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Walk with Me

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Book One – Here I stand



Prologue

“What did you do?” Arthur roared the words, staring around him wildly as the golden glow faded from the air. And then he was pointing his sword at his manservant as he witnessed the same glow slowly leave Merlin’s eyes. Merlin dropped the hand that had been outstretched, fingers spread, and almost seemed to collapse in on himself, his features expressing a mix of terror and what seemed to be an odd longing, adding an element of puzzlement to Arthur’s fury.

“Arthur, please –“ he began.

Arthur could not ignore the clear, unequivocal evidence, even though a small, isolated corner of his heart screamed at him to stop and think for a moment. “You – “ he managed, and then he had to stop and swallow against the ugly taste of betrayal suddenly swamping his throat, dropping his voice to a rough, gasping growl. “You’re a – “ He was having trouble getting the word out, trouble believing it, and he cracked a harsh laugh. “A sorcerer,” he managed.

“I’m not evil, Arthur. You know I’m not. Please – “

“On your knees – now.” It was a rasped command, the tone of his voice demanding instant capitulation.

As disobedient as ever, Merlin ignored him, stumbling backwards instead and keeping his hands carefully down by his sides, though defiance sparked in his gaze. “I’ve been saving your life since the day I met you, you prat,” his voice broke on the insult that had become a joke between them. “I could never hurt you. Please, Arthur.”

All the years of his father’s indoctrination battered at Arthur, reminding him of the many times he'd been attacked by magic, how many times his beloved Camelot had been in danger. He thought of a dragon raining fire and destruction on his people and fury rose like bile as Arthur glared at the man he'd trusted above all others. Swinging his sword in an arc, a scream of anguish ripping from him, he charged.

Book 1

Oxford October 1987

It was supposed to be a peaceful afternoon walk; a chance to trudge through the crisp fallen leaves and let their Labrador expend some of his boundless energy chasing rabbits and squirrels he was never going to catch.

What the young man and his wife had never expected was to follow their excited dog and discover him nosing at what the man first thought was a dummy. He tried calling the dog back to them and when his shout failed to get the dog’s attention, he strode over to clip on the lead, intent on pulling him away. He looked down and knew immediately it wasn't a mannequin – not unless shop dummies generally ended up with that amount of blood in them. Although most of the blood now appeared to be anywhere except in the body. He stared at his dog, noting the happily wagging tail and the tongue lolling out of his mouth before realising his muzzle was covered in sticky blood from where he'd been nosing the corpse. It was too much and he turned around and threw up.

His wife’s alarmed cry had him calling out roughly. “Don’t come any closer. Go back to the phone box on the road and call the police. Wait for them so you can lead them here. There’s been an accident.” It wasn't an accident, he didn’t have to be a detective to work that one out, but he wasn't about to tell his wife anything to worry her more than she already was. He turned his back on the horrible sight and instead watched her leave, praying whoever had done this was well away from the scene.

That was the story the young couple told the detective who arrived at the scene with the uniformed police. And it was the brief background Chief Inspector Morse passed onto his sergeant when he joined them.

Detective Sergeant Lewis nodded his understanding as they began the short walk to the murder site. He managed an encouraging smile for the young constable manning the police line marking off the area of the investigation as he ducked under the tape. Lewis wasn’t old by any standard, but the baby-faced youngster made him feel ancient. He'd already trudged his way through a seemingly endless day and it didn’t appear it was going to come to a close any time soon. He was tired, discontented and aware his wife was going to be less than amused at another missed dinner. Lewis sighed and turned his attention back to the matter in hand. Blankly, he stared down at the reason for the overtime and exchanged a glance with his boss. This was possibly the most gruesome and was certainly the most bizarre murder scene he'd ever attended. Chief Inspector Morse looked as flummoxed as Lewis felt. Lewis stepped forward for a necessary, but unwilling closer look.

The dead body was male, dressed in garb that appeared to be straight out of some theatrical wardrobe. The cause of death seemed fairly obvious, based on the evidence of the wicked-looking sword impaled in his guts. The coroner was working on the body now, and everyone was trying to avoid the less- than-fragrant pile of vomit the young man had expelled when he and his wife made their horrific discovery.

Lewis turned as Chief Inspector Morse came to stand beside him. “Bit of a weird one,” Lewis said.

“Always stating the obvious, Lewis,” Morse said, his mouth twitching slightly in amusement and Lewis felt his own exaggerated eye roll had been worth it. “The death was recent – probably within the last couple of hours. I’ve got an armed unit here – just in case there are any other lunatics with swords around.”

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than they were interrupted by shouting that came from the ground demarcated by the tape. “I thought we cleared the area?” Morse said. He glared round, and his displeasure fell upon the young constable who'd been tasked with guarding the flimsy yellow police line.

“We did,” Lewis said, deflecting Morse’s attention, to the constable’s obvious relief. “It’s coming from inside the police cordon. Nobody's passed us since we arrived.”

Morse turned his attention to the constable beside them. “I want armed officers up here now. Come on, Lewis.” They left the stuttering man behind them and took off up the slope, slipping slightly on the detritus of autumn leaves and damp earth. Lewis noted the footprints they were leaving. The only footprints.

Lewis swore beneath his breath as they scrambled into a clearing occupied by two men, one of whom looked as if he was about to add to the tally of disembowelled corpses. Lewis stumbled to a halt at the sight, not quite believing his eyes when faced with a blond man wearing chainmail and armour wielding what Lewis could only describe as a bloody great sword. The other man was as dark as this one was blond, and was more simply dressed. He was also unarmed, and although he appeared distressed, he didn't seem afraid. Lewis stared hard at him for a moment, sure he must know him and wondering why.

The blond man was shouting but Lewis had no idea what he was saying and it sounded like no language he'd heard before. Morse, on the other hand, was frowning.

“Put the sword down!” Lewis shouted, wondering if there was any point but hoping the fact they were there might serve to break up the argument. He glanced sideways as the armed officer arrived beside him.

Then it all went to hell.

It was as if he hadn't even heard Lewis, as the blond man yelled, the sound almost like anguish, swung the sword and took off straight at the dark man, who scrambled out of the way, his own voice pleading. The officer shouted his warnings and fired off a warning shot, the bullet smacking into a tree close to the dark man. The man stared wildly at the damage to the bark, although the blond didn't seem to notice as all his attention was still trained on the unarmed man, and he was obviously getting ready to attack once more. The policeman aimed again and this time it was no warning shot, this time his target was the man wielding the sword. The dark man’s eyes widened and he screamed a name, “Arthur!” ducking under the sword and shoving the blond man hard. The blond went flying out of range just as the gun discharged, and the dark man spun as he was hit by the force of the bullet, blood spraying from his shoulder as he landed on his back on the earth.

Everything froze for a split second. The blond yelled something and scrambled across to the supine man. He looked up at the men surrounding them as if seeing them for the first time, shouting at them in a tone expressing his anger and panic, even if no-one could understand the words. There was a force and arrogance in the tone suggesting he was used to either being obeyed or feared, but clearly recognised he wasn't being understood and quickly turned his attention back to the injured man. Despite the fact he'd charged him as if he was about to split him in two only moments before, now he was on his knees, and had pressed a gloved hand against the wound to try and staunch the flow of blood. His anger seemed to have leached away and left the panic behind and there was no way anyone could miss the edge of fear in his voice as he talked urgently to the unconscious man.

Morse had already ordered an ambulance to be despatched to them, while the remaining officers broke the tableau, swarming in and wrestling the man to the ground. He struggled until he saw one of them take over the care of the injured man at which point the fight seemed to go out of him and he stared around, eyes wide and wild. He snapped out what was obviously a question, his tone back to that of a man who was used to getting answers. It didn't help him now, however, as his hands were cuffed behind his back and he was hauled unceremoniously to his feet. His gaze returned to the injured man, watching like a hawk as the paramedics arrived and began working on him.

Morse stepped in front of him, drawing his attention. “Do you speak English?”

The blond, Arthur, and Lewis didn’t want to think about that name when he was looking at armour and a sword, repeated his own earlier words in response, asking a question they couldn't understand and so couldn't hope to answer.

Morse shook his head at the man, trying to convey they couldn't understand him and he turned back to Lewis, his tone thoughtful. “It sounds to me as if he’s speaking Old English – or something close to it. Let’s get him to the station. I’ve got someone I can call who might be able to help us.”

Arthur wasn't keen to be separated from his companion and as they tried to lead him away he exploded into action and, despite being handcuffed, it still took four burly officers to manhandle him into the back of a police car. Lewis watched him, saw the sudden change in his skin colour as the car started, and then bright blue eyes closed tight. He looked like someone who was petrified and doing everything in his power not to show it. It was almost as if, Lewis mused, the man had never been in a car before.

*** 

Arthur was carefully escorted into Oxford police station, and although he now appeared docile, Lewis didn't miss the sharp attention he was paying to everything around him, and even though his breathing quickened a number of times at what Lewis considered very ordinary things, he expressed no other outward signs of what he was feeling and didn't try to speak to any of them. At the station he stood quietly while two constables removed the armour and chain mail he was wearing. When one of them attempted to remove his ring, however, they were treated to a sharp sentence and a look of such hauteur that they immediately stepped away from him. They looked nervously at Lewis. Lewis met Arthur’s gaze then, seeing the raised chin and the way Arthur’s gaze didn't falter. There was determination there and Lewis could see this was something important to him. He was an experienced enough detective to recognise when to bend the rules.

“Leave the ring. Just cuff him and put him in interview room four. Stay with him.” He saw Arthur’s posture relax slightly and acknowledged the slight nod of thanks with an inclination of his own head. However, Lewis walked along with them as they moved Arthur to the interview room, not entirely trusting this calmness and he was treated to a disgruntled expression as he dragged out a chair and gestured to it. With a sigh that suggested he was greatly put upon and was really just humouring them, Arthur sat.

Lewis went back to the office to discover Morse’s friend had arrived. Lewis looked on, hiding his amusement as Morse’s features lit up, expressing a pleasure in another person’s company unusual for this generally phlegmatic man. Lewis hadn’t been working with Morse for long, but he was already used to his irascible, difficult-to-please character.

“Professor,” Morse strode forward, extending his hand. “Good of you to come so quickly.”

“Anything I can do to help, you know you only have to ask,” the Professor responded, his eyes twinkling as he smiled.

For a moment, Lewis was sure he must've met him before as a sense of recognition tugged at his consciousness. The Professor was a tall man, around 6 feet and Lewis used his copper’s analytical eye to assess him. He was lean, in his early 30s, his dark beard neatly trimmed and his eyes were a bright blue, crinkled at the corners as if he smiled often. And yet… Lewis shifted uneasily as he met the blue gaze, seeing a depth of sadness lurking there at odds with the genial exterior. A man used to hiding, he assessed.

“You must be Sergeant Lewis,” the Professor said, extending his hand for Lewis to shake. “Morse mentioned he was working with you. He speaks highly of you.”

Lewis spared a brief glance for Morse, shocked he'd mention him at all, never mind in such positive terms. Since he'd been working with Morse, he'd felt constantly left behind, often stunned by Morse’s intuitive leaps and the level of his intellect. This was the first indication he had that Morse didn't believe he was a complete waste of space. It was typical of Morse, he supposed, to speak well of him to anybody but Lewis.

Morse cleared his throat. “Well, yes,” he said and then changed the subject without any subtlety at all. “I enjoyed your recital last month – you should really play in public more often.”

“You’re very kind, but I don’t play well enough for anything other than the occasional college recital – no time to practice, either, I’m afraid. I hope you enjoyed the Schubert, though. I put it in when you said you were coming.”

Morse smiled in obvious delight at this consideration. “I did enjoy it, thank you.”

“Well,” the Professor prompted, “I’m sure you didn’t call me down here to chat about music and provide Mr. Lewis with the opportunity to examine me so thoroughly?”

“No,” Morse, once recalled to the issue at hand, was all business. “We’ve got a nasty murder – and a rather peculiar case. So far our only possible witnesses or suspects are not communicative.”

“That’s … fascinating – but I still don’t see how I can help.”

“When we found them, they were arguing – in what sounded to me like Old English. One of them was injured during the arrest. We have the other man here and he’s still not speaking English. And he was wearing this.” Morse stepped aside so the Professor could see the mound of metal sitting on one of the desks.

As Morse continued, his attention on the armour rather than on the Professor, Lewis saw the Professor’s shock, watching him reach out to run a caressing hand across a piece of the armour – a breastplate, he thought, and as Morse said, “It seems his name is – “

Lewis swore he heard the Professor whisper, just as Morse completed the sentence.

“Arthur.”

“Arthur.”

There was a moment of silence, before the Professor smiled tightly and remarked. “It might help if I talk to this man.” There was something haunted in his gaze now, Lewis thought, a sudden tension and concern that intrigued him and his instincts were all screaming at him, telling him there was a story here and some connection between the two men.

Morse smiled and it appeared he noticed nothing amiss. “He’s right through here, Emrys. Lewis will show you the way.”

 ***

Arthur was so far out of his element, he'd no idea what to think. This place – everything was wrong. Every surface looked and felt strange, the sounds and smells were all wrong, different. This was an alien place, where men wielded weapons that could - . He cut that thought off as the memory of the blood spraying from Merlin’s body repeated in his memory, and the gorge rose in his throat. He swallowed hard and tried to make some sense of what he now knew to be true.

Merlin.

A sorcerer.

He must be responsible for this. Somehow, the idiot had sent them somewhere so strange – so magic – he couldn't even understand the words spoken to him.

Merlin – a sorcerer.

The King would have him executed. Something twisted in his gut at the thought, unable to accept the clumsy, good-hearted, loyal oaf might end his life on a pyre. Except Merlin had betrayed him. Since the first moment they'd met, Merlin had been lying to him.

The attack had come out of the blue, the bandits on them before most had been able to draw their swords. In the resulting melee one of the accompanying knights had managed to kill the bandit about to spit Arthur from behind, but another bandit had killed the knight. He'd registered Merlin’s cry, turning to discover what trouble his manservant had got himself into this time, as yet another man attacked him. There was no time to mount any defence. And as the blade descended, he knew he was about to die. In that precise moment the world turned gold and when it had faded he'd immediately felt the difference, smelt and heard the difference, as he was catapulted into a world he didn't recognise or understand. The only thing he recognised was Merlin, except he was standing in front of him with his hand outstretched and the gold fading from his eyes.

No, he didn’t recognise Merlin at all.

Merlin had done this.

Merlin had, without any doubt, saved his life. Merlin had lied to him.

Merlin.

Arthur closed his eyes against a pounding headache, and tried to remain calm, tried to stop the thoughts ricocheting around his mind. His increasingly chaotic, swirling deliberations were only interrupted by the sound of the door opening. Even that sounded wrong.

“Would you excuse us, please?”

That voice.

Arthur debated keeping his eyes closed, too afraid of what he was going to see, but instead he opened his eyes and watched as the two men who'd been silently standing watch over him filed out of the room. Leaving him with.

It couldn’t be…

No.

He was out of the chair and was backed into the corner before he was even conscious of moving.

“Hello, Arthur.”

There was a long silence, as Arthur stared at what could only be a mirage. The man in front of him was too old, and the beard… He couldn't possibly be looking at Merlin. Arthur was now completely convinced he was going out of his mind. It was the only explanation he could think of. Or perhaps he'd died after all and this was some strange after-life, populated by sinister versions of people he'd known. He shivered. The way this man was staring at him was unnerving.

“Arthur, I know you’re fri – concerned. I need to get you out of here and then we can work out what's happened. We can find out why you’re here.”

“I’m here,” Arthur managed to say, “because you – a sorcerer – brought us here.” He was ridiculously pleased to hear his voice remaining steady when he felt he was verging on the edge of hysteria.

Merlin’s expression was comical, despite the situation. “You know? Wait. You said us?”

“You were hurt,” Arthur swallowed as the memory of Merlin pushing him aside and the stark red of the blood pulsing from his body surfaced.

“I – I was hurt?” Merlin stared at him, looking aghast. “What happened –“ he shook his head before Arthur could even begin to speak. “It doesn’t matter, right now. I still need to get you out of here and then we can sort everything out.”

“You expect me to go with you – a sorcerer. You expect me to trust you?”

Merlin shut his eyes and rubbed his forehead, as if he was plagued by the same headache that was still bothering Arthur. Merlin sighed deeply and looked almost hurt by Arthur’s words. “Tell me, Arthur, have I ever caused you any harm?” Arthur glowered at him. Merlin stared pointedly at him until Arthur shrugged, feeling a strange warmth steal over him when Merlin rolled his eyes. It was such a familiar gesture. Merlin continued, and it looked as if he'd decided he'd won his argument. “Well, at least if you know I've magic I don’t have to hide,” he hesitated, almost looking bashful before he continued. “I’m going to cast a spell. All it'll do is allow you to understand what people say and they'll be able to understand you.”

“You’re going to use magic on me?” Try as he might, he couldn’t keep his voice from rising in a mix of horror and trepidation.

“It’s only a little spell – honestly – just so you can understand-“

Arthur scowled at him. “How do I know you’re not lying?” he asked, and he could feel his features settling into cold fury. Despite the unknown environment and the thousand things he'd already seen here that he didn't understand, somehow he couldn't get past the fact that Merlin – his Merlin – had been lying to him since the day they met. Even when they'd grown close, so close Arthur had forced himself to draw away again, Merlin had been lying to him. He stared at Merlin, trying not to be mollified by the obvious distress he witnessed. Merlin may have been lying, but he'd never been able to hide how he was feeling. Now Arthur felt he may have found the key to some of those times when Merlin had seemed unsettled, or the times he'd been so certain that they, that Camelot, would be safe, and Arthur would be a great king. What'd Merlin done, he wondered, recalling Merlin’s broken voice earlier in this day as he told him he'd used magic to save his life many times. As he'd done once more. A rush of memories whirled through Arthur's mind. It only took a split second, but with those memories, and his acknowledgement of times Merlin might well have had something to do with the successful outcome of a perilous situation, tendrils of acceptance began to take root and break through the anger and betrayal.

“Well, get on with it then.” He refused to be afraid of Merlin and, despite the sense of betrayal that had settled within him, he couldn't believe that this – sorcerer – truly meant him harm.

Merlin quirked a smile at him, as if he could read Arthur’s thoughts, but he said nothing, merely murmuring a few words. Arthur stared expectantly at him. “Well,” he demanded, hiding his unease under arrogance.

“It’s done.”

Curiosity prompted him. “You didn’t…” and he stretched out his hand, “and your eyes didn’t change colour.”

Merlin shrugged and when he responded his tone was dry. “I’ve had some time to practice. I can usually manage small spells without it being too obvious.”

“I don’t feel any different.”

“You’re not supposed to feel different,” Merlin explained. “We’re speaking modern English now, which means you’ll understand what people are saying. I’m going to get you out of here then –“

“- then you’ll explain what the hell’s going on, won’t you?” It wasn’t really a question. Arthur had no intention of letting any more time go by without some idea of what was happening to him. His sense of unease, of everything being wrong, threatened to swamp him for a moment and the feeling wasn't helped by the understanding and sympathy he could read so easily in this Merlin’s gaze. And perhaps this was the strangest thing of all. In place of his bumbling, incompetent manservant who was still really just a boy - he was faced with a man full grown, at ease in his skin and with his abilities, with his magic. It was unnerving and not only that, while he'd always felt a pull of attraction to Merlin, he'd managed to sublimate it and had learned to accept their growing friendship and closeness while ignoring the thought of anything more. This man, though, this version of Merlin fully formed came close to stealing his breath and he was honest enough to acknowledge magic had nothing to do with it.

“I’m not entirely sure I know what's happened, or what is happening, but I’ll do my best to find out. I’ll get you home, Arthur, I promise you. I’ll get you both home.” There was an awkward pause before Merlin asked, “Er, you wouldn’t happen to know where I am, would you?”

It was such a Merlin thing to say that Arthur was almost shocked into laughter, only stopped as the door to the room opened and the two oddly dressed men who seemed to be in charge entered.

“Professor Emrys? Any luck?” The older of the two asked the question, turning bright interested eyes on Arthur. The other, a younger man moved to lean against the wall, watching in silence. For some reason he reminded Arthur of Leon. It was only then it registered with Arthur that, just as Merlin had explained, he could now understand what was being said. He opened his mouth to demand an explanation, but was silenced by Merlin’s brief warning glance, subsiding and deciding to let Merlin lead the way for the moment.

“Something of a misunderstanding, it seems. They're involved in some Medieval re-enactment group and were training for a battle they have coming up. I think when your coroner gets the body back to the lab he’ll discover it’s a very good model. Arthur here has agreed to get someone to pick it up. It didn’t occur to them at first that the police would be involved or alarmed, which is why they stuck to character. He said he thought it was a set up by a rival group – apparently they've a tradition of playing tricks on one another to try to get them to break character.”

Arthur marvelled silently at Merlin’s ability to dissemble, losing track of the conversation for a moment as the three men continued to talk and he thought instead about how Merlin might have become so adept at lying.

“Could you tell me where his friend was taken?” Merlin’s question caught his attention.

“He’s at the John Radcliffe. They'd to remove the bullet but apparently he’s not too seriously injured.”

“Thank you,” Merlin looked between the two and his voice softened, became persuasive. “I’m sure you don’t have to worry about all this. I’ll take this young man home and make sure his friend is well looked after.”

Both men, along with Arthur, stirred uneasily, but then Morse relaxed. “That would be good of you. We’ll let you have all his personal effects, shall we? And in future,” he turned his attention to Arthur, “it would probably be better if you spent your time more profitably.”

Arthur decided on the discretion he'd honed through a lifetime of dealing with his father. “I’ll bear it in mind. I’m sorry if we caused you any difficulty.” He ignored Merlin’s badly hidden smirk.

“Thank you for your help, Professor. When will you be playing next?”

“Probably not until Christmas. They usually try and rope me into something around about then. If you've any special requests, I’d get them in early so I can have time to practice.”

“I’ll think about it and let you know.” Morse offered his hand to Merlin, who shook it firmly before they were ushered out of the windowless room. Arthur immediately felt better when he could see the night sky through the large panes of glass, even if almost everything else in his surroundings was still generating a feeling of such utter wrongness he wanted to curl up in a corner and wish himself home. Instead, he found himself moving closer to Merlin, his one constant, the one thing he – almost – recognised. With Merlin by his side it seemed to take no time at all before he was picking up his sword and pieces of his armour and following Merlin out of the building. He almost ordered Merlin to carry everything, but a glance at a suddenly stern profile dissuaded him and they both filled their arms.

Arthur trailed after Merlin in silence, only speaking when he was led to one of the strange iron carriages he'd ridden in before. He'd to clear his throat before he could ask, “Is this more magic, then?” He didn't even try to keep the hostility from his voice.

Merlin sighed and Arthur saw his mouth twist in a way he knew signalled both frustration and annoyance. When he spoke he sounded as if he was talking to a child and it did little to improve Arthur’s temper. “There's very little magic in the world now, Arthur. I suspect I've almost all that is left and I rarely use it. I certainly don’t have the power I did when –“ he hesitated, as if it was too painful a subject and Arthur shifted uneasily as he realised it probably had something to do with a certain Prince Arthur. “Everything you see around you is the result of science, Arthur, everything men and women have learned and tried and experimented with over the years. I’ll tell you what I can, but I'd prefer to do so in private. You're safe with me, Arthur.” The look he turned on Arthur then was anxious and made him appear much younger. For some reason it eased the anger building within Arthur.

The only way he could respond was to roll his eyes, “Of course I am, Merlin, even with magic I could still take you apart with one blow – remember?”

“How could I ever forget, Sire?”

It was a brief moment of normality, before he followed Merlin’s example and placed his armour in the space at the back Merlin had opened up. He swallowed his deep feeling of trepidation and, again copying Merlin’s actions, used the handle of the door and eased himself into the seat. Arthur tried not to flinch as Merlin leaned across him and slid a restraint out and across his body, clipping it securely. Arthur was about to react angrily to being trapped in such a way until he saw Merlin pulling the same strap about his own body.

There was a moment’s silence before Merlin spoke again. “We’ll go to where I live and then we can talk. Is that all right?”

“I don’t have a great deal of choice at the moment. I seem to be at your mercy, don’t I?” Arthur couldn’t quite reach the uninterested tone he wanted, his lingering distrust and ever-present sense of betrayal colouring his tone. He saw Merlin’s wince and felt a petty surge of satisfaction. Arthur folded his arms across his chest and frowned out at the strange landscape.

Merlin sighed, twisted his wrist and the contraption roared into life. Arthur managed to control his own instinctive reaction and instead concentrated on Merlin’s voice as he provided a short history of something called the internal combustion engine and learned that this strange horseless carriage was actually called a motor car. And they were everywhere.

*** 

It wasn’t a long journey and if Arthur had his eyes closed through most of it, Merlin was kind enough not to mention it if he'd noticed. They exited the car, gathered up Arthur’s armour and sword and he followed Merlin to the front of a building.

“Is this a castle?” he couldn’t help asking.

“No, it’s a block of flats,” Merlin expanded on the explanation as they walked towards it. “There are a number of different homes, with different families living in them. Each flat is on one level. There are two on each floor and then one bigger one on the top. That’s where I live.”

Arthur said nothing in response as he was already meeting his next horror, when Merlin ushered him into a metal box. Merlin spoke before he could ask.

“It’s called a lift. It moves up and down between the floors so you don’t have to climb the stairs all the time.”

Arthur’s comment in response was acerbic, “That’s my Merlin, always finding ways to get out of doing any actual work.”

Merlin seemed amused by his words rather than annoyed, “I’m going to feed you Marmite for that,” he said and Arthur wondered whether it was some kind of euphemism for torture in this mad place.

He was distracted as the lift doors opened and he bolted out of the small space, ignoring Merlin’s poorly hidden grin.

Merlin juggled the armour he was carrying with more grace than Arthur expected, before slotting what was obviously a key into a small keyhole and then turning the handle to open the door and walk through. Arthur followed closely, suddenly curious to see the place where this Merlin lived, wondering if it would give him any clues to the man he'd become. He hardly blinked as Merlin touched something on the wall and the room was flooded with light.

It was a sizeable place, although he didn't know whether it was normal or not, but it certainly looked very comfortable. It was a little too warm for him, but although there was a fireplace it wasn't laid and he wondered where the heat came from. Again, he followed Merlin’s lead, laying down the armour and placing his sword by the side of the entry door. Merlin dispensed with his shoes, too and Arthur followed suit, wriggling his toes appreciatively into the soft rug covering the whole area of the floor.

“Come in and sit down for a moment. I need to contact the hospital to make sure he’s alright – and to encourage them to keep him unconscious for the time being.”

“Can you do that?”

“I can at the moment. I felt a surge in my magic earlier this evening – must've been when you arrived. It’s certainly been easier to reach ever since then.” Arthur scowled at the reminder of Merlin’s sorcery and Merlin bit his lip, obviously sorry to have brought it up. “Once I’ve rung the hospital we can talk.”

“We will,” Arthur stared at Merlin for a moment and then turned his attention to the rest of the room he was in, beginning to wander around as Merlin moved to yet another strange contraption and began speaking into it.

Motor cars – as he'd discovered the horseless carriages were called - had been explained to him, as had electricity when he'd wondered aloud at the street lights on their journey to Merlin’s home. He had to admit that, while he'd be happy if he never had to enter one of those metal contraptions again, electricity was something he wished he had in Camelot. Merlin had pressed something on the wall when they entered and the room had been flooded with bright light. He'd quickly set other lamps to working and then had put the bright one out, leaving the room bathed in a warm glow that felt comfortable and somehow managed to ease some of Arthur's anxiety at being deposited in this strange place.

The room was split into sections. Around the fireplace some soft-looking seats were arranged with a low wooden table. To one side, close to a window with shutters was a large object he couldn’t identify. He walked across to it and then paced around it, curiously. It appeared to have no use he could see other than to act as an oddly shaped table. On the other side of the room were shelves and another table complete with drawers. The shelves were stacked with what looked like books although they were more colourful than any Arthur had seen. He peered at the spines and knew then that while Merlin’s spell had allowed him to understand the spoken word, it didn't seem to extend to the written. The desk was littered in paper, covered with writing, seemingly from different hands, and he took a moment to wonder what Merlin did with his time.

Merlin. Arthur was drawn from his reverie when he realised Merlin had stopped talking and he turned to find he was being watched. He raised his chin, staring back and refused to be intimidated by the expressions chasing across Merlin’s features. Instead, he moved back to the soft seating and flung himself down in the most arrogant and princely manner he could manage and effected not to see the twitch of Merlin’s lips.

“So, sorcerer, talk.”

Merlin rolled his eyes in exasperation and sat, clearly opting not to rise to Arthur’s epithet. “Will you start by telling me what happened? It might help me work out how you got here.”

There was a certain sense there, Arthur owned, and he quickly provided a reprise of the bandits’ attack, of Merlin’s response and then the aftermath. It was almost impossible to hide either his horror of the discovery of Merlin’s sorcery, or the fact Merlin had then been so badly injured. Although why Arthur should care, he didn't know. He ignored Merlin’s flinch when he detailed, with a certain amount of coldness, his own attack. “What happens if he …?” he couldn’t finalise what had passed through his mind.

“Not to worry – apparently I’m immortal.”

Arthur tried not to look as stunned as he felt as Merlin’s assertion washed over him, and he hunted around for a distraction. “I’m in the future, yes?” he asked suddenly.

Merlin nodded, biting his lip.

“How many years have passed?”

“It’s 1987 – so almost fifteen hundred years.” Merlin looked as if he'd expected the question, and answered it reluctantly.

“Are you expecting me to believe you’ve been alive the entire time?” What about Camelot? He wanted to ask. What about my people? Something in Merlin’s demeanour dissuaded him from questions he rather thought he wouldn't like the answers to, and instead he concentrated on Merlin’s response.

Merlin shrugged. “Believe it or don’t believe it. It doesn’t really matter.” His tone was even and emotionless. There was a moment’s silence before he continued, obviously trying to change the subject, and with a glance at the suddenly tortured expression, Arthur let him. “We need to work out how to get you both home.”

“If he comes back with me, then his life is forfeit.”

There was a horrible silence as Merlin stared at him, ashen and then angry. “If he dies then you will not survive to become king. He's saved you – and will save you – many times. Your father’s arrogance leaves Camelot open to magical threats from every hedge witch and minor magician in the five kingdoms. You've no protection other than Merlin –“ His voice was crisp and no-nonsense, stating his opinion without letting too much of his obvious anger bleed through and despite himself Arthur was impressed by his control while at the same time being outraged at the insult to his father.

Arthur's hands had clenched into fists. “You will not speak of your king in such a way,” he said.

“He was never my king,” Merlin said. “You were. You are.” His voice broke and he cleared his throat.

“That is treason.”

“Oh, bite me,” Merlin said. “You really think Uther still scares me after fifteen hundred years?” Trust me – he pales into insignificance next to some of tyrants and despots this world has spawned.”

“Are you calling my Father a tyrant?” Arthur was outraged.

The argument was a hair’s breath from spiralling out of control and both men knew it. They stared at one another for a moment before Merlin let out a strangled laugh. “I’ve waited centuries for you – and the first thing we do is fight. Gods.” He scrubbed his hands through his hair. When he spoke again his voice was quiet and almost defeated. “Your father hates magic, Arthur, and he has his reasons for doing so. You’re a strategist. What happens when you take up a position allowing no quarter?”

There was a strained silence as Arthur accepted what Merlin was trying to tell him. By taking up his unequivocal stance against magic, and pursuing it to such a degree, his father had ensured that anyone with any magic at all would feel threatened. And threatened people learned how to protect themselves – often by fighting back and trying to eliminate the threat. It was a vicious circle and Arthur could see no way of breaking it unless… unless Arthur, Crown Prince of Camelot, betrayed his king. Betrayed his father.

Merlin was watching him, seemingly able to follow some of the thoughts spinning through Arthur’s mind if the easing of his expression and hint of sympathy were any evidence.

Arthur suddenly felt very young and out of his depth. “I don’t know what to do,” he surprised himself by admitting, and he was aware they both knew he wasn't just talking about his new knowledge of Merlin as sorcerer, or the fact he was apparently 1500 years in the future, trapped in a world he couldn't understand. He swallowed, hard.

Merlin half-smiled at him and suggested. “How about a wash, some comfortable clothes, food and alcohol. I could certainly use a decent drink.”

With a strangled laugh, Arthur conceded that getting out of his chain mail and clean sounded like an excellent idea. While Merlin’s home wasn't as warm as the other building he'd been in, it was still warmer than Arthur was used to and he was sweating under the mail. As if on cue, his stomach grumbled its own agreement with Merlin’s plan.

Merlin barked out a laugh and for an instant, despite the surroundings, it was almost as if it was business as usual and as if their relationship – their friendship – hadn't suffered a major blow. Pushing everything else aside for the moment, Arthur followed Merlin into another room and was left gasping yet again at the gleaming space he entered. He could do nothing but gape as Merlin explained the various appliances. When Merlin fiddled inside there was suddenly water streaming down and Arthur took a moment to realise it was steaming. Hot water. He grinned in amazed delight and began shrugging out of the chain mail.

“I’ll take everything out of the bathroom,” Merlin remarked, gesturing at the mail “I don’t think the damp in here would do it much good.” He quickly explained how the – shower - worked, pointed out towels, soap and a separate lotion for washing hair and left him to it, murmuring that he'd bring in some clothes.

Arthur hardly listened. He stripped off the rest of what he was wearing and stepped into the hot water eagerly, enjoying the feel of it running over his head and torso.

When Arthur finally managed to tear himself away from the delights of seemingly endless hot water, he recalled Merlin’s instructions and turned the shower off, grabbing a towel and marvelling at its softness. He realised Merlin must have entered when he was in the shower as there was a pile of soft material on the side. Despite himself he flushed, knowing only a clear glass panel had separated them while he was naked. It was ridiculous in a way, Merlin had bathed and dressed him for years, but this older version, this man who'd lived so long - somehow it was different. Merlin was a different man. Sighing, he picked up the first garment, grateful to find it was a pair of loose trousers that were comfortable when he pulled them on adding a top that was probably roomy on Merlin and fitted Arthur well. He finished scrubbing the towel over his hair, ran his fingers through until it looked reasonably tidy and then wandered barefoot into the main room. He followed the sounds of movement into another room, stopping short while he tried to work out what everything was.

He remained quiet, as Merlin seemed to be oblivious for the moment, pottering around and pulling out plates and beakers. Arthur offered a tight smile as Merlin turned and started.

“You liked the shower?” Merlin’s eyes were twinkling.

Arthur shrugged, ignoring Merlin’s amusement and perching himself on one of the peculiar stools at what seemed to serve as a table, in what, he surmised, was a kitchen.

“Why didn’t you die?” He hadn’t meant to ask the question quite so bluntly.

There was a silence and then, “Let’s eat first. Then talk.”

They ate in silence, Arthur discovering what pizza was and deciding he liked it. Merlin had opened a bottle of wine and Arthur sipped at it cautiously, appreciating the flavour but taking it easy. There was a lot of talking to be done and he'd a feeling it was going to be a long night.

When they finished they retreated to the main room – the lounge – and settled into the comfortable chairs. Merlin was tense, sitting on the edge of the seat and nervously twisting his hands together.

“You asked why I didn’t die. You might well have asked why I lived, why someone with so much magic was born into the world at all. I’m a year or so younger than you I think – at least I was when we met. Your father was killing everyone with magic, and was trying to eradicate it from the land but that’s something he'd never succeed at. Magic doesn’t go away, Arthur. It's part of the fabric of the earth, part of what gives everything life. It's not evil. It just is.” He ignored Arthur’s snort and continued. “The magic came to me in my mother’s womb. It settled in me because my destiny was already foretold and I'd need magic to help me.”

“Your destiny?” Arthur said, trying not to feel overwhelmed by the words spilling from Merlin’s mouth, trying desperately not to get caught up in the narrative, or to be seduced by Merlin’s earnestness and obvious anguish.

“My destiny. You. I was made for you, Arthur. Made to protect you with my magic. Formed to be by your side to help you become a great king. Immortality, I discovered, was the price.”

“The price?” Arthur was surprised. “You make it sound as though it was a curse.”

Merlin stared at his hands for a moment before meeting Arthur’s gaze, his expression was anguished as his own gaze shifted, roving over Arthur’s features and form in a manner that was almost hungry, but rather than unnerving him, it set a fire low in Arthur’s stomach.

“I watched everyone die. I watched you die. Without you – I'd no purpose. I wanted to follow you. I even tried, but they wouldn’t let me. They said I'd to wait. They said you'd come back, when we faced our greatest need you'd return and I'd be here to protect you, to support you.

“They?”

Merlin shrugged. “I can’t say I’m entirely sure, but as I haven’t died at any point in the last 1500 years, I’m assuming whoever they are they know what they’re talking about.”

Arthur let Merlin’s explanations and words sink in for a while as he worked through them. There were so many questions he wanted to ask but he hardly knew where to begin. “I need you to tell me everything.”

Merlin hesitated, “I’m not sure I should,” he raised his hands as Arthur scowled. “Think about it – I can’t tell you anything that's going to happen really, can I? And I’m worried I might say the wrong thing and mess everything up.” He stopped and bit his lip, sitting in silence for long moments before he blurted out, “There’s another reason, too. Merlin – your Merlin – he wants to tell you, Arthur. He wants to tell you everything so badly. He hates lying to you, but he doesn’t want you to be forced either to lie to your father or kill a friend. He doesn’t know what to do.”

“He shouldhave told me. You should have told me.”

Merlin stared at him unhappily. “Yes, I should,” he said. “I really, really should have told you.” There was a long, uneasy silence until Merlin seemed to shake himself out of his sudden melancholy and remark. “I do wonder why, out of all the ages, you turned up in 1987, though.”

“Well, I’m not likely to know the answer, am I?” Arthur said, and if his tone was a little waspish, he felt it merely reflected his own frustration. That, and it had been a very long and incredibly strange day.

“You always did get grumpy when you got tired,” Merlin’s voice was soft, as if he was speaking to himself and the look he cast at Arthur was fond and fanned the flames of the earlier fire within Arthur. He contented himself with scowling at Merlin and ignoring his soft chuckle.

“I’ll show you to the bedroom. We’ll talk more tomorrow when you’ve had some sleep.”

Arthur didn’t respond. Truly, he wasn't sure what to say, disarmed once again by this older version of his friend. Merlin had always drawn him, sparking extreme reactions whether good or bad depending on whether he'd been accepting or denying their growing friendship at any particular point in time. Arthur was particularly ashamed of the period when he seemed to spend part of each day throwing things. Merlin had always taken his moods in his stride, cajoling, jollying, sympathizing or supporting by turns, seemingly able to read him. Occasionally, when even he knew he was going too far, it was Merlin who pulled him back with a word of censure or a look laden with disappointment. Only now did he stop to consider how much he relied on Merlin’s guidance.

Merlin was staring at him now, waiting patiently for his mental perambulations to come to a halt. His expression was kind and if Arthur had been a romantic fool, he might even have said it was loving. The sight was adding to the heat pooling inside him, getting to the stage when he'd have to give it a name and when he'd have to admit it was desire.

Too late.

Gods save him, he wanted this man.

The abrupt acceptance sent hot colour to his cheeks and he looked down.

When Merlin spoke again, he sounded out of breath. “You should be comfortable. I’ll sleep on the sofa.”

Given the size of the place, Arthur was surprised there wasn't another bedchamber, but he said nothing and allowed Merlin to lead him into a room dominated by an extremely comfortable looking huge bed.

“Do you need anything to sleep in?” Merlin asked awkwardly.

Arthur considered the warmth of the room against his modesty and shook his head.

Merlin said. “There’s a robe behind the door if you need to use the bathroom during the night. I’ll leave you to it.” He grabbed a pillow from the bed and some bedding from a wardrobe and then with a quiet “sleep well” he scuttled out of the room and Arthur was alone.

Arthur passed a troubled night, tossing and turning as the events of the day and the words Merlin had spoken haunted him. His loyalty to his father was being sorely tested and as a result the following morning found him ill-rested and in a foul mood.

Merlin took one look at him as he entered the lounge and immediately withdrew to the kitchen, muttering something about breakfast. It was such an obvious retreat and it simply added fuel to the confusion, betrayal and anger rumbling through him. Arthur knew whatever happened here would forever change his life if – when – he returned to Camelot and as he knew he'd never be able to consign Merlin to the pyre or, the Gods help him, even send him away, the only recourse he could see was treason against his father.

He followed Merlin into the kitchen and scowled at him.

Merlin sighed in what was a distinctly put-upon fashion and put a vessel in front of him. “Somehow, I think you and coffee are going to get on.”

Arthur sniffed the steaming liquid, inhaling the scent and recognising it as one he had noticed wafting through the flat when he woke earlier. It seemed Merlin, too, had passed a disturbed night. He sipped at the brew cautiously and brightened at the bitter taste, enjoying it immediately. Wrapping his hands around the vessel, he watched as Merlin provided them with breakfast, trying not to appear too overwhelmed at the machine that toasted bread, or the one that made the coffee, or the way Merlin could cook bacon without actually lighting a fire. Instead, Arthur ate everything he was offered and felt his own mood settle a little. Enough, at least, to enable him to listen when Merlin began to speak.

“Can you remember what Merlin did?”

“He did magic. That’s all I know.”

“But did he speak? Did you hear him say anything?”

“No. We were in the middle of a fight. I wasn’t listening.”

Merlin scrubbed his hands through his hair. “If I’m to reverse the spell then it would help to have some idea how you ended up here.”

“Well, I can’t help you.” Arthur said, hating the fact he was talking about magic, thinking about magic, and actually considering allowing more magic to be used on him.

There was a pause while he stared at his mug, and knew Merlin was watching him.

When Merlin spoke again, he changed the subject. “It looks like you’re going to be here for a few days at least. I think it would be worth buying you some decent clothes and getting some fresh air. Later this afternoon I need to go to the hospital to see what is happening with – well, with me. Then I’ll start trying to work out how he brought you here.”

**

It turned into full day. By the time they were ready to leave the flat it was already early afternoon and Arthur’s head was reeling with the advice and information Merlin was firing at him – what he should and shouldn't say, things he should do, things he shouldn’t, about how to cross a road while avoiding the motor cars as well as what appeared to be thousands of what Merlin called bikes. Arthur’s attention was drawn more by the motorised bikes, though, deciding that he would much prefer one of those to being trapped in a metal cage or having to propel the bike himself.

The sights, sounds and smells all around him were alien and confusing and he stuck close to Merlin the entire time they were out of the flat, letting himself be cajoled into trying on clothes and trailing round the strange covered market with the vast arrays of different foods. Once back in the flat, he'd retreated to lie on the bed in Merlin’s room and take deep breaths as he tried to make sense of everything he'd seen during the day.

Merlin had taken one sharp look at him when Arthur finally entered the lounge again and had announced he'd go alone to the hospital. Arthur didn't argue, feeling he'd gone through enough new experiences for one day.

With the flat empty of Merlin’s physical presence, Arthur finally had time to think through some of what he'd learned and his own reactions to it. Coming to terms with the knowledge Merlin was a sorcerer was one thing, the acceptance easier than he could ever have expected. It was the implications of this knowledge and the effect it would have on his future actions that was causing him most grief. He'd sniped at Merlin several – well, many – times during the day, because if he took the final step of accepting what Merlin told him about magic, then he was also going to have to accept his father had murdered, and continued to murder, innocent people. His own innocent people. He was almost sure Merlin understood because he'd not reacted to Arthur’s jibes and his gaze had been thoughtful and kind. Which made Arthur angrier, of course.

He sighed. That was the other thing. The attraction to Merlin he'd attempted to keep tamped down for so long had flared into a fire in his gut. In Camelot he was always aware of the difference in their status and had certainly rubbed Merlin’s, and his own, face in it enough times. To know Merlin had so much power, could stop Arthur at any time, was both a relief and fuel to the fire of his desire. Arthur groaned and buried his head in his hands.

When Merlin returned Arthur had managed to pull himself together and was pleased to be informed that the injured Merlin was healing well and there should be no lasting ill effects. Merlin admitted he'd encouraged them to keep him unconscious to help the healing but also to ensure he wasn't faced with waking up in a completely alien environment – especially if no-one he knew could be there by his side to explain what was happening and where he was.

They ate dinner in silence, Arthur still moody and withdrawn, before sheer exhaustion caught up with him and he retired.

*** 

There was no doubt Arthur had been exhausted – emotionally, mentally and physically. After stripping, he'd clambered into the wonderfully soft and comfortable bed and, despite his situation, everything he'd gone through and the uncertainty around what he'd do when he returned to Camelot, he'd been asleep moments after his head met the pillow, and wasn't plagued with the tossing and turning of the previous night.

His fighter’s senses though, were being teased by the different scents and sounds around him, and his sleep was uneasy. Eventually, the sound of raucous laughter startled him fully awake and for a moment he was disorientated and wondered where on earth he was. Once the memory of his arrival and the previous day had returned and dispelled the hazy uncertainty of his wakening, he realised his bladder was full. It was a prosaic enough reminder that whatever oddness happened to him, some things were immutable. Grumbling quietly about the absence of a handy chamber pot, he hauled on the robe Merlin had pointed out to him and made his way towards the bathroom. There was enough ambient light from the lamps outside that he didn’t need to try and find the internal lights. He remembered to flush, finding himself grinning at the plumbing, as he'd done every time he used it, and was heading back towards the bedroom when he noticed Merlin sitting curled up on the window seat.




 

Arthur hesitated, and then moved silently across the room. Merlin glanced up at him, and then shifted up in a silent invitation. There was a moment when Arthur was acutely aware he was naked under the robe, which didn’t leave much to the imagination, but he pushed the thought aside and sat, angling his body to face Merlin. Merlin was leaning against the window embrasure, one leg curled beneath him while the other was bent, his foot planted on the seat and leaning one arm on his knee. The position showed off the lean length of his thigh, which the soft breeches he was wearing did little to hide, and Arthur flushed slightly. Merlin was holding a very fine glass vessel with an inch or so of liquid in it. Merlin moved it slightly and the outside light made it look amber. Arthur settled himself in a similar pose.

“You were asleep earlier when I looked in,” Merlin said, taking a sip of his drink.

Arthur shrugged, unwilling to think too hard about the fact Merlin’s – a sorcerer’s - presence hadn't triggered any of those senses he relied upon to warn him of danger. “Someone outside woke me, I think.” With all the entitlement of his rank, he reached out and snagged the glass from Merlin’s hand, aware of Merlin's exasperated amusement. Arthur sipped cautiously at the liquid, surmising that the small quantity probably meant it was fairly potent.

He was right.

It burned, but left a wonderful smoky aftertaste and he followed the first sip with another, before handing it back to Merlin.

“It’s whisky – a spirit the Scots developed from uisge beatha."

“It’s good.”

They sat in silence, passing the glass between them and when it was finished, Merlin picked up the bottle from the floor and poured another generous measure. It didn’t seem to occur to him to fetch another glass and Arthur was content to share.

The window overlooked a river with a path running alongside. It seemed to be a popular thoroughfare as, even though Arthur sensed the night was well-advanced, there were plenty of people making their way back and forth. He watched, a little embarrassed as a couple stopped and kissed passionately, before running off down the path, laughing and giggling. His attention was drawn to another couple, his breath catching in his throat as one man stopped, seemed to fuss at his friend’s clothing in a manner reminding him of Merlin, and then reached up a little to kiss him softly. Beside him, he was aware of Merlin shifting and saw the sudden tremble in the golden liquid.

“Were we lovers, Merlin?” The question took Arthur by surprise. He hadn’t been aware he was even thinking it, and was rather shocked at the baldness of his enquiry.

There was a distinctly shaky sigh before Merlin answered, and there was the slightest tremble in his voice. “No, no we were never lovers.” There was a moment’s weighted silence and Arthur realised Merlin had more to say. “We nearly did. The night before you were married but – but I couldn’t do that if you didn’t know so I told you and –“

Arthur thought of his reaction when he'd found out, of how close he'd come to killing Merlin out of hand, and winced.

Merlin saw. “Yes, it really didn’t go well. Nothing was ever the same, Arthur, nothing.” He sounded wretched.

“Tell me what happened,” Arthur ordered and at Merlin’s hesitation he added. “It’s already different this time, isn’t it? It’s can’t happen in the same way when I already know about your magic.”

“Your, your wife, she stopped you executing me out of hand. You were already easing your stance on magic, but it wasn’t the magic that was really the problem between us. Fairly soon after you found out you made me Court Sorcerer. Years later, when I tried to talk to you about it, you said you trusted your Court Sorcerer completely, but you'd never trust Merlin again.”

It was a level of cruelty Arthur wasn't aware he had in him but knew it must have been deliberately done. Even now he could read Merlin and knew how important Arthur was to him. It would've been so easy to hurt him. He could hardly apologise for something he hadn't yet done – and at least now he already knew Merlin was a sorcerer and had got his more immediate intemperate reaction out of the way. There would be enough for them to talk about when they returned to their own time, given his recent reaction, but he hoped at least he would eschew such dreadful coldness and cruelty. It reminded him of his father, and as much as he loved Uther, Arthur didn't want to rule in the same way. Certainly not when he considered some of the thoughts that had crossed his mind when he'd thought about his father’s stance on magic earlier in the day.

There was a long silence as they traded the glass between them, and Arthur felt his limbs progressively loosen as the effects of the alcohol gradually helped to release some of the tension he'd been carrying since the moment the bandits attacked. It felt like an age had passed. He grimaced. In actual fact it appeared that several ages had passed, and he wondered if the distance he'd travelled could have added to the exhaustion that had dogged him since he arrived here.

His exhaustion had eased now and he judged he'd slept for several hours. He certainly felt more awake and more relaxed, although he was aware of the resurgence of a different type of tension. As he handed the glass back to Merlin, he deliberately let their fingers brush and watched the liquid as it trembled. He met Merlin’s eyes, not bothering to hide his own desire, and was silent as the dark head ducked shyly. He wondered for a moment if he'd gone too far, but then Merlin met his gaze, flushed but smiling a little. When Merlin returned the glass, Arthur's deliberate touch was copied.

It was a whole conversation, Arthur decided, offering and accepting all in one and without a word being spoken. It suited him, words were only good for tripping him up most of the time – never sure of what to say and always, it seemed, the words coming out wrong and making a situation worse. The conversation over, he was content to sit in silence and enjoy Merlin’s company.

Merlin’s very presence had always comforted him, he realised, even from the earliest days they'd spent together. There'd been an ease and a trust and no-one in his life had been allowed the liberties Merlin seemed to have taken as a right. A right to talk to him as if they were equals; a right to make his displeasure clear when Arthur decided on a course of action with which Merlin did not agree; a right to tease him, to laugh at him when Arthur was at his most pompous and entitled; a right to support him when times were difficult; a right to be by his side, never faltering and never letting him down. And that was only what he knew. His Merlin, the one lying unconscious somewhere in this city had told him he'd been protected by magic. By Merlin’s magic, and he knew that with some thought, he could probably pinpoint a number of those times.

This future Merlin had already said he wouldn't tell him what had happened during their time in Camelot but he had to say, “You always protected me, didn’t you? All the time.”

Merlin shrugged. “I tried,” His features settled into a mask speaking of pain poorly hidden, “In the end, I failed you.” He swallowed, obviously dealing with a pain and a guilt that had never lessened, through all these centuries.

“Idiot,” Arthur said, waiting until Merlin had met his gaze and his shock had faded into a mutinous glower. “I'll be a king and I'm a knight, Merlin. Camelot has many enemies. Of course you couldn't keep me safe forever.” He reached out and plucked the now empty glass from Merlin’s hand, setting it on the seat between them as he tangled their fingers together. “Thank you for keeping me safe as long as you could. Thank you, Merlin.”

“Oh, Arthur,” It seemed Merlin could say nothing else and Arthur watched as he swallowed hard, and wondered whether Merlin had ever been thanked before. From Merlin’s reaction it would seem not.

It occurred to Arthur then, as they sat with their fingers entwined, that here, now, he'd no real responsibilities, no-one demanding his time, or for him to behave in a particular way, and there wasn't the spectre of his father’s growing madness, something he couldn't even normally begin to acknowledge. He looked at Merlin and found a calm gaze fixed on him. In an instant, he sloughed off every barrier either he, Merlin, position or expectation had put upon him.

Arthur leaned forward and captured Merlin’s lips in a gentle kiss.

There was a brief moment of stillness and quiet, before Merlin let loose a sound, a broken sound, and rearranged himself in a scramble of limbs so characteristic it almost made Arthur laugh. Except he was immediately distracted as Merlin’s arms gathered him in. He reached up to cup Merlin’s cheek in one palm as the kiss deepened and moved swiftly from tentative affection to outright passion.

Merlin moaned and opened his mouth to the press of Arthur’s tongue, letting it slip in and explore. Arthur’s hands were moving, sliding inside the shirt Merlin was wearing, absurdly grateful there was so little clothing between them. He'd wanted this for so much longer than he'd ever admit to, and even the fact this Merlin was older and considerably wiser didn’t seem to make any difference. It was still Merlin.

His Merlin.

Arthur traced the muscles of Merlin’s back, moving his own body so he could press their chests together and spent the briefest of moments wondering when Merlin had pulled his robe aside, but could only shudder as long fingers found their way into his hair.

Neither of them noticed as the empty glass slid off the window seat and tumbled to the carpet.

Arthur’s body was reacting, hardening under the onslaught of kiss and touch and feel. He let out a whimper of need, clawing Merlin closer as the drive to master and take began to fog his brain and let instinct take over.

Suddenly, Merlin was fighting free, standing in front of him, chest heaving as he fought for breath. His shirt was open and the soft breeches could not hide his arousal, leaving Arthur in no doubt of his desire and he watched, not bothering to hide himself as Merlin scrubbed his hands through his hair and let out a shaky laugh.

“I'm not fucking you on the carpet.” he said and Arthur felt as if he'd just been kicked in the gut.

What he was thinking must've been etched quite visibly on his features as Merlin let out a small, pained sound and stepped forward to touch Arthur’s face.

“This is our first time,” he said. “I want to make love with you. I want to take you to bed.” Merlin held out his hand in a clear invitation.

Arthur regarded him for a moment, and then smiled as he stood and reached for Merlin’s hands, taking direction from the gentle tug to walk towards the bedroom. Part way there he stopped and pulled Merlin round to face him. “It’s just us, Merlin,” he said. “It’s just Merlin and Arthur – not a prince or a king, or a sorcerer or a servant. It’s just us.”

“It’s always been us,” Merlin said. “It’s always been just Merlin and Arthur.”

“You really are such a girl, Merlin,” Arthur said, before he dragged him even closer. They wrapped their arms around one another and knew they were both trembling a little with a heady mix of anticipation, desire and nerves. Arthur buried his face against Merlin’s neck and breathed in his unique scent, loving the fact he could touch without conscience and knowing Merlin wanted this just as much as he did.

“Come on,” he eventually broke the silence as he pulled away and began dragging Merlin towards the bedroom. “I’m going to take you to bed.” He ignored the muttered insult cast his way, safe in the knowledge it wasn’t the first and certainly wouldn’t be the last time he was called a prat by Merlin.

It was with laughter then, that they tumbled onto the unmade bed, wrestling each other out of their clothing and tangling their bodies together. There was too much urgency and want for much finesse or time taken. Instead, they rutted together, rolling around on the bed, laughing and cursing and moaning until Merlin wrapped a hand around them both.

Afterwards they traded lazy kisses until sleep was close, both too overwhelmed, it seemed, to try and put the feelings they were experiencing into words. Merlin pulled the covers over them and they settled together. To Arthur, it felt new and familiar all at the same time. As if the very fact of them getting to this point had only been a culmination of the growing closeness and comfort they found in one another. He dismissed the idea as fanciful, but couldn’t quite erase the fond smile that graced his features as he drifted into sleep.

*** 

Arthur woke slowly as the brightness of an early morning filtered through the window and across his body. He turned his head, blinking against the sunlight, which brought him face to face with Merlin. Sleep suited him, Arthur thought – it softened his features and leant a stillness Arthur wasn’t used to witnessing. Even the beard and older features couldn’t detract from a sudden, utter sense of familiarity; of being with someone so well-known and so much a part of him. It was unnerving in a way, shaking him to his core. Even with magic, and his mind still boggled at the thought of the power contained within his manservant, who was apparently less incompetent than he’d originally believed, he couldn’t regret what had happened between them. And what, if he had his way, would happen again, both now and when they returned to Camelot.

It struck him now that he'd never felt so free. In this place and time he wasn't a prince and Merlin’s magic didn't matter. If this turned out to be all the time they had then he decided at that moment he'd make the most of every second.

He was about to reach out and then hesitated, unwilling to disturb Merlin’s rest. Instead, endlessly curious about the world he'd ended up in, he slipped out of the bed and wandered across to the window to gaze out in wonder at the sight. Their trip around the town had provided him with some idea of the size of the city and the magnificent buildings, but from the height of Merlin’s flat he could see spires and towers putting even Camelot to shame. There were green meadows and the river meandering through. He was more intrigued by the people, though, marvelling again at what they wore, at the way the women seemed to wear clothes so similar to men and many wore short black cloaks. Some of them were travelling along the path by the river on the strange, wheeled bikes, their cloaks flying out behind them. For some reason they struck him as hilarious and he found himself chuckling quietly. A sense of well-being stole over him and he stretched. A movement from the bed took his attention and he watched Merlin wake. He waited, seeing hope, and then grief, suffuse Merlin’s features and he realised in a moment Merlin thought he'd dreamed it all. Arthur shifted, moving back towards the bed and Merlin’s features altered again. The breath caught in Arthur’s throat as joy flooded Merlin’s expression. It was as if a thread was tightening between them and he stepped over, staring down and trying to ignore the fact he knew he was grinning like an idiot.

He closed the distance between them, rubbing his hand gently up and down one bearded cheek. Merlin brought a hand up and captured his fingers, tugging gently until Arthur joined him on the bed.

They kissed lazily, hands wandering and exploring, mapping one another’s bodies, until urgency began to take over and touch became more directive, pushing one another’s hands where they wanted to be touched, until finally Arthur broke away, gazing into Merlin’s eyes and seeing the want, the desperate need matching his own.

“Merlin,” he rasped. “I want –“

“Yes, anything, please.”

Suddenly Merlin shifted, scrabbling in a drawer and hauling out a bottle. He opened it, grabbing Arthur’s hand and squirting some liquid onto his fingers. For a moment Arthur wasn’t sure exactly what this meant until he rubbed the lotion between his fingers and he realised what it was. Heat flushed his skin, a mix of nerves, embarrassment and desire.

Arthur had shared the occasional tumble with a number of his knights, never showing favouritism and never becoming emotionally involved. His father had explained it to him as a way to bind his men to him, as well as a way to ensure a young man’s appetites could be sated without the risk of royal bastards arriving to cause any future problems.

Never, though, had Arthur wanted.

They stared at one another and then Merlin surged up, sliding a hand around his neck to pull their mouths together in a bruising kiss. He pulled back and grinned and looking so like the Merlin Arthur remembered that it felt like a punch to the gut. Then Merlin was twisting to lie on his front and spread his legs wide apart.

Arthur gaped at the sight before him for a moment, and then leant down, kissing the nape of Merlin’s neck and then beginning to lay a trail, kissing and biting his way down the length of his back. His fingers slipped down, too, until he could run slippery digits across the puckered hole, delighting in the response. He took his time, pausing often to meet Merlin’s mouth when he turned his head looking for contact, watching the long fingers as they clenched and released in the bedding, listening to the broken, pleading moans as he opened Merlin.

Eventually though, he whispered again, “Merlin, I need… I need…”

Merlin whimpered before hauling something else out of the drawer. It was a bright, shining square. Arthur stared at it and then Merlin, knowing his puzzlement was clear. Merlin blinked at him, and then at this odd object.

“You know what,” and he tossed it off the side of the bed, “forget it.” He grinned at Arthur and said, “Well, carry on, then.” And he winked.

The bubble of laughter surprised Arthur and he swatted Merlin across the rump.

“Mmmm.”

The response was sultry and the atmosphere segued from humour to passion once again. Arthur slipped three fingers back into Merlin’s body, finding the spot he wanted. Merlin’s hips surged up and Arthur slipped his free hand beneath him, finding the engorged cock and wrapping his fingers around it.

“God, Arthur, please.”

Arthur grinned and twisted the fingers inside Merlin, hearing him cry out again and then feeling the pulse as Merlin came. Arthur removed his fingers and then settled behind Merlin, pressing his cock into him, delighting in the encouraging cries and groans as he moved further in, gently, steadily until he was settled as deep as he could go.

“Is this good?” he whispered.

“So good. Please, Arthur, you need to move.”

“Need to, do I?”

“Please.”

“Are you begging?”

“Yes. Please.”

Arthur obliged.

*** 

The sun was much higher when Arthur woke again and blinked up rather blearily at Merlin. Merlin was sitting on the bed beside him, busy reading through some papers and occasionally muttering and writing on them. He jumped when he realised Arthur was watching him and then grinned.

“Thought I’d better get something done.”

“Good to see it only took you fifteen hundred years to find your work ethic,” Arthur couldn’t resist the comment, paying for it when a pillow hit him in the face. With a certain amount of glee Arthur launched himself at Merlin and they wrestled together until Merlin, with some outlandish move, actually managed to turn them until Arthur was pinned underneath. He opened his mouth to protest, rather shocked at being bested, but Merlin smiled sweetly at him and instead he reached up and claimed Merlin’s mouth, spinning them when he relaxed. They kissed until Arthur’s stomach rumbled and they broke apart, laughing.

By the time they showered, which was even more fun with two, Arthur discovered, ate breakfast and dressed, the morning was well-advanced and now they sat together on the long window seat. Merlin was considering him, biting his lip and Arthur waited to hear what he had to say.

“I don’t have to go to my work today because it’s a holiday this week, but I do have to finish marking before I teach next Monday. I could introduce you to the wonders of television and you can watch until I’m done. Then I could show you more of Oxford.”

“You have responsibilities,” Arthur said. “I’ll wait.”

He'd always be happy to wait if it meant he was at the receiving end of one of Merlin’s smiles, he thought, and a small part of him snorted at the sentimentality.

 ***

Television, Arthur quickly decided, could be a blessing or a curse. He flicked through the four channels available, occasionally pulled in by something, though not understanding much of what he was hearing. Most of the time, he spent watching Merlin work, trading quick warm smiles with him when he looked up. He realised Merlin was working as quickly as he could, and distracted him as little as possible.

Except, somehow he had ended up watching a programme providing an overview of news from across many places, most of which Arthur had never heard of, with people talking about things he neither recognised nor understood. At least until he saw… There was something… How could there be anything in this time that he recognised? Except he did. He was sure he did.

“Merlin.” The tone of his voice brought Merlin to his side, and all he could do was stare at the screen and point. “Is that what I think it is?”

Merlin’s colour drained from his face. “Oh, oh dear. That’s not good. Not good at all.”

The man they were watching was talking about a robbery. A big robbery at some place called Knightsbridge, which had taken place some months before. They were talking about some of the items stolen and on the screen were two pictures of a fabulous jewel; a diamond sparkling with a light that made it look blue. A jewel both of them had seen before and knew to fear.

Because within this gem resided the evil soul of Cornelius Sigan.

Except, the second picture showed the same jewel. And the blue light was gone, leaving it clear. The person imparting the news was describing the concerns the law enforcement agencies had about whether or not this was actually the same jewel that had disappeared as part of the robbery.

Arthur was recalling the terror of watching the castle he loved come to life around him and rain down terror and pain on the population its walls had been built to shelter and protect. Somehow Sigan had managed to breathe life into the statues adorning the walls and castle roof and they'd attacked everyone who moved. He'd been knocked unconscious and by the time he came around, Sigan was gone. Now, he looked at Merlin’s white face and ordered, “I think you’d better tell me what really happened.” He waved away the objection he could see on Merlin’s features. “I know you don’t want to tell me too much, but this is something that's already happened where – when - I come from and I can do nothing to change it. I know you've magic and you must've had something to do with defeating Sigan. I need to know what we're actually dealing with.”

Merlin sighed and scrubbed his fingers through his hair and Arthur recognised the gesture as one of submission.

“I’ll tell you what I think you need to know. I’m sorry, Arthur,” he forestalled Arthur’s objections, “but I don’t know what difference any of this might make – even if some events have already happened. “

Arthur scowled at him but realised quickly Merlin was waiting for some sign of acquiescence and reluctantly he nodded.

“Sigan was a powerful sorcerer. He managed to place his soul in the jewel and when the opportunity arose he took over Cedric’s body. I eventually managed to trap him back in the stone. I wonder how it ended up in Knightsbridge, though? I was sure I.d enough wards around it to ensure I would've been aware if it was ever moved.”

There was so much glossed over in this short tale that Arthur almost protested, before being side-tracked by another thought. “Do you think this is why I’m here?”

Merlin shrugged. “It could be, I suppose. Nothing else so far has suggested a reason. I suppose Merlin’s power might've been drawn to Sigan in this timeline. Although again – why now?”

“Because of the theft?”

“But the theft took place months ago. They’re only talking about it now because the jewel's surfaced. Perhaps Sigan's just escaped, though?”

Arthur threw his hands up in exasperation. “Does it really matter?”

Merlin grinned and it struck Arthur how Merlin seemed to be delighted to see whichever mood of Arthur's happened along, smiling and casting fond looks that should've had Arthur cringing, but instead fed the growing sympathy within him. The thought of living alone for 1500 years was a concept he really couldn't fathom and he could only guess at the loneliness Merlin had experienced. It seemed his life with Arthur hadn't been particularly happy, according to the little information Merlin had let slip but it was clear Merlin had never ceased loving him.

The thought of such loneliness and the love he couldn't hide to save his life prompted Arthur into action and he stood up, moving swiftly to a startled Merlin and wrapped his arms around him. There was a moment’s hesitation, surprise, and then Merlin relaxed against him, returning the hold as he buried his face against Arthur’s shoulder and drew in a deep, trembling breath.

Eventually Merlin pulled back and managed a smile, albeit a rather shaky one. “I can’t believe you’re here, you’ve accepted my magic, and we’ve-“ he flushed, rather delightfully, Arthur thought. “And I’m trying not to think I’m going to have to send you away from me.” His voice didn’t quite break.

There was a moment, a brief, mad moment, when Arthur wanted to tell Merlin he'd stay, he'd never go back to Camelot and instead he'd make a life here in this time. Even as the thought crossed his mind he knew it was impossible for so many reasons, and not least of those was the man lying unconscious elsewhere in this city. The Merlin who'd brought him here deserved his life and perhaps a happier time than the man standing within the loose circle of his arms had experienced all those centuries ago. Arthur ran a hand up Merlin’s back, cupping his neck for a moment before slipping up again to rest against the bearded cheek. He leaned forward and pressed his mouth to Merlin’s in a gentle kiss that was almost chaste, then waited until Merlin’s eyes, which had fluttered closed at the kiss, opened and their eyes met. Arthur wasn’t sure just exactly what was showing in his expression, the feelings roiling through him were too much of a mix to make much sense of, but whatever was there seemed to please Merlin.

And for the moment, it was all that mattered to Arthur.

Practically, he asked, “What can we do?” He felt rather at a loss without something physical to fight, not to speak of being in an environment where he was so unfamiliar with everything around him.

Merlin pursed his lips. “I think we’re going to have to deal with Sigan for once and for all. We need information and the best place to get it when it’s a police matter is from a friendly policeman?”

“Police?” Arthur asked, and was so engrossed in Merlin’s explanation of the law enforcement system he made it all the way to the police station before realising he was once again travelling in the metal contraption that could move without horses. He marvelled for a moment at how quickly one could get used to something which had originally had caused such consternation. In fact, he realised, he might well be getting fairly inured to the differences technology had made to the world he once knew. At least until a noise above him had him craning his neck and staring upwards in horrified amazement at the vessel high up in the sky above him.

“Merlin?” he absolutely, definitely didn't squeak.

Merlin followed his gaze. “Ah, I’ll tell you about aeroplanes later.”

Arthur mouthed “aeroplanes” as he followed Merlin into the building.

Morse greeted them with pleasure, Lewis with a little more suspicion and Arthur filed his reaction away, wondering if the man saw them as some kind of threat.

“What can I do for you, Emrys?”

Arthur stood to the side and watched as Merlin smiled at Morse, interested to see him interact with others. His first experience had been too traumatic to take much notice. As he watched the two men chat, he was aware of Lewis watching much as he was.

“Morse, sorry to bother you. I saw the information on the Knightsbridge robbery and an article on one of the items they think they might've recovered. I’m fairly sure I recognised it and thought I might be able to help in some way.” Arthur noticed the way Merlin’s eyes glowed ever so slightly and wondered what he was doing, realising as Morse led the way to his office that Merlin had used his magic to “push” Morse into accepting their involvement. He noticed Lewis’s confused frown at Morse’s congenial response before his own distrust of magic reared its head and he became more involved with his own thoughts.

What had happened between them and what he'd felt in the past, even before he knew Merlin had magic. How many times had Merlin used magic on him in the same way? How many times had he pushed him into actions that weren't the fruit of his own decision. Fear and anger began crawling through him and as they followed Morse and Lewis he grabbed Merlin’s wrist in a punishing grip.

Merlin turned to him in confusion.

“I saw what you did.” He watched Merlin’s eyes widen. “Swear to me,” he said. “Swear to me you've never –“ he couldn’t even get the words out. The very thought he might've been manipulated in such a way horrified him.

With a golden flash of his eyes, Merlin stopped the world around them. “I'll swear on anything you name, I've never used magic to influence your actions, Arthur. I never would.” He paused for a moment. “It wasn’t something I even thought of, if I’m honest. If I had, I might've used it on other people more often and kept us out of some of the trouble we ended up in. But not you. Never you, Arthur. Not then and certainly not now. Everything you’ve done since you arrived here has been your free choice. I swear it. ”

Arthur stared at him for a few moments, meeting Merlin’s blue gaze and seeing it remain steady and calm. There, plain as day, was the love Merlin held for him. The love Arthur now realised must've been present throughout their life in Camelot. The love Arthur had rejected.

He nodded sharply, made uncertain by the emotion the thought engendered and he swallowed. “That’s fine, then.” He stared around at the unmoving people, at the silent vehicles, and his mouth dropped open. “What the hell have you done now?”

Merlin seemed to realise the conversation was at an end, as he let time move again and they continued into the room behind Morse and Lewis. He muttered to Arthur, “it’s just a little spell, really, an easy one.” The tone of his voice was almost hopeful.

Arthur glared at him and Merlin looked a little shame-faced, but also a little proud. It occurred to Arthur then that Merlin, perhaps, had taken the opportunity to display a little of what he could do. Arthur shook his head in disbelief, and muttered “Show off,” as they continued on, but said nothing further. He ignored Merlin’s pathetic attempt to hide his pleasure. Trust Merlin, he thought, begrudgingly amused, to accept censure as praise.

They settled into seats Arthur privately considered had been developed with torture in mind and Merlin began to speak.

“There's a picture in the article of a large jewel that was part of the haul. It was blue.” Merlin paused and waited until Morse nodded encouragingly. “It’s from the 4th century AD – and I think it’s dangerous.”

“Dangerous?” Both Morse and Lewis spoke at once, Morse questioningly, Lewis with obvious disbelief.

“It’s difficult to explain and I‘m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to trust me. They said the jewel had been found in a pawn shop in Bangkok?”

“We’ll have the Met fax through the information.” Morse was keen to help and Arthur saw Lewis raise his eyebrows, guessing such eager compliance wasn't Morse’s natural response.

“What exactly do you mean when you say this thing is dangerous?” Lewis stared at Merlin.

Merlin returned his look, “I can’t explain it – I really can’t.”

“You realise you’re sounding like a right nutter.”

Arthur wasn’t sure he quite understood the actual words, but the meaning was clear, and he waited, raising his eyebrows at Merlin’s troubled glance. Lewis was right, after all.

Morse regarded his colleague, a piercing stare Lewis met in full measure. Arthur was intrigued by the silent conversation he witnessed as Lewis managed to express his disquiet and Morse capitulated.

“Lewis is right, Emrys. You’re going to have to provide us with more information if you expect this conversation to go any further.”

Arthur gathered from Merlin’s resigned expression that he'd not entirely expected full co-operation to come easily and he watched the thought processes flash across Merlin’s features as he decided what and how much he could tell them. He met Merlin’s gaze, then, adding his own encouragement and almost smiled as he realised they were having their own silent conversation. Merlin inclined his head in agreement, his own mouth quirking slightly as he obviously read Arthur’s amusement, even if he didn't understand its source.

“The picture of the stone when it was stolen appeared to be blue, didn’t it?” He waited for both Morse and Lewis to acknowledge his statement. “And you’re not sure if it's actually the same stone that's reappeared because now it's completely clear.” He paused again before laughing awkwardly. “There’s really no easy way to say this.”

The atmosphere in the room was growing ever more tense and Arthur felt his hands curl into fists as he waited for Merlin to speak again.

“You’ve always called me Emrys, Morse. Everybody does. Nobody asks me what my first name is - my real name. Emrys was just a name I took, a different name I was called once. My real name's Merlin. That Merlin. The Merlin of the legends." He gave them a moment for it to sink in, but began talking again before they could begin to comment. "The blue in the stone was – is – evil, and now it's escaped and taken human form. And I need to stop it.” He held his hand up in the face of the disbelief and anger he could see forming. With a few quiet words all the writing implements on the desk began to move, pairing up and weaving around one another as if they were in some kind of courtly dance. “That’s just a small demonstration,” he offered. “If you need more proof we should probably go somewhere more private.”

Arthur suddenly discovered he was bearing the brunt of Morse’s frowning gaze. “And I suppose you’re going to tell me you’re King Arthur?”

“No, I'm not,” he retorted, very much on his dignity. “My father still rules in Camelot. I'm Prince Arthur.”

There was a short, pregnant pause and Arthur saw Merlin bite his lip, as if struggling to restrain his amusement. He folded his arms across his chest and scowled at him until Merlin composed his features, though the blue eyes still danced with mirth.

“You can’t really expect us to believe this nonsense –“ Morse began.

“I dreamt about you.”

Everyone’s attention turned to Lewis, who in turn was staring at Merlin.

“I’ve dreamt about meeting you my whole life, but always in a forest.” He paused for a moment, clearly thinking through their interactions and Arthur wondered if he would make the connection. He did. “The man who was shot – he looked like your younger brother.”

Merlin buried his head in his hands for a moment. “It's me – or rather was me. Apparently he and Arthur got into some trouble and he – I – brought them here. It’s all a bit of a muddle.”

Arthur couldn’t keep silent any longer. He snorted and crossed his arms. “It’s a lot more than a muddle, Merlin,” he said. “We’ve got a rogue sorcerer running about loose, no idea how to find him and no idea how to get us back to where we belong. Look,” he turned his attention to the two policemen. “I don’t much care if you believe us or not but Merlin obviously has magic, which rather suggests some truth to his words. Are you going to help us? I suspect we don’t have much time.”

Lewis was still looking rather shattered. Morse regarded his sergeant for a few moments, waiting until the man met his eyes. “Lewis?”

“This is utter madness, you know, don’t you?” His eyes settled on Merlin again and on the writing implements that had so recently been dancing across the desk. He shook his head, looking rather dazed. “I don’t understand what any of this means,” he continued, and I find it difficult to believe any of it - but if it's true, then there’s a dangerous criminal on the loose – never mind the magic.” He stared at Merlin once more “I’m willing to go along with it for the moment and see what happens. But if you turn out to be time-wasters I’ll throw the bloody book at you.”

Arthur wasn’t too sure he understood the part about book-throwing, but as they wouldn't be wasting anyone’s time, he felt he could safely ignore the comment.

Morse was quiet for a few moments, before turning back to Merlin. “We’ll need to know as much as possible,” he raised his hand as Merlin was about to protest, and Arthur wondered at the concern on Merlin’s face. “I assume, Emrys, you can do something about it later?” Arthur saw the understanding dawn on Merlin’s features and his reluctant nod. “In which case, we need to be clear what we're dealing with. Lewis, I suggest you contact the Met and Interpol. Get as much information faxed across to us as they’ll release.”

Lewis was out of the door before he finished his sentence and Morse smiled briefly.

“So, Your Royal Highness –“

“Arthur,” he said. “I’m just Arthur here.” He glanced at Merlin as he spoke and was not sure what was in his expression but smiled slightly as Merlin flushed and appeared decidedly bashful.

Morse raised his eyebrows at them, but didn't comment, “Arthur. You were threatening Merlin when we first met. I’d like to know the reason, please?”

“I’d just found out Merlin was a sorcerer. Magic's banned in Camelot,” Arthur explained briefly. “Merlin's my manservant and has been by my side for four years. I'd no idea – “ the hurt and betrayal was a punch to the gut and he bit his lip. Despite the steps their relationship had taken in this time, there was still so much to deal with. But not yet. Merlin had said his manservant wanted to tell him, and he'd let that happen. This – now – was just him and Merlin. He'd been serious when he told Morse he was just Arthur here. It was just Arthur and just Merlin, and even though it now seemed there was a purpose in him being here, it felt more like an adventure. An adventure shared with someone who was his equal and a part of him wanted that badly. He'd deal with the rest if – when – they returned. “Merlin knows I tend to react badly if I’m taken by surprise. I wouldn’t have hurt him.” He had to believe it. He had to believe he would've stopped.

“Magic is part of myth and fairy-tale,” Morse turned his attention to Merlin. “You talk about evil in the stone, but there's no real magic here.”

Merlin shrugged. “I’m not sure I understand myself.” He hesitated and cast a glance in Arthur’s direction. “I don’t really want to discuss it. It’s not going to add to our knowledge at the moment.”

“What about your doppelganger?”

Merlin noticed Arthur’s sudden confusion and supplied the explanation. “My double, if you will. I’ve encouraged the hospital to keep him sedated until I find a way to send, to send him and Arthur back where they belong.”

Arthur was ambushed by an urge to pull Merlin into his arms then, witnessing the sudden longing and pain wash across Merlin’s expression, and then was intrigued as the expression was gone in the next instant. Merlin grinned at him, apparently completely happy.

It was another lie.

How many times, Arthur wondered, how many times had Merlin hidden grief and anger and hurt and fear? When he considered it, he could pinpoint a number of occasions remarkably quickly. He recalled a forest and a man they'd known for barely a day and his own surprise at the depth of Merlin’s grief . It was one time Merlin had been unable to hide his true feelings quickly enough. Who was Balinor to Merlin, he wondered. He met Merlin’s gaze and knew he was frowning, but at Merlin’s brief shake of the head he nodded his own, smiling slightly. He'd wait. Merlin would tell him everything. In that knowledge, he silently reaffirmed his own faith and trust in his friend.

Lewis re-entered the room, breaking the sudden silence that had fallen. As he joined them he said. “I’ve sent the request through to the Met. They’ve said they’ll contact Interpol and fax the file through to us. I told them I thought we might have a lead on the stolen jewel but wanted to check it out to make sure it was valid before we turned it over to them. They were grateful for the help, but made sure I knew who was leading the enquiry.” His bland tone was belied by the obvious amusement in his expression.

Morse smiled slightly in response and leant back in his seat. “So, tell us about this sorcerer,” he said, followed quickly by, “and that's a sentence I could never have believed I'd ever be saying seriously.”

*** 

They were both exhausted by the time they made it back to Merlin’s flat. Arthur stepped through the door first, automatically switching on the lights. He'd drunk a considerable amount of coffee during the long afternoon and could feel it coursing through him, leaving him agitated and jumpy. Fortunately, after the third cup, Merlin had refused to allow him any more and had insisted he switch to water. Given the effect three cups seemed to have had on him, he was grateful.

Merlin had explained exactly who Cornelius Sigan was and how he'd defeated him in Camelot. Arthur had been tempted to laugh at the verbal gymnastics as Merlin tried to tell the story without implicating the one person who must know about his magic. Eventually he'd snapped and informed Merlin tartly that he wasn't about to burn Gaius at the stake, so he really could use his name. Merlin had scowled at him but thereafter the flow of information became smoother.

One thing they'd gone round and round, though, was Merlin’s assertion that he wasn't nearly so powerful nowadays and wouldn't be able to use the same method to defeat Sigan, and that was even if the man was stupid enough to be caught the same way. It was more likely, Merlin suggested, that Sigan would want what power Merlin had for his own.

Which, of course, threw up another question. Where was Sigan and was he likely to come after Merlin if he happened to find out about his presence in this time? And there were two versions of Merlin, here, too. There was no telling what might happen if Sigan discovered the presence of another. Arthur had shivered at the very thought.

Arthur prowled around the flat, half-aware of Merlin pottering about in the kitchen making them something to eat. They'd arranged that Morse and Lewis would come to the flat the next day and bring any relevant information with them, which would provide considerably more privacy given the distinctly unusual situation they were facing. In the meantime Merlin had said he'd do some research to see if they could find something to provide them with an advantage. Arthur’s prowling took him to the kitchen and with a huff of frustration he settled himself on one of the, frankly ridiculous, he'd informed Merlin, stools at the breakfast bar.

“What happened to the magic?”

Merlin flinched, “I don’t know for sure. You were my destiny, though, so when you - the magic seemed to seep away from me. There’s always been some left, enough to keep me immortal and to do little things. The day you arrived here it was like a surge running through me. I wondered - I wondered if you'd been born again. Now, there’s much more than there was but I’m still not nearly as powerful as I was in Camelot.”

“So what are we going to do about Sigan?” Arthur worried, shying away from the thought of just how powerful Merlin was.

“I’ll do some research to see if the books I’ve got have any suggestions.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

Merlin looked surprised at the offer. “Actually, yes. If you could look at the ones you understand – so Old English, Greek and Latin – I can go through the rest.”

“What will I be looking for?”

“Anything you think might be remotely useful - something that might increase my power, might provide us with a magical weapon,” there was a short pause before Merlin continued, “or might help us in some way, and anything about Sigan himself would be useful.”

The conversation moved to more mundane matters as they ate. Arthur, after prodding the mess in front of him suspiciously for a moment, discovered it was mainly meat, vegetables and cheese, and dug in with gusto, simply nodding as Merlin said it was called lasagne. The coffee was still thudding through his veins, so he stuck to water as he decided he didn’t like the sweetness of the non-alcoholic drink Merlin offered. Merlin spoke a little about the industrial revolution and the way it had changed the world so dramatically, and how fast the pace of change in this, the twentieth, century was.

After they'd eaten, they settled in the main room with a pile of books before each of them. Reading was never one of Arthur’s favourite occupations, but it helped that there was a very specific and crucially important point to this particular study.

For the next few hours there was silence other than the turning of pages and Arthur’s occasional question to Merlin when he came across something of possible interest. Several hours into the research Arthur took a break for a few moments, wandering over to the small side table and pouring some of the whiskey they'd drunk last night into two glasses. He knocked the side of Merlin’s head gently with a glass and quirked a smile at the quiet thanks as Merlin took it from him.

“How are we doing?”

Merlin glanced ruefully at the books surrounding them. “We’ve got a couple of possibilities – the spell for robbing someone of speech might buy us some time. I’ve found one to improves scrying abilities because that’s never been something I’ve been much good at. And the confusion spell might help to mask us so he’s not too sure where we’re coming from or who we are.” He met Arthur’s gaze. “Nothing so far to give us a real edge, though, especially if his power hasn’t diminished.”

“It might have.”

“We can only hope for a small miracle,” Merlin said.

Arthur grinned at him, returning to his place in front of the books. One of the things he lo – liked about this version of Merlin was the dry humour he often used. That, and the understated confidence and competence evident in everything he said and did. Of course, Merlin had taken fifteen hundred years to get to this point and Arthur spent a few moments idly wondering what it must've been like to live so long. He cast a sly glance at Merlin, considering his calm features and the slightly stern cast to his mouth. There was an aura of age about him, Arthur decided, but wondered whether he'd recognise it as such if he didn't know the truth. It couldn't have been easy and he stifled his own guilt because he knew he, Arthur Pendragon, was a large part of the reason Merlin had been left to this fate. Merlin looked up then, as if aware of Arthur’s scrutiny and he smiled briefly before returning to his study, seemingly untroubled by Arthur’s thoughtful gaze. Arthur drew in a deep breath and returned his attention to the task at hand. He glanced back down to the book he was reading and read the next spell. Then he read it again.

“Merlin?” He was trying to be cool and collected but something had obviously leached into his tone, or Merlin just knew him that well.

“What've you found?”

Merlin joined him and he handed the thick tome over. Merlin chuckled when he saw the book. “My first magic book,” he said. “Typical.” He read through the spell Arthur had pointed out. “A spell to deliver aid to the beleaguered.” He stared at it, mouthing the words but not saying them aloud. “I don’t know what this would do,” he said eventually. “There’s no indication in the spell about what might turn up. I don’t want to bring something into this century that shouldn’t be here.”

Arthur glared at him. “It’s a bit late to worry about that, isn’t it?”

“Well, technically I didn’t bring either Sigan or you here.”

Arthur rolled his eyes, unwilling to argue. “Will it work?”

“Oh, it’ll work. I just don’t know how it'll work.” He began worrying his lip with his teeth.

“We’ll worry about it in the morning.” Arthur stood and held out his hand, his voice softening. “Come to bed, Merlin.”

Merlin stared up at him for a moment, his gaze sweeping over Arthur’s form, and then he smiled, wide and free and oh-so-very Merlin. The breath caught in Arthur’s throat and he'd no words as he pulled on the hand that reached out to him, bringing them close together and claiming Merlin’s mouth.

*** 

Early the next day Morse and Lewis turned up at the flat and with them, they brought as much information as they had on both the robbery and the recovery of the jewel. Merlin, still sleepy-eyed and exuding an air of satisfaction neither of the policemen could miss, made a pot of coffee. Arthur had worked out how to use the toaster but couldn’t work out why Merlin’s self-satisfied expression suddenly morphed into a horrified despair.

“What?” He asked, easing rather carefully onto one of the stools and sipping cautiously at the tea.

With an air of high drama, Merlin asked, “What. Is. That?” He indicated the squat glass jar with its familiar yellow label, the dark contents of which Arthur had spread on his toast.

Arthur shrugged. “Don’t know. S’good,” he said around another mouthful.

“I might've known,” Merlin said, before turning to the two men who were watching the exchange with no little amusement. He pulled the paperwork towards him and together they began to look through it, Arthur asking questions about what was in front of them.

“Do you think the robbery was about the jewel?” Arthur asked.

Morse shook his head. “No, it was all about the money. The robbers probably had no idea about individual items within the safety deposit boxes.”

Merlin looked as if he was about to say something else. Instead, he pushed the papers aside and glanced at Arthur, which Arthur took as his cue to speak.

“We think we’ve found a spell that might help. It should apparently bring us some help. Only we’re not too sure what will actually happen so it might be for the best if you left while we try it.” He tried not to be shocked at the ease with which he was discussing magic, let alone condoning its use.

“You should go as well, Arthur. We can’t risk anything happening to you.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” He folded his arms and raised his eyebrows, challenging Merlin.

Lewis broke into the impasse, “We’ll stay as well.” It didn't sound as though he expected much discussion either, exchanging a quick look with Morse.

Merlin made an exasperated noise and scrubbed his fingers through his hair. “Just – stay well back. Arthur, it might be an idea if you have your sword to hand.”

Arthur nodded his head. “Of course.” What else did Merlin think he'd do in this situation, he wondered, other than be prepared. He hopped off the ridiculous stool and tried not to wince, realising he’d failed when he noticed Lewis hiding a smile. What the hell. It was clear the cat was well and truly out of the bag, and in this time and place, he didn’t have to worry about what other people thought. As he walked past Merlin he slipped a hand around his neck and kissed him quickly.

Merlin pushed him away. “Ugh, brush your teeth before you kiss me again, you prat, that stuff is horrible.” But his cheeks were flushed and his expression pleased, so Arthur didn’t believe he minded too much.

When he returned, the three men had already moved some of the furniture, leaving a clear space in the room. Merlin was standing in the centre of the space, the book held in his hands and it looked as if he was reading through the spell again.

“Ready?” Arthur asked. He knew his own tension was clear in his voice, still uncomfortable with the concept of magic being used this close to him, but he did his best to hide that and smiled encouragingly at Merlin. He gripped his sword and turned it a couple of times, reassured by the weight and the balance of the blade. Lewis and Morse both looked impressed but Arthur’s main attention remained on Merlin.

They waited a few minutes and Arthur watched carefully as Merlin gathered his concentration, and when Merlin began to speak, the words rolled out of his mouth with a rich fluidity, his tone deepening as he gained in confidence. He spoke them again, and on the third time Arthur could feel physical force behind them. He wasn't entirely surprised when a minor whirlwind seemed to rise up from the floor, rather proud of himself as he didn't make the obvious gasps of surprise and shock he heard Morse and Lewis let loose. To be fair, he'd seen plenty of magic over the course of his life - even if seeing Merlin do it was relatively new to him. As Merlin finished the spell, the disturbance dissipated.

“Oh, someone has got to be joking!”

The woman standing in the centre of flat probably had good reason to be annoyed given that she'd just appeared before four men and was wearing not a stitch of clothing, but it was Merlin’s reaction that really got Arthur’s attention. He had lost all colour and looked absolutely ghastly. At first Arthur thought it was to do with the power he'd needed to expend to make the spell work and he took a step forward.

“Stay back, Arthur!” Merlin sounded absolutely terrified.

Morse cleared his throat and asked, “Is she speaking Old English as well?”

It was a rather pointed question and almost absently Merlin spoke a short sentence.

“Really, Merlin? You’re scared of a girl?” Arthur scoffed, and yet something about her was raising all his suspicions. It was as if he knew her and knew he'd reason to fear her.

“Woman, thank you.” she said. “And if you’re all quite finished.”

It was Lewis, cheeks pink and eyes averted, who handed her the throw from the sofa. She wound it around herself.

“You don’t know –“ Merlin began. “How is this possible?”

“Oh, Merlin,” she almost purred. “All grown up. It all went so horribly wrong, didn’t it?” There was something close to sympathy in the look she bestowed upon him.

“How can you be here?” Merlin couldn’t hide his flinch or the flash of distress briefly touching his features before he regained his control. Not from Arthur. Not now he knew to look.

She spread her arms. “Magic, Merlin, what else? What, did you think a High Priestess of the Old Religion was really going to stay dead? How naïve.” She mocked him as he stood silent before her, his throat working.

“I wouldn’t have - I didn’t want to – But you - “

There was a silent exchange between them and something in the woman’s stance eased slightly, her features softening.

“It wasn’t me, you know, who made the choice. It was the Old Religion. It decides the price, Merlin. It always decides the price. And the price could never have been you. You were too important. You should've realised that.” The hauteur and mockery had gone from her voice.

If Arthur had ever known a mother’s tone, he thought it might've sounded similar. He could still see Merlin’s distress, however, and decided it was time to intervene. “Who are you and why are you here?” Arthur somehow knew there was more going on here than he really wanted to acknowledge. He recognised the woman from somewhere and knew he'd met her before, but pushed the thought aside as unimportant for the moment.

She met his gaze, and her features softened as she murmured, “So like your Mother. All her strength and goodness. Perhaps I should've chosen a different path after all.”

“But you didn’t,” Merlin said, drawing her attention deliberately, Arthur realised.

“No. I didn’t. Which is why I’m here. My task is to help you. My reparation, if you will.”

“And I’m supposed to trust you?”

“You asked for help. Help is what you've been sent. Whether you choose to use it or not is up to you. Unfortunately, I’m stuck here anyway it seems. So,“ and she smiled wickedly at Merlin, “Any chance you’ve got some women’s clothes around here, somewhere? And why don’t you introduce me to your friends?”

“Morse, Lewis, Arthur – meet Nimueh. The last time we met we tried to kill each other. I won.” The delivery was flat, Merlin’s face expressionless and he wouldn't meet Arthur’s gaze.

“And yet here I am.”

*** 

“What the hell's going on?” Arthur cornered Merlin in the kitchen, finally losing patience with Merlin’s attempts to avoid both him and the conversation they obviously needed to have.

“It’s part of what your Merlin needs to tell you.” Merlin began.

“You're Merlin. And I need to know this, if nothing else. Tell me, Merlin.”

Merlin closed his eyes, staring out through the kitchen to the living room beyond. Nimueh, dressed in overlarge sweat pants and jumper, was curled on the sofa, leafing her way through Merlin’s spell book, while she sipped occasionally and clearly appreciatively from a mug of hot chocolate.

The drama of her arrival had been interrupted by the added drama of her colour suddenly draining from her face and it was Lewis who caught her as she stumbled forward, close to fainting. It was also Lewis who suggested practically she might need some sugar and Merlin had handed over some chocolate biscuits before escaping into the kitchen to make hot drinks. Once he had passed them to the others, he had retreated to the kitchen. Arthur, who was feeling decidedly uncomfortable at the speculative looks Nimueh was sending him, followed, leaving Morse and Lewis to keep Nimueh company.

“Arthur, I really don’t want to discuss this.”

“Too bad,” Arthur hardened his heart. He could see easily now how distressed Merlin was, his expression and the way he was wringing his hands made that obvious. Arthur considered his earlier thoughts about the way Merlin could hide what he was feeling and Arthur was beginning to realise he could be remarkably obtuse at times. This time, however, even he couldn't miss how upset Merlin was. There was too much here, though, too many undercurrents swirling around them threatening to drown the unwary. He sighed. “Merlin, you have to tell me. This, I have to know.”

“Why don’t I tell you?”

Arthur turned, startled at how quietly she'd slipped into the room behind them. He felt Merlin’s tension as a tangible thing.

“I’d rather hear this from someone I trust, thanks.” he said, glaring at her.

Her eyebrows raised. “So you trust a warlock?”

“I trust my friend.”

“Your mother was my friend, you know.”

“Don’t, Nimueh, please, don’t.” Merlin sounded wretched.

“Fine – but I get to tell him.”

Arthur glared at both of them. “What the hell don’t I know?” he demanded.

The resultant loaded silence was broken as Morse appeared at the door. Arthur noticed his curious glance at the tableau he was interrupting, but he didn't comment, saying instead. “Lewis and I have to return to the station. We’ve asked to be notified of any further information and we’ll come back here this evening to discuss what we do next.”

“Thank you,” Arthur managed to gather enough of his courtly manners around him to show the two men out of the flat. By the time he came back into the lounge, Merlin was perched on the edge of the sofa, his head buried in his hands.

Nimueh was sitting on the arm of one of the two seats and was staring at Merlin, her expression contemplative and almost sad. She looked up and met his gaze.

“Do you remember when you were bitten by the questing beast?” she asked.

Arthur frowned, but nodded. Most of his memories were a fevered muddle of heat, pain and the desperate expressions on the faces of those around him.

“Merlin came to the Isle of the Blessed to plead for a way to save you. I gave him water from the Cup of Life. If you drank it you'd be saved. Merlin agreed to pay the price. Except he didn't know what the price was. He thought he was trading his life for yours. It was the bargain he thought he'd struck.”

Arthur stared in angry disbelief at Merlin’s bowed head. “How could you do something so stupid,“ he said, but Nimueh raised her hand to stop him before he could settle into a lengthy tirade.

“Merlin thought he could dictate to the Old Religion. It's a mistake others have made to their cost. A terrible cost.”

Merlin raised his head and met her gaze then and some message seemed to pass between them, some understanding or kinship. He met Arthur’s gaze then, too, and when faced with the stubborn set to Merlin’s mouth, Arthur understood there would be no apologies, and knew Merlin would do it all again if he thought it would save Arthur. How could he tell Merlin he wasn't worthy of such a sacrifice? How could he tell Merlin that he wouldn't be able to survive, to rule Camelot, without Merlin by his side. He shut his eyes briefly and then nodded once, as he accepted Merlin’s love and loyalty. For the moment. He'd shout later, Arthur decided. A lot.

Nimueh had watched the slight interplay between them with curiosity and then speculation, and now she picked up her narrative. “The Old Religion doesn't barter. It doesn't bargain. It decides the price and extracts it. It wouldn't take Merlin. It would never have taken Merlin. It tried to take his Mother instead. For your life the sacrifice, the price, had to be a major one.”

Hunith.

Arthur slumped onto the other seat as he tried to take in what she was telling him. He looked over at Merlin, whose head was back in his hands. He suddenly recalled the bizarre conversation he'd exchanged with Merlin shortly after his recovery. So, Merlin had been saying goodbye.

“Honestly, Merlin – and you call me a prat?”

“You are a prat.” It was an automatic response and there was no real heat in it.

“Is she telling the truth, Merlin?”

“Yes – except I blamed her.”

Nimueh moved her shoulders in an elegant shrug. “I was the vessel of the Old Religion – I am their vessel. They work through me. I could've stopped it, but someone, somewhere would still've had to pay. Would it have been any easier, really, if a stranger had died instead? Would it have been right?”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence, during which Merlin wouldn't look up, wouldn't meet the gaze of either Nimueh or Arthur.

Arthur considered Nimueh. She looked almost troubled. “There’s obviously more,” he said.

“Gaius came to offer his life in Hunith’s place. I thought it was a more appropriate trade – an old man at the end of his life. Merlin didn’t agree. The price was his life or none, it appeared. But still the Old Religion wouldn't take him. In the end I paid the price. Merlin killed me.”

That seemed to sting Merlin into a response. “You attacked me!”

“No, Merlin, face the truth.” Her voice was almost gentle. “I defended myself from your attack.”

Arthur watched the instinctive denial die as Merlin considered the events of that day once more. Even after fifteen hundred years, Arthur suspected they were clear in his memory. The colour leached from Merlin's features and guilt bled from him. “Gods,” he said. “I was so angry. I blamed you.“

“It wasn't the first time it's happened.”

“But you, you'd poisoned me and almost got Arthur killed.” Arthur wasn’t sure if Merlin was offering an excuse, or was trying to justify his own actions.

“Yes,” she admitted readily. “You'd interfered with my plans to bring down Camelot when you destroyed the afanc. But I knew Arthur would be safe. I told him it wasn’t my destiny to kill him.” She looked thoughtful and then puzzled. “You're immortal and belong here, Merlin – but Arthur, you're out of time. This changes everything.”

Arthur looked at Merlin, recalled the odd snippets he'd let slip about his life in Camelot. “I hope so.” he said.

“I tried to kill you. I –“ Merlin spoke again.

“Don’t.” she stopped him. “I was angry and bitter, Merlin. If you hadn't killed me I would've been a constant thorn in your side.” Merlin met her gaze then and Arthur watched from the side-lines as they seemed to come to some understanding.

Quietly, she said. “This is my penance, Merlin. This is my chance to make amends, to help Ygraine’s son and the man who will help him reach his destiny. And you, Merlin. Oh, you've already paid a heavy price, haven't you?”

Merlin stared at her as if he'd been slapped and then he was off the sofa and out of the room. Arthur started to go after him, only to be halted as she spoke again.

“Hold, Prince Arthur. Give him a few moments alone.”

He considered her. “You knew my mother?” He watched as her features lit up and she smiled. “Will you tell me something about her later?”

“I'd be glad to speak of her. She was dear to me.”

Arthur nodded and they sat in silence for long minutes and Arthur wondered how a sorceress of such power had been his mother’s friend. When he could bear to wait no longer, he left the room in search of Merlin, ignoring the way Nimueh’s gaze followed him.

He found Merlin sitting on the edge of the bed, his hands dangling between his legs, staring into space. Arthur sat by him.

“Bit of a day, huh?”

Merlin managed to bark out a short laugh. “You could say that. I was always so convinced,“ He shook his head. “I’ve done terrible things, Arthur. I’ve had to make choices and some of them were bad. But I always believed at least I was trying my best, that I was trying to make things better. I killed her, Arthur, without a thought, I murdered her.”

“You did.” Arthur wasn't about to sweeten the reality. “And there's nothing you can do to change it. It’s another penance for you and something else to carry, Merlin. I’m sorry for you, but you have to live with the knowledge of what you did.”

“Well, that’s comforting,” Merlin’s voice sounded more like usual.

“Do you want me to lie to you?”

“No – no, I really don’t. I’ve had enough of lies.”

“Are you ready to accept Nimueh’s help now?”

“I’m not sure we've a lot of choice, do we?”

“Not really. Come on, idiot.” He wrapped an arm around Merlin and rubbed his knuckles into his hair in the way he just knew Merlin hated. It got the reaction he was looking for, Merlin pushing him off and ranting at him and Arthur grinned to himself as he followed the bristling man back through to the lounge.

Nimueh acknowledged their return with a small, private smile, before she asked. “Are you ready to tell me why you called for aid?”

Merlin nodded and filled her in about their current problem with Cornelius Sigan and also how Merlin and Arthur were out of their own time.

“Do you think he’ll come after Merlin?” Arthur asked her in concern, when Merlin had finished bringing her up-to-date.

“If he hadn’t been aware of him before, he certainly will be after calling me here this afternoon. Merlin from your time, Arthur, should be safe if he's remained unconscious and not used his power. In fact, I rather suspect it's his power you're tapping into.” She directed that comment at Merlin, who was sitting close to Arthur on the sofa. Nimueh looked thoughtful for a moment before she continued. “If he can track our magic, though, it means we can track his. Have you tried to find him?”

“I’m not too good with scrying,” Merlin admitted.

“Fortunately, I am. If you could provide me with a bowl of water?”

They settled around the low table, Arthur working hard to quell his unease as Nimueh passed her hands across the bowl and murmured quietly. She stared into the water, frowning for a few moments before, with a hiss of steam and sudden turbulence, the water boiled and a pulse from the vessel pushed them all violently backwards.

The remains of the bowl smouldered on the ruined table.

“The good news is I think I can trace Sigan now.” Nimueh looked at them ruefully. “The bad news is – he probably knows we’ll be coming for him.”

*** 

They spent much of the rest of the day trying to work out a plan that wouldn't end in disaster. Merlin and Nimueh had discussed useful spells, while Arthur, though at first uncomfortable with the talk of magic, soon discovered he'd have a role when he talked through one or two of their more outlandish ideas and realised they'd little thought of the strategic elements of what they were discussing. Afterwards, they fleshed out the various scenarios that could arise from use of spells, making a note of any that might prove workable. It was a shockingly short list. As the evening drew on, Merlin cooked, while Arthur, with the arrogance of three whole days prior knowledge, introduced Nimueh to some of the delights of modern living. When she emerged from the bathroom she'd used her magic to shrink the garments she was wearing and now looked like many of the young women Arthur had seen in this time. They ate in silence and reconvened around the ruined table, spreading maps on the scorched surface while Nimueh pinpointed the exact position of their quarry.

“Wells?” Merlin asked, frowning. “What could be of interest for Sigan there?”

“What's there?” Arthur asked. “I assume if the place is called Wells then there are water sources?”

“Yes, of course, a number of springs in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace and elsewhere in the city. I still don’t understand why he'd go there, though.”

“It's close to places of power.” Nimueh’s eyes were unfocused and her fingers were tracing lines on the map. “Places of power and sacred springs. He goes to take power from the earth. The connection between the people and the earth has become weak in this time. If Sigan taps into the latent power, the Old Religion will try to use him as a conduit to return the balance to the earth. If he absorbs the power –“

“What'll happen?” Arthur was concerned by the worried looks the two sorcerers were exchanging.

“No idea,” Merlin said, “but I think we can guarantee it won’t be good.”

“If we've some indication of what he might do then at least we can put some plans in place that might help us deal with it.”

“We need to destroy him but I didn’t have the power the last time to do it. All I could do then was get him back into the stone. I’m not convinced I could even manage that this time. Could you?” Merlin directed his question to Nimueh.

Her features were troubled and there was something in her expression, some sadness Arthur wondered at and Merlin obviously saw, too.

“Nimueh?” he asked. During their discussions Arthur had noticed the way Merlin’s hostility and Nimueh’s needling had eased as they became engrossed in the problem facing them. It struck Arthur then that had things not gone so badly wrong – whatever had gone wrong, because while he was aware it was more than just the incident with the Cup of Life, he still wasn't too clear on the details – these two would've been friends and allies.

“We might be able to do it if we work together. Can you trust me?” She cast a mocking smile at Merlin and Arthur both.

“Do we have a choice?” Merlin vocalised Arthur’s thought. It really was a rhetorical question and Merlin’s tone was remarkably mild.

“If we're going to try and get him back into the jewel, then we'll have to have it with us. Unless we can fashion something else to hold him.”

“Probably easiest to bring it to us,” Merlin said. “There’s something in the papers Morse brought about where it is now. If you can scry for it, Nimueh, I should be able to pull it to us, especially if I'm tapping into the type of power I possessed in Camelot.”

Arthur noticed Nimueh seemed impressed by Merlin’s assertion. In all honesty, he was rather impressed himself although he tried to keep his own expression from giving that away.

Merlin read through the flimsy sheets of paper, while Arthur kept a watchful eye on Nimueh as she wandered around the room.

“Here,” Merlin said eventually. “They’re having it brought back to London apparently, but it’s still in Bangkok. I have a map of the city. Will that be enough?”

“I assume you only need a rough location if you're drawn to it anyway.”

Merlin nodded.

Arthur wondered where exactly this place called Bangkok was but Nimueh didn't seem to care, or perhaps she knew.

Another boring hour or so passed for Arthur as Merlin and Nimueh pored over a map he could make neither heads nor tails of. Eventually, Nimueh settled on a particular spot, which just happened to be Bangkok international airport, and Merlin began his incantation.

It clearly wasn’t a simple matter as he repeated it and repeated it, showing patience and perseverance Arthur wasn’t sure he recognised as part of his errant manservant. Again, there wasn't much he could do and he chafed at the inaction, pacing around the room until Nimueh’s irritated hiss stopped him in his tracks. At one point Merlin paused in his recitation to say, “I think the damn thing’s moving.”

Merlin began the chant again and by now was sweating profusely. Arthur, desperate for something to do, wandered into the kitchen to grab a towel, running it under the cold tap and squeezing it out. He moved quietly and knelt beside Merlin, offering the towel and trying to ignore the gold sheen covering the blue he loved so much. Merlin didn't pause in his recitation, but did incline his head and Arthur wiped gently at the sweat on Merlin’s forehead. His fingers dragged briefly across one hot cheek and he withdrew them sharply at the sudden surge of – something – he felt beneath his skin. He stared at Merlin who'd stopped chanting and was gazing back at him, blue eyes wide, the gold fading.

Without speaking, Merlin took the towel from him, laying it to one side. He tangled their fingers together and met Arthur’s gaze – waiting. A thrill of fear ran through Arthur, understanding what Merlin was asking of him. He swallowed hard and then nodded. Merlin’s smile was blinding, and Arthur returned it, refusing to acknowledge the speculation and surprise on Nimueh’s expression. Instead, he squeezed Merlin’s fingers encouragingly and held on as Merlin began the spell once more.

This time the power surging through the room was palpable and then, with a bright pulse of light the abused table collapsed into a pile of kindling. In the middle, sparkling, covered in condensation as if it had travelled through a cold place, was a heart-shaped, clear stone, its faceted surface catching and reflecting the light.

As far as Arthur was concerned, that was more than enough excitement for one day. Nimueh and Merlin placed protective wards around the flat and the jewel and then, after a short argument about sleeping arrangements, Nimueh was settled on the sofa and Arthur trailed into the bedroom after Merlin. He ignored Merlin’s red face, his own hot cheeks and the chortle of wicked laughter that followed them. Nimueh reminded him too much of Morgana, and he could imagine her reaction being somewhat similar. Arthur was distracted by thoughts of Morgana for a moment, thinking briefly how quiet and distant she'd been since she returned from her captivity. He shut out the sound of Nimueh’s amusement and then turned to gaze at Merlin. He looked shattered, weighed down by a day filled with shock and revelation as he hovered uncertainly by the side of the bed, eyes downcast and hands twisting in the soft cotton of his shirt.

Arthur, having experienced shock upon shock since the moment he'd arrived in this mad time and place, felt inured and a strange calm spread over him as he recognised not only had he accepted magic, he'd actually participated in its use. His hands still tingled slightly from the power that had surged through him and he wondered at the connection between Merlin and Arthur that had sparked and produced such power. He sighed quietly and wandered across the room. As he stopped by Merlin he gripped the restless hands and stilled them, raising them to his lips and pressing his mouth against them. Merlin smiled at him then, relief and pride in his expression. Arthur kissed him softly and then released his hands, tugging the shirt out of the trousers, beginning the process of undressing Merlin with a gentleness and care which didn't reflect the myriad of emotions rolling through him. Still silent, he urged Merlin under the covers, shedding his own clothes quickly and joining him, pulling the long, lithe body into his arms and holding tight. Merlin buried his face against Arthur’s neck and returned the grip.

They didn't speak.

*** 

Neither man slept particularly well, but Arthur didn’t mind too much. In the depths of the night they made love gently, sliding together under the covers and taking the time to touch, to stroke, to feel and to learn about one another. Arthur, free from the diktats of his rank, found a real pleasure in touch. He recognised he'd been touching Merlin more and more freely as he spent more time here, but now he could accept it and welcome an opportunity that might never have happened if his life had continued on the track it originally seemed to have taken. He was grateful to have had this chance to know Merlin, and he knew somehow he'd return safely to Camelot, complete with his acceptance of Merlin’s magic and another chance to make different decisions. Hopefully this time those decisions would make Merlin’s life a happier one. His heart clenched as he accepted this Merlin would still be left behind and would still know those empty centuries of waiting. He curled his arms around Merlin and held him close to his chest.

Throughout the long night they hardly spoke, but lay wrapped in one another and took comfort from touch.

Merlin was the first to leave the bed early the next morning, returning some minutes later with tea for them both. He put it on the bedside table and leaned across to kiss Arthur leisurely.

“Nimueh's still asleep.”

“Well, she’s still here and hasn’t tried to kill us in our bed so that’s got to be a good sign.” Arthur wondered why Merlin had blushed and smiled at his sentence, but dismissed it when Merlin spoke.

“We should probably head for Wells today.”

“How long will it take to get there?”

“Two and a half – maybe three hours depending on how busy the roads are.”

“Are you going to tell Morse what we’re up to?” Arthur had been wondering whether the two policemen would expect to come along but Merlin shook his head decisively.

“I’ll let him know we have a lead and we’ll contact them if we come up with anything solid. I don’t want them with us. We've some idea of what we’re dealing with but they really have no understanding just how dangerous this is. I don’t want them caught in the middle of it.”

There was a moment’s silence while they drank their tea and then Merlin asked, “Do you want a shower?” There was suggestion in his tone and Arthur laughed, hooking a hand around Merlin’s neck to draw him in for a swift, warm kiss.

“Sounds like a good way to start the day.”

By the time they made it out of the bathroom Nimueh was awake and looking displeased. Before they could ask why, she sailed past them into the bathroom with her nose in the air, slamming the door pointedly behind her and leaving the two men to exchange an amused look. Despite their history and the threat she'd posed in the past, Arthur found he couldn't help but like her.

After a swift breakfast, Merlin threw some clothes and toiletries in a bag for all of them, and filled a second bag much more carefully with some of the magic books and the wrapped jewel. He phoned Morse and had a brief conversation, giving away as little as possible, though Morse was obviously quizzing him about whether he knew anything about the sudden disappearance overnight, and from thirty thousand feet above the sea, of the jewel. Apparently it'd been couriered onto the plane in Bangkok, but by the time the plane touched down at Heathrow, the jewel had gone.

Within an hour they were piling into the car, where Nimueh, after a sidelong glance at them, slid quickly into the back seat, leaving Arthur to sit beside Merlin. Arthur experienced some chagrin when Nimueh remained poised and calm, seemingly unaffected by the modern technology. He guessed it had something to do with her magic and her own ability to do things that would appear out of the ordinary to those who didn't possess the same ability. Although, when Merlin turned onto a road he called the M40, and the car picked up speed, Arthur did see her grip tightly onto the handle and gaze fixedly ahead. Deliberately he relaxed and without thinking settled his hand on Merlin’s thigh, watching the countryside speed by at a rate he could never even have dreamed of when he was in Camelot. And yet he still missed the feel and life of a horse under him. This cold lump of metal had no soul, no mind of its own, no will to learn, to come to an understanding with.

He saw horses in some of the fields as they passed and the desultory conversation he and Merlin shared provided him with the information that horses tended to be used for recreational purposes rather than for every day use. The car had taken the role over, with lorries instead of carts, and aeroplanes taking people across vast distances. Arthur decided thinking too much about it would probably end in madness and decided to emulate Nimueh’s obvious response to this new world, by ignoring the anomalies, peculiarities and outrageous clothes as much as possible. They stopped once on their way, and Arthur was aware of Nimueh watching with narrow-eyed interest as Merlin carried out the transaction when he bought them drinks. He hadn’t thought much about money until then, and after a couple of questions, Merlin had launched into a discourse about currency through the ages that had his eyes closing, until Merlin laughed and talked instead about the countryside they were travelling through. He squeezed Merlin’s thigh and smiled in contentment when Merlin took his hand off the wheel for a moment to pat his hand, accepting his tacit apology.

From the back seat, Nimueh snorted.

They eventually turned off the major road onto a smaller one and their speed slowed markedly as they worked their way across the country and down towards the area Merlin called Somerset. They skirted around a major city and further on until they crested a hill and began to drop. In front of them, close to, a magnificent building rose above the townscape and Merlin identified it as a cathedral – a grand church of the new religion. In the distance, pushing up from the plain around it was a mound with a building on top. It was hazy, and far away and yet Arthur felt the pull of power and as Nimueh sat up and stared hard over the countryside, he guessed she did, too. Merlin seemed to take no notice, until they'd dropped into the small city and it was no longer in their sight. “It’s Glastonbury, and yes, it's a place of power, but Nimueh has said Sigan is in Wells, so we’ll start there at least.”

Merlin had arranged rooms in one of the local inns, the Swan, and they deposited their bags before meeting in the bar where Merlin introduced both of his visitors to the 20th century concept of scampi and chips in a basket. Arthur had been happy to accept his guidance and so far he'd thoroughly enjoyed all of the food Merlin had put before him. Nimueh, on the other hand, took one look at the scampi and ordered the young girl serving them to take it away and bring her more chips instead. Arthur had been intrigued by Merlin’s quick grin of amusement, before he concentrated on his own meal.

On the journey down to Wells they'd discussed their plan of attack. Arthur had been in his element, recognising this was where his skills were of most relevance. He outlined the need to gather as much information as they could, both about the place’s history and its topography. Arthur started by charming the young girl who was waiting on them and she was happy to provide them with information on the museum and archives, and the library of the great cathedral. She also told them about the Bishop’s Palace and how it and the gardens around it were open to the public, and that within its walls were some of the springs that gave the city its name.

After lunch they walked through the Market Place and under the archway towards the moat and the Bishop’s Palace. Arthur gazed around, enraptured by the beauty and the life around him, aware of Merlin’s amusement but taking no notice other than to cast a swift smile and nudge against his side. It was easy to touch in this time, when Arthur didn't have to worry about what people would think or about the difference in rank, and he knew he was being indulgent, taking every opportunity to show his affection. Like now, when he slipped his arm through Merlin’s, although he stayed close by his side so it wasn’t particularly obvious to passers by.

Merlin paid some money to the morose man guarding the barrier and passed through the gateway into the grounds of the palace itself. It couldn’t match Camelot, of course, but age hung heavy here and he knew without asking that this place had been standing for centuries. Merlin had picked up a thin book about it and was looking through it.

“The actual wells are this way,” He threaded his fingers through Arthur’s, without conscious thought, realised Arthur, and towed them onwards. Nimueh trailed behind and Arthur was aware of the way her gaze had fixed on their joined hands. He was amazed by how little he cared about her reaction or what she might be thinking. Although when he looked her way, she was smiling.

The garden was tranquil, tidied and made ready for the winter and though a few hardy plants still had blooms, most of the colour was gone, leaving the hues of autumn behind. There was a nip of frost in the air as the sun began to drop low and they stared at the water, aware that although it looked still, it was bubbling up from below and moving swiftly away.

“It feeds the moat, apparently,” Merlin was reading from the book, “And then flows into the river.” He frowned around them. “I can’t feel anything out of the ordinary here other than, well, peace.” His frown altered to become a soft smile. “The land's at peace here.”

“The land's at peace, Merlin,” Nimueh had her hands stretched out, “But there's disquiet in the water. The spirits are restless and unsettled. Here,” she offered her hand and with only slight hesitation Merlin took it, reaching out with his free hand to Arthur. They stood, three together, hand in hand and even Arthur could understand what she meant.

“No sign of Sigan, though?” he asked.

Nimueh shook her head. “Merlin's right, although the water spirits are uneasy, this place is at peace.”

Merlin had his nose back in the book. “There are other springs,” he said. “We passed one in the Market Place, probably too public, but there’s another, St Andrew’s, and it’s not open to the public.”

“Whatever he’s trying, he won’t want to be interrupted. My guess is he’ll have found the St Andrew’s spring, too.” Arthur felt a sense of certainty about his assertion.

Nimueh glanced at the sky. “The moon will be full tomorrow night. That's when he will seek the power.”

“Why here?” Arthur asked. Ever since he'd felt the pull of the hill at Glastonbury, he'd wondered why Sigan wouldn't choose the most powerful place.

Merlin looked thoughtful, and then shrugged. “Glastonbury has huge amounts of myth and legend around it, most of it entirely made up. It’s cluttered, busy with too much in the way of residue from the people who've tried to access and use the power there. It’s calm here, the conduit to the earth is much cleaner and clearer.”

“But we haven’t actually worked out how he’s gong to go about this, or what we can do to stop him. Assuming we’re right, about what he’s going to try and where in the first place.” Arthur pointed out.

“I know one thing,” Nimueh said. “I know he won’t have enough power on his own. Sigan was strong, but like Merlin his power will have diminished to some degree. He's nearby. I can feel him. So can you, Merlin. And if we can feel him, then he can feel us.”

Merlin’s expression was interesting because it was a new one to Arthur. He'd never seen the man express such cool amusement mixed with a certain arrogant superiority. “I’ve made sure he knows I’m here.” There was that strength again, the strength so apparent every time Merlin did magic. “I’m the decoy, but I’ve been shielding you. As far as he's concerned you've no magic. He probably felt something when I cast the spell asking for help, but as part of it I put wards in place to ensure that Sigan wouldn't be able to find out what I'd done. I wasn’t sure what would be sent to help us but I wanted to make sure Sigan couldn’t find out.”

“Merlin,” her voice was admiring. “You have grown up, haven’t you?” She reached up and ran her fingers lingeringly down his face, scraping her fingers through his beard. “We really could have ruled the world together.”

“Oh, please,” Arthur said, pulling Merlin towards him and out of range of Nimueh’s touch, his possessive action drawing a smirk from Nimueh and an annoyed huff from Merlin. “Can you imagine the chaos?”

“Hey,” Merlin’s response was almost automatic and held no bite, and they were interrupted before he could say much more as the bad-tempered custodian approached and informed them in no uncertain terms he was about to close and lock the gate.

They trailed after him, leaving the Palace behind and taking their time to wander through the market and stare in at the shop windows. Arthur and Nimueh forgot magic and destiny and rogue sorcerers for a while for the sake of questions about some of the things they were seeing. Nimueh stood transfixed in front of a window display that contained women’s clothes, before grabbing Merlin, or more specifically Merlin’s wallet, and dragging him inside. Merlin tried to pull him along, too, but Arthur, with the ease of long practice, evaded his hold and instead drifted away to look at a shop holding strange instruments and objects, trying to work out what they might be used for.

Arthur was a hunter, but he was also experienced enough to know when he was the one being hunted and quickly became aware he was being watched. As unobtrusively as possible he scanned the area around him. Standing by the fountain marking the place where another of the springs rose was a short, swarthy man with dark skin and eyes. He met Arthur’s gaze boldly, bowing in acknowledgment. Arthur’s concentration was broken as Merlin exited the shop and stood in the street, staring wildly around him and when Arthur looked back at the spot, Sigan was gone.

“He was watching us.”

Merlin nodded, “I felt him. I only hope – “ he didn’t say it out loud. At the moment, Nimueh appeared to be their secret weapon and their only hope at stopping Sigan. Exactly how they were going to accomplish it was less than clear, though. Arthur was beginning to get a sense of how Merlin usually approached the magical threats Camelot faced, mainly by throwing himself into deep water and hoping he'd come up with something. It wasn't a comfortable realisation.

Quickly, they gathered up Nimueh and her purchases and made their way back to the hotel.

*** 

They spent much of the evening discussing tactics once again, and Arthur was uneasily aware how lackadaisical both the magic users were about planning. While Arthur was offering different scenarios and asking what they might do in response, he was often met with a puzzled frown and a long conversation that seemed to boil down to “it depends.” He managed, at least, to discuss the physical aspects about how to approach Sigan, but in the end he'd headed to the bar to brood over a pint of the local beer.

Merlin slid into the seat next to him and signalled to the barman, “Pint of Butcombe in a handle, please.” Once he'd the glass mug of beer in front of him, he nudged Arthur. “Try not to worry.”

“That's got to be one of the daftest things you've ever come out with.” Despite going for a teasing tone, Arthur couldn't hide the bite behind it.

“I don’t know what else to say, Arthur. The only solid scenario I can come up with is that Sigan will be totally unpredictable. I can guess what his goal is – if he releases the energy tied up in the earth and can draw it to him and focus it then I hate to imagine what he could unleash. But the Old Religion isn't without its own methods of protection. They sent us Nimueh after all, and she has a role to play. I’m here, and I’m much stronger with you. And the earth, the earth wouldn't submit easily to any man, mortal or immortal.”

“So, basically you’re saying we’re going in there on hope.”

“Not just hope – quite a lot of faith as well.”

“Wonderful. You make me feel so much better.” Strangely enough he did feel calmer, Merlin’s very presence easing some of the tension.

Merlin’s soft chuckle was the only response and they sat in companionable silence.

*** 

The following day should have been an agonised day of waiting, of anticipation and dread. Instead, they wandered around the town, laughing at the stuffed birds in the museum before Merlin became enthralled by the archaeology and the bones apparently belonging to a witch, if local lore was to be believed. He and Nimueh had a muttered conversation about the carved alabaster ball sitting in the case next to the skeleton. The curator joined them then, and they quizzed him about the date and when it was found. He answered their questions, clearly pleased with their interest, but there was nothing in his responses suggesting any real magical context. Instead, they accepted his suggestion of a good place for lunch and walked along to the Fountain Inn, eating mussels and fresh crusty bread.

In the afternoon, they stared in awe at the scissor arch in the cathedral, peering up into the central tower. Arthur felt slightly uneasy at the amount of carving throughout the building, and eyed the ranks of faceless statues on the west front with suspicion, especially as he now knew the full story of Sigan’s appearance in Camelot, but he couldn't deny the power of the building itself and listened raptly to the tour guide in the group they'd joined, as the man described the ritual of Palm Sunday, with one half of the choir singing as they approached the cathedral across the green, while the other half sang the responses from behind the singing holes high up on the West Front. A woman turned to him and smiled at his obvious interest.

“You can’t really imagine something being this old, can you?”

Arthur’s gaze settled on Merlin, obliviously staring at an intricate carving of a salamander, and he smiled. “Some things get better with age.”

Behind him, Nimueh snorted.

During their wanderings, they'd found the location of St Andrew’s Well and realised it would be easy enough to get to when night fell. There seemed to be nothing particularly significant about this water source as opposed to the others, other than it being more private, ensuring members of the public were less likely to stumble upon whatever Sigan was going to attempt.

The sun dropped below the horizon and the late autumn air cooled quickly. The museum had closed its doors and the windows were dark. The bell for Evensong had rung some time before and now the congregation was filtering out of the cathedral and the area was becoming quiet, settling down for the night.

The moon rose, a bright shining disc in a clear sky and they collected the jewel and headed to the spring. Arthur tangled his fingers with Merlin’s, squeezing slightly as the blue gaze was levelled at him.

“Everything will be fine.” He hoped it sounded more positive to Merlin than it did to his own ears. Merlin didn't speak, but he tightened his hold on Arthur’s hand, then leaned forward and kissed him gently.

The moon rose further and the temperature dropped. They'd managed to find a spot in the bushes as sheltered and out of sight as they could hope for, bearing in mind Sigan knew they were here and probably at least needed Merlin to be present. Whether he knew about Nimueh was another matter and Arthur accepted she was the unknown factor. He still wasn't entirely sure he trusted her and he could tell from the occasional anxious glance Merlin cast in her direction, that he wasn’t too sure either.

At one stage she caught Arthur’s gaze on her and rolled her eyes. And that, he guessed, was as much reassurance as he was likely to get.

Arthur was a trained fighter. He was the first knight of Camelot. He was good at many things, but waiting patiently was not one of his strengths. He could feel the tension within him, coiling and tightening until he was ready to attack first and think later. Merlin claimed his hand again, obviously aware of his increasing anxiety.

“Oh, now isn’t that sweet.”

Neither of them recognised the voice, but something in the tone made it quite clear who was speaking.

“Sigan.”

Arthur had never heard quite that tone in Merlin’s voice, wondering at the hard edge, the coldness.

“Merlin. I’m so glad you’re here. I couldn’t do this without you, and your Prince, too.”

“You really should have learned from last time not to threaten Arthur.”

“You don't have the strength to test me this time, Merlin. But even though you lack the same power, I still offer you what I offered you before. Join me. Together we can rule the world.”

Nimueh moved to stand beside them and her expression was rueful. “Tell me I didn’t sound completely mad when I said that.”

“Sorry,” Merlin returned. “I think you have to be stark raving mad before you can actually say it at all.”

“Depressing.”

Sigan didn't like being ignored. “A weakling, a man out of time, and a woman. Do you really think you can stop me?”

Merlin sighed. “Can we finish this, please? Just get on with whatever it is you’re planning, so we can get on with stopping you. Because we will, Sigan. You don't have enough power to harness the earth and the earth won't accept you as master.” He pulled the jewel out of the bag slung over his shoulder. “Time to go back to sleep.”

“Not this time, Merlin. This time I'll take what power you have. And then I'll kill you all.” Sigan's tone deepened and he threw out the words at them, casting up a shield around him and the spring. He smiled at them, the utter madness in his expression truly terrifying, and then held out his hands over the water, beginning to speak quietly. Within the bubble Sigan had created, the air began to shimmer.

Nimueh glanced at Merlin. “Could you open a rift in his shield?” she muttered quietly. “Or even better, could you shrink it so it doesn't cover the water?”

“I can try.”

Arthur reached out before Merlin had a chance to ask, gripping Merlin’s hand in both of his, willing whatever connection they seemed to have between them to give Merlin the power he needed.

“What're you thinking of doing?” Arthur asked Nimueh.

“The shield reaches the earth. If we can move it so it's only over part of the water, then I'll be able to reach him.”

“Then what?” Arthur’s tone was urgent, and he was truly concerned by the sudden calm in Nimueh’s expression.

She smiled at them and without the usual hint of mockery or disdain she was so very beautiful. “This is what I'm here for, Arthur. This is my purpose.” She took the jewel from Merlin’s slackened grasp and exchanged a long look with him. “You'll save me, when you can.”

“Nimueh,” Merlin whispered her name. “As soon as I'm able,” he promised, and began his own chant, his hand outstretched towards the shimmering blue veil. Arthur felt the pulse of power through him and, without having any idea about what he was doing, concentrated as hard as possible on providing whatever Merlin required.

She smiled again and reached out to touch Arthur’s cheek in a gesture that was almost maternal. “For my beloved Ygraine’s son,” she said. “For Albion’s King.” And then she walked away from them before Arthur could ask her what she meant by her words.

The shield around Sigan began to shrink just as light began to form around his hands and Nimueh moved to stand at the edge of the pool. Merlin put more force into his words and with an agonising shriek there was suddenly a gap in front of them. To Arthur’s horror, Sigan turned a black gaze upon them and said. “Perfect timing, Merlin,” before a narrow beam of power shot through the gap and surrounded Merlin.

Arthur felt Sigan’s power shock through him, understanding in one terrible instant the stark difference between good and evil. He tried to let go of Merlin, recognising Sigan was also drawing on the bond between them, but it seemed as though they'd been welded together and as Merlin sank to his knees, so did he, despair rocking him as he saw the black emptiness of Merlin’s eyes.

“Fight, Merlin, fight.” He gripped as hard as he could, no longer trying to escape the grip and instead attempted to channel his strength and will towards Merlin rather than the dark malevolence he could feel around them. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Nimueh, dismissed by Sigan as unimportant, slip into the water, dropping down until she was covered and then reappearing a moment later inside the shield. As she began to chant, Sigan’s attention turned to her, Merlin’s spell to keep her power hidden obviously fading and with another surge Sigan began an attack on her, too.

Sigan laughed wildly, holding them at bay as he began to chant once more and Arthur, in desperation, called out to the earth itself. “Help us!”

It wasn't the earth that answered.

The water shot up around Sigan and Nimueh, throwing them together. Nimueh took her chance, pushing the stone between them and locking her arms around Sigan as she continued chanting, her voice filling with power as Sigan’s own strength seemed to be leached into the tempestuous water. Sigan fought against her, silent now as he finally understood where the real threat lay. The attack on Merlin ceased abruptly and he slumped against Arthur, gasping and sweating as if he'd undergone several bouts with the knights. Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin as they knelt on the ground and watched the fight unfold.

Both Sigan and Nimueh seemed to be getting smaller, surrounded by a growing black and rose swirling cloud. The water twisted and turned in a final violent surge and then they were gone.

In their place, standing in the water, was a young woman and in her cradled hands was the jewel.


“Freya.” The name left Merlin’s lips as a sob.

She looked up from the jewel and smiled at them as they scrambled to their feet.

“Hail, King Arthur.” She lowered her head for a moment and then turned her attention to Merlin. “Merlin, my love, it's so good to see you once again.”

Merlin seemed at a loss for words, and instead he stumbled forward. Arthur kept pace with him, slipping an arm around him.

“Freya,” This time Merlin smiled and Arthur relaxed a little as he understood this young woman, though obviously magical, was no threat. “It’s good to see you, too.”

Merlin seemed to be pulling himself together, but Arthur retained his hold, noticing how her gaze shifted to their point of contact. He met her gaze defiantly but in her eyes he saw only approval. She smiled at him again, a little mischievously, before she sobered.

“My sister has trapped the sorcerer within the stone, but it was at the cost of her liberty, too. I'll keep the stone safe until you can return to release her, Merlin.”

“She’s trapped in there with Sigan,” Merlin sounded distressed. Despite their history, Arthur was astute enough to realise Merlin and Nimueh shared a bond he'd never fully understand.

“I'll keep her safe, Merlin. Look.” They leaned forward and peered at the faceted stone. Within it a dark mass and a pink were separated by the grey of a lake in winter. “She'll rest with me a while and I'll keep her company. But there's something else of which I must speak.” She paused and Arthur had a sudden horrible suspicion what she was going to say. “Arthur, you're out of your time, you and your Merlin. Every day you remain unsettles the times in which you both exist.”

Suddenly and powerfully the wish to stay here, to stay with this Merlin in this time swept over Arthur and he tightened his grip on Merlin’s waist as he stared forward unseeingly, swallowing hard.

“Merlin,” she was holding a small vial out to Merlin, which he took carefully. “I'll give you the spell you need to return your visitors to their time and place. If you sprinkle the water over them both before you say the words, it'll keep them safe as they travel. Five nights from now, at this time, you'll take them to the place they first appeared.” She didn't explain why they had to wait five days and frankly Arthur didn’t care. He'd been filled with the fear that she was going to insist on this happening the moment they returned to Oxford. She looked at them both with compassion.

“My dears, you'll not be parted long. Arthur, you'll have Merlin with you and all that he is now is within the man who'll walk beside you as you unite Albion. And Merlin, you've been alone for such a long time, but not for much longer. The earth is turning and the water flows. Albion will need her King ere long.”

 ***

Their return trip to Oxford was completed almost entirely in silence, both preoccupied with their own thoughts, Arthur realised, and both trying not to think about the absence of a figure in the back seat of the car. Arthur hoped Freya would be able to keep Nimueh safe as she'd said she would. He recalled the odd expression that had crossed Nimueh’s features when they'd first discussed how to stop Sigan and realised now that she'd understood what she might be called upon to do right from the start.

Once Freya had gone, taking the stone with her, they'd made their way back to the hotel and proceeded to fuck with a desperation and urgency neither seemed willing to discuss. It had all been about touch, about getting as close together as was humanly possible and pretending their time together wasn't fast running out.

They didn’t sleep much, and Arthur suspected Merlin wouldn't sleep much until he was alone again. His own heart twisted at the thought of leaving, but knew they both understood there was no choice.

The flat seemed rather empty when they walked into it and only the remains of the coffee table provided an indication of the events of the past few days. Merlin made his way directly to the phone, contacting Morse to update him as briefly as possible, and then contacting the hospital to check on his unconscious double.

There was silence when he'd finished and Arthur watched Merlin worriedly, waiting until he'd turned and smiled wanly at Arthur, and only then did he cross the expanse of carpet and pull Merlin into his arms.

“You heard Freya,” he murmured into Merlin’s ear. “You won’t be alone for long.”

Merlin returned his hold. “It doesn’t help. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t.”

They stood in a silent embrace for a long time, before Merlin pulled away and scrubbed his hands over his face, sniffing and then turning a rather watery smile on Arthur. “That’s enough of that,” he said. “If we’ve only got a few days then I want to make the most of them.”

Arthur laughed. “At last,” he teased, trying to lighten the atmosphere further, “Merlin finally has a good idea.”

“Hey,” Merlin pushed him and Arthur, being Arthur, pushed back and before they knew it they were wrestling, giggling and tripping over furniture, rolling around on the carpet as they tried to best one another. It was inevitable, perhaps, that the play would turn to desire and it didn’t take long before laughter turned to moans of passion and Arthur felt Merlin’s desperation as the long legs hooked high up on his back as Arthur slid so gently into the willing body beneath him.

*** 

The next morning arrived all too quickly and Merlin was up early and moving around the flat before Arthur had fully wakened. He scowled at Merlin as a cup of tea arrived at the bedside. “Why are you up?” he asked.

“I actually work for a living,” Merlin returned. “And while I can shift most of my work to give us the next couple of days together, I do need to teach my tutorial group this morning.”

Arthur was still quietly amused at the thought of Merlin actually teaching anyone anything. Merlin clearly caught an inkling of his thoughts and scowled at him, though there was no real heat behind it, so Arthur felt safe chuckling into the mug. When he looked at Merlin again it was to discover he was the subject of a very considering gaze. Immediately he was both suspicious and alarmed.

“What are you thinking?”

“Just rearranging my tutorial into a practical demonstration of armour and weaponry. Interested in helping?”

It meant spending time with Merlin. “I suppose I could,” he shrugged, attempting to feign indifference.

“Right, I’m afraid it means you have to get up and get dressed,” and in a reflection of their life in Camelot, Arthur suddenly found himself with the covers whipped off, his mug of tea removed and being tugged out of the bed. He submitted with a little grumbling, just to keep up appearances. He showered quickly, dressing in his clothes from Camelot, and ignored Merlin’s disgust as he ate his toast. Together, they piled his armour into the car and set off for the college.

“What do you want me to do?” Arthur asked, suddenly nervous at the thought of meeting so many strangers at once.

“Just be Prince Arthur. They’ll think you’re an actor so just act as if we're in Camelot. I’ll take them through the parts of the armour and how it was made and worn. We’ll put it on you. You can answer any questions as Prince Arthur. I’ve got a couple of practice swords so we can go onto the green and have a spar – teach them some moves even.” By mutual agreement, they'd left Arthur’s actual sword safely back in the flat.

Arthur had been in too many difficult situations in his life to easily feel either uncertain or threatened, but facing the eight young people who piled into the room was rather unnerving, although he refused to let any of his trepidation surface on his expression. They greeted Merlin with friendliness but also with a certain respect of which Arthur approved, and he noticed the way they looked at Arthur curiously. He took Merlin’s advice and drew his rank around him like a cloak, standing with his arms folded and chin tilted up, presenting a remote and arrogant persona. Here and now, he was every inch the Crown Prince of Camelot.

There were a few nervous giggles as the students settled and Arthur recognised Merlin was giving them some time to get used to the stranger in their midst.

“I thought we’d do something different today,” Merlin said. “You're attempting to get to grips with Old English, and I thought it might help to get some idea of how people lived. To that end, Prince Arthur here has agreed to share some of his experiences as a knight in the 5th century AD. And today, I get to be his manservant. Can anyone tell me anything about what he's wearing?”

Arthur was wearing his breeches and the padded gambeson that fitted beneath his armour. He listened as Merlin teased out from the youngsters why the material was padded, regarding the audience and mentally categorising them. There were three women and five men. He discounted the women entirely and concentrated on the men, only one of whom he would even consider as a possible contender for his knights. If this was modern man… he felt his lip curl.

“Prince Arthur here's thinking you’re all soft,” Merlin’s amused tone broke into his reverie and Arthur raised a patrician eyebrow, keeping his face straight and his own amusement firmly under control. He wasn't surprised at Merlin’s ability to read him so well.

“Why are you Prince Arthur?” the boy Arthur had been considering, spoke up, meeting Arthur’s gaze with a directness of which Arthur approved. “Shouldn’t you be King Arthur?” He grinned around at the others, obviously pleased with his wit.

Arthur could deal with it easily enough. “My father's still king. I am Arthur, Crown Prince and First Knight of Camelot. Is there any here who'd challenge me in single combat?” There was a short, uncomfortable silence as he looked around at them until Merlin, hiding his smile, though Arthur could sense his amusement, brought them back to discussions of the armour, gradually beginning to build up the protection, starting with slipping the chain mail over Arthur’s head. He named the parts as he slipped them on and buckled them deftly and he left Arthur to answer the particular questions the students posed.

Eventually Arthur was fully kitted out other than his gauntlets, standing before the now silent group. The students were still, their attention fixed on the sight before them. He glanced round at them and then was transfixed by the expression on Merlin’s face.

“The Once and Future King,” Merlin murmured, and then he was in front of Arthur, dropping to one knee and taking his hand. “I pledge my life to you, my liege.” He pressed his lips to the back of Arthur’s hand.

“Rise,” the armour as the trappings of his life helped him to slip into the role he'd played every day in Camelot. He placed his hands on Merlin’s shoulders and reached forward to kiss him on each cheek. “I accept your pledge, Merlin son of Hunith.”

There was a short silence before Merlin seemed to realise just where he was and he cleared his throat. “So, anyone want to watch us spar, then?” It broke the spell and there was a general sound of agreement. Arthur watched as Merlin grinned and then pulled on a gambeson before grabbing a couple of practice swords from a cupboard. “Follow me!” and he bounced out of the room only to come to an abrupt stop as he tripped over one of the swords and would've tumbled down the stairs had not one of the students caught hold of him.

“Honestly,” Arthur muttered as he pulled on a gauntlet. “Worst servant ever.” And he strode out of the room after Merlin, hardly noticing the way the students scattered before him and then trailed in his wake.

As he reached the grassed courtyard Arthur heard one of the students ask, “Is your name really Merlin, Professor.”

Merlin laughed, “Who'd call their child after a famous magician? Now everyone stand well back.” He marched onto the grass and took up his stance.

Arthur eyed him warily for a moment. There was more confidence than he expected and Merlin’s stance was greatly improved from the last time he'd forced him to spar with him. In fact, Merlin’s level of enthusiasm was ringing alarm bells.

“Have you been practicing, Merlin?” he drawled and was pleased to see Merlin’s expression falter. “Well then, let’s see what you’ve learned, shall we?”

Merlin had learned, and practiced, a great deal, Arthur soon realised, and while he'd not reached Arthur’s standard, he'd be good enough to stretch him in a serious bout. Arthur began to grin, and they showed a number of different moves, moving relatively slowly while Arthur explained to the enthralled students, exactly what they were doing. When they were done, he clapped Merlin on the back, expressing his pride in the only way he could when in public.

Merlin asked, “Would anyone like to test themselves against the Crown Prince?”

They all declined, apart from the one young man Arthur had picked out earlier.

“I’ve done a bit of fencing. I wouldn’t mind giving it a go.”

Arthur grinned, “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Robert”

“Well, Robert, let’s see what you’re made of, shall we?"

He was of a size with Merlin, so Arthur waited until Merlin shrugged out of the gambeson and handed it over. Arthur watched critically as Merlin handed Robert the sword and provided some succinct instruction on stance. Not bad, he thought with approval at the way Merlin imparted the basic knowledge the young man would need, and then mirrored the fighting stance Robert had taken.

They spent around ten minutes sparring, Robert becoming more annoyed as time went by, as he was consistently dumped on the grass. Eventually, reacting to Merlin’s increasing tension, Arthur disarmed Robert and placed the tip of his blade against the man’s chest. “Never fight angry,” he said, moving his sword down and away. “You did well. You’re used to playing at fighting, I can see that. I, on the other hand, have been trained from an early age to kill.”

The other students were saying their thanks and goodbyes, gathering their bags and heading off, chattering excitedly about their afternoon. Robert was left, scowling at Arthur. Merlin had moved off slightly to talk to one of the crowd of bystanders they'd gathered.

“You’re just an actor,” Robert said. “You learned to fight in drama school.”

Arthur raised his eyebrows and smiled slightly. “Ah yes, but if I really was Prince Arthur of Camelot, then know that I'd be testing you further, to see if you had what it takes to be one of my knights.”

“High praise, Sire,” Merlin had joined them, and Robert shrugged out of the padded shirt.

“And you, Merlin. You’re almost good enough.”

“Almost?” There was a glint in the blue eyes that was enough of a challenge to Arthur.

“Why don’t we show Robert here a real bout?” Arthur suggested, and even though he knew it was irresponsible and immature, he really wanted to show off a little. Merlin put his head on one side, considering him. Stripping him bare, Arthur thought, squirreling down into him and seeing all his petty motivation and even understanding it.

“Why not. But the mail comes off so we’re equal.”

“Agreed. Well Squire Robert, will you help your Prince?”

Robert, obviously intrigued, helped Arthur out of the armour and mail, while Merlin readied himself.

It was fast and furious and very noisy. The students that had been wandering off came back and the crowd around them gasped and cried out, scuttling backwards when the combatants got too close. Arthur relished the exercise, the opportunity to work with the sword against an opponent who wouldn't have been out of place on the tourney field. Underneath the concentration and the flex and flow of strike and counter, he was inordinately proud of Merlin’s ability. But he was the First Knight of Camelot for a reason and when he saw the opening he took it, spinning the sword out of Merlin’s hands and tripping him. The crowd around them cheered and hooted, enjoying the spectacle.

“Do you yield?” he asked, the point of the practice sword resting in the hollow of Merlin’s throat. A caress.

“I yield, Sire.”

Arthur stepped back and then offered an arm, helping to haul Merlin back to his feet. They were both breathing hard and sweating, but the bout had helped to release some more of the tension both had been carrying since their experience with Sigan.
They stood, grinning at one another, gripped elbow to elbow.

“Did you see the difference?” Arthur asked a wide-eyed Robert, who nodded and looked at his Professor with respect. Arthur wondered what this would do to Merlin’s standing with his students, and then sobered when he realised he'd never know.

“Could you teach me?” Robert asked.

Arthur smiled at him. “It’s not really required for the age you live in, is it? And I'll be leaving soon, I’m afraid.” He stared at Merlin, who seemed oblivious to the conversation, ostensibly concentrating on gathering up the armour.

Robert looked between the two of them, his gaze suddenly sharp with understanding. There was a short silence before he stuck his hand out. “Thank you for today, sir, I’m sorry we won’t be seeing you again.”

Arthur accepted the handshake. “I think you would've made a good knight,” he said. “Good luck.”

Robert flushed, called out a thank you and goodbye to Merlin and then shot off at a jog after the rest of his group.

Arthur helped Merlin to gather the armour, noticing the way Merlin examined every piece to ensure it wasn't damaged. It was such an automatic action for him, Arthur realised, that even though he hadn't had to do it for fifteen hundred years, he still did it without thinking. Sudden emotion closed Arthur’s throat as he tried to imagine living for a day without Merlin, beginning to understand Merlin’s anguish when they'd met in this time and Merlin had told him he'd wanted to die, that he'd tried to die.

Merlin looked up then and caught his gaze, flushing and shrugging awkwardly, “Habit,” he said, and carried on with his checks.

Arthur walked across to him, stilling his movement, “And it was always appreciated, Merlin, always. Even if I never said.” His halting words were greeted with a smile, warm enough to wash over Arthur and leave a different warmth in its wake.

“Let’s get home,” Merlin’s wink was saucy, “I always did get a bit hot and bothered when I watched you train.”

*** 

Arthur woke deep in the night to discover he was alone in the bed. From the main room of the flat he could hear music, music of a type he'd never heard before. Yawning, he pulled on the robe and wandered through to the lounge, transfixed by the sight of Merlin at what Arthur had originally taken to be a table. Now he could see Merlin’s hands moving over the black and white area, and as he watched he could see the way different sounds corresponded with the different sections Merlin pressed. The sound rippled around him, and he could understand why Merlin seemed so lost in it. Unwittingly, he found himself pulled towards the music, until he was leaning against the instrument itself. The music built until with a final flourish there was silence and Merlin’s hands stilled as he met Arthur's eyes.

Arthur ran his hands over the wood, and saw Merlin’s eyes darken, as if his fingers were touching Merlin rather than this inanimate object. “What is it?” Arthur asked, his voice low.

“It’s a piano. These are the keys. You press a key and a hammer hits a wire. That’s what makes the notes.” Merlin ran his hands over the keys, releasing more of the sound.

“Play something else.”

“Of course, Sire,” Merlin smiled slyly at him, and then his focus was once again on the piano. He played for some time and Arthur watched, enthralled, at the way the music seemed to energise Merlin. Eventually, Arthur slid a hand over one of Merlin’s, stilling the movement and they gazed at one another.

Smiling, Merlin stood and linked their fingers, leading Arthur back through to the bedroom.

*** 

The following day Merlin paid a short visit to the Oxford Police station and by the time he left, Morse was chatting genially about the Christmas concert and Lewis was promising to buy a couple of tickets and come along. Before the end of the conversation neither of them remembered Arthur, or Nimueh or Cornelius Sigan.

Merlin said his goodbyes and took his leave. At the door he felt a gaze on him and when he turned he caught Lewis staring at him, his expression confused.

Merlin smiled and waved a hand, ducking his head slightly to mask the quick flash of gold. Lewis lost his confused look and nodded in farewell.

 ***

Two nights later Arthur and Merlin were standing in the forest, an unconscious Merlin on the ground beside them. Arthur was aware Merlin was being all business, and could see what this was costing him. Arthur understood completely. He was working hard to retain his own composure. Only long years of training were keeping him calm as they spoke quietly about ways and means, and Merlin explained what he expected to happen.

They'd said their goodbyes before they left the flat to collect the injured man from the hospital, holding tight to one another, breathing in one another’s scent. Arthur had convulsively rubbed his cheek against Merlin’s beard, loving the soft scratch of it against his skin. He'd whispered soft words against Merlin’s skin, urging him to be strong, to wait, not to give up and Merlin had promised him. Eventually Arthur had pulled back and smiled at him. “I’ll send you a sign, Merlin. Somehow, I’ll send you a sign.”

Merlin had shaken his head, as if he knew it was a promise Arthur would be unlikely to keep and Arthur hadn't tried to argue but had drawn him in again for one more kiss.

Arthur had taken one last look round the flat and then had followed Merlin out, knowing he'd never return. At the hospital, liberating the unconscious Merlin had taken only a few moments, with Merlin posing as his older brother and using magic to smooth their way. They'd made sure Arthur carried the unconscious man, however, neither sure what might happen if both Merlins touched and not willing to find out.

Now they were back where it had all begun and in a few moments he'd be back in his own time. He stared down at his unconscious manservant.

Merlin took a deep breath and asked. “You’ll look after him?”

“I give you my word. He'll be safe. I've the medicine and will make sure he takes it.” Merlin had explained about antibiotics and how they'd limit the risk of infection. Arthur knew it wasn't exactly what Merlin meant and he continued. “I'll not allow any harm to come to him. All will be well, I promise.”

They were stalling now and both of them knew it.

“Arthur,” Merlin’s voice wobbled and Arthur closed his eyes tight, holding onto his composure by the skin of his teeth. There was a short silence and then Merlin cleared his throat. “It’s time.”

Arthur took a deep breath and placed his hands on Merlin’s shoulders, leaning in to kiss him gently on the forehead. Then he took Merlin’s hand and slipped his ring onto a finger. He hushed Merlin’s instinctive denial with a swift kiss and waited until Merlin nodded. “You heard Freya. I’ll come back to you soon.”

“I know. I’ll still miss you.”

Arthur injected as much of his habitual hauteur into his voice as he could manage. “Of course you will, Merlin.”

Clearly despite himself, Merlin chuckled and so the last view Arthur had of his twentieth century lover was of him smiling and golden-eyed as the spell was cast to send them home.

*** 

Oxford 9 months later

Merlin woke out of a deep sleep, gasping as his magic flared and sparked, scorching through him as if his blood was about to take light. Not for fifteen hundred years had he felt this level of power. Even Arthur’s presence and that of his own doppelganger, though they'd amplified his power to an extent, hadn't had this effect. He laughed out loud as he realised what it meant.

“Arthur,” he grinned, “Arthur.”

*** 

A hundred miles away a new-born boy cried for the first time.

A woman died.

A man railed uselessly at the heavens.

*** 

Camelot 10 years later

Arthur started slightly as one of the courtiers coughed, none-too-politely. He turned his attention back to the room and raised an eyebrow, as if it wasn’t his inattention holding up proceedings.

From the courtyard below came the sound of horses clattering across the cobbles and the raised hubbub generally signalling a new arrival. Arthur stood abruptly. “We'll meet again tomorrow morning.” He dismissed the council without a thought, ignoring the smiles as he left the room quickly, the queen following just as eagerly. He hated being separated from Merlin, but the negotiations to bring Mercia into Albion were crucial and a show of power had been necessary. Who else could he send but his court sorcerer. They'd been separated for two months, the longest time they had ever been apart.

His footsteps slowed and faltered at the top of the stairs down to the courtyard, staring at Merlin as he slid off his horse with his usual complete lack of grace. In his time away, Merlin had grown a beard.

Swallowing suddenly, Arthur made his way to stand in front of him, raising a hand to cup it around a bearded cheek. “There you are,” he said softly, knowing Merlin couldn't really understand what he said, but it was ambiguous enough to pass as a welcome. “I’ve missed you so much, you've no idea.”

Even after all these years together, such declarations from Arthur were rare, and he watched Merlin’s expression as he smiled and turned his face further into Arthur’s touch.

“It’s good to be home.” he said simply.

Arthur smiled, and in the full view of the court and his people, he leaned forward and kissed Merlin.

End book 1