave floor and walls, looking to see if there was anything interesting about them. He was also looking out for large rocks or stalagmites to keep himself from tripping. It wasn’t likely he’d make it far into the cave still attached to the rope, but at least he could begin exploring to try and find something of interest to make someone interested in exploring with him.
A low rumbling sound reached his ears after a few minutes and he froze in his tracks. There were several things his mind tried to blame it on—maybe someone just so happened to drive by outside, one of the rare cars they had seen, or maybe—when it happened a second time, he stopped trying to make rational conclusions like that and instead focused on something a little irrational. He was almost positive that the noise was a growl, and also almost positive no animal known to be native around here would make that kind of noise. Plus, since it seemed like this entire cave system had been buried for a long time, if not always buried, there was no normal animal that could make a sound like that and survive down here.
It must be a creature of magic.
Merlin backed away as slow as he could, trying his best not to move the light any further than he already had as well as being careful not to make a sound. His heart hammered away in his chest, and he could only hope it wasn’t audible to the beast. If he was lucky, he could back his way out of there, get pulled back out, say that nothing of interest was there, and they could seal the hole back up before anyone got hurt. But who was he kidding?
When was luck ever on his side?
A tratorious stalagmite tripped him up as he walked backwards, unable to know it was behind him without looking and not remembering it was there. Though he didn’t fall down and was able to regain his balance, his startled yelp echoed through the cavern and was punctuated by another low growl. Before he could react to anything else, the last thing he saw in the beam of light from his torch was a large, tan mass pouncing, knocking him to the ground. The force of the blow sent him tumbling backwards into the stalagmite, and as soon as his head slammed against the ragged rock, he was knocked unconscious.
Merlin had trouble opening his eyes when he finally came to. Nothing he saw made any sense from what he last remembered, and it was all too much. His head throbbed even without the input of his other senses, which only slowly came back to him. It was the strange voices he didn’t recognize nearby that made him finally force his eyes open, and the sight before him only made him more confused.
The sky was dark, a normally unsettling black placated by thousands of glittering, diamond-like stars. All around him, however, the world flashed in red and blue. He had to squint his eyes every time the lights flashed, too bright for his throbbing head. Slowly he sat up, holding the back of his head as he did, trying to get a better understanding of what was going on.
Immediately after, two figures who were nearby rushed over to him, one of them hovering nearby as the other grabbed a hold of his arm and supported his back. Though he usually would have pulled away, he felt grateful as his head started spinning and his vision blurred.
“Sir, please, you need to lay down.”
He nodded briefly, regretting the action as soon as he did so. They gently pushed him back down into a lying position and now their faces loomed above him, the red and blue first hiding then exaggerating their features in its constant rotation.
“Can you tell us your name?”
“Alright. And how old are you, Mr. Hermite?”
He blinked for a moment, unsure how to answer. What was the lie he was currently living under? Late twenties? Early thirties? He couldn’t exactly say his real age, after all—though he had stopped counting long ago, he was fairly certain that number was over a thousand now. If he admitted that, they would think he was insane.
Apparently, his lack of an answer was still something the strangers were looking for. After a few seconds with no response, they shared a worried glance between each other before looking back at him. “We need to take a look at your eyes. This might not be fun for you, so I apologize.”
It was only then that Merlin realized the two strangers were paramedics. One of them procured a small light from their pocket and flashed it in each of his eyes for a few seconds. He tried his hardest to keep his eyes open for it but even still found himself squinting against the sudden bright, white light. It left spots behind in his vision that alternated colors with the rest of the flashing lights so that it always stood out.
“It seems like you have a concussion. I personally think you’re lucky that’s all you have, with as long as you’ve been trapped down in that cave. We had to clear a larger area to get through to find you, and then to pull you back out.”
Right. The cave, that creature… he struggled to keep himself from bolting up off of the stretcher and instead weakly asked, “Where is everyone else?”
“Everyone’s alright,” they reassured him. “Some of them have already gone to the closest hospital due to sprains and fractures, while others we released already and sent home. Well, after they were questioned…”
He rubbed at his forehead and screwed his eyes shut, the blue and red still pulsing through his eyelids in time with the pain on the back of his head. “What happened?”
“That’s what they’re trying to figure out. No one’s in trouble or anything, they just want to know if they have to deem the cave or area as unsafe. So, eventually, I think they’ll want to question you as well. Can you open your eyes for me? We don’t want you falling asleep right now.”
He opened them once more and squinted against the light. “It’s really bright.”
“Okay. Let’s open up the back of the ambulance and let you rest in there. One of us will stay with you to keep you awake.”
“Do I need to go to the hospital?”
“We’re going to keep you here for a little longer for observation before we decide on that. In the meantime, is there anyone you’d like to contact? Family, friends?”
He reached down and pulled his mobile out of his pocket, finding the screen was cracked. Still, because he hadn’t used it often that day, it hadn’t died yet. The brightness of the screen though made him squint and look away. “Can you do it?”
“Of course. Who do you want us to contact?”
He didn’t need any time to think about that question. It was the reason he had gone right for his mobile and only slightly wished he could do it himself. It’s the only person he really talks to. “Austin. His number is saved as, uh, clotpole.” Austin had messaged him every night of the dig so far, knowing it was Merlin’s only free time. Though he wasn’t sure just how late it was now, he was sure either Austin hadn’t received a response and was, quite possibly, worried, or would be worried soon.
They moved him into one of the waiting vehicles nearby, and once the door was shut, he was glad to finally be rid of the lights. It was peaceful inside the tight quarters, even if he had to keep up an idle conversation with the medic by his side. They had tried to start him on many different topics of conversation—different sports seemed the most popular, and though he knew of them he wasn’t very into them—but when the topic of his job came up, he found it almost comforting to just talk. He was looking at the ceiling the whole time so he wasn’t even sure if they were paying attention, but he didn’t care. As long as he was speaking they knew he wasn’t asleep, so he began to explain the history of the Arthurian Era in the way that he remembered it. Without any other supposed facts or findings in the way, he could reminisce on what his time in Camelot had meant to him.
He was distinctly aware of the moment the door opened again as the interior suddenly lit up blue and quickly flashed to red, but the door was shut shortly after. Even so, he squinted against the light and trailed off mid-sentence, sure that whoever had entered was about to speak to him.
“Sir, if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
Merlin shut his eyes for a moment and sighed quietly, but he nodded for the man to continue.
“From the sounds of everyone else, you were the only one to make it into the caves before the incident occured. Could you tell me what you remember from down there?”
No, he couldn’t. What was he going to say, a creature of magic was lurking in the tunnels, knocked Merlin out, and somehow didn’t kill anyone as it escaped into the wild, now who knows where in England? He needed to come up with something else that was believable, and he needed to do it fast. If only his head would stop throbbing for just a moment…
“There were many… strange reports,” the man continued in Merlin’s silence. “Many said a strange beast came through and knocked them all over, injuring most of the group.”
“Gas,” Merlin blurted out, mentally slapping himself in the face.
“Uh… well, I think these tunnels have been buried for a long time. There might have been a gaseous buildup inside that everyone managed to inhale and it caused us to hallucinate.”
“But why would everyone be injured if there was no real threat?”
“Have you ever hallucinated, sir?”
“... I can’t say that I have.”
“If something you thought was real was coming towards you, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to get away from it? Maybe even moving a little too fast and falling over?”
“Fair enough. Did you see the creature too, then?”
“I saw… something,” he said, running his hand down his face in an attempt to look like he was struggling to remember. “All I really know is something startled me, I slipped on a rock, and from the pain I’m in right now and the fact that I was unconscious, I’d say I hit my head rather hard against the stone.”
“Alright. I think I can write that down in my report then and close this case. If you do end up going back in those caves, be sure that gas has been released before we have another incident on our hands.”
“Yes sir,” he said, covering his eyes to avoid the flashing lights again.
Everyone had a good enough mind to leave them alone for a while after that, the medic giving Merlin some kind of pain medicine and an instant ice pack that soothed the back of his head, the throbbing lessening to more of a dull pounding.
Merlin laid on the stretcher for long enough that he was beginning to wonder just how late it was. He was unconscious for a few hours for sure, but that didn’t count as sleep. So, growing weary, he was ready to try and rest. Unless that was just an issue from the concussion? Either way, the medic wouldn’t let him sleep, which was starting to get on his nerves.
A sudden knock on the door startled him as it reverberated through the metal, but he was glad for the warning so he could cover his eyes before the flashing lights entered the interior again. This time when they creaked open they stayed open, and Merlin felt the medic brush past him to go to the entrance. There was a muted conversation at the door, too quiet for him to hear without straining, which he wouldn’t do in his current state. The vehicle then shifted as a new person climbed on, and though he knew the lights would bother him, Merlin couldn’t help but open his eyes and look towards the door to see what was going on.
He was surprised to meet Austin’s gaze as he carefully maneuvered around Merlin’s stretcher, his face drawn tight in a controlled concerned look. Though he was tired and had had one hell of a day, Merlin couldn’t help it when the corner of his mouth twitched up into a smile.
“I thought I told you to stay safe,” he muttered when he came to a stop by Merlin’s head, looking down at him. “I thought you promised you would.”
“Technically, I never promised. Besides, I don’t think anyone was expecting something like this to happen.”
He shoved his hands into his jacket pockets and sat down at Merlin’s side so they could look at each other easier. “When you didn’t answer my text earlier, I didn’t think anything of it at first. Maybe the dig went longer than you expected and you were still driving back to the hotel. Maybe you all went out to dinner and therefore weren’t looking at your mobile. But the longer it went without a reply, the more concerned I was beginning to get.”
“I’m sorry I made you worry.”
“Worry?” he repeated, a strained laugh escaping his mouth. “I was surprised in a good way when you decided to call me. I was surprised in a bad way when it wasn’t you on the other end, and the medic had to tell me what had happened. I was a little more than worried at that point, Marcus. I think I’m well past worry right now. Do you have any idea what time it is?”
He wordlessly shook his head.
“It’s two in the morning.”
“You mean you drove for hours, late into the night, just to come and see me?”
“I had to make sure you were alright,” he mumbled. “I had to see it for myself.”
There was a moment of silence before Merlin said, “Thank you.”
He turned to him, his concerned look melting away into confusion. “For what?”
It was hard to explain, hard to put into words, so he began with a shrug as he thought it over. “I don’t think I’ve known anyone in a while that would care enough about me to lose sleep just to check up on my wellbeing.”
“Well, if I’m being honest—I don’t think I would’ve gotten any sleep if I didn’t.”
Another moment of silence stretched out within the confines of the vehicle as their words sunk into one another, taking time to be processed.
Finally, Austin cleared his throat and stood up again. “They’re letting me take you home if you want, Marcus. Since I do also have basic medical training, they trust that I can keep you awake until we get back. By then there shouldn’t be any issues with you going to sleep.”
He was excited to finally be going somewhere, even wearily sitting up on his own at the news, but as he squinted out the doors at the lights, he frowned. “What about my car, though? It’s still parked here.”
“Well, you are in no shape for driving, even if it was the middle of the day. I guess we’ll have to make another trip out here soon once you’re better, or you can call someone to get it towed back to your house.”
He didn’t really like either of those options but supposed there was no other choice. But, if they were willing to release him and he didn’t have to worry about the bright fluorescent lights and sterile stench of a hospital, he would deal with it.
Austin helped him off of the stretcher and back outside, not letting go of his arm until he was safely seated in the passenger seat of Austin’s car. Merlin was glad Austin didn’t try and buckle him in as well, though it did take him two tries to secure it on his own. Before he knew it, Austin had started the car and pulled away, the blue and red lights fading into the distance behind them until soon the only light was from the headlights in front of them.
The GPS on Austin’s phone called out direction information every now and then, but otherwise, it was left to them to fill in the silence. Just like the medic, Austin was trying to keep a conversation going so Merlin would stay awake. It was a lot easier with him however as their conversations always flowed naturally from one topic to another, sometimes with seemingly no correlation between them. It was nice to have someone he knew to talk to this time, though he still wished he could sleep. However, if Austin couldn’t sleep while driving, he was determined to stay awake too.
When the occasional lull in conversation occurred, Austin had developed a habit of brushing his hand against Merlin’s leg to be sure he was still awake, as he couldn’t easily take his eyes off of all of this winding road. It did something to Merlin’s insides that he wasn’t quite ready to address and pushed it to the back of his mind to process later.
The sky was turning gray and the stars were disappearing when they finally grew close to their destination, and Merlin found he was surprised that that many hours had already gone past. When Austin stopped the car to pull open Merlin’s gate, however, Merlin suddenly realized he was exhausted. With a few more feet forward the car was parked in front of the house and Austin hurried over to Merlin’s side to help him out. Merlin dug through his pockets to pull his keys out and unlock the door, kicked his shoes off as they made their way through the house, and passed out as soon as his head hit his pillows, the bed still made below him—though now rumpled—and with his work clothes still on.
For the next several days, Merlin had the experience of constant company again, one he hadn’t had since the castle of Camelot. Austin didn’t want to intrude and didn’t stay that morning without Merlin’s permission, and Merlin was asleep before he could ask, so he left and came back over as soon as he was awake with fresh takeaway, startling a bedraggled and groggy Merlin who had only just woken up himself. He stayed with Merlin for the rest of that day, following the advice that the medics had given him and making sure Merlin got enough rest.
Though Austin was pleasant company, Merlin did find it a little strange to be waited on hand and foot. Usually the roles were reversed. He enjoyed it for maybe the first hour or so. When his medicine wore off and he winced as his head began to throb once more, however, and Austin stopped the conversation to immediately get him more along with an ice pack, he decided he didn’t really like being on the receiving end. He could do things for himself and he always had his magic on hand if he couldn’t, so to be doted upon constantly grew on his nerves.
Luckily, Austin had to get back to work. He wanted to call out, but Merlin barely managed to convince him that he would be fine on his own for a little while. Even so, Austin still stopped by every morning before he went to work and visited every evening afterwards too. A small incident with the fridge duplicating ingredients nearly occurred as someone other than Merlin was in the kitchen for once. With a quick de-enchantment from Merlin and the best excuse he could come up with, Austin was willing to believe he just had two of everything, which was the logical explanation.
When the headaches finally got down to a minor nuisance without any medicine involved, Merlin took more control of his life once again. He began working on refining and organizing his lesson plans, double-checking his handouts and powerpoints for flaws, and any other prepping he needed to do for the new semester. His Arthurian Era class was once again full with a long waiting list attached to it, and rumors were the department was going to move his class into the largest room in the building. It might mean more work for him, but if it meant more people could take the class, he would gladly take on the burden.
He found it surprising that, even after the concussion had faded and he no longer needed help, Austin’s frequent visits didn’t really stop. There were no longer both morning and evening visits as he went straight to work, but, more often than not, he was still at the cottage in the evenings. Merlin was maybe more surprised when he realized he really didn’t mind, and kind of even enjoyed it.
Still without his car, Merlin was beginning to feel cooped up. Even his schoolwork couldn’t keep his attention for long anymore, as there was nothing new to do yet. He ventured out into the garden one morning, stretching his legs out and searching for someone to talk to. Maybe they would have an idea of what creature he had run into in the cave, and have an idea of where it might be now.
A soft whinny next to him made him jump as Gwaine managed to sneak up on him. He looked at the unicorn with wide eyes as his heart hammered, only remembering to conjure the apple he always gave Gwaine when he nudged Merlin’s shoulder with his snout. He had almost forgotten Gwaine took up residence in his garden, and for the fact that he managed to avoid detection from Austin with all of his recent visits, Merlin gave him a second apple.
Side-tracked by the unicorn, Merlin began to reminisce. Thoughts of his friends back in Camelot flooded to the front of his mind, and he quietly wiped a tear away from the corner of his eye. Once Gwaine was done eating the apples, he took a quick look around and turned back to the cottage, deciding to follow a different course of action. It had been a while since his last visit to the lake, and it was well within walking distance.
Even though it was summer, it was still rather chilly by the lake as the wind blew in off of the surface of the water. Merlin didn’t mind as he walked along the pebbled shore, looking down at the rocks for something smooth out of habit. When he picked the first one up, he realized he didn’t feel like trying to get the attention of anyone right now, so he let it fall from his grasp and land back among the stones.
He stared out at the ruins of the tower as he came to a stop and more memories came flooding into view. Instead of focusing too much on them and letting them have control, or trying to ignore them, he sat down on the edge of the lake and let them wash over him like the small, windblown waves lapping at his shoes. Hugging his knees to his chest, he shuffled around until he found a comfortable sitting position among the pebbles, and then the world around him seemed to disappear as he zoned out.
What startled him back to reality was the pair of shoes that appeared next to him along with the person wearing them. He looked up as Austin sat down next to him, shoving pebbles out of the way. “I got off early today and was driving past the lake. I thought I recognized you down here.”
Merlin blinked. “I didn’t even notice you were around.”
“Well, I did have to park a ways down the road. I couldn’t just park on the side of the road, you know?” He tilted his head. “Is everything alright?”
“I think so, yeah. Why do you ask?”
He shrugged and looked away, out onto the lake. Merlin followed suit. “You’re sitting on a really uncomfortable surface, and it looks like you’ve been here for a while. And it also looks as if your socks are wet.”
There was a pause as Merlin shifted to look down at his shoes and found that Arthur was right. The water was slowly seeping into his shoes, and as he wriggled his toes inside, he could feel his socks were damp. It’s funny—he hadn’t noticed it until now. “I just… needed a moment outside, and I guess I got caught up in my thoughts.”
“Is it about what happened at the dig site?”
No, it wasn’t, but if that’s what Austin thought it was about, Merlin decided it would be easier to go along with that than even attempt to explain a small sliver of the truth. “I’ve received word from all of the college students I invited up there. They’re all doing fine and only suffered minor injuries.”
“You know it wasn’t your fault, right?”
He rolled his eyes as he snorted. Of course it was his fault; he was the one who made them dig to the cave, he was the one that set the beast loose. He could only hope that the beast wouldn’t do any further damage until he found it. “Sometimes we do things with the best intentions, but it all ends up turning into mistakes.”
“Exactly. Because we’re all human. Everyone is still alive and only recovering from minor injuries after… whatever happened. None of that you could have predicted. Don’t put that burden on yourself.”
Merlin looked back towards him, leaning on his back hand and feeling a sly grin cross his face. “I’m glad to see I’ve convinced you to think I’m human.”
Austin raised an eyebrow, glancing at Merlin out of the corner of his eye. “Well, you certainly aren’t a robot.”
“Why not? I’m wicked smart, I can do a lot of things at once—”
“And you’re super squishy and only just got over a headache that lasted for days.” He mirrored Merlin’s movement, leaning back on his hand and grinning. “You’re gonna have to try harder than that to convince me you’re not human.”
“...What about an alien race that looks, sounds, and acts exactly like humans.”
“Like, another planet out there somewhere is home to another race of humans?”
“But I guess they wouldn’t be called humans, would they?”
“Er, no. They’re called… snamuh.”
Austin blinked. “Alright, if you can turn a word backwards and say it perfectly, I’ll believe you’re an alien.”
His grin grew wider. “Ah, but if I only flipped the word backwards, then the word wouldn’t exist. That means there is no way to say it perfectly, unless you knew how to because you were also one of the snamuh.”
“Because clearly I belong to one of the more supreme alien races that has already set up trade with the snamuh.”
“Yeah? I bet their race is called clotpoles.”
“Shut up,” Austin said, and Merlin couldn’t keep himself from chuckling in response. It was strange being at the lake again with someone, in a time he wasn’t mourning or yelling at those who dwell in Avalon, but it was still nice.
“You know, I still haven’t paid you back for the gas you used to come and get me.”
“Don’t worry about it. I know you would’ve done the same. I care about your wellbeing, and sometimes I think you don’t have the capacity to take care of yourself alone.”
“I guess no one does, really. No one is ever meant to be alone. For being alone means you’re lonely, and being lonely is the worst punishment anyone could ever receive.” He turned his head and looked over at Austin, their eyes meeting. “But I’m never lonely with you. With you… the world grows brighter.” The sun was beginning to set on the horizon and it twinkled brightly in Austin’s eyes, their soft blue turned into a vibrant, glittering ocean.
The next few seconds happened all at once, and all too fast. Austin lifted his free arm up and his hand gently grabbed Merlin’s cheek, pulling him in close before their lips met in the middle for a soft, tender kiss. Merlin watched as Austin’s eyes slipped closed but without them there, the facade broke and all Merlin could do was sit and be kissed with his eyes blown wide.
Austin pulled away shortly after, a smile on his face that quickly faded as he took in Merlin’s shocked, frozen expression. “Marcus—”
Merlin cut him off by lifting his hand and turning to look back out over the lake. In a flash, one last memory surfaced—the memory of Arthur’s body floating away from shore in the boat Merlin rested him in, of the moments just after his last breath and of just how long Merlin had sat there on the shore after. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, shaking his head. He stood abruptly, and was kind of relieved that Austin remained seated. “I just—”
He couldn’t find the words to explain it. He had separated Austin from Arthur for so long, but, in a moment like that, in a moment he wasn’t expecting, everything just seemed wrong. It seemed like they got tangled up once again from the kiss, not only giving Merlin conflicting feelings, but making him feel queasy about the fact that he might have enjoyed it under any other circumstances.
Instead of trying to explain and ending with a hot dumpster fire, Merlin just shook his head once more. “I’m sorry.” And with that, he walked briskly away, resisting the urge to look back at Austin and hoping he could hold off until he was back inside the cottage before breaking down.
Chapter 13: Making Amends
Merlin was still without a car by the time school began again. It was entirely his own fault of course—he was distracted for various reasons and attempted to bury himself into his work to ignore them. Without traveling out of the cottage for a while, he simply forgot it was still at the dig site. When he walked out the front door on the first day of school only to find it missing, he panicked and only just managed to catch the bus in time. That day, he sat in his office between classes and studied the bus schedule until he had figured out where he needed to be and at what time every day to get to the university and back.
He tried his best to bury himself in his work, to enjoy his classes and forget about everything else—he really did—but the fact that his mobile remained silent day after day, even with the volume on, was unsettling and near disturbing. Though it had been consistently silent for much longer, he found he missed the noise and interruptions. He kept checking his phone frequently in case his sound wasn’t working, or desperately lunging for it when the rare sound did come through, but all he ever found were email notifications.
There had been no word from Austin ever since that day at the lake. Merlin regretted his actions, but in the moment, it was all he could do. Now, all he felt was shame thinking upon the moment and he knew how much of a coward he was for making up excuses to not apologize now. Maybe if he apologized, then his mobile would begin to ring again, and things would go back to the way they were. But how could they? They had kissed—Austin had kissed him—and Merlin would be outright lying to say he didn’t enjoy it. And yet, in the moment, he had run away, too many things overwhelming him to process what had happened properly.
The truth was, he wouldn’t even know where to begin. How would he explain to Austin why he ran away when it was still something he was trying to work out for himself? How would he ever repair that relationship with a simple apology? Would Austin really ever look at him the same way again? Arthur told Merlin once, before the final battle at Camlann, that he always believed Merlin was the bravest person he knew. And yet, when it came to relationships, Merlin really believed he was the worst person in the world.
Apparently he wasn’t hiding his inner turmoil very well. A knock on his office door startled him out of his thoughts, realizing he had zoned out while reading over paperwork. “Come in!”
One of his students shyly stepped in through the door. She was one of the smartest he knew and had been at the top of several of his classes. She was also one of the ones he had invited to the dig site.
“Suzy, welcome. Please, feel free to have a seat if you wish. What can I help you with?”
She pulled her backpack off of her shoulder and slowly sank into the chair in front of his desk as she lowered the bag between her legs. She still kept a hold of the strap of the bag, fiddling with it as she finally looked up at Merlin. “Are you doing alright, Professor?”
His head tilted curiously as he looked at her. “I’m doing the best I can be,” he said honestly.
“Is it about the dig? Cause if it is… I still had an amazing time out there. The hands-on experience was the highlight of my summer. I don’t care how it ended. Besides, everyone’s still in one piece, right?”
“It’s… partially because of the dig. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed your time, Suzy. Remember, when you start applying for jobs, feel free to use me as a recommendation at any time.”
She smiled. “Thank you, professor. Is there anything I can do to help you out right now?”
He sighed and rested his head on his hand, squishing his face. “Not unless you know how to apologize to someone for something you didn’t mean to do, but still did.”
“Was this something bad?”
“I mean—no one was physically hurt, but I highly doubt any emotions went unscathed.”
“And have you actually tried apologizing?”
He groaned. “No, I haven’t. I just… I don’t know what to say. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, I was just… surprised. There was a lot going through my head.”
“Why don’t you just say that then? I don’t know what happened, or who you’re even talking about, but if you’re friends with this person, I’m sure it’s nothing a simple apology wouldn’t fix. Any kind of apology, big or small, is probably all it needs. Not apologizing is when the feeling festers and grows into something more, and things like that can ruin a friendship.”
Merlin blinked at her. “How did you get to be so wise?”
She shrugged. “I’m minoring in psychology.”
“I guess… alright. I’ll stop putting it off. Maybe to make up for lost time, I’ll pay him a—I’ll go visit him. Do it in person.” He shook his head. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to talk about my own issues like that. Was there something you needed my help for?”
“That was the reason I came in,” she said with a small giggle. “You hadn’t seemed like yourself yet this semester, and while we do have off days, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone have this many in a row.”
“Well, thank you for your concern, Suzy. Maybe by tomorrow I’ll be back to my usual self in class.”
He blinked. “Well, of course I knew that. It was just—a joke.”
“Whatever you say, professor,” she said with another giggle, picking her bag back off of the floor. “I should get going. I’ll see you in class next week.”
“See you,” he said as she walked out, and as soon as the door was shut, his fingers began to drum on the top of his desk as he sat in thought. After a few moments he turned to his computer and began to type, searching for a flower shop nearby. Once he had a phone number, he dialed it and waited as it rang.
“Hello,” he said once they picked up. “Would you be able to make a small bouquet of flowers for an apology in, say—” he looked at his watch to check the time “—an hour?”
The flower shop was within walking distance of the university, so when his office hours ended he locked up and paid for his bouquet. Before he had left, he had checked the bus schedule to see what bus he needed to get on, and luckily, he was able to catch that shortly after his visit to the flower shop.
His bus stop was several streets away from the firehouse, meaning that once he got off of it he still had more walking to do. When the building came into view, the butterflies began to squirm in his stomach. After his talk with Suzy, all he had felt was determination. He needed to make things right, and it needed to be done as soon as he could. But, he still hadn’t thought of what he was going to say, and with each step the building loomed closer.
After several attempts at trying but failing to buck up the courage, Merlin finally knocked on the door to the firehouse. He clutched the bouquet in his hand in front of him, taking deep breaths to keep his breathing under control before he began to hyperventilate. When the door finally did open, Merlin looked up into the face of a man who was several heads taller than he was and seemed muscular enough that he could snap Merlin in half. He gulped. They stared at one another for a few moments as Merlin tried and failed to stutter out some semblance of a sentence before the man finally gestured with his head for Merlin to come in, turning around and leaving the door wide open.
Merlin closed the door behind him as he stepped in, watching the man walk away down the hall. He stopped, looked back at Merlin, and gestured to him again. With a nod, Merlin followed him through the building, internally grateful that it seemed there was no one else around. Finally the man stopped in the middle of the hallway and waited for Merlin to catch up, gesturing to the closed door on the other side. Merlin didn’t have to ask what the room was—that much was clear from the nameplate alone.
He wasn’t sure he had the courage to stand and try and knock at yet another door, but he could feel the other man’s intense gaze on the back of his neck like he was trying to bore a hole through Merlin’s skull. Because he was being watched he reached out and immediately knocked on the door—though he’d be the first to admit it was a weak knock.
Still, it was effective enough, as Austin’s “Come in,” was clear as day through the door.
With a quick, steadying breath, Merlin twisted the handle and pushed the door open. Austin sat at his desk looking over a piece of paper, only looking up at the door a few seconds after it was opened. Merlin could tell he hadn’t seen him before then in the way he reacted—his muscles tensed in his arms and his grip tightened on the paper as his expression froze, completely unreadable.
“Marcus,” he drawled, letting the paper fall from his hands and drift back down onto the desk. “I’m—surprised to see you.” His eyes narrowed. “And with flowers?”
Quickly, Merlin stepped in and closed the door behind him, not wanting anyone to overhear. “I came to apologize,” he said, not sitting down in the open chair without Austin’s permission.
“So you’re going to apologize with flowers?”
He looked down at the bouquet. “I… guess they are kind of dumb, huh.”
“I never said that,” he said, leaning back in his chair and arching his eyebrow. There was a look in his eye that took Merlin a moment to identify—it was a look he had seen far too often. Behind his controlled expression was a layer of amusement he usually had when he was trying to mess with Merlin. That, or when he tried to hide the fact that he actually enjoyed something Merlin said or did. “I just don’t think anyone’s ever gotten me flowers before.”
“Well—the flowers aren’t the point. I was an ass when we were at the lake and I didn’t mean to be one. That was not the reaction I should have had and you didn’t deserve it.”
There was a tense moment of silence after as his words hung in the air, and Merlin was suddenly worried he did something wrong. However, when Austin gestured to the chair, Merlin was so relieved he nearly tripped over his feet trying to get there. At least he was willing to hear him out.
With the bouquet of flowers laying on the desk between them, Austin was the first to start the conversation. “I should apologize myself for startling you. It was never my intention, and maybe if I hadn’t… things would have gone differently.”
“You don’t need to apologize,” Merlin began, but he stopped talking when Austin held up his hand.
“I don’t care what you think I need to do or say, Marcus. I personally felt the need to apologize, so I have. I don’t need you to forgive me or not for it either. It was a spur of the moment move and clearly, it was the wrong moment.”
Merlin dropped his gaze to his lap, where his hands were folded tightly together. “Yeah, it kind of was. I just…” he trailed off with a sigh. “Remember our first meeting at the store? When I mistook you for someone else? That someone was… very dear to me. He died a long time ago, but he was my friend, and—well, the lake reminds me of him. I have several memories there of him and myself, and though not all of them are good, they’re still there. I think with your similarities and the place it happened in… I should have said something sooner so you would know.”
“It sounds like you two were close.”
He shrugged. “We were nothing more than friends. And a lot of what we did tested that friendship. However, I would have laid down my life if it meant he would live, and since that clearly didn’t happen… Well, it took me a while to get over his death. And some days it’s still hard.”
“If it hurts that much… If I remind you of him, why did you still talk to me?” There was an undertone to his voice that made Merlin look back up at him, finding his hands clasped in front of his face to hide most of his expression.
“I worked hard to separate the two of you in my head. I really did. It seemed unfair to you if I kept comparing the two of you to one another, so I was able to keep the two of you apart. When you were around, you could make me laugh in your own ways, and… well, we became friends. It was a different kind of friendship, and some days, with you to talk to, I didn’t think about him at all. I don’t know if I ever managed that before. Then, slowly… I realized I wouldn’t want to be here, in this life, in this moment, without you. I could say to hell with the past, and I could ignore any issues the future may bring, if it meant I could continue to see you smile, to hear you laugh, on a weekly basis. Austin—you’ve brightened my world in a way I didn’t know was possible without him around.”
A moment of silence filled the room as Merlin tried in vain to read any kind of emotion from Austin’s expression. He had opened his chest and laid his heart out on the table, and was holding his breath in the hopes that it wasn’t about to be smashed.
“Are you saying you might have actually enjoyed that… moment on the lake?”
“If it had been at any other place… yes.”
“Would you be upset if I kissed you again?”
“Please,” Merlin breathed, and it was all he could do to stand up and meet Austin halfway around the desk before their bodies reconnected, their lips dragging against one another before they fit perfectly into place, their eyes fluttering closed and their fingers tangling up in each other’s hair. It wasn’t Merlin’s first kiss, and wasn’t even his first kiss with Austin, but he knew, out of everything that had happened to him over the centuries, this was one moment he would never forget.
Chapter 14: A Frightening Return
“I can’t believe you’ve spent all this time without a car,” Austin muttered as Merlin slid into the passenger’s seat and shut the door behind him.
“I was still trying to find a tow company that would be willing to bring it all the way back here for a reasonable price. I don’t make that much on a teacher’s salary.”
“Well why didn’t you say something before now?”
“We weren’t talking?”
He rolled his eyes. “After that, obviously. You’re lucky I’m off this weekend to be able to make that drive again.”
Merlin leaned over and kissed his cheek. “I’m lucky to have you.”
Red creeped up Austin’s neck as he muttered something incomprehensible and shifted the car into drive.
In truth, Merlin had grown so used to taking the bus back and forth at this point that he had simply forgotten his car was still sitting there, waiting for him to return. What made him bring it up to Austin, and what subsequently caused this road trip, was the email he had received. He pulled it up on his phone again as they began the drive, wanting to read through it and make sure he had all the information straight.
Everyone has been cleared by their doctors as fit to work once more, and we have permission to start digging again as long as we use caution. After talking among the other archeologists, we plan on the continuation of the building excavation, but no one seems eager to attempt the cave again. There is still a great find here in the building, even if it wasn’t the one we wanted. For all we know, what had been here is long gone, a secret treasure already plundered or a building burnt down through the very foundations.
If you wish to continue to explore the cave, we will leave it open and mark the place off so no one accidentally falls in. I suggest bringing your own people to help you, though. Maybe you’ll find some geologists interested in what rocks might have been trapped in there for however long the cave system has been buried. I wish you success with your current semester and I hope we will be able to work together again in the future.
He wanted to move his car from the site so the others could continue their work without it in the way. While he had his phone on and the gentle music coming from the radio filled the otherwise silence of the car, Merlin double-checked his news filters. He had set a few up so that he would be notified if anything strange was spotted—he needed to figure out what that creature was and where it went off to. However, as he scrolled through the latest alerts, all he received were alien and ufo sightings. He ignored the alien ones and did skim through the ufos, but when there was no identifiable shape or it was impossible that it could have been a creature, he closed out of it. He sighed and put his phone down, sinking a little into the seat as he stared out at the road.
Merlin looked over at Austin, who was keeping one eye on the road but also had a concerned look at Merlin. “It’s… nothing, really.”
“Is it this road trip? I know, I feel like we’re going to waste away all day driving. First we have to get there, and then we’ll have to come back… don’t think I’ve ever driven this much.”
“No, it’s more so about the dig. It wasn’t very successful on my end. We didn’t find anything that related to the Arthurian Era at all, and… I guess I’m just disappointed is all. After all the effort with the map only to find nothing?”
“Well, maybe you just need a fresh look at some aspect of it. Like—I dunno, re-read the letter and see if it talks of a place or an item? Try tilting the map in different angles?”
“Or get back into the cave,” Merlin muttered, shaking his head. It was a stupid idea to return back there, especially after what had happened before, but he knew the letter wouldn’t have been to find the location of that creature. Not when they can easily migrate and move wherever they want to. Whatever the creature was, it had to have set up residency there and then was trapped by a cave-in or something. But maybe it had been some long-gone object, either taken by the person who received the letter or plundered by a wanderer who thought they could sell it. At that point, whatever it was could very well already be in Merlin’s collection.
When there wasn’t a conversation happening between them after that, the radio filled the silence, sometimes striking up other conversations as Merlin teased Austin for his music choice or as Austin playfully scolded Merlin for touching the controls, claiming he was about to miss the best part.
Though the trip was long, they did make a stop to stretch their legs once and ate at a small, local restaurant. There was hardly anyone else in there so they tried to keep their voices down, but found between their laughing with and at one another, it was a more difficult task than they had expected it to be. The waiters didn’t seem to mind, at least, and there weren’t any others directly around them to bother, so they continued to tease and talk, and often found their hands drifting across the table to meet in the middle, even if it was just their fingertips touching.
After that there weren’t many visible signs of civilization around as they delved deeper into the countryside, and, before long, Austin pulled to a stop and parked right next to Merlin’s car. He was the first to get out, pushing his door open and immediately beginning to stretch once he stepped out. Merlin needed a moment before he too left the car, walking around to Austin’s side so they could finalize the plan for the drive home.
“You know, this place looks a lot different in the daylight,” Austin said, balancing on one leg as he held onto his other ankle behind him. He switched legs as he continued, “And without the flashing lights either. There’s not much to see around here, is there?”
“Seems like whatever we did unearth wasn’t a very popular place for people to settle,” Merlin agreed. “Especially if this place was built as the modern day cities formed. They must have had to travel for extremely long periods of time just to trade with anyone.”
“Do you think one of the modern day cities used to be Camelot?”
“No.” He realized he said it too fast when Austin gave him a curious look, and he immediately covered his mistake. “It’s, uh, not the first time a thought like that has come up. If it was, we wouldn’t be calling it fictional still.”
“Well, in order to build in the cities, and to expand outwards, digging has to be done to put in the foundations of the house, and or the basement, if it has one. We would have dug something up then, if you think about the logistics, or at the very least, found the castle ruins.”
“Right, I guess the castle would be a dead giveaway. Still, it makes you wonder what would have happened to it if it did exist.”
“Sometimes,” he admitted, though the topic of the fall of Camelot was still a touchy subject for him, even if it happened centuries ago. All of his friends, everything he had known, all gone and slowly forgotten. It was one of the lowest points in his life.
“Alright,” he said, grabbing onto his car door to help him stretch, “So this is where we part ways, I guess? Can’t really tow your car with mine…”
Merlin looked around the area, seeing abandoned tools still strewn around and the tents half falling apart and flapping in the wind. “You go on ahead. If you’re still coming over tonight and you get back before I do, you know where the key is. Let yourself in.” He started walking away from the cars and back out onto the dig site.
“Marcus?” he called out, but his calls were ignored as Merlin grew further and further away from him, briskly walking to the cave entrance. Along the way, he picked up a torch and checked its batteries. After a few shakes the light flickered on, so Merlin took it with him as he approached the hole.
He vaguely remembered the medics that stayed with him that night telling him how they had to expand the hole to be able to reach him. Still, the entrance to the cave had doubled, if not tripled in size, and he could see all the way to the bottom. It actually wasn’t as far down as it had first seemed when he was lowered in on a rope. In fact, if he just found the right place to jump from…
Merlin disappeared into the hole as he climbed down the narrow dirt path. Every step loosened some of the edges that weren’t as hard-packed as the rest until he finally reached the bottom, standing right near the edge of the cave. After briefly checking to be sure there was no big rock underneath to slip on, or some stalagmite to impale himself on, Merlin jumped into the hole, landing hard on the stone ground and stumbling forward a few feet until his momentum fizzled out.
The light flickered to life once more in his hand and he looked back and forth between the two possible cave paths, trying to determine which one to go down. He had to make this quick but he couldn’t just leave now. Not after coming all this way again. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting his instincts carry him to the right and in the opposite direction he had gone last time.
The cave seemed bland and uninteresting—not a painting on the wall, not a special looking rock or mushroom underneath his feet, just a bunch of stone carved out by something centuries—no, millenia—ago. So why would it be interesting enough to make an entire map for it?
As he rounded the corner, Merlin thought he saw something glitter in the light of his torch up ahead. He squinted, trying to see what was past the large archway, but there wasn’t much the light could reach. He wondered just how large the cave expanded up ahead, or just how long the tunnel may be. The sight when he stepped through the arch took his breath away, a gasp escaping his lungs and taking all the oxygen with it. His grip on the torch tightened, his knuckles turning white, but it seemed its light was no longer needed. Before him, hundreds of thousands of white crystals that had been dormant slowly began to glow, the first ones picking the light up from his torch and spreading it to their friends. In the middle of them, a faint blue hue stood out in their glow, and Merlin no longer needed to wonder why the place looked familiar when he first arrived.
This place used to be known as the Valley of the Fallen Kings. And the large cavern Merlin just stepped into was none other than the Crystal Cave, the birthplace of magic itself. He didn’t want to know why a map was made to this place—he suddenly didn’t care about the archeological dig. There were more important issues to worry about. The first one being that the cave seemed to light on its own now without the need of Merlin, as if he had just woken it from a long slumber. That could mean any number of things including the possible return of magic. But the second, and maybe the more important one, was that the crystals were well known for showing Merlin the future without him wanting to see it.
He turned away and walked back out as quick as he could, their glow illuminating the tunnel before his torchlight could even reach it. But it wasn’t before the damage was dealt. Fresh in his memory, almost ingrained on the back of his eyelids, was the single image the crystals had shown him—it was Arthur, eyes flickering with determination, fully dressed in modern clothes, a trickle of blood running down his face from his wounded temple, wielding Excalibur in his hands as he was posed and ready to strike. He wiped at his eyes in an attempt to make the image go away, but he figured it wasn’t something he would ever manage to push into his mind further than what lay right behind the forefront of his thoughts.
There was no way he could allow anyone to get into the Crystal Cave. Clearly their magic was still potent, and in the wrong hands that could be catastrophic. David said no one wanted to explore the cave again, but that didn’t mean someone wouldn’t try to look around in the near future, or even the far future. And covering the hole back up would be too obvious. No, he had to seal off the entrance so that only those with magic could get in—or, if they knew there was something beyond, a pickaxe. He turned back around and kept his eyes low to the ground, raising his free hand and muttering an incantation until his eyes shimmered gold and the stone rose from the ground with a low rumble, seamlessly sealing the entrance off and looking like it was the natural end of the cave.
“Shit,” he said quietly, turning back around to see the growing light of another torch coming right towards him. He stuck his free hand into his pocket and put on a forced smile as Austin came around the corner.
“What the hell are you doing down here? I couldn’t leave when you just ran off like that without saying a word!”
“I just…” he trailed off, upset that he had to keep lying to Austin but knowing he could never learn the truth. Or, if he did, he wouldn’t believe a single word of it. He looked down as he fumbled in his pocket and, with a quick internal spell, pulled out a pair of sunglasses. “I dropped these when I… you know.”
Austin looked at him incredulously. “You came back down here, risking your life, for a pair of sunglasses?”
“They were expensive! They're really high quality!”
He shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. “For once can you stop putting yourself in these high-risk situations?”
“Oh, you mean like you do every day at work?”
“...Touché. Let’s just get out of here; I think the cave is unstable.”
Merlin followed him back out as they picked their way through rocks and stalagmites, but couldn’t keep himself from teasing Austin as he said, “I didn’t know you were suddenly a seismologist.”
“Seriously, how many branches of science are there?”
They helped each other climb back out of the cave, now a little dusty and dirt-smeared, but otherwise unscathed. Merlin continued to apologize for worrying Austin again and dragging him down into the cave, but he was touched Austin was willing to climb into it just to find him and make sure he was alright.
Before they climbed into their separate cars to drive back to Merlin’s house, the image the crystals had shown Merlin flashed before his eyes once more, and he realized a horrible truth about it. The crystal had shown Arthur hurt and wielding his sword against something—with the confidence he carried his sword, it had been Merlin’s first thought—but there was something else. It might not have been Arthur at all.
It might have been Austin.
Chapter 15: Surprising Discussions
Merlin turned his mobile alarm off with a sigh, setting the paper he was reading down on his desk and moving to gather his things. He had a class to get to soon—his Arthurian Era class, to be exact. And while today was one of his favorite lessons to go through, he hated having to stop work right in the middle of something. It was why he had the alarm though: to be sure he wasn’t late.
He made it to the lecture hall just as the previous teacher was leaving, and though a few stragglers were still hurrying to clean up and clear out, he assured them they could take their time. The desk in front of him was quickly filled with his papers including various lecture notes and diagrams he may need to reference depending on the questions these students could come up with. As he arranged these his class slowly filtered in, filling the room one by one and slowly filling the silence.
When he checked his watch for the time and saw class had started, he raised his hand and an immediate hush fell over the students, their conversations ending abruptly as they always did in favor of paying close attention to him. He smiled as he dropped his hand and began to boot up the projector.
“Welcome, one and all,” he said, picking up a piece of paper and passing it off to the person closest to him. “The attendance sheet is going around now, please don’t forget to sign in and pass it along. And as always, whoever is sitting in the back today, just leave it there and I’ll come collect it after class.” He turned back around and as he reached the computer found that one of the students had already raised his hand. As he searched for the powerpoint he needed on the computer, he said, “Yes, Dylan?”
“When is the next essay due again?”
He chuckled. “I haven’t even assigned it yet. I’m still reading through your first ones as it is. However, you can expect a prompt soon, as this should be the last lesson you need for it. When you get the prompt I will also be sure to have an appropriate due date along with it. Don’t worry, I won’t surprise you with anything. Was that all?”
“Great. I hope you are all ready for today’s lesson, then. It’s a favorite of mine.” He hit present on the powerpoint and a small gasp filled the room as the students read the title screen. “That’s right. Today’s lesson is about the most famous figure in the Arthurian Era—maybe even the most important one—King Arthur himself. If there are no other questions, we’ll get started.” He waited a few moments to give everyone the opportunity to raise their hand. When no one did, he nodded and turned to the screen, hitting the button to switch over to the first slide. Before he even began to speak, the unmistakable sound of pens and pencils scratching on paper and a few rapid keyboard strokes filled the air as the students began to hurriedly take notes off of the slide.
“Now, from what we know, Arthur’s mother died shortly after bearing him. He was raised by his father, Uther, intent on passing the kingdom off to him one day. That being said, there were no humble beginnings for Arthur. He was born into the nobility, and was a prince for as long as his father lived, when he was crowned king. Yes, Joseph?”
“What about the sword in the stone?”
“What about it?”
He scratched his ear. “Well, I know it’s a popular tale. Only the true king of Camelot could pull the sword out of the stone. Now, no one can agree on how the sword ended up in the stone in the first place, or how someone could pull it out, let alone only one person who was worthy enough… but that’s besides my point. There are some tales that say Arthur was given the throne because he could pull the sword out.”
“You strike me as the type who’s watched Disney’s Sword and the Stone. Maybe a little too often, I might add?”
Low chuckles sounded from some of the students, and Joseph looked away for a moment, almost ashamed, before nodding.
“Remember that Disney rewrites a lot of stories to fit their more whimsical, ‘happily ever after’ structure. So, no. Arthur did not become king because he could pull the sword out. That was much further into his time of being king, actually. His father was the one who founded Camelot and built it up from the ground, so it was just passed onto him.”
Merlin continued on with the lecture, explaining the difference between the stories that have spawned from the Arthurian Era and what really happened. Of course, there were still things he had to omit, such as the fact that magic did exist at the time since he had no factual proof, which also meant he couldn’t talk about how many times he had saved Arthur’s life. However, he had learned to adapt to this, and skillfully dodged as many questions about Merlin as he could, assuring them they would go into more detail when they got to the lesson on him. Because of this, class ran smoothly—up until a little over halfway through, that is.
He was used to ignoring movement out of the corner of his eyes—working as a teacher with windows in the door meant there was almost always someone walking by to get to a class, or a professor’s office, or just out of the building. So when he saw something in the window of the door, he paid it no mind and continued to teach. It was when his students looked back up to continue taking notes and started to get distracted by whatever was at the door that he finally decided to pause the lecture and look over before he could try and recapture their attention. What he saw, however, was not anything he had expected.
Austin waved at him through the glass when their eyes met, and Merlin struggled to not sigh right then and there. “Excuse me one moment,” he said as he quickly crossed the room, stepped out into the hall, and closed the door once more. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Well, you see, I was going to wait in or near your office, since I still vaguely remember how to get there, but I was walking past and I saw you in the classroom, so I had stopped to watch. I promise I wasn’t doing anything other than listening to you through the door.”
“You were still close enough that some of the students saw and were distracted.”
“I think we’re still doing that,” he said, peeking around Merlin’s shoulder. “But I guess now they don’t have anything else to pay attention to, so…”
“You never answered my question,” Merlin continued, crossing his arms.
“What are you doing here. Like, why are you even at the university to begin with?”
“Oh! Right.” He lifted his hand to show his fingers wrapped around a small bouquet of flowers. “I, uh, brought you these.”
He blinked. “You brought me flowers?”
“Well, you brought me flowers when you came to apologize for the lake incident, and I was looking at them earlier and realized I’ve never gotten anything for you. So, I went and grabbed some before I forgot, and then brought them over.”
“Wait—you still have those other flowers?”
“Yep,” he said, popping the p. “They don’t last forever without roots, but if you keep trimming the stems every now and then, and you make sure to change the water… you can keep them around for at least a couple of weeks.”
Merlin accepted the bouquet, looking over them fondly and gently touching some of the flower’s petals. “I really need to get back to teaching.”
“Of course.” He nodded and shoved his hands into his pockets now that they were empty. “I, uh, was wondering if we could talk later? It’s nothing bad I swear, I just have a few questions that came to mind recently and I’d like to hear what you have to say on them.”
“Alright,” he drawled, frowning. “Are you okay?”
“Perfectly fine,” he said, leaning in to peck Merlin’s cheek. “When would be a good time for you?”
“Just… come to the cottage at the normal time. I’ll make us dinner and we can sit down and have this chat you’re asking for.”
He smiled, an infectious move that made Merlin smile as well. “Excellent. I will see you later then, love.”
Merlin stammered out a goodbye as Austin turned and walked away, still not used to the nickname. Only after Austin disappeared around a corner did he remember again that he had a class to return to. He took a few deep breaths to hopefully make his cheeks and ears less red before turning around and walking back into the room as if nothing had happened.
“Who was that?” a student asked as he walked back to the computer, setting the flowers down on the desk as he did.
“Uh…” he trailed off, not really expecting the question. He could always brush it off, but the student was just curious, and it was a harmless question, so he decided to answer. “That was my boyfriend.”
The air inside the room shifted suddenly, and electric charge ready to go off as Merlin watched the usually excited class somehow reach a new level of enthusiasm. He realized now that there was, in fact, harm in that question, and he had just opened the path for the rest of class to become completely derailed from the lesson. He had to close it back up, and fast.
Several hands shot up into the air before he said, “I will not be answering any more questions on the subject.” They were all reluctantly lowered.
“Was that the fire chief?” someone asked without raising their hand. Lucky for them, Merlin didn’t get a chance to confirm or deny before another student spoke up.
“It was. He and some of the other firefighters showed up to the same CPR certification class I did.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Please, can we return our attention to the lesson?” He made a mental note to scold Austin later for showing up directly to his classroom.
It was a good thing the lesson topic was interesting, because if it had been anything else, he might not have regained everyone’s attention. He was barely holding it anymore as it was, watching the occasional student lean into one another and whisper something, along with an increase in the usage of their mobiles.
When class was finally dismissed, he was surprised no one tried to come up and talk to him about it. He was surprised no one came into his office hours either, but he supposed they were too busy spreading the news to all of his other classes. That meant he was able to leave in relative peace, driving home and giving Gwaine an apple before sending him to the back of the garden before Austin arrived.
When he did arrive, food was almost ready. After a quick greeting kiss, Austin moved to set the table and pick out a wine as he let Merlin finish cooking, assuring him the conversation could wait until after they had eaten. This meant that when Merlin plated food and they sat down to eat the dinner conversation became a work conversation—how their day went, anything they wished to complain about, anything that brightened their day—a normal conversation to have after leaving work, honestly. Merlin also took the opportunity to describe how hard it was to get his class’s attention back after Austin’s visit, and Austin seemed to carry no shame about it.
Once finished eating they cleaned up and took their wine glasses with them to the lounge, sitting next to one another on the sofa and seemingly waiting for the other to start talking first.
“So,” Merlin finally said after sipping his wine, “What was it that you wanted to talk about?”
Austin’s expression shifted from one of content to one of deep thought, and Merlin let him sit in silence to figure out what it was he needed or wanted to say.
“Did magic really exist back in the Arthurian Era?”
Merlin blinked away his surprise before sighing and resting his glass on the table next to him. “Well, according to the evidence we’ve collected—”
“I’ve told you before, Marcus, to hell with the evidence. I don’t want to know what everyone else in the community has agreed on, and what they still dispute. I want your honest opinion, and only yours.”
He looked up at him with a small smile. “Yes. I believe magic did truly exist back then, and not just sleight of hand and visual illusions we consider magic to be today.”
“Who would have practiced this magic then? Why would it not still exist today?”
“Well, Arthur’s father, King Uther, outlawed magic shortly after Arthur’s birth. His reasons are—complicated, to say the least—but he pushed the boundaries of his outlaw even further. Anyone who practiced magic within Camelot’s lands were put on a list to be rounded up and executed. It was a time known as the Great Purge. Not many survived that time period, and those who did fled the borders. Anyone who came into Camelot after that hid their magic, so the only real people known to have magic would have been the druids.”
“So you think that magic is gone because there was not enough of the druids left to keep magic alive?”
He shook his head. “No. It’s… hard to explain.”
“I’m all ears.”
“Well, I think there could be some people who have magic in them, but it has gone dormant. I imagine the genes or pieces of DNA or whatever it was that let them use magic is still passed down through the generations even to this day, but something made them stop practicing, so no one knows how to use it or reactivate that part of them anymore. There’s also a possibility that some people who have magic and know how to use it still exist, but they have grown up learning how to hide it so that they would not be persecuted, and therefore we would never know they even have magic.”
He tilted his head curiously, completely enraptured by what Merlin had to say and hanging onto his every word. “So anyone could be able to use magic, and we would never know?”
“Correct,” he answered slowly, suspicion slowly growing in the pit of his stomach. “Why are you so curious about it anyway?”
“Oh, well…” he shrugged. “I guess I just… had been thinking about it recently. I mean, if all of these things really did exist, like people who used magic, or magical creatures…”
“The creatures are a different story,” Merlin chuckled.
“Well, most of them were dangerous. While no one really believes the questing beast ever existed, it was said anyone struck by it would die. The venom of a Cockatrice was so potent, even a single drop would mean certain death. I’m not surprised they’ve died out as people defended their homes from attacks.”
“So unless the skeleton of one was recovered, they would probably remain myths, huh.”
“Yep. Though, even back then they still had their fair share of myths, creatures of old that were either rarely seen or had already died out and become a thing of legend. That’s why I try and work so hard to convince everyone the Arthurian Era was real—most legends are formed on the basis of truth.”
He shook his head. “All of this stuff—it’s amazing to me what we can forget about our own history.”
“Some people just don’t listen.” Carefully, he studied Austin to try and see if he could determine a different meaning for this conversation. For him to show up, in person, in the middle of class, just for this? It didn’t seem like the typical conversation that would come from something supposedly urgent… His thoughts were interrupted as Austin stretched, his arm slowly creeping out along the sofa behind Merlin before his hand landed on Merlin’s shoulder, gently tugging him closer. Merlin let him pull, his thoughts melting away as he landed on Austin's side, snuggled up next to him. “Was that all you wanted to talk about?”
He made a low, noncommittal noise which Merlin knew had to mean there was something else he wasn’t saying. Once again, he gave him a chance to think it over, not pushing him into saying something he wasn’t ready for.
“I’ve been having some strange dreams of late is all,” he finally said, sighing so that Merlin could feel the rise and fall of his chest. “They’ve had me thinking.”
“Do you want to talk about them?”
“I dunno. They’re all nonsense anyway, really. The only thing I can really make sense of in any of them is…”
He paused for a moment. “Well… it’s you, Marcus. You’ve been in all of them, in quite possibly the strangest get up I’ve ever seen.” He chuckled and shook his head. “I’ve probably been eating too many sweets too close to when I go to sleep lately. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“Well, I’m flattered anyway to hear you’ve been dreaming about me. I imagine you’re the damsel in distress and I’m the knight in shining armor come to rescue you?”
“Yeah, like that would be the roles we would take. Remind me who had to drive for hours in the middle of the night when the other was injured?”
“You didn’t have to drive in the middle of the night. No one asked you to come and check on me.”
“Alright, you’ve got me there. Still, I think we both know that I’d be the knight.”
“If that’s what will help you sleep at night, then by all means, believe whatever you want.”
He could almost hear the way Austin rolled his eyes. However, the subject was quickly changed after. “Do you need to focus on grading tonight, or do you think you’re up for a film?”
“As long as it’s not a long film; I think I got enough done at work today.”
“Right. I’ll pick one out that’s a decent length, don’t worry.” He reached over for the remote, stretching out and causing Merlin to fall further into his side.
He hoped the film was going to be interesting at least, for the warmth coming from Austin and the way he was snuggled up against him might put him to sleep before it ends. Though, he supposed he wouldn’t mind whether he fell asleep or not, as long as he got to sit there and spend time with Austin, he would enjoy his evening.
Chapter 16: The Reappearance
Merlin sat down on the sofa with his laptop in hand, glad it was finally the weekend. It seemed like classes would never end—it wasn’t the student’s fault, of course, just the amount of work that was piling up for him. If he had a productive day today, he might be able to push his way through most of it, and maybe he and Austin could have a nice day together tomorrow. He was thinking about taking Austin out to one of the nearby parks, disappearing into the trees along the designated trail and getting lost in the foliage together. Soon it would be too cold for a trip like that, so he thought they should make the most of it.
He fumbled a little with the remote for the TV before turning it on and setting it to the news channel, just looking for some background noise to fill the otherwise silent morning. With the volume turned low, he could almost imagine he was back in his office listening to students pass by or people talking in the offices around him. The only difference was his seat, which was much more comfortable here.
The papers for his Arthurian Era class were already finished—he liked doing them first, as he loved teaching that class the most—but he had assigned some of his other classes essays too as he was grading the others, and now he had to read through and grade all of the new ones. At least he didn’t teach English, so he was allowed to give them relatively short guidelines.
He immersed himself in the papers, trying to write at least a few comments on each to help guide them to their mistakes and show them how they might fix it. He couldn’t catch all of their mistakes if he wanted to get the grading done in a decent time frame, but he still wanted to help them out. As he did, the news continued on in the background, cycling through stories about crimes, kind-hearted stories, and all the ridiculous ads they could muster. He largely ignored it all, grading paper after paper, until he realized it had suddenly grown quiet.
Looking up at the TV, he saw that the news anchor had stopped talking and was holding the earpiece in her ear, her face screwed up as she was listening intently. He lowered the screen of his laptop so he could watch what was happening better, intrigued.
“Breaking news,” she finally said, dropping her hand to once again lay on the desk in front of her. “A large, unidentified beast has torn through a nearby neighborhood. So far there are no deaths, but a few are critically injured while several others are stable. All are being rushed to the nearby hospital and those first responders on the scene have expressed a positive outlook on their conditions.”
Slowly, Merlin pressed the screen of his laptop down all the way, shutting it and setting it to the side as he hung onto every word she said. He remembered belatedly to turn the volume up so he wouldn’t miss anything. It had to be the creature he had seen in the crystal cave—and it was nearby. Something about both of those facts combined didn’t feel right and it left a pit in his stomach.
“We’ll keep you updated here as police arrive and try to figure out what exactly happened. Eyewitness reports say the creature was at least twice as tall as a human, had large wings, and sharp claws that tore through several buildings and smashed through a couple of car windshields. It’s unclear what kind of creature this was, however—hold on. Reports say it was last seen heading East. Police are keeping an eye out as they—”
The TV shut off suddenly as Merlin leapt to his feet, dropping the remote back onto the soft cushions, grabbing his mobile and his keys, and rushing out the door. As soon as he started the car he turned the radio onto the news so he could listen, opening the gate with a hurried glance and burst of magic as he backed out onto the road.
“Come on,” he said as he fumbled with his mobile, trying to call Austin with one hand as his other gripped the steering wheel. The beast was heading straight for them, as far as he knew. There was a chance it could veer off into a different direction and he was worried for no reason, but he had a strange, almost instinctive feeling that that wouldn’t happen. And, having grown up with and lived all of his life using magic, that feeling wasn’t something he would easily ignore.
The call went to voicemail and Merlin cursed under his breath, putting a little more pressure onto the gas pedal. He slid the end call button and was prepared to make another call, but a loud honking caught his attention instead. While he wasn’t paying attention he had drifted slightly into the oncoming traffic and was about to hit a car coming towards him. He quickly turned back into his lane but lost his mobile in the process as it slid out of his hand and tumbled to the floor of the passenger seat.
He returned his other hand to the steering wheel and glued his eyes to what was in front of him, deciding to just head straight for the firehouse and hope for the best. If the creature truly was a beast of magic, there was nothing anyone could really do but hope it ran away and left them alone. However, if it showed up here, Austin would more than likely be one of the first people on the scene, and likely one of the first to be rushed to the hospital if Merlin didn’t get him out of there.
A loud screeching noise like a mangled bird broke through his thoughts and made him wince as it’s volume was too loud for him to bear through the sudden surprise of it. He glanced up from the road to see an animal flying that was far too large to be any bird he knew to live in the country. It had to be the creature in question. And, from the looks of it, it was beginning to descend. After a quick debate in his head, he swerved off of the road he was on and turned onto the next, chasing after the creature and just hoping he could get to Austin before something happened to him.
The creature was a lot faster than the car was, even pushed to the limits Merlin was making it go, so he soon lost sight of it. He continued in the direction it had gone, however, and followed his instinct. Soon he didn’t have to do either—he simply had to roll his window down and follow the sounds of human screaming and inhuman screeching. After going around the roundabout once, trying to figure out what turn would bring him closer to it, he turned off and nearly hit a car trying to flee the scene.
There was a trail of destruction alright—gutters ripped from the buildings, shattered glass scattered about the ground, and a few wounded people struggling to help each other get away as blood smeared their faces. The flashing lights behind him indicated help was about to arrive, so he didn’t feel bad for zooming past without a second thought, allowing himself to be selfish and continue past. Several cars along the road were smashed, while others had long claw marks gorged into their sides.
Following the carnage he finally found where the main action was currently taking place—flashing lights and emergency vehicles littered the streets around a park as they tried to contain the creature and stop it. Several trees had been knocked down or cut in half, and it seemed like nothing they were doing slowed the creature down in the slightest.
He recognized the number on one of the fire engines and immediately turned into the park, driving through the grass with reckless abandon as he went straight for the fight, pushing the gas pedal into the floor. The beast slowly came into view through the thick branches and dying leaves, and it was exactly as the news had described it. Much larger than a person, its wingspan had to be twice the width of itself. The wings looked similar to an eagle’s as did it’s head, while the rest of it's body looked more like a lion. He recognized the creature the instant he saw the whole picture—he remembered Lancelot once saving him from a griffin and knew it was the same—and an instant later, he rammed the beast full force with the front of the car, the shock of the impact sending it flying away sideways through several trees and stopping the car in the middle of the clearing.
Looking out the window at the stunned first responders around him, he saw Austin in the front row of them, his look even more incredulous than the others. Relief washed over Merlin as he saw he was still standing and seemingly uninjured. “Get in!” he called through the open window, quickly leaning over to push the door open.
“Merlin? What the bloody hell are you doing here?”
“Saving your arse,” he answered, waving him on. “Hurry before it gets back up! I think I know a way to stop it!”
Austin looked around at the others for a second before rushing over, sliding into the seat and shutting the door behind him in one swift movement.
Merlin put the car into reverse and started backing up before Austin even had his seatbelt on, turning around with reckless abandon before driving off once more through the city streets.
“Would you like to explain to me what is going on?”
He bit his lip as he took a sharp turn too fast and nearly hit a streetlight. “I don’t know that we have time for that.”
“Alright,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ll let that go for now. Will you at least tell me where we’re going?”
“The cottage is too far. We’d never get there in time. So, the university it is.”
“In time for what? Marcus, I don’t—” he cut himself off and sighed deeply. “Alright. I will accept, for now, that we don’t have time for questions. However, I expect answers when this is all said and done.”
“You’ll get them. Whatever questions you have, I’ll let you ask.” Now, whether he believed the answers or not only time would tell. And if it affected their relationship at all…
Merlin checked the rearview mirrors just in time as the griffin approached, swerving out of the way as it slammed into the pavement where he had just been.
“What the hell?” Arthur yelled, turning in his seat to look behind him. “Why is it following us?”
“If someone just hit you with a speeding car, would you let them run?”
“Fair point, but I really don’t see how this will help us defeat it.”
“I know, but we’re just a few turns away. Once we’re in the building we’ll have some time to figure things out—” he swerved again and swore under his breath. “Just hold on.”
Austin did as he said, one hand on the dash and the other on the ceiling to hold him in place as Merlin finally pulled through the university, slamming on the breaks once they reached the doors closest to his office. “Head upstairs!” he said as he unbuckled himself and pushed the door open, watching Austin do the same.
“It’s coming back!” he yelled before running towards the building. “And the doors are locked!”
Merlin turned around and saw that the griffin was, in fact, almost upon them again. After taking a breath and shaking his head, he resigned himself to only feel determination as he lifted his hand in the griffin’s direction and muttered a few words under his breath. He watched as the griffin bounced harmlessly off of an invisible barrier, it’s momentum sending it back down the road far enough that by the time it recovered, they should be safe inside.
“What was that?” Austin said as he stared at Merlin, dumbfounded. Merlin didn’t answer and simply swept past him to the doors, opening them with a simple touch. The griffin had to go, no matter the cost.
“You won’t answer anything I ask, will you? Usually you’re such a chatterbox, but now that I am bewildered and you seem to be the only one to understand anything that’s going on, you won’t talk to me.” They climbed the stairs together, two at a time, and Merlin’s hands slowly curled into fists. “How did that thing just bounce back like that? How did you open the door without a key? What is happening anymore?”
“There is too much happening at once to try to explain,” he finally said, leading them through the hall and into his office. He paused in the doorway and looked up at Austin, meeting his worried gaze with a determined one of his own. “You just have to trust me, Austin. I can’t say anymore than that right now.”
He gulped and nodded shortly without another word.
Merlin finished walking into the office and went straight for the bookshelf, pulling books off as quickly as he could in search of the one he needed.
Austin cleared his throat after a few moments and said, “Is there, uh… anything I can do to help?”
He shook his head and turned around with a book in hand, quickly opening it and flipping through the pages.
“Right… Don’t mind me then, I’m going to take this suit off so I can run better, in case it’s needed.”
He quickly took off his uniform so that he was only wearing his regular clothes again as Merlin sat the book down on his desk, passing through the animal and creature names that begin with the letter F and right into G. When he hit the griffin page he sat down and leaned over it to read through the passage as quickly as possible, the tiny print hard to read without magnification.
“Hey, that looks like that thing outside,” Austin said, looking over Merlin’s shoulder and seeing the illustration. “Wait… a griffin? Those are myths though. That—that can’t be possible.”
“Most legends are formed on the basis of truth,” he said, repeating his words from their last conversation on a similar topic. He then started muttering to himself under his breath, trying to form a plan. “A creature of magic… one born from magic itself, impervious to any normal weapon…”
“What are you saying?”
Realization dawned in his eyes as he looked up at Austin. “But there are still a few weapons that aren’t normal. They’re extraordinary.” He jumped up and ran out the door, leaving Austin to chase after him and shout more questions that fell on deaf ears.
They ran to Merlin’s exhibit, where Merlin burst through the front door as it magically opened up for him. Austin wasn’t far behind at that point, so when Merlin made a beeline for the back corner and stepped past the rope and onto the pedestal, he was there to watch as Merlin gripped Excalibur tightly and pulled it from the stone.
He panted and watched Merlin examine the sword for a moment before saying, “Alright, I don’t know what’s weirder. That you were able to pull that from the stone like it was nothing, or the fact that you seem to expect us to use it on the griffin.”
“It’s the only thing that can defeat it,” he answered, picking up the nearby shield as well before walking right back out the door. This time, instead of questioning it, Austin just shook his head, took another breath, and followed after him.
When they made it outside they saw that the griffin was still nearby, terrorizing some of the other buildings on campus and trying to claw its way in. Merlin had picked up some sword-fighting skills from watching Arthur, and while he was no expert and was very rusty, he was sure he’d be able to get the job done.
“Hey, loser!” he yelled as loud as he could, banging the sword against the metal shield so the clanging sound echoed in the street. “Over here, you overgrown magpie!”
The griffin took one look in his direction and bounded over, perhaps even faster than Merlin anticipated. He managed to take the brunt of the first attack with the shield, but before he could lift the sword to strike the griffin, he was backhanded by the other paw and flew several feet until he hit the ground with a loud thud.
“Ow,” he said, blinking as his entire body screamed at him. The sword and shield had both clattered to the ground in different directions, and Merlin lifted his head slowly as his vision swam only to see Austin pick the shield up off of the ground.
“No,” he croaked, but it was too late. The griffin tossed both Austin and the shield to the side and Merlin watched as he landed close to Excalibur, now both out of Merlin’s reach, even if he stretched out as far as he could.
Seeing both of them on the ground, practically still, the griffin seemed to think they were taken care of and it turned around to attack a nearby car, thankfully leaving Merlin’s unscathed besides the initial run in.
Merlin forced himself up, crawling towards the sword and dragging it with him as he continued towards the griffin. Merlin stopped halfway, out of breath and dizzy beyond belief, certain at least one of his ribs was broken. He was surprised by a hand on his and looked up as Austin pulled Excalibur from Merlin’s grasp, studying the blade with a curious expression as if it had just shown him the secrets of the world. He stood up on shaky legs and nodded down at Merlin, a trickle of blood falling down his temple as he settled into a relaxed fighting position. Merlin's heart began to beat fast, recognizing it as the image the crystal had shown him.
“I’ll distract it,” Merlin said, trying to stand up.
“No. You’ll only hurt yourself more, Mer—”
“You underestimate just how stubborn I can be,” he said, finally pushing himself upright. Flashing a smile at Austin, he said, “This was my mistake, and I’m going to help fix it.”
Before anything else could be said he limped towards the griffin, forcing his feet to move forward and his body to stay upright. His arm quivered as he raised it, but with a flash of his eyes, a ball of fire escaped from his hand and hit the griffin square in the back. Enraged, it turned and reared up, ready to claw Merlin to pieces. Austin rushed in as it was in the air and thrust the sword up right into its heart, the momentum and gravity of it falling back down helping pierce it further. In a flash of near blinding light the creature disintegrated, pieces of it falling to the ground before they too disappeared.
They both stood there panting for a few moments, shocked but glad it was over, before Austin turned and took a couple steps forward and Merlin fell into his arms. They hugged each other as tight as they could until they heard the distant wailing of sirens heading their way, after which they immediately untangled from each other and looked around as if deciding what to do.
Merlin decided the conversation they were going to need to have would better happen in the cottage, so he directed Austin to the car and they drove back in complete silence, adrenaline still wearing off and Excalibur still tightly clutched by Austin’s hand.
When Austin collapsed onto Merlin’s sofa, tired and weary, Merlin found the adrenaline had returned and he began pacing back and forth, his mind running too fast for him to process everything it was trying to say.
“I know you have questions,” he began, carefully making sure each turn he took to pace across the room in the other direction faced away from Austin so he didn’t have to look at him. “I just—it’s a lot to explain, it will be a lot to take in, I’m not even sure where to begin.”
“I mean, there’s so many different ways I could start, but no matter what topic I decide to explain first it’s just going to create more questions…”
“How about you let me—”
“And I don’t even know if you’re going to believe everything I say!” he threw his hands in the air, exasperated. “I know if I was the one on the receiving end of this news, I would probably think the other person was insane! I don’t want it to come off the wrong way and for you to hate me, or for you to think I’m just a nutcase.”
“Why don’t you just—take a deep breath and calm down, Merlin.”
He nodded, stopping his pacing and closing his eyes so he could focus all of his attention on the breath. Of course Austin was right, he just needed a moment to calm down and think clearly—
Merlin whirled around, his heart trying to escape his chest as he stared incredulously at Austin. “What did you just say?”
“I said—to take a deep breath and calm down…” he repeated, brow furrowing. “Is there something wrong with that?”
“You—that’s not all you said, was it?” he shook his head, his teeth grinding into one another as he struggled to keep his emotions in check. “Of course it wasn’t, because… you said my name. You said…” He took a step back, his hands reaching up to tangle in his hair as tears pricked his eyes. “Arthur?”
His eyes grew wide as he seemed to realize what he had said. He looked desperately for a way to escape the truth, but it was clear he came up with nothing when he dropped his head in defeat. “Merlin, if you’ll let me explain—”
But he wouldn’t. Merlin had already turned around and walked out of the room when he said his name again, and he kept going until he slammed the backdoor closed and walked out into the garden, silent tears streaming down his face even as his chest filled with an unimaginable feeling of betrayal.
Merlin didn’t make it very far when he stormed out into the garden. His first instinct was to put as much distance as he could between himself and Austin—no, Arthur—but in the end, he only made it to the brook. He ignored the bench in favor of sitting directly on the bank, the ground soft and molding to his shape and his feet quickly soaking wet as he dipped them into the water, shoes and all. At the moment, he had bigger issues to worry about.
The feeling of betrayal bubbled and boiled within him, but the running water of the brook slowly took over instead, slowing down his emotional turmoil and washing away his anger until it filled him with only numbness. He stared down at the water as his head emptied of all thoughts, the first real moment of calm washing over him since earlier that morning.
A few of the water spirits poked their faces out in bubbles forming along the surface of the water, but they all disappeared back under the current without a word. They were clearly curious about what was happening but knew better than to bother him at the moment.
“Is it a habit of yours to sit at the edge of bodies of water?”
Merlin disguised his surprised flinch as a shiver, the chill of the water finally catching up to him in that moment. He didn’t answer, however, and didn’t even look over at Arthur. He didn’t know what to say, so he thought it was better he didn’t say anything at all. Quietly, he wiped his tears away with the back of his sleeve.
“I guess it is a rather peaceful place to brood.”
“I’m not brooding,” he snapped, turning his head in Arthur’s direction, “I’m—”
Arthur sat a little ways down the bank from him, cross legged but facing the water just like Merlin was. Still, when Merlin couldn’t come up with a good explanation for what he was doing, a small smile crossed his face. Merlin sighed and turned away again, this time fixing his attention to a tree on the other side of the brook.
“What’s the significance behind the lake anyway?”
“It’s the lake of Avalon,” he said, picking mindlessly at the hem of his sleeves. “It’s where I was…” his voice faltered, so he took a moment to collect himself before continuing. “I was supposed to find the power to heal you there. Instead, it ended up being where you died, and where I sent your body out onto the lake.”
“You say I died, and yet…”
“The once and future king,” he said without needing the rest of the question. “The prophecies said you would unite the land, and, after you died, you would return when Albion needed you most.”
“And the world thinks it’s now?”
“The world, the gods, fate itself, can go fuck themselves for all I care. It’s been centuries, Arthur, and—so many bad things happened, so many things that I swore were going to bring you back from the dead. And yet, there was no sign of you. I started to lose hope, thinking the prophecy was wrong, or the wound you suffered was so grievous it ruined the prophecy. And yet, when they do bring you back, it seems it was only to play tricks on me.”
“What do you mean?”
He forced himself to look over at Arthur again, stilling his hands and studying him for a few moments, trying to remember the tells of his emotions, the ones he never let others know he was feeling but could always be seen by those observant enough. His face was still covered in grime from the fight, but the wound on his temple had stopped bleeding and was all dried blood now. “How long have you known?”
Arthur sighed, his lips trilling as he looked up at the trees, the leaves in the middle of changing their colors from green to a multitude of oranges, reds, yellows, and browns. “A few hours.”
“How is that even possible?”
He shrugged. “As soon as I took the sword from you it all came flooding back… but we were in the middle of a fight, and all I could think of was… well, I didn’t want to see the griffin hurt you. So I pushed everything to the back. I’m still trying to sort it all out, it’s—a lot.”
A moment of silence stretched through the air as Merlin let his words wash over him. It seemed he was telling the truth, and the details he had said were too concise to say otherwise.
“You know, when we first met, I thought you were… well, you. It took time to separate Austin from Arthur in my mind. It turns out all of that was in vain, for Austin never really existed, did he?”
Arthur picked up a twig and started spinning it between his fingers, drawing Merlin’s focus. “In this case, Merlin, I think you’re wrong. There are several things that make more sense now that I have my memories—why I couldn’t remember much from before the firehouse for one, and why I seemingly had no previous family or friends. But I still lived as Austin. I still have his memories, his feelings—I was Austin. And I think I still am. I still hold all of his memories, his feelings, and the more I think them over, the more I feel they were me all along. Nothing he—I did is something I regret, or would ever take back. If I had known who I was all this time, my path would still have been the same.”
“Yeah, sure. How about you think that over a little longer.”
“I have. That’s what I did inside while I gave you your space. I figured some time would give us both a chance to think over what had happened, calm down, and approach the topic with level heads. I’ve always cared for you, Merlin, I’ve always been willing to put my life on the line to protect you. Driving all the way out to the dig site when I heard you were hurt? That reminds me of the dozens of searches I started—and the few I led—any time you were missing. I think that, had we been born in a different time, I would have chosen you, the person I cared for with all my heart, over Gwen. While I cared for her as well, I do wonder if I chose her instead out of a sense of duty, a necessity to carry on the bloodline.”
Merlin frowned and shook his head. “You can’t possibly mean that.”
“I mean, it will never happen, so there’s no use in trying to figure out who I would choose. We can’t go back into the past.” He shrugged. “But I still firmly believe in my choice in this lifetime, and that choice is you, Merlin. You’ve always been there for me, whether I was Prince Arthur, King Arthur, or Fire Chief Austin. You mean more to me than you might ever know. But, if you need time to figure it out, now that I’ve realized who I am—”
He stood abruptly, sinking further into the cold water but finding that he didn’t care as he stepped out of it and shook the water off. Arthur was startled by the movement but stood up as well, wearily watching as Merlin stormed over to him. With a force like a sledge hammer, Merlin smashed their faces together, his nose hurting from the impact but ignoring it as he pressed his lips into Arthur’s. He nearly cried again when he felt Arthur’s pushing back against his, chapped and dirty but a blessing nonetheless, and for a moment, they fought against each other’s force to keep from falling over.
They finally broke apart when they needed air, gasping, but Merlin brought his hands up on to Arthur’s shoulders and pulled them close once more, gently resting their foreheads against one another. “I’m glad you’re back.”
“I’m glad you found me,” Arthur smiled. “I don’t know what life is without you.”
“Probably boring and dull.”
As if Merlin’s words were a cue, Arthur was suddenly thrown forward into Merlin, knocking their heads together as Merlin barely managed to keep them both upright. He rubbed at his head as Arthur stood himself back up and looked at Gwaine, who had somehow snuck up on them and decided it was his turn for some attention.
“You have a unicorn?” Arthur asked when he turned around. “How did you manage to hide that?”
“Very, very carefully,” he chuckled. An apple appeared in his hand and Arthur blinked, surprised. “Would you like to feed him?”
Gwaine didn’t let the apple pass between their hands, however, snatching it right out of Merlin’s hand before turning around, hitting Arthur with his tail, and trotting away.
Arthur blinked again. “Yeah, having you around definitely keeps me on my toes.”
“Well, now that the moment’s ruined,” Merlin began, gesturing back to the cottage. “I have something for you.”
They returned to the lounge, where Merlin muttered a quick spell to lift a dusty ornate box off of the top of one of his bookshelves. It gently floated down to him until he held it with both hands, turning around to see Arthur watching intently.
“It just—that magic still surprises me is all.” he said to answer the unasked question.
Merlin merely nodded and brought the box over to a table, opening it to reveal the bright red padded velvet inside cushioning the polished bronze crown. “I grabbed this after Camelot fell, taking it as a keepsake to later return to its proper owner.” He gently pulled it out and lifted it above Arthur’s head, gently resting it back in it’s rightful position.
Arthur lifted his hand to touch the edge of it and looked back down at what he was wearing, grimacing. “It probably looks terrible with just a shirt and trousers, doesn’t it? And maybe I should have cleaned my face up first...”
“I think it looks like it has found its home once more,” he smiled, leaning in once more to steal a kiss from Arthur and delighting in the way Arthur’s arms wrapped around him to pull him closer. Maybe the crown wasn’t the only thing that had found its proper place again today
One more chapter tomorrow to wrap the story up! I can't believe we've made it this far! Thank you all so much for your kind words <3
Am I still saved in your phone as clotpole?
Really? I don’t get anything fancy, even after remembering everything?
What, you want me to go all romantic?
“My prince,” “My king,” etc.?
I’m just saying, I thought we were past that.
Fine. I’ll change it.
Yep. It now says “Royal Prat.”
I hate you.
I hate you too.
So, what’s up?
Well, I was just wondering—why am I here?
Someone had to make my life insufferable, why not you?
Alright, I’ll give you that.
But what about that prophecy?
You’ll have to be more specific.
You know—that I return when Albion needs me most. So why am I here?
Are you just not going to answer? It’s been five minutes.
I’m at work, cabbage head.
I’m doing other things too.
Fine. I’ll just come over then. Be there in a few.
Aren’t you at work too?
The guys can handle things around here for a while without me.
Merlin sighed and pushed his mobile back across his desk so that the charging cord wasn’t stretched to its limits. There was no convincing Arthur otherwise, he knew that, so instead he picked up his office phone and called Anne, letting her know Arthur was going to stop by.
He usually kept an open door policy when he was holding office hours, so after Merlin finished grading a homework assignment, Arthur walked in without even a knock, shutting the door behind him and plopping into one of the chairs.
“Hello to you too,” Merlin said, not looking from his computer until he made sure all of the grades were in and published for the students to see.
“I brought chocolates,” he said in response, lifting the box up in his hand to show Merlin before setting it down on the desk. “Thought you could use some, the way work has hit you recently.”
“And how much have you eaten already?”
“Hey! I haven’t had any of it yet.”
“Yet,” Merlin muttered under his breath. He pushed away from his computer and turned to face Arthur, folding his hands together on his desk. “So, you came to talk?”
“Yeah. The secretary greeted me by name. I think I come here too much.”
“That is not why you came.”
“Well you start the conversation then. I already asked my question that you didn’t answer.”
“Alright.” He paused and pulled a notebook out from one of his desk’s drawers, flipping through the pages. “You’ll find a list here of recent disturbances I’ve written down.”
“You expect me to read?”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “There’s been more and more unexplainable things happening lately. I think magic is returning to the land.”
The smile slid off of Arthur’s face as he sat up straight in the chair, suddenly serious. “What do you mean, returning? It died out?”
“Well, yes. Everything outside the walls that mark the edge of my property slowly lost any signs of magic. But ever since I found Excalibur, and then you appeared, the signs of magic have been steadily returning. It's the one thing that really did unite the lands back then, and since it's the only thing now left of Albion... well, we’re going to have to keep an eye on it and keep it under control. That will have to start with somehow convincing everyone that the Arthurian Era even existed, which, after several years, I still haven’t managed.”
He groaned. “I can’t believe I come back to my senses and have to figure out politics again. Can’t we just let it progress naturally? Or, if you show off your magic, suddenly everyone will believe you?”
“Those who don’t believe in magic will listen to the logical side of their brain. No matter what I do, how impossible the magic is, they’ll try and come up with a logical explanation. They might not believe until something extreme happens—but you saw what they did to the griffin.”
“Just because that lion happened to escape the zoo around the same time… and the flying part was written off as a mass hallucination? Who does that?”
“Exactly. A simple magic trick won’t convince anyone. We’ll have to put some thought into this.”
Arthur frowned, looking past Merlin in what seemed like a deeply thoughtful pose. However, the next words out of his mouth were, “Is that my old hunting knife on your wall?”
Merlin sighed as Arthur stood up and crossed the room to look at the knife up close. “We’ll work on that more later.”
“It’s so weird seeing my old things on display. Do you think I can get any of them back?”
“I already made a replica Excalibur so you could keep the sword in the boot of your car. What more do you need?”
“Yeah, you’re right. Most of it’s useless nowadays anyway. I definitely don’t miss having to sit in a saddle to get everywhere.” He turned to look at Merlin. “Does everyone believe the sword downstairs is still the same one?”
“There’s no way they’d notice a difference. It’s a perfect copy, made with a simple illusion spell. The only difference is it would be utterly useless as an actual weapon, and doesn’t have any magical properties to it.”
He narrowed his eyes. “You sound awfully confident in your ability to fool people with magic. Almost like you’ve done it before.”
“Arthur, if you knew the amount of times I used magic to fool you or your knights, you’d probably slap me.”
His brow furrowed in thought. A look of realization crossed his face as he suddenly said, “You cheated, didn’t you!”
“On that dice game,” he added quickly. “When we were in the tavern not long before the battle of Camlann. You kept winning round after round and stealing all of my money, and you used magic to make the dice roll what you said!”
“That was literally centuries ago. Get over it.”
“It feels like it was recent to me! Where’s my money?”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but gold coins aren’t exactly currency anymore.”
Arthur opened his mouth to attempt some witty retort, but a sharp knock on the door drew their attention immediately, like dogs spotting a squirrel.
“Come in,” Merlin called, giving Arthur a look that silently told him to behave.
The office door swung open quickly, letting a bedraggled student in. She didn’t even bother to look around before swinging it closed and blurting out, “Dr. Hermite, I think—I think I have magic. I know how crazy that sounds, but—”
Merlin and Arthur looked at her with amused smiles as she realized they weren’t alone. Her eyes grew wide and her mouth fell open as she began to stammer and back away, causing Merlin to step in before she could apologize for nothing, or worse, run away and not have this seemingly important conversation.
“It’s alright, Em. You can trust him as much as you trust me. Now, what leads you to believe you have magic?”
She nodded quickly, staring at Arthur for a few seconds before sitting down in the chair he had recently vacated. “I’ve been having—dreams. I know—I know. It sounds crazy. Everyone had dreams. But I’ve never had anything like this before. I’ve been getting these strange, almost deja vu feelings recently, and just today realized it was because I was seeing these events before they happened. You mentioned in class that it was likely this is how Morgana’s powers first developed, and…” she clenched her hands and looked down at her fists. “I felt like if I had gone to anyone else, they would have called me crazy. But it’s happened too often for it to be a coincidence.”
Arthur and Merlin shared a look of understanding and realization that held for a little too long as Em saw it when she looked back up, trepidation creeping into her expression.
With a sigh, Arthur interrupted the resulting silence and reached down to clap Merlin’s shoulder. “I think I’ll leave you to handle this, Merlin. I’ll be by later, love.”
Her jaw dropped once more as the smile grew wider on Merlin’s face, who didn’t deny anything. With a light kiss on Merlin’s cheek, Arthur began to walk towards the door.
“Thank you, sire,” Merlin called out, earning a middle finger in response before Arthur left the room and closed the door behind him. With only the two of them left, Merlin once again folded his hands on his desk as he fully faced the chair.
“I… I thought your first name was Marcus?” she whispered, in shock.
“Everyone goes by different names throughout their lifetime, don’t they? I know I’ve adopted several, considering how long I’ve been alive.”
“But…” she trailed off, clearly trying to process the fact that her whole idea of reality just turned upside down.
“I want you to know this before I say anything else.” He leaned out of his chair to get closer to her and look her in the eye. At the serious tone his voice had taken, she managed to regain her composure and close her mouth, intent on listening. “Magic is nothing to be afraid of. Especially if it’s your own. It’s a part of you, just like your hair or your freckles.” A smirk danced across his face to lighten the tone. “I’m sure you have questions.”
“Oh, I have so many,” she admitted, breathless.
“Right. Now, where shall we begin?”
That's it, friends! I can't believe it! Thank you to everyone who read along, and to those of you reading it all at once, I hope you enjoyed! I put a lot of effort into this, and to see it's finally come to completion is both sad and satisfying at the same time.
If you're interested in seeing when I post other works, or just want to chat, I'm over on Tumblr!