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And like the cycle of the year, we begin again

Chapter Text

He fell into darkness surrounded by Merlin’s cries.

“Arthur! No! Arthur!”

As the strange weight crawled into his bones, Arthur had one last wistful thought: 

If Death itself couldn’t force Merlin to obey, then what chance had he ever had as a mere king?  

Arthur wanted to tell his friend this gibe, to turn Merlin’s desperate cries into wry laughter.  But he no longer had the strength to speak.  He no longer had the strength to do anything.  Certainly not to fight this heavy weight pulling at him. Down, he sank, away from his life and his lands, from his castle and his country, from his friends and his foes.  

At his side, Merlin screamed his rage at destiny and fate and the spirits of the world, his words charged with such power that Arthur could feel it resonating within his bones. 

“I can’t lose him! He’s my friend!”

The fabric of the world rippled and surged under the force of Merlin’s pleas.  But the darkness did not loose its grip.  

Arthur let it take him into its numbing embrace, relieved to leave behind all pain and loss, all battles and betrayals.  Grateful to be going to his rest at last. 

And yet...

Arthur strained to focus one last time on the living world.  To take one last memory with him.  Just one, to hold, while he slept.

Of the feeling of his body rocking on soft waves.  Of drops of saltwater falling upon his cheeks.  Of hoarse sobs mixed with whispered words of power. Of a warm, tender hand pressed to his forehead.  

Merlin, he thought.  

And the name was a goodbye, and a thank you, and a promise, all in one.

But then the world fell away.  

And all was darkness and peace. 

There was no time here, where he was, and yet he could feel the years surging past him.  There was no consciousness either, and yet he somehow knew that everything he had known was now gone.   

These were simple facts, devoid of emotion.  Nothing mattered here.  He simply existed.  That was all.

Sometimes, though, a ripple from the living world pierced the timeless nothing, to touch him in the dark.

Memories would flow in, fleeting but intense.  Gleaming castle spires and clashing swords and laughter and betrayal and love and friendship and a warm hand upon his forehead and blue eyes searching his face and a hoarse voice screaming his name.

Arthur...

Darkness swept it all away every time. 

From within his world of timeless nothing the world spun on and on, the sun rising and setting, the generations of man living and dying, growing and changing, transforming into something beyond his imagining.

Arthur...

Again and again the voice would come, touching him lightly in the void.  Strong and weak. In pain and in laughter. Each time reminding him who he was, who he had been, who he would be, if only for a moment.

It was like that for a long time.

Until quite suddenly, it wasn't.  

Arthur... Please...

This time, the voice brought a flood of memories and emotion and life that did not recede.  

Merlin, he thought. 

Arthur turned from the darkness, focusing on the voice.  This time, it let him go. 

Arthur, called the voice.

He focused on the name with everything that he was.  

And then thought again:   Merlin…

 

Chapter Text

Merlin ground his teeth as he strode down the street, his long coat whipping around his tired legs. His grip on his bag was so tight that his knuckles hurt and his wrist shot pains up his arm.

“That woman!” he spat out, in an attempt to prevent his anger from setting the nearby hedgerow aflame. “We shall be having words, Eleanor Mabel Godwyn,” he said to himself, then had to spit out a few wayward hairs that the wind blew into his mouth.

He hauled the strap of his heavy bag higher onto an aching shoulder. The damp weather was playing hell with his joints today. And of course the long walk back from the Widow Abbernathy’s stables wasn’t helping.

Sick horse indeed! he thought. He should have known Eleanor was playing matchmaker again from the moment he’d walked into the stables. The only sick animal there had been the Widow Abbernathy.

Brazen old woman, Merlin thought. Honestly, someone her age, pinching his arse.

The roar of engines pulled him from his thoughts, and he moved closer to the hedgerow to let a large blue lorry speed past him on the road. Probably more supplies for the Summer Solstice Festival, he thought. The chaos of preparation was a nuisance every year. Still, he was looking forward to the festival itself. He could already taste the freshly made meat pies and chips-

‘Merlin.’

Merlin stopped walking, all thoughts of busybody friends and summer festivals gone.

For one long moment, he stood perfectly still.

Listening.

But nothing stirred the fabric of the world. Nothing was out of place. The ancient magics were as they had been for centuries. There beneath the surface. But silent.

Off to his left, the waters of the Lake of Avalon rippled to the shore in greens and greys. Upon the island in the center of the water, the tower’s ruins stood broken and still.

Idiot, he thought. And then forced his tired feet to carry him forward.

It took another few minutes before he reached the low stone wall that ran between the narrow village road and his estate.

He peered up at the large stone structure sitting in the middle of its wide lawns by the lakeside.

The North Tower needs stone work again, he thought. The seam between the rounded three story tower and the rectangular stone body of his manor house was always giving him trouble. The South Tower looked much better on the other end of the manor. But then, he’d built that a hundred years later. He’d learned a bit more about masonry by then.

“Emrys!”

Merlin pretended not to hear the call of the old woman by the front door of the manor house. Instead, he paused by the wooden gate in the low stone wall, adjusting a wooden sign declaring “Avalon Café and Apothecary” that hung from a nearby post.

Then, just to be contrary, he brushed some imaginary dirt from the sign that hung below that, which read “Avalon Museum” in small painted letters.

“Emrys Hunithson! I know you can hear me!”

Merlin brushed off some more invisible dirt, because his backside was still smarting him, then strolled casually through the gate and down the stone walkway to the main entrance of the stone manor house.

In the tall arched doorway, a short, thin, grey-haired 80 year old woman stood scowling at him, her arms crossed over a dress covered in far too many flowers. At her side were two young men in blue jumpsuits, clearly representing one of the Summer Solstice Festival vendors. The first man held a clipboard to his chest like a shield. The second was clearly attempting to hide behind the first.

“Everything under control, Eleanor?” Merlin asked sweetly.

“Are you Mr. Hunithson?” one of the men asked quickly, with a wary glance at Eleanor.

Before Merlin could answer, Eleanor spoke up. “Have you not just heard me call him that name? Honestly. And I told you he’d be here. Not that he needs to be here to sign for your tents. I told you I can do it.”

“It’s just- Can you sign, sir?” the man said, and thrust his clipboard at Merlin.

“Eleanor runs the festival for me, young man. She can sign for whatever it is that’s so important that you’re blocking the door to my business and my home.” He pointed at the customers who stood behind the open double doors, wanting to leave the café beyond.

Eleanor grabbed the clipboard as the men stepped out of the way of the customers. “There,” she said, thrusting the clipboard back at him. “Now get moving. The tents need to be up by this afternoon, before the food vendors. And don’t put a tent over the Stone Circle!” she called after them, as they rushed away. “It caught on fire last year!” She pointed at Merlin. “Which was your fault, if I remember.”

“I was only trying to-“ Merlin caught himself and gave her a furious stare. “Nevermind that! I have a bone to pick with you, Eleanor Mabel Godwyn! About the Widow Abbernathy!”

She tipped up her chin and looked down her thin nose at him. “I have no idea to what you are referring.”

He followed her into the vestibule to the house. “I am referring to the supposedly sick horse that supposedly required my personal attention!”

“Was her horse better when you got there?”

“Her horse was never sick! Which I could easily see from every angle imaginable as she tried to corner me in the stables! Stop laughing! It’s not funny!”

He saw her cover her mouth with her hand as she walked into the cavernous main room of the main building, her laugh echoing on the stone walls.

Merlin hadn’t really meant to make the main part of the manor house a replica of Camelot’s throne room in size and scale. But somehow, it had happened. He had modern decorations hanging from the walls, and WiFi, and it was filled with café tables and customers, with a lunch counter at one end and his Apothecary at the other. But otherwise, it was quite close indeed.

Well, except for the glass wall that faced the lake, he thought. Though that had definitely been an improvement. The floor to ceiling glass allowed natural light to fill the cavernous room. It also allowed an unimpeded view of the Lake of Avalon, and its tower.

“Do be sure to wash off that smell of horse manure, Emrys,” Eleanor said over her shoulder, as she moved through the dozens of small round tables filling the hall.

People seated nearby glanced up at him from their coffee or tea and sandwiches as he strode after her. Well, unfamiliar faces did anyway, he noticed. The regulars just kept working on their laptops or ate their food. They’d heard Merlin bickering with Eleanor before.

Merlin stopped in the middle of a group of empty tables. “Eleanor!” he said sharply, in the tone that Gaius had always used when he had done something dangerous that had nonetheless saved the kingdom, not that anyone was thanking him for it of course.

Eleanor turned around and studied his face curiously. “Are you in pain, Emrys?”

“I am not in pain. I am giving you The Eyebrow. Do you see it? Right here?” Merlin pushed up the corner of his eyebrow with an arthritic finger. For fifteen centuries he’d walked the earth, and still he couldn’t mimic that thing Gaius did. “This,” he informed Eleanor, “is the Eyebrow of Disapproval. Because of you!  Setting me up with a village widow! Again! Which I specifically told you I did not want you to do!”

“If the Widow Abbernathy isn’t your type, I know a few others who would be interested.”

“What? No! That is the exact opposite of what I’m saying! Are you listening?”

“Only when you make sense.”

Merlin yanked his knit hat off, sending long strands of white hair flying wildly in the air around his face. “Why have I never sacked you? You never do what I tell you!”

“That’s because I know what’s best for you,” she said.

Merlin’s reply died on his lips, as memory replaced the waking world.

“Why do I put up with you, Merlin? You never do what I tell you to do.”

“That’s because I know what’s best for you, my lord. You’d be totally lost without me.”

“Oh, is that so?”

“Absolutely. I doubt you could even find your royal backside on your own.”

“I’m sure I’d find it twice as fast.”

“If you did, it would only be on account of its massive size.”

“Shut up, Merlin.”

A touch on his arm drew Merlin from his thoughts. Eleanor was standing in front of him, indistinct and blurry. He blinked, and felt tears slide down his cheeks and into his beard.

“I need to get these herbs to the Apothecary,” he told her in a low voice, touching his hand to his shoulderbag.

She started to speak, paused, then nodded. “When you’re done, meet me in the park. I know you’ll want final say on where the Cornish Pasties vendor should set up. Heavens forbid that he’s too far away.”

“They were sold out by the time I got there last year,” he informed her.

“I think I do remember you mentioning that for three solid months after last year’s festival,” she said wryly, and turned to go.

Merlin watched her weave through the café tables, greeting people as she passed. A request from a customer made her nod, and walk to the narrow end of the hall, where the thrones had been in Camelot. A long café counter stretched across the space, beyond which was access to both the kitchens and to his own residence in the North Tower.

When Eleanor reached the counter, even more customers smiled at her, chatting happily, or holding out empty cups towards the teapot she offered them.

Merlin sighed, his anger from earlier now mostly gone. He never could stay angry at Eleanor for long. She was too good of a friend. She had been for thirty years now. Yes, she nagged and she meddled, but it was because she cared. She was only matchmaking to give him what she’d found late in life with her second husband. Someone to care for. Someone to look after.

Someone to be the other side of the same coin.

Merlin’s gaze drifted up from the customers at their tables, to the Lake of Avalon visible through the glass wall.

‘You have no idea what I have to put up with in your absence, Arthur,’ he thought at the tower.

‘You mean fending off an old woman with eager hands?’ came the memory of Arthur’s voice, chiding and exasperated.

‘I’d like to see you try and deal with her. She’s a force of nature, is what she is.’

‘Oh please. Something like that should hardly be a challenge, Merlin. Even for you.’

‘Cheeky woman left pinch marks on my backside.’

‘Is that why you hid in the empty stable from her? That was hysterical, honestly…’

“Oh shut up,” Merlin said fondly, startling himself with the sound of his own voice.

He glanced around to see if anyone had noticed, then frowned back at the tower. It was bad enough to routinely have imaginary conversations with someone who was dead. It was worse to have them out loud and in public.

Merlin heaved a heavy sigh.

He really had been alone too long.

Behind him, someone cleared their throat. Merlin pulled himself together, to discover a young couple standing there, both clearly nervous and a bit red in the face.

“Yes?” he asked, even though he could guess what they were about to ask him.

“Can you- I mean-“ the girl glanced at her young man, who was studying the stone floor with great interest. “We’re hoping you can, um. That is, we saw on the internet that you sell, um. An elixir?”

“Follow me,” Merlin said, and led them out of the café area, to the opposite end of the hall. A stone wall closed off the south end of the building. Double glass doors were set into it, under an old wooden “Apothecary” sign.

Merlin pushed open the doors and walked into a room filled with rows of shelving. Each shelf held bottles and boxes and jars of various potions, as well as herbs, soaps, and other herbal remedies he and his assistants made for sale.

“Wait right here,” Merlin said to the couple, and walked over to the far wall, to the sales counter that stretched along it.

His assistant Danyl sat behind the counter by the cash register, his black hair nearly obscuring his eyes as he hunched over his laptop. On a chair next to him sat his other assistant Heath, who today looked as if he’d just walked off the rugby pitch, his blond hair mussed and his face ruddy, his dirty trainers up on the counter while he played a game on his phone.

Merlin shoved his shoulderbag onto the counter right where Heath’s feet were, nearly toppling him off his chair.

“Oi!” Heath shouted at him.

Merlin held up the sleeping bag that he’d carried all the way from the Widow Abbernathy’s house. “I am not your pack horse!” he said, and threw the bundle at Heath. “If you need anything else from your Gran for Festival camping, get it yourself.”

“I would have had to leave poor Danyl alone with the shop,” Heath said. “You know he’s completely helpless here without me.”

“Only if we’re talking about brainlessly lifting boxes,” Danyl informed him. “Then sure. You’re definitely better at that.”

“So you’ve been watching me, eh?” Heath held up his arm and flexed his bicep at Danyl.

“You wish,” Danyl muttered.

Merlin noticed Danyl’s ears go red, and Heath’s gaze linger on Danyl’s profile. Good gods, Merlin thought, it’s like being around the stallions in the stables again.

“Which reminds me,” Merlin said to Heath. “The next time I get a call about your Gran’s horse, you’re coming along with me to see if it's actually sick. Maybe that will help your Gran keep her grabby hands to herself.”

Heath watched in horror as Merlin made groping gestures with his long fingers. “Oh my god please stop,” the young man begged him.

“That’s what I kept saying to your grandmother,” Merlin said, just to have the satisfaction of watching Heath cover his face with both hands.

“Ugh- Seriously, that’s- You guys are like a thousand years old!”

“At least,” Merlin agreed, and pushed his messenger bag at him again. “So help an old man by taking those herbs up to the greenhouse on the roof for drying. But first…” He picked up a small glass bottle from a group sitting on display on the counter. “Give this to that young couple over there, will you?”

After Heath had gone, Merlin rounded the counter and took his seat beside Danyl. His feet were aching from the long walk this morning. In fact, everything was aching today. He felt every bit of the 90 years his body now wore. That, and a little more, besides.

“I’ve got to ask you,” Danyl said into his thoughts. “I know you don’t always like to say… But I have to know. What’s that Magic Elixr stuff that’s been selling like crazy lately?”

“Vitamin C, Vitamin B, a little anisette for scent, and a little bit of honey, for sweetness.”

Danyl gave him an incredulous stare. “But- That’s not anything special. People are raving about it online. They say it- That it- Well. That it does all kinds of things.”

“In the bedroom, you mean?” Merlin said, and happily watched Danyl close his eyes and make a horrified and disgusted face at him. Because honestly, what was the point of being old if you couldn’t torture young people now and then?

“Yes, yes, that. Those ingredients shouldn’t have anything to do with that.”

“Sometimes,” Merlin said, “all it takes is a little mystery to get the real magic to work. So you better not tell Heath what I just told you. It might ruin any fun you two might have together.”

“Ssshhh!” Danyl hissed at him, with a glance over to where Heath was vanishing up the spiral stairs to the floors above.

“Haven’t you told him how you feel yet?’ Merlin said, not bothering to lower his voice.

Danyl waved an urgent, silencing hand at him. “I’m waiting for the right time!” he said in a low voice.

“How much longer are you going to wait? Until it’s too late? You’ve been pining for that boy for weeks!” Merlin turned towards the stairs leading to the roof. “Heath!”

Danyl grabbed his arm. “Oh my god what are you-“

“Yes?” came the call down the stairwell.

“Danyl would like you to go with him to the Summer Solstice Festival. On a date. As a couple. Romantically.” Merlin slapped at Danyl’s hands as they pulled at his coat. “What do you say? Will you go with him and put him out of his misery?”

“I am never telling you a secret again!” Danyl moaned into the hand that covered his face. “You are the worst secret keeper in the history of secret keepers!”

“Tell him I’ll go,” came Health’s voice down the stairwell. “And tell him it’s about damn time he asked me.”

At Merlin’s side, Danyl went still, his eyes widening.

“The older you get, Danyl,” Merlin said, “the more you realize that some secrets shouldn’t be kept.” He gave Danyl’s hand a little pat. “Trust me on that.”

 

Chapter Text

“I told them if they don’t keep their clothes on this year, it’ll be the last time they’re welcome at the Solstice Festival.”

Merlin stifled a laugh as he walked beside Eleanor through the park adjoining his property.  “I’m sure that will keep them in line.”

“I should think so!” Eleanor said, ignoring his sarcastic tone.

Merlin sidestepped one of the many workmen who were either constructing wooden booths or setting up tents throughout the park.  Vendors and musicians and performers mingled among the crews, all preparing for the weekend’s festivities.

“All that Neo Druid and Neo Wiccan and Earth Children nonsense,” Eleanor was muttering.  “Just an excuse to run around bare-arsed and pissed if you ask me.”

“It’s better that than what they could be getting up to.”

“What in the world could be worse?”

A flash of memory.  Of screams waking him from sleep.  Of thirty men in pagan robes gathered under the solstice moon.  Of children held at swordpoint, about to become sacrifices to the gods of the latest invaders of Albion.

Rage had consumed him at the sight, and his magic had exploded from him, crushing the men against the tree trunks with such force that the trees had snapped in half and flattened the forest all around him.

He could still remember the nausea and shock he’d felt at the sight of crumpled bodies and decimated forest.  The children he had saved had all run away. Terrified of the death and destruction.  Terrified of him.  He hadn’t blamed them, and he hadn’t chased after them. He’d wanted to run from himself too.

It had taken him two days to bury all the bodies of the dead men. 

It had taken him two years to use magic again without seeing their unmarked graves.

“Emrys?”

He realized they had stopped walking beside a low wooden stage.  Eleanor stood facing him, surrounded by young men and women holding guitars.  All of them were looking at him expectantly.

“Sorry?  What?”

“I said, Emrys, that this is where the band will perform. They’ll be separated from the camping area on the far side of the park, but within walking distance of the food vendors at the hilltop by the road.”

“Yes. Good. Of course. That’s… Sorry, was there a question I should be answering?”

Eleanor heaved a clearly exasperated sigh, but smiled at him.  “Do you just want me to take care of it?”

Merlin took her hand in both of his, affecting as humble an expression as he could muster after fifteen hundred years. “Would you, my lady?”

“Old fool,” she said, and swatted at his arm fondly. “Go on then.  Off with you.”

Merlin wasted no time in leaving the group to their plans.  The coordination of the Avalon Solstice Festival was definitely best left to Eleanor. He had no skill for such things.  And no love for them either.

No, he was much better at tending his gardens, and making soaps and elixirs for the apothecary, and tending to what ailments he could for people in the village, and writing books for his library.

And waiting. 

He was very good at waiting by now.

Merlin strolled through the park, hands shoved in the pockets of his long coat, watching vendors set out their wares on the few completed booths.  Already he saw several of them bearing signs claiming to sell items of magic .

These children of the new age, Merlin thought wistfully.  All of them longing for the old ways. But none of them with even a hint of real magic.   

Which probably was for the best

Merlin pulled his coat closed against a chilly wind as he wandered into the camping area. “We’re going to have a word about tomorrow’s weather,” he said up to the grey clouds.  “There’ll be none of this nonsense for the first day of summer.”

It would only take a little nudge of the ancient magics of the earth to ensure a sunny warm day.  Not a difficult bit of magic to perform at all.   Not for him, anyway.  Not for a long time.

His winding path eventually brought him down to the grassy lakeside, to a fifty foot wide circle of waist high stones.  Locals had been calling the rock formation the Stone Circle of Avalon for centuries now.  It was the main feature of the park by the same name that bordered his estate.   It had even been declared a National Trust Property a few years back. 

A lot of damn fuss over a calendar, Merlin thought, as he strolled over to the circle’s heelstone.  He’d only built the thing to mark the passage of time. His own body had been useless in that regard.

Merlin glared across the rippling lake at the ruins of the tower on the Isle of Avalon.  Two sides of the same coin, he thought.  I should have known it was more than an expression.  I should have realized that if Arthur would endure, then I would too. 

And endure they both had.  Separate, and alone.  At opposite ends of existence. 

Year after year, century after century, lifetimes of man, Merlin had lived on and on and on, ever since that horrible day when he’d placed Arthur’s body in a boat and sent him to the Sidhe.

Merlin pressed a wrinkled palm against the coarse rock of the heelstone, his eyes upon the green grasses beneath his worn boots.  Right here, he thought.  Right here in this spot, it had all come to an end. 

He could almost see his younger self on the grass, abandoned even by the great dragon, kneeling beside Arthur’s body, begging the unfeeling universe one last time to give Arthur back to him, pleading with the ancient magics of the earth to please let Arthur stay, please, just let Arthur stay-

‘Merlin.’

Merlin’s gaze snapped to the ruined tower.  

I felt that, he thought.  I did.  I know I did.

Merlin dropped to his knees and toppled forward, pressing his hands to the damp grass and cold earth.

“Inbringe cume mec onbregdan cume her!”

His magic rose to fill him, and he sent it at once deep down into the ground, stretching past soil, past rock, deep into the liquid core of the earth below. Finding no trace of what he sought, he surged with his magic up through sea beds, up through the oceans, up into the clouds, then back down to earth again in the rain that flowed to the rivers, and to the lake, and upon the shore, until finally rushing back into his body.

Merlin heaved in a breath as if emerging from deep water.  He saw the world tilt, felt his body list sideways, and fell hard to the ground. 

“Nothing,” he whispered to the ruined tower, or at least to what he could see of it through the long white hair covering his face.  “But that’s… I felt something… I did… I did…”

Someone shouted his name nearby.  With great effort, he lifted a shaking arm and pressed his palm to the ground to push himself up.  When his body refused to cooperate, he rested his cheek upon the cool grass instead, and pulled what strength he could through the natural forces of the living things all around him.

Too long, Merlin thought.  It had been far too long since he’d connected with the ancient powers.  He’d let his body grow too old and weak to support the attempt.

“This is your fault, Arthur,” he muttered into the grass.

‘How is it my fault?’

“You’ve been gone so long that I’ve actually turned into an idiot.”

‘You were already an idiot when we first met, Merlin.’

“Better an idiot than a royal arse.”

“Some help over here!” he heard Eleanor shout.

“I’m all right,” Merlin muttered, and with a grunt of effort, pushed himself to his aching knees.  After pawing his hair out of his face, he realized Eleanor and several of the construction workers were standing around him, staring at him in obvious worry.

“Should we call Emergency Services?” one of them asked.

“No you should not. I’m fine.” Merlin got a foot under him and extended an arm to the man.  “Just help an old man to his feet, will you?”  Instead of taking his hand, two of them men stepped to his sides, grabbing him under the armpits like a child and hauling him to his feet. “I’m fine, I’m fine.  Let go.  It’s just a bit of low blood sugar from not eating today,” he added, because that was always a good excuse for magical exhaustion.

“I’ll take him inside and make him eat something,” Eleanor told the rest of them. She grabbed hold of Merlin’s arm in a grip worthy of a Knight of Camelot.  “Come on.”

Merlin tried to shake free from her grip as she walked him up the hill towards his property.  “I can walk on my own.”

Eleanor let go of him, watched as he staggered sideways when he tried to take a step without support, then sighed loudly and grabbed his arm to steady him again.

“Oh shut up,” he told her.

“I wasn’t going to say a word,” she said, as she walked him through the park and towards the wooden side gate to his property.  His legs were unsteady under him as he passed through it, and he nearly lost his balance twice before they bypassed the wide porch stretching along the glass wall of his house.

Eleanor passed the glass doors to the café and guided him towards his private entrance in the North Tower. “Do you have your keys?”

“Why would someone like me need keys?” Merlin said, then stumbled in surprise at his too honest reply.  Apparently he was not as unaffected from his collapse as he thought.

“Just because you own half the lake region doesn’t mean you should leave everything unlocked,” Eleanor said, proving once again how easily modern people believed what they wanted.   “There’ll be hundreds of people here in a matter of hours to camp out for the festival tomorrow.  You need to protect your things. Such as they are,” she added, as she led him through his front door and into his residence.

His rooms on the first floor of the North Tower were sparse indeed.  Although the layout was open and modern, with living area flowing into dining area flowing into kitchen, it was definitely more empty than minimalist.  A few paintings hung on the walls, and long curtains hung beside tall narrow windows in the rounded stone walls.  But there were no real signs that someone actively lived there. 

Which made sense, Merlin thought.  Because he didn’t.

Eleanor sat him on his ridiculously overstuffed sofa and went to get him food in his kitchen.  As he relaxed back into the cushions, he heard her saying something to him about the sad state of his refrigerator, and his habit of taking food from the café kitchens.  

Ah, he thought sleepily.  She must have discovered the sandwiches I nicked this week.  Or possibly the bag of scones I took from the bakery counter this morning.  Or possibly the flavored creams from the café.  Or, come to think of it, just about everything else that I have in there.

“Eat this,” Eleanor said, startling him awake by shoving a plate into his hand. “Go on.”

“I’m not a child,” Merlin said, grabbing a muffin from the plate, and taking a petulant bite of it, sending crumbs cascading down into his beard and onto his coat. 

Eleanor watched him eat, her arms crossed tight over her flowered disaster of a dress, worry deepening the wrinkles of her narrow face, pressing her lips into a tight line.

“What?” Merlin asked, finally.

“You wonder why I’m trying to find you someone, Emrys.  Well.  This,” she gestured to his crumpled form on the couch, “is the reason.”

“I’m fine, Eleanor.”

“You are not fine-”

“I told you. I just didn’t eat today.”

“That’s exactly what I mean.  If you had someone to keep an eye on you, you’d be much better off.  I know I have been, since I found my Frederick.”

Merlin leaned back against the sofa, his eyes falling closed.  He was so unspeakably tired.  He could feel the exhaustion deep in his bones.

“Let me find you someone special-“ Eleanor began.

“I already had someone special,” he said, because he was too tired to lie about this anymore. “But he’s gone now.”

There was a long moment of silence.  And then a soft “oh”.  Finally, there was a movement by his side on the sofa, as she sat next to him.  “He,” she said.

“Yes. He.”

“All these years,” she said, and she sounded hurt now.  “All this time we’ve known each other.  And you never said.”

He drew in a deep breath, sighed it out, turning his head on the couch to look at her troubled expression.  “It wasn’t like you’re thinking.  Between him and me.  At least. I didn’t even realize.  Not until he was gone.”

She placed a hand on his arm.  “I wish you’d told me.”

“It was a very, very long time ago.”

Another long silence.  “You know,” she said finally, “I happen to know there are quite a few eligible older gentlemen in the village…”

Merlin huffed out a laugh.  Because honestly. She was just relentless.  “Eleanor,” he said, and covered her hand with his own.  “My dear, dear friend.  Thank you for what you’re trying to do for me.  But please.  Don’t.  Because there is only one person I belong with.  And no other person will do.  Believe me.  I’ve tried.”

She squeezed his hand, her expression unspeakably sad.  “Promise me you’ll eat the rest of that,” she said.

“Yes, Eleanor,” he said, in his best doddering old man tone yet.

“And get some rest,” she said, more in her normal tone of voice.  “You’ll need it for the festival tomorrow.  I’ve hung your Merlin costume behind your bedroom door, by the way.  Try not to set it on fire again this year.”

“Ah yes,” Merlin said, and smiled tiredly.  “That’s right.  Tomorrow I get to be Merlin again.  That’s always nice.”

“I don’t know why you don’t just use your own name,” she said, as she picked up his plate and put the muffin back in his hand.  “Emrys was Merlin's name in the legends too, after all.”

“No one knows that,” Merlin said, and took another bite of muffin after she gestured for him to eat again.  “Believe me.  It’s easier living as Emrys than it is Merlin.”

“A good thing you weren’t named after your father, then.”

That’s right, Merlin thought.  He’d told her when they met that his father was named Merlin. That had been his name, during the second world war.  It had all been so long ago.  He couldn’t remember what lie he’d told the people in the village when he’d replaced his older self as a young man.

He watched her walk the plate to the kitchen through half-lidded eyes.  Sleep was pulling at him, even as he struggled against it.  “Did you put my hat and cape with my costume?” he asked.

“Of course I did.  You can’t be a wizard without a hat and cape, now, can you.”

“Never wore a hat, back then,” Merlin said, as his eyes drifted closed.  “Well.  Almost never.  Only when Arthur made me.  Hardly ever wore a cape, too.  Shame, really.  Always liked red.  Probably for the best… Could have caught fire… All those times with the dragons…”

He felt her lift the muffin from his fingers and press her hand to his arm.  “Take a nap,” she said.  “Then have some of those sandwiches you nicked from the café later and go to bed.  You’ll feel better in the morning.”

He tried to say that he would do no such thing.  But the door to the main house was barely closed behind her before he felt himself pulled into sleep.

He woke several hours later, groggy and disoriented.  A single lamp barely illuminated the dark room.  Outside the narrow windows, night had long since fallen.

Scrubbing a hand over his face, he got to his feet and staggered across the room to his downstairs bedroom.

He didn’t bother checking to see if the Café or Apothecary or South Tower Museum were closed and locked.  He trusted the people who worked for him. They cared for this place.  And they cared for him too.  He had no doubt things would be secured for the night.

After stumbling into his downstairs bedroom, Merlin walked past the meticulously made bed, over to a small closet door in the far wall.

He opened its door to reveal a circular stone staircase lined with candelabras.  Candles flickered to life as he climbed the stone stairs, guiding him up to the second story of the North Tower.  

Which is where he actually lived.

Merlin emerged from the stairwell into a long stone corridor that ran the length of the North Tower, lakeside to roadside.  Its walls were lined with burning torches that flickered to life at his presence.  Between the burning flames, tapestries of bright red hung from the walls, all bearing the yellow dragon of the Pendragon crest. 

The corridor would have been familiar to many in Camelot.   Especially if they had ever walked the halls between the king’s chambers and the rooms of the Court Physician. 

With a yawn, Merlin turned left down the corridor, to head to his room within the chambers of the Court Physician.  But after only a few steps, he slowed, and then stopped.

How long? he wondered.  How long since he’d checked on Arthur’s rooms?  A few weeks perhaps?   Or- no.  No, that couldn’t be it.  Outside it had been snowing, hadn’t it?  Yes, that’s right. He remembered noticing the cold.

But the last snowfall had been months ago.

Merlin turned, and stared down the corridor at the closed wooden double doors.  

“That can’t be,” he muttered.  “It can’t have been months.”

But when Merlin pushed open the doors to Arthur’s chambers, the stale air that rushed out at him told him all he needed to know.

It hadn’t been months since he’d tended to these rooms. 

It had been years.

Merlin stared into the dark rooms, at the shuttered windows and the closed drapes and the dark candles, breathing in the rank smells of musty fireplace and dusty stone and neglect. 

Hugging his coat to his chest against the chill, Merlin walked into the stone anteroom, past Arthur’s desk and table and chairs.  He stepped into the archway to Arthur’s bedroom choking on dust, blinking it from his eyes as he regarded the dimly lit wardrobe and dressing screen and canopied bed.

He could be standing in Camelot, in Arthur’s rooms when he had been a prince, if not for the stillness and disuse of this place.  He’d let himself pretend it more than once in the past.  In moments of weakness.

Merlin waved a hand at the dozens of tall candles on their iron stands and in their wall sconces, sending magic to light them.  They flickered to life all around him, chasing away the darkness, revealing the carefully reproduced rooms.

Upon every surface, he saw a a thick, white, layer of dust.  On Arthur’s table. On his parchment.  On his bedding.  On his pillows. Everywhere.

Merlin stepped over to the wooden frame of the standing mirror beside Arthur’s bed. “Look at this,” he said, and dragged two fingers through the layer of dust coating the surface.  “I can’t even see myself.”

‘You say that like it’s a bad thing, Merlin.’

“Vanity was your specialty, Arthur, not mine.”  He grabbed the sleeve of his coat and wiped away a larger section of mirror, revealing an old man he barely recognized as himself.

‘Gods, Merlin, what happened to you?’

‘That,’ answered another voice, a younger voice, an angrier voice, ‘is a very damn good question!’

For a split second, Merlin saw in the mirror not the man he was, but the man he had been.

Young.  Powerful.  Furious

‘Look at yourself!’ raged his younger self.  ‘Look at what you’ve become!’

Merlin wiped the rest of the dust from the surface of the mirror with his bare hand, top to bottom, until he could see his actual reflection staring back at him.

His long white hair was wild around his face, his beard contained bits of grass, his coat was dirty from the trip to the stables, and his clothes looked like they’d been slept in, more than once.

He was, in fact, the very image of a mad old sorcerer who lived in the wild.

‘Where is the warlock who took on the Saxon Army?’ his younger self railed at him.  ‘Where is the man who stood as equal to dragons?  Where is the sorcerer who ran headlong into fire and danger and death?’

“He’s dead,” Merlin choked out. “He died, on the shores of Avalon, with his king.”

Sudden rage filled him, at a fate he hadn’t wanted, at a destiny he had failed to avoid. Merlin grabbed hold of the mirror’s wooden frame, and his magic surged forth, shattering the glass into dust. 

He thrust a hand into the dust cloud, churning his fist through it, forming it into a whirlwind.

You want power? he thought furiously.  I’ll show you power.

He pushed more magic into the whirlwind, expanding it until it filled the room.  Its winds left Arthur’s possessions untouched, but lifted every spec of dust and dirt from the room, until all traces of neglect were gone.

Merlin thrust his arm towards the bedroom window, and the curtains flew aside, the shutters banging open, the double glass windows bursting outward.  He shoved his palm forward, and sent the tempest of dust out of the window, up into the sky, where it exploded like a firework. 

The sound of it shook the glass, and vibrated in his chest, a sound so loud that it would be heard in the Village of Avalon down the road.

Let them come, Merlin thought furiously.  Let them come and let them try to take me away from Arthur to some laboratory for study. I will call the lightning from the heavens.  I will open the earth to swallow them whole.  

Merlin felt himself shaking as the ancient magics surged around and through him, flowing in brilliant rivers of color and light that pulsed and vibrated and sang in his blood and his bones.  Within the undulating currents he saw molecules and atoms and electrons and quarks and bits of matter so small that men had not yet discovered them.

So easy to manipulate, he thought wildly.  So easy to shape and rend.

Merlin grabbed onto the mirror’s empty wooden frame, and with barely any effort, twisted and warped the atoms of the air.  Within the empty frame, the air shimmered, vibrated, then solidified into a flawless mirror.  

Inches away, Merlin’s reflection stared back at him in perfect detail.

The entirety of his eyes shone with gold.  His body was glowing from within as well, a ghostly yellow shining through even his clothes.  His lips were pulled back in a sneer, his expression a death's head grin, and his expression was twisted into a horrifying mask of merciless, limitless power.

Merlin’s hands jerked away from the frame, his body convulsing in his shock.

He must have staggered backwards, because he felt the bedpost hit his back and his head.  He focused on the pain, desperately trying to come back to himself.

‘As clumsy as ever, Merlin.’

“Yes,” he choked out.  “Clumsy and an idiot and the world’s worst servant, yes, that’s who I am, that’s what I am, tell me Arthur, tell me that’s who I am…”

‘Well you’re also a total cabbage head, obviously, if you can’t remember something so simple.’

Merlin nodded frantically, his eyes squeezing closed. He could always remember Arthur better with his eyes closed.  Arthur with his blue eyes and blond hair and fine clothes and jacket and boots, his hand on the hilt of Excalibur, a fond smile on his lips. 

“What else,” Merlin said through a tight throat.  “Please… What else… Arthur…”

‘You’re also the most loyal and bravest man I know.  And you’ve never forgotten your duty.  So don’t start now.’

Merlin’s eyes snapped open, for just a second believing that Arthur was standing there.

The candle lit room sat silent and empty around him, still faintly smelling of dusty stone and stale hearth and too many years without someone having set foot in it.

Merlin pushed himself from the bedpost and staggered to the open lakeside window on legs that threatened to give out at every step.  He leaned upon its stone sill heavily, weak and shaking down into his bones, heaving in deep gulps of cold night air. 

In the darkness of night outside, both the lake and its tower were hidden from view.  But Merlin knew they were there.  They were always, always there.

“Please,” he said to them.  “I can’t do this anymore.  Not alone.  Without him, I’ll…”

Memories flashed before his eyes, of sorcerers whose powers had grown unchecked, who had twisted the world to suit their desires, who had put themselves on a higher throne than man or god.

Monsters and murderers, driven mad by the power of magic, all of them.

And none of them had ever held even a fraction of the power Merlin now possessed.

“Please,” he begged, of the Sidhe, of the ancient sleeping magics of the world, of any of his magical kin who may still be left.  “Please.  Give him back to me.  I need him.  I need him.”  He pressed his forehead to the stone.  “Please...”

He stood with his head bowed until his thoughts swam and his legs almost buckled beneath him.  With the last of his strength he stumbled to Arthur’s bed, pulling off his coat, kicking off his boots, before crawling fully clothed under the blankets.

The linens smelled nothing of Camelot.  Nothing of Arthur.  Nothing did here anymore. 

I’ll wash it all tomorrow, Merlin thought.  Not with magic.  But properly.  With my hands. With the soaps I make just like the ones in Camelot. 

Merlin pushed long white strands of hair out of his face with trembling old fingers, feeling every single year of his long life weighing heavy on his body.

“I’ll do better,” he whispered into the soft fabric beneath his face.  “I promise, Arthur.  I’ll do better. I will.  I will.”

‘All right, Merlin.  All right.  Just rest now.’

“I’m sorry…”

‘I don’t want your sorrys, Merlin.  I want you to sleep before you do something truly stupid.’

“There’s a list already,” Merlin whispered into the pillowcase.

‘Of that I’m certain.’’

Merlin felt his thoughts slide away, melting into dreams.  In them, Arthur stood by the bedside, shirtless and in sleeping breeches, blond hair mussed, blue eyes fond.

“Really, Merlin? Sleeping in my bed? Does your insolence know no bounds?”

“There’s room for you here as well,” he heard himself say, his voice young and strong.

“I should throw you in the stocks,” Arthur said, but slid into the bed next to him.  Then, as if he had done this many times before, Arthur wrapped his arms around him and pulled him close.  “Now go to sleep.”

Merlin pressed his face into the warm skin of Arthur’s neck.  He felt a heartbeat there, and it made him want to cry, though he didn’t know why.  “There are other things we could do instead,” he told Arthur.

“In the morning,” Arthur said, and slid a hand around to caress his face.  “We’ll do all those things in the morning.”

“Promise?”

“Yes. I promise. Now for once in your life, do as I say. Go to sleep. You’re exhausted. And bad things happen to you when you’re exhausted.”

Merlin frowned against Arthur’s neck.  Yes, bad things did happen. But he couldn’t remember what.  Something about a forest.  Something about a tower.  And there was a boat, wasn’t there?

“Don’t think about it,” Arthur said.

He nodded, relieved. “Yes, my lord.”

A press of lips against his forehead. A warm breath on his face. “Good night, Merlin.”

“Good night, Arthur,” Merlin said, and slid into dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Merlin shoved the blankets from his face and squinted against unexpected sunlight.  Outside the open bedside window, he saw that the sun had risen above the ruins of the tower.

With a grunt of effort, Merlin pushed himself up to his elbows.  Arthur’s chambers, he remembered.  That’s where he was.

It was odd, seeing the rooms from this angle. He half expected someone to walk through the door and haul him to the stocks for being here without permission.  Though come to think of it, that someone probably would have been him, bursting in without knocking, to get Arthur out of bed.

“Let’s have you, lazy daisy,” Merlin said in a low voice, and smiled to himself.

‘Now what have I told you about “let’s have you lazy daisy”?’

"That it’s better than ‘rise and shine’?”

'No, Merlin.’

“What about ‘early bird catches the worm’?”

'Merlin?'

“Yes?”

‘Shut it.’

With a soft laugh, Merlin sat himself up on the edge of Arthur’s bed.  His joints ached as he moved, probably from the damp lake air that filled the room.  When he stood, his knees cracked, threatening to sit him down upon the bed. 

This was no good, he thought.  He had to fix this.  Right away.

Dragging a spare blanket around his shoulders, Merlin left the room, heading down the corridor to a door beyond the stairwell. Unlike the rest of this floor, the room that lay beyond that door had definitely not been a part of Camelot.

When he stepped inside the room, candles in wall sconces and on iron stands sprang to life, their light flickering on the smooth tiled walls and floor, the enormous glass encased shower, the oversized claw footed tub, and the row of sinks standing beside the enclosed toilet area.

After he’d drawn his bath – thinking for the millionth time how grateful he was not to have to haul hot water buckets up flights of stairs – Merlin stripped down and climbed into the bath.  His eyes fell closed as he sank into the water, a sigh passing from his lips. 

Too old, he thought.  He’d let himself get far too old.  Time to do something about that.

With great care, Merlin reached out to the elemental magics of the earth.  Even at this light contact, the magics surged into him, rebuilding his muscles and bones, removing years from his body.

Not too much, he thought, and interrupted the flow of the magic before it could change his appearance too noticeably.  He wasn’t quite ready to stop being an old man.  Not just yet, anyway.

By the time Merlin left the washroom, all of his aches had gone. His legs were strong beneath him as he walked to his own chambers, and he didn’t even need to sit down to change into the loose black cotton clothes he would wear beneath his costume today. Combing his beard and hair was even a simple matter, without the pains in his hands and shoulders.

A good thing I have some of my strength back, he thought.  Because I have chores to do.

For the next two hours, Merlin focused on getting Arthur’s rooms in order.  He washed the bedding and hung it to dry, then did the same to the drapes by his windows and bed.  After throwing the windows open to the breeze, he drew water into a bucket and scrubbed the floors until the stones were smooth and clean beneath his feet.

When he had finished cleaning and had put all the linens back in place, Arthur’s sleeping chamber and adjoining room smelled of fresh air and soap and the vanilla scented laundry of Camelot.

Fit for a king, Merlin thought, and patted the pillows of the bed.

“Now.  Let’s see what’s going on with this weather.”

Merlin moved to lean on the stone sill of the lakeside window.  The Solstice Festival had begun already, he realized.  He could hear distant sounds of music and people’s voices. The breeze that stirred his hair already carried the delicious smells of frying foods.

Merlin peered up at the sad little grey clouds that floated in an overcast sky.  The air still held its morning chill, even though it was close to lunchtime.

“I know you want to rain,” he said to the clouds, “but for today and tomorrow, let’s have a bit of summer, all right?  After that, you can rain all you want.”  Merlin stretched out his arm into the soft breezes.  But then hesitated.

A spell, he thought.  Yes, that would be best.  Something formal and controlled.  Something standing between him and… and what had happened, before.

Merlin focused his thoughts, and whispered to the sky.  “Onstyrest þu heofonwolcen, cume milde byreas, áscínest þu sunne, þæt sumorhát dæghwæðerlic.”

He felt his magic rise slowly, like a cresting wave, to flow from him, nudging the sleeping magics of the earth, stirring them to life.  When it faded away gently, he let out a breath he’d apparently been holding.

See? he thought.  You were just tired last night.  That was all.  Nothing to worry about.  Nothing at all.

Another breeze from the window brought even more delicious smells and the sounds of voices raised in laughter. 

The Solstice Festival was awaiting.  It was time to be Merlin again.

After scrounging some breakfast in his downstairs kitchen, and donning his festival costume over his clothes, Merlin stepped out onto the lawn into a sunny summer’s day.

“Much better,” he said to the sky.  “Thank you.”

Merlin adjusted the long robes of his costume, nodding appreciatively at the yellow stars Eleanor had added to the deep blue fabric to match the ones on his pointy hat. She’d even somehow gotten rid of every wrinkle in his red cape, and had apparently reinforced the stitching of the Pendragon crest on his shoulder.

With a deep breath of sweet summer air and frying foods, Merlin pushed back his shoulders, and smiled at the wonderful scene before him.  The lawn in front of his manor house was filled with a people, stretching all the way to the lake.  Some lay on blankets eating treats from the café, some sat and played instruments, and some just reclined on the grass in the sun.  A steady flow of people moved all around him, into or out of his manor house shops, or walking through his estate grounds and into the crowded park nearby. 

Feeling wonderfully ridiculous in his costume, Merlin laced his hands behind his back, and began a leisurely stroll towards the park. 

Any second now, he thought.  Any... second…

“It’s Merlin!” came a little boy’s shout, from amid a family sprawled on a blanket. 

“Butterfly!” called a girl by his side.  “Butterfly! Butterfly!”

The father tried to gently shush the eight year old, waving off her demand with an apologetic smile.  But Merlin had already changed direction to approach the group.

“You’ve heard about that trick, have you?” Merlin asked the little girl. 

The child nodded, wide eyed, and thrust out her hands, one covering the other. 

“Oh, I see you have.” He lowered himself to one knee.  “If it’s all right with your parents?”  He caught their eager nods, and saw them lean forward themselves to get a better look at what he was going to do.  “All right,” he said to the little girl, “keep your hands closed.  Just like that.  Now say some magic words.”

“Butterfly!” the girl burst out.

Merlin covered the girl’s small hands with his own, his eyes lowering and closing to hide the shine of magic. “Gewyrc an lif,” he said, loud enough for them all to hear.

The girl squealed, and Merlin carefully opened the girl’s hands, to reveal a small blue butterfly upon them.  She squealed as it moved on her palm, then squealed again as it fluttered upwards, into the summer’s breeze.

“That’s a lovely little bit of magic, isn’t it?” he said to the children’s parents, with a wink.  As he stood, both children jumped to their feet, holding out their hands to him.  “Maybe later,” he told them.  “I’ll be here all day.  Just look for the hat!”

Merlin was barely out of earshot before he heard the parents begin debating how he’d done it, with the father insisting loudly that clearly the old man walked around with a pocket full of butterflies.

A pocket full of butterflies, he thought.  Of all the ridiculous things.  If only people had been so blind to magic in Camelot.  His life would have been much, much easier.

When he joined the crowd people celebrating in the park, Merlin found himself surrounded by the wonderful sounds of music and joyful voices.  In one corner of the field, he even heard the clashing of swords, as people dressed in dubious armor play-acted a battle.  Nearby, a woman dressed as a dragon pranced around, to the delight of children with warrior crests painted on their faces.

Every few steps, Merlin was stopped by someone who begged a photo with him.  He obliged them happily, sometimes acting out a moment with a costumed visitor, sometimes just grinning at the camera.  

He eventually found Eleanor in the camping area at the far side of the park.  She was pushing a hand written sign into the ground with great enthusiasm.

“No public nudity,” Merlin read aloud, and caught Eleanor’s exasperated sigh.

“Apparently verbal instructions weren’t enough,” she said loudly, in the direction of several blushing young people at a nearby campsite.  

“Well, apart from that, I’d say the festival is going rather well so far.”

“I’m just happy the weather is cooperating.  It was supposed to rain all day.”

“That was my doing, actually,” Merlin said, and gave the manic grin of someone who could tell the truth once a year, and so might as well do it as often as possible.

“Of course it was.”  She gave him a long, thorough look.  “You’re looking quite well this morning.”

“I’m feeling quite well this morning.  Although I’ll feel better once I get some of those pork pies from… where did you say the meat pie vendor was located?”

“I put him closest one to the house, remember? On account of you nagging me?  For three months?  That you-”

“Hate to interrupt you, but I’d better head over right away.  On account of them being sold out last year so quickly.  Did I ever mention?”

She swatted at his arm as he darted away, towards the delicious smells.  After stuffing himself silly with pork pasties and cakes and biscuits and whatever else he could nick from the vendor tables, Merlin wandered back onto his property.  A queue of people stood by the door of his South Tower Museum, so he stopped and chatted with them, before stepping inside.

The large circular first floor of the tower was filled with people, all looking with great interest on all of the odds and ends he’d collected over the years.  His most valuable possessions were locked away, of course, but the things here were still very much deserving of being on display.

Suits of armor stood all around, bearing swords and maces and javelins. Upon the walls hung paintings and pennants and shields all bearing noble family crests. Upstairs, the second floor displayed clothing and boots and livery items from the stables.  Above that, on the third floor, people could see examples of daily life in the lower town of Camelot, including a functioning replica of what had passed as a kitchen. 

If people only knew how authentic this all was, he thought.  They’d probably beg to display it in the major museums of the world.

A tug at his robes caught his attention, and he looked down to see a small girl at his side. 

“Is this the real round table?” she asked, and pointed to the center of the room.

Merlin stepped over to the where a stone table was roped off from the crowds.  “Actually, this is the round table of the ancient kings, found in the ruins of their castle, where Prince Arthur took refuge from Morgana’s armies.” 

“You mean King Arthur,” the girl told him.

“Well, he was a Prince then.  He became king after his father died.”  Around him, several people had stopped to listen, so he continued a bit louder.  “This ancient table gave him the idea for his own round table.  A place where all his knights, whether noble or common born, could have equal voice. Quite a radical idea at the time.  The real round table in Camelot is quite a bit bigger than this, to fit all of his knights around it.”

“Did you sit there too?” asked the girl.

“In Camelot?  No.  I stood nearby.  To protect the King.  And to fetch him his royal crusted capons with sauce.”

“They should have let you sit at the table,” the girl insisted. 

Merlin looked up at the girl’s mother.  “That’s a very smart little girl you have there.”

The woman patted her daughter’s hair.  “Believe me, I know.”

The rest of the day continued in much the same way.  Merlin told stories to families with children, snuck food from the vendor tables, watched musicians performing, and chatted with people he knew from the village.

By the time the sun had set, and the bonfire at the center of the Stone Circle of Avalon had been lit, Merlin felt very pleasantly full, and very pleasantly intoxicated, and wonderfully still full of energy. 

Even though night had fallen and the tower on the Isle of Avalon had melted into darkness, the warm weather continued unabated.  People strolled through the park all around him in festival costumes or summer clothing, without any need of a jacket.

So much for Eleanor hoping for a lack of nudity, Merlin thought, and chuckled.  That wasn’t likely with the warm weather holding and the alcohol vendors doing brisk business.

“Merlin!  Merlin!” 

“What?” He spun around, nearly teetering off balance, his robes swirling around his legs.  “Oh hello!”

Three children all grabbed at different parts of his robes and cape and pulled him towards the stone circle. 

“Time to tell the story!” said a little boy. 

“And do magic!” said another.

On legs made a bit unstable by that last glass of cider, Merlin let the children pull him to where a crowd of fifty people had gathered around the bonfire and the circle of stones. 

Some of the crowd sat on the ground, and some lay on the sleeping bags that covered the grass all around the stones, marking the spots where they would watch the sun rise on solstice morning.

“Did someone here say they wanted to hear the story?” Merlin called to them.

Cheers and clapping answered him as he walked around the fire, playfully patting the heads of small children dressed as dragons, bowing to those dressed as damsels, saluting others dressed as knights.

“All right then.”  Merlin clapped his hands together, and the people around him quieted down.  “For those of you who don’t know me, let me introduce myself.  My name is Merlin, and I am the servant, friend, and sorcerer to The Once and Future King Arthur Pendragon of Camelot!” 

Merlin pulled some powder from his robe pocket and threw it onto the bonfire.  The flames exploded upwards at once, making the children squeal their joy, and the people clap their hands and bang their drums in the flickering firelight.

“I’m sure you think you already know the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  Well I’m here to tell you that you do not!  You only know that rubbish written by those pompous prats Geoffrey and Malory and White.”  Here came a short burst of laughter.  “Only I know the real truth!  And soon you will too.  Is everyone ready to hear the truth?”

Another round of applause and cheers and laughter brought a broad smile to Merlin’s lips. Though not a single person among them was old by his measure, and not a single one believed in magic, just the same, they were his people.  They were children of Camelot.  And this was their story as much as it was his.

So Merlin stood tall, and proud, and told it to them.

At various times during the story, Merlin would grab some powder from his pocket, and throw it onto the fire.  The flames would surge upward, responding not to the powder but to the magic dancing in his eyes, as all around him people stared right at him, and saw only what they expected to see.

By the time Merlin finished speaking, his voice was hoarse, and he was exhausted.  After several bows, and even more weary goodbyes, he took his leave, making his way back to his house by the lighting of the many small campfires nearby. 

Instead of returning to his tower, Merlin grabbed a lounge chair that had been abandoned by his front door, and stretched out the length of his body upon it.

The night was still warm and filled with faint music and voices lifting and falling with laughter, even at this late hour.  Merlin smiled in the direction of the tower on its lake, more tired and content than he could remember feeling in quite some time.

“I told them,” he said, as he pulled his cape around him. “About you.  About Camelot.  About everything.  I think some of them will remember.”

‘They’ll certainly remember your ridiculous hat.’

Merlin pulled his hat off his head, soothing back his hair.  “There’s nothing wrong with this hat, Arthur.”

‘There is everything wrong with that hat, Merlin.’

“And your taste in hats was so wonderful, was it?”  He relaxed against the chair, sliding down a bit, his eyelids drooping. “Still haven’t forgotten about the feathers.”  

‘You should have seen yourself in those feathers.  You were hysterical.’

“I was not.”

‘Oh you really were.’

“Not as hysterical as donkey ears.”

‘You swore you would never speak of that again!’

“And the braying.  Now that was hysterical.”

‘Arse.'

“Takes one to know one.”

‘Clotpole.’

“Still not a word,” Merlin mumbled, and fell asleep smiling to himself, his thoughts full of soaring turrets dotted with flags, of blue eyes shining with laughter, and of finally coming home to the place where he truly belonged.

Chapter Text

‘Merlin…’

Merlin startled awake, his hands gripping the armrests of his chair, his eyes blinking up at a clear blue early morning sky.

Outside, he thought.  He was outside.  Sprawled in a lounge chair.  Which he had apparently slept in.

He rubbed his face with two weary hands as he sat up.  His head felt horribly, unspeakably fuzzy.  He couldn’t quite get his thoughts in order.  He hadn’t been that drunk last night, had he?  He couldn’t possibly still be drunk now, could he?

He stared bleary-eyed down the hillside, where a thick opaque mist shrouded the entirety of the Lake of Avalon.  The sun sat in the sky just above it, shining almost ghostly through the mists and upon the land.

I missed the Solstice sunrise, he thought. He’d wanted to see the sun rise over the tower, and cast its shadow of the heelstone through the stone circle’s center.   Although, he thought, that might not have happened.  Not with the heavy mists that covered the lake, obscuring the island and the tower ruins. Very possibly the mists had blocked the rising of the sun as well.

“I thought we talked about this,” he muttered at the sky.  Although to be fair, he hadn’t spoken to the lake about sending up mists.  Only to the clouds about sending down rain. 

Something strange about all this, he thought.  He wasn’t sure what.  Just a bit odd, that the sky should be so blue, and the air so dry, and the lake be putting up such moisture. The mist rolling onto the shoreline made no sense at all.

Something’s off, he thought, through the treacle filling his thoughts.  What was it...? 

“Don’t tell me you slept out there all night, Emrys Hunithson!” came Eleanor’s shout.

Merlin twisted in his chair and stared in a daze up at the house.  Eleanor was standing on the porch, holding open the double glass doors to the café.   People stood waiting behind her, trying to leave the cafe, but very wisely not interrupting her wrath.

“Get in here, you old fool!”

Right then, he thought, and got to his feet, staggering a bit to the side.  He bent down to pick up his hat, had to catch himself on his chair, then straightened again, shaking his head.  It felt like people were shouting at him from all directions.  Everything was pressing on him, from all directions at once.  What in the world-

“Are you drunk?” came another shout.

“I am not drunk!” he yelled back, and stuffed his hat on his head, swaying a little, as he forced his clumsy feet up the steps to the porch and into the main building.

“Sleeping outside at your age,” she huffed at him, as she grabbed his arm and pulled him over to the lunch counter.  “What were you thinking?”

He took an empty seat at the crowded counter, still trying to get his thoughts to move faster than the speed of a cart through mud. “Is it louder than usual in here today?” he asked, and rubbed at his temples.

She set down a plate of food in front of him which she must have been saving for him. “Exactly how much cider did you have last night?”

“Not enough to explain this,” he said, and blinked at her.  He could almost see after images of her standing there.  He held out a hand, moved it back and forth.  Even the air felt thicker.  “Then again, maybe more than I thought.”

“Drink your tea and eat something.  Soak up all that alcohol,” she added, with a raised eyebrow, before leaving him to tend to other customers.

For once, Merlin did as she suggested without complaint, eating his eggs and sausages and potatoes without much awareness of what he was doing.  It took him until he finished his tea before he felt anything like his normal self.  At least the after images were gone, and the world felt a bit quieter than it had.  Maybe he had been a bit drunk this morning after all. 

Next to him at the counter, he noticed a young couple staring at him.  “Sorry about the misty sunrise,” he told them.  “I’ll take care of it shortly.  I just need to have a word with the lake.”

They both gave him a very strange look in response, then turned away as if he hadn’t spoken at all.

“Back to usual then,” Merlin muttered, pulling his hat off and setting it on the counter. Ah well, it had been nice while it lasted.

As he turned in his chair to get up, two teenaged boys rushed past him and over to a group of their friends at a nearby table.

“You have to see this!” one of the boys said.

“There’s this drunk guy-“ said the other.

“Yelling in total gibberish-“

“It was Welsh-“

“It sounded Swedish-“

“Does it matter what it was?  Just come on!”

Their friends at the table didn’t look as though they wanted to leave their seats or their food to see the spectacle.  “What’s the big deal about a drunk guy?” one asked.

“Because this one just walked out of the lake wearing chainmail and armor and a big red cape, and he’s swinging a tree branch at anyone who gets near him!”

The crack of Merlin’s chair hitting the floor made them all jump.  The sight of Merlin rushing into their space made the boy who was speaking nearly fall over his friend.

Merlin grabbed the boy’s arms. “What did you say?!”

The boy stared wide-eyed at him.  “What the hell!”

“Where was this?  Tell me!”

“Down by the stones! Crazy old man!” he shouted at Merlin’s retreating back.

Merlin shoved the café’s double glass doors open hard enough that they cracked into the glass wall and rebounded shut with a bang.

Not possible, not possible, not possible, he thought.

But he was remembering the sensation from this morning.  Of things crowding into his head.  Of things pushing into him, against him, all around him.

It hadn’t been intoxication.

It had been magic

Magic, all around him, vibrating from everything, everywhere, resonating in what must have been an absolutely colossal magical shockwave. 

Breathless and stumbling, Merlin ran down the lawn, stomping on blankets and people, his blue robes and red cape and long white hair flying behind him. 

Shouts of protest followed him as he ran toward a hundred people standing around the stone circle. He could see mobiles held high over people’s heads, taking photos of whatever was happening near the burned out bonfire.

Merlin stretched his arms in front of him.  Swept them to the sides.  His magic surged forth, forming a wedge in the air.  People staggered to the sides, clearing his way into the center of the crowd.

Near remains of the bonfire at the center of the stone circle, a man stood with his back to him.

Merlin staggered to a stop, nearly falling as his eyes dragged over a head full of wet blond hair, a dripping wet red cape bearing a dragon, and chainmail covered arms holding a charred branch like a sword. 

“Pwy ydysw swhi bobl?!” the man in the cape yelled. “Bedh syon diwydd yma?!”

Merlin heaved in a loud, choking breath, one so loud that it drew the stares of everyone nearby.

The man in armor spun to face him, branch held like a weapon.

And Merlin dropped to his knees.

For a timeless moment, Merlin stared in shock into the blue eyes of Arthur Pendragon. 

Arthur.

Arthur scowled down at him, wary and disoriented and very clearly not recognizing who he was at all. 

Merlin drew in another harsh breath, tried to speak, but choked out a sob instead.  He lifted a shaking hand to his chest.  Forced his voice to work.  “Merlin.”  He patted his chest, tears filling his eyes.  “It’s Merlin… Gods, Arthur…”

His king dropped the branch he held.  He stared a long moment, then staggered forward, swayed on his feet, and dropped to one knee in front of where Merlin knelt on the cold earth, trembling so hard that he could barely keep from collapsing to the ground.

Arthur put a gloved hand on his shoulder, and Merlin made a horribly pathetic noise, because he was real, and he was here, and if this was a dream, then it was the best dream he had ever had in his life.

“Merlin?” Arthur asked softly, and Merlin drew in another wracking sob at the sound of that voice saying his name, after centuries and centuries alone.  “Merlin, a ywn schi?”

Merlin nodded his head up and down, over and over.  Yes, he thought, it’s me, Arthur, it’s me and it’s you, and you’re here.   

Arthur put his other hand on Merlin’s shoulder now, staring at him as if he were the dream.  And that was just too much, and Merlin had to grab onto Arthur’s arms, so he wouldn’t fall over, and then couldn’t help but pull him into a ferocious embrace that nearly knocked them both to the ground.

Not a dream, Merlin thought wildly, as he clung to his king.  Not a hallucination.  Real.  He’s real and he’s alive and he’s here, by the gods, he’s here, he’s here-

Arthur’s body was solid and soaking wet and real under his arms, under his hands, under his fingers.  He felt Arthur’s arms go around his shoulders, lightly at first, and then holding stronger, his hands pressing into his back. As if checking to see if he were real as well.

Merlin squeezed his eyes closed, tears sliding down his face.  Yes, I’m real, and you’re real, and I could die from joy right now, Arthur…  He pressed his face into Arthur’s cold, wet chain mail.  How he’d missed the smell of wet chainmail and nights being nearly killed by bandits and rats for dinner, dear gods how he’d missed it all. 

Alive, he kept thinking, as he clung to Arthur, shaking himself to pieces.  Alive, alive, alive

Arthur’s hands fell hard onto Merlin’s shoulders, and he pushed Merlin abruptly away, his eyes wide and disbelieving. “Nizh zhwi yn breuzhwetio?”

Merlin laughed, shaking his head, deliriously happy to hear the melody of Old Brittonic on his ears again in Arthur’s rich voice.  “Na, nizh ythych yn breuzhwetio,” Merlin said firmly.  They weren’t dreaming, either of them.  But still, he found himself pressing his palms to the sides of Arthur’s neck, feeling for the signs of life that had not been there before.

“You have a pulse,” he choked out, feeling the heartbeat under the cold and wet skin.  “Your heart is beating… You’re alive... You’re breathing…”

Arthur blinked slowly at his words, as if he was half asleep.  And Merlin felt a jolt of terror, that somehow Arthur would be drawn back into the mists, back to the island, away from him.

A flash of light made Arthur glance sharply at the crowd.  Merlin followed his gaze to discover that yes, they were being photographed and videoed and gods knew what else.

Merlin spoke to Arthur in the old language. “Are you able to stand?  Can you walk?”

Arthur nodded without comment on his motherly tone, which was not a good sign.  With difficulty, Merlin got his shaking legs under him, then grabbed under Arthur’s arms and hauled him to his feet.  They staggered together as Merlin dragged Arthur’s arm over his shoulders, and put is own arm around Arthur’s waist.

He took a staggering step forward with Arthur at his side, only to have his way blocked by the people recording them. 

“Make way for the King!” Merlin snapped at them, surprising himself, because he hadn’t meant to say it at all.  But either his tone or his words were enough to part the crowd, and they all stepped aside as they staggered forward together, Arthur tripping over his own feet, his head barely lifted to see where he was going. 

Behind them Merlin heard a round of enthusiastic applause.  Of course, he thought wildly.  King Arthur Pendragon in his armor emerges from the Lake of Avalon to Merlin waiting for him on the shores. 

They were going to be a damned internet sensation.

“I was dead,” Arthur said in the old language, startling Merlin from his thoughts.

“And now you’re not,” Merlin said. 

“I’m… not.”

“Yes. You’re alive.  And you’re going to stay that way.”

Arthur studied Merlin’s profile.  “You’re old.  Why are you old?”

Tears filled Merlin’s eyes again, blurring his vision, tightening his throat.  “You’ve been gone a while,” he rasped out.

Arthur started to reply, then seemed to forget what he was going to say, his eyes closing halfway. “I’m so tired.”

Merlin felt his stomach twist, and he tightened his arm around Arthur’s waist, glaring over at the tower ruins, still shrouded in mist.  “You just need to lie down, Arthur. That’s all.  You’ll be fine.”

You just try it, Merlin thought at the tower. You just try to take him from me. I’ll grind your stones to dust and tear your island to pieces and boil your lake from the face of the earth-

“Merlin?”

Merlin jolted from his thoughts, a cold sweat breaking out on his skin at the path they’d been taking.

“Your rooms are ready,” Merlin said quickly. “I did your laundry too.  By hand.  Just like I used to.  Or better.  Better than I used to.  Much better actually.”

Arthur stumbled again, and Merlin had to slow his pace as he led him to his North Tower residence door.  “Ætýne hyrde,” he said.

The door swung open, and he pulled Arthur into his flat. Arthur squinted at the glowing lamps and frowned at the dark television but let Merlin guide him into the bedroom and to the closet door.  Only after Merlin opened it to the stairwell did Arthur truly stop, looking in recognition and relief at familiar stone steps and smooth round stone walls with candelabras bearing lit candles.

Merlin urged him forward again, and Arthur grabbed hold of the wall to put one foot after the other to climb the stairs.  By the time they got to the top, Merlin had to pause, breathing hard, his body still frustratingly old enough to be tired from the effort.

Arthur looked down the corridor, at Pendragon pennants and shields hanging between the flickering torches that lined the stone walls.  “No,” he said.  “I’m definitely dreaming.”

Merlin felt the muscles of Arthur’s back relax under his arm.  Even the tired lines of his face had eased in obvious relief.  To be here, where things were familiar.  To be in a place that was looked like home.

“You’re not dreaming, Arthur,” Merlin said. ”You’re awake.  You’re awake, and you’re-“ His throat closed up, and he had to force the words out, painfully, joyfully.  “You’re alive. You’re here.  And you’re alive.” 

With me, Merlin thought, and dropped his head forward, eyes squeezing closed at the tears that simply would not stop.  Because at last, gods, at last, Arthur…

“Merlin?”

Worry had lowered Arthur’s voice.

So Merlin coughed, and cleared his throat, and sniffed back the emotion.  Because Arthur did not need to see him break down.  Not when he was still so clearly confused.  “’M all right,” Merlin managed, and forced a smile.

Arthur had become distracted by the corridor again.  “We’re in Camelot?” he asked

“Not exactly.”

Arthur turned annoyed scowl his way, which brought a wild grin to Merlin’s face. He’d forgotten the way Arthur’s eyebrows scrunched together like that, his nose wrinkling at the top, when he’d been truly annoyed at him.

“You’re not making any sense,” Arthur said.

“As usual?” Merlin asked.

“As usual,” Arthur agreed.

And Merlin felt a laugh burst from him, followed by another, and another, until he was wheezing from it. 

Arthur continued to stare at him as if he were clearly insane, another familiar expression that had Merlin laughing harder, even as he pulled Arthur down the corridor to his chambers.

When they entered his rooms, Arthur stepped unsteadily away from him.  Lake water dripped from his sodden cape as he moved into his sleeping chambers, looking from canopy bed to stained glass windows to fireplace to table and chairs and then back to Merlin again.

“No.  This is definitely a dream,” Arthur said.  “First I was in a battle. Then I died. Then I was in a lake.  Now I’m in Camelot.  And you-“ he looked Merlin up and down “-look like an old court fool. What are you wearing?”

Merlin felt as though his face was going to crack open from the force of his grin. “At least it’s not feathers,” he said, his voice suffused with laughter.

Arthur frowned at him. “Why would you wear feathers?”

“To look like an idiot,” Merlin said happily.  Any second, he was going to die from joy.  He just knew it.  Arthur was back, and he was going to die from how happy he was.  Any second now.  “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get you into dry clothes.”

Arthur looked down at himself as if just noticing he was sopping wet.  With a vague nod, he allowed Merlin to steer him to sit in a chair beside the table.

Merlin shook his head as he dropped to one knee to pull off Arthur’s wet boots and socks.  “I never thought I’d be happy to see these socks again.”

It was absurd, his level of bliss at seeing the man’s socks.  He would happily wash Arthur’s socks for the rest of his life if it meant Arthur would be here to wear them.  There was probably something seriously wrong with that.  But he couldn’t bring himself to care.

Arthur watched as Merlin swatted his long hair out of his face.  “Why are you so old?”

“Well, if I look like this, then you can’t forget I’m wiser than you are, now can you.” Merlin struggled to his feet and undid the clasp holding Arthur’s soaking cape around his shoulders.  “Up you get.”

Arthur obeyed without argument or comment, another distressing sign.  There was still a disturbingly blank look in his eyes. 

“Arthur?” Merlin asked.

“I can’t quite…”  Arthur frowned at the stone floor.  “I can’t… follow a thought...”

“You just need rest. That’s all. A good night’s sleep.” Merlin took hold of Arthur’s arm to pull his glove off.  Beneath it, Arthur’s fingers were ice cold, so Merlin rubbed them quickly between his palms.

“Your eyes.”

“What’s that?”

Arthur took his hand from Merlin’s, and set it on the side of Merlin’s face.

Merlin felt his breath leave him in a rush, his eyes falling closed.  When he opened them again, he saw Arthur studying with an intensity he’d also somehow forgotten. 

Gods above and below, how had he forgotten that Arthur had looked at him like this, as if he were trying to unlock all his mysteries, right down to the most hidden parts of him.

“Your eyes,” Arthur said. “They’re the same.”

Merlin pressed his palm over Arthur’s hand.  “As are yours,” he managed. “My lord.”

When Arthur didn’t lower his hand, Merlin took it again, and rubbed his fingers until they felt warm again.  Dizzy with emotion, Merlin began unfastening Arthur’s hauberk and shoulder brace.  The old clasps and ties fought at him, and it took him much longer to finally remove the plating than it should have.

“Bit out of practice,” he said, and set the armor on the table.

Again Arthur made no response, instead just raising both arms straight up by the sides of his head.  Merlin followed Arthur’s lead, pulling his chainmail up and over his head. 

As he removed it, Merlin had the entirely new and completely unpleasant experience of the chainmail catching in his beard.  He definitely needed to get rid of that, and soon, he thought, as he threw the chainmail over a nearby chair.

After removing the padded jacket Arthur wore, he turned back to face Arthur in his soaking wet shirt and trousers.

“There’s no clothes,” Merlin blurted out, realizing it in a moment of panic.  “I mean.  Of course.  Of course there is.  But in storage.  I had to- I mean- You can’t just leave cloth sit for-  Without protecting it with-”  He watched Arthur blink, clearly not following him.  “I’ll get you some of my clothes from down the hall,” he said, and moved to leave.

Arthur’s hand closed around his wrist. 

Merlin froze, at the extremely rare sight of fear shining from Arthur’s eyes.  

“Or not,” Merlin said quickly.

Arthur’s hand released him, his shoulders relaxing.  He nodded, then stood waiting.  To be undressed, Merlin realized, and felt another jolt of panic.

“I’ll just- Ready the bed-“ he said, and hurried away.  It was absurd, just patently absurd, for him to be acting like this.  Arthur undressing in front of him was nothing he hadn’t seen a thousand times.  And yet his legs had already moved him away, to the bedside, his back turned to Arthur. 

“All freshly washed.  This morning.  By hand.  Did I mention?”  He pulled down the blankets, frowning at himself, at the way he was prattling on about nothing.  “I used vanilla soaps,” he went on, because apparently there was no stopping himself. “Just like I did back in-  I mean. Like always. Just like always.”

Behind him came the sound of wet clothing slapping to the stone floor.  Merlin grabbed a pillow and aggressively shook it, wincing as his hand got caught in his hair.  He kept at the pillows until Arthur stepped by his side.

As Arthur crawled under the covers naked, Merlin studied the top of the canopy bed as if it held the secrets to the universe.  Only after Arthur pulled the covers up over himself did he let out a sigh, and again look at him.  

Arthur had stretched out on his side on the mattress, facing into the room where Merlin stood.  “Very strange dream,” Arthur mumbled, and pressed his face into his pillow. 

Merlin watched the blankets rise and fall as Arthur heaved a deep contented sigh.

The sight of Arthur in his bed, in his room, made Merlin feel dizzy to the point of nearly losing consciousness.  He realized he was holding his breath, and quickly drew in a deep breath into his air starved lungs.

Any second, Merlin thought.  Any second I’m going to die of happiness. No one could possibly feel this happy and be allowed to live.  Especially not me.

“You can tell me all about your strange dream when you wake up,” Merlin said, in a low voice that shook and broke and was totally beyond his control.

“Stay here,” Arthur said into the pillow, “so that I can.”

Without hesitation Merlin knelt down on the cold stone floor beside the bed, his hands clutching the edge of the mattress, his eyes level with Arthur’s motionless face.

He’s just sleeping, Merlin thought.  That’s all.  Look, he’s breathing.  You can see it.  His shoulder going up and down.  And you can hear it.  His breaths against the pillow.  He’s just sleeping, nothing else.  Sleeping.

Merlin stretched out trembling fingers, but stopped short of touching Arthur’s hand where it rested on the mattress.  Instead, he pulled his hand back, and rested it on the blankets nearby.

Without warning, Merlin choked out a sob, and had to press a palm over his mouth, to stifle the noise.  Another ragged sob followed, and he bent forward, pressing his face into the mattress, emotion overwhelming his control.

He did not want Arthur to hear him crying.  But he could not stop himself.  It was too much.  Seeing Arthur there.  After all this time.  After lifetimes and lifetimes alone.  That Arthur was back.  Arthur was back…

Upon the bed there was a gentle movement.  And then a hand settled upon Merlin’s, where it rested on the bed.

Merlin choked out another sob, his other hand covering Arthur’s, his face pressed into Arthur’s blankets, his sobs shaking the bed.  He could not stop, but could not move away.  All he could do was kneel there beside the bed, shaking and crying, desperately clutching Arthur’s hand in both of his.

Because here, at last, was his king, his life, his everything, alive and whole and at peace, sleeping in his bed, with Merlin at his side, just as it should be.

Merlin heaved in a deep breath of vanilla scented linens and tightened his fingers around Arthur’s warm hand. 

“Of course I’ll stay with you, Arthur,” he said hoarsely.  “It’s the only place I ever belonged.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Merlin spent the next hour kneeling by Arthur’s bedside, holding his hand in both of his, watching him sleep.

The cold stone floor made his knees ache, and his legs had long since fallen asleep.  But he didn’t care.  All that mattered was the rise and fall of Arthur’s shoulders under the blankets as he drew breath, again and again and again.

The sight of it filled him with a bone-deep, relentless bliss. For the first time in countless years, Merlin felt at peace.  Whole.  Alive.

Time was measured by Arthur’s heartbeats, by the pulse beating in his wrist.  Each one told him that this was real.  This was happening. 

After fifteen hundred long years.  Finally.  Arthur had returned.

Merlin pressed his forehead to the knuckles of Arthur’s hand, smelling lake water and salt on his fingers, mixing with a scent that was uniquely Arthur.  A smell he had long since forgotten. 

For a long, long while he stayed like that.  Just breathing.

I should stand up, Merlin thought eventually.  I will stand up.  Any moment.  I will let go of his hand.  And I will stand up.

It took him another hour to do so. 

When he finally let go of Arthur’s hand and tried to get to his feet, he found it nearly impossible. His knees didn’t want to unbend.  Pain filled his legs as blood flow returned, and he extended an arm, muttering a spell to bring a chair behind him.  He collapsed back upon it, and sat for a long while, rubbing circulation back into his sore legs. 

And then sat there for a while more, looking at his sleeping king, after that.

I’m keeping watch, Merlin told himself.  Just like I used to.  It’s not strange at all. Watching Arthur sleep.  Counting his breaths.  Like some sort of lunatic.

Merlin relaxed back into his chair, and let that thought go.  He and Arthur were well beyond whatever the world considered normal, after all.  Not with Arthur having just returned from the dead after fifteen hundred years, and Merlin having lived all that time waiting for him.

No, he thought.  Normal was for other people.  Not for them. 

For several hours, Arthur slept peacefully in his bed, with Merlin at his side, ignoring the complaints of his body, content to be exactly where he was.  Outside of the open window facing the lake, the sun rose high in the sky, and then sank towards the western horizon.  

Only when the early evening chill crept into the room did Merlin finally rise from his chair, to set a fire in the hearth.  He hung Arthur’s things to dry beside it, set out his boots on the floor, and spread out his armor upon a chair.

With that done, he sat down at Arthur’s desk, reaching for parchment and quill.  He’d been putting this task off for too long.  But it was time. 

He had to tell his friends goodbye.  As Emrys, anyway.

He couldn’t even remember how old he was supposed to be, now that he thought of it.  Quite possibly his identification would list him to be over a hundred.  He should have said his goodbyes as an old man years ago. It just hurt so much see his friends staring at his younger face as if he were a stranger, even after he introduced himself as the family of the old man he had been.  Things were never the same after that.

He had no choice anymore, though. He couldn’t be there for Arthur as the old man he was.  He had to be himself again.

Using Arthur’s quills and parchment, Merlin spent the next hour writing his goodbyes to his friends in the village and his staff in the Manor House. When he had only one letter left to write, he stared a long time at the blank paper.  Pondering what to say. 

In the end, he decided to do what he never did. He decided to tell the truth.

‘My dearest Eleanor,

‘You have been my closest friend and most trusted confidant for over thirty years.  It is with great regret that I tell you that I must leave immediately, without even the courtesy of a proper goodbye.  I apologize for the manner of my departure. 

‘As to its cause, I can only tell you this:  The one for whom I have waited my entire life has finally come back to me. I must be with him now, at once and forever, because he is - as he has always been - my life, my soul, and my one great love.  So please do not be too angry with me for my abrupt departure.  For I am happier at this moment than I have been in all of my long life.  I hope you will be happy for me. 

“I am entrusting all my properties and my duties to my nephew Merlin Hunithson.  His skills are equal to mine, and he can take over my responsibilities in full.   I hope that you will be as wonderful a friend to him as you have been to me.

“May the forces of the heavens and the earth and all the magics that bind them together grant you long life and great happiness.

“Sincerely, Emrys Hunithson”

Every word true, Merlin thought, as he placed the letter in its envelope on the stack.

Which left him only one thing to do.   

Merlin stared at the empty expanse of mattress next to Arthur. There was nothing for it, he thought.  He needed to lay down to revert to his younger self.  Lying on the stone floor promised concussion and injury if things went wrong. And he’d promised Arthur he wouldn’t leave, so his room was right out of the question. 

He pulled his blue robes over his head, dropping them to the floor.  After brushing his beard out of the way, he tightened the string at the waist of his black cotton trousers, and resettled his shirt on his shoulders.

Very carefully, he sat down upon the edge of the bed.  When Arthur gave no sign of noticing, he lay down upon the covers, arms at his sides.  After a deep breath, Merlin relaxed into the fabric of the world.

Unlike his small restorative session yesterday, today he freed himself completely from the anchors of time and mortality.  Magic surged into his body at once, restoring muscle and fat and sinew, dancing over his skin, vibrating in his bones, growing and intensifying as it rushed up from the earth and crashed down from the sky, flooding into him and through him and over him beyond all efforts to control it.

His body convulsed, his back bowing on the bed, as the power grew and grew again exponentially, until every cell pulsed with magic, until he was magic itself, overwhelming him, tearing him apart, driving him to madness-

“Merlin!”

Merlin jolted back into the waking world with a loud rattling gasp.

Wide eyed, breathing hard, he turned his head on the pillow and saw Arthur next to him, bare chested, blond hair a mess, propped up on one elbow, his arm drawing back high over his head.

“I’m awake!” Merlin yelped, and then put his palm over where the skin of his face stung.  “You slapped me!”

“What the hell was that?” Arthur demanded.

“Why did you slap me?!”

“You were having a fit in my bed!”

“I didn’t know I was doing it, did I!” Merlin snapped, and then realized that his voice was stronger than he remembered.  He scrubbed his palm over his cheek, and felt just a hint of morning stubble coming in beneath smooth skin.  He ran his hand over the top of his head, and felt layers of thick hair slide through his fingers.  “How do I look?” he asked Arthur abruptly.

“What do you mean, how do you look?”

“I mean if you look at me, like you are doing right this very second, how do I look?”

“You look like you!  How in the world else would you look?”

“Like an old man?”

Arthur started to reply, then froze.  His eyes went wide, and he abruptly he sat up. 

Merlin tried to scramble off the bed, got his legs tangled in the covers, and fell to the stone floor.  He got back to his feet at once, his legs strong and sure beneath him. 

On the bed, Arthur sat still, his hands resting in the sheets gathered around his waist.  He was staring across the room, his mouth pulled downwards, his brows pulled together.

Do not talk, Merlin told himself.  Do not say a word.  He needs to think.  Give him time to do it.

Merlin distracted himself from the words that wanted to pour out of his mouth by inspecting the muscles of his forearms that stretched past the short sleeves of his shirt.  He wiggled his toes on the cold stone floor, then rubbed his hands down the sides of his legs, registering the muscles beneath his soft trousers.

Still Arthur sat staring into the room.

“You’re not dreaming,” Merlin told him, and then winced at his utter lack of self control.

“No,” Arthur said, and lifted his hands from the blankets, rubbing his fingertips together.  “Not dreaming.”

Merlin pressed his lips together.  He counted backwards from twenty, first in the Common Brittonic they were speaking, and then in English.

“I remember dying,” Arthur said.

Merlin watched Arthur press his hand where Mordered’s sword had pierced him.  When he lifted his hand away, he stared at the small scar that marred his skin. 

Some wounds, Merlin supposed, never could heal completely. Especially not if they were caused by a blade forged in dragon’s breath.

“Mordred stabbed you,” Merlin said, and some of the old anger seeped into his voice, turning it bitter, even after all this time.  “At Camlaan. I couldn’t heal you. The blade was enchanted.”

 “So I did die.”

 “Yes.”

Arthur put fingers to his neck, at his pulse point.  “I don’t seem dead now.”

“The Sidhe restored you.  On the Isle of Avalon.”

“I remember you trying to take me there…  But then Morgana…  And the horses ran off.  We didn’t make it in time.  I remember that.  Being with you.  Dying.”

A flash of memory, of Arthur’s face falling into death. Of Arthur lying motionless in the boat on the water.  “What…” Merlin had to clear the tightness from his throat.  “What else… can you remember?”

“It was like… falling into a dream.”  Arthur’s eyes lowered to the blankets. “There was darkness.  For a long time.  Just… nothing.  And the feeling of motion.  Of other things, moving past me.  And… voices.”  His eyes lifted to Merlin’s.  “Your voice.  Sometimes.”

“My voice?”

“I could hear you.  Talking to me.”

Merlin lifted his face to the ceiling, blinking away tears.  “You could hear me…”

“I don’t know what… I don’t remember words… But…  I knew you were there.  I knew I wasn’t alone.”

“You knew I-” Merlin began, then broke off, pressing his palms into his eyes, roughly clearing his throat.   Because that was too much. All these years that he had stayed here on the shores of Avalon.  All this time, Arthur had known he was close.  He had known.

Merlin lowered his hands, and saw Arthur staring at his distress with open concern.  He forced himself to take a deep breath and get himself under control. He had to be strong for his king.

“Well,” Merlin said, and forced a laugh, “you always did say I never shut up.”

Instead of replying, or responding in any way, Arthur turned back to the room, his eyes moving over all of the belongings in it.

“This isn’t Camelot,” he said finally.

“No.”

“But it looks like Camelot.”

“That was the idea.”  Merlin gave him a sad smile.  “How did you know?”

“The sun.” Arthur pointed the patterns of light on the far wall.  “It’s coming from the wrong direction.  It never cast shadows over there before.”

“I knew I’d get something wrong,” Merlin said, and wiped his nose with the back of his hand.  The sun. Of all the things to mess up.

“Is this… I mean… Did you…”  Arthur looked uncomfortable for the first time since he’d stumbled out of the water.  “Is it magic?  This place?”

Of course Arthur would be worried about that above all else, Merlin thought grimly.  But before he could answer, Arthur interrupted him.

“I don’t care if it is, Merlin.  I just want to know where I am.  How I got here.  The things I remember aren’t making sense.  I need to know what’s happened.”

The firmness of Arthur’s tone was a welcome sound.  It almost helped him get over the shock that Arthur honestly didn’t care if he’d magicked an entire building into existence. 

“Why don’t you look for yourself.” Merlin retrieved Arthur’s dry clothing from beside the fire and handed it to him.  “Here.  Put these on.”

Merlin walked to the lakeside window as Arthur pushed back the covers and dressed himself.   Arthur accepting magic was enough of a shock.  Arthur standing alive and breathing and naked by his side would have killed him straight away.

He waited for Arthur by the opened window, looking down at the rolling green lawns that stretched down to the lake of Avalon.  The darkening eastern sky above the lake was already filled with violet and red and orange, reflecting on the water below.

Arthur stepped beside him, his bare arm brushing his own.  Merlin shuddered at the contact, and crossed his arms over his chest. Waiting.

“Avalon,” Arthur said in a low voice.

Merlin pointed at the stone circle in the park by the lakeside.  “Down there is where I sent you in a boat to the Sidhe.”

The silence that fell went on long enough for Merlin to count to a hundred.  Twice.

“How long?” Arthur asked in a low voice.

“How long?”

“Have I been dead.” Arthur’s shoulders were back, his jaw a hard line.

Merlin fiddled with the hem of his shirt. Shifted his weight to his other foot.

“It’s been years, at the very least,” Arthur said.

“How-?”

“The tower is in ruins,” Arthur said.  “The lake is vastly smaller. And the castle in which we’re standing wasn’t here before.  So either there’s been an attack and a massive drought and you magicked this castle into being, or else a great deal of time has passed. Which is it?”

“I… didn’t magic the castle into place.  I built it the traditional way.”

Arthur’s body went rigid, his expression guarded.  His battle stance, Merlin thought, and felt his muscles sympathetically tense out of habit, preparing for attack.

“So a good deal of time has passed,” Arthur said.

“Yes.”

“How much time?”

“Are you sure you want to-?”

“How. Much.  Time.”

The words wouldn’t come.  They just wouldn’t.  Merlin closed his eyes, trying to get his voice to work. 

Merlin, tell me,” Arthur commanded.

“One thousand, five hundred, fifty three years.”

Silence. 

“Six months, twenty two days, and twelve hours,” he finished miserably. 

More silence.

And then, in a hoarse whisper: “No.”

Merlin saw an expression on his king’s face that was far worse than the one that had followed ‘I’m a sorcerer’.   He’d thought nothing could be worse than that.  But he’d been wrong.   This look of disbelief and horror and growing panic…  This was so, so much worse.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin said quickly.  “Arthur.  I’m so sorry-”

“No,” Arthur said, and stepped away from him, almost laughing, shaking his head.  “No.  You’re wrong.”

“I wish I were-“

“It’s a spell,” Arthur said.  “Someone has enchanted us.  Both of us.”

“It’s not an enchantment-“

“This place- Is a lie- Is a trap- Someone is tricking us-“

“It’s not- Arthur!”

Arthur ran to the room’s other window, pushing open the glass, frantically scanning the outside, where Merlin knew he would see the road stretching off into the distance, the cars driving on it, the village houses nearby.  After sending Merlin a look of shock, Arthur charged towards to his chamber doors, pulled them open, then sprinted out into the corridor.

Merlin took off after him at a full run, chasing him down the hall and down the stairwell, into his downstairs flat.  He pulled the stairwell door closed behind him, then raced out into the open rooms beyond his bedroom door. 

A scream was the only thing that let him know that Eleanor was in the kitchen, apparently fixing him some dinner.

Eleanor gaped at him, alarmed at what she saw as a frantic, barefooted, black-haired twenty-something man in black trousers and shirt who had invaded the home of her dear friend Emrys.

“Zhwi en nai-“ he began in Common Brittonic, then swore silently, and started over in English.  “I’m the nephew of Emrys Hunithson,” he said quickly.  “I’m taking over for-”

At the front of his flat, Merlin saw Arthur yank the front door open, nearly pulling it from its hinges, then charge out onto the lawns.

“Emrys wrote you a letter, told you all about it,” Merlin said, as Eleanor gaped at him.  “I’ll give you the letter- I just have to- I mean my friend-“ He gestured wildly to the front door.  “I’m sorry Eleanor- I mean Mrs. Godwyn- I have to go!” he called, and then took off through the rooms and out the front door.

Chapter Text

 

Arthur Pendragon had never run from anything in his life.  Not in his heart. 

No enemy, no army, had ever gained advantage on that battlefield.

Until now.

Arthur burst out of the door of the castle that wasn’t his castle onto the field that stretched down to the lake.  His bare feet pounded over cold grass as he sprinted forward, his only destination being away

Away from the false Camelot and from fever dreams of inky waters and cold death.  Away from the sound of Merlin’s voice saying words that could not be true.

“One thousand, five hundred, fifty three years…”

Arthur shoved through a crowd of people, who yelled after him in a language he couldn’t understand.  People were all over the field, their clothing colorful and strange, the men only half dressed, the women even more scandalously so. 

Only the grass beneath his feet felt familiar.  Only the woods along the water felt known.  He charged towards them, jumping over people on blankets by the lakeside, rushing headlong into the underbrush.  Branches tore at his skin and clothes, twigs digging into his feet.  But it was good, the pain, because it was tangible, and undeniable, and true.

Arthur caught himself against a tree trunk at the water’s edge, then pushed away just as quickly, staggering into the lake until the water was at his knees.

Chest heaving for air, shuddering from the icy water around his legs, Arthur stood and stared wide-eyed at the ruins of the tower on the Isle of Avalon.

“One thousand, five hundred, fifty three years…”

A millennium, Arthur thought.  That’s over a millennium

“No,” he breathed, and shook his head again and again.  “No… no…”

But he could remember it now.

He could remember.

The unending darkness. The years slipping past him. Generations of man being born and living and dying, while he sat trapped in time.  Unable to touch.  Unable to feel.

Arthur’s breath rushed out of him, and he stumbled forward, nearly falling. 

Dead, he thought.  They’re all dead

If it really happened.  If those years passed.  Then everyone I know.  Everyone I love.   They’re dead.   All of them.   Dead.

“No,” he breathed. “No…”  He saw their faces flash before him, one after the other.  Gwen, Gaius, Leon, Gwaine, Percival, on and on and on, through all of his knights, all of his court, the citadel, the lower town, the people in the countryside, his allies in the 5 kingdoms, every face he had ever known or ever seen in his life. 

Dead.  Every single one.

Arthur felt his stomach heave violently, and he bent double, hands gripping his knees, but nothing followed.  Of course, he thought wildly.  Of course I can’t be sick.  I’ve been dead fifteen hundred years.

Arthur’s legs gave out at the thought, and he sank into the water. The cold of it shocked him back up to his feet, and he stumbled forward, the water rising over his hips, the rocks digging into his feet at the lake bottom. 

He could hear his breaths, loud and ragged, over the breeze. 

They sounded like sobs. 

He supposed they were.

Camelot, Arthur thought, and his body jerked in anguish as if from the thrust of a sword. Camelot must be gone as well.   No kingdom, no castle, could last a thousand years.  She must have fallen into dust by now.  Dust and ashes and death.

His breath rushed out of him, a growl forming at its tail, as his hands balled into fists in the water. 

Everything I did, Arthur thought bitterly.  Everything I fought for.  Everything I died for.  Taken from me.  And without anyone lifting a sword to do it.

Arthur glared at the tower upon the Isle of Avalon in sudden, blinding, rage.  “What have you done?” he yelled.

The ruins stood silent and gave no reply. 

“Answer me, damn you!” Arthur roared, and grabbed a branch that lay floating in the water.  With a yell that ripped at his throat, he hurled it against a tree trunk at the shoreline, where it snapped in half with a crack like a man’s neck breaking. 

The momentum from the throw nearly sat him down in the water, and he stumbled backwards a few steps, the water rising above his waist.

“Arthur!”

He looked back to the shore to see Merlin charging into the lake, his arms flying to the sides to propel him forward.  When he reached where Arthur stood in the water, Merlin fell upon him, his hands clamping painfully onto his arms. “Arthur, get out of the lake!”

“I’m all right,” Arthur said, and tried to loose Merlin’s hands, but Merlin just shook his head, his eyes frantic, and hung on tighter.

“Get out! Come on! Out of the water!” Merlin pulled at his arms, at his shirt, then grabbed the back of his neck hard and yanked him towards the shore.

“I said I- Merlin, let go!” Arthur jerked away, staggering back into deeper waters.  In a panic, Merlin launched himself after him, his arms wrapping around his waist, lifting him off his feet.  Arthur caught an elbow to the ribs in the process, and angrily grabbed hold of Merlin, and dropped them both under the surface of the lake.  

Merlin emerged sputtering water, his black hair plastered to his head, his arms still frantically reaching for Arthur.

Arthur grabbed hold of a flailing arm and twisted it behind Merlin’s back, turning him with it, until Arthur could wrap an arm around Merlin’s neck from behind.  Still Merlin fought and kicked at the water, trying to force them back to shore.

Arthur yanked Merlin’s arm farther behind his back, making him arch and cry out in surprise and pain.  “Merlin!” Arthur yelled, right into his ear.  “Stop this!  I command it!”

The fight went out of Merlin at once.  His body went limp, a heavy weight against Arthur’s chest.  “Come out of the lake, Arthur,” he choked out, his voice shaking, his fingers pulling weakly at the arm around his neck. “Please… Don’t go… I can’t… Not again…  Not alone… Come back with… Please, please…”

Terror contorted Merlin’s face in a way that Arthur had never seen in all their years together.  He could feel Merlin’s body shaking violently against him, as he breathed the word “please” over and over again.

“All right,” Arthur said to him.  “All right, just-“  He lifted his gaze to find a stretch of grass where they could climb to shore.  But his eyes were caught instead by the building at the top of the hill.   

Two massive round stone towers, each three stories high, flanked the ends of an enormous rectangular stone structure bearing a front wall made of glass.

I built it the traditional way, Merlin had said.

Arthur felt another surge of nausea, and went breathless in his shock, as he realized what that meant.  

Fifteen hundred years, he thought, as he stared down at Merlin’s anguished face.  But it couldn’t be-

“Please, Arthur,” Merlin breathed again, between wheezing gasps.

Arthur released Merlin’s arm and caught him around the waist, pulling him against his chest.  “Come on,” he breathed, as Merlin’s head fell back against his shoulder, his face still twisted with panic and pain. “Let’s get out of this damned lake.”

Arthur glared over at the Isle of Avalon, his arms tightening around Merlin’s chest.  He stumbled with him in the water as he pulled his friend away from the isle, away from the tower, and back to the shore. 

“Come on, Merlin,” Arthur said, “move your legs.  Dammit, you’re heavy, help me.  Just a few more steps. Right over here.”

Together they staggered out of the lake and collapsed onto their backs, sprawled next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, on the grassy shores of the Lake of Avalon.

Arthur waited until he heard Merlin’s harsh breathing grow quieter.  Then waited some more until Merlin gave a cough, and a sniff, and cleared his throat.  And then waited a bit more after that.

“One thousand, five hundred, fifty three years,” Arthur said finally.

“Yes,” came a hoarse reply.

“All those years… that I was dead…  you… were....”

“Alive.”

Arthur turned his head on the grass, shivering from the wind on his drenched tunic and breeches. He studied Merlin’s sharp profile, seeking evidence of this unimaginable stretch of time, but finding none.   “You were alive.  All that time.”

“Yes.”  A weary sigh up at the heavens.

“You’re fifteen hundred years old,” Arthur said, because he had to say it out loud.  It was beyond all comprehension.

He watched Merlin nod up at the sky.

Impossible, Arthur thought.  Unthinkable.  That Merlin had lived that long.  It was almost harder to believe than the passage of time itself.  Merlin, living through the centuries without him, day after day after day for lifetimes of man.

“But how?” Arthur asked him.

“I’m not just a sorcerer,” Merlin said.  “I don’t just use magic.  I was born of it.  I’m made of it.   The rules of man don’t apply to me.”

“But I saw you.  Before.  As an old man.”

Merlin wrapped his arms around his body, shivering in his wet clothes as a breeze picked up.  “I can grow old if I want to. I can be young if I want to.  I can be a lot of things.  And I have.  Over the centuries.”

Arthur felt grief fill him anew, at the pain in Merlin’s voice. “Over the centuries,” he said, through a tight throat.

Another small nod, and a sniff, and this time he saw Merlin wipe at his eyes quickly with the palm of his hand.

“You won’t ever die, then?” Arthur asked. 

Merlin turned his head on the grass, for the first time meeting Arthur’s gaze.  Merlin’s blue eyes were bloodshot and weary and - yes, Arthur could see it now - his eyes also belonged to a very, very old man.

“Everything dies, Arthur,” Merlin said softly.

Arthur thought of his wife, his friends, his people. 

Yes, he thought.  It does.

For a little while they lay there, side by side.  When he saw Merlin give a violent shudder from the breeze on his wet clothes, Arthur sat up, uncomfortably crossing his legs in his soaking breeches.  After a moment, Merlin sat up as well, hugging his legs to his chest. 

From nearby came the sound of voices, and Arthur looked over to see two people with several small children walk past, dressed in that brightly colored clothing.  They had blankets and bags in their hands, talking more nonsense in that language that he’d heard earlier, as they climbed the hill to the massive stone structure at its top.

“You said you built that?” Arthur asked, nodding to the stone dwelling and its towers.

“Yes.”

“So these lands are yours?”

“Yes.”

“And you live here.”

“I do.”

Merlin’s arms were wrapped tight around his legs, pale and thin in his wet black clothing, the lines of his face made sharper by his wet black hair sticking to his head. 

He was Merlin, Arthur thought. And yet, he was not.  Not as Arthur knew him.  Not with this strange economy of words.  Not with the eyes of an old man in a young man’s body. Not with the panic that had overwhelmed him in the lake. 

It was a terrifying thought.  That Merlin should be lost to him.  Just like everything else he knew. 

“How did you survive it?” Arthur asked.  Because he was worried that he had not.  Not with all his insolence and bravery and idiocy intact.  Not as the man he had been.

“One day after another,” Merlin said, and lowered his chin to his knees. 

It was maddening, Arthur thought.  These simple responses.  It was utterly unlike Merlin to be without his endless prattle, his firm reassurances, his ready smiles.

No, Arthur thought angrily.  Merlin will not be lost to me as well. Not after all we’ve been through.  Not after all we’ve survived.  I will not allow it.

“So, with all these extravagant lands,” Arthur said, affecting the tones of pompous royalty that had always driven Merlin mad, “and with your grand stone manor, you must have some sort of title by now.”

The mere suggestion of such a thing by the King of Camelot would have been a compliment to any man of his age.  The Merlin that Arthur remembered would have taken it as the greatest insult imaginable. 

Arthur felt relief sweep through him as Merlin glanced at him first in surprise and then in poorly concealed offense.  “No.”

A shorter answer than Arthur wanted. He narrowed his eyes, and tried harder.  “I find that difficult to believe,” he said, adding a bit of mockery into his tone now.  “Surely, at some point, some simpleton must have made the absolutely idiotic decision to offer you, of all people, a title.”

The corner of Merlin’s mouth twitched.  “They might have done.”

Arthur felt his brows raise in genuine surprise.  “They did?” 

“Lord of Avalon,” Merlin muttered, and made a derisive noise.

Lord Merlin of Avalon?  That is ludicrous.”

“That’s what I told them, right before I told them to take their sodding lordship and piss off.”

A knot of tension loosed itself in Arthur’s chest at the flowing words and insolent tone. “Of course you did.”

“It was offensive,” Merlin insisted, but he was smiling now.

“Oh yes, terribly offensive, to be offered a title.”

“It was.  They wanted to make me nobility.”

Lord Merlin,” Arthur said again, in a mocking regal tone.

“Shut up.”

“There you go again, forgetting that you can’t speak to your king that way,” Arthur said.

But then his smile fell from his face.   

Because that was gone as well, wasn’t it.

His title.  His crown.  His rule.

Merlin must have seen something of this in his expression, because he fell silent as well.  For a few minutes they sat together on the grass without speaking, wet and cold in the early evening breeze.

Arthur stared out at the tower, the numbness he’d felt earlier returning stronger than before.

“It will be all right,” Merlin said into his thoughts. “I swear, sire.”

“I’m not a king anymore, Merlin,” Arthur said, and the words were like sand in his throat. 

“Of course you’re still a king.”

“I have no kingdom. No people. No crown.  I cannot be king.”

“Yes you can,” Merlin insisted.

“How’s that then?” Arthur snapped, in sudden anger.  “Because the last time I checked, you had to actually have lands, and subjects, and a kingdom, in order to actually be a king!  And all of those have been taken from me!”

Arthur watched Merlin crawl over and kneel before him, his hands gripping Arthur’s shoulders, his long fingers curling around them. His eyes held the same dark intensity that Arthur had sometimes glimpsed back in Camelot.  Though not often.  And not until near the end.

“They still speak of you, my lord,” Merlin said, his voice low and firm.  “Even after fifteen centuries, you are remembered.  And even if you weren’t, you are still a king, sire. You will always be a king.  Even after all you see here is gone.  Even after we are both turned to dust.  You will always be the Once and Future King Arthur Pendragon of Camelot, a king unlike any other from the dawn of time to the end of all things!”

For one startlingly clear moment, Arthur could see within Merlin the forces of magic, bound within his living flesh, immortal and eternal, touching the future and the past, powerful beyond measure, yet choosing to exist in this world, in this man, as his servant, as his friend.

“Arthur?”

Arthur blinked, and the vision vanished.  It was just Merlin, kneeling on the grass, with his nose red from the cold, his blue eyes wide under raised black eyebrows, his wet hair sticking up all around the familiar angles of his cheekbones and the round shapes of his ears. 

“You sound very sure,” Arthur managed.

“I am very sure,” Merlin told him.

Before Arthur could ask why, he saw Merlin give a violent shudder.  “Are you all right?”

Merlin rubbed his bare arms with his hands.  “It’s not exactly swimming weather.”

“I assume you have dry clothes somewhere in that grand castle of yours,” Arthur said, and was rewarded by a flash of irritation in Merlin’s expression.

“It’s not a castle, it’s a house.”

“It has turrets, Merlin.”

Small turrets.”

Arthur shook his head as he got to his feet.  “You are impossible,” he said, and extended a hand down to his friend.

Merlin took his hand, and let himself be hauled to his feet.  “That makes two of us.”

Arthur gave the tower one last look, thinking of the fifteen hundred years he had been dead, and the fifteen hundred years Merlin had been alive. 

“Yes,” Arthur said, in a low voice. “Yes.  It does.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Before entering the front tower door, Arthur followed Merlin along its round stone wall and over to its side.  After glancing around, Merlin looked up at the window Arthur had opened earlier, and said: “Inbringe, cume mec.”

Arthur watched a flash of magic turn the blue of Merlin’s eyes into a sparkling gold.  Even though Merlin had used his magic several times in his presence, he couldn’t quite get over his amazement at watching his friend manipulate the world in this way.  Even more amazing was a rustling of paper from above, as several sealed envelopes fluttered down from the open window.

I had never imagined such gentle magic, Arthur thought, as the envelopes stacked one after another upon Merlin’s waiting hands.

Merlin noticed him staring, and shrugged a bit. “My friends inside only know me as an old man named Emrys.  These letters tell them that I’m his nephew.  It should be enough to keep us from being thrown into what passes for a dungeon these days.”

“Is magic still illegal?”

Merlin gave him look of total bafflement.  “What?”

“The reason you can’t explain what’s happened.  Is it because magic is still illegal?”

“No one believes magic exists anymore,” Merlin said, in a voice that spoke to Arthur of uncountable years of life and loss and loneliness. “They haven’t for centuries.”

“How can that be possible?”

“No one is left who wields magic.  Well.  Except me.”

“But what about the others?  The beasts, the relics… the dragons.”

“All gone.”

Arthur heard the echo of his own words in Merlin’s.  All gone. His friends, his kingdom, his world.  All gone. 

“Come on,” Merlin told him.  “Let’s get this over with before things get out of hand.”

As it turned out, Merlin was right about their hostile reception.  The moment he and Merlin stepped through the doorway into the strangely lit rooms beyond, they were accosted by an angry old woman and two men wearing matching clothing.

Arthur stood silently by Merlin’s side, and watched him speak to them all in that strange language.  He couldn’t understand the words, but he knew exactly what Merlin was doing.  He’d seen him do it before. 

Another of Merlin’s many talents, Arthur thought, as he watched his friend smile and nod, his voice soft, his expression apologetic, his shoulders slouched, his entire body language non-threatening.  It set the two men at ease, though not so the old woman in her flowered dress.  She continued to glare at Merlin, right up until he handed her one of the envelopes he held.

She tore it open and read the letter contained within at once.  When she was finished, her eyes were filled with tears, and a smile gentled the wrinkles of her face. She dismissed the two men at once, then pulled Merlin into a clearly unexpected hug. 

By the time Merlin was showing her the room’s other door, she was smiling at them both, nattering away and waving the remaining envelopes in her hand.

“What just happened?” Arthur asked, once they were alone.

“A goodbye and a hello,” Merlin said, his voice wistful.  “We should be all right now. Eleanor will take care of things for me.  She always does.”

“Eleanor?”

“An old friend.  Come on. This way.”

Arthur followed Merlin into another brightly lit room with smooth white walls. A large bed dominated it, surrounded by odd pieces of furnishings, some supporting strange sculptures that emitted a steady light.  Arthur searched for any traces of a flame, but found none.  “There’s no magic, you said.”

“The people of this era don’t need magic anymore.  They have technology.”

Arthur let that nonsensical statement pass, focusing on the bed.  That, at least, he recognized. “Is this where you sleep?”

“This is where everyone thinks I sleep.”  Merlin opened a small door in the wall to reveal a winding stone staircase.  “I actually sleep upstairs.”

Arthur watched Merlin step out of his way so that he could go first.  Arthur climbed the stone steps curiously, trying to remember his first journey up this staircase, soaking wet with lake water.  “You sleep in my chambers?” he asked.

“No,” Merlin answered, but it was in a strange tone.  “I sleep in mine.”

Merlin’s chambers, Arthur discovered, were at the other end of the long corridor from his own, past a familiar sign on the wall that said “Court Physician”.  The door leading to them was an exact replica of the door leading to Gaius’ chambers back in Camelot.  As were the rooms beyond it.

Arthur stepped through the doorway, and felt profoundly disoriented by how completely the rooms resembled Gaius’ chambers.  This could be Camelot, he thought.  I could be standing in Camelot right now.  Only the sun shining through the high window at the wrong angle gave the illusion away.

Wooden tables held stacks of glass bottles and tubes of all colors and shapes.  Shelves held thick old books stacked high upon them.  Standing racks were crammed with equipment of all sizes and colors.  

At the other side of the room, Arthur even saw the cot where Gaius had slept.  Its blankets were made up and pulled back, just slightly.  As if expecting Gaius to use them  at any moment.

“It helps me remember,” Merlin said softly, after Arthur had stared a bit too long.

But Arthur couldn’t tear his eyes from all of the loving details of Gaius’ bed.  His robes lay neatly folded upon his pillow. Even his shoes sat upon the floor.

Another wave of grief made Arthur clench his teeth and swallow hard against a wave of nausea.

We have both lost so much, he thought.  Merlin as well as I.  It is all gone and dead for him.  Just as it is all gone and dead for me.

“It’s probably a bit strange,” Merlin was saying in an embarrassed tone.

Arthur turned to find Merlin gazing at the lonely cot.  Pain had sharpened the lines of Merlin’s face, and again Arthur saw the old man who he was now within his blue eyes.  “Do you use any of this?” Arthur asked, hoping to pull him from his thoughts.

“Yes.  To make herbal remedies and other things.”

“How did it all get here?” Arthur asked, nodding at the hundreds of things that filled the room.

“A bit of labor. A bit of help.  And a bit of magic.” At the last word, Arthur saw Merlin flinch, a barely noticeable thing at the corners of his eyes.  “This way,” he said, headed towards the door of his room.

Arthur followed Merlin into his chambers.  “Well,” he said.  “This is different.”

A large, soft bed had been wedged into the small room, between Merlin’s tables and desk. And beyond that, a doorway was set into the wall, covered by a curtain.

“I had to make a few modifications,” Merlin said, as he ducked under the curtain.

Arthur followed him into a massive room.  Its ceiling stretched up to the beams supporting the tower’s roof.  Hundreds of shelves containing thousands of books lined its walls.  Arthur stared up at the collection, squinting against the daylight that streamed in through the narrow windows.  “Where did you get them all?”

“All over the place,” Merlin said. “Come on.  Dry clothes are this way.”

The floor of the room was filled with high wooden shelves taller than Arthur’s head.  He followed Merlin through the maze of them, studying the stacks of objects upon them that he passed.  Most were books, their titles written in languages he couldn’t understand.  Quite a few of them bore Merlin’s familiar handwriting.

“You wrote some of these,” Arthur said, his voice echoing in the enormous room.

“It helped pass the time.”

Arthur’s gaze lifted again to the thousands upon thousands of books above.  It helped pass the time, he thought, and felt a bit dizzy, trying to comprehend just how much time that had been. 

“Right here.”  Merlin stepped into an open area of the room by the exterior stone wall. Dozens of crates and trunks were stacked against the wall, as high as his head. 

Arthur felt Merlin place a hand on his shoulder, stopping him from walking closer. 

“I need to undo some…”  Again Merlin hesitated. “There are some enchantments.”

Arthur made a very intentionally offhanded gesture for him to continue.  Merlin turned to face the crates, his hand slowly moving back and forth in the air, muttering low to himself, his eyes lowered and nearly closed. 

A gentle wind passed over Arthur’s face, and Merlin lowered his arm.  “What did you do?” he asked, as Merlin crouched down by one of the trunks.

“Clothing rots if you let it sit too long.” He opened a trunk and pulled out an armful of what Arthur recognized as his own clothing.  “So I preserved it with magic.”  Another slight cringe, and nervous glance over at him, at the last word. 

“You don’t need to flinch every time you speak of magic,” Arthur told him. 

Merlin stilled for a moment, then went back to pulling clothing out of the open trunk.  “Just a habit when I’m around you, I guess.” 

“After fifteen hundred years I’m surprised you still remember any of your habits around me.”  Arthur thought about those words a long moment.  “I’m surprised you remember anything about me, in fact,” he added, in wonderment.

Merlin cast a haunted look over his shoulder, then turned back to dig in another trunk nearby.  He lifted from it clothing that Arthur had seen Merlin wear back in Camelot.  Pants and tunics, kerchiefs and socks and undergarments all went into the growing pile of clothing nearby. 

“How did you?” Arthur asked.

“How did I what?”

“Remember me.  All those years.”

Merlin stilled completely.  But only for a moment.  “People wouldn’t shut up with their stories about you,” he said, in an overly casual tone of voice that Arthur now recognized was the cover for an enormous lie.  “I couldn’t help but remember.”

Arthur had figured it out, finally, when they’d been riding together to Avalon.  It was obvious, in hindsight, how Merlin had deceived him for so many years.  

It had happened just like this, he thought.  By turning the truth into a joke, and by distracting him with nonsense and idiocy.

Arthur watched Merlin force a smile that didn’t diminish the pain in his eyes.  A big lie then, Arthur thought.  But he let it go for now.  It could wait until a better time.  He doubted he’d get the truth from Merlin now anyway.  Not with how far he’d withdrawn into himself.

“Stories, you say,” Arthur said.

Merlin restacked the large bundle of clothing on the floor.  “Every child knows the story of King Arthur of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table.”

No lie this time, Arthur thought.  Which was astonishing, honestly, and more than a little hard to believe.  But he smothered his questions, because this was the longest sentence he’d heard Merlin utter in some time.

“What,” Arthur said, “there’s no mention of Merlin in these stories?”

The humor melted from Merlin’s face.  “Yes,” he said. “There is.”

And then he gathered the clothing into his arms and stood, while Arthur wondered in growing frustration what he’d said this time to make Merlin draw into himself again.

“My lord,” Merlin said into his thoughts.

Merlin was standing beside him, the large stack of clothing held away from his wet clothes.   It took Arthur a moment to realize Merlin was waiting for him to lead the way.

It should have felt reassuring, this gesture of respect. It should have made him feel comforted, and like nobility.  Instead, Merlin’s silent deference made him feel isolated, and lost, and in the company of a stranger who only happened to look like his friend.

“Fine,” Arthur said in a low voice, and turned to leave the room.

After Merlin dropped his own clothes onto the bed of his own room, Arthur led the way  back to his chambers.  As he walked through the stone corridor connecting their rooms, his gaze drifted across pennants bearing the Pendragon crest and shields bearing the sigils of his ancestors.  Just like home, he thought. But not at all.  Unlike Camelot, there were no other corridors like this one. No knights on the training grounds.  No wife beside him on the throne. 

Stop, Arthur thought at himself.  Those thoughts can keep for later.  For now, all he wanted to do was to rid himself of these wet clothes, to wash away the smell of the damned lake water, and to rest, just for a little while.

He could still feel the weariness that had plagued him since stumbling out of the water.  His body ached as if he had trained hard all day.  And his head hurt from what he’d learned.  

It was the grief, Arthur thought.  Grief and loss, catching up with him.  Weighing him down.  Making him feel heavy. 

It would be bad, tonight.  The silence and the dark always pulled all of his pain to the surface.  He found himself wishing for a battle campaign, for a hunt, for anything that meant being in the company of others, of lying beside his comrades in the heart of his kingdom.

All of it, lost to him now, he thought.  Except for Merlin.  Or the person Merlin had become, perhaps.

“An early night will be for the best,” Arthur said, to shake these thoughts from his mind. 

“Yes, my lord.”

Nothing but respect and obedience.  It was infuriating. 

Once they’d reached his chambers, Merlin stacked his clothes on the long table, then began to put his things away into his dresser and wardrobe.  Arthur moved absently through the rooms, touching a chair here, a table there. 

Upon his desk Arthur noticed his quill.  Not a quill similar to his quill.  But his actual quill.  He remembered knocking over the ink, and staining the top feathers just where these bore a splash of black.

“How much more is there?” Arthur asked.

“Hmm?”  Merlin held up Arthur’s jacket, shook it out, then hung it up with great care.

“Of Camelot.  Here in Avalon.  Besides your rooms, and Gaius’, and mine.”

“There’s another tower,” Merlin said to the wardrobe.  “At the other end of the house. Three stories full of things. And there’s cellars below us.  And a floor above.  It’s not all of it.  But it’s a lot.”

Arthur watched Merlin smooth out the wrinkles in one of his shirts.  How much quicker could he do all of this with magic? he wondered.  For that matter, how much quicker could Merlin have done all of his chores back in Camelot with magic?   Maybe he had done.   Arthur wanted to ask, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.  The moment felt too peaceful. Merlin had relaxed, finally, as he tended to Arthur’s clothes. 

“I’ll fetch the rest of your things tomorrow,” Merlin said into his thoughts.

Arthur nodded, realizing he’d been staring. He forced himself to look away, walking to the side window.  Halfway there, he stopped, thinking of what he’d seen outside before.   With a loud sigh, he went to the hearth instead, to lean against its mantle.

The sound of the windows snapping shut behind him made Arthur glance sharply over his shoulder.  Not only had the stained glass windows closed, but the shutters had closed over top of them, and the curtains had swung shut across the arched alcove. 

Arthur looked over at Merlin, who was still standing where he had been, at the dresser, folding his socks and putting them into the drawer.  Only a small upturn at the corner of his lips gave away what he had done.

Arthur waged a brief hopeless battle against his curiosity. “The other one,” he said.

Merlin looked over at him, socks dangling from his hands.

“The other window is open.”  Arthur gestured to his adjoining room, to the dim evening light beyond the open stained glass.

Merlin nodded, setting the socks into the drawer, and went to go secure it.

“Not like that.”

Merlin’s startled reaction held more than a bit of hope.  Which was well worth the unease Arthur had felt at making this request.  

“You mean…”  Merlin raised a hand in the direction of the window.  “Like… this?”

“Yes,” Arthur told him. “Like that.”

Almost timidly, Merlin extended his arm towards the window, palm open, long fingers spread wide.  His eyes stayed on Arthur as he spoke. “Fordyttan fenester, wágrift, éagdurue”.

Arthur watched the golden glow of magic shine in Merlin’s eyes, sparkling like stars, before fading away.  He didn’t see the windows shut, or the shutters close, or the curtains fall over the alcove.  But that wasn’t what he’d wanted to see anyway. 

A flush had filled Merlin’s cheeks.  Even his ears had gone a bit red.  Arthur gave a soft laugh, smiling in relief, because here was the youthful, awkward Merlin he knew, scowling at him with a familiar expression of impatient irritation.

“What?” Merlin demanded.

“You can call lightning down from the heavens in front of entire armies, but you blush when closing a window in front of me,” Arthur said. Because that was just too ridiculous.

“Yes. Well.  You didn’t know it was me, then.”

“I saw you use magic earlier today in my presence.”

“Not magic you asked me to do.”

The tone was so vulnerable that Arthur couldn’t think of what to say.  Merlin flushed a bit deeper, looking at Arthur as if he were the center of all things. 

Arthur felt another surge of relief, and of gratitude, that Merlin’s devotion had not been lost to him either.  Not even after fifteen centuries.

“I meant what I said that day,” Merlin said, his voice quiet.  “My magic is meant for you. It was meant to be used in your service.”

“How can you know that?”

“I know it because it’s my destiny.”

“According to whom?” Arthur pressed, sensing more than just that.  Judging by Merlin’s hesitation, it was quite a bit more.

“According to nearly every magical being I ever encountered,” Merlin said.  “They all said it was my destiny to serve you, according to the prophecy.”

“Prophecy?”

“About you.  And what you were meant to do for Albion.  As the Once and Future King.”

“Future king,” Arthur said, and he felt the breath rush out of him, as though he’d taken a blow to the stomach.  He felt his face flush, his heart beating hard against his chest.  “So they-  They knew-  That this would happen to me.   They knew?”

Merlin gave a reluctant, and pained, nod of his head.

Arthur thought of the darkness of almost two thousand years, of the loss of everything he’d known, of the deaths of everyone he loved. “They called me by that title, to my face, over and over again, and they didn’t think to tell me?”

“They weren’t big on details with me either,” Merlin muttered to the floor.

“Future,” Arthur spat out, and laughed bitterly, his face twisting with the betrayal of it all.  “So this,“ he swept out his arms to the false castle, the strange world, “this is what they meant.  When they said future.  They meant this, now, when everyone I know is dead and buried.”

He saw another slow nod from his friend, his eyes still downcast.

They didn’t tell me, Arthur thought furiously.  How could they have not told me?  How could they have not warned me about this?  Not even one of them!

Arthur felt a wave of nausea as a truly, sickeningly, horrible thought occurred to him.  “What about you, Merlin?” he demanded. “Did you know it would happen this way?”

Merlin’s eyes went wide, and he shook his head from side to side. “No!  No, Arthur, I had no idea!”

Arthur advanced on him.  “Are you lying to me again, Merlin?  Because you’ve lied to me before-“

“I’m not lying! I swear it!”

“How can I believe you?” Arthur yelled.

“You think I would have let something like this happen to you if I could have stopped it?” Merlin yelled back at him, stepping forward into his space, arms stiff at his sides.  “I would never have let it happen to you if I had known!  I would have died first!”

The assurance did nothing to cut through the haze of rage that Arthur felt consuming him.  “But they all still knew,” he ground out through clenched teeth. “They knew that my destiny would mean that I would lose everything I had!  Everything I fought for!  Everyone I loved!  They knew that I would wind up here!  Alone!  With nothing!”

Merlin flinched as if struck.

Too late, Arthur realized why. 

“Nothing,” Merlin said, the choked word rumbling up from his chest, his eyes narrowing, his lips pressing into a thin line.

Arthur watched him shake his head, holding back words, before turning away, back to the dresser.

“In case you hadn’t noticed,” Merlin snapped, “you aren’t the only one who lost everything because of the prophecy.  I lost everything too. Only slower.  And on my own.  And over, and over, and over again, for fifteen hundred years, while I waited for you, although the reason why I bothered doing that escapes me entirely right now.”

Merlin shoved past him, grabbed the rest of his clothes, yanked another dresser drawer open, then threw the bundle of clothing inside it. 

“Merlin-“

The slam of the drawer cut him off.  “Why don’t I just go and get the rest of your royal things now, my lord,” Merlin bit out, somehow making ‘my lord’ clearly sound like ‘you arse’.

After Merlin marched from his chambers with a slam of the door behind him, Arthur sat down hard on the edge of his table, and dragged both hands up over his face and through his wet hair. 

Well done, Arthur thought.  Absolutely well done.  Directing your fury at the one person who deserved it least.

Arthur sat a long while staring into his room, Merlin’s words echoing in his head.

Nothing, Arthur thought.  I just called Merlin nothing.

Merlin, who had stayed on the shores of the Lake of Avalon, in a castle that he’d built for Arthur, for fifteen hundred damned years

Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes closed.  “Idiot,” he said to himself, with feeling.

 

Chapter Text

 

Merlin stood in the hallway, ten paces beyond Arthur’s chambers. 

Idiot, he thought. Where do you think you’re going?  You can’t even let him out of your sight for two minutes without having a nervous breakdown.  You think you’re going to be able to leave this corridor?   

With a muttered curse, he sat down hard on the stone floor and shoved his back against the wall.

“Obnoxious aggravating royal arse,” he said, with feeling.

For just a moment, he nearly heard Arthur respond.  Not the real Arthur.  His memory of Arthur.  Who, apparently, had been more fond and more kind than the real Arthur had ever been.

How in the world had he forgotten how quick Arthur had been to anger?  Or how insensitive and self-centered he could be?  It was all coming back now, of course, all those memories of when he’d wanted to throttle Arthur for not listening, not caring, not paying attention

Merlin thumped his head back against the wall, feeling cold and wet and hurt and still more than a little embarrassed about his emotional breakdown in the lake. 

The sight of Arthur in the water had broken something inside him.  He couldn’t even remember what had happened in between when he’d seen Arthur in the lake, and when he’d actually wound up in the lake himself, struggling to pull Arthur to shore. 

The memory of Arthur’s arms around him was painfully clear, though.  Of course it was.  Because that was very helpful right now, wasn’t it, he thought.  Remembering the strength of Arthur’s arms, and the pressure of his chest against his own back, and the heat of Arthur’s breath on his neck as he’d been pulled to shore.

I am not thinking about that, Merlin told himself.  Not now, and not later, either.

‘Liar’, came the whisper of his remembered Arthur’s voice.

“Shut up,” Merlin said.  “You’re not real.”

In all of his fantasies of Arthur’s return, Merlin had never imagined this.  He never would have expected this anger and bitterness directed at him. His remembered Arthur would never have called him ‘nothing’.  But then, his remembered Arthur had never been real at all, had he.

‘I was real enough to you.’

“No you weren’t.  You were never real.  You were never him.”

‘Of course I wasn’t.’

“You were just me, being pathetic.”

‘I was just you keeping yourself sane.’

“Right. Sane.  So it’s not mental at all then, what I’m doing right now.”

“Who are you speaking to?” came a soft voice from nearby.

Merlin’s gaze snapped up, to see Arthur standing in the corridor.  The real Arthur, with his wet tunic and breeches hanging heavy upon him, his blue eyes wide and uncertain.  Very likely he was worried that someone was in the corridor who he could not see.  A very valid thought, given their history with magical beings.

“No one,” Merlin told Arthur. “There’s no one here.”

“You were talking to yourself?”

“Yes?”

“Do you always argue with yourself like that?” Arthur asked, in that same worried tone.

“It just… I was…”  Merlin closed his eyes and thumped the back of his head against the stone wall behind him. “Never mind.”

I am making a mess of this, he thought miserably.  I had fifteen hundred years to prepare.  Fifteen hundred years.  And I am making as much of a mess of it as ever I did of everything else in my life.  He is depending on me and I am messing it up.

“Stop.”

Merlin opened his eyes, surprised by the command.  Even more surprising was that Arthur wasn’t glaring at him, which had been what he had expected.  Instead, Arthur looked a bit sad, a bit tired, and more than a bit worried.

“Whatever you’re thinking,” Arthur said.  “Please.  Stop.”

The ‘please’ hit him with physical force, pulling his breath from him.  He’d forgotten, he thought.  Somehow, he’d forgotten how Arthur could read him.  How he could tell when he was deeply troubled. He had always known, hadn’t he.  Even long ago.

Merlin took the hand that Arthur held down to him, and let himself be pulled to his feet.

Arthur stepped closer to him, resting his hands upon Merlin’s shoulders, warm and strong upon the damp fabric of his shirt.

“I’m the one who should be sorry,” Arthur said.

Merlin stared into his king’s deep blue eyes, and was unable to speak.  Arthur’s focus on him was absolute.  It filled his entire world, just as it had back in Camelot.  

They had been rare, those occasions when Arthur had let down his guard, and had spoken to him from his heart, just like this.  But Arthur had belonged only to him in those moments.  Just as he had belonged only to Arthur.

I should have known back then, Merlin thought. It was so obvious in hindsight.  Not that it would have changed anything, of course.  Not then, and not now.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” Arthur said into his thoughts.

Shame swept Merlin’s anger aside. Arthur shouldn’t be the one worrying about his own hurt feelings. Not when Arthur was suffering the greatest trauma anyone could bear.  It was a wonder Arthur was functioning at all, much less apologizing for losing his temper.  He’d been dead yesterday, for god’s sake. 

“Arthur,” Merlin said, “you don’t have to-“

“Listen to me,” Arthur said, in the firm tone he’d used to command armies.

Merlin stopped talking. He’d never been able to disobey that voice.

“I know, deep in my bones, that centuries have passed,” Arthur told him.  “I can feel it.  I don’t know how.  But I can.  But I can also feel, just as strongly, as if it was only days ago that I stood at Camlaan.  Only last week that I walked through Camelot. Surrounded by all those I held dear.   All who are now dead.”

“Except me,” Merlin said, before his brain could stop his damned mouth from uttering the selfish words.  He ground his teeth together, furious at himself.

But Arthur just nodded, moving a hand from Merlin’s shoulders to grasp the back of his neck.  “Yes.  Except you.  Something for which I am unspeakably grateful.”

Merlin grabbed onto Arthur’s forearms and held on tight, fighting to keep his emotions in check under the intensity of Arthur’s stare.  Here, he thought, was that fondness he thought he had imagined.  Here was the intensity of emotion.  The connection he’d felt with this man.  It hadn’t just been in his mind all these years.   It had been real.

“What you did for me,” Arthur said.  “All those years you lived. All those centuries.  I cannot imagine what that was like.  Watching everything fall away. While you waited for me.  Without knowing how long you would have to wait.  Because you didn’t know, did you.”

Arthur’s voice had gone low and rough, his eyes shining with moisture, the muscles of his face pulling taut.  Merlin shook his head in reply, unable to speak.

Arthur squeezed his shoulder and neck almost to the point of pain.  “There are no words for it, Merlin,” he said, his voice hoarse.  “Do you understand?  There could never, ever, be enough words.”

Merlin bowed his head, his eyes squeezing shut, drawing in one breath after another to control himself, even as tears slid down his face.  It wasn’t fair, he thought.  He had no emotional defenses against Arthur when he was like this.  He had no guards against it.  Not after so very long.

Arthur leaned forward, and pressed his forehead to Merlin’s.  He stood several long moments like that, one hand on Merlin’s neck, the other on his shoulder, letting Merlin cling to his arms and breathe his air.

It was like being back on the shores of Avalon, Merlin thought.  Except Arthur wasn’t going to die.  

He felt Arthur move his hand over his hair, a soothing gesture, and his breath left him in a rush. Gods above, Merlin thought. The feeling of Arthur touching him again.  There were no words for that, either.

“All right?” Arthur asked.

Merlin almost said no, just to stay like this a moment longer.  He had to remind himself who he was, and who Arthur was, in order to reply.  “Yes,” he forced out.

Arthur leaned back, and Merlin nearly swayed forward into his space. It took all of his strength to stand up straight and push his shoulders back. He was dizzy with the effort.

“When’s the last time you’ve had anything to eat?” Arthur asked.

“What?”

“You look like you’re going to collapse.”

“I feel like I’m going to collapse.” Merlin scrubbed a hand over his face and through his damp hair. “I’ll get us some food after I draw you a bath to wash off the lake water.”

“Sounds like a very good idea,” Arthur said, and started back towards his chambers.

“This way,” Merlin said, smiling a bit now. Because if he knew nothing else, it was that Arthur was a creature of comfort when it came to his baths. And he was going to love the washroom.

As it turned out, Arthur had not changed in the slightest in this regard.  Arthur even cut off Merlin’s explanations about how plumbing worked, in order to ask how to keep the bath water from turning cold, and to work the self cleaning chamber pots, and to avail himself of the dozen other personal care objects that Merlin kept lying around the room.

When Arthur began to undress for his bath, Merlin found his inspiration to remove himself to his chambers, to change into clothes that Arthur had seen him wear in Camelot.  They were all far itchier than he remembered.  Even the well washed cloth of his blue tunic and dark breeches weren’t anywhere near as comfortable as his modern shirts and trousers.  Though thankfully the red cloth he tied around his neck was just as warm and soft as he remembered.

It felt a bit strange, venturing into his modern flat downstairs dressed in his clothes from Camelot.  Though it helped that the task of gathering sandwiches and drinks and fruit on a tray for Arthur felt so familiar.  

He carried the heavy tray upstairs with a skill that he apparently had not lost over the centuries, walking briskly with it into the washroom. The tiled floor of the room was covered in towels and Arthur’s clothes, but otherwise totally empty.

Merlin ran with the tray into the corridor, his heart racing in his chest. “Arthur!”  He turned in a full circle, nearly falling as a wave of dizziness caught up with him.  “Arthur!”

“Merlin?” Arthur stepped around his half open chamber door down the corridor, bare chested and wet haired, a towel slung around his waist, held by one hand at his hip.

The sandwiches and glasses on the tray slid sideways.  Merlin jostled the tray but caught them before they fell, breathing stupidly fast from his moment of panic.

“Is everything all right?” Arthur called.

Merlin nodded, forcing deep breaths to calm himself.  “Food is ready!”

“Yes, I can see that, Merlin.”

Merlin smiled at the long drawl Arthur put on his name. No one could drag out his name quite like Arthur.  It was music to his ears.

“Well come on.  Don’t just stand there like a witless idiot.  Bring it in.”

Witless idiot, Merlin thought happily.  That’s a new one. 

Arthur gave an audible huff of exasperation and turned to walk back through the door, his towel sliding lower on his hips, revealing a pale muscular stretch of lower back.

Merlin’s smile faded away. Gods of heaven and earth, he thought.  What if Arthur wants to be dressed?

“Merlin!”

He startled forward without meaning to, thinking of all the ways he could subtly encourage Arthur to handle his own dressing and undressing duties.  Which was stupid, and beneath him, he thought at himself.  He was still Arthur’s servant.  He would do what he was needed to do.  And set everything else to the side. 

But to his great relief, by the time he very, very slowly walked down the hall, and stepped into Arthur’s chambers, he saw that Arthur had in fact already pulled on a dry sleeping tunic and trousers himself. 

“Right there is fine,” Arthur said, gesturing to the table, probably because Merlin had been staring.

Merlin set out the food on the table, filling Arthur’s plate with a selection of fruits and sandwiches.  That done, he grabbed a sandwich for himself, and took it over to eat at Arthur’s wardrobe, while he finished tending to Arthur’s clothes.

As Merlin worked, he noticed Arthur watching him from his seat at the table.  He wasn’t saying anything, he was just sitting there, halfheartedly eating his meal, staring.

It should have been unnerving to be watched so steadily.  Instead, he found it comforting. Being noticed.  Being seen.

He stole a glance at the table, but Arthur did not look away, just watching him as he ate, a curious look on his face.  Merlin let him have the privacy of his thoughts.  After everything that had happened that day, it was the least that he could do.

Eventually, Arthur rose from the table, leaving his half eaten meal behind, to wander over to the window by the lakeside.  In silence he opened the curtains and shutters, shoving open the glass to stare for long moments into the darkness outside. 

Night had finally fallen, and cool breezes swept into the darkening room, bringing with them a chill. So Merlin did what he had always done at the castle. He set firewood in the hearth and used the flint stone to light it, then took a burning twig to light all of the candles upon the wrought iron stands and in candelabras set into the stone walls.

With that done, Merlin went to sort the bundle of clothing he’d roughly shoved into Arthur’s dresser drawer earlier.  As he sorted Arthur’s socks into nice neat rows, a soundless laugh huffed from him.

I shouldn’t feel so happy to be sorting his socks, he thought.  There is definitely something wrong with how happy I am right now.  Sorting socks.

“Merlin.”

Merlin picked up a mismatched pair, found the correct socks, then placed them into the drawer together.  “Yes?”

“Why am I here?”

Merlin looked over at where Arthur stood at the open window, his hands laced behind his back, staring out at the dark shadow of the tower.

“You’re here because you are the Once and Future King.”

“I’d thought that they meant I would be a king well into my future.  As an old man.  Not a king in the future.”

It was the meaning Merlin had hoped for as well.  For them both to be living into the future, as old men, together, with Camelot spread out like a shining jewel in the countryside around them.

 “Why this future?” Arthur said to the lake, to the island.  “Why now?”

“There was another part to the prophecy,” Merlin said, because there was no getting around that word, no matter how Arthur hated it.  “It said that you would return in the time of Albion’s greatest need.”

Arthur turned from the window. “Albion is in danger?”

“I don’t know.  It doesn’t seem to be?  But I’m honestly not sure.”

“You said this prophecy came from other beings of magic.  Is there no one you can ask to find out?”

“No.  There’s no one.”

“What about the ones who just restored me?  You said they were creatures of the Old Religion.  They may have the answers.”

Merlin’s fingers tightened on the edge of of the drawer until his knuckles turned white.  He was remembering the sounds of thunder, of screams in a tempest, of crumbling rock.  “We aren’t exactly on speaking terms,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“It means they aren’t in the habit of helping me,” Merlin snapped, with more anger than he’d intended.

Arthur clearly wanted to press him for more answers.  But he didn’t.  It made no sense why he didn’t.  But he didn’t. 

“Then we will have to find out for ourselves,” Arthur stated.

Arthur’s entire body language had changed, his shoulders pulling back, his arms falling to his sides.  Battle ready.  Focused. 

“Sire?”

“If Albion is in danger,” Arthur said, “then we are duty bound to protect her, and her people.  They are the children of Camelot, and as such, they are still our responsibility.  No matter how many ages of man have passed.  We will protect them whatever the cost, you and I.”

Merlin found himself reminded of riding out at dawn, of facing bandits headlong, of calling the knights to arms. “Yes, my lord,” he said firmly. “We will.”

Arthur nodded, visibly relaxing, though the shadow of worry did not leave his face.

Merlin returned his attention to Arthur’s dresser, impressed as always by Arthur’s strength and spirit. He doubted he would have been able to think of others so quickly after suffering the losses that Arthur had.  But Arthur had never wavered from duty, had he.  Not even when his life had been at stake.

Deep in thought, Merlin finished arranging the last of the clothes in the drawer, and pushed it shut with a satisfied nod. “That’s your socks all sorted then.”

“I think you’ve developed an unnatural interest in my feet, Merlin.”

“Just professional pride,” Merlin said without turning around, because his cheeks were burning again.

“I think it’s time to turn in, don’t you?”

“Oh.  Of course.  Sorry.”  Merlin stepped over to the bedside, to pull down the blankets and sheets on the bed. 

“That’s not what- I didn’t mean for you to-“  Arthur stepped close, placing a hand on Merlin’s arm, stopping his motions.  “I want to go to sleep, is all I meant.”

“Which is why I’m readying your bed, obviously,” Merlin said, nodding at the pulled back blankets. 

“I can do that,” Arthur said.

Merlin surprised himself with a sudden laugh.  “Is that right?  Since when exactly?  Did I somehow miss that happening? Even once?  You making your bed?” 

Instead of responding to his taunts, Arthur frowned at him, a strange expression on his face.  “I only meant that you don’t…” 

“That I don’t what?”

Arthur stared at him, but did not answer.

“Let me just take care of the candles.” Merlin tried to step away, only to feel Arthur’s hand tighten around his forearm. “Unless you’re intending to do that too?”

“No.  You can do it.”

Merlin glanced down at Arthur’s hand, then back up at Arthur.  “You coming with me then?” he asked, and raised his eyebrows at him, grinning.

“No.”

Merlin’s grin faltered.  “Then… what…?”

“The other way,” Arthur said.

It was the same strange soft tone Arthur had used before.  The first time he’d asked him to use magic.

“Why?” Merlin asked softly.

After a pause, Arthur said, “Because I’m asking you to.”

Merlin found himself nodding.  That was more than reason enough.

Without breaking Arthur’s gaze, Merlin held out an arm to the room, palm wide, and said: “Acwence þa ligen”. 

The magic rose up at once, stretching to the candle flames and snuffing them out, and then in a fit of over enthusiasm, snuffing out the hearth fire as well, casting the room into semi darkness. 

“Oh,” Merlin said. “Sorry. I. Forgot to add ‘ure’ .  To focus the…. magic.”

Arthur didn’t flinch away at the word.  If anything, his focus on Merlin’s eyes in the dim lighting became more intense.  “And the window,” Arthur said.

Merlin didn’t even try to walk over to it this time. Just held out a hand, and said:  “Fordyttan fenester, wágrift, éagdurue” and reached out to his magic to pull closed the window, and the shutters, and draw the drapes.  The darkness of the room deepened until Arthur was a dark silhouette in front of him.

“Did you know your eyes shine with starlight when you do magic?” Arthur asked.

Merlin felt his face heat.  Not ‘glowed’.  Not ‘turned yellow’. But ‘shone with starlight’.  A heart-wrenchingly beautiful way to describe what happened to him.  And here was Arthur, of all people, saying this.  About him.  About his magic

“It’s quite striking,” Arthur added. 

Merlin stood in shock, trying to think of something to say to that.

“Perhaps relighting the fire in the hearth would be best,” Arthur said.

Forbaernan,” Merlin said, in a hoarse voice he had not expected, and the fire roared back to life in the hearth.  Arthur was still standing where he had been, fingers still warm and firm on his arm, studying his face more closely than before.

“It’s even more noticeable in the dark,” Arthur noted.  “Quite amazing,” he added, as he turned away, pulled off his tunic, and climbed into the bed. 

Merlin stood motionless, utterly dumbstruck, trying to gain control over any aspect of his person, as he listened to the sounds of blankets moving.

“Good night, Merlin,” came Arthur’s tired voice from his bed.

“Good night, my lord,” Merlin heard himself say, as he moved to leave.

“Merlin.”

He stopped with one hand on the door of Arthur’s chambers.  “Yes?”

“Thank you.”

He couldn’t think of what to say to that. Not after everything else.  “If you need anything,” he said, falling back on habit, “I’m right down the hall.”

“As am I.”

Merlin banged into the edge of the door, caught himself on it, then pushed himself around it and outside the room.  After he closed the door behind him, he turned and pressed his forehead against the wood. 

For several minutes he stood like that, listening to the sound of his own breathing in the torch lit corridor. 

Any minute, he thought.  Any minute I’m going to walk away.  Any minute.

Five minutes later, one thing was very clear.  He wasn’t going anywhere.

What if Arthur needed him?  What if something horrible happened?  What if Albion’s greatest need was going to happen tonight?  Any manner of things could happen with the magics of the world so active and unstable.  He probably should have mentioned to Arthur about that.  That was probably an important thing for him to know.  That the world was alive with magics after centuries of dormancy.  Who knew what could happen with that being the case.

The floor, Merlin thought. I can sleep on the floor, right here by his chambers.  I can make a bedroll with some blankets, and -

“Merlin.”

Merlin yanked open the door.  “Yes?” he asked, and then cursed his stupidity, because how else could he open the door so fast if he hadn’t been standing outside like a thief.

“You can stay.”

Merlin walked over to the archway of Arthur’s sleeping chambers. “What?”

“You haven’t moved from the door since you closed it.”

“No, I-  It was just-  I happened to walk by and-“

“Your feet have been casting shadows under the door ever since you left.  From the torches in the hallway.”

Merlin felt his face heat, and his neck, and even his ears.  Gods of the ages, was he fifteen years old?  He cleared his throat, forcing his shoulders back.  “Yes.  Well.  I just thought I could best protect you, sire, if-“

“Stay.”

All right then, Merlin thought, and he looked from the uncomfortable wooden chair by the hearth, to the uncomfortable wooden table still filled with plates, to the uncomfortable stone floor at Arthur’s bedside.  After deciding that close and horizontal was best, he went to sit on the cold stone floor by Arthur’s bed.  He stretched out upon it with a grunt, feeling every single stone pressing into his back and shoulders and head. 

“What are you doing?” Arthur asked, in his ‘you are being an idiot’ voice.

Merlin frowned up at the ceiling.  “Going to sleep?”

“On the stone floor.”

“More comfortable than the table, I should think.”

 A loud, exasperated sigh.  “Get up, Merlin.”

“Get up?”

“I saw that decadent excuse for a bed you have in your room.  It looks like it’s stuffed with feather pillows and lambs wool. You’re not going to be able to sleep on the floor after sleeping all this time in a bed fit for a princess.”

“It’s not fit for a princess,” Merlin said, though the thought of his soft mattress filled him with longing.  But it was so far down the hall that it might as well be in another country. “I’ll be fine down here.”

“No you won’t.  Stop being ridiculous.”

Merlin sat up, his back complaining already from the few moments spent laying on the stone.  “I suppose I could try the chair…”

“You’re not sleeping in a chair.  You’ll be useless tomorrow.” 

Merlin stared at Arthur in the flickering light of the fire.  Arthur stared back at him, frowning, from where he lay on his bed on his side.

“Just get in,” Arthur said. “Before I change my mind.”

Merlin watched Arthur gesture to the space behind him in the bed.  “You want me to… I should…  In the…”  He climbed to his feet and pointed vaguely, his brain refusing to think of any words that weren’t a variation of ‘sleep with you’ in all of its suggestive glory.  “I mean-  In the-“

“For the love of the gods, Merlin, just lay down so I can go to sleep!”

Merlin walked to the other side of the bed and stared down at the blankets, trying to wrap his head around what he was about to do.  Which was to get in the same bed.  With Arthur.  For the first time, ever.

Sure, he thought. No problem.  It’s not as if I’ve ever pictured anything like this, in great detail, all those nights when I lay awake missing you so much that I thought my soul would rip itself in half.

Merlin!”

“Yes, sorry, sorry,” he said, and climbed at once on top of the blankets, laying flat on his back, arms tight against his sides, clothes twisted around his body, the knot of his neckerchief digging into his neck.

“Stubborn idiot,” Arthur said, and pulled the covers up over his own shoulder.

Merlin stared up at the canopied roof of Arthur’s bed, wondering what on earth had possessed Arthur to make this offer to him, and what had possessed him to accept it. 

Arthur raised up on one elbow, shook out his pillow, then lay down on his side with a low, soft, satisfied moan that instantly filled Merlin’s mind with images and ideas that he absolutely should not be having at this particular moment.

I am picturing a boil covered harpy, Merlin thought quickly.  With the face that looked like a bubbling cesspool.  The one who exploded when I hit her with that jolt of magic. That was a mess, hey? Took a while to clean that up. Entrails everywhere.

Arthur stretched out his legs, another relaxed moan rumbling up from deep in his chest.

The troll, Merlin thought frantically.  I am thinking of the troll who snogged Uther in the throne room.  I am thinking of the pixie who tried to have sex with Gaius. 

He laughed aloud at that last. 

Arthur gave a loud and exceedingly dramatic sigh. 

“Sorry, I-  I’m just remembering a pixie who tried to get a leg over with Gaius.”

There was a long pause.  “Say that again?”

“There was this pixie woman,” Merlin said, “who spent days chasing Gaius around the citadel, trying to have sex with him.”

“I am extremely thankful that ‘trying to’ was part of that sentence,” Arthur said, surprising Merlin by ignoring the ‘illegal magic in Camelot’ part of the story.

“I was extremely thankful it was ‘trying to’ as well.”  Merlin said.  “As was Gaius.”

“When did this happen exactly?”

“When the Princess Elena was brought to Court.  Do you remember her nanny Grunhilde?”

“Yes.”  Another pause.  “Oh gods, that awful woman?”

“She really was awful, wasn’t she.  I saw her eat flies like a toad.  Just revolting.”

“Why do I get the feeling that this is only the first of many stories that I’m going to hear regarding your secret and highly illegal adventures as a sorcerer in my kingdom?”

No anger, Merlin thought. Just tired, fond, bemusement. “I’ll try to pace them, my lord, so as not to overwhelm you.”

“Lovely.”

For a few minutes it was silent.

“When you say she ate flies like a toad…” Arthur said.

“Her tongue was three feet long and purple.”

“Good gods.”

“Yes.”

Another few moments of silence.

“Are you sure ‘thankful’ is how Gaius felt?” Arthur asked.

“What?”

“Because with a tongue that long and talented-“

“Oh my god shut up-“

“Gaius may have actually enjoyed-“

“Shut up shut up!  That’s disgusting!  It was Gaius!”

The mattress shook with Arthur’s laughter.  “I wager she could do many things with that tongue…”

Merlin grabbed the pillow from under his head and hit Arthur with it.

“Oh, wonderful, another for me,” Arthur said, and stuffed the pillow under his head.

Merlin rested his head on the mattress and crossed his arms over his stomach, smiling stupidly to himself.  Okay, yes, now he would be able to sleep. 

“Prat,” Merlin said, though his stupid grin made it sound like anything but an insult.

“Clotpole,” Arthur said, in a similar tone of voice.

“Still not a word,” Merlin said, and then happily stared like a moonstruck teenager at the back of Arthur’s stupid blond head, until his royal snoring filled the room.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Arthur awoke slowly, blissfully warm and relaxed under the blankets of his bed.  He stretched out his body on the mattress, pushing his face into his pillow, smelling the sweet vanilla soaps of Camelot.

The light beyond his eyelids was brighter than it should be. He must have slept through morning council. Gwen was going to give him hell for having to make excuses for him. His knights had probably started training without him as well.  But that was all right. Sir Leon had been leading practice of late.  He could join them later.

Arthur opened his eyes to a room that was not his room, in a castle that was not his castle, to sunlight filtering through closed drapes and shutters from entirely the wrong direction.

And then he remembered.

This was not Camelot. 

Because Camelot was gone.  And all his people were dead.

Arthur felt the weight of it fall upon him, crushing the breath from his body, his anguish hollowing him out from the inside, the pain of it stronger than any mortal wound. 

They are all dead, he thought again.  He could feel it, and yet he couldn’t.

I’m in shock, Arthur thought.  That’s why I feel like this.  I’m in shock. 

But even this fact felt hollow and distant. 

He’d felt it before. This particular numbness.  Many times, in fact, when he’d seen friends murdered upon the battlefield.  It hurt, gods it hurt, but the true grief was yet to come.  And it would be so much worse.

Arthur pressed his face into the pillow, breathing in the smells of his dead kingdom, his chest tight with grief. How much worse could it become, he wondered, if it was already as bad as this? 

With a deep shaking breath, he rubbed both hands over his face.  The blankets pulled tight over his arms as he moved, so he rolled onto his back, turning his head on his pillow to look beside him.

Merlin lay there atop the blankets, stretched out on his stomach, long arms at his sides. His black hair stuck out at angles, long enough to touch the tips of his ears and his eyebrows.  His face was pressed into the mattress, his nose burrowed into the blankets, his mouth hanging open.  He was drooling, just a little.

Arthur felt some of his pain ebb away at the familiar sight.  Not alone, he thought. By the gods, at least I am not alone. 

At his side, Merlin made a small sound like a child, then smacked his lips together, and went still with a sigh.

The greatest sorcerer to ever walk the earth, Arthur thought.   He could scarce believe it.  Especially looking at Merlin now, sprawled out next to him in the rumpled clothes of a servant of Camelot.

The memory of Merlin as an old man, calling down lightning from the mountaintop, was still vivid in Arthur’s memory.  But when he looked at his friend now, he didn’t see any of that.  All he saw was Merlin.

Even with his unfathomable powers, even with his new brooding silences, even with the unfathomable age hidden deep in his eyes, the Merlin that Arthur had known back in Camelot was still there. Kindhearted, headstrong, insolent, brave, and the best and most devoted friend that Arthur had ever known. 

‘Conjurers and sorcerers will take many pleasing shapes to deceive and destroy,’ came Uther’s voice, from deep within his memories.

Arthur watched his friend sleeping, and felt only a profound sadness for his father.

I have slept in the arms of magic for fifteen hundred years, Father, Arthur thought.  I am no more untouched by it now than he.  We will protect Albion by whatever means are necessary, he and I.  Even if that means using magic to do it.

Arthur watched Merlin rub his cheek into the pillow, twitch his nose twice, then settle back to sleep.  

Comforting, Arthur thought. That's how it feels.  To have Merlin sleeping at his side.  It was comforting.  Although why, he had no idea.  Just as he had no idea what had possessed him the night before, when he’d asked Merlin to stay. 

The room had just felt so empty. The world outside it so strange.  The island and the tower too close.  He hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that if he closed his eyes, he would fall into the darkness again, and not awake. 

An irrational fear borne of exhaustion, Arthur decided.   No need to feel bad about it.  Not after all he’d been through.

And it wasn’t really so different from nights on battle campaigns, was it.  With Merlin laying on the ground on his bedroll, only an arm’s length away. 

All those times, Arthur thought.  All those nights.  I thought I was protecting him.  When all along he'd been protecting me.

A low rumbling noise pulled his thoughts from his sleeping friend. It set a vibration to the mattress, so Arthur slid from bed, pulling on his tunic in the chill of the room.  Barefoot, he padded across the stone floor to the window facing away from the lake. 

After moving aside the drapes and opening the shutters, Arthur pushed open the double glass windows to the damp cool air of the morning.  A breeze chilled his face, a bracing sensation to match the even more startling world outside.

Arthur leaned on the stone sill, staring up into the sky, at the source of the rumbling noise.  It was a creature of some sort, silver and shaped like cross, soaring across the heavens like a bird, but shining like a sword.  Its roar followed it, near a white cloud that pursued it.  Arthur watched the strange creature until it left his vision, then dropped his gaze to the misty scene on the earth below. 

Beyond Merlin’s grounds, Arthur could see strange boxes move along a black smooth path beside a stretch of greenery.  The brightly colored boxes reflected light like armor, yet were transparent like glass as well.  Each box moved as if by magic, swerving left and right around one other like fish in the ocean, as fast as stallions.

Arthur looked down at the lawns surrounding Merlin’s tower, and saw people strolling upon them, calling to each other in that strange language.  They wore that colorful clothing he’d seen the day before, though with their bodies covered a bit more this morning against the chill of the weather. 

“Arthur!”

Arthur glanced over and saw that Merlin had sat up in bed, blinking against the light, a panicked look on his face.  It wasn’t like Merlin to be so on edge so early, he thought. Not unless there was an enemy to hand.  “Here, Merlin.”

When Merlin spotted him by the window, his shoulders visibly dropped in an exhalation.  He climbed out of bed on unstable legs, his hands running over his pale face, into his black hair.  “You should have woken me.  It must be mid morning.  I should have gotten your breakfast by now.”

“What am I seeing?” Arthur said.  “Out there.”

Merlin joined him beside the window. “You’re going to think it’s magic.  But it’s not.”

“If it’s not magic, then what is it?” 

Merlin studied him a long moment, his expression grim, his brows pulled together.  “I have something to help you understand.  It’s in my rooms.  Shall I get it?”

Arthur nodded, and Merlin padded from the room without a word, leaving Arthur to stare out the window at an Albion he no longer knew.

When Merlin returned, he was holding a very large, very thick book in his hands.  He dropped it upon Arthur’s desk with a thump and a small cloud of dust.  Arthur stepped to his side as Merlin opened the cover, revealing the first of the many yellowed pages.

Arthur recognized the writing on the title page.  It was in Merlin’s hand. “The History of Albion,” Arthur read aloud, “as witnessed by Merlin, son of Hunith of Ealdor and Balinor the Dragonlord.”  Arthur looked sharply at Merlin.  “Balinor?”

Merlin’s guarded expression reminded Arthur of the day before, when every mention of magic had set him on edge. 

“I didn’t know he was my father,” Merlin said softly.  “Not until we went to find him.  And I couldn’t control dragons until... The ability is passed down after death.”

“You’re… a Dragonlord,” Arthur said, to say it out loud, because somehow this idea was more ludicrous than the magic and the immortality.  Merlin, a master of dragons.

Merlin shrugged, looking bashful of all things.

Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. 

“It really only-“

“Just… give me a moment.”

“Yes.  Sorry.”

A white dragon, Arthur remembered.  A white dragon had attacked them at Camlaan.   It had been stopped by the old sorcerer on the mountaintop – by Merlin – with words of power that had shaken the earth beneath Arthur’s feet. 

Arthur dropped his hand, staring at the book, wanting to ask Merlin about that, or about any of the things he’d seen that day.  But the wary and uncomfortable expression upon Merlin’s face made the words die in his throat. 

Instead, Arthur forced a smile.  “Those poor dragons.  With you as their master.”

Merlin made no reaction to his taunt. “At times,” he said, as if to himself.

In the silence that fell, Arthur returned his attention to the book.  He turned a few of the thick pages with great care, finding that they were all filled front and back with Merlin’s careful handwriting. 

“I thought it would help,” Merlin said.  “When you returned.  For you to learn about the world as I did.”

Arthur turned a page and found himself staring down at a sketch of the Tower on the Isle of Avalon, still whole and foreboding in the distance. He read the paragraph beside it, which described his own journey to the Isle after death, and the help he was to receive from the ancient beings of power who resided upon it.

“That’s who kept me all this time,” Arthur said. “The Sidhe.”

“They were the only ones left who still held power over the ancient magics of life and death. They were your only hope.”      

Arthur turned the page, because he didn’t want to think about that, about his time spent in darkness.  It was still too near, too real.  He turned another page, and then another, scanning over the words that described the years after his death.  Another turn of a page, and a letter slid out onto the floor.  It bore Gwen’s handwriting.

Merlin retrieved it and returned it to the book.  “Gwen told me about repealing the ban against magic in this letter.”

“Leave it to Gwen to do for you what I never did,” Arthur said.

Merlin gave him a strange look at that, then shrugged.  “I think it was just her way of trying to get me to come back and live in Camelot.”

“Come back?  What do you mean come back?”

Merlin gave him a very weary, and very sad smile.  “Wasn’t much point of my being in Camelot without you there, was there.”

“Of course there was a point,” Arthur snapped, in tones he’d used back when he’d thought Merlin actually was an idiot.  “With magic legal, you could have protected Camelot against magical attack.”

“I did protect them,” Merlin said, clearly indignant at Arthur’s assumption to the contrary. “I used scrying crystals to watch them from here.  And when I saw danger, I stopped it.  I kept them safe that way for a very long time, Arthur. At least, until the numbers of invaders became too great.”

Invaders, Arthur thought.  Of course.  He should have known they couldn’t hold them off forever.

Arthur closed the book hard and pressed the palm of his hand into its cover.  More than anything he wanted to never, ever open this book again.  The thought of reading about the deaths of his friends and the fall of Camelot set a pain in his chest worse than any battle wound he’d ever borne.

“There are good things in there too,” Merlin said, probably noticing his distress.  “You’ll be proud of all that Gwen did as Queen.  And your knights.  It really was a golden age of peace, for a time.”

A golden age of peace, Arthur thought.  His heart ached that he hadn’t lived to see it.

His fingers moved over the cover of the book, then stopped, over words he hadn’t noticed before.  “Book one,” he said, and looked over at Merlin.

“There are a few more,” Merlin said, in a tone Arthur knew was a harbinger of bad tidings.

“How many more?”

“I’m not sure?”

“You’re lying to me,” Arthur told him.  It was stupidly easy to tell when Merlin was lying now.  Perhaps Merlin had lost the skill over the years.  Or perhaps Arthur just knew what to look for now.

“You don’t want to know,” Merlin said, his tone reminding Arthur of helpings of rat stew.

“Guess,” Arthur told him. 

“Maybe… fifty? Ish?”

“Ish?” Arthur repeated. 

“All right, it’s closer to a hundred, but rest of them are much shorter than this-”

“A hundred?” Arthur burst out.  “Merlin, if this is your way of getting back at me for all the times I complained about your endless prattle-“

“Don’t blame me for history!  I had nothing to do with it.”  Merlin paused, reconsidering his words.  “Well.  Almost nothing.  Mostly nothing, anyway.”

Arthur sighed down at the book.  “I suppose I’d better start at once. I can’t defend Albion until I better understand her.  Which apparently I must do through thick dusty tomes numbering in the hundreds.”

“It’s a hundred and fifty at the most.”

“A hundred and-!“ Arthur broke off, catching the gleam in Merlin’s eyes.  “Very funny, Merlin”

Merlin grinned at him as he walked over to the table where they’d dined the night before.  “Wait to start reading until after breakfast. I’ll get food from the café. It won’t take long.”

“The café?” Arthur said, repeating the foreign word Merlin had used.

“It’s like a tavern. Only with cakes and breads. And sandwiches.  And no alcohol.  Or gambling.”

“So it’s not like a tavern at all,” Arthur said, just to antagonize him.

“Think of it like the castle’s kitchens instead, then.”

“People didn’t pay to eat from the kitchens.”

“The important thing,” Merlin said testily, as he stacked the used dishes onto a silver tray, “is there’s food there, and I can get some, because I own the place.”

Arthur crossed his arms and leaned back against his desk.  Oh this was just too easy now.  “So you own lands, and you own this castle, and you own an eating establishment.  But you’re not a lord.”

Merlin glared at him as he picked up the tray.  “Now you’re just trying to be an ass.”

Arthur had to fight to suppress a smile. It was ridiculous how much better he felt to see Merlin treating him with such insolence and lack of respect.  There was definitely something very wrong with how happy it made him.  “I’m not trying very hard at all, actually,” Arthur told him.

“Yes, well, you wouldn’t have to, would you, since you started out halfway to being an ass already.”

“I can have you thrown in the stocks for speaking to your king that way,” Arthur said, without thinking. 

When his words caught up with him, he felt a weight settle into his chest, pulling the smile from his face.  

Merlin paused in the middle of the room with the tray in his hands.  “I’m afraid I didn’t bother bringing the stocks here from Camelot, sire,” he said.  “I did consider it though. Because of all the wonderful memories I had of my afternoons there. Thank you for that, by the way.  Rotten lettuce always did wonders for my skin.”

Arthur forced himself to return Merlin’s smile.  Because Merlin was reaching out, instead of retreating.  And for that gesture alone Arthur was ridiculously grateful. 

While Merlin went to fetch breakfast, Arthur availed himself of the indoor washing facilities.  Merlin had been quite correct the day before.  This was a welcome addition to castle life as he knew it. 

He returned to his chambers wonderfully refreshed, his body and hair clean, his face shaved with a ridiculously small lightweight blade, even teeth cleaner than he thought they’d ever been. 

A towel held around his waist, Arthur stood in front of his open wardrobe, and stared at his clothes. 

Back in Camelot, he would have had Merlin pick out his clothes and put them upon the dressing screen.  He might even have had Merlin dress him, if he were preoccupied with matters of state.  Or even, he thought, if he simply hadn’t felt like doing it himself.

It felt wrong to ask this of him now.  Not after all he’d already done.  Not after years in Camelot living under the daily threat of the pyre and the noose and the guillotine, all to protect Arthur and defend the kingdom.  Not after fifteen hundred years of waiting for Arthur’s return. 

No, Arthur thought.  Bringing up their meals was one thing.  But menial tasks such as dressing him?  He simply could not ask Merlin to do such things any longer.  

After selecting some clothes, Arthur began to dress in the silence of the room.  He had only just pulled up his undergarments when a loud clatter of dishes from the doorway startled him, making him bang his elbow into the wardrobe door.

In the doorway, Merlin was staggering sideways, a large, full metal tray of food in his hands, the items upon it nearly falling from it to the floor.

Merlin glanced sharply at him, then away, going red in the face.  Perhaps he’d used magic to keep things from falling, Arthur thought, as he knotted the string of his underclothes at his waist.  

“Everything all right?” Arthur asked.

“Just a bit… um… Out of practice.” Merlin set the tray down on the table.  “Plus the shock of realizing that you know how to dress yourself, of course.”

Arthur pulled on his breeches, glad to hear the taunt falling so easily from Merlin’s lips. “Well, it was either that or stand around naked waiting for you,” Arthur told him.

Another loud clatter from the table, as Merlin dropped a plate onto silverware. 

Arthur pulled on his tunic as Merlin set the plate to rights and adjusted the silverware, cursing under his breath.  “What in the world is wrong with you?” Arthur said.  “You seem less coordinated than usual.  Which is honestly quite an achievement.”

Merlin set out plates of cakes and breads and fruit and meats on the table.  A tall glass pitcher of the clearest water Arthur had ever seen was placed nearby, right next to a teapot and cups.  “Just eager to get your royal breakfast ready, my lord,” he said.

Arthur sat upon the rumpled blankets of his bed – he was going to have to make the bed from now on too, he supposed - and pulled on his socks and boots.  “I heard that, you know.”

“Heard what?”

“When you said ‘my lord’, you were actually saying ‘you arse’. Don’t deny it.”

“Oh I don’t deny it.”

“Of course you don’t,” Arthur said, his voice coming over fond instead of aggrieved.

Merlin moved the plate full of scones and jam closer Arthur’s place setting at the end of the table.  “I’d start with the scones first. The peach jam is delicious.  Just fresh made this week.” 

Arthur sat down at the table, started to reach for some food, then stopped.  Merlin was standing several feet away, hands clasped behind his back, watching him.

Merlin noticed him staring.  “Did I forget something?”

“Yes,” Arthur drawled.

Merlin frowned at the table, clearly puzzled. “What did I forget?”

“A plate? For you?” 

Merlin just stared at him blankly. 

“Unless you’ve eaten already?”

“No?”

Arthur pulled out the chair next to his own.  “Then sit.”

Merlin stared the chair as if he had no idea what it was.

With a put-upon huff, Arthur got up, grabbed Merlin by the shoulders, and sat him down hard on the chair.  After taking his own seat again, he shoved the empty plate between the two of them, and started stacking it with food.  When Merlin didn’t move, Arthur grabbed a small cake with one hand, Merlin’s wrist with the other, and mashed the two together.

“Eat,” Arthur commanded, in his firmest battlefield tone.

Merlin’s hand lifted the cake to his mouth so quickly that he surprised himself, judging by the look on his face.

“Do I need to tell you to chew?” Arthur said.

“Ah mow how oo eaf food,” Merlin tried to snap out, around a mouthful of cake.

“Drink before you choke,” Arthur commanded again, and was rewarded by Merlin immediately grabbing the pitcher to pour himself some water, looking rather appalled at himself as he did so.

Arthur waited until Merlin was just about to put the pitcher down, then gestured at his own glass.  Because honestly, it was a rare treat indeed to have Merlin so wrong-footed.  He wanted to enjoy it while it lasted.

After Merlin filled his glass, frowning at him the whole time, Arthur let him eat in peace.  The food was delicious, though much of it was far too sweet for his taste.  The water was fresh and clear, and the tea tasted nearly exactly like the teas of Camelot.  Which was probably Merlin’s doing, he thought, as he watched his friend chewing on a third rather large breakfast cake.

“I’m eating, all right?” Merlin said into his thoughts.  “You don’t have to stare at me like I’m going to raid Camelot’s vaults at any second.”

“Which you probably have done,” Arthur said, mostly to change the subject, because he hadn’t realized he’d been staring.

“Only in the service of the kingdom.”

Arthur dropped his fork.  “What?”

“It wasn’t that often,” Merlin protested. 

“Exactly how many times did you break into the vaults?”

Merlin counted in his head for far, far too long.

“Never mind,” Arthur said. “I don’t want to know.” 

“In my defense,” Merlin said, “most of the contents of Camelot’s vaults are here now anyway, for safe keeping, in my cellars.”

Arthur felt grief rise within him, cresting like a wave, souring his stomach, catching his breath.  It’s like that, he remembered.  After the battle had ended.  The grief at those friends you’d lost comes in surges.  Like waves of attack by an untiring foe.

“It is gone, then,” Arthur said in a soft voice.  “Camelot...”

Merlin leaned forward in his chair, his eyes shining with sudden delight. “No, Arthur,” he said firmly.  “It’s not.”

“It’s… not,” Arthur repeated, not daring to believe.

“I couldn’t let the invaders have it,” Merlin said.  “Not our castle. Not our town.  So I told the forest to cover it, and the mountain to encase it in stone.  Not a soul who walks upon the ground protecting it knows that it’s there.  Right beneath their feet.”

“You hid Camelot… in a mountain…” Arthur heard himself saying.  An impossible thought.  But then, Merlin was an impossible man, wasn’t he.

Merlin rested his hand on Arthur’s forearm, his smile radiant, his eyes crinkling with his joy.   “Arthur. Camelot is safe.  She’s safe, and she’ll stay safe, until you need her.”

For the first time since waking here in this place, Arthur felt true hope fill him.  Camelot still existed.  It lived, as he lived. “But our people…”

“Everyone we knew lived out their lives there in peace, under Gwen’s rule.  As did many generations who followed.  Only when the invaders became a plague on the land did our people scatter to the farthest corners of Albion.  Only then did I bring all that I could here, and hide Camelot, until your return.”

Arthur covered Merlin’s hand with his own, where it rested on his arm.  “You keep giving me one miracle after another, Merlin.”

“This one was absolutely my pleasure, sire.”

And here was yet another of Merlin’s talents, Arthur thought.  To make ‘sire’ feel like a bow and an embrace all at once. 

“Thank you,” Arthur said, and squeezed his hand.

Merlin’s broad grin turned him once again into the young man of twenty Arthur had  known so long ago.  “Not so useless after all, am I,” Merlin told him.

“Well.  I wouldn’t go that far.”

Merlin laughed, and Arthur along with him, at the sheer joy of it.  Camelot still lived.  Someday he would see her walls restored.  Her towers shining in the distance.   

But only after he knew his purpose, he thought. Only after he was ready to face it.  And he would face it, with Merlin at his side.

A sensation on his arm drew Arthur’s gaze, to where Merlin’s hand rested.  Merlin’s thumb was moving gently across the fabric of his tunic, back and forth.

It put Arthur in the mind of Gwen, strangely enough.  Of her hand upon his own. Of her silent reassuring caresses.

Merlin’s hand jerked away abruptly, his arm knocking his glass of water over, spilling liquid onto the floor.  “Sorry,” he breathed, and jumped up from the table. “I’ll- I’d-  better get something for that,” he said, backing away.  “And more of your things.  And- I’ll- Yes. Be right back.”

Arthur watched him hasten from the room and out into the corridor.  When it became clear Merlin was not returning immediately, Arthur leaned back in his chair, frowning down at where Merlin’s hand had been.

His arm was still warm from the touch.  He covered the spot with his hand, wondering at what had happened.  

But then his gaze fell upon Merlin’s book upon his desk.

His hands clenching into fists, Arthur pushed himself up from the table and sat himself down at his desk.  After a deep breath, he opened the book, and began to read.

 

Chapter Text

Merlin dropped a stack of books to the floor outside Arthur’s chamber doors, next to a pile of his clothes and boots.  He stretched out his back with a groan, mopping at his sweaty neck with the cloth around his neck.

Now he remembered why he’d worn these things constantly back in Camelot.  It had been because of the lifting and the hauling and the other hundred types of filthy manual labor. 

Merlin nudged the pile of books with his foot, counting them again.  Twenty books, he thought.  That should be more than enough for the next few days.  Not that Arthur was going to get very far beyond the first one today.  Not with it telling of their friends’ deaths, of Camelot’s fall, and of the invasion of Albion by the Norsemen.

No, Merlin thought.  That would be quite enough for Arthur to handle in one day.

After gathering Arthur’s clothes in a bundle, and stacking a few books atop them, Merlin approached Arthur’s door.  Which was closed, and which he couldn’t open with his hands full. 

He started to put everything down again, then rolled his eyes at himself. The time for hiding his magic was long past, he told himself. That, at least, could be different now. 

Aetynan,” Merlin said to the doors, and they both swung open so he could enter.

Arthur sat at his desk by the open lakeside window, hunched over the open book.  “Still not knocking, I see.”

“Sorry.”  Merlin shoved aside the leftover breakfast dishes with his elbow, and piled Arthur’s clothing and his books upon the long table.

“Reassuring to know that some things haven’t changed, at least,” Arthur said bitterly, as if to the pages spread out before him.

“Yes, sire,” Merlin said quietly, and wasn’t surprised when he didn’t get a reply.

As quietly as possible, Merlin carried the rest of the books and the stacks of Arthur’s things into the chambers.  He moved slowly as he put his things back where they belonged, taking great care to be silent as he worked.

Occasionally from Arthur’s corner of the room Merlin would hear a sharp intake of breath, or an unintelligible muttering of words, followed by the snap of a page turning.

It took an hour before the crack of Arthur’s fists slamming against his wood desktop broke the silence.  Merlin startled at the noise, dropping his tray full of empty breakfast plates to the dining table with a clatter. 

On the other side of the room, Arthur got up from his desk and strode to the open window, his hands clenched into fists at his sides, his shoulders heaving.  

“Arthur-?”

“Leave me.”

“If you want to talk about-“

“Now, Merlin!” Arthur shouted at the floor, his voice breaking on his name.

Merlin grabbed the tray of dishes and moved swiftly to the door.  But he paused in the doorway, glancing over his shoulder one last time.

“Go!”

Merlin nearly dumped the dishes onto the floor in his haste to get into the corridor. What was it? he wondered. What had made Arthur react so strongly?

He puzzled over it the entire walk downstairs, through his modern flat, and into the main manor house. 

The café tables that filled the stone hall were barely half full, and the lunch counter mostly empty.  Pale light shone through the glass wall from the rainy day beyond. 

Eleanor intercepted him after he’d returned his breakfast dishes to the café kitchen.  “Good afternoon, Merlin,” she said, in a tone that spoke clearly of her disapproval of his late afternoon appearance.

“Good afternoon, Eleanor,” he said back, and gave her his most endearing smile.

“You do know that the Solstice Festival ended last night.”

Merlin followed her stare to his tunic and breeches and boots.  He tugged at his neckerchief a little, straightening it, as if that would help him somehow look more fitting for the twenty first century.

“I slept in my clothes last night,” Merlin said, which was true enough.  “I was up late with my friend.”

“The one who fancied a swim in the lake yesterday?”

Merlin couldn’t help but cringe, thinking of all the people who had been on the lawns and in the park and in the café for that matter, who had probably all seen him make a spectacle of himself in the water.  So much for first impressions.  “Oh, right,” he said.  “That.”

“Don’t feel too badly, Merlin.  It wouldn’t be the first time someone wound up in the lake after a few too many glasses of cider at the festival,” she said, in a more forgiving tone than she ever would have used if he’d done the same thing as Emrys.

“It wasn’t like that,” Merlin told her.  “It’s just a rough time for him right now. So he’s going to be staying here. With me.  For now on, actually.  We’ve known each other for ages, and I used to serve- work for- his family, so-“

“You don’t have to explain your relationship with your young man to me, Merlin,” Eleanor said, and gave him a little pat on his arm.

He felt his cheeks warm.  “He’s not- We’re not- No, we-“

“What you are or aren’t isn’t my business. I just need to know if I should plan to have more sweet breads on hand.  They do seem to be disappearing in great quantities now that you’re both here.  Although I’ll have you know that all the food you’ve been nicking is coming out of accounts.”

Merlin smiled at the familiar reprimand.  Perhaps he hadn’t lost a friend when he’d left his old self behind this time.  “Yes, my lady.”

“My lady…” she said, and made a tsking sound at him.  “I see you have gotten coaching from your Uncle Emrys, haven’t you.  Well I’ll have you know that ‘my lady’ didn’t work for him either.  And he was a much more handsome figure of a man than you.”

Merlin’s mouth fell open, his eyebrows raising.  Handsome? he thought, torn between feeling horrified and feeling flattered.  Flattered was winning, if only by a small margin.

“The next time you come down here for food, don’t empty our shelves of all of our scones.  Emrys was always doing that too.  I know you’re a skinny thing, but we have customers to feed. Not at the moment, of course,” she added, as she surveyed the large open space of the cafe.

“It’s still not too bad for a rainy Monday afternoon,” Merlin noted. 

She made a noise of approval at his knowledge of the business.  “And speaking of what Emrys may have told you, on Mondays he and I-“

“Review the week ahead,” Merlin finished.  “I could do that now if you’d like.”

“I’ve been ready to begin all morning,” she said, with a very familiar raised eyebrow.

Merlin smiled, gesturing to where he knew she kept her binders about the business.  “Lead on, my lady,” he told her, and followed her towards a corner table in the café, where she’d already set out her papers.

As Merlin spoke with Eleanor about employee schedules and incoming deliveries and bills to be paid, he found his thoughts wandering constantly back to Arthur. 

Today is Monday the 21st of June, Merlin thought. An absolutely ordinary rainy English day in the twenty first century. 

And yet it was absolutely not.  Because Arthur Pendragon had stepped out of history and legend, upending everything in his life, and was right this very minute in his royal chambers, angry and hurt and demanding to be alone, yes, but alive and whole and real in the modern world. 

Merlin allowed himself to savor the thought.  Of Arthur, alive, after so unspeakably long.  Alive, and breathing, and able to be seen, and heard, and touched.

“Are you paying attention, young man?”

“Hm?  Oh.  Sorry, Eleanor. Were you- What?”

“Oh, go on then,” she said.  “Go back to your flat and see to your friend. You’re of no use to me so distracted by him.”

The knowing look on her face made Merlin wonder how he’d managed to ever successfully lie to anyone.  Because he didn’t seem to be able to keep a damn thing to himself these days.

“You look like him in the eyes, you know,” Eleanor said.  “Many a time I saw Emrys get that same faraway look you just did.  He never would tell me what he was thinking about.  Although I can guess for myself, now.”  She leaned forward, hands resting primly on the table.  “He is well, isn’t he?  I haven’t heard anything from him.  Not even one of those message things on the mobile my boys got me.”

“He is well.  Very well.” Merlin told her, and vowed to himself to locate his damn mobile in his flat.  Hopefully it hadn’t been fried by all the magic he’d been using.  Like the other ones before all had done.  “I’ll see that he sends word to you, I promise.”

“In his good time.”  

She began collecting her papers and binders, so Merlin got to his feet.  At the other end of the building, he noticed the lights of his Apothecary were out.  “What’s that about then?” he asked her.

“Danyl and Heath both called out sick today, so we couldn’t open.  I’ve put a sign in the window sending people to me, if they need help.”

“This coincidental sickness wouldn’t have anything to do with them going to the Festival together this weekend,” Merlin said, and raised a wry eyebrow at her.

She returned it with one of her own.  “Emrys really did tell you everything, didn’t he.”

“It’s almost like we’re the same person.”

 “Well then.  I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about this sickness of theirs.  Although I might add that they did both call out sick from the same phone number.”

 “Well,” Merlin said.

“Well indeed.”

They shared a long knowing look, each of them not bothering to pretend that they weren’t pleased by these turn of events.

Merlin finally broke down and grinned at her.  “About damn time,” he said.  And he could hear her pleased laughter following him all the way to his residence door.

His good mood lasted until he entered the doorway to the bedroom of his flat. 

The tower stairwell door had been left wide open.

Something he never, ever did. 

Merlin raced upstairs, running first into Arthur’s empty chambers, then into the empty washroom, then into his own chambers and through them the library.  Empty, empty, empty, he thought in growing panic, and ran back into the corridor, back down the stairs, charging through his flat and bursting out his front door to the grassy lawns.

“Arthur!” he yelled.  His heart was beating wildly, he could hardly catch his breath, but he ran down to the lakeside anyway, slipping and nearly falling on the slippery wet grass in the steady rainfall.

At the water’s edge, Merlin finally caught sight of Arthur, by the heelstone of the Stone Circle of Avalon.  Merlin ran up to him, grabbing Arthur’s arms to stop his momentum, but succeeding only in pulling Arthur down to the wet ground with him. 

Merln felt Arthur fall hard atop him, his elbow driving into his stomach, knocking the air from his lungs.

Arthur climbed to his feet as Merlin lay gasping and clutching his stomach on the ground. “Merlin!  What the hell are you doing!”

Merlin got to his knees, gasping for air from the fall and the pain and the panic that surged through him.  “Couldn’t find- You weren’t- I didn’t-“ He bent forward, palms pressing into the wet grass, heaving in breath after breath.

“I just needed to get out of that bloody room!  What is wrong with you?”

Anger lifted Merlin’s gaze to where Arthur stood, soaking wet from standing in the rain beside the lake.  “What is wrong with me?” he choked out.  “What is wrong with you?”

“That book is what’s wrong with me!” Arthur yelled at him.  “It’s difficult as it is getting through it.  I don’t need you knocking me to the ground on top of it!”

“And I don’t need you taking every single damned opportunity you can to get as close as possible to this bloody lake!” Merlin yelled back.

“And just what in the world is wrong with this bloody lake?”

“Fifteen hundred years is what’s wrong!”

Arthur just stared, his expression shifting with comprehension, as the rain fell steadily upon them both.

Merlin sat back on his heels, fists pressing into his thighs as he struggled to stop the damned uncontrollable shaking of his body.  “Never mind,” he ground out.  “It’s nothing.” 

 “You think the Sidhe going to take me away,” Arthur said.

“No. I don’t.  I swear.  You’re safe here.  You’re safe.”

Merlin glared at the ruins of the tower from where he knelt on the ground.  He couldn’t help himself.  It drew his eyes, constantly.  Like an accident scene.  Like a nightmare.   He wanted to blast it to pieces.  To scatter its rocks across the lake.  To erase it from existence.

“All right,” Arthur said.  “Come on, Merlin. Get up.”

Merlin felt Arthur’s hands on his arms, pulling him upwards.  Stunned at Arthur’s gentle motions, Merlin got himself to his feet, and found himself looking into the weary and bloodshot eyes of his king.

Arthur had been crying, Merlin realized.  Out here, in the rain.  And once again, he was only complicating Arthur’s grief.  Making his recovery more difficult.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin said, and he hated how his voice shook, and how Arthur must be able to feel his body shaking too, where his hands gripped his arms.  “I’m being an idiot.”

“Not this time,” Arthur said.  “Because you’re right. And I’m sorry.  I should have gone somewhere else.  Being near this lake is no good for either of us.”

Merlin felt Arthur pull at his arm, guiding him back up the hill and towards the house. He felt like he’d fallen into a dream.  “Did you just say I was right and then apologize?”

“Of course not,” Arthur said.

“Oh. All right then.”

In response, Arthur let go of his arm and pressed his hand against the small of Merlin’s back, over top of his soaking tunic.  Merlin tried not to lean into the touch, but without much success.  Arthur apparently noticed, because he slid his hand up Merlin’s spine and pressed a wet palm into the back of his neck, strong and reassuring.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Merlin heard himself say, in a daze. 

“Probably the same thing that’s wrong with me,” Arthur said in a low voice.

Yes, Merlin thought.  That was probably true. 

“It will get better,” Arthur said.

“I’m supposed to say that to you,” Merlin said in a small voice.

“You did say that to me.”

“I did?”

“You did.  Yesterday.  You know I do listen to you.  When you make sense.”

As they walked past the front wall of the manor house, Eleanor shoved open the glass doors of the café and stepped out onto the porch. 

“Are you all right?” Eleanor called to Merlin.

“Yes, Eleanor, I’m fine.”

“You’re going to catch your death, the both of you boys,” she called after them.

Arthur smiled and nodded at her, of course at exactly the wrong moment. 

Eleanor’s glare remained fixed on him the entire way to the tower door.

“Terrifying woman,” Arthur said to Merlin, after they’d entered the warmth of Merlin’s residence.

“It would help if you didn’t smile at her like a simpleton when she’s yelling at you.”

Arthur lead the way to the tower stairwell without one uncomfortable glance at the many strange modern things surrounding him, which Merlin took as a good sign.

“I’m going to have to learn that gibberish they speak, aren’t I,” Arthur said, as they ascended the stone staircase.

“It would keep you from looking more like a witless idiot than you already do, yes.”

In the corridor at the top of the stairs, Arthur turned to him, at first looking like he was going to return the insult, then obviously changing his mind.  “Still mad about the lake, are you?”

“Apparently.”

“And just how long will I be treated to this wonderfully testy mood of yours then?”

“A few hours?”

“Try a few minutes.”

“Fine.  A few minutes.”  Which was probably more likely, Merlin thought.  Because now that he was back in Arthur’s presence, the panic was receding quickly.  Which was just embarrassing, honestly.  “Learning English won’t be as bad as you think, by the way,” he said, to avoid thinking about that.  “I discovered a spell centuries ago to decode unknown languages.  I used it on myself without any harm done.”

“However could you tell?”

“Oh, very funny indeed, my lord.”

“I heard that.”

“I meant for you to.  Now come on.  You need to get out of your wet clothes.  Again.”

A strange look passed over Arthur’s face.  “You should change clothes as well,” he said.  “Go on.  Come back to my chambers when you’re in something drier.”

It was a dismissal if he’d ever heard one.  “But- Don’t you want me to-?“

“And clean the mud off your boots.  I can’t have you mucking up my chamber floors.”

“Yes, sire,” Merlin said absently, then stood silently staring, as Arthur walked away and then disappeared into his rooms.

Merlin puzzled over Arthur’s strange behavior as he changed into another set of clothes and boots from his days in Camelot. When he was done, and returned to Arthur’s chambers, he found that Arthur had dressed himself in a white tunic and black pants.  He was sat at his desk once more, bent over his book, fingers pressing into his temples as if to ease a headache.

“Arthur?”

“I’m reading, Merlin, in case you had failed to notice.”

“Well before you read any farther, I want to tell you something.”

Arthur dropped his palms to the pages with a slap. “Let me guess.  Things get worse.”

Merlin stepped to Arthur’s desk and picked up his quill.  He lay it in the open pages, then gently closed the book. “Just… listen?” Merlin asked, at Arthur’s protest.

Arthur sat back hard in his chair, sighing loudly, waving an irritated hand for Merlin to get on with it.

“It was a mistake,” Merlin said. “You reading things in the order they happened.  Without knowing how it ends.”

“With all that we knew gone and dead,” Arthur said bitterly.

“With all that we knew still here and changed.”

Merlin crouched down, his hands resting upon the book.  He waited until Arthur looked at him before he spoke. He wanted to make sure that his king was listening. 

“The invaders of Albion came from everywhere,” Merlin said in a low voice.  “Over and over.  Great tribes of men.  All trying to break our people.  Trying to bend them to their will.  Trying… and failing.  Because our people were strong.  They fought, and they adapted, and they and their children lived on.”

Merlin saw Arthur’s expression shift from despair into the first faint flickerings of hope.  Better, Merlin thought.  But not quite there yet.

“Our people survived the events I wrote about in this book, sire.  And they’ll continue to survive whatever great trials Albion is yet to face.  I know they will, because you’re here now to protect them, and I’m here ready to help you, by my life or by my death.”

It took a few minutes, but finally, a small smile pulled at Arthur’s lips.  “All those times when I caught myself thinking you were wise,” Arthur said.  “It’s because you actually were.”

Merlin moved his hand across the cover of the book, thinking of too many times that had not been the case.  “Sometimes,” he said, and pushed himself to his feet.

Arthur opened the book again, and Merlin caught sight of what was written there.  The years following Gwen’s death, he thought.  That must have been what had driven Arthur outside.  Reading of Gwen’s passing.  

He must miss her, Merlin thought.  After all, she was his wife.  She was the one he loved.  She would always be that, to him.

“Do you want me to leave?” Merlin asked softly.

Arthur pulled the book towards him.  “No,” he said, and turned the page.

Merlin nodded, trying not to think too much about how relieved he was that he could stay.  Something wrong with that, he told himself, but only sighed.  Because what could he do about it, after all.

As Arthur read, Merlin collected the armor he’d stacked in the corner of the room.  As quietly as possible, he pulled a wooden chair beside the hearth, then set his cleaning kit and the bundle of metal on the floor nearby to work on it.

“What are you doing?”

Merlin dipped the rag he held into the polish. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

“That’s not necessary.”

“Trust me when I say that it is.” Merlin began rubbing the polish into the dull metal, the smell reminding him of the armory, of the sweet grasses of the training field, of the clashing of swords and shields, of a thousand days sitting in Arthur’s chambers, making sure that his prince, and then his king, would be well protected by the metal.

Arthur’s hand closed on his shoulder, pulling him from his thoughts.  Arthur was standing at his side, and was staring down at him as if uncertain what to say. 

 “You don’t have to do this,” Arthur said finally.

“It will rust if I-“

“No.  I meant.” Arthur’s brows drew together, deepening the wrinkles around his eyes.  “You’ve done so much.  You don’t have to do this.  Things like this.  Servant things.  Not anymore.”

 “Are you…”  He couldn’t even say it.  He could barely even think it.

“I’m releasing you,” Arthur told him.

The words felt like a punch to the stomach.

“All that you’ve done, Merlin.  All that you are.  I can no longer ask this of you.  It isn’t your place. Not any more.” He squeezed Merlin’s shoulder, then turned to walk away.

Merlin stood up with a clatter of armor on stone and a crack of the wooden chair slamming to the floor.  Arthur spun around in place, clearly startled.

“Not my place?” Merlin yelled at him.  “Have you heard nothing that I’ve said?  Or have you actually become a dull-witted thick-skulled simpleton?”

“That is quite enough!“ Arthur yelled at him. 

“Oh that is not even close to being enough!”

“You-! You are-! Maddening is what you are! How can you possibly be angry at what I just said?”

“I can be angry, Arthur, because you’re missing the point!  Again!”

“And just what point is that?”

“That you cannot end my service to you,” Merlin ground out, in a lower voice that did nothing to hide his fury.  “Because my service to you cannot be ended.  I was born to serve you, Arthur.  It is what I was meant to do.  It is what my magic is for.  I told you that.  Weren’t you listening to me?”

Astonishingly, Arthur visibly clamped down on his anger, his eyes going dark with memory.   “I was,” he said in a low voice, with obvious reluctance.

“Well then just try and remember it, will you?  I’m tired of reminding you!”

Merlin picked up the fallen chair and slammed it down against the stone. “Try to sack me,” he bit out, and sat himself hard on the seat. “Like that will ever happen.  Just try and make me go.  See how that works out.”  Merlin grabbed Arthur’s armor and began polishing furiously.  “Royal pain in my arse.”

Arthur’s burst of laughter was so loud and unexpected that Merlin jumped, and looked up at him in surprise.

“You are…. simply maddening,” Arthur said, but it was fondly now, and he was still chuckling, his arms crossed over his chest, his head tilted as if he couldn’t believe what he saw seated before him. “Really, Merlin,” he said.  “You are.”

“No, you are,” Merlin tried to mutter angrily, but wound up sounding five years old instead, and to top it off, his voice came off as ridiculously fond, too, damn it.

 “You missed a spot,” Arthur pointed out, gesturing to the hauberk, before returning to his desk.  “I would appreciate my armor not rusting solid, if it’s not completely beyond your very minor level of competence in that area.”

That’s better, Merlin thought.  And then rolled his eyes at himself for thinking it.

After a while, Merlin paused in his work to light a fire in the hearth.  Once the flame rose to dispel the dampness of the room, he was back at his work, cleaning the metal of Arthur’s chainmail.

The movements of his fingers over the small links was repetitive in a way that was entirely peaceful. Between that and the warmth of the fire, very soon he found his thoughts drifting, sliding away from him, his eyelids drooping closed of their own accord.

In his mind he saw the Isle of Avalon, the tower sitting upon it.  A cloud of twinkling blue lights was rising from it, glowing in the night. 

As the cloud rose into the air, it formed hundreds of blue threads of light, a shimmering blanket of magic that sparkled like stars above the water. As it rippled in the night, Merlin felt the ancient magics of the earth surge violently around him, pulsing through his blood and his bones, calling out to him with a power that had him recoiling in terror-

Merlin jolted awake when he hit stone floor, his shoulder and hip and head all colliding with the stone at once. He gave a grunt of pain, pressing a palm to his forehead as he pushed himself to his hands and knees. 

“Merlin, what happened?”

Merlin felt Arthur’s hand on his back.  He pushed himself up to his knees, swaying a bit.  “Fell asleep?”  It was odd, though. He didn’t feel like he’d been sleeping.  And the things he’d seen hadn’t felt like dreams.

“You fell asleep in the chair?”

“Yes?  I think?”

“Come on.  Let me see your head.”

Arthur took hold of Merlin’s arms and pulled him to his feet.  Merlin swayed a bit, staring over Arthur’s shoulder at the tower on the Isle of Avalon outside.  It was half hidden in the mists from the late afternoon rains, but was unchanged from how it had been for centuries.

The sensation of Arthur’s hands on his cheeks, tilting his head downward, startled him from any further thoughts.

“You’re all right,” Arthur pronounced, and let him go.  “Get us some food.  It will help you recover from your faint.”

“It wasn’t a faint,” Merlin said to Arthur’s retreating back, not missing Arthur’s taunting smile.  He didn’t care, though.  Arthur was asking him to fetch his food.  Which was a damn sight better than him trying to sack him. As if you could, Merlin thought at him.

“Dinner,” Arthur told him, and pointed towards the door.   “And wine.”

Merlin had been nearly out the door.  He stopped, turning back to the room.  “What?”

Arthur was at his desk, glaring down at the book. “Bring some wine with dinner.  I have a feeling I’ll be needing it.”

Merlin looked at how close Arthur was getting to the end of the book.  Yes, he thought to himself.  I think you definitely will.

 

 

Chapter Text

Arthur slammed Merlin’s book shut hard enough to knock the contents of his desktop to the floor.  He surged to his feet, knuckles jamming into the book’s cover, breathing hard.  “Merlin!”

When there came no answer, he grabbed the book and strode from his chambers, heart pounding as if he were heading into battle.  The book held tightly under his arm, he marched down the torch lit corridor, boot steps echoing on the stones.  “Merlin!” 

When there came no answer, he swore to himself, at length and with as much imagination as possible, and stomped down the stone stairwell and into the bizarre and brightly lit rooms downstairs. 

When he still didn’t get an answer to his call, Arthur shoved open the door which Merlin had indicated lead to the main house.  The cavernous hall beyond struck him as instantly familiar, even though its contents were not. 

Dim evening light shone through the great glass wall, casting a meager glow upon the many small white tables that filled the floor.  All were as empty and silent as the room itself.

“Merlin!’ Arthur yelled, his voice echoing in a very satisfying- and again strangely familiar- way off of the stone walls.

 “Here!  Yes!  Arthur!  What is it?” 

Arthur watched Merlin elbow his way first through a swinging door that was set farther down the wall.  In his hands he held an enormous tray full of steaming plates of food.

Arthur slammed the book down onto one of the small white tables, nearly knocking it over.  “Norsemen!” he yelled.  “Not the Saxons, not the Jutes, not the Picts –the damned bloody Norsemen!  Driving our people from our own lands!”

The bitterness he saw in Merlin’s face did nothing to calm Arthur’s fury.  For Merlin to still be angry about this, centuries later… It must have been even worse than he’d written in his books.

Merlin carried the tray over to where he stood, fuming.  “I know,” he said.  “And I won’t lie to you.  It was bad.  But it didn’t last.  You’ll see in the next chronicle.”

Arthur ran both hands through his hair, his mind conjuring all sorts of nightmare images from the words he’d read.  He pressed his palms into his eyes. “Just tell me you located some wine.”

“I was just about to bring it up to you with the food.”

Arthur dropped his hands, sighing, tilting his head back to stare up at the latticework of broad beams that supported the massive three story high walls of the long hall.  The familiarity of the pattern helped everything click into place.  Of course he knew this place, Arthur thought. 

“The throne room.”  He looked over in surprise at where Merlin stood patiently, heavy tray in hands.

“It wasn’t intentional,” Merlin said, with a wry grin.  “Well.  Not to begin with.  But yes, it did wind up looking a bit like the throne room by the time I was done building it.”

Arthur wandered out among the tables, looking all around, realizing that it had been the glass wall and the tables that had prevented the recognition of this place.  “The glass wall is an improvement,” he noted, though he privately thought that the view of the tower was not.

He turned his back on it, surveying the many empty tables that people must use to eat the foods that were served here.  Arthur sat himself down at one of them, his back intentionally to the lake.  “We’ll eat down here,” he told Merlin. “I’ve had quite enough of my chambers and those books of yours for a while.”

Merlin joined him after retrieving two bottles from under one of the long tables.  After pulling a few of the tables together, he began setting out the food.

 “So this is your café, then,” Arthur said.

“It is.  Eleanor just closed up a little while ago. I figured I might as well use the kitchens to make something warm. They have more food than I do in my flat.  I’m sure Eleanor will be taking it out of accounts,” he added, smiling to himself.

“Eleanor is your assistant?”

“I’ll be sure not to tell her you called her that. She might cuff you around the head.”

“I’d like to see her try.”

“I’d like to see that too.”

Arthur chose to ignore the genuine enthusiasm with which Merlin had said that.  “What’s that over there?” he said instead, and nodded to the far end of the long hall, where a door was set into the stone wall.  “Does that lead into the other tower I saw?”

“After you pass through my apothecary it does.”

“Your apothecary?”

Merlin set out the final serving dish onto the tables and set his tray upon the floor.  “Poultices and natural remedies and soaps are a bit more my area.”

“Gaius would be proud,” Arthur said without thinking, but was relieved to see that the comment didn’t trigger one of Merlin’s pained silences.  Quite the opposite in fact.

“Gaius would probably want a portion of the profits,” Merlin said, as he sat down beside him.  “He’d deserve it, too.  A lot of the herbal remedies for sale in there are based upon his ideas.”

Arthur leaned over his plate, inhaling the delicious smell within steam rising from the potatoes and vegetables and meat.  “You made this?”

“It’s not exactly crusted capons, but at least it’s not sandwiches.” Merlin grabbed the wine bottle from the table, the nodded towards it, saying “Ætýne byte”.

Arthur watched the cork lift up out of the bottle with a small pop.  Merlin removed it and poured a full measure of wine into Arthur’s metal cup.  “That’s a handy trick,” Arthur said.

“Not what I’d call an appropriate use of magic,” Merlin said, as he filled his own cup.  “But I don’t have a wine opener in this entire place.  I don’t really drink that often.”

Arthur took a long, grateful drink of what turned out to be very smooth red wine. “You?  Not spending every night in the local tavern?”

Merlin gave him a look that was equal parts amusement and disbelief.  “You don’t seriously still think I was in the tavern all those times I went missing from Camelot.”

Arthur froze with his cup halfway to his mouth.  “You weren’t?”

A soft laugh, mocking and fond, with just enough humor to have the light sparkling in Merlin’s eyes.  “No, Arthur,” he said, as if he were speaking to a child.

“Where were you then?”

“Well usually I was off nearly getting myself killed trying to protect you or Camelot or both,” Merlin said, with a genuinely lighthearted smile.

“Surely not… every time,” Arthur said.  Because he could remember a lot of times.  An uncountable number of times. 

Merlin just shrugged, and shoved a forkful of meat into his mouth, then made enthusiastic gestures at his plate, suggesting how delicious it was, and that Arthur should eat some too.

Arthur watched him tear into his dinner – and really, it was like watching a force of nature, watching him eat - until Merlin stopped with his fork halfway to his mouth, realizing he was being stared at.

“What?” Merlin asked, around a mouthful of potatoes and peas.

“You’re going to tell me about every one of those times you went missing.”

Merlin gave a wry laugh, brows raising.  “Are you sure?  That could take all night.”

Arthur reached for his glass of wine, downed its contents in one long drink, then thrust his glass towards Merlin. “More wine first.  Then you can begin by telling me the real reason that I had to suffer through George, and his brain numbing prattle about polishing techniques.”

“I’m going to need more wine myself to tell that particular story.” Merlin filled Arthur’s cup, then topped off his own.  “I still have the scar from where Morgana put that damned Fomorrow serpent in my neck.”

Arthur spit out some of what he had been drinking, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then gaped at Merlin.  “What?”

Merlin looked down at the dinner laid out before them.  “Hm.  Maybe I should start with the time Gwen was accused of being a witch instead.  That one’s more suited to hearing at dinner than a story about the living head of a snake embedded in my neck, brainwashing me to-”

Arthur thrust up his hand between them, cutting off Merlin’s words.  Merlin watched with raised eyebrows as Arthur finished off his glass of wine in several gulps.  As the alcohol burned its way down his throat, Arthur banged his cup back down upon the table.

 “Bit more,” he told Merlin hoarsely.

Merlin just laughed as he filled his cup again.

By the time they were done eating, the first bottle of wine was gone, and the second was nearly so.  The light through the glass wall had faded away entirely into the darkness of night, though the room was still dimly lit by a glowing orb set high into the wall. 

It cast hard shadows on the lines of Merlin’s face, sharpening the angles of his cheeks and nose as he laughed at the story he was trying to tell Arthur. 

Something about a dragon, Arthur thought sluggishly, and blinked slowly at his friend, realizing that he’d been only half paying attention.  “Stop,” Arthur said, and placed a hand on Merlin’s arm.  “What?  What are you saying?”

“I am saying,” Merlin said, and swayed sideways in his chair toward him, “that it was Aiths- Aisth- the dragon’s fault there’s no second floor.” 

Merlin waved a flopping hand at the room’s ceiling, and Arthur looked up, which was a horrible mistake, because it made the entire world spin a bit.  “What- what did the dragon do?” he asked, swinging his head around to look at Merlin.

“Set fire to the roof.  Which is why you should never invite a dragon in your house.  Apparently.”  Merlin rolled his eyes, and tried to drink from his cup, only to discover it empty.  He thrust out an arm wildly, reaching for the bottle, but tipping it over.

Arthur grabbed it before it could spill onto the table. “Can’t handle your drink,” he said, and stood up, bottle in hand. “I better hold onto this.” 

“I can just get more.” Merlin pushed himself up, knocking his chair over backwards. “Inna- In- Come on.”  He waved Arthur along as he fell over his fallen chair, climbed back to his feet, and then staggered off through the tables. 

Arthur laughed as he watched Merlin trip over a table leg and then a chair, each time swearing at the offending piece of furniture.  “You never could hold your drink, Merlin,” Arthur said, with all the superiority of one who had never been carted out of a tavern over someone’s shoulder. 

“If you’re talking about- If you- When I-  That was Gwaine’s fault,” Merlin shot over his shoulder, apparently knowing exactly the night to which Arthur was referring.

Arthur felt his cheeks aching from his grin.  This was good, he thought.  All this.  This was very good.  He felt better than he had since he’d woken in this insane place.  Everything was nicely numb and far away.  Even the pain of-

No, Arthur told himself, before any of that could cut through his pleasant fog.  No.  I am not thinking about that. Not right now.  No.

He watched Merlin nearly knock over a table, then set it to rights, apologizing to it.  At least I’m not as bad off as Merlin, he thought.  And then he tripped over a table leg, and smacked his knee into a nearby chair.

“Damn labyrinth of chairs,” Arthur growled at them.

“The labyrinth of Gedref!” Merlin turned to walk backward, then sat down hard on a table he hadn’t realized was there.  “The hell was that all about?”

Arthur thought for a minute.  “Unicorn,” he said, nodding sagely.

“Unicorn. That’s right.” Merlin staggered towards Arthur, and pressed a finger into his chest.  “And you.  Being a dumbass.”

“That’s not a word.”

“Dumb. Ass,” Merlin said, jabbing him with his finger.

“Totally.  Invented,” Arthur said, doing the same with his wine bottle.

“It really isn’t,” Merlin informed him, and staggered away through the tables, muttering something that sounded like ‘poisoned damned chalice’ and ‘stupid damned curse’, although it could have easily been ‘stupid damned prince’, now that he was thinking of it. 

“You watch your mouth,” Arthur said, in case Merlin had said something inappropriate, which was more than a little likely, come to think of it.

You watch my mouth,” Merlin said over his shoulder, and gave him a strange grin, before opening the door to his residence by virtue of falling into it and shoving it open.

Arthur followed him inside and stood waiting in the large brightly lit space, swaying slightly, as Merlin rummaged around, and then pulled out another bottle of wine.  Holding his bounty high, he gestured to the stairwell back upstairs, even bowing a bit, though the effect was a bit ruined by his drunken staggering.

“For the love of the gods, Merlin, stand up before you fall over,” Arthur said fondly, and grabbed him by the back of his tunic, to drag him back upstairs.

Once they’d returned to Arthur’s chambers, Merlin dragged another heavy chair in front of the fire, right next to the one already there.  After Arthur sat down, Merlin gave a wobbly bow to him, then collapsed into the chair at his side.

Arthur turned from the dark, cold embers in the hearth to nudge Merlin’s arm with his wine bottle.  “Come on then.” 

Merlin watched him gesture to the hearth with the bottle, and nodded, and went to get up to set the fire.

Arthur grabbed his arm and sat him back down.  “Don’t be ridiculous.  I don’t mean that way.”

“What other way could you possibly mean, my lord?” asked Merlin, though it was obvious by his half smile and teasing tone that he knew full well what Arthur had meant.

You know,” Arthur said to him, and waved a hand at the fire.

“Tell me.”  Merlin leaned upon the arm of his chair, his eyes sparkling with his smile.  “Come on, Arthur.  Say it.  Tell me to use magic.”

“Giving me orders, are you?” Arthur said, thankful for the numbing effects of the alcohol, because he felt sure he would be flushing under Merlin’s steady gaze, for reasons he could simply not fathom. 

“No, cabbagehead,” Merlin said, “I’m waiting for you to give me orders.  I’m not the bloody king.”

Arthur nearly choked on his mouthful of wine, and had to swallow hard.  “What?”

“Come on, sire,” Merlin prompted him, and his voice had gone soft, almost gentle. “Tell me.”

Arthur wiped his mouth on his sleeve and leaned back in his chair.  “Go on then. Magic the fire so we don’t freeze to death because you’re being too insolent to do what you’re told and stupidly pretending as if you don’t know what I want you to do.”

The completely obvious insult still brought a broad smile to Merlin’s face.  He grinned at Arthur in delight, his eyes turning nearly into half moons with his joy, as if he’d just won the highest award in Camelot. 

The sight made Arthur smile fondly, though he wasn’t sure why.  Just as he wasn’t sure why he was watching Merlin so intently, looking for signs he was performing the spell. 

Merlin stretched out a slightly swaying arm, held Arthur’s gaze, and said very slowly and in a low voice: “Bæl on bryne”. 

Arthur saw starlight dance in Merlin’s eyes as the flames roared up, instantly warm on his face.  “Now you’re just showing off,” he said, and took another drink from his bottle.

Merlin snorted at him, raising his own bottle to his lips, only to discover the cork was still in it.  He fell into laughter at once, his hand pressing into his stomach, gasping for air as he slid down in his seat, the heels of his worn boots scrambling against the stones to keep him from slipping to the floor.

“The mighty Dragonlord,” Arthur said wryly.

“O drakon e male!” Merlin said, raising the bottle high in the air as if in a toast, before falling into laughter again.

“Ridiculous,” Arthur said, and he lifted his wine bottle to drink, only to miss his mouth a bit, and spill wine all over his tunic.

“The mighty Once and Future King,” Merlin gasped out, and to Arthur’s delight and hopefully enduring memory, he giggled. 

Arthur couldn’t keep the broad grin from taking over his face.  I will remember that, he told himself.  No matter how drunk I am, I will remember that noise and remind him that he made it every single day of the rest of my life.

“You sounded just like a girl there,” Arthur noted, to hide his delight, not that Merlin was in any state to notice it anyway. 

Merlin snorted at him, then lifted his wine bottle before his eyes, concentrating with obvious effort, saying "ætýne bytte,” to make the cork pop from it.  He took a long drink, downing nearly a quarter of its contents all at once.

“You are definitely going to be feeling that tomorrow,” Arthur pointed out, as he set his empty bottle on the floor and relaxed back against his chair, warm from the fire and the alcohol and the company.

Arthur watched Merlin slouch in his chair, his long legs out straight in front of him, one thin arm stretching out on the armrest, the other across his stomach.  With a sigh, he rested his chin upon his chest, his neckerchief pushing up nearly around his ears.

“Wouldn’t be the worst thing I’ve felt,” Merlin said softly, almost to himself.

Arthur felt questions burning inside him in response.  Questions that very well could trigger one of Merlin’s long silences.  But he needed to ask them.  And perhaps, with the drink, and the fire, and the night, just perhaps he could learn the answers he needed to know.

“What is it then?” Arthur asked Merlin.  “The worst thing you’ve felt?”

All traces of humor melted from Merlin’s face as he stared into the fire.  “How I felt when I watched you die,” he said in a low voice.  “Knowing I’d failed you.”

“You didn’t fail me, Merlin.”

“I should have stopped Mordred,” Merlin said, and he was shaking his head slowly, his voice low, as if he were talking to himself.  “I should have killed him when I had the chance.”

“I’m to blame for Mordred far more than you ever could be,” Arthur told him.

“It was my duty,” Merlin said bitterly, his voice low and rough, his eyes still on the fire.  “And all these years. You don’t know.  How I’ve regretted… All the mistakes I made.” A choked breath left him. “I should have been at Camlaan.  I should never have let Morgana trick me.  I was supposed to protect you.  Or die by your side.  And I didn’t do either.”

Arthur put his hand on Merlin’s forearm, where it rested on the arm of the chair, the bottle hanging from his loosening fingers.

“I should have died,” Merlin said, as if to himself.

“And where would I be now if you had?” 

Arthur watched Merlin’s lips press together, the lines of his face tightening. Arthur squeezed Merlin’s arm, shaking it a bit.  “Merlin,” he said, into his silence, into his pain, “do you hear me?”

Merlin set his other hand atop Arthur’s, where it rested on his arm. He closed his eyes and went still for so long that Arthur began to wonder if he’d fallen asleep.  But then he opened his eyes again, blinking slowly. 

Arthur felt Merlin’s fingers slide around his bare wrist, to press into his pulse.  Arthur could feel his own heartbeat throbbing against Merlin’s fingertips.

“I still can’t believe you’re alive,” Merlin said, his voice such a soft whisper that it was almost lost in the crackling of the flames.

Arthur squeezed Merlin’s arm again, reassured by the physical contact.  Merlin responded with a gentle squeeze of his own, his fingers still pressing against Arthur’s pulse.

All those years that we were alone, Arthur thought.  Alone and separate.  Merlin and I  both.  It’s no wonder that an empty room feels threatening to me.  No wonder that he stays so close by my side.  We’ve been wounded by centuries of isolation. Wounded and bleeding inside.

Arthur could see true pain etched into Merlin’s features now, aging him as he watched.  Nothing but pain there.  Pain and memory and the weight of so many years, pulling him away, into the past.

“Stay with me,” Arthur heard himself say.

Merlin looked over at him as if remembering he were there.  Tears were sliding down his cheeks. “What?” he asked, in a choked voice.

“You drift away,” Arthur said.  “You’re here, but not.  You never did that before.”

“I didn’t?”

Arthur thought about the times he’d seen Merlin sitting alone by the campfire on battle campaigns, a distant and worried expression on his face.  Temporary moments that Arthur had always been able to pull him out of.  Nothing as severe as this.

Arthur felt Merlin’s thumb move over the skin of the back of his hand.  Merlin had gone silent and still, sorrow visibly weighing upon him.

“You’re quieter now as well,” Arthur said.

Merlin stared down at where his thumb moved over Arthur’s hand.  He seemed hypnotized by it.  “No one to talk to for a long time.”

“Except yourself.”

“Not myself,” Merlin said, his eyes closing again.  “You.”

Arthur leaned forward to grab Merlin’s wine bottle just as it slipped from his fingers. “What?” he asked, only just now realizing what he’d said.

“Not talking to myself. Talking to you. When you were dead.”

“Must have been a boring conversation,” Arthur said, setting the bottle upon the floor.

“Was nice.”  A faint smile pulled at his lips, as if at a pleasant memory.  “You talked back.  When I talked to you.”

“I don’t… think so,” Arthur said, though to be honest, he wasn’t entirely sure.

“Wasn’t really you,” Merlin mumbled into his kerchief.  “Went mad for a bit. Eleventh century? Can’t remember. Wasn’t so bad though.  Madness.  I could hear you better. See you, too.  You were good company.  Even afterward.”  A small smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. “Kept you around to yell at me.”

Arthur felt his breath catch, pain tearing at him, penetrating the haze of alcohol.  In his mind he could easily see a vivid image of Merlin dwelling in the woods by the lake, without his castle, without his friends, living half starved from the land, driven insane by the burden of immortality.

“Gods, Merlin,” Arthur choked out. 

Merlin lifted his head and forced his eyes open, blinking over at him as if waking up. “Did you take my wine?” he asked, in sudden great concern. 

“You’ve had enough to drink,” Arthur said, and gently removed his hand from Merlin’s.  He got up slowly, swaying just a bit, apparently still affected by the alcohol despite the clarity caused by their discussion.  “Come on, Merlin. Get up.”

“Are we going somewhere?” Merlin said, as Arthur pulled him to his feet. 

“Yes, to bed.”

“You’re taking me to bed?  Why, Arthur,” he slurred, his eyebrows raising, before collapsing into a fit of giggles, and falling against Arthur’s chest.

Arthur grabbed him around the shoulders and hauled him back to his feet.  “Good lord, Merlin, you really never did go to the tavern even once, did you.”

“Just with you, my lord,” Merlin said. 

Arthur pulled Merlin’s arm around his shoulders, and wrapped an arm around his waist.  “You are going to be entirely useless tomorrow,” Arthur informed him.

“Worst. Manservant. Ever,” Merlin said, and then collapsed into laughter, nearly dropping to the ground.

“Oh for- Merlin- Come on then-“ Arthur said, and pulled at his arm.

“We should play dice again sometimes,” Merlin said, standing abruptly straight, nearly knocking Arthur over. “That was fun. You were awful that night. What bad luck you had, sire.”

If Merlin’s smug expression wasn’t clue enough, then his burst of sudden giggles would have told Arthur all he needed to know. “You cheated,” Arthur burst out.  “That night at the tavern!  With the dice!  You used magic!”

“Me?” Merlin said, and put a hand to his chest, his expression all youth and innocence.

“You’re paying me back every single one of those gold coins,” Arthur said, and hauled Merlin over to the bed, perhaps a bit rougher than strictly necessary, then shoved him down to sit upon its edge.

Arthur watched as Merlin nearly pitched off the bed in the attempt to take off his boots.  Arthur huffed at him, and bent to help. 

There was a brief scuffle as Merlin tried to prevent Arthur from doing so, only to get shoved back onto the bed flat on his back. 

“Bully,” Merlin complained to the ceiling from the bed, as Arthur pulled off his boot and sock.  “I’ll magic you inna- make you a-  ffffrrrtoad.”

“You can barely even say the word in your drunken stupor, much less do anything about it,” Arthur said, as he removed Merlin’s other boot and sock.

Merlin pushed himself up to his elbows, frowning at Arthur as he stood up.  “How can you say stu- stur- big words?  You had as much to drink as I did.”

“You had an entire bottle more.  Even if you didn’t, I can hold my drink.” Arthur grabbed Merlin’s arms and pulled him up, but nearly fell upon the bed in the effort.

 “Ha, you are pissed,” Merlin said, and he pulled at his neckerchief, which had twisted around his throat.

“You’re going to throttle yourself.” Arthur grabbed the back of Merlin’s neck and pushed his head downward so he could get to the tangled material.  In the silence of the room, he could hear Merlin’s breathing grow louder.

“Don’t you dare throw up in this bed,” Arthur warned.

“Won’t. It’s not. I mean. No.”

His voice was low and strained.  “You sound like you’re going to be sick,” Arthur said, as he dragged his fingers back and forth along the skin of Merlin’s neck, trying to untangle the fabric.

Merlin’s breath huffed out of him, a low sound rumbling in his chest. He pulled away abruptly, falling sideways onto the bed, his face pressing into the pillow, his knees pulling up against his chest. “M’all right, g’way,” he said, and pressed his hand against his neck where Arthur’s hand had been.

“You’re going to choke to death in the night,” Arthur said, and tried to reach for the kerchief again.  Merlin swung an arm at him, so Arthur grabbed it, shoved it down by his side, then grabbed Merlin’s shoulders and rolled him roughly onto his stomach.

“Be still,” Arthur commanded, and pressed his palm into Merlin’s back, pushing him down into the bed, while his other hand worked at the knot of the cloth at Merlin’s neck.

He felt Merlin’s body tense beneath his fingers, his face pushing into the pillow.  “Arthur,” he moaned, his voice ridiculously low.

“I will toss you onto the stone floor if you throw up on my pillows, Merlin, I swear it.”

On the bed, Merlin gave a small whimper of a sound.  Finally Arthur was able to slide his hand around Merlin’s neck, and pull away the offending cloth.  Merlin gave a shudder as it was removed, and then grabbed the pillow below his face, and pressed it over his head, giving a long muffled moan.

“You are such an infant, honestly.” Arthur stepped away from the bed with the cloth in his hand, staggering a bit on his way to his wardrobe.  “Stay there while I ready for bed.  And remember what I said about my pillows!”

From the bed, Merlin made a pitiful sound, but did not move from where he had curled up again on his side.

Somehow Arthur made it to the washroom to clean up, and then back again to his chambers, all without falling down the steps or tripping over his own feet.  He was more than a bit unsteady from the last of the wine that he’d finished off, and thoroughly exhausted from the day he’d had.  He barely registered shucking off his clothes and rummaging through his wardrobe to pull on what he hoped were sleeping breeches. 

Merlin lay atop the covers where he had left him on the bed, curled up and facing away from him, although now in the center of the bed.  Arthur carefully set another log on the fire in the hearth, then climbed under the blankets of his side of the bed.

He laid down on his side facing away from Merlin, then shoved backward against him with his back.  “Come on, move over,” Arthur muttered, because the drunken idiot had barely left him any space to sleep.

Arthur heard something that sounded suspiciously like a mumbled curse.  Arthur pushed backward again, this time gaining enough space for himself, though at the cost of Merlin’s spine now pressing firmly against his.

“To hell with it,” Arthur muttered, and relaxed into his bed, his eyes falling closed

As he drifted, he decided it wasn’t actually that bad, Merlin being so close.  He certainly didn’t fear the dark room, or the tower, or any of the nonsense beyond these walls.  Not with his friend so close by.

Arthur was pulled from a light sleep by brief movement next to him.  When it ceased, Merlin was leaning heavily against him once again.  This time his warm breath was huffing over the back of Arthur’s neck.

After an unintelligible string of words behind him, Merlin’s arm flopped over Arthur’s shoulder, his hand landing on the mattress by Arthur’s chest.

“Merlin,” Arthur grumbled into his pillow, and grabbed his friend’s wrist, and tried to shove Merlin’s arm over his shoulder.

Only a small noise in response, and a warm breath on his neck, and Merlin’s arm slid over him again, as dead of a weight as the body behind him. Arthur tried to shove it away again, but then gave up, heaving an exhausted sigh. 

He’d push him away as soon as Merlin fell asleep, Arthur thought tiredly.  Then Merlin couldn’t fight him.  That’s what he’d do. 

“Idiot,” Arthur murmured, and drifted easily into a sound sleep.

 

Chapter Text

 

He stood on the shore of Lake Avalon.  Upon the isle, the tower ruins glowed blue, then gold, then blue.

Merlin frowned at the light as it grew brighter and brighter, until the world around him was filled with the brilliant glow of magic.  He felt it pressing against his skin, from the air, the earth, the water, the sky.

He tried to pull away, but felt magic slide thick tendrils over him, and around him, and then, as he screamed, deep inside him.

Someone pressed against his body from behind.  A strong arm covered in chainmail wrapped around his waist.  Another holding a sword pulled him backwards, against a chest covered in armor, as the magic undulated and surged around them.

He twisted in the arms of the man holding him, and came face to face with Arthur. His king’s fierce eyes shone with distant stars. Upon his head he bore a jeweled crown, its stones sparkling gold.

“Merlin.”

The tendrils of magic were winding around them both now, relentless and unbreakable. 

Run, Arthur!’ Merlin yelled, as the magic wound tighter and tighter.  ‘Arthur!  Save yourself!  Leave me!  Run!

“Merlin!”

A sharp pain in his head snapped Merlin awake. 

Disoriented from the fading images, Merlin reached up to his head, felt a pillow there, and shoved it off of his face.  The room’s candlelight felt like lightning in his eyes, intensifying his headache, sending his stomach lurching.

He squeezed his eyes closed again, his arm falling forward over a solid, warm body.  “Mmmmmnnnff,” he said into his pillow, and tried to move, but wound up leaning further forward on his side, melting against the strong back muscles that pressed against his chest. 

“Shuttup,” mumbled a sleep-slurred voice from very close by.

Merlin barely registered the words through the pain in his head. He drew in a deep breath to try and ease the pain, and found his nose filled with the strong scent of Arthur’s blankets and Arthur’s hair and Arthur’s skin.

A distant part of his brain nudged at him about this.  He told it to shut up, and relaxed into the mattress with a pained groan.

“Mrln,” came a half growled complaint, and a huff of breath that made Merlin’s body move.

Merlin forced open dry sticky eyes, to see a head full of blonde hair up against his nose.  The warm weight against his chest was Arthur’s back.  His arm was wrapped around his bare shoulders.

“Rthr,” Merlin managed, through a dry mouth, and then cringed, because the word set off strikes of lightning behind his eyes, making the room swim.

“G’sleep, Merlin,” came Arthur’s voice, muffled by his pillow.

Merlin’s eyes drifted closed, as he relaxed against the solid warmth of Arthur’s body. He drew in a deep breath, his nose pressing forward, against the warm skin of Arthur’s neck, breathing him in.

“Sleep,” Arthur mumbled again, and heaved a deep breath, and went still.

Merlin relaxed against Arthur’s back, smiling, and thought that if this was a dream, of being with Arthur like this, of Arthur letting him be like this, then he never wanted to wake up again.

Arthur, Merlin thought, and once again, drifted to sleep.

The sound of a glass breaking startled him awake.

Merlin jerked his head from his pillow, only to drop it again to the bed, grabbing his skull, squeezing his eyes closed against the blinding daylight filling the room.

 “Dammit,” came a hissed voice.  It was followed by a chair scraping over the floor, and the sounds of pieces of glass being dropped to a wood desktop.

Merlin pressed his face into the bed, aware of the sounds of birds and leaves moving in the breeze and more sounds of glass being picked up from stone.

For one utterly disorienting moment, he didn’t know where he was.  All he knew is that his head was a ball of agony, and he was in danger of losing the contents of his stomach. 

Very carefully, Merlin pushed himself up and sat cross legged on the bed.  Arthur’s bed, he thought.  How was he in Arthur’s bed?  Not that he hadn’t been in Arthur’s bed the past few nights.  But all those times he’d known how he got there.

Merlin frowned at himself, completely losing track of what he was thinking.  In a daze, he squinted against the bright daylight streaming in from both open windows. 

Arthur stood by his desk, fully dressed in a red shirt and black pants and boots and even a proper belt, holding one of Merlin’s books in one hand, and a stack of of dripping wet parchment in the other.

“Damned glass,” Arthur grumbled, as he stacked the things on his chair.  With a mumbled swear, he grabbed a piece of cloth from the floor and began mopping at the spilled water on his desk.

“Is that my sock?” Merlin heard himself croak out. 

His feet were bare, he realized.  He was dressed, but his feet were bare.  And his neck was cold.  He placed a hand to his neck, where his kerchief should be, trying to remember how he’d gotten so selectively undressed. 

Arthur picked up his quill and stand and tried to shake water off of them, but succeeded only in splattering ink on his tunic.  He swiped at it with his hands, smearing it into his shirt and his hands.  As he wiped at himself, he bit out a series of loud, creative, Brittonic curses that Merlin really would have admired, if he wasn’t so busy trying to keep his head from splitting in two.

“Oh my god shut up,” Merlin moaned at him.

“Shut up?” Arthur repeated, and even if Merlin hadn’t seen the flash in Arthur’s eyes, he would have known by That Tone that he was in a world of trouble. “Oh, I’m sorry, Merlin, am I being loud?”  Arthur strode towards the bed, the volume of his voice increasing with every word.  “And here I thought I was starving to death as quietly as possible!  All morning!  So that you could get your beauty rest!”

Merlin scrambled from the bed, one hand pressed to his aching head, the other to his heaving stomach, as Arthur stalked after him into the room, still angrily brushing at the ink on his tunic.

“If it’s not too much trouble,” Arthur said loudly, “then perhaps you could get us some breakfast!  Because that insane old woman chased me off!  When I tried to get food myself!  Yelling at me in that gibberish I still can’t understand!  Because you’ve been too busy sleeping the day away to do anything about it!”

Merlin stumbled into the table of the anteroom, then pushed himself around it, Arthur still dogging his steps.  “Yes! All right! Just- God, stop yelling!” He yanked open Arthur’s chamber doors, then stopped in the doorway, squinting at where Arthur stood glaring at him, covered in ink. “Did you say you tried to get your own breakfast?”

Arthur’s eyes widened, his face flushing that color that meant that Merlin had definitely stepped over a very bad line and that the yelling was about to get a much worse.

“Never mind!” Merlin blurted, and pushed himself around the door and into the corridor, shutting the door behind him.

After spending the next ten minutes in the washroom, rediscovering what yesterday’s dinner looked like, and then brushing his teeth three times, Merlin splashed some water on his face and hair, finally made his way downstairs. 

He had only just stepped into the manor house café and closed the door behind him when he heard Eleanor’s voice.

“There you are, Merlin Hunithson!  I need a word with you, young man!”

“Hyud oyr awyr ar daear,” Merlin grumbled to himself, and held up a hand, to where she was stalking to him.  “Eleanor- My lady-“

“Don’t you even try that,” she said, and stepped right in front of him, arms crossing over what must have been the loudest flowered dress that she owned.  Pink and purple and green flowers accosted him in such vivid colors that his stomach lurched again.  “It serves you right, being in such a state,” she said loudly, observing his hangover, because apparently she had been taking lessons from Arthur.  “You and your young man too,” she told him.  “Leaving food and dishes all over the kitchen and the café in a right state for the morning girls to clean up.  Shame on you both.”

“It won’t happen again,” Merlin said, and tried to step past her, because those sweet breads he saw in the display case were something he needed to get into his stomach as soon as possible, at least if he wanted to prevent ten more horrible minutes with the toilet. 

“You’ll get food after you clean up your mess in the kitchens,” she told him.  “We made sure to save all of your dirty plates and pots and pans for you!”

Merlin squinted at her, swaying slightly, his head pounding.  He was aware that there was a bit of a crowd watching the scene from the lunch counter.  And even more watching from the tables scattered through the café.  

There were quite a few people in the cafe, he realized suddenly.  And quite a lot of sunlight coming through the glass wall. 

“What time is it?” he asked.

“It’s noon, as if you didn’t know,” Eleanor informed him.

Arthur had let him sleep until noon? Merlin thought.  No.  That wasn’t possible. Because Arthur?  Letting him sleep in?  Arthur, who had, in the past, kicked him awake, shoved him awake, used a broom to hit him awake, and on one memorable occasion, nearly drowned him awake with a bucket of cold water.  Which he’d gotten from a horse trough.

Arthur Pendragon, letting me sleep until noon, Merlin thought again, because it was beyond belief.  Especially considering that letting Merlin sleep meant that Arthur hadn’t been able to eat.  Or even make any noise in his own chambers.  All morning.

Flashes of memory returned, of the night before.  Of sitting in a chair with Arthur in front of the fire.  Of joy turning into grief.  Of the feeling of Arthur’s pulse as he held tight to Merlin’s arm. Of the sound of Arthur’s low voice as he tried to ease his regrets at past mistakes.

“Right this way, young man,” Eleanor said into his thoughts, gesturing to the kitchen.

Merlin drew himself to his full height, his expression shifting into something that had had meant very bad things for bandits in the Darkling Woods and assassins in the Valley of the Fallen Kings.

“Eleanor Godwyn,” Merlin told her, in a voice that spoke of lightning and storms, “I am going to take what I need to Arthur, right this minute, because he is my first responsibility.” 

He held up a hand when she opened her mouth to protest. 

“And when I am done, my lady,” he said, his tone gentling, “I will come downstairs and clean up the mess from last night, and I will apologize to the kitchen staff myself, as well as give my promise to you that it will not happen again.  Are we understood?”

She pursed her lips, her arms crossing over her chest, her expression torn between irritation and admiration. “We are understood, Mister Hunithson.”

Merlin nodded, slouching again, rubbing at his forehead.  “All of which I am going to do after I get some hangover remedy,” he muttered, and walked past her, through the staring patrons of his café, weaving on bare feet through the tables and over to the Apothecary.

Danyl sat at the Apothecary counter, Heath on a chair very close to him, their shoulders pressed up against one another.  They were discussing something on Danyl’s laptop screen when Merlin approached.

“Can I help you?” Danyl asked him, an unpleasant reminder that neither he nor Heath yet knew him as his younger self.  Which was a depressing and exhausting thought, especially in his current state.

“I’m the nephew of my Great Uncle Emrys Hunithson.  Eleanor should have given you a letter by now from him.  Telling you about me.  Taking over things.”

“So you’re Merlin, huh?” Heath said, with the amused smile that Merlin often got when using his real name. “You don’t look like a powerful magician to me.”

“That would be from all the drinking last night,” Merlin said, and leaned his elbows heavily on the counter, one palm covering his face.  “Would one of you get some of my hangover remedy from the shelves?”

“You mean the one Emrys made?” Heath asked, getting off his chair.

“Emrys. Yes. Not me. Emrys.”  Merlin put his head down on the countertop.  “Pleased to meet you both by the way,” he mumbled miserably.

“Cor, mate,” Danyl said. “What happened to you?”

Merlin raised his head and rubbed his eyes.  “Arthur,” he said.  At Danyl’s blank stare, he waved a tired hand over his shoulder.  “Friend of mine.  Who is staying with me.  He’ll be around.  Just… remind me to never try to out-drink him.  Ever, ever again.”

“Arthur and Merlin,” Heath laughed from down the rows of shelves.  “People must think you’re having them on when you meet them. Especially around here!”

“Check down on the bottom shelf,” Danyl called, loud enough that Merlin cringed.

“None here,” Heath called back.  “Solstice Festival drinkers must have bought us out.”

“Of course,” Merlin sighed.  “I’ll just make more then, shall I?  After I fetch breakfast?  And clean up the dishes and the food?  Without using magic?”

He dropped his hands, and saw both Danyl and Heath giving him that same strange stare he had received as an older man.  The one that said he was being mental.

Except now, it apparently was a a much more worrying thought. Apparently the long beard and grey hair had prevented him from thoughts of actually being sectioned. 

“Joking?” Merlin said.  “Because of the name?  Merlin?  With the magic?”

“I’m seeing the relation to the old man now,” Heath said knowingly to Danyl.

“If you’d like,” Danyl said to Merlin, after shooting Heath a look, “I could mix up some of the hangover remedy for you.  Emrys showed me a few times how to make it.  He has supplies for it up in the greenhouse with the herbs.”

“I knew there was a reason I always liked you best,” Merlin said, forgetting himself again.  “I mean that Emrys liked you- ah never mind.”  He straightened, and heaved a deep breath to calm his stomach.  “Bring it round to the kitchen, will you Danyl? I’ll be doing dishes there.  Apparently.”

“So the clothes,” Heath said, as Merlin turned to go.  “Are you going to do a theme or something?  To go along with the Arthur and Merlin thing?”  He looked over at Danyl.  “I’d been telling Emrys forever that he should do a theme here.  We’re on the shores of Avalon, for god’s sake.  Everyone else does the King Arthur thing.  Why not us?”

“Sure,” Merlin said.  “Yes.  Why not. That’s why I’m dressed like this.  Because of the King Arthur thing.” 

“Hey, can I talk to you later about that?” Heath called, as Merlin walked to the door.  “We could do some stuff on social media.  And the website. I’d been after Emrys to-“

“Yes, fine, all right, later,” Merlin said, and stopped by the door.  He half turned, to where they were watching him together. “Oh, and by the way,” he said to them, “I’m glad that you two are finally a couple. Congratulations on that.  But don’t both call out sick if you’re not actually sick. I need at least one of you tending the shop.”

Danyl flushed red and dropped his eyes, and even Heath managed to look a bit abashed.  But he recovered quickly, smirking at Merlin. “It was Danyl’s fault,” Heath said. “He wouldn’t let me get out of my bed.”

“Oh my god!” Danyl hissed, and gave Heath a horrified stare.  Heath only smiled at him in response, completely unrepentant.

About damn time, Merlin thought, and let himself out the door.

True to her word, Eleanor didn’t protest as he gathered breakfast for himself and Arthur, not even when he ventured into the kitchens to add whatever hot foods he could nick from the grill. 

The thankful look on Arthur’s face when he returned to his chambers was more than enough reward for the painful journey downstairs.

“That smells absolutely wonderful,” Arthur pronounced, and strode towards Merlin, shocking him motionless by taking the tray from him and carrying it to the table.

Merlin stared down at his empty hands, then at where his king was bent over the tray, grabbing a scone and eating it as if he hadn’t seen food in a week. 

He was just hungry, Merlin thought to himself.  That’s why Arthur had taken the tray. He wasn’t trying to be nice or anything.  Seriously, what was he even thinking.

“This is delicious,” Arthur said around a mouthful of blueberry scone, as he sat himself down and continued to eat from the serving dishes.

Before Arthur could reach for the pitcher of juice, Merlin grabbed it and poured him a glass.  When Arthur reached for an empty plate, Merlin snatched it from him, and then had to grab at a serving spoon when Arthur tried to pick that up too.

“Let. Me. Do. It!” Merlin bit out as he wrestled the spoon away from Arthur’s grip. Huffing a frustrated sigh, Merlin scooped potatoes and eggs onto Arthur’s plate, then shoved it roughly at him.  “Here.  Stubborn arse.”

“Your hair looks like a family of wyvern nested in it,” Arthur told him by way of reply, and went back to eating. 

Merlin’s eyes swept over Arthur, over his beautifully combed blonde hair and his stunning blue eyes and the strong set of his jaw and his dark blue shirt unlaced at the neck set beneath a tight crushed black velvet jacket of royal styling, then down his strong chest to the belt at his waist and then to his black pants and leather boots. 

Breathtaking, Merlin thought helplessly.  Arthur looked breathtaking.  And regal.  And the catch of of the five kingdoms.  Or however many damn kingdoms were upon the earth these days. 

“You,” Merlin said.  “Well.  You look like.”  He swallowed, making a small noise in his throat.

Arthur lifted expectant eyes to him, brows raising in challenge. 

“There’s blueberry scone mashed on your face,” Merlin said finally, which was hardly a respectable comeback, and was a lie, besides. 

“Another stunning display of wit,” Arthur commented, with a patronizing little smile.

As Arthur tried to subtly wipe at his face, Merlin sat himself down in a chair.  His stomach still wasn’t certain if it was desperate for food or desperate to get rid of food.  Merlin made its decision for it, grabbing the blandest bread on the table and pouring a large glass of water to treat his post-wine-drinking dehydration.

“Why don’t you feel like you’ve been run over by a hay cart?” Merlin asked, in a whining tone that would have gotten him cuffed by Gaius in about two seconds.

“Because, Merlin, unlike you, I can hold my drink.”

“Prat,” Merlin muttered, and took a petulant bite of bread. 

“Are you going to threaten to turn me into a fffrrrtoad again?”

“A what?”

“Don’t you remember?” Arthur asked, but in a strange tone of voice, and with his eyes focused on the eggs he was moving rather unnecessarily around on his plate.

“Everything between sitting by the fire and waking up this morning is a bit dodgy,” Merlin admitted.

“Like I said,” Arthur said, in what sounded like relief.  “You can’t hold your drink.”

Merlin wondered what he could have possibly done or said last night, to make Arthur so glad he couldn’t remember it.  The list of possible awful answers to that question was so long, and so horrifying, that his stomach lurched again, and he had to close his eyes, and stuff another piece of bread into his mouth.

“When will you be able to do that spell you mentioned?” Arthur asked.  “The one to make the old woman’s gibberish something I can understand.”

Another memory of last night. Of telling Arthur to ask him to do magic.  Merlin stared down at his plate, fighting a blush.  “Best to wait until I feel better,” he muttered. “After lunch maybe.”

“This is lunch,” Arthur reminded him.

“Later, then.  When my head is clearer.  Anyway, there’s things I need to tend to downstairs first.”  He pushed himself wearily to his feet. “Do you need anything else before I go, sire?”

“A shorter version of history?” Arthur said, and scowled at the open book on his desk.

“Can’t help you there,” Merlin told him, and left his king to return to his reading.

After a much less nauseating trip to the washroom, including a wonderfully warm shower, Merlin went back to his chambers, to dig around for clothing appropriate for both the dark ages and the modern ages. 

He settled on dark pants, falling over top of black boots, and one of his tighter blue shirts without lacings. He even put a bit of product in his hair, which was longer than it had been in his days in Camelot.  Long enough to shove some of it off to the side, at least a bit. 

The slight changes succeeded in receiving no comment as he entered the kitchen of the café.  None of the staff gave him a moment’s grief about his appearance at all, as he bent over the sinks, washing up the pots and pans he had used the night before. 

In fact, the kitchen staff in general were friendly, teasing him about working at their lowly level, but without any real malice behind it.  Word of his argument with Eleanor had apparently put him in good standing with the people who did the dirty work of running the place.  Which was a familiar situation from his days in Camelot, after all.

Danyl came into the kitchens a half hour into Merlin’s work, just as he was cleaning the last of the dishes.  “Here it is,” Danyl said, and held out a small glass vial to Merlin.

Merlin dried off his hands and took the vial.  After sniffing its contents, he downed it in one quick drink, ready for the sharp aftertaste that did not, in fact, come. 

“I added some peppermint extract for nausea,” Danyl said.  “And some honey to ease a sore throat from, well, you know.  Makes for a nice taste, too.”

“Everything else is the same?” Merlin asked, and when Danyl nodded, he handed the vial back to the young man, genuinely impressed.  “That’s… actually… much better than the original.”

“Tell me if it doesn’t work the same.  I was worried it would throw the balance of the herbal chemistry off.  I don’t think it should, but…”

“I’ll let you know,” Merlin said.  “Really, it’s quite good.  I’ll be sure to continue those lessons that Emrys was giving you.”

“You can do that?”

“Everything that Emrys knew, I know,” Merlin told him. 

“Oh. Then. You’ll know about Friday then?  Is that still all right?”

“Your birthday party,” Merlin said.  “Yes, that’s fine.  Just remind Eleanor that you’ll need the spare keys to let your family and friends into the café that night.”

“Thanks.  And.  You know.  If you want to come?  And your friend Arthur? I was going to invite Emrys, but… then he left sort of suddenly…”

“He liked you quite a bit, you know.  Thought you were a bright lad.”

“Tell him to come round sometime,” Danyl said, his eyes dark and a bit sad beneath his mop of brown hair.  “I tried texting him.  But he never did like to use his mobile.”

Merlin placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “I’ll tell him.  And thanks for the invitation.  I-“

“Merlin!”

The shout came from outside the closed kitchen doors, loud enough to attract the attention of the two girls stacking dishes and the young man standing before him. 

“Merlin!  Ble edech chi!”

“Oh hell,” Merlin muttered, and pushed past Danyl and out the kitchen door. 

Arthur was standing in the middle of the tables, the thick book under his arm, staring out amongst the crowd of customers who were nearly all staring back at him.  “Merlin!  Damniasech ble wyt ti!”

Merlin hurried over to him, casting an apologetic glance at Eleanor, who was standing dumbstruck, coffee pot hovering over a customer’s cup.  “Rydw i yma!” Merlin called to Arthur.  “Fod yn dawel!”

Arthur strode to him through the maze of tables, yelling loudly in Brittonic about William the Conqueror having no business being remembered as the first person to unify Albion because Arthur had done that already four hundred years before.

Merlin grabbed Arthur’s arm and pulled his furious king towards his residence door. “Sorry!  Sorry!” he told people as they passed.  “He forgets he’s not in Wales anymore.  Don’t you, Arthur!  Excuse us,” he said to the room at large, as he pulled Arthur back into his residence.

Arthur shook off Merlin’s grip as soon as the door closed behind them.  “William the bloody Conquerer!” Arthur yelled, and marched over to slam the book down on Merlin’s dining room table so loudly that he was sure the people in the café could hear it.

“Arthur, would you please just calm down?”

“Didn’t you hear what I said?”  Arthur jammed his knuckles into the book cover.  “William the bloody Conqueror united Albion for the first time?  He did?  Him?” Arthur swore at length, turning to stalk through his flat.

“Well,” Merlin said, “technically, he was the one who-“

Arthur rounded on him, face flushed with fury.  Merlin snapped his jaw shut, deciding quickly that the details of history could definitely wait. 

“I need to get out of here,” Arthur announced, his eyes scanning the walls and the floor and the ceiling as if he were trapped and looking for an escape.  “Horses,” he announced, as if just remembering.  “They must have horses in this century.”

“They- yes? Why?”

“We’ll go riding.”

“We… could do… Yes…”

“Is there a problem?”

“Well.  I don’t actually have horses.  Myself.  Exactly. But there are some.  I just need to arrange to borrow them.”

“See that you do.”  Arthur picked up the book from the table with great distaste.  “And locate that bloody spell you mentioned.  I’m tired of people staring at me like they don’t have a brain in their heads.”

Merlin watched Arthur stride from the room, muttering to himself  about the idiocy of the modern world and how it would be easier if everyone spoke the damn language they were supposed to be speaking.

“Horses,” Merlin said to himself. And then he sighed, because he knew who he was going to have to deal with, in order to borrow some.

Chapter Text

Arthur was halfway through the fourth of Merlin's chronicles, and was suffering through even more outlandish tales of William the Bloody Imposter, when Merlin finally returned to his chambers.

He was dressed for riding, his breeches tucked into his boots, his familiar brown jacket atop his blue tunic, a neckerchief around his throat. His hair looked strangely wind blown, and fuller than Arthur remembered it, but the rest of him was reassuringly familiar.  Right down to the saddlebags hanging from his shoulders. 

Arthur stood from his desk, shrugging on his black jacket.  He was past ready to get out of this room and away from these damn books. “Everything is prepared?”

 “Yes, sire,” Merlin said cheerfully.

And that, too, was reassuring, Arthur thought.  Both the use of his title and the sincere delivery of it. Merlin’s eyes were sharper now, and color had returned to his face, such as it ever lived there. “Feeling better, I see?”

“Gaius’ hangover remedy always did work wonders.”

“I could have used some myself earlier,” Arthur said.  His headache was gone now, and he was again clear of mind.  But that was not how he’d awoken this morning. 

Instead, he’d emerged from sleep with his thoughts in a fog, his head pounding, his stomach sour.  When his memory had come rushing in again, of all that he’d lost, his grief had hit him even harder than the mornings before.

The feeling of Merlin’s arm heavy around him had kept him from despair. The weight of him pressing against his back had reassured him that he was not alone.

It should have been strange, Arthur thought, to lay with Merlin in such a way.  Even though they’d slept outdoors pressed against one another before, never had it happened in a bed, and never had it turned into something so like an embrace.

But it had felt utterly natural to remain as he had awoken. Leaning into his friend. Reassured by his presence. Feeling Merlin's hard chest pressed against his own spine.  His warm breaths on the back of his neck.

“I’ll be sure to keep some upstairs just in case,” Merlin was saying.

“What?”

“The hangover remedy.  You sure you couldn’t still use some?”

Arthur watched Merlin unfold a yellowed piece of paper bearing foreign words and druidic illustrations.  “What is that?”

“It’s the spell that will let you understand other languages. I’m ready to use it on you if you are.  Though you may want to sit down first.  It might make you a bit dizzy.”

“You’re certain it’s safe?” Arthur asked, though he was already seating himself in one of the wooden chairs facing the cold hearth.

“I wouldn’t use it on you if it wasn’t safe, dollophead."

Arthur had to fight back a smile at the insolent tone.  “What do I need to do?”

“Just sit still and do nothing," Merlin said, dropping to one knee before him. "You can manage that, can’t you?”

“Not as well as you can.”

Merlin snorted at him, and glanced down at the paper again.

“I trust that I shouldn’t be worried that you feel the need to repeatedly check the spell,” Arthur said, with entirely false bravado.

“Of course not.  I'm just… It’s been a while since I used it. I don’t want to… improvise.”

“Well in that case consider me completely reassured with no concerns whatsoever regarding what you’re about to do to my brain using magic.”

“Oh don’t be such a child, it’s not like it’s the first time.”

“It- what?”

Merlin’s eyes went a bit wide, and he lifted his gaze having gone a bit pale.  “It… hardly ever was necessary. Really, it was nothing.”

“You are going to tell me about every single time you ever used magic on me without my knowledge, Merlin,” Arthur snapped.  “And then I shall decide if it was nothing.”

Merlin opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it.  “Yes, sire.”

Arthur huffed out an angry breath.  “If I hear that I did anything under the influence of magic that was unbecoming a ruler of the Five Kingdoms-“

“The donkey ears and the braying weren’t my fault-”

“Merlin!”

“Yes! I know! Sorry!  I wasn’t supposed to ever- Never mind!  I- So- Look, are you ready or not?  For the, you know. Magic.” He cringed at the word for the first time in days, and this time Arthur was entirely glad he did.

Arthur muttered about disobedient servants and the flagrant abuse of magic, but allowed Merlin to press a warm hand against his forehead. 

“If you could relax, please, sire?” Merlin asked, in what was, for him anyway, a very servile tone of voice. 

Arthur forced the tension out of his muscles as Merlin drew in a deep breath, his gaze growing hard with concentration.

Cume mec drýcræftes,” Merlin said, his voice rumbling up from deep in his chest, “limplæce cyneword ond andgietan, dæghwæðerlic morgenlicne ferhþes.”

Arthur saw starlight dance within Merlin’s eyes, brilliant and beautiful.  And then the world went white.

Millions of sparks danced over his skin, like shocks from thick wool in midwinter. He felt dizzy, his thoughts swimming, as if sliding into a sudden dream.

“Arthur!”

He felt hands land upon his shoulders, steadying him.  Arthur opened eyes he didn’t remember closing, to see Merlin still kneeling before him, looking as worried as a mother hen. 

“Are you all right?” Merlin asked. 

Arthur nodded, and tried to sit forward, only to fall back against his chair. 

“Give it a moment. It'll pass.”

Arthur grabbed hold of Merlin’s forearms and held on, squeezing his eyes closed, taking many slow measured breaths to fight the dizziness.

“Can you understand what I’m saying?”

When Arthur opened his eyes once more, the room was no longer spinning.  “Of course I can," he said. "Why wouldn’t I understand what you’re-”

Arthur stopped talking, realizing that he was speaking the same language as Merlin.  Which was not the language of Camelot at all.

It was the strangest sensation, he thought.  He could think the old language in his head.  But as the words fell from his lips, he shifted them into this strange new language. 

“Galwch barhau idal mi en avr, ni galweh shi?” Merlin asked him.

“Yes, I can understand what you-   Wait-  You were speaking Brittonic just then, weren't you.” Arthur frowned at the strange word he’d used.  “Brittonic?  What kind of name is that?”

“It’s one of the names they use for the old language,” Merlin said.  “But you see?  You can still understand it and speak it if you want to.”

Arthur listed a number of his favorite insults for Merlin in the old language, including some that he just made up on the spot.

“Nothing wrong with you, my lord,” Merlin said, in sarcasm laden English.  “Well.  Beyond what was already wrong.”

“This is what the language of Albion sounds like now,” Arthur said, to hear himself say more of these strange words. 

He had to form his lips around the word ‘Albion’ carefully.  His brain wanted him to call it by a different name. 

“England,” Arthur muttered, and screwed up his face.  “That’s what they call Albion?  Honestly, Merlin, did you make no effort whatsoever to control what they called our lands or language?”

"Repeatedly," Merlin assured him, as he climbed to his feet.

Arthur rose from his chair without a trace of lingering dizziness or weakness.  “What is this accent that you’ve given me?  You don’t sound like this.”

“Not to worry, sire, you still sound like a pompous, spoiled, member of royalty.  The magic kept all that exactly the same.”

“I take that to mean that I don’t sound like I just fell out of a tavern in the lower town, unlike you,” Arthur said, smiling now at the round sounds of his vowels and the crisp bite of his consonants. 

Merlin was grinning at Arthur’s increasing over-enunciation. “Why am I not surprised that you sound like you’ve spent your life in Buckingham Palace or Harrow?”

“I’m going to ignore that statement, because it’s made up of nonsense,” Arthur said, because he’d found this to be an excellent response to anything he didn’t yet understand. “Now.  If it’s not too much trouble, shall we to the horses?”

He heard Merlin bark out a laugh at the formal phrasing. Arthur grinned in response, enjoying the prospect of ordering Merlin around in more than one language.  It was a very bright spot in the midst of the strange insanity that now was his life. 

Arthur lead the way downstairs, with Merlin trailing behind with the saddlebags. When they reached Merlin’s first floor rooms, Arthur strode towards the door to the café.

“The tower door is faster,” Merlin protested, as he followed Arthur through the door and into the large stone hall beyond.

Arthur searched the faces of the people in Merlin’s café as he walked among the white tables filling the grand room.  None of the customers paid him any attention as he passed, too preoccupied by strange slates of stone they held in their hands, things which Arthur didn’t understand, and therefore ignored.

“We need to go that way,” Merlin said to him, with a jerk of his head towards the glass wall and its impractical double glass doors.

Arthur spotted the older woman in the flowered dress he had been seeking. She held a teapot in one hand, the other hand perched upon her narrow hip as she watched him.  “Ah, there she is,” he said, and approached her.

Merlin side-stepped his way between tables to follow him, swearing in the old language, clearly struggling with the heavy saddle bags as they swung from his shoulders.

The old woman narrowed her eyes as Arthur stepped before her.  Which wouldn't do at all, he thought.  So he bowed to her as if she were a visiting noblewomen at court, saying: “Good afternoon, Lady Godwyn.  I fear we owe you a tremendous apology for our inexcusable behavior of yesterday evening.”

The old woman's thin brows raised in surprise, her mouth falling open in mute protest as Arthur took the tea pot from her and set it down between two startled young women at a nearby table.  

"I assure you," Arthur said earnestly, picking up the woman's thin hand to press it between both of his, "that we shall not repeat our discourtesy.  You have my word.”  

To his great satisfaction, he saw a hint of color fill her cheeks. “It’s no trouble,” she said, smiling now.  “None at all.  Don’t you think one more second about it.”

Behind him, he heard Merlin make a choking noise.  He glanced over his shoulder, gloating, and was delighted by the outrage he saw on Merlin’s face. 

“I have heard only wonderful things about you, my lady,” Arthur went on, because there was no such thing as laying it on too thick in his experience.  “I very much look forward to getting to know you better.”

“Why that's… I… Thank you…”

She looked at a loss as to what to call him, so he gave her his most charming smile. “Arthur.”

“Arthur,” she said, and then gave a light laugh as he bent to kiss her hand.

“My lady,” he said in parting, before striding through the café and out the glass doors to the porch, Merlin hurrying to catch up.  

Any moment, Arthur thought, as he jogged down the steps and onto the lawn.  Any moment…

What was that?” Merlin burst out, as expected.

Arthur grinned over at where Merlin was jogging to keep up with him, the saddle bags flopping against his hips.  “That,” he said, “was a guarantee that my favorite scones will be set aside for me every morning.”

“That’s-!  I can’t-!  Ugh! You made her blush!  Eleanor shouldn’t be blushing!  That’s just disgusting!  She’s eighty years old, Arthur!”

“She’s the keeper of the scones, Merlin.”

Merlin made an exaggerated wretching noise, following it up with some highly realistic gagging sounds.  “Just disgusting,” he muttered. 

Arthur stopped walking, looking all around the lawns surrounding Merlin’s home.

“What’s wrong?” Merlin asked.

Arthur swept out a hand to the empty field.  “The horses, Merlin.  Where are the horses?”

Merlin nodded towards the edge of the forest.  “There’s stables beyond those woods at the top of the hill.   That path over there leads to them.  I hope you don’t mind a bit of a walk.”

“Anything’s better than being in that room with those books and their so-called kings,” Arthur said with great disgust, and started forward at a brisk pace.

He heard the bags bumping against Merlin’s legs as he jogged to keep up.  “Oh, that’s all right then,” Merlin said, in a loud, sarcastic tone of voice that was like music to Arthur’s ears, “I’ll just carry both of these heavy saddle bags myself all the way to the stables, then, shall I?”

“How many times did you say you performed magic on me without my consent?” Arthur asked.

No reply was forthcoming.  Though eventually Arthur was fairly sure he heard muttering along the lines of ‘saved your pompous royal arse not that I ever was thanked for it of course not’.

“I heard that,” Arthur said, and strode into the cool shadows of the forest, with Merlin close behind.

The dirt path wasn’t steep, but it held enough overgrowth that Arthur had to watch his step as they wound their way up the gradual slope of the hill.  The sweet smells of green leaves and wet earth filled his nose, familiar enough that he painfully caught himself more than once looking for a flash of red cape and the sight of his knights on patrol.

Behind him came the sound of Merlin’s slightly labored breathing, and his wet footfalls, as well as the occasional swear.  Also just like Camelot, he thought wistfully.  If he had his crossbow, he could almost believe that they were out for a hunt together.  A thousand and a half years ago.

Eventually they reached the edge of the forest at the hilltop.  Arthur stepped out from under the trees and onto a green sunlit meadow that stretched along the top of the hill.  A massive yellow wooden house sat in the middle of the green, next to the more familiar structures of the stables. 

“This is… Widow Abbernathy’s… grounds,” Merlin panted, as he staggered to a stop next to Arthur.  “She…  is… oh hell,” he said, and bent forward, the saddlebags falling to the ground as he pressed hands to his knees.

“Whatever is the matter with you?”

Merlin glared up at him, clearly irritated, still heaving in deep breaths.  Sweat covered his face, and his cheeks were red from his exertion. “I’ve spent the past three decades… as an old man, Arthur…  I haven’t exactly been… doing this kind of work.”

“Well you’re not an old man now, are you,” Arthur said. “So get moving.”

Merlin grumbled behind Arthur the entire walk to the stables, where they were met by a stout old woman whose violently red dress matched both her hair and the makeup upon her cheeks.  Though she seemed nice enough, he caught Merlin more than once frowning at her, and skirting intentionally away from wherever she moved.

When she took them to their horses, Arthur climbed with great joy onto a fine leather saddle set upon a black stallion.  From atop the horse, he continued to have the highly entertaining but completely puzzling experience of watching Merlin move skittishly around the stables, nervous as a cat in a room full of hay carts. 

As Merlin went to tend to his own horse, a beautiful white animal, Arthur settled himself into the saddle.  He was just fully relaxing into place when Merlin’s sharp yelp startled both him and his mount. 

Next to him he saw Merlin climb at great speed into his own saddle, his bag clutched to his chest, his face flushed red.  “Come on,” Merlin said, and without waiting for a reply, spurred his horse hard, nearly falling off as the animal surged forward.

After riding only a short distance into the open field, Merlin stopped his horse to secure his saddle bag.  As Arthur reined his own horse to a stop, he heard Merlin mutter “fresh old woman”.

“What’s that?” Arthur asked.

“She pinched my arse!” Merlin bit out.  “Again!”

Arthur burst out laughing so loudly that his horse threw back his head in protest.  He had to pat the stallion’s neck and tighten his grip on the reins to settle him down again. 

“It is not funny!” Merlin snapped at him.  “I’m young enough to be her grandson!”

“You’re old enough to be her grandfather many times over.”

“She doesn’t know that!  Cheeky old woman!” Merlin yelled back at the stables, now that they were safely out of hearing distance.

“I find it hard to believe you can’t fend off one old woman with eager hands.”

Merlin’s gaze snapped to him, a flash of pain in his eyes, before fading into a guarded expression that Arthur was coming to know all too well. 

“What is it?” Arthur asked.

“Nothing.  Just.  You said that to me before.  But.  Not you.  Not really.”  Merlin stared down at the reins and did not explain.

Arthur thought of what Merlin had said the night before.  About being driven mad.  About speaking to him when he had not been there. 

All those centuries, he thought.  How in the world had Merlin survived all those centuries?

Without another word, Merlin spurred his horse into a gallop.  Arthur resettled himself into the saddle and did the same, following him across the meadow.

They rode together for a while over the open meadows along the hilltops, before finally venturing down into wooded paths.  For the most part they rode the narrow paths single file, Merlin in the lead, because he knew these lands better. 

Only occasionally would Arthur encounter a reminder of the new world.  A strange noise echoing through the woods.  A light flashing far away. The roar of those creatures in the sky.  Otherwise it was just the two of them and the familiar sounds and smells of the forest, their only company the plants and the trees, with daylight fading all around them. 

Arthur wasn’t quite sure where they were, but he suspected it was still close to the lake. The early evening air was humid, holding something of a chill.  A fine night for hunting, he thought.  When the path widened again, and they could ride side by side, he told Merlin so.

“There are places where you can hunt not too far away from here,” Merlin told him.  “But not by the lake.  This is protected land.”

Arthur could hear a bit of pride behind those words.  “Your doing?”

Merlin nodded, but did not explain.  He’d gone quiet again since they’d left the meadow.  Lost in memory, Arthur thought.  Lost in pain.  And lost to him, as well.

“The horses could use a rest,” Arthur told him, hoping to pull him from these thoughts.

“There’s a clearing just up ahead,” Merlin said.  “We’re almost there.”

Calling it a clearing was being generous, Arthur thought.  Really the small area of grass by the lakeside wasn’t much larger than could hold two horses and several people camped for the night. 

As Arthur climbed down from his horse, he realized that’s exactly what this spot was used for.  A well used fire pit sat in the middle of the small meadow, well back from the water.  Bits of paper were littered all around it, signs that people had been here before.

Arthur watched Merlin lead both of their horses to a nearby tree.  As he tended to them, Arthur stared across the water at the ruins of the tower.  Beyond it, he could just barely make out a change in the trees that marked the clearing around Merlin’s estate.  “We’re on the other side of the lake,” he said.

Merlin gave the horses a pat as they ate the food he’d given them.  “We can rest here for a while.  Or if you’d like, we could camp here tonight.  I brought bedrolls and some sandwiches.”

Arthur watched Merlin stretch out his back in a way that suggested he was no longer accustomed to riding.  Another subtle change from the man he was. And yet this action, of bringing him here, of packing their things for an overnight stay… That was very much the man he remembered. 

He knew that I was being driven mad by the history written in those books, Arthur thought.  He knew, and he brought me here, because it would feel like it used to, back in Camelot. 

Merlin was looking at him, his expression cautiously hopeful, his eyes wide and questioning, silently asking if he’d done the right thing. 

“It so happens I’m in the mood for sandwiches,” Arthur said, and then pretended not to notice Merlin’s delight.

While Merlin spread out a large blanket and unwrapped some food from a small cloth, Arthur wandered through the small grassy clearing.  At one point, he headed towards the water’s edge, but then stopped himself.  Because even that small change in distance had made Merlin go very still behind him.

He’s like I am with the empty room at night, Arthur thought bitterly, and glared at the tower upon the Isle of Avalon. 

Arthur hated it, his new and unwelcome and entirely childish fear of being alone in a darkened room.  He hated, too, that Merlin now bore scars of fear as well, of Arthur being near the water.

It would take time, he told himself.  That was all.  His fifteen hundred years spent in darkness were only three days behind him.  And Merlin’s isolation lived still very fresh in his friend’s mind as well.  Their fears would diminish eventually. He just had to be patient until they did.

When Merlin had finished setting up their bedrolls atop the blanket – quite close to one another, he noticed – Arthur took his place at Merlin’s side.  The evening light was dimming at a rapid pace, most of it blocked by the trees surrounding the clearing.

“Set a fire so that we can see what we’re eating,” Arthur said, and nodded at the cold, wet, charred scraps of wood in the fire pit, where no earthly flame had any business springing to life.

“You mean…” Merlin said, almost shyly, and wiggled his fingers at the coals.

“I mean,” Arthur said.

Forbaernan,” Merlin said, with a slight nod to the fire pit.

Arthur watched the flames dancing a long time, until Merlin nudged his arm, offering a sandwich. He took it, nodding, and for a while they sat silently together, eating. 

After a while, Arthur risked a glance over at Merlin, to find him staring contentedly at the flames, a familiar relaxed slouch bowing his back as he sat cross-legged on the ground.   Arthur felt himself relaxing even more in response, sitting there surrounded by the sound of the leaves in the wind, the waves upon the shore.    

By the time they’d finished eating, the first stars had made an appearance. Arthur stretched out upon his back on his bedroll, the hard earth a welcome and familiar thing beneath him. 

Merlin stretched out as well, not even an arm's length away. 

Close, Arthur thought.  He likes to keep me close.  

Above them both, clouds dotted the darkened sky, stars twinkling between them.  Like jewels on a crown, Guinevere used to say. She’d always compared the jewels of her crown to the stars in the sky. 

“I miss her,” Arthur said.

“She was your wife," Merlin said. "Of course you miss her.”

Was my wife, Arthur thought.  Not is my wife.  Was my wife.  

Yes, he was a widower now, wasn’t he.  Though she’d been a widow first.  It was all so difficult and confusing to grasp.

“I was ready to leave her, you know,” Arthur said to the stars.  “I was ready to leave them all. To die for my kingdom.  I was prepared to do it.”  He drew in a deep breath, let it out slowly.  “But I wasn’t prepared in the slightest for this.  For all of them to leave me instead.”

“Almost all,” Merlin said, his voice almost lost in the rustling of the leaves.

Arthur reached over, set his hand upon Merlin’s forearm.  “Almost all." 

Merlin fell silent, but it was one of his very loud silences, which meant he had much to say, and was holding it all back.

"What?" Arthur prompted.

“It's just... It's understandable, you know.  For you to feel abandoned."

“It’s not fair to them that I do.”

“None of what has happened to us is fair," Merlin said bitterly.

“No,” he agreed.  “It isn't.”

They lay there a long time, listening to the wind stirring the leaves, the horses shuffling by the lakeside, the water whispering to the shore. 

A moving point of light in the sky caught Arthur’s attention.  “That shooting star is moving awfully slowly.”

“It's not a shooting star.”

"It's not?"

"No.  It's... something else."

I’m not going to ask, Arthur thought.  Merlin’s tone made it very clear that asking would be a bad idea.  He should absolutely, positively, not ask.

“Well what is it?” Arthur asked.

“It’s a long metal tube containing hundreds of people that is being propelled across the sky by a constant controlled explosion.”

“Right.  Of course.”

“You have no idea what I just told you.”

“Shut up.”

Merlin chuckled, a familiar sound that comforted Arthur even more than the smells of the forest, and the sounds of the horses, and the hard ground beneath him.

It was so easy to believe that this was another time, he thought to himself.  With the strange light in the sky now gone, there was no trace of the modern world. Only the one he had known.  

But that world was gone now.  Along with everything he’d had.  And everything he was.

“What will I do with myself,” Arthur asked.  “Without a kingdom to rule.”

“You’ll do what you always do, sire.  Prepare for the next battle.”

“Even though we’ve no idea what that shall be.”

“Yes.”

“And you honestly don't know anything at all about these trials we will face?”

“All I knew is that you would return in the time of Albion’s greatest need.”

Arthur crossed his arms and huffed out a frustrated breath.  “Well that’s entirely non-specific and unhelpful.”

“Helpful is not a word I’d use for speakers of prophecy.”

Too much pain in Merlin’s tone.  Not a road that he had intended his friend to travel.  “Well then,” Arthur said.  “I suppose we’ll have to prepare for everything.”  He turned his head on the blanket to study Merlin’s profile.  “We’ll begin training tomorrow.”

Merlin turned an utterly horrified expression toward him. “Training?”

“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten what training is."

“Training,” Merlin repeated, his face screwing up as if the word itself tasted bitter.

“I’m assuming you have at least some of Camelot’s armory in your grand manor?”

“It’s a house, and yes, I do, which I’m starting to think was a mistake.”

“Tomorrow afternoon,” Arthur declared, feeling better already at the thought of a sword in his hand.  “We begin training.”

“Oh I can hardly wait.”

“You could use the exercise, the sorry state you’re in,” Arthur added, and earned a mocking repeat of his own words in response.

More long moments of peace, with the wind rustling the leaves of the trees around them.

“It’s a bit odd, isn’t it,” Merlin said.  “Lying here.  With no bandits lurking in the woods trying to kill you.”

“Or you.”

“Mostly you.  Actually, come to think of it, I won’t know what to do with myself now either.  Without having to stop someone from killing you every day.”

 “Don’t exaggerate.  It wasn’t every day.”

“Fine.  Every other day.”

“That’s better,” Arthur said. “And I’m sure you’ll do what you always do as well.  Which is as little as possible.”

Merlin grinned over at him.  “Sounds good to me.”

“Of course it does," Arthur said, grinning right back at him. "I'm certain with all those servants of yours-“

“Employees.”

“-I’m sure you manage being as idle as someone can possibly be. You don’t have even more servants-“

“Employees, Arthur, I pay them.”

“-at your disposal who I haven’t met yet, do you?  No other staff?”  Arthur paused, realizing something he should have thought of before.  “No wife?  No children?  Or grandchildren?”

The smile faded from Merlin's lips.  He looked away, to stare up at the night sky.

“Do you?” Arthur pressed.

“No.”

Arthur pushed himself up to his elbow.  “In fifteen hundred years, you must have… found someone?  Married?  At least once?”

Merlin shook his head, crossing his arms over his chest. 

“Surely there was someone,” Arthur said.

In the flickering light of the fire, he could see Merlin’s expression pinch.  “There was.  Once.  But nothing came of it.”

“But… You couldn’t have been... alone.  Not for…" Arthur couldn’t bring himself to say it.  Not for all those centuries.  Not for all those long years that he waited.  It was too horrible to even think it.

“I had a few… companions.  Sometimes. Not for very long.  Between the not dying and the hiding my magic and the waiting for you, I’m a bit much to take.  Or so I’ve been told.”

“Whoever told you that was an idiot,” Arthur said.

Merlin looked over at him, his eyebrows raising in surprise, smiling so completely that his eyes crinkled.  “I thought I was the idiot.”

“Only in comparison to me.”

“Is that how it works?”

“Yes,” Arthur said, and lay back on the blanket, trying not to think of Merlin with these idiotic companions of his. Of Merlin being mistreated by them, or hurt by them, while Arthur had been unable to protect him.  He wished he could turn back time, to deal with whoever had wounded Merlin so badly that he had turned to isolation. 

“Ready for a story?” Merlin asked, in the middle of the twentieth way that Arthur had been imagining doing harm to the people who had hurt his friend in the past.  It had involved a javelin this time.

Arthur forced himself to relax, the fire warm upon his boot soles, the crackling of the flames peaceful in the quiet night.  “You’re referring of course to a story about your illegal activities using magic in Camelot?”

“One of the many thousand, my lord.”

Arthur feigned a noise of irritation.  “What’s the story about this time, then?”

“I’ll let you choose.  What do you want to hear about?  Goblins, assassins, or magic?”

An easy decision, Arthur thought.  He pretended to think it over anyway.  “Magic.”

“All right, then," Merlin said, sounding pleased.  "I’ll tell you about the Crystal Caves.”

Though Arthur tried to stay awake as Merlin spoke, gradually his thoughts began to drift.  Images formed in his mind, of Merlin standing in a great cavern, his eyes sparkling with golden starlight, surrounded by shining crystals filled with visions of the world.

The feeling of rain upon his face startled him awake. A drop fell upon his closed eyelids, and then another on his cheek.  Arthur wiped at his face, pushing himself up to his elbows on his bedroll, sleep muddled and disoriented. 

The fire still roared at his feet in the pitch darkness, even with the rain growing heavier. His thoughts were sluggish by what must have been a few hours’ sleep, but he was coming around rather quickly as the rain grew heavier.

At his side, he saw Merlin was still sound asleep upon his back, utterly undisturbed by the weather.  When the wind picked up, the patter of the rain on the leaves turned into something loud enough to make the horses stomp the ground and huff misty breaths into the air.  Within seconds, the heavens opened up, and it began to pour.

When Merlin still didn’t stir, Arthur smacked him soundly on the shoulder, startling him awake. “Whazzit?” Merlin said, then lifted his face to the increasing downpour, and spat out rain.  “Pfah-“ he said, and wiped his eyes.  “S’raining.”

“Very good, Merlin, yes, it’s raining,” Arthur snapped, as he moved closer to the fire, which continued to burn against all laws of nature.  Both his jacket and his clothes were soaking wet already, and the rain was only getting heavier.  “Do something about it,” he told Merlin, and smacked him on the arm.

Merlin jerked his arm away, giving him a look of great offense.  “What do you want me to do?”

“Have you hit your head in your sleep?” Arthur demanded.  “What do you think I want you to do?”

Merlin looked up at the sky, then back at him.  “Seriously?  Magic?  Because you can’t handle a little rain?”

In the distance came a flash of lightning, and a rumble of thunder.  The rain intensified to a near deafening roar around them.

Arthur spat out the water that was running down his face.  “Do you see what you’ve gone and done?  You’ve made it rain harder!”

“That wasn’t my fault!“ Merlin looked over to where the horses were apparently unbothered by the storm. “We can take shelter under the trees.”

“It’s raining through the leaves, Merlin, what good would it do to move away from the fire to where it’s colder?  Just fix it!”

“It’s the weather!  You don’t fix something that doesn’t need to be fixed!”

“You do if it’s trying to drown you!”

Merlin wiped at the torrent of water running down his face.  “All right, fine!”

“Come on, hurry it up,” Arthur said, and rapped Merlin’s shoulder with his knuckles.

“Stop hitting me!  You’re always hitting me!”  Merlin shoved himself a bit farther away on the soaking wet blanket, grimacing at the squelch of water beneath his breaches.

“I’m not always hitting you, don’t be a child,” Arthur said, and shivered at the wind that had decided to make an appearance, just to vex him.  He shoved at Merlin again.  “Come on!”

“Oh my god you are such a- Stop it!“ Merlin flailed an arm at Arthur, lifting his other to the sky, palm out, fingers splayed.  “You are going to drive me utterly... Leave off!” he said, shoving back at Arthur. “Royal arse,” Merlin snapped, then said, “onstyrest þu heofonwolcen cume milde byreas áscínest-  áscínest-  áscí-“

In the firelit downpour, Arthur watched Merlin’s body go rigid, and then jerk violently, as if shocked by unseen lightning.  Gold surged within his eyes, shining so brightly that even the whites of them were lost in it.

áscínest- þu- þu-“ Merlin stammered, shaking so violently that his voice trembled.  His eyes grew wider, the gold shining even brighter from them, as he choked out words in a strangled voice, “sunne- þæt- sumorhát dæghwæðerlic!”

A blinding flash of light made Arthur flinch back.  When his vision cleared, he saw Merlin on his back on the ground, his body bowing off the earth.  Light shone through every inch of Merlin’s skin, filling his wide open eyes, glowing beneath his clothes, dancing beneath his flesh like a million stars trying to burst free from within him.

Merlin cried out, throwing his arms to his sides, and thick tendrils of sparkling light radiated from his hands and his fingers, sinking into the earth, curling into the air, crawling across the lake. 

The raindrops stopped in midair, the trees halted mid-sway, the flames froze in place, and the world fell into silence.

Arthur crawled to Merlin’s side, his own breathing loud in the absence of sound. “Merlin!” he yelled, and grabbed him by the jacket, hauling him upward.

A sensation on his arms drew his gaze, and Arthur saw tendrils of light-- no, he thought, it was tendrils of magic—slide around his arms where he held onto Merlin.  The thick ropes of it felt like water, like flame, like wind, sliding over his clothing and skin, questioning, seeking, wanting.

Sparkling light now blanketed the entire meadow. All around them, flowers rose from the earth and bloomed, strawberry plants sprang forth and fruited, and blue butterflies rose fluttering from the grass. 

Merlin gave a broken moan, and Arthur heaved him forward by his jacket, and with all his strength slapped his face open handed, knocking him to the ground.

The air electrified around him, intense enough that Arthur expected lightning to strike him.  But then it was gone.  With a rush of sound, all the rain hovering in the air fell to the ground. 

The silence that followed was disturbed only by the soft waves whispering to shore, and a warm, dry breeze stirring the leaves of the trees.  Above them, stars shone from a dark and cloudless sky.

Arthur crawled in his uncomfortable wet clothing to where Merlin lay in a crumpled, twitching heap upon the earth.  “Merlin,” Arthur said, and pulled him to sit up.  

Merlin fell forward against him, limp and unresponsive, his forehead thumping into Arthur’s collarbone, his weight nearly knocking them both to the ground.

Arthur shifted his legs around so he was sitting facing Merlin, his hip pressed against his friend’s.  He wrapped an arm around Merlin’s back, holding him against his own chest.  He pressed his palm to Merlin’s face, tilting his head back to look at him.

Merlin’s eyes were closed, the long dark lashes not even twitching, his mouth hanging open, his lips nearly completely white.

Somehow the fire was still burning, so Arthur pulled them both toward it, across the wet bedrolls and blanket. Once he was close enough to feel the heat of it on his side, he pulled Merlin tighter against him, pressing his forehead against his own neck, hoping to calm the tremors he could feel shaking his body.

“Come on, Merlin,“ Arthur told him.  “Wake up.” 

In a daze he looked around the clearing, at the strawberries, the flowers, the butterflies.  He had no idea what had happened, or what was happening, or how to fix it. 

Merlin had stopped fire, Arthur thought.  And wind.  And rain.  And had created all these living things besides. And he had done it all while out of his mind.

“Come on, stop it,” Arthur said to Merlin’s motionless face, his voice absolutely not rising in panic, because that was utterly unbecoming a king.  “I’ll slap you again if I have to, Merlin.  You don’t want that, do you?”

Finally, a small noise in response.  “Mmmmmno,” he said into Arthur’s neck.

“I knew it,” Arthur said, in unspeakable relief.  “You were faking it all along.”

Arthur could feel his own body shaking now. From his wet clothes, he told himself.  Although the night was quite warm.  Still, he couldn’t seem to stop.  He kept remembering the starlight dancing under Merlin’s skin.  The tendrils of magic reaching out into the world. Reaching into him as well. Asking him a question he couldn’t understand.

“What happened?” Arthur asked.

“Magic,” Merlin murmured into his neck.  “Wasn’t careful. So strong. Couldn’t… I…”

Arthur felt his friend give a massive shudder.  “You can tell me in the morning.  Just rest now.”

Merlin stilled against him, a deep breath leaving him.  Arthur just sat and held him, surrounded by the new life on the forest floor, and in the air around him.

Arthur watched several butterflies alight upon the brown jacket covering Merlin’s back, and then a few more upon his own arm.  One of the largest touched down atop Merlin’s wet black hair, inches from Arthur’s nose.

Merlin did this, Arthur thought again.  All this life.  All this beauty.  All from him.  Even with the pain he carries.  Even after everything.

Arthur stared at the small creature that had been borne of Merlin’s magic. “Beautiful,” he whispered. 

Merlin made a small noise against his neck, so Arthur tightened his arms around him, holding him fast as his breathing evened out into the patterns of sleep. 

For a long while Arthur sat there, half dozing against his friend, snapping back awake whenever his arms started to slide from around him.  All around, the butterflies continued to dance in the air and among the flowers and the strawberries.  Arthur watched them sleepily, until a flash of light upon the surface of the lake drew his gaze.

Only a sliver of a moon tonight, he saw, after scanning the sky.  No cause for the moonlight to dance upon the water.  And it was only in one spot, as well.

Very carefully, Arthur settled Merlin upon his wet bedroll, and then shrugged off his jacket, and lay it atop his friend’s chest.   After making sure Merlin would not wake, Arthur stepped to the lakeside, eyes fixed upon the light in the water. 

It was quite close to shore, only a few steps into the lake.  With care, Arthur quietly stepped into the cold water, moving towards the glow.  The water was barely above his knees when he was upon it.

In utter wonder, Arthur Pendragon sank his hand into the cold water of the Lake of Avalon, wrapped his fingers around frigid steel at the lake bottom, and then stood, holding aloft his sword, Excalibur.

He gazed at the blade with wide eyes, his heart pounding, a strength building inside him that had nothing at all to do with magic or rebirth after a millennium of death. 

He felt like himself again. For the first time, truly, like himself. 

There was nothing that could stand against him now.  Not with this blade in his hand. Not with Merlin at his side.

Let the trials of Albion come, Arthur thought to himself, to the strange world around him, to all the children of Albion. 

Yes.  Let them come. 

Now, I am ready to face them.

 

Chapter Text

 

He stood on the shore of Lake Avalon.  Upon the isle, the tower ruins glowed blue, then gold, then blue.

Merlin watched the light of the ancient magics grow brighter and brighter until it filled the world around him.  He could feel it pressing against him, a weight on his skin, from the air, the earth, the water, the sky.

In the lake stood a lithe figure of a woman, her dress made of mist, her smile of moonlight.

It’s all right, Merlin,' she said.

‘Freya.’  He wanted to go to her, but the lake was where the magic felt strongest.  And it was already frighteningly strong. ‘Freya, help me.’

She tilted her head quizzically, looking behind him. ‘He doesn’t understand.’

Strong arms wrapped around Merlin from behind, arms covered in chainmail.  He felt Arthur’s armor press into his back.  Saw Excalibur in his king’s hand, held between them and the lake.  Magic sparkled along its blade.

‘He can be a bit thick,’ came Arthur’s voice into his ear.

Merlin turned in the circle of Arthur’s arms.  Ropes of magic were wrapping themselves around Arthur’s neck, winding all around his body, while Arthur stood smiling, heedless of the danger.

Merlin yanked at the tendrils, but they slipped though his fingers.  ‘Arthur, get away!  Run!’  Merlin turned to Freya, but she was smiling too, even as she dissolved into the mists.  ‘Do something!’

‘I already have,’ she said, and then was gone.

“Merlin!”

He felt himself being shaken, and gasped awake staring up at an indigo sky.  

Arthur lay beside him in the meadow in the pale light of dawn, propped up on one elbow, his hand clasping Merlin’s shoulder as he shook him.

Merlin grabbed Arthur’s wrist and lifted his arm to look at it. No ropes of magic bound him. No sign of threat anywhere.  Just the peaceful morning filled with the sounds of birdsong, the scent of strawberries and lavender, and dozens of blue butterflies fluttering above.

He made a strangled noise, all at once remembering the ancient magics surging through him and out into the world. 

Merlin pushed himself to his knees, his hands pressing into Arthur’s neck, feeling for his pulse.  “Are you all right?  What did I do?  Did I do anything to you?”

Arthur sat up and grabbed Merlin’s wrists, pulling them away from his neck. “Calm down, you were just having a dream-”

“Not the dream, my-” he choked on the word, forced it out, “-magic, Arthur, did I hurt you with my magic?”

“Of course you didn’t, don’t be ridiculous.”

Merlin sat back on his heels, pressing his palms into his eyes, remembering broken bodies by the stone circle, stones exploding across the lake, and a thousand even more horrible and bloody and brutal things he could have done to Arthur with his magic without even knowing he had done it

“What happened last night?” Arthur asked.  “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Merlin dug his fingers into his hair, feeling the ancient magics still churning around him.  Reverberations of a massive magical shockwave, he realized.  Just like the morning of Arthur’s return.

Merlin’s head snapped up and he stared wide-eyed at Arthur. “What else happened?  What’s changed since yesterday?”

Arthur’s brows raised, but then he huffed a seemingly bemused laugh.  He reached behind him on his bedroll, then raised a glittering sword between them.

“Excalibur,” Merlin said, the name a breath punched from his chest.

“It was in the lake,” Arthur said, his tone reproachful but unworried, as if he were sure Merlin had one of his ridiculous stories of magic to explain why it had been there.

The blade held no evidence of its great age, nor of its centuries in the lake.  Its inscription was crisply engraved, its edges sharp with the promise of death. 

Merlin realized he was leaning back instinctively from the blade, which was both unnerving and surprising.  He had wielded this weapon before himself, and had nothing to fear from it in Arthur’s hand.  It was undeniable, though, what he felt from it now. Both a threat, and a promise.

“You could kill me with it,” Merlin heard himself saying, which was not what he had intended.  He had meant to ask if Arthur had seen Freya.  If he had ventured into the water.  But the other words had come out instead.

“It’s a sword, Merlin,” Arthur said, as if he were a child.  “I could kill anyone with it.”

“No. I mean.”  He hesitated, centuries of secrecy and fear choking the words from him. But he had to get them out.  With his magic slipping from his control, Arthur needed to know. “I mean,” he forced out, “that you can kill beings of magic with it.”  He pressed a hand to his chest. “Like me.  You could kill me with it.  If you had to.”

“If I had to?  What are you talking about, if I had to.” 

Merlin looked helplessly at the tower, remembering the surges of power cresting over him like waves in the the ocean.  Euphoric, he remembered.  That’s how it had felt. Euphoric and overwhelming and like he never wanted it to stop-

“What,” Arthur said in a low voice, “are you not telling me?”

Merlin pressed his lips together.  Stared at the tower.  Then shook his head at himself. Stupid, he thought.  Stupid. 

Merlin…”

“I wanted… to work it out.  Before I said anything to you.”

Silence in response. 

And then a small noise, strangled and low.

Merlin drew in a deep and shaking breath, and forced himself to face his king.

Arthur’s blue eyes had narrowed, his jaw working as he ground his teeth, his shoulders visibly rising and falling with harsh breaths. “Have you been lying to me?  Again?

“No- Arthur- No, I haven’t, I swear-“

“But you haven’t been telling the entire truth.”

Merlin had to struggle to hold Arthur’s scathing stare.  “No,” he choked out. 

A rush of color filled Arthur’s face, veins standing out in his neck.  Without another word, he surged to his feet and strode away, to the edge of the lake.

Merlin pressed his fists into his legs and clamped down on his body’s urge to rush after him.  He had to dig his nails into his thighs as Arthur paced along the water’s edge, slicing his sword at the reeds that rose from the water.

When he stopped, he was facing the lake, his body at full attention as if facing an army, his shoulders heaving with angry breaths, his knuckles white upon the sword held at his side.  The sun had risen behind him, lighting his blade with fire, shining upon Arthur’s hair like a golden crown.

“Tell me.  All of it.  Now.” Arthur’s voice was as deep and dangerous as ever Merlin had heard it. “I command it.”

Merlin’s gaze dropped, his head jerking in a nod without his meaning to do it.  Never had he been able to resist that tone. It spoke of battlefields, and crowns, and blood, and death.  It held echoes of the ancient kings, and of the land itself, and permitted no disobedience.  Especially not from him.

“The ancient magics have been growing stronger,” Merlin said through a tight throat. “Every day, more and more.  I’ve never felt such power. Not in my entire life.”

“You told me,” Arthur ground out, “that magic was dormant.  That it’s been dormant for centuries.”

“It was.”

“But that’s changed.”

“Yes.”

When.”

“Since… a few days before your return.”

Arthur rounded on him, his face tight with anger and betrayal and shock. “A few days?”

“I had it under control!” Merlin burst out.  “Or- I thought I did. Until last night. The ancient magics just- broke loose.  I wasn’t… I couldn’t… stop them…”

Arthur drove his sword into the ground and took a furious step forward.  “Are you telling me that you couldn’t control your own magic?”

Merlin felt his face burn with shame, but he forced himself to nod, lips pressing together, his hands clenching into fists so tightly that his knuckles ached. 

“And you didn’t think to tell me that this has been happening!” Arthur yelled, his voice echoing across the water.

“I was going to!  I was!  Just as- Just as soon as I figured out what it meant…”

“As soon as you-!” Arthur gave him the sort of smile that was no smile at all, but was much rather a vicious showing of teeth prior to a killing blow.  “And have you?” he asked, in the falsely sweet tones of one who did not expect yes for an answer.

“I just-“ Merlin watched Arthur’s eyes narrow.  “No.”

“No.  No, of course not.  Because if you had figured it out, Merlin, then you would have decided, all on your own,” Arthur bit out, his voice raising, “to finally inform your king about something that could render you completely unable to defend yourself, and completely unable to defend me, and completely unable to defend Albion from a threat so severe that I was awoken from fifteen hundred years of death!”

Without another word, Arthur yanked his sword from the ground and stalked past where he knelt and over to the horses.

Merlin climbed to his feet as Arthur untied his horse from the tree.  “Let me-“

“Not another word,” Arthur bit out, as he pulled the reins free.

Merlin snapped his mouth shut, hating himself for obeying so quickly, though not nearly as much as he was hating himself for holding back the truth. 

“Bring our things back to the house,” Arthur told him, cold and hard as if he were a stranger.  “I’m going ahead.  I assure you I can find my way without your help.”

Merlin watched him climb onto his horse and urge it across the clearing.  He felt a violent swell of panic as Arthur vanished into the woods.  But he forced himself to let Arthur go. 

This was all his fault after all.  Again. 

Fifteen hundred years, Merlin thought.  I had fifteen hundred years to prepare.  How do I keep messing it up so badly?

“Idiot,” he growled, and angrily gathered their things.  With as much haste as he could, he hauled their damp belongings to the horses and packed them into his saddlebag.

As he climbed onto his horse, a cluster of blue butterflies fluttered past him.  He watched them a long moment, realizing that he felt no magic in them.  That was something new as well.  He’d never been able to create something that had lived separate from his magic for long. But these creatures were truly alive.

Merlin glared warily at the meadow, at the strawberries and the lavender and the butterflies.  And then he cast another look at the tower. 

“I don’t suppose you’re going to actually tell me what’s happening,” he said.

Only silence from the ruins on the island.

“Yeah.  I didn’t think so,” he muttered, and spurred his horse forward, onto the forest path.

Though he tried to urge his horse to move more swiftly, the older mare was hardly a steed of Camelot.  She took her time upon the winding dirt path of the forest, moving at a leisurely pace that had Merlin’s nerves itching at him with every step.

Only when he left the forest behind and rode onto sunny hilltop meadows did Merlin see Arthur again. The morning had grown warm, and Arthur had removed his jacket.  Merlin could see the blue tunic in the sun, as well as the glint of his sword where he’d tucked it into his saddle.

Merlin shrugged off his jacket as well, glad to have the sun on his still damp tunic.  “That can’t be a good sign, can it,” he said.  “The sword coming back.”

His horse twitched her ears and gave a harsh breath, which Merlin took as a definite no.

“Right?  I mean, is a sword ever a good sign?  It’s a sword.  It’s not like it’s butterflies, is it.”  He paused, frowning at himself. “Butterflies… Honestly… What is wrong with me?  Well. Apart from the talking to myself bit.  Like a mental patient.  Which I am still doing.  Even after realizing that I’m doing it.” 

He rode for a moment in frustrated silence. 

“Although technically, I’m actually talking to you,” Merlin said to his horse.  “And talking to you is better than talking to an imaginary person who was dead at the time, especially if he talked back to me, right?”

The mare moved steadily forward, but gave no sign of reply.

“Stupid horse,” Merlin muttered.

Up ahead in the meadow, Arthur had stopped his horse at a point overlooking the city of Buckdale.  Merlin brought his horse alongside, and quietly studied the scene below.

Houses and shops and office buildings and high rises filled the valley with brick and steel and glass and stone.  Trees dotted the maze of streets that wound among and through the buildings, all filled with traffic at this time of the morning.  In the distance, a 4 lane motorway looped around the city, filled with cars and lorries speeding to the neighboring cities and towns.

“Is nothing the same?” Arthur said, without turning his gaze from the scene.

“In some corners of the Albion it is.”

Arthur stiffened in the saddle, knuckles whitening on his reins.

“But not most,” Merlin forced himself to add.

He saw Arthur give a grudging nod, which he took as approval for the effort at honesty.  Telling the entire truth was going to be insanely difficult, Merlin thought. If he could even manage to do it at all.

At a distant sound of a lorry’s air horn, Arthur leaned forward in his saddle, eyes searching the downward slope of the hillside ahead.  Without another word, Arthur urged his horse forward, towards a dirt path that lead down into the valley.

“Are you sure you want to-?“ Merlin began, then cut himself off at a sharp glance Arthur gave him.  “Right,” he said.  “Down the hill then.”

The horse path that wound down the grassy hill was well worn by the tourists who lodged at the Widow Abbernathy’s house.  It terminated at a car park at the base of the hill.  Joggers or bike riders or horseback riders often left their vehicles there, to use the dirt path that stretched along the bottom of the hill from Avalon to Buckdale.

When they reached the small gravel covered car park, they found it nearly empty.  Only a few vehicles sat shining in the hot sun. 

Merlin reined his horse to a stop next to where Arthur had done the same, only a few feet into the car park, right next to a red sports utility vehicle. 

Arthur pressed a palm to the top of the vehicle, then yanked back his hand at the heat of the sun warmed metal.  Merlin kept his mouth shut, holding back his explanations, as Arthur peered at the glass windows, the black tires, and then stared out at the other vehicles around them. 

On the narrow road that ran past the car park, several cars approached from Avalon and then sped off towards Buckdale.  Arthur’s stare followed each one as it passed the car park from left to right, one after the other. 

After they’d gone, Arthur shot a disapproving look at Merlin, as if what he’d seen was somehow Merlin’s fault.  Before Merlin could say anything, Arthur turned away, and urged his horse forward.

Merlin followed in barely restrained silence, right up until Arthur began to lead his horse towards the entrance the cars used to get into the car park. 

“This way, sire,” he called, pointing to the tree-lined dirt path that ran alongside the roadway.

“Why that way?” Arthur snapped.

Merlin started to speak, then stopped himself, realizing that he had been about to tell Arthur yet another half truth.  After a deep breath, he forced out the real answer.  “Because,” he said, “there’s something else I haven’t told you that you should know about.  And it would be easiest for you to find out about it if we went to Avalon.  Which is that way.”

“What a surprise,” Arthur said, in a mocking and bitter voice. “You.  Keeping secrets from me.”

“It wasn’t a secret. It was just… something I was waiting to tell you at the right time.”

“Like your magic.”

“That was-!”  Merlin clamped his mouth shut and squeezed his eyes closed. He had deserved that.  He would always deserve that.  “Yes,” he ground out.  “Fine. This is another secret.  All right?”

“Wonderful that we can agree,” Arthur said, in possibly the most condescending tone Merlin had heard from Arthur since his return. “So tell me, Merlin, how many more half truths can I expect to be surprised with today?  What more will I discover that you haven’t yet told me besides what lies ahead in Avalon?”

“Nothing,” Merlin assured him.  And then he cringed.  Because that wasn’t true either. 

“You’re lying, again,” Arthur snapped at him. “I can tell now, incidentally, so don’t even try to deny it. You’re a horrible liar, actually.  I have no idea how I didn’t see it before.  So go on then.  Tell me.  What’s this new secret that I don’t yet know?”

“It’s just- I’ve had these dreams.  All right?  Just- They probably don’t mean anything at all.  But they’ve been happening a lot.  And ever since you got back.”

Arthur’s jaw tightened, his knuckles turning white on the reins of his horse.

“There’s really probably nothing to them,” Merlin said.

“Do you honestly believe that?”

Merlin hesitated too long, and Arthur threw up his hands and the reins both, making the horse throw back his head in protest. 

“Are you physically incapable of telling the truth?” Arthur yelled at him, his control finally vanishing in a burst of anger.  “Do you have some permanent mental defect that prevents you from being honest with me?”

“This isn’t easy for me, you know!” Merlin yelled back, loud enough to be heard over the diesel engine of an approaching lorry. He saw Arthur’s horse startle at the combined noise, jolting Arthur in the saddle.

“Isn’t easy for you?” Arthur shouted over its engine as it passed.  “Do you have any idea of the insanity surrounding me? And on top of it all, now I have you, who I need to be able to trust, withholding vital information from me!”

Another lorry sped past, its engines a deafening roar, startling Arthur’s horse to the point that it reared up and nearly threw him from the saddle.

Arthur swore and got the horse under control with rough jerks of his reins.  “The hell are those things!” Arthur yelled after the lorry, drawing his sword and brandished it at the vehicle as it vanished down the road.  “Damned metal monstrosities!”

Merlin felt his eyes go wide, and his mouth fall open. 

And then a laugh burst from him.

As he slapped his hand over his mouth, Arthur rounded on him, all wide furious blue eyes and flushed in the face and wind blown hair and rumpled blue tunic with Excalibur in his hand as if preparing to lead an attack on all of the delivery lorrys of Albion.

And Merlin couldn’t help himself.  He collapsed into laughter, bending forward in his saddle, body shaking with it, nearly toppling him from his horse.

“This is not funny!” Arthur yelled at him, startling his own horse again.  “Damn farm horse!  For the love of the five kingdoms, calm down!” 

Merlin’s hysterics redoubled, completely out of his control, so much so that he had to cling to the mane of his horse to keep from falling to the ground.

Arthur yanked his horse’s reins and moved his stallion closer to Merlin.  As soon as he was within arm’s reach, he smacked Merlin on the back of his head with his open hand.

Merlin slid from his saddle to the dirt and gravel below, but not even his rough landing stopped his giggling.  He climbed to his knees wheezing from it, tears of laughter sliding down his face.

“Serves you right,” Arthur said, from atop his horse.

He tried to sound angry, but as Merlin got himself to his feet, wiping at his face, he saw the corners of Arthur’s mouth twitch upward.

Just as Merlin started getting himself back under control, he thought again of King Arthur Pendragon of Camelot waving Excalibur at a delivery lorry, and he fell once more into hysterics, clinging to the side of his saddle, snickering into the leather. 

“That’s it,” he heard Arthur say.

Merlin had just enough time to register the crunch of boots on gravel, and the sound of steps nearing him, before Arthur was at his side, wrapping an arm around Merlin’s neck, bending him forward and pressing his face into Arthur’s ribs so that Arthur could grind his knuckles into Merlin’s skull. 

“Ow! Stop it! Let go! OW!  Arthur!”

“Oh, sorry, is this not funny?  It’s very funny to me.”

Merlin wedged his leg behind Arthur’s knee, and dropped them both to the dusty stone covered ground.  For three entire seconds Merlin felt proud of his memory of the few martial arts classes he’d taken.  But then Arthur flipped him soundly onto his stomach, his arm going around his neck from behind, pressing Merlin’s face into dirt and stones and motor oil, while once again Arthur dug his knuckles into Merlin’s skull. 

“What’s that you were saying?” Arthur said, but Merlin could hear him laughing now. “Was it that you’re sorry? Is that what you were going to say?”

Merlin spat out some dirt and pulled at Arthur’s wrist, but Arthur was far stronger than he remembered.  “Yes!  All right!  I’m sorry!”

“You’re sorry what?”

“I’m sorry you royal pompous obnoxious prat of a- Ow!  Sire!  I’m sorry, sire!”

He felt Arthur’s arm release him, only to have Arthur’s hand push his face into the dirt one last time for good measure as Arthur climbed to his feet. 

Merlin got to his knees on the dirt and stones, coughing out dust, torn between furious irritation and profound relief.

When he lifted his gaze to Arthur, relief won out.  Because Arthur was standing over him triumphantly, his trousers dusty from wrestling on the ground, his hair mussed and caught by the wind, his face lit up with a broad grin.

No one should look that beautiful, Merlin thought.  Especially when they’re being such an arse.  It’s just utterly, completely, unfair.

“Fifteen hundred years,” Arthur said with mock sadness, “and you still can’t defend yourself any better now than you could in Camelot.  Honestly, it’s just embarrassing.” 

“Fifteen hundred years,” Merlin said, in the same tone, “and you still act like you’re a five year old.  My lord.”

“I heard that.”

“I know.”

Arthur’s smug expression melted into something that managed to be both fond and weary all at once. “What am I going to do with you,” he said.

“Perhaps not drive your knuckles into my skull?” Merlin said, and rubbed at his head, then carefully soothed his hair into place.

“Such a girl,” Arthur said, and he held down a hand to where Merlin knelt.  Merlin gripped his forearm, and let himself be pulled up.

As they both turned to go back to their horses, Merlin saw two women in running clothes standing on the dirt path to Avalon.  They were both staring at them, eyes wide with amusement.  One of them was pointing her smartphone at them.  Quite possibly she had been for some time.

By his side, Arthur straightened his tunic, squared his shoulders, and raised his chin regally, as if he hadn’t just been caught wrestling on the ground like a poorly behaved little boy. 

“Good afternoon,” he told the two women, with a gracious smile. “Lovely day, isn’t it?”

Merlin rolled his eyes as the women giggled together, then started jogging again, across the car park and over to where the dirt path continued toward Buckdale.

“The clothing people wear in this century, honestly,” Arthur said, as he stared after where the women were jogging away in their very short, very tight running attire.  “When did it become acceptable for women to leave the house nearly naked?” Arthur craned his head to get a better look. “Not saying I mind it… Not at all… I mean just look at them… Good lord…”

Merlin cuffed Arthur smartly on the back of his head. 

And then stared in horror at his hand as Arthur slowly turned to him, an expression of incredulity upon his face.

“What, exactly, was that for?” Arthur asked.

Merlin clasped his hands behind his back and tried very hard not to let the real reason for his reaction show on his face.  “Horseplay?” he said in a small voice.

“I believe we already determined that you weren’t any good at that, Merlin.”

“It.  Yes.  Right. I’d- forgotten.  Apparently.”

“Yes. Apparently.”

“Right. So.  Shall we go then?” Merlin hurriedly started to climb onto his saddle.  He had one foot in the stirrups and was halfway up when he felt Arthur grab the back of his tunic and yank him backward.  Merlin hit the dirt hard, and found himself blinking up at Arthur in surprise.

“Horseplay,” Arthur told him smugly, then turned and strode away.

Merlin stared furiously after him.  “I could have been hurt, you know!”

“Oh don’t be such a child.”

“Royal arse,” Merlin muttered, as he climbed back to his feet, brushing gravel and dust from his trousers.  With a grunt, he hauled himself back into his saddle. He could taste dirt in his mouth.  He spat out dirt, then wiped his face with a grit covered palm. “I hate you so much you have no idea.”

Arthur grinned at him from astride his black stallion.  “You really don’t.”

Merlin couldn’t bring himself to deny it.  He couldn’t even think of a proper insult, not with Arthur looking so relaxed and jubilant and very much like himself once again.

Merlin felt himself smile, despite everything that had happened, or maybe because of it. “You’re right,” he said.  “I don’t.  And that’s the truth.”

Arthur gave him one of those long looks of his that made it feel as though the world had fallen away.  Nothing existed except for him and Arthur, here, now, together.

“Thank you,” Arthur said, acknowledging Merlin’s words, or the truth of them, or both.

Merlin could barely manage a nod in response.  Arthur had always caught him off guard like this.  Right when he was expecting a joke, a taunt, a return to formality, Arthur would let down his guard.  And he would let Merlin in.

“I might do it again,” Merlin said, to show Arthur that he could do this too.  Open himself.  Let Arthur in.  “I might hold things back from you.  Not intentionally.  Just out of habit. I’ve just always lived that way. I’ve always had to lie, to everyone, about everything.”

“You can’t lie to me,” Arthur said. “You can’t, Merlin. Do you understand?”

Merlin nodded.  “I’ll do better. I promise.”

“I’ll find some stocks to throw you in if you don’t,” Arthur told him, as he urged his horse down the path toward Avalon.

The jibe instantly released the tension Merlin had felt trapped in his chest.  “Did I not mention that I left those behind in Camelot?” he said, as he rode alongside Arthur into the small copse of trees.

“I’m certain I can figure out how to make more.”

“And by that you mean you’ll have me make some.”

“See there?  You’re finally learning.  And it only took you fifteen hundred years.”

“You did always say I was a bit thick,” Merlin said, and then found his smile faltering, as he remembered his dream from the night before.

“What is it?” Arthur asked him, obviously noticing.

“It’s noth-“ Merlin clamped down on the word. Because apparently he really was a bit thick, and had been about to lie again. “It’s about a dream I had last night.”

This received a nod of approval from Arthur, who had apparently not missed Merlin’s near lapse in honesty. “Tell me,” Arthur said.

To the best of his recollection, Merlin did so.  Not just about the dream of the night before, but the others as well.  Of the magic, of the lake, of the glowing of the tower. 

He left out the bits about Arthur’s arms wrapped around him.  Because some secrets were simply not Arthur’s to know.

By the time he’d finished speaking of his dreams, they’d reached the edge of the town.  They followed the wooded path over the roadway, and then alongside a small stream that wound behind houses and narrow lanes.   

The questions finally came from Arthur then, about the objects of the modern world around them. Merlin did his best to answer, though occasionally Arthur would get distracted by some new thing he spotted, and interrupt.

“If you’ll ever let me finish,” Merlin said, as he rode side by side with Arthur over a bridge leading to the village green in the center of town.

“It’ll be another century before you finish,” Arthur said absently.  He had half turned in his saddle to watch a double decker bus pass by them. Tourists on the open top storey were all half standing to take photos and video of them.

Merlin glanced down at his clothes, then over at Arthur and his sword, and sighed.  While horses were not unheard of in Avalon, horses bearing two men dressed like they were from the Dark Ages certainly were.  At least when the Solstice festival wasn’t on. 

“It’s worse than listening to Leon give a crop report,” Arthur said, as he sat a bit taller in his saddle, craning his neck to see into the village green they approached.

“Oh come on, I’m not that bad,” Merlin complained, as they guided their horses from the narrow cobblestone street and onto the grassy square of the village green. 

Shops and restaurants lined all four roads that bordered the the town’s central park. People and cars moved in a steady stream along them, but in the park itself it was peaceful.  Merlin saw very few people, and even the many park benches were empty at this time of the workday.

Merlin rode toward the center of the park, crossing walkways and ducking under trees, until he approached the massive statue that was the park’s main feature.

“This is what I wanted you to see,” Merlin said, as he reined his horse to a stop.

Arthur brought his horse alongside Merlin.  And then stared at the statue in shock.

Merlin studied the statue with him, looking from the massive rectangular stone pedestal, to the powerful horse standing atop it, to the bold figure of a knight in armor who rode it.

The knight loomed above them both, larger than life, sitting tall in his saddle, holding the reins of his horse in one hand, a sword above his head with the other.  A crown sat upon the head of the knight, above a ferocious and determined and very familiar face.

Without a word, Arthur climbed out of his saddle and walked over to the statue’s base, where a plaque had been set.  Merlin followed, and joined his king as he stood staring at the words carved into the metal.

“’King Arthur Pendragon’,” Arthur read in a low voice. “’Legendary King of the Britons, and central figure in Arthurian mythology.’” 

Merlin watched Arthur lift his gaze to the statue once again, looking vaguely sick.  The color had drained from his face, his breath leaving him as if he’d been punched.

“That’s what you didn’t want to tell me,” Arthur said in a low voice. “That after all this time...  After all we fought for...  I’m just a myth to these people.  A story for small children.”

Merlin stepped in between Arthur and the statue, placing both hands on Arthur’s shoulders.  He waited until Arthur met his eyes before he spoke.  

“No, sire,” he said.  “You are so, so very much more to them than just that.”

 

Chapter Text

“You’re not making sense,” Arthur said.  “Either I’m a myth or I’m not. I can’t be both.”

Merlin gave him a small smile, though in his blue eyes Arthur could see the passage of centuries. “That may be true for others,” he said.  “But as always, you’re the exception.”

Arthur studied the enormous metal sculpture of the king in his armor upon his horse, his arm raised high, brandishing a sword, his face identical to his own.  “I don’t see how that could be.”

“Look here.”  Merlin pulled gently at his arm, leading him to the side of the statue. 

Arthur followed him around the rectangular stone block that supported the statue, to the side bearing another metal plaque.  It bore a short passage of text.

“Arthur was a youth of such unparalleled courage and generosity, joined with that innate goodness, as gained him universal love.” - Geoffrey of Monmouth, “History of the Kings of Britain”, 1136

“Geoffrey wouldn’t shut up about you,” Merlin said.  “He told everyone who would listen that you existed.  Though he didn’t exactly stick to the facts.  Nor did Mallory or the rest of them, for that matter.”

Arthur followed Merlin around to the back of the statue. There he found another metal plaque set into the statue’s base from several hundred years later.

“Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead… And men say that he shall come again.” ― Thomas Malory, “Le Morte d'Arthur”, 1485

Before Arthur could ask how the prophecy had been set into stone for all to see, Merlin gave his arm a gentle tug.

“There’s one more to see,” Merlin said, quieter now, with eyes lowered.

Arthur followed him around to the remaining side of the stone base, to find another plaque.  This one bore words so familiar that he could only stare, speech stolen from him, even after he’d finished reading.

“No matter what adversity we face, we stand for what is right.  To betray our beliefs, that is what will destroy everything we’ve strived for.”  - The Once and Future King Arthur Pendragon of Camelot, 528

The journey to Morgana’s castle, he remembered.  The mission to rescue his knights from her stronghold.  That’s when he’d told Merlin these words.  To him, it had not been that long ago. But to Merlin, it had been countless lifetimes.

“How did you remember?” Arthur asked.

Merlin shrugged.  “It was one of the rare times I was paying attention to you.”

Arthur just stared.  At his side, Merlin crossed his arms over his blue tunic, head lowered, eyes crinkled in the corners, all sharp cheekbones and quirked lips and black hair catching in the warm summer breeze.

“You just never stop amazing me,” Arthur said.  He couldn’t help but say it this time.  The truth of it just couldn’t be held back.

Arthur caught a quick twitch of a smile, pleased and embarrassed, before Merlin walked over to where the horses had wandered away to eat some of the nearby shrubs.

“Where did the other words come from?” Arthur called to him, gesturing to the base of the statue with one arm.  “Did you know those people?”

Merlin pulled the horses back over to Arthur.  “No.  Not really.  I mean, I did write to them.  And they wrote back.  But mainly to tell me to sod off.  Because apparently my corrections to their stories were ‘too fanciful to be taken seriously’.  It’s not my fault that so many of the things that happened to us were… well…”

“Ridiculous?” Arthur suggested.  “Absurd?”

“Exceptional,” Merlin told him. “Which is why I wrote my own version of the story.  Though no one wanted to read that. They only wanted to read the nonsense by Geoffrey and Malory and White and all the other tossers.”

Arthur retraced his steps, regarding the statue of himself with a critical eye, rereading the words upon the metal plaques.  “So it’s like the stories of Bruta and the ancient kings then. Over the years, history and legend intertwined.”

“Well, if the story of Bruta was known by everyone all around the world, then yes, it would be like that.”

It took a moment for the meaning of the words to sink in.  “All around the world?”

Merlin gave him one of his small, wry smiles that told Arthur there was still far more for him to learn. “At the risk of inflating your already enormous ego,” he said, “you’re not just a name listed among the Kings of Albion.  You’re the King of Albion. Known around the world as myth and legend, but known here in Albion as more of a king to them than any whose bones have been found and placed in state.”

Not just a king of Albion, he thought.  The King of Albion.  Still remembered.  Still written about.  Still spoken of.  After fifteen hundred years. 

“It’s just as I told you, sire. Others will wear the crown. But there will never be another like you.”

“Except for this, of course,” Arthur said, patting the base of the statue, forcing a light tone, because it was already far too much for him to take.  Not just the truth of it, but the intensity of Merlin’s belief in him.

He’d felt undeserving of it over the years, some times more than others.  Yet he’d felt strengthened by it as well.  Just like now, as he stood here, listening to how he’d left his mark upon the world, while standing beside his own likeness.

“The sculptor wanted to give you a beard,” Merlin was muttering, almost to himself. “Bloody classical artists.  Thinking everyone should look like Zeus...”

Arthur dragged his fingers across the words on the metal plate before him.  ‘And men say that he shall come again…’  

“People know of the prophecy as well?” Arthur asked.

“Word of that got out nearly right away.  Mostly from the druids.  They never made a secret of calling you the Once and Future King.”

“And you had nothing to do with it at all?”

“Well.  A bit,” Merlin said, and turned away, to pat the neck of his horse.

Arthur waited until Merlin looked back over at him. “Thank you,” he said.

“For what?” Merlin asked, just as if he wasn’t standing beside a statue he had probably suggested, in the middle of a village he had probably built, surrounded by lands he had protected for over a thousand years, while awaiting Arthur’s return from death all alone, in isolation, and unaided.

Maddening man, Arthur thought.  “Can’t think of a thing,” he choked out.

Merlin did smile then, all sharp cheekbones and half-moon eyes and raised eyebrows, just as if Arthur had actually told him what he was thinking.  “Me neither,” he said.

He placed his hand on Merlin’s shoulder, squeezed tight. “Let’s go. I’ve seen enough.”

After Arthur had climbed back upon his stallion, he studied the statue one last time. “The armor is all wrong,” he said. “You can’t do battle in something like that.”

“I told the sculptor that,” Merlin complained, as he climbed into the saddle.  “But he was done dealing with me by then.  He threw a chisel at me!  Can you believe that?”

Arthur pulled his horse away from the monument.  “Someone threw something at you?” he asked, his voice as earnest as he could manage.  “Unimaginable. Who would ever do such a thing?”

Merlin made a derisive noise so loud that Arthur wondered if he’d hurt his throat making it.  “He could have killed me.”

“Really.  With a chisel.  He could have killed you,” Arthur said, as he guided his horse around the trees of the village green.

“Fine, not killed me, but hurt me.  It was just rude, is what it was.  He was happy enough to take my money for his work.”

“You paid for the statue to be made?”

“With the town counsel, yes.”

“Wait, let me guess,” Arthur said, delighted by this piece of information.  “You were a member of the town counsel of Avalon, weren’t you.” He glanced over his shoulder at where Merlin followed him on his mare.  Merlin was glaring at him.  “Ha!  You were!”

“Just until the statue was-“

“Town Councilman Merlin,” Arthur said in a loud regal tone, as if announcing him at court.  “Lord of Avalon!“

“Shut it,” Merlin snapped at him.

“You really can’t talk to your king that way, Merlin,” Arthur said, and for the first time since he’d awoken here, his title felt real to him again, castle and lands or no.

“Shut it, my lord,” Merlin said, in a lower voice he absolutely meant for Arthur to hear.

Arthur was still chuckling to himself when they rode from the village green onto the narrow stone streets.

Near the buildings that lined the street, people turned to watch them as they passed.  Not many horses used these days then, Arthur thought, as he guided his stallion past several of stationary metal boxes that lined the edge of the street.

Apart from the strange metal boxes, and a distinct lack of dirt and stench, the town itself wasn’t that strange.  Arthur could smell the familiar smells of food baking, and see men and women and children moving around and speaking together, going about their business. 

A sign hanging from a nearby building caught Arthur’s attention, and he turned in his saddle, to where Merlin rode behind him.  “The Round Table Inn?”

“You’re quite the theme around here,” Merlin said.  “There’s the ‘King Arthur Brewhouse’, the ‘Camelot Candle Shop’, and even the ‘Once and Future Pub’.”

“The once and future pub,” Arthur muttered, and he turned back around to scowl down the street.

But then he saw a shop with a wide glass window filled with colorful statues of all sizes and shapes.  Nearby was a sign that said “Excalibur Gifts and Toys”. 

Arthur pulled his horse to stop, staring at a collection of figures beyond the window.  When he spotted a group of colorful statues in one corner of the display, he turned in his saddle.

“What,” Arthur said slowly, and with a wide grin spreading on his face, “are those?”

Any trace of Merlin’s earlier smirk fell away at once. “You- that’s- Don’t you want to get back to get some breakfast?”

But Arthur had already climbed out of his saddle and was striding with purpose and enthusiasm to the glass window.

“Arthur!” Merlin called after him.  “You can’t just leave your horse in the middle of the- Arthur!“

Arthur strode up to the window, delighted beyond all reason, to stare at a display of tiny statues posed in front of a drawing of a castle.  They all had white hair and wore long blue robes and pointy hats with stars on them. Statues of dragons had been set all around them, apparently tamed by the little blue robed figures.

“Arthur, come on, we can’t- Oh just drive round, it’s only a horse!”

Arthur watched Merlin pull their horses partially through a narrow gap in the line of stationary metal boxes.

Tell me who this is supposed to be,” Arthur told Merlin.  “Come on.  Tell me.”

Merlin huffed at him, glancing back to make sure the metal boxes could move past where the horses stood half in the street and half on the walkway. “I think you already know the answer to that.”

“I think I want you to tell me,” Arthur said, and he grabbed Merlin by the shoulder and moved him closer to the window.

“Fine, yes, it’s me, it’s supposed to be me, all right?” Merlin snapped at him.  “Can we go now-?”

“Come on- there’s more-“ Arthur grabbed a handful of the back of Merlin’s tunic and dragged him along the shop’s glass window.  He stopped abruptly, eyes going wide at a statue dressed in a long blue robe and pointed hat.  

“Oh,” Arthur gasped, and his face was going to split with his grin, he could feel it.  “That’s- It’s a-“

“Merlin the Magician Costume, yes,” Merlin said impatiently, reading the sign above the statue. 

Arthur looked at him with wide eyes, then burst out laughing, clinging to Merlin’s tunic with one hand, pressing his hand to the glass with the other.

He heard Merlin’s very loud huff.  “It’s not that funny.”

Arthur bent forward, both hands on knees now, tears streaming down his face as he laughed.  “You have to- have one- of those,” he gasped out, amid his laughter.

“I already do.”

Arthur’s head jerked up to look at Merlin.  “What?”

Merlin crossed his arms over his chest.  Defiant and embarrassed in equal measure, judging by the color high on his cheeks.  “I said that I have one already.”

Arthur turned back to the adult-sized long blue robes and pointy hat, then looked back at Merlin, and nearly collapsed in a fit of laughter, grabbing hold of Merlin’s arm, nearly falling to the ground. 

“Oh my god, you are being such an arse,” Merlin said, as he pulled Arthur back to his horse and shoved him against it.

Arthur straightened with his hands gripping his saddle.  Tears were running down his cheeks, and his face was hot from laughter.  “I remember!” he said, and climbed quickly back into his saddle. “The night I came back!  When you were an old man!   You had it on then!”

“It’s a tradition that I wear it for the Solstice Festival,” Merlin said haughtily, and urged his horse forward, in the lead this time, forcing Arthur to follow.

It took several minutes of chuckling to himself before Arthur got control of himself again.  He wiped at his face, amazed at the novelty of laughing so hard that his ribs hurt. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed so hard.

“Merlin?” he called.

“What.”

Arthur grinned at Merlin’s back.  “Do you have the hat too?”

“Shut up.”

“You do, don’t you.”

“Shut it.”

“I could command you to wear it.”

“You could try.”

“We’ll see, Lord Merlin.”

“Yes we will, Once and Future Pain in my Arse.”

Arthur chuckled to himself.  “We’re building those stocks as soon as we have the time.  And I’m going to make you wear the hat as you build them.”

“I hate you so much,” Merlin said over his shoulder.

“You really don’t,” Arthur told him. 

He heard Merlin snort in response, and urge his mare to move a bit faster, as they headed over the bridge and back out of town.

Once they once again rode on the dirt path stretching along where the metal boxes roared past them, Arthur brought his horse next to Merlin’s.

After the third metal box passed by on its smooth black wheels, Arthur finally yielded to his curiosity, and asked Merlin how they worked.

Five minutes into Merlin’s barely comprehensible lecture about tiny pieces of metal working together as gears and power generated by controlled explosions and the advancements in metallurgy and glassmaking, Arthur told him to stop.

“It’s like listening to George prattle on about polishing,” Arthur said, and rubbed a hand across his forehead. 

Merlin gave him a look of great offense.  “You’re comparing listening to a brainless servant twaddle on about polishing to listening to me tell you about technology?”

“You’re right. George was much easier to understand.”

Merlin leaned over in his saddle and gave Arthur’s shoulder a shove.  Arthur reached across the space between them and shoved back, then had to catch himself, because he’d almost slid from his horse.

“Are you all right?”

Arthur drew in a deep breath, adjusting his seating and attempting to drive the exhaustion from his body.  “Just a bit tired,” Arthur said. 

Their journey into and out of Avalon had left him bone weary.  Though most probably his exhaustion had been from his lack of sleep the night before.

After finding his sword in the lake, he hadn’t gotten back to sleep at all.  He’d been too full of questions.  Not only about Merlin’s loss of control of his magic, an issue they would need to address very soon, but also about the return of his sword.

“You never told me how my sword came to be in the lake,” Arthur said.

“The Guardian of Excalibur lives in the Lake of Avalon,” Merlin said.  “I knew her as Freya, before she died.  In the stories they call her the Lady of the Lake. After you went to the Sidhe, I gave her Excalibur.  It was safer with her than with me.”

An odd mixture of pain and tenderness in Merlin’s words, Arthur noticed.  “How did you know her exactly?”

Merlin looked down at the reins in his hands.  “Long story.”

Arthur decided not to press. The mention of this woman, whoever she was, had already brought the past too strongly upon his friend.  He didn’t want to lose Merlin to his memories again. Not right now. 

“I didn’t see a woman when the sword appeared,” Arthur told him.

“Which makes no sense,” Merlin said.  “How did you find it exactly?”

“There was a glow in the water.  Just a few steps from the shore.  The sword was just laying there, upon the lake bottom.”

“Does it feel different to you at all?”

Arthur pulled the sword from its straps by his saddle, and hefted it in front of him.  “Not at all.  Should it?”

Merlin just frowned at him, lips pressed into a thin line.

Arthur knew that look.  “Merlin,” he said.

He saw the moment Merlin caught himself holding back.  “Sorry,” he said. “It’s just.  It’s strange.  But it does feel different.  To me.  Like… I’m not supposed to touch it.  It never felt that way before.”

Arthur held out the sword to him.  Merlin leaned away.  And then stared down at himself, as if surprised at his own body.

“That’s… new,” Merlin said warily.

“And potentially a problem,” Arthur said.  “If you were ever to need to wield it.”

“Maybe that’s just it though.  Maybe I’m not supposed to. Maybe it’s something like magnetism.  Two positive poles repelling each other.  Or two elements that shouldn’t form chemical bonds.”

“You’re talking gibberish again,” Arthur declared, and tucked his sword away. 

“Let’s hope so.” After a lingering look at the sword, Merlin forced his gaze from it.

They rode down the dirt path together a while longer, until it lead up onto the narrowed road itself.  As they rode down the edge of the black path, along a low stone wall, occasionally a metal box would approach slowly, and then move by.

“We’re nearly home,” Merlin said into his thoughts.

Home, Arthur thought, as he looked down the stretch of black pathway to the massive shape of the stone manor and its towers.  Yes, it is home, isn’t it.  At least until Camelot’s return.  Whenever that would be. 

“You look like you’re going to fall off your horse.”

Arthur straightened in the saddle, realizing he’d been nodding off a bit.  “That’s you, not me.  I managed to never fall off my saddle. While wearing chainmail.  And armor.”

He heard Merlin mutter something about it being his horse’s fault as they approached the lands that adjoined Merlin’s estate.  A wooden sign proclaimed it the “Stone Circle of Avalon Park”. 

“Is this your doing as well?” Arthur asked, as they lead their horses along the gravel pathways of the park.  “The park?  And the circle of stones?”

“Yes,” Merlin said softly. 

Arthur knew that tone.  It spoke of too many things that Arthur did not yet know. “Why?” Arthur asked him, looking at him directly now, even though Merlin was looking down at his hands on his reins.

“Had to mark the passage of years somehow,” Merlin said.

“No.”

Merlin looked at him, cringing at the tone.  Arthur held his gaze, telling him without words that he knew there was more.  That Merlin was holding back again.

“It was a monument,” Merlin said, in such a choked voice that Arthur instantly regretted pushing him.  “To the spot where I sent you away.”

Arthur felt like someone had pushed the air out of his lungs. 

“Down there,” Merlin said, pointing.  “By the heelstone.  That’s where I put you in the boat.  And sent you away.  That’s where I said-“ His voice caught, and he looked away, wiping a palm roughly over his eyes.

Arthur caught the reins of Merlin’s horse.  Pulled them both to a stop.  Merlin still wouldn’t look at him, so Arthur reached out, and put his hand on Merlin’s shoulder.  Still no response, so Arthur moved his hand to the back of Merlin’s neck.  Then slid his fingers through his friend’s hair.

Merlin’s head bowed at once, eyes squeezing closed, fists pressing into his thighs.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur told him, low and quiet.

A breath huffed out of Merlin, and he nodded, just once.

Arthur squeezed Merlin’s neck, then handed him back the reins, and urged his own horse forward. 

“I’ll take the horses back to the Widow Abbernathy myself,” Merlin told him.

“You’re sure?” Arthur asked.

“It’s no problem.  As long as I can keep her from pinching my arse again.”

“Good luck with that.”

“I’m going to need it.”

As they rode onto Merlin’s grounds, and past the porch of Merlin’s manor, the men and women sitting at the outside tables of the café all turned to watch them. Arthur barely registered them in his exhaustion.  With a weary tug of the reins, he stopped his horse by Merlin’s North Tower door, and slid from the stable onto unstable legs.

His stomach growled as he straightened, and he cast a longing glance towards the café, where he was willing to wager that Eleanor had set aside some food for him. 

After Merlin hauled their belongings to the North Tower door, he heard Merlin say a word in a strange language.  It meant ‘open’, he knew it did.  But it didn’t translate into an English word the way other words did.

A spell, Arthur realized, as the door swung open for Merlin unaided.  It had been the word from a spell. 

“Anyone could have seen that,” Arthur told him.

Merlin threw his saddle bag through the open doorway.  “You’d be amazed what people of this era will explain away.  I’ve done magic right in front of them dozens of times, and they still don’t believe it’s real.”

“Don’t make excuses because you’re being too lazy to be subtle.”

“Subtle is my middle name,” Merlin said, as he unstrapped the rest of their things from their horses. 

“Lightning from the mountaintop, Merlin.”

“Broken branches from the trees, Arthur,” Merlin said, and gave him a wry grin.  “Statues that fall off of castle battlements.  Trained assassins who trip over lumps in the rug. Bandits who run into each other. Do I need to keep going?”

“That’s-“ Arthur stopped, remembering dozens upon dozens of other similar ridiculous things that had happened during skirmishes and battles and attempts on his life.  He’d always seen Merlin on the ground or behind a tree nearby right afterward.  “I’d always thought you were cowering in fear for your life,” Arthur said, astonished.

“I was cowering in fear for my life,” Merlin said, without a hint of shame, as he shoved the rest of their things through the door.  “But I was also saving your royal backside.  Subtly.”

The final word would have had much more impact if Merlin hadn’t made his front door slam on its own, heedless of a women and a small child who were walking up the path behind him.

Merlin,” Arthur said, and nodded behind him.

Merlin turned to look behind him, then looked back at Arthur, not at all concerned. “Watch this.”  He returned his attention to the woman.  “Good morning!”

She responded as most people did to Merlin’s cheerful enthusiasm, which was with a ready smile.  The little girl holding her mother’s hand strained forward towards the horses, eyes wide and excited.  “Can she-?” the women asked.

Merlin pulled his white mare closer so the little girl could be lifted up to pet her nose.  “I’m Merlin Hunithson.  I’ve taken over things here for my Uncle Emrys this past week.”

The woman looked shocked. “Don’t tell me that your uncle-!”

“No, no.  Nothing like that.  He’s alive and well.”

“Well that’s a relief,” she said.  “I can’t imagine Lake Avalon without your Uncle.  He’s been here forever.”

“Not quite that long,” Merlin said.  “So I was wondering if you could help me? I’m trying to learn a magic trick that my Uncle used to do with a butterfly-“

“Butterfly!” the little girl said, and thrust out her hands at Merlin, the horse forgotten. 

Merlin shared a smile with the woman holding the girl.  “Would it be all right if I…?”

“Oh yes, go ahead. We were just here for the Solstice Festival, and your Uncle did the same trick for us that day.  I still can’t figure out how he did it.”

“It’s magic,” Merlin told her, and glanced over at Arthur with an eyebrow quirking upward. “All right, ready?  Say ‘butterfly’.”

“Butterfly!” the girl said.

Arthur watched Merlin place his hands around the girl’s, one above, one below. He lowered his head, eyes downcast.  “Gewyrc an lif” he said, and once again Arthur heard the words in the foreign tongue, but understood what they meant, Merlin calling upon the magics of the world to awaken a life.

When Merlin opened the child's cupped hands, the little girl squealed, her eyes widening as a small blue butterfly took flight. 

“There it goes,” Merlin said, casting a delighted look over his shoulder at Arthur.

Arthur watched the little girl clap her hands and jump up and down, the small insect fluttering away above her.  The sight reminded him of the meadow, of the sparkling light flowing from Merlin’s long fingers, of the flowers blooming all around them.

Such beauty, Arthur thought.  All from the magic contained within this man at his side.

“That is just so amazing!” the woman cooed at Merlin, her voice lilting and enthusiastic.  Arthur watched her place a hand on Merlin’s arm and lean towards him, smiling. “How do you do that? You don’t keep butterflies in your pocket, do you? I’ve heard that’s how it’s done.  Do you even have pockets in your costume?”

“Butterflies in my pockets,” Merlin said to Arthur, far too smugly. “Sounds like a good explanation, right?  I mean, it can’t be real magic.  Because that’s just crazy.  Me.  A sorcerer.  As if I were the actual Merlin from Camelot.  Right, Arthur?”

“All right, all right,” Arthur said, and he grabbed hold of Merlin’s arm, pulling him away from the woman.  “You’ve made your point,” he said. 

Merlin shot him an unspeakably smug grin, which was honestly saying something.  After a wave back at the woman and her daughter, Merlin gathered the reins of both horses and pulled them towards the forest path.

Arthur looked over his shoulder as he walked by Merlin’s side.  The woman was staring after them both.

Merlin glanced back too, then returned the wave the woman gave him. “Pocket full of butterflies,” he said, chuckling low in his chest.

“I’m so happy to know that you can safely use your magic to flirt with beautiful young women,” Arthur said sharply.

“What?” Merlin gave him a perplexed look. 

“The way she was blatantly fawning over you-”

“She wasn’t fawning over me.”  He glanced back at the woman.  “Was she?”

“Yes,” Arthur ground out. 

He was angry, he realized.  It made no sense that he was angry.  Merlin could do whatever he wanted with his magic.  Although he’d said it himself, hadn’t he.  That his magic was Arthur’s.  That it was all for him. And no one else.

“You’re just jealous she wasn’t fawning over you,” Merlin said.

Jealous, he thought, and glared over at Merlin. Yes, that was it, he realized.  He was jealous.  Of Merlin.

“You should have made her some strawberries and flowers to go along with the butterfly,” Arthur snapped at him.  “She would have loved a soppy display like that.”

Merlin stopped the horses and turned to Arthur, looking as if he’d been hit.

Arthur replayed his words in his head.  Then realized how they sounded.   

He watched Merlin straighten his shoulders, pulling himself to his full height, which was a bit taller than his own, a fact that Arthur always forgot.  Merlin’s expression had hardened too, his chin jutting out a bit, the angles of his face sharpening, pain shining from his narrowed blue eyes.

“I didn’t mean to say soppy,” Arthur said.

Which was not the right thing to say, judging by the flush of color in Merlin’s cheeks. “I didn’t know I was doing any of that last night, did I.”

“I know that.”

“And it wasn’t soppy.“

“I just said that it wasn’t.”

“As if you’d have any idea.”

“Any idea about what?”

“Exactly,” Merlin said, and stalked away, pulling the horses roughly behind.

“You are making even less sense than usual.”

“And you are an insensitive ass,” Merlin said, his voice deep and strong, drawling out the last word, a rare display of honesty and anger.

Which meant he was truly hurt. “Merlin-”

“I’d better get the horses back,” Merlin interrupted, and walked to the side of his horse, to tie the reins of Arthur’s horse to the back of his own saddle. 

Arthur watched him, at a loss as to what to say.  Merlin was glaring at his hands as he worked, completely silent, mouth pressed into a thin line.  When he began to climb back into the saddle, Arthur grabbed hold of Merlin’s arm.  Merlin jerked his arm away and gave him a scathing stare.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur told him, though he wasn’t quite sure for what.  He suspected the list of offenses was quite long, judging by Merlin’s expression.  He couldn’t quite understand what he’d said in particular to cause him such pain. “Why are you so upset?”

“No,” Merlin said, and he gave a bitter laugh, and shook his head.  “No.  I don’t have to tell you that.”

Arthur felt his temper flare.  “What are you holding back from me now?”

“It’s personal, so mind your own damn business,” Merlin said, which was infuriating, a fact that Merlin probably knew, judging by the grim satisfaction in his eyes.

Fine,” Arthur told him.

Good.”

They glared at each other a long moment.

“You are maddening,” Arthur bit out.

Merlin climbed angrily upon his horse, which was something Arthur had not known a person could do.  It involved a great deal of huffing and muttering of words that he couldn’t understand. 

“I’ll be back with enough time left in the day for you to beat me senseless with a mace, my lord.”

Arthur wanted to throttle him.  “Would you just-“  He threw his arms up and slapped them down at his sides.  He wished he had something to throw.  He was considering using his boot when he saw Merlin urge his horse forward.

But after moving a short distance across the lawns, Merlin pulled the reins, stopping his horse. He sat there in the saddle, head half turned towards the tower. 

Arthur watched Merlin’s shoulders slump, and his head bow, and knew what he was thinking.

He doesn’t want to leave me, Arthur thought. Not here, by the water.  Not where I left him those centuries ago. 

Arthur thought of the dark room at night.  Of the irrational threat he felt from the island and the tower. 

“I’ll keep out of the lake,” Arthur called to him. 

Merlin turned in his saddle in clear surprise, no trace of his earlier anger left, just a clear relief married with embarrassment. 

“Horrible weather for a swim anyway,” Arthur added, which was an utter lie, because the skies were blue and the sun was out and the air was warm all around them. 

Merlin knew it as well as he did.  Which is probably what earned Arthur a small smile.

“When you get back,” Arthur added, “you need to gather swords and targets and the mace, so we can spend the rest of the day training.”

Merlin stared at him, brows raised, mouth hanging open, as if he had just asked him to run across the five kingdoms and back. 

“Something wrong?”

“Oh, no, no, nothing wrong, nothing at all, why would there be anything wrong?” Merlin spurred his horse forward, muttering to himself 

Better, Arthur thought, as he watched Merlin settle into the saddle, ducking a branch as he rode onto the forest path, the riderless stallion following along behind.

Arthur stared after him a long time.  All these centuries, he thought.  All this time, and one thing was still very much the same. Beneath all of Merlin’s strength, he was still in need of protection.

I can give him that, Arthur thought.  I will give him that, for as long as I am able.  He will need it, if we are to face the trials ahead.

 

 

Chapter Text

When Arthur dragged himself through the glass doors into the café, he found it full of people.  Morning was a busy time of day then, he thought, as he walked through the crowd of white tables.  The people seated at them all turned as he passed, some of them looking him up and down, others clearly staring at his sword. 

No one wore weapons, Arthur realized.  No wonder he was attracting attention.  Even Eleanor was glaring in obvious disapproval at Excalibur, from where she stood by the long counter near Merlin’s residence. 

“Good morning, Lady Godwyn,” Arthur greeted her, as he rounded the counter and headed to the residence door. 

She crossed her arms over her bright yellow and pink flowered dress.  “Merlin has you sleeping out of doors too, I see?  Must be a Hunithson family trait.”

“What’s that?” Arthur asked, as he stared at the plates of warm breakfast foods set out in front of the people at the counter.

Eleanor gave a sudden laugh.  “Missed breakfast, did you?”

“Merlin didn’t pack any,” Arthur said, his eyes following a scone to a woman’s mouth.

“All right, here you are.  Since you’re clearly starving to death.”

Eleanor retrieved a plate from under the counter that was stacked high with every single one of his favorite sweet breads and scones.  “Oh you are marvelous,” he said, and took the plate from her, grabbing a warm scone and shoving it into his mouth. 

“Good lord, you’re worse than my eldest boy.  Go sit down.  I’ll fetch you some tea.”

Eleanor nudged him out of behind the counter, and Arthur took a seat with the rest of the patrons at a chair on the other side.  To his left and right, he saw people holding flat black stone slates.  Which apparently were not stones at all.

Arthur absently pulled his sword from his belt and dropped it to the counter with a clang that had several people jump nearby.  He ignored them, instead watching the surface of the stone held by the man next to him as it revealed images and words and pictures that moved.  It was like a window, he thought, and he leaned closer.

“Oi! Do you mind?”

Arthur looked up into the man’s aggravated expression. “Why should I mind?”

“Use your own damn mobile,” the man snapped, and he took his plate and left.

Arthur moved his sword into the man’s empty seat, then craned his head to look at the slate held by the man seated on the other side of him instead.

“Here you go,” came Eleanor’s voice, pulling his attention from the strange black stone.   She placed a pot of tea on the counter, then set an empty cup next to it.

“Yes, that would be wonderful,” Arthur told her, and nodded to his cup.

“Something wrong with your arms then Arthur?”

Arthur pulled his eyes from the moving pictures upon the stone to find Eleanor standing in front of him, hands on her thin hips, regarding him in a disapproving manner that reminded him sharply of Gaius. 

“What’s that, my lady?” Arthur asked her.

“My lady,” she muttered, but she picked up the tea pot and filled his cup. “All right, now I have to ask. What house do you belong to?”

Arthur watched the other man who had been seated next to him get up with an angry glance at him, then walk off into the café.  “Pardon me?”

“’Pardon me,’” she repeated in his careful enunciation, her tone wry. “Just listen to you. You’re Manor Born if I’ve ever heard it. So which royal family do you belong to then?

Very much like Gaius indeed, Arthur thought. It was rather impressive how insightful she was. She would have made an excellent court advisor.  “How did you know?”

“My Gran worked for the Windsors.  She brought me around the nobility often enough that I know royalty when I see it. Every time I look at you I feel like I should curtsey.”

Arthur raised his cup in silent toast.  “I thank you for that, Lady Godwyn.”

“I’m no Lady, though that does sound nice.”  She filled his cup back up to the top with tea when he set it back down upon the counter.  “So which royal house is it?  The Windsors?  The Hanovers?”

“The Pendragons.”

“The Pendragons.  Oh that’s very funny.  Arthur Pendragon is your name, then, is it?”

Arthur sat up a bit straighter in his chair.  “Yes,” he said. “It is.”

“If you don’t want to tell me, just say so.” Eleanor cocked an amused eyebrow at him.  “You don’t have to be a smart mouth about it.”

Arthur dropped his bread to his plate, suddenly much less amused, and much more tired, than he had realized. “The Pendragons are an ancient family, a royal family, a family descended from kings, who fought and died to protect this land.”

“You’re serious,” Eleanor said, in a mother’s worried tone now, as if he’d taken leave of his senses.  Which was even worse than when she’d been laughing at him.

“The Pendragons are as real as any of the nobility that lives today,” Arthur snapped.  “They’re a real family, and they’re my family, not that there’s any of them left besides me.  Even my wife-“  He clenched his hand by his plate.  Thumped it gently upon the counter. “My late wife…”

The grief came rushing through him again.  For his lost kingdom. His lost people. His lost friends. His lost family. 

This was worse than not having been remembered at all, Arthur thought.  To have these people think that he never existed.  That his family never existed.  It felt as if they were taking away his right to grieve.  And that made it so much worse.

Arthur pushed himself up from his seat, grabbing his sword and shoving it back through his belt.  He rounded the counter back to Merlin’s residence and was halfway through the door when he felt a gentle touch on his arm.

Eleanor stood by his side, blurry through the moisture in his eyes.  She held out his plate to him, her narrow features softened with concern. “Don’t forget your breakfast, Arthur Pendragon.”

Arthur took the plate, nodding wearily.  A bit better, he thought.  But hardly what it should be.  “Thank you, Eleanor,” he said, and withdrew into Merlin’s apartments.

He trudged up the stairs thinking of the future.  Of what his life would be beyond these walls. 

No one would know him, he thought.  Not anywhere.  Not as himself. 

Such a strange thing, to have no one know who he was. All his life people had recognized him.  As their prince.  Their king.  And if they hadn’t, a mere mention of his name would be enough.

Now using his name meant either ridicule or disbelief. 

I will have to lie to them, won’t I, Arthur thought.  I will have to lie to my own.  At least until the time of Albion’s trial arrives.

The thought of it make him feel ill.  He couldn’t imagine it.  Every day having to hide who he was.  Having to pretend to be less than what he was.  Having the world judge him falsely, without knowing his heart.

Arthur stopped in the corridor, and had to catch himself against the wall, overwhelmed by sudden understanding.

Merlin, he thought. 

That’s how it had always been for Merlin.

I’ve always had to lie,’ Merlin had told him.  And Arthur hadn’t understood, not really, what that had meant. 

To have to lie to everyone who knew him.  To be seen by everyone as less than he was. To have no one know his heart.

Arthur couldn’t even manage it for fifteen seconds.  He couldn’t imagine doing it for fifteen hundred years.

“Idiot,” he muttered at himself, and pushed through his chamber door.

After setting his plate down on the table, Arthur dragged his sword from his belt, nearly slicing his hand in the process.  Somehow he pulled off his belt and yanked off his clothes, twice getting tangled in the material in the process.  He almost fell when he put on his sleeping breeches, and had to catch himself against his wardrobe. 

His lack of sleep from the night before was definitely catching up to him.  Arthur rubbed his hand over his face, remembering the long night before, and sitting vigil over Merlin. 

Merlin, who had collapsed under the force of his own magic.  Merlin, who was having strange dreams.  

Dreams that he’d never had before.  Dreams that woke him in a panic.

Just like-

Arthur drove his fist into the wardrobe hard enough for pain to shoot up his arm.

No, he thought.

Not like her.

Never like her. 

Arthur drew in a deep breath, let it out, and felt his exhaustion fall upon him again.  He carried his sword to his bedside, and placed it into the scabbard that hung from the bedpost.

Then, for a long moment, Arthur stared at the mess of blankets and sheets that Merlin had failed to make up the day before. 

I’ll go to the washroom now, he thought.  I’ll wash up, and dress, and eat, and prepare for the day.  Lots of training ahead. Swords and the mace and the javelin and the rest.

Upon the bed, the rumpled sheets and blankets looked like clouds. 

“Ridiculous,” he said. 

And then he crawled onto the bed and collapsed face first onto the linens.

The pillow beneath his nose smelled of vanilla and spice and sweat and wine and the outdoors.  Merlin had used it, he thought, as he inhaled deeply and relaxed, thinking of castles and turrets and sparkling golden stars, and ropes of magic stretching into the world, leaving life in its wake.

Just a few minutes, Arthur thought, and closed his eyes.

Just a few minutes…

A noise startled him awake, and he jerked up his head, blinking into the room. Blankets lay atop him, and the daylight had been muted by the curtains having been drawn across the window alcoves. 

He rolled over in bed, arms flailing to his sides.  “Merlin!”

The door to his chambers opened, and Merlin peered inside, wincing. “Sorry.  Did you hear that?”

A tray dropping, Arthur realized.  He had been woken by the sound of a a tray dropping. Arthur blinked across the room at the long table in the adjoining room.  All manner of food had been set upon it, steam still rising from the plates.  “What’s happened?”

“I dropped the tray.  In the hall.  Sorry about that.   I’ll leave you to go back to sleep.”

“I wasn’t asleep.” Arthur pushed himself out of bed and stood, then swayed, and sat back down.  “All right.  I may have been asleep. A little.”

Arthur watched Merlin cross the room, hands clasped behind his back, to stand beside the table.

“What on earth are you wearing now?” Arthur asked. 

“Clothes?” Merlin held out his arms to his sides, his long sleeved brown tunic stretching across his chest.  It was quite a bit tighter than his normal clothes, its small V shaped neckline without any ties, making Arthur wonder how he’d gotten it over his head.  His breeches were tight as well, also dark and made of a thick black fabric that stretched down to low black shoes with thick bottoms. 

“You look ridiculous,” Arthur told him, which wasn’t true.  He looked different, more than anything. Which was disturbing somehow.  Almost as disturbing as the fact that he was apparently staring at the long, pale length of Merlin’s exposed neck.  Arthur snapped his eyes at once to Merlin’s face.

“I’ve been working in the Apothecary and the café while you’ve been napping,” Merlin told him, taking obvious pleasure in saying the word, “and I finally got tired of all the jokes from Danyl and Heath about escaping from a Renaissance Fair.  I was going to change back, after I brought you- Well, I’ll call it lunch, but it’s more an early supper.”

Arthur got to his feet, scratching at his bare chest as he walked barefoot across the room.  He pushed open the curtains to the windows and squinted outside at a sun that hung low in the west.  “How long was I asleep?”

“Five or six hours?” 

Arthur spun on him, outraged.  “What?”

“I did try to wake you.”

“How hard did you try, exactly?”

Merlin gave him a wry smile that answered that question. 

“This isn’t getting you out of training I’ll have you know,” Arthur informed him.  “And change out of that nonsense before then.  You’ll split those breeches in the first two minutes.  How did you get your head in that tunic anyway?”

Merlin hooked a finger beneath his collar and pulled.  The material stretched and then snapped back to its original size.  “Elastic,” he said, with a delighted grin.

Arthur approached him, reaching out to slide two fingers under the neckline of Merlin’s shirt, and do the same thing as Merlin had done.  Then he slid his fingers further down, grasping a handful of the material, pressing his fingers into it, his knuckles pressed against Merlin’s chest.  “The whole thing stretches,” he said, and lifted his other hand to slide it over the tunic, his palm moving over Merlin’s chest. 

Merlin shuddered and stepped back. “Right.  So.  I’ll go change.”

“Give me that before you go.”

“Give- what?”

“The tunic.  Something made of that material would be useful during training.  It would give excellent range of motion.  So come on.  Off with it.”

Merlin started to speak, then snapped his mouth closed.  He reached down, and yanked the tunic over his head.  He handed it to Arthur gone a bit red in the face. 

Arthur examined the material, still warm from Merlin’s body, then pulled it over his head, pushing his arms through the holes for the sleeves.  He pulled it down over himself, adjusting it a bit over his arms and yanking it down over his breeches. 

It was much tighter on him than it had been on Merlin, stretching over the muscles of his chest like a second skin.  “This should work very well,” he said, rubbing a hand over his chest.  The material was ridiculously soft. “What is it made of?”

When he looked up at Merlin, he saw he was standing with his arms crossed over his pale chest, biting his bottom lip, a look of distress come over him. 

“What?” Arthur asked him.

Merlin’s eyes snapped up to Arthur’s face, his cheeks reddening.

Embarrassed, Arthur thought.  Though he couldn’t understand why.  It’s not like they hadn’t been in states of undress around each other before.  “Go on, then.  Get changed.”

Merlin nodded, and turned to go. 

“One last thing.”

Merlin didn’t turn around. “Yes?”

Arthur walked around in front of Merlin, then reached up and dragged both of his hands repeatedly and swiftly over Merlin’s hair. 

“Stop it!” Merlin protested, and swatted at Arthur’s hands. 

“What is that in your hair? It feels like tree sap-“

“It’s hair product- Arthur- knock it off-“

Arthur grabbed the back of Merlin’s neck and forced his head forward.  He used his other hand to flatten Merlin’s hair down the way it ought to be.  “You look like you’ve been in a windstorm-”

“Arthur,” came Merlin’s voice, choked and low.

Arthur let go of his neck and stepped back, smirking.  “There,” he said, as Merlin lifted a reddened face to him. “That’s much better.”

Merlin glared at him from under what still looked like a bird’s nest of black hair.  “Arse,” he muttered as he shoved past, knocking roughly against Arthur’s shoulder on the way.

Arthur rubbed his fingers together at the tacky substance left behind from Merlin’s hair.  He lifted his fingertips to his nose, sniffing curiously, because he could smell a strange spice scent overlaying the familiar soaps they both shared in the washroom.

When he glanced over, he saw Merlin standing in the doorway, watching him, so red in the face that his ears were red. 

“Don’t forget the training equipment,” Arthur told him.  “And the mace.  I know how you love working with the mace.”

Merlin opened his mouth to reply.  Managed only a choked sound. Widened his eyes.  Then vanished through the doorway without a word.

Arthur laughed to himself, then sat down at the table in front of the spread of food Merlin had set out for him. 

Every single morsel was delicious. The fruits were fresh even though many weren’t in season, the breads still warm from the oven, the potatoes seasoned with fresh herbs, the meats of highest quality.  And once again the tea tasted just as he remembered from Camelot.  Merlin’s doing once again, he thought.  Just like the rest of it.

Arthur leaned back in his chair, sipping a cool glass of sweet juice of some kind.

He stretched out his legs in front of him, and slouched a bit in his chair. Utterly, and completely, relaxed. 

Arthur watched the dust motes dance through the rays of afternoon sunlight shining through the rooms, and listened to the birdsong beyond the open windows, and felt the lovely warm summer breezes upon his face that moved the curtains by the windows.

I can’t believe I was napping, he thought.  Right in the middle of the day. 

When was the last time he’d done that without it being from an illness or injury?  He couldn’t remember a single day in his adult life.

And come to think of it, what day was it? he wondered.  He’d never lost track of such things before. He’d either always been told, or had known by his meticulously kept and constantly busy schedule. 

Which he no longer had.  Not anymore.

No counsel meetings to attend, he thought.  No feasts to plan.  No strategy sessions to lead.  No diplomatic envoys to meet.  No endless arguments by visiting nobility who couldn’t see beyond their own castle walls.

Nothing, in fact, to do.

I should be bothered by that, Arthur thought.  I really should.

And yet, he wasn’t.

In all his years as king, he’d never enjoyed that part of leadership.  All that pomp and bother of courtly expectations, all the hassle of managing castle life.  That had all just got in the way of ruling Camelot.  He’d foisted off as much of it as he could to his Counsel, or to Gwen, or to Merlin.

Still, there had been much he hadn’t been able to avoid.  His duties had routinely consumed his entire life, from dawn until dusk, without cease, day after day after day…

So the absence of all of it, really, was… a relief.

I should feel guilty for feeling that way, Arthur thought, as he sipped the cool juice.  I really should. 

But he didn’t.  Just as he didn’t feel guilty for sitting slouched in his chair, listening to the birds, enjoying the warm summer breezes, with only his own desires dictating what his day should bring.

Because when, in all his life, had he ever been able to do what he wanted to do?

The picnic, Arthur thought. Father had taken him and Morgana and all of their attendants to the fields beyond the castle.  And after Arthur had eaten his fill of the wonderful foods prepared for them, he’d gone exploring into the woods, just far enough to feel as if he were off on some grand adventure.  He’d lost track of time in the forest.  They’d had to come and find him.  He hadn’t wanted to go home.

Yes, he thought.  That was the last time I felt like this.

He’d been ten years old at the time.

Arthur rested his palms on the table.  Tapped his fingers upon the wooden table top.

“I could lie around all day if I wanted,” Arthur said, as if making a royal decree.  “In fact, I could do absolutely nothing at all.  All day.  For as many days as I want.”

It felt like a singular heresy, just saying it. 

But it also felt damn good.

Arthur grinned to himself, glancing back at his bed, at the rumpled covers that still looked like puffy clouds. 

“I could even,” Arthur informed the bed, “take another nap if I wanted-”

“Excuse me sire,” came Merlin’s voice by the door, startling Arthur into sitting up straight and grabbing hold of his plate with both hands.  “But did you want me to get the javelin as well as the mace and the target and your armor and the training sword?”

The whining in Merlin’s tone was a delight to hear.  “Swords,” Arthur corrected him, and helped himself to another scone.  Because although the idea of going back to sleep was appealing, the idea of training was better.  Especially if it involved tormenting Merlin a bit.  “You’ll need a sword as well.  And armor.”

At the silence, Arthur turned to find Merlin gaping at him in open horror.

“I don’t like the idea any more than you do,” Arthur informed him, which was an absolute lie.  “It’ll be like training with a willow branch.  Now go.”

With an audible huff, Merlin retreated from the door.

Arthur counted to five in his head in the perfectly silent room, then yelled “I heard that!”

“I meant for you to!” Merlin yelled back from down the corridor.

“Knew it,” Arthur said, and stuffed a scone in his mouth.

Chapter Text

Merlin landed hard on his back upon the grasses by the lakeside, the wooden target dropping heavily onto his face, his breath rushing from his lungs.

“Honestly, Merlin,” Arthur said, for the tenth time since they started training.

Merlin screwed up his face under the wooden shield, feeling sweaty and sore and thinking of a dozen retorts he couldn’t make because he couldn’t catch his damn breath.

“Did you practice no form of physical exercise while I was gone?  I’ve used my sword against shrubs that gave me more trouble than you.”

Merlin shoved the target from his face.  But his anger diminished the second he saw Arthur in his chainmail and armor, his blonde hair mussed and shining in the late afternoon sun, a grin lighting his blue eyes.

It’s unfair, Merlin thought bitterly.  Just ridiculously unfair.  I can’t even stay mad at him. Not as much as I want to. Not with his stupid face and his stupid hair and his stupid everything.

“You could try and hold back a little!” Merlin managed to bite out, though his tone was far less venomous than he’d wanted.

Arthur’s expression reflected the absurdity of that idea.  “Stop being such a girl’s petticoat,” he said, and strode off, whirling the mace in figure eights in the air.

Merlin climbed to his feet, the heavy wooden target in hand.  His tunic and breeches clung to his body in every single place imaginable.  He was covered in dirt and sweat and even his own blood from where he’d scraped his arm with the target.

Damn mace and damn target and damn training exercises, he thought miserably. 

Arthur had been right about one thing.  If he’d worn his modern clothes for this, he would have split his trousers right up the back by now.  And once more his neckerchief was coming in handy, to sop up the sweat from his neck and his face.

“Come on, let’s go,” Arthur told him.

Merlin hauled the target up to his shoulder, ducking his head.  “Hate the damn mace,” he grumbled.

“What was that?”

Merlin lowered the training target to give Arthur a grin that was all bared teeth and narrowed eyes.  “I said I can’t believe how much I missed being nearly beaten to death by you for your entertainment, my lord,”

“It is quite an honor, so I should think so.” Arthur dropped into a fighting stance again, mace lifted and spinning furiously.

The thought of all that power landing upon his aching shoulder had Merlin lowering his training target, and pointing to the pile of training equipment he’d brought down from the third story storage room in his tower.

“Oh look,” Merlin said.  “There’s a shield and a training sword.  Just waiting to be used.  Can’t forget to practice with those, can we?”

Arthur straightened up and gave him a look of clear exasperation.  “You just don’t want to train with the mace anymore.”

“Just trying to keep your sword skills from getting rusty, sire,” Merlin said, staggering a bit as Arthur grabbed the training target from him, and threw it to the side.

“Go put on some gear then.”

“Do I have to?” Merlin said, and then cringed at the whine in his voice.

“Do I have to?” Arthur repeated, clearly mocking him.

Merlin huffed at him and went to drag the chainmail over his clothes.  It made his sweaty tunic and breeches stick to him even more than it already did. He had no idea how Arthur was holding up so well in this heat, especially with his padded jacket under his chainmail and armor,

“The rest of it too,” Arthur said, gesturing to the armor with his training sword.

“Arthur, it is sweltering.  I’m not putting on more metal for the sun to bake me in like a roast.  Besides, they’re training swords.”

“Fine, take your chances.  But I seem to remember someone hurting themselves before with a training sword.”

“Your fault,” Merlin muttered, as he took the shield Arthur held out to him.  “What am I supposed to do with that?” he asked, and nodded to the sword.

Arthur gave him one of those looks that suggested Merlin was a small, daft, child.  “Plow a field, Merlin. What do you think you’re supposed to do with it?”

“I mean, why should I bother with it?  Can’t I just use the shield and let you practice?”

“My opponents don’t come at me with shields, Merlin.  And in any case, you need to keep up your sword skills.  Such as they are.”

“I know how to use a sword,” Merlin insisted.

Arthur just stared at him.

“I do!”

“I’ve seen you use a sword, Merlin.  You look like you’re wielding a tree branch.  While blindfolded.  And drunk.” 

Merlin grabbed the sword from him. “Why do I need to worry about a sword?  I have magic.”

“Merlin?”

“What?”

Arthur smacked him in the forehead with the flat of his training blade.

Merlin’s hand flew up to press against his head.  “What was that for!”

“If you knew how to use a sword properly, you would have been able to block the blow,” Arthur said sweetly.  “You were looking straight at me and you had your blade two inches away from your face, for the love of god.”

Merlin huffed at him, but gave up the argument as lost when Arthur stepped backwards, sword in one hand, shield in the other, grinning wildly at him in the late afternoon sunlight. 

For the next fifteen minutes, Arthur practiced rudimentary attacks and blocks to work on his form.  To his own astonishment, Merlin was able to remember most of them, from all his years spent on the edges of the training grounds. 

But very quickly, Merlin found himself barely able to lift the shield to meet Arthur’s rapidly increasing attacks. He was woefully out of shape, he realized.  Breathlessly he raised his shield for a high guard, only realizing he should prepare for a low strike instead when the flat of Arthur’s sword took his legs out from under him.

This time when Merlin fell in a heap to the ground, he knocked himself on the forehead so hard with his shield that he saw stars. 

As Merlin lay on the ground swearing to himself, he noticed Arthur step to his side.

“Here.”  Arthur moved Merlin's sword and shield aside, then gently pushed his sweaty hair away from his forehead with his gloved fingers.  “Barely a scratch.  You’ll be fine.”

Merlin just lay there as Arthur walked away. His head was spinning less from the fall than from the attentiveness.  Back in Camelot Arthur would have just laughed and left him to lie there.

As he wondered why that was, Merlin stared up into the clear blue late afternoon sky.  He wished it would rain as it had wanted to last night. He hoped he hadn’t shifted the weather too much.  He’d hate to think this heat wave was his fault.

It felt like his skin was going to melt off under his chainmail.  He couldn’t imagine how Arthur was still so unaffected.   But then, Arthur had always been ridiculously at home in the garments of a knight. 

Next time I’ll make him wear his cape, Merlin thought, as he lay on the ground, watching Arthur taking long gulps of bottled water.  Actually, it really would be nice to see Arthur in his cape again.  Alive and moving around. He always did look good in red.

Merlin stared up at the clouds, wondering how hard he’d hit himself in the head, to let himself think such things.   He’s your king, he told himself.  He’s your king, and you’re his servant, and you cannot think of how good he would look in his cape, or how noble in his armor, or how his hair right now looks like it has a crown of sunlight-

Merlin moaned on the ground, and pressed his palms into his eyes.

By the pile of equipment, he heard Arthur call out a greeting. Danyl and Heath were walking down the grassy slope from the darkened manor, both of them smiling, Heath with a mobile in his hand, pointing at them both.   

“Are you all right?” Danyl called. “Eleanor nearly called Emergency Services twice before she left for the day. We only barely stopped her.”

Merlin got to his feet with a glance over at the stone circle.  Judging by the shadows, it was going on seven.  No wonder their training hadn’t drawn a crowd. Everything was long since closed.

“She made Danyl promise to call if things got too rough,” Heath added, as he tucked his mobile in his pocket.  “And hello to you, by the way,” he said Arthur.

Danyl nudged him smartly in the ribs.  “None of that.”

“Just saying hello,” Heath said, but gave Danyl an apologetic look, and butted his shoulder against him, before turning to where Merlin unsteadily approached.  “Cor, you look awful.”

“Well that’s good because I feel awful.”  Merlin shot Arthur a look, but received a long-suffering shake of his head in response.  “Arthur, this is Danyl and this is Heath.  They work for me in the Apothecary.”

“And help with business marketing and social media promotion,” Heath added.

Merlin raised an eyebrow at the grinning young man as he picked up a bottle of water for himself.  “I haven’t given you an answer about that yet.”

“Oh you will, seriously, because he,“ Heath pointed at Arthur, “would be fantastic for business.  I mean, sword fighting?  On the shores of Lake Avalon?  People would love it.  I mean, we’d need to get someone to fight with him who can actually use a sword-”

Merlin choked on his water. “I can use a sword!”

“You really can’t,” Arthur said.  “Even he can see it. And he hasn’t been trained in swordsmanship. Have you?”

“Not yet,” Heath said quickly, “but I’d like to.”

“You have the build for it,” Arthur told him.  “I could show you a few things.”

Merlin looked from Heath to Arthur and back again. “Wait.  What?”

“You give sword training?” Heath said.  “Could you do that here?”  He gave Danyl a strong elbow in the ribs. “Can you imagine it?  Sword training by a guy named Arthur!” 

“Now hold on,“ Merlin said.

“Hey,” Heath said to Arthur, “do your students ever call you King Arthur?”

“They call me little else. With some exceptions,” he added, with a stern look at Merlin.

“Would you seriously be interested in training people?” Heath asked Arthur.

“It would be a welcome change from training with someone who uses a sword as if it’s part of a tree.”

Merlin huffed at the lot of them.  “I’m standing right here.”

“My brother would love to do it,” Danyl said to Heath. “He already takes those martial arts classes-“

“And I can think of at least three guys from rugby.” Heath turned back to Arthur.  “When could we start?”

Arthur stepped backward, twirling his sword in the air, grinning first at Merlin’s astonished expression, and then back at Heath.  “No time like the present.”

Heath smacked Danyl in the arm in his excitement, then jogged over to grab a sword and shield from the pile of equipment.

“Merlin, give him your chainmail.”

Merlin stared at Arthur in something of a daze. Seriously, what was even happening?  Arthur was going to train Heath, of all people?  Heath, who believed that sitting upon a chair watching Danyl do all the work was how best to do his job? 

“Are you sure this is a good idea, sire?” Merlin asked.

“Don’t tell me that you’re missing being nearly beaten to death for my entertainment already,” Arthur said, his blue eyes flashing with amusement.

“Of course not, but-“

“Then go sit down,” Arthur told him, and gestured with his sword to where Danyl sat by the training equipment.  “And drink something before you collapse.”

Merlin pulled off his chainmail and handed it to Heath, then watched in amazement as Heath hauled it over his head and dashed over to Arthur.

Sit, Merlin,” Arthur commanded.

Merlin dropped himself to the ground beside Danyl. “Yes, my lord,” he snapped, aggravated at himself for reacting to Arthur’s regal tone so quickly.

At Merlin’s side, Danyl gave him an amused look.  “My lord?”

Merlin felt his face flush.  “It’s-“

“Ready?” Arthur called to Heath.

“Ready, sire,” Heath said, flashing a grin at Merlin.

“Oh the hell with it,” Merlin grumbled, and he flopped back onto the grass, dragging a training shield over his face. 

‘Sire’ and ‘my lord’ both, he thought. Right in front of his employees.

“Just make sure they don’t kill each other,” he muttered to Danyl.

For several minutes he could hear the clanging of swords and shields, interspersed with Arthur instructing Heath about swordsmanship and what it meant to be a knight. 

It reminded Merlin of the times the young sons of visiting nobles had come to the training field.  He’d forgotten how patient Arthur could be with the young ones.  For so long Arthur had been nothing but savage on the training grounds and the battlefield.  He’d forgotten Arthur could be like this, as well.

“Merlin?”

“Hmm?”

“I was wondering.  If you.  Um.  Had any armor?  For Heath to use?”

Merlin pushed the shield off of his face and sat up by Danyl’s side.  Arthur stood facing Heath, sword held out in front of him, demonstrating the response to a forward attack. 

“I do,” Merlin said. 

Danyl glanced over at him, then back at Heath, his cheeks coloring. “That’s… good.  He would look.  Nice.  In armor.  I think.”

“They always do.” Merlin leaned back on one elbow on the grass, stretching out his legs, watching his king do what he did best.  Which was lead others to a better version of themselves.  He’d never seen Heath so intent on what he was doing. 

“So.  You and Arthur?” Danyl asked in a low voice.

Merlin looked at him sharply.

Danyl gave a small smile, his dark hair blowing in his eyes, his pale round face still a bit red in the cheeks. “Are you two…?”

“No.” Merlin sat up straight, straightening his tunic, adjusting his belt, brushing at the dirt on his breeches.  “No, we’re-  No.  I’m just his-” 

Friend? Merlin thought. Servant? Sorcerer? Protector?

None of them felt like enough. 

None of them ever did.

“I don’t mean to pry,” Danyl said.  “It’s just.  Whenever I see you with him, you’re …”

“What?”

Danyl just shrugged, hugging his knees to his chest, resting his chin upon them, as he went back to watching Arthur and Heath.

Merlin stared into the distance, at the water reflecting off of the lake, frowning at himself.  His eyes dragged up to the island in the middle of the water.  To the ruins of the tower.  The sunlight caught on them, casting it in a golden glow.  A disturbing reminder of his dreams.

One quickly banished by the sound of Arthur’s laughter, at something Heath had said.  Merlin watched the two men circle one another, Heath trying out some of the things he’d been shown, as Arthur lectured him on form and motion.

Merlin watched them  for a while at Danyl’s side, until Heath came over to pull Danyl to his feet.  After some deliberation between them, Heath transferred his chainmail to Danyl, and pressed a sword and shield into Danyl’s hands.

Merlin watched with a smile as Arthur showed Danyl the same techniques as he had shown Heath, with Heath standing nearby, smiling at the scene.  Danyl mimicked Arthur carefully, reserved as always, until at one point, he reproduced Arthur’s technique with a rather vicious upper cut that had his sword whistling through the air.

Arthur nodded his approval, glancing over at Merlin with eyebrows raised.  “Best watch out for this one,” he told Merlin, and pointed at a blushing Danyl.

“Watching Danyl is my job,” Heath said, and he grabbed Danyl around the waist, pulling him in to kiss him quite passionately, and for long enough that Merlin gave a low appreciative whistle.  Heath released Danyl with Danyl’s sword in his own hand, then tapped the flat of the weapon against Danyl’s backside.

“That’s not playing fair!” Danyl said, laughing, as he grabbed for his sword.

“Careful!” Merlin called.  “You can still hurt yourselves with those things!”

“How can you hurt yourself with this?” Heath said in disbelief, has he succeeded in grabbing Danyl’s shield from him as well.

“There were extenuating circumstances,” Merlin informed him.  “Involving a-“ griffin was the next word, but that was no good, so he finished with “-wild animal.”

This time when Heath grabbed Danyl around the waist, he spun them away with the shield held up between them and where he and Arthur were.

Merlin rolled his eyes and picked up a bottle of water for Arthur.  “Never seen a shield used that way on the training grounds,” he said, as he climbed to his feet and walked over to Arthur.

He held out the bottle of water.  When Arthur didn’t take it, Merlin turned to him.

Arthur was staring, an utterly stunned expression on his face, at where Heath and Danyl stood hidden behind the Pendragon shield.

Oh, Merlin thought.  That’s right.

In all their talks of history, in all their discussions about the changing world, they hadn’t yet gotten to this.  

Time for that talk then, Merlin thought.  Not something he was looking forward to, honestly.  But he couldn’t avoid it now, especially not with Arthur staring in a way that was bordering on offensive. 

“Arthur,” Merlin said.  And then nudged him with his elbow.  “Cabbage head.”

Arthur’s gaze snapped to him. “What?”

Heath lowered the shield, and leaned forward to press his forehead against Danyl’s, as the two of them grinned stupidly at each other in a heart wrenching display of affection.

Arthur had begun staring again.

“Ror gora idos silus arnint!” Merlin hissed at him.

“Nid spi oed inos silus arnint!” Arthur snapped.

“Yes you are,” Merlin said.

“No I’m not,” Arthur told him.

“What language is that?” Heath asked, as he and Danyl approached.

“Just something from back home.  You done for the day then?” Merlin asked them all, hoping desperately that the answer was yes.

“Yeah, I best be getting back to Gran’s house to help with the horses.  Boy does she like you, by the way,” Heath told Merlin. 

“I noticed.  Can’t you do something about her?”

“She’s usually not that bad.  But she says you remind her of Emrys. And she’d been wanting to get a leg over with your Uncle for years-”

“Stop, seriously, just-“  Merlin shuddered and pulled a face, then glanced at Arthur, who was smirking at him.  Better than his earlier expression anyway. “What about you, sire? Are you done training?”

Sire,” Heath said softly to Danyl.

“Shut it,” Merlin snapped at him.

“It’s enough for today,” Arthur pronounced, and strode towards the house, of course carrying nothing at all.

With the help of Danyl and Heath, they managed to carry everything up to Merlin’s residence in one trip.  Merlin had them throw everything through his front door before sending them off.

“What time tomorrow will you be having training again?” Heath asked Arthur.

“After lunch,” Arthur told him. “Wear something with more give to it than that. The drills require more flexibility than those clothes will allow.”

“Great.  I look forward to training with you, sire,” he said, so sincerely that Merlin was sure he actually meant the title.

“And you, Heath, Danyl.”

“Sire,” Danyl said, with a shy smile.

Only Arthur could get people to call him by his title without asking them to do so, Merlin thought. He had no doubt Arthur would have the entire café calling him sire before long.

As they walked into his flat, Merlin drew in a deep breath of cool air.  “So much nicer in here,” he said, as he piled all their supplies to the side to deal with later.

Arthur followed him into the livingroom, pulling a glove off and casting it onto the pile, before pulling at his arm guard with sweaty fingers.

Merlin swatted away Arthur’s hands and took over the task of removing his gloves and arm braces and armor. Arthur was silent as he worked, his eyes downcast, his breathing still a bit fast from the exertion, his face red from the heat, his hair drenched with sweat.

“You can have the first go in the washroom,” Merlin said.  “You need it.”

No response to the comment.  Arthur just kept his eyes downcast, eyebrows drawn slightly together, deep in thought.

Merlin stepped behind Arthur to remove his armor.  “It’s acceptable now,” Merlin said. 

“What is?”

“For two men to be in a romantic relationship.  Or two women.  Or anyone really.”  Merlin pulled at a stubborn buckle, focusing on that, because it was hard enough to talk about this. “They can even marry.  If they want to.”

Silence in response.  For once, Merlin was glad he couldn’t see Arthur’s face. 

“Danyl pined after Heath for months,” Merlin went on, as his fingers pulled loose the buckles and ties.  “That boy was so in love that it was painful to watch.  Especially when Heath was seeing that girl.  Even before Danyl realized that Heath was… open minded about such things.  The two of them only just got together last week. I’m glad they finally did. Even if they have been late for work ever since.”

Merlin pulled off the remaining armor, then grabbed at the chainmail.  “I just thought you should know,” he said, as he lifted the chainmail over Arthur’s head. 

When he was free of it, Arthur pulled open his padded jacket and tossed it atop the pile of armor.  His shirt was drenched through, sticking to Arthur as if he’d just emerged from the water. 

A horrible thought that drove all thoughts of anything else from Merlin’s head.  “I’ll take care of all this, and then bring up your dinner.  Unless you’ll be needing anything else, sire?” he finished, the phrase of every royal servant falling without thought from his lips.

“No, that will be all,” Arthur said absently, then wandered off, through the livingroom and into the bedroom, to return to his chambers.

Merlin stared after him, before shaking himself from his thoughts.  He had things to do before he could get himself cleaned up.  He may as well do them.

After settling the equipment into a pile for tending to later, he retired to his own chambers upstairs and waited for his turn in the washroom.  Once Arthur was done, he showed and dressed himself, then returned downstairs to prepare dinner.

He was waiting downstairs at his dining table for the tea to finish brewing when Arthur joined him in his flat.  Arthur approached him silently on his bare feet, dressed casually in a loose white tunic and dark breeches. 

“What’s that?” Arthur asked him, gesturing at the laptop open on the table before him.

Merlin finalized the order of clothing and a new mobile for himself, then leaned back in his chair.  “Laptop,” he said, because any other explanation was far too long to begin.

Arthur walked behind Merlin, then leaned forward, hands on the back of Merlin’s chair, peering over his shoulder.  Merlin could smell the vanilla soaps of Camelot radiating from the heat of Arthur’s body, inches away from his cheek. 

“I haven’t been able to find any news of things going wrong in the world,” Merlin said absently, trying desperately not to lean towards Arthur.  “Well.  Not more wrong than usual.  Nothing to explain you being here, I mean.”

“How does it do that?” Arthur asked, and reached out to poke the display with a finger. 

Merlin caught his wrist and moved his hand away. “It’s called a computer, and you won’t learn about those until the last few chronicles.”

Denied his ability to poke at the screen, Arthur leaned closer, his chest pressing against Merlin’s shoulder, peering over the edge of the laptop screen at the other side, reminding Merlin of a cat he’d once had who had never been able to understand that there was nothing on the other side of the mirror. “Where are the images coming from?” Arthur asked.  “Is it a scrying stone like in that cave you told me about?”

“Actually, it can show images of things far away,” Merlin said.  “Though only what’s already happened.  Or is happening.  But it’s not magic.”

“Technology,” Arthur said, nodding as if he understood, his chest still pressing against Merlin’s shoulder. “Why are there images of tunics?”

Merlin swallowed and tried to lean a bit away. He honestly couldn’t remember if Arthur had always been quite as tactile as he’d been these past few days.  He didn’t think so.  Perhaps it was a side effect of being dead? he wondered.  Whatever the reason, it was both wonderful and horrible in equal measure.

“They’re called shirts now,” Merlin said, and then had to clear his throat, because his voice had gone a bit rough.  “And breeches are called trousers. I’m getting us both some of them. Most of my clothes look like an old man would wear them, and most of your clothes…”

Arthur stood up, looking offended.  “What’s wrong with my clothes?”

“Nothing, if you’re in Camelot.  Or walking around the manor grounds.  But I thought… If you wanted to blend in anywhere else…”

“I’m not wearing anything that makes me look like I’m a half naked tropical bird,” Arthur informed him, and rounded the table to sit haughtily in a nearby chair.

“Don’t worry, I’m getting you things as close as possible to what you already you own.  Nothing but boring plain colors and loose shirts.  Only they’ll be softer, and with elastic,” he added, and succeeded in getting a least some of the aggravation off of Arthur’s face. “How’s your reading coming along?”

Arthur crossed his arms over his chest, the very image of a petulant royal child. “I’m still wading through an endless century of poorly behaved kings who thought killing their families and intermarrying with other countries was more important than ruling their own lands.”

“I’m afraid things don’t get much better there for quite a while,” Merlin told him. 

Arthur snorted at that piece of information.  “There has got to be a faster way to get from learning about a bunch of ridiculous so-called kings to knowing what that is,” he said, jabbing a finger at Merlin’s laptop. 

“By reading faster?” Merlin closed his laptop and set his old mobile atop it.  He’d located the thing in the pockets of one of his old coats.  He’d received two hundred and five text messages on the mobile he’d used as Emrys, most of them yelling at him for disappearing as abruptly as he had. He hadn’t even started dealing with that mess yet.

“I have an idea,” Arthur said, in the voice that meant that Merlin was not going to like whatever it was.  “You read the chronicles to me, and just tell me the highlights.”

 “The highlights?  Of fifteen hundred years?“

“Eight hundred years, I’m up to the twelve hundreds.”

“More happened in those eight hundred years than in all the years before!”

“Merlin,” Arthur said, and the name was an entire paragraph, including such things as ‘don’t bother arguing’ and ‘you’re wasting your breath’ and the word ‘idiot’.

Merlin sighed, loudly.

“I’ll go back and read them myself after we get to the part where I can understand what that is,” Arthur said, and poked at Merlin’s laptop.  “Would that make you happy?”

“You’re honestly such a child,” Merlin said, as he went to add the tea to the tray of food.  

Arthur rose from the table to follow Merlin upstairs.  “Well then it makes sense that you’re going to read to me then,” he said.  And then he stopped, and frowned at himself.

Merlin smirked at him over his shoulder.  “That didn’t quite come out the way you’d intended, did it.”

“Shut up,” Arthur told him, and nudged him toward the staircase. 

As it turned out, Arthur’s suggestion wasn’t entirely awful.  Once they’d finished dinner, Merlin began doing as Arthur had asked, telling Arthur the most important bits of history from his chronicles. 

He’d actually forgotten how awfully royalty had behaved.  It was painful to even skim over.  Arthur must have been nearly murderous reading it word for word.  And even just listing the highlights, most of Merlin’s summary still sounded very much like “and then this one killed the other one because that one had killed someone else”.  

The whole process of reading to Arthur became even less objectionable once they’d sat by the dark hearth in their chairs, two bottles of wine on the floor between them.  Merlin left the drinking to Arthur tonight, because he couldn’t risk repeating what had happened before.  Especially not with Arthur reclining in his chair close by his side, his bare toes wiggling as Merlin read, his face softly lit by all the candles burning around them.

The air was warm tonight, a gentle breeze moving the curtains as it blew in from the open windows.  Somehow it had gotten late, and Merlin yawned as he snapped another book closed, to set it atop the tall pile by his chair. 

“Idiot kings,” Arthur said derisively, and took a long drink of wine.  “They should have just let the Picts live in peace in their lands up north.  The Gaelic people on their island as well.  That was just a stupid waste of resources.”

Merlin laughed long enough that he got a bleary eyed but curious look.  “No, it’s just… you’re going to be a very popular man in those lands with that opinion someday. It’s what they’ve always said as well.”

“What about the Black Death,” Arthur said.  “All of our people dying… Was there nothing you could do for them?”

Merlin rested his hands on his lap.  “By that time, I’d learned that some things needed to take their own course.”

Arthur pushed himself up in his chair, and leaned heavily on the arm closest to Merlin. “A third of the population died.  You consider that things taking their course?  What would Gaius have said to that?”

“Gaius was the first to tell me to use my magic when I should,” Merlin said.  “And it… It just felt wrong for me to interfere. I can’t explain it.  It was something that came from the earth. That sickness was…”  Merlin shook his head, leaned back in his chair. “I wasn’t supposed to interfere.  I could just tell.”

“I don’t know that I could have restrained myself.”

Merlin picked up another book.  “It probably helped that I was still recovering at the time.  From a few lost years.  Or.  Well.  Decades, actually.” 

“Your time talking to me,” Arthur said in a low voice.

Merlin pressed his fingers into the book cover, trying not to remember the years that had blended into each other, the haze filling his mind, the magic keeping him barely alive, the sounds of screams in the night, and Arthur always at his side, perfect and regal and shining and beautiful, always speaking to him, always keeping him from vanishing into the magics of the world, always calling him back-

“Merlin.”

His head snapped up.  Arthur was holding tightly to his arm.  So tightly that it hurt, in fact.  He wondered how long he’d been trying to get his attention.

“What?” Merlin said, through a dry throat.

“Stay with me,” Arthur told him, and rubbed his hand over Merlin’s arm.

“Sorry,” he muttered, and opened the book on his lap with a slightly shaking hand, skimming through the writing of the first page.  With a small smile, he closed the book again.  “Right, well this one’s going to be better.  It has lots of art and science and discovery.  And it’ll get you closer to the technology you’re so interested in.”

“Is this the summary that you’re doing right now?” Arthur said, and he slid his foot along the floor to poke Merlin in his bare ankle with his toes.

 “This one you honestly should read yourself.  I put some letters in from people I wrote to during this time.  Brilliant men, the Italians.  Astonishingly talented. I have some works that I commissioned from them in the library.” 

“Will reading every single word of that book get me to understand the metal boxes or the bits of stone with the moving pictures or elastic in shirts?”

Merlin sighed loudly.  “Arthur.”

Arthur sighed right back at him. “Merlin.

Fine.  But not tonight.  My eyes are crossing.”  He stood up and stretched.  Arthur watched him quietly, gaze half lidded and clearly a bit drunk, his wine glass in hand.  “Come on,” Merlin said fondly, and took the glass from Arthur, but not before Arthur downed it to the bottom.  “I’ll tell you all about the Renaissance after breakfast.”

“Before training,” Arthur said, as Merlin hauled him to his feet and dragged him towards the bed. 

“Yes, before training, I can’t wait for even more training.” Merlin pulled down the sheets and adjusted the pillows, then turned to Arthur, who was standing by the bedside, studying him strangely beneath half closed eyelids.

“Don’t do that thing,” Arthur said, and flopped a hand towards his head.

“What?”

“To your hair.”

Merlin felt the breath rush from his chest as Arthur reached up and ran the fingers of both hands through his hair.  Not roughly like before, but gently, soothing the strands forward, just as he’d worn it long ago. 

“Your clothes are…” Arthur paused in his motions, his eyes sliding down and up his body, rather intently Merlin thought, until he began patting again at the top of his head.  “But this… No.”

Merlin couldn’t help it, he felt his eyes close, felt his breathing speed up.  God. Arthur’s fingers sliding through his hair.  He felt his face burning hot as it filled with blood.  And then realized his body was sending blood elsewhere as well. 

“All right,” Merlin said hoarsely, ducking away, soothing his hair forward as Arthur had been trying to do.  He had to turn his back on Arthur, because one thing the old breeches definitely did not do was hide any signs of arousal.  He could not wait until he could wear jeans again.  “Just let me- I need to use the washroom.”

“Candles,” Arthur said.

Merlin glanced around the room, at the lit candelabras.

“Leave the windows open though. Come on then.”

Merlin nodded.  “Acwe-“

“Stop.”

Merlin drew in a sharp breath of surprise.  “Don’t interrupt me in the middle of a spell, Arthur, you remember what happened in the-”

“Yes, sorry, you’re right, of course,” he heard Arthur say, and then Arthur stepped right in front of him, dear god far too close, his eyes thankfully fixed on his own. “Now,” Arthur said.  “Go ahead.”

He wants to see, Merlin thought.  He wants to watch me do magic. He wants to see it in my eyes.  Either that, or he knows that I’m fighting not to snog him within an inch of his life, and he’s trying to torture me to death.  I wonder if I could die that way.  It feels like I could die that way. God, what a way to die-

“Come on,” Arthur said.

Merlin clenched his hands at his sides into fists. It took every ounce of his willpower to gather his thoughts.  Which was ridiculous, because the spell was child’s play. 

But then he remembered what happened at the meadow.  And his focus returned. “Acwence þa ligen,” he said, and with a surge of magic, the candles all extinguished, plunging the room into darkness. 

“Perhaps just leave the ones by the bedside lit,” Arthur said, his voice low and close and good lord, was he actually leaning towards it?  He forced himself backwards a step.

Forbaernan,” Merlin said, his voice breaking a bit, with a nod towards the candles by the bedside.  They flickered into life, casting enough of a light so that Merlin could see Arthur’s sleepy and clearly drunken grin.

“Wonderful,” Arthur said, and turned to stagger to bed.  “And hurry it up, will you?  I don’t want you waking me when you come back.”

“Right,” Merlin said, and he headed for the door.

“And don’t lay on top of me again when you come to bed,” Arthur added.  “It’s hot as blazes in here tonight.”

Merlin bumped into the edge of the table, caught himself, and leaned heavily on the tabletop. 

Don’t lay on me again tonight? Merlin thought frantically.  Oh god.  Was that what he couldn’t remember?  No, that was… That was… 

Not fair is what it was, he thought.  And then he frowned at himself.  Wrong is the correct word, you idiot, he told himself.  That was wrong-

“Go on,” Arthur said.

Merlin nodded, fully in a daze, as he wandered somehow from the room.

He very intentionally took his time finding a tunic and breeches to sleep in.  And then he took an even longer amount of time than that in the washroom.  

He couldn’t help it. Some things just needed tending to before he could return to Arthur’s chambers.  And probably would need tending to again in the morning.  Because apparently he was sexually a teenager again, even if his body was in its twenties, and his soul was well over a thousand.

By the time he returned to Arthur’s chambers, Arthur was, fortunately, asleep.  Although unfortunately, he was laying shirtless and lengthwise across the entire bed. 

Merlin moved to the bedside, grabbed Arthur’s body where he was sprawled, and hauled him over onto his side of the bed.  Arthur made vague noises of protest as Merlin dropped him with his head onto his pillow, then covered him up with blankets.

And because it was his destiny to suffer, when Merlin approached the other side of the bed, Arthur shoved the blankets and sheets down with one sloppy sweep of his arm. 

He’s intentionally trying to torture me, Merlin thought.  He knew somehow that I was intending to sleep on top of the bedding.  And he’s trying to torture me.

Why was this even still happening? he wondered. Why was Arthur letting him sleep with him every night?  Well, not sleep with him. But sleep with him. Which they had never, ever, done before.

“Get in for the love of god Merlin so I can go to sleep.”

The tone of command had Merlin sliding under the covers without thinking.  I’ve really got to do something about that, he thought miserably, as he stretched out flat on his back.  Stupid reflexes reacting to that stupid royal tone from my stupid king.

In the silence of the room, Merlin stared up at the canopy above him, careful not to move a single inch closer to where Arthur lay on his side facing away from him.

Trolls, Merlin told himself.  I’m thinking about trolls.  Big, hairy, putrid, stinking, trolls. What an awful smell they made.  Like a cesspool combined with a bog.  That was an awful stench, hey?  Took ten washings to get it out of Uther’s linens.

“Saw Gwaine once,” came Arthur’s slurred voice.

“What?”

“In the stables. With Percival.”

He began to ask what was so unusual about that.  But then realized what Arthur meant.  By ‘with’ Percival.

“There was a woman with them too. Not a stitch on her.”

Merlin turned his head on the pillow to stare in horror at the back of Arthur’s head.

“But she was just. Watching them.”

Oh my god, Merlin thought. 

“She didn’t see me,” Arthur continued sleepily.  “None of them did.”

This is not happening, Merlin thought frantically.  Not now, in bed with Arthur, while he’s half naked, and drunk-

“I left,” Arthur went on, because the universe truly hated Merlin, he was sure of it.  “Once I got over the.  You know.  Surprise.”

There it is, Merlin thought.  There’s the visual in my head.  Of Arthur, standing in the stables in surprise – and how long did he stand there watching? a truly filthy voice in his head asked – and all the while Gwaine and Percival were- 

“That’s interesting,” Merlin burst out, blinking away that mental picture, because it would lead him on the path to ruin.  

But it actually was interesting, wasn’t it.  Because it confirmed some things he’d often wondered about Gwaine.  

Arthur rolled over to face Merlin, so close that Merlin could feel his body heat against his left side.   Thankfully, Arthur did not open his eyes.  A fact for which Merlin was profoundly grateful.  Because he had no idea what expression was upon his own face, or how visible it was in the light of the remaining few candles.

“Did you ever?” Arthur asked, his words slurring.

Merlin felt as if someone had physically sat upon his chest. “Ever?”

“Catch them at it?”

“Oh.  No.  Well.  Not them.”

“Others?”

“A few times. In the castle after a feast.  When there had been a lot of drinking.”

Arthur was silent for so long that Merlin thought he fell asleep.

“Did you ever?” Arthur asked.

Merlin lifted his gaze to the top of the canopy. Right, he thought.  He’d promised he wouldn’t lie anymore.  Why in the hell had he done that?  Oh, that’s right, because he was the world’s biggest idiot.

“In Camelot?” Merlin asked.  “No.”

Arthur made a brief humming noise that sounded to Merlin like approval, which was both worrying and confusing, because he’d not shown any sign of disapproval about Gwaine and Percival.  So why should he be different?

“Me neither,” Arthur said.

Merlin felt his eyebrows raise.  He couldn’t remember the last time Arthur had volunteered anything of such a personal nature. He’d always had to drag such things out of him.

“Crown Prince… then King…”  Arthur shrugged his shoulders.

Crown Prince and then King what, Merlin wondered.  But Arthur didn’t elaborate. 

“What about not?” Arthur asked.

“Not?”

“What about not in Camelot?”

The crisp ‘t’ sounds on his words made Merlin wonder how drunk and how sleep-muddled Arthur really was. 

“Not in Camelot,” Merlin repeated. 

“Yes.”

“I… That’s… personal,” Merlin said, feeling more like a coward than he had in centuries.

“That’s a yes, then.”

Merlin closed his eyes and tried not to hyperventilate.  “Yes.”

“Your friend Will?”

Hearing that name after so long was so startling that Merlin’s gaze snapped to Arthur. Arthur’s brows were pulled together over his closed eyes, his lips pressed thinner than they should be if he were relaxed.

“Will?” Merlin repeated.

“You seemed… close.”

“We were. Yes.  But not… not like that.”

He watched Arthur’s features relax.  Saw his small nod against his pillow.  And that same small humming sound of approval.

“After Camelot, then,” Arthur said.  As if that was fine.  But the idea of Will was not. 

“Yes,” Merlin said, without really thinking, because he was too busy being perplexed by Arthur’s reactions. “You know he wasn’t a sorcerer, right?  That was me?  What happened in Ealdor?” 

“Yes,” Arthur said. “I know.”

“Right,” Merlin said.  So that wasn’t it, then.  Arthur’s problem with Will.  It wasn’t about magic. And why would it be?  He’d seen how Arthur reacted to his own magic.

“So those companions of yours then.  After Camelot.  Them.”

Merlin frowned up at the canopy, unable to begin to imagine why Arthur was asking all of this.  “Not- I mean- Some of them were… men.  Yes.  But not all of them.  I just… after living so long, I guess, I’m just… open minded.”

“Like Heath,” Arthur said. 

“Yes.”

“But not Danyl.”

Merlin lifted himself up onto his elbows, frowning down at Arthur now.  “Why are you asking me this?” he asked, because he couldn’t help himself.

“Seemed relevant,” Arthur said.

Which was even more aggravating than no answer at all, Merlin thought.  He lay back down on the bed, completely dazed. 

Relevant? he wondered.  Relevant to what?  To Heath and Danyl?  To living in the modern day?  Or- 

In a moment of horrible clarity, Merlin saw the situation through Arthur’s eyes.  And worse, he saw what it would probably mean for them both.

He won’t want me in his bed anymore, Merlin realized, and it felt like a kick to the stomach.  Now that I’ve told him that I’ve been with men and women both, he’s not going to want me to do this.  This… whatever this is. Which they were not talking about during the day.  But which they did every single night. 

Oh my god I am an idiot, he thought desperately. Whenever I die, and honestly now would be a good time for that, then this will be my epitaph.  Here lies Merlin of Ealdor, the Greatest Idiot to Ever Walk the Earth.  Also could do magic.

Why had he even said anything at all?  Why hadn’t he laughed it all off?  A funny joke between them, like always. Why did he have to go and be honest for once and practically guarantee that he’d have to sleep in the corridor outside Arthur’s chamber door and have to turn away when Arthur changed clothes and not be in his rooms when he-

Merlin’s entire body jolted as Arthur’s hand rested atop his shoulder under the blankets, warm and solid.

“It’s not for anyone else to say who we are,” Arthur said. “Not anymore.  We are who we are.  That’s all.”

Merlin had no absolutely idea what Arthur meant by any of that.  But it sounded like an acceptance.  Which was more than he’d dared hope for. 

“Go to sleep, Merlin,” Arthur said, squeezing his shoulder. Then leaving his hand there.

Merlin had no doubt that Arthur could feel his breaths heaving from him. He squeezed his eyes shut.  Forced himself to calm.  Deep breaths in.  Deep breaths out.  Calming himself.  An effort which was complicated because Arthur had still not moved his hand away.  He could feel his fingers pressing against his skin through his tunic.

“Do you want to hear a story about the last dragon’s egg?” Merlin said in a strangled voice that he was sure fooled no one in the room into thinking he had calmed.

 “Is that the name of a tavern?” Arthur said, and his tone was wry, and relaxed, because damn him, even when he was drunk, and even when he’d just had a horribly personal conversation, Arthur Pendragon was still the most resilient man in all of Albion.  Being dead over a millennium had apparently only made him more so.

“I don’t know anything about taverns,” Merlin said.  “On account of how I never actually went to one except for with you, if you’ll remember.”

“That’s right,” Arthur said into his pillow.  “Because you were off causing problems in my kingdom.”

“I was off solving problems in our kingdom,” Merlin said haughtily, and smiled at the twitch of Arthur’s lips.

For the first time, Arthur opened his eyes, just halfway, and he did smile at him then, breathtakingly beautiful in the candlelight with his hair mussed and his face half hidden in the pillow.

If this is the last moment I have before I die, Merlin thought, then I will die a happy, happy man.

“Go on then,” Arthur said, and closed his eyes again.  “Tell me your story.  I’ll try not to snore too loudly.”

In a soft voice, Merlin told him the tale, not really caring if Arthur was listening or not.  He’d barely gotten to the part where he’d helped to steal the Triskellion from the vaults when he could hear Arthur snoring into his pillow.

There was nothing attractive about it, the way that Arthur snored like a wild boar, with his mouth hanging open and drooling a bit onto his pillow.  But Merlin smiled stupidly at the sight, and watched him a long time, before finally following Arthur into sleep.

When he saw the tower in his dreams this time, he was standing knee deep in the lake. 

The water froze his skin, and the rocks of the lakebed dug into his feet.  Arthur was at his side, holding tight to his hand, fingers threaded through his own. 

Light poured from the tower onto the lake surface, gold and blue both, rushing towards where they stood. 

Merlin tried to move, but his feet were joined to the earth, his breath to the air, his blood to the water. 

He couldn’t escape.  But Arthur could.  There was still time.

‘Run, Arthur!’ he said to him, and he tried to pull his hand from Arthur’s grip.

Arthur didn’t let go.  He just smiled, a crown of magic upon his head, a cape made of light flowing over his glittering chainmail and armor.

Merlin watched the wave of magic roar towards them, relentless, unstoppable.  ‘Arthur, run!’

“Merlin!”

Merlin snapped awake and he surged upward, only to be shoved down against the mattress by Arthur’s hand on his chest.

“Are you all right?” Merlin breathed up at him.  “Was I using magic?  Did I hurt you?”

“You were dreaming,” Arthur told him, his voice still rough with sleep.  The night was still dark beyond the windows, though the bedside candles still burned.  “There was no magic.  It was just a nightmare.”

Merlin pressed his hands into his face, drawing in breath after breath, his body trembling upon the mattress, images from his dream fresh in his mind. 

The same dream, always the same dream, he’d never dreamed like this before, not like this, never like this-

Merlin twisted away from Arthur, curling up on his side, legs pulled to his chest, forehead pressed into his knees.  “No, no, no,” he moaned, his voice shaking, because a name kept repeating in his mind, a name of a person who had gone through something exactly like this before.

Morgana.

This is how she must have felt, Merlin realized frantically.  This is what it must have been like for her when she woke from vivid dreams that weren’t dreams at all, but premonitions of the future.

“No,” Merlin choked out, again thinking of Arthur, of the magic strangling him, of his own helplessness to stop it. “It can’t be…”

He felt Arthur’s hand on his shoulder.  “Merlin, breathe, come on-”

“I’m becoming like her,” Merlin choked out.  “Like Morgana.“

A pause, worrying in its length.  “That’s not true,” Arthur said, but his voice was not at all as firm as it should be if he truly believed it to be so.

“Kill me,” Merlin told Arthur in a low and shaking voice. “Promise me, please, if I become like her, you’ll kill me, to stop me, before I can hurt anyone, before I can hurt you, god, I can’t hurt you, Arthur, please-“

Merlin’s breath huffed from him as Arthur pressed his bare chest against Merlin’s back and slid an arm around his waist, his palm pressing hard over Merlin’s pounding heart. 

“Listen to me,” came Arthur’s voice, low and intense and so close to his ear that Merlin could feel his warm breath upon his skin.  “Are you listening?”

Merlin felt Arthur shake him, a nearly violent motion that shook them both on the bed.  He nodded, swallowing hard, focusing on Arthur’s arm, tense and strong and anchoring him to the world.

“You will not become like her,” Arthur told him.  “It will not happen. I will not let it.”

Merlin grabbed hold of Arthur’s forearm with both hands.  You can’t stop it, he thought desperately.  And if it happens, I don’t want you to try.  I can’t let you be hurt.  Not again.  Not because of me. 

“Swear to me,” Merlin said, his hands squeezing Arthur’s wrist.  “That if I become like her.  You’ll take Excalibur.  And you’ll put it through my heart-“

“Stop it-“

“You don’t understand,” Merlin said, his voice breaking, his chest heaving against the body behind him.  “I could rip the world apart.  I’m too old.  I’m too powerful.  If I became like her, I wouldn’t just destroy Camelot.  I could destroy everything.” He bowed his head as best he could, squeezing Arthur’s wrist while curled up like a child. “Please… you have to promise…”

He felt Arthur’s forehead land upon his shoulder.  His exhalation of breath was loud in the silence of the dark room.

“You are maddening,” Arthur said wearily.

“I am dangerous.”

“As am I, if you remember.”

“I do remember. That’s why it has to be you.  Only you can do it.”

A shake of Arthur’s head, a small movement upon his shoulder.  “Only you would beg for death in the hopes of saving others from a threat that doesn’t even exist yet.”

“You say it like you haven’t done it before yourself,” Merlin said bitterly.

A huff against his shoulder. 

And then, for a long time, silence.  After a time, Merlin felt his breathing return to normal, and felt his trembling cease.  Arthur stayed where he was, chest pressed against Merlin’s back, palm pressing over Merlin’s heart.

“All the people we’ve lost, Merlin,” Arthur said softly.  “For you to ask this of me...”

“For your people.”

“For our people.”

“Yes. For our people. To keep them safe.  You must promise me.”

Arthur lifted his head.  “Even with all your power, Merlin, it is still not within your right to force such oaths from your king.  But I will grant you one thing,” Arthur added, when he saw Merlin start to protest.  “I will promise you that I will do whatever I must to protect the people of Albion, and the greater world, no matter the cost.”

Merlin let out a breath, resigned.  He knew that tone.  There was no arguing with Arthur when he used that tone.  “Yes, sire.”

“All right,” Arthur said, with some of the calm from before, though there was still something there, an echo of the fear.  “Now tell me what you saw in this dream.”

Merlin rested his head against his pillow, still holding onto Arthur’s arm.  “It’s always the same.  It’s magic.  Coming from the tower. Coming after you. I tell you to run.  But you don’t.  Why do you never run when I tell you?”

“The same reason you’ve never run when I’ve told you.”

“Because we’re both idiots?”

Arthur gave gentle huff of a laugh that Merlin could feel against his neck.  “You know that’s not why.”

Yes, he thought.  He did know.  And it’s exactly what had gotten Arthur killed at Camlaan.  His honor. His bravery. His heart. And his blind faith in those he trusted.

“Please run if I tell you to,” Merlin whispered.

“You know I can’t do that.”

Merlin made a broken noise, and pressed his face into the pillow.

“Fine.  We’ll both run then,” Arthur said, his voice soft, and very close to his ear. 

“All right, Fine.”

“Good.”

They laid there for a while in the dark of Arthur’s chambers, not speaking, not moving.

“You’re such a liar,” Merlin finally said. “You never run from anything.”

“I’ve run on occasion.”

“Not from anything important.”

“The same could be said of you.”

“Because we’re idiots.”

“Again, I don’t think you’re choosing the right word there.”

Merlin felt himself smiling despite everything.  “Fine.  We won’t run.  We’ll fight.”

“Together,” Arthur told him.

“Together.” 

Merlin closed his eyes, trying to memorize the moment. Arthur pressed against him, warm and solid and alive, his arm still tight around him. 

He couldn’t remember ever feeling more at peace than he did right now.  Even with the nightmares.  Even with the magic.  Even with the imminent threat to Albion itself.  He’d never felt the way he did now.  Lying here in Arthur’s arms.

I love him, Merlin thought, and he had to hold his breath to keep a swell of emotion in check, because Arthur would be able to feel it if he let out the sob that was trapped in his chest.

“Feeling better?” Arthur asked, right at his ear, his breath moving the hairs at his neck.

If I say yes he’ll move away, Merlin thought wretchedly.  If I say no to keep him here I’d just be lying to him.  Again.  And I promised not to lie to him anymore. 

Merlin swallowed hard, and tightened his grip on Arthur’s arm, trying to draw the strength to make any kind of reply at all.

To his amazement, he felt Arthur’s chest slide against his back as Arthur lowered himself to the mattress behind him. 

“I’m sure you’ll feel better in the morning,” Arthur said against the back of his neck.

I’ve died, Merlin thought, as he felt Arthur leaning forward against him, warm and solid and alive and holding him in his bed dear god he’s holding me in his bed and I’ve definitely died and this my reward for fifteen hundred years of waiting. 

Merlin closed his eyes, forcing himself to relax, because his thoughts were running in all directions, and he wanted to savor this, truly savor it, these moments in Arthur’s arms in his bed in his chambers.

“Good night,” Merlin said, “my lord.”

And he couldn’t help it. The title came out sounding to his ears exactly as it felt in his heart. 

Good night, my lord. 

Good night, my love.

“Go to sleep,” Arthur said.  “We have a lot of training to do tomorrow.  And you have a lot of reading.”

If I don’t die from joy first, Merlin thought, and fought as long as he could to stay awake, so that he could feel Arthur’s breathing as he slid into sleep, until at last Merlin followed him there.

Chapter Text

It was hot in the stables.  Arthur could feel the links of his chainmail sticking to his chest. Nothing lay between his flushed skin and the warm metal.

Merlin hadn’t dressed him properly.  He needed to yell at him about that.

Arthur rounded a corner and saw Percival leaning against a stable wall. His thick arms were crossed over his chainmail.  He was smiling into the horse stall.  Arthur stepped closer to discover why.

“Oh hello Arthur,” said Gwaine, from where he lay naked on the straw, moving over a man reclining beneath him.

“Where’s Merlin?” Arthur asked.

“Merlin is a bit busy right now,” Gwaine said, with a wink and a grin.

Beneath Gwaine, Merlin turned his head on the straw and smiled up at Arthur, dark hair mussed and blue eyes half lidded.

Arthur strode forward, pulled Gwaine up, and shoved him at Percival. 

“Easy, Arthur,” Gwaine said, wearing full armor now, looking astonished at his behavior.

Arthur bent down and pulled Merlin to his feet, brushing straw from the clothes he now wore.  But they were the wrong clothes.  Tight and dark and in the modern style.  “Your hair,” Arthur said.  “What did I tell you about your hair.”

Arthur slid his fingers around to the back of Merlin’s neck, up into his thick hair. Instead of setting it to rights, he grabbed a handful of it, and pulled Merlin’s head back, exposing a long stretch of pale neck. 

Arthur wanted to smell him there.  So he did.

He smelled of vanilla, and sweat, and spice, and of Arthur’s bed.  Just as he should.

“Why are you here?” Arthur asked.

“I got lost,” Merlin said. 

Arthur pulled a row of metal links from his chainmail.  He bared an arm, pressed it against Merlin’s arm, then wrapped the chain around them both, binding them together.  “Now you won’t.”

Merlin looked delighted.  “That’s a wonderful idea.”

Arthur pulled Merlin against him, no clothes between their bodies now, no armor, just skin to skin, the metal chain tight around their joined arms.

“Now they’ll see,” Arthur said. “Now they’ll know.  That you’re mine.”

“I’ve always been yours,” Merlin said. “Didn’t you know?”

Arthur crushed his mouth to Merlin’s, to soft lips that yielded as he pressed his advantage and took what was his.

“Could be better,” came another voice.

Arthur looked over. 

Heath and Danyl stood arm in arm where Percival and Gwaine had been. 

“Bit of a brute,” Danyl said. 

“Doesn’t know any better, does he,” Heath said.

“He can learn.  Can’t he, Merlin.”

Arthur discovered a shield in his hand.  He raised it between the two young men and where he and Merlin embraced. 

Merlin gazed at him in perfect adoration.  “I know how,” he said.  

“Show me,” Arthur told him.

Merlin nodded, obedient for once, and leaned forward, his head tilting, so he could slide his full, wet lips against Arthur’s.  Arthur gathered Merlin into his arms, holding him close, as Merlin fitted himself against Arthur’s body as if he belonged there.

Arthur slid his hands over hot bare skin as Merlin kissed him like a lover, passionately and deeply, his tongue lapping into his mouth.  Arthur felt Merlin’s long fingers trailing over his skin, leaving sparks in their wake, as they moved their bodies together, slick with sweat, hard and unyielding.  Pleasure swelled in him as they ground together, until Merlin slid a hand between his legs, palm moving over him in a steady rhythmic pace that had sharp spikes of pleasure surging up and up and up-

“Merlin,” Arthur moaned.

And startled himself awake.

Arthur huffed into a face full of pillow, stilling his body in alarm, realizing that he’d been grinding his erection into the mattress.

It was dawn, and the windows were open, the room hot, the birds singing outside. Next to him on the bed, Merlin stirred, obviously waking up.

Arthur squeezed his eyes closed and forced himself to keep still, because gods, he was so bloody close, just two thrusts against the mattress would do it, he knew it would, and it would be amazing, but Merlin was right there-

And good lord, Arthur thought, Merlin had been in his dream.  He’d been the one who Arthur had been ravishing- and oh god that was wrong in so many ways- but he could still remember how his mouth had felt so wet and his skin so hot and his neck so smooth and- what the hell was he thinking-?

“Whassit?” Merlin muttered, his voice low and husky, as it had been in his dream, when he’d said ‘I know how’.

Arthur shoved his forehead into his pillow, a shudder moving through him.

Merlin rolled onto his back, turning his head on the pillow, half asleep and licking his lips – which really were ridiculously full, Arthur realized, and some lust crazed part of his brain actually wondered if they would feel just as good as they had in his dream if he kissed him right now-

“Whu?” Merlin asked, blinking sleepily at him.

Arthur tried desperately not to stare at Merlin’s mouth, which meant of course that he stared Merlin’s mouth, which was shining with moisture, lips parted, and oh god he had to stop thinking like this why was he thinking like this-

“Breakfast!” Arthur choked out.

Merlin gave him a look of irritation and incredulity.  Then he rolled away.  “It’s just dawn.  Go back to sleep.”

Arthur accidentally moved his hips against the mattress, and the resulting shock of pleasure made his entire body spasm.  So close so close so close- “Now, Merlin!”

“Too early,” Merlin whined, and burrowed back under the blankets.

Arthur twisted in bed, swearing at the friction, and planted both feet on Merlin’s backside, then shoved him out of the bed. 

Merlin went tumbling to the floor, yelping in surprise.  When he got to his knees by the bedside, he was a spectacular sight.  His face was red and his eyes were wide and his hair was sticking up at all angles, more wild now than ever it had been.

“Arthur! What the hell!” Merlin yelled.

Arthur pulled the blankets over his head and rolled away, cringing because his body utterly refused to calm down.  “Go get breakfast!”

“What is the matter with you this morning!” came Merlin’s voice, combined with the sound of his bare feet padding across the stone floor. “Did you take arrogant royal prat tonic last night?”

“Go!” Arthur yelled from beneath the covers. 

“I’m going, you arse!  Oh my god what a giant spoiled brat of a child you are!”

And the sound of the door slamming shut.

Arthur shoved down the covers and looked around the bed, searching for a discarded tunic, or sock, or rag.  He spotted a hint of color on the floor, scooped it up swiftly, then fell back on the bed, groaning. 

It was Merlin’s red neckerchief. 

No, he thought at it, as he pressed it into his face. No, no no…

But the smell of it - vanilla and sweat and spice and Merlin - brought back all the sensations from the dream.  Of a firm body, and a warm mouth, and wet lips, and slick tongue, and hands all over him, and what was he doing, thinking about Merlin like this, but it was too late to stop, because Arthur was already rolling onto his stomach, his breeches shoved down, to wrap his hand and the cloth around his erection.

Damn Gwaine and damn Percival for not locking the stable door that night, and damn Merlin’s friends for making him remember it after all this time, and damn him for mixing Merlin up in those memories.

Merlin, who was apparently open minded.

A dozen images of all the things that could possibly mean filled Arthur’s mind, each one filthier than the last, and Arthur pressed his face into his pillow, mouth open and breaths heaving, his toes digging into the bed, as he moved his hand on himself, faster and faster, until his body went rigid, shuddering helplessly as his release surged through him, and he spent into the cloth, a moan bursting from deep in his throat.

For several glorious moments he felt as if he were floating, his body still twitching in pleasure, his muscles tensing and relaxing with each fading wave of release.

When at last he collapsed to the mattress, he felt dizzy and lightheaded and the room was spinning a bit.  Something that hadn’t happened since he was a teenager. 

First time doing that in fifteen hundred years, Arthur thought.  That’s why it had been so intense.  It had nothing to do with what he’d been thinking about.  Or who he’d been thinking about.  

Because really.  Merlin.  Of all people.  That was just… It was… 

Arthur rolled onto his back and readjusted his clothes, frowning at himself.  When he went to tie his breeches, he realized he still held the red cloth tightly in his hand.

Merlin is never getting this neckerchief back, Arthur thought.  Never, ever, ever.  In fact, it would probably be for the best if he shredded it.  And then burned it.  And then buried it deep in the ground.

Arthur dragged the blankets over himself, exhausted from his exertions.  A bit more rest, he thought.  That’s what I need.  I’m sure things will make more sense after that. 

After burrowing into his pillows, Arthur let himself drift back to sleep.

A loud clatter of dishes and glasses and metal woke him with a start.  He sat straight up in bed, flailing a bit, blinking dazedly into the room, his heart pounding.

“I’m so sorry,” Merlin yelled, his voice loud enough to be heard in every corner of the five kingdoms.  “Did I wake you?”

There came a crack of a plate being slammed to the wooden tabletop.  And then another.  And then another.  Followed by several more.  And then a loud, metallic cacophony, as quite a lot of silverware fell from what had to be a great height onto the table. 

“For the love of god, Merlin,” Arthur groaned, and flopped back onto the bed.

“Come on, Arthur, no sleeping in today, let’s rise and shine, up out of bed sleepyhead,  let’s get up and at’em, let’s have you lazy daisy-”

“Shut up.” Arthur dragged a pillow over his head and rolled onto his stomach.  He was being punished, he thought.  For doing what he’d done this morning to Merlin’s neckerchief. Merlin was going to torture him with every single horrible morning ritual he’d ever performed while yelling every single brainless proverb he’d ever learned.

“Early bird catches the worm!” Merlin called out, proving Arthur’s theory. He yanked the pillow off of Arthur’s head and threw it across the room, before pushing open the curtains even farther, so the sun shone right in Arthur’s eyes.  “Don’t put off tomorrow what you can- Is that my neckerchief?”

Arthur sat up and shoved the cloth behind his back.  He scowled up at Merlin, who stood by the bedside, wearing his old clothes from Camelot, even a faded blue neckerchief around his neck.  “What?” Arthur asked.

“My neckerchief.”

“No. What?”  Arthur shoved it into his breeches pocket.  “No.  Of course not.”

Merlin thrust out a hand with an impatient huff.  “Give it here.”

“I need it to blow my nose.”

“Ugh, that is disgusting. Now come on. I’m doing the washing today.  Give it.”

Arthur ignored him, sliding to the other edge of the bed, subtly yanking the string of his breeches tighter, before walking to the breakfast table. 

Upon the long table were seven scattered plates, a pile of silverware that had mostly fallen onto the floor, a hard boiled egg in a cup of weak tea, some soggy potato bits floating in a bowl of orange liquid, and a burned crust of bread covered in globs of dust, as if it had been dragged repeatedly along the floor.

Merlin stepped to Arthur’s side, hands clasped behind his back, humming to himself, rocking forward on the balls of his feet, then back onto his heels.

Arthur crossed his arms over his bare chest.  “Truly impressive,” he said. Because this, right here, was truly an act of petulance of the absolute highest order.

“Quite the spread, isn’t it,” Merlin said proudly.

“No.”

Merlin pressed a hand to his chest, affecting astonishment.  “No?”

“No.”

“I can’t imagine what could be wrong with it.  My lord.

Arthur tamped down an urge to cuff Merlin on the head.  Because he was not going to touch Merlin’s hair. Not ever, ever again.   

Although he didn’t need to, did he.  Because Merlin had styled it just as he should. 

Which was absolutely none of his business, Arthur thought quickly.  Because it was Merlin’s hair.

Arthur returned his attention to what could only laughably be called breakfast.

“I suppose the entire café was out of scones and sweet breads,” Arthur said.

“Hard to believe, isn’t it.”

“And no sausages or proper eggs?”

“Quite sad.”

“And no tea or juice or coffee?”

“What a strange Thursday.”

Arthur turned to him, eyes narrowing.  “I think, Merlin, that if I go look for myself downstairs, I just might find all of those things.”

Merlin turned to meet his gaze, narrowing his eyes as well.  “That would require you actually getting your own breakfast.”

“Something any idiot can easily do.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you.”

Arthur glared at him.  

Merlin glared back. 

“All right then,” Arthur said, and he strode from the room, closing the door behind him. 

“Oi!” Merlin called from his chambers.  “You can’t go to the café dressed like that!”

Arthur took off down the corridor, barefoot and bare chested and slipping on the stones as he took the turn by the stairwell.  Merlin charged after him as he dashed through the downstairs bedroom, out into the residence, and over to the café door. 

Arthur had only just managed to yank it open when Merlin fell upon his back, grabbing him around the waist from behind. 

“You can’t go out there!” Merlin yelled, which of course attracted the attention of everyone within earshot in the cafe.

Arthur planted a bare foot on the doorframe and pushed back, sending them both to the floor. Arthur scrambled to his feet first, making a run for the doorway, his speed hindered by the laughter rising in his chest.

Merlin jumped on his back again, arms wrapping around Arthur’s neck, his body a heavy weight upon him.  “You can’t go out there!”

“And why not?” Arthur demanded.

“You’ll frighten the customers!” Merlin said, but he was laughing now as well.

Arthur turned and slammed Merlin against the wall just hard enough for him to give a surprised grunt.  “Are you insulting my looks?”

“Yes! You’re horrifying!” Merlin laughed, which was reason enough for Arthur to flip him to the floor.

When Merlin got to his hands and knees, Arthur dropped himself onto his back, flattening him to the floor. “You’re the one who’s horrifying!”

“I am not!  It’s you! I can’t even bear to look at you!” Merlin flailed an arm backwards and cracked Arthur in the cheek with an elbow. 

Arthur got an arm around Merlin’s neck and shoved forward until Merlin’s face was pressed into the floor.  “Take that back!” Arthur laughed in his ear. 

“No!” Merlin pulled at Arthur’s arm, his legs scrambling all over the floor to try and push himself up. “Royal pain in my arse!”

“Shoddy excuse for a manservant!”

“Get off!”

“Take it back first!”

“A-hem!” came a voice nearby.

Arthur’s gaze snapped up, and then Merlin’s too, so swiftly that the top of Merlin’s head knocked painfully into Arthur’s jaw.

Eleanor stood in the doorway to the café, arms crossed over a violent pink dress with a dizzying array of polka dots. Her thin face was set into a disapproving scowl, her eyebrow arched so high that Arthur flashed back to being a child in the presence of a younger and scarier Gaius. 

Behind her, he saw several of the café employees staring through the doorway at where they both lay on the floor in a tangle, breathless and red in the face.

Arthur held onto his breeches and climbed to his feet by virtue of planting a hand on Merlin’s back and pushing him back down to the ground.

Merlin swore at him and climbed to his feet as well, breathless and red faced, yanking at his tunic and belt and neckerchief to straighten them.

As Arthur was tightening the string of his breeches, his elbow knocked into Merlin’s arm.  Merlin knocked his elbow back in response.  So Arthur shoved at him with his shoulder.  Merlin shoved back harder.

“Honestly,” Eleanor said, her voice ending the horseplay.  “How old are the pair of you?”

Next to Arthur, Merlin lifted an eyebrow, and the corner of his mouth twitched.

Arthur choked back a laugh, then forced his face into lines of severity, pushing his shoulders back and his chin forward, as if he wasn’t half naked in front of a good number of people and hadn’t just been caught wrestling on the floor. 

“How old are we again?” Arthur asked Merlin curiously.  “I’m afraid I’ve lost count.”

“Oh, we’re quite old,” Merlin told him.

“And look at you both,” Eleanor said. “Wrestling on the floor like small boys.  And what was all that on the lawn yesterday?  Scared the life out of me!  All that nonsense with the swords.  Are you all right?” she asked Merlin, with a sharp glance at Arthur. 

“I’m fine, really.  It looks worse than it is.  And I’m afraid you’ll have to get used to it.  We’ll be doing that again occasionally.”

“Daily,” Arthur amended.

Merlin sighed, loudly. 

Arthur gave him a look.

“Daily,” Merlin said, in a very put-upon voice.

Eleanor made a tsking noise.  “Worse than my boys, the both of you.  And you,” she said to Merlin, “left Arthur’s breakfast dishes in the café.  I brought them in and put them in your kitchen.”

“How about that,” he said sweetly to Merlin.  “They did have sweet breads after all.  Wasn’t that nice of Eleanor to get them?  Thank you, Eleanor.  Merlin honestly would be lost without you.”

“Not more than you’d be lost without Merlin, Arthur Pendragon,” Eleanor stepped into the doorway, shooing away the other café employees.  “Now keep it down in here,” she told them both, and closed the door smartly, leaving them staring after her in her wake.

Merlin looked at Arthur.  “She called you by name.”

Arthur nodded.  “We had a chat yesterday.”

“Oh.”

“Yes.”

Arthur and Merlin stared at the door a moment longer.

“Terrifying woman,” Arthur said finally.

“She really, really can be.”

“Does she ever remind you-?“

“-of Gaius?” Merlin finished.  “All the time.”

“It’s the eyebrow.”

“And looking at you like she knows all the mischief you’ve got up to.”

“A shame they never met.  They’d have liked each other.”

Merlin snorted.  “Or killed each other.”

“Or fallen madly in love.”

“You,” Merlin said, “are far too fascinated by Gaius’ love life.  Which, by the way, ugh.”

Arthur shoved at him with his shoulder.  “Come on.  Breakfast first, then you have some reading to do.”

“Reading to you to do, you mean.  Because you’re a giant child.”

“I believe Eleanor established that we’re both giant children.”

Merlin gave him a smug smile.  “And that you’d be lost without me.”

Arthur made a derisive noise as he headed into the kitchen. “You’re the one who’d be lost without me,” he said. 

And then he remembered the dream. Of Merlin, staring at him in adoration.  Of the chain binding them together.  ‘I got lost’, he’d said.

“What is it?” Merlin asked.

Arthur cleared his throat and picked up the plate full of scones. “Books,” he said, his voice a bit rough.  “After I eat and wash and dress.  Then afterward, lunch, and training, and dinner, and more books.”

“Yes, my lord,” Merlin said behind him, and followed him with the rest of the breakfast foods up the stairs.

 

Chapter Text

Hours later, Arthur found himself staring at Merlin again. 

They’d moved the history lessons to Merlin’s vast library room, beyond his bed chambers.  It was cooler here, without the heat that had poured through his own chamber windows. But even within these round stone walls, he’d had to shed his jacket and push up his sleeves to stay comfortable.

Dust and the smell of old parchment filled the air as Arthur sat with Merlin at a long wooden table in the middle of the room.  Books were simply everywhere; in stacks upon the floor, on wooden shelves, and on stone outcroppings set into exterior walls. 

Arthur watched Merlin lean forward, elbows upon the table, head bent over the open book before him, reading aloud from what he insisted was text of great importance.

Arthur had stopped listening some time ago.  He’d been too distracted by Merlin’s sharp profile, and the line of his neck, and the movements of his lips.

He looks the same, Arthur thought.  His hair is a bit longer.  And sometimes when he looks at me there’s that hint of great age.  But everything else is the same.  Right down to his clothes.  There’s absolutely nothing different.  Not at all.

And yet, Arthur couldn’t stop staring.

It was the damn dream’s fault, he decided. Although yes, he was also willing to admit that Merlin’s admission about being open minded had piqued his curiosity. 

As had Merlin’s friends, Danyl and Heath.  Who were apparently in a romantic relationship together.

He’d known, back in Camelot, that his men sometimes found comfort together in darkened stables and battle encampments.  But he’d never imagined it could be more than that.  He’d certainly never thought such things could reflect a lifelong commitment like a man and wife. 

Not that such things would have been permitted him, he thought, either as Crown Prince or as King. He had to pass on the royal bloodline.  Not that he’d managed to do that himself, he thought grimly.

“Arthur?” Merlin said into his thoughts.

Arthur sat up a bit straighter in his chair.  “What?”

“I said, isn’t that horrifying?”

“Yes. Absolutely. It is.”

Merlin half turned to him, an eyebrow raised.  “Oh?  And what was I talking about?”

Arthur scratched his head to hide a glance at Merlin’s book. “The French Revolution.”

“Right,” he said slowly, in both surprise and suspicion. “So. Where was I…” He tapped his long fingers on the page. “Oh yes.  The Enlightenment.”

Several minutes into whatever Merlin was talking about, Arthur realized he was staring at Merlin’s fingers as they slid down the sentences on the page.

For god’s sakes, Arthur thought at himself, and he grabbed at an open book he’d been browsing through, to give his eyes something else to do.

Within his book he saw a sketch of a telescope.  Next to it, Merlin had sketched the moon.  Arthur pulled the book closer, studying the intricate drawing. 

As a child, he’d been fascinated by the moon.  Even as an adult, when the moon only held value as a help or hindrance in a march to battle, Arthur had loved the sight of it. He would have very much enjoyed a telescope such as this, if only to find out for himself if there really was a man in the moon.

“Strange that they call them seas,” Arthur said, half to himself.

“What?”

“These regions of the moon.  If there’s no water on them, then why call them seas?”

Next to him he heard an extremely loud, extremely exaggerated, sigh.

“Yes, Merlin, I’m listening to you,” Arthur said, as he studied the illustration.

“This is actually a very important thing for you to know.”

The low voice, and the serious tone, had Arthur closing his book and turning in his seat to fully face where Merlin sat, frowning at him with disapproval.

“All right.  I’m listening.  What’s your very important thing for me to know?”

“This point in history,” Merlin poked at his book, ”is when people realized they could govern themselves.  The ideas of Rationalism and the Enlightenment had spread everywhere, and education was available to a new class of merchants and tradesmen.  It had been a long time coming. But the seventeen hundreds is when it really happened.  When many countries abandoned the old monarchies, and moved to governance by the people.”

“Was Albion one of them?” Arthur asked. 

“Eventually.  Yes. I mean, there is still a royal family.  But they don’t do any actual… ruling,” Merlin finished, looking apologetic.

Arthur leaned back in his chair. “If Albion has no kings, then what purpose could I serve here?”

“You’re here to save Albion at the time of her greatest need,” Merlin said.

“Whatever that is.”

“Yes.”

“Your confidence would be more reassuring, Merlin, if you had even the slightest idea of what lies ahead. Is there truly no way you can find out?”

“No,” Merlin said, but his brows pulled together, the slightest bit.

Lying, Arthur thought. Or concealing something, at the very least.  “What about those crystals you told me about?” Arthur pressed.  “They show visions of the future, don’t they?  Couldn’t you use them?”

“The crystals are…” Merlin pressed his palms to his legs, eyes lowering. “Deceptive.”

“How?”

Merlin didn’t respond.  He just stared at his fingers pressing into his legs, his fingertips turning white from the pressure.

Falling into memory again, Arthur thought, when Merlin sat still for so long that he finally had to put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder and speak his name to rouse him.

Merlin blinked at him. “What?”

“You were saying the crystals are deceptive.”

“Yes.”

“And so we can’t use them?”

“No.”

Right then, Arthur thought. Moving on.  “What about the other beings of magic?  Can’t you ask them for advice?” Arthur pressed.

“Most beings of magic left Albion long ago.”

“Left?  Left to go where?”

“Some died out, like the dragons.  Others stopped being born, like sorcerers.  And still others rejoined the ancient magics of the world of their own choice.  I helped quite a few to do it.  The vilia were very nice about asking for my help, even though I’d owed them a favor for helping me long ago.”

Arthur nearly let himself get distracted with the questions that every single one of those statements had brought to mind.  “But there must be some still here,” he persisted.  “Someone brought me back, after all.”

“Yes.”

“The Sidhe, you said.”

“Yes.”

“And you can’t ask them?”

Merlin turned back to the table and closed his book.  “They don’t talk to me.”

Arthur could see pain pinching Merlin’s features.  His shoulders had fallen into a slouch, his head bowed, his back rounded. 

Old, Arthur thought.  He looks so very old right now. It was easy to imagine the white hair, the long beard, the robes hanging upon a frail body.

“Wasn’t right,” Merlin was saying, his voice so soft that Arthur wondered if he knew he was speaking aloud.  “Shouldn’t have done it.”

Arthur placed his hand on Merlin’s shoulder again. “Merlin.”

“I was so sure,” Merlin said, frowning down at the book.

Merlin.”

Merlin’s head snapped up and he stared at Arthur, disoriented.  “What?”

“I said-” Arthur paused, changed his mind. “That we should have lunch.”

“Lunch?”

“Yes.  Food, Merlin.  You’ve heard of it?”

“Yes, I…”  He frowned at Arthur.  Gaze lowering.  Memories clearly still pulling at him.

“That’s very good that you’ve heard of food,” Arthur said, pitching his tones into the royal condescension that he knew drove Merlin insane.  “Because I’ll be practicing my skills with the mace again later. Which means you’ll have the honor of holding the target once again.”

“I still have bruises from yesterday!” Merlin protested.

“Then you’ll definitely be needing a good meal to keep up your strength.  Come on.  Have at it.” Arthur opened a random book and began examining its pages, definitively ending the discussion.

Merlin got up from the table muttering to himself that no one used the bloody mace anyway.  As he strode from the library, he added several insolent statements that would have easily gotten him thrown in the stocks.

“I really need to make him build some stocks,” Arthur said to himself.

“I heard that!” Merlin called from the next room. 

Arthur’s laughter echoed from the stone walls.

By the time they’d eaten and Merlin had got Arthur into his armor, the heat of the afternoon was nearly unbearable.

Outside on the grasses by the lakeside, the sun beat down upon Arthur’s armor, drenching him in sweat.  After only a half hour demonstrating rudimentary skills to Heath and Danyl, perspiration was running in streams down his neck.

By then, Danyl and Heath both looked about to collapse, swaying slightly as they stood in their chainmail.  When Arthur called a break, they both went and collapsed onto a blanket where they’d spread out some food and drink.

Arthur sat down with Merlin beneath a nearby tree.  He was a familiar sight in this unfamiliar world, clothed as if he’d stepped out of Camelot, a polishing kit in his lap, a pile of training swords on the grass beside him.

“I don’t remember it ever being this hot.  Not even in the Perilous Lands.”  Arthur took a long drink and turned his back to Merlin. “Take off my armor and chainmail. I’ll work basic skills with them instead.”

Merlin yanked at the buckles at his shoulder.  “Ugh, I forgot about this smell.   Sweat and hot metal and soaked cloth all at once.  You stink like a pig in a bog.”

“I’m sorry, Merlin,” Arthur said haughtily.  “Is the smell of actual physical activity bothering you? “

“I’m just saying that a shower will do you a world of good,” Merlin said, and pulled off the armor from his body, before throwing it on the ground.

“How curious, because I was just thinking the same about you.  Here.  Why don’t I help you with that.” Arthur turned around, smirking tightly, and dumped his water bottle over Merlin’s head.

Merlin squeezed his eyes closed as the water ran down over his hair and face and clothes.   When Arthur had shaken out the last drop, Merlin wiped his face, and gave Arthur a wide earnest smile.  “Very refreshing.  Thanks.  That’s much cooler now.”

“You’re welcome,” Arthur grumbled, because Merlin actually did look like he felt better. “Now get this off.”

Merlin had just freed him of his chainmail when Heath and Danyl approached.  “You know there’s a lake right there,” Heath pointed out.  “You don’t have to waste your bottled water to get wet.”

“The lake is too cold for swimming, though,” Danyl added.

“That’s right,” Heath said, frowning curiously.  “It is too cold for swimming.”

Arthur glanced out over the sparkling water. “I’ve never actually seen anyone swimming in the lake.  Nor any boats.”

“Water’s too cold,” Heath said.

“For boats?” Arthur asked.

“Too cold on the water,” Heath said, in a distant tone of voice. 

Arthur glanced at Merlin, who was doing a very good job of looking like he wasn’t paying attention while he was actually paying attention.  “Have either of you ever been to the island?” Arthur asked Danyl, chasing a suspicion.

“Too cold on the island,” Danyl told him, in that strange tone of voice again.

“Really.” Arthur turned to Merlin. “What have you to say about that?”

“Seems to be the general consensus around here,” Merlin said, the perfect picture of innocence. To anyone who wasn’t Arthur, in any case.

“I wonder why that is,” Arthur said.

“It’s a mystery,” Merlin told him. 

They returned to training without the trappings of armor and metal, but even with the lighter clothing, Arthur didn’t keep them at it much longer.  Both Heath and Danyl looked ready to collapse by the time he sent them back to work at the Apothecary.  And even Merlin was soaked with sweat as he gathered the equipment, though he urged Arthur to use the washroom first to clean up.

“I need to work in the Apothecary later today anyway,” Merlin told him.  “I’ll see you for dinner.”

Hiding something, Arthur thought, though he wasn’t sure why.  But Merlin had smiled brightly at him, and Arthur had let it drop.

So he took full advantage of the shower, standing under the cool water to recover from the heat.  But by the time he’d finished dressing, he was covered in sweat once again, from the heat that poured in his chamber windows. 

There had to be somewhere cooler, he thought, and he wandered downstairs into Merlin’s residence, and then outside, to the lake, hoping for a breeze. 

After a glance back at the manor, Arthur sat down at the edge of the lake, pulled off his boots and socks, pushed up his pant legs, and sank his feet and calves into the wonderfully cool water. 

“Oh that is much better,” he said, as he lay back on the grass, an arm across his eyes.

The secret to enjoying the lake, Arthur told himself, was to not think about what lake it was.  It was just a lake, like any other, made of cool water, with gentle waves moving around his calves.  

It didn’t have anything to do with magic, or with fifteen hundred years of death, or with the loss of everything he knew.

Arthur pressed his palms into his eyes.  No, he thought.  Stop. Try again.

It was just a lake, he told himself.  Just a lake like any other…

This time he kept control of his thoughts, and he relaxed, lulled by the heat.  He was still tired from the unrest last night.  He hadn’t been sleeping well at all.  But then, neither had Merlin.

Merlin, who was dreaming, every night. 

What can I do? he wondered.  What can I do about his dreams…?

You are a king, Arthur Pendragon.’

Arthur pushed himself to his elbows, startled by the voice.

The water moved around his ankles, like fingers brushing against skin.  Arthur sat forward, stared down into the water, and saw a woman’s face dancing in the ripples.

Arthur turned and looked behind him.  But no one was there.

Do not let them forget,” came her soft words, like water whispering to shore.

Arthur twisted around, peering back into the water. But the ghostly image was gone.  

“Who are you?” he said to the water.

But there was no response.

Merlin, he thought.  Merlin would know.

He pulled on his stockings and boots, shoved down his pantlegs, and strode to the Manor, moving through the café, straight to the Apothecary.

When he pushed through the Apothecary door, he found himself in a large room filled with freestanding shelves packed with bottles and boxes. Heath sat behind the counter, looking startled at his approach.

“Where’s Merlin?” Arthur asked him.

“In the greenhouse on the roof with Danyl.  Up that staircase, last door towards the top.  Oh, and before you go, can I invite a few of my mates to sword training?”

“Yes, fine,” Arthur said, moving to the stairwell.

“Tomorrow at one? Just like today?”

“Yes, fine.” 

“Thank you, sire,” Heath said, and though Arthur knew the young man had no idea that the title was deserved, he still found it quite reassuring to hear it.

The stone stairwell had small glowing orbs set into the wall every few paces.  Every floor had a small landing with a door that probably lead into the South Tower. 

When Arthur reached the end of the stairs, he pushed open the door, and stepped out onto the stone roof of the Manor house.

The entire rooftop was covered by a glass peaked ceiling made of many small windows, almost all of them open.  It was high enough above his head that he couldn’t hope to touch it, but low enough that it wasn’t visible from the ground.  Even lowest points of the stone embrasures along the edge of the manor roof rose above its top, blocking it from view from the ground below.

Long tables stretched the entire length of the roof.  Potted plants covered them, lush and full and alive.  More plants hung from the ceiling, others standing in pots on the floor, some bearing fruits.  On the ground, long tubes leaked water in places onto the stones.  Above, spinning metal circles moved air around, keeping the enclosed space tolerable in the heat of the summer.

“Oh, hello Arthur!” came a bright voice.

Danyl stood between two of the rows of tables, at a section empty of plants.  In front of him were the familiar tools of mortal and pestle, glass bottles and sachels. 

Arthur walked down the rows of plants, fingers brushing over soft leaves. Flowers of all colors were set amongst the vegetables and growing things, some with visiting bees and butterflies.  Even a few birds had made their way indoors.

“First time up here, then?” Danyl asked.

“It’s beautiful.”

“I love it up here.  So peaceful.  And the smell is so sweet.  You can pick one of those if you like,” he added, noticing that Arthur was staring at a miniature peach tree.

“Perhaps later,” Arthur told him. “First I need to find Merlin.”

“He’s up in his greenhouse,” Danyl said, gesturing to the other end of the room.  “Somewhere on the North Tower roof.”

“Somewhere?”

“No one else is allowed up there.  Emrys was the same way.  Not sure what either of them have growing up there,” Danyl said, with a clearly curious eyebrow, as if he was imparting a secret that perhaps he shouldn’t.  “I can’t imagine that it’s anything illegal.  But…”  He shrugged. 

Arthur looked up at the metal ladder built into the tower’s outer wall, then started across the rooftop towards it.

“I don’t think people are supposed to go up there,” Danyl called after him.

Arthur gave him a look over his shoulder. 

“But I’m sure it’s okay for you,” Danyl added.

Arthur had nearly climbed the ladder to the top when a powerful wave of dizziness hit him.  He felt his fingers tighten of their own accord on the metal rails, a strong compulsion to climb back down sweeping over him.

Arthur squeezed his eyes closed.  “Merlin!” he yelled.

After a few heartbeats, the dizziness vanished, his fingers released, and Arthur could finish his climb to the top.  He hauled himself up onto the exterior wall, then swung his legs over and dropped down onto the tower roof.

A freestanding glass structure stood in the middle of the circular rooftop, its walls steamed up from the heat and the sun.  It wasn’t even as large as Arthur’s chambers, and only took up a small percentage of the open space.

Arthur passed through its door, and had to immediately duck under thick vines.  The space here was even more cluttered than the rooftop below.  Strong smelling plants lined the walls and sat upon wooden shelves, a threatening mass of greenery.

In the center of the room was a large worktable, behind which Merlin stood, his sleeves rolled up, his tunic wet with sweat, his hair plastered to his face.

He held a thick mortar in one hand, a stone bowl in the other.  “Sorry about the dizziness,” Merlin said, as he ground at the substance in the bowl.  “It’s best to keep some extra magical protections on access to all this.”

Arthur wandered towards a group of colorful plants, reaching out to touch one of the flowers.

“Don’t!“

Arthur jerked his hand away, turning to Merlin.

Merlin gave him an apologetic smile, lifting his kerchief to mop at his neck. “Sorry.  But I keep these plants separate for a reason.  Some of them are a bit…”

“Hazardous?”

“Fatal.”

Arthur joined Merlin at his table, very careful not to touch anything.  Merlin stretched out his back at his side, tipping his head backward in a way that drew Arthur’s eyes to his long stretch of neck. “And you keep them why, exactly?”

“Many of these plants are extinct everywhere else.  You can’t make an antidote to a poison some idiot left lying around in a vial, if the plant used to make it is gone.”  Merlin pointed to a plant behind Arthur.  “Do you remember that plant, incidentally?”

Arthur walked to the group of plants Merlin had indicated.  “The Mortaeus flower,” he said, touching the small blossom, because he knew from experience this one was safe. 

“Thanks again for that,” Merlin told him.

Arthur turned to find a fond smile on Merlin’s face.  “Just returning the favor.  You saved my life first, after all.”

Merlin just shrugged, and went back to grinding whatever he had in his stone bowl.

Arthur thought back to the perilous climb he’d made to retrieve the flower. “That was you, then.  The glowing light in the cave.  Guiding me to safety.”

A wry smile this time, one eyebrow arched high. “Can’t really take the credit for that one.  I was unconscious when I did it.  Can’t even remember what I did.”

Astonishing, Arthur thought.  He was simply astonishing.  “A little help with the giant spiders would have been nice.”

“You heard the part where I said I was unconscious, right?”

Arthur laughed softly, stepping to Merlin’s side.  Upon the table he saw a diverse collection of leaves and flowers and seeds, all spread out in careful groups. “So what is all this then?  Don’t tell me someone’s been poisoned by all of these different plants.”

Merlin went still next to him, tapping his fingers on the mortar he held in his hand.  “No,” he said slowly.

Arthur knew that tone of voice.  “Merlin, what, exactly, are you doing?”

“I’m just… making something to help me sleep.  That’s all.”

Arthur stared into the very full bowl of crushed greenery Merlin held. “You said these plants were fatal-“

“In certain doses-”

“-and you’re making something to help you sleep using them?”

“In small quantities it should be perfectly safe.”

“And do what to you exactly?”

A small pause, and a guilty glance over at him.  Then a rush of words.  “It will induce a light coma state which will slow my heart rate and my breathing and will keep me sedated enough so that I won’t be able to dream and I won’t be able to use my magic.”

And then Merlin went back to grinding the plants in the bowl, as if he hadn’t said a word of the insanity he just had.

Arthur wanted to throttle him.  “Are you completely out of your mind?”

“It’s not like it could actually kill me, even if I made a mistake.”

“No, it could only make you wish you were dead!”

“I’ve been nearly poisoned to death before,” Merlin said, as he ground at the plants with somewhat frantic motions. “A few times.  It’s not pleasant.  But it’s better than the alternative.”

Arthur grabbed Merlin’s wrists, stilling his hands.  “No.”

“I have to-”

“And what happens if there’s a crisis in the middle of the night, and I can’t wake you?” Arthur asked.

Something Merlin hadn’t considered, judging by the look on his face. “I could make up an antidote you could give me.”

“You are not doing this,” Arthur said, and he took the bowl from Merlin, and dumped its contents onto the floor.

Merlin stared with a pained expression at the scattered leaves, the half crushed flowers.

Desperate, Arthur thought.  Afraid.

“This is not the way, Merlin.”

“I could hurt you,” Merlin said to the floor.

“I’ll wake you before you can.”

“For how long?  What if the dreams never stop?  What if they-“

“One battle at a time.”  Arthur looked around the room, at the plants surrounding them. “I cannot believe you were going to do something so dangerous without telling me first.”

“I was going to tell you before I actually took it,” Merlin protested.

Arthur just stared at him.

“Sorry,” Merlin muttered. “Old habits.”

Arthur thought of Eleanor, of the world beyond the castle walls, of the people to whom he would have to lie about who he was.   Just as Merlin had needed to do so for over a thousand years. 

“It’s all right,” Arthur said.  “Now come on. I have a feeling that I’ve been poisoned by quite a few of these things, and I’m not looking to revisit old memories.”

Merlin followed Arthur from the rooftop and down the ladder.  When they reached the manor roof, Arthur remembered why he’d been seeking Merlin in the first place. 

The woman in the water. 

“What is it?” Merlin asked.

Arthur found himself remembering the woman’s words.  ‘You are a king, Arthur Pendragon... Do not let them forget…’

“Where is my crown?” he asked, surprising himself, because that hadn’t been what he’d intended to say. 

Merlin looked similarly caught off guard. “It’s in the vaults.”

Arthur drew his shoulders back. Straightened his spine.  “Take me there. Now.”

“Yes, sire,” Merlin said, and turned to lead the way.

 

Chapter Text

Arthur followed Merlin back through the Apothecary and café, into his residence, to the stairwell leading to their chambers. 

Instead of climbing the stairs, Merlin faced the brick wall opposite the steps, and said: “Onwréon mé þá durue.”  

The wall melted into vapor, revealing a thick wooden door.  Beyond it lay a dark winding stairwell, lined with torches that sprang to life as they descended. The air smelled of dust and rock, cool and stale just as Camelot’s vaults had been. Total darkness met them at the stairs’ bottom, but only for a moment, before dozens of torches flared to life along the exterior walls of the room.

The vast chamber they illuminated stretched the length and width of the entire manor above.  Enormous stacks of belongings filled the chamber from stone floor to high ceiling, organized so they formed narrow passageways through the clutter. 

Arthur recognized some of the things from Camelot’s vaults, others from his castle.  Still others were wholly unfamiliar, bearing druidic writing and runes.

“Over there,” Merlin said, gesturing to the far end of the room.

Set apart from the clutter sat two thrones on a raised dais. Dusty pennants hung behind the empty chairs.  Cobweb laden candelabras stood at their sides. 

All had been set out to be a replica of his seat of power, Arthur thought, and he ventured towards it, only to stop, staring at something he’d never thought to see again. 

A very large, very round, wooden table. 

“How…?” Arthur asked, his voice echoing in the stone room.

“It wasn’t easy.”

Arthur walked around the enormous table, eyes moving over the names engraved by each empty chair, until he came to his own name.  He slid his fingers over his title, ‘KING’, feeling the sharp edges of them against his fingertips.

All these seats, he thought.  And no one left to sit in them.  Only the ghosts of the dead.

It felt like a tomb in here.  Dank and dimly lit by the flickering flames. A distorted nightmare of the dream of Camelot.

Arthur turned from the memories of the dead to approach his throne, his bootsteps echoing in the room.

He stared at his dust covered throne a long time. 

And then, even longer, at the throne of his queen.

“I’m sorry they’re not in better condition.  I should have taken better care of them.”

Arthur didn’t answer, distracted by the wooden box that sat at the foot of his throne.  He crouched down, brushed the cobwebs from it, then opened it.

Within it was the crown he had worn as king.  The circlet he’d worn as Crown Prince was there as well.  By its side, the ring bearing the Pendragon royal seal.  And next to that, his mother’s sigil.

He moved to Guinevere’s throne, and opened the box sitting by its foot as well.  Her crown sat upon a pillow, its jewels shining like stars.  In its center was the ring he had given her, his mother’s ring, the one he himself had worn for so long.

Arthur picked up the thick band and held before his eyes, remembering her small house in the lower town, her soft smile in the morning light.

What would you say about all this? he wondered. If you knew what has happened to me, if you knew of the uncertain future I face, what would you have to say?

Almost immediately, Arthur felt his lips twitch into a smile.

She would start, he thought, by scolding me, at length, for feeling sorry for myself.  And then she would remind me that I’m not alone.  That I have Merlin with me. That I should rely upon him, as I always could.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin said into his thoughts.

Arthur placed the ring back into the box and snapped it shut. “It was a long time ago.”

“It was less than a week ago.”

Arthur stood up, frowning at the empty thrones.   Yes, he thought.  It was, wasn’t it.  It was less than a week ago.

He could remember it all quite vividly.  His life in Camelot.  His daily routine.  His castle.  The faces of his friends, his family, his people.

And yet, standing here, in this tomb of a place, the truth was undeniable.

His throne, covered in cobwebs. 

His crown, in a box.  

History, Arthur thought.  Ancient, distant, history.  

Arthur grabbed the box that held his symbols of power.  When he turned, he saw that Merlin stood a distance away, his shoulders rounded, his hands clasped behind his back, his head lowered, his gaze at his feet. 

The old posture he’d assumed as a servant in Uther’s court. 

“Stop that,” Arthur snapped.

Merlin’s head jerked upward.  “Stop what?”

It’s this crypt of a place, Arthur thought bitterly.  These ancient dead things.  They’re not good for either of us.  They pull us in the wrong direction.  Backward, not forward. And forward is where we must go.  Forward is where the fate of Albion lies.  Where our fate lies.

“We’re done here,” Arthur said, and he strode from the room, the dusty box in his arms, without once looking back. 

He didn’t slow down until he was upstairs in his chambers.  Even then, he marched over to his wardrobe, shoved the box onto a shelf, then slammed the doors closed on it.

He stood with his palms pressed against the wood.  Just breathing.

I am here now, he thought.  I am here, and my past is gone.  I have to let it go.  I have to move past it.  I have no choice-

“We can take supper outside,” Merlin said, his voice quiet, and from over by the door.  “On the lawns.  It should be cooler there.”

Later, Merlin.”

“Yes, sire.” 

And then footsteps moving away.

Arthur waited a few minutes.  And then he retrieved his crown from its box.

He paced the room, turning the heavy round circle around and around in his hands.  Watching his distorted reflection in the gold.

Thinking of prophecy.  Thinking of the voice in the water.  Thinking of this new world ruled by its own people.  Thinking of the children of Camelot spread around the earth.

Never let them forget you are king, the voice had said.

He would have to find a way to remember it himself, first.

As the afternoon stretched on, he found refuge in Merlin’s books, in the list of inventions that had sprung from the years described within. So many of them gave clues to wonders he saw all around him.  He’d seen photographs and moving pictures upon the black slates.  And locomotives seemed a close cousin to the moving metal boxes everywhere.

By the time Merlin returned, Arthur was full of questions.

“I’ll tell you about it over dinner,” Merlin said, sounding more than a bit pleased at Arthur’s excitement.

Outside, Merlin spread a blanket under a tree by the lake, where a slight evening breeze stirred the leaves.  The lawns were empty, the café and shops closed, and the sky filled with the reds and pinks of evening. 

Merlin poured a glass of wine for Arthur as he read out loud from his book.  Arthur took a sandwich from the basket of food Merlin had prepared, and listened in wonder to the many inventions of man.

The discovery of electricity was of particular interest to Merlin.  He went on and on about it, giving what Arthur thought was far too much detail about how it all worked.

Instead of interrupting him, Arthur stretched out on his back on the blanket, and watched Merlin speak

Once again, Arthur found himself staring.  He simply couldn’t stop himself. 

It’s just Merlin, Arthur told himself.  The same man you knew. Nothing has changed about him. Yes, his hair is a bit longer.  But everything else is the same. 

Same eyebrows arching with delight at whatever nonsense he was saying, same blue eyes turning into crescents with his amusement, same ridiculous cheekbones sharpening with his smile, same full ears half hidden by his thick black hair, same long pale neck exposed above his neckerchief, same full lips that were probably soft, yes, they’d been quite soft in his dream, hadn’t they, soft and warm and wet and slick-

Arthur startled from his thoughts. 

“-and it was that way for the longest time, if you can believe that,” Merlin was saying, with a wry lift of one eyebrow.

What is it about him? Arthur wondered, falling immediately back into distraction.  There’s something, isn’t there.  Something I can’t put my finger on…

“Are you even listening to me?” Merlin asked. 

“Edison?” Arthur ventured.

“I moved on from Edison five minutes ago.” 

No irritation in Merlin’s tone. Just bemusement, as he closed his book and stretched out upon the blanket, his shoulder pressing against Arthur’s.

Close, Arthur thought.  He does like to be close to me.

For several minutes they lay side by side under the tree, staring up at the leaves moving against the darkening sky above. 

It would have been entirely peaceful, if they had been on the shore of another lake.  He never could completely relax by the lakeside.  Not with the Tower watching him. 

Which was a strange thought.  That the tower was watching him.  But it felt true.  It felt very much as if they were not alone, here on the shores of Lake Avalon.

There was someone else there too.  Watching.  Waiting. 

“I hate to admit it,” Merlin said, “but it’s worked out well, hasn’t it.  My reading to you.”

“I told you it would.”

“I bet you missed half of the eighteen hundreds though. Daydreaming like you have been tonight.”

 “I wasn’t daydreaming,” Arthur said, far too quickly.

“Of course you weren’t.”

“You can hardly expect me to be able to pay attention in this heat, especially when you prattle on about a thousand irrelevant details I don’t need to know.”

“Oh, so it’s the heat’s fault, then, is it?”

“What other reason could there possibly be?”

“Maybe the fact that you’re a total turnip head?”

“People can’t possibly say that anymore.  If they ever did to begin with.”

“They do around here.”

“That’s only because you’re around here.”

“I never said that wasn’t why.”

Arthur laughed, nudging at Merlin’s shoulder.  Merlin nudged gently back. They wound up pressed together even more so than they had been before. 

“You’re right about one thing,” Merlin said.  “It is ridiculously hot.”

“I’m starting to think Heath was right about taking a swim in the lake,” Arthur said.

His words caught up with him only when he heard Merlin’s sharp intake of breath.

Dammit, Arthur thought. “I didn’t mean-“

“It’s all right.”

Arthur turned his head on the blanket.  Watched the muscles of Merlin’s jaw twitch, his chin pushing out.  “No.  It was thoughtless of me.”

“It’s not your fault I panic like a child when you go near the water,” Merlin said bitterly.

“It won’t be that way forever.  Just like me and sleeping alone in the dark.  It won’t last.  We’ll both soon be over these battle wounds.”  Next to him, Merlin had gone quite still, pain twitching his features.  “What’s wrong?”

“So that’s… that’s the reason why we’ve been…  why I’ve been…  keeping you company?  At night?  Your difficulty with the dark?”

Arthur started to say no.  Which made no sense.  Of course the answer was yes.  What else would the answer be?

“Yes,” he said, but he could hear the doubt in his voice, as he said it.

“Oh,” Merlin said softly.

“And because of your dreams, of course.”

 “My dreams.” Merlin sounded hoarse.  “Right. Because why else… would…”

In one swift motion, Merlin climbed to his feet and began piling the dinner plates and his books into his basket.

Arthur pushed himself to his elbows.  “Where are you going?”

“I need to do some work in the library.”

“Now?”

“Yes,” Merlin said, and he strode off without another word.

“Merlin!” Arthur called.                                                                            

But to his surprise, Merlin didn’t look back, and he didn’t stop.

Arthur stared after him until he vanished through the North Tower door.  Then he lay back down on the blanket, wondering what the hell had happened.

He thought about it for a while, going over and over what they’d said.  But before long, the oppressive heat muddled his thinking. He found himself drifting in and out of uneasy sleep, until finally he awoke to near darkness.  The moon had risen amid a handful of stars, and shone ghostly upon the tower, a faint glow upon the water.

Arthur dragged himself and the blanket back upstairs to his chambers.  Merlin had already prepared the room for sleep.  Candles burned by his bedside.  His sheets had been pulled back.  His sleeping tunic and breeches lay upon the bed.

No sign of Merlin anywhere.

Arthur changed into his sleeping clothes and went searching for him, finding him at last at a table in his library.  Books surrounded where he sat slouched forward, elbows upon a large open tome, his head propped up with his hands, pale fingers dug into his hair.

“Still working?” Arthur asked.

Merlin jerked in his chair and nearly fell out of it.  “Don’t you know how to knock?”

Arthur burst out laughing, then raised his eyebrows pointedly at the question.

“Oh,” Merlin said, and he gave a small smile, abashed.  “Right.  I do see how that’s funny, coming from me.”

“On account of the many thousand times that you-“

“Yes, yes, I know-“

“I’d wager that you still don’t bother knocking, do you.”

Merlin ignored the question, which was answer enough.  He just stood and stretched, his loose white sleeping tunic shifting on his shoulders, revealing a pale collarbone, a sliver of abdomen.  “Everything all right?  I thought you’d be asleep by now.”

Every single one of Arthur’s replies sounded of ‘aren’t you coming to bed?’, which was something he would say to a lover, not to a friend. 

The entire issue of them sleeping together - well, not sleeping together, he amended, but sleeping together - was a tangled confusing mess.   All he knew for certain was that he was tired, and wanted to sleep, with Merlin beside him.

“It’s too hot in my chambers,” Arthur said. “Is there nowhere in this castle of yours where it’s cooler for us both to sleep?”

Merlin noticed the choice of pronouns.  Which had been Arthur’s intention.  The tension in his body eased, and he seemed to consider. “Actually… I think I have an idea.”

“Oh wonderful,” Arthur said.

“Oh shut it.  It’s a good idea.  You’ll see.”

The idea apparently involved collecting two stacks of bedding and pillows from Merlin’s wardrobe, and marching them downstairs, through the café, into the Apothecary, and all the way up the South Tower stairwell, to a trapdoor set above the stairs’ end.

Merlin pushed the trapdoor open, then climbed through it with his bundle of bedding in his arms.  Arthur followed him, emerging onto the warm night breezes upon the South Tower roof. 

As Merlin closed the trapdoor behind him, Arthur wandered past piles of things covered in tarps, to the edge of the roof.  Through a low embrasure, he could see the nearby park. The stone circle was lit by the moon, casting soft shadows upon the earth.

A memorial to my death, he thought.  That’s what Merlin had said.  A way to mark the time.  And a way to remember why he was marking it.

“These should work,” Merlin said, as he pulled what looked like two folded up cots from a pile.  He dragged them to the middle of the stone roof, flattened them, then began to spread the bedding upon each of them.

Arthur looked up at the tall trees nearby, listening to the leaves rustle, feeling the air moving against his skin.  Merlin was right, he thought.  Coming up here was a good idea. Not that he was about to tell him that.

“Most of this stuff is Solstice Festival supplies,” Merlin said. “But there’s something else I think you’ll like.  It’s that tall thing over there.  Take the tarp off and have a look.”

The object Merlin had indicated was nearly his height, bound with ropes to keep on its protective cover.  Arthur loosed the knots, then pulled the cloth away.

The metal black cylinder shone in the moonlight atop its three thick wooden legs. He recognized it at once for what it was.  He’d stared long enough at the illustration in Merlin’s book.

“It’s beautiful,” Arthur said, running his fingertips along the cool metal of the telescope’s tube.

“A little different than that drawing.  But it still works the same.”

Arthur peered into the end of the telescope’s tube, at the startlingly simple array of mirrors inside.  “You’d think it would be more complex than this,” he said to himself.

“It’s not very fancy, I know,” Merlin said, misunderstanding. “Just a ten inch refractor, not even motorized.  But pretty powerful with the Barlow lens. Here.  Let me set it up.”

Arthur watched Merlin step to the device, one arm wrapping over the metal tube, the other wrapping under.  His long fingers worked levers and knobs, then he swung the device up to point overhead.   After peering through a smaller sighting telescope on the barrel’s outside, he locked the telescope into place.

“Here, take a look,” Merlin said, waving him over, eyes sparkling in the moonlight with obvious excitement.

Arthur leaned forward, peering into the eyepiece.

A blindingly bright white landscape filled his sight, pock marked and smooth in turns, spotted with light greys and darks, geographic features sharp near the shift from light to shadow.  And the entire thing was moving, quite swiftly, as he watched.

Arthur lifted his eyes to the moon high above, astonished that what he saw above and what he’d seen in the telescope were the same thing.  He peered back into the eyepiece, but saw only darkness.  “Where did it go?”

“It moved.  The moon does that,” he added, smiling at Arthur without a trace of mockery.  “Here, let me show you how to get it back.” 

Merlin stepped next to his body, a warm solid presence.  Arthur felt him grab his hands, moving his left to one dial below the cylinder, his right to another above. “Your left hand controls ascension,” Merlin said, his fingers moving over Arthur’s. “Your right, declension.  Like this, see?  If you lose sight of what you’re looking at, just use-“

“The sighting telescope,” Arthur said, glancing over at where Merlin leaned forward over the telescope, peering through the small tube.

“I knew you weren’t listening to me when I was telling you about the Enlightenment,” Merlin said smugly. “You were studying that diagram of a telescope the whole time.”

“You can use a telescope to see the moon, Merlin.  All the Enlightenment did was get a bunch of spoiled royalty separated from their heads.”

“Really not the point.” Merlin straightened, but did not move away.  “Try now.”

Arthur peered through the eyepiece, amazed once again by what he thought he’d known his whole life. “They used to say a man lived in the moon. Do you remember that?”

“No one lives there yet. Though men have walked upon it before.”

“You’re making that up,” Arthur said.  The moon had vanished from his view again.  He tried to move the telescope to follow. “Dammit, it’s- Show me again.”

Merlin pressed close to his side, sighting through the smaller telescope, fingers upon Arthur’s, turning the dials with him. “I’m not making it up. It happened about fifty years ago. They’ve sent machines to Mars, too. We know what it looks like from the ground.”

“Still sounds made up,” Arthur said, because he was still having difficult grasping the children of Camelot spreading around the world.  Now apparently they were travelling beyond the Earth as well.  “What about Mars?  Have people been there yet?”

“Not yet.  But soon, I think. Here, keep turning this dial to keep it in sight.” 

Arthur watched the view shift through the eyepiece as Merlin pressed his warm fingers to Arthur’s.  Merlin’s body was warm and solid against his side, his voice rumbling from him in the soft night as he spoke.

“They’ve come so far in the past hundred years,” Merlin said.  “It won’t be long before they colonize space just as they colonized the Earth.  Think of it, Arthur.  The children of Camelot.  Stretching out into the universe.  Travelling from star to star.”

Arthur lifted his gaze from the eyepiece, to find Merlin looking at him, smiling softly. Their noses were inches away, Merlin’s face lit by moonlight. Arthur felt his breath catch, seeing Merlin’s gaze flit from his lips, to his eyes, and back again.

He’s different, Arthur thought abruptly.  He’s different, and I’m different, and this between us is different.  Moments like these.  They never went on this long before.  We never let it.  Either of us. 

Emboldened by the knowledge, Arthur allowed his gaze to slide down to Merlin’s mouth, before tracing the contours of his face back to his widening eyes.

Merlin straightened so abruptly that it jostled the telescope.  He stepped unevenly backward, clearing his throat, before retreating to sit upon his cot.

Arthur returned his gaze to the eyepiece.  His heart was beating against his chest. “What else can you see in the sky with this?” he asked, to try and find some normalcy after what had just passed between them.

“Lots of things. Saturn’s rings. Jupiter’s moons. Even Venus and Mars, though they’re not very impressive through a telescope this size.”

After a few minutes working the telescope in silence, studying the landscape of the moon, Arthur withdrew from the wonders of the heavens, and reclined upon his cot. 

As with the bedrolls in the meadow, Merlin had set the two cots very close together.  Barely an arm’s width apart. 

“All those planets up there,” Arthur said to the sky.  “All those moons.  How in the world do they keep from crashing into one another?  I can’t imagine it.”

For a while, silence.  And then, soft words. 

“Cume fýrcynn, átýdre tungol aen dægcandel, aen frícen gesamnunga.”

A flare of light next to him had Arthur’s head turning on his pillow, to see Merlin lying upon his side, facing Arthur, one arm extended between them, palm upturned.

A small flame danced upon his palm, sending sparks into the air.  The glowing embers rose in an orderly line, to form a small sparkling sphere.  As Arthur watched, it began to spin, then rose still higher, to circle above.

“Earth,” Merlin said, nodding upward.  Another line of sparks rose from the flame in Merlin’s palm, forming another small globe, also spinning, also lifting to rotate along a smaller circular path and at a different speed.  “Venus,” Merlin said.  Another smaller more rapidly spinning globe of sparks, rotating in an even smaller circle.  “Mercury.”

Again and again Arthur watched spheres made of glowing sparks rise spinning into the air, each taking a different place to rotate around a central point. When there were eight spheres, the flame in Merlin’s palm grew into a small rotating ball of fire. It spun as it rose, to take its place in the center of the spinning spheres.

“The sun,” Merlin finished.

Arthur sat up on his cot, eyes wide in the night, watching each of the spheres pass overhead.  Small rings danced around Saturn. Patterns of swirls decorated Jupiter. 

“Amazing,” Arthur breathed, at the heartbreakingly beautiful magic above.

Like the meadow, he thought.  Like the strawberries and the butterflies and the flowers.  All that beauty.  Pouring from Merlin’s hands. 

Arthur reached up to touch a glittering sphere as it flew by.  Sparks danced upon his fingertips, melting away like snowflakes on his skin. 

“Beautiful,” he breathed, and he looked over at Merlin, who lay with his arm tucked under his head, watching him.

Moisture sparkled in Merlin’s eyes, lit by the soft moonlight, by the spheres above, by the golden starlight of his magic within him.

“Just… beautiful,” Arthur said to him.

Arthur saw Merlin’s smile falter.  His brows twitched, and he waved a hand.  A weary motion.  The spheres above began to fall apart. 

Arthur raised a hand to catch a cluster of sparks as it fell.  When it touched his palm, the sparks flared brighter, then pooled in his hand like water.  When he pointed his fingers heavenward, the light flowed down his wrist in small rivers, sliding around his arm, before falling to the ground and disappearing.

“What was that?” Merlin said sharply.

Arthur watched him lunge from his cot and grab at Arthur’s wrist.  He tried to pull away, but Merlin held on tighter, staring down at his skin. “What are you doing?”

“Did you see it?” Merlin breathed. “The ropes of magic?  Binding you?”

“Nothing was binding me.” Arthur grabbed Merlin’s wrist to still his hand. “I’m fine.  Calm down.  You’re just sleep addled and seeing things.  Go on, lay back down.”

With obvious reluctance Merlin retreated back onto his cot.  He lay down upon his side facing Arthur, frowning the whole time, obviously worried.

Arthur stretched out upon his back on the cot, gazing at the moon above.  It had dipped behind one of the enormous trees surrounding the manor. But its glow still lit the rooftop with soft blue light.

Arthur flexed the hand where the magic had pooled.  His skin still tingled from it.  “I have a request for tonight’s story,” he found himself saying.

“What is it?”

“Tell me about the circumstances of my birth.”

A very long silence.

“You’re sure you want to know?”

“I deserve to know, don’t you think?” Arthur asked, more bitterly than he’d intended.

An exhalation of breath, loud in the peaceful night.  “What Morgause told you was partly a lie.  But it was also partly true. Uther did tell Gaius to go to the Isle of the Blessed, to ask the High Priestess of the Old Religion, Nimueh, for Ygraine to bear a son.  But Uther didn’t understand that the ancient magics would demand a price.  A death, for that life, to restore the balance of the world.”

“My mother’s death.”

“Yes.”

Arthur clenched his hands into fists, his fury at his father returning as strongly now as it had the day he’d put his blade to his father’s throat. “So it’s true.  I was born of magic.”

“You were born because of it. Yes.”

“What’s the difference?” Arthur snapped.

“If you were born of it, you would be like me.   I look like I’m… but I’m not really…”

“Not really what?”

“Human.”

Arthur turned his head on his pillow.  Pain in Merlin’s eyes, pinching his brows together. “What nonsense is that?  What are you if not human?  A cow?”

“I’m a creature of the Old Religion, Arthur,” Merlin said in a voice so soft that it was almost lost in the rustling of the leaves.  “Just like the dragons or the Sidhe.  I look human.  But I’m not.  I never was.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Arthur told him.

“I don’t like it either, but it’s something I’ve had to accept,” Merlin said wearily. 

“It’s nonsense.”

“Are you intentionally being daft?” Merlin snapped, sounding more like himself.  “I’m trying to tell you something important about me that you really need to understand-“

“You’re trying to liken yourself to beings who have not one second’s thought for our people, and not one ounce of your heart or your bravery, and I’ll not hear it,” Arthur interrupted firmly.  “Human is more than how you’re made, Merlin.  It’s what you are in your heart. It’s what you stand for.  What you believe.  How you act.  And you, Merlin, are the most human person I think I’ve ever met.”

Above them the wind rustled through the trees as a warm breeze picked up to stir his hair.

“Besides,” he said, “if you’re not human, then what does that make me? All those years sleeping in the arms of magic.  All that time being dead…  What am I, after all that?” 

I’m not the same, Arthur thought.  I can feel it in my bones. 

“You’re something new.”

Arthur turned his head on the pillow. “Something new?”

Merlin smiled at him, a sad, soft little thing that he would have missed if he’d not been looking for it. “You’re something that’s never been.  But that’s nothing new with you.  You’ve always been one of a kind.  Right from your birth.”

My father’s fault, Arthur thought.  All of this.  Though the forces of magic had played their part.  And Gaius.  And Merlin, for that matter.  His whole life, threaded through with strands magic, holding him fast.  Even now.

“All those years my father taught me to hate and fear magic,” Arthur said bitterly. “And he’d used it himself for his own selfish ends.  Such a hypocrite.”

“He thought he was protecting his son from his mistakes.”

“How can you defend him?  You of all people.”

“He loved you, Arthur.  As much as he could love anyone.  He was just… broken.  After the death of your mother, all he had left was his hate.”

“It’s no excuse.” Arthur rubbed his hands over his face, weary with the past, with its mistakes, with the destiny it had spun out behind him, around him, before him. 

 “Arthur…“

“Get some rest, Merlin.”

Above the rooftop the wind rustled through the leaves of the trees, as the moon shone down on them both.  Arthur gazed up at the stars a long time.  He was still awake with his thoughts after Merlin had fallen asleep.  When the dream began.

Merlin jolted on his cot, a cry choking from him. The moonlight had grown brighter, casting sharp shadows onto his body as he thrashed, his back arching off the cot. 

A flare of light, from all directions it seemed, had Arthur pushing himself at once out of bed to grab Merlin’s shoulders, and shake him awake.

“Arthur!”  Merlin surged upright, hands grabbing onto Arthur’s arms, his eyes wide.

“Just a dream.”

“Did I-?”

“No,” Arthur said, looking around to make sure he was right.  Light usually meant magic, didn’t it?  But nothing seemed out of place.  And the light had gone. “It’s all right.”

Merlin collapsed forward, legs crossing beneath him, palms pressing into his cot. “I can’t keep doing this… I need a sleeping draught…”

“That is not an option.”

“Do you have a better idea?”

“Yes.”

“What, knocking me unconscious?” Merlin muttered.  But then Arthur saw him look up with an expression that suggested this insanity was also a completely sensible idea.

“Just like you to suggest a siege engine when a sword would do.” Arthur got up and pushed his cot against Merlin’s.  He lay back down upon his cot on his side facing Merlin, then extended an arm, in obvious invitation. “Come on then.”

“You have got to be kidding,” Merlin told him angrily.

“It worked last night, didn’t it?”

“You don’t know it had anything to do with-“ Merlin gestured vaguely at Arthur “-that.”

“I know that I was able to wake you up twice last night, right as the dreams started, and that you had no recollection of them the next day.”

Merlin’s reaction of total outrage shouldn’t have amused him, not under the circumstances.  “You told me I didn’t dream!  I asked you!”

Arthur choked back a completely inappropriate smile at having gotten Merlin so riled up.  “Yes, and I lied to you,” he said sweetly.  “Fancy that for a change.  Now come here and lay down.”

Merlin crossed his arms and glared at him. “I’m not some weepy princess in need of saving by the King of Camelot!”

“I never said you were a weepy princess-”

“You’re acting like I am-”

“I am not-”

“Yes you are-”

“I’m acting,” Arthur snapped, “like someone who can’t get a good night’s sleep, because his idiot friend is determined to have nightmares all night, instead of doing the one thing that lets him sleep!”  Arthur thrust out his arm again.  “Now for the love of god will you shut up and lay down!”

Merlin stared at him for so long and so furiously that Arthur was sure he would get up and leave.

Instead, Merlin flopped back onto his cot, then turned away onto his side with a great deal of jerking of arms and kicking of legs, all the while muttering angrily to himself.

“Arse,” Arthur said, because Merlin hadn’t moved toward him, so he had to push himself forward instead.  He dropped his body heavily behind Merlin on his narrow cot, intentionally kicking Merlin in the leg as he slotted himself against Merlin’s back.

“There’s not enough space-“ Merlin complained, and shoved an elbow back at him.

“Then move forward,” Arthur said, pushing at him.

“Can’t believe I’m doing this…”

“Shut.  Up.  Merlin.”

Merlin heaved a sigh that could probably be heard in Avalon.

Arthur got himself settled, a bit more carefully now, his chest warm where it pressed against Merlin’s hard back on the narrow space. 

“So stupid,” he heard Merlin mutter, as Arthur settled his head on Merlin’s pillow, his nose pressing into Merlin’s hair. 

Shut it.” Arthur reached his arm around Merlin’s waist, his hand lifting to press his palm against Merlin’s chest.

“Do you have to do that?” Merlin asked softly.

“It’s to help you sleep,” Arthur said. 

And then he thought at himself:  Liar.

“It isn’t going to work.”

“It will.” Arthur drew in a deep breath to relax, but wound up only beathing in the smells he’d come to associate with Merlin.  Vanilla, and spice, and sweat, and the linens of Arthur’s bed.  Just as it should be, he thought.  Then wondered at himself.

He felt Merlin’s warm back press against his chest as Merlin drew in a deep breath, then let it out in a nearly soundless sigh.

“It’s going to work,” Arthur said, and as he spoke, his lips unintentionally brushed over the skin of Merlin’s neck. 

He felt a shudder move through Merlin’s body.

“I hate you,” Merlin said, sounding pained and exhausted and as if the weight of the five kingdoms were upon him.

“No, you don’t.”

Again no response, as Arthur lay holding him, surrounded by the warm breezes and the moonlight and the rustling of the leaves in the trees around them. 

And then Merlin placed his hand atop Arthur’s, where it rested against his chest.

“If I use magic against you in my sleep-“ Merlin began.

“I’m starting to think that knocking you unconscious wasn’t a bad idea.”

A huffed laugh in response. 

“Go to sleep,” Arthur told him softly. 

“Yes, my lord,” Merlin said.  And then he slid his fingers between Arthur’s, to clasp his hand.

Arthur pressed his forehead into the back of Merlin’s neck, covering Merlin’s fingers with his own, before lowering their hands to rest upon the cot.

It took some time before Merlin’s breathing calmed. Longer still before he fell asleep.

 Arthur knew it did, because he spent the entire time paying attention to how it felt to have Merlin pressed so closely against his body.

Liar, Arthur thought at himself again.  When he asked you why you want him in your bed.  When he asked you why you put your hand to his chest.  You lied to him. 

It’s not because of the darkness. It’s not because of the dreams. 

It’s because of him.

Arthur closed his eyes. Breathing in the scent of Merlin’s hair.  Feeling his body against his own.  Warm and solid.  Sharp bones and strong muscles.  Long and thin and unmistakably male. 

Damn dream, Arthur thought.

And damn me too.

Chapter Text

Damn birds, Merlin thought, at the cacophony of birdsong that pulled him from sleep. He shoved his face into his pillow, shifting on the hard surface beneath his stomach, barely able to move from the heavy weight upon his sweat covered back.

He opened his eyes to the South Tower roof, bright with the light of early dawn. Arthur lay upon his back, his nose shoved into his hair, his breath hot on his neck.

I should shove him off, Merlin thought miserably. He doesn’t want to be here.  He's only here because of my stupid dreams and his stupid fears.  When he finds someone else to share his bed, when I find a way to stop my dreams, all of this will stop. 

Merlin grabbed the side of his cot to push himself up. 

Arthur made a noise at the movement, his fingers sliding up Merlin’s back and into his hair.  He turned his head, mouth dragging over his shoulder blade, before resettling himself with a sigh.

Merlin collapsed back onto the bed.  

Just a moment, he thought desperately. Let me have this with him. Just for one single moment that should please, please, never end…

A rush of dizziness. 

And then silence. 

Arthur drew in a deep breath, lifting his head.  “Merlin?”

“Yes?”

Arthur adjusted position, sliding sideways, raised upon his elbow, a warm weight against his side.  Merlin rolled himself onto his back, looking up at where Arthur lay squinting against the daylight, his blond hair a mess, dark circles under his eyes.

“What’s happened?” Arthur asked.

Merlin stared up at the world around him.  Everything had stopped. Not a leaf moved.  Not a bird sang.  Several bees hung in mid-air near the telescope.

“What did you do now?” Arthur asked in exasperation, as if Merlin had misplaced his armor or spilled wine on his best tunic.

“I didn’t mean to?”

“You mean this was an accident?”

“It was-“  Merlin broke off, staring at a motionless object high above.

Arthur followed his gaze.  “Is that an airplane?”

“No.  It can’t be. I couldn’t have possibly…“

“Couldn’t have possibly what?  What’s going on?”

Thirty thousand feet, Merlin thought. Planes fly at thirty thousand feet.

Merlin.“

“Wait- Just- I need a moment.” 

Merlin closed his eyes. Turned his gaze inward.  Yes, he could feel it now.  His magic, stretching out from him, resting upon the surface of the world like an onion skin.   He drew in a deep breath, and when he let it out, he simply let go.

Birdsong and leaves rustling and distant car engines filled the air around them, as everything slid into motion.

“Sorry,” Merlin breathed, as he struggled not to panic at what he’d done.

“What just happened?” Arthur asked, sounding not at all worried, but merely curious.

“I stopped time?”

“You stopped time.”

“I didn’t mean to.”

Arthur gave him a highly dubious look.

“Although,” Merlin amended, “I may have been thinking that I wanted to… stay in bed… a bit longer this morning.”

“You stopped time in order to have a lie-in?” Arthur asked, in offended incredulity.

“Not on purpose, I swear.” He cast a worried look heavenward, scanning the skies.

Arthur watched the plane disappear behind the trees.  “This is new, then, is it?  Affecting things so far away?”

“Yes.”

“Since when?”

“Since you got back?”

Arthur stared at him with enough scrutiny that he began to feel like a strategic map laid out upon a table, or an opposing army standing upon the plain.

“Sorry?” he said again, out of reflex.

It earned him a raised eyebrow and exasperated sigh.  “Only you could apologize for stopping time as if you were saying you’re sorry for knocking over a chamber pot.  Now get up.  I want breakfast.”

Merlin watched him stand, thinking that only Arthur could yell at him for stopping time and then tell him to fetch breakfast in the same breath.

He was about to say so when Arthur stretched his arms heavenward, his tunic riding up to expose a thin waist, his breeches sliding low to reveal strong hip bones and the curve of a muscled backside.

“Breakfast,” Merlin said, and quickly collected the bedding from their cots.  The clammy morning heat already had him sweating, his clothes sticking to him.

The bundle of bedclothes in his arms, he lead Arthur downstairs by way of the South Tower Museum.  When they reached the ground floor, Arthur paused beside the round table of the ancient kings. “You brought this here too,” he said.

“Of course I did. I know how much it means to you.”

Arthur looked at him a long moment, a thoughtful expression on his face, seeming as if he were about to speak.  Instead, he left through the museum door, to cross the dew covered lawns to the North Tower. 

Once they’d returned upstairs to the corridor to their rooms, Arthur stopped to list his plans for the day.  “We’ll take breakfast downstairs to escape this damned heat, then go through more of your infernal books.  After lunch it’ll be training on the lawns, and then we’ll take supper again downstairs, unless by some miracle the weather breaks.”

“Tonight, actually, I’ve already promised Danyl that his family can use the café for his birthday party.  We can have supper on the lawn again.  Well.  Unless…”

“Unless what?”

“They did say we could join them?”

Arthur looked delighted.  “Excellent.  We’ll do that instead.  It should provide a wonderful opportunity to find out a multitude of embarrassing stories about you.”

“I have embarrassing stories to tell about you too, I’ll have you know.”

“All of your stories involve magic,” Arthur said smugly.  “So you can’t tell them.”

Merlin watched Arthur walk away, thinking of story after story that involved his king’s humiliation.  All of them did involve magic.  “Damn,” he muttered.

“Told you,” Arthur called.

After they’d both freshened up for breakfast, they went downstairs.  The moment Merlin opened the door to his café from his residence, a rush of cool air swept over him.

“Oh that is wonderful,” Arthur said, pushing past him, jostling his armful of books.

Merlin watched Eleanor approach with a teapot in her hand, happily fanning cool air onto her face. “It’s going to cost a bit extra, this. But I thought it worthwhile.”

“It was a good idea,” he agreed, looking around at the portable air conditioning units placed around the great hall.  

“Doing some light reading over breakfast, are you?”

Merlin shifted the stack of books in his arms.  “Only for a few more days, hopefully.” 

“You’d best go get a table, before those young ladies steal your reading partner.”

In the café, Arthur was chatting with two women seated by the glass wall.  Both were gazing up at him nearly starstruck, as if they knew he was the returned King of Albion.

Or, he thought morosely, as if they were attracted to him. Because Arthur was, as always, a striking sight.  His face was flushed from the heat, making his hair blonder and his eyes bluer.  His red tunic, breeches and boots should have looked out of place amid people in modern dress.  But instead, he looked regal.  Noble.

At the table, both women laughed overly loud at something Arthur had said.  

Merlin clutched his books, and strangled back the urge to set something on fire.

“Oh my,” Eleanor said.

He knew that tone. And he knew that expression too, he thought, when he looked over at her narrow face, at the thin pinched eyebrows beneath the white hair, the worried wrinkles around her eyes.  “Eleanor…“ he sighed.

“It’s all right, dear,” she said, patting his arm. “I won’t say anything.”

She knows, Merlin thought.  Of course she knows.  She’s Eleanor.  She doesn’t miss a damn thing.  She didn’t when I was Emrys, so of course she doesn’t now, either.

“He misses you,” Merlin said softly.

“Who’s that?”

“Emrys.  He misses you.  You were a good friend to him.  He always thought so.  And he’s sorry he hasn’t spoken to you.  But he is happy, Eleanor.  Happier than he’s been in all his years.  And he’s glad you’re here.  Looking after me.”

A smile lit up her face, taking away the decades he’d seen leave their mark upon her. “Well you tell him,” she said, in a voice choked with emotion, “that I still have a mobile, and that it still works. I’m not leaving one more message for him until he calls.”

“I’ll tell him.  I promise.”

“Good.  Now go on.  I’ll have someone bring you both your breakfast for a change.  It’s not right, you waiting on Arthur all the time, like some kind of servant.”

Merlin burst out laughing, startling her.  She swatted at him, and shooed him away.

Together he and Arthur found an empty table at the far end of the hall.  They sat together eating breakfast, until finally Arthur nodded to the pile of books that sat nearby. 

With reluctance, Merlin spread out the books on the table, opening their pages to one subject only.

The history of war.

In as few words as possible, Merlin recounted the events around and brutality of the first world war, with its trenches and mustard gas.  Without pause, he moved to the next great war, with its bombs falling from the skies, battles upon the seas, and its millions of dead in camps and upon battlefields.

Through it all, Arthur sat still and silent, his jaw tight, his hands clenched upon his legs.

It wasn’t until Merlin showed Arthur an illustration of a mushroom cloud, and spoke of the casualties, that Arthur surged to his feet, striding away, fingers clawing through his hair.

He stopped by the wooden wall separating the café and the Apothecary.  Just stood there radiating silent fury. 

And then he drove his fist into the wall.

Merlin cringed, but didn’t move.  He sat and waited.  Watching Arthur’s shoulders rise and fall with harsh breaths.  Watching him clench and unclench his hand. 

It took several minutes before Arthur slowly walked back to his seat, and sat down heavily upon it.

“Do you want me to go on?” Merlin asked, because so much blood had filled Arthur’s face that he looked ready to burst from it.

“Finish it,” Arthur ground out.  “And be done.”

In clipped phrases and as few words as possible, because he honestly wasn’t sure how much more of this Arthur could take without taking his sword to the world around him, Merlin described the world’s flirtation with nuclear destruction. Biological warfare. Automated weapons of war.  Massive attacks by a militant few.  Battles still being fought.

When he was done, Merlin closed his books, one after the other. Wishing he could have done more to stop any of it.  Wishing he could erase the pain from his king’s face.

“It makes no sense,” Arthur said.

“Wars never do.”

“No.  I mean, it makes no sense that I’m here.  Now. What use am I against any of it?  They aren’t even lead by kings in battle.”  Arthur’s eyes drifted to the glass wall.  To the tower upon its rounded isle.  “They waited too long.  To send me back.  I’m of no use in this world.”

Merlin found himself remembering hiding in the caves from Morgana and Agravaine’s immortal army.  Of sitting in the Forest of Essetir on the run from the Southrons.  Arthur had sounded just as defeated then.  Just as hopeless.  Only this time was worse.  Because there was no reassurance he could think of.  And no one to ask for help.

“Morning Merlin, Arthur!” came Danyl’s cheerful voice.

Both Danyl and Heath were flushed from the heat as they approached, faces ruddy even in their lightweight summer shorts and shirts.

“Morning, sire,” Heath said to Arthur.  “I’ve got everything set up for lessons after lunch.  Should be a dozen people, if Dan’s brother brings the martial arts blokes he knows.”

“I just hope no one passes out from the heat.” Danyl lifted his mobile and poked at it.  “It still says it’s supposed to hit 38 C.  Only here, though.  Just our luck, right?”

“What do you mean, only here?” Merlin asked.

“They’re calling it the Avalon Heatwave,” Danyl said proudly, and held out his mobile.

Merlin stared at the temperature map of England.   “Oh hell.”

“What’s wrong?” Arthur asked.

“Tell you back in the flat,” Merlin said in a low voice, and gathered up his books as quickly as he could.

When they’d retreated to the stifling heat of his residence, Merlin pulled out his laptop and sat down with it at the dining table.  Arthur sat beside him, watching the screen as he pulled up a weather website, and a satellite image of the country.

“Bloody buggering hell,” Merlin said, leaning back hard in his chair.

“What am I looking at?” Arthur asked. 

“It’s a map of the country, taken today, from space.  This is us.  Right where there’s the only absurdly high temperature in the country, below a perfect circle of clear skies.”

“That’s Albion right now?  Is there someone up there taking this photograph? How is it getting onto here?  Are those the actual clouds?”

Merlin watched Arthur pull the laptop closer to peer at the screen.  “Do you not understand what’s happened?”

“Yes, yes, you broke the weather, and now you’ll have to fix it. Now how did you make the picture change?  Is it with this thing?” 

Merlin watched Arthur pick up the mouse and squint at the light beneath it. “This is a serious problem!”

Yes, Merlin, I know,” Arthur said, in a tone which suggested his royal patience was being tried.  “It’s not exactly the first time you’ve affected the world without meaning to, is it.  And it’s hardly more impressive than stopping time, for god’s sakes.  Now come on.  Make it show me Albion again.  I want to see the shape of the five kingdoms.  I never could get a decent map.”

Merlin stared at him in total incredulity.

“If you don’t know how to do it,” Arthur said.

“I know how,” Merlin snapped at him.

“Then show me.” 

Merlin watched Arthur glance at him sharply, then back at the laptop, his gaze suddenly very intent on the screen, color rising in his cheeks. 

“You are utterly unbelievable,” Merlin muttered, and wound up spending the next half hour showing his king how to use the internet in order to view his kingdom. 

Only after Merlin had shown him the areas of the five kingdoms in detail did Arthur reach out to close the laptop lid.  Something he hadn’t known Arthur had figured out how to do.

“The heat in here is ridiculous,” Arthur said, wiping sweat from his forehead. “Go fix the weather, then fetch the supplies for training.”

“Go ‘fix the weather’,” Merlin repeated, feeling strangely offended.

“No,” Arthur said, drawling out the word. “I said, go fix the weather, then fetch supplies for training.  We’ll need twelve sets of chainmail, shields and swords, as well as water and food.  Bring some of those fruited drinks.  And scones.  I’ll need them set out upon the lawn by the time  the students arrive.  But tend to the weather first.  It’s sweltering in here.”

Merlin stared at him, his mouth falling open, his brows raising.

“Is there a problem?” Arthur asked, clearly irritated that he hadn’t yet moved to do his royal bidding.

Merlin surprised himself by laughing.  

Because for fifteen hundred years he’d wondered what his life in Camelot would have been like, if Arthur had known about his magic sooner. 

And here was his answer.  It would have been exactly this. 

It would have been Arthur, giving him an even longer list of daily chores, including not only ‘muck out the stables’, but also ‘stop that army of the undead at the border of Mercia’ and ‘there’s a magical beast on the rampage take care of that before you bring my lunch’ and finishing up with ‘my best shirt still has a wine stain honestly Merlin isn’t your magic good for anything’.

Arthur peered into his face in clearly feigned concern.  “Are you experiencing some sort of mental affliction?”

“You are amazing,” Merlin said, in utter disbelief.

“Are you attempting to flatter me to get out of your chores?”

“As if you need more people flattering you,” Merlin said, thinking of the women in the café, and ignoring Arthur’s smug smile as he got up.  “Let me go find a spell to ‘fix the weather’,” he finished, barely restraining himself from using air quotes, the sarcasm of which Arthur wouldn’t have understood anyway.

“Why do you need a spell for that?”

“I just do,” Merlin muttered as he left.

It took a couple of hours in his library scouring through books to find what he needed. Not only a few spells for the weather, but another spell as well.  For the training field.

Merlin was still smiling faintly to himself, plotting exactly how to use that spell, when he returned with a tray of sandwiches to Arthur’s chambers.

Arthur sat at his desk, leaning back in his chair, closing the book he’d been reading. His tunic was wet with sweat from the oppressive heat, his face flushed. “Tell me that you found what you need,” he said, as he pushed his shirt sleeves up his arms.

“One of these spells should do the trick.” Merlin set out the lunch plates then pulled off his neckerchief and wiped at his face and neck.  “This heat is ridiculous,” he grumbled, throwing the cloth upon the chair back. “Is it all right if I go ahead and-  What?”  He put a hand to his neck, where Arthur was staring.  “Do I have something on my neck?”

Arthur’s eyes snapped to his face.  “What?  No.  How should I know?”

“I think the heat’s getting to you,” Merlin said, as he walked to the lakeside window, pulling a folded paper from his pocket.

“Of course it is.  It’s boiling in here.  Are you going to fix this damn weather or not?”

“I was about to ask you if I should.”

Arthur got to his feet, following him to the open window, to the oppressive heat pouring in.  High above the castle, the sun beat down from cloudless blue skies.  “Why can’t you undo your mistake without a spell?  It’s what you did this morning.”

Merlin spread out the paper upon the window sill. Ran a hand over the hastily scribbled words.  “No need to get fancy about it if a spell will work.”

“You’re worried about your control of the ancient magics.”

“Better safe than sorry,” he said, glancing sidelong at where Arthur stood with arms crossed, frowning. 

But Arthur didn’t say anything more.  Just nodded toward the window for him to proceed.

He stretched an arm out the window, up to the sky. “Ærgestréon drýláca álæteaþ éower færgripe þá hæðan,” he said.  His magic surged forth, only to dissipate at once.  “All right.  Then how about this.  Cume mec célnessa blæstas, ágénbewendaþ lyfta, ábæraþ  célnessa wederá.”  Again a call to his magic, and again a surge of power that dissipated.  Frowning up at the sky, he tried the next spell.  And the next.  And then there were no more to try.

“Not working?” Arthur asked.

“No.”

“Not with spells.”

Merlin sighed.  “I think I liked it better when you didn’t understand magic.”

Arthur gave a low mirthless laugh.  “You’re not the only one.”

A hot wind blew through the open window, stirring the curtains, even thicker with humidity and heat than before.

“There’s no choice, Merlin.”

“I know.”

“What, exactly, are you worried about?” Arthur asked, sounding genuinely curious.

Losing my mind, Merlin thought. Destroying the manor. Ripping the world apart. Turning into-

“Could you do something for me, sire?” Merlin asked, without looking away from the merciless blue sky.

“What’s that?”

“Get your sword.”

He heard Arthur heave an enormous sigh. 

“If I knew you were safe,” Merlin said, “it would be easier for me to concentrate.”

When no answer came, he turned to look at his king.  Pain shone from Arthur’s eyes.  But there was a resolve there, too.  With an exhausted shake of his head, he went to get his sword.

Merlin waited until Arthur rejoined him at the window. 

“Better?” Arthur asked bitterly, hefting the blade, before pointing it at the floor.

“Much.”

“Simply maddening,” Arthur muttered, and nodded at the window for him to begin.

Merlin took a deep breath, and with as light a touch as he could manage, reached out to the ancient magics of the world.

They washed over him at once, a wild river finding a new path to the sea, dragging him under, dizzying and intoxicating and too much too much too much-!

Merlin felt a body press against his back, an arm wrapping tight around his chest, a hand pressing over his heart.  Another arm wound around his stomach from the right, a closed fist pressing into his stomach, bringing with it a promise, and a threat.

“Focus,” Arthur commanded, lips brushing his ear, breath hot on his skin.

Merlin grabbed onto Arthur’s arm and held on with all that he was.  Clinging to the strong presence behind him, he reached deep into the churning ancient magics above.

The tangle he’d caused was obvious. The damage easy to undo. He pulled, loosed the knot of energies. Felt them ease back into natural patterns.  Energy flowed high above. Unspeakably ancient.  Immeasurably powerful. 

But only a pale echo of the power beneath his feet.

Avalon, he thought, and he wondered how he’d never felt it before, this vast churning sea of the purest magic he’d ever felt, immeasurably deep, reaching down to the core of the planet, stretching up to the lake, yet trapped there, beneath the surface.

Not right, he thought, it wasn’t right, it shouldn’t feel like that.  He began to reach deeper to find out why-

“Stay with me!” Arthur yelled.

Arthur, he thought, and reached back towards the radiant golden presence of his king, but felt something wrong there too, horribly wrong.  He could find out what it was, he knew he could, if he only looked deeper, let go-

“Merlin!”

Merlin jolted back into his body, heaving in a deep wheezing breath, the expansion of his lungs unnatural within his ribs.  His legs gave out, and he slumped back against a strong body, his head landing with a thump upon a shoulder. 

His own body felt far too fragile and far too small to contain him.  A terrifying thought, coming from that part of him that was not human, and would never be human-

The clatter of a sword upon stone had him blinking up at the ceiling, snapping fully back to himself.  He felt Arthur move him forward, leaning him against the windowsill.  Merlin pressed his hands to the stone, staring wide eyed out the window, a cool breeze moving over his face. 

He squeezed his eyes closed, shaking his head, and when he opened them, he once again saw the lake and the tower and the hills as real things again, instead of forces of magic, or lines of power.

A gasp behind him made him look over his shoulder. Arthur had backed away from him, his sword lying at his feet, his blue eyes wide and staring at a hand he had raised in front of his eyes. 

He’d dropped his sword, Merlin thought. He couldn’t remember that happening before.  Not ever.

“Arthur?” he choked out, his voice hoarse and still strange to his own ears.

Arthur straightened, his distress only partly vanishing behind a hard stare, his arms dropping to his sides. He rubbed his palms to his thighs, as if scraping something from them.  “Are you all right?” he demanded.

Merlin watched him pick up his sword, nearly lose his balance, and grab hold of the canopy of his bed.  “Are you?”

Arthur gave him a scathing look, and walked around his bed, to return his sword to its scabbard.  “Did it work?”

Merlin forced his legs to support him.  Something was wrong, he thought.  Something that had happened during his magic.  He knew what Arthur looked like when he’d been truly shaken.  He looked just like this. “Did something happen to you?” 

“I’ll take that as a yes.”  Arthur moved to his dining table and sat down at his plate, grabbing several sandwiches.

“And I’ll take that as a yes, too,” Merlin said sharply.  “Arthur, tell me what happened.”

A brief flicker of something on Arthur’s face as he started to take a bite his food.  He shook his head, grabbing for the pitcher instead. “Nothing to be concerned about.”

Merlin watched Arthur’s hand shaking as he poured himself water. “I can tell now too, you know.”

Arthur set down his glass, glaring at his own hand, as if willing it steady. “Tell what?”

“When you’re hiding something from me.”

Arthur looked over at him, his gaze murderous. “I was going to wait until I figured it out to tell you about it.”

“And have you?” Merlin snapped, echoing Arthur’s own words from the meadow.

“No.”

“Well then?”

“Well nothing.”

Merlin fought back the urge to throw something.  “If it’s to do with my magic, I deserve to know!”

Arthur slammed his cup to the table, rattling the plates.  “Just as I deserved to know about my own kingdom all those years you were keeping your secrets!”

Merlin clenched his fists by his legs, feeling as if Arthur had actually run him through with his sword.  Where was this unexpected attack coming from?  What in the world had happened?   “What is wrong with you?” 

“I’d like to eat my lunch in peace, is what’s wrong with me,” Arthur said, all narrowed eyes and white knuckled grip on his dinner plate.  “If you don’t want to eat, then fine.  Go occupy yourself.  Somewhere else.”

“Fine!” he growled, and stormed from Arthur’s chambers, slamming the door behind him so loudly that he heard the windows shake.

It took him until he’d hauled all the training equipment down from the third floor and out to the lawns before he could calm down.  He hated that Arthur was hiding things from him.  And about his magic!  But Arthur was right.  He had no right to demand the truth.  Not after all of his years of lying. No matter what his reasons for doing it had been. 

He was still muttering about stupid kings and the stupid unfairness of the world when Heath and Danyl showed up with their friends. They were a young group, athletic and eager.   At least none of them would drop dead from heat, he thought, though that was finally easing up.

Merlin surveyed the small clouds that had returned to the sky, feeling a cool breeze moving his hair.  Nice to know I can still do magic without destroying anything, he thought.  Though something had apparently gone wrong.  Not that Arthur was going to tell him about it.

“No, don’t tell me, of course not, why would you do that,” Merlin muttered, as he returned to Arthur’s chambers.  “I’m only the last bloody sorcerer on the face of the bloody earth.  It’s not like I’m an expert in magic after fifteen damned centuries of it. Royal pain in my arse…”

Without thinking, he shoved through the doors of Arthur’s chambers.  “There’s a-“ he began, then choked on his words, and turned his back so quickly that he slammed his elbow into the door. 

“Will you never learn to knock?” Arthur asked.

Merlin could hear clothing being adjusted.  “Probably not,” he said weakly. 

I am never going to get the mental image of Arthur bent over pulling up his pants out of my head, he thought. Yet another thing he’d forgotten about.  That glorious round royal backside of his.  Good god-

“What’s so interesting that it required you bursting through my door?”

“What?  Oh.  It’s.”  For several disorienting seconds he honestly couldn’t remember what the hell he’d been thinking for the past several minutes.  “Oh.  There’s.  A man.  With a sword.”  He squeezed his eyes closed, swearing mentally, at even more suggestive mental imagery.  ”Outside,” Merlin said firmly.  “There’s a man with a sword outside.”

“Yes, Merlin, well done, that’s very observant of you,” Arthur said, in that tone of royal condescension that set Merlin’s nerves on edge. “We’re all going to have swords.  That’s why it’s called sword training.”

Merlin rolled his eyes, because he still couldn’t quite move on from what he’d seen when he walked in.  Keeping his gaze averted from where Arthur stood dressing, he wandered around the room, picking up a tunic, only to discover three more scattered on the floor. Somehow, a sock had found its way onto the mantle.  And another in the hearth. 

“How did you do this?” Merlin asked, realizing that there were bits of clothing everywhere.  “I was gone less than an hour!”

“It’s one of my many natural gifts,” Arthur said smugly.

“Along with being a supercilious prat.” Merlin grabbed a sock from a chair, and a pair of breeches from the floor.  He paused by his chair at the dining table.  “Where’s my neckerchief?”

“How should I know?”

“I put it right here.” Merlin looked under the table, but only found only a sock and Arthur’s belt.  He picked them up, then cracked the back of his head on the table trying to stand. “You made this mess on purpose,” he grumbled, risking a glance at Arthur.

Arthur gave him a look of pure innocence, blue eyes wide and eyebrows raised and even a hand pressing to his chest. “Now why would I do that?” he asked. 

“I have a few ideas,” Merlin grumbled at him, picking up an undergarment that had made its way onto the top of the wardrobe. 

“How wonderful for you.  I’m so proud.  Now come over here and ready me for training.”

With an enormous sigh, Merlin threw his bundle of clothes to the floor, and went to get Arthur’s armor. 

As it turned out, training involved far more talking and instruction than actual swordsmanship.  With no squires to help, the students had to be taught to dress themselves in chainmail and arm guards and gloves.  It took a while for Arthur to get them into any kind of formation, and even longer to go through the most basic of moves.

Merlin watched the proceedings from the shade of a tree.  He leaned back against its bark, his head tipped forward, his hands folded upon his outstretched legs.  All around him he felt the gentle sigh of the earth, as the temperatures slowly cooled and the breeze moved across his face.  

The sounds of clashing swords and the smells of sweet grasses lulled him into a light doze, and brief dreams of castle spires and red capes.  A loud laugh snapped him awake, and he sat up.  Upon the lawn, Arthur stood in tunic and breeches, sparring with a bald man in a white martial arts uniform. 

Thomas, he thought.  The martial arts instructor of Danyl’s brother.  He’d shown up quite early with Danyl and his brother Wyatt, bearing a sword of his own.

Arthur was as fascinated by the blade as he’d suspected he would be.  After sparring only a few minutes, he called a stop to the session, and then after speaking with Thomas, he exchanged his own blade for the one used by Thomas.

The difference in the weapon’s weight and length was enough to put Arthur at a disadvantage as they began sparring together.  He clearly didn’t mind, smiling as they engaged and retreated.  Even laughing as the blade was flung from his hand, landing inches from Merlin’s foot. 

“Trouble hanging onto your sword, sire?” Merlin asked, as Arthur retrieved the weapon from the ground.  “Maybe I should give you some pointers.”

“You, give me pointers.”  Arthur straightened, scoffing at him.  “In what?  How to fall down?”

Merlin picked up a training sword and shield from the pile at his side, and stood up.

“Seriously?” Arthur asked.

“Are you scared?” Merlin asked loudly.

Arthur glanced over to the group of men and women who stood taking refreshment by the table Merlin had set out.  “Oh, by all means,” he said, and gestured to the clearing.

While Arthur retrieved his training sword, Merlin strode down to the lakeside, his shield raised to hide his face, his blade lifted, saying: “beþence gefyllan áflygennessa.

A quick surge of magic, small and controlled, had him turning to where Arthur stood ready upon the lawn, sword raised, a deeply smug and superior smirk upon his lips. 

Merlin took his place facing him, raised his sword, and waited.

Arthur twirled his sword.

Merlin’s blade repeated the same motion.

Arthur stilled, frowning curiously at him.

“Don’t worry, I’ll try not to hurt you too badly,” Merlin said loudly. 

Arthur rushed forward with an wide swing that had Merlin’s shoulder wrenching in its socket as he twisted to meet Arthur’s strike.  Again Arthur attacked, this time three rapid blows, Merlin’s blade yanking his arm through the air to meet each one.

“Well done!” Danyl called. 

Arthur glanced at the applauding crowd of students, then narrowed his eyes at Merlin. “What did you do?”

“I have no idea what you mean,” Merlin informed him.

“Really.”

“Really.”

Arthur rushed forward again, this time using more advanced attacks, including a feint and half turn with a follow up attack from behind that had Merlin’s arm yanking around painfully to meet Arthur’s blade.  

He staggered off balance, just in time to see the flash of recognition in Arthur’s eyes.

“You’re cheating,” Arthur said.

“How could I possibly cheat,” Merlin said loudly, and grinned at their audience.

“All right then,” Arthur said, in a low even voice. “If that’s how we’re playing it.”

And he attacked again. 

Merlin found himself driven backwards, his arm jerking around so roughly and quickly to meet the barrage of attacks that he had to throw his shield away and grasp the sword with both hands. 

Arthur was ruthless, moving all around him, feinting and reversing as Merlin was yanked around by the sword to mirror and repel all of his strikes.

Then quite abruptly, Arthur stopped, going still, eyes moving over him from head to foot and back again. And then a thin smile pulled at his lips, an expression Merlin knew to be a harbinger of very bad things.  

Arthur sauntered towards him, bringing his sword around in an extremely slow movement.  Merlin’s sword did the same, until their blades touched gently between them, and they stood facing one another with inches between their bodies. 

“Enchanted the sword then, did you?” Arthur asked in a low voice.

“I told you I didn’t need to practice with a sword if I have magic,” Merlin said smugly.

“You did say that, didn’t you.”

“You going to admit I was right then?”

Arthur very slowly brought his sword back. Merlin’s did the same. 

“Not today,” Arthur said.   

And then he punched his shield into Merlin’s chest, knocking him flat to the ground.

Merlin hit the grass hard enough to jostle his blade from his fingers.  Breathless and amazed, he watched Arthur step over him, kick his blade away, then point his own sword at his throat.

Above them on the hill, wild applause broke out, and a few cheers besides.

“That was cheating!” Merlin rasped out. 

He wanted to be angry.  He really did.  But he couldn’t manage it.  Not in the face of such a brilliant piece of strategy.  He couldn’t believe Arthur had outwitted him.  And in the face of a magical attack, no less.

“That wasn’t cheating,” Arthur told him.  “That was knowing your opponent.” 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Arthur grabbed his forearm and hauled him to his feet.  “With you, there’s always only one solution.  One emotion-based, headstrong, poorly thought out solution.  That’s your problem.  You never think through all the angles.  All the points of weakness.  You just rush headlong into danger.”

“That’s… not true,” Merlin protested, though not with much certainty.

“It’s a common hubris of men of great power,” Arthur said.  “They forget they’re not invulnerable.”

Merlin couldn’t find the words to respond, too busy trying to process the compliment so clearly stated beneath the criticism. 

Arthur grinned at him, a lopsided thing full of affection. “From now on, leave the strategy to me.  I’m far better at it than you.  Now go sit down.  You look like a strong breeze could knock you over.”

Merlin did so without argument, sweaty and winded from the sparring.  He spent the next half hour reclining against the tree, thinking about what Arthur had said, watching Arthur talking and laughing with the men and women gathered by the lakeside.

By the time training ended, Heath had organized several more lessons for the group. Arthur agreed to them without hesitation. 

It wasn’t until much later, after they’d cleaned up and dressed and sat together in the dining room of Merlin’s downstairs residence, that Merlin found out why.

“It’s amazing that people still train in the old ways,” Arthur said, as he watched Merlin browse through news websites on his laptop.  “Danyl’s brother has been training in the Eastern Arts since childhood.”

“Is that so,” Merlin said absently, scanning through the stories, finding nothing unusual. Nothing but the usual death and destruction.  Nothing to justify Arthur’s return. 

“Did you know that the warriors of the East were serving nobility before we even knew how to make proper swords?  Amazing weapon, the katana.  No weight to it at all.”

“Hmm,” Merlin said.  Something, he thought. I must be missing something.

“Thomas said that his students train just as much for discipline and fitness as they do for defense. They don’t ever expect to see battle. Their training for it is the goal itself.”

“Not too dissimilar from why the lords sent their sons to Camelot.”

“They sent their sons to Camelot to defend the kingdom.  Or to receive political favor.  What they got instead was death on the plains of Camlaan.”

Merlin looked over at Arthur, and found Arthur’s gaze lowered to the table, pain etching wrinkles around his eyes, between his brows. 

“What you gave them,” Merlin said, “was something to believe in.  Something to fight for.   Just like you did for me.” 

Arthur just shook his head, wiping a hand absently over the tabletop. 

What will it take, Merlin wondered, for Arthur to stop doubting himself?  What sacrifice would finally do it, if not his own life?

“People come to you for leadership,” Merlin said, “because you’re brave of heart, and bold of spirit, and fair and just and strong.  They don’t only want to learn the way of the sword.  They want to learn how to be better.  It happened back in Camelot.  And it’s happening now too.  Already.  After not even a week.”

Arthur looked over at him, giving him one of those nearly imperceptible smiles that let him know he’d said the right thing.

Merlin smiled in response, watching Arthur’s smile grow, until it reached his blue eyes.  Any moment, Arthur was going to look away, he thought.  Any moment, he would say something to break the silence.  To end the moment between him.

But he didn’t.  Instead, Arthur just sat quietly by his side, his gaze sliding over his face, from eyes to cheeks to lips and back again to his eyes. 

Merlin found his thoughts wandering, going where they shouldn’t, to the way Arthur’s lips were parted, and the moisture shining upon them.  He wondered if they would taste like the sweet juice Arthur drank outside.  He’d only need to lean forward, just a little-

Next to him, he saw Arthur lick his lips.

The strength of his arousal at the sight was shocking.  He drew in a sharp breath, turning back to his laptop, his cheeks burning. 

News stories, he told himself firmly, as he typed on the keyboard with trembling fingers.  Yes.  That’s what he was supposed to be doing.  Looking for news stories.

When the next website displayed, Arthur pressed against his side, peering at the screen.

I should push him away, Merlin thought.  Or I could also move the laptop closer to him.  Or I could lean away.  Yes, that’s what I could do. Then he wouldn’t need to sit so close. 

Or maybe he would, he thought.  He’s been touching me so much more often now than he ever did.  Hasn’t he?  Or maybe it just seems that way?

“Next week Thomas will be come by to show me what he teaches his students,” Arthur said.  “It’ll be sometime in the morning before- What’s that there?  Go back to that.”

“That’s a video advert for a series on telly. Trust me, you don’t want to get started watching television.  And who’s stopping by?”

“I don’t remember telly in your books.  Is it like computers?  Thomas is the kendo instructor, weren’t you listening?  And didn’t you say they have pictures of Mars?  Show me those.”

Merlin couldn’t help but laugh. “Never would I have imagined King Arthur of Camelot to someday become an internet addict with poor focusing skills.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my focusing skills,” Arthur said, but he glanced twice at the laptop screen as he said it.

Merlin laughed at him again, earning a cuff to the back of his head.  Still smiling, he did as his king asked, and googled photos of Mars.

They were still at the dining room table, seated close together and looking at photos of the solar system, when the door to the café opened.

“These came for you boys,” Eleanor said, stepping aside to let Heath and Danyl carry in stacks of cardboard boxes.  “Everything’s all closed up.  Until tonight, of course,” she said to Danyl, and handed her keys to him. “Frederick and I will see you then.”

“Thanks, Eleanor.” Danyl started to follow her out of the door, then turned to Merlin and Arthur.  “See you later?”

“We’ll be there,” Arthur answered, with a sidelong glance at Merlin that spoke of a multitude of embarrassing stories to be told.

“Great.  We’ll be having pizza at seven, and cake afterward-“

“And beer and wine all night long,” Heath said, as he stacked three more boxes atop the large pile.  “Remind me to show you the video I took of you both.  It already has five thousand hits.”

Merlin’s head snapped up from the laptop screen.  “You posted the video of us online?”

“Don’t worry.  It’s on the café’s YouTube channel.  So it’s all promotion for you.  Come on, Dan.  See you tonight Merlin, Arthur!”

What café YouTube channel?” Merlin called after him, but Heath just smiled over his shoulder, and closed the door behind him.

“Do I want to understand any of whatever it is that has you so worked up?” Arthur asked.

“You really don’t, no.” 

“Good.”

“YouTube channel,” Merlin muttered, as he got up to open the boxes.

“More gibberish,” Arthur said absently, as he poked at the mouse.

After opening all the boxes, Merlin made piles of clothing and shoes on the table.  After closing the laptop, Arthur moved to stand by his side and study the clothes. “Which ones are mine?”

“Those piles there.  The ones that look like what you already own.  Just without the laces and the rough fabric.”

Arthur rummaged through his piles of clothes, messing everything up in the process.  After manipulating some zippers, and some velcro, he nodded approval at his new royal attire. 

“Why don’t I have one of those?” he asked, pointing at the mobile that lay atop Merlin’s clothes.

“If you get one of these, then Albion is definitely lost.  Because I cannot even express how much more addictive a mobile is than a laptop.”

“Just because you have no willpower doesn’t mean that I don’t. Get me one.  And more of these,” he added, gesturing to his shirts. “But you can have these,” he added, throwing three pairs of what Merlin had thought were very tactfully striped sleeping trousers at him.  “They look like something a court jester would wear.  And what in god’s name are these?”

Merlin grabbed back the pants Arthur had pulled from his own pile of clothing.  “They’re pants.  Underclothes.” 

“Why in the world would you need them in such a bright color?  And they’re clearly too small.  They couldn’t possibly fit.”

“They stretch.”  He pulled the fabric as wide as it could go.  “See?”

Arthur picked up another pair, pulling at it doubtfully.  “Well.  Perhaps they fit you,” he said in a sly tone, casting a significant look towards the area of Merlin’s hips.

Merlin felt his face flush.  “They’d fit you too, and I should know, because I’ve seen you-”

He choked on the next word, which was going to be ‘naked’, wondering how in the world he’d wound up nearly talking about seeing Arthur climbing out of the bath.

To his surprise, Arthur turned pink in the face too, clearly uncomfortable.  “They’re ridiculous,” Arthur announced, flinging the pants at him.

Merlin shoved them deep in the pile of his clothes, then gathered up everything into his arms with frantic motions.  “If they bother you so much, I’ll send yours back!”

Arthur stared down at his pile of clothes in horror.  “You bought them for me too?”

“Never mind!” Merlin yelled, and left the room as quickly as possible.

With the party in only a few hours, he laundered the clothes with the washer and dryer, feeling like he was cheating by doing it.  But it got him back in Arthur’s chambers with clean dry clothing with plenty of time to spare, even allowing him time to fold and put away Arthur’s clothes in his chambers.

Arthur reclined upon his bed as Merlin did so, books scattered around him. Occasionally he grunted to himself, sometimes shaking his head.

Merlin smiled as he set Arthur’s new shirts into a drawer.  “What is it this time?”

“These inventions in the nineteen hundreds. Just think of how much easier castle life would have been if we’d had even a handful of these things.”

“I think of that all the time.  Hauling buckets of hot water up all those stone steps... Makes my back hurt just to think of it…”

“Which begs the question.”

Merlin patted Arthur’s new collection of socks in his drawer.  “What question is that?”

“All the technology of this world. All the things that make life easier.  Yet you lived up here all this time.  Why?”

Merlin looked around at the stone walls and the lit candles, the gently swaying curtains and the stained glass.  “It helped me remember.  Who I was.  What I was doing here.  Because there were times…”

“When you forgot.”

Merlin moved his fingers absently over Arthur’s socks in his drawer. “It was so easy sometimes,” he said softly. “To get distracted by the events of the world.  To get pulled into friendships and relationships.  Or into the magics of the earth.  The longer you were gone… the harder it was for me to find my way back when I got lost.” 

He turned from the wardrobe, leaning a shoulder on it, his arms crossed over his chest.  Arthur had gone quite still on the bed.  Watching him carefully.  A little guarded.  A little pained.

“I didn’t just build this place for you,” Merlin said.  “I built it for me. Even more than Ealdor, Camelot was my home.  It will always be my home.  It’s where I found myself.”

And it’s where I found you, he thought.  And this time, I’m not going to let you go.

Arthur inclined his head forward.  The barest of movements.  A gesture of understanding, and of sympathy, and of grief.

Only Arthur could put an entire paragraph into a nod, Merlin thought.  Not even with the druids had he felt such intimate voiceless communication. 

“Your clothes are all ready,” Merlin said, to fight back a swell of emotion.  “I was thinking of dressing a bit more modern tonight?”

“As was I,” Arthur said.  “Go on then.  I’ll meet you in the café.”

It felt strange, Merlin thought, readying himself for a social gathering, without readying Arthur as well.  He kept expecting to hear Arthur bellow his name, or demand to know where his royal robes had got to. 

No royal robes tonight, Merlin thought, as he stood in the washroom, freshly shaved and dressed.  He cast a critical eye at his reflection.  Not bad at all, he thought, as he soothed down his black button down shirt, tugging at the open collar.  He hauled up the waistband of his jeans, casting a baleful look at his unused hair products.  With a roll of his eyes, he styled his hair in the more natural fashion he’d worn it in Arthur’s day. 

Which was just stupid, he told his reflection.  It wasn’t as if Arthur was actually going to notice his hair.

After some final preening in the mirror, he joined the party in the café.  The tables had been shoved against the stone walls, the main space open for people to mill around together. Soft rock music played from a speaker set upon the counter, and early evening light shone through the glass wall, enhanced by the soft interior lighting above.

Merlin spotted Eleanor and her husband over by Danyl’s mother and father.  He’d known both of Danyl’s parents for decades.  Danyl’s grandparents too.  They were here as well, age heavy upon them, both of them looking much older than he remembered. 

They won’t know me, Merlin remembered.  He’d forgotten all about that.  Again.  Tonight, he’d need to reintroduce himself to all these people who he already knew.  Pretending he hadn’t known them all since they were children…

“Well don’t you look handsome.”

Eleanor had stepped in front of him, her cheeks rosy, a nearly empty glass of wine in her hand.  Her husband was by her side, a kind man with a round face and an easygoing disposition.  The perfect companion for Eleanor, he’d always thought.

“I see you’ve found your way to the wine,” Merlin said wryly, nodding at her glass.

“A daily drop of red wine is good for the health,” she told him sagely.  “Merlin, I’d like to introduce my Frederick.  Doesn’t Merlin look like Emrys, dear?”

Frederick squinted at him.  “Don’t see it, I’m afraid,” he said. “Pleased to meet you, Merlin.  You’re keeping my dove out of trouble, now, are you?”

“That’s definitely the other way around,” Merlin assured him. 

Eleanor tsked at him, but gave him a fond smile. “Will be having the honor of Arthur’s presence tonight?  I never see the one of you without the-  Oh, there he is.”

Merlin followed her gaze to his residence door.  Arthur stood there, closing the door behind him.

The sight of him felt like a kick to the stomach.  Because here was something else he had never imagined.  Arthur Pendragon of Camelot, looking every inch the twenty first century man, with his red v-neck shirt stretched across his broad chest, and black trousers tight across his strong hips and muscled legs, right down to his dark shoes.

Merlin watched Arthur survey the room, blue eyes narrowed under beautifully combed blond hair.  When Arthur spotted him, a broad smile lit Arthur’s features like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.

“Bloody hell,” Merlin breathed, as warmth filled his face.

Next to him he heard Eleanor sigh.

He barely registered it, because Arthur was striding towards him, for some reason looking him up and down and smiling, one eyebrow raising as if in appreciation for what he saw.

“Arthur!” called a voice, and then Heath was at Arthur’s side, talking with him, a few others following to crowd around him.

The group pulled Arthur away, over to where Danyl stood with his parents. 

Merlin watched him go, because dear god but those trousers fit him rather well, didn’t they, and they didn’t leave much to the imagination at all, not that he needed to imagine anything, not with all those times he’d seen Arthur climbing in and out of the tub-

“Freddie, dear,” Eleanor said, “could you get me some more wine?”

“Would you like anything?” the man asked Merlin.

Merlin couldn’t stop staring at Arthur.  “I better not,” he muttered, because there was no telling what he would do if he were intoxicated with Arthur looking like that.

“Be right back, dove.”

“Thank you, pet.”

Merlin dropped his gaze, fussing with his shirt, knowing full well what Eleanor was going to say.

“You should tell him,” she said, without preamble.

Merlin watched two more people join the crowd by where Arthur stood chatting with Danyl and his family.  Two of the women from training, he realized.  Both lovely, both moving quite close to him as he spoke. 

“It’s not like that, Eleanor,” he said softly.

“I know he was married, but.  Well.  Heath had a ladyfriend too, if you remember.  That’s no indication these days.”

“In this case it really is.”

“The way he looks at you though…“

Merlin turned to her, picking up her hands, holding her thin fingers gently in his own. “Eleanor,” he said. “My dear, dear friend.  Thank you for what you’re trying to do for me.  But please.  Don’t.  I’m happy with how things are.  So just this once?  Let it be?”

“Now you really do remind me of Emrys,” she said, sounding not happy about it at all.

After Frederick returned with her wine, Merlin excused himself from their company.  He moved around the room, chatting with people, leaving Arthur to his social circle. 

Merlin had just finished chatting with one of the men from the village when he felt a hand grip his arm.  Arthur stood at his side, giving him a look of utter exasperation.

“You do know this isn’t Camelot, and you don’t need to skulk about in the shadows like a servant,” Arthur said.

“I wasn’t skulking like a servant,” Merlin protested, even as he realized to his own aggravation that yes, that’s exactly what he had been doing.

“Well then come on,” Arthur said, and he pulled Merlin by the arm over to a group of people who were apparently awaiting his return.  Among them were a group of small children.  Nieces and nephews of Danyl’s, he realized, judging by the dark hair and thoughtful dark eyes.

“This,” Arthur said to the children, “is Merlin.  The sorcerer.”

Merlin raised his eyebrows, as stunned by Arthur’s casual use of the word as he was by Arthur’s playful smile.

“He’s not Merlin,” stated a ten year old boy.  “He doesn’t have a beard.”

“Can you really do magic?” a younger girl asked him.

“Do you use a wand like Harry Potter?” ventured another boy.

“He doesn’t even have a magic hat,” the first boy protested.

“Why, that’s true,” Arthur said, sounding as if this were the most enlightening thing he’d ever heard. “He can’t be Merlin if he doesn’t have a magic hat on.  And magic robes, as well.  But do you know what?  I think he could find some. Can’t you, Merlin.”

Merlin struggled to suppress a smile at the mischief sparkling in Arthur’s eyes. But he couldn’t let him win that easily.  “Sadly,” he said, “I have no idea where my magic robes or my magic hat have got to.”

“Top shelf of the cupboard in the diningroom!” came Eleanor’s voice, from the back of the crowd. 

“No more wine for you, Eleanor Godwyn!” Merlin called to her.

She was already heading for his residence door.  “Oh fooey!” she called back.

“Why have I never sacked her?” Merlin said wistfully.  “She never does what I tell her.”

“That must be indescribably aggravating,” Arthur said.

Merlin held in five sarcastic responses, mindful of the children nearby. “You know,” he told them, “you don’t actually need a hat to do magic.  Or a robe.  Or even a wand.”

“Harry Potter uses a wand,” the girl insisted.

“Wands are for when you want to be showy,” Merlin said.

“And Merlin is nothing if not subtle,” Arthur told them.

“I am subtle.  Although, mind you, a proper staff can come in handy. When you need to really make a point.”

“Striking down armies with lightning from a mountaintop,” Arthur explained.

“Hypothetically,” Merlin said.

“Of course.” Arthur grinned across the room.  “But oh look, Merlin.  Here comes Eleanor.  With your magic clothing.”

“Did you know,” Merlin said to the children, in an attempt at some sort of retaliation, “that he is the real King Arthur of Camelot?”’

All three children looked at Arthur, who froze with his wine glass halfway to his lips.

“He can’t be King Arthur,” said the boy.  “Where’s his beard?”

“Where’s Excalibur?” asked the girl.

“And you don’t have any armor.”

Arthur crouched down amid the children.  “I don’t have a beard because only barbarians don’t shave,” he said to the first, “and my sword is upstairs because it’s much too sharp to be around little fingers like yours,” to the second, “and my armor is in a pile in the corner of my chambers, waiting to be cleaned by Merlin, who can’t do it right now because he’s going to put on his very, very special magical sorcerer robes and hat, and conjure you each a butterfly.”

Eleanor proudly held up Merlin’s long blue robes with the stars and the moons with one hand, and his tall pointy hat with the other.

Arthur handed his wine glass to Danyl, and took the hat from Eleanor.  “Oh, yes, that is just… Look at that,” he said, grinning wildly, as he placed the hat atop Merlin’s head, pulling it down a bit too much, before stepping back to admire his handiwork.

“Not like that.”  Merlin adjusted the hat properly on his head.  “Like this.”

“Oh, that is…” Arthur pressed a fist to his mouth, his shoulders shaking with silent laughter, his cheeks reddening with it.

Merlin pressed his lips together, wanting to feel aggravated, but utterly unable to do so.  “Good, is it?”

Arthur drew in a deep breath to steady himself.  “It is one thing shy of perfection,” he said, and he took the long blue robes with the stars and the moons from Eleanor, and held it against Merlin’s shoulders.

“Better, sire?”

Arthur’s grin was bordering on manic.  There were tears of barely restrained laughter in his eyes.  “Oh that is just… perfection.  Now come along, Merlin. Put on your magic robes, and wear your magic hat, and show us some magic.”

After Merlin donned his costume, it turned into a bit of a show. Everyone at the party gathered to watch, as he sat on a chair in the middle of the room, and gave each child a chance to conjure a butterfly.  Even the smaller children ventured forth, bravely asking him to do the same.

The last little boy, a nephew of Danyl’s of six, was far less impressed with the butterfly than he was by staring into Merlin’s face. 

“Your eyes got sparkly,” he said curiously.

“That’s from the magic,” Merlin told him.

Next to him, Arthur choked on his wine.

“I told you,” Merlin said to Arthur, after the child had been lead away.  “They never believe it’s actually magic.”

Arthur smiled at him as Merlin pulled of his hat and robes. “You absolutely must wear that outfit more often.  Because that hat…”

“You and hats,” Merlin said fondly. “Where did you get that thing with the feathers, anyway?”

“Court jester of some visiting nobles,” Arthur told him.

“I knew it.  Formal servant clothes of Camelot my arse.”

“You did look rather like an arse, come to think of it.”

Merlin shoved Arthur with his shoulder.  Got an even harder shove in return.  And together they went to join where the others sat with their pizza and cake. 

Once again, Arthur wound up surrounded by people.  After a while, Merlin wandered off again, to sit in a chair by the glass wall.   Even with what Arthur had said, he still couldn’t keep from feeling like he should be standing in the shadows, a goblet of wine in his hands.  Old habits, he thought wryly.  He doubted he’d ever be rid of them.

“You’re Merlin, right?”

A young woman had stepped next to him, tall and athletic and beautiful, her long blond hair falling over her t-shirt, her hands shoved into the pockets of her jeans.

“Weren’t you at training today?” he asked.

“I was. I’m Anne, Megan’s friend.” She held out her hand. 

Merlin stood up to shake it.  “You were good today.  Arthur was impressed, I could tell.”

She smiled at him, clearly flattered. “Wow.  Thanks.  I’m really glad we came to class.  It was a great workout.  Heath says Arthur will be doing more of them?”

“You’d best ask Arthur about that.”

“Megan’s doing that now, I think,” Anne said, glancing over at where a tall woman with dark hair stood quite close to Arthur, her hand resting on his arm.

“Right,” Merlin said absently, watching the woman lean even closer to Arthur, and say something right up against his ear.

“So is all this yours then?” Anne asked.

“Hmm?”  If Megan were standing any closer to Arthur, he thought, then she’d be leaning on him.

“The manor.  Is it yours?”

“Oh. Yes. It is.”

“It’s so beautiful.  Honestly.  Such a responsibility to have so young.”

Merlin turned his back on Arthur and Megan and his court of admirers.  Outside the sky had turned a deep indigo.  Several of Danyl’s friends had gathered upon the porch, guitars in their arms, playing music and singing together. 

“I need some air,” Merlin muttered.

“That sounds like a great idea,” Anne said.

He’d meant alone, but he forced a smile, and gestured for her to lead the way outside to the group of people around the tables upon the porch.  He didn’t know the song the musicians were playing, but they played it beautifully.  So he sat down at one of the tables to listen, with Anne taking the seat next to him.

Between songs, as the musicians discussed what to play next, Anne rested a hand on his chair, leaning over to speak to him. “Is your name really Merlin?”

Heath turned at the next table, where he and Danyl sat with the guitar players. “Come on, Anne-”

“I’m just asking!” she protested.

“Yes, it’s really my name,” Merlin said wearily.

“Cor, mate,” said one of the guitar players.  “Just how much shit have you taken in your life because of that?”

Centuries of it,” Merlin told him.

“That’s awful,” Anne told him.  “And I swear I wasn’t teasing you about it.  Honestly.  It’s just.  You know how this town is.  Everything ‘King Arthur’ all the time.”

“I know the feeling,” Merlin said, with a glance to the window.

The next song the musicians played was slower, with soft lyrics about love.  At the next table, Merlin saw Heath move his chair closer to Danyl, and put his arm around his shoulders.  Danyl gave him a positively besotted grin, tilting his head up for a lingering kiss, before resting his head on Heath’s shoulder.

They’re so lucky, Merlin thought.  He ached with envy just looking at them. 

The music and soft singing continued one song into the next.  Merlin slouched down in his chair, enjoying sitting upon his porch, the summer breeze cool on his face, the smells of the grass and the trees filling his nose.  The moon hadn’t yet risen, so the silhouette of the tower was hidden in darkness, the lake gone from view. Only the soft glow from the café illuminated the porch, relaxing him into a light doze. 

He jolted awake at the feeling of fingertips at his temple, soothing his hair from his face.  He turned to Anne, blinking awake, to see her pull her hand away, clearly apologetic.

“I’m sorry.  You just- You looked so tired. I thought it would help you relax.  If you want, I can still…” She held out her hand, fingers close to his hair, but not touching.

Merlin thought of Arthur, and of the woman inside, and of the women in the café this morning, and of princesses and noblewomen.  A parade of beautiful faces.  All focused on Arthur.  And Arthur upon them as well. 

“Sure, why not.” Merlin relaxed back into his chair, his eyes falling closed.

The guitar players played on, their voices soft in the night.  And it really was quite nice, her fingers soothing his hair, at his temple and by his neck.  No complications, no magic, no expectations.  Just a gentle human touch.

“So this is where you went,” came Arthur’s voice.

Merlin sat up quickly, leaning away from Anne, feeling as if he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t, which was just stupid, he told himself, because he hadn’t been doing anything, and even if he had, it was no business of Arthur’s. 

Arthur stared down not at him but at Anne, at her hand resting upon Merlin’s shoulder. “I’ve been looking for you,” he said sharply. “Apparently you were here.”

“I’m surprised you noticed I left,” Merlin snapped.  At the next table, he noticed Heath and Danyl turn in their chairs, so he added, “you were having such a good time inside.”

“Things are winding down, it seems.”

Danyl glanced into the café, then started to get up.  “I better go say goodbye.”

Heath stood with him, kissing him as if they were going to be separated for a week.  Danyl grinned at him in delight as they parted, staggering a little as he walked to the café door. 

“You two are so adorable,” Anne told Heath. 

“Soppy, is what you are,” one of the guitar players said, shooting Heath a wry grin.

Romantic,” said the other, with a roll of his eyes, and he began playing a love song in a high falsetto voice, making exaggerated faces at Heath as he sang.

“You’re just envious, the lot of you,” Heath told them, over the music.

“Adorable,” Anne said again, and she set her hand upon the back of Merlin’s neck, soothing his hair.

“I’m turning in,” Arthur said.

Merlin turned in his chair to watch Arthur disappear inside.  What was that about? he wondered. Did something happen while I was out here? Maybe someone had said something upsetting to him?

“Is Arthur all right?” Anne asked.

Merlin pushed himself to his feet.  “I’d better go check.”

“Oh, do you have to?” Anne asked him.

Merlin stopped, then went back to her, realizing he was being horribly rude. “It’s been lovely,” he said to her. “Thanks.  And thanks for the music,” he told the others.

After saying his farewells in the café, he returned to the North Tower. He ran into Arthur in the corridor as he left the washroom, bare chested and barefoot and in his sleeping breeches.

“Are you all right?” Merlin asked.

“Tired, Merlin,” Arthur told him, as he walked past.  “Go back to the party.”

“I’ve already said my goodbyes,” Merlin called after him. “Feeling a bit tired myself.”

Arthur paused at the threshold of his chambers, his hand on the door handle.  “All right, then.  Come to bed.”

Arthur vanished into his rooms, leaving Merlin standing in the hallway, the words ringing in his head. 

He knew what Arthur had meant by them.  Which was nothing.  But that phrase had been spoken too often in his fantasies over the years.  He couldn’t help but imagine-

No, Merlin thought.  Stop.  Just.  No. 

Over and over he told himself not to think of it. But over and over his protests faded into Arthur’s voice. 

Come to bed. 

Merlin stood in the washroom, his face still dripping from washing it, the water still running in the sink.  In the mirror, his reflection stared back at him.  Pathetic and aching with want. 

A cold shower, he thought.  That’s all I need.  A very, very cold shower. If I’m going to get in bed with him again.  If he’s going to hold me again.  If he’s going to touch me again.

And god, how he touches me, Merlin thought, and he lifted a hand to press it over his heart.  Right where Arthur pressed his hand.  

He closed his eyes, and realized that it would be easy to imagine that it was Arthur’s hand upon his chest right now, instead of his own.   He knew that feeling so well.  Of Arthur’s hand upon him.

Arthur’s hand, over his heart.  Sliding over his chest.  And down his stomach.  And past the waistband of his jeans-

I shouldn’t, he thought at himself.  I shouldn’t-

His fingers dragged downward, over the bulge beneath his jeans.  Down, and up, and down. 

Come to bed, Merlin…

Arthur,” he moaned, and he yanked open the fastenings of jeans, shoving them down along with his pants, so he could wrap a shaking hand around himself. 

The surge of pleasure was so sharp at the first stroke that he bent double over the sink, forearm hitting the counter to support himself.  He was so hard, so painfully hard, as he ran through memory after memory of the past few days. 

Arthur grabbing at him during the day.  Arthur wrestling him to the ground.  Arthur pressed against his back as they lay in bed.

And Arthur laying atop him this morning.  He moaned, imagining Arthur pressing him to the bed, sliding inside of him, hot and hard and almost too much. God, what that would feel like, to have Arthur thrusting into him, all his power and all his strength, just ravaging him, claiming him, moaning his name until he came inside him-

With a startled cry his pleasure surged through him, buckling his knees, dropping him to the floor, as he spilled hot and wet over his hand.

He barely recognized the high pitch to his voice as he whimpered and moaned and stroked himself through the rush and into the aftershocks, relishing every sensation as he imagined the unimaginable. 

Arthur, gathering him into his arms, holding him, moving gentle fingers through his hair, as their pleasure ebbed and faded, until they fell asleep in one another’s arms.

With a deep breath, Merlin banged his forehead against the edge of the counter. 

And then did it again, harder.

“Ow,” he muttered. And then he prayed that Arthur had closed his chamber door.  Because dear god he had been loud. 

Clinging to the sink, he pulled himself to his feet. “Idiot,” he muttered to himself, as he cleaned up. And then cleaned up the floor. 

After changing into a t-shirt and trousers for sleeping, he padded barefoot down the hallway, feeling guilty and nervous. When he crept into Arthur’s chambers, he discovered that Arthur had already put out all the candles.  He’d left the windows open, though, to allow the breeze that was cooling the room, and the moonlight that lit his path to the bedside.

The universe really does hate me, Merlin thought.  Because Arthur was clearly awake as he lay flat on his back, the blankets pulled only to his waist, his arms folded over his bare chest.

Without speaking, Merlin climbed into the bed and lay down on his back at Arthur’s side.

I wonder what Anne would say about this, he thought.  I doubt she would have bothered with me tonight, if she’d known I was going to wind up in bed with Arthur.  Or maybe she would have.  You never did know these days.   

“Did you have a pleasant time,” Arthur said.  “With that woman.”

It had sounded like an accusation, instead of a question.  “Anne,” Merlin said.

“Yes.  Anne.”

“What about you?” Merlin asked.   “Did you have a pleasant time?  With whatever her name was?”

“Megan.”

“Yes.  Megan.”

Arthur didn’t answer. 

Merlin glared up at the canopy. 

What the hell? he wondered.

The awkward silence stretched on, as the breeze blew in through the window and they lay in bed together. 

Merlin wasn’t quite sure what was happening. But he was pretty sure, for once, that it wasn’t his damn fault.  So he wasn’t going to speak first.

“Megan enjoys talking.  Quite a lot,” Arthur said, sounding not to happy about it.  

Merlin felt himself relax.  “About what?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” Arthur said.  “I couldn’t understand half of what she was saying.  Everyone else seemed to though.  So it must have made some sort of sense.  She’s nice enough, mind you.  But difficult to take in large doses.”

“Anne kept calling Heath and Danyl ‘adorable’,” Merlin said.

“Oh he must have loved that,” Arthur said wryly.

“It made his face twitch, every single time.  And Anne was nice too.  She reminded me of my mother, actually.”

“How on earth does that woman remind you of Hunith?”

“The way she soothed my hair.  My mother did that to help me sleep.  Might have been why I kept drifting off, come to think of it.”

“That could have also been from your lack of sleep these past nights.”

“It could have been.”

Merlin watched the curtains moving beside the alcove as the cool breeze wafted through the windows.

Arthur put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. Nudged him.

Merlin rolled towards the lakeside window, to lay on his side.

This was only happening because of his dreams, he told himself.  And because of Arthur’s fear of the dark.  It would never be like his fantasies.  Never.

But he couldn’t help his eyes from falling closed in bliss, as Arthur pressed against his back, bare chested, wrapping a muscled arm around his waist, sliding a warm hand up his chest.

What he’d done in the washroom did nothing to ease his body’s reaction to Arthur’s touch.  It was a struggle to keep his breathing slow.  And there was no way Arthur couldn’t feel the beating of his heart.

“You’re seriously going to do this every night?” Merlin said, in a strangled voice.

“I think it’s for the best.” 

“Right,” Merlin choked out. “For the best.”

From beyond the lakeside window, soft voices singing to distant guitar strumming could be heard, soft and beautiful and haunting. 

“Merlin,” Arthur said, his breath warm on the back of his neck.

Merlin had to fight his body’s need to shudder at the sensation.  “What?”

“There are worse things.  Don’t you think?”

Merlin stared out the window, at the moonlight upon the tower.  “Than what?”

Arthur tightened his arm around him. “Than this.”

“Yes,” Merlin breathed at once, overwhelmed by even this small admission, because it was so much more than he’d hoped for.  He dared to let himself lean back into Arthur. Who pressed forward in return.

Weariness tugged at him, though he hadn’t thought it would.  His eyelids drooped, and his breathing calmed. 

Arthur’s hand moved from his chest.  Closed over Merlin’s hand. “You in that hat,” he said, and chuckled.

Merlin slid his fingers through Arthur’s. “You and hats.” 

“You’re definitely wearing that again,” he said, his lips moving against Merlin’s skin, right under his hair.

“Make me.”

“Oh I will," Arthur said.

And Merlin was sure it was his imagination, but he smiled at what sounded like a flirtatious tone, relaxing against Arthur's body, and sighing himself to sleep.

 

Chapter Text

 

I should miss it more.

The thought repeated in Arthur’s head as he lay awake, staring into chambers that were not his chambers, in a castle that was not Camelot.

The light of pre-dawn softly lit his belongings, as chilly rain-soaked breezes stirred the curtains, ghosting over his face.

I do miss it, he thought.  My kingdom.  My people.  All I had.  All I was.  

But his grief had eased, without his realizing it, since that day he’d arrived here a week ago. With each passing morning, this world grew more real.  Camelot more distant. 

It was still a weight in his heart. He felt its loss when he least expected it.  Knocking the breath from him.  But its pain was no longer incapacitating.  It was just there.  A part of him.  He supposed it always would be. 

Next to him on the bed, Merlin smacked his lips and pushed his face into the pillows, resettling upon his stomach, buried beneath the blankets of his bed.

Strange, how natural it felt to wake with Merlin this way, Arthur thought. Even stranger still how natural it felt to fall asleep with him every night.  Especially as they had been doing.

Pressed together.  Chest to back.  His arm around Merlin.  Their fingers entwined. 

An embrace, Arthur told himself.   Call it what it is.  An embrace.

It had also served its purpose, of course.  Just as he’d said it would.  Twice Merlin had dreamed the night before.  Twice Arthur had woken him, and eased him back to sleep. Both times he’d done it by moving strands of Merlin’s hair away from his face with careful fingers, as Hunith had apparently done. 

Merlin had drifted to sleep right away.  It had taken Arthur a while longer to stop.

Arthur rolled onto his side, daring to rest a hand upon the blanket covering Merlin’s back, fingers close to his hair, but not touching.

He looks defenseless, Arthur thought.  I could almost fool myself into believing it to be so.  But not quite.  Not after the motionless world yesterday morning.  Or the magic crawling over him yesterday afternoon.

Arthur stared at his hand where it rested upon Merlin’s back.  Remembering when Merlin had grabbed his arm. 

Merlin had grabbed him with his magic as well. 

He’d seen it, the glowing light of his magic, sliding like streams of water over his own arm, where it gripped Merlin’s waist.  The sight had startled his sword from his hand. 

He had felt it, too.  Clinging to him.  A grip that stretched into his blood and his bones, dizzying and euphoric and beyond anything he’d felt before. 

Threatening, like an approaching storm.  Ancient, like a looming mountain range.  Wild, like lightning arcing between the clouds. Alive, like the flowers and the trees.  And all of it, feeling somehow like Merlin.

I will tell him about it, Arthur thought.  He does need to know.  But not yet.  Not when he looks with such longing at Excalibur.  If he knew he was affecting me in any way with his magic, there was no telling what idiotic thing he would do.

It was doing no harm, in any case, Arthur thought.  He wasn’t sure how he knew that with such certainty.  But he did. 

Arthur slid his hand higher on the blankets, his fingers brushing at the black hairs laying against the pale skin of Merlin’s neck.

I will figure out what’s happening, Arthur thought at him. I will protect you from it. Somehow, I will find a way to protect us all.

“Mmm?” Merlin cracked open one eye. 

His voice was low and rough and Arthur felt himself smile.  “Go back to sleep.”

“Mmm,” Merlin agreed, and for once, did as he was told.

Arthur realized he’d fallen back to sleep only when he forced open heavy eyelids.  The sound of the rain was harder now, the light in his chambers brighter.  He had no idea what time it was, but judging by how rested he felt, he suspected it was quite late.

“Hope you didn’t mind,” Merlin said.  He lay upon his side, facing him, one arm shoved under his pillow.

Arthur pushed the blankets down to his waist and gave a long, luxurious stretch, arms stretching over his head.  “Mind?”

“That I…” Merlin’s eyes darted around Arthur’s body before returning to his face. “That I let you sleep.  I thought you could use a lie-in, after the past few nights. Me waking you constantly.”  A worried look now.  “Did I…?”

“Twice.”

“I don’t remember.  I guess… that’s a good thing?”

 “They might not even have been the same dreams. Perhaps you were just dreaming about eating another piece of birthday cake.  I noticed you had two.”

“So you were paying attention to me last night,” Merlin said, and then snapped his mouth shut, clearly regretting the words.

“I always pay attention to you.  If I didn’t, there’s no telling the trouble you’d get into.”

And there was the smile Arthur had wanted to see, delighted and sarcastic and arching up one of Merlin’s eyebrows. 

Arthur tucked an arm behind his head, feeling ridiculously rested and entirely decadent for laying in bed at such a late hour.  “So.  What’s on my schedule for today?”

“Aside from training-“

“No.”

“No?”

“Apparently Saturday is a day of sport in this century.  Not even Heath would give up his rugby match.”

“So then no training at all?  Not even…”  Merlin waved a hand between the two of them.

“Do you see the torrential downpour outside?” Arthur said, gesturing at the open window. “I’d have no problem myself, but you’d break your leg in the first five minutes.”

“Of course,” Merlin said, with another twitch of his eyebrow, to show he didn’t believe that for a moment.  “So if there’s no training, and we’ve gone through all my books-”

Arthur pushed himself up to his elbows. “Did you say we’re done with your books?”

“Yes, we’re done with my books, but there’s a bit of a gap in history between when I stopped writing and this year.”

Arthur flopped back onto the bed, groaning.

“Though I suppose,” Merlin amended, “that I can show you the rest on the laptop.”

“Well that’s all right then.”

Merlin snorted at him.  “You and that laptop…”

“What more is there on my schedule for the day?” Arthur asked, ignoring that last.

“Well… sire,” Merlin said, his voice formal, his expression serious, “there’s that important speech you need to give to the Guild of Brass Polishers…“

“Not doing that,” Arthur said, grinning up at the canopy.

“And then you’ll need to receive an extremely small envoy from Mercia about a very minor border skirmish involving the use of farmland for five goats…“

“I remember that day.  They drew their swords in my council chambers over goats.  Goats, Merlin.”

“Then you’ve to learn all about wheat cultivation and harvest so that you can talk intelligently with the farmers of the northern plains…“

“Not doing that either, go on.”

“And you’ll finish up your day with a long drawn out feast in which you’ll have to listen to arrogant nobles curry your favor in order to lure you into an alliance which is actually meant to weaken the five kingdoms in preparation for invasion.  Which I’ll nearly get killed helping you stop.  Again.”

“Well that doesn’t sound like any fun at all.  So that’s right off the table.”

“All right then.”

“All right.”

Arthur stared up at the canopy.  Listened to the rain falling outside the window.  Felt the cool breeze moving over his face.  A strange thought occurred to him, and he turned his head on the pillow. “So you’re saying nothing’s on my schedule for the day?”

“It appears not?”

“And there’s nothing for me to do.”

“No?”

“Well… that’s…”  He wasn’t sure how to end that sentence.

“Does this mean I’m finally getting my day off?”

“I don’t recall ever promising you a day off,” Arthur said, which was a scandalous lie. “Besides, I’d be the one taking the day off. I haven’t had one in decades.”

“I should have known,” Merlin said wryly, as he rolled onto his back and pulled the blankets up over his chest, apparently content to just lay in bed.

“A day off,” Arthur said in wonder.

“I know.”

“What do people…”  He waved his hands in the air vaguely.  “Do?  When they have a day to themselves.”

“They... have a lie-in?”

“Like this?”

“Yes.”

Arthur folded his hands on his stomach.  Wiggled his toes.  Squirmed on the mattress.  Frowned up at the canopy.  “Then what?”

He heard Merlin chuckle softly beside him.  “Well, I suppose, they…”

“Yes?”

“Take a trip somewhere?”

“Yes!” Arthur sat up in bed.  “That is what we are doing. Do you have an automobile?”

Merlin pushed himself to his elbows, smiling fondly. “I do, yes.”

“Excellent.  That will greatly increase our travel options.”

“Where would you like me to drive you, sire?” Merlin asked, sounding amused at the combination of words. 

Arthur felt rather the same.  “Anywhere.  I don’t care.  Just so long as that thing isn’t within sight, watching.”

Merlin followed the direction Arthur had pointed, out the lakeside window and to the tower. He sat up, distress wiping the mirth from his face.  “Watching,” he repeated.

“Figure of speech,” Arthur said, and he swung his legs out of bed, thinking no, it had not been, and he could in fact absolutely feel the thing somehow, if he thought too hard about it.  Which he was absolutely not going to do right now. Not on his first real day off in his entire life. 

“Didn’t sound like a figure of speech.”

“Get up,” Arthur said, and chucked a pillow at him.  “Breakfast isn’t going to fetch itself.” 

Merlin climbed with reluctance out of bed, his shirt clinging to his chest and back, his striped sleeping trousers sliding low on his hips as he stretched his arms into the air. 

“We’ll leave after breakfast,” Arthur said, forcing himself to look away.  “Come on.  Get moving.  We’ve a lot to do today.”

“So much for my day off,” Merlin said, his sarcastic expression so clearly forced that Arthur didn’t believe for even one second that he was anything but delighted.

Breakfast wound up being a leisurely affair downstairs in the café, after they’d both dressed in modern clothing. 

They sat at a corner table, Merlin’s laptop in front of them both.  As they sampled the food Eleanor sent to their table, Merlin described recent history, often showing photos and videos of what he recounted.

Arthur watched the moving pictures, mystified.  They were like windows, he thought. Windows to the past, and into the present. Windows to other worlds.

“People actually want to leave Albion to go there,” Arthur said, leaning forward in his chair to look at a photograph of Mars displaying on the laptop.

“Well, some people do,” Merlin said. 

“Is there magic there, as there is on Albion?” He was thinking of the airplane, high above the earth.  And he wondered, now, just how far magic could reach.

Merlin seemed both surprised and impressed by the question. “I don’t know.  I mean, I haven’t been there to know, have I.”

“You haven’t been thirty thousand feet up either.  But your magic reached that far.  So why not Mars?”

“I never really thought about it.  I mean, Albion is more than enough for me to worry about, right?  Without adding in other planets to muck things up even more.” 

A clear attempt at levity, Arthur thought.  And self-deprecation thrown in as well.  Which meant that he was hiding something fairly big.  “You do know.  Why don’t you want to tell me?”

Merlin’s smile melted away. “It’s… difficult to describe.”

Arthur leaned forward, elbows resting on the coarse material of his jeans. “Try.”

Merlin tapped his fingers on the edge of his laptop.  Bit his bottom lip, clearly thinking. “Do you remember when I told you about the tiny invisible bits of matter?”

“Atoms,” Arthur said curiously.  He’d paid special attention to that, and had read those parts of Merlin’s books more than once. 

“Well they’re everywhere.  Beyond airplanes, beyond the Earth, out into empty space, on and on with no end.  In a way, magic works like that too.  It’s here, and it’s everywhere. Sometimes, when I use the elemental forces, I can feel… everything.  Everywhere.”

Arthur watched a very disconcerted expression pass over Merlin’s face, before he straightened in his chair, and picked up his tea.

“So there is magic on Mars,” Arthur said.

“There is.”

Arthur thought about atoms and magic and science. “Do you think they’ll ever harness the power of magic?  The people of this age?  Just as they did the atom?”

Merlin’s teacup halted halfway to his mouth. “Over my dead body,” he said, his voice thick with thunder.

Arthur remembered the mushroom cloud. “And mine as well,” he agreed.

By the time they left the café, the rain had turned into a steady mist.  The automobile that Merlin owned was kept in a small building across the road.  They crossed the short distance in the cool air, following a stone driveway to the building’s tall door.  Merlin pointed a small box at it, and the door rose amid a hum of machinery.  Within the dark building sat a large black vehicle, rounder in shape and larger than any of the automobiles he’d seen so far on the roads.

“I got this a few years after the war,” Merlin said, as he opened the door for Arthur.  “A friend of mine worked for Bentley.  It’s one of their first automatics.  Still runs a treat.”

Arthur climbed into the vehicle’s small cabin, onto a wide seat stretching its width.  After Merlin closed the door behind him, he studied the small space, discovering another seat behind the front, stale smelling cloth upon the roof, and a smooth brown glossy panel beneath the front glass window. 

Merlin climbed into the other side of the vehicle, closing his door behind him.   That’s the steering wheel, Arthur thought, remembering the diagrams he’d studied in Merlin’s books.  And those levers on the floor somehow control the vehicle as well. 

“I still can’t believe it,” Merlin said softly.

Arthur realized that he’d slid quite close to Merlin on the seat.  A recurring event, of late.  “Believe what?”

Merlin smiled, but it was a small broken thing.  Moisture sparkled in his eyes.  “That you’re back.”

Arthur set his hand on the back of Merlin’s neck.  Gave a gentle squeeze.  He saw Merlin nod.  He returned the gesture.  “You’re going to show me how to use this thing before the day is out,” he said offhandedly, because the pain of the past had drawn too near.

“What, the car?  You want to learn how to drive?”  

“If you can manage it, then I can certainly do it.”

“Of course.  Why not.  I’ll just add that to my list of things I never expected when you came back.” Merlin snapped Arthur’s belt into place, then secured his own.  “Ready?” 

“Of course I’m ready,” Arthur said.  

But of course he was wrong.  Because the vibration and the noise of the engine was startling, and so was the feeling of moving, even slowly upon the stone driveway to the road.  It was so wholly unlike anything he’d ever felt that he found himself gripping the edge of his seat with one hand and the handle of the door with the other.  

“All right?” Merlin said, sounding worried.

“Stop being an idiot and drive.”

“You’re all right,” Merlin said wryly, and pulled them out onto the roadway.

The speed of it, dear god, Arthur thought, as the hedgerows and the houses raced by. It was dizzying, and more than once he had to close his eyes, and breathe, before being able to look again in amazement through the wide glass that was occasionally cleared of rain by two sticks that moved across them. 

Next to him, Merlin was prattling on about the engine that powered the vehicle.  Arthur barely caught half of it.  He was too busy watching the world rush past, houses and trees and hills and people, while he hung on to his seat and tried not to visibly flinch every time another vehicle passed them from the opposite direction.

By the time they reached the next town, he’d begun to adjust to at least some of the insanity of the experience.  But then Merlin brought the vehicle to a stop, in the middle of everything, for no reason at all. 

“Why are we stopping?” Arthur asked.

“It’s a red light.” Merlin pointed upwards, as if that explained anything at all.

“What about it?”

“You know, before you learn to drive, you really will need to learn the rules of the road.”

“Nonsense.  You’ll show me how to drive first.  I’ll learn the rules afterward.”

“Of course.  Why am I not surprised.”  Merlin moved his foot on the floor, and the car eased forward.  “By the way, we’re going on the motorway soon.”

“What does that mean?”

“We’ll be going faster.”

Arthur watched the buildings blurring past. “Bloody hell,” he said softly.

Merlin had the decency to at least attempt to stifle his laugh.

“Where exactly are we going?” he asked, desperately trying not to think of what ‘faster’ could possibly mean.

“A city about an hour or so away.  It’s a little bigger than Avalon or Buckdale. I thought we’d go there before visiting London, which is more enormous than you can imagine, from what I’ve heard.”

“You’ve never been there?”

“It’s a little too far from Avalon.”

“Too far even by automobile?”

“Well.  Not now.”

“Now?”

“Now that you’re back.”

Arthur stared at Merlin’s profile. “You really never went anywhere.  In all the time I was gone.  In fifteen hundred years.”

Merlin shrugged, but didn’t reply.

“Would you like to?” Arthur asked.

Merlin stared at him long enough that Arthur pointed savagely straight ahead at the road.  Merlin rolled his eyes at him, but did as asked, guiding the car onto a wide road where they travelled alongside other vehicles, much faster than before.

Much, much faster than before. 

Arthur gripped the door handle harder, fingers digging into the seat.

“Actually, I’d rather like to see Italy,” Merlin said.  “I had some friends from there once.  They came to visit me during the Renaissance.  Even painted a few pictures for me on commission. I probably should do something about those.  They’re worth quite a lot of money, I’d think.”

Merlin glanced quickly around, then moved their car into an even faster line of vehicles, all careening at an insane pace down the road.

“How did you have friends in Italy if you were in Avalon?”

“I told you. I wrote to people.  A few of them became friends, so I invited them here.  That’s what the yellow house on the hill was for.  Bit of a vacation spot to entice people to come visit me since I couldn’t visit them.”

Arthur remembered the massive house with the stables on the top of the hill. “I thought the Widow Abbernathy owned those lands.”

“I’ve let her family live there for generations.  But the lands and the house are mine.”

“What about the forest?  The one that stretches between that house and your estate?”

“My house.”

“It’s an estate, Merlin, and it’s especially an estate if it has woods and a house on a hill, and grounds that stretch to- Watch out!”

Merlin swerved and jammed his hand on the wheel, making the vehicle emit a loud noise at the lorry that had drifted close to them.  “Oi!  Stay in your lane!”

“He can’t possibly hear you,” Arthur ground out, as he hung on for dear life.

“Not the point,” Merlin informed him.

Arthur pressed himself into his seat and decided to be very quiet, because taunting Merlin about his lands and his riches was clearly not conducive to them staying alive.

“You do realize that I could stop us from getting into any kind of accident with magic, even if a car were coming directly at us,” Merlin said, in clear amusement.

Arthur loosed his grip on the seat and doorhandle at once.  He glared through the window a long moment. 

And then he punched Merlin in the arm.

“Ow!”

“You damn well could have mentioned that before!” Arthur yelled at him.

“Did I forget to mention it?” Merlin said, in feigned innocence.  “I thought for sure that I-  Ow!  Stop hitting me!” he said, through laughter.  “It’s not safe to hit the driver!”

Arthur cuffed Merlin hard on the back of his head before sitting back in his seat, arms crossed, staring furiously at the oncoming road.  Which was apparently no danger to them whatsoever. 

“The look on your face,” Merlin said, chuckling. 

“The mace,” Arthur said.  “We are definitely training with the mace tomorrow.”

“Oh don’t be such a child.”

And the javelin.  And the sword.  And then the maceAgain.”

“Royal prat.”

“Insolent arse.”

After a few moments in silence, Arthur glanced over, and saw Merlin fighting a smile. 

“So what do you call those woods of yours?” Arthur asked, because he would never be done taunting Merlin about his money.  “The ones that stretch between your ridiculously enormous castle-“

House-“

Castle, and your gigantic, opulent, lordly manor on the hill?”

“There’s lots of names.”

Now Arthur did smile.  “What does it say on maps?” he asked sweetly.

Merlin rolled his eyes.  “Hunithson Woods, all right?”

“Hunithson Woods!” Arthur said, laughing.  “Lord Merlin of Avalon.”

“Once and future pain in my arse,” Merlin muttered.

Though Arthur fully believed that Merlin could spare them any injury, he was still relieved as they ventured onto winding country roads lined with low stone walls and hedgerows.  They travelled much more slowly amid the green fields dotted with farms that stretched to low hills in the distance. 

“This scenery looks more familiar,” Arthur noted, as Merlin fiddled with some dials that caused soft music to emanate from the vehicle.

“It’s like the journey to Gedref,” Merlin noted, glancing from the road to the dials and back.

Arthur knocked Merlin’s fingers from the dials, gestured for him to pay attention to his driving, then took over turning the dials for himself.

Merlin cringed as the volume went up, and then down.  “I don’t own the horses, incidentally.  The ones we rode.  Those belong to the Widow Abbernathy.”

“You absolutely detest having money and lands, don’t you.”

“Well.  Not really.  I just don’t like the lordship they kept trying to shove at me,” he added, with a significant stare.  “The rest of it though… I mean, it’s actually quite nice not sleeping on the ground.  Or being dirty and cold all the time.  Or starving when the crops weren’t good that year.”

“Strange to think of it.  Not worrying about food.  Knowing it can be gotten anywhere.”

“If you have money to pay for it.  And if you live in certain parts of the world. But in general, yes.  It’s not like it was in Camelot.”

They were silent for a while, as Arthur played with the radio. 

“Do you miss it, sire?” Merlin asked softly.

“Yes,” Arthur said automatically.  And then forced himself to be honest.  “And no.”

“No?”

“I miss the people.  And the feeling of making a difference.  But this world is so filled with wonders.  With possibilities. Everything moves so much faster here. Progress was excruciatingly slow in Camelot. People were so set in their ways.  Far too many died because nobility refused to change.  People today seem much less that way.”

“Not always.”

“More than before, though.”

“Yes.  More than before.”

“A fair and just kingdom of equals,” Arthur said, distantly.

“I wouldn’t say that-“

“Deeply flawed, I’ll grant you. And far from something that’s available to all the people of this world.  That much is painfully obvious through fifteen centuries of poor leadership, old hatreds and brutal behavior.  But it’s still better than it was.” 

Next to him, Merlin still looked entirely unconvinced. 

“Can you not remember how it used to be, Merlin?  You, of all people, who were considered a lesser person by virtue of your birth?  Who were treated so horribly by every arrogant noble?   Including me.  Far too often.”

“You weren’t so bad.”

Arthur stretched out an arm along the back of the seat, to rest his palm on the back of Merlin’s neck, between soft hair and thick jacket.  He felt Merlin jump at the touch, then lean back into the pressure of his hand.  

Eventually I wasn’t so bad,” Arthur said, by way of apology.

Merlin gave an almost shy smile.  “Eventually.”

They drove a while without speaking, soft music coming from the radio, followed by a news report, which Arthur saw Merlin pay close attention to, before shaking his head at its conclusion, a wondering expression on his face.

A few minutes later, Merlin pulled the vehicle onto a gravel path leading into a cow pasture.  He parked the car, then turned to Arthur.  “Ready to learn to drive?”

Arthur looked around the field.  Two cows stood in the distance, unconcerned.  There were no apparent roads he could use.  “Here?”

“Can’t kill anyone here, can you.” Merlin unfastened both their belts and climbed out of the car.

Arthur didn’t even hesitate.  He shoved over at once into the driver’s seat.

They spent the better part of a half hour with Arthur driving, Merlin giving patient instructions.  It turned out to be rather ridiculously simple when it came down to it.  At one point, he did nearly wind up running over a cow that wandered into his path.  Merlin had to lunge at the wheel and turn it, falling into his lap, laughing so hard that tears ran down his cheeks. 

“You are a menace!” Merlin said, after they stopped.

“I’m still better at it than you.”

Merlin unbuckled their belts and gestured to Arthur’s door.  “Get out so I can slide over.”

You get out so I can slide over.”

“There’s cow dung on the ground by my door.”

“That’s hardly my problem.”

“I’m not messing up my shoes or my car floor.  Look, just get out your side, then I’ll slide over and get out, then we’ll both get back in.”

“Oh for god’s sake, just climb across,” Arthur said, and shoved his hip hard against Merlin’s right side. 

“There’s not enough room to- Arthur-!“ Merlin had to brace himself on the seat and the front panel and push his hips into the air as Arthur shoved past. 

“Watch your elbow!” Arthur knocked Merlin’s arm out of the way, resulting in Merlin sitting down hard in his lap.  He caught another elbow to the temple as Merlin scrambled off of him, falling into the driver’s seat, sounding the horn as he did so, his face flushed with color.  “You’re heavier than you look,” Arthur said, rubbing at his thigh, where he’d felt Merlin’s weight land on him.

“Comes from all that decadent living, sire,” Merlin said wryly, before getting them back onto the road.

As the scenery moved by, Arthur listened to Merlin prattle on about all manner of things.  After a while he lost track of what Merlin was saying. 

A headache had been growing steadily, radiating from the back of his neck.  His eyes hurt, and he found himself squinting at the misty road ahead.  His muscles had begun to ache as well.  He stretched his arms, his legs, but it didn’t help. And his stomach was churning with nausea. He could taste bile in his mouth.

The car was silent except for the soft radio.  Merlin had stopped talking.  He couldn’t remember when.  

The ache in his muscles turned into an itch.  He pushed up a sleeve, and for a second thought he saw thin lines, a latticework of them, paler than his skin. When he blinked, they were gone, leaving a feeling of extreme agitation behind.

Merlin swerved, knocking Arthur against the door. 

“Watch it,” Arthur bit out. 

“Rabbit,” Merlin said tersely.

“Well be more careful.”

“I was being careful.”

“You obviously weren’t.”

“I was.”

“I doubt that.”

“You think you could do better?”

“Yes, I could!”

“Like hell you could!” Merlin yelled at him.

Arthur looked sharply at him.  His knuckles were white upon the wheel.  The muscles of his neck stood out in his neck. His face was so pale that his lips were white. 

“Merlin,” Arthur said tightly.

He saw Merlin swallow, as if against rising nausea, his face turning paler. 

Merlin,” Arthur choked out, and grabbed Merlin’s arm.

Merlin looked over, first angry, then alarmed, at whatever he saw on his face.

“Pull over,” Arthur said, pointing urgently at the side of the road.  “Now.”

Merlin swerved the car to the side of the lonely road, then stumbled out the car. 

Arthur did the same, falling to his hands and knees, heaving up all he’d eaten.  From the retching sounds on the other side of the car, Merlin was doing the same. 

When his stomach had emptied, Arthur pulled himself up, and staggered around the back of the car to where Merlin knelt upon the road.  “Something we ate?”

“That’s not it.” Merlin rubbed at his arm, still pale, still distressed. “It feels like-“

“Ants under your skin,” Arthur said, rubbing at the rough material of his jeans. Magic, he thought.  That’s what this was.  Magic.  And not Merlin’s magic.  That didn’t feel like this.  He felt his stomach lurch again.  Had to swallow hard not to be ill.  “Turn us around,” he said. “Take us back.”

Merlin climbed into the car slowly, as if scaling a mountain.  Arthur staggered to his door, leaning on the car the entire way, before collapsing into his seat and weakly pulling the door closed.

He heard Merlin make a small sound of pain as he started the engine, grunting with effort as he turned them around on the deserted road, to drive back towards Avalon.

Arthur leaned back in his seat, eyes closed, all his effort focused on breathing.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this awful. 

No.  Actually, he could. 

He stretched his arm across the back of the seat, reaching for Merlin.  His hand found a shoulder.  Slid to the back of a neck clammy with sweat.  He pressed his palm there, listening to Merlin’s harsh breaths, feeling his body shaking beneath his hand.  

He slid his fingers up through Merlin’s hair.  Gently moved his fingertips through the strands. Merlin’s breathing eased in response.  His trembling diminishing.

Why did it help? he wondered. The physical contact. There was no reason it should help.  Though perhaps it didn’t.  Perhaps it was because they were heading back towards Avalon.  That was where this magic had come from, after all.

How do I know that? Arthur wondered distantly.  There’s no reason for me to know it.  But I do.  I can feel it.

Arthur felt his stomach lurch again.  He pushed all his troubling thoughts aside. Focused only on soft hair on his fingers.  And just breathed.

Slowly the pains eased away, the agitation vanished, and the nausea disappeared.

A low growl, a wild and furious thing, had him open his eyes and turn to the man beside him.  He couldn’t remember ever seeing the fury written in every line of Merlin’s face. His eyes were narrowed, his jaw set, his body tense and shaking now with anger.

“That was magic back there,” Arthur said.

“Yes,” Merlin ground out, through clenched teeth.

Arthur sat up straighter in his seat, realizing that he felt normal again.  Not a trace of any of the symptoms remained.

Without warning, Merlin pulled the car into a farmer’s road and turned off the engine.  He sat motionless a long moment.  Staring straight ahead.

Then he drove his fist into the dashboard, cracking its clear surface.

Merlin threw open the car door and shoved himself outside.  Arthur followed him into the field. 

“Merlin, will you calm down.”

“Calm down?” Merlin spun on him with such murderous fury in his eyes that Arthur felt his body tense automatically in response. “Do you understand what just happened?  That magic back there wasn’t mine!  And that never happened before!  I could always travel farther than that!  We’re being kept here!”

“There must be a reason-“

“I am tired of their reasons!  I am tired of their rules!”

Thunder rumbled in the distance.  Another rainstorm approaching.  “What choice do we have?  Until we know more-“

“Until they decide to tell us!”

A flash of lightning, followed by a clap of thunder.  Black clouds churned directly above them like the surface of a murky cauldron, dark and violent and angry.

“You will tell us what we need to know!” Merlin yelled up at the sky.

A sizzling bolt of lightning, striking so close and with such heat that Arthur ducked, throwing an arm over his head, feeling heat all along his back.  Across the field, another bolt surged downward, striking a giant oak tree.  It exploded with a crack of thunder, sending branches showering over the field.

Merlin stood straight and tall and glaring upward as the latticework of lightning arced through the clouds, and thunder shook the earth.  His arms were shaking, his hands clenched into fists.  Golden light danced beneath his skin.

Arthur ran over to Merlin, ducking as lightning stuck again close by, the thunder deafening. “Calm down!” he yelled again.

“Fifteen hundred years of waiting!  Of riddles and prophecies!   Of doing everything they wanted me to do!” Merlin cried out to the clouds. “No more!”

Gold in Merlin’s pupils, gold shimmering from the whites of them, gold dancing upon his skin.  Arthur closed the distance between them, grabbing the back of Merlin’s neck, pressing a hand to his chest.

“Stop this!” Arthur yelled, in the tone he’d used upon horseback in the heat of battle. “It is the command of your king!”

Merlin jolted, his gaze dropping instantly to Arthur’s, his hands grabbing onto Arthur’s arms.  

The golden light in his eyes vanished.  Above them the clouds dissipated, the thunder echoing away, and dying.

They stood clinging to one another in the middle of the field, the sour smell of burning wood and the stink of ozone filling the air.

Merlin bowed his head, forehead resting on Arthur’s shoulder.  “Sorry,” he said in a small voice.

Arthur had to gather his thoughts before he spoke. Because that had been a startling, terrifying, and horribly enlightening display of Merlin’s raw power. 

“I knew you could throw temper tantrums, Merlin,” Arthur said, his tone intentionally mocking. “But that was ridiculous.  Even for your overly dramatic standards.”

Merlin gave no reaction to the taunt. “I’m just so tired of being their pawn.”

“We’re no one’s pawns.”

“Except for the part where we don’t know why you’re back, or why I’m losing my mind, or why we aren’t allowed to leave Avalon.”

Arthur moved his hands to the sides of Merlin’s neck, as much to soothe him as to remind himself that even with his powers, this man was still very much flesh and blood, with a far too human heart.

He is powerful enough to call down storms in his fury, Arthur thought. But when it comes to me, he is dangerously afraid.  He doesn’t think.  A worrying combination.

“We’ll figure it out,” Arthur told him.

Merlin looked up at him, full of dread.  “I think I know how.”  

“How?”

“We’ll need to go back to the manor.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do.”

They climbed into the car, but instead of starting the vehicle, Merlin sat in the driver’s seat.  Staring at the shattered, smoldering tree the lightning had split in half.

“Just like the tower,” Merlin said.

“What?”

“The tree.  It’s like what I did to the tower.”

“The tower,” Arthur repeated. 

“I’d been so sure,” Merlin said distantly.  “When the world went to war that second time.  I was certain you’d be back.  All those millions dying.  But then it was VE Day.  And the Americans dropped the bomb.  And it was over.  So I went to that damned island.  For the first time.  And I begged them to send you back.  I begged.  And still they didn’t answer me.”   Merlin gave a rough laugh, mirthless, with a worrying hint of madness. “So I blew their tower halfway to hell.”

Arthur thought of the ruins, and of how Merlin must have seen them every day, through that glass wall of his. A reminder of what was denied him.  A reminder of his loss of control.

“You weren’t happy with me about that,” Merlin said in a low voice.  “For a long time afterward.  I couldn’t blame you.  I shouldn’t have done it.  I shouldn’t have.”

Not me, Arthur thought.  The other me.  The one Merlin had kept in his mind in his isolation and grief.   

Arthur reached across the space between them. Put his hand on the back of Merlin’s neck again.  This time sliding his fingers over his neck and up through his hair, just as he did the night before. “Stay with me,” Arthur said, without thinking. 

It was the right thing to say.  Merlin’s shoulders slumped, his head bowing, the breath sighing from him. 

Dangerous, Arthur thought.  When he’s like this, when he’s in despair, he is indescribably dangerous.  Unpredictable, like the storm.  Relentless, like the ocean.  Devouring, like the flame.

“Come on,” Arthur told him.  “Let’s get moving.”

Merlin sat up to start the car. “Time to get some damn answers.”

 

Chapter Text

 

The ride back was silent, Merlin tense in the seat next to him.  When they returned to the manor, Merlin strode through the café and into his residence, to their stairwell.

After Merlin revealed the door to the vaults, he spoke to Arthur with his eyes focused on the floor. “I would feel better if you had your sword, sire.”

Arthur caught himself before saying that he would feel better if Merlin never mentioned Excalibur again.  But just as the day before, he went to retrieve his weapon.  And just as the day before, he swore to himself that he’d fall upon his blade first before ever using it on Merlin.

As they descended the stairs, torch after torch lit along the stairwell.  When they reached the vast dark chamber, more torches flared to life along the exterior walls, guiding them to a far corner of the room, where a massive wooden set of shelves stretched from floor to ceiling, covered in a black cloth. 

Merlin pulled away the thick dusty fabric to reveal shelves full of crystals, all of them faintly glowing with white light.

“Scrying stones?” Arthur asked.

Merlin nodded.  “From the crystal cave.”

“I thought you said the crystals were deceptive.”

“I’m going to make them tell me the truth for once.”  Merlin turned to Arthur, his narrowed eyes reflecting the glow of the crystals, his pale face ghostly in the flickering torchlight.  “Are you ready?”

Arthur tightened his hand around the hilt of his sword. “I’m ready.”

Merlin faced the crystals.  Both arms held straight in front of him, palms flat, fingers spread wide.  “Show me,” he said in a low voice, and shoved his hands brutally forward through the air, his eyes flashing gold.

All of the crystals flared a brilliant white.  Arthur had to squint to see Merlin stalking forward towards them, his fingers curling as if digging into something unseen.

“Show me,” Merlin said, low and threatening, and he shoved his hands forward.  “Now!” 

Arthur saw the air ripple around Merlin at the same time as he felt a warm wave of something wash over him.  He stepped back, his skin tingling, his gaze upon the crystals.

Images had appeared in every one.  A series of them.  Flowing one into the other.

The tower.  The lake.  The Stone Circle.  Excalibur.  Arthur and Merlin upon the shore.

As the images repeated, the same sequence, over and over again, Arthur saw a flicker of light.  One small crystal, entirely hidden from Merlin’s view, didn’t show the same images as the rest.  It showed a woman.

She smiled at him.  Pressed her hand to her heart.  Raised her finger to her lips. 

Light flared from her crystal, blinding him.

When his vision cleared, he was standing in Camelot, in his throne room, upon the raised dais. He wore his crown, his armor, his robes.  His kingdom had assembled before him.  Waiting.  He had no idea why.

Gwen stepped in front of him, in her royal gown, smiling. “You will know, my love,” she said, and she touched Arthur’s face with her fingertips.  Then kissed him gently.  A kiss of parting.

He blinked. 

People in modern dress of all races and ages had assembled in the throne room before him.  Waiting.  He still had no idea why.

Merlin stepped in front of him, in his servant’s clothes, smiling. “You will know, my lord,” he said, and he touched Arthur’s face with his fingertips.  

Around Merlin’s wrist was a sparkling strand of gold.  It stretched to Arthur’s arm, wrapping around his wrist, and then around the hilt of his sword, before stretching down into the ground. 

“So you don’t get lost,” Arthur said to Merlin.

“So we don’t get lost,” Merlin said, and he took a half step forward.

Arthur closed the distance between them, an arm sliding around Merlin’s back, guiding him closer, to kiss him gently. A kiss of beginnings, and of unknown wonders, and of finding the way home.

He blinked. 

He was alone in the throne room.   Except for a lone woman. 

Her hair sparkled like the waves, she was thin like a reed, and she stood upon a carpet the color of water that stretched to the open doors.  Beyond them he saw Lake Avalon.  The island.  The tower.

“You must not let them forget,” she said.

Arthur tried to go to her, but tripped over something at his feet. 

He looked down.  Saw Merlin lying upon the floor, pale and cold, with the golden strand in pieces around him.  Excalibur had been driven deep into the stones of his castle, right through Merlin’s heart.

Arthur snapped from the vision with a shout, his heart beating wildly, his sword a horrible weight in his hand.

“Arthur, run!”

Arthur shook his head, blinking away the vision, to discover that magic was draining from the crystals, its brilliant light pooling upon the shelves like water, before spilling in bands of sparkling gold to the floor.   Great torrents of it began surging over the stone floor, all of them right towards Merlin.

“Get back!“ Merlin yelled, backing away from Arthur, as thick rivers of magic coursed up and around his legs.  Eyes wide and frantic, he bent forward, desperately trying to push them off, only to have his hands pass through them.

From the pool of light on the floor, a half dozen tendrils stretched upward like vines, reaching for Merlin’s arms.

“Hold still!” Arthur yelled, and he drew back his sword, then slashed through the glowing bands of light. 

A scream of agony tore from Merlin’s throat, and he convulsed, clutching his stomach and chest, before collapsing to the floor.

Arthur stared in horror at Excalibur.  Golden light was sliding down the blade, was dripping from it it like blood. 

Around him, the pool of light rippled and convulsed.   Beneath him, the earth began to quake.  Crystals fell from the shelves, shattered upon the stones.  Thunder shook the walls.

“Too much-“ Merlin moaned from where he lay writhing on his back on the floor.  “Arthur!”

Arthur threw his sword away, dropping to his hands and knees by Merlin's side.  As the magic surged around them, he pulled Merlin's arms and legs in close to his body, then dropped himself fully atop him, shielding him as best he could.  When he turned his head from Merlin's anguished face, he saw glowing tendrils of magic flowing up and over them both, sliding around them like vines, over and over again.

Binding us, Arthur thought distantly, and he dropped his forehead to Merlin’s, his vision filled with light, as the magic wound over him, and around him, and through him.

Merlin moaned beneath him, his body arching on the floor.  "Arthur!"

“Stay with me, Merlin!” Arthur yelled.

But then the power washed his thoughts away.

It felt like burning, like falling, like death and rebirth.  It was a sword in the chest, and breathing air after a thousand years.  It smelled of wet grass and moved like the sea, shining like the moon and warming him from the inside, like the feeling of Merlin sleeping in his arms.

Arthur heard himself laugh, loud and tinged with madness, as the energy sang in his body, speaking to him by name, soothing him with a lover’s caress, before sinking into his bones, and into his blood, and then finally into the burning sun in human form who lay beneath him.

When the last of it drained away, Arthur drew in a sharp breath, opening his eyes to see Merlin’s torchlit face beneath him.

The quaking had stopped. The thunder had ceased. 

Merlin sighed, a deep satisfied sound that moved Arthur’s body.  As he exhaled with it, a wave of light flowed from him and out over the floor. 

When it faded, blades of grass reached up from every stone, green and lush and smelling of spring, until every inch of the floor was covered in a meadow that instantly gave life to thousands upon thousands of wildflowers of every color.

Arthur stared in wonder at the newly born meadow, dizzy from the magic that had passed through it, his body trembling from it.

Beneath him, Merlin made a small contented sound, and smiled.

With arms that shook despite his efforts to steady them, Arthur pushed himself off of Merlin’s body. “Are you all right? Merlin?”

Merlin opened his eyes as if waking from a wonderful dream. “Arthur?”

“You’re all right,” Arthur muttered, and he dropped heavily to his back upon the grass at Merlin’s side, staring up at the dark stone ceiling, drawing in one deep breath after another to get his body back under his control. 

Merlin rolled over onto his stomach and blinked at the meadow.  “Pretty.” He stretched two long fingers into the lawn, to poke at a nearby flower. “Hello there,” he said happily.

“For god’s sakes, Merlin,” Arthur muttered, as he pushed himself unsteadily to his feet.  A wave of dizziness hit him at once, hard enough that he had to lean against the shelves of darkened crystals for a long moment just to stay upright.

“Magic’s gone,” Merlin slurred out, pointing unsteadily up at the shelves.

It was, Arthur thought.  He could feel it was. Just as he could feel the magic still radiating from Merlin.  

He is like the sun, Arthur thought. He burns with magic.

How do I feel that? he wondered abruptly.  How do I feel any of this?

“I feel strange,” Merlin said to the grass.  “Can’t.  Um.  Focus?”

“That’s nothing new.  Now come on.  Get up.”  After retrieving his sword, Arthur hauled Merlin to his feet.  Merlin fell heavily against him, and Arthur had to grab him around the waist to steady them both.

“Everything has… has… layers…”

“Layers?”

Merlin held up a hand.  Stared at it curiously.  “Real things… Lines of power… Mmmmmmmagic,” he said, and snickered to himself.

Arthur pulled Merlin’s arm over his shoulders, and wrapped his own around Merlin’s back, his sword held awkwardly so he didn’t cut either of them with it.  He still wasn’t sure what had happened with the magic.  But he was positive he should keep the blade as far away from Merlin as possible from now on. 

“Come on,” Arthur told him.  “Move your feet.  We’re getting the hell out of here.”

With Merlin’s first step he tripped over nothing.  “The ground moved.”

“Don’t be an idiot, the ground is where it always is.”

“Yes, all of it.” Merlin stamped his feet upon the grass as he walked, as if to test whether it was real.  “The earth and the rock and the magma and the liquid metal, spinning energy up into space…”  He tilted his head back and stared up at the ceiling, his expression melting into wonder.

“What are you looking at?”

“Everything,” Merlin whispered.

“Even Mars?” Arthur asked, intending it as a gibe, to bring Merlin back to himself.

“So lonely,” Merlin said sadly.  “All red and rocky. And the little robot is stuck.” He moved his head, as if nudging something with his nose.  “There you go.”

Arthur realized too late what happened.  At his side, Merlin smiled proudly at him, his eyes sparkling with fading flecks of gold.

“They’re right about the water,” Merlin said. “It’s right where they think. I can show them-“

No,” Arthur said sharply, fighting to stay calm in the face of the knowledge that Merlin was doing magic on Mars, while out of his mind.  “You are not to do any more magic.”

“That an order?” Merlin asked, smiling.

“Yes, it is an order, from your king.”

“I’m sorry, sire,” Merlin said, sounding properly chastised this time.

“Only with my permission,” Arthur said, in his strongest tones of command. “Do you hear me?  You’re only to use magic after getting my permission. Is that clear Merlin?”

“Yes, sire.”

“Swear it to me.  No magic without your king’s permission.”

“No magic without my king’s permission,” Merlin said, his blue eyes wide and searching Arthur’s face, seeking his approval, as full of devotion as ever they had been.

When they reached the landing to the upstairs, Arthur paused, catching his breath, adjusting Merlin’s arm over his shoulders, trying not to stab himself with his sword.

“You’re covered in it,” Merlin said curiously.

Arthur guided Merlin up the stairs, one arduous step at a time.  “Covered in what?”

“My magic.  And not my magic.  It’s all over you.  Can’t you feel it?”

Arthur held back his answer, because yes, he could, very much so. His skin still tingled with it.  It had been stronger during whatever had happened downstairs.  It was fading now. But it was still there.

“It’s everywhere on you,” Merlin breathed.  And then he pressed his body against Arthur’s, chest to chest, nose shoved against his neck.

Arthur fell back against the wall of the stairwell, stunned by the unexpected feeling of hot breath and warm body and Merlin pressed all down his front.

“You smell like it,” Merlin said, his lips moving on Arthur’s neck. “I wonder if…” 

Arthur felt the warm, wet slide of Merlin’s tongue just below his ear.  He drew in a choked breath, an embarrassingly high pitched sound escaping him, the world narrowing to hot slick pressure moving against his skin, and soft lips dragging slowly over his neck.

“Mmm,” Merlin said against his skin, his voice rumbling into Arthur’s chest. “I can taste it…  Tastes like the earth…” He covered Arthur’s neck with his opened mouth, his tongue lapping against his skin.

Arthur’s eyes fell closed, his face heating, as Merlin tasted him, and breathed him in, and sucked on him, and gods help him, but a wave of arousal washed over him so profoundly that his knees gave way, dropping them both to the steps.  

Even the pain of sharp stone on his knees couldn’t stop his thoughts, which were focused on the fact that if Merlin’s mouth on his neck felt that good, then his mouth would feel absolutely astonishing if it were anywhere else on his body, especially on his-

Merlin hummed, stretching out over the steps, pressing his face to the floor and licking the stones. “Tastes like boots,” he said distantly.

Fury swept away Arthur’s desire with astonishing speed.  “You’re drunk,” he snapped, angry that the steps were getting equal attention.  Then he realized what he’d said.  “You are drunk, aren’t you!  You’re drunk on magic!”

Merlin just smiled, his eyes closing, as if he was readying to go to sleep on the steps.

“That’s it,” Arthur pronounced, and he pulled Merlin roughly to his feet.  “I am well and truly done with all this magic nonsense, do you hear me?”

“Mmmmmmagic nnnnnonsense,” Merlin slurred out happily, as he stumbled up the stairs.

“What I would not give for a straightforward challenge to the death,” Arthur growled, as he dragged his drunken idiot sorcerer down the corridor into the washroom.  “At least when someone swings a sword at my head, I know what the bloody hell I’m supposed to do!  Now get in there!”

Arthur shoved Merlin into the shower, then turned the cold water on full blast.

Merlin yelped and tried to back out of the spray, but Arthur stepped into the shower stall and held him there, cringing as freezing water splashed his face.

“Cold!” Merlin cried out, backing away.

Arthur pushed him back under the water. “How does that taste? Does it taste like clouds?” 

“Let go!” Merlin yelled, arms flailing, nearly knocking Arthur in the head.

“Not until you snap out of it!”

Merlin held up both hands to try and block the water, sending it everywhere. “I have!”

“How can I know that?”

Merlin shoved backward.  Arthur shoved him forward.

“Let me out!”

“Prove to me you’ve sobered up!”

“I can’t prove anything to you if I freeze to death because you won’t let me out of this damned shower, you royal arse!”

Arthur turned off the spray. “Right.  That’s more like it.”

Merlin glared at him as Arthur left the shower stall to grab a towel and dry himself off.  Shivering wildly, Merlin pushed past him, wrapping one towel around his waist, slinging another around his shoulders, and draping another over his head. 

“How many layers are you seeing now?” Arthur asked sweetly.

Merlin glared at him, his nose red and his eyes furious and his skin pale. But very quickly he relented, obviously realizing why Arthur had done what he did. “Just one,” he muttered.

“Then perhaps you finally have enough sense to tell me what the hell just happened.”

Merlin rubbed the towel over his head, frowning at the floor, obviously trying to figure it out himself.  “Magic drained from the crystals,” he said finally, as if he couldn’t believe it himself.  “And then flowed into me.”

“Did they ever do that before?”

“Never.  And I’ve no idea why it happened now.  I didn’t do anything differently than I always did before. I just asked the crystals-“

“Ordered.”

 “What?”

“You ordered them,” Arthur said, remembering the tone of Merlin’s voice.

“That didn’t have anything to do with-  The way I did it doesn’t matter.”

“It wouldn’t affect the images the crystals showed us?”

Merlin paused in wiping his face, going very still.  “Us?”

“Of course. They were clear as day.  The tower, the lake, the stone circle, my sword, and you and I.”

“No… That’s…”  Merlin shook his head rapidly, tiny frantic motions.  “You shouldn’t have been able to see any of that.  You’d need magic to…”

Arthur watched Merlin’s already pale face loose more of its color.  His breaths began coming shallow and loud and fast in the tiled room. The towel he held fell from his hands to the floor.

“Arthur,” he breathed.  “You’re covered in magic.”

Arthur glanced into the mirror, frowning when he so no obvious evidence of what Merlin was saying.  I don’t look any different, he thought.  Just a tingle in my skin. And even that is fading.

“I did this to you,” Merlin said in a low voice that shook. “When you got in between me and the ancient magics… I did this…”

“No, you didn’t,” Arthur said firmly, forcing the words out. “And I know you didn’t, because I’ve been like this ever since I stepped from the lake.”

If Merlin had been pale before, then he turned positively deathly now.  “No,” he whispered, and he stepped to Arthur, his cold wet fingers pressing against Arthur’s chest, and neck, just as he had after Arthur had stepped from the water, not stopping until his fingers pressed against the throb of his pulse.   

Arthur grabbed Merlin’s wrist.  Held on tight.  “I’m alive, Merlin.”

Merlin’s eyes roamed over his face, his body. “How did I miss this?” he whispered. “This magic… It’s so old… It’s ancient…”

“It’s not hurting me,” Arthur said.  Another fact he knew without knowing how.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he choked out, desperate and confused.

“I didn’t know what it was.  Not until tonight.  It’s been barely noticeable.  Just a feeling.”

“How did I not-” Merlin broke off, his eyes going wide. “The ancient magics,” he breathed.  “They could be making this worse!” Merlin grabbed Arthur’s arms, fingers digging in painfully.  “Arthur, please don’t get in between me and the ancient magics again!  I don’t know how much worse they’ll make this!”

“I had no choice, Merlin.  The magic was about to drop the manor upon our heads.”

“I made a storm,” Merlin said in a distant voice, apparently just remembering. “I made… an earthquake…” 

He drew in a sharp breath, then shoved past Arthur, throwing his towels to the floor.  Arthur chased after him, downstairs and through his residence, out the door to the café. 

The café was completely abandoned, and in a hurry, judging by the upturned chairs and tables. Plates and cups and food lay scattered on the floor.  One of the large panes of the glass wall and both panes of the doors to the porch were completely gone.  Cold wet air flowed into the room through the openings.

“Eleanor!” Merlin yelled, as he ran through the café and out the front door. 

Arthur followed him onto the front lawns, where Eleanor and the staff stood together amidst a crowd of customers.  Vehicles with flashing lights sat on the road beyond, men and women in uniforms moving all around.

“Are you all right?” Merlin asked, running up to Eleanor, taking her small shoulders in his hands.

“Oh thank goodness you’re safe!” she said. “We couldn’t find either of you!  Good lord, you’re drenched!  Did the water pipes burst?”

“Has anyone been hurt?” Arthur asked.  “Does anyone need help?”

“No one’s hurt,” she said, clearly amazed.  “No one can get their mobile to work, but we’re all in one piece. Emergency Services is here to tend to one of our trees. Fell right across the road.  But Merlin, dear, I’m afraid there’s been damage to the South Tower-”

Merlin was off and running through the crowd at once, to the southern side of the building.  He staggered to a stop on the lawns below it, staring upward.  When Arthur reached his side, he lifted his gaze as well.

A large chunk of the South Tower had been blown completely off.  Arthur could see into the third floor from the ground. And the roof was completely gone.   

The lawn and the park were littered with the manor’s stones, many driven deep into the earth from the explosion.  Pieces of wood and metal and cloth from the objects on the top floor of the museum lay scattered all around as far as he could see.

“It’s a miracle no one was hurt,” Eleanor said as she joined them.

“No one at all?” Arthur asked, because there was debris everywhere.

“Not a soul. I can hardly believe it.”

“Myself as well,” Arthur said.  Because there was no reason at all that devastation this severe should have yielded no casualties.  “What about you, my lady?  Are you all right?”

She stood straighter, forcing a smile. “It takes more than an earthquake and a thunderstorm to shake me.  I can’t say the same for your young man, though.  You’d best see to him, Arthur,” she said, and gave his arm a pat, before returning to the front lawns.

Arthur hardly needed encouragement, moving at once to where Merlin had dropped to his knees upon the wet lawn.

“Look what I did,” Merlin said to the ground, his voice hoarse.

Arthur watched him reach out two pale and shaking hands, to press them against the dented metal barrel of the telescope.  Glass from its mirrors sparkled in the grass all around. “You’ll get another one,” Arthur said. “One powerful enough to show me all those things you described.” 

Merlin stared down at the ground, not responding, not reacting.  When he finally did speak, it was in a voice of despair that sounded entirely unlike his own.  “I could have killed someone.  I could have killed everyone.  You should have used your sword…”

“Stop this,” Arthur said firmly, dropping to his knee at Merlin’s side, hand gripping his shoulder hard, because he was remembering the vision he’d seen.  Of Merlin lying dead at his feet. “Killing you is not the answer. It will never be the answer. I don’t want to hear another word about it.  Do you hear me?  That’s a command from your king.”

“Like what you said about my magic.  No magic without my king’s permission.”

Arthur hadn’t meant it to be a permanent edict.  But now, looking at Merlin kneeling upon the lawns with hunched shoulders and head bowed and a voice choked with tears, afraid of himself, of his own magic, amid the rubble of his manor…

“Yes,” Arthur said firmly.  “It’s exactly like that.”

“No magic without my king’s permission,” he said again, in a whisper.

Arthur wondered if Merlin had meant for him to hear.

It wasn’t until much later that Arthur found himself thinking that the damage to the South Tower was something of a blessing in disguise. 

With the emergency repair work to coordinate, Merlin had no time at all to brood about what had happened in the vaults.  Arthur stayed close by his side to ensure things stayed that way, as Merlin and Eleanor spent the day meeting with work crews, and disaster relief, and the staff.

It was well past midnight by the time the South Tower was secured from the weather, and Arthur could crawl into his bed, exhausted from keeping watch on Merlin and from helping with the cleanup.

He lay back upon the soft mattress, his body sore and aching, his thoughts buzzing with all that had happened.  Especially in the vaults.

It was connected, somehow.  All these moving pieces.  They all fit together in a way he could not yet see. 

He was still puzzling over it when Merlin walked slowly into his chambers in his t-shirt and sleeping trousers.

Instead of crawling into the bed, Merlin stopped in the middle of the room, eyes downcast, hands clasped behind his back. “Is there anything else you need, sire?”

Arthur pushed himself up on the bed.  “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Until this is over,” Merlin said, “I’m going to sleep in my chambers.  And I’m going to shut down the café and the museum and the Apothecary.  I can’t risk hurting anyone. So I’m putting some distance between me and all of you.”

Nodding to himself, as if that were the end of it, Merlin turned to walk away.

“So you’re going to run after all,” Arthur bit out.  “Despite your oath to me.”

Merlin stopped, shoulders raising and falling in a sigh. “What else is there to do?”

“For a start, you could bring the matter before your king to decide upon it, as I’ve told you to do, more than once,” Arthur said, his voice falling into furious regal tones without any effort at all.  “Or have you forgotten, again, who I am?”

Merlin turned a pained expression to him.  “Arthur-“

Sire,” Arthur said angrily.

“Yes,” he said swiftly, clearly regretting the lapse.  “Sorry.  Sire.”

“If you had thought to bring this before me, I would have reminded you that we stand, and we fight, together.  There will be no more talk of distance.  Do you understand me?”

Merlin just stared at him, openly hesitating.

Merlin-“ he growled.

“Yes, sire.  Yes. I understand.”

“Good. Now that that’s settled.” Arthur dropped himself back to the mattress. “Get in the bed.  It’s late, and I’m tired.  And close the curtains on your way.  I’m tired of looking at that damned lake and its damned tower.”

Merlin pulled the drapes across the alcove, obscuring the view, darkening the room to its single candle and the moonlight cast through the window to the lawns. 

As if facing the gallows, Merlin walked to the bed, climbing under the bedding with heavy motions.  He collapsed onto his side facing Arthur, his face pressing into the pillow, his eyes squeezed shut.

Arthur covered him with the blanket when he didn’t bother to do it himself. “You really are an idiot.”

“I know,” Merlin said, sounding far too much like he believed it.

“I meant,” Arthur told him, “that you keep forgetting that you’re not alone.  That you aren’t the one responsible for making the decisions.  That’s my duty, and my responsibility. We discussed that already.”

“I know.”

“But you forgot.”

Merlin sighed into his pillow.  “Old habits.” 

“Habits which must be broken.  Because I cannot have you making decisions on what is best for my kingdom.”

Merlin opened his eyes.  Stared at Arthur in wonder. “Your kingdom.”

Yes, Arthur thought.  My kingdom.

The word held new meaning now.  It stretched beyond boundaries, beyond borders, beyond the great oceans. Reaching from the hidden walls of Camelot to the farthest places upon the earth. 

I always wanted to help people regardless of where they lived, Arthur thought.  Borders had always gotten in the way.  Now his people had solved that problem for him, moving over the earth, mixing together into one great family spread over the earth. 

They were, all of them, children of Camelot.  All these children of the Earth.  Even if they had no physical connection to his lands.  Even if they held no connection to his subjects.

They were all under his protection.  He could feel it in his heart.

“What is it that you want me to do, sire?” Merlin asked into his thoughts, his voice earnest, his eyes shining with his devotion.

It reminded Arthur of how Merlin had been long ago.  A good start, he thought.  Though he still had far to go with the man at his side. 

“You’ll keep your shops open,” Arthur said.  “Your staff needs the work.  And you need the work as well.  I know how you brood when you’re idle.”

“I could pay my staff even if they don’t work?  Give them a nice long holiday?”

“You really think Eleanor Godwyn would accept your money if she didn’t earn it?”

Merlin sighed.  “Stubborn old woman.”

“As for your presence here at night…” Arthur hesitated, realizing that anything he said now would be a command.  And this thing that was unfolding between them… It wasn’t up to him to dictate its terms.  In this, they were equals.

Merlin spoke into the silence.  “I want that… not to change.  It’s just I’m afraid I’ll-”

“You won’t.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do.”

Merlin pressed his palm into the bridge of his nose, fingers digging into his hair.  Arthur nudged at his shoulder.  Nodded towards the other side of the bed.  Merlin rolled over with clear reluctance, settling onto his side, facing the window towards the tower.

Arthur blew out the candle by the bedside.  Moved closer to Merlin in the darkness.

Merlin glanced over his shoulder as he neared, his eyes catching in the moonlight.

Afraid, Arthur thought.  An emotion he’d seldom seen on Merlin’s face in Camelot, even at the worst of times.  An emotion he saw far too often, now.   

With great care, Arthur lay down behind Merlin, slipping an arm around his narrow waist, pressing a palm to the warm cloth covering his heartbeat. 

He thought again of his vision.  Of Excalibur piercing Merlin’s chest.  

Never, he thought.  It will never happen. I will make certain it does not.

“They felt the earthquake all the way to London,” Merlin said.

“Was anyone hurt?”

“No.”

“What about from the storm?”

“No.  And the storm was just here anyway.”

“Just over Avalon?”

“Just over the manor.”

Arthur remembered Merlin’s fury as they had stood in the field near his car.  The violent clouds swirling over his head.  The tree exploding from lightning nearby.  Yet neither of them injured from all that shattering wood. 

“No one was hurt at all in the café?” Arthur asked.  “With all that glass breaking…”

“Dust,” Merlin said.

“What?”

“The glass doors.  The glass wall.  They didn’t shatter.  They turned to dust.  That’s why no one was hurt.”

Arthur reached down to the bed.  Picked up Merlin’s hand.  “What about Mars?”

“The robot they thought they’d lost on Mars was found today,” Merlin said, as his fingers slid through Arthur’s. 

Arthur continued to act as if they had not just intertwined their hands upon the mattress. “So we have our proof then.  There is magic on Mars after all.”

“There was today.”

Arthur surprised himself by laughing.  “Mars,” he said, in open amazement.  “You did magic on Mars.  You, who used to fall off horses and kick over chamber pots.”

“That was your fault for making me ride through the day and the night. And if you ever put the pot back where it was supposed to be-”

“I’m so sorry that the bandits didn’t keep to your layabout schedule,” Arthur said, keeping his tone low and teasing, because he could feel the muscles of Merlin’s body relaxing.  “And if you’d actually emptied the chamber pot regularly-“

“I did empty it regularly-“

“Every other day is not regularly.”

Merlin huffed.  “Stop exaggerating.”

“Perhaps if the chamber pot had been on Mars-“

“Oh shut it.”

Much better, Arthur thought, and he dared to gently squeeze Merlin’s hand. Barely any pressure at all.  

He felt Merlin return the gesture.

They lay together in silence a long moment. 

“So much for our day off,” Merlin said softly.

“It didn’t work out very well, did it.”

“Teaching you to drive wasn’t that awful.”

“You weren’t a totally incompetent instructor.”

“And having a lie in this morning wasn’t horrible.”

“That was the best part,” Arthur said.  Then he realized what he’d said, and he felt himself go tense.

“Yeah,” Merlin said.  “It was the best part.”

Arthur felt a swell of affection at the soft spoken words.  A feeling that stretched deep inside him.  A feeling he’d always had for this ridiculous man in his arms.

Even in Camelot, he realized.  When Merlin had been hurt, it had been as if the world had ended.  Arthur could still remember seeing him upon the ground after the mace had struck him in the chest.  Could still remember his horror when the rockfall had separated them.

All those centuries I was dead, Arthur thought.  I only ever heard one voice.  His voice. How did I not know what that meant the moment I stepped out of that damned lake? 

“Are you all right?” came Merlin’s tired voice.

“Hm?  Oh.”  He forced his muscles to relax.  “Just tired.”

“Me too.  Can’t sleep though.”

“Why don’t you tell me one of your stories.  That should be enough to put us both out.”

“I don’t think I want to talk about magic tonight, Arthur.”

Arthur rested his forehead against the back of Merlin’s head.  Closed his eyes against the pain of that statement.  “Tell me about your café then.  Tell me how you met that terrifying woman.”

“That actually is a good story.”

“Then start there.”

“It was thirty years ago,” Merlin began, before spinning out the tale of the day a widowed mother of three had walked into his café to escape the rain, and had wound up with a job and a friend instead.  

When he’d finished, he fell silent, his body relaxing, his breathing slowing.  As Merlin slid into sleep, Arthur found himself thinking of their life together. 

Of battling shoulder to shoulder, ready to die for one another.  Of sitting peacefully by the campfire, their gazes locked for far too long.  Of touching and grabbing and holding onto each other, to aid or protect or give comfort.  Of bantering and arguing and giving oaths of life and death, over and over and over again.

He thought, too, of this modern world that was his now.  A place where no rules governed his heart, or his choices.

We could be something else, here, Arthur thought.  He and I.  We could be together.  Not just as we are.  But in all ways.

The yearning he felt at the idea was so intense that he drew in a sharp breath.

Oh god, Arthur thought frantically.  I'm in love with him. 

Merlin heaved a sigh, pushing his face into the covers, relaxing against Arthur’s body.  Arthur shifted to accommodate him, to make him more comfortable.

Only after he’d settled himself behind Merlin, his nose in his thick black hair, did he realize how obvious it all should have been, so much earlier than now.

Idiot, he thought at himself, and he inhaled deeply, the smell of vanilla and spice a warm presence that surrounded him, guiding him into dreams of strong arms and a ready smile and a life that was perhaps not out of reach, not even for a king.

 

Chapter Text

 

After the third nightmare, Merlin crawled from the bed, mumbling about things to do.

It was not yet dawn, the sky still a pale indigo beyond the window facing the lawn.  “Come back to bed,” Arthur slurred out, the words spilling out without thought.

“Go back to sleep,” Merlin told him over his shoulder.

“Merlin,” Arthur protested.  But he had already gone. 

He woke to a risen sun and to his stomach growling.  Venturing from bed revealed no food on the table, and no Merlin, even though it was hours past sunrise. 

Arthur pushed back the drapes to the alcove, and stepped to the lakeside window.  Upon the rounded mound of its isle, the ruined tower stood majestic and ancient and imposing.

Watching us, Arthur thought. 

It had been a nagging feeling before.  It was a cold hard fact today.

Which meant Merlin had been right yesterday.  The ancient magics were affecting him every time he got between them and Merlin.  

Arthur narrowed his eyes as he stared at the tower.  Focusing upon the feeling of the thing upon its isle.

It’s not just watching, he thought.  That was too benign a word for this feeling.  No, this was more… Waiting.  Biding its time. Like an army encamped around a besieged citadel.

How long had it been that way? he wondered.  Since my return?  Or longer than that?  How did Merlin not know about this?  And why did he, instead?

Not only didn’t he have answers, he didn’t even have enough information to ask the needed questions.  Unforgivable behavior, for a king. 

We are not prepared, Arthur thought.  Neither of us.  And that is my fault.  I have left too many mysteries unexamined.  I have let Merlin hide from things he needs to face.  Merlin, and myself, as well.

It was time for all that to change.  Time to lead with his head, as a king should.  Time to remember who he was.

Arthur drew back the drapes, a plan formulating already in his mind.  Nodding to himself, he went to prepare for his day.

He emerged from Merlin’s residence a half hour later, freshly washed and dressed, the coarse fabric of his red tunic itching him, the laces at his chest tied too tight.  His breeches felt overly large, the string at his waist digging into his hips.  And his feet already hurt from the uncomfortable boots he wore.   

Even his metal rings felt too tight on his fingers.  But the weight of the royal seal felt right.  He had missed wearing it more than he’d known.

Feeling more like himself than he had in a week, Arthur moved through the café interior, amid small crowds of workers.  People were everywhere, climbing up ladders and scrutinizing the manor walls.  The café staff hurried among them, carrying trays from the kitchens to the front lawns, where a few tables had been set up in the sun for patrons.

The porch was a hive of activity, so Arthur ventured out the front door instead, to find even more teams of men and women moving around.   A large group of them had assembled near the bottom of the South Tower.   In their midst stood Merlin and Eleanor, arguing loudly.

“Arthur, thank god!” Eleanor called to him, and pushed her way through the crowd of much younger, much larger people, a furious eighty year old force of nature in a bright purple dress with explosions of white flowers.  “You talk some sense into him!”

“I don’t see what the problem is!” Merlin yelled, striding after her, a pale thin figure all in black. As he approached, he frowned at Arthur, clearly confused by the clothes he’d chosen.

“He is getting in the way,” Eleanor told Arthur.

“I’m giving them advice!” Merlin informed her. 

“You’re holding up repairs!” she said, and she smacked him with her clipboard. 

“Ow! Don’t hit me!”

“Then stop getting in their way!  You’re not licensed!  They’re going to walk off the job if you keep trying to do things yourself!”  She turned to Arthur, her narrow face flushed in frustration.  “Will you please do something with him?”

Do something with me?” Merlin burst out.  “Are you-?”

“Merlin,” Arthur said firmly.

Merlin’s mouth snapped shut.

Eleanor gave him a victorious smile.

“Eleanor,” Arthur said, “I know Merlin can be headstrong, but he does, in this case, know more about this manor, and how it's built, than anyone standing here today.”

The older woman gave Merlin a sideways glance, surprised, though not more so than Merlin, because his mouth had fallen open, his eyebrows raising.

“However,” Arthur said to Merlin, “there is something far more pressing that requires your attention today.  Later tonight, after your stonemasons have gone, you can spend all the time you want making sure their work is up to your standards.”

Merlin glanced back at the workers, then up at the tower.   

Weary, Arthur thought.  Though there was more than a little guilt there too.

Eleanor must have seen some of what Arthur did. Because her tone gentled, and she patted Merlin on the arm. “I’ll take care of everything.  And I’ll find you if I need you.”

“You promise not to let them use-“

“It will all be original, yes, I promise,” she assured him.

Merlin nodded, and she returned to the group of men and women in their uniforms, her clipboard held in her arms like a shield of Camelot. 

“Come along,” Arthur said, and without waiting for a reply, he started back to the manor.

“I know I forgot your breakfast,” Merlin said, when he caught up.  “I was just about to go and get it when this tosser tried to convince me I should rebuild the walls with imported stones from Spain instead of the stones I pulled out of the Lake of Avalon myself-“

“This isn’t about breakfast.”

“It’s not?”

“No.”

“Then what is-?”

“You’ll see.”

Arthur lead Merlin into the café, through the chaos of people, and into his residence.  He stopped at the bottom of their stairwell, next to the wall hiding the entrance to the vaults.  

“Open it,” Arthur told him.

Merlin clearly wanted to ask why, but instead pressed his palm to the stone wall, whispering words of power, turning the stone to mist and revealing the door beyond. 

Arthur lead the way down the stairs, torches springing to life as he passed.  The descent was much changed from before.  The air was filled with the fresh smells of grass and flowers.  And when he stepped from the final stair, his boot sank into soft earth. All along the exterior walls, torches flared to light, revealing the vast blooming meadow beneath the stacks and stacks of all that was left of Camelot.

Of all of his belongings, only one thing interested him. 

The great round table in the center of the room.

Arthur walked slowly around the large table, until he reached his seat.  His eyes upon Merlin, Arthur pulled out his chair, and then sat down.

Merlin had stopped on the other side of the table, his hands behind his back, watching expectantly. 

Ready to serve, Arthur thought.  Good.

 “Sit down,” Arthur said, gesturing to the seat at his right.

Merlin’s eyebrows raised high enough to touch the fringe of his hair. Even at a distance in the flickering torchlight, Arthur could see his disbelief.

“Sit… there?” Merlin asked.

“Is that a problem?”

“No, it’s… just….”

“I’m waiting, Merlin.”

As if expecting attack, Merlin moved around the empty chairs of the round table, until he reached the one at Arthur’s right. 

With great care, he moved the chair away from the table.  Then he sat slowly upon it.

Arthur watched Merlin frown down at the table’s surface, then look around at the rest of the chairs, then glance curiously over at him.

 “There,” Arthur said.  “That wasn’t so difficult, was it.”

Merlin slid his palms over the wooden surface of the table, his expression wistful.  “Only took fifteen hundred years.”

Arthur felt the words cut him, though it was an unintentional wound to be certain.  It was his own fault that he’d overlooked Merlin in this regard, as he had in so many other ways.

Stupid, Arthur thought. I was so stupid not to see him for who he was.  To our friends, to the Knights, and to me.  Especially to me.

“That should have been your seat,” Arthur said.  “Back in Camelot.”

“I was no Knight-“ Merlin protested.

“You did as much to build and defend our kingdom as any Knight of the Round Table.  And I don’t just mean your magic,” Arthur added, when Merlin began to interrupt.  “I mean all of it.  Your support.  Your loyalty.  Your counsel. And yes, Merlin.  Your magic.  You deserved to sit by my side.  I’m sorry it took me so long to realize.  I would go back and change it, if I could.”

Merlin stared at him, stunned.  “That’s… Thank you.” He gave a soundless laugh, full of wonder and disbelief.  “Arthur, what are we doing here?”

“We are doing what we have always done at this table. We are preparing to defend our kingdom.  Using all the tools at our disposal.  Including your magic.”

Merlin’s smile vanished.  His shoulders rounded, and he slumped into his chair.  “Might not be the best strategy,” he muttered.

“The best strategies are well thought out, well analyzed from every angle, and well prepared. And you and I, Merlin, have neglected to do any of that with our greatest weapon.  Your magic.  You cannot control it.  And I do not understand it.  I cannot wield a weapon I do not understand.  We need to change that.  Starting right now.”

“And how exactly do you suggest we do that?”

“We shall begin by you fetching me every single book on magic you have in your possession.  Especially the ones that have anything to do with the ancient magics.  We’re going to go through them all, one by one, until we find the answer.”

“Don’t you think I’ve already been doing that?” Merlin said sharply.

“I don’t know, Merlin, have you?” Arthur snapped at him.  “Because you hadn’t actually told me you were, nor did you tell me whether you had any success.”

Merlin dropped his gaze to the table, his fingertips sliding over its surface, back and forth.  A nervous movement, mirrored in his chewing on his bottom lip.   So unlike him, Arthur thought.  Just like the absence of his laughter, and his teasing, and his prattle.

“The books, Merlin,” Arthur said, rising from the table and walking over to his throne.  “And breakfast.  We’ll keep at it until training.  I need to keep up my physical strength, and you need the fresh air.  Afterward, we’ll return here, and keep on until supper.”

“Do you have any idea how many books on magic I have?” Merlin said wearily. 

Arthur looked at his dusty throne. Lavender and buttercups bloomed beneath its feet. Wild roses wound around its legs, and draped lovingly over its arms.

“We will keep at it until we find an answer,” Arthur said.  “For as long as it takes.”

A small sigh disturbed the silence of the stone room.  “Yes, sire.”

Arthur looked over his shoulder, to see Merlin climb out of his chair, a thin pale form in black, beautiful and ethereal in the flickering torchlight.

“And put on your old clothes,” Arthur added, as he walked away, into the piles of his belongings, before Merlin could ask him why.

It took the rest of the day for Merlin to move his books of magic onto the round table.  Even with a break for lunch, and again for training, it wasn’t until nearly supper that Merlin finished and sat down, exhausted, in his chair beside Arthur. 

The entire table was covered with books.  Merlin had been grouped them by subject, piling them into stacks sometimes twenty books high.  The ones about the ancient magics sat closest to Arthur, smelling of old parchment and ink.

“Riddles,” Arthur muttered, as he set down his fork upon his supper plate, and turned a yellowing page.  “Riddles and contradicting prophecies and nonsense.“  He slammed the book shut, rubbing dust from his eyes.  “What I would not give for someone simply pointing their sword at my throat.”

“I told you it wouldn’t be easy,” Merlin muttered.  He was half draped over an open book, his arms folded upon it, his cheek resting upon his hand. His neckerchief was pushed up around his ears, his blue servant’s shirt stretched across his rounded back. 

Arthur saw Merlin’s eyes go half lidded and took mercy on him.  “Go and tend to your manor before you’re too tired to do anything but fall over.”’

Merlin sat up, brightening at that.  He got up and moved to leave, then stopped, shaking his head at himself.   He turned in place, hands lacing behind his back.  “Will there be anything else, sire?”

The obedience would have been unnerving, if not for the peace and contentment in Merlin’s patient expression. 

I was right then, Arthur thought.  He does need things to be like this.  Perhaps just as much as I do. 

“Go on,” Arthur said gently.  “Just try to stay out of trouble.”

“Don’t I always?” Merlin asked, just like his usual self, before he left the room in near silence, his boot steps muffled by the ridiculous meadow upon the ground.

Arthur grabbed miserably at another book.  “Let’s see what absurdity is in this one,” he muttered, and began to read.

By the time his eyes started blurring on the pages, it was far later than he’d thought.  The sun had long since set, the hour close to midnight.  Returning to his chambers revealed no sign of Merlin, though everything had been readied for bed. 

A quick search of the silent manor found Merlin in the third floor of the South Tower, kneeling beneath an enormous tarp that served as a temporary roof.  His sleeves were pushed up, his clothes covered in dust, as he added mortar to the newly laid stones of the exterior wall.

“It’s late,” Arthur told him.

“Just a while more,” Merlin said, swaying as he turned, his eyes glassy with exhaustion.

“No more,” Arthur said, and he took the tools from Merlin’s hands, then lead him, protesting the entire time, from his work.

By the time he got Merlin back into the North Tower and shoved him toward the washroom to clean up, Arthur was exhausted himself.  After yanking the drapes viciously across the alcove to the lakeside window, he crawled into bed.

He only realized that he’d fallen asleep when he felt the bed shake, a weight falling into it.  “Be still,” he muttered into his pillow, and he rolled onto his side towards Merlin, an arm reaching out.

But Merlin had sprawled on his stomach, so Arthur tipped forward, his chest pressing against Merlin’s back, his face resting between two sharp shoulder blades.

Merlin made a small noise that Arthur took to mean he was either amenable or too tired to care.   So Arthur let sleep take him as they lay.

That night, and the next morning was the same as the one before. 

Nightmares through the night.  And then another one so close to dawn that before the sun had even risen, Merlin pushed himself from bed. 

Arthur didn’t call to him this time.  He was too tired to even move.  It had taken far more effort to wake Merlin during the night this time.  Soft words and touches hadn’t even begun to draw him from his terrors.  That last time, towards morning, he’d even had to get to his knees, and pull Merlin up, and shake him awake.

Though Arthur tried not to sleep too late, the sun had well risen by the time he dragged himself from bed.  Breakfast had been laid out today, and his clothes as well, which he took as a good sign.  And when he found Merlin, he was already down in the vaults.

Merlin sat upon his chair, leaning forward on the table, his elbows and arms resting upon an open book of magic, his head propped in his hands.  His eyes were closed, his dark lashes unmoving against his pale skin, and his mouth was hanging open.

Arthur took his seat as silently as possible, careful not to wake him, and grabbed another book from the depressingly large stack by his side. 

When he opened it, he discovered to his surprise that it was one of Gaius’ notebooks.

The handwriting clearly his.  No one else wrote such carefully lettered Brittonic. 

The book was filled with notes about spells and magic, beasts and beings of power.  The last entry in the journal, before the pages became blank, had one word as its title. 

‘Emrys.’

Arthur leaned forward in his chair, and began to read.

‘Generations who follow will most certainly speak of the Sorcerer Emrys.  It is already the habit of the Druids who have returned to Camelot to bow their heads at the mention of his name.  They speak of him as the one destined to unite the old world and the new.  The one who will bring about the time the poets spoke of.  The time of Albion.

‘With each passing day, they speak more and more often of Emrys in the same breath as The Once and Future King Arthur Pendragon, who sleeps beyond the Gates of Avalon.  The prophecy of Arthur’s return, with his Sorcerer at his side, has spread like a wildfire throughout all corners of the five kingdoms, giving hope to those who long for a bright future for Albion.

‘It is my fervent hope that this prophecy is true.  For I do indeed believe that the Great King and his Mighty Sorcerer are two sides of a great coin; two halves of a whole.  One of them without the other is a world out of balance. Never have two souls more needed each other than my young warlock, and his young king.

‘I have heard many tales of Emrys.  Some are stretched far beyond truth.  Some fall far short of it.  I confess that I cannot help but smile when I hear these stories told in hushed tones of reverence and awe. 

‘For although the Druids may call him Dragonlord, and The Immortal One, and the Greatest Sorcerer to Ever Walk the Earth…  to me, he will always be Merlin.  My closest friend in my later years, and the son I never had.  And I, for my part, consider it my greatest honor, and my deepest joy, to have known him.’

Arthur pressed his palm to the words.  Fighting back a vicious surge of grief.  He cleared his throat, shifting in his chair, blinking moisture from his eyes.

Next to him, Merlin’s head fell from his hands, and he jolted in his seat, startling himself. “Whassit?”

Arthur smiled at the way that Merlin blinked across the room, his hair sticking out near his ears, his face red where his palms had been pressed against it.  “Have you been sleeping down here all morning?”

“Just dozed off.  A few minutes ago.”  Merlin wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and pawed at the pages of his book, checking for drool.

“The Great Sorcerer Emrys,” Arthur said wryly, drawing Merlin’s attention to his book.

Merlin smiled down at the pages, though his eyes held the same sadness Arthur felt. “I wish I could have told Gaius what an honor it was to be included in one of his books.”

“I never knew he was such a poet.  ‘Two sides of a great coin’…”

“He did have a poet’s heart.  But he didn’t come up with that.  I told him that after I heard it from the Great Dragon.  And from the Druids.  And from a few other creatures of the Old Religion.  They were always describing the two of us like that.”

“Really,” Arthur said, feeling none too happy about it.  That was an intensely intimate way to describe him and Merlin, prophecy or no.

 “I actually asked the Great Dragon if maybe he didn’t mean a different Arthur besides you, the first time he told me of your great destiny.”

Despite the mention of the prophecy and damned dragon, Arthur smiled, glad to see Merlin’s wry grin. “You had that much faith in me, did you?”

“Well you had just thrown me in the dungeon only the day before,” Merlin pointed out.

“Which was entirely your fault for being so insolent when we met.” Arthur paged through the book, thinking of the words Merlin had been told. “Two sides of a great coin,” he said, half to himself.

“Me being the brighter side, obviously,” Merlin said, and he folded his arms upon his book, and rested his head upon them.

“I would hardly say obviously,” Arthur said, and he stole a glance at Merlin, who was contentedly smiling at him, his black hair mussed and his face squashed on his arm with his ridiculous cheekbones in sharp relief and his absurd ears sticking up. 

Arthur nudged Merlin’s leg with his boot below the table.  “Come on.  Get reading.”

With an exaggerated groan, Merlin sat up, turned the page, and bent over to read.

The progress that day was slower than the day before.  By the time they went outside for training, Arthur was deeply grateful for the sun on his face and the weight of his armor upon his body.  His sword was a joy to wield, even just with students, even upon the shores of the damned lake with its damned tower.

Halfway through the training session, he noticed Merlin had fallen asleep against the tree trunk, his head hanging forward, his polishing rag held loosely in his hand, several swords laying across his legs.

Arthur called to Danyl, and the young man jogged over eagerly, face flush from exercise, his armor fitting upon him much better today than it had been so far.  The entire group had gotten better at outfitting one another in their gear.  Quite a feat, considering the group had increased by seven, including four women. 

“Danyl,” Arthur said, “go take the equipment from Merlin’s lap.  Without waking him, if you can manage it.  And keep an eye on him.”  Arthur caught the young man’s inquisitive stare, and hardened his expression. “Knowing him, he’d manage to stab himself in his sleep.  Now go on.”

Next to him Arthur heard a loud snort, and he looked over to see Heath had paused in his sparring to give Arthur a raised eyebrow, far too suggestive and smug for his liking.

 “You’re dropping your elbow too low and your feet are set too far apart,” Arthur told him, rapping Heath’s forearm with the flat of his sword, as he strode back to his students.

It took him until the last student had left the lawns to realize that Merlin was not going to wake any time soon. So Arthur sat down upon the ground next to him, still in his chainmail and armor, and leaned back against the tree, his shoulder against Merlin’s. 

He’d begun to doze off himself when Merlin snorted himself awake, muttering some nonsense about socks and washing and where was the soap.

Arthur watched him sit up, blinking into the daylight.  “Arthur?”

“I see your senses have returned to their previous levels,” Arthur said, and he climbed to his feet.  “Now if you could get me out of this, we have more reading to do.”

Merlin grabbed hold of the tree as he pulled himself to his feet, looking all around.  “Where did everyone go?”

“Training was over an hour ago.”

“What? Why didn’t you wake me!”

“Because you were sleeping peacefully for once,” Arthur said, and turned his back, pointing to his armor. 

“I was, wasn’t I,” Merlin said curiously.

“I’d say it was because the water was soothing, but…”  Arthur glanced over at the tower, then away. 

“No.  I don’t think so.”

Arthur lifted his arms so Merlin could pull the chainmail from him.  “Tell me about Freya,” he said.

Which was a mistake, because Merlin stopped moving with the chainmail half off of his head, which got it caught in his hair.

“Merlin, will you- Get this off!”

“Sorry! Sorry. I just… wasn’t expecting you to…  Sorry.”

Arthur pushed the chainmail from his head, and ran a hand through his hair.  “Well?”

“She was.  Um.  It’s a long story, actually.  Why are you asking?”

“She-“ Arthur heard a wave splash upon the shore.  He glanced over, saw the sunlight rippling on the surface of the lake.  Gold, and blue, and white.

“She what?” Merlin asked.

Arthur narrowed his eyes at the tower.  “Let’s go inside,” he said, and started back to the house, Merlin chasing after him as he went, asking him what was going on.

Arthur gave him no answer.  Not here, he thought.  Not in front of that thing.

“Wash up,” Arthur said.  “Then meet me downstairs.  Understood?”

“Yes, sire,” Merlin said, clearly confused, but for once, doing as he was asked.

Only when they were seated at the round table, with Merlin at his side, did Arthur feel as though he could speak his mind.  Which was strange in and of itself.  Why did here feel safe, and outside not?  Surely magic could penetrate walls.  In fact, he knew it could.

“Are we protected down here?” Arthur asked.

Merlin lifted his eyes from his book, confused. “What do you mean, protected?”

“From scrying stones or spells or whatever other damned ridiculous form of magic can be used to see what we’re doing.”

“You’re worried about someone watching us read?” Merlin asked, one eyebrow raising.

“Yes, Merlin, that’s what I’m worried about, someone watching you drool all over your books,” Arthur snapped at him. 

“All right, calm down,” Merlin said, and he pushed away his book, frowning at him.  “Yes, we’re protected. The stones of this manor came from the lake bottom of Avalon.  Just like the rocks in the Stone Circle.  They all have a bit of magic in them.  Not much.  But some, from their years here. That’s why I used them.  For the natural protection.  I don’t need it now.  But it was handy with a few upstart sorcerers in the old days.”

“Tell me more about Freya,” Arthur said, without preamble.

Merlin looked pained by the question. “Why do you keep asking about her?”

“You said you knew her.  But she’s part of the lake.  How did that happen?”

Merlin stared at him, frowning.  Then shook his head, as if drawing himself from his thoughts.  “She was a mortal woman who was cursed by a sorcerer.  At night, she became a black creature with wings.  She hurt people.  Killed them.  When she was brought to Camelot, you and your knights, you had to…”

Arthur remembered the battle in the courtyard.  The arrows and the swords and the blood.  “Oh,” he said softly.

Merlin lowered his eyes.  “After she was wounded, I took her to the lake.  She swore there to repay me for my kindness.  After she died, the ancient magics gave her that chance.”

“That doesn’t sound like the magics you’re always speaking of,” Arthur said.  “The ones that demand a price.  The ones that don’t give without taking.” He thought of his mother. Of his father. Of him. “There must be a price, you said.  There must be balance.”

“There was a price, and a balance,” Merlin told him.  “They gave Freya a life after death, but they took her service, for all time.  She wanted to do it. I think she was happy doing it.”  Merlin smiled sadly.  “She always did love the water.”

“What about me?” Arthur asked, forcing the question from his lips.  “What was the price for my life?”

Merlin went quite still.  Staring at him with panic deep in his eyes. 

“There wasn’t one,” Arthur said grimly.  “Was there.”

Because it all made sense now.

Why he could feel magic, when he never could before. 

It was because he was still a part of the magic that had sustained him all those centuries.  He was still connected to it.  He was still unfinished.

One foot in this world, Arthur thought.  One foot beyond the Gates of Avalon.  Leaving the gateway open a crack.  Letting the magic of Avalon leak through.

“You’re different,” Merlin said loudly, finally finding his voice, though it was higher and it broke on his words. “There isn’t any price, not for you, not when it’s prophecy, not when it’s destiny-” 

“Yes, yes, you’re right,” Arthur said quickly, gripping Merlin’s arm, because his voice had risen steadily, his words spilling over one another, and he’d been tearing at the pages of his book.

“That’s the balance,” Merlin kept on, “that we’re two sides of the same coin, and you were there, and I was here, and I waited fifteen hundred years alone, and that’s got to be enough of a price to pay, they just can’t want anything else, they can’t, it wouldn’t be fair-”

Arthur leaned towards Merlin, moving his hand to the back of Merlin’s neck, pressing his palm against the warm skin above his neckerchief, sliding soothing fingers into his hair.  “Yes, of course, you’re right, Merlin, of course.”

“It’s enough of a price to pay,” Merlin said weakly, his breathing still too fast, a cold sweat breaking out upon his skin.  “It is-“

“Yes, it is,” Arthur agreed, still sliding his fingers through Merlin’s hair.  “Now come on.  Calm down.  Breathe.”

Merlin licked his lips and swallowed and closed his eyes, his breaths heaving from him, reminding Arthur of lightning and explosions and the ruins of the tower in the lake. 

He’s far too frightened, Arthur thought.  Any thought of anything happening to me sets him off.   A definite weakness to them both.  Merlin’s fear of losing him.

But couldn’t he say the same for himself?  Arthur wondered.  Because the thought of something happening to Merlin…

“The kingdom must come first,” Arthur said, to himself, and to Merlin.  “We must remember that.  The people of Albion- The people of all the lands upon the earth- They must come first.  They are depending upon us.  Including Eleanor and Heath and Danyl and all of the families you have known for so long in Avalon.  We owe it to them to stay strong, and to protect them.  That is why we are here, you and I.  Never forget that.  Do you understand?”

He watched Merlin slowly get control of himself. “Yes, sire,” he said hoarsely.

“All right then.” Arthur slid his hand down Merlin’s back, rubbing there a few moments without thinking, before finding another book to set in front of Merlin. “Come on.  Back to reading.”  He picked up another book for himself.  “Where was I…” 

“About to join me in banging your head on the table in frustration?” Merlin grumbled.

“I’ll leave that to you,” Arthur said, as he opened his book. “Just be sure to do it quietly.”

So many of the books on magic, Arthur had discovered, were about the smallest practical applications of it.  Getting stains out of clothes.  Cleaning a floor.  Drying meat. It horrified him that his father had put so many of these people to death, simply for trying to make their lives easier.

But then he would come across a book like the one he was reading now.  Full of the darkest things imaginable.  Spells to control someone’s thoughts.  Creatures to compel to murder.  Incantations to cause a lifetime of pain.  Poisons to cause an agonizing death.

It was all so engrossingly horrible that he didn’t even notice Merlin bring in their supper.  He barely looked up when Merlin nudged his hand with a plate. 

“I feel like I need to wash out my head with soap after reading this,” Arthur said, as he grabbed the plate of hot food. 

Merlin sat back down in his chair, his own plate upon his book.  He leaned into Arthur’s space to peer at his book, his body warm at his side. “I told you about that one.”

Arthur read the description of the creature on the page.  “That really was in your neck.”

“Right here,” Merlin said, patting the back of his neck, as he stuffed a spoon full of potatoes in his mouth. 

“Right where?”  Arthur leaned over, pulled down the back of Merlin’s neckerchief.

Only after he touched the cloth did he realize that it was the same neckerchief he’d used.  On that morning.  Which he had meant to tear up.  And burn.  And bury.  But which apparently he’d left in his pocket.  And dear god which he hoped Merlin had not looked at too closely before he’d washed it.

Merlin pulled down the cloth a little more.  “There, actually.”

Arthur peered closer, fingers sliding down the back of Merlin’s neck, his curiosity getting the better of him.  Even in the flickering torchlight he saw the thin white scar, right at his spine.  He traced the line with two fingers, and heard Merlin exhale loudly.  “Does it still hurt?” he asked.

“No, it- Sensitive,” Merlin said, and he pushed up his neckerchief, and leaned over his book, shoving more food into his mouth.

Arthur watched him eat, fighting a powerful urge to soothe the old wound. To protect him from further harm.  Which was absurd, he thought.  Merlin could tear him in half if he wanted to. 

Arthur laughed, remembering a day long ago.

“What’s funny?” Merlin asked, glancing curiously at him.

“You. When we met.  I told you I could take you apart with one blow, you remember?”

Merlin wiped potatoes from his lips, smiling at him.  “And I told you I could take you apart with less than that.”

“Turns out we were both right,” Arthur pointed out.

“What were you on about that day?” Merlin asked, chuckling now.  “All that business about me walking on my knees.”

“Bowing before your prince? Kneeling before the-?“ Arthur snorted at the idiotic boy he had been.  “I have no idea.  You were driving me crazy.  I couldn’t be held responsible for what I was saying.”

“Well don’t go around saying things like that now,” Merlin told him, raising an eyebrow.  “You tell some bloke to get on his knees these days, and it’s not going to have anything to do with a throne room.”

Arthur choked on his sip of wine, laughing so loudly that it echoed through the room. “Or maybe it would,” he said, tilting his head, and raising his glass.

“Well that depends on the bloke,” Merlin said wryly, and smiled at Arthur, his eyes sparkling.  It was a sight to behold after the past few days.

“True,” Arthur agreed.  “This is the modern era, after all.  You shouldn’t assume one thing or the other about anyone.”

A flicker of confusion in Merlin’s face had Arthur drop his gaze to his book, glad of the torchlight, because he could feel his face heating.

What on earth had possessed him?  Was he actually flirting?  Gods above, but he was, wasn’t he.

Arthur lifted his wine glass to his mouth.  Then set it back down again.  That was quite enough wine for tonight.

It had already done its work, though, sedating him enough that his eyelids drooped through the book he was reading.  It was a struggle to stay awake, especially after Merlin left him alone to work on the South Tower. 

At one point, he rested his head back against his chair.  He jolted awake some time later, disoriented and clearly having slept for too long.  Reluctantly he left the vaults behind, the torches going out as he climbed the stairs. 

As expected, there was no trace of Merlin in his chambers, though his sleeping clothes and his bedding had been prepared for him.  

The night air had turned cool, and both windows and shutters were closed, the curtains drawn across both alcoves.  In the light of his bedside candle, Arthur changed his clothes, used the washroom, then went to retrieve Merlin from the South Tower. 

Merlin was still hard at work, a small light pointed at where he was setting stones in the exterior wall beneath the tarp.

“Come on,” Arthur told him.  “It’s almost one in the morning.”

Merlin turned around, mortar stuck in his hair, dust all over his servant’s clothes, dirt coating his boots.  “I’ll be to bed soon.  I promise.”

Though Merlin looked weary, he seemed very enthusiastic about what he was doing. Arthur nodded, finding this to be a good sign as well  “Not too late,” he said, and he left Merlin to his work.

He wasn’t entirely certain when Merlin joined him in his bed.  He had been quite deeply asleep, because the motion on the mattress had only half woken him from strange dreams of wandering in a meadow in which the flowers were crying out to him and the grass was weeping. 

“Go back to sleep,” said Merin’s weary voice at his side.

Arthur rolled over without opening his eyes, hand sliding over the mattress.  He felt an arm, and slid his hand along it, to a shoulder.  He pushed at it weakly, and felt Merlin roll away.  He followed the motion, curling around Merlin’s body from behind, an arm going around his waist, pressing his face into Merlin’s neck. 

He tried to speak, to say goodnight, but only managed to make a low contented sound, his lips moving against the skin of Merlin’s neck.  Merlin made a contented sound in response, and relaxed back against him, sliding into sleep.

 

Chapter Text

That night the dreams were worse than the night before. 

As if they knew they had fewer hours to plague Merlin, they came back again and again.  Each time Arthur would manage to get back to sleep himself, he would feel Merlin jolt in his arms, and have to force himself awake to rouse him. 

The fourth time it happened, it was again just before dawn.  

As Arthur knelt upon the bed, breathing hard from the effort of shaking him awake, Merlin rolled away from him, pressing his face into the pillow, only half managing to smother the harsh sounds that choked from his chest.

Arthur watched him helplessly, no idea what he should do, as he listened to the strangled sobs, and watched Merlin fall apart on the bed beside him. 

Finally he reached out, to put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder.

Merlin pushed himself out of the bed at once, almost falling to the floor.  “Things to do,” he said in a strangled voice, and he stumbled from the room, wiping savagely at his face with both hands.

After the chamber door closed, Arthur lay back in the bed, and pressed his palms over his eyes. “Dammit,” he hissed at himself.

The day deteriorated after that.  And their moods with it. 

Arthur couldn’t get himself back to sleep after the events of the morning.  Nor had Merlin, judging by his behavior.

The hours in the vaults downstairs were tense and filled with clipped questions Arthur had to press Merlin to answer.  Even the smallest request got a scathing retort.

Lunch was eaten in aggrieved silence.  And the entire time during training, Arthur caught Merlin nodding off time and time again, only to struggle back awake.  During one of the breaks, Arthur made the mistake of going over to him.

“Why don’t you just nap if you’re so tired,” he said, not meaning for it to be a criticism, but he was exhausted too, and frustrated, and apparently that’s all Merlin heard.

“Why don’t you mind your own business,” Merlin snapped at him, and shoved his rag into his polishing jar, then attacked the armor he held.

“I only meant that you should-“

“How about you go tell your fan club of young lords and ladies what to do and leave me alone.”

Arthur very nearly kicked at Merlin’s long legs stretched out close to his boot.  “A shame you don’t have your sword today,” he said through clenched teeth. “You could use a bit of training yourself, the pathetic state you’re in.”

Merlin glared at him. “I’ll be sure to remember it tomorrow.  My lord.”

Arthur turned and marched away.  “Insolent arse,” he muttered in a low voice.

“Royal child!” Merlin called, loudly enough for everyone to hear.

Arthur whirled around, pointing his sword at Merlin.  “Get up!  Now!”

Merlin shoved himself to his feet.  “Yes, my lord?  What do you want, my lord?”

“Give me that,” Arthur said to Heath, taking the young man’s shield from him, and throwing it at Merlin, who held up an arm to block it from hitting him in the face.  “Congratulations,” Arthur said to Merlin sweetly.  “You just volunteered to help me demonstrate some more advanced techniques.”

Merlin picked up the shield from the ground and roughly shoved into Arthur’s shoulder as he walked by.  “Hate you so much,” he growled at him.

“And tomorrow we can demonstrate the mace,” Arthur said through his teeth, and went to drag Merlin over in front of his gathering students.

When training was done, Merlin grumbled constantly, half muttered things that made no sense.  Rubbing occasionally at his shoulder, he hauled everything back to the house, one clumsy and stumbling trip after the other.

Arthur watched him, wiping at his neck with a towel, feeling guilty as hell and frustrated at everything and needing very desperately to stab something with his sword.

“Everything all right between you two?” came Heath’s voice at his side.

Arthur realized that Heath had intentionally hung back, so that only the two of them stood together on the lawns.  “Yes.”  He watched at Merlin stagger, drop half of his things then pick them up unsteadily.  “No.”  He shook his head at himself, at the entire situation. “Nothing for you to concern yourself about.”

“Well at least if we find one of you dead, we’ll know who did it, eh?” Heath said, and he  slapped Arthur good naturedly on the back, before walking up to the manor.

Nausea twisted Arthur’s stomach as he watched the young man walk away.  Remembering again his vision.  Of Merlin dead at his feet.

Dammit,” Arthur swore, and he glared at the tower.  But this hadn’t been the tower’s doing.  This had been his.  He was falling back on bad habits with Merlin.  Letting Merlin push him away.

And that’s what he was doing, wasn’t he, Arthur realized belatedly.  And yes, Merlin had done that back in Camelot too.  Yet another way he’d kept secrets.  Not just with humor and ridiculous stories.  But with this sullen and aggressive behavior.  It had pushed him away every time.

Well, Arthur thought.  Not anymore.

When they’d cleaned up and returned to the vaults, Merlin intentionally sat down at the opposite side of the round table from where Arthur had taken his seat.

Arthur leaned forward on the table, staring at the wall of books that separated them. “Why are you sitting over there?” he asked casually, keeping his voice calm.

“Want me closer so you can hit me?” came a petulant reply.

I deserved that, Arthur thought.  I should have known better than to yield to Father’s temper.  I should have followed Mother’s heart instead.

So Arthur picked up his book and stood up.  Slowly he rounded the empty chairs, until he came to the pouting man sitting with his arms crossed over his servant’s tunic, his head tipped forward so that his chin was buried in his neckerchief.

Arthur ignored the glare Merlin gave him, and pulled out the chair next to him.  After shoving some piles of books to the side, he sat down, opened his book, and began to read.

“Why are the flowers still blooming?” Arthur asked as casually as possible, without lifting his gaze from the book.  “There’s no sun. No rain.  And the soil only stretches an inch into stone.  I checked.  Yet new flowers are blooming.”

“I noticed.” 

“Perhaps you could explain,” he said, as gently as possible. “I still don’t understand how they got here in the first place.”

“Overflow,” Merlin said, his voice muffled by the cloth at his neck. 

“Overflow?”

“When you pour something bigger into something smaller.  Or.”  Merlin gave a low grunt.  “It’s impossible to describe.”

“Please try,” Arthur said, using every ounce of his willpower to keep his aggravation from his voice.

“Like a garden.”

Arthur turned to him, exasperated. Because that was just ridiculous. “A garden.”

“You have to water the plants slowly,” Merlin explained, as if he were a child.  “Or the extra water runs off.  When the crystals lost their magic, it came to me too fast. I couldn’t absorb it and channel it quickly enough. So it went everywhere. Until you foolishly risked your damned life again by stepping in its way.”

Arthur caught himself before he made the truly awful mistake of saying that his actions had kept the manor from crashing down upon them.  “So the meadow happened why, exactly?” he asked, wondering if he could in fact strain something in his voice from his efforts to keep it so level.

“That was me putting the magic back where it belonged.” Merlin glanced over at him uncomfortably, clearly not wanting to speak of this.  “Into the earth.”

“Creating a meadow with flowers in the process.  Like by meadow by the lakeside.”

“With the stupid butterflies and the damned strawberries, yes, I know, it was all very soppy, I remember,” Merlin said to his book, and turned a page sharply.

Arthur wanted to say that no, it wasn’t soppy.  It was beautiful.  Like the meadow.  It was amazing.  But he doubted Merlin would take any of his words as anything but mockery.  Not right now.

The evening passed without much change, Merlin at his side, ignoring him completely, turning pages with a loud noise as if angry at them, occasionally muttering to himself, probably without realizing he was doing so.  Twice Arthur saw Merlin’s head nod forward, then snap back, fighting sleep.

Arthur itched to touch him, to put a hand on his arm.  But he knew that none of that would be received well.  Not with Merlin grumbling at him about fetching supper, although he did bring plates full of hot foods without complaint.  His mood even seemed to mellow a bit, in the presence of the warm supper.

Arthur shoved yet another pointless book aside that had absolutely no helpful information in it whatsoever.  “How are repairs to the manor coming along?” he asked.

“Slowly.”

“Slowly,” Arthur repeated.  “Hm.  Very informative.  Yes, I’m glad I asked.  It’s like listening to one of Leon’s reports, how detailed that was.”

He heard Merlin heave an overly-loud and very put-upon sigh. “The new pane for the glass wall is being delivered in a few days.  The doors are already replaced.  The South Tower exterior wall should be done within the next two weeks.  The roof within the two weeks after that.  Within the month or so everything should be back the way it was.  More or less.”

“I’m very glad to hear it.”

There followed a long drawn out silence, in which Arthur heard Merlin playing with the pages of his book. 

“I know I’m being an ass,” Merlin muttered.

“Really?” Arthur asked.  “I hadn’t noticed.”

Merlin snorted next to him.  Arthur shoved Merlin’s elbow with his own.  Merlin shoved him back. 

The first time that day they’d touched without a sword and shield between them, Arthur thought.  It was astonishing how much he’d missed it.

Arthur grabbed another book, and read through page after page that described magical creatures of all sorts.  Midway through the book, he reached a page that had been turned down, as if saved for later reading. 

Upon the page he saw a sketch of the tower upon the Isle of Avalon.  Beside it was a small drawing of a creature with wings.  A Sidhe, he thought, and he leaned forward in his chair, studying it. 

Curiously enough, it held a staff much like the one Merlin had wielded upon the mountain at Camlaan. 

Arthur read through the page, but found his attention most drawn to two handwritten notes added at the bottom of the text.

One note had been written by Gaius.  It said: “Long-lived, patient, vicious, potential threat to Camelot”.

Another note had been added by Merlin.  It said: “Not to be trusted”.  And the word “not” had been underscored.  Twice.

“Something you want to tell me?” Arthur asked, shoving the book at Merlin.

Merlin peered at the book, then leaned back in his chair, no fight in him at all, just weariness and pain.  “The Sidhe tried to interfere in your life twice.  Once to take you as a sacrifice. Once to put a Sidhe Queen on the throne of Camelot within the Princess Elena.”

Arthur couldn’t speak for a long moment.  He could only stare in disbelief and utter fury.

“There was no choice!” Merlin insisted, before he could say anything. “The Sidhe are the guardians of the ancient magics of life and death. They control the Gates of Avalon.  It was either send you to them, or lose you forever.  And I was not going to lose you. It was the only choice I had, and I’d do it all over again, even with all those centuries alone.”

Arthur turned from the pain in Merlin’s face, staring down at the page in the book.

Long-lived.  Patient.  Vicious.  Not to be trusted. Capable of living over a thousand years.  And based upon what Merlin had said, also quite interested in either control, or power, or him.  Or all three.

“They don’t speak to you,” Arthur said, remembering that comment more than once.

“They probably don’t like me very much. I stopped them both times they tried to interfere with your life.  I killed a few of them in the process.  That’s where I got my staff.”

Wonderful,” Arthur said grimly.  “That’s just...”  He leaned his elbows on the book, rubbing his face with both hands. “Have I mentioned lately how insanely infuriating beings of magic are?”

“You’ll get no argument here,” Merlin muttered.

After that, Arthur found it nearly impossible to focus.  His thoughts kept returning to the Sidhe.  To the notes Gaius and Merlin had left. 

He sent Merlin on his way to work on the manor earlier that night, knowing he was barely able to function as it was.  Arthur kept at it a little longer, until his eyes blurred on the page.  Frustrated with his lack of progress, he returned to his sleeping chambers.

There he discovered Merlin sitting on the edge of his side of the bed, staring vacantly out the window. 

“Finished work already?” Arthur asked.

“I fell asleep trying to set a stone and nearly fell off the tower,” Merlin grumbled. 

Arthur looked beyond Merlin, into the darkness beyond, fighting a furious rage.  He wanted to rip that damned island from the ground.  Wanted to rend the ruins with his bare hands.

Gods above, he thought.  If I feel like this after only two weeks, how had Merlin felt after fifteen hundred years?

“Come on,” Arthur said.  “I’ll help.”

Merlin turned to him, shocked.  “You?”

“I’ve always wanted to learn how to be a stone mason.”

“You have not.”

“Of course I have.  Just because you weren’t listening when I told you about it, doesn’t mean I didn’t say it.  Now come on.  There’s work to be done.”

Together they worked on rebuilding the walls until just before the sun rose.  Every time Merlin nodded off, Arthur nudged him back awake, asking him whatever he could think of to keep him going.   They let up only when the earliest of the work crews showed up, clearly surprised by the two of them dressed in their clothing of the old style, covered in dust and dirt and pieces of mortar.

Somehow they managed to get back downstairs, passing through the café as they headed to the North Tower.  They ran into Eleanor on the way, as she let herself in to open the shops.

“Good heavens!” she said.  “You haven’t been working all night, have you?”

Arthur shoved open the door to Merlin’s residence.  “Breakfast and coffee in a few hours would be wonderful,” he said, as if that was the question she had asked. 

“Merlin, I need to talk to you about some of the structural issues being worked on today,” Eleanor called after him.

Merlin turned on his heel and went back into the café.  “What structural issues?”

“They’re telling me that the main support beams for the roof are going to be a problem, because of the material used to-“

“No, no, no, that’s absurd,” Merlin told her.  “Just let me wash and dress and I’ll grab a coffee and be right there to tell them what utter rubbish that is.”

“You haven’t slept all night,” Arthur said.

“I will when I’m done,” Merlin said, managing somehow to make it a promise and a request.

“As soon as you’re done.  Make sure of it,” he told Eleanor.

“I will, sire,” she said, smiling at him.

“I swear they actually know,” Merlin muttered, as he went to change.

Arthur barely made it upstairs.  After closing the drapes to keep out the worst of the daylight, he collapsed upon the bed, and fell instantly asleep.

He woke to bright sunlight shining through the cracks in the room’s curtains.  Breakfast was upon his table.  His clothes upon his chair.  But no sign of Merlin.

After cleaning half of the South Tower off of his body, and dressing in his still very uncomfortable boots and tunic and breeches, Arthur did once again what it seemed like he had been doing all his life.  Which was go in search of his wayward servant. 

To his surprise, Merlin was seated under a tree on the lawn, where his students had already gathered.  Because apparently he’d slept late enough to almost miss training.

“I was just about to come and get you,” Merlin said, as he climbed to his feet.

“What happened to you getting some sleep?”

Merlin picked up the padded jacket to dress him in it. “I had six cups of coffee this morning.  Couldn’t get back to sleep after that.  I’ll nap while you’re training.  Unless you need me to practice with the mace today?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Arthur said gently, with an apologetic smile.

Merlin smiled back at him, pale and wan and with dark circles under his eyes, but otherwise seeming more himself.

Within a few minutes, Merlin was tightening the straps of his hauberk. Heath approached where they stood, dressed in chainmail and armor, looking far more like a Knight of Camelot than any man of the modern era should be able to do. “Good afternoon, sire,” Heath said to Arthur, with a bow at the neck.

“It really is like they know,” Merlin said in a low voice. 

“Good afternoon, Heath,” Arthur said, ignoring the comment behind him. 

“I wanted to see if you and Merlin wanted to join Dan and I at the Knob tonight.  Just an informal thing with some mates.”

“The knob?” Arthur asked.

“It’s a pub,” Merlin muttered.

“Strange name, isn’t it?”

“Not for Avalon,” Heath told him.  “Actually the full name is The Wizard’s Knob.  Right up your street, eh, Merlin?”

Arthur laughed so hard that Merlin yanked on his armor in retaliation. 

“I wonder what wizard they’re talking about,” Arthur said over his shoulder.

“Gandalf,” came a grumble behind him.

“Never heard of him,” Arthur said.

“So Dan and I will pick you both up?  Around eight?”

“I don’t think-“ Merlin began.

“Yes,” Arthur told him.  “Thank you, Heath.  We’ll be ready.” 

After Heath had walked away, he heard Merlin sigh. 

“We both deserve a night off, Merlin.”

“For once,” Merlin said, “you’ll get no argument from me.”

But by the time they were supposed to leave that night, Arthur was having second thoughts.  Merlin had only been able to doze lightly during training, and somehow that little sleep had soured his mood the rest of the day.

Arthur had practically had to force him to go and dress for the outing, and had needed to check on him several times to make sure he was still making efforts to leave.

“I’m heading downstairs!” Arthur yelled down the corridor, when it had gone nearly eight and Merlin hadn’t emerged.

No response from Merlin’s chambers.

“If you don’t get downstairs in two minutes I’m coming back and carrying you outside!”

“All right!  All right!  For god’s sakes! I’ll be right there!”

With a satisfied smile, Arthur headed downstairs. 

The evening air outside was cool but dry as he walked out onto the front lawn of the manor.   A beep of a horn drew his attention, to where Heath had stopped his car on the road by the front gate.

“Isn’t he coming?” called Heath, through the open window of the car.

Merlin!” Arthur yelled back through the door, using the voice that could be heard from one end of Camelot to the other.

“You don’t have to shout!” Merlin yelled back at him, as he stepped into the doorway.

Arthur watched Merlin pull the door shut behind him and lock it. He was wearing that ridiculously tight pair of black jeans of his, and a deep blue shirt that stretched across the muscles of his back and chest and down his long arms.

When Arthur saw Merlin’s hair, he sighed loudly, for effect.

“Don’t even start about my hair,” Merlin said.  “There’s nothing wrong with it like this.”

“So then you want to look like you’ve been in a windstorm in the Perilous Lands.”

Merlin shoved his hair to the side and off his forehead.  “Just because you don’t want to put any product in your hair-“

“I’d rather not look like a family of wyvern nested in it, no-“

“Oi!” Heath called from the car.  “I’m holding up traffic!”

Merlin gestured for Arthur to precede him with an entirely mocking expression on his face.  Arthur did so anyway, with great pleasure, passing through the gate, then pulling open the car door for Merlin to climb in first.

Merlin eyed him with great suspicion, then ducked to get in the car. 

Arthur grabbed Merlin around the neck and bent him forward, scrubbing his hand over Merlin’s hair.

“Ow! Let go!”

“It’s for your own good!”

“Stop it!  You arse!”

Arthur released him, feeling immensely pleased with himself at the matted down mess on Merlin’s head.  “Much better,” Arthur declared, and he climbed into the car.

Merlin climbed in and sat down half on top of Arthur, elbowing him hard. Arthur elbowed him in return, until they were shoving at each other in the back seat so roughly that the car shook.

“Geez, get a room!” Heath said over his shoulder, staring in astonishment at where Merlin had jumped half on top of Arthur to shove his elbow in Arthur’s face.  “You two keep that up and I’m going to make you pay to get my wheels realigned!”

Arthur saw Merlin go red in the face, even in the dim lighting of the car.  He climbed off quickly, sitting as far as possible from Arthur on the seat.

“He started it,” Merlin grumbled.

“Sounds like my brother and I,” Danyl said.

“Doesn’t look brotherly to me,” Heath said, as he pulled them down the road to Avalon.

“Nothing looks brotherly to you.”

“That’s true.”

Arthur glanced over at Merlin, who sat leaning against the opposite car door, arms crossed, staring furiously out the window.  Pouting.  “Oh stop it,” Arthur said.  “Don’t be such a child.”

You’re the child,” Merlin said, his tone just short of whining.

You are,” Arthur said, stifling a laugh, and nudged Merlin’s knee with his own.

Merlin pulled his leg away and crowded against the door.

Arthur sighed, loudly.

“I take it back,” Danyl said from the front seat, so softly that Arthur was sure he didn’t mean for anyone but Heath to hear.

“I know, right?” Heath said, just as softly.

The pub, it turned out, was very close to the statue Merlin had shown him when they’d ridden their horses here.  They walked past it after they parked, and even in the near dark, Arthur found it just as strange and unsettling as he had before.

Merlin seemed not to notice its presence.  He’d brought his mobile with him, and was walking with his eyes glued to its screen, poking it occasionally.

Looking at the world news again, Arthur thought.  “Stop that,” he said, and reached for Merlin’s mobile. “You’re meant to be relaxing.”

“Leave it,” Merlin told him, and shoved his mobile into his front pocket. 

“It will happen when it happens, Merlin.”

“Forgive me for wanting to be prepared.”

Arthur stopped walking.  “What did you just say to me?”

Merlin stopped beside him. “I only meant-“

“Do you think even for a single second that I’ve forgotten why I’m here?”

“You can’t tell me that you’re not going as crazy as I am waiting for whatever it is that-“

“Oi!” Heath said sharply, and for the first time Arthur heard something close to aggravation in his voice.  “If you two want to stand out here and argue like an old married couple, then go right ahead.  Dan and I going inside. To have fun.  Which is why we’re here.  If you remember.  Come on, Dan.”

Arthur watched Danyl cast a worried glance their way, before falling into step beside Heath.  Together the two young men walked towards the festive lights and lilting music emanating from the pub.

“Now I do feel like an idiot,” Merlin said.

“You’re not the only one,” Arthur told him.

And because he really did feel like an idiot, and for so, so, many reasons, Arthur stepped to Merlin, and lifted his hands to his head.   Merlin flinched, so Arthur paused, waiting for him to relax, before reaching out to move his fingers through the thick black strands, guiding them back the way Merlin had styled them before.

“It doesn’t actually look like wyvern nested in it,” Arthur said.

Merlin had gone still, his eyelids drooping. “No?”

“No.  It just makes you look different.  And I’m still adjusting to different.  Especially when it comes to you.”   He saw Merlin sway as he dragged careful fingers across his forehead, moving a few wayward strands of hair to the side.

Tired, Arthur thought.  Merlin was so very tired.  They both were.  He wondered how long either of them could keep this up. 

Arthur started to step back, but Merlin caught his wrists. 

“Here,” Merlin said, and he bowed his head, placing Arthur’s hands back on top of his hair, dragging them forward. 

“What are you doing?”

“It’s- You’re right. It looks better that way.  Go ahead.”

Arthur soothed the strands forward, taking care to be gentle, watching Merlin’s eyes fall closed.  When he was done, Merlin swayed forward, and Arthur had to catch him by his shoulders.  “I thought only horses fell asleep standing up.”

“Horses and sorcerers,” Merlin said, slowly opening his eyes, smiling in the darkness.

Behind him, Arthur heard voices raised in laughter.  “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go see if we can be less like a pair of idiots and actually enjoy ourselves tonight.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Merlin leaned back against the bar, marveling at how little things had changed in fifteen hundred years.

He’s holding court, Merlin thought, as he watched Arthur standing in the middle of a group of their friends, telling a story by the looks of it, to smiles all around.

The pub had apparently not done much changing either, since last he was here. Its mismatching tables and chairs were only half filled with locals who sat around with their pints at tables. No tellies or video screens had invaded yet.  Just comfortable lighting and background music and people relaxing with a drink.

The bartender presented him with a tray of drinks, and Merlin shoved some bills across the bar.  Arthur had been trying to get him to have drink all night, but he was barely staying awake on the ridiculous amounts of caffeine he’d downed today.  Alcohol would likely put him on the floor.  If he were lucky.

Merlin navigated across the pub with the tray of drinks, eyes focused on Arthur, who had of course managed somehow to stand in a spotlight.  It made his blond hair glow faintly, his face flushed with the heat of the place, or perhaps that was just a reflection of the red shirt he wore with his jeans.

Elbowing his way gently through the group of their friends, Merlin placed the tray of drinks onto the small table everyone had gathered around.  They all quite happily took a glass, patting him on the back and toasting him as they did. 

Before Merlin could grab Arthur’s drink to give it to him, he saw the dark haired woman from training, Megan, reach out and take it.  She handed it to Arthur leaning far too closely into his personal space than was necessary.

Danyl tried to grab the remaining drink, but missed completely, staggering forward against the table, giggling. 

“Aren’t you keeping an eye on him?” Merlin asked Heath. 

“Someone keeps buying him shots,” Heath said sternly to Danyl’s older brother, who looked away whistling to himself. 

“Tequila,” Danyl said, nodding happily at Merlin.

Heath shook his head and put his arm around Danyl’s shoulder, pulling him close.  “Slow down, love. You’re going to hate yourself tomorrow if you get yourself into a right state tonight.”

Merlin watched Danyl smile drunkenly up at Heath, then plant a sloppy kiss on Heath’s cheek. 

So adorable,” Anne said to Merlin, at his side.

Merlin watched Heath’s face twitch, and had to stifle a laugh.  “Young love,” he said to her, and raised his glass in toast.

Danyl’s brother and a few of his friends all raised their glasses to that.  Next to Arthur, Megan put her hand on Arthur’s shoulder, and leaned in close to say something right into his ear.  She glanced at Merlin twice as she said it.

Merlin watched Arthur laugh at whatever it was, and then say something back that he couldn’t hear.  He tightened his grip on his glass, thinking of twenty things he could do right now that would absolutely positively be a blatant misuse of his magic.

“Any more drinks left?” Anne asked him.

“I’ll get more,” he grumbled, and turned from the table, taking the empty tray with him.

“I’ll help!” she said, and followed him through the crowd.

She chatted with him as they walked, and kept chatting with him as he stood at the bar, staring furiously down at the counter, his mind filled with Arthur and that woman

“Isn’t that just wild?” Anne said.

He realized Anne was looking at him expectantly.  “What?  Oh.  Yes.  Really wild!” he said enthusiastically, lifting his voice over the music.  After calling over the bartender, he ordered a few more pints of what they had on tap.

Anne pressed next to his side and leaned her elbows upon the counter, warm and soft and smiling over at him.

Merlin leaned closer so she could hear him without his having to shout.  “Is there something you want?”

She smiled shyly and leaned even closer. “Nothing that’s on the menu,” she said.  And she winked at him.

And all at once, a dozen previously unnoticed signals – no, honestly, it was several dozen, oh dear god - all snapped into place. 

“Oh.”  Merlin stood up straight.  “Oh.  I.”  He tried to smile, but failed noticeably, judging by her sudden discomfort. 

“I was- just joking,” she said quickly, her pale face flushing red, and she tilted her face away, so that her hair fell forward even more.

Merlin closed his eyes.  Oh my god.  I am such an arse.  Seriously.  Just a world class, oblivious, ridiculous arse

“I should, um, be getting back-“

“No.  Wait.  Please?”  He caught her wrist as she stepped away, a loose and gentle touch she could easily pull away from.  She stopped, but she didn’t look at him.  So he stepped in front of her, picking up her other hand, lowering his head close so that she could hear him.  “I’m so sorry, Anne.  I am.  I just-  I’m not-“

“I get it,” she said to the floor.

“No, you don’t, really.”  He squeezed her fingers gently.  Waited until she looked up at him.  “There’s someone else,” he forced out, opting for the truth for once in his miserable life, because she had been so kind to him, and she didn’t deserve to be hurt, just because he hadn’t been paying attention.

“You’re seeing someone?”

“No.  We’re not.  I mean.  It’s a little hard to explain,” he said, smiling sadly.

She glanced up at him, then across the pub, still frowning, but less miserable than before.  “I guess that makes it a little better.  If it’s true.”

“You have no idea how much I wish it wasn’t true.”  He caught sight of the tray of drinks being placed upon the bar by the bartender.  He grabbed one of the drinks and gave it to her.  “Here.  Take this.  Go have fun.  I’ll just stand here and be a giant arse.  Which is what I am.  A ridiculous, enormous, insensitive arse.”

“You’re not an arse,” she told him, fighting a smile. “Well.  Not that much.”

“Oh, no, really, I am.  I am an arse and I am an idiot besides, because I am totally missing out on something amazing with you, I have no doubt about that, because you are beautiful and smart and kind and-“

“Good with a sword,” she said, smiling at him.

“A very attractive quality in a woman, I’ve said so for centuries,” he affirmed. 

“You are a very strange man, Merlin Hunithson,” Anne said, smiling sadly  at him now.

“You have no idea how right you are,” Merlin said.

And then he watched her walk away, this woman who was beautiful and kind and not bad with a sword, and honestly he was the biggest idiot to ever have walked the earth to have turned her down for someone he would never, ever, have. 

Someone he was going to have to watch fall in love again.  And get married again.  To someone like Megan.  With her whispering and looking at him and laughing

Merlin turned from the pub and waved down the bartender.  When the man came over, Merlin pulled out his wallet and threw a truly obscene amount of money upon the bar.  “Could you have someone take this tray of drinks to that group over there?  And then could you get me some of whatever is in that clear bottle on that shelf?”  He threw another few bills upon the pile.  “And be quick about it, will you?”

“Yes sir,” the man said brightly, as he hastily gathered up the ridiculous amount of cash.

Merlin glanced back into the pub.  Arthur was staring at him across the room, clearly frowning.  Merlin waved at him, pushing a smile onto his face.  By the table, Anne saw the gesture, and waved back at him.

“Here you go, sir," the bartender said, and set down a tiny shot glass before him.

Merlin cocked an eyebrow at him.  "What's this then?" 

"A shot of our best vodka," the man said proudly.

"Right, no, sorry," he said, pushing it away.  “I should have been clearer.  I don't want this tiny little thing.  I want that one, on the shelf, over there."

"You mean the pint?”

“Yeah, that one."

The bartender looked at him as though he'd lost his mind, but did as requested, filling a pint glass and shoving it carefully across the bar, to prevent it from spilling over the top.

"You're done after that one," the bartender said, sounding as if he regretted his decision to serve him already.

“Don't worry," Merlin assured him.  "It would take more than this to kill me.”  

After lifting the drink in silent toast, he took four enormous gulps of it.  Then he wheezed and he coughed and he spilled his drink on himself as he pounded his fist on the counter to counter the burn searing its way down his throat. 

“Bloody hell!” the bartender said.  “Take it easy!”

Merlin nodded, his eyes watering as he felt his chest heating him from the inside.  Oh this was such a bad idea, he thought.  This was a ridiculously bad idea. 

He glanced at Arthur across the pub.  Megan was practically laying on him, standing up.

Merlin turned his back on the scene, and drank some more, pausing only to cough and wheeze, reminded unpleasantly of the poison Nimueh had made from the Mortaeus Flower to try and kill him.

“A man drinks like that, he is going to die,” came Heath’s voice by his side.

“Not actually possible,” Merlin rasped out, though he took a smaller sip of the clear liquid in his glass.  Vodka? he wondered.  Or possibly gin. Not that he cared.

Heath put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder as he leaned in to ask the bartender for some crisps and some water.  When he straightened, he gave Merlin a sad shake of his head.  “You keep drinking like that, Merlin, and you’re going to have a night full of bad decisions.”

Merlin lifted the glass as if in toast.  “Here’s to bad decisions. It’s one of my natural gifts, bad decisions.  I’m famous for them.  Literally famous, I mean.”

Heath watched him take another gulp. “That’s like ten shots of vodka in there. You could seriously-”

“Where’s your other half got to?” Merlin asked, to distract him.

“He’s with your other half,” Heath said, winking at him.

“Don’t.  Just- Don’t say that.  It’s not funny.”

Heath gave him a pitying look as he grabbed the basket of crisps and the water.  “Come on back to the table.  You can tell that story about the cow and teaching Arthur to drive.”

Merlin glanced over his shoulder, and saw that Megan had managed somehow to move even closer to Arthur, her body pressed to his side.

Narrowing his eyes at her, Merlin lifted his glass and took several more long gulps, before choking himself silly.

Hell,” Heath said next to him.

“I’ll be over later,” he managed, between coughs. “Just need to... let things…  sink in.”

“Just don’t throw up in my car, all right?” Heath said with a sad smile, before returning to their group of friends.

Merlin watched him go, blinking slowly, starting to feel all warm inside. He caught the eye of the bartender, and called him over. “How about a drink for all my friends at the bar here, eh?” he said, waving up and down the bar, which got him a round of toasts in the air and pats on the shoulder.

He wound up staying long enough to order everyone a second round too, making quite a few new friends in the process.  Their faces became increasingly blurry as they left one by one, each patting him on the back or swearing they’d stop by the café as they went.

The bartender was just collecting everyone’s empty shot glasses when Danyl fell against Merlin’s side, jostling the tall bald man who had just stepped up to the bar nearby. 

“Cor, you’re big, look at you,” Danyl said to the man in amazement, and received an irritated snort in response, before he turned his back, shoving Danyl into Merlin.

“Oi,” Merlin said, catching Danyl before he fell, nearly falling over himself.

Danyl grinned up at him, all rosy nose and cheeks, swaying even with Merlin’s hands on his shoulders. “Why’r you over here, Merlin?”  He tried to lean on the bar, only to have his elbow slip off, nearly sending him to the ground.

“You’re drunk,” Merlin said, steadying Danyl against the bar, staggering himself as he did it.  He squinted at Danyl’s face, because it was swimming, or maybe the bar was swimming.  Either way, things had definitely gotten a little unpredictable in the blurriness department.

“You’re one to talk,” Danyl said overly loudly.  “Heath says you had ten shots of vodka!”

“I had one glasshh.”  Merlin blinked.  Pressed a palm to his face.  Patted his cheek.   Nope, he thought.  Can’t really feel that. He patted his face again.  Nope, not at all.

“Heath is just so awesome, isn’t he?” Danyl was saying, turning to look at the court of Camelot across the pub.  “I am so happy Emrys set us up.  I bet.  That if he were here?  He’d tell you and Arthur to get your heads out of your arses.”

Merlin snorted out a laugh, spitting out some of his drink, because he’d never before heard Danyl say anything like that.  “The mouth on you,” he scolded.

“No, the mouth on you,” Danyl said, leaning on Merlin’s shoulder.  “You should go and put it on him.  Over there.   Just go and- and- snog him.  Right now.  In front of everybody.”

Merlin swatted at the shoves Danyl was giving him.  “Stop hitting me.  Why does everyone hit me?  Do I have a sign I can’t see?” 

“Go on, Merlin,” Danyl was giggling.  “Go snog him.”

“I bet Megan would find that hysterical,” Merlin said bitterly.

“Oh, Megan, pfff,” Danyl said, spitting a bit in his face. “She’s been chasing that dog all week but he won’t bite.”

Merlin burst out laughing. “What?”

“Or. Whatsit? Something about a dog.”  He shook his head, and staggered backward into the tall bald man at the bar.  “I’m saying you should just go snog him.  Senseless.  Looks like he could use a good snogging, Arthur does.”

Merlin caught Danyl’s arm to stand up straight, but not before the bald man next to him glared at them both and said: “Bloody pervert shirtlifters”.

Danyl’s expression transformed at once.  First shock.  Then humiliation. 

Which was absolutely unacceptable. 

“That’s a laugh,” Merlin said loudly, “coming from a bloke who has to take off his pants to count to twenty one.”

“Merlin!” Danyl hissed, and pulled at his shirt.

“Or maybe twenty and a half, by the looks of you,” Merlin said, as he staggered out from the bar.  “I wager it’s been a while since you’ve even seen your tiny little excuse for a prick, a fat gut like you’ve got.”

The man  turned around and stared him down.  “What’s that?”

“Ugh, you have the look of a Saxon about you,” Merlin said, screwing up his face in distaste.  “The stench of one too.  Reminds me of a dead pig rotting in a bog full of cow dung in the hot afternoon sun.”

The man stepped into Merlin’s space, and of course it was now that he noticed that the Saxon-like pig in question was actually taller than he was, and thicker, and oh that’s right, he wasn’t supposed to use his magic without his king’s permission. 

But this pile of shite had called Danyl a shirtlifter, and had made him ashamed of who he was.  And there was going to be none of that while he was still breathing, which was going to be an awfully long damn time yet, no matter how badly this moron beat him. 

“You should shut your mouth,” the man growled, “before I shut it for you.”

Merlin looked around at everyone in amusement, before turning back to the man.  “You think you can scare me?  That’s a laugh.  What the hell are you going to do?  Throw me off a cliff?  Poison me?  Shoot me with an arrow? I’ve had all those things done to me and worse, and I’m still here.” Merlin stepped forward, drunk and fearless and furious. “So how about you take your ugly festering pig face and piss off, before I-“

And then he was hitting the floor hard, head knocking back to the tile, the ceiling spinning above him, a commotion all around. 

The man loomed over him, thick hands grabbing his shirt, hauling him to his feet. 

Merlin glared into furious narrowed eyes-

And then staggered backward, as a blur of red shoved itself in front of him.

Merlin felt Danyl catch him, steadying him, as Arthur grabbed the man’s wrist mid-punch, savagely twisted his arm behind his back, then slammed him face-first to the bar.

Arthur turned to Merlin, exasperated, pressing an elbow casually into the back of the man’s neck.  “I leave you alone for five minutes, Merlin-“

“Bottle,” Merlin said, pointed to where the bald man was reaching for a beer. 

Arthur hauled the man upright, kicked out his leg from under him, cracked his forehead on the edge of the bar, then tossed him to the floor, all in one motion.

“The largest brute in the place, too,” Arthur went on, brushing some crisps from his sleeve.  “Do you have absolutely no sense of self preservation whatsoever?”

“Obviously not,” Merlin said, and grinned proudly.

“Holy shit that was awesome,” Danyl said at Merlin’s side, staring wide-eyed at Arthur.

“Sorry for the trouble,” Arthur said to the startled bartender, as the bald man moaned upon the floor. “He’ll be fine. I made certain not to break anything. I know that’s frowned upon in this day and age.”  Arthur crouched down beside the man, and said in a low voice only he and Merlin could hear.  “However, I will change my mind about that if you lay a hand upon that man again.  Is that clear?”

Upon the ground the man whimpered.

“Just so we understand one another,” Arthur said, and stood.

Merlin dug out what was remaining in his wallet and tossed it onto the bar.  “For the damn- damo- damages,” he slurred out to the bartender.

“Woah,” Danyl said, next to him.

“Not enough?” Merlin asked, swaying into his space.

“I’ve never seen bills that big,” Danyl said, staring.

“I’ve got lots more.  They wanted to make me a Lord because of it, can you imagine?” Merlin said, and pulled a face that had Danyl bursting into laughter. 

“The pair of you, honestly,” Arthur said severely.

Merlin felt Arthur grab his arm and pull him through the pub, past staring patrons. “This is King Arthur of Camelot!” he told the people he passed, giggling to himself.   

When they reached their group of their friends, Merlin bent forward onto the table in the midst, knocking glasses over.   He pressed the side of his face to its surface, his cheek and hair nicely cooling from the puddle of whatever he’d spilled.

Someone gently rubbed his back as all around him voices discussed what had just happened, including a female voice saying how impressive Arthur had been, because of course he had been, coming to his rescue as if Merlin were a damsel in distress.

“’M notta princess,” Merlin mumbled, then sniffed at something pooling on the table, and then sipped at it, because it had smelled tasty.

“Holy hell, he is obliterated,” Heath said.

Behind him Merlin heard Arthur’s voice, discussing how to get him home.  “No no no.” He stood up, fell backwards, and was caught by someone who straightened him again.  “Wow,” he said, holding onto the table, nearly dragging that over, because everything was spinning all around.  “Must be a spell,” he said, blinking at the rotating world.  He turned his head.  Managed to focus on Arthur.  “There you are!  Long live the king!” he shouted. “Long live the king-!”

“And we’re done for the night,” Arthur pronounced, grabbing Merlin’s arm and pulling it over his own shoulders, wrapping his other arm around Merlin’s back. “Come on, Merlin. Let’s get you home.”

Merlin fell against Arthur’s side, grinning in Megan’s direction.  “Yes, you’d better get me home and into bed,” he said, looking directly at her, winking.

 “Easy, Merlin,” Heath said.

“There’s hangover remedy in the Apof- Aposh-” Danyl said, and then gave up, giggling and snorting to himself.

“Just look at you,” came Heath’s fond voice, and Merlin watched the taller man gather Danyl up into his arms.  Danyl smiled and closed his eyes and leaned against Heath gratefully, perfectly content.

“So lucky,” Merlin said, blinking slowly at the both of them.

“Come on, Merlin, move your feet,” Arthur snapped at him.

“Don’t you want to stay?” Merlin said, leaning close to Arthur to speak loudly right into his ear, “so you can keep talking to Megan about your sword?  Get it?  Your sword-?”

“I’ll get the car-“ Heath said.

“No, that’s all right.  We’re going to walk. Aren’t we Merlin,” Arthur said to him, in his sweetest voice, which usually meant something very bad. 

“We are?” Merlin asked, swinging his head around to look at Arthur.  “Oh, that’s not a good smile,” he said.  “I usually get things thrown at me with that smile.  Are you going to throw things at me?”

“Let’s have it be a surprise,” Arthur said, through his teeth. 

“It’s almost an hour walk back to the house,” Heath said.

“The fresh air will do him good.  My apologies for him,” Arthur said to the crowd, and to Megan in particular.  “One whiff of a barmaid’s apron and he’s beyond all hope.”

“I’m standing right here,” Merlin said.  “I haven’t magicked myself invisible.  Not that I can’t do that.  I absolutely can.  There was that one time in the fourteen hundreds-”

“Shut. Up.” Arthur commanded.

“Yes, sire,” Merlin said happily.

“Oh he is going to hate his life tomorrow morning,” Heath said.

“He is going to hate his life sooner than that,” Arthur said, still in that frighteningly sweet voice that held daggers beneath it.

And then there were goodbyes exchanged that Merlin couldn’t follow, because everything was fuzzy and far away, and so he closed his eyes, and just moved where Arthur moved him, and when he opened his eyes again, they were outside in the cool night air walking through dark streets that swam in and out of his vision. 

For quite a while, Arthur ranted at him about proper behavior and public drunkenness and the difference between relaxing and making yourself incapacitated. 

Merlin mostly just stared at him as he staggered along, because Arthur was stupidly handsome when he was riled up, even in the night, lit occasionally by passing street lights.  They were walking on a dirt path now, he realized, along the roadside. 

“Oh,” Merlin said, and stopped.

Arthur stopped next to him.  “What?”

Merlin looked at him, and then threw himself into the weeds and threw up everything he’d had to drink, which had been a lot, and then everything he’d eaten, which hadn’t been much.

“For god’s sake,” Arthur said, with a loud sigh.

Merlin got to his knees, staring into the trees.  “That wasn’t too bad,” he said. 

And then he pitched forward, and did it again.

At some point, when he was swaying on his hands and knees, staring at the ground, trying to remember how he’d gotten there, he felt Arthur heave him to his feet, his arm strong around his chest.

“I think I drank too much,” Merlin said.

“Oh do you think so?  Honestly, Merlin.  How you don’t know better than this after fifteen centuries I have no idea.”

“I do know better. I just didn’t care.”

“Well tomorrow as soon as you’re functional again, you’re going to apologize to all of those people for making us leave so early.”

“Sorry to take you away from your girlfriend,” Merlin said bitterly.

“My girlfriend?”

Megan,”

“Don’t be ridiculous.  She’s a student.  Unlike you and your friend Anne.”

“I hurt her feelings,” Merlin said sadly.

“How did you hurt her feelings?”

“She said she liked me. I told her I wasn’t interested.”

“Oh.”

They staggered along in silence, the world still spinning, making Merlin occasionally trip on the dirt path on a rock or stick.

“What did you say to that barbarian to get yourself thrown to the ground anyway?” Arthur asked.

“Something about a pig.  I think.  And that he couldn’t find his prick with both hands?”

Arthur barked out a laugh.  “That would do it.”

“He called Danyl and I shirtlifters. Which means-“

“I understand the word,” Arthur said tightly.  Merlin stared at his profile in the dim lighting between streetlights.  “Wish I’d known that,” Arthur ground out.  “I’d have put him in hospital.”

“You’d have put him in the morgue,” Merlin said proudly.  And then frowned at himself.  “No, no, that’s bad, you can’t do that anymore, killing people.”

“A shame. He had the look of a-“

“Saxon!” Merlin slapped Arthur’s chest.  “That’s what I said.  The look of a Saxon and the smell of a rotting pig carcass.”

“Eloquent as always.”

“It did the trick.”

“It got you knocked on your arse.”

“I forgot that I couldn’t use my magic until after I’d opened my mouth.”  He thought a long moment.  “Not that it would have stopped me.  Bloody intolerant bastard.”

“For god’s sake, Merlin, you can use your magic to defend yourself if some barbarian is trying to bludgeon you to death.”

“Not without my king’s permission,” Merlin said firmly.

A sigh at his side.

“Are we home yet?” Merlin asked.

“We still have a way to go.”

Merlin frowned at the dark path.  “I wish I had some more vodka.” 

“So do I,” Arthur said in a low voice. 

“I know!  We can pass the time with a song!”

“Absolutely not-”

“Stop me if you know this one.  ‘We’re knights of the round table, we dance whenever we’re able-‘”

“What-?”

“’We do routines and chorus scenes with footwork impeccable-‘”

“Merlin-“

“’We dine well here in Camelot, we eat ham and jam and spam a lot-‘”

“Merlin!”

Merlin blinked at Arthur.  “What?”

“What in the hell is that?”

“On second thought, let’s not sing that.  ‘Tis a silly song.”  And then he burst out laughing, half falling as they crossed the roadway to the park. “My park looks so lovely, doesn’t it?  So peaceful.”

“Yes, Merlin, it’s very lovely and peaceful, now pick up your feet.”

Merlin stumbled up over the kerb.  “Isn’t this better than being at the pub?  With that woman?”

“Yes, Merlin, leaving a party early because you got yourself too drunk to function is much better than spending a relaxing evening at a tavern.”

“She would make you do your own chores,” Merlin informed him.  “And your own laundry. And make your own bed.  And cook your own food.  Not like me.”

“Not like you, of course not. Now will you at least try to walk on your own?”

“I can do anything they can.  Women, I mean.”  He frowned at himself. “Well. Except for the babies.”   That wasn’t the point, though, he thought. What was the point again?  Oh yes.  “I’m very open minded, I am,” Merlin said, and tried to raise his eyebrow in a suggestive fashion.  “To all sorts of things.  Extremely open minded, in fact.”

Arthur tensed next to him, though that could have just been because he was opening the gate from the park to the manor estate.  “Is that something those companions of yours taught you?” Arthur asked.

“It might be,” Merlin said, because Arthur had made it sound like a challenge.  “Who’s to say I didn’t know things to show them?”

He staggered as Arthur tripped next to him, then got his feet under him, swearing, as he pulled Merlin across the grass to the front door of the manor. 

Merlin felt Arthur lean him back the stone wall so he wouldn’t fall over.  He looked up, and saw the stars spinning overhead, along with the tops of the trees.  “Round and round and round,” he said.

“You’re not doing something on Mars again, are you?”

Merlin smiled faintly, and sang the words he repeated so often to himself.  “Not without the permission of my kiiiinnnng…”

“Where’s your keys?”

“Pockets,” Merlin said to the sky, and then smiled wickedly.

“Are you incapable of giving them to me?”

“Find them yourself,” Merlin said, because Arthur’s challenge deserved one of his own, and he wanted to see what Arthur would do.

Let him touch me, he thought.  Let him touch let him touch-

Merlin felt Arthur’s hand settle upon his hip, holding him still by the belt loop.  Arthur’s other slid into his back pocket, his fingers moving around, for a rather long amount of time.  Finding nothing, Arthur grabbed Merlin’s other hip, this time with fingers that hooked over his waistband, before shoving his other hand into his other back pocket, feeling around for keys, but finding nothing.

“Guess again,” Merlin said hoarsely, his eyes falling closed.

He heard Arthur clear his throat, and then felt fingers sliding into both of his front pockets.  He ground his teeth together, arousal swirling through him, his face heating, the material of his jeans stretching tight across his hips. He bit his bottom lip hard, feeling Arthur’s fingers probing low.

Just a little lower, he thought in a daze.  Please, just- just a little lower-

Arthur yanked the keys roughly from his pocket.  There was the sound of keys in a lock, and then Arthur’s voice by his ear, low and rough.  “Come on,” he said, and Merlin felt himself being grabbed the back of his shirt and hauled into the café, the door slamming behind them.

I want him so much, Merlin thought desperately, as Arthur dragged him through the tables. Even the manhandling was wildly arousing.  But then, everything about Arthur was arousing right now.  Everything about Arthur was always arousing.

After Arthur pulled him into his dimly lit residence, he put an arm around Merlin’s waist and started them both up the stairs. 

The flickering torchlight of the stairwell was a blessing, and so were his jeans, because he was stupidly hard from Arthur’s hands on him. 

Merlin intentionally tripped on a step, dropping down to one knee.  He felt Arthur slide a thick arm around his back.  Haul him back to his feet as if he weighed nothing.

He would be wild in bed, Merlin thought, staring at Arthur as they climbed the stairs. Just like he was in the melee.  Just like he was in battle.  He’d be all heat and passion and intensity and strength, all focused on him, using it to fuck him absolutely senseless-

“The state of you, honestly,” Arthur grumbled. “I have never seen you so utterly incapacitated with drink.”

Merlin forced his thoughts away from skin and sweat and writhing bodies, because if he got any harder he honestly wasn’t going to be able to walk.  Not without very blatantly adjusting himself in his jeans. 

“Not even Gwaine’s party?  With the sheep?” he asked, because that one had been the stuff of legends.  Not that he remembered much of it himself.

“Not even then, no.”

“How did the sheep get in there anyway?”

“Took some planning,” Arthur said, with a wry smile that took Merlin by surprise.

“That was you?”

Arthur grinned proudly at him.

Merlin burst out laughing.  “How did you do it?”

Arthur pulled him toward the washroom.  “I’ll tell you if you clean up.  You smell of sick and stale beer.  I’m not sleeping with you if you smell that way.”

Merlin had to literally bite his tongue, to keep his drunken mouth from replying.

He let Arthur prop him by the sink, so that he could brush his teeth and messily wash the alcohol from his face.  While he cleaned up, Arthur recounted how he’d managed to get a small flock of sheep into Geoffrey’s personal chambers.

“Arthur Pendragon,” Merlin said, through laughter, “I never knew you had it in you.”

“Yes, well, some of us know how to be subtle.” Arthur put his arm around Merlin’s waist and guided him down the corridor. “Come on, let’s get you into bed.”

Oh yes, please, Merlin thought.  Let’s get me into bed.  And then you can do anything you want to me.  Anything at all.  Please oh please let’s do that-

“What?” Arthur asked curiously.

Merlin realized he’d been staring.  Which was bad, but not as bad as saying what he’d been thinking.  He frowned down the corridor, realizing that it wasn’t slanting as badly as the world had before.  Losing all that alcohol in the weeds and taking that long walk must have sobered him up, at least a little. But what had Arthur been saying?  Something about sheep?  No. Something about subtle. 

“I can be subtle,” Merlin said.

 “Yes, I know.  Trees branches and lumpy rugs and clumsy bandits.  Very subtle.”

You like it better when I’m not subtle, though.”

“Is that so?” Arthur asked, as he pulled open his chamber doors.  The dimly lit room beyond was filled with cool night air, a gentle breeze stirring the candles above the hearth.

“Yes,” Merlin said. “You do.  You like the lightning from the clouds.  You like the candles lighting themselves.  You like the windows swinging shut. You like watching me when I do magic.  You like to see.”

The words were out before he could stop them.  Even in his dizzy drunken state he knew it was a mistake.   He wasn’t supposed to speak of these things.  They’d both agreed, without agreeing, to not speak of it. 

Arthur had gone still at Merlin’s side, his arm still warm around Merlin’s back. Arthur’s brows had pulled together and his lips had turned down at the corners in that way that meant he was either very unhappy or very confused or both.

“I like it,” Merlin said quickly, both to reassure him, and because it was true. “I like it when you watch me.  When I do magic.  You should watch me.  You should.”

Arthur’s eyes scanned his face, dipping down to his mouth, lifting back up to his eyes.  Still frowning. 

“It belongs to you, Arthur,” Merlin said softly.  “My magic.  It’s yours.  It always has been yours.  It always will be yours.  Let me show you some more.  There’s something I’ve always wanted to show you properly.  Can I?”  

Merlin could feel Arthur’s chest expanding against his side, his breaths loud in the quiet room. 

Finally, Arthur nodded.  A small motion.  Hesitant.

“Watch,” Merlin said, and he stretched out an arm to the unlit candelabras.  He twitched his fingers, and his magic set every candle alight.  As the dozens of flames flickered in the room, he said: “Flíaþ gewealdene dracan.

From every candle flame, sparks rose into the air, collected together, and then formed themselves into the shapes of a hundred tiny dragons.

The creatures all unfurled their small wings as if awaking, each moving in its own way, stretching their small bodies, craning their necks.  One after the other, they leaped upward, glittering legs clawing into the air, sparkling wings flapping.

Wonder filled Arthur’s face as he stared at the dragons soaring through the room, some of them happily frolicking, others playfully chasing one another.

Merlin stepped away, to take hold of Arthur’s arms, and lift them straight out at his sides.  “Cume her dracane,” he whispered.

A dozen of the small dragons soared down from the air, to alight upon Arthur’s shoulders and arms and hands. 

Arthur’s eyes grew wide as he watched the dragons very contentedly settle upon him.  One or two breathed forth little bursts of sparks, then puffed out their chests, as if proud for performing for their king.  Others lowered their heads, bowing.  Still others sat quietly, regarding their king as if awaiting his instructions.

Merlin,” Arthur breathed, and he laughed in delight, as he looked at the sparkling dragons upon him, to the others who filled the air. 

He’s so beautiful, Merlin thought, as he watched his king look in wonder at his magic. God how I love him.  It’s pathetic how much I love him.  

“Yours,” Merlin said in a broken voice, and only realized that tears had filled his eyes when he blinked them away.  “Always yours.  Always.”

Arthur returned his attention to Merlin.  His smile faltered.  Gradually it transformed into something else. Something that saw far too clearly what Merlin felt in his heart.

Around them in the room, the little dragons fell apart, and faded. 

Merlin covered his eyes with his hands, which was an awful idea, because the room spun at once, and he felt himself sway.

An arm caught him around his back. “Come on,” Arthur said.  “Into bed.”

“But- the windows- and the curtains-“

“I’ll take care of that,” Arthur said, and he walked him over to the bed, and tried to sit him down.

Merlin grabbed old of Arthur’s arms, fingers tight around the strong muscles, shaking his head. “That’s my job-”

“You need to rest-”

“Please?” he asked, and he leaned forward, resting his forehead against Arthur’s.  This was all right, he thought.  They did this, sometimes.  The two of them.  This was allowed. “Let me?”

Arthur sighed, but nodded, a small motion that dragged Arthur’s hair against his skin.

“Watch.” Merlin opened his eyes wide, so that Arthur could see the magic there. He liked to see the magic.  “Acwence þa ligen fordyttan éagdurue.”

The flash of magic reflected in Arthur’s eyes, as the candles snuffed out and the windows clicked shut and the curtains swung across their alcoves.

In the soft moonlight that filled the room, Merlin saw Arthur lick his lips.  

“Feel better now?” Arthur whispered.

Merlin nodded, leaning forward, his nose sliding against the side of Arthur’s.

A breath huffed from Arthur’s mouth, smelling of spiced liquor.

Arthur put a gentle hand upon the back of Merlin’s neck.  Hot skin against his skin.  Fingertips moving over the fine hairs.  Fingers sliding up into the strands above. 

“Sleep, now,” Arthur said, his voice rumbling from deep in his chest.

Arthur was standing so close, so very close, no space left between them at all, and Merlin couldn’t help himself, couldn’t stop himself -

He leaned forward, his head tilting, and pressed his lips to Arthur’s.

The wet slide of his lips against Arthur’s shattered him, and he whimpered, dizzy and stunned at the taste and the feel of Arthur’s lips against his own - finally, finally, after centuries,  finally

Merlin swayed forward, his chest pressing against Arthur’s chest, melting against him, melting into the kiss, realizing that Arthur wasn’t stopping him, but instead was parting his lips, Arthur’s fingers at the back of his neck twitching against his skin.

Merlin licked at Arthur’s lips, and Arthur gave a low sound, enough like a moan that Merlin chased after it, his tongue slipping into Arthur’s mouth like a thief in the night.

He felt Arthur go tense, but heard him give another low startled moan, so he pressed himself more firmly against Arthur’s body, dazed that his tongue was in Arthur’s mouth, and Arthur wasn’t pushing him away, but quite the opposite, he was sliding his tongue along Merlin’s, at first tentatively, then more boldly, their kiss quickly turning open mouthed and frantic with want.

Merlin felt himself trembling, wildly out of control, and he moaned into Arthur’s mouth, lost in the heat of Arthur’s body and the slide of his tongue and the smell of his skin and the wet sounds of their mouths and it was bliss, sheer bliss-

Until Arthur, quite abruptly, shoved him away.

Merlin stumbled backward.  Sat down hard on the bed.  Staring wide eyed up at Arthur.

Who was looking at him as if he had never seen him before.  Shocked.  Stunned. 

And, Merlin saw, horrified.

“Oh- oh no I-  Oh god-” Merlin dropped to his knees, unable to believe what he’d just done, to his friend, his king, his destiny.  He grabbed Arthur’s wrist with both of his hands and pressed his forehead to it.    “I’m sorry,” he breathed, his voice cracking. “I’m so sorry- Arthur- My lord-  Sire-” 

Yes, sire, he thought frantically, that’s what he is, you idiot, he is your king, and you are his servant, and what are you doing, what have you done, you’ve ruined everything

“Merlin-”

“I’m so sorry, please forgive me, please, sire-“

“That’s- It’s-  Merlin, stop.  Come on.  Get up.” 

Merlin felt Arthur’s hands take hold of his shoulders, lifting him to sit upon the bed. 

“Look at me.”

Merlin shook his head, his gaze fixed on the floor, fighting his panic, struggling not to make this somehow worse if such a thing were even possible.

Merlin.” Arthur placed his hand on the side of Merlin’s face, guiding it upward. 

Merlin refused to open his eyes.

A heavy sigh.  “It’s been a long night.  You’re drunk.  You’re not thinking clearly.”

Merlin let Arthur guide him down to lay on the bed in all of his clothes and his shoes.

No, he thought.  No, that wasn’t it.  That wasn’t what this was.  That wasn’t it at all. 

His heart screamed for him to say it.  But his thoughts were filled with the memory of Arthur’s horrified face. 

Merlin rolled miserably onto his stomach, his face pressing into the pillow. 

One more lie, he thought.  What’s one more lie.

“Just drunk,” Merlin said, and he tried not to choke on the words.

“Get some sleep,” Arthur said.  “You’ll feel better in the morning.”

Merlin’s last thought, before he passed out, was that he doubted very much that would be so.

All too soon, he discovered he was right.

His sticky eyes had barely opened to the light of dawn when his stomach assaulted him, sending him scrambling from the room and down the corridor, where he collapsed over the toilet in the washroom and spent the next hour throwing up.

He spent the next hour laying on the cold tile floor between bouts of nausea, floating in an out of an anguished half consciousness.  Only when daylight shone brightly beyond the narrow windows of the washroom did he make himself stay awake. 

After crawling to the sink, and forcing mouthfuls of water down his sore throat to his rebellious stomach, he collapsed again onto the cold tile floor, pressing his forehead into the tile. 

His headache was excruciating.  His nausea made him want to die. 

But neither felt as bad as his guilt.

What did I do, he thought miserably, for the thousandth time that morning. Good god, what did I do

He rolled onto his back, and right into a patch of sunlight.  He flung an arm over his eyes, cringing.  It was late morning by now, he thought.  Arthur would be awake soon. 

God. 

Arthur.

He pushed those thoughts away, brushing his teeth on his knees, and drinking as much water from the tap as he could bear.  A hand held over his eyes to shield the light, he staggered downstairs and into the café, which was open and full of people at this ungodly hour. 

Merlin cringed at the noise and the light which poured in through the glass wall from the rising sun, thankful for the missing panes still covered in wood, blocking some of the damned light.   

He stumbled over two chairs on his way to the Apothecary, and fell through its door, knocking into a display rack.  He only barely caught it before it spilled over. 

“Holy hell,” Heath said, from his seat behind the counter.  He closed his laptop, staring, as Merlin approached.  “Couldn’t even get out of last night’s clothes?”

Merlin leaned heavily upon the countertop, resting his forehead against its cool surface. “Hangover remedy,” he said, and he stretched out an arm on the counter, palm up.

“I’ll get it.  Don’t move, Dan,” Heath said, stepping over something on the floor.

Merlin peered over the edge of the counter.  Danyl lay flat on his back upon the floor, a folded cloth over his eyes.

“Hello, Merlin,” Danyl muttered, sounding as miserable as he felt.

“You should have stayed home,” Merlin told him.

“My fault I’m like this,” Danyl said sourly. “You should have stayed in bed.”

“Really not an option,” he said miserably.

“I don’t know which one of you is worse,” Heath said, as he pressed a small bottle into Merlin’s outstretched hand. 

“I am.” Merlin drank the bottle down, then dropped his forehead back to the counter.

“Are you okay?” Danyl asked.  “That guy knocked you down pretty hard last night.”

“I’ll live.” Merlin mumbled. “I always live.  Whether I deserve to or not.”

“That sounds like vodka talking,” Heath said sagely. “A bad decision in a glass, is what that is.”

“Tell me about it,” Merlin said, thinking of the heat of Arthur’s mouth, the wet slide of his lips, the texture of his tongue. 

Oh god, he thought.  What did I do?

He dug his fingers into his hair and pulled, whimpering.

“Uh oh,” Heath said in a low voice.

Merlin lifted his head, blinking at Heath’s sharp features, at a brow wrinkled in uncharacteristic worry.

“What did you and Arthur do last night when you got home?” Heath asked slowly.

Danyl removed the cloth from his eyes.  Pushed himself to his elbows.  “Did something finally happen?”

Merlin stared in horror at them both, at their knowing looks. “No.  That’s.  We’re not.  Of course not.  No.” 

“Did anyone ever tell you that you’re a bad liar?” Heath said, with a pitying smile.

Merlin felt embarrassment give way to anger.  What had things come to, for these children of the modern era to pity him?  

What had he come to, to actually deserve it?

“Actually I’m an exceptional liar,” Merlin said bitterly.  “I’ve been lying for centuries. Don’t let anyone tell you that lying isn’t a good way to live your life.  Because it is.  I should know because it’s only when I tell the truth that things go straight to hell.” 

He squeezed his eyes shut, furious and embarrassed and exhausted.

Such a mess, he thought.  Everything was just such a mess.

Merlin pushed from the counter and walked straight into the end of one of the shelves.  He swore at it at length in Brittonic, loudly, gratifyingly, then stumbled, half falling, to the door.

As he left, he heard Heath’s low whistle, and his voice, saying: “Poor lovesick bastard.”

It set Merlin’s face aflame.  Shame twisted his stomach, and he headed to the glass door to the porch, certain he was going to empty his stomach again.

When he stepped down the steps onto the lawns, he let his legs keep taking him forward, down the hill, into the park, towards his circle of stones. 

He fell against the heelstone, folding over it, his hands pressing into its rough surface, his head bowing to touch its top. 

It took him a while to breathe through the nausea.  When it had passed, he sat down upon the lawn, his back pressing against the hard rock, his legs stretching out on the grass. 

The sun sat in the sky only a little way above the ruins of the tower, its light dancing upon the waves, and setting the tower ruins and their isle in sharp relief to the hills around them. 

“I hate you,” Merlin said furiously at it.

He longed to be rid of it, this reminder of Arthur’s death.  Never mind whatever the tower meant to the Sidhe.  He wanted to rip it from the earth. The tower and its island.  Carve it out like a cancer.  Be done with it once and for all.

Merlin closed his eyes, turning away from those thoughts. He was better than that, he told himself.  Wasn’t he?  He was fairly sure he had been, once. 

I helped to shape kingdoms, Merlin thought.  I walked with dragons.  I stood beside the bravest men and women in the land.  I can be better than what I am now. I know I can.  Because I have been before.

Merlin sighed, tilting his head back against the rock, his hand running over the grass beside his outstretched legs. 

I said goodbye to Arthur here, he reminded himself.  Right in this spot.  I stood over his body and I knew he’d been taken from me.  I knew that I’d failed him.  I placed him in his boat, and I sent him away.  And I sat here, right in this spot, all that day, and all that night.  Staring at the lake.  Hoping that it was a mistake.  Hoping that the boat would come back. 

And then I kept hoping it, for the next one thousand, five hundred, fifty three years, six months, and twenty two days. 

Merlin looked up at the North Tower, at the window of Arthur’s chambers. 

Arthur is up there, Merlin thought.  He’s up there, right now.  And he’s alive. 

Two weeks ago, he wasn’t.  Two weeks ago, I was an old man, and half mad, and alone. 

But today, Arthur is here. With me.  Depending on me. 

I was an ass last night, Merlin thought.  And I forgot myself.  But Arthur is alive.  So I can fix it.  I can do anything I have to.  Just as long as he’s alive. 

Merlin stared at the shore, remembering Arthur standing soaking wet in his cape and his armor and his boots, yelling in Brittonic, brandishing a tree branch, newly reborn to the world. 

If he can begin again after all those years of death, then I can do whatever it takes as well, Merlin thought.  Arthur can hate me or not talk to me or laugh at me.  I don’t care. I’m not going to leave him. And I’m not going to let him leave me.  Not because of this.  Not because of anything. Even if it means that I have to watch him fall in love again.  Even if I need to stand by as he marries again.  I will not leave him.

Merlin drew in a deep breath and climbed to his feet, leaning hard against the heel stone, gathering his courage to return to the manor.

A mistake, he thought.  That’s what Arthur had thought it was.  So that’s how he would treat it.  Just a drunken mistake.  He wouldn’t even speak of it.  Wouldn’t even think of it.  He’d just proceed on as they had been.

Arthur his king.  Merlin at his side.  The battle for Albion ahead.

It’s enough, Merlin told himself.  So long as Arthur was alive, so long as they were together, it was more than enough. 

Chapter Text

 

Arthur woke to the soft tap of dishes being set upon a table.  He rolled over in bed, and saw Merlin across the room at the dining table.  He was dressed in his clothes from Camelot.  Worn brown boots, thick socks pulled up over dark pants, faded red shirt with a blue tattered scarf around his neck.  Even his hair was exactly as it had been. 

“Sorry to wake you, sire,” Merlin said.  “I just wanted to lay out your breakfast.  I’ve already eaten downstairs.”

Arthur sat up in bed, blinking in considerable confusion. He didn’t remember Merlin climbing out of the bed.  He’d slept ridiculously soundly all night, in fact. 

Merlin hadn’t dreamed, he realized.  Was it because he’d been so drunk last night?  He’d definitely more passed out than fallen asleep after they-

Arthur’s breath caught, remembering the wet slide of Merlin’s lips, the heat of his body, the small broken noises he’d made. 

He remembered, too, his shockingly intense response to the unexpected kiss.  It had been like nothing he’d felt before.  Just absolutely overwhelming.  Lighting up all his senses at once.  Sweeping away all of his thoughts.  Leaving him capable of thinking only yes, and at last, as he had licked into Merlin’s mouth as if it held the water of life.

Arthur gathered the blankets to his lap, desire slicing through his body, arousal hardening him dizzyingly fast beneath the pile of bedding.  He could feel his heart pounding, his face heating.

And all just from the memory of it, he thought.  Gods above, I’m feeling like this just by thinking about it.

At the table, Merlin poured a glass of water with a shaking hand. He nearly dropped the pitcher as he did so, and had to set it down hard on the table, wincing at the sound.

He’s hung over, Arthur thought.  But he’s pretending not to be.  Just as he was pretending nothing had happened between them last night.  There was no other reason for his behavior.  For his exceedingly careful casualness.  For his averted eyes and his moving through the chambers.

“I’ve got some errands to run today but I’ll be back in time for training,” Merlin said, as he pushed back the curtains and secured them to the alcove.  “If that’s all right, sire?”

Arthur watched Merlin open the windows, first the ones facing the lake, then the ones facing the lawns.  Keeping his back turned to Arthur the entire time.

“Beautiful day outside today,” Merlin was saying.  “Good day for training.”

“That’s… good.”  Arthur said, as Merlin moved about the room so swiftly that he was getting dizzy watching him.

“I trust you can stay out of trouble until I get back,” Merlin said, intending it to sound light and teasing.  It sounded forced and uncomfortable instead.

Finally Merlin turned to him, but his eyes went immediately to the floor, his hands clasped behind his back.  Looking like George, for god’s sake.

“If there’s nothing else that you require?” Merlin asked, his voice forced into some strange parody of what he probably thought were a proper servant’s tones.

“No,” Arthur sighed out, exhausted in the face of it all.  “That will be all.”

Merlin nodded, and left as quickly as he could without it looking like an all out run.

Arthur flopped back onto the bed.  “Well that was truly awful.”

Awful, and my fault, he thought bitterly. 

My fault, for pushing him away.  My fault, for ending so abruptly what was happening between them.

I never should have done that, Arthur thought at himself angrily.  It was so stupid of me to have done that.

He’d just felt so overwhelmed by the intensity of his own reaction.  He’d been dizzy from that kiss.  He had been trembling.  His knees had weakened, again, for god’s sake.

Desperate, Arthur thought in amazement.  I was desperate for him.

Even in his most passionate moments with Gwen, he’d never felt such desperation.  With her, it had always been tender and sincere and loving. But he’d never felt as if he would actually die if he couldn’t touch, or taste, or possess. 

Not as he had with Merlin.

It had been terrifying.  That his feelings ran so deep.  That so much of his control had been lost. That he could even want someone that way.  Need someone that way.

In his panic, he’d pushed Merlin away. 

And then he’d gone and made things worse by writing it off as the fault of the drink.  As though they were two strangers seeking carnal relief.  Instead of who they were to each other.  Which was so very much more than that.

Or at least, that’s how it was for him. He’d thought Merlin felt the same.  The signs had not been subtle. 

But who knew what was in the heart of someone who had lived so long?  Perhaps Merlin really had just been seeking comfort, to ease his many years of loneliness.  Perhaps that’s what all of this had been between them. 

Arthur climbed from the bed, moving wearily to the table, to stare down at the depressingly meticulously laid out breakfast.

Look what I’ve driven him to, Arthur thought.  With my carelessness, and with my cowardice.  I did this to him.  As if he needs one more thing to face, with everything else that’s happening.

For once glad to be alone, Arthur ate his breakfast in silence, then showered and dressed in his breeches and tunic and boots.  After staring at the dirty dishes, and realizing that of course they wouldn’t just disappear, he gathered them all onto a tray, and carried them downstairs to the café.

He elbowed his way through the doorway to the café feeling rather pleased of the effort, flashing Eleanor a proud grin when she spotted him.

“You can put that down over there, Arthur dear,” she told him, gesturing to an empty spot near the kitchens.  “My word, but you nearly made me faint, seeing you do your own chores for once.”

“Merlin has always been better at such things than I,” Arthur assured her.

“I doubt you tried very hard at it, though, did you.  You royals,” she said, and tsked at him.

“I was too busy ruling the kingdom,” he said, and gave her the sort of smile that Merlin used when he was telling the truth, so that he wasn’t carted off as mental.

Eleanor caught him staring at the fresh breads that had just come out of the kitchen. “Go ahead.  We’re a bit slow at the moment. People are still a bit cautious with all the work crews outside.”

Arthur glanced out at the few customers in the café as he sat down at the counter to accept a cup of hot tea she pushed at him. “Has Merlin returned yet?”

“He’s still at the Widow Abbernathy’s, tending to her horse.  Poor thing may need to be put down, all the problems with her leg.  The horse, that is, not the Widow Abbernathy.”

“She is quite a formidable woman, from what I saw.”

“Even Emrys was cowed by her from time to time, which is something I’ve hardly ever seen in all the years I’ve known him.”

“I’ve heard tell that you didn’t even come here looking for employment,” Arthur said, as he sipped his tea.  “You were just looking to get out of the rain?”

“It’s true.  Emrys gave me a job when no one else would, after my Henry died and left me with my three boys to raise.  I had no skills to speak of.  But he told me I had a natural talent for bossing people around, and he hired me.”  She gave him a wink, and topped off his cup.  “I owe him a lot, the old fool.”

“I’m sorry he’s not here for you,” Arthur found himself saying, feeling guilty about that too.  It was his fault Merlin had changed, after all.

“I do miss him,” Eleanor said, smiling wistfully.  “But he’s much happier now.  So I’ll forgive him for the way he left.”

“How do you know he’s happier?”

“Just something he wrote in his goodbye letter.”

Arthur stared down at his teacup, tapping its edge.  Wondering what Merlin’s parting words could have been. 

With the sound of crinkling paper, a piece of parchment was slid over Arthur’s tea cup. 

The parchment was from his desk.  The words written with his quill.  In Merlin’s handwriting.

Arthur picked up the paper, but before he could start reading, Eleanor’s hand covered the words.

“I’m only showing you this,” Eleanor said softly, “because of how much of Emrys I see in Merlin.  If that boy has half the heart that Emrys does, then you, Arthur Pendragon, need to be very careful with him.  Much more than you have been.”

For the second time that morning, Arthur felt a flush touch his cheeks.  Something in his expression must have reached the old woman, because she nodded as if he’d agreed with her, and then removed her hand. 

It was, as she had said, a goodbye letter. 

Right up until it became a love letter. 

‘The one for whom I have waited my entire life has finally come back to me. I must be with him now, at once and forever, because he is - as he has always been - my life, my soul, and my one great love.  So please do not be too angry with me for my abrupt departure.  For I am happier at this moment than I have been in years innumerable.  I hope you will be happy for me.’

Arthur dropped the letter, his hands falling limp to the countertop, his breath rushing from him.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Eleanor asked, mistaking Arthur’s stunned expression for simple appreciation of the words.

Arthur watched Eleanor pick up the letter, fold it, and then slide it into her handbag, into a small zippered compartment. 

‘My life, my soul, and my one great love…’

I wasn’t wrong, Arthur thought in amazement.  I wasn’t.  Everything that happened last night.  It wasn’t just me.  It was Merlin too.  Gods, he feels the same way

“You see what I mean?  If Merlin is anything like Emrys… You just be careful with that boy’s heart.”

What had Merlin said to him that night in the lakeside meadow? Arthur wondered. That there had been someone special?  But that it didn’t work out?  And then the next day, at the manor, with the horses.  Merlin had been so upset when he’d called his magic soppy.  And Merlin wouldn’t say why he was upset.  He said it was a secret.  It was personal. Like his past relationships.  Personal.  The one secret he wouldn’t give up.

Arthur covered his face with both hands and leaned back in his chair.  “I am such an idiot,” he groaned. 

“Love does that to people,” Eleanor said.

Arthur dropped his hands, staring at her in amazement.  She was giving him a sad smile that spoke of too many years watching young people make very stupid decisions. 

“Talk to him,” she said gently.

“I doubt he’ll want to listen to me,” Arthur said, feeling very much as if he was ten years younger, and barely a Crown Prince, much less a King. 

Eleanor patted his wrist where it lay upon the countertop.  “He always listens to you, Arthur.  I think sometimes that you’re the only sound he hears.”

Arthur huffed out a laugh.  He covered Eleanor’s thin hand upon his arm.  “Thank you,” he said.  “For everything.”

“I’ll be sure to send Merlin upstairs when he gets back,” she said, and with another reassuring smile, she left him to his thoughts, to go tend to the other customers.

As the morning dragged on, with Arthur first pacing in his chambers, then restlessly reading in the vaults, Merlin did not reappear.  Eventually Arthur went down alone to the training field, where everyone had already gathered, and were outfitting each other in the equipment Merlin must have gathered earlier.

He was standing amongst his students, with Megan fastening his armor behind him, when Merlin finally showed up, walking down the hill looking as much like a servant of Camelot as he ever had.  Dirt was caked onto his boots and pants, and was rubbed onto his tunic, with even a good measure of it on his face.

“Don’t tell me that Gran wrestled you to the floor,” Heath said to Merlin.

“Her mare is as stubborn as she is,” Merlin informed him.  “Damn near kicked me into the next stall.  She should recover though.  I’m talking about the horse, mind you.”

“It’s hard to tell,” Heath agreed happily, as he yanked at the straps of Danyl’s armor, sending him off balance.  “Sorry, love,” he said, when Danyl gave him a pitiful look that still had hangover written all over it.

Merlin stepped forward as if he was about to take Megan’s place, but then stopped himself, eyes flitting from her, to Arthur, before avoiding them both, looking instead at the students dressing themselves in their gear.

Arthur winced as Megan dug a finger into his collarbone. “Careful,” he said over his shoulder.

“Sorry, Arthur.  I’m not usually that rough.  Well.  Unless requested,” she added, and giggled.

Merlin crossed his arms and became very interested in the grass, his mouth pursing and thinning, as if holding back words.

I’ve tasted that mouth, Arthur thought, as he stared at Merlin’s ridiculously full lips.  I know what they feel like.  The drag of them across my mouth. Gods, the feeling of those lips-    

Arthur drew in a sharp breath, startled that his thoughts had slid so far out of his control so quickly.  He was instantly thankful for the heat of the sun on his face to explain away any redness, and the length of his chainmail hanging below his waist. 

Merlin looked over at him, frowned at what he saw in Arthur’s expression, eyes darting all over his face, before he looked uncomfortably away.

Arthur felt another pinch at his shoulder, and shied away from Megan.  “Thank you, that’s- sufficient.  Go join the others.”

She gave him an apologetic look, and then gave Merlin a look of clear disapproval, before leaving them both alone. 

Arthur turned his back toward Merlin, pointing to his shoulder.  “Could you fix whatever she did wrong?” he asked in a low voice, putting a bit of disparagement into his tone.

He felt Merlin’s hands working the armor.  Instantly it felt more comfortable upon his chainmail.  He sighed, relaxing.  “Much better.”

“Sorry I’m late,” Merlin said.  “Everything took twice as long as it should have done.”

“Widow Abbernathy and her eager hands?”

“That woman is a menace.”

“I’ll be sure to go with you next time to keep watch on her.”

“That may not be enough to discourage her.”

“I’ll bring my sword, then.”

“King Arthur Pendragon, protecting the world against old ladies with eager hands,” he said, for the first time that day sounding like himself.

“Doesn’t sound like that noble of a quest, does it.”

“The perils of eager hands should not be underestimated. I’m going to be sore for two days.”

“Went after your backside, did she?”

“Brazen old woman. She dropped my roll of bandages in the hay in the corner of the stall on purpose so I’d have to bend over and had no escape.”

Arthur laughed so loudly that several of his students turned to stare. 

“It’s not funny,” Merlin said, and he yanked hard on one of Arthur’s buckles.

But Arthur heard the smile in his voice.  “Well don’t worry.  I’ll definitely be going with you next time.  Someone has to look after you.”

“And that’s you then?” Merlin asked softly.

Arthur half turned, looking at the grass beside them.  “Always.”

Silence in response.  Just the feeling of Merlin’s hands on his shoulder, giving the armor a final pat.  “There you are, sire,” he said, but the forced cheerfulness and awkward tone was back. 

Arthur couldn’t bring himself to turn around. If he saw a false smile on Merlin’s face, he couldn’t be held responsible for what he’d do.

All throughout the training session, he kept glancing over at Merlin, who sat under a tree, legs stretched out in front of him, hands folded in his lap.  For once, he wasn’t doing anything at all.  He was just sitting there.  Watching him.  A distant look on his face.  As if he weren’t really seeing him at all.

At the end of the class, Arthur found himself surrounded by several students, all with questions about a new technique he’d shown them.  He was in the middle of explaining the nuances of form when he noticed Merlin speaking with Megan. 

Megan was smiling at Merlin brightly, her earlier displeasure gone, her hand upon his arm. He was smiling at her too, doing that thing where he made himself smaller, his shoulders rounded, his arms crossed, leaning against the tree.

By the time he could approach where Merlin stood, Megan was walking up the hill to the manor, speaking in some excitement with Anne. 

“What did-?“ Arthur began.

“I thought we’d have dinner in the downstairs dining room tonight,” Merlin said, stepping behind Arthur and starting at once on his armor. “I’m making those herb crusted capons you like so much.”

“You can make herb crusted capons?” he asked, and then cursed himself for letting Merlin distract him so easily. 

“With that red wine you liked that night we had supper in the café.”

“That’s… Yes, all right.  But what-“

“And I thought maybe dressing a bit modern for dinner would be nice?  Something nice?  Just for a change?”

Dressing for dinner, Arthur thought.  Well.  “All right,” he said curiously.

“And do you mind if I do my research in my library this afternoon?  The smell of the flowers in the vaults… My stomach is still a bit…”

“Of course.”  Arthur lifted his arms so Merlin could remove his chainmail.  When he turned around, Merlin gave him a small smile. 

Not forced this time.  But sad.

“You go on,” Merlin said.  “I’ll get all this.  And I’ll see you at supper?”

Arthur nodded, and watched Merlin go to collect the training equipment.

Invited for dinner, he thought.  To eat his favorite meal.  And drink his favorite wine.  And taking supper downstairs, in Merlin’s flat.  Dressed nicely for the occasion.

It sounded very much as if he were being courted.  Which was ridiculous, he thought. Or was it, really?  What was the new word they used now for such things?  A date.  Even Heath had spoken of doing that.  Of taking Danyl for a date. 

Arthur climbed the hill back to the manor, trying to imagine it.  An intimate dinner, with Merlin.  And then afterward.  Taking things further.  Tasting.  Touching.  And dear god, going to bed together.

Arthur stopped at the top of the hill, breathless at the thought of it, looking down at the dark haired man gathering the refreshments and equipment, all long legs and windblown hair and sharp features.

Merlin straightened upon the lawn.  Looked up at him curiously.

Arthur smiled, a wide stupid thing.   Merlin smiled back, waving once, before going back to his work. 

In something of a daze, Arthur returned to the North Tower.

Even though he busied himself as best he could, washing and dressing after training, sitting several hours in the vaults going through books of magic, the afternoon dragged on and on.  Only when he started to smell supper wafting into the vaults did he return upstairs, heading right to his chambers to dress.

He spent a truly embarrassing amount of time standing before through his wardrobe, trying to find something to wear.  He wound up picking out things that were the closest to his old clothes.  Red shirt and black pants.  Dark shoes and socks.  Hair well combed and clean.

Arthur caught himself actually worrying at his appearance in the full mirror. 

“What are you doing,” he said to his reflection.  “It’s Merlin, for god’s sake.”

He actually laughed at himself, as much amused as embarrassed.  Because it was ridiculous, wasn’t it.  Whatever else was happening, they were still the two of them.  They would always be the two of them.  No matter what else they became. 

“Are you ready?” came a distant yell from down the corridor. 

“Yes!” he called back through the door.

After running a hand through his hair, and straightening his shirt, he left his chambers, into a corridor filled with smells of roast chicken and potatoes and baked apple tarts.

He descended the staircase feeling a burst of nerves.  Which was idiotic, he told himself sternly.  Because this was just dinner. With Merlin.

Smiling to himself at the thought, Arthur stepped into the modern world of Merlin’s flat.

He realized at once that something was amiss when he heard two voices. 

Merlin’s, and a woman’s.

“There he is,” Merlin said.

Arthur walked into the dimly lit dining room, staring at a dining table set for two.  Long stemmed candles burned at either end, a delicious assortment of food spread out over it.

One of the formal place settings sat before an empty chair. 

At the other sat Megan, her hair upswept and formal. 

Merlin stood by her side, pouring her a glass of wine, dressed in a tight black shirt and black jeans, looking pale and beautiful and otherworldly in the flickering candlelight.

 

Megan rose from her chair when she saw Arthur walk in.  She smiled at him, her low-cut blue dress clinging tightly to her body and leaving very little to the imagination.  “It’s so good to see you, Arthur,” she said brightly.

Arthur saw Merlin’s eyes sweep over him, pain pulling at his features, as he set the wine bottle upon the table. 

“Merlin?” Arthur asked curiously, looking from Merlin to Megan and then back again.

“Excuse us for a minute, Megan?”

Merlin approached Arthur and gently took his arm, leading him to the door to the front lawns, well out of Megan’s earshot.

“I’m sorry for not telling you about this,” Merlin said.  “I wanted it to be a surprise.”

Arthur looked from the table set for two, to Megan standing there, and then back at Merlin.  “What’s going on?” he finally managed.

For the first time all day, Merlin truly met his gaze.  His expression had hardened, as if bracing himself to give the worst battle report imaginable.  

“I want to apologize,” Merlin said firmly.  “For what I did last night.  For...”  His eyes darted around the room, and he frowned, before focusing on Arthur again.  “For mistaking things.  I didn’t mean for…”  He cringed.  Pained.  Miserable.  “Look,” he said, “the important thing…  the one thing you need to know… is that you can always depend on me.  No matter who else you have in your life.”

Who else, Arthur thought.  And then he realized.  The girl.  He means the girl. 

Oh god, he thought.  Merlin had asked the girl to come here.  He’d arranged this whole thing.  Thinking this was what he wanted.

“No matter what happens,” Merlin said.  “I’ll be here for you. In whatever way you need me to be.  I’ll be here.  Always, my lord.”

The final words were choked out, heavy with emotion. 

And all at once, Arthur realized what they meant.  

Merlin went to speak to Megan as Arthur stared after him in astonishment.

“Enjoy yourselves tonight,” Merlin said to her wearily.

“Thank you so much for setting this up, Merlin.  And don’t worry about what happened at the pub.  You were really drunk.  Everyone who saw how ridiculously you were acting knew you were.”

Arthur watched Merlin nod at her, his gaze lowering.  Without another word, he walked from the room and out the door to the lawns, closing it quietly behind him.

“It’s so lovely to see you like this,” Megan said.  “Not that you don’t look amazing in armor.  But this isn’t half bad either.”

Arthur approached the table and stared down at all of his favorite foods. Which Merlin had made for him so he could eat them with her.

“You could have asked me to dinner yourself, you know,” she said, running her hand through her hair.  “I didn’t take you for the shy type.”

“Merlin planned all of this,” Arthur heard himself say.

“I think he went a bit overboard to apologize for being an arse to me at the pub.  I already told him it was okay.  But this more than makes up for it,” she added, stepping over to him, moving in quite close.

Arthur stepped backward abruptly enough to make her frown.  “Megan,” he said, “I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding.”

“What do you mean, misunderstanding?”

He tried for a courtly smile, but failed utterly, too wrong-footed to have any kind of control over his expression. “You should go,” he said, deciding that the direct route was probably best.

“Go?”

He walked to the front door.  Opened it for her.  “I apologize.  But this was a mistake.”

“What was a mistake?”

“All of it,” he told her.  “I’m sorry. Please go.”

“Just like that?” she snapped.  “I don’t get any explanation at all?”

“I’m afraid not.”

She grabbed her bag and stormed over to him. “He did this on purpose, didn’t he,” she said sharply.  “Merlin.”  She made a disgusted sound.  “I should have listened to Anne.  She told me he was in love with you.  I should have known this was just some sort of sick game that he was-”

Arthur banged the door wide open.  “Good night, Megan,” he said firmly, putting some steel in his voice.

“You don’t know what you’re missing out on,” she informed him.

“Neither do you,” he told her.

She shoved past him roughly and strode away, turning only to give him some sort of gesture before she vanished around the round shape of the North Tower.

“I’m going to kill him,” Arthur muttered, as he stepped out the manor and onto the lawns.

The evening air was cool as he walked down the hillside, his eyes searching the half light for a pale form in black.  Not by the lake, he thought. He wouldn’t go there.  Where would he go in his current state of mind?

Of course, Arthur thought. 

And he headed towards the Stone Circle.

He found Merlin leaning against the heelstone, arms crossed, glaring at the tower.

Arthur stopped just behind him.  “You really are simply maddening.”

Merlin turned so abruptly that he almost fell over the rock.  “What are you doing here?”

“I’m finding the idiot who thinks I’d rather have dinner with some strange woman than with him.”

“There's nothing idiotic about that,” Merlin protested angrily. “You seemed very keen on spending time with her at the pub.  And at Danyl’s party.  And during training-”

“She’s one of my students,” Arthur interrupted.  “I talk to all of my students.”

“Your other students don’t hang all over you like she did.”

“If you’d bothered noticing, I didn’t hang all over her, did I.  And I didn’t appreciate her showing up here without any warning, or having to send her away, thanks very much for that, because looked about ready to stab me with a dinner knife!”

“Why did you send her away?  She was interested in you!”

“Well I’m not interested in her!”

“Why not? There’s nothing the matter with her. “

“Are you seriously trying to talk me round to being with her?” Arthur asked, incredulous. “Because I would have sworn there’s someone else you’d rather I be with.”

"Who?" Merlin asked, his dark brows pulled together, clearly perplexed.  “Anne?”

Arthur strangled back the urge to cuff Merlin on the head.  “No, you utter moron, not Anne.  I’m talking about you.”

Merlin winced, then frowned at himself, clearly angry, his arms crossing tightly over his chest. “I already told you.  That was-  It was only-  I was drunk, and-”

“Yes,” Arthur said.  “You were drunk.  And I was stupid.”

Merlin stared at him a long moment.  "Did you just call yourself stupid?”

Really not the point, Merlin,” Arthur ground out.

“Why are we even talking about this?” Merlin asked uneasily, his eyes darting left and right, as if seeking escape.  “There’s nothing to- I already told you-  Look.  Let’s just.  We'll have dinner.  Or not.  And then- I mean-“

“Listen to me,” Arthur said, and he stepped forward, grabbing hold of both of Merlin’s arms, holding him in place.  “Just.  For once, will you please listen?”

The ‘please’ stopped Merlin's frantic search for escape, drawing his full attention.  

“Two sides of the same coin,” Arthur said, gentling his tone. “That’s what they always said about us. Two halves of a whole.  Isn't that right?"

Merlin just stared in response, his blue eyes wide, his shoulders rising and falling with rapid breaths.

Arthur set his hand upon the warm skin of Merlin’s neck, sliding his fingers up the taut tendon there, over the rough stubble of his cheek, then into his thick black hair.  "Did it honestly never make you wonder?”

Merlin’s eyes drifted closed, his head tilting into Arthur’s touch.  Halfway into the motion, he caught himself, his eyes snapping open “Stop," he whispered.  "Don't- If you’re making fun of-"  Pain twisted his features.  "It's not funny, Arthur-“

“I’m not making fun," Arthur said, taking hold of Merlin's arm, to keep him from running.  "I give you my oath.” 

Merlin swallowed hard, watching with wide eyes as Arthur stepped closer, to press their foreheads together.  "What...?" 

“I saw your letter,” Arthur admitted. 

“Letter?”

"To Eleanor.  I saw it.  What you told her.  About me."

"About... Oh god..."

“My life,” Arthur recited.  “My soul.  My one great love.”

Merlin made a small desperate sound, so much like a whimper that it was heartbreaking to hear it.  “You weren’t meant to see that.” 

"It was the single most beautiful thing I’ve ever read.”

“It- Really?” 

"But I need to know," Arthur said softly, lifting his other hand to cup the side of Merlin’s face, his thumb moving over a sharp cheekbone. 

"Know what?" Merlin whispered.

Arthur could feel his breath warm upon his lips, his skin hot beneath his grip, his hair soft over his fingers.  God I want him, he thought.  But I need to know.  I need to hear it from him.  "Did you mean it?" he forced out, his throat tight with sudden fear.  "What you said about me.  What you wrote.  Did you mean it?"

"Arthur,” Merlin whispered.  “Please…”

“Yes?” Arthur asked, leaning in closer, so that his lips moved against Merlin’s. “Or no?”

This time Merlin did whimper, a tremor running through him.  “Yes,” he said desperately.  And then he threw his arms around Arthur's shoulders, pulling him into a passionate kiss.

Arthur drew in a sharp breath at the unexpected enthusiasm of his response, desire flaring hot through every inch of his body, as he wrapped his arms around Merlin and clung to him, all hard bones and flat muscles and stubble and perfect, just perfect, against him.

Merlin melted into the form of his body as if he belonged there, new and familiar, strange and known, and made just for Arthur, for all that he was or would ever be. 

Arthur felt Merlin’s hands upon him, stronger than any woman’s, startlingly arousing.  He felt Merlin part his lips, felt a flick of his tongue, and Arthur wasted no time in sliding his tongue between those full lips that had haunted his dreams, tasting the heat of Merlin’s mouth. 

He heard Merlin moan, loud and open mouthed, an anguished sound from deep in his chest.  Arthur pressed his hands to the sides of Merlin’s face, kissing the sound from him, first deeply, then tenderly, gentle brushes of lips that drew small noises from Merlin that had Arthur pausing, pressing his forehead against Merlin’s, heaving in breath after breath.

Dizzy, he thought.  I’m dizzy with how much I want him. Gods, how much I want him.

Arthur shoved his nose into the tempting stretch of Merlin’s pale neck.  I can taste him now, he thought wildly, and he pressed his lips against hot skin, tasting all those scents that had been his torment for so long.

Merlin gave a loud moan, right at his ear, his body trembling violently in his arms. 

Arthur inhaled the wonderful scent of this incredible man, filling his lungs with him, shoving his nose into the hair behind his ear.  He’d wanted to do this for so long, he thought, as he dragged his tongue over the taut muscle below the curve of his ear.  God, the taste of him…

Within the circle of his arms, he felt Merlin drag in a choked breath, making a sound of pain.  And then felt him shake again, another pained sound escaping him.

Arthur lifted his head, breathless and panting, still dizzy from the need surging through his body.

Merlin had turned his face away, eyes squeezed closed.

Tears slid from beneath his long dark eyelashes.  And his shoulders shook again from another completely silent sob. 

“Merlin,” Arthur said softly, and he placed gentle hands to the sides of Merlin’s face.  Then he leaned in to kiss him tenderly, once upon each cheek, tasting saltwater each time. 

“You’re sure?” Merlin choked out. “About this?  Please tell me you’re sure.”

“I’m sure,” Arthur said against Merlin’s lips, and kissed him again.

Merlin pulled away, still pained, but this time looking at him, blue eyes pleading.  “You don’t know how long I… It would kill me to have this, and then have it be taken away.  You have no idea-”

“I swear it, Merlin.  On my honor.  On all we hold dear.  I’m sure.” 

“It’s not because-” Merlin reached up to cling to Arthur’s wrists, drawing in a shaking breath. “Because you’re lonely.  And I’m convenient-”

“There is nothing convenient about you, Merlin,” Arthur said, smiling at him now.

Merlin kept staring at him as if he’d lost his mind.  “But… I didn’t think that you…  I mean, that you… Before?  Or was it-  Since you got back?“

Arthur stared at Merlin’s lips as he spoke.  Because he could do that now.  Stare at his lush mouth.  Without having to steal glances, as he used to.

Many things could be done with a mouth like that, Arthur thought.  Just the idea sent a surge of blood quickly southward, to trousers that had already grown far too tight. 

“Or was it-  I mean,” Merlin said dazedly, “was it the- when you told me about-“

“Merlin,” Arthur said.

Merlin blinked at him.  “Yes?”

“You really do talk too much,” Arthur said, and he leaned in once again, and silenced all his words by claiming his mouth.

Chapter Text

 

I’m dreaming, Merlin thought. 

It was the only explanation for Arthur pressed against him, arms wrapped around his back, tongue sliding warm and deep into his mouth. 

Merlin broke away from the dizzying kiss, gulping in breaths of cool evening air, staring in wonder at Arthur’s smiling face, wondering if he quite seriously was going to faint like a weepy princess from desire and joy and disbelief and exhaustion and Arthur.

“I must be dreaming,” Merlin whispered, as Arthur nuzzled into him, while his hands moved over his body, slow and tender, like a lover.  “This has to be a dream.  It has to.  You couldn’t possibly be like this.”

“You’re not dreaming, and I am like this, you’re just not paying attention, as usual,” Arthur scolded, before pressing his fingers to the sides of Merlin’s face, tilting his head to his liking, and then kissing him deeply, taking kingly pleasures in his mouth.

Merlin clung to Arthur’s shoulders, moaning deep in his chest, his legs shaking, as desire and disbelief waged a frantic war within him.

Arthur hummed in response, smug or pleased or quite possibly both, because he was Arthur Pendragon, and how else would Arthur be when conquering new lands, other than utterly confident and completely focused, holding Merlin against him, kissing him with all that he was, in the same spot where fifteen centuries ago he had died.

Merlin leaned back, just enough to press shaking fingers to the side of Arthur’s neck, seeking a pulse.  Beneath the warm skin he felt a heartbeat, fast but strong.  He pressed his lips against the same spot, because he could do that now, it was allowed, to taste the proof of Arthur’s life.

“It’s not a dream, Merlin,” Arthur said, more gently this time, and he tightened his embrace, pressing them more fully against one another.

Merlin drew in a sharp breath, startled by the unexpected evidence of Arthur’s arousal so clearly pressing against his body.  Because of me, he thought.  Arthur is aroused because of me. 

Impossible, he thought.  Just impossible.

He dropped his forehead to Arthur’s shoulder, looking between their bodies, as he slid his hips against Arthur’s, over the hard length he felt.  The intimacy of it had him swallow a whimper, shuddering with the pleasure that shot down his spine, even with the barrier of their clothes between them.

Arthur pressed a stubbled cheek to Merlin's, a shudder passing through his body, as Merlin slid against him again. “Gods above, Merlin,” he breathed.

He felt Arthur’s fingers twist into his hair, pulling his head backward to press open mouthed kisses to his neck.  Merlin gasped, the unexpected manhandling so surprisingly arousing that an embarrassingly high pitched sound forced itself from his throat.

Arthur lifted his head, delighted with his reaction.  “Oh, that is interesting,” he said, and he tightened his fingers in Merlin’s hair, just a suggestion of what he’d done before.

“It’s not,” Merlin choked out.  “Shut up.  Do it again.”

“Insolence,” Arthur murmured into the space beneath his ear, and then bit, and licked, and sucked upon his neck, fingers tight and holding him in place.

Merlin felt his body arch, a strangled noise choking from him. “That’s- You aren’t- It doesn’t-  You-“

“Stop talking,” Arthur said, and used the hand he had tangled in his hair to guide Merlin’s mouth back to his, to quiet his words in a new and wonderful way.

Merlin melted against Arthur’s body, while Arthur held him where he liked and ground his hips against him, sucking bruises into his neck, sending waves of pleasure surging up and up, sending him careening towards a very embarrassing moment.

All at once, Arthur left off his passionate attack, stilling his hips and his hands, to look up Merlin, smiling, his eyes sparkling. 

Merlin dug his fingers into Arthur’s arms, frustrated at the interruption as much as he was glad for it, because oh god he was so close-

“I should have known,” Arthur said, his voice low and teasing. “You do secretly like it when I tell you what to do.”

“I don’t,” Merlin barely managed. “It’s horrible.  I hate it.  You’re awful.  You can’t-”

“Be silent,” Arthur said in a voice of command, and kissed him again. 

Which didn’t prove anything, Merlin thought, but then he stopped caring entirely about that, as Arthur tasted him and touched him and sucked upon his neck.  When Arthur finally leaned away, breaths heaving, he wore an insufferably smug smile.

“That’s just,” Merlin breathed. “That’s.  Cheating.  And doesn’t.  And anyway.  You are. You’re the same about my.  My magic.  Because whenever I- I- oh- that- right there, yes, that, that-“ He closed his eyes and tilted his head, giving Arthur better access to his neck, where Arthur was contentedly licking at his skin, small tasting motions, and oh god that was actually new, he’d never felt anyone do that to him before, so no wonder it was making his knees go so weak.

Merlin tightened his arms around Arthur’s shoulders, hanging on for dear life, his hips grinding against Arthur’s hard length entirely on their own, wanton and desperate and oh yes, he thought, that, right there, oh, yes, that-

He felt Arthur’s hands upon his hips, stilling them. “Why,” he whined, not caring how pitiful he sounded. 

“We need to go inside,” Arthur said in a deep voice, “right now, before I lay you down on the grass and claim you right here.”

Merlin squeezed his eyes closed, his mind absolutely reeling, because Arthur had said he wanted to claim him on the lawn-

“Come on,” Arthur said, pulling at him. 

“Just- Just a moment?” Merlin said in a weak voice.  “Need to… calm down.”

“I’d rather you not,” Arthur said, and he started in on his neck again, licking and tasting and kissing, fingers sliding up through his hair. “Absurd,” he said between tastes, quietly, as if to himself.  “How much I want to have you.  Just absurd…”   

“Inside,” Merlin agreed, nodding frantically.  “Yes.  Inside.  Right now.”

Arthur chuckled, stepping away with obvious reluctance, leaving a cold empty space that Merlin wanted to fill with more of him as soon as possible.  Without bothering to hide it, Arthur reached into his trousers and adjusted himself, a motion that captured every bit of Merlin’s attention.

Arthur smiled at him, that smug and delighted smile again, and took his hand.   “Come on,” he said, and lead him up the hill.

Merlin let himself be pulled along, adjusting himself as he went, trying to calm himself by thinking of the most unattractive things imaginable, which was nearly impossible with the taste of Arthur still on his lips.

He still felt as if he’d fallen into the most realistic fantasy he’d ever had, which was saying something, because he’d had quite a few over the centuries.

Not fifteen minutes ago he was standing on the lawn heartbroken and lonely, giving up all hopes of anything more than what he had with Arthur.  He’d felt sure it was the right thing.  That it was what Arthur wanted. 

And now Arthur was smiling at him over his shoulder, and pulling him into the North Tower, through the dimly lit residence.

Any second and he’s going to realize his mistake, Merlin thought, as he followed Arthur to their stairwell.  Any second he’s going to remember it’s just me, his hopeless servant and half mad sorcerer, and know that I’m no kind of man at all for a king.

Arthur stopped by the bottom of the stairwell, frowning at whatever he saw in Merlin’s face.  “Stop,” Arthur told him, smiling in that way that said he was exasperated but fondly so.

“What?”

“Whatever nonsense you’re thinking,” Arthur said.  “Just stop.”

“It’s just…  Are you really sure that-“  

Yes, I am sure,” Arthur said impatiently, and he pulled Merlin into another long kiss that within moments had them clinging to one another, panting into each others mouths, bodies pressing as close as possible. 

When they parted, Arthur’s eyes swept down his body, lingering over the bulge in his jeans, before returning to his face.  “Upstairs,” Arthur said hoarsely, and grabbed Merlin’s hand, to pull him roughly up the stairs.

When they reached the upstairs corridor, Arthur grabbed Merlin around the waist and walked him backwards, flattening him against the wall.

“That mouth of yours is going to drive me to madness,” Arthur murmured, and he caught Merlin’s face in his hands, leaning in to lavish him with slow wet kisses.

Merlin hung on desperately, feeling the wall hard at his back, and Arthur’s body warm at his front.  When Arthur moved his attentions back to his neck, Merlin stared in a daze at the Pendragon pennant on the opposite wall, feeling the current lord of that family moving his royal hands all over him like a conquering army, assessing, possessing.

“Of course you’re amazing at this,” Merlin breathed. “Why wouldn’t you be amazing? You’re amazing at everything that you- yes, there, don’t stop, that right there-“

“What thing are you referring to?” Arthur said, lifting his head and looking at him as if genuinely curious. 

Merlin let his head thump back against the stone wall, trying to be aggravated but instead smiling stupidly up at the ceiling.  “You are such a prat I cannot believe how arrogant and insufferable you- oh-” he broke off with a sharp breath, as Arthur slid a hand over his erection, and it was really not fair, how Arthur derailed his thoughts, so that all he could do was whimper and squirm.

“I do think I rather like this new way of shutting you up,” Arthur said.

Again with the smugness, Merlin thought, and honestly, he was going to find a way to combat the smugness, absolutely he was, though not until Arthur’s hand was done doing what it was doing. 

Merlin shoved his hips into Arthur’s touch, head thumping hard against the wall, his body entirely out of his control. 

“Eager,” Arthur said, feigning nonchalance, but unsuccessfully, because his voice had shaken, and Merlin could feel Arthur’s tremors beneath his hands.

“It’s been- a while,” Merlin panted, his fingers tightening around handfuls of Arthur’s shirt, his hips straining up to meet each slide of Arthur’s hand.

“Bedroom,” Arthur said, dragging his lips over Merlin’s neck.

Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur’s waist, pulling their bodies tightly together, crushing Arthur’s hand between them as he writhed and moaned and made a spectacle of himself. “Can’t- god, Arthur, feels so-“ He exhaled sharply, as the pleasure rose within him and he ground against Arthur like a bloody teenager.  “I’m going to- You need to- stop if you want-  Arthur- Don’t stop don’t stop right there god-“

Arthur stepped away abruptly, grabbing Merlin around the back and under the legs, hauling him from the ground and into his arms.

“The hell are you doing!” Merlin yelped at him.

“Taking you to bed, you idiot,” Arthur snapped, trying to get a better grip on Merlin, who was kicking and squirming in his arms.

“Let go!” Merlin pushed at him, half falling to the ground, only to have Arthur grab him around the waist, and haul him up over his shoulder.  “Put me down!  You are not carrying me off to your chambers like some damned weepy princess!”

Arthur ducked a swing of Merlin’s arm, laughing.  “Shut up and hold still so I can carry you off to bed, princess!”

Merlin grabbed at the nearby windowsill, outraged, and kicked against the wall with his foot, sending them both sprawling to the stone floor. 

When he tried to get up, Arthur scrambled on top of him, pressing him flat on his back.  Arthur grabbed at Merlin’s flailing arms, pinning them down beside his head, laughing his delight the whole time.

“Get off!” Merlin burst out, but he was laughing now too, even though he’d banged his head and his elbows on the cold stone floor.  “You are mental!”

“You’re to blame for that,” Arthur breathed, climbing fully on top of him now. “You drive me to madness.”

“I don’t-“ Merlin began, but then Arthur sank his full weight atop him, and the feeling of it, of his body and his smell and his everything, banished both his words and his laughter and replaced it with a piercing want instead.

“You do,” Arthur said hoarsely, his smile fading, the intensity returning to his blue eyes.  “You drive me beyond all reason.  Especially this part of you.”  He lowered his head, pressing his nose against Merlin’s neck, breathing in deeply, before returning his attentions to Merlin’s parted lips, to kiss him until he was breathless and moaning.

Merlin parted his legs, letting Arthur settle between them, wrapping them tightly around Arthur’s hips, grinding up against him.

“Bed,” Arthur said breathlessly.

“Floor,” Merlin panted out, unwilling to give up the slide of their bodies together.  He pulled a wrist free from Arthur’s grip, and slid his hand between them, rubbing at the hard length beneath Arthur’s trousers.

“Floor,” Arthur agreed, his voice cracking, and he dropped his head to Merlin’s shoulder, propping himself on his elbows, so that Merlin could frantically pull at their trousers and pants and shove them out of the way.

Arthur’s moan echoed down the hallway as Merlin wrapped his fingers around him, stroking him slowly, astonished at the feel of Arthur’s cock in his hand, amazed that he finally was able to touch, positively dizzy with the knowledge that he was causing the wanton sounds echoing through the corridor.

“Gods, Merlin, yes, just like that,” Arthur panted into his ear, which was something Merlin had only heard in his dirty little fantasies, and which he couldn’t believe he was actually hearing now. 

Merlin adjusted his grip, pressing them both together, flesh to flesh, and he felt a shudder go through Arthur’s body, and saw Arthur look between them, where Merlin was stroking them both now, together, a feeling that made Merlin’s head tip back, and had his body arching off of the floor.

“Look at you,” Arthur was whispering, staring down at him with an absolutely stunned expression, before dropping his head to watch where Merlin’s hand was working them both.

Merlin heaved an enormous breath, a moan escaping with it, his eyes rolling back and closing, thrusting with Arthur through the tight circle of his own hands. The friction of their skin pressed together and his fingers holding them against one another and the weight of Arthur’s body was perfect, just perfect, and Merlin tipped back his head, mouth falling open, heaving in air, as pleasure rose up and surged over him, washing all thought away, as his release spilled hot and wet over his hands.

Arthur gave a low grunt of surprise, and another thick with desire, and Merlin held on tight as Arthur thrust against him, hard, shoving him over the stone floor, until he tensed above him, every part of him shaking, choking out a shout as he came. 

In utter amazement Merlin felt Arthur’s release add to his own.  Above him, Arthur’s head was thrown back, eyes open and astonished, mouth dropped open, his body shaking with quieting moans of pleasure.

He watched Arthur swallow, panting hard, his eyes falling closed, eyebrows raising as if in wonder, his face flushed and his blond hair a mess.

Beautiful, Merlin thought, as he lay there on the stone floor, trousers pushed down and a cooling mess on his stomach and this astonishing man relaxing his weight heavy upon his legs and hips and chest, huffing a breath from him.

Arthur lowered his head, eyes still closed, smiling, every part of his face reflecting his happiness.  Heaving an enormous sigh, he dropped his forehead to Merlin’s, his breaths warm against his lips.

So beautiful, Merlin thought again, as Arthur slid his nose against his own, tender, loving, gentle.

He felt his breath catch in his throat, his vision blurring.

Because it was too much.  It was all just too much.

Arthur lifted his head, eyes sparkling, grinning down at him. 

Merlin quickly wiped his hands on his shirt, and dragged the backs of his hands over his face, shoving away the tears. Any moment Arthur was going to mock him for it.  He knew how Arthur felt about such things.

No man deserves your tears, Merlin. 

You’re such a girl’s petticoat, Merlin.

But to his surprise, Arthur’s expression turned soft, and he cupped Merlin’s face with a strong and calloused hand, and kissed him gently on each corner of his mouth, and upon each cheek where the tears had been, and then another upon his chin, before finishing with one more, feather light, on his lips.

“I feel the same,” Arthur whispered.

Merlin lay motionless beneath him, stunned by the unexpected tenderness from this man who had conquered battlefields and shaped kingdoms.  “The same?” he whispered.

 “As you.  I feel the same.”

Merlin wheezed in a deep breath, choking on it, tears filling his eyes again.   “I’ve gone mad,” he whispered.  “I finally have gone mad.  I’m hallucinating.  This is just a hallucination.  This isn’t real.  I’m going to wake up in my bed, alone, and it will have all been a hallucination and it will hurt so much that I’ll want to tear my heart out-“

“No,” Arthur said, bending to kiss him again and again, capturing every harsh breath that left him.

Merlin clung tightly to the man above him, legs wrapping around him, feeling their release slick upon his stomach, the hard stone floor against into his shoulders, the weight of Arthur upon him. Real, he told himself.  It was real, it was happening, all of it, it was real

“You’re not alone,” Arthur said to him.  “Not anymore.” 

Merlin stared up at Arthur, who was smiling down at him, fond and amused and slightly worried.  “You swear this is really happening?”

Yes, Merlin, for god’s sakes, it’s really happening,” he said, exasperated now.  “Do I have to hit you over the head to knock some sense into that thick skull of yours?”

“All right, all right,” Merlin said, and was rewarded with another of Arthur’s brilliant smiles. “It’s just… you have no idea… How long I’ve wanted…”

“I know. And I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. I’m the one who’s to blame for-“

“Stop,” Arthur said gently.  “Please, Merlin.  Just… don’t.”

“Sorry.”

Arthur bent to press his nose into Merlin’s neck.  Inhaling deeply.  Exhaling with a satisfied hum.

Merlin smiled, a delirious and wonderful thing. “What smells so good?”

“Vanilla.  Spice.  Soap.” Arthur lifted his head, an eyebrow quirking upward, a wry smile pulling at his lips.  “Sex.”

Merlin raised his eyebrows, feeling so far out of his depth with this new side of Arthur that he didn’t know how to respond.  “Are you flirting with me?”

"Why would I be flirting with you?” he asked, but flirtatiously, Merlin felt.  “I’ve already had my way with you.”

“On the floor,” he pointed out.

Arthur looked around the corridor, as if surveying his kingdom.  “It’s a good floor.”

“It really is.”  Merlin grinned up at the beautiful man laying half naked atop him. “Arthur?”

“Yes, Merlin?”

“We just had sex in the hallway.”

Arthur chuckled to himself. “We did, didn’t we.”

“We really did.”  Merlin grinned at the replica of the old halls of the castle.  “We couldn’t have done that in Camelot.”

“Not with how loud you were being.”

“You weren’t so quiet yourself!”

“That was your fault.  That thing you were doing.  There toward the end.”

“What thing is that?”

“You know.”

To his amazement, he saw a color fill Arthur’s cheeks.  “I don’t think I do,” Merlin said curiously, because he was remembering how Arthur had enjoyed tormenting him earlier.  “What was it, exactly?”

“With your hand.  And my-  And your-  You know what I mean.”

Oh this was going to be fun, Merlin thought, enjoying a bit of smugness now himself.  He simply couldn’t wait to introduce Arthur to the many, many things that would put that blush on his cheeks.

Merlin grinned wickedly, enjoying the way Arthur’s eyes went a bit wide in response. “I suppose you’ll just have to show me what thing you mean the next time.”

Arthur’s smile faltered as he stared down at Merlin. “Next time,” he said softly.

His tone had Merlin tensing.  “That is… if you want… a next time…”

“Is that what you want?”

“Yes,” Merlin said at once, his voice breaking on the word.  

“Good,” Arthur said. “That’s what I want as well.”

For several long moments they just lay there upon the floor, grinning at each other.

Finally Arthur shifted atop him, which wasn’t quite as pleasant as before, because they were messy and half clothed and things were beginning to dry and cool on their skin.

“One of us should get a cloth to clean up,” Arthur pointed out.

“How about the one who is laying on top of the other one,” Merlin suggested.

“Lazy,” Arthur scolded him, as he pushed himself off and to the side, wincing as his bare hip came in contact with the cold floor.

Merlin stayed where he was, stretched out on the stone floor, not caring that he was half undressed, perfectly content to watch Arthur pull at his clothing to keep it away from the wet patches on his body.

Arthur glanced over at him, starting to speak, then paused, his eyes sliding down Merlin’s body and back up to his face, more color filling Arthur’s cheeks.

And then Arthur surprised him again, by leaning back over him, to press another kiss to his lips, much more chaste than their other kisses before.

“I’m going to wash up,” Arthur said against his mouth.  “And then ready myself for bed. Join me after you’ve done the same.”

“Bed?  At this hour?” Merlin said curiously.  “But it’s still early.”

Arthur sighed loudly.  “Please do not tell me you’re actually dimwitted enough as to think that I mean we should-”

“Oh!” Merlin opened his eyes wide, laughing at himself.  “You mean-  But not really- Right.”  He gave an exaggerated wink.  “I understand.”

Arthur shook his head, laughing as he climbed to his feet, adjusting his clothes and his body into a state of decency far too quickly for Merlin’s liking.  When he’d finished, Arthur stood over him, his eyes sweeping over his body again, not hiding it in the slightest, before heading off to the washroom.

Merlin pushed himself up to his elbows and stared down the hallway, a stupid grin on his face, his trousers still open, fluids cooling on his body. 

“Bed,” he said happily, and got up to do as Arthur had said.

After fetching sleeping clothes in his chambers, and then yielding to temptation and fetching a bottle of oil from his bedside drawer, Merlin went to clean up in the washroom, and change into soft sleeping trousers and a t-shirt. 

He padded down the hall barefoot, pausing only to smile stupidly at the spot where he could see the floor was a bit more polished than the rest of the stones. 

We had sex in the hallway, he thought giddily, and snickered to himself, before heading with more haste down the corridor.

Arthur’s chambers were dimly lit by the fading light outside the open windows.  The cast soft light on where Arthur lay stretched out on the bed, sheets pushed down to his waist, waiting for him.

Merlin placed the item from his room upon the bedside table, then stood and stared in amazement at the sight before him.  

That is one hell of a view, he thought, as his gaze slid up Arthur's bare chest to his smiling face.

“You swear I’m not asleep and just dreaming you,” Merlin said, because his throat had gone tight with emotion, and he didn’t want to lose control again.

“Get in the bed and I’ll show you how real I am,” Arthur told him in a rumbling voice.

And perhaps if Arthur hadn’t punctuated the statement with what he’d always privately called Arthur’s ‘bedroom eyes’, then Merlin wouldn’t have snorted out a laugh. 

But unfortunately he did, and he had to slap a hand over his mouth to stifle the half choked off sound, because he knew damn well Arthur had not meant for that to be funny.

Arthur pushed himself up onto an elbow, the sultry expression he’d been attempting totally vanishing.  “What are you laughing at?”

“Nothing. No. Nothing at all.” 

“Come on, what’s so funny,” Arthur demanded, looking like he had a good idea about the answer, and was none too happy about it.

Merlin climbed into bed, grinning despite Arthur’s put-out expression. “I was just, you know, wondering how often that look actually worked on those visiting nobles’ daughters, is all.”

“What look?” Arthur said, clearly offended.  “I wasn’t giving you a look.”

“You remember that this is me you’re talking to, right?  Do you know how many feasts I spent in your presence, watching you every second, while you charmed your way through the five kingdoms?”

Arthur gave him a slow smile, laying down again, a muscled arm folded beneath his head.  “Watching me every second, was it?”

“No- I- Not-  Just so that you didn’t get poisoned or stabbed or something.” 

“What part of me were you watching the most, would you say?” Arthur asked casually.

“I only meant…” 

Merlin let the words trail off.   Because he had stared.  He had stared often, and at everything.  Possessively.  Protectively. 

“All of you,” he admitted.  “All the time.  That’s what I was watching.”

Not something Arthur had expected to hear, judging by the sadness that touched his eyes.  “All those years…”

Merlin lay down on his side facing Arthur, tucking an arm under his head. “I didn’t know then.  What it was.  It wasn’t until later that it was stupidly obvious.  How I’d always felt about you.”

Arthur reached over and picked up his hand.  Fingers sliding between his own.  Thumb rubbing over the back of it.  “I know what you mean.”

Merlin lifted Arthur’s hand.  Pressed his forehead to Arthur’s knuckles.  Eyes squeezing closed.  Fighting a swell of emotion. 

Mine, Merlin thought.  He’s mine, finally mine, and I’m in his bed, after so long, god it had been so long, so many years, so many centuries, so alone, so lost-

“Stay with me,” Arthur said softly.

Merlin lifted his head, saw that Arthur looked blurry on the bed next to him.  He blinked, sending tears sliding down his face.  “What?”

“Come on.  Roll over.” 

“Roll over?”

“Just…”  Arthur nodded to the lakeside window.  Shoved his shoulder.

Merlin turned over onto his side, facing the window.  The bed moved, and Arthur pressed against his body, chest against his back, arm winding around his waist, hand sliding up his chest, to press over his heartbeat, as he had so many nights before.

And then Arthur kept curling around him.  Hips pressing under the curve of his backside.  Legs warm beneath his thighs.  Shins against his calves.

Merlin drew in a startled breath. “Arthur?”

Arthur slid his hand over Merlin’s chest, back and forth.  “Hmm?”

“You’re not wearing any-“  Merlin opened and closed his mouth on the words a few times.  “You’re… naked.”

“And you’re overdressed.  Unless you were actually intending to sleep?”

Sleep?” Merlin snorted out a laugh.  “Do you know how hard it’s been, trying to actually sleep, when you’re laying like that against me?”

“Oh I think I know exactly how hard it’s been.”

Merlin felt the bed shake with Arthur’s silent laughter.  Yet another side of Arthur he’d never imagined.  This tender and affectionate and playful Arthur. “You seriously did not just make a joke about-”

“It’s your fault,” Arthur said, laughter still in his voice.  “You drive me to insanity.  You and your absurd lips and your maddening fingers and your scandalous neck.”

Merlin drew in a long deep breath as Arthur’s lips dragged over the back of his apparently scandalous neck, followed by the slide of his tongue. 

Arthur’s hand had begun moving on his chest as well.  Exploring now.  Fingertips and fingernails down and up his shirt, before grabbing at the material, pulling it upwards. 

“Take this off,” Arthur commanded, his voice low and rumbling.

Merlin scrambled out of his clothes, nearly hitting Arthur with his elbows and kicking him with his feet.  He settled back under the bedding completely naked and feeling scandalous. 

I’m naked in Arthur’s bed in Arthur’s chambers, he thought wildly.  And the idea of it, and the little bit Arthur had touched him already, had already made him hard, his breathing speeding up in anticipation of whatever was coming next.

“I’ve never seen you do anything so fast,” Arthur said, wrapping himself around him. 

Merlin closed his eyes, focusing on the feeling of Arthur’s body pressing against his, warm and naked and- oh yes, he’s hard too, he thought wildly, that’s his erection sliding against me, good god

Arthur hummed his pleasure, pressing his mouth to the back of his neck again, wet and sloppy and relentless. “I’ve been wanting to do this for days,” Arthur sighed against his skin.

“Been wanting that too,” Merlin said.  “You have no idea.”

Another hum of pleasure, as Arthur slid his hand over Merlin’s chest. “Look at you.  Nothing but skin and bones.”  His fingers traced his ribs, moving across his abdomen, before sliding downward, between his legs, to take him in hand. “Well.  Except here.  You’re very solid right here.”

Merlin’s shivered as Arthur’s fingers slid along his erection, slow and deliberate and familiar, as if he’d done it a thousand times before, and knew perfectly how to tease the pleasure from his body.

“I thought you said-“ Merlin drew in a sharp breath at a sweep and twist and curl of Arthur’s fingers.  “You’d never done this- sort of thing- before?”

“Never,” Arthur said, nuzzling into his hair.

“Oh god,” Merlin breathed into the pillow, and shoved his hips forward into Arthur’s touch.  Because if Arthur was this good already then he was absolutely done for, in the most wonderful way imaginable.

“Wanton thing,” Arthur murmured into his ear, still keeping his caresses light.  “Honestly, the state of you.”

Merlin shoved his hips forward, but Arthur moved his hand away.  Growling his frustration, he grabbed Arthur’s hand, wrapping it around his erection, to thrust into his closed fist.

Arthur pulled away, grabbed Merlin’s hand, and planted it firmly upon the mattress by his chest.  “It’s not a race, Merlin.”

“No, it’s torment,” Merlin whined, as Arthur resumed with his light touches.

“Is it really?” Arthur asked, sounding genuinely curious.

Merlin forced himself to relax.  Shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “I just…”

“Just what?”

“Never bothered to take my time with it.”

Arthur pushed himself up on an elbow, his hand stilling.  “In all those years?  All those companions of yours?”

“Weren’t that many.  And they weren’t you.  So it wasn’t…”  He turned his head to look over his shoulder, towards where Arthur lay behind him.  “I never bothered.  Taking things slow.”

Arthur bent forward, kissing him deeply, passionately.  “That’s going to change now.”

Merlin drew in a sharp breath as Arthur’s fingers stroked the length of him again.  A high pitched noise came from his throat as he strained his hips forward for the grip of Arthur’s hand.  “Can it change next time?” he choked out, his body starting to tremble.  God, he wanted, so much, and he wanted now-

Arthur chuckled to himself, mouth pressing to Merlin’s neck.  “Just this once,” he said, and tightened his grip, and sped his hand.

“Yes,” Merlin said, nodding enthusiastically at this decision, “that’s- that’s perfect, keep doing that, oh god, that’s…”

“Look at you,” Arthur said into his ear. “I should have known.  You country boys.”

“Was totally innocent… before I… that, do that again, faster...”

“Demanding,” Arthur said, and leaned forward, sliding his mouth along the rough stubble of Merlin’s jaw, nosing at his cheek, seeking his lips. 

Merlin turned his head to accept a passionate kiss, feeling Arthur rutting against him now, slow thrusts that slid his erection along his backside and between his thighs.

“Want you,” Merlin breathed into his mouth, dizzy with arousal.

“Yes,” Arthur breathed, and pressed forward, only to fall into the space Merlin had hastily vacated.  “Where are you going?”

Merlin nearly fell out of the bed grabbing for the bottle he’d brought with him.  Arthur laughed softly as he fitted himself back where he was, fumbling open the vial.

Arthur settled back against him, pressing kisses to his neck, his hair. “What are you doing?”

Merlin reached back and took hold of Arthur’s hand, pulling it forward to liberally douse his fingers and his hand with the oil.

“Oh,” Arthur said wryly.  “That.”  He pulled his hand from Merlin’s grip, sliding it down his abdomen and between his legs.

“Not that,” Merlin said breathlessly, and he took hold of Arthur’s hand, guiding it behind him, between their bodies, down the base of spine, past his tailbone. 

And then, gloriously, inside

“This,” Merlin choked out.  “This…”

Arthur’s head dropped heavily to the pillow, and he moaned, as Merlin guided his fingers. “That is just-“  Arthur made a small noise, choked and low.  “God, that’s…”

Yes,” Merlin sighed, as he guided Arthur’s hand.

“Let me,” Arthur breathed into his neck.  “I can do it, let me…  Here… Like this?”

Merlin jolted on the bed, his leg kicking, choking out a cry of pleasure.

Arthur sighed against his skin.  “God, Merlin…”

Merlin clawed the sheets by his chest, his entire body thrumming with pleasure, as Arthur got the idea astoundingly quickly, then improving upon it, each time he heard Merlin make a sound of pleasure.

When Merlin was moaning with nearly every breath, Arthur withdrew his fingers, shifting his hips, his erection pressing against where Merlin’s body was slick and open and wanting

Arthur tightened his arm around Merlin’s chest, breathing hard into his ear.  “Can I-?“

Yes,” Merlin choked out, and he felt a sudden motion behind him, and then a pressure, a glorious pressure, and he had barely any time to think of what was about to happen, before Arthur thrust deeply inside him, all in one powerful movement, his hips driving hard against him.

Merlin jerked and cried out, in surprise and in pain and in pleasure, because he’d forgotten the overwhelming intimacy of being filled like this, and it was Arthur, dear god, Arthur was inside him.

He reached his hand back to grab Arthur’s hip, stilling him, utterly overwhelmed, hurting and not hurting, too much and not enough, and he never wanted it to stop, what he was feeling right now, because they were connected and whole and he was Arthur’s, utterly, this was proof, this connection, that he belonged only to Arthur, that Arthur belonged to him-

“Are you hurt?” Arthur breathed, even as he pressed his chest against Merlin’s back, his muscles shaking violently against his body. “What should I-”

“Don’t move,” Merlin choked out.  “Just- need a moment.“

Gods, Merlin, you feel…”  A huff of breath, and the press of Arthur’s forehead against his neck, the tightening of Arthur’s arm around his ribs.  “No words,” he whispered.

Merlin nodded, over and over again, because yes, it was like that for him too, but he couldn’t manage to speak, even as Arthur feathered chaste kisses against his neck, his hair, as they lay joined in the most intimate way possible.  

“You are a marvel.” Arthur said, and he cupped the side of Merlin’s face, turning him to be kissed, gentle little things, so much more tender than what had just happened.  Or was about to happen. “Overwhelming.  Amazing.”

“Yours,” Merlin choked out.

“Yes. You are mine. As I am yours.”

Merlin opened his eyes to see beautiful blue eyes staring down at him from a face flushed red with passion.  There was no trace of mocking there.  Just a pure, and wondering, love. 

He tried to speak, to try to say anything of what was filling his heart, but he couldn’t.  Instead, he reached back to slide his fingers through Arthur’s hair, pulling their mouths together. 

“Please,” Merlin whispered into Arthur mouth, and pressed his hips back against him.

Arthur nodded, dropping his head to Merlin’s neck, drawing his hips slowly backwards, and holding there a long moment, before thrusting deeply back inside.

Merlin choked out a cry, loud and involuntary, his body shuddering.  Arthur tightened his arm around him, and repeated the movement, his movements purposeful, careful, his breaths punching from him with each thrust, each one slow and possessing. 

Never in his wildest fantasies had Merlin imagined Arthur would be like this. So deliberate, so measured.  His body pressing hard with every joining, claiming him with each motion. 

The deep rhythmic rocking was so intoxicating, so overwhelming, that Merlin didn’t even think to put a hand on himself, not until he felt Arthur’s hips finally move faster, his breaths speeding up, his motions losing coordination.

Merlin wrapped a shaking hand over his erection, but Arthur pushed it away, wrapping his own fingers around him, sliding them over his skin with a slick hand, still teasing, as he thrust into him.

“Please,” Merlin heard himself beg, his face half pressed into the pillow, as Arthur claimed him again and again.  “Please-“

“Yes,” Arthur moaned, and he tightened his hand, stroking him harder and more swiftly with each thrust inside.

The room was full of wet sounds, and the creaking of Arthur’s bed, and of cries, Merlin could hear cries, he thought wildly, before realizing they were his own, as he writhed on the bed and felt pleasure swelling in every part of him, in every cell, until with a surprised cry, his release washed through him and over him, and he trembled and jerked and came and spilled hot and wet over Arthur’s hand.

His body was still jolting with aftershocks of pleasure when he heard Arthur growl behind him, an animal sound, low and dangerous.

Merlin was still marveling at the raw desperation of it when Arthur shoved him flat to his stomach, and scrambled frantically on top of him. 

Yes, Merlin thought, as he felt Arthur’s weight fall heavy upon his back, his breaths loud and panting in his ear.  Wild, he thought desperately, yes, god, be wild for me, my warrior, my king-

Arthur grabbed him around the waist, hauled his hips upward, shoved his legs apart with his knees, and then thrust deep inside him again, collapsing forward upon his back with an anguished groan.

Merlin’s cry was lost in the pillow as Arthur trembled over him, a surprised sound choking from him, as if startled by what he’d done.

Arthur,” Merlin moaned into the bedding, and he reached back to grab Arthur’s bare hip, pulling frantically at him. “Yes, yes, come on, fuck me-

Arthur choked out another sound, startled and desperate, his face pressing into Merlin’s back.  He pulled his hips away, then sank deep into him again, with another gut wrenching moan.

Merlin shoved the pillow away, and planted his hands against the headboard, pushing back against each thrust, teeth ground together because it felt so good, so good.  “Faster,” he ground out, “Arthur, move-“

Arthur moaned against his skin, thrusting wildly into him, both arms around his chest, face pressed into his back, sweat slick between them.

“Yours,” Merlin whimpered, as his king claimed what was his again and again, wild and passionate and desperate. 

Always, always yours, he thought, or said, or both.  My king, my soul, my love.

Arthur cried out, his voice loud and echoing in the room, his body tensing.  He shuddered violently, his hips giving small thrusts, breaths punching from him, as he twitched inside with his release.

He held there a long moment, panting, small sounds escaping him with each breath, until he slowly relaxed, a deep breath sighing from him.

Merlin felt Arthur’s weight collapse heavy upon him, crushing him to the bed.  With a loud groan, Arthur dropped his forehead to the pillow beside his cheek. 

For a long moment, Arthur lay top him, heaving in deep breaths, his chest pressed to Merlin’s back, hot and slick with sweat.

As Arthur recovered, Merlin lay beneath his heavy weight, smiling in perfect bliss.

He turned his head just enough to press his forehead against Arthur’s temple.  Nose to his cheek.

Happy, Merlin thought, as he breathed in the smell of Arthur’s sweat soaked hair.

This is what it feels like to be happy. 

Arthur rubbed his nose against Merlin’s, sighing. 

Merlin pulled his head back on the pillow, peering at Arthur in the candle light, at hair that looked like it had been through a windstorm, and cheeks flushed red with passion.

I forgot it could feel like this, Merlin thought in wonder.  Like you never want the moment to end.  Like everything in the world is alive and wonderful.  Like you’re in a bubble of perfection. 

Merlin was still smiling when Arthur blinked open his eyes, and looked at him in wonder.

“That,” Arthur said, his tone full of disbelief.  “Was…”

“Hmm?”

“Breathtaking.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes.  You are.  That was.”  He slid his hand over the mattress.  Found Merlin’s hand.  Threaded their fingers together. “Gods, Merlin.”

“We need to do that again as soon as possible,” Merlin said into the pillow. 

He heard Arthur moan, in what he thought was exasperation, but astonishingly, he felt a small movement, where Arthur was still inside him. “Oh,” he breathed.

Arthur burrowed his nose into Merlin’s neck. “It’s like I’m eighteen again.”

“Been spending extra time in the shower myself.”

Arthur shifted atop him.  “It’s getting a bit…”

Merlin shifted his hips, just slightly, making some of his favorite bits of Arthur’s body slide from him.  He made a small noise, cringing a bit, wondering how sore he was going to be tomorrow. 

Then he remembered he would be sore from having sex with Arthur, and he smiled stupidly, happily imagining himself cringing whenever he sat down, only to grin about it right afterward. 

And if people asked him why he was cringing and smiling, he’d just tell them it was because Arthur had buggered him quite soundly through the mattress last night, after having sex with him in the hallway, and wouldn’t that be a nice tale to tell.

“Are you… all right?” Arthur asked, sounding unsure if he was supposed to ask.

“Very all right,” Merlin assured him.  “You all right?”

“Oh yes,” Arthur chuckled into his ear, sliding a rough cheek against Merlin’s.

Merlin sighed beneath him, feeling boneless under Arthur’s considerable weight.  He’d had no idea how much he liked being held down and taken until Arthur had done it.  He’d certainly never given himself over to anyone else like that before.  But why would he have?  He didn’t belong to any of the others, after all.  Not like he belonged to Arthur. 

Arthur nudged his cheekbone with his nose, another ridiculously tender gesture.  “I must be crushing you.”

“No.  Well. Yes.  A little.  But… It’s good.”

“It is?”

“Hmm.  I feel… Anchored.”  

And human, he thought.  Yes.  It had been centuries since he’d felt this human. He’d forgotten what that felt like too. 

“To me?” Arthur asked, genuinely curious. 

“To everything.”  Merlin turned his head to look at where Arthur was peering at him.  “But mostly to you.”

Arthur shifted forward, a hot and sweaty and heavy weight upon him, to press his lips to Merlin’s again, but was only partially successful because of their positions on the bed.

“Go on,” Merlin said fondly.  “Get comfortable.”

With a grunt, Arthur climbed off of him, and flopped onto his back, arms and legs splayed out.  Merlin watched him reach up over his head, and grab something blue from between the headboard and mattress. 

“Is that my neckerchief?” Merlin asked, pushing himself up to his elbows, to watch Arthur wipe himself off with it. 

“What would I be doing with your neckerchief?” Arthur said, affecting total innocence. 

Merlin laughed, surprised again by the man at his side.  “Were you using this to-“  He gave Arthur a scandalized look.  “Oh that is filthy.”

Arthur arched an eyebrow and smirked at him, unrepentant.

“There are a few of these missing, actually,” Merlin scolded him, as Arthur wiped at his body with his apparently very debauched neckerchief.

“Are there really?”  Arthur threw the cloth at him and pulled the sheets back over himself from where they’d gotten shoved to the foot of the bed.  “You really should keep better track of your things.”

“Lucky for you I didn’t,” Merlin said wryly, as he wiped himself off, before tossing the cloth to the floor. 

He looked over at Arthur, who lay stretched out on his back, bare chested, sheet pushed to his waist, arms folded behind his head upon his pillow.

As the silence between them stretched on, Arthur frowned, curious.  “What?”

“It’s just… strange.  Isn’t it?  This?”  Merlin gestured between the two of them.  

“Strange?” Arthur repeated, as if he’d lost his mind.  “This is what you call strange.  Out of everything that’s happened to us. This, between us, is the part you find strange.”

“Well-”

“So not the part where I was dead over a thousand years, or where you’re immortal, or the ridiculous magic running rampant everywhere, or the laptops or mobiles or automobiles or Mars-”

“You know what I mean,” Merlin said.

Arthur sighed at him, relenting.  “All right.  Yes. I do. But I wouldn’t call it strange, exactly.  I’d call it…”

“What?”

“Rhifegh ahn gifarweh,” Arthur said, the Brittonic falling beautifully from his lips.

Merlin smiled in delight, because Arthur was right, and there was no expression in English for this feeling.  But that phrase from their old language… that fit it perfectly.

It spoke of something known yet unknown.  Familiar yet strange.

It spoke of the turning of the seasons.  The changing of the years.  The patterns of life.   

It spoke of them.

“Come here,” Arthur said, and pulled at him.

Merlin allowed himself to be manhandled into position at Arthur’s side, but only because he was able to press his nose into Arthur’s neck, his leg sliding between Arthur’s, his arm and hand moving over Arthur’s bare chest.

“You do realize that I’m not actually a weepy princess,” Merlin said into Arthur’s warm skin, as Arthur covered them both with the sheet.

“I am aware you’re not a woman, yes, astonishingly enough,” Arthur told him. “There have been little hints here and there.”

Little?” Merlin said, lifting his head.

“Not… No… I meant…” Arthur glanced over at him, going a bit red.

“Are you blushing?” Merlin asked, eyes wide.

“I don’t blush.”

“You do when you’re talking about my cock,” Merlin said.

Arthur looked scandalized.  He opened his mouth, closed it, then grabbed Merlin’s head and shoved it back down to his chest.  “The mouth on you,” Arthur said, attempting to sound cross.

“Yes, the mouth on me,” Merlin said wickedly, and he pressed it to the skin of Arthur’s chest, licking playfully. 

Arthur swatted at his shoulder, but laughed softly, sounding pleased.  “That bed of yours really is befitting a weepy princess, though,” he said, clearly trying to shift the subject.

“There’s nothing wrong with my bed.”

“Despite the fact that you haven’t slept in it since I got back.”

“Because of you and the dark.  And me and my dreams.”

“Not entirely,” Arthur said softly.

Merlin smiled against Arthur’s chest, relieved to hear it, though he’d figured it out already.

“We’ll have to try your bed next,” Arthur said.  “This one creaks so loudly that I thought it was going to collapse.”

“That wasn’t exactly the bed’s fault, the creaking.”

“No, it was your fault.”

“Me?”

“Yes.  You and your… Your everything.  Driving me to a madness I’ve only ever in my life felt in the heat of battle.”

“Really only ever then?” Merlin heard himself ask, in a very small voice, because apparently he actually was a weepy insecure princess, and would now be taunted mercilessly by Arthur about it.

“Really,” Arthur said, and he kissed Merlin’s hair, and slid fingers tenderly over his shoulders and down his spine, to draw lazy patterns on his back. 

Merlin stared across the room, caught off guard by the ridiculously tender gestures. “Were you always like this?  After?”

“Were you always like that?  During?”

“No,” Merlin said firmly.  “Never.  That was only with you.” 

“Only ever me?” Arthur asked, sounding very reassuringly insecure himself now.  “In all those years?”

“Yes. Only ever you.”

Arthur slid both arms around him, settling in more firmly against him, sighing.

Merlin relaxed against the warmth of Arthur’s side, even though his leg was sweating against Arthur’s skin and his arm was squashed beneath his own body and the firm mattress.  “My bed might be better for this part.  It’s a bit softer.”

“It’s on the list, don’t worry.”

“List?”

“Of places I’m going to claim you,” Arthur said casually, as if he were talking about the weather. “Would you like to hear it?”

Merlin made a small noise, and nodded eagerly.

“Here, of course.  And your chambers.  And the bedroom downstairs.  And that ridiculously opulent sofa in your living room.  And the downstairs dining table-“

“My dining table?” Merlin asked, his voice deep with sudden arousal, even after all they’d done.  Arthur had a list, he kept thinking. 

“The dining table is your fault.  Showing me those damn pants of yours.  I almost bent you over the table right then and there.”

Merlin choked out an embarrassing noise, his imagination grabbing hold of an image of exactly what Arthur was describing.

Arthur laughed softly, sliding his thigh against where Merlin had already begun to get hard.  “Really,” he said, sounding impressed.  “Already.”

“Shut up,” Merlin muttered into his shoulder.  “It’s been a long time.”

“How long?”

“There was a war on.”

“Which one?”

Merlin pressed his face into Arthur’s neck, breathing in the smell of his king.  “I can’t remember.  It doesn’t matter.  None of it matters.  They weren’t you.”

A quiet sigh.  And then he felt Arthur’s nose push into the top of his mussed hair, a kiss following it.

Merlin had to close his eyes. Force himself to breathe deeply. Because it was too perfect.  This moment.  It was absolutely too perfect.  Something horrible was bound to happen any second.  Absolutely the world was about to end.  Because this…

This was everything he had ever wanted.  Had ever dreamed of.

“All right?” Arthur asked softly.

Merlin nodded, face pressed into warm skin.  I fit perfectly here, he thought, and he pressed closer, half aroused and half drifting into sleep and entirely content.

The third time he caught himself falling asleep, he drew in a sharp breath, struggling to keep his eyes open.

“Go on to sleep,” Arthur said, sounding very much awake.

“Don’t want to,” Merlin muttered against his neck. “I have a list too.”

“Oh you do?”

“All the things I want to do to you.  For you.  With you.  Such a long list.”

“We’ll start to work on it first thing tomorrow morning. It will be my official agenda for the day.”

“Promise?”

“Yes, Merlin.  I promise.”

Merlin started to relax.  But then he remembered.  All the past nights.  All the nightmares.

“I’ll wake you if you dream,” Arthur assured him.

Yes, he thought.  Arthur would be there. He lifted a hand to Arthur’s chest, pressed his palm over Arthur’s heartbeat, his eyes drifting closed.

“Go on,” Arthur said.  “Sleep.”

“Yes, my lord.”

He’d almost drifted off when he felt Arthur’s hand cover his.  “Say it?”

“Hmm?”

“What you really meant.  Just now.  When you said ‘my lord’.”

Merlin smiled.  “Heard it, finally, did you?”

Arthur pressed another kiss into his hair.  “Say it for me?” he whispered.

Merlin threaded his fingers through Arthur’s.  “My king.  My life.” 

He squeezed his eyes closed.  Tried to push the words past his lips.

“Please, Merlin,” Arthur whispered.

“My love,” Merlin choked out.

Arthur’s arms tightened around him. “Just as you are mine.” 

Merlin pressed his face into Arthur’s neck.  Felt Arthur’s hands sliding over his body, slow and light, relaxing him into sleep.

“Rest, Merlin.  I’ll watch over you.”

“Not a princess,” Merlin muttered, as his thoughts swam.

“Yes, I know, you’re a mighty sorcerer, now shut up and go to sleep before I hit you with something and knock you unconscious.”

Merlin smiled dazedly.  “Yes, sire,” he sighed, and finally yielded to the pull of sleep.

Chapter Text

 Arthur had only just drifted off to sleep when he felt Merlin start to dream.  It was a subtle thing, just a tensing of his arm, a twitch of his cheek. 

Arthur pressed his lips to Merlin’s forehead and slid soothing fingers through thick black hair.  “Merlin,” he said softly.  “Wake up.  You’re dreaming.”

Merlin made a small noise, his dark eyelashes fluttering upon his pale cheeks, tickling Arthur’s shoulder, before he went still once again.

Arthur settled his arms around Merlin’s shoulders, nosing into the thick hair he’d made messy with his own fingers, inhaling the now familiar scents of spice and vanilla and sweat and sex.

It feels so amazingly natural, he thought.  To have Merlin here.  In his bed.  In his arms.  Warm and naked and draped over his body, his sharp hip bones and flat chest pressed against him. 

‘Rhifegh ahn gifarweh’, Arthur thought.  Familiar yet new.  That was very much how this felt.  Which only made sense.  Because that’s how Merlin had felt to him ever since he’d stepped out of the lake.

Although, to be quite honest with himself, Merlin had felt that way in Camelot as well, hadn’t he.  Known yet unknown.  Not only because of Merlin’s secrets and his magic.  But because of the deep bond between them.

Arthur stared into his candlelit chambers, smiling faintly, thinking that it was a very good thing indeed that they hadn’t acted upon their feelings for one another in Camelot.  If they had, he would have had his guards bursting through his door on a regular basis in response to the noises they would have made.

Because gods above they had been loud in their lovemaking, Arthur thought.  They’d been loud and wanton and shameless, and Merlin most of all, when Arthur had climbed upon him and claimed him, mindless and half mad with need.

Arthur tightened his arms around the strong shoulders of the man at his side, wondering at the intensity of their coupling.

I had no idea that it could be that way, he thought. 

Only in battle had he ever felt such wild intensity.  It had robbed him of every shred of control.  And when he’d sought to reign himself in, Merlin had urged him onward, into further reaches of frenzied passion, grabbing at him, calling him his wild king, his warrior, his love.

Only for you have I ever been that, Arthur thought at him.  Only ever for you.

He relaxed into the bed, well and truly exhausted, as if he’d trained for hours.  But the damned sheets were wet under him, and his skin was itching from the oil, and it wouldn’t let him get truly comfortable.

After checking to make sure Merlin was sound asleep, Arthur extracted himself from the bed.  He settled Merlin under the sheets and blankets, pulled on a pair of breeches from the floor, then crept from the room to go wash up. 

He took his time in the washroom, cleaning himself with a warm rag, glancing at his reflection as he did so. 

I look like I’ve just fought in the melee, he thought.  His hair was mussed and sweaty, his neck and chest blotchy, his muscles twitching from strenuous exertion, particularly his thighs and legs.

Arthur drew in a deep breath, remembering Merlin writhing and wild beneath him, shoving back into every thrust of Arthur’s hips, pleading for Arthur to fuck him, a wonderfully filthy modern word that had sounded like sex itself falling from Merlin’s lips.

The thought of it all had him growing hard, and he had to adjust his sleeping trousers.

Stupid of me to stand here and think about it, he told himself.  It would be much better to go back to my chambers and actually do more of it instead. 

And there was indeed more to do, wasn’t there. Because apparently Merlin had a list.

But on the way back to his chambers, Arthur decided to take a quick detour downstairs.  There was still food upon the table from dinner, he remembered.  It could provide excellent nourishment upon waking.  That way they could set to work on that list of Merlin’s right away.  And on his own list as well for that matter.

A list which included certain activities on this very table, Arthur thought wryly, as he took some apple tarts from the dining table and stacked them onto a plate.  Yes, he had definite plans for Merlin and this table. 

After picking through the food that had been set out, Arthur rummaged through the ice box, and found a wonderful assortment of scones and sweet breads there. 

Bless Eleanor, he thought, as he added scones to his plate.  For this, and for showing him Merlin’s letter earlier that day.  He’d have to find a way to repay her.  A title, perhaps.  She had so enjoyed it when he’d called her ‘Lady’.

After closing the ice box door, Arthur turned to leave the kitchen-

-and felt pain stab through him like a blade.

His plate fell from numb fingers.  Shattered to the floor. 

He staggered sideways, his shoulder hitting the wall, his heart beating wildly. 

A thousand fingers clawed at him.  Tried to pull him from where he should be.  Tried to force him somewhere he did not belong.

“Merlin,” he choked out, and clutched at his stomach.

Beneath his feet, the earth began to quake.

Glasses rattled on their shelves, pictures shaking upon their walls.

Arthur squeezed his eyes closed, fighting a rising wave of nausea. 

In his mind’s eye he saw the Lake of Avalon full of golden light, bubbling violently up against a glowing blue net.  As the net thickened and glowed brighter, he saw the mountain protecting Camelot crumble to dust, and the manor fall to ruins, and Merlin collapse to the grass at his feet, eyes wide and golden and unseeing.

Arthur pushed himself from the wall, shaking his head to clear it. The trembling of the earth and the weakness of his legs dropped him at once to the ground, but he grabbed hold of the furniture and the wall and pulled himself back up, shoving himself forward, towards the stairwell.

The net was tightening. The claws tearing at him.

In the corridor upstairs Arthur fell twice more, his legs giving out under him, but each time he scrambled back to his feet and charged forward, his heart pounding itself out of his chest in panic.

Because down the hall he could hear Merlin screaming.

Arthur fell upon his chamber doors and yanked them open, to find his rooms filled with blue glowing mists and ribbons of gold light and swiftly moving miniature white stars.

Merlin’s body was arching under the sheets, arms thrown to the sides.  “Arthur!” he cried out, voice breaking in his anguish.

Arthur staggered forward, falling onto the bed, scrambling over the mattress to collapse atop Merlin.  “Wake up!” he shouted, though as he spoke the words he knew that this was no simple dream, that the things around them were not Merlin’s doing, that this time they were in danger-

Merlin’s eyes snapped open, unseeing, glowing gold.  “I’m doing it stop it stop it give him back give him back I’m doing it!”

The clawing intensified, tearing at him, while the light of the room grew brighter around him and the earth shook beneath him.

Arthur pushed himself onto his elbows and pressed his hands to the sides of Merlin’s face.  “No magic without your king’s permission, Merlin!  You swore a solemn oath!   Don’t you dare break it!”

Merlin stared wild eyed at the ceiling, blinking over and over, the gold within his eyes fading and surging, as if uncertain.  “Give him back,” he whimpered.  “Arthur-

“I’m here, Merlin, it’s Arthur, I’m here, I’m safe.”  He felt his strength give way, and he collapsed down upon Merlin’s body, pressing them both to the bed, almost too weak to do anything but turn his head and press his lips against Merlin’s ear. “Listen to me,” he forced out.  “The magic you’re doing must be stopped.  Do you hear me?  Now obey your king’s command and stop this!”

Merlin gasped sharply, the gold fading from his eyes.  When his breath rushed from him all the tension of his body went with it, and he collapsed, motionless, upon the bed.

The glowing lights vanished.  The shaking of the earth ceased.

In the silence that followed he heard Merlin whisper his name. “Arthur?”

Arthur pushed himself to his elbows, looking down into dazed blue eyes, realizing that his strength had returned, and the sensation of being clawed apart had vanished as well.

Merlin flung his arms around Arthur and pressed his face into Arthur’s neck, lips against his pulse. “You’re alive,” he breathed against his skin. “You’re alive...”

“You dreamed I was in danger,” Arthur said in a low voice.

Merlin nodded, his trembling increasing, his breaths heaving from him.

Panicked, Arthur thought.  Terrified.  Desperate.

Vulnerable.

Arthur turned his head to stare out the lakeside window at the ruined tower, his eyes narrowing, his jaw tightening, his body tensing.

Because he was thinking about dreams.

And about magic.

And about war.

As Merlin clung to him, the greatest sorcerer to ever walk the earth brought low by his own fear, Arthur thought about Camelot. 

About all that he had lived through, and seen, and suffered, and learned.

He thought of the gruesome dreams of the Dark Tower that had lead his Knights into danger. Of the terrifying hallucinations that had weakened his father’s rule. 

He thought of Cenred’s armies besieging his castle from without.  And of Agravaine’s men infiltrating the citadel from within.

He thought of people he’d mistakenly trusted, because they were his kin. People who had lied to him, because they desired his power, or they feared what he would do with it.

And he thought, too, of the creatures of the Old Religion on the Isle of Avalon.  Of what Gaius had written about them.  Of what Merlin had said about them.

Arthur felt his breath catch in his chest.

Of course, he thought. 

Of course

Beneath him he could feel Merlin still trembling, even more violently than before, his breaths growing quicker, more out of control. 

With great care he moved on the bed to lay at Merlin’s side.  Merlin turned with him, as if frightened to lose contact, pressing himself as completely as he could against Arthur’s body, his legs in a jumble with his own, his ear pressing to Arthur’s chest, over his heartbeat.

“Breathe, Merlin,” Arthur said softly, and he slid his fingers through Merlin’s hair to soothe away his panic, just has he’d done so many nights before. 

He waited until the worst of it had passed before speaking.

“I was in the lake, wasn’t I,” Arthur said.  “You dreamed I was being pulled back through the Gates of Avalon.”

Merlin looked up at him in open astonishment.  “How did you know that?”

He began to answer, but then remembered the Lady of the Lake. 

Of her speaking to him in secret ways.  Of how she’d returned his sword to him when he’d been alone, in the depths of the night.  Of how she’d pressed her finger to her lips.

“What else happened in your dream?” Arthur asked instead.  “Tell me all of it.”

“Ropes of magic attacked you from beneath the lake.”

“You saw them as a threat then.  These ropes of magic.”

“Yes,” Merlin said emphatically. “They were the things pulling you under the water.  They were going to take you back if I didn’t do something for them.”

“Do you remember what it was?”

Merlin gave a confused shake of his head, brows pulled together, lips pressed thin.

Arthur looked out the window again, at the tower upon its isle, silent in the moonlight, appearing for all the world as if it had been abandoned for a thousand years.

“Merlin,” he said, “do you trust me?”

Merlin pushed himself up to his elbow. “What kind of question is that?”

“A question I want you to answer.  Do you trust me?”

“You know that I do.”

“Good.” Arthur leaned forward and kissed him, deeply and passionately, until he felt Merlin relax against him, a sound of contentment rumbling from his throat.  With reluctance, Arthur eased the kiss into something more tender, before finally leaning away.  “Better?”

Merlin gave him the wide delirious smile of the truly besotted.  Not a single trace of any of his earlier panic remained.  “Better,” he sighed.

“Wonderful,” Arthur said.  “Now let’s go.”

Merlin sat up, frowning at him, as Arthur climbed out of bed.  “Go?”

“You’ll need to get dressed.”

“Dressed?”

“Formal clothes, for ceremony,” Arthur said, walking over to his wardrobe.

“Are we expecting nobility to visit us?” Merlin asked, and laughed softly.

Arthur stared at him.

The smile melted from Merlin’s face.  “Arthur-“

“No questions,” Arthur told him.

“No questions about what?”

“That right there is a question, Merlin, and I just said no questions.  Were you not listening?”

Merlin climbed from the bed, staring at him as if he’d lost his mind.  “Have you been at the wine while I was asleep?”

Arthur grabbed a pair of sleeping trousers from his wardrobe and threw them at Merlin, who was distractingly naked in the moonlight.  “Go and do as I say.”

Why?” Merlin pressed, completely ignoring everything he’d been told to do.

Which was hardly a surprise, Arthur thought.  And which meant that he was going to have to tell Merlin at least a small part of it.  Because Merlin had never been good with following orders to begin with.  He was simply horrendous at it if he didn’t understand what was going on. 

“I’m afraid,” Arthur said in a low voice, “that I can’t tell you why.”

Merlin pulled on the trousers, his expression moving from curious to suspicious in a heartbeat.  “Arthur-“

“Do you remember,” Arthur interrupted, “how you knew about the old path over the ridge?  Answer me with yes or no.”

Merlin had gone very still, his eyes dark in the dim light. “Yes.”

“Do you remember what I asked you in the vaults?  A concern of mine, that you thought was no concern at all?”

Merlin stared at the floor a long moment.  Then he looked sharply up at Arthur, at first surprised, then angry.

Arthur tilted his head, a subtle motion that only Merlin could interpret as ‘yes, as it turns out, I was right’.

Rage pinched Merlin’s expression, and he turned to glare over at the window.

Arthur grabbed his shoulders and turned him away from watching eyes. “I need you to swear something to me,” he said, keeping his words slow, his voice firm. “Are you listening, Merlin?”

Merlin had been glancing towards the window.  At the tone, he returned his attention to Arthur. “Yes, sire,” he said firmly.

“I need you to swear to me that you’ll do as I command.  Without question.”

The pain of fifteen long centuries of loneliness shone clearly from Merlin’s eyes. “You don’t know what you’re asking of me,” he whispered.

“I do.  I’m asking for you to trust in me.  Just as you did long ago.”

Merlin hesitated longer than Arthur would have liked. “I swear it, sire,” he said finally.

“Good.”  Arthur took Merlin’s arm and guided him to the door.  “Now go and get dressed.  Formal clothes for ceremony.  And fetch your staff as well.”

“My staff? From-?”

“Yes.”

Merlin grabbed hold of the doorway, his head bowing, his breath heaving from him. 

Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Arthur thought. 

“Arthur…” Merlin whispered, sounding as if a question was going to follow, but then falling silent.

“Believe in me,” Arthur said firmly.  “As you once did.”

“There’s nothing that I believe in more,” Merlin said, and he forced a small, sad smile.

Arthur had to fight against a powerful urge to take him into his arms.  “Go and find something to wear that doesn’t look like you’ve scrubbed the floors with it,” he forced out.  “And a jacket as well.  I feel like an evening stroll.”

“Yes, sire,” he said firmly, drawing his shoulders back, a flash of strength in his eyes now, or of resolution, both of which were a good start. 

Arthur watched him walk down the corridor, almost at a march, and found himself thinking that perhaps they did have a fighting chance after all.

When he was alone, he closed both his doors, and walked barefoot to lakeside window, to stare out at the tower.

The sight of it in the moonlight reminded him of how it had appeared in the images shown to him by the crystals.

They were the key to this, he thought.  

The tower.  The lake.  The Stone Circle.  Excalibur.  He and Merlin upon the shore.

And his vision, he thought.  That played a part too. 

Of standing in his throne room. Of the sparkling strand of gold that had stretched from Merlin’s wrist to his own, and on to the hilt of his sword, and from there into the ground. 

‘You will know what to do.’ 

‘Now we won’t get lost.’

In the silence of the night, Arthur drew in a deep breath, grinning wildly, a surge of excitement speeding his heart.  The same savagery he’d felt before the first clash of a sword, the first cry of battle.

I know what you’re about now, Arthur thought at the tower.  Finally, I know. 

And what’s more, I know, now, what to do.

 

Chapter Text

Merlin had to dig through four wooden chests in his library before he found the clothes he’d worn at the last formal ceremony in Camelot.  Which had been Arthur’s wedding to Gwen. 

He nearly fell twice pulling on his dark breeches and stockings and boots, then somehow got tangled in the laces of his red tunic, and finally almost choked himself tying on his purple neckerchief.

Something had happened, he kept thinking. Something awful enough that it had set Arthur upon a course of action he could not even discuss.  Because apparently they were being watched.

Merlin fought back an urge to use his magic to see if it were true. Arthur had not told him to do it.  And he could not ask for permission with them being observed.

Who was doing it? he wondered.  How are they doing it?  The manor should be safe.  His enchantments and the stones themselves enough protection.  But apparently they weren’t.  And Arthur had known, when he himself hadn’t.

It seemed impossible.  But Arthur had seemed very sure.  And then he’d urged trust, and belief, and obedience. Which were all very, very bad signs, Merlin thought.  Because they all meant the same thing. 

Something horrible was about to happen.

Stop, he told himself firmly.  Don’t think about that.  Just focus on what Arthur told you to do.  Just focus on what he needs.  You can face this with him, whatever it is.  You can face anything for him.  Even if it means dying for him, or as near to it as you can get.

Merlin retrieved the Sidhe staff from under his bed, a dozen more horrible thoughts trying to force themselves into his mind, and then strode with it from his chambers. 

As he walked down the corridor his muscles ached, sore in ways that he would have liked to savor without the interruption of imminent death.

“Story of my damned life,” he muttered.

When he yanked open the doors to Arthur’s chamber, he froze in the doorway, staring.

Arthur was standing in the middle of his rooms, in his chainmail, and red cloak, and dark breeches, and boots.

Excalibur was sheathed in the scabbard at his belt.

And upon Arthur’s head was his crown.

Oh my god he’s beautiful, Merlin thought, which he knew at once was not what he should be thinking.  What he should be thinking was ‘why is he dressed that way’.  But he couldn’t help himself.  In the flickering candlelight, dressed in his regal attire with his golden crown, the sight of his king took his breath away.

I will die a thousand times to protect this man, Merlin thought desperately, as Arthur stepped over to him, to fuss with his jacket and neckerchief, as if they were preparing to attend a feast together.

“You wore this at my wedding,” Arthur said.

“You remember how I looked that day?” Merlin asked, proving once again that his brain was utterly uninvolved with the nonsense coming out of his mouth. 

“You weren’t the only one who was watching constantly,” Arthur said in a clearly flirtatious tone, which was utterly disorienting, because weren’t they about to die horrible deaths now?  And here was Arthur, flirting?  And still fussing with his jacket?

“I- Arthur- What?”

Arthur gave him one of those fond but exasperated looks that suggested a distinct lack of brainpower on the part of his servant. “There is something missing, however,” he noted.

Merlin looked down at his jacket. “There is?”

“I have it over here.”

He followed Arthur to his dining table, to the wooden box that sat upon it. The one that had held his crown all those centuries. 

Arthur reached into the box and withdrew a small round metal medallion that bore a raised cross and a dragon.  “This belonged to my mother,” he said.  “It bears her sigil.”  He stepped very close to Merlin, taking hold of his jacket, to attach the medallion to the cloth, right over his heart.

“Arthur, I can’t…”

“Just… take it,” Arthur said gently, glancing up at him with his blue eyes earnest now.  When he’d secured the medallion in place, he rested his palm upon it. “When you look at it, remember that we stand together.  You and I.  Always.”

Merlin felt his throat tighten, and his stomach twist, positive now that something horrible was about to happen. “Please tell me what’s going on,” he whispered.

Arthur twitched his brows together.  Stern, reproving.

“Right,” Merlin sighed.

Arthur stepped back from him, his cloak swaying around his legs, his expression hardening, his hand gripping the hilt of his sword.

Battle ready, Merlin thought.  He straightened out of reflex, drawing in a deep breath, feeling the weight of the sigil on his chest. 

“Beautiful night for a stroll, don’t you think, Merlin?” Arthur asked casually, his light tone in stark contrast to his narrow blue eyes, his thin smile.

“Whatever you say, sire,” Merlin said.

“I should like to have that in writing,” Arthur noted, as he strode past.

Merlin choked out a laugh, then hurried to follow his king, as he strode down the corridor, his cloak trailing behind him, his crown sparkling in the torchlight.

They made their way down the corridor in silence, their bootsteps echoing from the stone walls, Arthur’s chainmail links scraping softly together, Merlin’s wooden staff thumping into the floor every few steps.

Without a word Merlin followed Arthur down the stairwell into his residence, and from there out the North Tower door, into the cool humid air.

It was a night like any other, he thought, as Arthur lead him down the moonlit hillside.  Only a few frogs and crickets disturbed the soft whisper of the waves.  No other creatures stirred.  At least, none that he could see.

Merlin’s gaze kept straying to the tower upon its isle. He wanted desperately to reach out to the ancient magics.  To see if anything had changed.  

He felt his magic bubbling within him, restless and dissatisfied.  The urge to do something was dizzying.  But he resisted it.  It was an old impulse.  A bad habit.  Taking action all on his own.  Making decisions for his king. 

Once, long ago, he’d tried to save Albion all alone.  And for fifteen centuries he’d lived with the consequences.  Fifteen long, lonely centuries.  He would not be making that same mistake again.

I will follow Arthur’s lead, Merlin told himself angrily.  I will do what he tells me.  I will.  Even it leads me into the very mouth of hell.

Or somewhere very close to it, Merlin thought, as he followed Arthur into the park, to the heelstone of the Stone Circle of Avalon.   The exact spot where he’d sent Arthur away so long ago.

Merlin stepped to Arthur’s side and planted his wooden staff upon the ground.

Arthur drew his sword and held it before him, shoulders back, chin lifted. “I am King Arthur Pendragon of Camelot!” he yelled to the tower, in his battlefield voice.  “I demand an audience with the Elders of the Sidhe!”

All around them, silence.

Just the water rippling to the shore.  The crickets and the frogs.

Merlin glanced over and saw Arthur’s jaw tighten, as expected.  Arthur had always hated being ignored.

“All right,” Arthur said.  “If it’s to be that way.  Let’s get their attention.”

“How?”

“Let’s begin,” Arthur said sweetly, “by blowing that damned tower to hell.”

Merlin felt his breath rush from him, his eyes widening, his heart beating wildly in his chest.  “You… want me… to…”

Arthur turned a brutal, mirthless smile to him.  “Destroy the tower.”

“Destroy the tower,” Merlin whispered, dizzy at the thought of it.

Now,” Arthur commanded, his voice filled with swords and blood and vengeance.

Merlin felt himself nodding, over and over, because oh god, yes, please, that damned tower, he was going to be rid of that damned tower, how he loathed that damned tower-

“And Merlin?”

“Yes, sire?”

Arthur clapped a strong hand on his shoulder. “Don’t be subtle about it.”

Merlin laughed from deep in his chest, a hysterical and horrible sound, and he was laughing still when he turned to face the lake to bring the perfect spell to his mind, because he’d had fifteen centuries to plan how he wanted to destroy this blasted thing, he’d bloody fantasized about it, and here was Arthur, ordering him to do it-

“Straight to hell, Merlin,” Arthur said bitterly, from where he’d stepped behind him, to watch over his shoulder.

Merlin set his feet solidly on the earth, stared wild eyed at the tower, magic dancing upon his skin, elemental and powerful and singing-

With a ferocious yell Merlin shoved out both arms straight in front of him, his magic exploding from him, careening across the lake, stabbing deep into the heart of the tower.

Within the tower every stone remembered it had once been the earth, and that the earth had once been fire, and that fire should burn-

The tower glowed yellow, and then white, and then exploded with a thunderclap that shook the ground.

Its massive fireball roared outward, turning night to day, expanding in all directions across the lake, blindingly bright like a sun, before its fires faded to red, and then orange, and then finally to a grey ash that floated softly down upon the surface of the lake.

Merlin dropped his arms, staggering, choking out a strangled laugh.

Because the island was empty.

Nothing stood upon it at all.

Tears filled Merlin’s eyes, and he drew in a deep wheezing breath, and burst out laughing again, positively hysterical with it, his body shaking so violently that it almost took his legs out from under him.

He felt Arthur’s hands upon his shoulders, steadying him.

Merlin turned a proud grin to his king.  “You mean like that, sire?” he asked, his voice stupidly high and tinged with madness.

Arthur looked upon him with grim satisfaction. “Enjoyed that, did you?”

“You have no idea!” Merlin yelled to the heavens.

Arthur stepped to his side, squeezing his shoulder, hard. 

Merlin got himself under control, though his heart was still beating wildly. “What do you want me to do next?” he asked, staring in shock at the empty island.  Gone, he thought. It’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone-

“What we do next depends entirely upon our friends the Sidhe,” Arthur said.

As if in response, blue mist rose from the lake and its island.  A dozen small white lights floated up from within the mist, to dart back and forth over the water.   

“Well look at that,” Arthur said bitterly.  “It appears we have been granted an audience.  How courteous of them.”

One of the lights sped towards them, to stop at the water’s edge. 

Arthur approached the lake, his sword held at the ready.  Merlin hurried to stay by his side, following him until they stood with their toes nearly in the water.

Merlin could feel ancient and powerful magic radiating from the Sidhe Elder in its flowing robes with its small wooden staff.  The small blue creature was hovering nearly motionless in the air, its blue wings beating rapidly, so that even Arthur could see it clearly.

It looked, Merlin thought, extremely angry.

Arthur appeared unbothered.  “I bid you welcome, Lord Elder of the Sidhe,” he said formally, as if he were upon the steps of his citadel, with all of his Knights lined up behind him.

“You dare to attack the ancient home of the Sidhe!” the creature bellowed, its voice deep and echoing despite its size.

You dare to attack us on our lands,” Arthur growled out in response. 

“Attack?” Merlin asked.

“Your dreams, Merlin,” Arthur said over his shoulder.

My dreams? he thought.  But they weren’t-

The Sidhe Elder looked over at him, sneering. 

And Merlin felt his breath surge from him, as if he’d been kicked in the stomach. 

“My dreams,” he whispered, as a dozen hints and signs that he should have noticed before all finally now resolved in perfect clarity.

Idiot, he thought viciously. To not even consider, not even for a second, that his dreams could have been caused by something outside of him!  And he should have!  He absolutely should have, because of the timing of them, and the nature of them, and even the feeling of them!

But no, he’d been so blindly terrified of the unthinkable, of becoming Morgana, of turning into everything he hated, that he never stopped for one second to consider any other alternative.

Watching us, Merlin thought bitterly, through a dizzying cloud of rage.  They’ve been watching us- watching me!  So of course they knew I would react that way!

“Upon what grounds have you attacked us?” Arthur demanded. “What is it you want?”

“We want what is ours!” the creature hissed at him.  “The power beyond the Gates of Avalon!  He will bind it to us, now, so we may take our rightful place within the ancient magics of the world!”

 “You could have just asked me to help!” Merlin burst out.  “I’ve helped others rejoin the ancient powers before without them torturing me into doing it!”

The small creature sneered at Merlin, its small face full of disgust.  “The Sidhe do not need your help to leave, Emrys the Abomination, Traitor of the Old Religion!  We need you only to bind to us what is ours!”  The Elder flew in front of Arthur’s face, inches from his nose.  “Tell your servant to do as the Sidhe command!”

“What if I do?” Arthur challenged. “What do we get in return?”

“In return, we will leave,” the creature said, and offered a sharp toothed smile. “In return, the price for your life will be paid, and you will not be drawn back through the Gates of Avalon into darkness and death.”

Merlin surged forward at the same time as Arthur stepped to block his path, clearly anticipating his loss of control at the threat.

“I see,” Arthur said casually.  “So then it’s the Sidhe who are to decide the price I am to pay for my life, is it?  And it’s the Sidhe who control my ties to Avalon.  Is that what you’re telling us?”

The creature’s expression visibly twitched. 

“An interesting story,” Arthur said. “But then… most lies are.”

The creature hissed, its wings flapping furiously.

“In the interest of peace,” Arthur said in a tight voice, “I will overlook your… mistake.  Just as I am willing to overlook all of the mistakes of the past.”

Merlin watched Arthur lower his sword and step back, giving the small creature space, regarding it calmly despite all that had happened.

He was negotiating, Merlin realized.  Even after all that had happened, Arthur was trying to negotiate peace.  Just as he had long ago, when he’d offered a king grieving his murdered son a truce.  Or when he’d offered a queen mourning her murdered husband half his own kingdom in exchange for a battle of champions. 

“I want peace between us,” Arthur was saying to the small creature, with a nobility that made Merlin’s heart ache.  “But there can be no peace without honesty.  The time for deception, and lies, must end.   Here.  Now.  With us.  So I will ask you once more, my lord Sidhe.  If I tell Merlin to do as you ask, what will happen?”

The creature bared its teeth, pointing its staff at Arthur furiously.  “The Sidhe owe you no answers!  We have been here since before your kind spread like a plague upon the world!  Who are you to demand anything of us!”

“I am the one whose name was uttered in prophecy since before you were ever born!” Arthur growled at him.  “And I am the only one with the power to give you any part of your demands!  If you refuse to deal with me, then these negotiations are at an end!”

Arthur turned to walk away, his cloak swirling around his legs.

Eku kjadra endolez!” the Sidhe roared, and thrust his staff forward.

Scildan!” Merlin yelled, shoving out an arm, so that the Sidhe’s magic rebounded harmlessly against a glowing golden sphere.

The creature roared in anger, hovering furiously outside Merlin’s protective shield.

“You will give us what we want, Emrys the Abomination!” it roared. “Through the ceaseless torment of your dreams or through the madness that claims you after the death of your little king!  When you are hollow and broken and lost you will be ours to do with as we wish!  And when we are finished with you we will make you beg us to end your miserable existence!”

Arthur moved so quickly that Merlin only heard the whistling of his blade, slicing through his spell and the Sidhe Elder, before the creature exploded like a firework of light and magic.

 “I think not,” Arthur said bitterly, his breath heaving from him.

At the center of the lake, all of the white lights of the Sidhe were darting around madly.  Several dozen more were rising up from the blue mists, which were rippling and surging upon the surface of the water.

“They are definitely going to kill us,” Merlin said.

“They’re welcome to try.” Arthur grabbed Merlin’s arm and pulled him two steps forward, so that their feet were in the lake.

“What are you doing?”

Arthur crouched down and stared into the water. “They’re distracted. Can you show yourself?”

At Arthur’s feet, the water stilled, and Merlin could see a woman staring up at them, her hands raised to press against the top of the water from beneath.

“Freya,” Merlin breathed, and he crouched down beside Arthur, reaching into the cold water.  But his hand passed through hers as if she weren’t there at all.

“They’ve been holding her prisoner, along with the rest of the magics of Avalon,” Arthur said in a low voice, extending his hand into the water.  “Here.  Reach through me.”

Freya’s hand closed around his, and he pulled her up, standing with her.  She smiled in relief, water dripping from her dark dress and long hair. “Thank you sire,” she said.  “Hello, Merlin.”

“Freya?” Merlin asked, dazed.  “What-?”

“Behind you,” Arthur said, pointing to the lake.

Several Sidhe had separated from the group and were speeding towards them, armed and murderous.

Abædaþ drýlicu,” Merlin hissed, magic surging from him, eyes flashing gold.  

Between where they stood and the Sidhe attackers, the air rippled and warped.  When the Sidhe struck the distortion, they rebounded violently from it, ricocheting to the far shore.

Merlin turned to find Arthur speaking with Freya in hushed whispers.

“Then it can be done,” Arthur was saying.

“It cannot be undone for all his long life, my lord,” Freya said softly.

“I understand,” Arthur said.

Merlin frowned at both of them. “Arthur, what-“

“The lake, Merlin,” Arthur snapped.

A dozen more Sidhe were rushing towards them.  They passed through his magic barrier with a surge of their own magic, swiftly closing in on their location.

“Right, fine, don’t tell me what’s going on,” Merlin muttered angrily. “I’ll just stand here and keep us all from getting killed, then, shall I?”  He swept an arm in front of him, growling out “foerbaernan!” and then watched in furious satisfaction as the water beneath the Sidhe caught fire in a spectacular fashion.

“Sire!” Freya called out.

The blue mist all over the lake had brightened, and thickened.  At Freya’s feet it was surging upward to engulf her.

Arthur staggered sideways, grimacing, arm grabbing around his stomach. 

“Hurry, sire!” Freya called, as she watched the mist climb over her. “Remember the anchor or you both will be lost!  And time!   You must make time!”

“Freya!” Merlin shouted, reaching to her, only to have his fingers close on fading blue mist.

“Merlin,” Arthur choked out, and then fell hard against him.

Merlin caught him around the waist, supporting him, even as his own stomach twisted, and his head started to spin.  Arthur had gone ghostly white in the moonlight, even his lips pale as snow. “What’s happening?” Merlin asked, staggering on weakening legs.

Arthur shoved the point of his sword into the water by his feet, slicing it back and forth.  Where the blade touched the water, the mist receded, but then flowed back at once after it had moved on. 

“It’s the Sidhe,” Arthur said weakly.  “They’re strengthening the-“  He squeezed his eyes shut.  Grabbed the back of Merlin’s neck.  Shoved his head forward.  “Look down, Merlin.”

Merlin stared at the lake, fighting his own growing dizziness and weakness.  Around his boots and Arthur’s the thick blue mist undulated and thickened, growing brighter every second.

“Not that way,” Arthur growled, and cuffed him on the back of his head. “Come on, Merlin-“

“Right- Sorry-“  Merlin closed his eyes and shifted his focus, to touch the ancient magics of the world. 

What he saw at his feet took his breath away.

Because the mist wasn’t mist at all.  It was a net of of enchantments.  Millions of enchantments.  Incredibly ancient and immensely strong.  All focused on restraining a greater and more ancient magic deep below.

Avalon, Merlin thought in wonder, and he tilted his head, looking past the Sidhe magic, into a churning golden volcano of ancient power.  It shone like the heart of a star, its tendrils reaching deep into the earth and out hundreds of kilometers in all directions.

Freya was there. He could sense her.  She was safe, but trapped, so long as the powers of Avalon were trapped.

And she wasn’t the only one. 

“Arthur,” Merlin whispered, and he looked over at his king.

Golden threads of magic from beyond the Gates of Avalon stretched up through the Sidhe magic, right to where they stood.  Golden threads that wound around and through Arthur’s body, connecting him to the ancient forces. Golden threads that were snapping, as the Sidhe who were gathered in the middle of the lake strengthened their chokehold of enchantments upon the power below.

Merlin staggered, and Arthur with him, feeling the horrible pull of the Sidhe magics.  It’s because we’re tangled, he realized.  My magic through Arthur.  His ties to Avalon through me.  That’s why it was affecting them both.  Though Arthur far worse than he.

He felt something clawing at him, ripping at him. 

Arthur grabbed onto his shoulder hard, choking out a pained and rattling breath that reminded him of stumbling towards this lake fifteen hundred years ago.

Dying, Merlin thought in a panic.  He’s dying-

“Why didn’t you say something!” Merlin demanded, wild and desperate.

“No time for that,” Arthur said through clenched teeth.  “The island, Merlin- The source of their power-  You have to destroy it.”

Merlin glanced over his shoulder, saw the Sidhe all go very still above the center of the water, evidently still watching them.  “I can’t,” he said, as he hauled Arthur up against him.  “If I destroy the island, the enchantments will crumble, and all of the magic of Avalon will burst free all at once!  It will rip the world apart!“

“It won’t.”  Arthur squeezed his eyes closed, his face contorting in pain.  “For once in your damned life, Merlin, will you trust me and do as I say!”

Arthur’s hand fell upon Merlin’s chest, his pale fingers closing around the medallion pinned over his heart.

Merlin saw more of the strands of magic that held Arthur to life snap and break. 

Yes, Merlin thought wildly.  Yes.  All right.  Destroy the island.  To hell with the world anyway.  The world was nothing without Arthur in it.  And if Arthur said to destroy the island, then that’s what he was going to do.

“Watch me,” Merlin said breathlessly, turning them both to look into the center of the lake.

 “Hurry,” Arthur whispered, resting his forehead against Merlin’s cheek, his golden crown cold against Merlin’s temple.

In the center of the lake, the Sidhe began massing for an attack. 

“Here goes,” Merlin said desperately, tightening his arm around Arthur’s back, hearing Arthur’s breaths turn to weakening wheezes. 

He stretched out an arm, and without even bothering to utter a spell, he reached through the ancient magics of the world, following lines of power deep into the ground, to find where the rock and dirt and magic bound the island to the earth.

With a vicious surge of magic, Merlin pulled.

Beneath their feet, the earth shuddered.

Stranglican en flówendlioan,” Merlin said, sending another burst of magic into the untethered land mass.

Beyond the frantic Sidhe, the island glowed with white light, as solid matter transformed itself into its liquid form.  It melted into the lake with the sound of a roaring waterfall, sending waves in all directions.

The blue mist undulated all over the surface of the water, dimming in some places, vanishing completely in others.

Arthur drew in a deep breath and stood entirely upright, his blue eyes wide and bright in the moonlight.  He raised his sword, giving Merlin a proud grin.  “Very subtly done,” he said conversationally, as if he hadn’t just been nearly dead in Merlin’s arms.  Again.

“I really do hate you sometimes,” Merlin said, through his indescribable relief.

“You really don’t,” Arthur turned to the center of the lake, and frowned.  “We appear to have a small problem,” he noted.

“The end of the world?” Merlin asked, because below the rapidly dissipating blue mists, the water had begun to glow faintly gold.

“The Sidhe, Merlin,” Arthur said impatiently, pointing with his sword to where a hundred lights were racing towards them, their magic warping the air as they flew. “The little problem is the Sidhe.”

“Was that a size joke?” Merlin asked nervously. 

“Just a little one,” Arthur said.

Merlin snorted out a laugh despite himself.

“Feel free to stop them whenever the mood strikes,” Arthur said.

Merlin started to raise his hands, then felt a swell of power from beneath the lake. “I don’t think I’m going to need to.”

A geyser of golden magic erupted from the churning waters, shooting five meters in the air, engulfing a dozen of the Sidhe at once. When it vanished, they were gone.  Another eruption followed it, in another location, taking out a dozen more warriors. 

Everywhere that the blue mist had vanished, golden magic was surging up from the lake, boiling to the surface, bursting up and falling back in glowing arcs of light to the water, like flares on the surface of the sun. 

Beneath their feet, Merlin felt earth begin to quake. 

The Sidhe scattered in all directions, retreating into the night.

“That is not a good sign,” Merlin said, looking around at the bubbling golden waters around his feet.

“Come on,” Arthur said, grabbing Merlin’s arm.  “We don’t have much time.”

“Time to do what?” Merlin asked, as he was pulled over to the heelstone of the Stone Circle.  “Time to stand here and die?  Because that’s what’s going to happen when the last of the Sidhe spells are gone! On account of you ordering me to rip out the bloody source of their power!  And free the largest collection of magic I’ve ever seen in my life!”

“We’re going to be fine,” Arthur said, as he paced around the heelstone, examining it closely. 

“Oh, we are?” Merlin said incredulously. 

“Yes, we are, once you channel the magics beyond the Gate of Avalon into yourself, and then distribute them through the earth.”

Arthur had spoken confidently, as if this were a perfectly logical solution, instead of the stupidest thing Merlin had ever heard in his entire life. 

What?” Merlin burst out, his voice echoing across the boiling golden water, over the rumbling of the earth.

“It’s the only way to put the world back into balance, even you must see that,” Arthur said impatiently.

This was your plan all along?” Merlin yelled.  “When you told me to rip the island out of the earth?  For me to harness the power of Avalon?  Are you mental?  I can’t control that much power!”

“You don’t know until you try,” Arthur insisted.

Merlin staggered as a strong vibration rose up from beneath them, making the leaves in the trees hiss with their shaking.

“Give me your hand,” Arthur said.  When Merlin just stood and stared, Arthur grabbed his hand, turned his palm upward, and then sliced Excalibur’s blade across his flesh.

“The hell, Arthur!” Merlin yelped, trying to pull away, as Arthur pulled him forward, to slide his bleeding palm painfully along the rough rockface of the heelstone.

“For the anchor,” Arthur said, releasing him, so that he could slice his blade across his own palm, and then drag his bleeding palm over Merlin’s blood on the stone. 

When he’d finished, he lifted his blade over his head, and then drove it deep into the heelstone, through the stains of their blood.  Golden light sparkled around the metal as it passed into the stone, shining from the sword’s hilt when Arthur released it.

“And now your staff,” Arthur said, grabbing it with his wounded hand, pressing Merlin’s bleeding hand against it as well, and then shoving the staff deep into the stone, through the trails of their blood, right beneath his sword.

“How do you know how to do any of this?” Merlin asked in a daze, because this was ancient magic, and though he still didn’t grasp what it was for, somehow Arthur did.

“Later,” Arthur told him, grabbing onto Merlin’s hand, their blood slippery between them.  He pulled Merlin deep into the lake this time, striding forward until the cold water was to their waists, Arthur’s cloak floating behind him.

Merlin watched the last of the Sidhe enchantments disappear.  The lake shone with gold, its waters churning, the earth heaving beneath their feet.  “I don’t think there’s going to be a later, Arth-“

Raw power pulsed through Merlin’s body, scattering his thoughts, electrifying his blood, vibrating through his bones.

“Hold fast to me!” came Arthur’s voice.  “Dammit- we’re not done-!“

Another surge of power washed over Merlin, and he gasped, his body arching backward, his head tilting so that he could see the stars wheeling above him in pinwheels of color and power and light. 

“Bind us together!” Arthur yelled into the ear.  “Quickly, Merlin.”

Bind us, he thought dizzily.  He looked down at the thousands of gossamer golden strands of the magics of Avalon that wound around his king.  Silver ropes of his own magics already wound tightly around Arthur too, stretching from his own magics.

“Ropes of magic,” he whispered, staring at them, dizzy with power.  “No-” He tried to pull his hand from Arthur’s grasp, where the feeling of connection was strongest. But Arthur wouldn’t let go.  “Ropes- no-“

“They’re not a danger, they’re the answer, Merlin!  Now hurry- Take hold of me- Take hold of the anchor- Of Excalibur in the stone- And bind us all together!”

Merlin felt himself fall forward against wet chainmail, his medallion pressing into his chest, his cheekbone resting upon soft material covering a strong shoulder. “Can’t do that to you-“ he choked out.  “If I bind you- to me- You’ll be- immortal-“

Another wave of power had him convulsing, scattering his thoughts to the wind, dragging him out of his body, away from the lake, into the surging forces of the world.

Arthur squeezed his hand in the cold water, a brilliant point of contact and pain, snapping him back into himself.  “I know, Merlin,” Arthur said firmly, his lips cold and wet and moving against his own lips. “Now do it, please, before everything we worked to build is lost.”

The ‘please’ drove Merlin’s resistance from him, and he collapsed against his king, sending ropes of magic around the sword of legend, and through the staff beside it, and down through the heelstone, into earth, before stretching back to them both, to wind around them both, before repeating the cycle, over and over again. 

The sword, the stone, and the both of them together, in the lake.

“It’s done,” Merlin breathed out, and he wanted to cry, and wanted to laugh, but he couldn’t remember why anymore, not with the ancient magics singing in his head. 

Free, it wanted to be free, he could feel it far below, calling to them. It had been caged for so long.  It wanted to be free, now, to flow over the earth.

“It knows you,” Merlin said in wonder.  “It knows both of us.”

“Tell it to trust us,” Arthur said into his ear.  “Ask for time to channel it back into the earth without destroying everything.  Ask nicely, Merlin.”

Merlin closed his eyes, the power singing in his blood, in his bones. 

Or no.  Those weren’t his bones.  Those were the rocks. Those were the mountains.  And it wasn’t his blood either.  It was the rivers.  It was the seas.

He felt hands moving over his back, sliding up into his hair. 

“Don’t forget who you are,” came Arthur’s voice.  “Don’t forget who I am.  You belong to me, remember?  And I to you.”

A pressure against his chest.  Something round and hard over his heart.

Merlin forced his throat to work. “Hold me.”

“I am holding you.  Now come on.  You can do this.  I believe in you.  I always have.”

Merlin reached into the churning magics deep within the earth, so powerful, so ancient. 

But he was ancient too, wasn’t he.  And here, deep within the earth, was his home.  This w