When he tells people that he is a ghost hunter, people tend to be far more impressed than they ought to be, really.
Merlin has been a little off since he was a child. When he was six, his mother caught him conversing with seemingly no one in the garden—only now they are aware that there had been a girl’s ghost, afraid of the way no one had seen her and spoken to her, and that Merlin’s kind conversation had made her brave enough to cross over.
At the time, his mother had thought it was just another one of Merlin many, many oddities. Merlin hadn’t known he was strange for having a nice talk about the plants in their garden with a little girl, and hadn’t noticed, in the way that children are both completely observant and inattentive at the same time, that there had been anything a little bit off about the way she’d shimmered in the daylight, half-there and half-gone.
When Merlin tells people he is a ghost hunter, he thinks about that little girl and the comfort she’d needed, and tries to explain it’s not so much hunting as it is giving them someone who will listen and who will—metaphorically—hold their hand as they leave the only world they’ve ever known.
He considers that little girl his first client, still.
Most of the time, his job tends to be peaceful. People call him in when there’s rumours of a ghost going around, and it’s true half of the time. At times, it’s something else entirely, but Merlin can sometimes fix those problems, too, with his—gifts. He rather stays quiet about those, though. It’s bad enough to be mocked for being a ghost hunter, and his other gifts are more subconscious than anything else, and not something that he can control. Not like the ghosts, at least.
Usually, really, the ghosts aren’t malicious. They are just drifting; they are scared, alone, in turn waiting for what comes next and trying to hold onto their long-lost life. They need someone to be brave for, and Merlin is content to be that person.
Not this ghost, though. This ghost screams bloody murder at Merlin’s attempt to help him move on to the afterlife
“I have been here for a thousand years,” the ghost tells him. He pouts, and it makes his otherwise proud face look a bit ridiculous. “I don’t see why I should leave. I think you should leave.”
“Well,” Merlin says, and tries to sound like a reasonable and rational person. “It’s just, there’s a kind of grumpy old man who bought this castle and his people are trying to repair it. And it’s bad for them, the fact you’re scaring off all the workers.”
“It’s my castle,” the ghost says, affronted, and that figures—he does sort of have that haughty, royal look about him. “Look, I’m very sorry that people have been frightened, but it’s rather rude, isn’t it, to break into someone’s home and repair it? I was never informed about anyone selling this castle. How can they, in fact, when it’s mine?”
“Well, usually, you lose all your belongings upon death,” Merlin says, and his brain screeches to a halt. “Wait, you’ve been here a thousand years?”
“Do keep up,” the ghost says, and makes a big show of crossing his arms. Merlin’s candle flickers—there’s no electricity yet, in the castle. It’s little more than a ruin, honestly, and Merlin understands why, now. “I’m aware of how it usually works, obviously, but I hardly think that’s the case here. I’ve been left alone for all this time now, and I don’t see why it needs to change.”
“Because someone bought the castle,” Merlin says slowly. “Look, I’m sorry, it’s just—I’ve been doing this a long time, you see—”
“—I doubt that, you can’t be over twenty-five—” the ghost interrupts.
“—Twenty-eight, actually, but you see, I’ve never seen a ghost older than thirty years. There’s not many of us who can talk to ghosts, and even those who linger usually figure it out pretty quickly—”
“I can’t just leave,” the ghost says, and Merlin falters. He wants to say more, but the expression on this ghost’s face convinces him to let it be, for now; there’s a hitch in the ghost’s voice, and a solemnity in his face that convinces Merlin that yes, really, this ghost doesn’t believe he can leave, or maybe, he doesn’t believe he ought to.
But that is what Merlin is here for. Although he’s not entirely certain how to convince a thousand-year-old ghost that maybe there really is some peace beyond this half-life. It’s not as if Merlin knows what comes next, after all.
“Why don’t you tell me your name?” Merlin asks, gently, and sits down on the steps. This must have been the throne room, once upon a time, but he only has a passing familiarity with castles. The fact that ghosts don’t tend to linger ensures the fact he doesn’t have to be in them that often, despite popular belief.
The ghost eyes him. “And then?”
“And then we can talk,” Merlin says. “Just talk. I promise. You must have a great deal of interesting stories to tell, if you’ve been here for that long. And I like to think I’m a good listener.”
“Arthur,” the ghost says, haltingly. “That’s my name. Arthur.”
“Arthur,” Merlin repeats, and smiles. “It’s very nice to meet you. I’m Merlin.”
Arthur’s eyes are old, and he looks a little lost, but he sits down next to Merlin. He counts it as a tentative win.
The castle is falling apart, but Merlin decides not to mention it to Arthur. Surely he must know, because if anything’s clear to Merlin, it’s that Arthur has not actually left this place in a very long time. He has stayed, from the moment of his death to the moment Merlin bumbled in.
He must have watched, and been helpless to save the home he once loved, and of which only he remains, now.
“So what do you do, on a normal day?” Merlin asks, when Arthur has shown him the battlements. It’s already getting a bit late, because the castle was a bit of a drive for him, and Arthur hasn’t made it easy on him.
Arthur shrugs. He is quite handsome, now that Merlin has a better opportunity to just gaze at him; he shimmers a bit more clearly in the dark, and Merlin appreciates the slight crookedness of Arthur’s nose, the tiny imperfections in an otherwise perfect face. His jaw is strong, his hair shines golden; if not for the strange translucency, Merlin would have tripped over his feet and fallen straight into his arms.
He’s not ashamed to think it. Arthur’s a ghost, and Merlin will help him pass. In a week or so, Arthur will hopefully have learnt to pass on and the castle will be empty of any old lords’ ghosts. There is never a chance, and so Merlin is free to appreciate the unattainable beauty of a man who died long before Merlin was born.
“I sit here, and I remember,” Arthur says, his voice far away as he looks over the courtyard. “We used to have knights, there, and they would train for long hours. I try to remember the practices I was taught as a child, but I can’t hold a sword. It makes it hard to remember, because I have not felt the weight of it for so long.”
“Do people come here?” Merlin asks, genuinely curious. “I know the workers have been here recently, and they felt enough of your presence that they were scared—but are there others?”
“Oh. That’s odd.”
Arthur narrows his eyes at him. “Why is it odd?”
Merlin shrugs helplessly. “It’s a bit of a ruin, but it’s a beautiful castle, isn’t it? When I was a boy, I always dreamt of having a castle, and being a knight. I’d just imagined there would be tourists, or maybe some kids breaking in, just to play around.”
“Having a castle is a big responsibility,” Arthur says sternly. “You can’t just sit around and play sword all day, Merlin. There’s servants to take care of, and lords that need your favour, and disputes to settle, not to mention all the grounds that belong to the castle—”
“I’m sure it is,” Merlin says, and snorts. Arthur relaxes at Merlin’s easy confirmation, and settles a bit. Merlin continues, “I just mean, it’s beautiful, isn’t it? I can’t imagine running it, of course, but to have lived here—it must’ve been wonderful. And if you were a lord, it can’t have been that bad, for you. I might not have wanted to be a servant, I suppose.”
“You would’ve made a rubbish one,” Arthur tells him.
Merlin raises his eyebrows. “Why’s that?”
“You’ve been here all afternoon, and you’ve not addressed me by my proper title even once. If you were my servant, I’d have you in the stocks.”
“Wow,” Merlin drawls, and laughs. “I wouldn’t have lasted a single day then, my lord.”
“That’s better,” Arthur says, and he does look a little pleased.
“You know it’s different, though. Even if you haven’t gone outside, the world’s different now. No more lords and ladies, except in name. And definitely no stocks, or whippings, or whatever you may have done.”
Arthur looks affronted. “I never had anyone whipped,” he says. “And I tried to be a good lord, you know. I knighted several men, good men, who were not from any noble families. It was a scandal at the time.”
“Well, you know,” Merlin muses. “Baby steps. In the good direction.”
“I would’ve been a fair lord to you, had you been my servant,” Arthur continues, as if he hasn’t heard Merlin. Rude, insolent arse. “I’m sure you would’ve grown into it, after a while. It’s good to have a servant who talks back, you know—a lord needs to know what his people think, and there’s no one better to hear it from than a perceptive servant.”
“I’m sure,” Merlin says, somewhat amused. He has no idea if Arthur means it as a compliment or not, but he thinks the fact that Arthur is talking to him at all is a good sign. Arthur doesn’t strike him as the sort of man to easily give into anything.
“You should be.”
Merlin straightens. “I probably need to go,” he says, a little apologetically. “I’ve not had dinner yet, and the shops will close soon. And I don’t think they have a restaurant in the inn I’m staying at.”
“Oh,” Arthur says, and Merlin doesn’t miss the fleeting surprise on Arthur’s face. “I suppose you must.”
“I can come back tomorrow,” Merlin offers.
Arthur’s face hardens for a moment. “Do whatever you must, Merlin.”
It’s quiet between them for a moment. Merlin shivers from the cold as the wind gushes over the battlements, and tugs at his jacket. Arthur is still staring at him oddly, and Merlin tries for a smile.
“Well, then it’s decided,” he says. “I will be back.”
There’s not many ghost hunters in the world. Belief in the supernatural fades rapidly, and Merlin thinks that even with major religions fighting a losing battle over the years, any supporters of the supernatural must surely seem insane to the general population.
And the mocking. God, Merlin loves helping ghosts, but he doesn’t like to feel as if he’s so off, compared to the rest of the world.
He’s met four or five other ghost hunters, mostly through Facebook. His Uncle Gaius had pointed them to him, and Merlin had gone, and—well, they hadn’t talked him into doing it, not like that. But their stories had been nice, and beautiful, and Merlin had accidentally found some other ghosts in his teenage years that he’d liked talking to, so he figured this might be a good way to spend the rest of his life.
It doesn’t pay much, but Merlin’s used to living from paycheck to paycheck. And even though his mother still laments Merlin’s decision not to become a doctor after all, she’d understood Merlin’s innate desire to help the ones who came on his path, and who didn’t have as many people to help them.
It means that Merlin likes doing what he does, and generally, helping a ghost cross over leaves him satisfied that he’s not just capable of doing what he does—some people are like that; they have the skill, but not the social aptitude—but that he’s actually good at this, at having people trust him to gently herd them safely to the other side of life.
He doesn’t think about the toll it takes on him, to befriend these people and never see them again.
“You have to be joking,” Arthur says, in shock.
Merlin laughs. “No, I swear. It’s the size of the throne room—I know it’s small, even by today’s standards, but I’m used to it. My mum and I, we used to share an apartment even smaller than that.”
“I thought things would have improved over time,” Arthur says, quietly.
It’s not that Arthur is naive, Merlin has found, but he is shockingly kind. He hasn’t strayed far from the castle, and visitors are practically non-existent. Arthur has followed the world from a distance, but never close enough to touch.
“They have,” Merlin says. “For the most part.”
“There was poverty in my time,” Arthur says. “I tried—well, I tried to do my best, but there wasn’t an England yet, there wasn’t a union. We were scattered, and divided, and there were many wars. It was all I could do to protect the people’s lives, and it wasn’t—sometimes I think that I didn’t do enough.”
Merlin looks at him. Arthur’s jaw is tight, his eyes fixed somewhere far away. “And is that why you stay?” he asks, gently.
“No,” Arthur says, and looks at Merlin. His eyes are a clear blue. “I stay because I can’t leave.”
It’s not the first time he’s said it. This time, Merlin decides to pry. “Why can’t you?”
“Because I’ve tried, and I’ve tried, and I’ve tried,” Arthur says, “and I am tied to this castle. I belong to this land, and I belong to the people who are born to it.”
Merlin pauses for a moment. “You’re not afraid to pass?” he asks, eventually. “Most ghosts—”
“I’m not most ghosts, Merlin,” Arthur snaps, and closes his eyes for a moment. “I’ve never been afraid of anything in my life. I was a knight, and I was taught to accept death from the moment I was born.”
“That’s a little morbid,” Merlin says. He imagines what that might be like, to accept death like that, and fails. He’s not afraid of it, because death is his job, but he’s—wary, is probably the best word.
“I’m not afraid,” Arthur repeats, and his voice wavers. “In fact, I think I would relish it, after all these years of waiting. I think I would like to see my friends again. There’s no world here for me, no matter what any destiny says. There is no one to be by my side.”
“Look,” Merlin says, and presses his lips together. “I can help you, if you want me to.”
“Why would you?” Arthur asks.
“Well, first of all, I’m contractually obliged to leave the castle ghost-less. And second of all… I know it’s not a kind thing, having to linger when you don’t belong. This isn’t your world, and something is keeping you here. We’ll figure out what it is, and then you can move on. Find some rest. It’s the least you deserve.”
Arthur eyes Merlin. “Are all ghost hunters like you?”
“I don’t know,” Merlin says, and shrugs. “You haven’t told me what I’m like.”
Arthur makes a noise that Merlin can’t interpret, and then nods. “I accept your offer.”
“Wonderful,” Merlin says, and beams.
It is the third day of Merlin’s visit to Arthur’s castle. He’s certain the locals think him a bit of a nut job by now, but Merlin has learnt to ignore the odd looks cast in his direction. And truthfully, he is sort of starting to look forward to the visits.
“Merlin,” Arthur asks, when he first enters the castle, again. Arthur is waiting for him, looking oddly thoughtful. “Do you think we could go out into the town?”
Merlin blinks. “I—yeah, of course. I don’t see why not.”
“I think I may be bound to the castle,” Arthur says, and grimaces. “Although—I’m not sure. I haven’t tried in several centuries. I’ve always sort of avoided the people, because I don’t know them, but if you’re there to make conversation with them…”
He trails off. Merlin smiles, and gestures at Arthur to follow. Arthur’s awkwardness is oddly endearing—he’s seemed larger than life, so far, even in death. His fearlessness, however, seems to have bounds, and they are where his social anxiety begins.
“I don’t know them well, mind you,” Merlin says. “I’ve only been here three days. I’m from further north, actually. I had to drive an hour and a half to get here, and I’m not a good driver, so that—well, never mind. We can go and meet the locals, if you want. Perhaps there’s some descendants of your friends.”
“I doubt it,” Arthur mutters, and passes Merlin.
Merlin takes it in stride, and falls into step with Arthur. His hand jostles right through Arthur’s, for a moment there, but Arthur doesn’t seem to have noticed. “Arthur,” Merlin says. “You can’t just walk in. And I can’t talk to you all the time—people think I’m odd enough, and I don’t want to stand out any more than I have to.”
“Why?” Arthur demands, and twirls around. “Why do they think you’re odd?”
“I talk to ghosts,” Merlin says slowly, and gestures at Arthur. “It’s not exactly a common occurrence. Most people don’t even believe in ghosts.”
“So? I don’t suppose you go around talking to ghosts every minute of every day, do you?”
“Well, no,” Merlin says. “I talk to… living people. It’s just—well, I don’t just talk to ghosts, really. It’s kind of a secret, actually, even more than the ghost hunting thing.”
Arthur rolls his eyes at him. “Who am I going to tell, Merlin?”
“Sometimes, I can do other things,” Merlin blurts out, and ignores the way that Arthur’s eyebrows rise. “Make things float, or disappear, or just have this—golden energy that swirls around. It’s not—well, I asked some other people that speak to ghosts, and they’re not related or anything, I’m the only one who seems to have this… problem. That I can do things that other people can’t. And mostly I do it by accident, and it makes me seem… odd. I try not to do it, but I can’t really control it.”
Arthur stares at him hard. “You’re a sorcerer.”
“Magic isn’t real,” Merlin says.
“You are talking to ghosts, Merlin.”
“I’m not a sorcerer,” Merlin tells him, steadfast. “I don’t read spells from a book and wave a hand around and—do things. It just happens, and I can sort of guide it when it does, but it’s not—”
“I know magic,” Arthur interrupts him. “It doesn’t require great knowledge, not when there’s a great deal of innate talent. You are a sorcerer, Merlin.”
It’s an odd thought, and Merlin feels ill at ease with it. “Let’s just go into the town,” he says, and tries not to grit his teeth. At least if they’re among people, Merlin will have a good excuse not to talk to Arthur for a bit.
“Fine,” Arthur says, and stalks towards the centre.
“It looks odd,” Arthur says, staring at Merlin’s iced tea as if his glare can set it on fire. “Are you sure it’s better than mead? The colour is… foul.”
“You can’t really compare the two,” Merlin says, and keeps his phone pressed to his ear. His battery is dead, but at least people are less likely to stare at him for talking to the air. “One’s alcohol, and the other is not. And I don’t like day drinking.”
“It’s different,” Arthur says, a little wistfully. “So many things are different. I hardly know where to start.”
“You don’t have to,” Merlin offers. “If we succeed, it won’t matter.”
Arthur frowns at that. “But I still want to know.”
“Is that what’s keeping you here?” Merlin presses again. “Arthur, you keep telling me you can’t leave, but you’ve never told me why that is. I’m sure it’s not because you’ve never tried iced tea, or walked across a paved road, or—”
“It’s a little complicated,” Arthur says, and falls silent. Merlin slurps at his straw, and Arthur gives him an offended look at the rattling noise. “Would you stop that, Merlin, it’s no wonder everyone thinks you’re odd—”
“Well, you’re not saying anything useful,” Merlin says easily, “So I figured it wouldn’t matter if I couldn’t hear you for a moment.”
“I was cursed,” Arthur says, and bites his lower lip. It makes him look oddly innocent, and Merlin wonders how old he is—the translucency makes it hard to see wrinkles and age spots, and sometimes ghosts come back in a different age than they died, but he’d estimated Arthur in his mid-thirties, when he saw him first. Now, he thinks he may have been a few years off.
Which isn’t the problem, in fact, and Merlin tries not to focus on the way Arthur’s jawline can cut the lemon slice in his iced tea. “Cursed? In what way?”
“Magic,” Arthur says slowly, as if Merlin’s a bit of a moron.
“Right,” Merlin says, and pokes the remaining ice in his glass with his straw viciously. “Magic. Obviously. That same magic you’ve accused me of having, naturally. Why don’t you tell me the whole story, before you go around calling me an odd bird?”
Arthur sighs, and leans forward. Ghost physics are weird, and if Merlin had any more interest in natural laws, he’d study it a bit more. The table holds Arthur’s weight, but Merlin’s hand would pass right through him, if he tried to grab Arthur’s arm.
“Back when I was alive,” Arthur begins, and taps the table, “There was a law against magic. It wasn’t—it came from my father, actually. It’s a little complicated, but I promise, it’s relevant to the story.”
“Right. Get on with it, then. My lord.”
Arthur eyes him wryly, but does as he asks. “My parents couldn’t have children, is what I’ve been told. Our physician, he did what he could, but all the methods of having women be more fertile failed. In fact, I think it was probably my father that was the problem, but we didn’t—that’s not how people thought, back then. Of course, not having children is a problem considering lineage, and especially for a king—”
“Your father was the king?” Merlin blurts out, and then adds, “You were the king?”
“What did you think?” Arthur says. “That just everyone goes around having castles like that? My noblemen’s castles were far smaller, I’ll have you know—”
“—It’s a castle, it doesn’t have to be the size of a small town to impress me—”
“—Do shut up, Merlin, and let me continue,” Arthur tells him, and Merlin’s mouth falls closed. “Yes, I was a king. My father needed an heir, and so he found a sorceress to help his wife—my mother—fall pregnant with his child. It worked, but he bartered for my life with my mother’s. She died right as I was born.”
Arthur plays with the ring on his finger, looking down steadfastly. Merlin presses his lips together. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Arthur says lightly, and when he looks up, his expression is deceptively neutral. “It’s a thousand years ago, now, and I never even knew her. My father’s heart was broken, though—if it was a deception, or if he hadn’t believed the sorceress’ warnings, I don’t know, I’ve heard it told two ways. The point is, he waged war on anyone with magic from then on.”
“Alright,” Merlin says, and tries to match Arthur’s tone. He’s used to the grief of ghosts, but it’s a little unusual to hear them lament such old tragedies instead of their own deaths. “But if they were magic, surely your father wasn’t a match for them? Even if he was a king.”
“Magic was dying, even then,” Arthur tells him, and shrugs. “I’m not sure how he did it. He held a dragon captive, and the druids were the largest group of sorcerers, at the time, and they were a peaceful people. My father—he could be a ruthless man, if he saw the need for it.”
And he’d seen the need for it. Merlin can picture it easily; he lies awake at the thought of it, sometimes, the day someone will see him for what he is, and see his powers and fear him the way he fears himself. Merlin can’t imagine hurting anyone with his—magic, if that’s what it is, if that’s what he ought to call it. And clearly, Arthur’s father had made magical enemies in turn.
“And the war came back to haunt you,” Merlin guesses, and leans back in his chair at Arthur’s nod. “Someone with—magic, okay, someone with magic came back to curse you? And that’s why you died?”
“Not why I died,” Arthur says, and looks as if he’s bitten something sour. “That was—something else entirely. I was fighting my own wars, you see, for the unification of Albion, for the future of one kingdom, one people—and I lost, in the end. Or I died, even if I didn’t entirely lose. But afterwards, I tried to—I couldn’t do anything. I lingered, and no one heard me, and I saw my kingdom fall before my eyes, and the years passed.”
“And no one came,” Merlin finishes.
Arthur eyes him. “Until you.”
“Well, I suppose I count,” Merlin says, and twirls at the straw. He really ought to leave—he can only pretend to have a fake phone call for so long, and even despite the pretence, he can feel people staring at him. It’s the magic talk, probably. Merlin feels their eyes prickling his back. “And do you know anything about this curse, if that’s what it was? Or about who did it to you?”
“You’re the sorcerer, Merlin,” Arthur says, strangely indignant.
“Yes, and you’re the thousand-year-old ghost,” Merlin returns. “I’m a ghost hunter, Arthur, not a—curse breaker, or a sorcerer, or even anything resembling Houdini. This is the extent of what I do, normally, and I want to help you, I do, but I’ve no idea what we’re dealing with.”
“More iced tea?” the waitress comes to ask him, and only eyes him a little strangely, to her credit.
“No, thanks,” Merlin says, and adds, a little lamely, “Sorry, I’m just—plotting a fantasy book with someone. Over the phone. About—erm. Ghosts, and magic. So.”
So, I’m not insane, is what he doesn’t say. She seems to catch his meaning, and smiles indulgently at him. “Oh, don’t worry,” she says, and brushes a dark curl out of her face before she takes Merlin’s empty glass. “We get all sorts in here. And ghost stories seem like the right kind of thing to be writing here, if that’s what you want.”
Arthur has his arms crossed, and if Merlin didn’t know better, he’d start to believe Arthur to be jealous of Merlin talking to someone else in his presence. As it is, Merlin perks up, and asks, “Oh, I thought so, too. Why do you think so?”
She blinks at him. “Well, the castle. There’s been reports it’s haunted, you know.”
“Is it now,” Merlin says, and risks a glance at Arthur.
“I’ve always wanted to go up, and see it for a bit,” the waitress sighs, and bites her lower lip. “Not because I’m some sort of—lunatic, or anything, or that I believe in ghosts, it’s just—well, history has its own sort of ghosts, don’t you think? And it’s always seemed so pretty, but it’s a ruin, and no one’s allowed in there, anyway—sorry, I’m rambling, I’ll go and get your bill—”
“I’ve been there,” Merlin says, on a gamble. “For the—book, you know. Inspiration for ghosts, like you said. If you want to see it, before it’s bought and restored—I can take you there. Tomorrow, if you want.”
“Merlin,” Arthur hisses.
Merlin ignores him, and only feels the tiniest stab of guilt for doing so.
“Oh, you would?” the waitress asks, her eyes wide. “It’s only, I don’t want to go all by myself, and all my friends would think I’m mad—I barely even know you, but—well.”
“My name’s Merlin,” Merlin says, and smiles brightly. “But most people call me a nutjob, if it helps. Now you know me.”
She looks at him oddly for a moment, and then slowly nods. “Very nice to meet you, Merlin. I’m Gwen.”
Merlin wasn’t aware of how much ghosts could sulk until he met Arthur.
“Are you going to be like this all night?” Merlin snaps, when Arthur has huffed in a very non-subtle manner for the fifth time that night. “I’m trying to help you, here.”
Arthur’s sprawled over the tiny, lumpy sofa in Merlin’s rented room, while Merlin’s bowed over his laptop on his bed. The ghost doesn’t seem to get any cricks in his necks from lying down, and offers Merlin an annoyed look from upside down. It works surprisingly well.
“I thought your chambers would be interesting,” Arthur says. “And I thought you were going to talk to me, about the curse, instead of going out and asking—inept waitresses, or your flat metal book—”
“And here I thought you’d somewhat kept up with modern technology,” Merlin mutters, and shuts down the laptop. “I didn’t think I was going to find something useful about breaking curses that keep ghosts from accessing the afterlife on Wikipedia, anyway. And Gwen can be helpful, you know that—she’s a local, she might know some sort of obscure story that might be the exact thing we need—”
“We don’t need her,” Arthur says, as if the very thought insults him. “Whatever do we need her for? I have you, haven’t I?”
Merlin lets his head fall on the cold top of his laptop. “Yes,” he manages. “You do have me. Look, it’s not going to hurt to have someone else think about this. And she seemed nice. You don’t know how many times a local has said something seemingly innocuous that ended up doing a lot more good than I’d ever have thought—”
“Right,” Arthur says, and huffs. “For all those other ghosts you’ve been helping across.”
He thought he’d gone insane, but it sounds like Arthur is actually jealous. Merlin wants to laugh at him over it, but the impulse is gone within a second; is it really that odd that Arthur feels insecure? He hasn’t talked to a real person in a thousand years, so he’s due some possessive emotions, Merlin thinks. Although it’s not really helping anyone.
Well, Merlin still feels oddly charmed, in a way, and reminds himself that Arthur would’ve been this way about any ghost hunter coming across his path.
“Right,” is what he says, and lifts himself off the bed. “What do you usually do, at night? I’m assuming you don’t have to sleep, so how do you spend these hours?”
Arthur stares at him, and sits up. “Mostly I try and practise,” he says. “I know it’s—pointless, of course, since I can hardly lose my stamina, being dead as I am, but when I was still a knight… Well, we had these practices in the evening. No one ever liked them, but we had to be trained for being ambushed in the night. So I go over them again. I like to—make sure I’m ready. For anything. I always had to be, because if my men were hurt for my lack of training—it was important. And I still do it, even though there’s no reason for it.”
“Oh, Arthur,” Merlin says.
Arthur shifts, glaring down defensively. “You must think I’m mad.”
“No,” Merlin tells him, and runs a hand over his face. “I think you’re very, very brave, and I think you died far too young, and I think if I had actually been alive at the same time, I would’ve both been very honoured to have you as my king, and been very annoyed by you at the same time.”
“I think,” Arthur says, slowly, “If you had been alive when I was king, I might’ve not been cursed at all.”
Merlin isn’t sure how he figures that, and decides not to ask. The room feels heavy, and Arthur’s eyes are intent on Merlin’s, and Merlin feels an unwelcome heat rise to his face. He smiles with a levity he doesn’t quite feel, and wrings his hands together.
“Show me what you do,” he demands, and if Arthur were corporal, he would’ve grabbed his hand to pull him upright. As it is, he stares at Arthur like a madman, ready to burst out of his own skin. “We’ve got the night, haven’t we? And I want you to show me what life was like a thousand years ago.”
Arthur slowly rises from the sofa. “The nightly practices ought to be done outside,” he says, “and not in a cramped little room, but I can show you—how to swing a sword, if you’d like. Here, just—grab that window pole, in the corner, it’s about the right length—”
Merlin takes the pole, and raises an eyebrow at Arthur. It may be the right length, but it’s nowhere near as heavy or as broad as a sword. “I’m ready to fight off any windows we’ll encounter,” he says dryly, “my lord.”
Arthur licks his lips, and stares at Merlin again. It’s starting to feel uncomfortable, again, but then Arthur moves, swift as a deer, and stands behind Merlin. “Raise your arms,” he says, “just so—no, no, too much. Yes, that’s better. You’re gripping it too tightly—”
“I’m sorry,” Merlin says, “Do we want the window opener pole to fall out of my hands?”
“Shut up, Merlin,” Arthur tells him, and that sounds more normal. “You need a swing, and if you keep doing it like that, you’ll be cramping up your arms.”
Arthur comes to stand right behind him, and Merlin swallows. He can’t feel anything, of course, and there’s no breath on Merlin’s neck, no warmth near his back. Still, Arthur is close enough that Merlin can count the little hairs on his arms when Arthur raises his arm so that it’s at the same height as Merlin’s, mimicking holding a sword.
“And what do I do?” Merlin croaks.
Arthur makes a slow movement with his arm, and Merlin follows the example. The pole feels awkward in his hands, but it’s no less odd than playing with sticks as a child. “Just—so, yes, but try not to—it’s not hacking, Merlin, swordplay is an art.”
“I thought it was a way to kill someone,” Merlin muses.
“You’re not very good at this,” Arthur says.
Merlin hums, and throws the pole on the floor. “Maybe my teacher just isn’t very good.”
“Your teacher,” Arthur says dryly, “has been taught to kill since he could walk, and has spent more time with a sword in hand than a quill.”
“Maybe that accounts for the lack of sense,” Merlin shoots back, and relishes in Arthur’s amused eye roll. “I’m not a fighter—I never have been. Any time I’ve even had any sort of issue, I’d just use the…”
“Magic,” Arthur supplies, and nods sagely, as if that’s a perfectly normal thing to say.
“The powers,” Merlin says, exasperated, “I don’t care what time period you’re from, Arthur, I’m not some sort of medieval—sorcerer type, chanting spells with a staff, that’s not what this is. But yes, in fact, I’ve sort of—come to rely on it. It’s not really an exact science.”
“Only because the knowledge has been lost,” Arthur says. “Maybe we could find some spell books. Some ought to have been left—or perhaps there’s still some small clan of druids around. If we could find—”
“We?” Merlin asks, in amusement. He regrets it immediately, as Arthur’s eager expression falls.
“Right,” he murmurs. “The plan isn’t for me to be around that long, is it? I’d almost forgotten.”
There’s a lot of things Merlin could say to him, at that—something like Yes, me too, or Maybe this won’t even work! or I wouldn’t mind so much if you hung around for another century, really, and none of those are things he ought to say, so he doesn’t.
Instead, he says, “We’ve got an early day, tomorrow. I should go to sleep,” and lets Arthur sit back on the couch, bereft of both Merlin’s company and his own enthusiastic ideas about Merlin’s magic.
Merlin takes a quick shower, and after a moment’s thought, grabs a shirt to wear in the night, and when he goes to lie in bed, he ignores Arthur’s faint luminescence and the prickling in his neck that tells him he’s being watched.
Gwen is, perhaps, the kindest person Merlin has ever come across, during his years as a ghost hunter.
“So is this what you do?” she asks, in a tone that obviously tries to hide her bewildered confusion. “You go up to nice places and make up stories about them with—someone else?”
“In a way,” Merlin says, as they hike up together. The castle’s on top of a hill, because of course it is, but he’s walked this route several times now, so he isn’t all that winded. Gwen is struggling more, and perhaps regretting her long flower dress, although Merlin isn’t about to ask her.
Gwen makes a face at him, and rubs an arm over her forehead. “You’re odd,” she says, but she sounds fond. “Have you posted anything, anywhere? I’d like to read it. Make sure you’re not actually rubbish, that is. Not that I think—I was just—”
“She’s charming, isn’t she,” Arthur says flatly, but Merlin thinks he knows him well enough to detect a hint of good humour, somewhere in there.
“Look,” Merlin says, and eyes Arthur for a second. “I’m not actually a writer. The most I’ve ever done is a creative writing project for English in primary, and I don’t think I actually scored all that well, come to think of it.”
“Merlin,” Arthur says.
Gwen stops, and frowns at him. “You’re not a serial killer, are you?” she asks, and looks back over her shoulder. “I don’t think you are, because you seem really nice, but it’s not a very good sign—”
“I’m a ghost hunter,” Merlin says, patiently, and turns to Arthur, who is still hissing, “I’m not going to lie to her, and what do you want me to do, ignore you all day? You threw a hissy fit just yesterday.” Then he turns back to Gwen, and smiles in a hopefully sane manner, and continues, “Look, you told me yesterday there’s reports of the castle being haunted, didn’t you? Well, they called me about it, and they’re right, there’s an old ghost who’s been living here for centuries, and we’re trying to find a way to get him to pass, but it’s not been working. So we thought we’d get your help.”
“Who are you calling old,” Arthur says sourly.
“You’re a thousand years old. You’re perhaps the oldest person currently on Earth—”
“—I was thirty-one when I died, and I don’t count all these years—”
“I think I liked it better when I thought you were a serial killer,” Gwen says, and sits on the nearest rock. She stares at the castle, now looming above them. In the sunlight, there’s no hiding the wreck it’s become, but Merlin’s grown very fond of it. He can only imagine how Arthur feels when he looks at his old home, the only remaining part of a life long lost. “No, that’s a lie. I liked it best when I thought you were asking me out on a date.”
Merlin blinks. “Sorry,” he says lamely. “I’m not really—you’re very nice, but you’re not exactly… my type.”
Gwen laughs, and then slaps a hand over her mouth. “God,” she says, and giggles again. “I’m accusing you of being a serial killer, and then of being insane, and you’re apologising for that? Sorry, I’m just—okay, Merlin. Okay. Say I believe you. What could I possibly do?”
“Yes, Merlin, what can she possibly do?” Arthur repeats.
Merlin pinches the bridge of his nose. “Normally, ghosts only need a bit of a push to go to the other side. It’s not that hard, usually, but he’s been cursed. And we’ve no idea how, or by whom, or what to do about it, but there’s usually some sort of—town myth that lingers for a long time. Anything you might’ve heard, an old wife’s tale, a piece of a tale that’s never made any sense, anything. We’re really looking for anything.”
Gwen bites her lower lip, and rises. “Right,” she says. “I’ll think about it, but first, you’ve got to show me the castle. I think you owe me, just a bit.”
“Just a bit,” Merlin agrees, and grins at Arthur.
The tour takes two hours, and they end up on the terrace, looking over the courtyard. The moss itches Merlin’s arms, as he leans on the battlements and enjoys the wind brushing through his hair.
“This used to be my favourite spot, too,” Arthur murmurs, coming to stand next to Merlin. If he were alive, their arms would brush against each other. But he’s not, and Merlin steadfastly doesn’t look at him.
“It’s nice,” Merlin says, and looks beyond the castle, to where the town lies in sight. “I can imagine, you know. A king, watching over his people. It’s a good place.”
“What’s he like?” Gwen asks, and Merlin turns around to see her staring at him. “I can’t hear him—I can only hear your answers. So. What’s he like?”
“Courageous,” Arthur says, raising his eyebrows at Merlin in mirth. “Athletic, noble, majestic—”
“You know she can’t hear you, don’t you?” Merlin says, amused.
“No, she can’t. But you can.”
“Right,” Merlin says, and huffs out a laugh. “It’d be better if you could talk to each other, directly. I feel like I’m sandwiched between living-world and ghost-world, sometimes. Anyway, Gwen, he’s—well, an arse, a bit. But he’s nice. Kind. He’s very curious about the world, and the people, and he picks up things fast. He’s smart.”
“See?” Arthur says in triumph. “Only good things—”
“But he’s also lonely,” Merlin says, and eyes Arthur, as he falls silent. “Not many people to talk to, I suppose. He’s still thinking about the things he did wrong, and how he would’ve changed them. He’s mad about his death, and he’s halfway between hoping he will move on and hoping he won’t, because despite it all, he’s still very, very alive, and wishing he was more ready for what’s next.”
“I know some stories,” Gwen says, hesitatingly. “I don’t know how much help they’d be, but the castle’s been here for a long time. I’ve no idea how much of it is true—”
“Anything can help,” Merlin assures her, and swings to look at Arthur again, but Arthur’s still very silent, and not meeting Merlin’s gaze. Merlin decides to let him be for a moment, and focuses on Gwen. “I’m just glad you’ve not run away and reported me to the police.”
Gwen smiles. “Does that happen to you a lot?”
“From time to time,” Merlin says. “So. Tell me about the castle, and any curse you may have heard of.”
“Not now,” Arthur says, and pushes himself away from the battlements. His expression is dark and solemn, and he doesn’t wait for Merlin to follow him as he makes for the stairs.
“What in the world,” Arthur says, and turns around, “makes you think that you know me that well, Merlin? I am a king, and you are—nothing. A sorcerer without an inkling of a thought of how to control his powers, a ghost hunter with no single idea of how to get me to move on, and you think you could possibly understand what it means to be this, for over a thousand years? You have no idea—”
“He flickered,” Gwen whispers. “I could see—oh my god, oh my god, he’s a ghost? I could—”
“Wait, what?” Arthur says.
“How do you think you’re haunting people,” Merlin snaps, because he’s gone and said something wrong, and Arthur is right, he has no idea, but he knows some things, and he knows this, “You’ve the ability to manipulate the real world, Arthur, and it’s because you’re scared. Strong emotions can tie you more to this world, make you more obvious to the living, and you’re using it to scare away the workers, and now you’re doing it to make Gwen see you—”
“I’m not scared,” Arthur yells, his hands raised in the air. “I’m mad at you, you moron, because you’re—”
“Did you call him Arthur?” Gwen whispers, and it breaks through their argument very efficiently. “Is that—King Arthur Pendragon, you mean?”
“What?” Merlin says, and turns to her, his hands in his hair. “I mean, I don’t know—I suppose. There can’t have been that many King Arthurs, can there?”
“You mean,” Gwen says, and furrows her brows very deeply, “that the Once and Future King is standing right there?”
“The what,” Merlin and Arthur say in unison.
“The Once and Future King,” Gwen repeats, and looks at Merlin nervously. “He’s a myth, something the locals used to say—a king lived here, once, the justful king who dreamt of uniting England, and was struck down before it could be achieved. They say he was so rightful that one day, he’ll return from beyond the lake, and take up his sword once again. I was going to mention it, but I didn’t think it actually—”
“That doesn’t sound like a curse,” Merlin says, and eyes Arthur.
Arthur turns away wordlessly, and then he’s gone through the walls. Merlin takes one step, but then hesitates. Gwen is still standing behind him, her hands clutched on the battlements. Her face has gone pale, and the wind blows her hair into her eyes.
Merlin comes to stand next to her, instead, and hesitantly rests an arm over her shoulder. Gwen comes to lean against him, her nose in his neck, as if they’ve been friends for years. And they could be, Merlin thinks, because he likes Gwen, which is why he has to make sure she’s okay.
It’s not every day one finds out that ghosts are real. Merlin has lived with them his whole life, and he forgets it, sometimes.
“Sorry,” he says.
Gwen sniffles. “I think you ought to say that to him,” she says, and manages a weak smile. “God, Merlin, when I saw him stand there, all flickering and unreal, and he was looking at you—I’m an open-minded person, I like to think, and I’ve never not thought ghosts could be real, but to actually see it—”
“It can be scary, I know,” Merlin says.
“I wasn’t scared,” Gwen says, and thoughtfully, she adds, “I don’t think it was fear, anyway. Oh, how do you say it—I was shocked, I suppose, but you really can’t hold that against me. It’s just, the thought that a story like that is about a real man, and he is standing right there, and he was shouting at you—”
“I’ll talk to him. Arthur’s not a bad sort, I promise, even if he got mad—”
“He wasn’t mad,” Gwen tells him, and pushes at him. “He was sad, Merlin. He’s so alive, like you told me, and that’s sad, isn’t it? Because he can’t be. Not really.”
Merlin swallows. Maybe he did cross a boundary he shouldn’t have, but only because Arthur tries to act like he’s above all of them, and above life itself; and Merlin wanted Gwen to understand Arthur, and wanted Arthur to understand that Merlin sees him.
But Arthur is dead, and the first thing Merlin learnt is that ghosts don’t want to be reminded of what they’ve lost. They need to be pushed forwards, and not held back. And Merlin’s broken his own first rule.
He didn’t listen, and now Arthur is mad at him.
They roam the castle for a bit, on the lookout for Arthur. Gwen mostly stays with Merlin and admires the ruins a bit more, but Merlin can’t appreciate the beauty of the castle anymore. He’s concerned about Arthur, and annoyed that Arthur won’t come back to talk to him, and afraid that Arthur, who has not had anyone to talk to in a millenium, will decide that he actually doesn’t need Merlin.
Whatever Arthur has chosen, they don’t see him anymore. To her credit, Gwen doesn’t push Merlin to go back to the village, even after dusk has settled in. The castle doesn’t have any light, and Merlin’s battery has already died, so they have to light the way with Gwen’s phone, taking turns in holding it in front of them when they finally climb out of the ruins and make their way back.
Gwen invites him for a late dinner, and Merlin’s loath to be alone, so he accepts. Gwen’s own apartment is bigger than Merlin’s hotel room, although not by much, and decorated in exactly the way Merlin would’ve expected. There’s about a dozen plants in the living room alone, all in various stages between living and dying.
“So what are you going to do?” Gwen asks, munching on the poorly-filled vegetable wrap they’d scraped together. “About Arthur, I mean. Not in general, as in, that would be far too big of a question—”
“I’ll have to find Arthur,” Merlin says. “And if this Once and Future King business is as important as it sounds like, we’ll have to figure out if it’s a curse or… something else entirely. It could’ve gone both ways, I suppose.”
“That he was cursed, and it was made into a sort of myth?” Gwen asks, and nods. “I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like, to be alone for so long.”
“Neither can I,” Merlin murmurs.
Gwen leans forward. “So how long are you going to be here?”
“Oh. Well, my room was paid for a week,” Merlin says, and counts his fingers. “I’ve been here… five days. So I suppose I’ll need to go home in three days. It’s not a job that makes much, you see, and a week is already quite generous.”
“I suppose it doesn’t pay much more than being a freelance writer,” Gwen says, and then they both laugh. It’s enough to make Merlin forget about Arthur, for a minute.
The castle looms behind Merlin, covered in mist, and goosebumps trail along his skin.
Gwen has to work, so he’s all alone, because Arthur had been nowhere to be found in the morning. Merlin’s quite done with walking around a castle ruin all by himself, shouting Arthur’s name, so he’d focused on the other part of Gwen’s tale: the lake.
The story goes that Arthur will return from the lake, is what she’d said. She hadn’t had any books on the subject, and internet hadn’t told Merlin much beyond the fact that yes, there was in fact a small-town village with a myth about a Once and Future King who lived a long, long time ago. Approximately, a thousand years earlier, actually.
It has to be Arthur. And it has to be Arthur’s curse.
So Merlin sits at the lake now, even though it’s misty and he can’t see much. There’s a small island, in the middle of the lake, but Merlin can’t see much beyond a single tower. It seems to be a ruin, if he peers very closely, but he can’t tell, and there’s no one around to ask. The entire lake is cold and empty, and when Merlin dips his toes in, he shivers from the cold.
And of something else, maybe. He can’t quite place his finger on it, but the silence feels too heavy for what isn’t even that cold of a summer’s day, even despite the mist. He thinks of Arthur’s exasperated words, You’re a sorcerer, Merlin, and scoffs at the thought. Even if he were to believe in magic—which, really, he still quite doesn’t—there’s no saying that this is something like that. It’s just in his mind.
If it’s magic, Merlin has no idea what to do. Magic is something of a medieval age, something that belongs to old men with pointy white beards and a stick, and if they really wanted to stand out, one of those stand-uppity hats. Not to Merlin, who stumbles over his own feet and can never really quite make rent and sometimes doesn’t realise he talks to ghosts.
He’s a hypocrite, of course, for being a ghost hunter and refusing to believe this specific bit of the world. It’s just—if it’s magic, and if Merlin’s a sorcerer, then his other abilities are more dangerous than he’d known. Is it a secret to everyone? How many people do even have magic, in this day and age?
And how can he ever learn to control it, if that’s the truth?
He flips open his phone when it buzzes. There’s a text from his current employer, the odd man with the raspy voice Merlin only spoke to once over the phone, asking if the men can start repairing the ruins yet. Merlin exhales deeply, and texts back, Just a couple more days.
There’s no other text, and Merlin stares at his screen forlornly.
It’s a bit of a useless day, and Merlin’s chagrined when he gets back to his hotel room. He throws his backpack in the corner, and falls down on his bed. All he really wants is a very good dessert and twelve hours of sleep, if only so he doesn’t have to think about magic and curses and Arthur.
“I can’t imagine you had a hard day at work,” Arthur says, from the same couch he lounged on two days ago, “Since you didn’t even spend any of it with me.”
Merlin raises his head to look at Arthur. He’s the same shimmering, outstandingly gorgeous person, and Merlin wants to throw something at him and hug him at the same time.
“You weren’t there,” he says bleakly, and wonders how to apologise. “I looked for you. Me and Gwen, too, yesterday, but we couldn’t find you.”
“Of course she couldn’t find me, she can’t see me,” Arthur says, and waves vaguely at himself.
Merlin smiles. “She could, for a bit. She said you were very handsome, you know, in that sort of rough-tough-save-the-world kind of way. And then she blubbered a lot about how that’s not actually her type, so I’m not sure how you should take that.”
“I’m sure,” Arthur says evenly, and eyes him. “Did you spend the rest of the day with her?”
“Well, I was going to spend it with you,” Merlin says, and hesitates. “Arthur, I’m just—I’m sorry, for what I said. I shouldn’t have, and it was thoughtless of me—”
“It was anything but,” Arthur says, and sighs deeply. He shifts, so that he sits on the edge of the couch, as if he wants to run away. “Merlin, I have not really had a chance to know anyone in a thousand years, considering it has been very difficult to find a conversation partner, and the fact that you know—that you have known me for less than a week, and you could tell—I’m a king. I always have been. People do not know me. They bow to me.”
“My lord,” Merlin says, half in jest, and Arthur smiles crookedly.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t come,” Arthur says seriously. “I promise I’m more mature than this.”
Merlin doesn’t know how to respond to that, so he lets out a dry cough. “Right,” he says, and bites his lower lip. “I went to the lake today. Gwen mentioned that there’s something about you coming back from the lake, so I thought, if there’s a curse, maybe that has something to do with it.”
Arthur nods slowly. “And?”
“I didn’t see anything,” Merlin says. “Do you know the island? I thought we might be able to go there, if I can find someone with a boat. Maybe Gwen knows.”
“She wasn’t with you today?”
“Oh,” Merlin says, and doesn’t know what to do with Arthur’s heavy gaze on him. It’s telling, but Merlin isn’t entirely sure about what. “No. She had to work, and it’s—she’s nice, Arthur, that’s all. A friend.”
“She isn’t your type,” Arthur says slowly, and raises his eyebrows. “You don’t like nice, Merlin? I would’ve thought that’s exactly the sort of person you like.”
“Nice is nice,” Merlin says lamely, and can’t look away, despite the heat he feels rising to his cheeks. “But nice isn’t… everything.”
“So what is your type?”
If Arthur were a real person, and not someone who passed away a thousand years ago, Merlin would know for sure that he’s flirting. No one asks that question without a certain intent, but then again, no one Merlin knows is a decennium-old king with a jaw to die for and piercing eyes that devour one’s soul.
“Well,” Merlin says, and clears his throat. “Rough-tough-save-the-world kind of people, usually. Women, sometimes, but mostly… men. Although nice is… a good bonus. I don’t mind nice.”
The silence is tense, and Merlin doesn’t dare move. Arthur stands up very slowly, until he stands in front of Merlin. Merlin has to crane his neck up to even see him, see-through in the bright light of Merlin’s hotel room, and if Arthur were a real, physical person, he’d be standing in between Merlin’s thighs.
His heartbeat speeds up, despite the lack of warmth.
“You drive me mad,” Arthur murmurs, his voice rough. “You are everything I ought to have sent from my side, a thousand years ago, and I don’t think I could have, if you’d been there. A disobedient sorcerer, incapable of even holding his own sword, always talking back— Merlin. Merlin, I don’t think I want to leave.”
“I don’t want you to leave, either,” Merlin says, and Arthur sags down on the bed next to him.
“But I can’t stay,” Arthur says. “Not like this.”
Merlin breathes in sharply. “I don’t even know how to break your curse,” he whispers, and wishes he could lean in against Arthur’s weight. Arthur would be solid, he thinks, with the sort of muscle that comes from days of hard training. Broad shoulders, soft lips.
“You’ll figure it out,” Arthur murmurs, and doesn’t move.
When Merlin wakes up, still fully-clothed on the top side of his bed, it’s to see Arthur watching him patiently.
He shoots up and falls off the bed. Arthur laughs loudly above him.
“I didn’t deserve that,” Merlin complains, and rubs his shoulder. He picks himself up off the floor and checks the time—it’s only six thirty, and the weariness sets in immediately. “Did I fall asleep like that?”
“I would’ve tucked you in, but…” Arthur shrugs.
“How nice of you,” Merlin says wryly, and then his words of yesterday come back to him, I don’t mind nice, and Arthur looks at him strangely. Merlin ducks his head, the heat rising to his cheeks once more, and it’s hard to look at Arthur, so he doesn’t.
He’s not quite sure what they settled on last night, but there’s one thing that Merlin knows, and that is this isn’t a good idea. Arthur isn’t here to stay, even if he doesn’t want to leave, and Merlin knows better than to lose his heart to a ghost who’s lingered far beyond his death.
This is supposed to be his last day here, technically.
“Merlin?” Arthur says, and Merlin has to meet his eyes when he slowly rises. His clothes are wrinkled, and he feels self-aware enough to know that he smells, and he must look like a hobo, but Arthur’s gaze is tender, and Merlin waits him out. “Do you know what most ghosts see? When they stop being afraid, and go to the beyond?”
Merlin doesn’t expect the question, and especially not this early in the morning. He frowns. “I’m not sure,” he says, eventually. “I just know that they find peace, in a way. That they realise that there’s nothing more to be gained here, and so they have to move on. I don’t know if they see anything, or what they feel—I just know they’re ready to leave, and then they do.”
“How many have you helped?”
“Oh, I can’t remember,” Merlin says, and rubs his arm. “I’ve been doing it since I was a kid.”
“I think you’re a very brave man, Merlin,” Arthur says, and rises suddenly. He looks outside, where the sun’s just risen, to the castle ruin in the distance.
“I’m going to take a shower,” Merlin says, self-aware, and wishes the warmth in his cheeks would disappear when Arthur glances at him again. “And get some breakfast, and then we can go, yeah?”
“Work some more on finding a way to break the curse?” Arthur asks, flatly.
Merlin smiles. “No,” he says. “I thought we could just have a nice day out.”
Merlin doesn’t earn much, and that’s mostly because it’s hard to find jobs. Very few people still believe in ghosts, and even those that do only turn to the ghost hunters when the need is highest. So Merlin gets paid a lot when a job comes his way—it’s just that generally, they don’t.
What it means is that Merlin has to be careful with his money when he has it, because it has to last him a while. It also means that his bank account is currently full of money with the upfront payment he’s received, and that Merlin can splurge a little bit, even though he probably shouldn’t.
“I think you’re probably a bit of a moron,” Arthur declares when Merlin shows up with the boat. The lake is empty, and the weather is a bit better than yesterday, so they can see the ruins on the island, actually. Merlin has brought two sandwiches and a self-made banana smoothie.
He shouldn’t have rented out the boat, because in the long run, he won’t be able to afford it, but Merlin wouldn’t mind a month of living off canned food and not eating breakfast if Arthur could smile like that every day.
“Maybe,” Merlin says, and grins, “But it’s better than being a stuck-up king, you see, so I don’t think it matters that much. Have you ever been on a boat?”
“Many times,” Arthur says, although the glance he offers the boat definitely means he’s either exaggerating or secretly afraid of the water. It’s just a rowing boat, too, because Merlin might have some money, currently, but he’s not going to pay five hundred quid for the real deal.
“So you tell me how to row,” Merlin says cheerfully, and settles himself in the boat. The guy who he’d hired it from had only brought it as far as here, and hadn’t offered any explanation or any sort of proof that Merlin can even row. Nor are there any life vests in the boat, so Merlin hopes he won’t be thrown overboard.
“I don’t know how to row,” Arthur exclaims, and comes to sit opposite Merlin. “I’m a king, I have people row for me.”
“So spoiled,” Merlin says, and Arthur swats at him, and obviously can never touch. Merlin doesn’t let it get to him, and pushes them off the shore. “But you’ll have what you command, my lord. Don’t blame me if we end up on the Thames, though.”
Despite Merlin’s inexperience and Arthur’s uselessness, they manage the boat fairly well. Merlin lets them drift for most of it, and only steers them in the right direction when they get too far away from the island or the shore. It takes a bit to get used to rowing, but he learns quickly, and the lake is quiet, so it doesn’t take much effort.
“You went here yesterday, didn’t you?” Arthur asks, eventually. “Is this the lake that Gwen mentioned?”
“Yeah, it is,” Merlin says honestly. “I don’t think there’s anything here, though. There’s just more ruins. It’s not that I expected any witches to still be wandering around, but… it’s just difficult, you know, to find anything that lasts a thousand years. Everything’s gone.”
“I know,” Arthur murmurs. “I saw it leave. Bit by bit.”
Merlin frowns. “That’s not what I mean, it’s just—there’s still the ruins, and there’s still stories. Nothing ever really leaves as long as there’s these memories, but there’s no curse here. There’s nothing I can find about why you’re here.”
“What if it wasn’t a curse?” Arthur says.
“You were the one who said it was.”
Arthur looks frustrated. “I know what I said,” he says. “I’ve considered it a curse for a long time, and I know I had to—repent for my father’s sins, in a way. She was called Morgause, the woman who cursed me. She was my half-sister’s half-sister, and she hated me, and she wouldn’t have wished me any well.”
“Your family tree is complicated,” Merlin says, and pinches the bridge of his nose.
“I’m thinking,” Arthur continues, ignoring Merlin completely, “about what Gwen said. About the Once and Future King.”
“Arthur, we don’t know what’s true, these days,” Merlin reminds him gently. “You were the one who was there, and you barely know how to deal with the situation.”
“I was called the Once and Future King,” Arthur says. “I’d forgotten, until she said it. But they did call me that, the druids. I didn’t think anything of it—I’d ignored their religion, even if I didn’t kill them for it. I’m not a man of the gods, Merlin, I never have been. My only religion, if I had one, was peace, and I killed for it. But I’m not sure I was suited for peace. Not then.”
Merlin leans against the side of the boat, and it rocks them gently. “What are you thinking?”
“I think, perhaps,” Arthur murmurs, “that Morgause did something and it didn’t work the way she expected it to. I think, in a way, I was never meant to die. I was meant to wake up from a sleep, but whatever she did made me linger, because I was never meant to go to your other side.”
“Arthur, I don’t know—”
“Whatever it is that your ghosts see,” Arthur interrupts, and grips his knees tightly, “it’s not me. I know what I am, Merlin, and if I were meant to cross over—I should have, by now. There is no light that I see, there is no revelation I have yet to uncover—I am a thousand years old, and I have been dead for far longer than I’ve ever been alive. I know who I am, and I don’t know what I am meant to do, but I know that I’m not meant to leave. Not yet.”
Merlin stares at him. “You’re not dead,” he croaks. “I don’t know what you are, Arthur, but you’re not dead. I really do think you’re the most alive person I’ve ever met.”
“It’s because I’ve had so much time to think on it,” Arthur says wryly.
Despite himself, Merlin laughs. “I think,” he says, and smiles, “it’s because you’re far too stubborn to let anything get in your way, even if it is magic. Or death.”
“But if I’m not dead,” Arthur says, and inhales deeply, “I’m not quite sure what I am, and what we’re meant to do about it. With your magic—”
“Not a sorcerer,” Merlin reminds him.
Arthur glances at him, annoyed. “Not a sorcerer, maybe,” he acknowledges, “but you do have magic, Merlin. It’s impossible to deny. And if magic put me here, perhaps magic will be the only thing to revive me again.”
“Wouldn’t we need a body?” Merlin asks, thinking about the few fantasy movies he’s watched that involved someone coming back to life. There’s usually a lot of shouting and candles involved, and white-chalk drawings on the floor. “And some sort of rituals?”
“I don’t know, you’re the one with magic,” Arthur says slowly.
“Wonderful,” Merlin says. “So we’re not actually all that much farther in our problem solving process.”
“Merlin, I can’t change anything about what I am currently,” Arthur says patiently, and exhales softly. He leans back, staring up at the sky. Merlin doesn’t know if it’s a courtesy to himself or to Merlin. “If I could have, it would have happened by now. It is magic, and no other way.”
“But I can’t use it like that,” Merlin says. “It’s small things only, and I’ve no real control over it, and I can’t just—use it on you, even if I did. Arthur, I use it for—flicking on the lights, or making a man’s punch go askew, and not for reviving people. What if it went wrong?”
“I trust you,” Arthur says.
“Just think about it,” Arthur says. “I’m not in a hurry. It’s not as if I’ve somewhere to go, Merlin, for God’s sake, don’t look at me like that. Steer us to the island, will you? I haven’t been anywhere new in a millennium, and I would like to look at ruins that don’t belong to me, for a change.”
Merlin dutifully rows them.
There’s a tower that’s fallen apart because of wind and age, and vines crawl up the cracked stones relentlessly.
It’s oddly beautiful, and Merlin and Arthur take their shelter from the wind on the ground floor. Merlin sits on one of the fallen stones, slick with moss on it, and nibbles on one of his sandwiches.
“There is something odd about this place,” Arthur notes, and frowns. “I felt it on the lake, too, but there’s something about it.”
“I feel it, too,” Merlin confesses. “Yesterday, actually. I thought I was imagining it. But it’s just—icy and cold, like a blanket sitting on your shoulders, but it doesn’t make you warm, it just makes you feel heavy.”
“They used to say this island was for sorcerers,” Arthur says, and grins at Merlin. Merlin rolls his eyes at him, but Arthur seems willing to leave it at that, because he strolls around the ruin instead. Merlin finishes his sandwich in relative peace and quiet.
“You know,” Merlin says, instead. “I think you would like Gwen, if you gave her a chance. She’s really quite nice, and it might be good for you to have friends. Other friends, I mean. Friends that aren’t me.”
“Are we friends, Merlin?” Arthur asks, and his eyebrows are nearly up to his hairline. Not that that is hard—Arthur’s hair is quite fluffy and blond, and it falls over his forehead in a sublime manner, and Merlin really ought to stop thinking about Arthur’s hair. Anyway, his lips are tugged upwards, so Merlin thinks Arthur’s joking.
Or trying to be joking. One of the two. “Yes,” he says firmly. “We’re friends. Definitely that.”
“And what else are we?” Arthur asks, and he comes to sit opposite Merlin. Really quite close, and on his knees. If he breathed, Merlin would be able to feel the warmth of it on his skin. As it is, Arthur’s not nearly so see-through as people think ghosts ought to be, and his hands are near Merlin’s knees.
Merlin inhales sharply. Shifts on his rock, and feels Arthur’s eyes trace his every move. “You’re the ghost,” he says, and his voice comes out all stutter-y and uncertain. “And, erm. I’m the… the ghost hunter.”
“And so you’re hunting me,” Arthur says, and leans forward. “Do you know what I think, Merlin?”
“What?” Merlin says, squealing.
“I think I can’t be friends with people who can’t see me.”
Arthur leans back, and Merlin can finally breathe again. His lungs burn, and he thinks his ears must have gone all red. He swallows heavily, glad that Arthur has already turned away. This is something he ought to get under control, because there’s nothing that can be done about the fact that Arthur is a ghost, and really not appropriate material for Merlin’s daydreams.
“You’ve clearly never had imaginary friends,” Merlin says wryly, and Arthur turns to look at him.
“No,” Arthur says, thoughtfully. “Kings don’t really have friends. I had noblemen who wanted favours, and knights who wanted land. Women who wanted a claim to my throne, and fathers who wanted their daughters to have a claim to the throne. Some of them I liked, and some of them liked me. Some of them liked my title. I never was any good at figuring out which one it was, but I barely think it mattered, in the end.”
Merlin leans back against the moss-covered wall of the ruin. “Now you’re making me feel sorry for you,” he laments. “At least my imaginary friends never betrayed me.”
Arthur stays silent. “I was never alone,” he says, slowly, “But I was very lonely. Perhaps that’s why I survived as long as I did, the way I did. I didn’t mind having the castle to myself. It wasn’t that different, really. Not in any way that mattered.”
“But they were your people,” Merlin says, and stares at him.
“And now these people are,” Arthur says, and gestures to the village in the distance. “I’ve as much in common with them as I did with my own people, in my own time.”
“Did you really never have any friends?”
Arthur twitches. “I had a wife,” he mutters. “Gwynhuever.”
“Well, then,” Merlin says, and thinks about all the history lessons he’s had. As far as he knows, kings weren’t allowed to marry for love, and a marriage really wasn’t anything more than a fancy sort of contract. He decides to change the subject. “There you go. So. It’s men and women for you, too?”
“I thought it’s like that for everyone,” Arthur says, and blinks.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire, Merlin thinks, and rubs his eyes.
They stay out until after the sun has set.
This turns out to be one of Merlin’s worst ideas, because he didn’t bring any food for dinner, and he’s quite famished. Besides, he’s pretty sure he was meant to have brought back the boat by five, and it’s hours beyond that.
But he doesn’t want to say goodbye to Arthur. Mostly, he doesn’t want to tell Arthur that it’s time to say goodbye, and that his days are up.
Another glaring issue is the fact that Merlin has no idea how to get back to shore in the pitch-black of the night. The moon is hidden behind the clouds, and Merlin peers in the dark, trying to see where to go.
“Can’t you go out and find the shore for us?” he asks Arthur, who has been sitting in the back of the boat with his arms crossed for the entire duration. “You can go in the water.”
“I’m a ghost, Merlin, I don’t have night vision.”
“Yes, but you’re also more unlikely to die here,” Merlin says, and shivers in his shirt. He wishes he’d brought a jacket, and more food, and a light. Arthur sighs, and comes to sit near him. It doesn’t help, but at least Merlin’s still glad for the company. Besides, he doesn’t really want Arthur to leave.
“Merlin,” Arthur says, and his expression twists. “You can use your magic to create a light.”
“I’m not a sorcerer,” Merlin insists, and grabs the side of the boat as he paddles. At this point, he’s not even sure they are moving in the right direction. At least it’s only a lake, and there’s no chance of steering them towards a waterfall. That’d be just Merlin’s luck.
“Why are you fighting this so much?” Arthur asks, and sits in front of him. “Merlin, you’ve been born with extraordinary gifts. Your job is to talk to ghosts, and from what you’ve told me, you’ve used magic more than once. It was outlawed once, but it’s not anymore. It’s a rare power, and one you should use to the best of your ability.”
“To help you?” Merlin snaps, and Arthur draws back in surprise. His expression darkens, even in the scant moonlight, and Merlin regrets it at once.
“If I have to do this for another thousand years,” Arthur says, “that’s no more than I was expecting before I met you.”
“I didn’t mean—” Merlin tries, and swallows thickly, thinning his lips. “I wasn’t—”
“And why would it be so horrible, if you did only do it for me?” Arthur says, and gets up. It should have rocked the boat, but it doesn’t, and Merlin grips the paddles more tightly. “Even if you don’t want any part of it, aren’t you supposed to help me? Don’t I deserve the attempt, at the very least?”
Merlin has a very sour taste in his mouth. “Is that why you’ve been following me around, then?” he demands. “Is that why you are—paying me attention? Being nice, because I like nice?”
“How could you think that?” Arthur snaps.
“I don’t know, Arthur,” Merlin says, and throws up his hands. “You keep saying I’ve got these abilities, but I’m not a sorcerer. I do small things, things that don’t matter, and I don’t even know what I’m doing half of the time—I don’t know where to start, and I don’t want to, don’t you see, because what do I do if it’s real?”
He stares at Arthur, and the fear claws in his lungs.
“What?” Arthur says, baffled.
“What if it’s real?” Merlin asks, quietly. “What if talking to ghosts wasn’t weird enough, no, I’m still different. I still haven’t figured out why I am the way I am, and it’s magic now, an entirely new thing, and not just something I can—stack on top of the ghost thing, and just say, well, here’s some extra things I can do, an entirely new thing for me to be mocked for, but it doesn’t really matter—”
“—And you say I’ve got to learn to control it, but where will I learn? And if it goes wrong, how do I change that? I’m still wrong, I’m still weird, I’m still a monster with no friends who just talks to air because there’s no one else to talk to. What if I am a sorcerer, Arthur? What do I do with that?”
“You are not,” Arthur says, strictly, “a monster. Whoever told you that?”
Merlin huffs out a breath, and scratches the back of his neck. “I know I’m not,” he says, “But I’m different. That’s always been true, and I thought—well, I can make a career of that. I can help where no one else can help. But it stacks up, and I don’t want to be different.”
“Merlin, you’re a very likeable man,” Arthur says, and shifts. “Gwen was disappointed you didn’t ask her on a date, don’t you remember? And maybe people aren’t looking at you because you’re talking to air, maybe they’re looking at you because you’re…” He gestures vaguely at Merlin, “…you.”
“Thanks,” Merlin says dryly, and stares at the peddle, because there’s little else he can see in the dark.
“I wasn’t lying,” Arthur says quietly.
“I don’t think you were,” Merlin tells him, and looks up. No stars, either, in the clouded night, but the darkness is still pretty, in a way. Ethereal and grand, and a reminder of how lonely the world can be.
Arthur almost feels real, next to him. “We can stay here,” he says. “Until the morning. It’s summer, so the night won’t last too long.”
The night won’t last too long. It’s certainly true, with Arthur beside him, on his last night with him. Merlin closes his eyes, and listens to the sound of his paddle rippling the water, and the way it sloshes along the boat while he rows.
“I’ve to leave tomorrow,” he says. “I only got until today to get you out of the castle. I’ll have to tell them it hasn’t worked. I can make it a nice story, if you want, that you’re terrorising everything. Maybe they’ll leave you be. For a bit.”
Arthur’s shock is palpable, and Merlin doesn’t even have to look at him for that. “You’re leaving?”
“I was never going to stay forever, now was I?” Merlin says, and smiles tightly. “We’re not all the sort of people who hang around for a millenium.”
“Okay,” Arthur says, and stays silent.
Merlin wants to ask him, that’s it? It would be highly improper, though, after he’s just accused Arthur of only wanting him here so he could try to use his magic to lift Arthur’s curse. It’s not nearly as easy as that, and Merlin wants to try, and he also wants his life to make sense again, the way it did before Arthur.
If he lifts this curse, will Arthur disappear? Will Merlin have ended him, the way he should have a thousand years ago?
Merlin huddles in on himself, shivering in the night. Arthur subconsciously leans against him, and Merlin—feels.
“You’re warm,” he says, dumbly, and Arthur’s arm shifts against his own, and—is gone again. Merlin tries to grab him, but he can’t, and Arthur’s mouth is agape.
“I felt that,” Arthur says, and stares.
“Strong emotions,” Merlin says, and swallows. “They tie you to this world. It’s why ghosts can haunt people—when they’re really scared, or really angry. It’s why Gwen saw you, remember? You must’ve been flickering. I can’t see very well.”
“I didn’t know it extended to touch,” Arthur whispers, rough in the dark night.
Merlin presses his lips together, and feels his Adam’s apple bobble. Arthur’s skin had felt warm, and alive, and smooth. It’s gone now, but he can still feel the shadow of it on his own skin, the press of Arthur’s gentle touch on Merlin’s cold arm. “Neither did I.”
“Fine,” Merlin says, and stands up. He almost falls out of the boat, and it’s only because he manages to grasp the sides of it in time that he remains upright. “Let’s see if there’s any advantages to being a sorcerer, then. What do I say, light, and then it comes? I’ve never done this on purpose, you know.”
Arthur’s expression is hard to decipher, and Merlin doesn’t even try. “I’m not sure. What did you do the other times you used magic?”
“I was feeling strong emotions,” Merlin says, and thinks back on it. He’d used it unconsciously, partly, but the instances that flash through his mind are bigger than that; fights that he only got out of because someone was knocked out without an explanation, falls that might’ve broken his bones but didn’t, places he found when he was lost.
Light switches flicked, when he really, really didn’t want to get out of bed. You know, strong emotions.
“Well, then,” Arthur says, without humour. “I suppose you should think of something you’re feeling strongly about.”
Merlin thinks about this boat. He thinks about Arthur on the island, between the ruins, looking far more alive than anyone he’s ever seen. The glint of golden hair in the sun, the pearly laughter that showed off his slightly-crooked teeth. The idea of being stuck here, the way Arthur has been stuck for all of his death.
He thinks about finding his magic, and the fear that he will find it, and never control it.
“Light,” he says, and holds up his hand. A tiny light flickers into being before him, enough to see the shore by. They’ve drifted away from the island, and it’s still quite a long way to peddle. Merlin laughs in delight.
Arthur is still silent, though. Merlin turns to him, only to come face to face with Arthur’s pensive stare. Arthur is sitting down, his shoulders hunched. Merlin crouches down, and the tiny ball of light comes down with him. “Well done,” Arthur says, but the smile doesn’t reach his eyes. “I did tell you, you know.”
“You did,” Merlin says, and after a moment, he adds, “I’m sorry I’m being so difficult about it.”
But Arthur is curled inwards, and Merlin doesn’t know if he’s even listening. In the light of Merlin’s little light, his cheekbones are starkly defined, and his lips are thin and pale. He casts no shadow himself, and Merlin turns away just so he isn’t found staring.
By the light of magic, he rows them back.
Arthur isn’t there when Merlin wakes. Someone is pounding on the door, though, and Merlin blurrily raises his face from the pillow when he hears the sound. He’s only in the shirt from yesterday and his shorts, and he blearily remembers that Arthur had left him before Merlin had even come back to his room.
He feels a stab of disappointment once again, and blinks himself awake. The knocks on the door come again, in rapid succession.
“I’m coming,” he says, and lets himself fall off the bed. He runs a hand through his hair, but the tousles aren’t leaving without a fight, so Merlin decides to leave things be and opens the door.
Gwen stares at him, open-eyed as she takes him in. “Sorry,” she stammers, and covers a smile with her hand. “You’re clearly not ready. I just thought—you’ve to check out in ten minutes, you do know that?”
Merlin stares at her. “Do I look like a man in the know?” he asks in exasperation, and throws open his door to let her in. He’d forgotten this was his last night here, and he hadn’t had time to pack. There’s still boxers and jeans all over the other side of the bed—thank God that Arthur’s presence had forced him to clean up, at least a bit.
It’s still clearly not up to Gwen’s standards, the way she’s eyeing the mess. She’s perfectly lovely, of course, her hair up in a messy bun and her dress flowing down her legs. It would’ve been easier if Merlin had fallen for her instead, but no, it had to be the grumpy ghost.
“You’ve left—one in the corner,” Gwen says politely, and Merlin quickly grabs the last of his boxers and throws it in his bag. He didn’t bring too much, so he’s cleaned up very rapidly, but it does mean he doesn’t have the time to shower or shave, and he only quickly changes clothes in the bathroom while Gwen waits outside.
Check-out isn’t all that interested in him, and they only eye him with some distaste as he leaves the keys and says a quick thank you and goodbye.
“Do I really smell that badly?” Merlin asks, and whiffs at his own armpits. It’s not him as much as it’s the shirt, and he belatedly realises he’s already worn it this week.
Gwen smiles tightly at him, and grabs his arm. “I’m not saying that a shower wouldn’t do you any good,” she says, “But I’m sure it was a late night for you.”
“Arthur and I got stuck on the lake,” Merlin says.
She blinks. “You did what?”
“I suppose Arthur could’ve walked through the water,” he continues, and winces. “But he didn’t see much, either, so it wasn’t that appealing. We got back, in the end, but I dropped one of the paddles in the water, and it—well, it’s sort of a long story.”
“He’s not here now, is he?” Gwen asks, and looks around, as if she might spot Arthur if she tries hard enough. She’s guiding Merlin through streets he’s never walked before, but presumably she’s leading them back to her apartment.
“No, he isn’t,” Merlin says. “I told him yesterday was my last day, and he got—upset, I think. That I couldn’t do it. Break his curse, I mean.”
“Oh, Merlin,” Gwen murmurs, and glances at him. “Did you try?”
“No,” Merlin admits. Gwen doesn’t even know about the magic, but Merlin still feels guilty for it. He’s no idea where to start, though, and he doesn’t want to botch it up. If these are actual powers, there must be a reason he has them, and he’s sure he can’t just start using spells all willy-nilly. What if he hurts Arthur? “I think I’ve got to do more research before I decide anything.”
“So you’re just going to leave him here?” Gwen demands, and lets go of him to cross her arms. “Merlin, that’s horrible!”
“Well,” Merlin says, and fumbles. “What if I get it wrong!”
“Did you ask him what he wants?”
“What he wants,” he says, “is nothing that I can give him, Gwen. I can try, but… it might not do what he wants it to do. Or what I want it to do.”
Gwen stares at him, the space between her eyebrows wrinkled in confusion. “You don’t want to help him?”
“Would you do it?” he asks her, and she stops, in the middle of the street. A few people pass them by, and Merlin looks at her. “If you wouldn’t be sure it would actually help? If it’s something you can’t control, and you don’t know how it works? Would you risk someone’s life over that?”
“It’s not a life, though, is it?” Gwen asks, and smiles a little tiredly.
“It’s more than he would have otherwise,” Merlin says. “I could try, Gwen, but I’m afraid. That he’ll be lost, and it’ll be all my fault.”
Gwen presses her lips together, and moves in closer. She runs her thumb over Merlin’s cheek, and for a moment, they’re so close that they breathe together. And she understands, Merlin thinks; Gwen understands his fear.
“It’s his choice,” she repeats, and steps back. “Maybe he trusts you more than you trust yourself, Merlin. Maybe he is right to.”
Merlin closes his eyes. He thinks of Arthur, and his clipped words, Don’t I deserve the attempt, at the very least? Arthur deserves more than an attempt—he deserves for Merlin to get it right. He deserves someone who can snap their fingers and solve his problem, but really, how many ghost hunters are there who will practise magic?
For that matter, how many sorcerers are even left in this world? Who is left to lift Arthur’s curse, if Merlin can’t do it?
“I can’t get this wrong,” he repeats.
Gwen sighs. “Come on,” she says, and takes his hand. Her house isn’t far; it takes them only five minutes before she opens the front door, and ushers Merlin onto the couch. He sets his bag down next to him, gently.
His car is still in front of the room he rented, but he’s low on gas, and Merlin doesn’t want to think about earthly things like checking traffic and stopping at a gas station. Driving home today seems inconceivable to him, and he knows why that is.
“Arthur won’t know to come here,” is all Merlin says, when Gwen sets a glass of water in front of him.
She purses her lips to hide a smile. “You’re sweet to be so concerned about him, Merlin. But then again, that’s your job, isn’t it?”
“Well,” Merlin says, and frowns. “They’re not usually cursed. Or quite so stubborn. And they usually don’t go around following me in the middle of the night. But I suppose—”
“They’re not usually that handsome, I suppose?” Gwen offers, and tilts one eyebrow at him when Merlin sputters. “Or spend their days insulting you? And you don’t usually fall in love with them, don’t you?”
“He’s not insulting me,” Merlin says, and it’s a good sign of his token protest that that’s the bit of information he focused on.
“Oh, please, Merlin,” Gwen says. “I can hear a lot even from one side of the conversation, you know. He likes you, and you like him, and you’re just—pulling at each other’s pigtails the entire time! I’ve known you only for a few days, and I’ve only seen Arthur once, but it’s clear as day. And he needs you, Merlin.”
“You don’t know that,” Merlin protests.
“And you need him,” she continues, as if he hadn’t said anything at all. “You know how your face lights up when he’s there? And you keep staring at him, even when I’m pretty sure he’s not even saying anything. You said that he’s so alive, but Merlin, so are you when he’s there.”
“Are you really trying to set me up on a date,” Merlin says slowly, “with a ghost? A ghost king? And I’ve only known him for a week, too—”
“What do you think time matters to someone who’s had so much of it?” Gwen asks. “Merlin, he’s been alone for a thousand years, if what you’re telling me is true. Don’t you think a week with someone might be more important than a lifetime, to him?”
Merlin crosses his hands on his lap. “No,” he says quietly.
“I think he’s even more afraid than you are, probably,” Gwen says, and comes to sit next to him. She leans against him, warm and alive, like Arthur had been for a split second last night. Merlin misses him, suddenly, misses him more than he can bear, and Gwen is right.
“I’m going to do this, aren’t I?” Merlin says, and runs a shaking hand over his face.
“You owe it to him to try,” Gwen says kindly. “Do you want me to be there?”
He considers it, for a moment. Gwen is a good friend, and her offer is sincere, but Merlin doesn’t think he can take her up on it. This started with only Arthur and him—if it ends, it should be the same.
“No, thank you,” he says, and kisses her cheek. “For the advice, and for the offer. I don’t know what I’d do without you, Gwen.”
“Love piningly from afar, probably,” she jokes, and nods in support when he looks at her. Merlin slowly rises from her couch, and hugs Gwen tightly. No matter what he does now, it’s not going to be the same.
After today, he won’t be a simple ghost hunter anymore. There’ll be magic in his blood, and today he will prove that he can accept that.
The walk to the castle feels surreal. Merlin has walked it so many times now, and this time might well be the last. His legs feel like they’ve turned to jelly, and he’s trembling all over, and it makes the short hike feel twice as difficult.
“Arthur!” he yells, when he’s in the courtroom. This is where he first met Arthur, but there’s no sign of the ghost here. “Arthur!”
He doesn’t know the castle that well, unlike Arthur, who knows it like the back of his hand—as he should, after a thousand years—but he runs past the corridors as if it’s his own home. His footsteps echo below him, and he searches all the places Arthur has shown him—his own bedroom, the gardens, the kitchens. Arthur is nowhere to be found.
Breathing hard, and a little bit lost, Merlin leans against a wall and he closes his eyes. Some debris tumbles down onto his shoulder, but he brushes it off. Tears prickle at his eyes—he’s nervous, and he’s afraid that Arthur won’t be able to stand the very sight of him after yesterday, and equally worried that Arthur will and will let Merlin do what he’s come here to do. And to top it off, he can’t even find Arthur.
Something inside him tingles. The tiny light ball from yesterday shines before him, when he opens his eyes again, and he frowns at it.
“Hello?” he asks, in hesitation, and the ball starts to move. Merlin follows it, utterly unaware of where he’s being led, but it must be his own magic. He can feel it uncurl in his chest, as if he’s let something out and now he can’t push it back in again.
The ball of light disappears behind a locked door. Merlin rattles at it, but it won’t budge. He swallows deeply, and thinks about his fear, again. Thinks about Arthur.
“Unlock,” he demands, and the door clicks. Merlin takes a deep breath, and pushes it open. There, by the window, stands Arthur, already turned towards him. He must’ve heard the door, and he looks at Merlin, surprise edged on his features.
“Merlin?” he says, and Merlin loves him, loves that lilt Arthur does when he says his name, like Mer -lin, Mer -lin, and doesn’t think anyone will ever say his name quite the right way anymore. “How did you find me?”
“It’s a long story,” Merlin says, and then winces, and adds, “Well, maybe it’s not. Magic, I suppose. I used magic.”
“Right,” Arthur says, bemused, and huffs. “I thought you were supposed to go home.”
Merlin takes a step forward. “I thought about it,” he admits. “But that would make me a pretty lousy ghost hunter, wouldn’t it? And I know you can’t exactly give me one star online, and scare off my other customers, but it would mean—it would mean leaving, Arthur. And it turns out that I can’t. Leave you here, that is.”
Arthur stares at him. “What do you mean?”
“I’ll try,” Merlin says, and runs a hand over his traitorous eyes. “I can’t promise—but I’ll try, Arthur, if you want me to. I’ll try.”
Arthur takes one step, and then another, and then he’s suddenly in Merlin’s arms. He doesn’t quite feel right, but for a second, he is solid and whole and warm—and then he’s gone right through Merlin, and stares up at him from the floor.
“That wasn’t what I wanted to go for,” he says, and sighs deeply.
“It’s fine,” Merlin defends him, although he’s still trembling. “I’m not sure how to go about it, though. I think—maybe the lake? Do you think that will help?”
“It can’t hurt, certainly,” Arthur says, and stares at him. “Are you sure, Merlin?”
“Yes,” Merlin says, because despite his concerns, this is the only way forward. He can’t leave Arthur here, and Arthur doesn’t want to be left. Even if Merlin can’t do it, Arthur won’t be destined to wander this castle as a ghost, all by himself. If Arthur is meant to be at peace, then he will be.
Arthur nods slowly. “This was my mother’s room,” he says slowly. “I come here to think, sometimes. But I’ve found that I am mostly thinking about you. I understand your worry, Merlin, but I promise you—I am only ever grateful for you. Come what may.”
“Come what may,” Merlin repeats.
It’s Merlin’s third day in a row at the lake, and it’s the worst day, so far. The weather turned for the worse during Merlin and Arthur’s quiet walk down to the lake, and Merlin’s drenched in the rain. He’s only wearing his shirt, and he shivers in the cold.
“I’m pretty sure you can use magic for that,” Arthur says, the first thing he’s said in a long time.
Merlin suppresses another shiver, and snaps at him, “I’m not sure I can change the weather, my lord!”
Arthur sends him a speculative glance. “Maybe not,” he says. “But you can make yourself dry, anyway. Or create an umbrella. You’ve had these powers since you were a child, didn’t you say? Why have you never tried to control them before?”
“It’s going to sound stupid,” Merlin says, “But I sort of figured they came hand-in-hand with the whole thing where I could talk to ghosts. And I was already odd enough, as a child, so I didn’t think I needed a whole extra reason to stand out.”
“But still,” Arthur insists. “You have the power of magic at your fingertips. How could you not?”
“It’s always been so erratic,” Merlin says, and wonders how to best explain. “I knew I had them, and I even managed to use them sometimes—but it doesn’t always go the way I intend it to, Arthur, and it’s not as easy as just talking to ghosts. It’s always been little things, tiny things, nothing significant. It’s not magic, it’s just—a sort of gift. An extra ability. Not this whole—extra supernatural thing.”
Arthur is quiet for a moment, but he keeps looking at Merlin. Merlin ignores the looks, still cold. He murmurs “Warmth, warmth,” to himself, feeling very strongly about the goosebumps on his arms, but no magic races forth at the words.
“I know you’re afraid, Merlin,” Arthur says, eventually. “Rightly so. I know magic is dangerous, and playing with it has a cost. I know it isn’t always fair, and I know that to use it wisely, one needs a great deal of practice. But I do trust you.”
“Great, that’s making me feel much better about the entire thing,” Merlin snaps, and bites his lower lip. He doesn’t want to be mad at Arthur, not for putting him in this position—and Arthur is right, at the end of the day. Merlin can’t avoid this forever, and he owes Arthur the attempt.
It’s still raining when they arrive at the lake. Merlin feels that odd sensation again, the burdening of his shoulders. It makes him feel heavy, and he shudders from both cold and dread.
“What next?” Arthur asks, his voice calm. He can’t be, really, but Merlin appreciates it for what it is—a way to calm down Merlin, and to give him more control over the situation.
“Stand in the lake, I suppose, and feel strong emotions to tie you into the physical world,” Merlin says, and thinks of Gwen’s words, he’ll return from beyond the lake, and hopes he’s on the right track. They used to say this island was for sorcerers, Arthur had told him yesterday, and Merlin closes his eyes as Arthur follows his instructions.
The rain is still pouring, and Merlin focuses on the way it drips over his face. A droplet gets stuck on his eyelash, and Merlin inhales deeply. Arthur stands in the water, the lake coming up to his thighs, and only looking up at Merlin.
“I’ve been honoured to know you, Merlin,” Arthur says, and his voice shudders. “And if this doesn’t work, I want you to know—you were worth waiting for, a thousand years.”
“Arthur,” Merlin says, hopelessly.
“I know,” Arthur says, and smiles that tiny, crooked smile. Merlin closes his eyes, because he cannot do this if he has to watch him one moment more, this ghost that is too alive to pass beyond, and reaches out his hands instinctively.
He doesn’t know what words to say. They never settled on whether Arthur was cursed, or if it was a prophecy, or if it was something else entirely. Merlin has no idea what he is even undoing, but he can still sense whatever is going on at the lake. It’s stronger now, even, and Merlin has to take a deep breath.
“Live,” he murmurs, not loud enough for Arthur to hear him. “Live, live!”
The magic is excruciatingly heavy, and Merlin sobs as it weighs him down. It doesn’t like what he is doing, he thinks, and the rain loudly rattles on the ground. Something in Merlin breaks, even as he keeps chanting, and he yells Live, live, until the word loses all meaning.
But he thinks of Arthur, while he does it. Thinks of that moment in the boat, when Arthur says, The night is not too long, willing to wait out the sunrise just so that they can row back to shore together. And Merlin wants to spend every night stuck on a boat with Arthur, if he can, wants to always be in that one moment in which he was able to get Arthur so angry that he could touch him, just to feel his warmth.
Merlin yells, “Live!” and then Arthur cries out, and is snatched underwater.
It’s too sudden for Merlin to be able to respond to it, and he runs into the water. It sloshes up to his thighs, and he grasps uselessly, unable to see anything with all the water in his eyes. Panic grips his throat, and he can barely breathe, because he can’t see Arthur anywhere.
He’s disappeared into the lake.
“Arthur!” he yells out, and runs his wet sleeve over his equally wet face, but the rain is pouring as violently as ever, and the lake’s water is too turbid for Merlin to be able to see anything. He wildly slashes his arms around, hoping to find anyone, anything. “Arthur!”
And then he sees something, and dives for it.
The lake is alarmingly cold. It’s a little funny, Merlin thinks absently, because he’d already been freezing, so that says something about the water temperature. But then he sees Arthur, his golden hair waving around his face and his eyes closed. He floats in the middle of the lake, neither sinking, nor rising, and his skin is deadly pale.
Merlin makes a noise, and bubbles rise up to the surface. He reaches for Arthur, and grabs him by the wrist, hoisting him up with all the force he can muster under water. He’s becoming dizzy with lack of air, but Arthur’s stuck, and he has to get him up—
Arthur moves, finally. Merlin kicks his legs as hard as he dares, trying not to hit Arthur, and gasps for breath when he finally breaks the surface. The salty air of the lake is the sweetest thing in existence, and then Arthur finally manages to come up for air, too. He flounders in the water, his eyes large in his white face, but then he finds his footing. He coughs, once, twice.
Merlin is still holding onto his wrist.
“Arthur,” he whispers.
“Merlin,” Arthur says, his voice rough, and tugs Merlin towards him. He is strong, and lean, and not nearly as warm as he was last time Merlin could feel him, but it doesn’t matter. Arthur doesn’t phase through him, and the faint translucency has disappeared. Merlin puts his ear on Arthur’s chest, and hears a heartbeat.
“You’re alive,” Merlin says, and takes a shuddering breath. “I’m not—I did this? It worked?”
“It worked,” Arthur says, and kisses him.
It’s enough to fry Merlin’s brain. He starts crying, even as Arthur’s lips cover his own, and it’s perhaps the least romantic first kiss ever. Arthur starts to pull away, but Merlin will be damned if this is taken from him, too, so he grabs Arthur’s hair and pushes him right back.
“Don’t you dare,” he says, murmuring the words against Arthur’s lips. “I’m not done with you, don’t you dare—”
“Did they never teach you that’s not how you talk to a king?” Arthur says, but kisses Merlin once again, so Merlin can forgive him.
“Arthur,” Merlin breathes, but eventually, even he has to admit that they can’t be standing around in a lake all day. He lets go of Arthur very slowly, although Arthur keeps hold of his arm. The touch is real, and getting warmer by the minute, and Merlin’s heart is still beating very, very fast.
“I think your magic is stronger than we ever took into consideration,” Arthur says, in good humour, “Which may be a very good thing indeed, because I didn’t think this had a very high chance of success, and we probably owe it all to the fact you’re a very talented sorcerer.”
“You didn’t think this had a high chance of success?” Merlin yells, and then stops. “What do you mean, my magic is stronger than you thought?”
“Well, for one,” Arthur says, “The rain has stopped. For another, we’re both completely dry, even though we’re still standing in a lake and were under water only a few minutes ago.”
Merlin looks around. The lake is still coming up to their ankles, maybe, but when Merlin slowly lifts his leg, his shoe is entirely dry. There’s not a droplet of water to see on either of them, and the skies have turned to a cloudless blue.
“That wasn’t me,” Merlin says.
“I think you’re probably going to have to learn to control that,” Arthur says. “We wouldn’t want you to be a menace to society, now would we?”
“As if I could ever be such a menace as you have proven yourself to be,” Merlin says, and kisses Arthur again before he can protest. Arthur’s lips are warm and soft, and his hand on Merlin’s neck is pleasantly possessive.
Merlin may not be allowed to fall in love with ghosts, but he thinks he can make a case for thousand-year-old kings that have magically come back to life.
It’s probably not what she expected to see, Merlin thinks in hindsight. Gwen looks at them, wide-eyed, and her fingers are white from how hard she’s clutching her door.
“Hello, Gwen,” Arthur says formally, and grasps Merlin’s hand very tightly. “I suppose I have to say it’s nice to meet you. Officially, that is.”
“Don’t be a prick,” Merlin says, and lets go of Arthur to fall in Gwen’s arms. She holds him tightly, but he can feel that she’s still staring at Arthur over his shoulder. Merlin lets go of her, and smiles tiredly at her stunned expression.
“You’re Arthur,” Gwen says, and her voice is squeaky and high. “You’re— the Arthur. I’m so sorry, I’m just—I didn’t know you’d be coming here.”
Or at all, is what Gwen doesn’t say. Merlin has a vague recollection of leaving her home earlier that morning. The afternoon hasn’t even passed. Isn’t it strange, how much can change in only a matter of hours?
Suddenly, Arthur is a living man, and Merlin is a sorcerer.
“I am Arthur,” Arthur says, wryly.
“Can we come in?” Merlin asks, and steps back. Arthur leans into him at once, and it’s probably bad form to be snuggling up so close to each other in front of someone else. Merlin can’t find it in himself to care, though, and lets Arthur grab his hand again as Gwen ushers them into her home.
“How did you do it?” Gwen asks, and frowns at them. “Not that—I mean, I’m very glad it worked, obviously, but last you said—”
“It was the lake,” Merlin says.
Arthur thwacks the back of his head. “I still say it was you, you moron.”
“Fine,” Merlin says, because they’ve been having this discussion all the way to Gwen’s house. “It was me, being in the lake. Because if you’ve got to return a dead king, obviously you need an amateur sorcerer to muck it all up.”
“Not all of it,” Arthur grants, and smiles at him. Despite it all, Merlin smiles back.
“And now?” Gwen says, and if she wants to ask about the whole sorcerer issue, she’s clearly holding it back for now. Rightly so; they have other concerns now. Arthur is back, he’s here, and that brings with it a whole other onslaught of issues.
Arthur stares at Merlin. “We’ve no idea,” he says, proudly.
For the first time in a long, long time, Arthur has his options open. They’re not about to start by closing them, Merlin thinks, and hiccups out a laugh. He’s beyond tired, and everything he knows about himself has been tilted slightly to the left, this past week, and there is no telling what will happen next. But he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to say no to Arthur, anymore.
“You know,” he says, and nudges Arthur. He’s all muscle, and Merlin can’t wait to see how alive he really is. “I’m really a surprisingly good ghost hunter. I don’t think any of the others can say they’ve brought back ghosts from the other side, so that should be good for business.”
“I don’t know if that’s what they meant, Merlin,” Gwen says, but her lips are tilted into a kind smile.
“Well, the castle’s not haunted, is it?” Merlin says. “I did my job. Ghost happy, castle renovators happy—”
“Ghost hunter happy,” Arthur says, and kisses Merlin on the forehead.
“Ghost hunter happy,” Merlin agrees.
He is, really, even sitting in Gwen’s tiny living room, with his head still reeling from what they’ve done, and what Arthur will need next. Perhaps the person who bought the castle to be renovated has some idea of the ghost that lingered there, and will permit them to come visit, at least.
Merlin has no idea what sort of person Mr Kilgharrah is, but he did hire Merlin, so at least he believes in ghosts. He might believe this odd story of magic, curses and Arthur’s return.
They are alive, and that is where everything begins.