Wells, Somerset 2007
“… have said chemical tests will determine the cause of the contamination…”
Merlin Emrys, until recently a professor of Old English at the University of Oxford, switched the radio off as he passed. The last of the boxes had been deposited in the rooms he'd indicated and the specialist removers were beginning the delicate task of moving the grand piano into the place he'd allotted for it. Merlin glanced out of the unshuttered windows and smiled at the view. When the chance had come to purchase the large Georgian house at the corner of Cathedral Green, he hadn't hesitated.
Twenty years had passed since Arthur had been pitched through time and then returned to Camelot, and Merlin had allowed himself to appear as if he was growing older, as he'd done so many times throughout the ages. He could've continued working for some years yet, but something was pulling him back to this part of Somerset and he'd learned to listen to such impulses. Besides, he knew somewhere out there, Arthur Pendragon was a young man again, and he wanted to be sure they were around the same age when they found one another. He'd no doubt they would.
So he'd bought the house, left Oxford and headed for Somerset, shedding the years as he travelled until by the time he reached Wells he was a young man again. With the ease of long practice, Merlin knew he'd tied up all the loose ends and ensured there'd be no suspicion or concern in the few friends he left behind. In several years time, a discreet obituary notice would be placed in the local Oxford paper and Professor Emrys would fade gently from people’s memories. The growth of the Internet meant he had to be more careful this time around, but he'd cast a spell to blur and make unrecognisable any images that might have been captured of him over the years since the art of photography became fashionable, however crisp and clear they'd been when they were taken. He was ready to start a new life, but for the moment he hadn't decided on a career. Perhaps, he thought, he'd concentrate on his music, and take the persona of a gentleman of means, someone who didn't actually have to work, and he spent a few amusing moments building a backstory involving millionaire parents and trust funds. Merlin shook his head at his own folly and turned his attention back to his new home.
The drawing room windows looked out towards the west front of the great cathedral of St Andrew and he was still standing marvelling at its beauty when a cough sounded behind him. It was one of the removal men, and Merlin realised he was standing in the exact spot he'd asked them to place the piano. Merlin moved to the side and watched them work, reassured by their obvious knowledge and professionalism as they manoeuvred his beloved piano carefully into its new position. He touched it gently once it was in place, lifting the lid and playing a quick scale to check how it had withstood the journey. Merlin smiled at the removers as it sounded out true and sweet.
When he'd tipped the men and they'd left happily, Merlin allowed himself a few moments to revel in the quiet and peace of his new home. It was a sunny Wednesday evening in term time and so he opened the windows, and was just able to hear the sweet sound of Evensong being sung in the cathedral by the choristers from the Music School. He dragged in a deep breath and let it out slowly. For some reason, this already felt like home and it was a feeling he hadn't experienced since the last time he'd held Arthur in his arms.
Something swirled around him and tugged at his consciousness, some sense deep within telling him his waiting was nearly over. A wave of emotion flooded through him, the need for Arthur so desperate there was a moment he couldn't breathe. Merlin doubled up, hugging his arms around his midriff and swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. Not long now, he told himself. He could bear it for a little longer. For Arthur, he could wait forever, had waited forever, and now he was so very close. But, oh, he'd missed Arthur so much in the past twenty years. It had been one thing existing so many centuries without him and without having known him as a lover, but after experiencing Arthur’s presence in Oxford, it had been harder to get through each day alone. The new memories tumbling into his mind on Arthur’s return to Camelot had both sweetened and embittered the waiting. At least Merlin could now lose himself in memory, but the ache of returning to the reality of his loneliness was sharp and poignant every time. The relationship he'd shared with Arthur in Oxford had set a permanent physical ache in him, craving Arthur’s presence with a sharpness he hadn’t known in the preceding fifteen hundred years. Every so often over the past twenty years he'd reached out with his magic, the briefest brush against Arthur’s life to check his well-being, but he knew he had to be patient until the time was right, until Arthur was ready. For the moment, Merlin held on to his sure and certain knowledge that his wait was almost over. He drew in a deep breath and followed it with another. It wouldn't be long now, he reminded himself again.
Once he settled down he wandered through his new home, taking pleasure in the large airy rooms. At the point he'd begun to consider making a move to Wells some time over the coming years, one of the local estate agents had sent him information about this property. When Merlin received the details he'd spent the weekend in Wells, and as soon as he'd seen its position he'd placed an asking price cash offer with the estate agent and the sale had been agreed within the day. He hadn't even bothered to view it and this was the first time he'd been inside. Other than a brief walk round just before the removal van had arrived, deciding on where to place the furniture from his Oxford flat, he hadn't had much of a chance to really explore the house. Now, he poured himself a glass of wine from the cooler he'd thought to bring and took his time considering the rooms and how he'd arrange them.
The drawing room on the first floor of the house was easily decided. The grand piano had pride of place in front of the windows overlooking the west front of the cathedral. Sofas and armchairs would be arranged around the fireplace and a low coffee table. There was a set of double doors in classic Georgian style opening into the dining room. On the other side of the passage was another reception room, which he decided would do as a study and library. The floor below held a kitchen, utility room, a wet room and another couple of small rooms. The floor above had four bedrooms and a bathroom, and in the attic what had obviously been servants’ quarters had been turned into another three good-sized rooms and a shower room. It was the biggest place Merlin had lived in since Camelot and was far too big for him on his own, but he loved it already and for the first time in fifteen hundred years he felt at home. It had to be a good sign, he thought.
He spent a satisfying evening arranging what furniture he had and unpacking some boxes, finally settling down to make a list of what he needed to buy and what work he'd want to have done, and despite the ever-present ache of missing Arthur, Merlin went to bed content in a way he hadn't been for many years.
For the first few weeks Merlin found himself mixed up in a flurry of meeting new people and finding his way around both the small city and the surrounding area. He was approached by any number of organisations including the Friends of the Cathedral, the Civic Society and the Friends of the Museum. The latter he decided to avoid when the secretary cast a sharp glance at him and Merlin recognised the elderly man as the curator he'd met with Arthur and Nimueh twenty years before. It seemed unlikely he remembered him, but there was something in the hazel gaze that made Merlin wonder and so he decided the museum was best to be avoided, for the time being at least.
While he'd no great connection to the New Religion, he'd always loved the music and marvelled at the great architecture it generated and he was more than happy to be roped into both the orchestra and choir, agreeing to play piano in the orchestra and for choir practice.
It was amazing how quickly he found himself slotted into a life in Wells. Those who lived around Cathedral Green were a tight knit group but welcomed him and, with his involvement at the Cathedral, he discovered he suddenly had a large acquaintance. He was kept busy with renovations to the house and spent many hours dedicating himself to piano practice and working his way through a long list of books he'd been meaning to read for many years. He was constantly busy and if his life still felt empty, at least there was some measure of contentment. Throughout it all, he thought of Arthur, knowing he was close and he'd see him soon.
Sometimes he'd wander through to St Andrew’s Well and remember Arthur’s hands around his, as he'd poured every ounce of his own power into Merlin during the fight with Sigan. Arthur didn't have magic, but had been born of it, and it was enough to spark something within Merlin, augmenting his own power and giving him strength. There was a tease of it now, like the electricity in the air before a thunderstorm. Merlin would gaze at the water and think of Freya and Nimueh, hoping it wouldn't be long before he could deal with Sigan forever. Always, as he stared into the water, he hoped for Freya’s sweet face to appear and provide him with comfort.
She never came.
The furious hammering at his door had Merlin frowning. The ruckus hardly fit with the quiet life he was learning to live in Wells. In the past few weeks, he'd decided it was time he indulged in a new hobby and learned to bake. He was in the midst of his second attempt at scones when he was interrupted. Wiping floury hands on the tea towel and not bothering to remove his apron, he headed to his front door.
As soon as Merlin opened the door he was pushed backwards by a slight young woman. He gasped aloud, too shocked to do anything other than stumble into the wall and gape at her.
She had dyed short blond hair, gelled into spikes, numerous piercings through her nose, lip and ears. Dark green eyes were lined in kohl.
“Who?” He asked.
“Fucking Tracey! My fucking parents called me fucking Tracey!” With every curse she pushed at Merlin's chest and suddenly all the air left his lungs and he gripped her upper arms, pushing her away from him but retaining his hold until he could see her properly, until he could look deep into her green eyes.
“Morgana?” he gasped. “Morgana!”
They stared at one another for a long moment, before a sob was ripped from her and she fell forward against him. Automatically, he wrapped his arms around her and closed his eyes against his own tears.
At last. At last he wasn’t alone.
Morgana cried for a long time and all he could do was hold on. Once she'd calmed down Merlin led her into the kitchen and sat her down. Not quite sure what to do or say, he busied himself with putting on the kettle and making tea. Eventually, however, he couldn't stall any longer and handed her a mug, watching as she curved her hands around it, and her bitten nails obscurely shocked him. Thankfully, because he still had no idea what to say, she broke the silence.
“All my life I’ve felt wrong, as if I didn’t belong. I was in the market yesterday and I saw you and all of a sudden it came back to me. Everything. I felt I didn’t belong in this time because I didn’t. I remember Camelot. And Leon. I remembered Leon. Is he here? Have you found him? And Arthur. Where’s Arthur?”
He held his hand up. “Morgana,” he said softly – completely unable to call her Tracey. “You’re the first. I’ve never met any of you before now.” He'd tell her about Arthur in Oxford later.
“What about you?” she asked. “When did you remember?”
“I didn’t…” it was hard to get the words out. The relief of having someone sitting in the room with him who knew him, despite their troubled history was almost too much to believe. “Morgana, I never died. I’ve lived for over fifteen hundred years.” He looked down at his hands. Even now, he wasn't willing to show the full extent of his feelings to her.
A hand crept across the table and grasped his. “Oh, Merlin. Without Arthur?” Her tone was equal parts sympathy and horror.
There was a long silence and Morgana didn't let go of his hand.
“Will you tell me what happened?” she asked.
The sense of relief was almost overwhelming and Merlin talked, as he'd been unable to do for centuries. Even during those few days with Arthur, he hadn't wanted to taint the little time they had with the full story of the years he'd waited, of the loneliness and despair. And even though Arthur’s actions when he returned to Camelot, and the new, wonderful memories Arthur had given Merlin had helped to ease some of the residual pain, living without Arthur had been a daily torture, especially once he'd known his love was returned so fiercely. Faced with Morgana’s silent sympathy it all tumbled out of him. It came in fits and starts, from his grief at Camlann to the realisation he couldn't die. He hadn't returned to Camelot after Arthur’s death, staying by the lakeside at Avalon for many years, desperate to join his king and denying what the spirits told him. By the time he'd pulled himself from that stupor of loss, the world had already changed and everyone he knew was gone.
Morgana reciprocated, telling him they assumed they'd lost Merlin that day as well as Arthur. In their grief, they'd struggled on, keeping Albion together and trying to rebuild the peace Mordred and Morgause had attempted to destroy. They'd lived a good life for those last few years, she explained, but one by one mortality had claimed them and they'd passed from Camelot.
Morgana was just the first.
Over the next few days she told him the story of her troubled life and how she'd never felt a part of this world. She'd left her parents’ home as soon as she turned sixteen and had been living in a variety of travellers’ camps around Glastonbury, drawn there, although she didn't realise it until she recovered her memories, by the way the power of the place called to the remnants of her own power. There was little magic left in her and when they discussed it, Merlin hesitant in the face of his own growing strength, he discovered she was happy with the small amount she had and didn't miss the visions at all, although she admitted to occasional odd dreams they decided were probably caused by what was left of the seer’s power.
It wasn't long before she more or less moved into the house with him, much to the thrill of a community that thrived on gossip. Merlin let them think what they liked and Morgana positively delighted in the shocked looks when she turned up at the end of choir practice to drag him to the pub. The fact they wouldn't touch one another with a ten-foot pole, as she so eloquently put it, didn't stop her from playing up to the gossips at every opportunity.
They talked often and long, both hungry to revisit the memories of happy days and he told her about meeting Arthur and how he could feel him in the world and they both grinned at the thought of him drawing closer to them.
A couple of months or so after meeting Morgana, Merlin was waiting for her in a local pub when he heard a crash behind him. When he turned at the noise, he saw a man staring at him, mouth open in shock and taking no notice of the annoyed clamour of those who'd ended up surrounded by broken glass.
The man raised a shaking hand to his forehead, blinking as if he was clearing his sight. “Are you? You can’t… Merlin?”
Merlin smiled at him. “Hello, Gwaine,” he said softly.
Gwaine, although Merlin discovered he was actually called Peter, stepped forward and gathered him in. Merlin hugged back and just managed not to cry. When they drew apart Morgana had arrived and was staring at them. Gwaine looked her up and down and then sputtered out, “I might've guessed you’d be a rebel,” before he laughed aloud, his old free belly laugh, and he stepped over the broken glass to fold her into his arms as if he hadn't a care in the world.
Over the next few months it became a recurring conversation.
I remembered as soon as I saw you. Where is Arthur? What happened? One by one, the knights came back to them. Everyone had different names but almost immediately when they regained their memories they began referring to each other in the names they'd known in Camelot. It certainly made things simpler.
Merlin, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, as he'd been in every new life he'd begun, was doing all the things expected of a newcomer. When he walked into the surgery to register with a doctor, he found Lancelot and discovered his beloved wife was Gwen, who was a psychiatrist. Even without knowledge of their past lives, they'd managed to find one another. The reunion between Morgana and Gwen was tearful and much of it took place behind closed doors, much to Merlin, Lancelot and Gwaine’s annoyance. Later, Gwen brought along her brother and they laughed at Elyan’s expression when his memory returned. Percival wandered into the surgery one day as Merlin and Lancelot were leaving, standing staring at them with his mouth open.
As the weeks passed, Morgana became quieter and Merlin knew she was hoping and praying for the man who'd been her husband. They'd never been an openly affectionate couple and many had speculated theirs was an unhappy match. Nothing could have been further from the truth and their love had been based on a deep friendship and trust. Where Lancelot had put Gwen on a pedestal and adored her, Leon had always treated Morgana as an equal and they'd fought and loved with a passion that could only really be adequately expressed in the privacy of their own apartments.
Merlin understood her growing need for the other half of herself because he'd lived with the same aching emptiness for almost fifteen hundred years. As the months passed he watched her change as the blonde grew out and her hair lengthened. Most of the piercings disappeared and her nails grew as she gradually regained the poise, elegance and beauty for which she'd been famous in Camelot. One weekend she disappeared to visit her parents and came back happier and more settled and she told Merlin she'd finally made her peace with her family.
They were wandering through the market on a sunny Saturday when Morgana stopped suddenly and drew in a swift, shattered breath. Across the other side of the square, outside the Town Hall, a tall man was striding towards them. As he reached them, he dropped the briefcase he was carrying and swept Morgana into his arms, claiming her mouth.
Merlin felt the tears crowd into his throat as he witnessed this reunion. When the kiss finally finished, Morgana pressed her face in Leon’s chest and was gripping him as tightly as she could. Leon’s face was buried in her hair and he was whispering her name over and over and over again.
Arthur, Merlin thought in despair. Where are you?
Merlin consulted the list in his hand as he rather absent-mindedly pushed the trolley around the supermarket. He dropped in a large container of bottled water and checked it off the list. As he did so, he made a mental note to get the water supply to the house checked. Suddenly acquiring a whole slew of reincarnated friends had certainly added to his grocery costs, he reflected. Lucky for him he was independently wealthy enough for several lifetimes, whether he decided to work or not. The house on Cathedral Green had become their natural gathering point and after a couple of days, he'd walked to the nearest locksmith and got keys cut for them all so they could come and go at will.
When Leon had seen them he was in the process of wandering around the few estate agents in town as he'd just moved to join a local law practice as a partner. Merlin had suggested he move in and while at first he protested about invading Merlin’s privacy, once Merlin had explained, quietly and without fuss, how he'd experienced plenty of privacy over the past fifteen hundred years and would now much prefer his friends around him as often as possible, Leon hadn't needed any further persuasion. Leon and Morgana had slipped back into their old relationship and Merlin gave over the attic to them, fitting the third room out as a kitchen giving them in essence a self-contained flat of their own, though in reality they mostly ate together in the main kitchen downstairs, along with whoever else had happened to turn up in time for dinner.
Merlin smiled quietly to himself as he stood in the supermarket aisle thinking about how good it was to see Morgana and Leon so happy and, despite his own longing for Arthur, he could still take a real pleasure in seeing them together again. A polite cough startled him into an apology, a brief conversation with the person he had been blocking, who happened to be a choir member, and a more concentrated effort on filling the shopping trolley. Gwaine had complained about the lack of Marmite in the house and with a grimace, while trying not to think of Arthur, he looked along the shelf. After a few moments when he didn't seem to be having much luck he spotted one of the employees carefully stacking shelves further up the aisle.
“Excuse me,” he said as he closed the distance between them, consulting the list in his hand. And as the man turned he looked up and asked. “Could you tell me where I could find the …”
“Arthur?” His voice was hesitant, because in direct contrast to all of the rest of his friends from Camelot, Arthur was staring at him without any sign of recognition at all.
“Yes, I’m Arthur. Can I help you, sir?”
Merlin shut his mouth with a snap. Something was off. He stared into the blue gaze and in place of the sharp intelligence he expected, the pupils were slightly blown, eyes appearing a little unfocussed and vacant.
Gods, oh Gods, no, not Arthur.
“Marmite,” Merlin said. “I was looking for Marmite.” His heart was crashing inside his chest and he wondered if Arthur could hear it, the sound within him so loud and panicked.
Arthur nodded and walked away from him, looking back when Merlin didn't immediately follow. “Marmite is on this aisle.”
Merlin managed to nod and caught up with him. A memory of Arthur stuffing toast spread with the horrid stuff into his mouth washed over him, and it at least let him smile his thanks at this young man. “My friends like it,” he said, looking desperately for a way to open a longer conversation. “I’m afraid I fall into the hate it category.”
Arthur looked surprised to be talked to at all and appeared supremely uncomfortable as he shrugged. “It’s okay, I suppose.” It seemed as if he wanted to get as far away from Merlin as he could as quickly as he could and ```arthur glanced to the side as another employee walked around the corner.
“Hey, dummy,” the pimpled youth called out. “You’re supposed to stacking shelves, not bothering the customers.”
Merlin saw the flush of embarrassment colour Arthur’s cheeks and turned to face the young man. “Arthur was helping me with a query,” he said, his tone ice cold and the pimpled youth visibly lost colour. Merlin’s magic was becoming stronger every day and at least now he knew why, but it still felt rather erratic and seemed to follow his emotions rather than his will. With that in mind Merlin tamped down his fury, aware his magic had done something, although he wasn't entirely sure what.
Beside him, Arthur stirred and turned his head to stare at him and for just a moment there was a flash of something, some emotion, before it was lost again and Arthur turned away without another word, heading back to his original task with a shuffling walk and rounded shoulders so different from his walk as the King of Albion. The pimpled youth strangled out a peculiar sound, turned a fetching shade of green and bolted in what was obviously the direction of the toilets.
As he collected the trolley and headed for the checkout he knew he was being watched and turned to catch Arthur’s gaze on him. Arthur looked away and Merlin suddenly recognised the look in the blue eyes.
It was fear.
Merlin wanted to weep.
He wasn’t quite sure how he managed to function over the next thirty minutes or so, but when he was next truly aware he was standing in his kitchen surrounded by shopping bags. Morgana barged through the doors at a run and her expression was worried.
“Merlin, I felt – something? What happened?”
An attempt at speaking.
“Arthur,” he said, his voice hoarse and wrecked. “I’ve seen Arthur.” Despair was washing over him, a tsunami of emotion threatening to swamp him completely. “He didn’t know me, Morgana. But he was afraid of me. He’s not right. There’s something wrong and I don’t know what.” He stared at her, watching the play of expression on her features, the initial elation at his mention of Arthur morphing back to worry. Her face suddenly seemed too close, then far away and he knew she was talking but couldn’t quite make out her words. Everything was spinning, as if he was caught in a whirlpool and he dropped to his knees. Arthur was afraid. Arthur was afraid of him.
When he came back to himself he was lying on the sofa and they were all there, sitting silent and concerned. He tried to move but Lancelot placed a hand on his chest.
“Stay where you are for the moment,” he advised. “You were out for quite a while. Percival and Gwaine are making everyone something to drink and you can have a weak tea with some sugar in it.” Lancelot ignored Merlin’s moue of distaste – he'd never really taken to sugary drinks. “Your blood pressure is fine and your colour is as good as it gets for you. It's just the shock of seeing … seeing Arthur. When you’re feeling better, you can tell us everything, but for the moment just let yourself come back up. Has anything like this happened to you before?”
“Fainting like a girl? No.” Merlin knew he couldn’t be too bad when that elicited insults from both Gwen and Morgana, though the former had yet to let go of his hand.
Percival and Gwaine arrived with a tray of drinks and after a few moments, Lancelot let Merlin move, helping him to sit up slowly. He admitted to still feeling a little dizzy but wrapping his hands round the mug of hot tea and sipping at it, despite the sweetness, went some way to settling both his head and his stomach. It was helped by the healthy shot of brandy and though Lancelot huffed in annoyance as he caught the scent of it, he said nothing. Gwaine winked at Merlin and he smiled in thanks. Guiltily, Merlin thought of the stupid young man who'd been so cruel to Arthur and reached out carefully, following the tendril of his magic, until he could remove the curse he'd unwittingly put on him.
“You really saw him? He’s really here?” It was Gwen who voiced the question that was hovering in all their minds, her tone hushed.
Merlin shut his eyes against the sudden tears that came unbidden. “He’s stacking shelves in the supermarket. The Once and Future King and he’s… “ He turned to Lancelot. “There’s something wrong with him, Lancelot. It looked like he was on drugs. We need to find out what’s wrong with him.” Panic was settling at his core and he knew they could all hear it in his voice as they shifted and exchanged looks of concern.
“Easy, Merlin,” Lancelot responded, his tone soothing. “We’ll need his full name and then I can look at his medical records.” He looked serious. “Please remember I won’t be able to discuss his treatment with you. I'm bound by doctor/patient confidentiality, but I'll help him in any way I can. It’s chaotic these days, so I don’t imagine anyone will notice if I access his records.” He paused and scrubbed his hands through his hair, suddenly looking exhausted as he explained. “We’re trying to track down the cause of a stomach bug that’s going round.”
Lancelot stopped without going into any further details, looking worried and it struck Merlin that if Lancelot could not be an old-fashioned knight, he'd found the next best way to serve. Merlin shut his eyes for a moment and concentrated on drinking his tea, letting the concerned conversation of his friends eddy around him. By the time the tea was finished he was feeling more like himself and opened his eyes. Morgana was gazing at him expectantly.
“Well,” she said. “What’s the plan?”
Arthur is the planner; Merlin wanted to say but swallowed down the words. For the moment it looked like it was up to him. Briefly, he filled them in on everything he could recall from the brief encounter, managing to keep his voice calm as he detailed the fear he'd witnessed in Arthur’s expression and the total lack of recognition.
They talked it over, deciding that they needed more information to find out what had gone on in Arthur’s life and what might've happened to leave him like this. While Lancelot agreed to look at the medical records, Percival, who was the local police sergeant, volunteered to do some digging into Arthur’s family background. Everyone else wanted to begin shopping in the local supermarket to start building up an idea of his working pattern and also to ensure there were people around at least some of the time who'd stand up for him, as he was obviously being bullied. No one said too much, but there was an undercurrent of anger in the room at the thought of their king being treated in such a way. It was Elyan who made the practical suggestion.
“Why don’t I see if I can get a job there?” He was home from Cambridge University for the summer, just finished his second year studying marine biology. “I was planning on getting some work anyway. If they don’t have anything to offer me, then you could help, couldn’t you, Merlin?” He waggled his fingers at Merlin expectantly and grinned.
“Let’s not take the risk,” Merlin responded. “I’ll cast a glamour to make them want to hire you. Can you go tomorrow?” The memory of Arthur’s embarrassment and his fear was haunting him. He desperately wanted his lover to have a friend close by – even if Arthur had no idea and no memory. He shut his eyes suddenly, hoping against hope that the next time he saw Arthur the gaze would be sharp and piercing, and he'd make some joke about Marmite and call Merlin a girl because the moment he was back, Merlin just knew he was going to cry with relief.
Lancelot had obviously been keeping an eye on him. “Okay, everyone, time we all got to work and left Merlin to get a good night’s sleep.” He shooed them out until only he and Gwen were left and then he rested a hand on Merlin’s shoulder, his voice full of sympathy. “Whatever's happened, Merlin, we'll sort it out. If we're all here now, then there has to be a reason. And we'll need Arthur. Sleep tonight and tomorrow we begin our campaign for our king.” He leaned down and pressed a kiss to his brow, a knightly gesture belonging to the Lancelot of Camelot. Gwen hugged him and kissed his cheek but added no words to the reassurance her husband had already offered. She gazed at Lancelot and her belief in him was so clearly absolute, her love for him shining through.
Merlin took the memory of their care and love with him, holding onto its warmth as he slid under the covers and wearily shut his eyes.
The waters swirled and tumbled around in front of him and he gasped at the maelstrom. There were faces there, pleading and speaking to him but he couldn't hear them. A black cloud swept them away and the water broke over him, the taste foul and tainted.
Merlin shot up, gasping and choking and quite convinced for a moment that he was drowning. He'd been dreaming more and more often but it had been a long time since he'd experienced such a vivid nightmare. He breathed deeply until his pulse stopped racing and then made his way to the kitchen for some water. He put the nightmare down to the upset of the day and tried to forget it. He took a drink of water and immediately spat it out. Damn it, he'd forgotten to phone about getting his water supply checked. He hauled out the bottled water from the fridge and poured it into the glass instead, sipping it and letting the coolness ease the tightness in his throat.
Unsurprisingly, Elyan got a job manning the checkout desk in the supermarket and the others began their own campaign of popping into the shop on the pretext of seeing him. Elyan had expressed his own concern to Merlin after his first day.
“Whatever he’s taking, it’s prescription – I saw the box when he went into his locker.” He paused. “Merlin, they’re horrible to him – all of them from the manager down. I’m doing what I can, but I don’t know why he puts up with it.”
“How easy would it have been for him to get any job at all? I don’t care if he doesn’t remember and if he’s on drugs for some reason, this is still Arthur.” Merlin knew his voice was fierce. “He'll have fought for this job, for something that'll give him independence and self-respect. And he'll never give in to bullies.”
“Could you do anything?”
Merlin bit his lip. “I’ll have to leave it for a few weeks – I don’t want him to link my presence with you getting the job. Probably better if you don’t mention me either.” He wanted nothing more than to sweep through the doors of that place, wrap Arthur in his arms and use magic to return his health, but the memory of the fear he'd witnessed made him cautious. Let the others befriend him first, he thought and then arrive on the periphery of the group. “I think he might've sensed my magic the last time. I think perhaps it’s why he was scared.”
“Arthur could never be scared of you, Merlin, not really.” Elyan believed what he was saying whole-heartedly, Merlin knew.
You didn’t see his face, Merlin wanted to say, you didn’t see.
Merlin had to take a deep breath to settle his nerves before he could steel himself to walk through the automatic doors and into the supermarket. Elyan had sent him a text to let him know Arthur was working. Merlin didn’t know why Arthur had seemed so afraid of him, but knew he was going to have to get to the bottom of it and then make sure Arthur understood how Merlin could never hurt him.
He grabbed a basket and a couple of bottles of water from the fridge unit by the door and wandered up the aisle, trying to look nonchalant. His plan was to say hello and then walk on without trying to draw him into conversation. This was obviously going to take some time and he didn't want to rush anything. He'd waited fifteen hundred years, he could wait a little longer for his lover to return to him.
Arthur almost physically shied away from Merlin when he saw him, but gritted his jaw in a way Merlin recognised from their life in Camelot as he stood his ground, expression wary.
“Hello, Arthur,” Merlin smiled as he offered the greeting and then walked on, not attempting to draw Arthur into a conversation in the face of his obvious distaste. He picked up a carton of milk at random and then headed down a different aisle to join Elyan’s queue. The shop was quiet and there was no one behind him, so he spent a few moments chatting and tried to ignore both Elyan’s sympathy and the frowning gaze that was being levied at him from the silent figure standing further down the shop.
As he made his way down the street, he was surprised by a hard grip taking hold and spinning him to face Arthur, an Arthur who was wide-eyed and terrified.
“David’s your friend?”
David? Oh, Elyan.
The hesitation in his response only added to the suspicion he could read in Arthur.
“Yes, David's a friend of mine.”
“And the others – David’s other friends. Do you know them too?”
Merlin saw no point in lying. “Yes, yes I know them.” They’re your friends, too, he wanted to cry out, and they love you. “We’ve all been friends for a long time.”
“Did he send you?” Arthur asked.
“What? Who? Nobody sent me, Arthur. I promise you.” He reached up then, grasping the bare skin at Arthur's wrist and was unprepared by the surge of power shooting through him, his magic reacting in a way shocking even to him. It was as if it was desperate to spill out of him to get to Arthur, as if it had a purpose of its own.
Arthur startled back, obviously feeling it too and his eyes were wide and terrified. “Stay. Away. From. Me.” Every word was a sharp staccato sibilance, and then he was gone.
What the hell just happened, Merlin wondered as he was left standing on the pavement watching Arthur’s back as he moved swiftly away from him.
When Elyan turned up at Merlin’s after the end of his shift Merlin already knew things were bad.
“Arthur wouldn’t talk to me, this afternoon. He wouldn’t even look at me and then – one of the other lads said something to him. I didn’t hear what it was but Arthur decked him and then stormed out.” Elyan slumped onto the sofa and buried his face in his hands. Merlin felt like joining him. Seeing Arthur like this, so reduced from the man they'd known, was getting to them all.
Merlin disappeared into the kitchen for a moment, giving them both some time to pull themselves together. He pulled a couple of beers from the fridge and wandered through to the drawing room, tapping the bottle against Elyan’s head to get his attention.
One by one the others trickled in and when they were all there, they began to discuss what they knew so far. Lancelot was late, muttering about the number of people who'd turned up at the surgery, and the number of house calls, before he slumped onto a sofa and accepted the mug of tea he was offered. Merlin averted his eyes as Gwen ran her fingers tenderly through his hair and Lance caught her hand to kiss it gently. Merlin was ashamed at the rush of jealousy; missing Arthur so desperately it was suffocating him.
It was Percival who broke the silence. “I was sent some information today from the background search on Arthur. He seems to have been a bright, normal boy and then when he was about five he was on holiday with his father and nearly drowned.” Percival stopped to clear his throat. “Apparently afterwards he was pretty much unresponsive for a couple of years. There was some irregularity in the accident, which was why there’s so much on file. The father was investigated and the file is still open because they think he might actually have tried to murder Arthur.” He paused as they all expressed their shock. “There’s nothing for a few years and then his father filed a missing persons report when Arthur was sixteen and there are several of those – including one issued about six months ago. The father has had Arthur sectioned twice but he never stays – always disappears again.”
Merlin was wracked with guilt. “I should've found him before,” he fretted. “I should've kept an eye on him and made sure he was okay. I thought he'd be fine. I couldn’t believe that anyone – his father – would want to hurt him. I always thought I'd know if he was in any danger. I reached out sometimes, just to make sure and there was nothing – no indication at all there was anything wrong. I should've made sure. I should've -”
“There’s nothing we can do about that now,” Gwaine said, cutting across him and effectively stopping Merlin's spiral into self-recrimination. “We have to work out what we’re going to do now. Do we have an address for him?” His voice was crisp but the hand he settled on Merlin’s shoulder was gentle.
Percival nodded. “He’s got a bedsit in Shepton Mallet.”
“He asked me today if he had sent me – he must've meant his father,” Merlin filled them all in on what had happened earlier.
Lancelot spoke. “His medical records are patchy, but the drugs he's on suggest mental illness.”
“Schizophrenia,” It was Leon who made the suggestion and he curved an arm around Morgana at her sound of distress. She'd been devastated after her first visit to the supermarket and her first sight of Arthur, and had railed at Merlin, wanting to go in and just drag him home. Merlin was beginning to think perhaps she'd been right. He reached out and gripped her hand and she interlinked their fingers.
“We’re going to get him well, Morgana. I promise.”
“I know we will,” she returned his hold. “I know.”
Lancelot would neither admit nor deny Leon’s assessment, but his demeanour seemed to suggest Leon had hit on the right answer.
“What are we going to do now?” Gwen asked.
“We’re going to find him,” Merlin decided. “And we’re going to make sure he understands he belongs with us. That’s what we’re going to do.” Screw waiting. He was getting Arthur back.
Gwaine’s hand tightened for a brief moment and then slipped from his shoulder.
The water was flowing over him, slipping and sliding into his mouth and as fast as he spit it out, more followed until he was choking, choking and the faces in the water were so sad. With a shock, he knew who they were and wondered why he hadn't realised before. It was too late and the water was sucking him down and he couldn’t breath, couldn’t…
Gasping, Merlin pulled away from the person shaking him and, only half-awake and still in the throes of his nightmare; he scrambled up the bed, curling into himself as he fought to draw air into his lungs.
“Merlin,” the voice was calmer now and he recognised Morgana. When he looked, he saw Leon hovering at the bedroom door, gazing worriedly at him. He transferred his gaze to Morgana and saw that there were tears streaking her cheeks and she looked terrified. “You were screaming,” she said. “You woke me up. Merlin, I was dreaming, too. I was dreaming about water.”
Shuddering, he covered his face with his hands and fought for calm. Morgana was perched on the edge of the bed and by the time he looked up, Leon had disappeared - probably to make a hot drink of some description. He reached out and grasped one of Morgana’s hands as he finally understood that his recent nightmares regarding water were nothing to do with his subconscious responding to his concerns over the plumbing at the house. His fixation on Arthur had clouded his mind – either that or something else was dulling his magical sense. He frowned, suddenly concerned about the possibility someone was blocking him in some way. Since the moment of Arthur’s rebirth Merlin’s power had been growing and he was aware his ability was beginning to surpass the power he'd held during his time in Camelot. With such an amount of magic available to him, how could he have missed this?
He scrambled out of bed and headed for the computer in his study, sitting in his pyjamas and jiggling his foot in impatience as he waited for it to boot up. Once he was on-line, he typed in some search terms. Morgana and Leon joined him and he accepted the hot chocolate Leon offered him with gratitude, smiling even more when the scent of the added brandy reached him. He sobered quickly enough as he began scrolling through the search results, aware of the barely banked curiosity of his friends and grateful for their quiet patience as they waited until he was done.
Eventually, he saved his search and switched the computer off. He sat in silence for a moment before saying, his voice calm and completely belying the sheer enormity of what he believed he had discovered. “We’re in trouble.”
“What do you mean?” Morgana asked. “Us, or Arthur, or –“
“Actually, I meant the entire human race. The planet is fucked.”
Oddly enough, having arrived at that realisation, Merlin went back to bed and slept until 10am, finally stumbling into the kitchen to discover everyone waiting expectantly. Morgana was clearly not happy and was scowling at Lancelot, who was ignoring her with his usual placid good humour.
“Lancelot wouldn’t let me wake you,” she said.
“Well, I’m awake now. Or I will be when someone provides some coffee.” He slumped down into a seat and accepted the mug Gwaine passed him, smiling at the press of a hand to his shoulder that expressed Gwaine’s concern. Merlin could see that same concern reflected in the gazes fixed so intently on him. Fiddling with the mug, he met every gaze before he began to speak.
“I’ve been having nightmares – or at least I thought they were nightmares but after last night I’m not so sure. I think Freya and Nimueh have been trying to warn me, but they’re being blocked somehow. We’ve been under attack and didn’t know it. In the UK everyone seems to be having stomach bugs, and the medical profession is calling it norovirus, the winter vomiting bug, aren’t they Lance? It’s been getting gradually worse over the past few years and recently it’s moved from isolated outbreaks to the point where it’s become an obvious, almost constant state. I ran a search last night. Over the last ten years the incidence of water-borne disease across the planet has been increasing – and now it’s reaching crisis levels. The United Nations and World Health Organisation both have meetings in the next few weeks to discuss it.”
The room was still and silent.
“There’s more to it, though. None of us have ever been affected, have we? And I can only think of one reason. All of us have either been touched by magic or have magic. If I’m right then I’d take bets not a single person with the promise of magical talent across the globe has been troubled by disease. And if this is all true, then someone is trying to eradicate non-magical people.” He paused to let his words sink in, before he delivered his final, damning assessment. “This is an extermination campaign.”
There was a moment’s silence when he finished speaking and then the room erupted in a cacophony of disbelief and concern. Merlin left them to it for the moment, filtering them out as his mind returned to Arthur. It struck him now that whatever had happened to Arthur was also part of this. Arthur was their king and it was he who was linked so closely to the land. If they were going to defeat this threat then they needed him – sooner rather than later.
“Who's doing this, though?” It was Gwen who asked. “Who could do such a terrible thing?”
His gaze locked with Morgana’s and he could see the anguish there. “Who else,” he said gently. “It’s either Morgause, Mordred or both. And they've found a way to tap into the power Cornelius Sigan wields.”
“How do we stop it then?” Elyan, ever practical, asked the question.
“Right now I've no idea but we need Arthur. We need him back and we need him well.” Merlin expressed what had so recently crossed his mind. “Percival, can you get your people to look for him?”
“When we get hold of him, we’re going to have to get him healthy. Lancelot, I’ll need you to look into the medication and Gwen, you’ll need to work with him to try and identify what happened when he was young. And based on what we find we’ll have to decide if we need to find his father – whether it's Uther or not, he seems to be a key to Arthur’s early life and the accident where he nearly drowned.” He broke off abruptly, as the memory of Arthur’s fear and anger, directed at Merlin, came back to him. He scrubbed his hands through his hair. “If the worst comes to the worst I’ll have to try and use magic, but I’d really rather not – healing magic was never my forte.”
Arthur, they discovered, had decamped from his bedsit without leaving a forwarding address and to all intents and purposes had disappeared into thin air. Merlin was terrified he'd just run and worried it would take more time than they had to find him. Both he and Morgana, in their different ways, had tried to scry for him, Morgana with maps and crystals and Merlin through the bond he could still feel. It was the bond that had formed when they'd made their vow so long ago in Camelot and its continued existence was the only thing providing him with any solace, even though it felt as if something was attempting to block it in some way. Merlin spent time concentrating on it, strengthening it as much as he could and using it to try and call Arthur home to him.
Merlin was dreaming every night and now he understood there was more to the nightmares than a simple message from his subconscious about plumbing, he was taking more notice, and tried to take some control of the scenarios he found himself in. The lack of Freya at the well now had a more sinister meaning and he had to accept she and Nimueh were in trouble. He comforted himself with the thought they were still trying to reach him through the dreams and however harrowing they were, he had to believe they would eventually break through to him and he'd be able to save them.
The phone rang when he was in the middle of cleaning his teeth and preparing for another broken night. It was Percival on the other end.
“You’re not going to believe this, but one of the patrols has just reported seeing someone matching Arthur’s description. He’s drunk as a skunk and lying on the seat in Penniless Porch.”
Penniless Porch - the archway separating Cathedral Green from the Market Square. Gods, if it was Arthur then he was only yards away. Merlin was already scrambling into his clothes when he spoke, “Can you get Lancelot and Gwen to come as quickly as they can?" They lived in one of the small villages around the city and it wouldn’t take them long at this time of night. He didn’t wait for Percival’s response, trusting him to carry out his wishes. He pulled up the zip of his trousers and was hauling on a jumper as he ran up the stairs to Morgana and Leon’s lounge. He hammered on the door and yelled. “I think we’ve found him. He’s in the Porch.” Merlin dived back down the stairs and stuffed his feet into trainers, reaching the door just as Morgana and Leon appeared.
“Leon – I might need your help to get him here – apparently he’s drunk.”
There was no hesitation, Leon grabbed his boots and followed Merlin out of the door, leaving Morgana framed in the light pouring from the open doorway as she wrapped her arms around herself and waited for them to bring her brother home.
Merlin approached the hunched figure carefully and ascertained it was, indeed, Arthur. His heart leapt into his throat and he had to swallow hard at the pitiful picture.
Arthur was curled up on the stone bench, wedged into the corner. There was an open bottle of cheap cider in his grasp but even without the evidence it was obvious he was extremely drunk.
“Arthur,” Merlin whispered carefully, remembering the fear Arthur had shown scant days before, and Arthur stirred, blinking owlishly at Merlin and then turning his face to the wall when he recognised Merlin.
“You’re the bogeyman,” Arthur whispered, trying to curl even tighter. “Go away.”
“I’m not, Arthur, I promise I’m not.”
“I drew you when I was little. Nanny said you were the bogeyman and if I ever saw you then I was to run away, run away, run away home,” a half sob seemed to choke him. “Don’t have a home.”
Merlin and Leon exchanged a glance at the mention of a nanny and Merlin wondered now how much danger Arthur had been in during his formative years. It was too late to have regrets about it now. Merlin had been so sure Arthur would grow up in similar vein to his time in Camelot – rich, privileged, loved and spoilt, and had been ready to deal with any effects to his character when the time came. It had never occurred to him for one moment Arthur would be at risk. In the midst of it all, though, there was warmth, too, because Arthur had remembered him – from the very start he'd remembered Merlin.
“Please, Arthur,” he begged now. “I'd never hurt you. Please, just come with us now and be safe.”
He reached out, careful not to touch bare flesh and Leon moved to Arthur’s other side, deftly removing the bottle from his grasp and disposing of it in the nearby litterbin, grabbing the stuffed rucksack from the ground on the way back. Arthur struggled a little but was quickly heading for unconsciousness and between them they managed to guide him back to the house.
As they reached it, Arthur looked blearily at him. “I tried to leave. Why couldn’t I leave? You’re the bogeyman. Please don’t take me back to him.”
“You're safe here, Arthur. I promise you're safe.”
They stumbled through the door and managed to manoeuvre him up the stairs and into the spare bedroom. Merlin brushed aside Leon’s offer to help, letting him go to comfort Morgana, while Merlin wrestled a nearly unconscious Arthur out of his clothes, leaving his boxers on, and putting him in the recovery position. At every point in the process, Merlin made sure he kept a layer of cloth between them. When he was done and Arthur was snoring he moved his hand slowly, keeping it a few centimetres above the prone body and reached out with his magic, trying to find any enchantments that might've been laid upon him. He recalled doing this with Morgana’s healing bracelet centuries before and as then, he recognised the signature of the curse.
Merlin paused; long ago Arthur had extracted a promise from him to never cast a spell on Arthur without discussing it with him first. Merlin had agreed but had added his own caveat. If Arthur wasn't fit to make any kind of decision and Merlin believed he was in danger, then he reserved the right to act. After some thought and a certain amount of heated argument, Arthur had conceded. Merlin bit his lip and wondered if Arthur would agree this situation qualified. It was academic, he realised, because he was going to do it anyway and if Arthur didn’t like it then they'd have to deal with it later. Arthur might see it as a breach of trust but frankly, Merlin decided, he'd just have to suck it up and deal with it. Because he wasn't leaving his king, his love, like this for one moment longer than he had to - not now he knew there'd been magic involved in bringing him to this state. If it had been illness alone that had caused this, then he'd have been guided by Lancelot and Gwen, and there was enough physical and mental damage to ensure there'd still be an element of care he'd need. But the cause, the fear and despair at the base of everything that had happened to Arthur, shouted of Morgause’s magic so loudly it was almost palpable. It dawned on Merlin then, faced with this evidence of the malice that had been attacking Arthur since he was a small child, just how strong his lover’s character was. He already knew it, of course, but this brought it home to Merlin so clearly. A lesser man could never have withstood the subtle onslaught he could feel in the dark magic surrounding Arthur.
It also explained the surge in his own magic when he'd touched Arthur’s bare skin, and why Arthur had been so afraid of him. He could sense the elements in Morgause’s spell working to repel Merlin specifically, along with anyone else who tried to help Arthur. Merlin drew in a deep breath. He knew from the spells and curses woven into Morgana’s healing bracelet how cruel and unfeeling Morgause could be, but this took his breath away and he made a vow. This time he'd end it for good. When he finally met Morgause, and he'd no doubt he would, then he'd deal with her for once and all.
For the moment he left Arthur to sleep, wanting some of the alcohol and any medication to be out of his system before he added his own magic to the mix. He wandered down to the kitchen and accepted Gwen’s embrace as Lancelot hovered behind her, his medical bag in his hand.
“He’s out for the count in the spare room,” he said to Lancelot from the comfort of Gwen’s arms and then buried his head against her neck for a moment to regain his composure.
By the time Lancelot re-emerged they;d moved to the drawing room and were sitting in silence. Lancelot smiled briefly at Merlin when he entered and sank onto an armchair with a weary sigh. “He’ll be fine – but he’s likely to feel horribly ill for a day or so after mixing the alcohol and the medication. I’m going to start cutting back on the dosage from tomorrow.” He held up a hand as Merlin started to complain. “No, Merlin, you don't cut anyone off medication cold turkey. We'll need to wean him off. Gwen, once he’s feeling better I’d like you to talk to him.” He sighed. “All this is completely irregular, of course.” He shrugged and then his expression became firm. “But this is for Arthur.”
There was little more to be said. Lancelot and Gwen elected to stay and made their way to one of the other guest rooms once Merlin had promised to rouse Lancelot immediately if Arthur seemed to be in any distress or Merlin was worried by anything at all.
When Merlin was alone again, he dragged the duvet from his bed and hauled the most comfortable chair he could find into Arthur’s bedroom. Throughout this, Arthur remained oblivious, snoring and drooling and Merlin’s heart lurched as the love he held for this man suddenly seemed too great to hold within his frame. He fought back his tears and cleared his throat, busying himself with arranging the chair close to Arthur’s side and then settling himself with the duvet tucked around him. After a moment, he got up again and found a bucket, which he placed by the bed, recalling the few occasions he'd seen Arthur with a hangover in the past. It was never pretty.
He left one sidelight on and watched over his king throughout the night, dozing from time to time but always waking if Arthur moved his position or uttered a sound. When Arthur suddenly began making distinctly suspicious noises Merlin shot up from his chair and grabbed the bucket, managing, with the aid of a tiny adjustment to the flow of time, to have the bucket in position before Arthur threw up.
It was, not to put too fine a point on it, disgusting and Merlin caught himself murmuring, “Gods, I must love you if I’m willing to put up with this, you prat,” and he concentrated on supporting Arthur while he continued to retch miserably into the bucket. Fortunately Lancelot and Leon had wrestled Arthur into a set of Leon’s pyjamas earlier, so Merlin could hold onto the shaking body without actually touching Arthur's flesh. Merlin was concentrating on keeping a grip on his magic as it was swirling within him, desperate to get out and reach Arthur and he could almost imagine it was a different sentient being, just as much in love with Arthur as Merlin was, and wanting to help protect him. In the next moment he decided he'd been watching far too much Doctor Who.
Eventually Arthur seemed to have stopped vomiting and Merlin eased him back onto the pillows. He handed him an unopened bottle of water.
“Wash your mouth out,” he advised gently. “Spit it into the bucket and then I’ll get rid of this.” Preferably before the stench had him throwing up in sympathy.
Arthur did as he was bid. As he walked out Merlin handed him a box of paper handkerchiefs, but made no mention of the tears and the snotty nose. “You’re safe here, I promise.” He could almost feel Arthur’s reluctance to be anywhere near him and had to remind himself it was Morgause’s doing, not Arthur’s natural response to Merlin. He'd sort all this out, he promised silently, but in the meantime felt he had to ensure Arthur felt secure in this house.
When he returned with the clean bucket, just in case, Arthur was resting back against the pillows and he opened his eyes as Merlin came into the room.
“You’re very nice for a bogeyman,” he said sleepily.
Merlin laughed, or he would've cried. “I’m not the bogeyman, Arthur. Someone was being very cruel to tell you something like that. You drew me because you remembered me. Tell me what you drew?”
“I was five years old. I don’t remember.”
“Really?” He let scepticism colour his tone, betting on his knowledge of his king’s inability to resist a challenge and he wasn't disappointed.
“It was you and I. I drew your black hair but you'd gold eyes. I'd a crown.” He slid further down the bed, his eyes beginning to close. “We were holding hands and smiling.” There was wonder in his voice. “Merlin,” he whispered, and he was asleep.
Merlin let the tears come, just for a few moments, releasing the tension that had been building within him since Percival had rung. Then he sniffed hard, making use of a few of the tissues from the box, and sat down to resume his vigil. It was hours before he realised Arthur had called him Merlin and yet as far as he knew, no one, and certainly not Merlin, had ever mentioned his name. With this thought came some measure of comfort and now Arthur seemed to be sleeping peacefully, Merlin let his eyes close.
Merlin woke to the murmur of voices and when he blinked across at the bed he saw Gwen sitting on the other side. There was a tray of tea with three mugs and she smiled at him when she realised he was awake.
“Hello, sleepyhead,” She held out a mug to him and he got up to take it, glancing down at the other person in the room.
Arthur looked terrible and was staring at him with an expression of deep distrust that closed Merlin's throat. He buried his face in the mug for a moment. “Thanks,” he said, once he was sure he had control over his voice, “you make the best tea, Gwen.”
Gwen grinned at him, clearly trying to behave as naturally as she could but he shied away from the deep sympathy Merlin could see in her eyes. He turned his attention to Arthur. “How're you feeling?” he asked.
“Like shit,” was the frank response. There was an uncomfortable silence before Arthur said. “Thanks for – for looking after me.”
Merlin shrugged, unable to find words. His magic was leaching out of him, drawn to Arthur and eager to combat the dark miasma surrounding him. Invisible tendrils reached out and stroked and Arthur startled back, his eyes going wide and afraid.
Shit shit shit. Merlin closed his eyes to regain control of himself and then made himself meet Arthur’s gaze squarely, ignoring the hostility.
“I know you’re uncertain right now and you think I’m an enemy.” He knew better than to use the word afraid. “There’s a lot we have to tell you – things you've a right to know, but you need to get well. I'm asking you to trust us for a couple of days until you’re better and then I promise you I'll tell you everything. Please, Arthur. I'd never hurt you.”
“And what you did then? What was that?” The hostility in Arthur's expression was reflected in his voice.
Ah, so Arthur wasn’t going to ignore that or pass it off. Perhaps Merlin wasn't going to be able to leave it after all.
“I’m worried about you. It was a reaction – and yes, there's more to it but I'm asking you to wait just a few days – until Lancelot says you're up to hearing what we have to say. I'll keep away from you if you prefer, but please stay with us. We'll make sure you're safe.”
Arthur looked at Gwen, who was staring down at the bedclothes, her hands gripped in the sheets and she was biting her lip in distress.
“So what is this, then? Some kind of secret society? Some religious sect? Are you their leader?”
Merlin broke then, meeting the suspicion and he knew he was unable to hide his anguish. “No, Arthur, I'm not their leader. Remember the picture? It was you who was wearing the crown.”
Merlin left then, ignoring the shocked gasps from both Gwen and Arthur. For the next thirty minutes or so he shut himself in his bathroom, showering and taking his time getting ready for a day he wasn't sure he wanted to face.
Eventually he wandered into the kitchen and suffered a long hug from Morgana before he was ushered into a seat and fed more tea and a plate of toast.
“I’ve rung Gwaine, Elyan and Percival to let them know what’s happened. They’re going to leave it until Lancelot says it’s okay for them to come over. They’re all upset but glad we’ve found him at least and that he’s safe.” She paused, ostensibly to drink her tea but Merlin suspected she was forcing back tears. “Lancelot has arrived and is with Arthur at the moment. Gwen’s there, too. I think they’re going to discuss his treatment. Leon’s had to go to work but he thought it was probably for the best anyway.”
Merlin nodded and they worked through their breakfast in silence for some time before Morgana spoke again.
“Even after everything she did, I still can’t quite believe Morgause would do something like this.”
Merlin shrugged, ever since Morgause’s attempt to manipulate Arthur the first time he 'd met her Merlin had believed her capable of pretty much anything. The spells surrounding Arthur were so similar to those that had been wrapped up in Morgana’s healing bracelet it was almost parody. Merlin told her exactly what Morgause had done to Arthur, blighting his childhood and adult life, not wanting Morgana to spare any sentiment on a sister who'd do such a thing.
By the end of his narrative, Morgana was biting her lip.
“I’m sorry, Morgana,” he said. He glanced at the clock and was shocked to see that it was only 10 a.m. It already felt like one of the longest days of his life – and he'd plenty of those to measure against. “If she gets in my way, I’m not going to spare her. Not this time.”
Morgana’s green eyes sparked and she met his gaze. “And this time, Merlin, I’ll help you. You have my oath,” and she held out her hand.
He took it, raising it to his lips and kissing it gently before she entangled their fingers and brought the joined hands to rest on the kitchen table. “I’m still sorry, though,” he said.
“I know, Merlin. It’s not in your nature to destroy – but I know you'll do it if it's needed. And sometimes it's the only way. I did realise that a long time ago, you know.”
Merlin smiled at her then, and squeezed her fingers before his features settled into a worried frown. “My magic's behaving very strangely,’ he said. “It’s almost as if it’s fighting me to get to Arthur.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“No, it wants to help. It’s like it has a mind of it’s own – which is a bit disconcerting – and Arthur can feel it, too – feels it and really, really doesn’t like it.”
“Can you maintain control of it?” Morgana asked.
“I think so – I think I’ve convinced it I’m doing the best thing for now – but it’s as if I am having to justify my choices. It was never like this – even when I was at the height of my power in Camelot, it was never so…” he searched for the word he wanted, “Alive.”
Gwen and Lancelot arriving in the kitchen interrupted them and they waited until they were settled at the table.
“Well?” Merlin asked.
“He’s not happy but he's agreed to stay here for the next few days at least. He’s still feeling fairly ill which is probably contributing to his decision. I’ve told him I’m going to gradually take him off the drugs and he’s also agreed to talk to Gwen in a professional capacity. I think the idea of getting rid of the drugs probably helped his decision, too.” Lancelot hesitated. “He’s said he doesn’t want to see you, Merlin. I’m so sorry.” The sympathy on Lancelot’s honest, noble face almost broke Merlin then, but he swallowed hard and gestured for Lancelot to continue.
“I’ve told him to stay in bed today. Tomorrow he can get up to shower and we’ll see how he does from there. Probably be better if he stays in his room tomorrow although he can get dressed and sit up.”
“Leon can put a television in for him and some books.” It was Morgana who spoke. In Albion she'd always taken her role as chatelaine of the castle seriously and it had amused Merlin the way he'd been beginning to see signs of her taking over the housekeeping here. She was in full force now, organising them and taking care of the logistics. “Can I see him?” she asked.
Lancelot hesitated and then nodded. “I don’t see why not, but if your presence seems to upset him in any way, then leave him.”
“I will,” she promised.
Gwen stood up and leaned against Lancelot’s back. “You’re due in surgery at 11, darling,” she reminded him and added. “And I've three appointments this afternoon. I’ll be back at 6pm – Arthur’s agreed to talk to me then.”
They took their leave and Merlin, left alone, wandered through to the drawing room and sat down at the piano, letting his music console him. Every so often he was disturbed by his magic as, like a naughty child, it would occasionally try to sneak off in Arthur’s direction and he'd have to firmly call it back to him.
Arthur woke to the sound of music and for a moment he smiled, feeling secure and surrounded by care. Throughout his life, the one thing that had given him peace and joy was the music of the piano. As he became more aware of his surroundings he remembered what had happened and he was overtaken by unease. The doctor, Lancelot, had wrung a promise from Arthur to stay, and the thought of being taken off those horrible drugs was the one thing making it worthwhile. Now he was fully awake, his skin was crawling with unease and his senses were telling him to leave. And yet, the piano music changed and he recognised a Beethoven sonata that had always been a favourite. Somehow it calmed him and he was smiling again when sleep took him.
The next time Arthur woke there was a beautiful dark-haired woman curled in the seat by the bed, her attention on the book in her hands. As he shifted, she looked up and grinned at him.
“You’re looking better,” she asserted. “I’m… I’m Morgana,” her green gaze pierced him for a moment as if she was searching for something and then she continued. “Are you hungry? Lancelot said you could eat what you liked.”
For a moment he could only stare at her, wondering who she was in relation to Merlin. She looked a little like him with her dark hair and colouring – perhaps a sister. No, for some reason he was quite sure they weren't related at all. It frightened him a little to know, without doubt, how Morgana and Merlin were friends and there was no other romantic or familial attachment between them. He could feel his brow furrow as that didn’t feel quite right either, and he thought perhaps there was a family link of some sort. He met her gaze, seeing beyond the twinkle to the worry she was trying to hide. Worry for him. Worry for a stranger. Something twisted in his gut and he concentrated on the music from the piano still sounding through the house, letting it calm him until he could find the words to answer her query. “Scrambled eggs?” he suggested, rather at a loss.
“Phew, something I’m actually good at cooking,” she joked. “Would you like some toast and bacon, too?”
He lost himself in the discussion of the minutiae of what he wanted to eat and drink, about how Leon was going to bring in the television – or would he prefer a radio – and what books would he like to read. Then all of a sudden she was gone and he was alone, feeling as if he'd been run over by a rather sweet whirlwind. He snorted at the thought he'd called Morgana sweet, and then wondered why. He heard her voice and recognised Merlin’s voice answering her, realising as the music stopped that it had been Merlin playing. His unease swelled again and he broke out in a cold sweat as anxiety almost overwhelmed him. He tried to remember what the doctor had told him about the effects of lowering the dose on the medication and decided what he was feeling must be to do with the withdrawal. Arthur drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He wasn't going to fall apart. He refused.
The day passed slowly despite a number of naps and the appearance in the afternoon of a television, DVD player and selection of films. A small bookcase also appeared, lugged in by a man Arthur had liked instinctively on sight. Leon, he recalled, remembering also this was Morgana’s husband. Eventually the clock crawled round to 6 p.m. and he steeled himself for the visit from Gwen. He'd met any number of psychiatrists in his time in and out of various institutions and had despised most of them; even those he knew were genuine in their wish to help. Gwen was different, though, he'd recognised that from the start. She looked at him as if she knew him and loved him and it was all he could do not to rest his head against her breast like he might've done if he'd ever known his mother.
Although he'd been dreading it, he actually rather enjoyed the thirty minutes they spent together. She asked him a few gentle questions about his life and after a stilted start he'd told her about the various places he'd lived, and about the nanny who'd been such a formative part of his life. He didn't mention his father. She smiled as she left, having ensured he'd agree to another session the next day, and she was replaced by Lancelot, who checked him over and asked a few questions about his day, telling him he could get up the next morning but let his body tell him if he needed to rest. Finally, it was Morgana with another tray of food. He didn’t think he’d eaten this much in one day for years, but he smiled and thanked her and if he couldn’t quite clear his plate, he did enjoy what he ate.
All through the long day he was acutely conscious of the one person he didn't see. Periodically he heard the piano, or heard Merlin’s voice as he spoke to one of the others, but he respected Arthur’s wishes and didn't come near him. Arthur told himself he was glad. Quite firmly, over and over again, he told himself he didn’t want Merlin anywhere close to him.
Over the next few days Arthur gradually improved. He felt fitter than he had done for years and was grateful for the gradually lowering dosage of the drugs he'd been on. Lancelot had told him frankly he wasn't mentally ill, but refused to speculate on the causes for the dreams and nightmares he'd suffered over the years. Arthur began to open up to Gwen more, their daily chats becoming more difficult in some ways as Arthur began to explore memories he'd been sublimating for many years, and she was more forthright in her assessment. Bluntly, she said she believed an early trauma had caused him to withdraw and the treatment he'd received hadn't helped.
Arthur knew what the trauma was; he just didn’t want to think about it. Even now, he couldn't quite believe it had happened as he remembered. He'd shivered and Gwen had changed the subject.
Time drifted along until Arthur realised almost a week had passed since he'd come into this house. He was feeling stronger and was almost ready, he felt, to face Merlin and although the thought of doing so brought the simmering unease he was feeling to the surface, Arthur was determined now to meet it head on and deal with it. He sighed aloud and looked out of the bedroom window at the Cathedral Green, suddenly struck by a longing to be out in the fresh air. He'd heard Merlin go out earlier and so felt free to find his way to the kitchen.
Gwen was there, busy making sandwiches for lunch and Lancelot was in a comfortable chair by the range, his feet propped up on one of the chairs by the kitchen table and was sound asleep. He looked exhausted.
“I think I’ll take a walk round the green,” Arthur said.
She glanced up and smiled at him. “That’s a good idea. Lancelot said earlier he was going to encourage you to start getting out and about again. It’s not good to be cooped up for too long. Do you want a sandwich first? Or would you like to take one out with you?”
For some reason Arthur had thought there'd be resistance to him leaving the house and hadn't quite lost the feeling he'd been drawn in by some weird sect or other, but she seemed quite relaxed at the whole idea. It didn’t seem to enter her head that he might take off and just not come back. He watched as she wrapped a sandwich for him and returned her smile as he took it from her. He met her gaze again and understood suddenly not only had the idea occurred to her, but she was offering him the chance to leave if it was what he wanted.
“I’ll just be half an hour or so,” he said, and wondered why he was reassuring her.
He slipped into the utility room next to the back door and located his own shoes. As he turned to leave, he heard the front door open and Merlin’s voice sound through the house, getting louder as he reached the kitchen. Full of unease, but drawn all the same, he moved closer to the door, allowing him to see into the kitchen but not be seen.
“Merlin.” Gwen enveloped him in a hug and Arthur watched as Merlin relaxed against her for a moment, before pushing her gently away.
He looked exhausted and worn down and Arthur was abruptly terrified by the mix of emotions flooding through him. Grabbing a coat, he let himself out and walked through the little gate onto the Green. As he walked, he munched through the sandwich, amazed at how much he was enjoying his food these days. He was completely oblivious to the usual mix of tourists and locals wandering around and scattered across the paths and grass, trying to work through his feelings where Merlin was concerned.
Her voice, well remembered and well loved, was a shock and his mouth dropped open as he whirled to face the woman behind him. She looked no different from when he'd known her then, except she was more casually dressed.
“Nanny?” he asked.
She laughed gently, “Oh, Arthur, dear boy. Look at you all grown up. I think you can call me Morgause now.”
He wanted to hug her, to throw himself at her and ask her for comfort but in the next moment recalled she'd never really been the type of nanny who offered hugs and kisses to small boys. He'd adored her as the only woman in his life, but after the accident she'd gone and had visited only infrequently through the years.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“I always try and look out for you when you’re getting into trouble, Arthur, and you’re in rather a lot of trouble now, aren’t you?”
“I’ve been ill,” he said, his voice small, feeling more and more like the tiny child she'd taken care of years before.
“Yes, but where you are now isn't safe for you. I’m here to take you somewhere I can look after you. You want to come with me, don’t you?”
Did he? He thought of Gwen and Morgana, Lancelot and Leon. People who'd shown him kindness with no thought of reward, who'd looked after him and tried to get him well, who'd let him leave and trusted he would return.
“You met that man, didn’t you? Oh, Arthur, I tried to warn you. He'll hurt you, you know. Come away with me right now. I’ll keep you safe, I promise.” There was a growing urgency in her voice and it surprised him out of his contemplation of Merlin. Merlin who scared him and made him uneasy. Merlin who told him Arthur had worn the crown. Merlin who played the piano so beautifully, sending music to calm Arthur's nerves and help his spirit to mend. His brow furrowed.
“Come with me now, Arthur.” There was a distinct note of command in her tone now and he realised he was already walking, urged on by the tight grip she had on his elbow.
“Wait,” he protested.
“No, it’s too dangerous.”
He stopped in his tracks. “Why?” he asked. “Why is it dangerous? Why will nobody tell me what’s going on.”
“I'll –“ she began, only to be cut off as a shout sounded across the Green.
Merlin was tearing across the grass towards them, Gwen, Lancelot and Morgana in close pursuit. “Morgause,” Merlin shouted.
“Come on, Arthur, come on.”
Arthur refused to move. He was done with this. “No,” he decided. “I'm going to find out what's going on here. Right now.” He heard her hiss of anger but all his attention was now focussed on Merlin, wondering how he could so easily read the emotions Merlin was trying to hide. The anger and fear was on the surface and simple enough to see, but beneath that was concern for Arthur, a deep dislike – hatred – of Morgause - and then there were the emotions he wasn't sure he wanted to name. Arthur fought against the overwhelming unease trying to push him into retreat and instead he gritted his teeth and waited for this situation to play out.
Merlin stood still and stretched an arm forward, his fingers splayed out. It looked as if his eyes glowed gold for a moment, but that must surely have been a trick of the light.
And then something washed over him leaving him gasping and feeling as if a layer had been stripped from his skin. He shook his head, feeling it properly clear for the first time in years. What had Merlin done to him?
“Morgause. I should've known.” In direct contrast to any of his encounters with Merlin, the genial, kind man had been replaced by a hard-faced stranger. Arthur catalogued the others. Lancelot was wary and watchful, hand twitching at his side as if reaching for some weapon, Gwen worried and concerned and Morgana – Morgana was obviously distraught, her hands covering her mouth. When he looked around again he made a connection that suddenly seemed so ridiculous he could hardly put it into words.
“Oh, you are kidding me. What is this? Some mad Arthurian role-playing scenario? Well, let me tell you it is time you all grew up –“
Merlin interrupted his rant, “Arthur, will you stop being such a prat. This isn't a game.”
“No,” Morgause’s voice was soft and somehow menacing. “It's most certainly not a game. Arthur, these people are dangerous and they'd hurt you. Please come with me now.”
There was compulsion, but less than he'd experienced earlier, and while he was prompted by a feeling he should do as she commanded, he was halted by Merlin’s sound of distress in between his first step and his second. He wavered and the compulsion was gone.
“Arthur,” It was Gwen’s voice, soft but determined. “Think back, Arthur. What happened the day you nearly died? Morgause was there, wasn’t she? Tell us what happened.”
Why would she want to know about that now? He'd tried so hard not to think of it, to bury it as deep as he possibly could. He'd been so young and what he thought had happened couldn't - surely no father would – It must be a false memory – and Nanny, Nanny. Oh God.
Arthur stumbled back from her, staring at her in abject horror. “You took my life-jacket off. And then you watched, you watched while he threw me into the water. My god, I was five years old and you – It was you.” He was vaguely aware of the shocked gasps from the others and a growing rage in Merlin, but all his attention was on Morgause. “How could you? How could you do something so vile?”
For a moment it looked as if she was going to plead with him, but suddenly her expression changed and she sneered at him. “Oh, Arthur, always so eager to trust, aren’t you. All it takes is a friendly face. It was so easy to win you over. And your father was just as gullible. You've no idea how quickly I sent him mad, how simple it was to persuade him you were dangerous and unstable, how it would be kinder to let you die. You should've died. You should've drowned.”
“I was a child,” Arthur said, “What could I possibly have done to make you hate me so much?”
“In this life, Arthur, merely by existing you threaten me. You've destroyed everything I loved in the past. Why shouldn't I do the same to you?”
Arthur stared at her, so bewildered he was beyond words and was grateful when Merlin stepped up to stand shoulder to shoulder with him, and he spared the briefest of moments to wonder when the unease he'd been associating with Merlin had disappeared.
“You always seem to forget, Morgause, you're the root of your own disappointment and pain. You're the one who tried to use Arthur to attack his father, who used her own sister, who'd never accept her fight was futile. Arthur's under my protection now. He's under the protection of Albion. Arthur would never have drowned because our land would never allow it. Your time is at an end.”
“Not quite yet,” she said.
The dagger seemed to come from nowhere and Arthur wondered at the speed of his reflexes as he threw himself to the ground and rolled out of its path. It was only a distraction, however, because when he looked up, Morgause was gone and Merlin was standing with his hand splayed out before him and every muscle in his face was locked in an expression of frustration and fury.
Arthur stood up slowly, feeling bereft and realised he was shaking. The one rock in his life, the one person whose goodness he'd clung to had turned out to be someone who could drive a man to the edge of madness and over, who could encourage him to murder a child and stand by and watch it happen.
“Arthur,” It was Lancelot’s voice, and his tone was sharp. “Stay with me, Arthur.” A strong arm looped around him and then there was a presence at his other side. He wanted to push Merlin away but instead his body betrayed him, leaning into the warmth and security he was offered. He bit back the sob threatening to break free and closed his eyes against the dizziness.
“Take a breath and let it out slowly,” Lancelot advised. “Do you need to sit down for a moment?”
Arthur followed his instruction and felt the miasma lift. “I’ll be okay,” he managed. “Can we just get out of here?” They were beginning to collect some curious gazes from the tourists milling around them.
“Are you okay to go back to the house? We can take you somewhere else if you prefer.” Merlin sounded calm, but there was a subtle tremor in his frame and a huskiness in his voice exposing his fear that Arthur might take him up on the offer of going elsewhere.
“The house is fine,” Arthur said, not sure he could make it much further anyway.
By the time they made it there he was only fit for bed and let himself be settled under the duvet before he was left in peace. He didn’t sleep for a long time, staring into the dim room, listening to the quiet, comforting murmur of voices and sounds of movement in the house before the sound of the piano finally soothed him into oblivion.
Merlin was still playing when Arthur finally woke, stretching and realising that despite what had happened and the shocks he'd experienced, he still felt better than he could ever remember. He frowned as he recalled the way it'd felt as if something had been peeled away from his skin and his mind, leaving him mentally clear and alert. He'd no memory of ever feeling like this before and yet instinctively he knew it was as he should be.
Stretching, Arthur decided he was hungry and made his way quietly to the kitchen. There was a note from Morgana on the table and he smiled as he pulled the pasta dish from the fridge and transferred it to the microwave.
When he had finished he walked silently up the stairs and leaned against the doorway, taking the opportunity to study Merlin’s features while the man was so lost in his music. Along with everything else that seemed to have happened, the unease with which he'd always viewed Merlin had disappeared and he could admit now he was more than a little attracted to him. He'd felt drawn to Merlin at the very same time he was repelled and frightened by him and it'd started the very first moment he'd heard Merlin's voice. Despite his nanny’s – Morgause’s – warnings, he'd never been able to throw away the original picture he'd drawn. The two crude stick figures standing hand in hand, their smiling faces always making him wonder how the dark-haired one could be as bad as Morgause had said. Now, with his memory of what she'd done to himself and his father, Arthur had to accept the attraction he felt was the real emotion, and his ambivalence about Merlin settled into something he wasn't quite ready to acknowledge just yet, but knew it wouldn't be long before he did. And he accepted, although he didn't know how he knew, that Merlin was in love with him - deeply in love. He drew in a deep shaky breath and the sound was enough to disturb Merlin, the Chopin, which had been bubbling like a brook from the piano, suddenly ending in discord.
Merlin’s long fingers remained on the keyboard as he asked. “How are you feeling? Do you need something to eat? Are you-?“
He stopped as Arthur held up his hand and he wondered at the glimmer of amusement Merlin expressed at his gesture.
“I ate,” Arthur said, “And I’m fine. And I think it’s time you told me what’s going on.”
Merlin bit his lip and stared down at the piano keys for a long moment before he sighed. He pressed his fingers onto the keys, playing a deliberate soft discord, before he shut the piano lid. “Yes. I was hoping you'd remember on your own,” he added cryptically, “But Morgause seems to have destroyed any chance of that.”
There was silence while they regarded one another for a few moments and then Merlin heaved in a deep sigh. “Better get comfortable,” he said wryly, gesturing to the sofas, “It’s going to take a while.”
Before joining him Merlin went to the small sideboard and extracted a bottle of whiskey and a couple of glasses. Without asking he poured a couple of fingers of scotch into each glass and handed one to Arthur. Arthur accepted it, with the nasty feeling he was going to need it. Merlin settled into one corner of the sofa, Arthur tucked into the other. They angled themselves so they could see one another although they kept plenty of space between them.
“On the Green you accused us of having some Arthurian role-playing scenario going on.” He met Arthur’s gaze then. “It’s actually much simpler – and a great deal more complicated, too. Will you let me tell you the bare bones, first, without interruption? Then you can say your piece.”
“Fair enough,” Arthur sipped at the scotch and was surprised how much he liked the burn and the peaty aftertaste. He glanced up in time to see a fond, sad smile flit across Merlin’s features before they settled into pensiveness.
“Everyone talks about the legend of King Arthur, but he was no legend. Arthur existed and Arthur is real. He was born the son of Uther Pendragon, just as the legends say, but what isn't revealed is the fact Uther and his wife Ygraine asked their friend, a sorceress, to give Ygraine the ability to bear a child. Arthur was born of magic, but Ygraine died. Uther blamed the magic and spent the rest of his life trying to eradicate it from Camelot, beheading or burning anyone caught using it. Arthur grew up a Prince, aware of his station and rank and believing in his father, but with the added strength of his mother’s kindness and sense of justice.” He paused and chuckled. “Though it has to be said those qualities weren’t very much in evidence by the time he'd reached his twentieth year.
“The legends also depict Merlin as old, but he wasn’t. Merlin came to Camelot as a young man to apprentice with the Court Physician. Almost the first thing he saw was the execution of a sorcerer. The second thing was Prince Arthur bullying a servant…”
Merlin tried to provide an overview of the main events, aware of Arthur’s gaze fixed on him as he talked about their relationship and how it had changed from prince and manservant to lovers, how they'd spent a lifetime together and how the others had fitted into their life. He spoke of the time in Oxford, too, and how he finally realised it had changed their history and in the end had given them a happiness they might not have known. He told him about Cornelius Sigan and the struggle at the well, finishing off with the way they'd all been reborn.
“We’re here for a purpose, Arthur. It didn’t occur to me at first that if the knights, Morgana and Gwen had been reborn then Morgause might be, too. And I suspect if she's here then Mordred may be, and who knows how many others. What I do believe now is Morgause has somehow managed to tap into the power of Cornelius Sigan,” and he shared his theory about how they were trying to get rid of non-magical humans.
When he finally ran out of words they sat in silence. Arthur’s glass was empty and Merlin filled it, draining his own in one gulp before topping it up, too.
“So, are you telling me you think I’m actually King Arthur?” There was deep disbelief in his voice.
“I know you are, Arthur. I knew the moment you were born. I thought it best to wait until you were ready to find me. It didn’t occur to me for one moment you'd be in danger. I’m so sorry, Arthur, I’m so very sorry.” Merlin's voice broke and he stumbled into silence, sitting with his head bowed and staring into the glass in his hands.
Arthur wanted to be angry, to demand that if Merlin really had all this power, if he loved him as much as he said he did then he would surely have known, he wouldn't have left him, but it seemed rather pointless. If it wasn't true, then it didn’t matter – and if it was then they'd considerably more to worry about.
Abruptly Arthur stood, “I’m going to bed,” he said and walked away, taking the glass with him.
Merlin said nothing and didn't try to stop him.
Arthur retreated to the bedroom that had become his haven even in the short week since he'd arrived, and curled into the chair, cradling the glass and sipping at it until it was empty. In the drawing room Merlin was obviously taking out his own anguish on the piano as Liszt crashed out. Arthur shut his eyes and let the sound wash over him, smiling slightly as Liszt was followed by Scarlatti and then segued into Beethoven, and a measure of peace arrived with the Moonlight. He thought about Merlin and all he'd told Arthur, and married the words with his expressions, thinking with fondness how difficult he seemed to find it to hide what he was feeling. The knowledge he was loved so much – even if it all turned out to be some mad fabrication – warmed him. It was something he accepted he'd never known in his life - in this life - and, however this strange situation played out, he didn’t want to be without it.
Sighing, he wandered back to the drawing room, where Merlin had moved on to Einaudi and seemed to be set to play all night long. Merlin tensed as he approached and his fingers stilled. Arthur placed a hand in the centre of Merlin’s back, feeling the deep breath Merlin drew in at his touch.
“I don’t remember anything,” Arthur said softly, “But I think I believe. I want to believe. I want to believe in you.” Merlin let loose a small sound, as if he was easing a pressure and he leaned back until his head was resting against Arthur’s chest. “Come to bed,” Arthur continued. “Not to – I mean – just to rest?”
Merlin stood and Arthur knew the movement was his acquiescence. Arthur took Merlin's hand and drew him up to his own room. They didn’t undress but lay on the covers facing one another. One of Merlin’s hands was by his face on the pillow and Arthur covered it with his own. Fingers shifted, adjusted, slipped into convenient gaps until their hands were linked together. Arthur could feel tendrils of – something – twist around their joined hands and this time there was no repulsion, only a deep satisfaction and a sense of rightness.
Merlin woke slowly, blinking awake and was unable to squash the smile that insisted on spreading across his features when he realised the heavy weight on his chest was Arthur’s head, and he was snuggled in, clutching him close just as he'd always done. There was joy and poignancy both as it seemed Arthur could still draw comfort from Merlin, albeit unconsciously, even though he'd yet to remember him.
Arthur stirred and Merlin feigned sleep as he eased out of the embrace. A moment later an amused voice said.
“You don’t lie well, do you? Even when you’re not actually speaking you can’t pretend.”
Merlin opened his eyes and couldn't help but smile at the raised eyebrows he was treated to. It was such an Arthur expression. There was a long moment as they stared at one another and then Arthur’s features settled into something Merlin was not sure he recognised. Reaching out, Arthur touched the ring that had lain gently against Merlin’s flesh for so many years, and then raised Merlin’s hand to lay it, with its matching ring against his chest. His eyes asked the question.
Merlin took Arthur’s hand and rested it over his own. “You gave me your ring when you left Oxford. When you returned to Camelot you'd another made and then,” he swallowed, “When you left me, you gave me the second ring to keep for you,” and he touched the ring on its simple leather thong. "I've worn it ever since. It's yours, when you're ready.”
Arthur’s expression was troubled. “What if I never remember? Right now I want to believe you, believe all of this, but what if-“
“We’ll work it out,” Merlin reassured him, “And anyway, now you’re here I think I’ll be able to reach Freya and she’ll be enough to convince you, I’m sure of it.”
He raised his head from the pillow and frowned at the door, and Arthur became aware of movement and conversation elsewhere in the house.
“I expect the others will have arrived by now – it’s been hard enough to keep them away but now they know Morgause is around they’ll insist on being here.
“Your knights, Arthur. You’ve met Leon and Lancelot and now you’ll meet Percival, Elyan and Gwaine. They’ll be disappointed you haven’t remembered, but it’s time they saw you just the same. They’ll want to be reassured you’re safe.
Arthur stirred, still uneasy with the whole mad idea and slightly unnerved by his ability to swallow all Merlin was telling him. He'd already accused Merlin of being a poor liar and if he really believed it, then he had to accept that at least Merlin believed what he'd been telling Arthur. And then there was Morgause and the damage she'd done both to him and his father. A sudden sympathy shook him for the man who'd attempted to control him his whole life, and who Arthur had fought so hard to escape. Morgause had admitted to driving him mad, to making him believe his son was some kind of dangerous monster. And then there was whatever Merlin had done when he seemed to strip away the fog surrounding Arthur. For the first time in Arthur's life he felt clear-headed and instead of believing himself slow and stupid, of below average intelligence, he was quickly becoming aware his mind was sharp. All those things together provided evidence seemingly backing up what he was being told. Except rationality would suggest the whole notion was stark raving bonkers.
His gaze rested on the ring at Merlin’s throat for a moment, and the one Merlin wore on his ring finger. Although Merlin had skated over the exact nature of their relationship when he sketched out his narrative, his own attraction to Merlin and Merlin’s obvious love for him told a clear enough story. He met Merlin’s gaze then, witnessing a sympathy and a love he could hardly believe he merited. Swallowing, he averted his gaze.
Merlin sounded oddly breathless when he spoke. “Can you cope with meeting them?”
“Of course,” He wondered where his suddenly arrogant tone came from and flushed when he saw Merlin bite back a grin.
Arthur took longer in the shower than he would've normally, although he refused to admit even to himself that he might be nervous. When he finally hesitated at the kitchen doorway everyone was in the midst of what appeared to be a heated argument. He folded his arms and listened, as the dispute seemed to be about him.
“We need to give him twenty-four hours to rest and adjust, Merlin. You can’t just expect him to leap into action. He’s been on strong drugs for most of his life and those take time to leave the system. We should be waiting longer, to assess the effects of withdrawal – “
“Arthur is fine,” Merlin responded. “My magic has dealt with the drugs in his system, and all the dark magic Morgause had surrounded him with. His own stubborn nature will do the rest.” He paused and scrubbed his hands through his hair. “The full moon's tomorrow night – it will help Freya. It gives Arthur a day to rest, but we’re running out of time. We’re all running out of time. We’ll go to the well tomorrow night and Arthur –“
“- can make his own decisions, thank you very much.” He broke in coolly, and he knew the glance he cast at Merlin was just as cool, watching as the man bit his lip and cast his glance down, as if he knew he'd gone too far.
As Arthur entered the room, he was taken aback when they all, to a person, stood. His gaze passed over them all and he was shaken by the wave of familiarity washing over him. Lancelot, Leon, Morgana, Gwen and Merlin he had already met. As he considered the other three men he nodded to each in turn. “Percival, Gwaine, Elyan. Good to meet you.”
“You remember us?” Percival asked, sounding hopeful. “Or did Merlin describe us?”
“I don’t remember anything,” Arthur said and watched the disappointment chase across their features, “But I know you all just the same.”
“That’s good, isn’t it? Merlin?” Elyan said, his gaze fixed on Arthur.
Merlin smiled round at them. “I hope so.”
“So,” Arthur settled himself at the table and accepted the coffee and toast he was offered. “What do we know?”
“Here you go, Princess,” Gwaine slid the jar of Marmite across the table to him and they both ignored Merlin’s groan of disgust. “Good to have the brains of the outfit back, eh, Merlin?”
Merlin slapped the back of Gwaine’s head as he passed. “Bit more respect for your king and court sorcerer, SirGwaine.”
Arthur munched on his toast and waited for them to settle down. He was mildly disconcerted by how easy it felt to be so obviously in charge here, especially when he'd never taken control of anything in his life before – apart from running away.
“Lancelot,” he began. “I feel fine – better than I have in my entire life, in fact - but I’m happy for you to run any tests you need if it'll satisfy you. Otherwise, let’s discuss what we know, what we guess, and identify a strategy for tomorrow, shall we? “ He turned to Merlin, ignoring the besotted expression on his face, “Merlin?” He invited him to open the discussion.
“Ow,” Merlin winced as Elyan rapped him smartly across the back of his head.
“Wake up, Merlin,” Elyan remonstrated gently, and grinned at the discomfited look he received in return, looking only slightly mollified as Elyan handed a fresh mug of coffee across the table, and after an appreciative sip, Merlin began to talk.
They spoke together for much of the day, and every so often someone would make a pot of coffee, offer mugs of tea, sandwiches, breaking up the meeting for a few moments every so often when discussion got heated or people seemed to be flagging.
Merlin began by telling the others what had happened with Cornelius Sigan twenty years before. When he'd spoken to Arthur, Merlin had told him about his own role and he realised Merlin was skating over the fact Arthur had been present then, and what he thought might be happening now. Throughout the morning and into the afternoon they each put any knowledge they had into the mix. Lancelot talked about the health implications manifesting across the globe. Elyan had been researching the work governments and other organisations were doing to try and combat the issues and Percival mentioned the briefing police forces were having, the rumours about new powers to control water sources, and the army being mobilised. All in all it was a sobering picture being built up and they all paused for a moment as they realised Merlin was right. They were all running out of time, because once people started to understand what was happening, the panic would happen quickly, spread like wildfire and be impossible to control.
All this without anyone being aware what was happening was actually a deliberate attack on much of the human race.
Arthur spoke. “So, we’re clear what's going on and have some idea it's being done through this Sigan’s power. We believe Morgause certainly, and possibly Mordred, are behind it – and there may be others. What we don’t know is how exactly they've managed to tap into Sigan’s power. Merlin, you mentioned Nimueh – that she was originally an enemy. Is there any possibility she's become an enemy again? Could she be helping Morgause?”
"Gods, I hope not,” It looked as if the possibility hadn't even occurred to Merlin. “I don’t think so. The dreams I’m having – I think it’s Freya trying to contact me, and I heard more than one voice. “ He paused and then shook his head. “No, I think she and Freya are protecting the water as much as they can. We need to help them.” He looked anxiously at Arthur, who quailed a little at the trust and confidence exuding from him.
“You said tomorrow night would be good?”
“Freya's the Lady of the Lake, but she’s more than that, I think. It’s like she's the spirit of the water and the moon affects tides. It’s always been easier to contact her when the moon's full.”
“So we go when the moon rises tomorrow.” Arthur looked around at them, realising he'd already accepted his role as leader, catching the gaze of each and every one of them, his own gaze steady and trying to offer a confidence he was far from feeling.
“Will we need weapons?” Elyan asked. “And if so, what?”
Abruptly, Merlin left the kitchen, returning shortly and manoeuvring a long, polished wooden box through the door. He placed it almost reverently on the round kitchen table and opened it. Arthur watched the faces as one by the swords were revealed, each one claimed by its obvious owner. Even Morgana and Gwen had their swords, just as finely crafted and lethal as those of the knights. Arthur watched as Lancelot, his expression concerned, opened his mouth, only to close it at Leon’s shake of the head. From the determined set of Gwen’s mouth, it was clearly an argument Lancelot was destined to lose should he be foolish enough to start it.
“I found them all,” Merlin explained. “Through the years I traced them and kept them for you. I thought there might be chance you'd need them again one day.”
There was no sword for Arthur.
Merlin bit his lip and met his gaze. “When you were – gone – Excalibur had to be returned to the Lake of Avalon. Its magic was not safe in the world without you there to wield it.”
“You threw a metal sword into a lake?” Arthur was aghast.
“Not this again,” Merlin said cryptically. “Magic sword, Arthur, really it'll be fine. And anyway, I’ll need to be drawing on the magic you have within you to help me break through whatever barriers Morgause has put in place to keep Freya from communicating with us.”
“I don’t have magic, Merlin,” Arthur was diverted from his concerns about the sword.
“In Camelot you were born of magic and here and now you're the Once and Future King. Of course you have magic. Will you help me?”
Arthur nodded slowly, meeting his gaze before smiling around at the others. “And the knights will form a barrier around us for protection.”
“Gwen and I will be there, too.” Morgana’s tone was tart.
With a grin in her direction, Arthur remarked. “My apologies, Morgana, I should have made it clear I was counting you and Gwen as knights of Camelot.”
Without a doubt, Arthur thought, when he witnessed the reactions of the others, it wasn't often Morgana was rendered speechless.
Despite his assertion to Lancelot, it was difficult to hide his tiredness. More than the physical effects of the previous day, it was the emotional trauma draining him. Knowing of Morgause’s evil intent for himself and his father, learning about his past life and destiny – and as each moment passed he was becoming more convinced – and then Merlin’s quiet explanation of their history as well as all the things he hadn't said. Altogether, it had left him tired in a way that was more than simply physical.
Sharp-eyed Gwen noticed first, of course, although she made no specific remark, merely shooing the others out and suggesting they all needed to find somewhere quiet to do some drills, and Merlin and Arthur were left alone.
“Would you play for me?” Arthur asked.
“Of course.” Merlin led the way up to the drawing room and Arthur lay on the sofa, propping his head on some cushions so he could watch Merlin’s hands and profile as he played.
“What do you want to hear?”
“Mmm.” As the first soft chords sounded through the room, Arthur’s eyes were already closing.
It was dusk when Arthur woke again, his gaze falling on Merlin who was curled into an armchair close by, fast asleep. For the first time Arthur had the chance to really study Merlin, and he took the opportunity to look his fill. It was already apparent to him now the magically-generated unease was gone, that he was well on his way to falling in love with Merlin. He grimaced, whom was he kidding? He was head over heels already. Without any memories of a past life, this was his first love and he was both confused and excited by the sight of the man before him.
As if aware he was under scrutiny, Merlin’s eyes flickered open and he smiled gently at Arthur, still half-asleep. It was the smile that finished Arthur, so full of love and affection, of knowing. Before he quite knew what he was planning he was kneeling beside the chair and had rested his forehead against Merlin’s knee. A hand settled tentatively on his head and was still for a moment; as if Merlin was afraid he would be shaken off. Arthur heaved in a deep breath and the hand moved, fingers tangling in hair, a slow calming stroke and Arthur shifted slightly until his cheek was against Merlin’s thigh.
“Arthur,” It was a wistful, longing tone.
“You love me,” Arthur knew he did.
“I've loved you for a very long time. And I'll love you until the end of time.”
“I don’t remember.”
“It’s okay, Arthur, I don’t expect anything of you.”
“What if I want?” Arthur said. “Merlin, what if I want?”
There was a long silence.
“Arthur,” Merlin said. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” and Arthur was. For the first time in his life he understood need and want and desire. And love. “I want this now.” And then he was a little more uncertain. “Merlin, I’ve never…”
Merlin reached forward and cupped his hands around Arthur’s elbows, bringing him up as he uncurled, pulling Arthur into his lap and wrapping his arms around him. With a relieved sigh, Arthur relaxed against him, feeling the way they fitted together, and for a long time they sat in silence.
Arthur nuzzled against Merlin’s neck, absurdly pleased as he felt the pulse stutter and quicken. Daring, he pressed his lips to the same point and felt Merlin swallow and his grip tighten. He nipped at the angle of Merlin’s jaw, licked and nipped an ear lobe before sealing his mouth around it and sucking gently. A strangled gasp was his reward as well as the telltale signs of Merlin’s growing arousal. Satisfied with his progress so far, and feeling more confident by the second, he leaned away and grinned at the man holding him, his smile widening at the almost shocked expression.
With a moan, deep in his throat, Merlin closed the gap and kissed him – gently at first, teasing and nipping at lips as he led Arthur onwards, feeding their rising arousal. It wasn't long before gentle touches and soft kisses became more insistent, harder, the growing passion burning away everything but the need for more touch.
Gods, he was so hard and the tightness of his jeans was becoming distinctly uncomfortable, but he was so lost in Merlin’s kisses and the touch of his hands sliding up under the shirt he was wearing, too invested in getting his own hands on flesh rather than cloth, to do much about it. At this rate it was going to get very messy, very fast.
Just as Arthur thought he was going to tumble over, Merlin broke away, gasping for air and obviously fighting for some control.
“I want to. Can I?” he gasped, and he covered the bulge in Arthur’s jeans.
Arthur could only nod, lost for words and remained silent as Merlin manoeuvred him until he was sitting on the sofa and he was staring at Merlin kneeling between his legs. He couldn't quite believe this was happening – or how much he wanted it. Groaning aloud, he let his head tip backwards to rest on the back of the sofa as Merlin gently unzipped trousers, helping him until jeans and boxers were removed. Afterwards Arthur would always vehemently deny he'd whimpered, but he couldn't stop the sounds escaping as Merlin, sinfully, wickedly and with skill, took him in his mouth and extracted every bit of pleasure he could. Arthur had to look then, watching the dark head as it moved, realising Merlin had undone his own jeans and had one hand round his own cock as he jerked off to the same rhythm as his mouth moved on Arthur. Arthur’s hands moved of their own accord, it seemed, as he acted on instinct and let them rest on Merlin’s head, following the movement rather than trying to direct, happy to let Merlin set the pace as he took them both to the edge and then tumbled them over.
When Merlin next became fully aware, he was on his back on the sofa with Arthur on top of him and the man was kissing him, licking into his mouth as if he was trying to chase his own taste. Merlin’s own hands were busy reacquainting themselves with all the dips and hollows of Arthur’s back and he felt as if he was drunk on the touch of him.
Eventually Arthur pulled away and slid to his side, the width of the sofa just accommodating them. “Will you come to bed?” He asked Merlin softly.
With a quirked smile, Merlin asked. “Just to rest?”
Arthur met his gaze, his eyes heavy-lidded with re-awakening desire. “Rest? Not so much. Not my idea at all, in fact.” He leaned down to kiss Merlin again and it struck Merlin that Arthur may not remember him yet, but his body seemed to have retained all its knowledge where making love to Merlin was concerned as he recognised the way Arthur was touching and caressing him and knew what he wanted.
“You want me to make love to you?” He asked.
“Yes. Yes I do. And I want it to happen now, because you'll be my first.”
“That seems fitting,” Merlin replied with a soft smile. “You were my first, after all.”
It was Arthur, a little hesitant, a little excited, but very sure, who led the way up to the room that had become his. From tomorrow night, Merlin decided, ignoring the perils lying before them before they got to that point, they'd sleep in Merlin’s bed. The same bed that had been theirs in Oxford and would be theirs again. For now, though, he let Arthur take the lead as he realised it was important for him to have control over what happened tonight.
They were calmer now, the first urgent rush of need sated and Merlin could see Arthur wanted to take plenty of time over this and he was happy to comply. If Merlin could, he'd make tonight last forever and not have to face what was to come.
Arthur’s hand, his beloved hand, cupped Merlin’s cheek and he let himself fall into the kiss, thinking about nothing other than pleasing Arthur. They tumbled onto the bed and Arthur rolled him over with a sudden laugh of sheer joy.
This, Merlin thought, is going to be brilliant.
Arthur stared up at the night sky and watched as the moon rose. As soon as the dark had fallen they'd made their way in ones and twos to the site of St. Andrew’s Well. He nodded at Lancelot and Gwen as they arrived to make the company complete. Merlin caught his eye and he inclined his head again. They were ready. The knights stood in an arc behind them, facing outwards as they kept watch with swords at the ready, though Arthur wondered what use they'd be if Morgause turned up with guns. He'd raised his concerns with Merlin who'd stated his belief it was unlikely a witch would want to handle iron in any form and Arthur had felt compelled to make the point there were such things as ceramic guns.
“She’ll rely on her magic, Arthur. She knows I can stop bullets, so it’s unlikely she’ll bother with a weapon that’s going to be pretty useless against me or anyone with me."
Arthur still wasn’t particularly content with his explanation, but the others seemed happy enough to be guided by Merlin’s knowledge and for the moment he wasn't in a position to argue further.
They walked towards the water and he saw Merlin sniff the air.
“What is it?” he asked.
“It’s… sour… there’s something not right.”
Almost unconsciously he slipped his hand into Merlin’s and interlinked their fingers. “How will you contact -?”
Arthur was shocked speechless. Standing in the middle of the water was a young woman. She looked exhausted and driven and he heard Merlin’s gasp of distress. He was even more surprised by Elyan’s strangled cry.
“Merlin, you've found Arthur. I felt you close. I don't have long, my loves.”
“What’s happening, Freya?”
“Morgause tricked us. She came to me and offered to help us with Sigan. He was so strong, Merlin, and both Nimueh and I were tired. I'd tried to come to you for help but she must have already been blocking our ability to communicate. She's established a conduit to Sigan allowing them to work together and he's poisoning the water. We're doing everything we can to stop them, but they'll overpower us soon. We need you. We need Emrys. The four of us together will be strong enough.
“Four?” Arthur asked.
The woman, Freya, smiled sweetly at him. “You are Albion’s king, Arthur, the land claimed you long ago. We need you and Merlin both. You –“
They were interrupted by a shout and Arthur realised with horror they were under attack. He had a confused glimpse of Gwaine and Percival standing over Elyan, who was clutching at his side, and they were protecting him against four men who were also wielding swords. There were about twenty in total, he thought, armed to the teeth, and the only advantage they had seemed to be the fact access was limited and Lancelot and Leon were holding most of them back at the entry. He caught a glimpse of blonde hair and realised Morgause was there, shouting a warning just as a pulse of power bowled the knights over. Morgana and Gwen moved forward and Arthur saw Morgause hesitate for a second, before she obviously cast the same spell.
In the next instant, Merlin was striding past him and his eyes were already glowing gold.
Arthur felt terrified and completely helpless.
“Arthur,” It was Freya’s voice and it was urgent. “Arthur, put your hand in the water. Now.”
There wasn’t even a moment of doubt. In one brief conversation he'd already decided he trusted her absolutely. He scrambled to the side of the well and shoved his hand in where the water swirled about her bare feet. Something smacked into his palm, and as he withdrew his arm he realised he was holding the pommel of a sword.
Not just any sword.
King Arthur drew in a deep breath and spun the sword in his hand. “Merlin, protect the well. Lancelot, look to Elyan. Knights of Camelot,” and he roared. “On me!” He had a brief glimpse of Merlin’s manic grin as he joined the fight. As they'd done on the field of battle so many times, the knights, including Morgana and Gwen, rallied around him and in moments those of their enemies still alive were running for their lives. When Arthur turned he saw Morgause was trying to get to the well but Merlin had cast a shield around it and was standing behind it, between her and the water. Without a thought he walked through the shield and then turned to meet her gaze.
“I am Arthur, King of Albion. I belong to this land and will protect it. The land itself will reject you, Morgause, if you persist in this madness.”
“So the little king has found his memory then,” she said. “This isn't over.”
“No, it isn't,” Arthur said. “But it will be soon.”
In the next moment Morgause was gone.
His next concern was for his injured knight and without even a glance at Merlin, he strode across the grass to Elyan’s side. The grim look Lancelot cast at him couldn't hide the knowledge they both shared when they saw the wound. Elyan had moments left. Gwen had hold of one hand, fighting her tears and trying to smile at him, and Elyan extended the other to him, dragging Arthur’s fingers to his mouth.
“It has been an honour to serve you, Sire,” he said.
“I have been honoured by your service, Sir Elyan,” Arthur responded formally, “But save your strength.”
He turned at Freya’s voice. Her eyes had settled on Elyan and he when he followed her line of sight he saw Elyan’s eyes fixed on her.
“You'll need Nimueh at your side for this fight, my king and I ask for a boon in return.”
Arthur felt his brow crease in puzzlement and then saw the sudden hope enter Merlin’s expression.
“Ask what you will, my lady.”
“I ask that Sir Elyan rest with me. He'll be my strength and my helpmeet.”
Arthur wasn't quite sure what was happening, but he looked at Elyan and realised his eyes were still fixed on Freya – and despite obvious pain he was smiling.
“I'd like it above all things, Sire. You've often been welcome in my dreams, my lady.”
She smiled, like a woman in love. “Bring him to me.”
Carefully, they carried Elyan to the side of the well and stood back to watch as the waters rose, swirling around Elyan and turning pink even under the moonlight as water rushed over the bloody wound. Gwen cried out as the water swirled even higher, covering him completely and then Elyan and Freya were gone.
In his place on the grass was a young woman wearing jeans and a jumper, soaked through and shivering. She was clutching a jewel in which a dark cloud swirled, angry and threatening.
She coughed and spluttered and then looked up balefully at Merlin, who shrugged. “What?” he asked. “At least you’re dressed this time.” But for all his casual response, those watching couldn't miss his pleasure at this meeting.
The comment roused them all. Gwen and Lancelot rushed to the edge of the water and then Gwen turned her head to bury it against Lancelot’s chest. Percival grabbed his jacket from the ground where he had left it earlier and wrapped it around Nimueh. Gwaine and Leon were still clearly on guard, checking the area and gathering up the bladed weapons that had been discarded. Their faces were troubled and saddened at losing one of their own, even if it seemed the loss was not quite as bad as it might've been. They'd all miss Elyan’s quiet practical sense and his wicked humour. Merlin was disposing of the bodies and generally using his magic to ensure no one would ever be any the wiser.
Arthur looked round at them all, proud beyond words. And then he asked. “Where’s Morgana?”
Everyone stopped and Leon spun to face Arthur, horror and guilt spreading across his features.
“Merlin?” Arthur asked.
As so often in the past, Merlin knew what he was asking without him having to say the words. His eyes glowed for a few moments.
“She’s alive and well,” Merlin directed his words to Leon, who relaxed only slightly at this reassurance. “Morgause has her, though.”
They all stood in silence while they absorbed that piece of news and then Arthur spoke. “Let’s get back. We can discuss what to do next. And we’ll introduce you properly to Nimueh.”
Their progress across the Green was slow and Nimueh was exhausted, stumbling along until Percival simply swung her up into his arms. She squeaked in indignation, and then settled against him.
Arthur sent them all to wash and change and it was a sombre group that met in the kitchen. Leon was stoic, but his eyes couldn't hide his pain and concern. Gwen was tearful and trying to be brave. Lancelot stayed close to her side. Gwaine looked much as he always did, except he was twirling a knife in his hand, which had always been a tic of his when he was upset. Percival, well Percival was staring at Nimueh as if he'd just seen one of the stars drop down from the heavens. Nimueh was taking no notice of him, although Arthur could swear she was blushing a little. She was wearing some of Morgana’s clothes and was sipping at hot chocolate. Their gazes met for a moment and she inclined her head but left it to him to break the silence. Merlin was watching him and trying to pretend he was not.
“When my father discovered my mother was barren, he sought help.”
Everyone’s attention was suddenly on Arthur, captured by his words. Merlin and Nimueh both drew in their breath sharply.
“In those days magic was welcomed at the court of Camelot and my mother’s dearest friend was a young sorceress of great power. She agreed to help my mother bear a child, but she warned the king there'd be a cost – that there must be balance. I don’t think anyone expected the price to be my mother’s life. The sorceress fled, but Uther turned his grief and his guilt into blame and he blamed magic. Nimueh was my mother’s friend. For a time she was Uther’s enemy – and mine. But she's helped us in the past and I know we can trust her now. I know you don't know her, but be assured she will help us.” He met Nimueh's eyes then. “For my mother, she will help us.”
Her head tipped to one side as she considered him. “Not just for Ygraine, but for Albion’s Once and Future King.” She transferred her eyes to the silently watching man by Arthur’s side. “And for Emrys. You have my fealty.”
Arthur felt Merlin relax.
“Is there anything else you can tell us about Morgause and Sigan?” Arthur settled at the table, aware of Merlin doing the same, and they both accepted the glasses of whiskey Gwaine slid down to them. Arthur raised his eyebrows at him as Gwaine sloshed more into his own empty glass and Gwaine favoured him with a sharp nod, screwing the top onto the bottle and pushing it along the table to Percival.
Satisfied, and ignoring the jab in his ribs from Merlin’s elbow, Arthur sipped at the drink and returned his attention to Nimueh. She reached for the bottle and dumped a good measure into the hot chocolate she was drinking.
“Merlin's already guessed some of it, but not all. We’re afraid – we’re afraid if the balance isn't restored soon, then the very land will take all the magic back into itself.”
“What does that mean?” Leon asked, his voice hoarse.
“I don’t know for sure, but Freya believes if the balance is disturbed enough and magic is the cause, then it will seek redress. This fight isn't just about saving non-magical humans. It’s about saving those with magic, too.”
“Can this day be any more fun?” Gwaine interjected. “Somebody pass me the damn bottle.”
“No.” Arthur barely glanced at Gwaine and the bottle stayed where it was. Gwaine glowered but subsided.
“Why did she take Morgana?” Leon asked.
Merlin answered. “Morgause knew Morgana as a witch and a seer. Other than a couple of bad dreams, I haven’t seen any particular evidence of power in her in this life other than at a very low level. But Morgause doesn't know that. She may want to try and use Morgana’s power to find out what we’re going to do. Or she may just want to try and win her over again.” He chewed at a fingernail, clearly worried and upset. Arthur slapped his hand away from his mouth and pretended not to notice Merlin’s soft grin.
“We need to know what Morgause is planning and when.” Arthur spoke.
“Whatever it is,” Nimueh interjected, “We need to deal with Cornelius Sigan. Without access to his power there's little of great note that Morgause can achieve – and either Merlin or I are a match for her. Sigan's another matter. It will take Emrys, Arthur and me to deal with him this time.”
“This time?” Percival had been hanging on her every word.
Arthur realised while Merlin had said a little about Sigan and how he'd ended up here, he'd been sketchy on his details of their meeting in Oxford twenty years before and when he saw Merlin’s questioning look, he answered with a nod.
“I never did tell you exactly how Arthur found out about my magic, did I?”
“No, Merlin,” Gwaine drawled. “You know, I don’t think you ever did.”
In more detail this time, Merlin spoke about Arthur’s time travel adventure and how they'd come to trap Sigan, including the role Nimueh had played.
“Sigan is the key, then?” Leon asked. “As Nimueh's said, he's the one we need to defeat.”
“His soul'ss still trapped within the crystal, but he's so incredibly strong and as Freya said, we were duped by Morgause. She said she'd changed, that she was worried about you and Arthur, Merlin. She –“
“Morgause is adept at twisting words and manipulating people, Nimueh,” Merlin offered her some comfort. “She can be so very manipulative”
“Sigan now has a conduit through Morgause to the outside world. At her behest he's poisoning the water in various ways and all across the world, and while we could fight to keep the waters clean to some extent, it wasn't enough.”
“If Sigan is using Morgause as a conduit then she should take care. Sigan wants nothing but power. My guess is he’s waiting until he’s strong enough to take her magic for himself. In her arrogance and belief in her own power, Morgause may yet be the architect of her own destruction.” Merlin’s words were thoughtful.
“You defeated him before, Merlin. Could you do it again?” Arthur asked.
“I’m becoming more powerful. With Nimueh’s help and yours I could probably close the conduit and trap him back in the jewel.”
“That’s not enough, though, is it?” Gwaine remarked. “In the end, what we really need to do is destroy Sigan and Morgause.”
“Sounds like a plan I can get behind.” Percival agreed.
“That’s fine,” Lancelot said, “But how and where and when?” Arthur noticed Gwen was tucked into his side, and was struggling between grief and exhaustion.
“And we need to find Morgana.” Leon’s tone was fretful and Arthur reached across to grip his arm.
“We'll rescue her. My word on it. For now, we all need some sleep if we are to be fit tomorrow.” Arthur held up a hand as voices were raised in protest. “Merlin, Nimueh – is she likely to try anything else tonight.”
Nimueh shook her head. “No - especially now she's taken Morgana. She'll spend time trying to get her to join this scheme – or find out how she can use any of the seer’s powers latent within her. She may not be comfortable but she'll be safe. In the morning I can attempt to scry for her, and for Morgause.”
“I suggest we all stay here tonight,” Merlin said. “There's plenty of protection around the house and we’re safe enough without a watch. I’ve put plenty of wards round Sigan, too, so he’s contained for now. Everyone needs to sleep because I suspect we'll not be getting much rest over the next few days.”
They headed off to the various bedrooms. Gwaine swung his arm across Leon’s shoulders, exchanging a brief nod with Arthur as they passed him, and Arthur made no comment about the half-bottle of whiskey in Gwaine’s other hand. He knew without doubt very little of it would be drunk by Gwaine. He hugged Gwen as she passed, and squeezed Lancelot’s shoulder and in the next moment was almost prompted into laughing aloud as Nimueh rolled her eyes and grabbed Percival by the hand.
“I’m sure you can find somewhere comfortable for us to sleep,” she said, and he was towed after her, an almost stupidly wide smile spreading across his face.
Arthur and Merlin were left staring at one another.
“Brilliant powers of deduction as ever, Merlin,” He drawled Merlin’s name in the way he always had when he was teasing him and didn't expect the way Merlin’s face crumpled.
“Arthur,” Merlin gasped out his name and was across the room and in his arms. “Arthur, Arthur, Arthur,” saying his name over and over again until the only way Arthur could quieten him was to capture Merlin’s mouth with his own and kiss him until he had no breath or inclination for anything other than kissing Arthur back.
When the kiss ended, Merlin buried his face against Arthur’s neck and they stayed wrapped up in one another for a long time. Eventually, Arthur eased them apart.
“We should get some sleep,” he said.
He picked up Excalibur and followed Merlin up to the master bedroom and he smiled when he recognised the bed from his time in Oxford. He set the sword down carefully and then watched, his arms folded across his chest as Merlin slipped off the jumper and shirt he was wearing.
“Merlin,” he interrupted him softly and waited until Merlin, bare-chested, had focussed his attention on him. “I believe you've something of mine you need to return.”
Merlin looked confused for a moment and then touched the leather thong at his neck. Smiling, he moved until he stood before Arthur and his eyes flashed as he whispered a word. The leather disappeared and the ring dropped gently into Merlin’s upturned palm.
He went to his knee then, taking Arthur’s hand and slipping the ring on his forefinger, where he'd always worn it. He kissed the ring once it was on, offering his obeisance once again. “My king,” he said, emotion clogging his tone and giving the same quality to his voice as it held when they made love.
Arthur pulled him to his feet and kissed his forehead gently. “That's the last time you ever kneel to me, Merlin Pendragon.” He felt Merlin’s start but neither of them commented. Now, in this time and place, he could stand before the world and claim Merlin as his life partner. And once the threat facing them was dealt with and Morgana was safe once more, then he'd every intention of doing so.
For the moment, though, he raised Merlin’s hand and kissed the matching ring where it sat on Merlin’s ring finger.
“We need to sleep,” Arthur said.
Merlin nodded and they slipped under the covers and into one another’s arms. There hadn't been much sleep the night before, and Arthur could still feel some of the after-effects of their lovemaking. A thought occurred.
“That whole thing about not kneeling? You do realise it doesn’t include blowjobs, right? You’re definitely still kneeling for those, yeah?”
It was some time before Merlin could stop the bouts of giggling long enough for either of them to get to sleep.
Despite everything that had happened, both Arthur and Merlin managed to sleep reasonably well. Arthur woke a couple of times, startled awake by returning memories and once his breathing and pulse had settled he stared at Merlin’s sleeping features, pale in the moonlight, until his eyes closed again. Once more he woke, briefly, as Merlin, trembling like a leaf, pressed against him and hid a face wet with tears against his chest. Arthur moved to accommodate Merlin and wrapped his arms around Merlin’s frame, smoothing his hand up and down his back until the relaxed weight against him told him Merlin slept.
In the morning, they all gathered again in the hub of Merlin’s home, sitting around the kitchen table as Merlin spread out maps of the local area. Arthur, like a good commander, sat back and quietly catalogued the mental and physical state of his small band. Leon was hollow-eyed but resolute and Arthur knew he'd be as steadfast as he'd ever been. He exchanged a brief glance with Gwaine, who was alert and ready but was staying close to Leon and offering the support he needed. Their shared glance was a conversation, Gwaine reassuring him and Arthur telling him to continue what he was doing. Gwaine’s response was a sharp nod and Arthur smiled slightly. For all Gwaine’s laissez-faire attitude and his irreverence, Arthur trusted him absolutely. If he hadn't then Gwaine wouldn't have remained at the round table.
Gwen was looking sad and both she and Lancelot looked tired, though they straightened when they caught his gaze on them and Lancelot also nodded, offering his own reassurance.
Percival looked a little shell-shocked and Nimueh was wearing the expression of a cat that had got clean away with the cream. She was already poring over the maps Merlin had laid out, a slight smile playing around her mouth.
Merlin was staring at Arthur as if he was the moon, sun and stars all rolled into one. His expression was amazed and besotted and his eyes were sparkling. He looked as if he was head over heels in love and Arthur could feel his magic curling around his waist like a lover’s arm.
For a wild moment, Arthur just wanted to grab onto him and never let him go, never allow even the width of a room to be between them ever again, let alone an age of time.
Gwaine coughed. Loudly.
They were all staring, and even Leon was clearly amused at the way Arthur and Merlin were behaving.
Arthur flushed and cleared his throat. “Merlin,” he began and then trailed off when Merlin cast a distinctly dreamy look at him. He took a deep breath. They really didn't have time for this. “Merlin!” and now his tone was sharp, that of a king, not a lover and Merlin reacted.
“Sire,” He was all attention and focus. As they bent over the map Arthur felt a slight squeeze to his elbow, and though Merlin didn't look at him, Arthur knew it was an acceptance, and a sign of Merlin’s understanding.
“Nimueh,” Arthur asked, “Can you scry for Morgana?”
“Yes, unless Morgause has put anything in the way – and even if she has, I'd be able to sense it. “ She glanced at Leon. “Do you have a necklace she's worn? If there's anything with a crystal, especially rose quartz, it would help.”
Without a word Leon disappeared and when he returned he was carrying a jewellery box. “I thought it would be easier if you looked.” His hands were clutched around it as if he was trying to hold onto Morgana herself.
Arthur was impressed by the respect with which Nimueh treated the box. She set it carefully on the table and opened it gently. Then she stared down into it, eventually extricating a silver chain with a pink stone. She hadn't touched anything else. Just as carefully, she closed the lid and then with a nod of thanks, she handed it back to Leon, who stood there with it cradled in his arms as she began to work.
Gently she swung the crystal back and forth across the map, starting from Wells and gradually working outwards, murmuring quietly as she did so. They were all silent and watched her work. Merlin looked on with simple faith, while the others were more sceptical. Arthur, as befitted one who'd watched her locate a crystal on the other side of the world, was quietly confident of her ability.
Eventually he noticed the movement had stopped.
“Well, I suppose we might've guessed.” Nimueh said. Grabbing a pen she marked the spot on the map. “Merlin?”
Merlin stood and moved to her side, frowning down at the place she'd marked. “Glastonbury Tor,” he said. “Such a cliché, honestly.”
“Let’s go and get Morgana,” Leon was already on his feet.
“A moment, Leon,” Arthur raised his hand and waited until Leon sat once more. “We need to be clear exactly what we're up against and how we combat it.”
“When we came to Wells before, Merlin, you said the energy at Glastonbury was muddied. Why would Morgause go there, then? Would she not feel it, too?” Nimueh looked at Merlin.
Merlin was tapping the map thoughtfully and then sighed heavily as if he'd arrived at an answer he really didn’t want to think about.
“Merlin?” Arthur prompted.
“Ley lines. Well, energy points, it’s just this century people have picked up on the fact there's something there. The urge of humankind to look for patterns, I suppose. I don’t know if it’s folk memory remaining in our psyche over the centuries, but magic users were always drawn to places of power, often places where major magic had been carried out in the past and where a residue remained. It would draw others and lead to various rituals and more magic building up the … signature… of a place. That in turn drew people to build in certain places, or take certain tracks and over time, well, you can imagine. In this century some sensitives have picked up on the energy and have basically connected the dots. The connections are nonsense – if you draw straight lines almost anywhere in Britain you’re bound to hit a few things of significance. But points of power across the earth… they exist and while they're not connected now, with the right power, they could be.”
“What does it mean, though?” Gwaine asked.
“It means poisoning the water is not providing results quickly enough for them,” Merlin’s tone was brisk and matter-of-fact, as if he wasn't spelling out the end of civilisation. “They want to poison the earth, too.”
There was utter silence, and as Arthur glanced round the table he knew he was likely as pale and sick looking as the rest of them. Even Nimueh, for all her surface bravado and the power she held, looked as if she wanted to throw up, and she was holding tightly to Percival’s hand.
“This is sheer madness,” Nimueh said. “The Gods of the Old Religion will never allow this. They'll take magic from the earth. To treat the land with such disrespect…”
“Nothing humanity isn’t doing already,” Lancelot pointed out.
“But the Gods won't interfere. They leave us to find our own way and trust it won't be too late. If the worst does come to the worst, they'll do what Morgause and Sigan are planning. Except they will eradicate us like you'd destroy a wasps’ nest – magical and non-magical alike.” Merlin’s voice remained calm and detached, despite the terrible thing he was saying.
There was a long silence.
Gwen, seemingly on automatic pilot, gathered up the scattered mugs, putting the kettle on and beginning the task of washing up. There was silence other than her movements until all of a sudden she screamed and dropped the mug, staring down into the sink. Her eyes wide, hand at her throat she gasped out, “Elyan?”
Merlin was at her side in an instant, and the others crowded round. Sure enough, in the water were two faces side by side and Arthur recognised Freya beside his former knight.
“Elyan, are you well?” The words tumbled out of Arthur's mouth.
“I’m well, Arthur, thank you, but we don’t have much time,” and he deferred to the woman by his side.
“Merlin,” she said, her gaze unerringly finding him. “It's the time of the Once and Future King. The only way to destroy Sigan is to allow him to take human form and then use Excalibur. Do you understand me, Merlin?”
Arthur stared at his lover, who'd met Freya’s gaze and was staring at her in anguish. “What's she saying, Merlin?” He asked urgently.
His voice seemed to pull Merlin back to himself. “I’ll tell you later, Arthur,” and he tried to smile. It was a travesty. “I understand, Freya. I’ll do what has to be done – and so will Arthur.”
The water cleared and Gwen stared down suspiciously then poured it out and began again.
“Why?” Lancelot asked.
“I just don’t like the idea of washing mugs when Freya and Elyan have been in the water.” Her sharp glance at her husband was enough to dissuade anyone from commenting further.
It was a brief hiatus but didn't deflect anyone from Freya’s warning and their voices clamoured, seeking clarification and explanations.
Merlin held his hands up and though his face was chalk-white, his gaze was steady. “You'll know what to do when the time comes. That's all I'll say for now.”
“Can we destroy Sigan right now? Without going to the Tor?” Leon asked.
Arthur exchanged a glance with Merlin but it was Nimueh who answered.
“No,” her voice was certain. “Even though you've broken the link between him and Morgause, there's still a thread of his power, his compulsion within her. We need them to be together, to allow Sigan to manifest and then deal with him.” Her gaze slid between Arthur and Merlin but she said nothing else about what they might have to do. “It’s the only way to be sure we can rescue Morgana, too.”
Something had obviously occurred to Leon. “In Camelot, Morgana could have been a priestess of the Old Religion had she not been Queen. Yet she's got no magic in this time. Why?”
“She didn't want it. In the end, Morgana’s magic brought her grief and brought her close to destroying all she held dear. It was a curse to her.” Merlin and Morgana had discussed this more than once and he was confident in what he said. After a moment, Leon nodded, as if reconciling this with Morgana of today.
“She does seem calmer now, more at ease.” He shifted and said. “I just want her home.”
“And we'll bring her home.” Arthur said.
“So, Sire,” Gwaine drawled the word as a challenge. “What great plan have you got for us this time?”
“I assume it'll be moonrise again, Merlin?” He waited for Merlin’s nod before he continued. “We get to the Tor and wait for them. This afternoon I assume Merlin and Nimueh will be working out how to release Sigan and then what to do with him? We'll all be getting plenty of rest in between running some drills on the Green. Some of the footwork I saw last night was a little sloppy.” He drowned out the outrage of his knights. “Let’s get something to eat, a rest, and then start work. Merlin,” and he pulled Merlin aside and up to their bedroom.
“Tell me what Freya meant,” he insisted, and then he stepped forward at Merlin’s wrecked expression to wrap him in his arms. “Tell me, love.”
It took two cars to transport them to Glastonbury and they were all silent and tense as they gathered together, hefted weapons and everything else they'd brought and began the climb to the summit of the Tor.
It was quiet and Arthur wondered at it. The Tor was such a draw for tourists and New Age adherents it was rarely deserted, and he assumed Morgause had something to do with it. He wondered if Mordred had simply not been born this time. When Merlin spoke of Camlann, he said he'd killed Mordred and Arthur had assumed magic was involved in some way. Well, he tried to console himself, as he curled his hand around Excalibur’s pommel, at least it was one threat they didn’t have to deal with.
When they stepped into the tower at the top, it was to find it lit with candles, their flames staying steady despite the breeze. Morgause was standing in the centre and beside her was Morgana.
Leon surged forward and Morgana lifted a hand, flinging him back against the wall. “No,” he cried out. “Morgana!”
Morgause smiled at them. “My sister is mine again. She'll rule the earth with me, and we'll bring magic back to the land.”
“Oh, Gods,” Arthur heard Nimueh mutter beside him. “Not this again.”
“What have you done to Morgana?” Merlin hissed, stepping forward. “She wouldn't betray us. Just as she wouldn't betray Camelot.”
Morgause faltered for a moment. “Sigan will convince her. He already speaks to her.”
Arthur felt his eyes widen, as he understood what Morgause was saying, but Merlin spelled it out for the rest of them.
“Whatever part of Sigan escaped the crystal has transferred from Morgause to Morgana. Sigan’s presence in her mind has driven Morgause mad and she's on the edge of reason. I think she's been becoming too difficult for him to control without access to all of his power. We need to release Sigan. He'll be drawn to power and will release Morgana.”
There was shock from most, other than Arthur and Nimueh, as they finally understood some of what Merlin meant.
“Merlin,” Nimueh was serious. “You and I are both powerful. Together our power can defeat Sigan, but if he takes one of us, the other will not be strong enough. You know this. We discussed this.”
“Nimueh, I won’t do that to you-“
“But if it’s what I want, Merlin,” She glanced behind her to where Percival stood, silent and watchful, his gaze settled on Nimueh. “Let me do this. It's no loss to me, Merlin. I'm ready to let go of a power which has brought me little but grief and madness. Let me have a mortal life.”
Arthur knew what this meant, understood it clearly and it chilled him to the bone. For a moment, a brief moment, he wanted to grab Merlin and run but pushed the impulse away. It wasn't what either of them would ever do. This was their destiny. It was why they were here at all. He drew in a deep breath. “Do it, Merlin. You know you have to.” He made sure his voice was calm. It certainly didn't reflect the rage and grief buffeting him.
In the background, Morgause had begun a soft chant and Morgana was standing before them, staring at Leon and her face was anguished. For a moment her eyes were clear and green and she whispered, “Help me.” Before the colour was chased away by the dark and she turned away from them towards her sister.
Merlin leaned forward and pressed his lips to Arthur and as he drew away Arthur heard him whisper. “I'll always love you.”
Arthur had no words, offering a sharp nod and was grateful Merlin knew him well enough to interpret the gesture; just as he understood the shy smile he received in response.
Merlin stepped away from him and took Nimueh’s hands, and they began to speak the words that would transfer Nimueh’s power to Merlin. Behind them, Morgause’s voice faltered as she recognised what they were doing and then continued with more urgency. Nimueh released one of her hands and held it out to Arthur. Confused but trusting, he took hold of it. Gold swirled around them, radiating from the locked hands and then turning and twisting as it was drawn from Nimueh and Merlin, mixed and flared bright white before settling like snow over Merlin’s form. In the next moment, just as if it had melted, it had gone and Nimueh slumped into Percival’s waiting arms. Arthur let her go, wondering at the tingle of power he had felt wash over him, but there was no time to consider it.
Arthur knew what had to happen next.
“Protect Morgana,” he yelled. “Merlin, the crystal.”
Merlin turned a bright white gaze on him and something in Arthur wept because suddenly this wasn't the man he knew. With movements fluid and graceful, Merlin reached into the pack and extracted the crystal with its malevolent presence.
Most of the knights were busy circling round Morgana, driving her away from Morgause, while Percival and Gwen stood guard over Nimueh. At her makeshift shrine Morgause’s voice rose as she laughed. “You fools. I knew you'd bring it to me. And now Sigan’s power will be mine.”
Walking slowly, the jewel held out in front of him, Merlin crossed the space until he was standing in front of her. Arthur followed steadily behind.
“This is your last chance, Morgause,” Merlin spoke softly and there was a moment, the briefest moment, when a hint of sanity entered her expression before it was chased away by the madness once again. “You'll not be able to take Sigan’s power, Morgause. He's too strong for you. He'll not want you.”
“You'll soon see,” she said and snatched it from him. She placed it on the stone and chanted the words of the spell to release Sigan. As she finished she brought the hilt of a dagger down hard on it and it shattered as if it was the finest glass.
There was a moment of utter silence, as if the very world held its breath, and then Morgana groaned as a wisp of black swirled from her. She collapsed into Leon’s arms and he dragged her back, well out of the way. The black slid across the ground, joining that which had seeped from the shattered remains of the crystal and they all watched in horror as it swirled ever faster and then, as quick as a snake, it shot towards Merlin and covered him. He dropped to his knees, coughing and choking.
“Arthur, do something,” It was Gwaine’s voice, anguish and disbelief in every syllable.
Arthur watched as the choking stopped. He watched as Merlin got to his feet and stretched. He watched as Merlin smiled round lazily at them all, his eyes as black as pitch.
And then Arthur stepped forward and with a yell of utter anguish he thrust Excalibur through Merlin’s heart.
There was a split second, when Merlin’s body hung on the blade before Arthur withdrew it. A black smoke left Merlin in a rush and dissipated on a sudden, powerful breeze. Just like that, Sigan was gone.
The silence was profound.
It was broken by Morgause’s scream and she picked up the dagger but before she could reach Arthur a sword sang through the darkness and severed her head from her body. Gwaine, his features hard and angry, cleaned his sword on Morgause’s body and then stalked towards Arthur. He did not hear the horrified cries of the others or Gwen’s wail of grief.
Arthur saw none of it. He dropped Excalibur and fell to his knees, pulling Merlin into his arms and he let out another cry of anguish, redolent of a pain too overwhelming to bear and buried his face against cooling flesh. He didn't care if he was unmanned. He didn't care who witnessed this. He cared for nothing except the fact he'd lost Merlin. He couldn't survive this loss. He wouldn't.
The tears fell then, dropping warm and salty onto Merlin’s pale skin.
Arthur wasn't aware of Gwaine moving closer, of the tears on the faces of them all and it was only when his shoulder was taken in a rough grip that he came back to any sense of what was happening around him.
“Listen,” Gwaine said. “Can you hear –?”
“Arthur. Arthur, listen to us. You must bring him to the spring at the Well. Bring him to us.”
It was Freya and Elyan, their voices coming softly from the tears he'd shed on Merlin’s body.
Arthur didn’t know what the point was, but he trusted Freya and so picked Merlin up in his arms, leaving Excalibur behind him. He didn’t think he could ever touch it again. The others followed behind him and he made his way down the hill. For the moment he was numb, unable to meet anyone’s eyes, refusing help from any of them as he stumbled down the steep path. They met no one and encountered no obstacles as they made their way into the garden and towards the spring at the base of the Tor.
They were waiting, standing hand in hand in the water and if Arthur hadn't been so lost in his grief and guilt he would've been glad to see the peace on Elyan’s features.
“Lay Merlin in the water, my King,” Freya told him.
Arthur didn't want to let him go.
“Trust us, Arthur,” Elyan said.
Arthur shut his eyes for a moment and then nodded. He knelt by the stream and set Merlin down, then he shuffled back slightly, staying on his knees as he watched the water flow over him. If it wasn't for the split in his shirt, no one would have realised there was anything wrong. Excalibur had gone through him like a hot knife through butter. He shuddered, knowing he'd never be able to forget.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” were the first words out of Merlin’s mouth as he shot up out of the water. “Who the hell thought it was a good idea to dump me in freezing cold water! Honestly, Arthur, don’t you have the sense you were – mmph.”
Arthur kissed him. He wrapped his arms round Merlin’s shivering frame, dragged him out of the water and pulled him close to the warmth of his body. There were suddenly coats around them, the sounds of people laughing and crying, but it was a long time before Arthur could concentrate on anything except the man held tight in his embrace.
“I thought I’d lost you,” he said.
“Oh, Arthur,” Merlin said, touching his face with frozen fingers. “Don’t you know by now I’ll never leave you? Not really.”
Arthur looked up then, to where Freya and Elyan still stood.
“How?” he asked.
“Merlin is Emrys, remember, Arthur,” Elyan said.
“I do remember, but I don’t understand.”
The others were standing close by, Percival and Nimueh, Gwen and Lancelot, Morgana and Leon with Gwaine standing a little apart, his gaze fixed on Merlin and his face streaked with tears. He was holding Excalibur. He met Arthur’s gaze then and there was envy and love and understanding.
“Pretty obvious really, when you think about it,” Gwaine said, while the others still looked confused. There was obviously something they were missing.
Freya smiled at them. “Emrys was never just a sorcerer,” her voice was tired but serene. “Emrys is a God of the Old Religion.” She laughed softly at everyone’s shock – everyone bar Gwaine. “Really? Did not one of you guess?”
“I’m a what?” said Merlin.
Freya’s voice was gentle. “Merlin, you're immortal. You're the most powerful being to walk this earth. What did you think it meant?”
“But I’m not… I don’t want… Arthur?” He gazed up into Arthur’s face from within the cocoon of coats keeping the chill from their bodies and his face crumpled. “Arthur, no, I can’t be. I can’t go through that again.” He was gripping desperately to Arthur’s jacket, his hands twisting in the material.
Everyone was silent, understanding what he meant. Arthur could find no words, staring down at him and he knew he could hide neither his compassion nor his helplessness, faced with the prospect of leaving Merlin alone once more. Especially now he'd experienced one brief moment when it had been him who'd been left behind.
“My King,” It was Nimueh who spoke, her voice softer and without the edge that had characterised it in the past. “I gave Merlin my power, but the other gift I had to offer he had no need for. I have my wish and will live a mortal life. You won't. Arthur, you won't need to leave Merlin. You and he will remain to care for and protect the land."
As Arthur stared at her in shock, he felt Merlin sag against him in relief. He met Nimueh’s gaze then and saw her hesitation, her own knowledge that living forever wasn't necessarily going to be a blessing. He nodded his understanding and held Merlin close to him. Neither of them had to be alone again, and in the end that was all that mattered to them both.
“Thank you, Nimueh.” And then, realising a shivering, shattered Merlin was beyond words he added. “Thank you from us both.
Lancelot stirred. “We should get you both warm and dry. I expect even immortals are likely to catch stinking colds – haven’t met anything yet to cure a cold – even magic.”
It was a joking comment with practical good sense behind it and it prompted movement and bustle, as Arthur and Merlin staggered to their feet, neither willing to let go of the other for the moment. Gwaine held out Excalibur to Arthur and he recoiled.
“No,” he said, not sure he'd ever want to touch it again. He became aware of the way everyone had paused and was watching him now. Merlin leaned against him but said nothing. “Gwaine, throw it into the lake.”
“Where did that come from?” Percival asked, expressing what everyone else was thinking.
Instead of a stream gurgling through a well-tended garden, they now found themselves on the shores of a lake, its shore densely forested.
“This is Avalon,” Freya said. “It's where Excalibur belongs until it's needed again.”
“A lake? You want me to throw a metal sword –“
“Gwaine,” Arthur said. “Just do it, would you?” For a moment he heard something in his head sounding like sorrow.
“Arthur,” Merlin spoke then, voice quiet and for him alone. “Without Excalibur we wouldn't have been able to save Albion. Make your peace.”
For a moment he looked down into the pale, pinched features and was diverted by the calm he could see in the blue eyes. He nodded in capitulation. “Come with me?”
Merlin’s response was to shed some of the coats and then grasp Arthur’s hand. Taking a deep breath, Arthur reached out and took Excalibur from Gwaine. The moment he touched the sword it seemed to sing to him and he brought it to his forehead in a salute to the lake where it would lie.
“Together?” he asked Merlin, and Merlin’s hand joined his on the pommel before they threw it, watching it flash and spin in the air before it sank tip first and without a ripple, into the water and out of sight.
It was time to go home.
Arthur watched as Nimueh and Freya embraced and saw his knights bid a farewell to Elyan. Gwen hugged him and he saw Elyan whisper something to her that eased the grief in her expression and had her hitting his arm. When they were done, he and Merlin stepped forward and they both embraced Freya and Elyan.
“This isn't a final farewell for us,” Freya said quietly and for them alone. “But for the others, Merlin, they need to live their lives and not yearn for things that can't be.”
“I know,” he said. “I want them to be happy.”
Arthur was beginning to realise what they were talking about, and bit his lip. “Let’s get home,” was all he said.
“I don’t suppose anyone is worried about the fact there’s a decapitated body on top of the Tor, then?” Gwaine asked irreverently, only to be shoved in the back by Leon. “What?” he demanded, but his sharp glance in Morgana’s direction suggested he was more aware of what he'd said than it first appeared.
“Don’t worry,” Merlin said, almost absently, his concentration on Morgana, “it'll all be cleared up.” No one bothered to ask him how.
Morgana had been silent since the Tor, other than expressing her own grief in the moments they thought Merlin had been lost.
“It’s all right, Leon,” she said. “I never really knew Morgause, did I?”
“I’m sure she loved you –“ Leon attempted to console her but Morgana, being Morgana, was having none of it.
“No, she loved my power. It was what she coveted from the start. When she got me to the Tor and realised I'd none – and was happy that way – she quickly lost interest in me as anything other than a tool. She let Sigan into my mind,” she shivered then and allowed Leon to pull her close. “He was evil. He was so evil. And my sister - ” She looked at Merlin and Arthur then. “Thank you both. I don’t think I ever said it before. I don’t think I ever realised what you saved me from. And now,” she leaned against Leon and smiled up into his face. “Now I want to go home and forget all about it.” She glanced at Merlin and Arthur was aware of the silent communication passing between them.
“Come on then,” Merlin said, his tone sounding remarkably normal for one who’d been possessed by an evil sorcerer, killed by his lover, dumped in a freezing stream and informed he was a God all in one night. “Hot showers and hot toddies all round it is then.”
Arthur glanced round at them as they all sat, weary and battered, around the kitchen table. They'd dried off and changed quickly and then Merlin and Nimueh had put together some mulled wine, warming it and adding the ingredients, filling the kitchen with the comforting smell of spice and honey.
They'd never sit like this again, Arthur realised, watching as Nimueh shielded Merlin while he murmured the spell to take the memories of their past lives from them. There'd never quite be this sense of camaraderie, of experiences shared, of overwhelming grief and joy one fast on the heels of another. In the morning, Merlin had said to Arthur in the quiet of their room as they'd changed into dry clothes, only he and Arthur would remember.
His glance fell on Gwaine and he moved round the table to sit beside him.
“Gwaine,” he said, remembering the man’s expression as he'd watched them earlier.
“Ah,” Gwaine’s tone was sardonic. “Finally he gets it. Never was the sharpest tack in the box, were you, Princess?”
He ignored Gwaine’s attempt to rile him, to deflect him. “I’m sorry. Does Merlin know?”
Gwaine rolled his eyes. “Of course he knows. He’s known since the first time we met.” He met Arthur’s gaze then, his own challenging and a little wild. “I would've taken him from you, you know, if there’d ever been any chance at all. Wouldn’t have mattered who you were. I never understood what was between you. They way he looks at you – as if you’ve hung the moon especially for him, as if he’d destroy worlds for you – I was never sure you deserved it.”
Arthur glanced across the kitchen and noticed Merlin was watching them, his expression anxious. He smiled in reassurance and Merlin turned back to the pot.
“And there it is,” Gwaine commented softly.
Arthur sighed, never comfortable with discussing his emotions. “And it really never occurred to you, Gwaine, that the reverse holds.” He saw some surprise then. “Be under no illusions. “ His voice was soft as he continued. “Merlin is everything to me, Gwaine. He's everything.”
“And yet you killed him.” Surprisingly, there was no actual condemnation in Gwaine’s statement, merely a search for the reason, for understanding.
“He told me earlier what would happen. He made me give my word I'd carry it through because the alternative was unthinkable. He asked me to trust him and I could do nothing else. There would've been no way forward for any of us, if I'd not done so.”
Gwaine said. “Doesn’t mean I have to like it. Could as easy been your head I lopped off instead of Morgause’s.”
“I'd likely have been grateful.” Arthur stared down at his hands for a moment. “I really thought I'd lost him.”
“Well,” Gwaine slapped him on the back, signalling the end of their private conversation. “Looks like you’re really stuck with him now.” Gwaine’s hand slipped to his shoulder and squeezed and in his gesture Arthur realised he finally had Gwaine’s acceptance and approval. Arthur grinned and jabbed an elbow into Gwaine's ribs.
Merlin allowed the resultant tussle to continue for a few moments, laughing as Percival and Leon unadvisedly got involved and he let them blow off steam before bringing it to a halt.
“Mulled wine,” he said and waited until they had settled before handing out mugs of the fragrant brew. “Drink it all down,” he said. "Guaranteed to keep colds at bay.”
They chatted gently as they sipped at the mixture and more than one of them glanced at Merlin’s determinedly cheery smile before they sobered and drank. Morgana leaned over to kiss Merlin’s cheek and whisper her thanks into his ear before she drank hers down. Nimueh was smiling, too. Arthur watched as Gwaine took a mouthful and then stared at Merlin across the table. Merlin looked steadily at him and Gwaine’s mouth twisted in a rueful smile as he glanced between the two of them, then he raised the mug in a toast and swallowed it all down.
When they’d finished, they went their separate ways and Arthur and Merlin cleared up, working around one another as if they'd done so for years. Eventually, Arthur slapped Merlin on the arse with the towel he was using. “Bed.” he said.
“Oh, God, yes please,” Merlin blushed bright red at the eagerness he couldn't hide, and at Arthur’s booming laugh of surprise. “Tell me you’re going to bugger me senseless.”
“Merlin, get ready. I am about to spend the night buggering you senseless. In fact, be prepared to be walking with a limp for the next – oh – three hundred years or so.”
“Three hundred years?” Merlin sounded mournful. “I always knew you'd no staying power.”
He let Arthur chase him the two flights to their bedroom. And then he let Arthur catch him.
It was late morning when they surfaced again, feeling the effects of the last few days and both were lethargic and quiet. Fortified with tea, they curled up together on the sofa and were silent for a long time.
Eventually, Arthur sighed. “I should go and see my father some time,” he announced. “Would you come?”
“I – I might be able to help. Unravel some of Morgause’s handiwork.”
“Thanks. It makes me feel better in some odd way, you know? What she did to him – to both of us – was awful, but at least it wasn’t his fault.” Arthur said. “He isn’t Uther, you know.”
“Is that good or bad?” Merlin asked.
Arthur gave it some thought. “Good – Father had to go through losing Mother once, I would've hated the thought of him going through it all over again, even if he didn’t remember.
“Well then, let’s go and visit him soon, and we can see how to help him.”
Arthur kissed him in thanks and then stretched. “Saturday. Market day. You want to go for a wander? We could have a late lunch in the Swan?”
They were wandering through the Market Place, arms full of fresh produce, when they were accosted as a man shoved his way between them and draped an arm round each shoulder.
“Merlin, my man, what the hell was I drinking last night? My mouth feels like the bottom of a cess pit.”
“Ew,” Merlin pushed him away. “It'd help if you’d brushed your teeth this morning. I warned you mixing Guinness, tequila and orange juice and calling it an Irish sunrise wasn't a good idea.”
Arthur laughed out loud and mentally commended Merlin for his ability to improvise and he frantically searched his memory for Gwaine’s new name.
“We’re going to grab something to eat at the Swan,” he said. “You coming?”
Peter had moved until he was facing them, walking backwards, and as they neared one of the shop fronts a young woman dashed out, cannoned into Peter before either Merlin or Arthur could shout a warning and down they went in a tangle of limbs.
“Oh, oh dear. Oh my, I’m so, so sorry.” The young woman was pinning Peter to the ground. “Let me get up.” She scrambled a little and managed to knee Peter right between his legs as she accepted Arthur’s hand to pull her to her feet.
For a moment she stared open-mouthed at Merlin before he waved his hand carelessly across his face, as if brushing away a fly and her features smoothed out.
By this time Peter had managed to get to his feet and was staring at the young woman, equal parts horrified and fascinated. “Well, it’s always a pleasure to be bowled over by a beautiful woman,” he said.
She snorted in a very unlady-like fashion and asked, “What – even when she’s just kneed you in the bollocks?”
“Even then,” Peter grinned and all of a sudden the flirting persona he so often pulled around himself was gone and Arthur saw Gwaine, the serious and questioning man who loved Merlin with a fierceness and a loyalty that might well have matched Arthur’s own. “My name’s Peter.” He held out his hand.
“Charlotte – Charlie to my friends,” and she gripped his hand, shaking it firmly and then grinning widely at him, seemingly unable to tear her gaze away. “I’m starving. Do you want to get some lunch?”
Peter laughed in surprise, glancing at Merlin and Arthur who made shooing motions with their hands. “Sounds great. I’ll see you guys later.” He tucked Charlie’s hand beneath his elbow. As they walked away, Peter turned back once, looking at Merlin, and then something settled in his features and he smiled at them both.
“That was – wasn’t it?”
“Elena,” There was satisfaction in Merlin’s voice. “She’ll be good for Gwaine. They’ll be happy together. They'll all be happy.”
“Us too, Merlin?” Arthur smiled at him.
“We’ll be the happiest of all.”
Arthur moved the shopping bag he was carrying to his other hand, letting him loop the arm closest to Merlin around his waist. “Let’s have lunch. I’m in the mood for chicken in a basket.”
Time passed and their friends lived good long lives, and Arthur and Merlin made a point of maintaining the relationships and ensuring they all remained close. There were children and grandchildren, holidays at home and abroad, magical Christmases when the house was full to bursting and it was difficult to find a moment’s peace. As their friends aged, so did Arthur and Merlin, joining them as they lived out their days in peace. Gwen was the last to leave them, although she'd not remained long after her beloved husband. On the day she was buried next to Lancelot a soft, sweet rain fell and Arthur and Merlin stood hand in hand by her graveside when the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and friends had left and felt Freya and Elyan all around them.
They returned to the now quiet house on the Green and Merlin looked at Arthur. “We’ll see them all again in time,” he said. “When they're needed they'll be reborn.”
“I know. But for now it’s just us.” Arthur’s tone was sombre.
Merlin hesitated, suddenly uncertain. “Arthur, if you don’t want to - If you’d rather sleep-“
He was pulled into Arthur’s arms. “Shut up, you idiot,” Arthur hissed fiercely. “I’m not going anywhere without you ever again. Just shut up.”
Voice small, his face buried against Arthur’s chest, Merlin said, “Okay, forget I said anything.”
In the afternoon the sun broke through the clouds and as had become their habit, they wandered slowly, arm in arm, round the Green, two elderly men quietly discussing what they'd do next.
“I love it here,” Merlin said. “But we really can’t stay.”
“But we can come back,” Arthur pointed out. “We let the house for a generation or two, and then we can have another quiet life in Wells. How does that sound?”
“Sounds good to me. And in the meantime we can travel the World. I should get round and visit places. Where should we go first?”
“I always fancied Australia,” Arthur said. “I could learn to surf.”
“Well then, let’s go there. I’d like to spend some time with the Aborigines.” He paused as he felt Arthur shaking with laughter beside him. “What?” he asked.
“Oh, Gods, you’re going to make me eat things even more revolting than rat, aren’t you?”
“This from the man who eats enough Marmite in a year to cover the M6.”
“Marmite's good for you,” Arthur said. “Have you seen some of the things the Aborigines eat? Ugh.”
“Oh, Arthur,” Merlin said. “Don’t be such a girl.” He took one look at the outrage on Arthur’s face and ran, getting to the edge of the Green before he let Arthur catch him. He was giggling as he was spun into the strong arms.
“I’ll show you how much of a girl I am,” he said, before he captured Merlin’s mouth.
Unsurprisingly, Merlin capitulated without any struggle whatsoever, wrapping his arms around Arthur and returning the kiss with enthusiasm.
The sun was setting, and was bathing the great west front in glorious golden light, light that seemed to catch the two figures as well, as if they were being blessed by the New Religion as well as the Old. A woman paused in confusion. She was quite sure the two men she'd seen from further down the Green were grey-haired, but as she got closer she realised one was blond and the other dark. She smiled as she passed them, realising they were quite oblivious.
Young love, she thought fondly, and walked on.
End Book 3