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Walk with Me

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Book One – Here I stand



Prologue

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

“Arthur, please –“ he began.

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

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

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

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

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

Book 1

Oxford October 1987

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then it all went to hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Arthur.”

“Arthur.”

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

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

 ***

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

Merlin.

A sorcerer.

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

Merlin – a sorcerer.

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

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

No, he didn’t recognise Merlin at all.

Merlin had done this.

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

Merlin.

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

“Would you excuse us, please?”

That voice.

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

It couldn’t be…

No.

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

“Hello, Arthur.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s done.”

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

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

“I don’t feel any different.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How could I ever forget, Sire?”

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

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

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

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

*** 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“So, sorcerer, talk.”

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

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

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

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

Merlin nodded, biting his lip.

“How many years have passed?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is treason.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too late.

Gods save him, he wanted this man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He followed Merlin into the kitchen and scowled at him.

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

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

“Can you remember what Merlin did?”

“He did magic. That’s all I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** 

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

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




 

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

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

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

He was right.

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

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

“It’s good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His Merlin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** 

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

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

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

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

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

“Merlin,” he rasped. “I want –“

“Yes, anything, please.”

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

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

Never, though, had Arthur wanted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmmm.”

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

“God, Arthur, please.”

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

“Is this good?” he whispered.

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

“Need to, do I?”

“Please.”

“Are you begging?”

“Yes. Please.”

Arthur obliged.

*** 

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

“Thought I’d better get something done.”

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because of the theft?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What can I do for you, Emrys?”

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

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

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

Merlin turned to him in confusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I dreamt about you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, Your Royal Highness –“

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

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

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

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

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

“What about your doppelganger?”

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

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

It was another lie.

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

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

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

*** 

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened to the magic?”

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

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

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

“Anything I can do to help?”

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

“What will I be looking for?”

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

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

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

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

“How are we doing?”

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

“It might have.”

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

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

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

“What've you found?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, someone has got to be joking!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And I’m supposed to trust you?”

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

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

“And yet here I am.”

*** 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t I tell you?”

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

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

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

“I trust my friend.”

“Your mother was my friend, you know.”

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

“Fine – but I get to tell him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunith.

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

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

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

“Is she telling the truth, Merlin?”

“Yes – except I blamed her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bit of a day, huh?”

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

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

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

“Do you want me to lie to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The remains of the bowl smouldered on the ruined table.

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

*** 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merlin nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They didn't speak.

*** 

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

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

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

“Nimueh's still asleep.”

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

“We should probably head for Wells today.”

“How long will it take to get there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the back seat, Nimueh snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No sign of Sigan, though?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He was watching us.”

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

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

*** 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** 

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

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

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

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

Behind him, Nimueh snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, now isn’t that sweet.”

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

“Sigan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Depressing.”

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

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

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

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

“I can try.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn't the earth that answered.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** 

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

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

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

“What are you thinking?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Robert”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I yield, Sire.”

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

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

“Could you teach me?” Robert asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** 

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

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

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

“Play something else.”

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

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

*** 

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were stalling now and both of them knew it.

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

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

“I know. I’ll still miss you.”

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

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

*** 

Oxford 9 months later

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

“Arthur,” he grinned, “Arthur.”

*** 

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

A woman died.

A man railed uselessly at the heavens.

*** 

Camelot 10 years later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End book 1

Chapter Text

Book 2 – Make me Strong

The first thing Merlin knew was the sound of voices, teasing around the edges of his awareness and gradually pulling him back to consciousness. It took some time before he could identify the owner of each voice and he searched his memory for names. A deep soothing rumble. Gaius. A light, sweet, woman’s voice. Gwen. Another voice, oozing authority.

Arthur.

Trepidation cut through the satisfaction he'd been feeling at identifying the people around him and he struggled to pull himself from the torpor that had him in its grasp.

A hand clasped around his arm as his mental struggle manifested in a physical one.

“Easy there, my lad,” Gaius’ voice seemed calm enough and when Merlin managed to prise his eyes open slightly the physician’s features reflected the same calm. Merlin couldn’t quite recall why it shouldn’t be the case, but had a horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach, a sense something had gone horribly wrong.

He managed to mumble and was trying to ask what had happened but instead the first word out of his mouth was “Thirsty.”

“Here you go.”

His world tilted slightly as a strong arm lifted him and he blinked until he could focus on the cup in front of him. Gwen moved into his line of sight as he was lifted and she smiled encouragingly at him from where she stood by the door before she slipped out of the room. He sipped carefully at the liquid he was offered, too used to being the recipient of Gaius’ noxious potions, and then he drank more eagerly as cool, soothing water slipped into his mouth and down his parched throat. Long before he'd drunk his fill the cup was withdrawn.

“Let’s see how it settles for the moment,” It was Gaius and his good sense once again. “You can have some more in a few moments. How are you feeling?”

“Like I’ve been kicked by a horse. My shoulder hurts and I can’t remember…” Merlin trailed off as he suddenly realised who was holding him. “Arthur?”

“Merlin?” Arthur’s tone was as autocratic and cold as Merlin had ever heard it and yet the arm around him was steady and there was no indication Arthur intended to withdraw his support..

“What happened? There were bandits…”

“You were injured.” Gaius answered, while Arthur remained silent. “Would you like some more water?”

This time it was Arthur’s hand holding the cup and Merlin blinked blearily up at him. “Arthur?” He tried to process Arthur’s facial expressions and get some clue as to what was going through his mind. Arthur, however, was keeping his emotions firmly in check and was giving little away.

“You should go back to sleep, Merlin.”

He couldn’t – not without knowing. Merlin gripped Arthur’s free arm with as much strength as he could muster, which admittedly wasn't much. Arthur glanced down at him and his own features lightened a little, the slightest touch of a wry smile curving his mouth.

“Plenty to talk about when you’ve recovered, Merlin. For now, Gaius is right – you need to sleep.”

“I just woke up,” Merlin said half-heartedly and really, things shouldn’t be going fuzzy at the edges like this. He was only half-aware of Arthur settling him back onto the mattress before he let the murmuring voices lull him back into a healing sleep.

 

**

 

The next time Merlin woke his head was much clearer, glancing around the room at the lighted candles and the fire burning in the hearth. The only other occupant of the room was Arthur, and Merlin watched him as he sat at the table, a slight frown marring his features as he pored over some documents.

Merlin must've made some sound, because Arthur glanced up sharply and remarked, “Back with us again, then?”

“I’m in your bed.”

“As always, your razor-sharp mind never fails to assess the situation. Yes, Merlin, you're in my bed.” Before Merlin could ask anything else, Arthur was by his side, offering water and slivers of fresh fruit and fussing over him in the way only Arthur could, mainly by insulting Merlin with every second sentence he uttered.

Eventually, Merlin batted away the hands checking his dressing and asked, “What exactly happened out there, Arthur?”

“You really don’t remember?” There was something in Arthur’s face and voice that sent trepidation and incipient panic through Merlin like a wave.

Merlin struggled to recall the sequence of events. Arthur stood by the bed, his arms folded and features expressionless while he watched Merlin try and work it out.

“Bandits. Oh, poor Sir Aeden. And that bandit nearly spitted you and I – oh.”

“Come back to you, has it?”

“Er, what exactly?”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Oh, I don’t know, Merlin – maybe the gold eyes, the bandits dying without a hand touching them, the bloody golden mist that accompanied us as you –“ His voice stayed quiet throughout his diatribe, for which Merlin was grateful, but his fury was clear although he stopped short of using the actual words. Magic. Sorcery.

“I what? What did I do, Arthur? How did I get – Oh, Gods, you were going to –“ and he stared up at Arthur, his breath coming fast and frightened and he felt as if his heart might break in two.

“I didn’t, Merlin.” Despite his obvious anger, Arthur was quick to reassure him. ‘I swear it wasn’t me who hurt you. You were protecting me again. I wouldn’t – I give you my word, Merlin. You're safe with me.”

Merlin’s hammering heartbeat began to settle, because Arthur had always been honest with him. He bit his lip in sudden shame as he accepted Arthur now knew Merlin hadn't repaid that honesty with his own.

“Arthur, I –“ He looked up at his prince, and although his demeanour appeared impassive, Merlin could see the hurt and anger leaking around the edges of his veneer of calm. “I wanted to tell you so much,” the admission rushed out of him.

“And you'll tell me everything. You still need to rest, though.”

That was that, it seemed. For the next few days Merlin was kept to Arthur’s chambers and neither Arthur nor Gaius allowed him to wander far. He was amazed at how well he'd healed and realised he'd been lucky to escape infection. He was puzzled by the odd pills Arthur fed him periodically throughout the day and had agreed not to say anything about them to Gaius. Arthur had told him brusquely they'd help ensure there was no infection and it was all he'd say on the subject. Merlin’s attempt to argue about their sleeping arrangements didn’t go far either. He'd been horrified to realise Arthur had been sleeping on a narrow cot that had been dragged into his chambers. Merlin had tried to insist he was well enough if not to return to his own room to at least surrender the bed to its true owner. With a look and a sharp sentence, Arthur had ended the argument.

Merlin spent his time either sleeping or in a state of panic at the thought of what he had to tell Arthur, and a growing unease at the Prince’s attitude towards him. At times, when Arthur thought Merlin was asleep he'd watch Arthur through his lashes, seeing the unguarded expression and feeling a matching sadness at the sorrow sweeping over Arthur’s features from time to time. It never lasted for long and Merlin accepted that whatever had happened to make Arthur look so sad, he was trying not to dwell on it. Once, when Merlin was on the verge of sleep he heard Arthur approach the bed, managing to stay still as a gentle finger slid down the side of his face, accompanied by a quiet sigh.

In the end, on the day he realised Arthur had decided his reprieve was over, his major emotion was relief. By this time Merlin was moving around and beginning to chafe at the restrictions. He was also becoming more concerned about what he had to tell Arthur and nerves were making him clumsier than usual.

Even before Merlin was injured, they'd begun to take breakfast together, Arthur using the opportunity to talk through what the day ahead held, what he wanted Merlin to do and when. So there was nothing unusual when the servant left enough food for two on the table and left as quietly as he'd arrived. Arthur had quirked one expressive eyebrow at Merlin as if to say see – that’s how it should be done, to which Merlin had responded with a grin and a shrug.

Arthur broke the bread and threw a piece at Merlin and they set to their meal. As they finished Arthur asked, “Can you do something to make sure we're not overheard?”

Merlin choked on his last mouthful, spluttering and coughing. “You want me to –“ and he waved his arm in the air.

“I’ve already seen you do it, so I don’t know what you’re getting so worked up about. Don’t be such a girl. Can you or can’t you?”

“Of course I can.”

There was a short silence, which Arthur finally broke with an exasperated, “Well?”

“Oh.” Merlin took a deep breath and muttered quietly, then met Arthur’s gaze, wondering at what he saw there. He knew Arthur better than anyone, and had long ago learned to read not only his expression, but also the way his body spoke for him when he wouldn't allow his features to do so. This, though, Merlin didn't understand and it unnerved him.

“Start at the beginning, Merlin. No one will disturb us today, I've made sure of that. No lies. No omissions. Good and bad. I won’t promise not to get angry, but I promise I'll listen without interruption. I promise you're safe with me. Whatever I learn here today, I'll not send you away and I'll not denounce you to my father.” Arthur’s tone was brisk and matter-of-fact and Merlin didn't doubt his sincerity, but he'd yet to hear what Merlin had to tell him.

Merlin felt the way his face crumpled. “You can’t make that promise, Arthur. You don’t know,” He made a conscious effort to stop wringing his hands together and instead gripped the arms of the chair hard. “Please believe me, everything I did was with the best intentions and I was doing what I thought was right. It’s just… it’s just… sometimes it didn’t go right and sometimes I think I made things so much worse. And some of the secrets, Arthur, they’re not mine to tell.”

“I know about Gaius,” Arthur said bluntly. “If there's something else you can’t tell me, then just say. I won’t ask.”

Merlin nodded and attempted to gather his thoughts.

Arthur waited.

Throughout the rest of the day, Merlin spoke and Arthur listened. Merlin followed Arthur’s orders, beginning with his early life in Ealdor and what it was like to live with the knowledge that he was different, that he made people feel uncomfortable. He spoke about Will and the first real friendship he'd known. He admitted to using magic during the fight with Arthur, told him about Lady Helen, about the dragon, about Valiant, about the Isle of the Blessed and Nimueh, when he'd tried to sacrifice his life. He saw the way Arthur tensed when he spoke about the dragon and the promise he'd made and had expected it. What broke his concentration, though, was Arthur’s reaction to the mention of Nimueh, wondering what there could possibly be to smile about.

After a moment of quiet, when Arthur seemed lost in his own thoughts, he prompted. “There's still more to tell, Merlin, isn't there?”

Nodding wearily, Merlin picked up the narrative. He talked until he was dry and was startled when Arthur moved for the first time in what seemed forever, pouring them both some watered wine.

Merlin paused when he reached the point where he had to explain about Morgana. While he'd told Arthur about her aborted attempt to kill Uther, there was no need to mention sorcery at that point. Her magic was one of the secrets he felt didn't have the right to divulge and yet it was difficult to explain what had happened with the Knights of Medhir without making reference to the way Morgause had worked the spell through Morgana and why she had to die.

He looked helplessly at Arthur and admitted. “I don’t know how to tell you this.”

“Tell me what you did.”

Taking a deep breath, Merlin told him about poisoning Morgana, about the dragon asserting she was the key to the spell and had to die if it was to be broken. He explained about Morgause’s actions and how she'd lifted the enchantment. It was clear even from his bald narrative that Morgana hadn't been kidnapped, but Merlin wasn't sure how else he could've kept his promise to tell Arthur everything.

There was a very long silence, loaded and dark.

Merlin risked a quick glance at Arthur. He looked as though he'd been carved from stone, except the blue eyes were glittering as if he was fevered. Merlin swallowed, realising Arthur was working hard to keep his own promise.

In a very quiet, small voice, Merlin said: “It gets worse.”

“Worse? How the hell can it get – oh. Gods,” Arthur breathed the word. “You. It was you. You released the dragon. You – “ He pushed himself off the chair and strode across to the window, throwing it open to breathe in the fresh air.

“I thought he'd just fly away. I didn’t think he'd harm anyone. Arthur, oh God, Arthur please don’t hate me.” How could Arthur possibly forgive him for this when he couldn't forgive himself.

After a few moments Arthur returned to his chair, his face once more expressionless but his voice had lost any warmth at all as he spoke, “Continue.”

Merlin couldn’t. All at once the enormity of what he'd done crashed over him and he bowed his head over his hands, squeezing his eyes shut as he tried desperately to conquer the tears. What right did he have to cry? He scrubbed an arm across his face and sniffed hard. He'd hoped that telling Arthur would lift some of the weight of guilt but instead it seemed to press in on him all the harder, squeezing the breath out of him and suffocating him. His voice rough, he tried to do what Arthur commanded.

Except. Except the next thing he had to tell Arthur was about the Dragonlord. He had to tell him how he'd found and lost his father all in one day. He struggled to fight back his grief, swallowing often and speaking swiftly and brokenly when he could. He said the words aloud. “Balinor was my father.” And they dropped into the silence between them like stones thrown into a pool and Merlin waited as the ripples spread, sensing Arthur’s whole frame tense as he began to understand exactly what it meant.

“I take it I didn't actually slay the dragon?”

Merlin shook his head, beyond words.

“Will it come back? Will it harm Camelot again.”

“No. I command him.”

“Because you're a Dragonlord.”

“Yes.”

The sun was already dipping in the sky, heading towards the horizon as Merlin sat before his prince, head bowed and feeling as if he'd broken all that had been good between them.

He didn’t look up when Arthur pushed himself from his chair once more, moving to the door and speaking quietly to a nearby guard. When he returned he stood by the seat Merlin occupied.

Merlin waited for Arthur’s reaction, waited for him to shout and rail, to speak about evil and betrayal, but all he got was a silent brooding presence by his side. Merlin curled in on himself, his arms tight around his middle, his head bent down to hide his distress and he wondered if his tears would ever stop.

“You poor bugger.” Arthur’s voice was soft and gentle and Merlin felt a hand settle on his head, fingers carding through his hair. The hand slid, familiar and strong, round to the back of his neck and he was manoeuvred deftly until his face was buried against Arthur’s stomach. With a sob, he unwrapped his arms from around his own torso and circled Arthur instead as he pressed his face into the well-known warmth and scent. Arthur’s other hand rubbed up and down Merlin’s back in a steady rhythm that was immensely comforting.


Eventually, Merlin calmed but was disinclined to move and Arthur seemed quite happy to keep his place.

“I thought you’d be furious.” Merlin said at last, his voice thick and hoarse.

“Oh, believe me, Merlin, I am. But it wouldn’t undo all this, would it? And if it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be here at all, so I'll let that mitigation stand in your favour.” There was a short pause. “You made the best choices you could and tried to keep everyone safe. And you've paid a terrible price.”

The compassion colouring Arthur’s tone unnerved Merlin, wondering what knowledge was behind it.

“I’m so sorry. I wanted to tell you so many times.”

“You almost did once or twice, didn’t you?”

The knock at the door had Merlin tensing and Arthur cuffed him lightly as he released him. “They’ve brought some food. Go and wash your face.”

Merlin stumbled behind the screen and splashed the cool water over his face, listening to the muted sounds of the servants entering and laying the table. He waited until they'd gone before he emerged, and somehow managed to meet Arthur’s appraising gaze.

“You look terrible. Have something to eat and then sleep. You can finish telling me the rest tomorrow.”

Nodding, Merlin joined him and managed to choke down some bread and chicken at Arthur’s insistence. He'd never been so tired in his entire life and wanted nothing more than to slide into Arthur’s comfortable bed and sink into oblivion. He changed into some bedclothes and crawled under the covers, listening sleepily to Arthur as he pottered around the room, making his own preparations for bed. Merlin couldn't even find the energy to express surprise when, instead of settling on the low cot, Arthur joined him in the bed.

“I swear another night in that thing and I'd be crippled for life.” Without any fuss, he spooned Merlin and held him close to his body. The tension leached from Merlin, to return only seconds later when Arthur asked. “Does Morgana have magic?”

Merlin knew his reaction had immediately provided all Arthur would need to work out the truth.

“You can tell me tomorrow.”

 

**

 

Arthur couldn't sleep. Everything he'd experienced over the past few days was whirling through his mind. He missed the older Merlin with a fierce longing, wanting the calmness and certainty he'd exuded. In response to the memories crowding in on him he buried his nose in the back of Merlin’s neck and breathed in the scent. It was different, earthier, but still recognisable and he let it soothe him. Some of the things Merlin had told him today had rocked him and he'd found it difficult to keep the promise he'd made to listen. Still, the mere thought of letting his anger control him had immediately been doused by his memory of his reaction to Merlin’s magic when they'd arrived in 1987. Merlin deserved a measured response and even with the things Merlin had told him today, Arthur still wanted Merlin to have a better life than the one his lover had hinted at.

One revelation in particular kept coming back to haunt him. When Merlin had spoken of Nimueh, Arthur recalled her arrival at Merlin’s home in the future, remembering her sarcasm and bite and how in the end she'd saved them all. He'd been thinking about some of the stories Nimueh had told him about his mother and was prompted to ask: “Merlin, do you know why my father hates magic?”

The sudden increased tension in an already strained atmosphere had provided him with his answer and he'd asked another question. “Was it true what the spirit told me?” The horrible suspicion that raised its head was ugly. “Was that really my mother, Merlin?”

“Honestly, Arthur, I don’t know.” Merlin had held a hand up to avert the obvious storm heading his way and for a moment he'd been so like the older Merlin it had completely taken the wind out of Arthur’s sails and he'd subsided. He still glowered, but had been aware even at the time it was mainly for appearances sake. Merlin had continued. “What I do know is that it was a deliberate attempt by Morgause to manipulate you into killing your father. I wasn't going to let you do it. You'd never have forgiven yourself.”

The memory of that night had risen to haunt Arthur. “Merlin,” he managed, “I said I might've been wrong about magic – and you… oh.” It had dawned on him then how Merlin had stood there and declared that Morgause – that magic – was evil. He'd thrown away a chance for himself, all to protect a man who'd kill him without compunction. When Arthur thought it over now he understood Merlin hadn't done it for Uther’s sake, but for Arthur’s. Arthur had swallowed hard and couldn't speak.

A long silence had followed and it had been Merlin who eventually broke it, clearing his throat before he'd spoken.

“Nimueh was your father’s friend – and she loved your mother. Neither of them would've deliberately set out to hurt Ygraine. Your mother was desperate for a child. Uther begged Nimueh to help. She told him there'd be a price but I don’t believe for one second they thought Ygraine would be the one to pay it. I believe Uther would've died himself rather than let it happen.

“I think.” Merlin had paused for a moment, before taking a deep breath and continuing. “I think perhaps Uther went mad with the grief. He sought some-one to blame. Nimueh realised what was happening and managed to escape but without someone specific to blame Uther tried to go after magic itself. He wrought a terrible price, and when Nimueh saw what she'd helped set in motion, I think she went mad, too. They both loved Ygraine and tried to give her what she wanted – what both your parents wanted. It just all went so horribly wrong.”

Arthur had brooded for a long time before he'd sighed and admitted. “I'll never be able to change his position on magic, will I? Because to do so, he'd have to admit he was wrong and then he'd blame himself instead.”

“I’m sorry, Arthur. I’m so, so sorry.” Merlin’s sympathy had been heartfelt.

Yet another silence had followed and Arthur had considered Merlin’s bowed head as he'd charted the parallels between what both Nimueh and Merlin had tried to do. Nimueh had said the Old Religion would never have taken Merlin as the price for Arthur’s life – but that the price would always be heavy. Nimueh had learned the hard way. She must've been young, he thought, perhaps a similar age to Merlin now. A young, inexperienced sorcerer with more power than she understood and who tried to do the right thing for the right reasons. And still it could lead to disastrous consequences.

Arthur sighed and tightened his grip on the man in his arms as he put the revelations of his birth to one side and began to sift through everything he'd been told, identifying the elements he wanted to ask more about, the details he wanted to hear. The later parts of Merlin’s narrative had been spoken more carefully, and Arthur remembered his opening remarks, the intimation that other people were involved. It seemed fairly clear to Arthur now that one of those people must be Morgana. Somehow, he wasn't the least surprised to discover she had magic and recalled several times when she'd tried to warn him about people or events. He needed to understand why Merlin had felt killing her was the only option open to him, aware there was something else behind what had happened – something Merlin felt he couldn't tell him without betraying someone else’s secret.

In one way he was both humbled and horrified, realising the lengths Merlin would go to in keeping Arthur safe. He understood, too, that it wasn't just because he was a prince, or because they had some shared destiny. Merlin was doing this because he cared for Arthur, that much was clear.

Throughout the long night he held Merlin, gentling him when nightmares tried to take hold and attempted to make sense of his own tumbled thoughts and feelings. When dawn broke, he reluctantly loosened his hold and slipped out of the bed, washing and dressing swiftly. Quietly he made his way from the room and headed towards Gaius’ chambers, knowing Gaius would already be up and about. He didn’t bother knocking, walking into the room and surprising Gaius, and he witnessed the drawn and worried expression before the man could manage to adopt his usual veneer of servility.

It struck Arthur then that Gaius had been lying to him for his whole life and he knew the knowledge coloured his tone and expression. Right now he was aware he'd drawn the mantle of rank about him and was firmly in the persona of the Crown Prince of Camelot about to take a subject to task.

“Sire?” Gaius was uneasy, that much was clear.

“I know about Merlin,” Arthur’s tone was abrupt and haughty and he watched the colour leach from Gaius’ skin.

The next moment he felt a certain amount of shame as Gaius staggered back and sat down heavily on his narrow cot. After a moment Gaius spoke and was pleading, Arthur realised, for Merlin’s life. “Sire, everything he’s done has been to protect you – to protect Camelot.”

“Including releasing the dragon?”

“He didn’t know it would attack. Sire, I beg of you – “

“Beg? You beg, Gaius? All this time. All these lies. What right have you to ask anything of me?” His anger and disappointment bubbled up then and he fought it back, knowing he couldn't give in to the feelings of betrayal flooding him. All his life. And Gaius was the healer and his father’s friend. He must've known about Nimueh, about Arthur’s own birth.

“It was all to protect you. Merlin loves you. Please, do what you will with me, but don’t punish Merlin.”

Arthur cast him a bitter smile. “You do expect the worst of me, don’t you?”

There was an uncomfortable silence before Arthur continued, and now the bitterness had left his tone. “I know Merlin loves me.” Something in his voice had Gaius casting a sharp glance at him. “I'm here to tell you that you're both safe. As you've protected me – I'll protect you. But if Merlin decides on a plan of action you feel is foolhardy, then I need to be able to trust you to tell me. No more secrets. I can forgive your deception up to now, but any lies from now on – I will not tolerate. Do you understand?”

Gaius stood and now his bearing was straight and strong as he faced his prince. “I understand, Sire, and I give you my oath – no more lies and no more deception.”

Arthur accepted that assurance with a terse nod, the emotions running through him still too close to anger to allow any lessening of his stance, and he addressed Gaius crisply. “Is Merlin fit for light duties?”

“I believe so, Sire. He's healed remarkably well?”

“Fine. He'll be better if he has something to occupy him. I suggest you visit him this morning. He'll move into the anteroom next to my chambers permanently.” Arthur ignored the question in Gaius’ voice and turned to leave.

“Sire,” He halted but did not turn as Gaius spoke once more, his tone redolent with relief and gratitude. “Thank you.”

 

**

 

Merlin was still sleeping when Arthur entered his chambers, but was showing signs of stirring. Their final exchange the night before returned to him and he accepted with a certain weariness that today promised to be another long session of things he probably didn't want to hear. He stood by the bed and stared down at Merlin, a younger Merlin than the one who held his heart and he was still not sure what it meant for Arthur and Merlin in the here and now.

His mind replayed some of the moments he'd shared with Merlin in Oxford and he swallowed down the lump in his throat. He'd never see that version of Merlin again but the man who lay before him had the same qualities, Arthur knew that now. Arthur had heard enough the previous day not to doubt Merlin’s loyalty, courage and love; or to dismiss the softness of a heart that would spare their prophesised doom; or his steadfastness to do what had to be done, despite the cost to himself; or his occasional total stupidity Arthur added mentally, recalling the dragon’s attack on Camelot.

As he watched, Merlin reached out an arm, frowning slightly as if he was searching for something and was dismayed when he couldn't find it. Arthur was almost overwhelmed by the tenderness rushing through him and before he could do anything too ridiculous, he picked up one of the pillows and brought it down on Merlin’s head with a satisfying thump.

He laughed until the tears came at the resultant shock and outrage as Merlin shot upright in the bed, and if the tears were not all of mirth, then no one but Arthur would ever know. Merlin grumbled all the way through getting ready, and was attempting to sulk through breakfast too, except he kept casting shy smiles at Arthur, which rather dampened the effect.

Eventually Arthur spoke, “I've duties to attend to this morning. I want you to stay here. I'll have someone bring my mail and weapons from the armoury. I need you to check and clean everything. We’ll talk again later and you can tell me about Morgana.”

“Arthur – “ Merlin looked distressed.

“I need to know, Merlin.” Arthur was resolute, ignoring the pleading expression. “Besides,” he added softly, “You want to tell me, don’t you?” He waited until Merlin met his gaze, seeing him bite his lip as he reluctantly nodded.

Arthur stood then, shrugging into his long coat and paused by Merlin’s side. “You're not to leave these chambers this morning, Merlin, that's an order.” He was secretly pleased when Merlin grumbled a little, glad his usual resilience hadn't been lost although Arthur let no hint of his thoughts show on his own features.

As Arthur put his hand on the door, Merlin shot up from his seat and approached him. “Arthur. Thank you.” His words were a little choked but before Arthur could make any response, Merlin leaned forward and kissed his cheek. Colour flushed cheeks still too pale from recent injury and Merlin turned away immediately to fuss with the remains of breakfast.

“I’ll see you later,” was all Arthur could manage, before he left the room, his thoughts in a fine muddle.

The kiss felt like a brand.

 

**

 

Merlin didn’t consider using his magic as he worked on Arthur’s armour, letting the repetitive nature of the work soothe him. His morning was interrupted by Gaius and he told Merlin all about Arthur’s early visit and Merlin informed Gaius in turn about Arthur knowing of Gaius’ magic. After being reassured by Merlin about their safety and assuring Merlin he was healing well, Gaius left to go about his business and Merlin returned to his task. As he worked he thought through everything he had yet to tell Arthur and reviewing what he'd already divulged. Part of him was amazed Arthur had taken it so well, especially when he remembered his original reaction to Merlin’s magic after the attack by the bandits, but mostly he was just relieved and as the morning progressed he did begin to feel some of the weight lift from his soul. It was almost a physical pressure lifting from him, a growing understanding that Arthur was willing to accept his magic and might actually want Merlin to help him. For the first time, he knew Arthur saw his worth and even though they'd been friends for some time, despite Arthur’s occasional protests to the contrary, Merlin had always been constrained by the secret between them. He wondered what it would mean for them now, and tried not to speculate too much about the fact they were now sharing a bed.

When Arthur returned, he brought lunch with him and Merlin couldn't miss the sharp glance appraising him before he was brusquely ordered to eat. Merlin did his best under Arthur’s brooding stare, noticing Arthur had included many of the foods that were Merlin’s favourites and he ate with more appetite than he had since his injury. When he finally pushed his plate away Arthur more or less inspected it to see how much he'd eaten.

There was only so long he could put off the inevitable, however, and eventually they were settled either side of the fireplace and Merlin again ensured they wouldn't be overheard.

“I wish I didn’t have to tell you this,” he began, “But Morgana is no longer a friend of Camelot.” He kept his eyes down, not wanting to see the reaction his words would elicit, and instead he picked up the story from his poisoning of Morgana. Since Arthur had guessed about her magic it was easier to fill in the gaps and explain, too, about the dragon’s reaction to her.

Like the day before, Arthur sat in silence and his only reactions were to be seen in his body language as he became ever tenser. As Merlin detailed the attempted murder of the king, and of Merlin himself, Arthur’s hands tightened their grip on the chair arms. Merlin finished his narrative by breaking the news, as gently as possible, of Morgana’s parentage and about how she was Uther’s daughter.

There was a long silence.

“Does she know?” Arthur asked eventually, his voice strained.

Merlin finally looked at him then, trying to gauge his reaction from his expression, but Arthur was giving nothing away.

“I’m not sure.”

“I can’t believe she would turn against us. Not like this at least. She’s always been so honest, so straightforward in letting us know her views and feelings. To be so underhand doesn't seem like her.” For a moment Arthur sounded like a lost little boy and Merlin suddenly ached to hold him and offer some comfort. He tried to find words to help.

“I think she’s been scared and alone for a long time. I wanted Gaius to help her but he was worried for her and tried to use the potions to suppress her gifts. At first it was just the seer's powers and we could pass them off as simply nightmares. But then her magic started to manifest and there was nothing we could do to stop that. She’s strong and is growing into her power quickly. We have to find a way to deal with her.”

“No,” Arthur was suddenly vehement. “We have to find a way to save her. She’s my sister.”

Merlin felt his jaw drop, staring at Arthur. Eventually he managed. “I’m not sure we can.”

“I don’t believe it. You’re this great prophesised Emrys, aren’t you? You should be able to do something. We know how persuasive Morgause can be, Merlin, and you’re telling me she had Morgana for a year. Think of the poison dripped in, every single day while she was there. Is that why she has changed so much? Or is there another reason?”

Oh. And just like that, Merlin understood how Arthur Pendragon and Emrys would work together to achieve at least part of their destiny. Arthur questioned and looked around every situation he faced because strategy was in his blood. It hadn't even occurred to Merlin to consider there might be more to it than Morgana simply turning against them.

He grinned at Arthur. “You’re right, she’s not just changed, she’s completely different.”

“Of course I’m right, Merlin. So what has changed her – other than Morgause?”

They sat in silence for some time before Merlin realised. “Gods, it’s been in front of us this whole time.” Arthur’s raised eyebrows and irritated expression had him hurrying to explain. “She wears a healing bracelet that Morgause gave her on her first visit here. That was when Morgause tried to get you to turn against your father, but she must already have known Morgana and she shared the same mother. You were her first attempt. Morgana is her second. I need to get a closer look at the bracelet.”

“That’s just the start of it, though. So much damage has been done – to Morgana and to us all because of it. We need to win Morgana back for Camelot.”

Merlin sobered. “She’ll never forgive me – and I can’t blame her.”

“Perhaps not,” Arthur agreed. “But in time she might understand why you did what you did. And you were manipulated, too, I think.”

“Me?”

“The dragon wanted to be released. It may be telling the truth about our destiny, but I still believe the future is for us to decide. We don’t have to work towards something that other people have said will or must happen. We can determine our own destiny.”

Merlin hadn’t thought of it in such a light before and he slipped off his chair and onto his knees by Arthur’s side, moved by his words. “I want us to do that,” he grasped Arthur’s hand. “I would pledge my life to that, to you.”

A strange expression passed over Arthur’s features at his declaration and Merlin wondered at the sudden solemnity of the moment as Arthur held his gaze and said: “Make your pledge, then, Merlin son of Hunith.”

Merlin swallowed and then from somewhere deep inside he found the words. “I pledge my life to you, my liege.”

Arthur twisted in his chair, placed his hands on Merlin’s shoulders and reached forward to kiss him on each cheek. “I accept your pledge, Merlin son of Hunith, Emrys and Dragonlord. Together, we'll build Albion.”

Merlin could hardly believe what he was hearing. Everything he'd dreamed of and wished for was unfolding in front of him at this very moment. Overcome, he leaned forward and pressed his face against Arthur’s torso.

“You’re such a girl, Merlin,” he heard, but Arthur’s tone was soft and a gentle hand settled on the back of his neck.

It was a moment’s peace but Merlin knew the heightened emotion wasn't something Arthur would tolerate for long and wasn't surprised when Arthur’s hand slipped to squeeze his shoulder and then press against him, pushing him away. “So, what do we do first?” Arthur’s tone was a study in practicality, successfully hiding any other emotion he might be experiencing.

Merlin rubbed at his eyes, grinned at Arthur and moved to sit cross-legged on the rug by the fire. “Can you get hold of the bracelet for me to look at?”

“Beltane is coming up. I can ask her under the pretence of getting something made to match it as a gift. In fact, it’s what I’ll do. If you can,” and he waggled his fingers meaningfully, “make a copy I can take to the jeweller, then you could look at the original. I don’t expect she would let us have hold of it for more than a day.”

“It would help – I shouldn’t need more than a day anyway.”

“If it’s not the reason – and even if it is – we need to make her feel part of us again.” Arthur frowned down at his hands for a moment, before his face cleared. “I have to persuade my father to acknowledge her as his daughter.”

“What? Do you think he would?”

“I don’t know but it’s worth a try, isn’t it?”

“Are you going to talk to her about having magic?” Merlin asked.

Arthur shook his head. “No, not yet. If the king will acknowledge her then she'll be a princess and will have different duties and responsibilities. I'll help her as much as I can and hopefully she'll remember the love she had for our people and remember they're her people still. I don’t know what else we can do.”

 

**

 

That night Merlin made no remark as Arthur slid into the bed beside him and pulled him close, but he wondered at this new, easy familiarity. Held within the circle of Arthur’s arms, he could admit to the love he felt for this man, but until now he'd never believed there was any chance Arthur felt the same, because he'd thought Arthur had fallen in love with Gwen. He was tempted to ask about her, but hesitated to break this growing closeness between them. The relief of being able to talk to Arthur of his magic was easing some hard knot of grief and remorse that had been stifling him and now he felt that they were building a more equitable relationship. It was as if Arthur had accepted him in some way, as if he understood the concept of destiny and saw their paths lying side by side heading into the future they'd build. Sleepily, he clutched at Arthur’s hand and drew it to his breast. Something he'd hardly registered over the past few days surfaced now.

“Your ring, Arthur. I haven’t seen it?”

“I know where it is, Merlin,” Arthur reassured him. “It’s quite safe.”

Merlin made a sound that could have been an acknowledgement and then he was asleep, unaware of the soft kiss bestowed upon him.

 

**

 

“Ah, Morgana, just the person.”

Morgana composed her features into a gentle smile and turned to face Arthur, fighting not to show the disdain and hatred that seemed to have taken up residence inside her since her return to Camelot. “Arthur,” she said.

He smiled widely at her, all cheek and sunshine, grabbing hold of her and spinning her around. She gasped a protest, and he released her. Her heart plummeted when he held up his hand and she realised he was holding the bracelet Morgause had given her.

“Arthur, give it back.” She tried not to let fear leach into her voice.

“I need to borrow it for today, Morgana, and no, you're not allowed to ask why. I know it's precious to you and I promise I'll return it to you before the sun sets.”

She recalled then that Beltane was only weeks away and guessed he was planning to provide her with another piece of jewellery to match the bracelet. It would be a generous present and she knew in the past she wouldn't have made a fuss on realising it. She managed to smile. “As long as it's returned to me as you said, I suppose I can allow it.” She could not quite contain her anxiety. “Promise me you'll be careful.”

“My word on it, Morgana.” And then he grinned again and was striding away from her without giving her a chance to change her mind.

She watched him leave, hate coursing through her as it had done every time since she'd returned to Camelot, although it didn't quite shake her as it had done earlier. Irritated, she sighed and turning, caught sight of Gwen approaching her. Yet again she composed her features and for a moment felt a pang of uncertainty at Gwen’s wariness.

“My Lady, the king has requested your presence.”

Of course he had. Since her return it seemed she was never free of him. Her father. She remembered Morgause’s response when she told her, of her glee and immediate assessment of what it could mean for her own plans. There had been no discussion about how it affected Morgana or any enquiry regarding how she felt about it. At the time she'd craved comfort and support but neither had been forthcoming from Morgause. She was abruptly horrified at the sudden critical thoughts about her sister.

She dragged her thoughts back to the present and answered Gwen, who was standing with her hands clasped in front of her and her eyes on the floor. “I’ll be there in a moment, Gwen, thank you.”

Gwen dropped a quick curtsey and hurried away. In the past she'd have lingered and they'd have walked arm in arm along the corridor gossiping and laughing together. She felt a sudden nostalgia for their easy friendship. At the end of the corridor Merlin came into view and hatred flared anew, banishing all her uncertainties. They'd all pay. Merlin and Uther most of all. Merlin glanced along the corridor at her and then turned to follow the path Arthur had taken.

 

**

 

Arthur strode into Gaius’ workshop with Merlin hot on his heels and set the bracelet down on the table. “Can you do it?” he asked.

“Easy enough to make a replica,” Merlin said, and by the time he'd finished speaking, there it was.

“Huh,” Arthur said, obviously trying not to be impressed, and then, “Which is the real one then?”

Merlin frowned at the two bracelets sitting side by side and passed his hand over them, eyes flashing gold for a brief moment. He picked one of them up and handed it to Arthur. “That’s the copy, there's no taint of magic on it other than mine. The real one has different enchantments within it. I’ll need the rest of the day.”

“You have until sunset. I’m going to get this to the jeweller in the lower town and then I need to see my father.” He paused. “No,” he decided, “I’ll see my father first.” And with a nod for Merlin and a searching look, Arthur was gone.

 

**

 

“I'd speak with you, father?” Arthur made sure to couch his words as a request. Even though Uther’s moods had mellowed since Morgana’s return his father could still be capricious. Arthur's entry had interrupted Morgana and Uther discussing some issue to do with provisioning the Castle and he'd escorted her to the door and then spent some time talking to his father about the knight’s training before he turned to the main reason for this audience. “It's a delicate matter,” he said.

“Arthur, of course.” Uther clapped Arthur on the back and led him into the small room off the main chamber, calling for wine.

When they'd been served and were alone they sat in silence until Uther prompted, “You've something you wish to say?”

Arthur had thought long and hard about how to broach this subject and in the end had decided on a route he hoped would bring his father to the point where he'd admit his paternity. “You were so distraught when Morgana was kidnapped,” he said bluntly. “It made me think there was more at stake than the loss of your ward, however dear she is to us.” Uther was absolutely still, his gaze fixed on the goblet in his hand. “And recently,” Arthur continued, “When she fell and we thought we might lose her…” He paused as if to consider carefully his words. “Father, am I to expect a new Queen?” He almost laughed aloud at the utter shock colouring his father’s expression.

“No,” it was a quick, aghast response. “Morgana is… like a daughter to me, Arthur.”

Arthur narrowed his gaze as if in thought. “Like a daughter?”

“Who's spoken to you?” Uther was suddenly defensive and angry.

This was the dangerous moment, when Uther’s suspicion and quick temper could destroy Arthur’s carefully planned strategy to redeem his sister. “No-one,” Arthur allowed a moment of seeming hesitation before he said: “I did ask Merlin to seek information from Gaius - to find out if you'd ever said anything to him about Morgana, but he was told it was none of his business.” It did no harm to underline Gaius’ loyalty to the king. “Your reaction suggests there's something to be told?” He kept his tone even and non-judgemental.

“It's not your business, Arthur.”

Uther was trying to be as oppressive as possible. In the past Arthur would've backed down, but everything Merlin had told him suggested they were at a dangerous crossroads and this certainty pushed him onwards.

“Is it not?” He asked.

Shifting, Uther dropped his gaze and eventually scrubbed a hand through his hair. “It was all such a long time ago. Gorlois was away,” he stuttered to a halt.

“Morgana's your daughter.” It was only now, when he saw the truth etched in his father’s expression, Arthur understood he hadn't entirely believed it to be true.

“Yes,” Uther looked almost relieved to say it and Arthur wondered what it must be like to carry a secret for so long. Inevitably those thoughts turned his mind to Merlin who'd carried so many secrets his entire life, and he recognised the same relief he'd seen when Merlin had spilled everything out, of being able to let something go that had weighed heavy.

“Why haven't you acknowledged her?”

“What?” Uther looked absolutely stunned at the very suggestion, as if it had never occurred to him. “Arthur, at the moment the succession is clear. If I acknowledge Morgana – Besides, how will she feel, how will she react, when I tell her Gorlois wasn't her father?“

“An acknowledgement will strengthen us, father. Don’t you see? And I – I'd have a sister.” He knew his own pleasure at the thought was clear. As he'd absolutely intended. However, while he'd mulled over the implications of what this revelation said about the relationship of Uther and Ygraine, until this moment he hadn't quite followed through on what it might mean for him. A sister. He discovered he liked the thought.

Uther was lost in thought and his brooding features gave little away.

“Father,” Arthur pressed. “Morgana is dear to both of us and is loved by our people, as you have often remarked. They'll approach her with concerns when a king and a prince seem too remote. Of all of us, Morgana has always understood the temper and fears of our people. She'll make us stronger.” He prayed it would be so. Given how close they'd come to losing Morgana, Arthur believed Uther would be more predisposed to acknowledging her than he might've been in the past.

He didn't really expect much in the way of an immediate reaction from Uther, his father always played his decisions close to his chest and instead of pressing him, Arthur quietly took his leave, judging he'd said enough for the time being.

Arthur was wise enough to know that any further pressure from him would be unlikely to help. Instead, he walked to the jeweller in the town and gave him two commissions that would feed his family for well over a year. As Arthur explained what he wanted and swore the man to secrecy, he prayed he wasn't making a mistake.

When he was done, he continued with his normal daily routine, training the knights, attending council and working his way through an amount of necessary but tediously boring paperwork. Throughout the day he was constantly ambushed by his sense of being incomplete, of looking up suddenly and expecting to see - well, obvious really, he reflected, knowing he was expecting to see Merlin. It was so seldom a day went past without Merlin being a huge part of it. With the ease of practice, he battened down his own desire to seek Merlin out, knowing he must be working on the cursed bracelet and would need the time to complete the work. He'd enough of his own to keep him busy, he reminded himself, and applied that discipline to his own tasks.

In the end Arthur was actually startled when the door burst open and Merlin entered, juggling a tray and jug, in his usual noisy and irreverent fashion. Dusk had fallen without Arthur noticing and only then did Arthur recognise he'd been squinting at the parchment in front of him without being able to see it clearly. There was little light left in the room and even the fire had dampened to a few softly glowing embers.

“For goodness sake, Arthur,” Merlin was in full scolding mode the second he walked in the door. He turned and closed the door behind him and with an annoyed snort and a flash of golden eyes, the candles flared to life and the fire surged anew.

“Merlin!” He said in a mix of anger and concern.

“I made sure the door was closed,” Merlin pointed out and then frowned at him. “The sun sets in a few moments. You need to return this.” He delved beneath his tunic and handed Arthur the bracelet. “When you come back I’ll tell you about it.”

As Arthur rather bemusedly left the room to follow Merlin’s orders, he wondered briefly just who exactly was in charge.

By the time he returned, Merlin had set out the food for them both and had poured some wine. Arthur looked critically at him. “You’ve done too much today,” he accused bluntly. “You’re even paler than you usually are.”

“I’m fine, Arthur,” Merlin brushed off his concerns. “I had to use quite a bit of magic to disentangle the curse from the bracelet, that’s all. I’m tired but I’m well.” He met Arthur’s worried gaze then and flushed slightly. “I promise,” he said.

Arthur grunted at his assertion, but didn't challenge it, asking. “So, tell me all about this bracelet then?”

“It was originally just a healing bracelet – it must've been helping her with her nightmares, but someone – probably Morgause – has woven in a spell to make her hate those whom Morgana had loved. It was quite specific and I could sense signatures within it – your father, you, Gwen, Leon and some of the other knights.” He shuddered suddenly and Arthur waited for him to compose himself. “It was horrible, Arthur, so much darkness and hate. I can’t believe Morgause would do such a thing to her sister. Morgana must've thought she was going mad, at least until Morgana finally got hold of her and reinforced the bracelet.”

“What do you mean?” Arthur was intrigued by this version of Merlin, listening carefully as he explained what the curse had entailed, and then Merlin’s analysis of how Morgause could have reinforced it through her words, through misrepresenting both Arthur and Uther, turning Morgana against those she'd loved the most. Arthur found himself reappraising this younger version of Merlin, recognising the keen intelligence he'd so admired in his lover was here, too, and wasn't just a product of the years he'd lived. He'd not lost him after all, perhaps.

“The spell didn't include you?” he asked and then wished he'd said nothing as Merlin’s lips slanted downwards unhappily.

“After what I did, I doubt Morgause thought she needed anything else.”

“What will happen now? Did you put another spell on the bracelet?” Arthur didn't try to offer any false reassurances. Even before the curse, Morgana could always hold a grudge. Merlin accepted the change of subject with obvious relief.

“I'd never do that – it would make me no better than Morgause. Morgana is strong and has always thought for herself. Hopefully those traits will reassert themselves. Will your father acknowledge her?”

“I hope so, but he made no decision when I spoke to him – nor would I have expected him to come to a conclusion so quickly. I'll not raise it with him again.” He looked at Merlin then, noticing the drooping eyelids and aura of utter exhaustion he was exuding. “Go to bed, Merlin, you look like a ghost.”

It was a testament to how tired Merlin was that he obeyed the irritated command with nothing more than a frown and grunt of disapproval. As if it was normal, he disappeared behind the screen to wash before trudging across to Arthur’s bed, shedding clothes as he walked and clambering under the covers with what sounded suspiciously like a blissful groan. Arthur stared in disbelief at the garments now scattered across his floor and opened his mouth to deliver a blistering reprimand, before he saw Merlin’s eyes had closed the moment his head hit the pillow and he was already asleep. Instead, muttering curses under his breath, Arthur tidied up after his manservant, before settling down once more to the mound of parchment littering his desk.

 

**

 

“Morgana, my dear. Please come in.”

Morgana plastered a simpering smile on her face and followed Uther into his room. She was trying hard to hold onto the hate she'd felt for him throughout her time with Morgause but the remembrance of his joy at her return and his care for her was making it more difficult. She wasn't sure she'd enjoy the scream of the mandrake if she tried to use it now. Morgause had visited her just the evening before, seemingly anxious when Morgana had attempted to explain some of her doubts and in the end Morgana had ceded to her sister, unwilling to jeopardise the bond they shared. Learning that Uther was her natural father had initially added to her rage, but even then she had to admit she'd craved his acceptance, his acknowledgement, and to be made to feel as if she merited his attention. Now, though she still hated Uther's stance against magic, she was beginning to understand him better. Since her return they'd spent considerable time together and he'd talked to her, explaining some of his decisions and she'd discovered that, when it didn't concern magic, they were remarkably in tune.

“Sit down, Morgana.”

Her brow creased. Uther seemed remarkably ill at ease and even more remarkably, seemed unable to hide the fact. The emotions surfacing then held her immobile, veering from fright in case he'd discovered her magic to cautious hope he might just…

“I've something difficult to tell you, Morgana, but I feel now you're an adult, you've a right to know. What I did shames me, but I can't be sorry for the outcome.” There was a long pause while he gathered himself, and then bluntly delivered the news she'd been half-expecting. “I'd a brief liaison with your mother,” he hesitated and she stared at him in shock she didn't have to fake. “You're my daughter, Morgana. Whatever you think of me now – you've a right to know this.”

She put a hand to her forehead, shocked not by the knowledge already hers, but at the simple directness with which he'd turned her life upside down, and had shattered the new world she'd been trying to build for herself.

“I can't ask your forgiveness,” Uther was still speaking and she forced herself to concentrate on his words even while her consciousness seemed to be spiralling away from her. “I betrayed my friend by my act. I don't believe he ever knew and he loved you as his daughter. I hope you know I've always done the same.”

But would you, she wanted to ask, if you knew I can see the future, that my eyes glow gold when I cast a spell, and I'm a witch?

“I – I don’t know what to say, Sire.”

“You need say nothing, Morgana. I'll leave you to consider this news.”

As he walked past her she couldn't help herself, reaching out and gripping his hand. He stilled and she heard his breath catch as she pulled his hand upwards and rested her cheek against it for a moment before releasing him. Despite everything she was, she knew, or she'd been told, she wanted to be a daughter again. That, she couldn't deny. Morgana was aware of him bending over her and placing his lips softly on her hair, before he left her.

 

**

 

It was Beltane and the castle was abuzz with activity as preparations were made for a feast in celebration. Almost a month had passed since Uther had confessed he was her father and in that time Morgana had struggled to come to terms with it – although she'd already learned of her parentage, the fact Uther would accept her was what she was having difficulty believing. Her distress had brought Morgause to her and once again Morgana was disappointed in her sister’s reaction. Morgause had been full of ways to turn this to their advantage and hadn't seemed to notice the depth of Morgana’s unhappiness and confusion. That had hurt Morgana, and she'd wondered then if there was anyone who would ever accept her for herself, who wouldn't seek to use her in some way. Her thoughts had drifted to Gwen then, and she'd suddenly desperately wanted the friendship they'd shared. It was Gwen she'd always turned to in the past, who'd been there as a stalwart and warm presence and with a fierce longing, she wanted to tell Gwen everything troubling her.

“My lady?”

She was startled out of her reverie, turning to see Sir Leon smiling at her.

Unaccountably, she felt herself flushing. “Sir Leon,” she acknowledged him with a gracious incline of her head.

“Beltane greetings, My Lady.” And with a flourish he brought forward the hand that had been behind his back and offered her a large bunch of spring flowers, the dew still on them.

The smile that spread across her features took her by surprise, because it was natural and without pretence as she expressed her delight at Leon’s gesture. “Leon, thank you. They’re lovely.” She accepted the flowers and buried her nose in them to breathe in the fresh scent. She caught sight of Gwen turning into the corridor. “Gwen,” she called her forward. “Look what Leon's brought me, aren’t they beautiful?”

“Oh, Morgana,” Gwen’s face lit up and she smiled at Morgana in a way she hadn't done for many weeks. “I’ll put them in some water for you.”

Morgana pretended not to notice the knowing smile Gwen cast her as she passed and instead concentrated on Leon, also ignoring his slightly embarrassed mien as she smiled at him. “That was thoughtful, Leon.” She was surprised by the emotion welling up, unaware of the sweetness of her expression as she fought to control the sudden tears.

Leon shifted, clearly pleased by her words. “Perhaps you'd honour me with a dance at the feast this evening?”

“I'd be delighted.”

With a bow and a grin, Leon left her. In his wake, her confusion returned ten-fold, wondering how to reconcile the affection of Gwen and Leon with the hate her sister tried to instil within her.

Skittering footsteps had her tensing as she recognised Merlin’s characteristic hurried gait. He rounded the corner and nearly barrelled into her, stopping and backing off. His face, pale but happy, changed abruptly when he saw who it was. Closed now and wary, they regarded one another in silence for a moment.

It was Merlin who finally spoke. “Good Beltane, My Lady.” He bobbed his head and made to walk past her.

Anger and hate made a sudden resurgence and she blocked his path, hating the way he stood there passively as he awaited her words. “A celebration I'd never have seen if it had been up to you, Merlin,” she said.

His eyes were downcast and she thought he'd make no response as he ducked around her, but he paused with his back to her and said: “Ask yourself why, Morgana. Why would I do such a terrible thing to a friend?” His voice broke on the last word and he was away, the sound of his footsteps picking up speed as they receded.

Her breath gasping, she pressed a hand to her midriff and tried to ignore just how unsettling the brief encounter had been. She tried to put it out of her mind, but his words wouldn't be forgotten. As she moved towards her chambers, she decided that she'd ask Morgause to see if her sister understood what they meant.

 

**

 

Arthur could hardly explain to himself why he was so committed to winning back Morgana’s loyalty for Camelot. Perhaps just the knowledge of what she'd gone through, how afraid she must've been, should have been enough to attempt this redress, but it felt like more. It was only with the knowledge of Morgana’s magic that some of the small things Merlin in the future had let slip were beginning to make sense. Somehow, he was convinced Morgana had a key role to play in what happened to them all from now on, and he needed to try everything he could to influence the outcome, to hope it would be better than the shadowy impression he'd been left with after his trip to the future. And besides, the thought of having a sister, a sibling, was possibly the strongest reason of all. Apart from his father there was no other blood relative close to him. His mother’s brother had little to do with them, preferring to stay on his own estates and Arthur had only met him a few times. To have a sister. That was something worth fighting for.

Arthur knew his choice had been risky when he commissioned Morgana’s gift and he smiled tightly at Merlin as they made their way into the Great Hall for the feast to celebrate Beltane, sloughing off his thoughts and preparing to be on his mettle. He was betting on his experience of his father’s love of sensation and theatrics and praying he was right. Beside him, Merlin carried the box holding the gift he'd had fashioned. He cast a glance at Merlin, satisfied by the ease with which he walked beside Arthur and though he was still pale, the aura of illness seemed to have left him. For a brief moment Arthur was distracted again, marking Merlin’s posture and noticing how he stood so straight and tall. He experienced a slight feeling of chagrin when he realised Merlin was actually taller than him.

At Arthur’s command – and without a word of complaint, for a wonder – Merlin had moved his belongings into the anteroom off his chamber. On the first evening, when he'd hesitantly made his way there, Arthur had acted without thought and had instead shooed him towards his own, considerably more comfortable, bed. Merlin had shared it ever since and while nothing had happened between them other than an occasional soft, sleepy kiss, when one or other of them seemed too close to sleep to really be aware of it, there was no doubt in Arthur’s mind where this was heading. This was Merlin – perhaps not the Merlin he'd originally allowed himself to love, but it was Merlin nevertheless.

And Arthur wanted him.

The doors were opened for them and he gathered his composure to walk through with his customary gait, head held high and an almost arrogant expression colouring his features. He accepted the obeisance offered with a curt nod, ignoring Merlin’s quiet snort of derision as they passed through the genuflecting crowd and Arthur waited with ill-concealed impatience until Merlin deposited the box and pulled out his chair. Merlin drew his breath to say something no doubt uncomplimentary, but Arthur was aware of his father’s eyes upon them and turned his head away from Uther to mutter.

“Be careful. Do not draw the king’s attention to you.”

There was a moment’s stillness and then Merlin responded with a light press to Arthur’s shoulder as he took his place with the other servants. Out of the corner of his eyes, Arthur could see he'd adopted a suitably deferential stance. Something sour twisted in Arthur’s stomach.

Such a position for such a man. It was wrong.

With a silent vow about how things would change when he was king, Arthur turned his attention to the feast and to his father, hoping against hope he was right about his father’s intentions. He made sure to enter into conversation with those around him, particularly aware of the ease with which Morgana was interacting and wondered why he hadn't noticed how she'd withdrawn since her return. He chatted with his father and sister, and yet throughout the evening he was always aware of exactly where Merlin was and what he was doing.

The long tables had been moved to the side and the minstrels were tuning their instruments before King Uther stood. Despite the amount of alcohol that had already been imbibed, and the general air of ease, everyone in the hall quickly became silent. Arthur felt his own tension ratchet up a notch and was aware of Merlin close by, his breath uneven and rapid, as if he'd run some race.

“My people. Beltane is a time of celebration; a time to give thanks for the passing of winter and to bless the land as we enjoy the lengthening days. It is a time for beginnings.

"My people. To be your King is an honour and I strive each day to keep you all safe and content.”

There was a pause as Uther acknowledged the brief smattering of applause, but complete silence fell again as he raised his hand both as an acknowledgement and a reminder that he had more to say.

“I am your king. I'm also a man and as a man I have made mistakes. Yet even out of a misjudgement, something wonderful can emerge. I'm shamed that I've not shared this joy with my people before, but now I stand before you all and ask you to bear witness as I present to you Morgana, my natural born daughter, and name her - Morgana Pendragon, Princess of Camelot."

There was a moment’s silence as shock rippled through the crowd and Arthur knew word of this would spread through the town and country faster than fire. He stepped forward and raised his goblet towards his sister, pretending not to see the almost stricken panic in her eyes. “Princess Morgana Pendragon!” His voice rang through the hall and he took a mouthful of his wine before raising the vessel again. “To my sister,” and he met her gaze then, smiling wide and joyful to make sure she was under no impression other than he was glad.

Uther raised Morgana from her seat and bestowed a kiss on each cheek before handing her a package wrapped in silk. “This rightfully belongs to you, daughter.” There was a tightness in Uther’s tone and Arthur glanced at him, seeing some odd expression chase across Uther's features before Uther could hide it.

Arthur watched as Morgana unwrapped the parcel to expose the castle’s chatelaine. He recognised it from where it had sat all his life on the chest in his father’s chamber and he'd early learned not to touch it, and not to remark on it. It had been specially made for his mother, he knew, and he realised Morgana as well as he understood the significance of this gift. Arthur prayed this recognition of her status as daughter and princess would be enough.

To which end, he'd his own present to bestow. Merlin seemed to have read his mind as he handed him the box the moment he turned. Arthur was about to hand it to Morgana and then thought again. “Father, in hopes of this, I took the liberty of commissioning a gift for my sister,” and he grinned at Morgana again. “But it's something only in your purview to offer.”

Uther took the box and looked inside. He cast a considering look at Arthur and raised his eyebrows and Arthur made a show of smiling sheepishly, and then stepped back to ensure his father took centre stage.

“Kneel, Morgana.”

Arthur watched as Morgana knelt and saw her eyes widen as Uther extracted a finely worked crown from the box. It was a beautiful piece of work. Morgana met his gaze and there was a warmth in her eyes Arthur recognised and which had been missing for a long time. His smile now was as warm and reassuring as he could make it and she smiled in return before turning her attention back to Uther.


Uther placed the crown gently on Morgana’s dark hair and then held out a hand to raise her up. Quick as a flash, Arthur stepped forward and reached out to take her other hand. Between them, father and son brought Morgana to her feet.

“Now you must acknowledge your people, Morgana.” Uther and Arthur stepped back as Morgana raised her head and looked out across the gathered throng and was clearly fighting for control as they roared their approval. Arthur felt fingers grip the back of his tunic and he turned slightly until he could see Merlin’s face, so full of hope and elation. Reaching behind him, he touched the hand bunched in the cloth and smiled at him.

They stood in some kind of stasis for a moment before Merlin abruptly released him and stepped away, his expression smoothing out into the polite indifference of a servant, by way of subtle warning. When Arthur turned, his father was watching. Arthur took care to ignore Merlin for the remainder of the evening and as soon as he could, he sent him away.

It was late before he managed to speak to Morgana, artfully extracting her from the fawning of yet another lordling with a polite word to lead her over to a quiet corner.

“How long have you known?” She asked him.

“Not long,” he didn't go into any further detail and she didn't press him. “I’m glad, Morgana, truly. I've always thought of you as a sister, and I'm happy both that you're my sister and that our father's acknowledged you.”

Morgana smiled at him, but he could see her eyes were troubled. He said nothing and instead drew her arm through his and turned them back to the room, staying by her side as the lords and ladies who'd sometimes looked down on her in her position as a ward of Uther’s, now began to jockey for position with a royal princess. Eventually, he ceded her hand to Sir Leon, glad to see them so comfortable in one another’s company. Sir Leon, he was glad to note, didn't alter his manner with her and Arthur was pleased the issue of rank seemed to matter little between them.

It was late by the time Arthur made it back to his chambers. Merlin was already curled up in the bed, but stirred when Arthur entered. He made to get up but Arthur shook his head, and dealt with his own clothes, washing quickly and joining Merlin in the warm cocoon he'd created. Without really considering it, he slid closer to Merlin and wasn't surprised when an arm snaked across his middle and Merlin’s face pressed against Arthur’s neck.

Merlin touched his hand. “You’re wearing your ring.”

“Yes.” It had been the second commission for the jeweller – an exact copy of the ring that he'd left with Merlin in 1987.

“Everything went well?” Merlin asked.

“I think so. I hope so.” Arthur wrapped an arm around Merlin’s waist. “Put the candles out.” He made no attempt to let Merlin move and Merlin responded by waving languidly at the candles and muttering some words Arthur didn't catch, and then they were in darkness.

Sleepily, Arthur kissed the dark hair, missing the quiet gasp of surprise as sleep took him in its grasp.

 

**

 

A week had passed since Beltane and since Uther had publicly acknowledged Morgana as his daughter. She'd yet to speak to Morgause and was dreading what her sister would make of this latest development, and how she'd try to turn it to her advantage. For the moment Morgana wanted to bask a little in a feeling of belonging that had overwhelmed her this past week. It'd been a salutary lesson, beginning to understand how she'd always felt something of an outsider, even before she knew she had magic. Now, though, she'd a sense of being an integral part of the life of Camelot. As she walked towards Gaius’ workshop she could feel the weight of the chatelaine as she moved and understood that even someone who didn't know who she was, would recognise her rank by it alone.

Gaius’ door was open and she approached quietly. A crash and a curse stopped her as she recognised Merlin’s voice. As she eased closer she could see into the room. Her breath stopped in her throat as she heard Merlin speak, understanding with sudden cold fear that he'd just cast as spell. She'd recognise the particular intonation anywhere and she watched as he reached down and picked up a pottery bowl she guessed she'd heard crash and break. It wasn't broken now. Merlin had mended it.

With magic.

How she managed to be silent she didn't know, but swallowing anger and hurt, she moved away from the door until she could find a quiet undisturbed corner where she could sink into a window embrasure. Morgana realised she was shaking. Merlin had magic. Righteous anger began to flood through her and the hate that had gradually been eroding, despite her own best efforts to keep it strong, returned in full force. This was her chance, Morgana recognised. This was her chance to get rid of Merlin for good. There was no way Uther would believe Morgana had magic so even if Merlin accused her, he wouldn't be believed and in fact if he was tempted to make such an accusation it would be more likely to hasten his end. And Arthur – no, that would be even better. She'd tell Arthur about Merlin instead and let him tell Uther. For a moment she hesitated, wondering if Arthur really would turn Merlin over to the king and then considered her own sense of betrayal, of what she was feeling right now. Arthur still trusted Merlin and they were so close, the betrayal would be absolute and if it was allied to Arthur’s quick temper…

She buried her sudden guilt at the realisation of how much this would hurt her brother, reasoning it away as protecting him. If Merlin could poison her, then surely one day he might try and harm Arthur. In her heart of hearts, she didn’t really believe it but she knew it was what Morgause would tell her. She bit her lip, struggling to justify her actions and concentrated on how she'd felt the moment she understood she was dying, and it was Merlin, one of her few friends, who'd killed her. Hardening her heart, she drew in a deep breath to help still her trembling and set off for Arthur’s chambers.

She knocked on his door gently, entering at an obviously distracted:

“Come.”

When Morgana entered, her brother – and she blinked back sudden, unexpected tears at the thought – was frowning at a table covered with parchments. He glanced up and his features altered, eyes lighting up as he smiled.

“Morgana, what can I do for you, sister?”

It stopped her in her tracks. So different from Morgause’s sibilant hiss, Arthur’s use of the word conveyed a depth of fondness and welcome she now realised was always missing from Morgause’s tone. She blinked, ashamed at this disloyalty to her sister, but couldn’t quite stamp down the bubble of happiness as he stood and came forward. Arthur captured her hands for a moment, squeezing them as he bestowed a kiss on her cheek and then led her to a seat by the fire.

Her righteous anger, the fury and betrayal fuelling her stuttered and faded slightly. She'd already acknowledged how much Arthur cared for Merlin but… She hardened her heart at the very thought of her murderer and began to speak.

“Arthur, I’m sorry,” she kept her tone gentle, belying the roiling emotions within her – the fury and betrayal joined by guilt and sheer unhappiness. “Merlin,” she paused suddenly as she struggled to say the words, wondering why it was so hard to force them out. “Merlin's a sorcerer. I’ve just see him use magic.” She looked down, and couldn’t recall when she'd started to wring her hands together. It looked as if she was distressed and she wasn’t, she reminded herself. She was glad, glad she'd get her revenge on Merlin.

There was a long silence.

Of all the reactions she might have expected from the volatile prince, this wasn't one of them. He sighed deeply as he stood and wandered over to the window, staring down at the courtyard below.

“What would you have me do, Morgana?” He asked abruptly.

He turned to face her and bitterness overwhelmed her.

“You know? How long?” she asked.

“I found out a few weeks ago,” he said.

“And you've done nothing? Does he know you've found out?”

“Yes, he knows. What would you have me do, Morgana?” he repeated. “You've argued against father many times over his persecution of those who use magic. And you were right, I think I’ve always known you were right. You showed your courage while I did nothing.” His cheeks had flushed as if in shame. “I can't believe Merlin's evil. Can you, Morgana? Really? Think of everything he's done for us over the years. Think how he's stood beside us against the forces trying to destroy Camelot.”

She'd avoided thinking about Merlin beyond his one act of betrayal, but now her memory flew back to the battle at Ealdor, to memories of his many kindnesses and the hope, the sudden overwhelming hope in his eyes when she'd led him to believe she'd forgiven him. She shook her head. When had her certainty, her hate, and her single-minded urgent desire for revenge left her?

“I don’t know,” she whispered, all her – Morgause’s – plans finally in tatters around her. Merlin had tried – no, he had poisoned her and he would've let her die. He'd held her in his arms while she died. The bitterness rose to choke her. He'd been her friend and she had so few of those in her life. He'd betrayed her. She pressed a hand to her forehead and struggled to make some sense of her troubled thoughts.

The first indication she had of Arthur’s movement was the appearance in her sight of a goblet part-filled with dark ruby-red wine. She accepted it gratefully and took a sip, looking up as Arthur slumped into his seat.

“Does Merlin know that you know about him?” Arthur asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“What are you going to do?”

She'd no answer, staring silently at Arthur.

Eventually he asked, “Will you speak to him?”

Morgana shook her head. She couldn’t talk to that boy. She couldn’t look at him – not knowing what he'd done.

“Are you going to tell father?” Arthur was working hard to keep his tone even, but couldn't completely mask the concern in his voice.

“No,” she whispered and saw him relax. She'd relied on Arthur’s anger, she realised, and had assumed he'd happily adopt a mantle of righteous denouement. She'd no idea what she was supposed to do now.

She was saved from any further questions by the distinctive sound of someone skidding to a halt outside the chamber door. An abrupt knock was immediately followed by Merlin tumbling into the room, and he came to a halt in front of her – standing tall between her and Arthur - and stared at her. His gaze hardened and then flashed briefly to Arthur. She witnessed his swift assessment, obviously reassuring himself Arthur had come to no harm.

For a moment she bridled at his assumption that she'd harm Arthur, and just as quickly dropped her gaze to stare at the wine as she realised his fear was probably based on past experience.

The Knights of Medhir.

It was only recently she'd begun to question why she'd been awake at all. She'd thought it must be to do with her magic but she was less sure of that as time went on. She could remember her building panic, as she watched people fall asleep around her and having no idea what was happening or knowing why. It was clear now there was something she didn’t know, some piece of the puzzle missing – otherwise why would Merlin want to hurt her? What reason could he have? Why had he asked her his question in the corridor weeks before?

Arthur shifted, drawing her attention for a moment and only then did she realise she'd been staring at Merlin, who was returning her gaze and didn't back down. Morgana wondered when he'd made the transition from boy to man. The look he bestowed upon her was steady, expressing wariness but willing, she recognised, to be guided by her conduct. He was giving her the benefit of the doubt.

“I know about you.” The words were out of her mouth before she realised she was going to speak. “I know you have magic.”

Merlin swallowed, glancing to Arthur as if for support. Arthur remained silent but met Merlin’s gaze calmly. Merlin turned his attention back to her and his chin tipped upward. He was calm and resolute, comfortable in his place here with Arthur.

“I protect Arthur.”

Both Merlin and Morgana seemed to ignore Arthur’s indignant snort at such presumption, but then Merlin’s gaze slid sideways to focus once again on Arthur and a glint of humour sparked. “I protect him from all the magical stuff.” He said. “People with swords – those he can take care of himself.”

“And protect you.” It was a dry rejoinder.

“And protect me.” Merlin said, flashing a grin in Arthur’s direction, who grumbled slightly but appeared willing to accept the compromise.

“You’re a sorcerer, though.” Morgana persisted, unwilling to be distracted by the by-play between them that spoke of such strong affection. She'd miscalculated badly if she ever thought Arthur would let anyone harm Merlin. Perhaps he'd even stand against Uther for him.

“I am.”

Arthur stood and leant against the wall, his arms folded across his chest, calm and at ease and it was borne home to Morgana that Arthur wasn't his father. He wouldn't denounce Merlin. Another thought wormed its way to her consciousness. He wouldn't denounce me. In an instant she was certain he'd stand against their father for Merlin’s sake. He'd stand against Uther for her.

She stared at him, seeing the way the light from the window limned his blond hair, making it appear as if he was already crowned. Merlin was staring at him too, she saw, looking as love-struck as she'd ever seen anyone.

Against her will a sob forced its way from her throat, dry and harsh. She pressed her hands to her face, taking a moment to collect herself and when she took her hands away, ashamed at the momentary weakness, Merlin was kneeling before her, his features expressing remorse and shame.

“Please, Morgana, I’m so sorry. You have to believe there was no other way. I never wanted to hurt you.” The words slid into silence, Merlin wrapping his arms around his middle and fixing his gaze on the floor, huddled in front of her.

There was silence for a few moments while both struggled for words and failed to find them and it was left to Arthur to break the impasse.

“I think Morgana and I will eat lunch here today, Merlin. Get food sent up from the kitchens, would you, and then you can have the afternoon off. Spend it with Gaius – he’s been missing you.”

Merlin hesitated, casting an agonised glance between them, but at Arthur’s raised eyebrows he got to his feet.

Morgana was grateful for Arthur’s intervention. She'd no idea what to say in the face of Merlin’s remorse and despite her own hatred of him, she was strangely unwilling to witness his unhappiness. Arthur had clearly judged they'd both had just about enough for one day and had neatly provided a way out of the confrontation.

“Merlin.”

It wasn’t the haughty command, or even the mocking drawl Morgana was used to hearing when Arthur ordered his manservant about. It was a soft reassurance, and coupled with the look the two men exchanged, it provided her with a whole new concept to consider. She had to accept Merlin’s feelings might well be reciprocated. Well. It should've been a moment of triumph, knowledge of an advantage she could take to Morgause and they could use against Arthur, against Camelot. She shivered suddenly, and put the thought to one side. There was no need to tell Morgause yet, she decided.

While she'd been lost in her thoughts, Merlin had pulled himself upright and he bowed with surprising elegance.

“Sire. Your Royal Highness.”

She flushed slightly, still getting used to her title, and Merlin took his leave, obviously comforted by whatever silent message Arthur and he had exchanged. Her attention returned to Arthur and she was struck by the same thought that had crossed her mind earlier. Arthur was no callow youth now. Not only was Arthur not his father he was no longer a boy. For the first time she got a glimpse of the king he'd become and suddenly, fiercely, she wanted to see him achieve such a promise of greatness.

Arthur resumed his seat and began discussing one of the matters that had arisen at the public hearings during the morning. It was a small matter about which both had disagreed with their father. Uther had taken the part of a lord against a townsman, who'd brought a complaint of non-payment for goods. Both Arthur and Morgana were concerned that by doing so, it would encourage others of the nobility to think they could do the same.

“I think you should talk to Lord Aris,” Morgana suggested, glad to have something to discuss and think about other than her own troubled situation. “Make sure he knows you're not happy.”

Arthur nodded. “It might be even better if you talk to his Lady. I’ve noticed she has considerable influence over him.”

She looked at him, unable to hide her surprise. “You're asking me to intervene?”

“Who better?” Arthur asked. “You have considerable influence of your own, Morgana. You're the first lady of Camelot and the chatelaine of this castle.”

Suddenly she was ill-at-ease at his easy acceptance of her new rank as she recalled the reason she'd come to his chambers, but pushed it aside to grasp at his suggestion to do something which could make a positive difference. “I could,” she said, musing, and then with more certainty, “I will,” acknowledging the role she could play in helping Camelot’s people. Her people.

 

**

 

As Uther took her arm to lead her into dinner that evening, Morgana bestowed a kind smile on Lady Aris.

“Perhaps you'd sit by me this evening, Lady Aris. It's some time since we've had an opportunity to talk together.”

Lady Aris flushed and cast a glance full of meaning at her husband. He flushed crimson and cringed, immediately trying to lose himself in the melee of minor lords as they made their progress into the hall.

Morgana walked past Arthur, who dropped his eyelid in the briefest of winks. Merlin was grinning and Gwen was wearing an expression Morgana hadn't seen for some time but recognised as approval. For a moment, a brief moment, she felt the same camaraderie she experienced during their time in Ealdor. She almost returned Merlin’s smile before a different memory crashed in on her and she felt her own features harden. Merlin’s grin faltered and his gaze dropped. Morgana made her way to her rightful place and turned her attention and charm on Lady Aris, ensuring she was settled comfortably. Throughout the meal Morgana engaged her in a discussion involving great and intricate detail about the obligations of nobles towards their people. By the time dinner was over Morgana knew her point – and wishes – were well and truly known.

As she released Lady Aris, Uther said, “Morgana, Arthur – join me.”

Arthur offered her an arm as they moved into the small salon Uther used. His own manservant served them some mulled wine and then silently withdrew, leaving Uther, Arthur and Morgana on their own.

Uther spoke for a few moments of inconsequentials and of the way the day had gone, before he commented. “You did well today. Both of you.”

Unqualified praise was rare from Uther and the siblings stared at him. Morgana tried to be angry with herself for feeling pleased, seeing Arthur’s surprise and pleasure reflected on his features.

“You saw what we did?” Arthur asked. It wasn't really a question. Uther didn't miss much.

Uther toyed with his goblet for a moment before taking a drink and then deigned to explain. “I couldn't side with the fletcher against a noble – nor could we allow the nobles to conduct themselves in such a manner. Camelot can't prosper if proper trade isn't encouraged.”

“What would you have done if we hadn't acted?” Morgana asked, interested in spite of herself.

Uther smiled at her, the very embodiment of a kind, indulgent father. “I trusted you to do the right thing. I can always rely on you for that.”

“Yes, father,” Arthur agreed. “We'll always act in the best interests of Camelot.” And if there were many different layers to his statement, only Morgana understood them – or some of them at least.

Their talk turned to other matters, but Morgana went to her chambers later in the evening full of confusion and doubt, angry with herself for some of the thoughts spinning through her mind. She almost missed the tug at her consciousness, the call she'd come to recognise as her sister’s voice. Her half-sister, she corrected herself, just as Arthur was her half-brother.

Morgana followed the call – how could she not.

“Sister,” Morgause’s sibilant hiss sounded almost uncertain.

“I’m here,” Morgana leaned into the offered embrace, reaching for the feeling of calm that always washed over her when Morgause touched her.

It didn’t come.

She shivered and Morgause held her tighter.

“Is something wrong, Sister?”

Sister. Always sister and never Morgana. As if Morgause always needed to make the point of their relationship. For a moment all her fears and anxieties bubbled up and she wanted nothing more but to spill out her worries, and to tell Morgause about Merlin’s magic – until she thought of what Morgause might do with such knowledge. Somehow, despite what had happened between her and Merlin, she couldn't utter the words to betray him.

“Morgause,” she asked suddenly, “The Knights of Medhir. How did you cast the spell? What made it work?”

“Why do you ask? It's over and done. It's unfortunate it didn't work. If Arthur and Uther had been killed, then Camelot would have been ours.”

“But why did Merlin try to kill me? Why would he do such a thing? There must have been some reason, surely.”

“He saw you as an enemy. Come, Sister, don't trouble yourself with the past.”

But why did Merlin, why did my friend, suddenly become my enemy, she wanted to ask. One look at Morgause’s foreboding expression decided her and she dropped the subject, though the thoughts swirled through her mind. Morgause had answered none of her questions, she realised.

Morgana felt torn in two and knew enough to accept she was going to have to make a choice. A weight of history settled on her. The decision she made, she understood, would be crucial to the future of Camelot. And she'd no idea what to do.

 

**

 

“Merlin.”

Morgana had barely slept, worrying at the questions roiling through her mind - the questions Morgause wouldn't answer, and the new questions her refusal to do so had generated. Towards dawn Morgana had come to the decision she wanted – needed – those answers. The moment she'd seen Merlin trotting along the corridor with his arms full of laundry, her resolve had hardened into a need for action.

“Your Royal Highness?” Merlin’s expression was that of honest, if slightly dim, servant and she raised an eyebrow at him. His features settled into something more realistic given their troubled relationship and he looked warily at her, suspicion and lingering regret to the fore.

“I want to talk to you.”

“Now?” She could see how uneasy he was at the prospect.

“Now.” Her tone was implacable and she saw his slight nod of agreement.

He handed the laundry off to a passing maid, smiling in thanks, and then followed her back to her chambers. She was intensely aware of him walking dutifully behind her. Morgana smiled briefly at the other servants they passed. At first she'd been pleased at the bobbed curtseys and bows, delighted by this tangible evidence of her raised status. Now, however, it made her feel uncomfortable. She supposed she'd soon get used to it and barely notice it, walking the corridors with the same ease and confidence as Uther and Arthur.

Merlin shut the door behind them and she gestured imperiously to a chair, sinking gracefully into her own.

“So, Merlin,” she was finally ready both to ask the question and listen to the answer. “Why did you poison me?”

Merlin bit his lip and then met her gaze.

“I betrayed you twice, Morgana,” he admitted, and she felt what little colour she had leach from her skin. Merlin looked down and twisted his hands together for a moment and then took a deep breath, settling his hands on the arms of the chair and facing her.

“I knew about the dragon Uther had captured. He was held under the castle in the deepest cavern, trapped there with a magical chain. When I arrived in Camelot he called to me, told me Arthur had a destiny, to unite Albion and rule a peaceful kingdom. It was my destiny to help him. He called you a witch and told me you'd try to destroy what we built – and you'd turn against Arthur.

“I refused to believe him. I couldn’t believe him – not you, Morgana, not the way you supported Arthur and looked out for him, not the way you cared for Camelot’s people.

“I knew you had magic, you see. And I did nothing to help you. You were so scared and so alone – and I was too afraid to give you the help I could have.”

Despite herself, despite the horror his words had brought her, she felt compelled to say: “You wanted to take me to the Druids so they could help me.”

He nodded and then scrubbed his hands through his hair. “I couldn’t even manage that,” his tone was full of bitter recrimination. “It should've been easy to arrange an excuse for you to leave the castle, but instead everyone thought you'd been kidnapped – and the Druids paid the price.

“Please - you have to understand, Morgana, I was brought up always to keep my magic secret, and never to tell anyone. And you were the king’s ward. Just like Arthur was the king’s son. I couldn’t tell any of you. I couldn’t.

“After you met Morgause I could feel you drifting away from us, but I didn’t know what to do to stop it happening. When Arthur and I came back and found the whole castle asleep apart from you, I went to the dragon for help. He told me you were the focus of the spell and it was working through you. The only way it would stop was if the link was broken. And the only way to break the link –“

“Was to kill the person who was the focus.” It made a sick sort of sense.

“I swear to you I tried everything else I could think of. But the knights were getting closer and they would've killed everyone in their path. It was one person or many, Morgana. It was you or Arthur.”

“And it would never be Arthur you'd sacrifice.” She heard the harshness in her tone but he met her gaze fearlessly.

“I'd die before I let any harm come to Arthur. I'd kill thousands to save him.”

Such a simple declaration, she thought, with so many layers of meaning. There was a hopelessness in his gaze when he said the words and she could see he understood what he said and the cost to himself. She suddenly had no doubt that he'd raze the earth to protect his prince, or that he'd the power to do so. Or how gladly he'd pay the cost personally in terms of the grief and guilt he'd carry. What would it be like, she wondered, to have so much faith in someone, so much love.

Despite the enmity that had arisen between them these past months, it didn't occur to Morgana to doubt Merlin was speaking the truth. Everything he said fitted with the half-truths and evasion Morgause had been employing more and more. She recalled the months she'd spent in her sister’s company, and how at first she'd tried to rebut Morgause’s comments, particularly when she denigrated Arthur, until finally she'd been worn down, beginning to agree, to remember Arthur as Morgause wanted her to remember him, not as he really was. She was a pawn, she could see it now and it was only in the honest gaze of the man who'd tried to kill her, did she understand how well she'd accepted her place as a piece in Morgause’s machinations.

As if Merlin was aware her thoughts had turned to Morgause, he reached out and touched a gentle finger to the treasured bracelet she was wearing. “When Arthur borrowed this, I checked it.” He hesitated and she braced herself, knowing she wasn't going to like what she was about to hear. “It'd been enchanted – the original spell was to help with your dreams, but afterwards other spells had been layered over the top of it. Spells to make you hate, to increase your mistrust – Uther, Arthur, Gwen and Leon were the specific ones I recognised. I’m sorry, Morgana. I’m so sorry, but it was the work of Morgause.”

There was no doubt he was sorry, his features troubled and skin tone almost grey. This was a hard conversation for both of them to endure, but Morgana was beginning to realise it was quite possibly the most important conversation of her life.

It was yet another betrayal – this time by Morgause. More shocking to her than anything else was her lack of surprise. Recently she'd been questioning Morgause and her plans more frequently and had become accustomed to her sister’s unwillingness to be challenged, obviously determined to remain in control – of Morgana.

She raised her chin and faced Merlin, refusing to show any weakness in front of him. Despite everything, she was clinging on to the knowledge of her sister’s love. Morgana had to believe it. If she'd enchanted the bracelet then surely she must've had a good reason. She held on to the fading hope.

Merlin was considering her. “You’ve been seeing Morgause?”

It was hardly a question and Morgana felt no guilt when she inclined her head. “She's my sister – my family.”

He bit his lip suddenly and looked down. “Will you tell her about me?”

“I don’t know,” she replied honestly, and could provide him with no other answer. Despite her unwillingness the previous night, she may yet decide to tell Morgause about Merlin’s magic. There was one assertion she could make, however. “I want no harm to come to Arthur and if she wishes to do anything to hurt him, I'll either dissuade her or tell Arthur so he's prepared.”

Merlin appeared willing to trust her in this, if his obvious relief was any indication.

Throughout what remained of the morning they talked and Morgana knew there was a catharsis in this for both of them as they worked to regain a new understanding of one another. She wasn't sure she'd ever be able to forgive him, but at least now she understood why he'd felt pushed into the actions he'd taken. She couldn't help but be moved at his obvious anguish as they brought the long conversation to a close.

“I should've found another way,” he said again.

“But you didn’t, Merlin.” Morgana said, “And what we now have to decide is whether we're friends or whether we're enemies.”

“Can we be friends?” Merlin’s voice combined hope and doubt in a confused mix that no doubt expressed his emotions. “Could you ever forgive me for what I did to you?”

“I don’t know.” Morgana changed the subject, asking a question that had been niggling at her since early on in their meeting. “Does Arthur know I have magic?”

Merlin hesitated and she realised he'd been hoping she wouldn't ask, but he sighed, met her gaze and answered. “He guessed. When he found out I had magic he made me tell him everything. I said some secrets weren't mine to tell – but he guessed.”

“He's said nothing to me,” she said.

“I think he’s hoping you’ll tell him yourself when you’re ready. You know you can trust him, don’t you? Even if … even if you can never trust me again, you can trust Arthur.”

Really, did the boy have any idea how besotted he sounded?

And yet, it did sound like the Arthur she'd come to appreciate over the past few weeks. She put it to one side to think over later when she was alone.

 

**

 

When Merlin eventually left Morgana’s chambers he came face to face with Arthur, who was leaning against the wall, arms crossed over his chest and legs crossed at the ankles. He looked completely at ease unless you knew him really, really well.

Merlin raised his eyes and jostled his shoulder in reassurance as Arthur moved to walk beside him.

“Any idea where my laundry got to?” Arthur asked.

Shrugging, Merlin answered. “I’m sure it’s somewhere around.”

Shoulder to shoulder, they walked down the corridor, bickering amicably and neither one was aware of Uther watching them.

 

**

 

To say that Arthur was surprised when Uther informed him of his plans regarding Elena was an understatement. There'd been no indication from Uther prior to this that he was thinking of even suggesting Arthur might marry, and to suddenly have this young woman thrust at him as his prospective bride had Arthur gaping in shock.

Arthur had defied his father before, but this time he didn't even wait for Uther to finish.

“No.”

“I beg your pardon?” Uther was not immediately angry, not quite realising how definite Arthur was about to be.

“At an appropriate time, father, Camelot will have a queen, but it won't be Elena and it won't be yet.”

Steadfast, he met Uther’s gaze, his own features fixed into lines that weren't so much stubborn as resolute. His thoughts wandered to Merlin and he knew, whatever happened, he would take no wife.

In the next moment he wondered if Uther could read his mind when, in a mild voice Arthur knew to distrust, Uther said:

“You can't marry your catamite, Arthur.”

The word and its connotations took a moment to register with Arthur and he couldn't suppress the flush of colour sweeping across his face. It was equal parts anger and embarrassment and he knew he had to ignore both to make his point.

So in response he raised his eyebrows and met his father’s gaze again. “Merlin's my friend. He's shown absolute loyalty to me and I trust him with my life.”

“The boy's a servant – he can't be your friend.”

“He can and he is.”

“You'll marry Elena or I'll have that boy whipped within an inch of his life as a lesson not to defy me.”

“You'd repay a man’s loyalty and devotion to your son in such a way, father? Really? Simply because I'll not do as I'm told? You've brought me up to think for myself, to consider and weigh my actions and the effect they'd have on our people. You've taught me well but I ask you this - what kind of king will I be if I can't make decisions and judgements for myself?” He paused for a moment to let his words sink in, hoping the praise of his father laced through it would soften his stance. He knew his father and his vanity well enough. Now it was time to make his position quite clear. “I'll not marry Elena. In time, Camelot will have a strong queen and the succession will be secured.” He didn't mention Merlin or stress how he'd not allow any harm to come to him. He suspected his father knew it already and this was a means of testing him. Arthur was a child no longer, however, and he wouldn't bow to Uther in this.

Arthur had been aware of Uther watching them together recently, but hadn't realised his father had become aware of the exact nature of their relationship – or almost the exact nature of it at the moment. He'd been concerned by the thoughtful looks, but hadn't considered Uther would resort to such tactics.

Uther was watching him now, weighing Arthur’s words and his resolution. “Very well, Arthur,” he said. “For the moment I'll let your decision stand. I'll talk to Lord Godwin and suggest as you and Elena are both still young, the matter shouldn't be taken forward at present. In return, I expect you to take the opportunity to get to know Elena during her visit. You may be surprised.”

“Thank you, father.”

Uther inclined his head in a gracious dismissal, but his voice stopped Arthur as he reached for the door handle. “Trusting those of a lower station in life is dangerous Arthur. They're not like us. If I ever think for one second this boy has betrayed you, then I'll deal with him, whatever you might think or say on the matter.”

His father had to reassert his dominance, and Arthur understood that. “Yes, father,” It was an acknowledgement without necessarily being an agreement and he deemed it safer to leave than to offer any further comment. As he slipped through the door and away from his father’s overbearing presence a thought occurred. His father was right – other people were not like royalty – sometimes they were so much better.

 

**

 

In the end Elena and Lord Godwin’s visit was a pleasant interlude, although Merlin did stumble in late one night and crawled into bed muttering about a changeling, a sidhe and a pixie. It was something Arthur never quite got to the bottom of, but Elena was certainly a great deal less clumsy towards the end of her stay, which Merlin informed him was because the changeling had been dealt with.

Elena herself had a natural charm and Arthur found himself warming to her, riding through the countryside together and chatting easily. It felt a little as if he'd found another sister and he was grateful for her cheerful presence. She also got on well with Morgana, who could be stand-offish with visiting nobles, but the two of them and Gwen were often seen strolling around the castle arm in arm, Elena in the middle and it warmed Arthur’s heart to see Morgana so at ease. The estrangement between Morgana and Gwen also seemed to be fading and he was glad to witness it, knowing how much Morgana had relied on Gwen in the past. Elena seemed to slot seamlessly into their life in Camelot and was a great deal more observant and intelligent than Arthur had originally judged when he first met her.

Just how observant Elena could be was brought home to him one day when both fathers had decreed it was a perfect day for the young couple to spend together and they'd been despatched and told to enjoy themselves. They'd rolled their eyes at one another in amusement but both had agreed it would be good to get away from the castle for the day and they'd galloped out of the gates with a certain glee, Elena well in front, Arthur racing to catch up and Merlin, hampered by all the paraphernalia they wanted with them, trotting behind more sedately. They'd finally stopped to share a picnic at the side of the brook they'd ridden to. Merlin was sitting off to the side as befitted a servant, and was staring into the distance. Arthur kept glancing over to him, recognising the closed off expression as Merlin struggled to hide his jealousy.

Suddenly, Elena bounced up from her seat and before either man was quite sure what she was up to, she had grabbed Merlin by the wrist and was urging him to his feet, dragging him over and shoving him so he tripped and ended up nearly flattening Arthur.

“What the –“ Both men said at once.

“There, that’s better,” Elena bounced down inelegantly onto the ground by them and shoved some cold meats and bread across at Merlin. And then she grinned at them, her eyes twinkling in amusement. “Boys can be so silly sometimes,” she said conversationally. “It’s why I much prefer horses.” She stopped, one chicken leg half way to her mouth as she blushed a bright, fetching pink. “Not in that way, of course, I mean that would be – and anyway, how would you even…” She trailed off in mortification.

It took Arthur a moment to realise Merlin was desperately trying to rein back giggles, and Elena looked about ready to join him. He was having enough trouble trying to control his own urge to laugh, but the sight of them fighting laughter finished him off.

When they'd finished laughing and dealt with Elena’s hiccups, they talked easily amongst themselves and the fact Merlin was a servant didn't seem to matter one whit to her. Arthur might well have fallen just the tiniest bit in love with her for it, and could see as he traded a warm smile with Merlin, he felt the same.

After lunch, Elena insisted in paddling in the brook and they indulged her, laughing with her as she chased frogs. She stopped in the stream for a moment, staring at a particularly handsome specimen. “Do you ever get the urge to eat something… unusual?” she asked.

Arthur and Merlin traded a glance as the memory of rat stew returned to haunt them. They burst out laughing and Arthur left it to Merlin to tell the sorry tale.

 

**

 

“Merlin?”

“Princess Elena? Arthur says you're leaving this morning.”

“Within the candlemark.” Today she looked like a poised, beautiful woman. She tugged Merlin into a small chamber. “I wanted to thank you for what you did.”

“Princess?”

“Elena to my friends, Merlin.” She hesitated for a moment. “I think I’ve always known there was something not right with me. That potion you and Gaius gave me? I wasn’t quite unconscious afterwards, you know. I saw…” For a moment she looked afraid. “It can’t come back, can it?”

“No, I promise you it won’t.”

She smiled at his certainty. “Well, thank you and if you ever need a friend, you know you can come to us. Not that you’ll need it of course, what with the way Arthur looks at you – oh,” Elena slapped her hand over her mouth and stared at him.

Merlin blushed and shrugged, but didn't attempt to deny anything.

Elena recovered herself. “Anyway, you must take care of one another. Goodbye.” With a kiss to Merlin’s cheek, she was out of the room and running down the corridor.

Merlin stood by Arthur as they waved the company off. “No regrets, then?” Merlin couldn’t help asking.

Arthur turned to face him. “None at all.”

Uther stared at them, frowning but apparently resigned. For the time being at least.

 

**

 

Morgana stared at Uther and for a moment hated him as much as she ever had. When Morgause had come to her asking for information about Gwen and her family, she'd not thought much about it, but now Gwen was missing and Morgana had a horrible feeling her sister was behind her disappearance. Morgana was grateful when Arthur insisted on looking for her, and tried not to be angry at Merlin’s thinly veiled suspicion but stared in disbelief at her father as he dismissed Gwen simply because she was a servant.

As soon as she could, she followed Merlin and Arthur.

“Morgana,” Arthur reassured her, “We’ll find out what’s happened, I promise.”

“Morgause asked me about Gwen – and about her brother.” She hurried to explain. “I didn’t think anything of it, but do you think..?” There was a moment, the briefest of moments, when she experienced real relief at the sudden relaxation in Merlin’s features, before she hated herself for caring.

“We’ll find out, Morgana.”

“I don’t want anything to happen to Gwen,” she said and this time she could not hide her gratitude as Merlin responded.

“We’ll find her, Morgana, I promise.”

In the end, they didn't need to as Gwen returned, bruised and scared, telling them she'd been taken to Cenred and had been ordered to return with Arthur or her brother would die.

Morgana comforted her and took her to Arthur’s chambers, where they discussed how to rescue Elyan. She was aware of Merlin’s gaze on her as Arthur told them of the secret passages beneath the Castle of Fyrian, at the way he occasionally bit his lip in concern. Arthur seemed to have no such worries, and looked to be confident in his trust of her.

In truth, she was conflicted. Uther’s attitude and Merlin’s mistrust had reminded her of the past and her own experiences came back to haunt her. She wondered, too, why Morgause had not confided in her about this latest plot and realised her confusion and divided loyalties were eroding trust there, too.

Later in the afternoon, she sought out Merlin, knowing well enough by now that he'd not hide his own concerns. Arthur’s chamber looked tidy until she spotted the pile of clothes and plates shoved behind the screen and she was surprised by her amusement at the sight. Merlin was sitting before Arthur’s armour and was clearly going through every piece meticulously. He rose as she entered and she gestured at him. Ceremony seemed out of place between them.

The question left hanging between them came back to haunt her. Friend or enemy? The time was coming when she'd have no choice but to answer – perhaps the time had already arrived.

“I don’t really want to talk to you, but I can’t think of anyone else who'd come close to understanding.” She didn't mince her words.

“If I can help, I will.” It was the thing about Merlin, she realised, he found it difficult to do anything other than help when someone asked and he trusted too easily.

“Morgause didn't tell me she was going to do this. She's losing trust in me and if she stops telling me things then we'll not know her plans. I thought - I think I should betray you.” His expression almost made her laugh. There was a truth she had to accept, to acknowledge and to speak of now. “She's used me, Merlin, hasn’t she? I can’t believe how much she made me hate Arthur and Gwen.” She'd used her own growing power to examine the bracelet and had been able to trace some of the history in the enchantments woven through it. There'd been the love and support in the one spell remaining whole, the one to help her visions and ease her sleep, but even though she could feel where Merlin had removed the spells turning her against the people she'd been closest to in Camelot, there was still enough of a residue to recognise both the Morgause’s signature as the spell caster and the malevolence the spells had contained. It occurred to her in the next moment that when she'd examined the bracelet she'd been able to trace what Merlin had done, but he hadn't added any enchantments of his own. She was aware to some degree of his power, and knew it would have been such a simple task for him, an easy way to mould her into the person she realised Arthur was hoping she'd become. She wasn't sure she'd have been able to resist temptation had she been offered the same opportunity.

“Will everyone betray me?” she bit out in sudden anguish.

“Not Arthur or Leon and not Gwen. They've never hurt you, Morgana. Trust in them.” He didn't say a word about himself, she realised. He didn't try to remind her how Morgause using her as the focus of a spell was what had led to him poisoning her. He was right, too, Arthur and Gwen had been nothing but good to her. And Leon had become a close friend and confidante. She shivered as she recalled her return to Camelot after spending close to a year with Morgause, thinking of the harm she'd sought to bring down on those she cared for most.

Merlin brought them back to the problem of Morgause. “How would you betray us – and how do we get everyone out of it without Morgause realising?”

“If I tell her we're coming and about the tunnels, I can let her decide what she'd do. It would work, I’m sure, but I’m afraid she might decide to kill Arthur straight away.”

Merlin shrugged. “I’ll be there – I’ll protect Arthur and I’ll protect you, too, if you’ll let me.” He looked so earnest, it almost melted her but instead she drew away, gathering her dignity about her.

“I can protect myself if need be,” she said. “The only way we can be sure this will work is if I tell Arthur I have magic.”

As if on cue, the door opened and Arthur entered. Merlin shot to his feet, muttering something about who knew what, and was out of the room before a word was spoken.

Despite her own predicament, Morgana had to laugh at Arthur’s nonplussed expression as he stared open-mouthed at the closed door.

“What was that all about?” he asked.

“We’ve been discussing Morgause and Cenred.”

“Ah,” Arthur settled himself in the seat opposite Morgana, “What’s on your mind?”

“I have magic, Arthur.” She blurted it out on one breath before she could think about it and perhaps change her mind. As soon as the words were spoken she felt almost overwhelmed by the relief. Never in her life had she been so relieved to say anything and tears crowded into her throat. She bit her lip and stared down at her hands, starting when Arthur leaned forward and captured her fingers, pressing them between his own.

“I thought it must be so, Morgana. I'll keep you safe, I promise.”

She nodded, her eyes remaining downcast. He squeezed her fingers again and then sat back with an embarrassed cough.

“So, what were you and Merlin saying about Morgause and Cenred?”

Taking a deep breath, Morgana told Arthur her plan, gratified when he listened without interruption and then treated it seriously. She wasn't sure how she felt about Arthur knowing her secret. Ever since Merlin had told her he knew, she'd wondered if Arthur would speak of it first. Eventually she'd had to accept he was waiting for her to tell him, demonstrating a patience she wasn't sure she'd ever have associated with him. In some ways, she'd rather he didn't know at all, concerned about the effect it might have on their fledgling relationship as siblings. Even now, she was wary and a little suspicious. For so many years she'd seen him stand aside while magic users were murdered in front of them by his father, and she couldn't forget how important Uther’s approval was for Arthur. There was a sense, a concern, in the back of her mind that he might one day use this knowledge just to win favour with his father.

She forced her heart and breathing to calm, aware of Arthur’s curious, concerned gaze upon her, and tried to be certain he'd deliver on his promise to keep her safe. Morgana met his clear blue gaze and finally managed to smile.

 

**

 

They rode out from Camelot the next morning and Morgana was warmed by the sense of camaraderie she experienced when the four of them travelled together to rescue Elyan. It reminded her of earlier days when they'd all been friends. She even managed to exchange a couple of conversations with Merlin without them being laced with suspicion or hurt and she and Gwen shared a grin when they saw how close Arthur and Merlin’s bedrolls were placed together when they stopped for the night.

Morgana woke early in the morning, looking on sleepily as Arthur rose and tended the fire and then watched as he hunkered down by Merlin’s sleeping form. She held her breath as he reached out and ran his hand gently down the side of Merlin’s face. The sleeping man stirred and reached out, searching until he could grip Arthur’s hand and bring it to his lips. It was such a tender exchange and it unsettled her for some reason, finding it difficult to reconcile it with her knowledge of Arthur as a prince and warrior.

She made a show of waking and when she next looked Arthur was busy at the fire and Merlin had disappeared into the woods. It was the only sign of the relationship she suspected they shared that she witnessed during the trip, if one didn't count the way they remained that little bit physically closer than one might expect to see between two men.

With some trepidation and a measure of guilt, Morgana played her role in leading them into Morgause’s trap. In the end it went even better than they could have hoped and the only concern Morgana had was when Merlin’s magic stopped Morgause in her tracks and she was left unconscious on the floor. Arthur gave her no time to vacillate, however, grabbing her and forcibly dragging her away.

She managed a tight nod when Merlin rode next to her for a few moments and murmured, “I didn’t want to hurt her – but I needed to stop her, Morgana.” It wasn't an apology and she was grateful he hadn't tried to deliver one. It struck her more than ever that she was in the midst of a war, and while she may still love her sister she believed more every day that what Morgause was doing was wrong.

The events at the Castle of Fyrian had a number of outcomes. Morgause seemed more convinced of Morgana’s allegiance and more pleasantly, Gwen was treating her with the same friendship she had in the days before Morgana had left Camelot. It had kindled warmth deep within her which was burning away what was left of the hate and lies Morgause had worked so hard to instil. She was also more at ease with Merlin, although there were still times when she couldn't bear to let him too close to her – and she would never let him pour her drink.

 

**

 

Arthur glanced up as Merlin trudged wearily into the chamber. “How's Gaius?” he asked.

“Fine – keeping me busy as always.” Merlin stretched, reaching high above his head and Arthur averted his eyes hastily.

Arthur snorted, covering up his sudden flare of desire. “I expect you use magic most of the time.”

He thought Merlin was going to ignore the slur and was startled when, after a few moments silence, Merlin responded and his was tone thoughtful.

“I did at first, but not so much now. I don’t like using it on your armour at all – I like to check every piece and I can only really be sure it’s as it should be if I see and feel it. And I’m too worried about doing something stupid and getting caught – learned that lesson after Aredian, believe me.”

“Good,” Arthur said. “I don’t want to have to be rescuing my stupid manservant from his own folly.”

There was another long silence before Merlin asked. “Is that what I am?” he asked. “Your manservant.”

Arthur stared down at the parchment he was working on and wondered how on earth to answer Merlin. It had become habit now for them to share the bed, to wake entangled and sometimes hard, but still Arthur had made no move and knew Merlin was waiting for some sign from him. He glanced up, taking in Merlin’s profile - the downcast eyes and the sad slant to the mouth. There was no denying he still missed the Merlin he'd met in Oxford, but more and more he was coming to realise that man was with him here and now. He'd noticed now he knew about Merlin’s magic, how Merlin had relaxed not just around him, but around others. It was as if with Arthur’s acceptance, he'd also managed to accept his power as a positive force, rather than something to be feared. This new confidence manifested itself in so many different ways - from a warning touch when Arthur’s temper was getting the better of him, to an incisive comment about someone’s words or actions following a council meeting, to a cogent suggestion in dealing with either his father or his knights. Their own relationship had settled to become one where they acknowledged one another as equals and now he thought of it, he recognised there'd been a shift in attitude to Merlin from many in the castle. As if they understood how important Merlin was to Arthur. If relative strangers had noticed, then it was no surprise his father had. The king would never understand what lay between them and if he ever found out… He recalled his thoughts from Beltane, when he'd been dismayed when Merlin had moved to stand behind him and assume the role of servant and he'd felt the sting of shame, knowing of Merlin’s strength, character and power. Merlin was no longer a boy, and he was definitely no longer just a manservant. His breath left him in a shaky exhale as he acknowledged his own heart. The Merlin he'd met in Oxford was lost to him, but this Merlin was coming to mean just as much. And he was still waiting silently for his response.

Standing, he moved across and pulled Merlin to his feet from where he was sitting on the edge of the bed.

“Don’t you know?” he asked. “You're everything.”

And in the blaze of joy that flashed across Merlin’s face, Arthur found his courage, cupping Merlin’s face and drawing him in for a kiss born of passion and love.

Just like that, everything changed.

When Arthur drew back, Merlin was trembling against him, but he was grinning, too. “About time, you prat” he said, before Arthur swooped in once again.

Later, much later, after Merlin’s quiet confession and after Arthur had taken him with the care and gentleness befitting a first time, Arthur held Merlin in the circle of his arms and pressed his lips to the bony shoulder with its fresh, red scar. Merlin responded by kissing Arthur’s fingers as he accepted the silent apology and they both knew Merlin would be marked throughout his life with this tangible reminder of Arthur’s anger. Merlin had received his lesson when a silly mistake brought him and his friends into Aredian’s ambit. Arthur’s lesson about his anger had been learnt at Merlin’s expense.

“How long will this last?”

Arthur had been aware of Merlin fidgeting and had recognised more than one false start as he'd tried to say what was on his mind. This wasn't the question Arthur had expected. He tightened his grip. “Why should it end?”

“Camelot will need a queen.”

“Indeed. And Camelot shall have a queen. She'll be a strong queen, too.”

“So you'll marry?”

“No, Merlin. I won't marry.” He accompanied his words with a kiss to the nape of Merlin’s neck.

“Then who – oh.” There was surprise and, Arthur was happy to hear, pleasure in Merlin’s tone as he realised what Arthur meant.

“Who better to be queen?” Arthur asked, and then he hesitated before finding the words he wanted. “I can't wed you, Merlin, but I'll cleave to you all the rest of my days - if you'll have me?”

There was a moment’s silence and stillness before Merlin moved out of his embrace and turned to kneel on the bed before him. The covers only part covered him and Arthur was entranced by the long line of his side and hip, reaching out to rest his hand there. Merlin brought his hand to rest over Arthur’s heart and Arthur shifted his so it did the same. The hand Arthur rested on Merlin’s chest was covered by Merlin’s fingers and Arthur completed the circle, bringing his free hand to cover the one lying heavy against his skin.

“I'd cleave to you, Arthur Pendragon, for all the rest of my days.”

Emotion choked Arthur, because Merlin didn't really understand the oath he'd just taken, and Arthur couldn't tell him. “I cleave to you, Merlin, for all the rest of my days.” He allowed none of his emotion to seep into his voice, keeping it strong and sure, to make it quite plain he was as serious about this vow as it was possible to be.

Something shifted in the air and a frisson of something passed through them both, leaving them breathless and wide-eyed.

“Was that you?” Arthur asked.

Merlin shook his head. “No. I think – I think the gods of the Old Religion have heard our vows.”

 

**

 

Far away, tucked into a convenient cave, a dragon laughed.

And even further away, in another time, Merlin shot upright, roused from a deep sleep as memories tumbled into his mind. He laughed and cried in equal measure as, alongside the remembrance of lonely years, he recalled longer years of love and peace and he pressed his lips to the ring he wore and thanked his lover for this joyous gift.

 

**

 

“Gwen?”

“Your Royal Highness?” Gwen seemed to get real pleasure out of using her title, mused Morgana and she smiled in response, shaking her head.

“There was a bracelet here – with a great stone in it? I can’t see it anywhere.”

“Oh, yes. You said it was intended as a gift for Arthur. I noticed you hadn’t given it to him and I ran after him and told him it was from you.”

Morgana stared at her in absolute horror.

“Morgana,” Gwen was starting to look worried.

“We need to find Merlin. Do you know where he is?”

“I saw him heading towards Gaius’ chambers, and I’m fairly sure he was sulking because he’s not allowed to go along with Arthur. Morgana?”

As soon as Gwen had mentioned where Merlin was, Morgana had grabbed her arm and was already out of the door and down the corridor before Gwen seemed to realise they were moving.

“Have I done something wrong?” Gwen’s voice was worried now.

“Everything will be fine. Don’t worry. It’s not your fault. It’s mine. I should have -” She saved her breath for speed and they almost ran the rest of the way. Morgana barged into the physician’s quarters without ceremony. “Merlin,” she brushed aside both his and Gaius’ attempts at courtesy, “Arthur's in danger.” She heard Gwen’s gasp and squeezed her hand as a reassurance and then took a deep breath, because she was just about to let someone else know her secret.

“Morgause gave me a bracelet to give to Arthur. I was supposed to tell him to wear it on his quest.”

There was a short silence before Gwen sank into a seat and managed a small, “oh.”

“It can’t be helped, Gwen, you weren’t to know. Gwen thought I'd forgotten to give it to Arthur and she took it to him.”

“Did Morgause say what it would do?” Merlin asked.

Morgana shook her head, “It won't be for good reasons, though. We know that.” As much as it pained her to admit it, there would have been no good intent behind this gift.

“If you've both seen it then we can check the books and find out what it's meant to do. Describe it to us, please.” Gaius interrupted and as he spoke he began to pull books from the shelves and piled them onto the table. Morgana grabbed one and handed another to Gwen as she dredged up every memory of what it looked like and encouraged Gwen to do the same.

Gwen was staring at the book, “This is… this is a magic book. Gaius, if the king knew…”

“There’s a lot the king doesn't and will never know with care and luck,” Morgana said and then looked at Merlin. He was staring back at her and he raised his eyebrows. She responded by nodding ever so slightly. It was well past time Gwen learned the truth about both of them – even if they didn't provide her with all the details of what had happened between them in the past. “My bad dreams, Gwen. They're not simply bad dreams. I'm a seer and I have magic.”

Gwen didn't seem entirely surprised.

With a sigh, Merlin raked his fingers through his hair. “That’s not all-“ he began, only to be stopped by a warning hiss from Gaius. Merlin smiled at him. “I know it puts Gwen at risk, Gaius, but I trust her and she deserves to know the truth.” He turned to face Gwen again. “I have magic, too.”

Gwen’s mouth had opened in shock, but now it snapped shut with an audible click of teeth. “Right, well,” she said. “At the moment keeping Arthur safe is our main concern, but don’t think we won’t be talking about this later.” And she buried her nose in the book, refusing to look at either of them.

Morgana shared a look with Gaius and Merlin and saw her own assessment of Gwen’s reaction there. Gwen was upset, but she'd come round and she'd help them to keep Arthur safe.

With the four of them poring over the books, it didn't take long to identify the Eye of the Phoenix and discover it would drain Arthur’s life force. It took longer for them to decide what to do about it. Morgana and Gwen were both adamant they should accompany Merlin on his rescue mission, but neither Gaius nor Merlin were happy at the thought. Merlin clinched the argument when he asked Morgana what she thought Morgause’s reaction would be if Morgana was part of Arthur’s rescue.

“You’ll need help, though, Merlin,” she said and held up her goblet as he passed by with the pitcher of water. He hesitated and she realised what she'd done. “For heaven’s sake, Merlin, what has a woman got to do to get a drink of water around here?”

Merlin said nothing, though he smiled his old, free smile at her as he tipped the pitcher and filled her goblet. She maintained eye contact as she raised it to her lips and drank deeply. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as he placed the pitcher on a nearby table and scrubbed a hand across his eyes.

In the end, they decided Merlin should set out alone, but he'd heard from Gwaine recently and his news put him on the route Arthur would be taking towards the Perilous Lands. They all agreed he should try to find Gwaine to help him.

Decisions made, they turned to work. Gaius put together some medical supplies, while Gwen rushed to the kitchen to fill a pack with food and water. Morgana went to the stables with Merlin and helped him prepare a horse.

“I should have brought the bracelet to you straight away,” she said.

“It’s not your fault, Morgana. Don’t worry – you know I’ll find him. It’s my destiny, remember.” He flashed her a quick smile and she found herself returning it before she realised it.

Gwen arrived with the two packs. “The king wanted to see Gaius. Gaius told me to tell you to be careful.” She shoved the various packages into the saddlebags and attached the water skin. The moment she was done she pulled Merlin into a brief, tight hug. “And that goes from me, too.”

“Bring him home to us safely, Merlin,” Morgana managed.

Morgana and Gwen stood arm in arm as they watched him ride out.

“He’ll be fine, Morgana – they all will.” Gwen tried to reassure her, but there was too much worry and concern in her own tone for the attempt at comfort to be entirely effective. Instead, they retired to Morgana’s chambers where Morgana took the opportunity to spill out everything that had happened and everything she'd done. It was cathartic and the last shreds of enmity Morgause had tried to instil in her towards Guinevere were swept away as Gwen curled up on the bed with her, hugged her close and told her everything would be fine now.

And Morgana believed her.

 

**

 

There was plenty of time during Merlin’s search for Gwaine for Merlin to consider the small but telling step forward in his relationship with Morgana. Given Arthur’s future plans, it was critical for Merlin and Morgana to find a measure of trust in one another once again. At one point he'd believed too much had happened between them to ever allow them the luxury of friendship, but now he wondered if it might be possible. It was unlikely they'd recover the same level of trust and ease colouring the days spent in Ealdor, but he was learning to hope and pray for something close.

Finding Gwaine would've been easier if there were not quite so many taverns between Camelot and the Perilous Lands, but when Merlin walked through the door into the midst of an on-going brawl, he reckoned he was probably in the right place.

There was a wildness in every encounter he shared with Gwaine, and a sense of never knowing quite what was around the next corner. While Merlin was used to it as a way of life to a certain extent, because of the regularity of magical attacks on Arthur, he was always amazed how Gwaine could attract so much trouble without the aid of any magic at all.

However wild those encounters with Gwaine tended to be, Merlin still marvelled at how, on this particular occasion, he managed to end up jumping off a wall into a cart full of hay, before leaping onto his horse and galloping away, with the sound of Gwaine’s hooting laughter to accompany him as he followed behind.

Once they were sure they were clear of Gwaine’s latest antagonists Merlin filled him in on Arthur’s current plight.

“Isn’t that typical of the Princess,” Gwaine said, “Running off on some great quest and then the rest of us need to rescue him.”

“It’s not his fault,” Merlin defended Arthur and then flushed as Gwaine stared at him. There was something in his face, a moment of regret Merlin chose to ignore, because he knew it was what Gwaine would prefer.

“Ah, so that’s the way of it, is it?” Gwaine said.

Merlin shrugged and turned his horse’s head, trotting ahead down the trail they were following. There was silence for a few moments and then Gwaine began recounting the story of how he'd ended up in his most recent predicament. Merlin was grateful to him for changing the subject. He bit his lip suddenly. It came to him then how much he trusted Gwaine, and the admission trembled on the tip of his tongue, a sudden desire to tell his friend about his magic. It was only thoughts of Arthur and how Gwaine would get protective of Merlin, and he'd have to tell him Arthur knew. It was too complicated a situation, especially as he didn't know whether Arthur would necessarily want his own position to be revealed. For the moment he put thoughts of telling Gwaine to one side and decided to concentrate on finding Arthur.

They travelled as hard as they could until they were forced to leave the horses behind. A swift conversation demonstrated they were thinking along the same lines in reckoning they'd be moving faster than Arthur if he was, as they assumed, weakened by the bracelet. With that in mind they pressed on as quickly as possible, even though they were now on foot, to try and narrow the distance between them.

It was a hard journey, but Merlin hardly noticed and only stopped when Gwaine made him rest for a few moments every few hours. There was an urgency driving Merlin on and he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, Arthur was in trouble. Merlin’s heart felt as if it had leapt into his mouth when he finally caught sight of Arthur and saw the ominous shapes of the wyverns wheeling above. They saw Arthur make the relative safety of the castle and he and Gwaine headed towards him as fast as they could, scrambling under the portcullis and splitting up to look for him.

Merlin followed the instinct pulling at him and got to an unconscious Arthur just as the wyverns broke through the door and were stalking across to him. Merlin was grateful Gwaine’s information on wyverns being close kin to the dragons was true enough as they obeyed the commands he yelled out and retreated, leaving them alone.

He moved over to Arthur and wrenched the bracelet from his wrist, stuffing it into his pocket and he watched eagerly as almost immediately the colour returned to Arthur’s cheeks and he breathed easier. Within minutes he was awake, alert – and annoyed. Merlin suffered his rant and would've laughed at Arthur’s reaction to Gwaine’s arrival if he hadn’t still been trying to recover from the shock of a third wyvern bursting through the door and trying to eat them before Gwaine used his sword to good effect and despatched it. Arthur, clearly in a terrific sulk, barged past them on his search for the Fisher King’s trident and Merlin and Gwaine exchanged an exasperated look as they trailed along in his wake.

So annoyed was Arthur that he missed the doorway set off to one side of the spiral staircase – or perhaps it hadn't been there when he passed, afterwards Merlin was never quite sure. Merlin didn't know exactly what happened but all of a sudden Gwaine shoved him hard and he stumbled into the room beyond just as a solid slab of rock dropped to fill the doorway where he'd been standing and cut him off from the others, sealed in so completely that he couldn't even hear their voices. He found himself alone in what he first took to be an empty room. Then he saw the throne, standing in the centre of the space. An almost empty room. He approached the cobweb bedecked throne cautiously and somehow wasn't surprised to come across the bent, aged figure of the Fisher King.

He hadn't known what to expect but the sad, desperate figure the king presented brought compassion to the fore. When the king told Merlin this had been Merlin's quest all along he spent a moment wondering about the forces shaping his destiny, and Arthur’s destiny, too. It was not a comfortable feeling, to suddenly feel like a pawn in a game of chess and he decided he agreed with Arthur – just because they were being told their destiny was set, it didn't mean they had to go along with it. The dragon had insisted Morgana was an enemy and Arthur refused to believe it. And now Merlin was filled with a new confidence, a sense that together he and Arthur could forge their own future.

In his short exchange with the aged king, Merlin felt such sympathy for his long suffering, accepting the gift of the vial of water from the lake of Avalon and passing over the Eye of the Phoenix in return. When the king’s thanks echoed in his mind, he had to swallow back tears at the depth of relief within his words.

How awful it would be, he thought, to be cursed to live forever.

Grateful, he turned at the sound of the stone moving and endured Arthur’s scolding and Gwaine’s teasing, without noticing either particularly. He exchanged a long look with Arthur, and noted the short nod in return. There'd be much to talk about when they returned to Camelot.

With more ease, but still with some urgency because of those who waited at home, they made their way out of the Perilous Lands. It was not until Gwaine left them at the borders with Camelot that Merlin told Arthur about his meeting with the Fisher King and the gift he'd received. He fished it out of his pack and handed it to Arthur for him to examine.

“What does it do?” Arthur asked.

“I've absolutely no idea. He just said it would bring help when we needed it.”

“Better keep it safe then.”

They rode in silence for a few moments before Merlin spoke again. “Trouble’s coming.”

“That’s been obvious for some time, Merlin,” Arthur sounded tired. “If Morgause has allied herself with Cenred then it's only a matter of weeks or months before an army comes to Camelot.”

“Do you think we've done enough? With Morgana?”

“I hope so,” Arthur replied and for a moment he looked lost and very young. “We won’t know for sure until she herself is faced with making a final choice. All we can do for now is to let her know we love her and ensure she knows she will always have a place with us.”

“Are you going to tell her – that she'll be Queen?”

“Not yet. I want to be sure the choice she makes has nothing to do with power. It has to be about loyalty to Camelot, to our people, and to her king.” After which, Arthur changed the subject and when Merlin, taking his lead, began prattling about wyverns and how long the Fisher King had lived, he was reminded in no uncertain terms that according to the rest of Camelot he hadn't been there at all, and Arthur had ridden on alone after ordering him to wait until the evening before he returned.

Merlin wanted to be angry and hurt at the abrupt dismissal, but realised Arthur was right and slowed his horse to a gentle amble guaranteed to bring him into Camelot late enough to melt into the crowds and raise no suspicion. He wondered what he'd said to upset Arthur, because he was attuned enough to him now to recognise the sudden withdrawal. Part of him was still disappointed in the way he'd been dismissed, even if he did understand the reasons, just as if he was a servant, something Arthur had been at such pains recently to refute.

 

**

 

Morgana stared out of the window and into the courtyard below, every nerve stretched to snapping point. As Arthur – dirty and obviously exhausted – rode into view the relief was almost overwhelming. The goblet she'd been holding tumbled out of her hand as she reached forward to open the window wide.

“Thank the Gods,” she whispered fervently. “Thank the Gods.”

“Morgana?” Gwen joined her at the window. “Arthur.” She grabbed Morgana’s other hand, her own relief clear.

Arthur looked up and waved at the window while Morgana smiled down at him.

“I wonder where Merlin is?” Gwen asked.

“He’s fine,” Morgana responded automatically, and then wondered how she knew. “Come on, let’s go to the throne room.”

She dived out of her chambers with unladylike grace and stumbled straight into Sir Leon. With profuse apologies on both sides, they disentangled themselves and she glanced up to meet his gaze, seeing the twinkling amusement there. She was unaccountably shy all of a sudden, managing to gasp out. “Arthur’s back – we’re on our way to the throne room.”

“I’ll accompany you if I may?”

“Yes, yes of course.”

As they turned, Leon offered her his arm and she smiled as she looped her own through his, letting her hand squeeze his forearm in thanks. She steadfastly ignored the sly looks Gwen was casting her, or the looks they garnered from others as they made their way along the corridors. It was only when she saw her father’s eyes light on them that she felt a blush rise and released Sir Leon with a smile. His smile in return was warm and Morgana knew Uther had noticed it, too. When she joined the king, though, he said nothing, merely smiling and kissing her cheek before taking her hand and leading her to her seat, ready to welcome her brother and to express her very real pleasure at his successful return. She didn't think of Morgause at all.

 

**

 

It was late before Merlin entered Arthur’s chambers and Arthur was already in bed. He was obviously awake, but through the evening Merlin’s dismay at the way Arthur had treated him had soured into annoyance and had left him feeling unsure of his position in Arthur’s life, or what Arthur really thought of him. He washed and stripped down and then hesitated for a moment, reflecting on whether he felt aggrieved enough to forego the delights of Arthur’s bed.

Arthur turned to face him and perhaps he could read the indecision on Merlin’s features because he held out a hand to him.

“Merlin.”

His voice was redolent with love and grief, and it drew Merlin to him, even if he didn't understand why Arthur should be so sad.

The disappointment he'd been carrying with him dissipated in the face of Arthur’s obvious need and he slid into the bed, pulling Arthur into his arms and felt his heart stutter as Arthur buried his face against Merlin’s neck. Merlin could feel him taking deep breaths, as if he was catching his scent and he tightened his grip.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Arthur whispered over and over, the words a susurration on skin. “I just couldn’t - I’m sorry.”

Just like that all Merlin’s concern about his place in Arthur’s life disappeared. No one else would ever see Arthur like this, he'd never allow it – only Merlin. He pressed his mouth to the top of Arthur’s head and moved his hands over the muscles in his back, trying to communicate his forgiveness and comfort through touch.

“Will you tell me what’s wrong?” He asked, once Arthur seemed to have calmed.

Arthur drew in a deep breath and pulled back a little to meet Merlin’s gaze. He smiled slightly and then leaned forward to kiss him gently. “Nothing’s wrong now, Merlin. Nothing’s wrong at all.” He kissed him again and Merlin responded, recognising Arthur had decided the subject was closed.

The embrace turned from comfort to passion in an instant. Arthur rolled onto his back and pulled Merlin on top of him. Merlin settled there, enjoying the feel of Arthur’s body under him and the way long legs wrapped around him to hold him close. He tilted his hips slightly until their erections aligned, drawing groans from both men.

“Merlin, Merlin, I need… I want,” Arthur reached out, scrabbling on the chest by the bed and then he was shoving a vial of oil they used at Merlin.

Merlin gazed at the vial and then at Arthur. “You want me to-?” Until now Arthur had always taken Merlin and it hadn’t occurred to Merlin it would ever be any other way. “Really?”

“Really,” Arthur sounded exasperated, but his hands were gentle on Merlin’s skin. “Don’t make such a fuss, Merlin.”

The only answer was to swoop in and capture Arthur’s mouth in the most passionate kiss he could manage. Then, with trembling fingers and plenty of encouragement, he opened Arthur and then, for the first time, he slid carefully into Arthur’s body.

Sweating and trembling, Merlin held himself still until Arthur urged him to move and then he set a gentle rhythm, remembering how careful Arthur had been with him the first time. Except clearly Arthur did not want slow and gentle. Instead, he bucked up, forcing Merlin deep into him. They both cried out and Merlin felt his control slipping away beginning to thrust hard.

It didn’t take long for both of them to reach a peak and tumble over the edge but when Merlin tried to roll off Arthur and remove his weight, all Arthur did was tighten his hold and in the end Merlin capitulated, settling across Arthur’s body and pinning him to the bed.

Sleepy and content, Merlin was only half-aware of the gentle fingers combing through his hair and the way Arthur held him so close, apparently happy with the heat, sweat and weight. Arthur was being unusually loving and if Merlin hadn't been so tired he might have wondered more about where the strange mood had come from. As it was, he simply basked in the attention and let it soothe him into sleep.

 

**

It had become a habit for Morgana and Gwen to spend time with Arthur and Merlin in Arthur's chambers. They'd share a goblet of wine each evening, talking through the events of the day, teasing one another and gradually finding their way back to the friendship they'd once known. Sometimes Arthur would invite Leon to join them and they'd ignore the flirting between him and Morgana. Merlin wasn't sure if Arthur had engineered these evenings together and didn't ask him, but suspected it was the case. For his own sake, he was grateful. They might never regain the same ease but he was learning to trust Morgana again, and knew she was feeling the same. Now at least she'd let him pour her wine without a thought.

Merlin marvelled at the relationship he and Arthur shared. When they were alone or just the four of them, Arthur treated him like an equal and even in company he felt less and less like a servant. In their shared bed there was no difference between them, which translated into fights and bickering and making up. This is us for life, thought Merlin, and he wouldn't give it up without a fierce struggle.

Merlin was astute enough to know Uther was aware of their closeness and perhaps even the nature of their relationship, but although he knew the king was watching them closely, and he tried to be more circumspect when he and Arthur were in Uther’s presence, yet Arthur didn't seem to be concerned.

“Has your father not asked if you'll marry?” Merlin asked one night, when he had Arthur held close in his arms.

Arthur twisted to press his lips to Merlin’s chest. “Don’t worry so much,” was his only response and Merlin huffed a sigh, but left the subject alone.

Given the knowledge of Uther’s watchfulness, it shouldn't have surprised Merlin to be summoned to Uther’s chambers one day. That it happened when Arthur was on patrol with his knights should have been even less of a surprise.

Nevertheless, he gulped before he tapped on the door and entered at the imperious response. He moved into the room and stood before Uther, who was standing by the fire, and Merlin kept his hands behind his back and eyes down in a picture perfect pose of a deferential servant.

Uther snorted.

“You have a great deal of influence over my son,” Uther said.

“He has my loyalty, Your Majesty.”

“Your loyalty should be to your king,” Uther snapped.

Merlin deemed it safer not to respond.

“Be aware I'm watching you. If for one second I think you're a danger to my son then I'll have you dealt with permanently. Do you understand me?”

“I'll never harm him – or allow harm to come to him if I can prevent it.” Merlin met Uther’s gaze then, his own defiant, and perhaps Uther even understood the words flashing through his mind. And it includes any threat you might pose, king or no king, father or no father.

Uther’s lip curled in disdain. “Why would you go to such lengths for him?” he demanded.

What could Merlin say? Slightly bewildered, he met Uther’s gaze once more and the truth bubbled up and out before he could censor himself. “Because I love him.”

He'd taken Uther by surprise and there was an almost infinitesimal easing of his stance and expression as his cool gaze raked over Merlin once again. “You may go.”

Merlin was out the door and leaning against the wall, shaky and breathless, almost before Uther had managed to get the whole of the sentence out of his mouth.

There was no way he wanted to tell Arthur about this encounter, but he'd given his oath there'd be no more secrets between them and he knew if he withheld even something this small, Arthur wouldn't be happy. Merlin kept it as casual as possible, playing down the intensity of the meeting and although Arthur spared him a sharp glance, he said nothing. When they slid under the covers though, Arthur pulled him close.

“I'd never let him harm you.”

Merlin melted into the embrace, loving the security and strength surrounding him when he was held within Arthur’s arms. He kissed Arthur’s fingers. “I know,” he said, blinking sleepily and he smiled as the grip around him tightened.

 

**

 

Morgana stared at Leon’s weary features and tried to fight down the fear and concern threatening to rise and choke her. In the midst of his tale she realised he'd nearly been killed at the behest of her sister, that Morgause, through Cenred’s men, had nearly taken the life of a man she'd been drawing closer to. Her gaze was fixed on Leon throughout his narrative and as he turned to leave their gazes caught. He flashed her a brief smile she guessed was supposed to be reassuring but for some reason all it did was intensify the panic within her. She couldn't lose Leon.

As soon as she could, she made her way to Arthur’s chambers, aware Uther wouldn't allow a cup that gave life to be left in the care of the Druids. She discovered them already assembling their gear and the atmosphere was strained.

“Tell me what’s going on?” she asked.

Merlin scowled. “The cup – it’s the Cup of Life and we should just – not – find it.”

“If Morgause looks for it, then she’ll find it – and that's not likely to go well for the Druids, is it, Merlin?” Arthur’s tone was clipped and he stared at Merlin until he looked up and met his gaze.

Merlin’s shoulders slumped and then he shrugged. “If we draw attention to it –“

“Why should she know anything about it?”

“Arthur,” it was Morgana who spoke. “Morgause has spies everywhere. Leon spoke of this in front of the full council. She'll find out.”

There was a speculative gleam in the look Arthur turned on her then. “Which is why, Morgana, you're going to tell her.”

Both Morgana and Merlin were united in their shocked outrage, and Arthur waited until they'd calmed a little before he began to explain.

“We know eventually Morgause and Cenred are going to mount an attack on Camelot. I've been doing what I can to build our defences here, but the longer we leave it, the more men Cenred is pulling into his army. We've a number of options.” He glanced at them to ensure they were listening. “If we get the Cup of Life here and Morgause wants it enough, then she'll be in a hurry to come for it. If we lose it to her before we get it back to Camelot, then she'll be in a hurry to press her advantage and will push Cenred into an attack. Whatever happens, we need them to make their next move sooner rather than later. Right now, our stores are full and we're strong. Our chances are good.”

“Arthur, it’s a terrible risk.” Morgana’s cautionary tone was interrupted by Merlin.

“It’s madness – have you any idea how many ways this could go wrong?”

"It’s a risk we have to take.” Arthur was adamant.

“No, Arthur,” Merlin said. “If this goes wrong we could lose Camelot.”

Morgana watched as they stood face to face, scowling at one another.

“Do you think I don’t know that, Merlin? The alternative is to wait until Morgause and Cenred mount an attack on their terms. Don’t you understand? At least this way we might have some control over events. It’s not guaranteed and it may go wrong but do you have an alternative? At the moment we have two secrets in our favour. We have Morgana,” and he paused to smile at his sister, “And we have your magic.”

There was a hiatus as they stood staring at one another and then Merlin ran his hands through his hair. “We’ve got another secret weapon, too,” he said, and Morgana recognised this was his way of giving in gracefully. “We’ve got Kilgarrah.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Definitely a last resort, Merlin,” he bit out, although he reached out and squeezed Merlin’s shoulder.

“Kilgarrah?” Morgana asked.

Merlin grimaced. “The dragon,”

“The one that told you to kill me?” she asked. Merlin almost squirmed. “As Arthur said,” and she knew her tone was frosty. “A last resort.”

 

**

 

Arthur could only be grateful Merlin bit down hard on his obvious urge to say ‘I told you so’ when they found themselves dumped in a pit and forced to fight for their lives. It only added to his joy when they discovered Gwaine there and realised he was the champion Arthur was going to have to fight. They escaped, thanks to Merlin’s magic and the rant Merlin aimed at them when they found themselves out in the forest sobered both the arguing men up quickly enough. Arthur was particularly contrite, he and Gwaine were busy arguing about who'd saved them when the person who actually had secured their release was storming past with his contribution unacknowledged. Yet again.

It wasn’t that Arthur didn’t like Gwaine – he really did – but he knew his own character and knew he wasn't someone who liked to share. Despite his faith in Merlin and the strength of their relationship, Merlin’s close friendship with Gwaine still stirred jealousy within Arthur. It didn’t help that Merlin had caught on very quickly to what he was feeling and Arthur wondered how he'd ever believed Merlin was stupid. A keen intelligence had been one of the things that drew him to Merlin in the future, and he was realising more and more it was an intelligence Merlin had hidden behind a mask of slightly idiotic and clumsy manservant. Well, he was still clumsy, couldn’t get over it. Merlin’s raised eyebrows when he picked up on the fact Arthur was sulking at Gwaine’s presence had him flushing with embarrassment at his own immaturity. He couldn’t help it, though, he liked it best when he and Merlin were on their own.

Merlin trusted Gwaine, though, and Arthur was under no illusion that it was Merlin who drew Gwaine to help them. If Merlin trusted Gwaine, then he would, too.

“Merlin.” He waited until Merlin faced him, features mutinous and, now Arthur was looking he could see the hurt, too. “Thank you.”

Casting a swift glance at Gwaine, Merlin shrugged and made to turn away, but Arthur caught his arm and under Gwaine’s watchful gaze, he pulled him into a hug. As he held him close he said, “If you trust Gwaine, then tell him.”

Merlin clutched at him. “Really?”

“Your choice.”

“It’s been a secret for so long.” Merlin chewed at his lip.

“Let’s get away from here and we can make camp.”

Arthur was aware of Gwaine’s slight confusion and curious gaze, and was glad the man wasn't pushing for information as he so often did. When they finally stopped and prepared the camp for the night, he exchanged a glance with Merlin, who favoured him with a tight nod. “Light the fire, Merlin.”

Sure that Gwaine was watching, Merlin stretched his hand out and spoke quietly. Arthur’s breath caught in his throat as blue eyes morphed briefly to gold and the fire flared to life.

“What the hell!”

Arthur felt vaguely insulted at the worried look cast at him, and just as happy in an odd way to see how Gwaine’s first concern was for Merlin.

“Something bothering you, Gwaine?” he asked.

He almost laughed at Gwaine’s expression, working hard to keep his features fixed in stern lines, even though Merlin had covered his mouth and was obviously stifling laughter – nervous laughter, Arthur could tell, but the blue eyes were dancing.

“You –“ and Gwaine was after Merlin, who screeched and tried to hide behind Arthur. There was an extremely undignified tug of war, with Arthur in the middle, before he extricated himself and left them to it.

Eventually they settled down and Merlin was treated to a barrage of questions he did his best to answer. Arthur let them talk until he saw Merlin becoming weary with the constant inquisition and suggested they get some sleep so they could have an early start in the morning. Merlin and Arthur exchanged an amused look when Gwaine appeared more shocked when Arthur and Merlin put their bedrolls together than he had at Merlin’s display of magic.

“I’ll take first watch.”

For a wonder, Gwaine seemed flustered. It was the first time Arthur could remember ever seeing Gwaine lost for words. He wrapped an arm around Merlin and grinned against his neck.

“You’re enjoying this far too much.” There was a smile in Merlin’s voice.

“Go to sleep, idiot,” he said.

“Prat.” It was a sleepy murmur and was followed by Merlin’s breath evening out as he slept.

Arthur glanced across the fire and saw Gwaine watching them, his gaze steady and containing something that warmed Arthur, seeing only approval and affection. Not necessarily for Arthur, he suspected, but that didn’t matter. This was part of his unacknowledged plan to pull around him a band of men and women he could trust, both with Camelot and with Merlin. Merlin had already told him Lancelot was aware of his magic and he could see the closeness growing between Morgana and Leon, which gave him further hope. He smiled and shut his eyes, burying his face in Merlin’s neck and let sleep take him, trusting Gwaine implicitly.

 

**

 

It was unfortunate how things went so swiftly from bad to worse to worst the following day. It seemed remarkably easy to find the Druids and they were quick to hand over the vessel. Within hours though, Arthur was injured and the Cup of Life was on its way to Morgause and Cenred. Angry at himself and everyone around him, Arthur had begun moving as soon as he possibly could, ignoring Merlin’s imprecations and the worry underlying them, and taking no notice of Gwaine’s trenchant disapproval. His injury had slowed them down and had already cost them too much time. They had to get back to Camelot to help mount their defence.

The sight of the burning village was their first indication they may be too late and coming across a devastated patrol was another clear sign they were facing a formidable enemy.

Merlin glanced worriedly at Arthur’s set features and realised Arthur was well on his way to blaming himself for the strategy he'd set in motion. And yet he was right, as Merlin had already accepted. They had without doubt pushed Morgause and Cenred into an earlier attack than they'd planned, but with the added complication of the Cup of Life now being in the hands of the enemy. Which meant, as Merlin had explained to Arthur, they would probably be facing an immortal army and the lack of enemy bodies among the men of Camelot seemed to corroborate his view. Arthur’s curse and deteriorating temper was the only response.

They crept into Camelot under cover of darkness, slipping into Gwen’s house and their shock morphed into relief when the stranger they encountered in her home turned out to be Elyan. His news, though, was not good and Merlin could only support Arthur when he insisted on going into the castle to find out what had happened to his father and sister.

They worked their way through the castle, finding Gaius and sending Elyan and Gwaine away with him while Merlin and Arthur tried to find Uther and Morgana. When they saw Uther, he was being dragged to the throne room and Merlin had to stop Arthur from intervening. Instead, they slipped into the minstrel’s gallery and peered through the wooden slats at the unfolding drama below.

Arthur’s despair when Morgana came forward to claim the crown was almost tangible, but Merlin was watching closely and saw as she lifted her chin, her gaze passing over them in their hiding place.

“Arthur,” he hissed. “It’s okay. Trust Morgana.”

At his words, Arthur stared down again.

Morgause was speaking. “This is your time, Morgana. Kill Uther now.”

“Not yet,” Morgana responded. “I want to wait until his precious Arthur is here, too. I want to see them together.”

By his side, Merlin felt Arthur relax as he caught Morgana’s message.

“She’ll keep him safe,” he whispered in Arthur’s ear. “We need to go.” He felt Arthur’s nod and urged him out. Arthur’s hand closed around Merlin’s fingers and silently they made their way out of Camelot.

 

**

 

Morgana was terrified. When she and Gwen had seen the men ranked in their thousands outside Camelot’s walls, they'd debated whether to stay or run. Morgana had tried to make Gwen leave, knowing Morgause needed Morgana and she'd be safe, but Gwen had refused to go.

“The citadel will fall.” Morgana bit her lip as she said the words and then took a deep breath. “The only way we can avoid too much loss of life is to make sure it falls as quickly as possible. I’m going to help Morgause and she’s going to put me on the throne. It’s the only way I can keep our people safe.”

Gwen didn't try to dissuade her. “Then I'll remain as your servant. I'll be able to move more easily about the Castle. Should you let your father know? What about Leon?”

Morgana felt Morgause’s call. “No time now, “ she hesitated and the words she uttered then caused her real pain. “It would be better if they didn't know I haven't betrayed them – their reactions will be true.” The two women embraced and Morgana slipped out of the room to find her sister and hopefully convince her of a loyalty Morgana no longer felt. Arthur had knitted her firmly into the fabric of Camelot life and she felt the people’s fear as her own now. She reflected as she made her way to the place where she would meet her sister how Morgause had only ever used her. Even Merlin, who'd poisoned her, still showed more care for her feelings and concerns. For a moment she stood and braced herself against the castle wall. Morgause wanted Camelot and wanted Uther dead. Morgana was a means to an end. How could she have been so stupid? No time for this, she reminded herself grimly. As she'd played a part for Uther and Arthur in the first weeks of her return from Morgause, so she must play a different role now. Her thoughts dwelt on Leon for a moment, feeling a physical ache at the thought of him believing she'd betray them, but there was nothing else to be done. If she didn't stop the fighting as soon as possible, then the knights would fight to the death to protect their king against an army they couldn't possibly stop. When Arthur returned, he'd need his knights – he'd need Leon – alive and well.

“Morgause,” she returned her sister’s embrace. “You've brought Cenred and an army.”

She was answered with an amused laugh. “I've brought an army, but their allegiance is to me. Cenred had served his usefulness and will trouble us no further.”

A chill shivered through Morgana. She had loathed Cenred, but he'd been loyal to Morgause and had clearly loved her in his own way. He'd done everything she had asked of him and this was his reward. How long would it be, Morgana wondered, before she outlived her usefulness and Morgause decided to take Camelot for herself?

For the moment she said nothing, and instead stood aside and watched as the battle commenced, knowing her actions in letting the antagonists into the city would ensure it was short. Through Morgause, she made it clear she wanted the knights captured, stating that winning their loyalty would be key to gaining the support of the people of Camelot. She hadn't missed the way Morgause’s mouth had twisted into a sneer, but for the moment she seemed content to follow Morgana’s lead.

The battle had been ridiculously short, and when they captured Uther and the knights surrounding him in the throne room Morgana’s heart had quailed. Leon glared at her as they were disarmed and led away and then, wonder of wonders, he met her gaze squarely. His back was to Morgause and as Leon stared at her she witnessed the slight quirk of his mouth and a softening in his features. As he was urged past her, his fingers caught hers for the briefest of moments and she knew he trusted her. It gave her strength and a renewed purpose to know, despite all appearances to the contrary, Leon didn't believe she'd betrayed them.

It saddened her to see when her father was brought before her he didn't have the same trust in her and he actually believed she'd betrayed him. She hardened her heart and refused to give way to the grief as she saw his encroaching madness. In the end, she decided, she was doing this for Arthur, because he'd be her king. A frisson travelled down her spine, the sense of power close by, a power eclipsing both she and Morgause. Apparently idly, she let her eyes roam about the room as she spoke and there, up in the gallery and well-hidden, she caught sight of two shadowy figures and did the best she could to reassure her brother she wasn't lost to him.

Keep him safe, she begged Merlin silently and wondered anew when she heard.

I will. I promise.

 

**

 

Arthur was brooding. He knew he was, and yet for the moment was finding it difficult to pull himself out of his mood. The strategy he'd chosen was a sound one given the situation they faced, but he couldn’t deny the loss of the Cup of Life was a major setback. If he was to mount a counterattack then he needed a plan. To develop a plan, he needed resources and at the moment, those were sadly lacking. His introspection was interrupted by Merlin.

“You need to eat.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“I didn’t ask if you were hungry.”

He glared at Merlin, who stared back at him equably. With an irritated sigh, he grabbed the plate held in front of him and began to choke down the contents. “Is it rat again?” It was a half-hearted attempt, but Merlin took it as an invitation and sat beside him, bumping their shoulders together.

“We’ll win Camelot back, Arthur. You know we will.”

“How, Merlin? We've no army.”

“You have me, Arthur. You have my magic. And Camelot has you.” The loyalty shone from his eyes and Arthur’s heart caught in his throat.

“Why do you believe in me so much, Merlin? Is it because the dragon said we've a destiny? It that it?”

“No, oh no, Arthur, it’s so much more. Can’t you feel it, Arthur? The way the land calls for you?”

He shook his head, and yet there was something in what Merlin said tolling like a bell through him, a sense of being tied to the land and to Merlin. He recalled the Merlin of the future talking to him about how the magic had come to him in the womb. “It’s you, too, isn’t it.” He reached out, uncaring of Gaius, Gwaine and Elyan around them and tangled their fingers together. There was silence while he fought for the words he wanted to say, but struggled.

Merlin’s grip tightened. “I know, Arthur,” he whispered, and pressed his lips softly to Arthur’s cheek. “I know. Oh!” His hold was suddenly painful. “The Fisher King!” He scrambled over to his pack and carefully uncovered the vial of water, bringing it across to Arthur.

“What do we do with it?” Arthur asked.

“I've no idea.” They stared at it in silence, disturbed only by Gwaine, jostling them as he passed on his way out of the cave. To their horror the vial slipped from Merlin’s fingers and smashed on the rock. They exchanged an appalled glance before they realised something was happening. The water shone silver, slipping down as if it was a molten mass rather than a liquid, and it gathered in a hollow in the rock. As they watched, a woman’s face came into view.

Arthur gasped and breathed the name out before he could catch himself. “Freya.”

Merlin was startled. “How did you -?” He was interrupted as Freya smiled up at them and began to speak.

“Merlin, my love – and Arthur, my King. It's good to see you.”

“Freya,” Merlin spoke, grief and tears colouring his tone. Arthur glanced at him and covered his hand.

As Arthur met Freya’s gaze, he could see the knowledge there and understood this Freya transcended the ages, was all times and none, and she knew what had happened between them in the future and how it had impacted on their relationship in this time.

“Merlin, I don't have much time. There's only one weapon able to defeat the undead.”

“It’s Arthur’s.” Merlin cast a worried glance at Arthur. “But not until he's king. It’s too soon, Freya.”

“Then you must wield it, Merlin. Take care, my dears. I'll see you again.” Her attention drifted away from them and suddenly she was a young girl, a blush blooming on her cheek. Arthur glanced around and saw Elyan, his gaze fixed on Freya.

Gwaine re-entering the cave and muttering about a call of nature claimed everyone’s attention for a moment, and when they looked back, Freya was gone.

“Who was she?” Elyan asked, his tone wondering.

Arthur and Merlin spoke at the same time as Elyan and in the urgency of the moment his question was lost.

“How did you know Freya?”

“What weapon?”

Arthur stopped any further enquiry. “It doesn’t matter at the moment. Is there a weapon we can use?”

With a huff of annoyance, Merlin nodded and then bit his lip as he answered. “It’s a sword that will belong to you. But not yet, Arthur. It's not time yet.”

“Freya told you to use it. Can you?”

Merlin had obviously expected more argument if his surprised expression was anything to go by. “Yes.”

“Where is it?”

“It’s in the lake.”

“You put a sword in a lake? For pity’s sake, Merlin –“

“It’s a magic sword, all right,” Merlin’s statement stopped Arthur's brewing rant. “It’s the one forged when I thought you were going to be fighting the Black Knight. I told you I'd put it somewhere safe, didn’t I?”

“Since when has a lake been a safe place for metal?”

“Magic sword, Arthur, remember? Magic.”

Arthur considered him for a moment. “Right, so let’s go get it then.”

“It’s not quite so simple,” Merlin said, and was clearly nervous.

“Well, out with it.”

“The enemy is between us and the lake. I can reach it but only if I have help.” Merlin glanced up at him and then sighed. “I can get Kilgarrah to take me and bring me back.”

There were not many times in Arthur’s life when he'd been rendered speechless, but now he gaped at Merlin and was not quite sure he'd actually heard Merlin correctly. Merlin was wringing his hands in his lap, a mannerism Arthur particularly disliked and his hold was firm as he covered them and stopped the movement. “Can’t you bring the sword to you? He recalled how Merlin in the future had brought the jewel to him when it had been half a world away.

He received a startled look as his response. “I hadn’t thought of it but I don’t know a spell and there’s no time.

“In which case I'll come with you.” Arthur was adamant and he could see the moment Merlin’s protest died. “It's time I met this dragon of yours.”

“He’s not mine,” Merlin said.

“You’re a Dragonlord, aren’t you? So the dragon obeys you.” Out of the corner of his eye Arthur saw Gwaine twitch as if he couldn't help himself. He'd known the others were listening to their conversation and part way through recalled they hadn't actually told Elyan of Merlin’s magic at all. He was still looking stunned by his brief view of Freya. And while Gwaine had known about the magic, even he hadn't been privy to knowledge about the dragon. He was openly gaping at them. Gaius appeared calm.

“No, it’s more like we're kin.”

“The point is he'll do what you tell him, isn’t that correct?” Arthur raised his eyebrows.

“Yes.”

“Good. Gwaine, make sure everyone stays safe until our return. If you have to run, you know where to head for?”

“I do.”

They exchanged a nod and Arthur strode past Merlin, catching his arm as he did so and dragged him along.

**

 

It was one thing to be confident about meeting a dragon you'd fought and believed you'd killed when you were considering it in the confines of a cave, and quite another, Arthur discovered, when you were in the midst of a field and it was staring at you with huge golden eyes. Especially when he was still shaking at the display of raw power displayed by Merlin when he'd called for Kilgarrah.

“Young warlock,” he'd greeted Merlin and then the great head had swivelled and Arthur had found himself pinned by an ancient gaze. “And Arthur Pendragon. Well, well. You have learned much, little king.”

“I'm not king yet.”

“Albion has already claimed you as king, Arthur Pendragon, however much you may wish to deny it.” His attention remained on Arthur for a moment before it returned to Merlin. “Ask what you will, Merlin.”

“We need the sword – and there's an army between it and us. I need you to take us there.”

“I'm not a horse, Merlin,” Kilgarrah said.

“Will you take us?”

“You know I can't refuse your order, Dragonlord.”

“I don't order you to do this, Kilgarrah. We ask for your help.”

There was a moment’s pause while the dragon considered them. Arthur moved until he stood shoulder to shoulder with Merlin and met Kilgarrah’s gaze as best he could. The reptilian features seemed impassive but Arthur thought perhaps he saw some measure of approval there.

“Then come. I will take you.”

It was in this precise moment Arthur knew he was actually going to be sitting on a dragon and flying through the air. He caught Merlin’s sidelong glance and fought down his sudden nausea. “Well, let’s get on with it then – no time for hanging around.” And he concentrated on the logistics of getting himself and Merlin up onto the dragon’s leg. Fortunately for them both, Kilgarrah displayed a certain courtesy and offered his foreleg and lowered head to help them. Arthur settled behind Merlin and wound his arms around his waist.

Long before he was ready, Arthur felt the way the back legs tensed as Kilgarrah prepared to leap into the air. It was enough like the feeling of a horse beneath him to ease some of his tension, until he realised he was airborne and could stare down at the tops of the trees. He gripped tightly to Merlin, knowing from the tightness of his grip around Merlin’s middle that Merlin was laughing aloud. Merlin turned to face him, grinning wide and with something so wild in his expression it sent sudden desire coursing through Arthur’s blood. He pressed a kiss to Merlin’s neck and spent the rest of the time concentrating on not throwing up.

 

**

 

Later, when they'd returned to the cave and satisfied the others’ curiosity as much as they intended to, they curled around one another under their shared blankets and Arthur asked. “Was it Freya, who gave us the sword?”

He'd been left standing on the bank to watch as Merlin took the small boat and headed into the centre of the lake, witnessing the sight of the sword as it had broken through the water, held by a woman’s hand.

“How do you know about Freya?” Merlin asked.

“You’ll know one day,” Arthur replied. “You’ll just have to wait.” He tightened his grip on Merlin and kissed him gently, forestalling any further enquiries. “Now sleep.”

There was a grumble and a wriggle and then Merlin settled, leaving Arthur to consider how much had changed in his life in the past few months. He reached his hand out and rested it on the bare earth of the cave floor, breathing deep and letting his mind calm. Kilgarrah had told him Albion had already claimed him and now he gave his own oath to his land, binding them inextricably. In his arms, Merlin stirred and reached out his own hand to cover Arthur’s.

He appeared to be deeply asleep but murmured just loud enough for Arthur to hear. “My land. My king.” And then he settled again.

Arthur buried his face in Merlin’s hair and let his familiar scent lull him to sleep.

 

**

 

Morgana had lost all faith in Morgause the second she turned the crossbows on the crowded square. She'd been ready to step in, to stop the proposed slaughter of the knights refusing to swear fealty to her. There was no way she'd allow it to happen and she saw that knowledge in Leon’s confident smile. Before she could say anything though, Morgause had ordered her men to open fire on the crowd.

She cried out. “No!” and turned to face her sister. “They're our people, Morgause. You had no right.”

Morgause turned a suddenly cold gaze on her. “I put you on the throne, sister, but these men answer only to me. Do not forget.”

Silent and afraid, she made her way to her chambers, realising it was fast approaching the point where Morgause would begin to see her as a threat. She rushed into Gwen’s arms and the two women clung together for a few moments.

“We have to get Leon out of there,” Morgana decided.

“What about the king?”

Morgana shook her head. “He's too closely guarded and when I spoke to him today, he didn't realise – he thinks I've betrayed him. He wouldn't believe anything I told him. She took in a deep breath. “It's time we got Leon and found Arthur. You and I will go with him. He'll know where Arthur is.”

“Where's the key to the cells?” Gwen asked.

“Morgause keeps them in the drawer in her chambers.”

“Then I'll make a copy and drop it to Leon and I’ll get him out of the castle. Will you be able to join us?”

“Yes, it should be easy enough for me to get away.”

They talked through the more detailed elements of their plan and later, when Gwen let her know she had the key, Morgana composed herself and went to join her sister for dinner.

“Sister,” Morgause’s tone had regained its warmth and she met Morgana with a close embrace. “I wanted to apologise to you. You are the queen and I shouldn't have overstepped my boundaries in such a manner.”

“You were doing what you thought was best, Morgause. I did understand when I thought further.”

“Then I'm forgiven?”

“Of course you are.”

“Then we'll drink a toast to Camelot together.”

It was a toast she could make with pleasure and pride. “To Camelot,” and she drank deeply, hoping the wine would help to settle her nerves.

Morgause smiled and sipped at her own goblet.

 

**

 

As Leon scrambled out of his undignified attire and into his mail, Morgana joined them, dressed in breeches, mail and carrying a sword. Gwen had worked swiftly, making a cast of the key and slipping it to Leon through the grill of his cell. Later, when she was sure Morgana was keeping Morgause occupied, she waited for him at her home. His outraged shock when he understood she expected him to dress as a woman lasted only until he caught a good look at Gwen’s stern features. Now he emerged from behind the tree where he'd struggled from the dress and into his mail. He took one look at Morgana and unceremoniously pulled her into his arms, holding her close to him and wrapping her up in his arms. She held on just as tightly, shivering when she felt the touch of his lips at the side of her forehead.

“Morgana,” he said, and his voice was full of longing.

“Leon, thank the Gods you’re safe.” She could hear the tears of relief in her voice and cleared her throat, ashamed of her weakness. “We need to find Arthur.”

“I think I know where he’ll be.” Leon offered, and began to lead the way, his hand clasped around Morgana’s

Morgana flushed at Gwen’s grin, but couldn't deny her pleasure at Leon’s actions. She shifted her hand, so their fingers intertwined and they moved swiftly through the forest.

They weren't aware of Morgause, angry and bitter at her sister’s betrayal, following from a distance. It was easy enough to do so, as Morgana had no idea the wine they'd shared was tainted with a potion ensuring she left an obvious trail.

 

**

 

The meeting between Arthur and Morgana was warm and they embraced tightly, checking one another for harm and then laughing and teasing one another. Merlin watched from the sidelines and knew Arthur had 't missed Leon and Morgana’s joined hands and was pleased to see how warmly Arthur greeted Leon.

Their reunion was short-lived as Elyan crashed through the trees with the news they'd been found. Without any discussion, they ran, Arthur in the lead and Merlin at the back as he had dived into the cave to get Gaius and also to collect Excalibur. He was cut off from his party for a few moments, and he discovered just how effective the sword was, dispensing with the opposition he faced. It didn’t look good for them, he realised, and he readied himself to use magic to buy them more time.

He was saved by a shout from above and suddenly rocks and boulders were crashing down into the narrow gorge they were running through, cutting them off from their pursuers. When Merlin looked up he whooped in delight to see Lancelot standing there, a huge mountain of a man standing by his side.

Greetings were swift. They'd bought some time, but would need every second of it to make their escape. They were introduced to Percival, and then turned to follow Arthur. Merlin noticed the looks traded between Gwen and Lancelot and realised from the expression of noble suffering on Lancelot’s face, he'd no idea how much had changed. Grinning, he moved up through the ranks and slipped his hand into Arthur’s. Arthur didn’t take a great deal of notice, squeezing his fingers slightly and then pulling him onward. He retained his grip on Arthur’s hand. There was a startled gasp behind him and the next time he looked around, Lancelot was walking alongside Gwen. Morgana caught his glance and they traded a grin.

The castle Arthur led them to had been deserted for a long time, but there was enough left behind to make it comfortable enough. Gwen, aided by Lancelot, bustled around searching out enough of the necessities of life, while Leon and Arthur managed to bag a couple of pheasants and two brace of rabbit. Merlin and Gaius had searched around the castle and found the remains of a vegetable patch that yielded a fair supply of roots. Gwaine and Percival had begun going through the castle rooms, pulling together any weapons. When they all gathered again in the great hall, Morgana and Elyan had been collecting firewood and a roaring fire greeted them.

They were talking idly together when Arthur called them across and Merlin glanced curiously at the great round table with its odd markings, as Arthur told them the story of the round table, where all were equal. Merlin was shocked when Arthur held out a hand to him, leading him to a seat at his right hand. Morgana was at his left, with Leon sitting next to her. The rest filled the remaining seats.

Merlin thought his heart might burst with pride and joy as he heard Arthur talk of the land he wanted to build, and he watched as Arthur knighted Lancelot, Gwaine, Elyan and Percival.

Later that night, when they were curled together on the hard floor, Merlin kissed Arthur’s hand and whispered. “I love you.”

In response, Arthur urged him to turn until they were facing one another and caught his mouth in an urgent caress. There was no way anything else would happen, not with the others so close, but it seemed to have been a long time since they'd been able to make love and Merlin was missing the touch of Arthur’s body.

Arthur whispered into Merlin’s ear. “Tomorrow, with the help of magic, we'll win Camelot and free our people. And when I'm king I'll lift the ban on magic and you'll be my advisor and my consort. And I'll love you, Merlin. All the days of my life.”

Merlin claimed Arthur’s mouth again, feeling their destiny twine about them, not as something to be feared, but as something to be embraced. A destiny they'd created for themselves. Through the stone of the floor beat the heart of Albion, and Merlin’s and Arthur’s hearts beat in time with the earth.

 

**

 

Arthur had never done anything as difficult in his whole life as sending Merlin off with the sword to find the Cup of Life. He'd sent Lancelot with him while he took the remainder of his friends to rescue the other knights and find the king. From what Morgana had told him, it was apparent Arthur was the only person the king was likely to trust. Arthur had insisted Morgana, Gwen and Gaius stayed behind at the castle, despite Morgana’s fury. He'd spent some time persuading Morgana to stay behind, aware of Leon’s watchful gaze on them and in the end she'd reluctantly given in to his insistence and he'd left them talking quietly. Now, he had his own farewells to make, and even leaving Merlin in Oxford hadn't felt quite this hard. He gripped Merlin’s hand, and knew his eyes were expressing more than he probably wanted to give away. Merlin leaned forward and kissed him, a quick but intense caress and then he was striding off with Lancelot in his wake. The determination and courage Merlin displayed at that point only confirmed for Arthur the knowledge he'd chosen the right person to share his life. With a deep breath and once Merlin was out of sight, he had gathered his own composure and led the others in search of the rest of the knights and his father.

 

**

 

In the meantime, Morgana had decided Arthur could give as many orders as he wanted, but she knew her magic would be an asset Camelot might need in this battle and as soon as she was able, she left Gwen and Gaius in the castle and headed after the men. She'd told Merlin where Morgause originally kept the Cup of Life, and while both thought she would probably have moved it following her knowledge of Morgana’s betrayal, Merlin had said it seemed a good enough place to start looking. In the end, all she had to do was follow the sounds of fighting, and she burst through the door just in time to see Morgause about to kill Merlin.

She didn’t hesitate, shouting out the spell throwing Morgause across the room and as Merlin scrambled towards the altar on which the Cup of Life rested, Morgana ran to her sister because, despite everything, she still loved her and hadn't wanted to harm her. She gathered the unconscious woman in her arms and watched as Merlin swung Excalibur in an arc and the sword hit the metal vessel with a resounding blow, upending it and spilling the macabre contents.

Morgause stirred in her arms and when she saw who held her she began to struggle.

“Be still, Morgause, you're hurt. Let me help you.”

“Traitor,” Morgause said. “You betrayed me.”

“You gave me no choice. Morgause, I'm sorry but I couldn't let you harm my brother. You made me choose. And you were hurting our people.” For the first time, she really understood the decision Merlin had made. “Please, Morgause, Arthur knows about my magic. He'll protect us all. Can’t you understand? I've seen a golden king, Morgause.”

“No,” from somewhere Morgause found the strength to push away from Morgana and begin to scream, her eyes glowing fierce and gold.

Morgana clapped her hands over her ears as the pitch of Morgause’s voice increased and suddenly the very fabric of the stones shook and began to come apart.

“Morgana!” Merlin was beside her, Excalibur in one hand and the other reaching out to her. “We have to go now” He glanced worriedly at the ceiling.

With a final agonised look at the figure now huddled against one of the pillars, she took Merlin’s hand and made her final choice as they dashed out of the room to safety.

 

**

 

Merlin opened the door to Arthur’s chambers quietly, hoping Arthur was already asleep. Merlin had been helping Gaius put his workshop back to rights and treating many of the townsfolk who'd been too scared to come to the castle while Morgause was there.

It was late now and he was bone tired and all he wanted was to curl up in a comfortable bed next to Arthur and know, for the moment, all was safe and well. He slipped into the room and immediately saw Arthur slouched in a chair by the fire. The prince straightened when he entered.

“Where have you been,” Arthur asked.

“Helping Gaius. You should be asleep. You always get bad-tempered when you’re tired.”

“You should have been here.”

Merlin looked down and frowned. “Because I’m your servant?”

A snort. “No, idiot-“ there was a short silence and then Arthur’s tone softened. “No. I just –“

“I’m here now,” Merlin said quietly and went to stand by Arthur’s chair, not surprised when Arthur moved until he could rest his head against Merlin’s torso. Merlin brought his hand up to card through Arthur’s hair and felt the tension ease from him.

“Let’s sleep,” Merlin suggested.

Gently, he pulled Arthur to his feet and helped him undress before sliding under the covers and they wrapped their arms around one another, too exhausted to do anything other than share a few sleepy kisses. When Merlin was sure Arthur was asleep he extracted himself from their embrace and moved until he could see him clearly, taking a delight in having the right to watch his lover sleep. Destiny curled around them, and for a moment he thought he could almost see the threads of it tangling them together and leading off into the future. He smiled at his fancy and returned his attention to Arthur, to the man who would be a bright, shining king, whose people would love him and be loved by him, whose land would nurture them and be nurtured in return.

In the end, Arthur’s discovery of his magic had been a catalyst, a moment of horror somehow changed by some unknown agent into an acceptance of all Merlin was. Several times, he'd raised the question of what had happened on the afternoon in the forest when the bandits attacked and Merlin had revealed his power to a shocked and angry Arthur, but every time Arthur told him he would know one day, but he'd have to wait. He sighed a little. He could wait, he supposed. And in the end, it didn’t much matter what had happened – only that it had, and had brought them to this point.

Arthur stirred and reached out, searching for him and Merlin slipped beneath the covers again, smiling at the grumpy complaint as his cold toes brushed Arthur’s skin. He pressed his lips to Arthur’s shoulder in apology before he laid his head there instead. Once he had extinguished the candles, he stared out into the darkness and looked forward to tomorrow.

 

**

 

Despite their exhaustion, they woke before the dawn, turning to one another with an urgency surprising them both. As Merlin pressed into him, Arthur wrapped his limbs around Merlin’s body and cried out in pleasure and relief.

“Arthur, oh Arthur.” Merlin was sobbing into his neck and all Arthur could do was hold on and swallow back his own emotion as he held Merlin close and ran his fingers through the dark hair.

The thrust and push and pull of their bodies, the strength of Merlin within him, the slickness of sweat and oil on their bodies, the broken quality of Merlin’s voice combined into a swirling passion that rushed through Arthur and suddenly he was crying out, completion taking him by surprise but recognising from the surging heat within him that Merlin had come, too. He held on tight, happy to accept Merlin’s weight and continue to hold him as they both recovered.

Eventually Merlin slipped off him and they kissed and nuzzled at one another until sleep took them once more.

When Arthur woke again he left their bed, careful not to wake Merlin, who still looked exhausted. He washed and dressed quickly, calling on a servant to bring him breakfast. As he sat to eat, the door swung open and his father entered.

“Arthur.”

Arthur rose. Uther looked a great deal better than he had done when Arthur had released him from his cell, but Arthur was astute enough to realise something was different and some essential part of Uther had broken under his belief of Morgana’s betrayal. Morgana and Arthur had both spent some time the previous evening reassuring him, but had exchanged worried looks when they left. Arthur could only hope time would mend the trust, but the odd glimpse of madness he'd tried so hard to ignore in the past seemed more prevalent now.

“Father, is there something you need me for?”

He was suddenly aware Merlin was still fast asleep and sprawled over his bed. The covers were half way across his torso but it was obvious he was naked. Uther cast a glance full of dislike at Merlin and Arthur sighed. He moved across to the bed and pulled the sheets up to fully cover him. Merlin stirred and his hand reached out. Despite his father, a rush of tenderness prompted him to grip the fingers for a moment and say quietly, “Sleep,” before he pulled the hangings around the bed and shut Merlin away from the king’s gaze.

“I'm concerned about Morgana. Are you sure we can trust her?” The mad gleam was in his eyes.

“Yes, father, I've complete faith in Morgana. She did absolutely the right thing and without her we wouldn't have been able to regain Camelot. She has my complete trust.”

“Should I trust you?”

Arthur felt himself pale., and had to swallow hard before he could speak. “You are my king, Sire. I serve you and will gladly swear my fealty to you on my blade should you wish it. And you're my father, and a man worthy of my support and my love.”

“Is it me who has your loyalty, Arthur? Or is it Camelot?”

“They're one and the same, Sire.”

There was a long silence until Uther moved and rested his hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “I shouldn't doubt you, Arthur,” and his voice had softened. “It's been a difficult time for us all and there's much work to do.”

“Camelot will flourish, father.”

“Yes, yes it will. I'll leave you to your – You'll join me for dinner.”

“Thank you, father. I'd welcome your company.”

Arthur waited until he was sure Uther had left before he drew the drapes aside and sat on the edge of the bed. Merlin moved behind him, sitting up until his chest was pressed against Arthur’s back and pale arms encircled him. He felt Merlin’s breath against his neck.

“Are you well?”

He sighed. “I’m well.” He brought his hands up to grip Merlin’s arms. “But I’m not sure my father is.”

“I’m sorry.”

Arthur shrugged. It was something to think of another day, he decided and instead he twisted in Merlin’s hold and pushed him down onto the bed. There was a token – a very token – struggle from Merlin and then he relaxed. Arthur stared down at him, seeing the peace and contentment so evident in his expression and he wondered that such a man could love Arthur Pendragon.

“Idiot,” he whispered, fondly.

“Prat,” Merlin smiled as he spoke the word and lifted his head so their lips could meet.

 

**

 

Epilogue

Time moved on as Arthur knew it would and though they had many happy years surrounded by friends and family; though the King and his Court Sorcerer, the Sister-Queen and the Knight Regent, the First Knight and his Lady Guinevere brought peace to the land; though magic returned and flourished, yet evil could never fully be defeated. In the end it was still Camlann, and if it was Morgause with Mordred rather than Morgana the outcome was still the same.

Arthur was breathing fast and shallow when Merlin found him, collapsing beside his King with a wail of anger and grief. Arthur reached for him, looking at the grey hair and beard, and knowing without doubt he'd see him young again.

“Listen, you idiot,” he said, cutting through Merlin’s grief and using the insult that had become a term of endearment over so many years. “I don’t have long so shut up and listen. You need to be strong for me, Merlin. You need to be strong and you need to go on. I know – I know we'll meet again. Promise me.”

Merlin stared down at him, not attempting to staunch the flow of blood because he knew it was already far too late. Instead, he gripped Arthur’s hand, intertwining their fingers and holding tight. He brought the hand to his lips and kissed it. “Prat,” he returned huskily. “I promise.”

“I’m sorry, Merlin.”

“You have nothing to be sorry –“

Arthur cut him off. There was no more time. “You'll have to wait such a long time, Merlin. But I'll come back to you. That's my oath.”

Then there was silence.

And Merlin discovered that he couldn't die with his king.

End Book 2

Chapter Text

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.

He nodded.

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.

Arthur!

“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.

Swallowed.

Try again.

“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.

“Arthur?”

“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…

“Merlin!”

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

Morgause.

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.

They slept.

 

**

 

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.

“The others?”

“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?”

“Something quiet.”

“Debussy, then.”

“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 -?”

“Merlin.”

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.

Excalibur.

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.”

“King Arthur.”

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.

“Elyan?”

“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.

“You remember.”

“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.

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.”

Merlin did.

 

**

 

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.

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.”

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?”

“Sounds good.”

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.

Peter.

“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.”

 

**

 

Epilogue

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